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The history of the Celts stretches back thousands of years and across the breadth of Central and Western ...
2022-05-16 09:00:00

Iron People
A History of the Celts

“The Wicker Man of the Druids”, Thomas Pennant, ca. 1773–1776. National Library of Wales (public domain)
Iron People
Iron People

We know little about the Celts, since they had a similar attitude to writing as they did to the Romans. Unbending in their approach to the written word, they also discovered iron and introduced it to Europe, alongside new beliefs, traditions and culture, echoes of which can still be heard today.

Read in 13 minutes

In the collective imagination, the Celts are situated at the intersection of history and myth. Even their name causes problems. The word keltoi was first used by the Greeks to denote northern barbarians, whom they encountered while sailing the Mediterranean Sea and the eastern parts of the Atlantic. Some contemporary historians consider this term to be of little help, as it brings together peoples that were only loosely connected.

One thing is certain: the Celts stir the imagination, since they serve as a link between classical European civilization and the olden days emerging from prehistoric darkness. Since they left behind almost no written records, we know them mostly thanks to the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans. They represented the Celts as their opposites. While they had some respect for them as courageous and fair people who enjoyed their feasts, they essentially viewed them as barbarians. A lot of information about the Celts can be also derived from Celtic literature recorded by Irish monks in early mediaeval times, but it only applies to Celts from the British Isles.

In the 18th century, Celtic history was integrated into national myths developed by the countries that claimed Celtic heritage. In particular, Irish antiquarians had considerable influence here. More recently, the Celts have become an object of attention for political extremists and neo-pagans fascinated with Druidism. Everyone has offered a slightly different vision of the Celts for their own purposes. Today, knowledge about this mysterious group can be sourced from archaeological excavations, linguistics, and even DNA tests. The problem is that researchers tend to reach entirely different conclusions. Celtic identity proves fluid and can be understood in various ways.

Baffling finds

In 1846, near Hallstatt, Austria, a large cemetery was discovered with around 1000 graves dating back to the eighth century BCE. During excavations, the remains of over 5000 prehistoric inhabitants of the valley were found, alongside around 20,000 objects. Ornamented iron swords engraved with solar symbols, gold bracelets and bronze vases prove that the people who inhabited the area were not only rich, but also had some metallurgical skills. Some ornaments contained amber, which demonstrates that there was a trade exchange between the Baltic Sea area and the Mediterranean. Miners from Hallstatt obtained these goods in exchange for salt from the Salzburg Alps, which was considered a great food preservative.

The portrait of western Hallstatt culture associated with Celtic origins becomes more vivid when looking at the subsequent archaeological finds. One fine example is Heuneburg hillfort, located on the steep shore of the Danube river. Dating back to the sixth century BCE, it became later fortified with a high, sun-dried mudbrick wall. The early Celts weren’t familiar with this technique, which means they must have borrowed it from the Phoenicians. This settlement, which covered 100 hectares and had a population of 5000 inhabitants, might be considered the first known town to the north of the Alps. Traces of recurrent destructions and renovation works show that since at least the sixth century BCE, it was a military fortification.

The discovery of the Hochdorf Chieftain’s Grave, 100 kilometres to the south, was equally compelling. The burial mound contained the body of a tall man and miscellanea intended for the final journey to the other side. In the burial chamber, archaeologists found swords and daggers, a four-wheeled wagon, a nearly three-metres long recliner, and… a 400-litre cauldron that was originally filled with mead. Clearly, the man who was buried there was prepared for every occasion, including a post-mortem feast. The abundance of intricate gold ornaments (even his shoes were coated with gold) constitutes evidence of his wealth and high social standing. Interestingly, even during this very early period, social inequalities already existed. It can be seen when looking at the burial sites of common farmers, located around the burial chamber.

But it wasn’t only great warriors that had some power. A grave dating to around the sixth century BCE and found near Mont Lassois by the Seine, contains the remains of a woman of equally high social standing. It also contains a large Greek wine-mixing vessel, known as the Vix Krater, which was most likely an offering from Massalia – a large Greek colony, which maintained relations with the Celtic North and which is located in today’s Marseille. Trade routes ran along the Rhône and the Seine, which overlaps with the development of Celtic settlements near large rivers in Central and Western Europe. The wine, which was most likely intended for rituals, emphasized the social prestige of the priestess from Mont Lassois and over time became an object of desire for Celtic tribes. The lid of the crater was decorated with a statuette depicting either a goddess or princess, emphasizing the high position of women in Celtic society.

Increasing prosperity, which led to both population growth and a desire to own goods from the South (oh, this Greek wine!), constituted for the Celts an impulse towards expansion.

A little history

Around 400 BCE, Celtic tribes began to settle on a mass scale the areas to the south of the Alps. According to Herodotus, the Celts inhabited the land extending from the source of the Danube to the areas west of the Pillars of Hercules (i.e. the Strait of Gibraltar). It was then that the period of their greatest power began, which is proven by archaeological discoveries associated with the La Tène culture.

This name refers to the large sacrificial altar found in the town of La Tène located near Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The altar was full of artefacts illustrating the evolution of Celtic art. In his work on the history of Rome, Titus Livius recounted that the Celts had reached Etruscan lands before, whereas Pompeius Trogus claimed that the Gauls (which is how the Romans called the Celts) gathered 300,000 people to occupy the areas that were known as Pre-Alpine Gaul. From that point onwards, the people of the Apennine Peninsula were exposed to raids, and the biggest one almost resulted in the fall of Rome – a city which was only just beginning to build its position. Under the leadership of Brennus, the Senones and Lingones defeated the Romans at the battle of the Allia (390 or 387 BCE) and sacked Rome. The last bastion was located on the Capitoline Hill. According to legend, the defenders were saved by the Capitoline geese. In fact, the Celts were afflicted with some contagious illness and decided to withdraw after taking the ransom.

In the following century, the Senones, supported by the vengeful republic, began to move south, colonizing the Illyrian Adriatic coast. Having encountered the Macedonians, they stopped their expansion for a little while, but after the death of Alexander the Great they allied themselves with the Thracians and invaded Macedonia, as well as Greek cities. This is when they split. Some went to Delphi, lured by news about the wealth accumulated there, but faced strong resistance at Thermopylae. In 279 BCE, which was almost 200 years after the first Battle of Thermopylae, a small group of Greek forces managed to fend off the barbarians, who outnumbered them significantly. A well-organized phalanx proved more effective than the Celts, who were attacking chaotically. This heralded future defeats of the Celts when confronted with disciplined armies. They had to withdraw from Delphi due to a snowstorm, which the Greeks viewed as a result of Apollo’s anger. The story of the northern group is even more interesting. They reached Asia Minor via Hellespont (the Dardanelles) and settled central Anatolia, including ancient Gordion. Their Hellenic neighbours appreciated the gallantry of the moustached warriors, whom they referred to as Galatians. The Celtic tribes were at the height of their power, exerting influence from the British Isles to Asia Minor.

The Atlantic option

According to the classic interpretation, the Celts, who came from Central Europe, also colonized the areas to the west: they settled the Iberian Peninsula and the territories of today’s Great Britain and Ireland. The problem is that the Celtiberians, who definitely spoke a Celtic language, didn’t leave behind any material evidence linking them to the La Tène culture. In contrast, the Celts from Britain were under the influence of the material culture from the continent, which helped to maintain the theory about the gradual colonization of the British Isles through subsequent waves of migration.

This theory was also accepted by linguists. The languages that are classified as Celtic are present today in French Brittany, parts of Ireland, Wales and Scotland (Gaelic is the oldest living European language), and until recently in Cornwall and the Isle of Man. This group of languages was singled out by Welsh linguist Edward Lhuyd in his 1707 work Archaeologia Britannica. He did field research on languages, grouped them into a single family and performed a comparative analysis to argue that it was an effect of migrations from the continent in the fourth century BCE. However, DNA tests performed on British people and commented upon by Stephen Oppenheimer in his 2007 book The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain prove unequivocally that the majority of the British population born at the beginning of the 20th century carry a gene connected to migrations in the Mesolithic Age, which took place 4000 years before the alleged Celtic colonization.

Similar arguments are provided in James P. Mallory’s 2013 book The Origins of the Irish. Relying on genetic research and archaeology, Mallory points out that the majority of the Irish population can be traced back to earlier times. Barry Cunliffe, a renowned British archaeologist and professor at Oxford, compiled data from various disciplines and reached the conclusion that the language family known as Celtic must have developed from the Indo-European language on the Atlantic edge, which covers territories extending from today’s Portugal, through France’s western coast to Scotland. It was the lingua franca of a very early settlement dating back to the Mesolithic Age (6000–5000 BCE). Communities that used the same burial methods or developed megalithic architecture, like Stonehenge and Newgrange, participated in trade exchange and the circulation of ideas, which, in turn, led to the development of a shared Celtic language that later evolved into such variants as Gaelic and Cornish, among others.

This changed the direction of expansion by 180 degrees. According to this interpretation, the ‘Celts’ were born in the west and migrated to the east. This obviously doesn’t dispel Gaelic conquests in Italy, the Balkans, or from Greece to Anatolia, which are all recorded in ancient writings, but forces us to rethink what ‘Celtic’ actually means.

Goddesses and murderers

While the origins of the Celts stir a lot of controversy in the scientific world of today, their fall is well-described. The first act of this tragedy was recounted by Gaius Julius Caesar in his work Gallic Wars, which not only documents the defeat of all Celtic tribes inhabiting the territories of today’s France, but also provides a compelling account of their lives. Caesar also points to the “religiousness” of the Gauls and the high social status of Druids. When he depicts local gods, he uses Roman names, in accordance with the interpretatio Romana rule. Over time, the conquered population, which was exposed to the Romanization process, began to worship Gallo-Roman gods with two names, like Lugos Mercury. If we attempt to reconstruct the past religious beliefs, we can differentiate two phases. The first consisted in worshipping forces of nature, whereas the latter consisted in worshipping personifications of those forces as gods who didn’t form any organized pantheon, like the Greek Olympus. Each god could perform various functions and serve as a protector of different tribes.

Interestingly, the archaic period was characterized by the strong position of goddesses who were connected to the worship of the Mother Goddess. They often served as guardians of various places, including rivers and their springs, which were of prime importance for the Celts. To this day, Celtic goddesses are the patrons of European rivers – Matrona of the Marne (which flows through Champagne) and Sequana of the Seine. The worship of Matronae echoes the oldest matriarchal beliefs. Another goddess worth mentioning is Epona, commonly venerated on the territories extending from the British Isles to Bulgaria. Her name means ‘Great Mare’ in Gaulish. She was one of the few pagan deities to join the pantheon of Roman gods. Some forms of her worship, however, appalled Christian writers in Ireland, who disapproved of the fact that the enthronement of their kings – which symbolized a divine relationship between the new ruler and his land – involved the presence of a mare.

The male element, in contrast, was commonly represented by a boar: a symbol of strength and bravery, which over time became associated with Teutates. As the Roman poet Lucan claims, he was part of a quite ominous trio that also included Esus and Taranis. They were all worshipped with human sacrifice. Teutates enjoyed sacrifice in the form of a drowned man. Esus preferred a man hanged on a tree, while Taranis was satisfied with a burnt one. One of the sacrificial altars that Caesar describes took the shape of a straw effigy filled with live men and set on fire. Even though it is not certain whether this story is true, it became firmly entrenched in the Celtic imagination. A wicker effigy is represented in the 17th-century collection of drawings Britannia Antiqua Illustrata. The motif of burning people alive inside a straw effigy is present, for instance, in the famous 1973 psychological horror The Wicker Man, with an evocative soundtrack. Ritual murders would sometimes involve a threefold death by hanging, splitting one’s skull and drowning, so that all three bloodthirsty gods could be satisfied. Apparently, among the victims of such rituals were Irish kings who disappointed their people. This is exemplified by the bodies found in peat bogs on the Isles, such as Old Croghan Man.

The Celtic religious leaders made an equally ambivalent impression. Caesar, who was unwilling to pay compliments, focused mainly on their political role. The Greek geographer Strabo divided them into three groups: the vates, who were seers and performed sacrifices; the bards, who composed hymns and served as a living memory of the tribe; and the (most respected) Druids, who acted as intermediaries between the everyday life and the afterlife. Strabo also emphasized their role as committed observers of nature.

Pilinius Secundus’s accounts offer us an image of Druids as old men in long, white robes, who cut mistletoe with a sickle in an oak grove. Cicero called Druids Pythagoreans among barbarians. He viewed them as philosophy enthusiasts and mentioned their belief in the immortality of the soul. The Romans, on the other hand, were annoyed with the Druids that held political power in Gallia and the British Isles. Druids organized annual tribal summits in scared groves, where they would settle disputes. The schedule of those meetings corresponded to the holiday calendar, which was influenced by the cycles of nature. These details are known thanks to the Coligny Calendar. It is a rare example of a written record, since Druids preferred oral communication as a method of passing down sacred knowledge.

The Druids’ ability to unify conflicted tribes worried Caesar. Still, he managed to defeat Gallic tribes united under the leadership of Vercingetorix during the Battle of Alesia (52 BCE). When over 100 years later, Suetonius Paulinus, governor of Britain, was suppressing a revolt of the Britons, he made sure that the stronghold of Druids on the Welsh island of Mona (today’s Anglesey) was destroyed. It was a symbolic end to the epoch of Celts in Europe. Druids survived only in isolated Ireland, where they adapted to new conditions, converted to Christianity, and practised monasticism.

The Celts today

It was Ireland and, to a lesser extent, other Celtic-speaking countries on the British Isles, that enabled the old Celtic culture to continue to resonate today. Apart from the Irish Church, which allowed for treating saints as descendants of local gods long before Christian missionaries arrived there in the fifth century, the primary carrier of old legends was Celtic literature. Celtic literature refers to legends rooted in mythology and written down by monks or passed down by bards. They include, for instance, The Ulster Cycle. Its protagonist, Cú Chulainn, was defending his province from Saxon invaders.

An intensified interest in old traditions was observed during the Celtic Revival at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. Some aspects of this revival had an impact on contemporary nationalist politics as opposition to British imperialism. Today’s relevance of old symbols is manifested in such celebrations as Beltane (the Gaelic May Day), which in Edinburgh takes the form of the Fire Festival, bringing together thousands of participants who identify with the Celts. The second most important celebration is Samhain, which evolved into the commercialized and popular Halloween. Both are accompanied by Celtic music. It must be said, however, that this music is an evocation of Scottish or Welsh folklore from a later period, rather than an actual expression of the old Celtic culture. For instance, the Celtic war horn (known as the carnyx), whose existence is confirmed by many historical records, doesn’t play any major part in this 19th-century hybrid rendition. However, what matters most for both performers and the audience is a sense of togetherness and transregional affinity. This is why during festivals, musicians from Brittany get together with troubadours in Spanish Galicia and search for shared motifs, which would revive the tradition that is disappearing alongside the language.

In Brittany in the 1950s, one million people spoke Breton; nowadays this figure is four times less. In this region, Celtic heritage helps to oppose the dominant and oppressive French culture. Politically, this opposition has been embodied by such groups as the extremist Breton Liberation Front and Stourm Breizh (Breton for ‘Fight for Brittany’). The extent to which the Celts have shaped today’s European identity is even larger. They symbolize the resistance of vulnerable groups against the state apparatus. At the same time, they connect people with the mythical times before classical civilization.


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Mąkowska

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