Who were the Celts, and how close is our connection to this ancient race? Is this culture actually relevant to people today? Certainly we have evolved tremendously in many ways from our pre-Christian roots, but still, we will find numerous interesting threads connecting us to our ancestors, so that it is important to seek these links, which explain many of our values and customs.
The Celts probably originated from near Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut, a region centered about 50 kilometers southeast of modern
in upper Salzburg , when a race of warlike Indo-Europeans began to conquer various neighboring groups. Their original ascendancy over their neighbors may have been due to possession of minable salt deposits which they could trade or use to salt meat or fish. The ability to preserve their food allowed them to hunt when game was plentiful, to establish permanent settlements and to protect their salt deposits from appropriation by their competitors, rather than having to follow the migrations of the game herds. Domestication of livestock and planting of crops, a part of the process of civilization, were encouraged by possession of this resource. The Hallstatt culture spread throughout the continent and, by the 5th Century BC, had conquered most of Austria Europe north of the Alps. The name Celt is apparently derived from the most powerful tribe of the Hallstatt culture and what they called themselves. We know this because the Greeks, who had dealings with them, reported that the people called themselves “Keltoi” and because Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), the last source we have before the Celts were conquered by Rome, said that the Gauls referred to themselves as “Celtae.”
The first active period of their expansion may have been as early as 2000 BC; approximately contemporary to Abraham, the first man we know of to worship one God; contemporary to the birth of Mycenae, first of the Greek mainland cities; and early enough to give enduring place names to many sites in western Europe and to many of it’s familiar rivers such as the Clyde, the Seine, the Rhine, the Inn, the Shannon and the Boyne. Many Celtic artifacts have been found in
, in the Hungary and in Czech Republic . Before 1000 BC, when David was reputed to have slain Goliath, the "Castro" (Celtic) Culture was established in Denmark and northwest Portugal . About 440 BC, Herodotus reports the presence of Celts on the upper Spain Danube. Titus Livius (c.59 BC-19 AD) and popularly known as “Livy,” reports a migration of some 300,000 Celts into the Po River Valley of northern Italy by about 400 BC, displacing the Etruscans there. There is even evidence that Celts may have found the New World, perhaps as early as 1400 BC, sailing the trade winds from the Iberian Peninsula to the Canary Islands, the West Indies and finally to the Connecticut River Valley.
The iron age came early to the Celts, providing them a second currency to aid in their expansion. By about 700 BC, in the time of Isaiah, their smiths had become skillful in iron-work, notably creating the great two-handed and two-edged swords suitable as cavalry weapons and which gave them a huge advantage over other weapons of that time. These weapons bore a remarkable resemblance to the Scottish “claidheamh mhór” (claymore - great sword) of the Middle Ages. Of perhaps even more importance were the spoked wheels of their wagons and chariots, strengthened by iron tires, shrunk on and nailed to the composite wooden felloe. Both technologies indicate widespread and sophisticated equestrian development and all three represent a high level of technical achievement that enabled the establishment of The Celtic Empire. With metal tools, land was easier to clear, farming became more productive, the population expanded and the culture became aggressive. A warrior caste was created whose chieftains effected bronze helmets and breastplates. They were supported by farming and industry and new land was conquered, cleared and planted.
By the 6th Century BC, Greeks from
on the Aegean coast of modern Phocaea had settled Massilia ( Turkey ) and they began to trade up the Marseilles with Celts in southwest Rhone River . This provided the Celts with the benefit of the luxuries of the Greeks in exchange for salt, salted products, iron and possibly slaves. The Greeks taught the Celts to improve their tools. Potters and metal workers became more skillful, weapons and armor were refined and the Celts began to emulate Greek building techniques. Between 700 and 600 BC, at about the time that trade began with Massilia and with the Pretannic Isles, a king of the Celts, Righ an Domhain (King of the World - his title rather than his name), is said by Herodotus to have conquered most of Europe, always on the march and never staying settled long enough to consolidate his gains. His lightening quick campaign was possible because his army was equipped with chariots, a concept probably obtained from his Mediterranean trading partners. He has been shown to have been a direct ancestor of Somhairle mac Gillebruide, in fact, the first independent Gaelic “Lord of the Isles,” and would therefore be the earliest known specific Celtic ancestor of “Cineal ua Dhomhnuil.” Germany
At this point in their history, the Celts were probably one of the largest and most powerful political-cultural entities that the world had seen. One of the early records we have of them, left to us by Livy, is that c.534-508 BC, Ambigatos of the Bituriges ruled over a Celtic empire “so abounding in men and in the fruits of the earth that it seemed impossible to govern so great a population.” But time and conquest eroded the Celts’ early ethnic unity and their confederacy gradually broke up into more governable increments, as they began to evolve their tribal, or clan society. These in turn began to migrate into new territories beyond Celtic borders.
Personal appearance was important to the Celts and obesity was scorned. Women used mirrors, tweezers and makeup. Virgil, c.400 BC, describes Celts in his “Aeneid,” including their tartan dress. Diodorus Siculus was a 1st Century BC Greek who lived in “Syrakis” (
) in Syracuse and was well traveled, having been both to Sicily and to Rome . In his “Bibliotheca Historica,” he also describes the tartaned Celts: Egypt
“Their aspect is terrifying . . . They are very tall in stature, with rippling muscles under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so; they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse’s mane. Some of them are clean shaven, but others - especially those of high rank, shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth and, when they eat and drink, acts like a sieve, trapping particles of food . . . The way they dress is astonishing; they wear brightly colored and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colors. (The Celts) wear bronze helmets with figures picked out on them, even horns, which made them look even taller than they already are . . . while others cover themselves with breast-armor made out of chains. But most content themselves with the weapons nature gave them; they go naked into battle . . . Weird discordant horns were sounded, they shouted in chorus with their deep and harsh voices, they beat their swords rhythmically against their shields. In exactly the same way as hunters do with their skulls of the animals they have slain . . . they preserved the heads of their most high-ranking victims in cedar oil, keeping them carefully in wooden boxes.”
The Celts of Ireland and
, also using iron by 600 BC, matched Diodorus’ description very well. They were large, blue eyed, light complected, with huge mustaches, and were terrifying when battle rage was upon them. Their tattooing before battle, painting designs on their bodies with woad, a plant dye which produced a blue color, or perhaps with cuprite or some other copper derivative, identified their clan, as their clothing showed their district and their rank. Nobles and freemen wore a “léine” (Celtic tunic), in Scotland usually of undyed linen, with a brightly colored “brat” (cloak, Latin - sagum), perhaps checkered in the colors and patterns of their district, thrown over a shoulder and fastened with a “dealg” (brooch or pin). Materials, colors and patterns varied from area to area, but the number of colors in the pattern indicated rank. The “Senchus Mhór,” prepared for St Patrick in the 5th Century, prescribed seven colors for a king, six for a Druid, four for a noble and one for a freeman. Men, women and children all wore similar dress until the 12th Century. Ireland
La Tene, by the eastern end of
in Lake Neuchatel , was the center of a more advanced Celtic culture which flourished from about 500 to 100 BC along the upper Switzerland Rhine and the middle Rhone. Here there were copies of Greek and Etruscan art patterns, together with the elaboration of earlier Celtic ones, all treated with originality and created with ingenious intricacy. Hillforts began to proliferate and one in southern , known as the Heuneburg, imitated Greek architecture, with mud-brick bastions on stone foundations. Germany Armorica, in , became an important outpost of the La Tene culture, giving these Celts, by way of the Loire Corridor, easy access to the tin of Brittany and the gold of southern Cornwall . One port of the Britons engaged in this trade that has been identified was Hengistbury Head in Ireland Dorset (near Mai Dun on the above map). There was much variety in the form and color of their metalwork and skillful use of gems and enamel. The Celts always showed a love of art. Even the linchpin of a cart axle would bear an ornamental design. But Plato mentions them in a list of nations addicted to drunkenness and Aristotle notes their reckless indifference to danger, even of earthquakes and raging seas.
One of the finest examples of specifically Brythonic art remaining is the decorated bronze mirror from Desborough, Northhamptonshire. It was not produced in other parts of
Europe and was made in three pieces - a cast handle, the main mirror plate and a tubular binding strip. The complex clover-leaf pattern, symmetrically repeated left and right, may have been laid out using a compass. Parts of the decoration are engraved using a graver, with a basket weave pattern and hatched texturing to make the pattern stand out.
), in Cadiz , was founded by Phoenicians from Spain around 1000 BC, but by the 4th Century BC, Celts had conquered Carthaginian Tyre . Ephoros of Cyme, writing about 350 BC, says that the Celtic realms reached as far as Gades. Pytheas, a Greek explorer from Massilia, spoke of Iberian rivers flowing into the Iberia Atlantic as passing through the land of the Celts. References by many other ancient writers, as well as archeological evidence, make it clear that by the time Iberia was conquered by Rome, the Celts constituted the major population, held political predominance in the peninsula and had long mined gold and silver which they traded with the Greeks and others. There has been speculation that the Basques of northern are a major remnant of this Castro (Celtic) culture, a conclusion contradicted by their unique language and prevailing blood types. Spain
Pliny tells us that the early history of
is marked by a Celtic invasion which almost cut short Rome ’s destiny. A Celtic army from Rome Gaul defeated the Romans at the and plundered Allia River in 390 BC. Only the well-provisioned fortress of the capitol held out. After a seven month siege, the Celtic commander, Brennus, accepted a large ransom (he demanded and received his weight in gold after throwing his sword on the scales for good measure) and withdrew to settle with other Celts, near the mouth of the Rome Po, the first recorded settlement on the site of . Here, we first have records of their tribal names; the “Insurbres” near Venice and the “Boii,” “Lingones” and “Senones” in Milan Lombardy.
Celts at one time occupied much of central
Europe from Gaul to Bythnia. In a work from c.500 BC attributed to Hecateus of Miletus, in southern Narbonne was cited as a Celtic town, as was nearby “Tolosa” ( France ) on the upper Toulouse Garonne. In the same era, the Celts also drove the Illyrians from ( Pannonia ). Between c.400 BC and c.100 BC, Celts militarily occupied much of central Hungary Europe from the through Krusné Mountains , Bohemia and Moravia to the Carpathian region, including parts of Austria , Slovakia Transylvania and Polish Silesia. Celtic cemeteries have been found as far east as in Tashkent Central Asia, half way along the silk road to . Grave goods included finely woven woolen breacan (tartan) cloth. A Celtic army from the China Danube raided the Carpathians in the 4th Century BC and Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) received envoys from them. But in 279 BC, less than fifty years after Alexander’s death, the Celts devastated . Under Volcae Tectosages, the Celts then sacked Macedonia Delphi in 278 BC, defeating every Greek army sent against them. Celtic mercenaries subsequently served in the armies of , Egypt and Bythnia, among others. In 265 BC, following a mutiny at Megara, King Nikomedes of Bythnia (now in Turkey), invited 20,000 Celts into his service, but came to regret it when the “Galatians” imposed a reign of terror on the cities of his kingdom. The Galatians, to whose churches Paul wrote his epistle, were Celts, and the Galatian state, centered around “ Macedonia Ancyra” ( ), gives us our earliest information about Celtic political institutions. Strabo, a Greek geographer and historian from Amasia in Ankara (a coastal province of northeastern modern Pontus ) and a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth, described their tribes, septs and ruling class. This Celtic empire period peaked from c.600 BC to c.100 BC, at about the time that the Israelites were enduring the Diaspora, having been conquered by the Babylonians. Turkey
Beginning in 295 BC, the Romans steadily began to expand northward, pushing the Celts before them. The Celtic defeat at the battle of Telamon in 225 BC was a landmark. Celtic hegemony ended with the incursion of the Germanic Cymbri c.113 BC in
. The Celtic Teutonii joined the Cymbri, who were themselves probably a mixture of Celts and eastern tribes, to attack other Celts in the west, but upon their defeat by the Romans, the Celts subsequently suffered assaults by other groups so that their influence was lost and many of them migrated to the wilderness of Scandinavia, providing the predominant genetic and cultural base for the Vikings. By 82 BC, they had been completely expelled from Bohemia and the Roman Italy had been created north of the province of Cisalpine Gaul Po. As in , the tide began to turn in Italy Asia Minor when, around 244 BC, the Celts were defeated first by Antigonas Gonatas in Macedon and then by Attalos of Pergamum in Bythnia.
There was a unifying language spoken by the Celts called, not surprisingly, old Celtic. Philologists have shown the descent of Celtic from the original
language and from the Indo-European language tradition. In fact, the form of old Celtic was the closest cousin to Italic, the precursor of Latin, and was probably spoken by all Celts until sometime around the beginning of the First Millennium BC, after which the Goidelic, Brythonic and other dialects emerged. The label “Q-Celtic” (Goidelic), stems from the differences between this early Celtic tongue and Italic. This dialect led to the three Gaelic languages spoken in Ur , Man and later, Ireland . When the Irish expanded into Scotland after the evacuation of the Romans, several colonies were established in Britain where the Irish were called “gwyddyl” (savages). The Irish language equivalent was “goidel” and thus the Goidelic tongue. Some of the differences between Italic and Celtic included that lack of a “P” in Celtic and an “A” in place of the Italic “O.” Wales
Brythonic is called “P-Celtic” because “qu” takes a “P” sound, whereas in Goidelic it remains “Q”. This dialect survives in Welsh, Cornish and Breton. The dialects of the Alban Gael, differing, as they do even today from isle to isle, were undoubtedly Brythonic but apparently had no extensive written tradition. One of them survives, but only in place and personal names and in some twenty-five inscriptions, two or three with Latin letters, found on standing stones distributed fairly evenly down eastern Scotland from Shetland to Fife. Other than a few kings’ names and place names, their jumbled letters have defied philologists and may even belong to a pre-Celtic non-Indo-European language retained by the Druids and used for religious purposes.
The Goidelic Celtic alphabet and written language, called Ogham, was sufficient for basic record keeping and first came into use by Goidelic Celts around 800 BC, but was more primitive than the other achievements of Celtic culture would have indicated, even though its alphabet was phonetic and therefore more advanced than Egyptian hieroglyphics. There are few examples of Ogham available for study; Celtic coins were adopted by Brythonic Celts and used Greek or Roman letters. Those examples of Ogham that do exist consist of “rhunaidh” (secret writings) found on boundary stones, standing stones and other religious markers. The reason is not that they were illiterate. Apparently the Celtic history, philosophy, law, genealogy and science were transmitted orally until the Christian era because of druidic proscriptions. The word “druid” is a Gaelic verb meaning “closed or shut,” but the original meaning may have been “knowledge of the oak,” or “profound knowledge.”
Julius Caesar commented:
“The Druids think it unlawful to commit this knowledge of theirs to writing (in secular and in public and private business they use Greek characters). This is a practice which they have, I think, adopted for two reasons. They do not wish that their system should become commonly known or that their pupils, trusting in written documents, should less carefully cultivate their memory; and, indeed, it does generally happen that those who rely on written documents, are less industrious in learning by heart and have a weaker memory.”
In recent years, progress has been made in our understanding of Ogham, at least to the extent that the alphabet has been deciphered. However, almost none of Celtic grammar or vocabulary has come down to us, due primarily to the Druids’ secret tradition. There are a few links to be found in “Old Irish,” as well as a few Celtic descriptive words such as “dúnon” for fort, “vindos” for white, “bracae” for trousers, “leuga” for league and “maros” for big, but nothing substantial. Their writing technique consisted of a series of marks along a stem line (which could be placed either vertically or horizontally) and represented vowels, consonants and dipthongs. The versatile nature of the system was convenient since, quite often, natural phenomena, such as a corner on a stone, were used for the stem line. Brythonic in Alba was usually written in Greek or Latin letters.
There are references in Irish tradition and legend to “tamlorga filidh” (staves of the poets) or “flesc filidh” (poets rods) which were said to be libraries of Ogham cut on wands, or rods of yew or oak. Perhaps they were bound in the form of a fan, held together by a pivot at one end, forming a kind of book. Unfortunately, if such existed, none have survived. So it was not until Greek and Roman accounts of the Celts began to be written that they entered the realm of recorded history.
We must recognize that these foreign accounts are likely to be biased and, of necessity, lacking information and understanding that first-hand accounts of other civilizations such as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans have given of themselves. By the time the
Roman Empire collapsed, it was said that Gaulish was only spoken by witches, occultists and remote natives in the Eiffel; and Celtic culture on the European Continent had been overwhelmed by . But even before the Romans were gone, Irish Celts had apparently begun to write in Gaelic. Rome
The people who made up the various Celtic tribes were called Galli by the Romans and Galatai or Keltoi by the Greeks, terms meaning barbarian. Since no soft “C” exists in Greek, Celt and Celtic and all permutations should be pronounced with a hard “K” sound. When the
British Empire was distinguishing itself as better and separate from the rest of humanity, it was decided that British Latin should have different pronunciation from other spoken Latin. One of these differences was to change many of the previously hard “K” sounds to a soft “S” sound, hence the Boston Celtics. Most scholars, as well as native Gael, today agree that the soft “C” sound is a Brit heresy, one more subtle English effort to suppress Gaelic language and culture.