Celtic History

Story of the Celts: The Ancient Celts

Story of the Celts: The Ancient Celts

(under revision)


by John Patrick Parle

Copyright © 1999 jpparle@aol.com
The Ancient Celts [8]

What is surprising to most modern readers is just how widespread across Europe the Celts once were. The Celts have been called the "Fathers of Europe," that is north of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. Long before the Germanic invasions of the 400s A.D., the Romans considered the Celts as the principal barbarians [9] north of the Alps.

The Celts had no written language, [10] so we must depend on archeology, Greek and Roman writers from antiquity, and early Irish monks to tell us the story of the primeval Celts. But these ancient historians and figures from antiquity did write quite a lot about the Celts. Among those who helped chronicle the Celts were Herodotus (c. 440 B.C.), Xenophon, Aristotle, Strabo, Virgil, Tacitus, Livy, Polybius, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Julius Caesar, and many other classical writers.

The Greeks called the Celts by two names--the Keltoi and the Galatai. The Romans modified this a tad, and called the Celts-- the Celtae and the Galli. We can easily see how history developed the modern words Celtic and Gaelic from these earlier roots.


One ancient Greek writer called the land of the Celts, "Celtica." [11] Some modern writers have even called it an ancient "Celtic Empire" across Europe.

But, it was not an empire in the same sense as the Roman Empire. On the mainland of Europe, there was no Celtic capital city (in fact virtually no Celtic cities at all). There was no Celtic emperor or single common leader. There was no Celtic centralized administration, no sophisticated form of government, or written code of law. There was no unified army of all the Celts.

Rather, the Celts consisted of dozens, and dozens, and dozens of individual Celtic tribes, [12] each acting independently and on their own. Sometimes these tribes would join together against a common enemy, as when the Celtic chieftain Vercingetorix was pitted against the Roman legions of Julius Caesar in Gaul. And combined Celtic tribes could field an army of 100,000 warriors (Dottin, pg. 19).

(An important distinction should be made here, between the Celts of Ireland and their Celtic cousins on the mainland of Europe, the latter whom we shall call the "continental Celts." The Celts of Ireland were able to form kingships and kingdoms, and had a stronger sense of Celtic unity that has lasted.)

In terms of a starting point, the Celts probably had their birthplace in the Alsace-Lorraine region of eastern France in the years between 1500-1000 B.C. [13] This is roughly the time when Moses and King David were said to be active in Judea. The Celts of this period were a Bronze Age people, although before long they became the first people north of the Mediterranean civilizations to use iron, giving the Celts a superior position in weapons and tools in their geographic region.

Between 800-400 B.C., a period called the Hallstatt [14] Celtic civilization, the various Celtic tribes began to dominate what is now France (called Gaul then), southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, western Hungary, and excursions into Great Britain. This period corresponds to the high point of Greek civilization, from Homer to the building of the Parthenon.

From about 400-100 B.C., a period called the La Tene [15] Celtic civilization, the Celtic tribes expanded their dominance into Ireland, northern Italy, parts of Spain, parts of Belgium, Bosnia in the Balkans, and had some presence in southern Scandinavia. [16] This time period is when the Romans began to be a powerhouse in the Mediterranean world.

A couple of Celtic military campaigns are worthy of note. In 390 B.C., invading Celtic armies sacked Rome and held it for seven days. These Celts later marauded down the Italian peninsula as far as Sicily, but were driven back.

The Celts also invaded the region around Greece in circa 285 B.C. They raided Thrace (now in Bulgaria), Macedonia, Illyria, and Thessaly (in northern Greece). A coalition of Greeks finally drove the Celts back after the latter had sacked Delphi (in the center of Greece) in 279 B.C.

At about this time, three tribes of Celts crossed the Dardanelles into Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and established the region of Galatia. [17] St. Paul's epistle to the Galatians was a letter to the descendants of these Celtic peoples.

(Note the similarity of area names derived from the Gaelic root word: Gaul in modern France, Galicia in Spain, Galatia in present-day Turkey--all dominated at one time by Celtic peoples.)

Ancient Celtic Culture[18]

The Celts on the main continent were largely ruled by the chieftain of their individual tribe--some chieftains were elected by the free men of the tribe for a limited term of office.

Here are some of the names of ancient Celtic chieftains, to get an idea of what the old Celtic names sounded like: Orgetorix, Sinorix, Dunmorix, Cartismandua (a woman), Prasutagus, Amborix, Clondicus, Luernios, Ariamnes, Adiatorix. (The "rix" ending to the Celtic name signified that the person was a supreme chieftain, perhaps over more than one tribe or over a large land area). Because there was no written Celtic language there, these types of personal names and the names of the tribes themselves are our best idea of what old Celtic words on the mainland of Europe sounded like. The great names of the Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix and of Boadicea, the female chieftain of Celtic Briton, will come up later in our story.

Classical writers said that the Celts were taller than the Romans, more muscular, had fair skin, and blonde hair was common. [19] The Celts were known for their hospitality, but could be boastful and irritable. They were fond of feasting, were high-spirited, and in general liked excitement. Yet, in Rome, culturally sophisticated Cicero was able to become friends with a Celtic druid from Gaul named Diviciacus, and Cicero said that a Celtic leader from Galatia named Dejotarus was "gentle and honest." The ancients said that the Celts liked to speak in riddles, and loved to exaggerate. Some Celtic tribes had a sense of wanderlust and were nomadic (often in response to threats from the outside), while others stayed put in farming communities.

The ancient Celts lived in scattered villages without fortified walls. In wartime, they would build hill forts for protection. Their homes were circular and made of wood with thatched domelike roofs. They had little furniture, and ate and drank out of earthen dishes and goblets. They slept on beds of straw.

Agriculture was a major activity of the Celts of old, with many of them owning private farmlands. They produced mostly wheat for bread. In fact, the ancient writers said that this was the main difference between the Celts and the Germanic tribes of the day, [20] the latter of whom did little farming and consumed mostly meat and milk. Whereas the Celts grew crops, the Germanic barbarians then did little of this. The Celts were also large swinehearders (most of the meat they ate was ham and pork), and cattle was common for dairy products. They brewed beer, which they called "cervesia," and added honey and cumin to beer, which they called "corma." The Celts also appreciated wine and mead.

In terms of clothing, the Celtic women wore a simple long garment with a cloak. The men wore trousers (sometimes knee length), [21] a sleeved tunic reaching the thigh, a cloak, and sandals or boots. A metal piece of jewelry for around the neck called a torc (torques) was quite popular. Clothing dyed in bright colors was common. Men wore droopy moustaches, sometimes beards, and often long hair, all of this in contrast to the contemporary Romans. Women enjoyed painting their bodies, and some tribes of Celtic warriors went into battle stark naked and painted all over in bright blue.

The basic social structure was threefold: the chieftain, the warrior aristocracy, and the freeman farmers. Woman had a lower place, but some women were able to attain the position of chieftain, which was unknown in other cultures of the period. Slavery was accepted, largely conquered peoples. Three other roles in Celtic society were quite important: the druid, the bard, and the artisan.

The bard was the chief poet of a clan or extended family. He was the keeper of the family or tribal oral history and entertained gatherings with epic tales of Celtic gods and heroes. [22] He was a storyteller and a man of rhymes--a wordsmith. The Celtic bard, as did the Bard of Elizabethan times, tried the best he could to portray his benefactors as well as possible in laudable terms. Bards often sang their verse while playing a lyre (which in Ireland was eventually replaced by the harp). The artisan, who is often overlooked in books about the Celts, made all the wonderful metalwork, carvings, and tools for the tribe. The works of the ancient Celtic artisans exist today in museums all over Europe.

Druids and the Celtic Deities [23]

The primeval Celts believed in the immortality of the soul, and had a host of divinities they gave homage to--over 370 such gods and goddesses have been documented. The Celts viewed gods as being territorial, and would give homage to the gods of whatever lands they conquered. Among the Celtic gods of mainland Europe were Cernunnos, Smeros, Morrigan, Brigindo, Anvola, and Alisanos. There was a water deity named Sequana and another deity named Dirona. (The pagan gods of Celtic Ireland will be mentioned later). Most of the Celtic deities had a connection with nature or the processes of living, for example, fertility and healing.

The druids were the high priests of the Celtic pagan religion. They led the pagan rituals and ceremonies, offered sacrifices, engaged in fortune-telling, performed magical deeds, were Celtic arbiters of faith and morals, and generally were depended on to make things good with the gods. The druids built a philosophy of the natural world, interpreting the forces of nature. [24] They were called "the men of the oaks" and were thought to speak "the language of the gods." According to the ancient Greek writer Diogenes Laertius, the druid maxim was to "honor the gods, do no evil, and be brave."

The oak tree was sacred to the druids, and rituals were often performed in oak groves. Mistletoe from oaks as well as hawthorne were thought to have magical powers. Sacred springs and wells were another pagan gathering place for Celts, as were certain rivers where wood-carved votive offerings were placed. Celtic worship included incantations, dancing, libations, and sacrifices.

The Celts followed a lunar calendar and the full moon had importance. The bull was a sacred animal, as were the boar, crane, and horse. Throughout the year there were eight pagan festivals, each celebration roughly six weeks apart. One major Celtic festival was Beltaine on May 1 (May Day), which celebrated crop planting and fertility. At the end of October was Samhain, a harvest festival, when the underworld of the dead supposedly opened up and ghoulies walked the Earth. This was an early form of Halloween, and the Celts used to carve faces in large turnips to scare away the evil spirits. Samhain was the night before the Celtic new year, and druids built enormous bonfires for the occasion.

The Decline of the Continental Celts

By 100 B.C. two things were happening on mainland Europe that were very important to the Celts there. First, the Romans were beginning to look northward, hungry for conquest. Second, the Germanic tribes to the far north were looking southward and westward, also hungry for conquest. The continental Celts were sandwiched in between by hostile invaders and were being squeezed out. By circa 60 B.C. the Germanic barbarians controlled the territories west to the River Rhine and south to the River Danube. And about this time Julius Caesar decided he wanted Gaul for Rome.

History students are taught that Caesar conquered Gaul in the Gallic Wars, but it usually isn't made clear that the people he conquered there were Celts. The military campaign in Gaul (now France) began in 58 B.C., and within a year Julius Caesar had ten Roman legions at his command (including legions 7 through 14 as well as others); this amounting to over 40,000 infantrymen, and 4,000 cavalrymen. [25] The forced takeover of Gaul from the Celts went quite well; Caesar won many battles; they fought only during the summer, and Caesar returned to Rome to politic during the winter.

Then a military genius almost equal to Caesar arose among the Celts. His name was Vercingetorix, a chieftain from the Arvernian tribe. He united the Celtic tribes of Gaul, proved to be a skillful tactician, "and if followed wholeheartedly, might have driven the Romans from Gaul."

Vercingetorix beat Caesar at Gergovia, but then lost decisively to the well-organized Roman legions at Alesia in 52 B.C. Vercingetorix surrendered, was taken back to Rome, where he was paraded before and mocked by the crowds of the victorious nation. There he was executed. Julius Caesar subjugated Gaul and turned it into a Roman province, exacting an enormous annual monetary tribute, becoming personally wealthy. (A consolation: French emperor Napoleon III erected a large statue of Vercingetorix near Alesia in the 1860s.)

As Rome became an empire, the Celts of mainland Europe lost their autonomy, and over the centuries they assimilated into the cultural groups that gained control in the various territories. There is a Celtic presence today in Brittany, France, though this came as the Celtic Britons migrated there after the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain in the 400s A.D. Happily, we can know that Celts and celticisms still exist in Ireland and parts of Great Britain, surviving what invaders could not take away.

Part I: Who are the Celts?
Part III: The Celts in Galicia, Spain

8. This sketch of the ancient Celts was pieced together from a number of sources: the BBC series on The Celts; Georges Dottin, The Civilization of the Celts, (New York: Crescent Books, 1970); the Encyclopedia Britannica article "Celt"; and the World Book Encyclopedia article "Celts" (1982 edition--all future references from the this encyclopedia are from the 1982 edition, unless otherwise noted). Additional references on specific topics listed below. Statements that the Celts were the "Fathers of Europe" and the "principal barbarians north of the Alps" were from the BBC series The Celts. Georges Dottin (op. cit.) provides a broad representation of what the different classical authors had to say about the Celts, quoting the writers directly in many instances.

9. It can't be argued, the ancient Celts were barbarians. Because this paper is intended for gentle reading, I haven't emphasized many of the unsavory aspects of the ancient Celts. For instance, they practiced human sacrifice to their gods, slavery, and head de-capitation of their enemies (and made a big deal about it). Celtic men had an annoying habit of clanking their weapons instead of applauding when they approved of things they heard in assembly (Dottin, pg. 82). Among of the good things the Romans did when they conquered Gaul and other lands of the Celts, is they stopped human sacrifice, and they stopped the cult of severed heads. St. Patrick and the Celtic church stopped these things in Ireland, as well as slavery.

The Romans also brought cities to the Celtic areas they dominated, and cities (the Latin civitas), and civil behavior there, was a main root to civilization. Nevertheless, I agree with the experts who maintain that the Celts had their own brand of civilization. Perhaps it was less sophisticated and less orderly than the Romans, but it did produce wonderful art and literature, and made room for the free-spirits of society.

Note: From early times, the ancient Celts traded with the civilized cultures of the Greeks and Etruscans (pre-Roman peoples in Italy). There were other types of interaction--for instance, Cleopatra had a Celtic contingent in her army guard (Dottin, pg. 96). In 335 B.C., Alexander the Great received a delegation of Celts living in the Adriatic area. Pliny reported that the Celts in Gaul invented soap made from tallow and ash. (Dottin, pg. 33).

10. In Ireland, the Celts did invent a very simple writing form called Ogham (or Ogam), formed by strokes or notches on a line. It was cumbersome, and only a few words could easily be formed with it at a time. It was often used to write down personal names. More than 400 ancient ogham inscriptions exist today in Ireland. The alphabet consisted of about 19 of the letters in the current European alphabet; five more letters were added in modern times.
--partly from Encyclopedia Britannica article on "Ogham Writing" 11. The reference to "Celtica" was made by the ancient Denys of Halicarnassus.
--from Dottin (op. cit.), pg. 165. The reference to a "Celtic Empire" was from the BBC, The Celts. 12. Some of these Celtic tribes were named the Bituriges, the Arverni, the Aedui, the Senones, the Boii, the Insubres, the Lingones, and there were many more. The Helvetti were a Celtic tribe that settled in Switzerland; to this day the official name of Switzerland is Helvetia or Confederatio Helvetica. 13. This date and geographic placement for the beginning of the Celts is from Robert MacNeil et al, The Story of English (New York: Viking, 1986). One might argue that the further roots of the Celts go back to 3500-2500 B.C., when the Indo-European language community first began, perhaps north of the Black Sea or south of the Baltic Sea. (MacNeil, pgs. 54-55) 14. The Hallstatt area is in the Austrian Alps near Salzburg; it is the site of a major archeological dig, the earliest such evidence of a Celtic community--dating back to 700 B.C. The Celts mined salt there, and left a huge burial area of about 2,500 skeletons. As it turns out, the burial practices of the ancient Celts were pretty uniform across Europe, as discovered in research digs. Archeological work in Hallstatt began in 1843 through the efforts of a curious mining engineer in the salt mines. It has since become a major reference word used by people describing the central and western European cultures of antiquity. 15. La Tene is the name of an area near Lake Neuchatel in western Switzerland; in the latter half of the 19th century an important archeological dig was begun there, and it continues today. The La Tene culture was a Celtic people, later and more advanced than Hallstatt. The Celtic patterned art that many people in the modern world love is called the La Tene Celtic art-style. This La Tene art also included highly stylized animal portrayals. 16. This idea that the Celts had a presence in southern Scandinavia is mentioned in Dottin (op. cit.) pg. 169. This notion is supported with the fact that the Gundestrup Cauldron, a famous work of Celtic art, was discovered in a swamp in Denmark. 17. The Celtic region of Galatia was in the center of what is now Turkey. About 20,000 Celts first entered what became Galatia in 278 B.C., under the pretense and invitation of one area king at war with another. The early presence of the Celtic "horde" in this region has been characterized as marauding and given to plunder. Eventually they settled down and built fortified villages, and aligned themselves with local kings. They became a Roman protectorate in 85 B.C., and there was a line of Celtic kings of Galatia. The Celtic Galatians ruled as a military aristocracy over the indigenous peoples. For centuries the Celts there kept their own language and customs, but by the 2nd century A.D. they were quickly assimilating into the predominate Greek culture of the area.
--from the Encyclopedia Britannica article on "Galatia"

My speculation is that due to St. Paul's epistle to the Galatians, and his missionary work with them, the Galatians were the first Celtic Christians in the world.

18. This summary description of the ancient Celt culture is full of generalizations, and as in most generalizations, there were exceptions. There were many Celtic tribes, and many variations in cultural development. For instance, in Austria there are archeological remains of Celtic villages consisting of rectangular log cabins. In Ireland, the Celts did build lasting fort complexes--made of wood.
--from BBC, The Celts. 19. Reports were that blonde hair was common among the ancient Celts. However, they also put lime in their hair to appear blonde. 20. The author of the Encyclopedia Britannica article on "Celtic Languages" says that the ancient Celts had a higher degree of social organization than the Germanic tribes. Poseidonius (considered the most learned man of his day, and tutor to Cicero) said the Germanic tribes were somewhat less civilized than the Celts (1). Julius Caesar said the Celts of Gaul had superior valor in comparison to the German tribes (2). Some experts express the idea that in more modern times the Germanic peoples adopted the order and regimentation of the Roman organizational systems more readily than the Celtic peoples have.

SUBNOTES: (1) from Encyclopedia Britannica article on "Druidism"; (2) from Dottin, pg. 162

21. In Irish myth, Celtic heroes are often depicted as wearing kilts. 22. In Ireland the bards were wandering poets and minstrels (with harps). There was another class of hereditary poets and storytellers called the filid, who also preserved Irish oral tradition.
--from World Book Encyclopedia article on "Irish Literature" 23. information related to the number of Celtic gods, their territorial nature, and the Celtic festivals is from interview with Gordon Ireland, June 25, 1999. Much of the information is also from sources cited earlier, particularly the BBC series, The Celts. 24. According to Dottin, in Civilization of the Celts, Diogenes Laertius claimed that the first philosophers were barbarians, from four areas: 1) the druids of the Celts; 2) the Persian magi in Babylon, 3) the Chaldeans in Assyria; and 4) the Gymnosophites in India. Diogenes Laertius is also the source of the quoted "druid maxim." Living in the 3rd century A.D., Diogenes Laertius wrote Life of the Philosophers, an early history of Greek philosophy.
--from Dottin (op. cit.) pgs. 132 and 143; and the Encyclopedia Britannica, article on "Diogenes Laertius" 25. Sources about Julius Caesar's campaign in Gaul, and about Vercingetorix are from Encyclopedia Britannica articles "Caesar, Gaius Julius," "Gaul," "Alesia," " Vercingetorix," and "Arverni"; also Dottin (op. cit.) and BBC, The Celts. It might also be mentioned that Julius Caesar characterized Vercingetorix as "a man of inexhaustible energy." The Romans held him captive for six years before strangling him to death in 45 B.C. As for the Celtic Gauls, they slowly became Romanized as they appreciated the benefits of Roman civilization; there was the Vindex uprising of the Celts in 68 A.D., but that was quelled, and Celtic identity disappeared in Gaul over the years.

Military historians point to Caesar's campaign in Gaul as an early example of how a well-organized army of soldiers can defeat a force of warriors with superior numbers who lack good organization. Caesar felt that the Celtic Gauls were very powerful in the initial push of battle, but lacked staying power in long-term fighting action. The Celts were renowned for their fearsome battle cry, and were said to have a distinctive victory yell in battles they won.

26. Material on Galicia, Spain from BBC, The Celts, and articles entitled "Spain" in the Encyclopedia Britannica and the World Book Encyclopedia. Claims of Irish Celt origins from Spain found in Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1995), pg. 79. Cahill believes that the Celts of Spain had a different language type than that of Celtic Britain, which explains how Irish Gaelic differs from the Brythonic Celtic languages of Great Britain.

Article by John Patrick Parle

Copyright © 1999 jpparle@aol.com

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