Young and Minority Leaders

The Early Histories of the Ancient Celts (Part 1)

Peter RAS asked:

Celtic describes a language group which over a period of time divided into two strains:

P-Celtic (Brythonic) spoken in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.

Q-Celtic (Gaelic) spoken today in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.

The ancient Celts were communities of people sharing linguistic and cultural ties, who inhabited most of Northern Europe between 800 BC and 400 AD. The Iron Age Celtic communities spread from Ireland to the Eastern Europe at the peak of their expansion from 400 BC-300 BC.

Archeological map of distribution of the Celtic Hallstatt culture ca. 800 -400 BCE. The Hallstat culture 800 BC-250 BC named after a site at Hallstat in Austria, they ranged from the Paris Basin to the valley of Morava in Eastern Europe, and from the Alps to the North European plain. Early burials (800 BC- 600BC) show small cemeteries denoting small settlements, perhaps one family or a small group of related families. The graves show little wealth, a few graves with wagons and horse equipment, but most as warriors both male and female with their swords, a few personal ornaments and pots containing food.

Between 600 BC-450 BC aristocratic burials start to appear, associated with much larger residences with architecture inspired by the Greeks, and Mediterranean artefacts begin to appear in graves. The overall leader or chief being accompanied in a wooden chamber with the wagon and horse equipment, filled with imported items, bronze wine drinking vessels, silk, gold, amber, glass and coral. The individual ‘vassal’ chief with wagon filled with more locally made goods, and ‘sub-chiefs’ similar, but less elaborately furnished with totally locally produced items. This prestige system of burials was widespread from Burgundy to the settlements of the middle Rhine. This unstable system based solely of imports and exports, as its core, threw up warrior societies, whose wealth came from raiding the settled traders. Along with the growth in population among the tribes and political changes within the Mediterranean area, this caused collapse, and the Celtic migrations began around 400 BC.

The ‘La Tene’ culture, known for its elaborate artwork, coincided with the last 50 years of the Hallstat culture, and this culture was carried forward in migration. Warrior bands moved south and east towards the rich pickings of the peoples whom they had traded with. Rome was attacked in 369 BC and continued into Italy, Delphi being attacked in 279 BC, and eastward roving bands continued into Asia minor. Migrations due to population growth continued throughout the next few hundred years.

The migration attempt of the ‘Helvetii’ was halted during the eight year war with Caesar’s Rome, as hundreds of thousands of Celts were killed, sold into slavery or maimed. After his victory Caesar went back to Rome; Gaul and Britain were left alone for 15 years. When the Roman emperors later began to set up an administration, most of southern and eastern Gaul was brought within the Roman empire fairly easily, as the Celts in this region had already established a sedimentary lifestyle, and a trade based economic system. The further borders of the Roman Empire remained in a state of flux for sometime, with the constant pressure from the so called ‘Germanic’ tribes pressing in from the east, which finally contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. The term ‘Germanic’ was termed by Caesar who called anybody north of the Rhine ‘Germanic’, and anybody south of the Rhine ‘Celtic’. Archaeology makes it clear that while there were two different material cultures, with different house building and burial styles, they were much more intermixed than Caesar’s simplistic geographical divisions would indicate.

There were differences between the religious practices of European and the British Celtic peoples. The south of England which was settled by the Belgic peoples is more closely tied to the Continent, while northern England has more unique deities and practices. Ireland had even less contact with Europe and maintained its culture the longest. The Continental Celts had been influenced by the Mediterranean cultures, with their regular trading with the eastern Mediterranean from as early as 8th century BC, and regular river and inland trading between southern Britain and the Mediterranean since 6th century BC. Where as the trading links, with the other Celtic regions was occasional and maritime.

Recorded History.

According to Caesar there are no contemporary religious writings from the Celts themselves because, as the Celts had a religious prohibition against writing things down, although they eventually kept trade related records using Greek characters. We must rely on the writings of others. A number of classical writers mentioned the Celts. The very first use of the term ‘Keltoi’ is by the Greek Hecataeus of Miletus around 500 BC. Most of these Greek and Roman authors whose works have survived didn’t have any first hand knowledge of the Celts. Most of the extant writing comes from the first two centuries of the common era, and rely on observations of the Stoic philosopher Posidonius, early 1st century BC, whose own writings have been lost. His information was based on first hand knowledge of Celtic society in Gaul. Scraps of his writings are contained in later writings, especially Athenaeus, Diodorus Siculus, mid 1st century BC and Strabo 40 BC-25 AD.

From Posidonius we learn that Celts subscribed to the Pythagorean idea of transmigration of the soul, which Caesar mentions as well though he couches it in terms of making the fighters unafraid of death. Julius Caesar had the opportunity to see Celts at first hand, both on the continent and in Britain, but his concerns were mainly military. His writings also served as propaganda to raise money for his campaign against them. He wasn’t particularly interested in religion other to note the influence of the Druids on the nobility. Caesar describes the Druids, saying they ‘officiate at the worship of the Gods, regulate public and private sacrifices, and give rulings on all religious questions. Large numbers of young men flock to them for instruction and they are held in great honour by the people. They act as judges in practically all disputes whether between tribes or between individuals.’ He also noted that the Druids had the power to ban someone from the sacrifice, which meant both excommunication and shunning by the community. He mentions that there are many and diverse deities but does not name them except to use the name of whichever Roman deity possessed similar attributes.

It is to Pliny the Elder, 1st century AD, that we owe our image of the Druids cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle. It was an afterthought on the mistletoe entry in his book on trees. The word he used was ‘sacerdos’ not Druid, and it was probably the Vates who would perform such a ritual. We get this division of the Celtic ‘priesthood’ from Strabo’s ‘Geographica’ written at the end of the 1st century BC, which states ‘Among all the Gallic peoples, generally speaking, there are three sets of men and women who are held in exceptional honour: the Bards, the Vates, and the Druids. The Bards are singers and poets; the Vates, diviners and natural philosophers; while the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy, study also moral philosophy.’

Additionally, Irish vernacular evidence does tend to support this three part division.

Classical sources tended to sensationalise Celtic religion. They were, after all writing about foreigners who were considered barbarians. Like today it’s the unconventional and ‘uncivilised’ information that received the most attention, there was little accurate information about the Celtic Deities, as the authors tended to use their own Gods, already understood by the populous, who they thought nearest to worship of the Celtic Gods. Again like today they were the sensationalist’s like Lucan 1st century AD, who reported that the
three major Gods of the Gauls de
manded human sacrifice, Taranis (burning),Teutates (drowning), and Esus (hanging and wounding). The Romans had banned human sacrifice only a generation or two earlier and this was reported, so the Romans could be seen to be superior beings, early propaganda.

The classical writers of the day also describe the Celt’s appearance, Diodorus tells of the men of the Gauls being tall and fair with loud voices and piercing eyes, and the women being nearly as big and strong and as fierce as their menfolk. Tacitus decribed the Caledonii of Scotland as having reddish hair and large loose limbs, the Silurians of Wales described as swarthy, with dark curly hair. Dio Cassius as large and frightening, with bright red hair, Strabo records that both sexes liked to wear lots of jewellery, this is confirmed by archaeological findings, showing heavy torcs, brooches, rings, necklets and bracelets.

An idealised picture of the classical Celt is best described by Virgil in the following quote, ‘Golden is their hair, and golden is their garb. They are resplendent in their striped cloaks, and their milk-white necks are circled in gold.’

Inscriptions on alters and votive objects provide almost 400 names of Celtic deities, unfortunately many of the names just appear the once, and have no evidence about the deity, others had descriptive epithets added to their names, others are paired to Roman deities, allows us to guess more accurately about their Celtic counterparts. Some classical Roman deities receive Celtic epithets, and classical Gods often received Celtic consorts.

The Celts were seen to have a hierarchy in the sense of a coherent pantheon dwelling in some remote place. The human world and the Otherworld formed a unity in which the human and divine interact. Each location has numinous powers which are acknowledged by the people as we can see by their naming of mountains, rivers and other natural features many of which have associated deities.

When the Celts invaded Greece in 278 BC, Brennus entered the precinct of Delphi, saw no gold and silver dedications, only stone and wooden statues and he laughed at the Greeks for setting up deities in human form. Caesar mentions that the Germans worship the forces of nature only.

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