Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Who Were the Ancient Celts?

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(I wrote this in 2011. It originally appeared on a history website that is now defunct.)

Although the Celtic peoples were a large and influential society during the classical period of ancient European history, their lack of a written language makes their culture somewhat difficult to define and describe. The Celtic tribes never had a common leader and may never have spoken a unified language. Ancient place-names considered to be in the Celtic language were also used by non-Celtic tribes, making it seem likely that the language was never linked to one distinct ethnic or national group.

In the 8th-7th centuries BCE, approximately the time of the founding of the city of Rome, the Celts are believed to have moved into the British Isles. Their territory expanded far beyond England and Ireland, though. It included parts of modern Turkey at the easternmost, much of Central Europe north of the Alps and Balkans, the Rhine Valley, much of modern France and Spain, and the whole of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.

The earliest historical mentions of the Celts come from the ancient Greeks, in about 500 BCE. The Greeks described them as the westernmost people of Europe. Around 390 BCE, the Celts sacked Rome. The Greeks and Romans considered them barbarians, and they bedeviled a number of civilizations until about 279 BCE. The end of the classical period of Celtic culture came in the first century BCE, when the Romans under Julius Caesar conquered the British Isles and Germanic-speaking tribes attacked Celtic territory from the north. After that time, Celtic cultural traditions become heavily influenced by the Roman and Germanic cultures.

Creative Commons image by Georges Jansoone
Although Celts from different regions appear to have worshiped different gods and goddesses, there is some commonality in their religion. Their goddesses seem to have been associated with the running water of rivers and streams. They worshiped a horned god, sometimes known as Cernunnos, associated with deer and bulls. Other gods were represented with a wheel and with a cauldron.

The writers who lived as contemporaries of the ancient Celts all agreed their most sacred places were groves of trees, particularly oak trees where mistletoe grew. A class of priests called the Druids, or “knowers of the oak tree,” performed their rituals and sacrifices, among other secular functions. The Druids also memorized the Celts’ oral histories in the form of genealogies and epic poetry. By the time of the Roman invasion, the common Celtic people were still largely illiterate, but the Druids were able to read and write both their own language and Latin.

Archaeologists who study the early Celtic cultures of central Europe come to these conclusions about their culture:

*The men wore woolen kilts.
*They lived in square and round huts with thatched roofs.
*Most were cremated when they died and were placed in urns, which were then buried in neat rows. A few people, perhaps tribal chieftains or priests/priestesses, were buried in chariots, too flimsy for everyday use, suggesting the chariot was a religious symbol.
*They tended to be war-like, but apparently never attempted to build a large empire.
*They were an egalitarian society, without extremes of class or wealth.

Their later descendants, the ones known to the great Mediterranean civilizations of classical Europe, had the following characteristics:

*Less egalitarian than their ancestors, later Celtic peoples had a distinct class of nobles.
*Men wore gold, silver or bronze torque-style necklaces. Although these ornaments have not been found in the graves of women, Celtic goddesses are depicted wearing them.
*They kept bees, sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. Wild boar seems to have been a favorite food.
*The common people drank milk, beer, and mead. Nobles might import wine.
*Although at one time they were noted for going into battle naked, the Celts invented chain-mail armor.
*They wore blue body paint for ceremonial occasions and sometimes in battle. The roots of this custom may lie in the belief among many Indo-European peoples that the gods’ veins were filled with a blue ethereal substance, called ichor by the Greeks. Painting one’s self with blue was a way of asking to be taken in by the gods in the event of death.

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The Romans typically left alone the religious practices of conquered tribes, yet they were uncharacteristically hard on the Celtic cultural practices of the British Isles. In their historical writings, the Romans claimed they were repulsed by the practices of human sacrifice and beheading of enemies killed in battle. (The Celts believed a kind of magic resided in the head, even after death.) In fact, this suppression may have stemmed from Roman fear of the temporal power held by the Druids, whose secular power within Celtic society had steadily increased by the time of Caesar.

Today, the remaining outposts of Celtic language and culture lie primarily in western Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, Wales, the Brittany region of France, and the Cornwall region of England. These far corners of the Roman Empire were less tightly controlled than the empire’s more easily accessible lands.

Common characteristics of Celtic visual arts include:

*An emphasis on geometry, particularly the circle and the number three. Many Celtic myths and folk beliefs make reference to the number three.
*Natural forms, such as those of animals and leaves.
*The theme of metamorphosis, evidenced by images that can be interpreted in different ways when viewed from alternative angles.

Sources

“Celtic Britain (The Iron Age) c. 500 BC -60 AD” http://www.britainexpress.com/History/Celtic_Britain.htm



Discovery of Lost Worlds, edited by Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr. Simon and Schuster: New York.

Quest for the Past, edited by Ann Kramer and Lindy Newton. Reader’s Digest.

The Timetables of History: The New Third Revised Edition, by Bernard Grun. Simon and Schuster: New York.

The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, by Barbara G. Walker. Harper & Row, San Francisco

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