Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Who were the Celts?

The Celts

While textbooks stress the descent of Europe from classical culture, the face of Europe throughout most of the historical period was dominated by a single cultural group, a powerful, culturally diverse group of peoples, the Celts. By the start of the Middle Ages, the Celts had been struck on two fronts by two very powerful cultures, Rome in the south, and the Germans, who were derived from Celtic culture, from the north. Through the period of classical Greece (corresponding to the La Têne culture in central Europe) to first centuries AD, most of Europe was under the shadow of this culture which, in its diverse forms, still represented a fairly unified culture.

This monolithic culture spread from Ireland to Asia Minor (the Galatians of the New Testament). The Celts even sacked Rome in 390 BC and successfully invaded and sacked several Greek cities in 280 BC. Though the Celts were preliterate during most of the classical period, the Greeks and Romans discuss them quite a bit, usually disfavorably.

From this great culture would arise the Germans (we think) and many of the cultural forms, ideas, and values of medieval Europe. For not only did medieval Europe look back to the Celtic world as a golden age of Europe, they also lived with social structures and world views that ultimately owe their origin to the Celts as well as to the Romans and Greeks. The period of Celtic dominance in Europe began to unravel in the first centuries AD, with the expansion of Rome, the migrations of the Germans, and later the influx of an Asian immigrant population, the Huns. By the time Rome fell to Gothic invaders, the Celts had been pushed west and north, to England, Wales and Ireland and later to Scotland and the northern coast of France.


The Celts are traditionally ignored in world history textbooks and course, but the Celtic way of life, Celtic institutions, and the Celtic world view were superimposed onto Germanic and classical culture. The later monolithic European culture is greatly influenced by these early peoples.

Most of what we know about Celtic life comes from Ireland—the largest and most extensive of the Celtic populations, the Gauls in central and western Europe, we only know about through Roman sources—and these sources are decidedly unfriendly to the Gauls.

We know that the early Celtic societies were organized around warfare—this structure would commonly characterize cultures in the process of migration: the Celts, the Huns, and later the Germans. Although classical Greek and Roman writers considered the Celts to be violently insane, warfare was not an organized process of territorial conquest. Among the Celts, warfare seems to have mainly been a sport, focussing on raids and hunting. In Ireland, the institution of the fianna involved young, aristocratic warriors who left the tribal area for a time to conduct raids and to hunt. When the Celts came into contact with the Romans, they changed their manner of warfare to a more organized defense agains a larger army. It was these groups that the classical writers encountered and considered insane. The Celtic method of warfare was to stand in front of the opposing army and scream and beat their spears and swords against their shields. They would then run headlong into the opposing army and screamed the entire way—this often had the effect of scaring the opposing soldiers who then broke into a run; fighting a fleeing army is relatively easy work. If the opposing army did not break ranks, the Celts would stop short of the army, return to their original position, and start the process over agina.

Celtic society was hierarchical and class-based. Tribes were led by kings but political organizations were remarkably plastic. According to both Roman and Irish sources, Celtic society was divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy, an intellectual class that included druids, poets, and jurists, and everyone else.

Society was tribal and kinship-based; one's ethnic identity was largely derived from the larger tribal group, called the tuath ("too-awth") in Irish (meaning "people") but ultimately based on the smallest kinship organizational unit, the clan, called the cenedl (ke-na-dl), or "kindred," in Irish. The clan provided identity and protection—disputes between individuals were always disputes between clans. Since it was the duty of the clan to protect individuals, crimes against an individual would be prosecuted against an entire clan. One of the prominent institutions among the Celts was the blood-feud in which murder or insults against an individual would require the entire clan to violently exact retribution. The blood-feud was in part avoided by the institution of professional mediators. At least an Ireland, a professional class of jurists, called brithem, would mediate disputes and exact reparations on the offending clan.

Even though Celtic society centered around a warrior aristocracy, the position of women was fairly high in Celtic society. In the earliest periods, women participated both in warfare and in kingship. While the later Celts would adopt a strict patriarchal model, they still have a memory of women leaders and warriors.

Celtic society was based almost entirely on pastoralism and the raising of cattle or sheep; there was some agriculture in the Celtic world, but not much. The importance of cattle and the pastoral life created a unique institution in Celtic, particularly Irish, life: the cattle-raid. The stealing of another group's cattle was often the proving point of a group of young warriors; the greatest surviving Irish myth, the Táin Bó Cualingne, or "The Cattle Raid of Cooley," centers around one such mythically-enhanced cattle-raid.

There was no urbanization of any kind among the Celts until the advent of Roman rule; in Ireland, urbanization did not occur until the Danish and Norwegian invasions. Society was not based on trade or commerce; what trade took place was largely in the form of barter. Celtic economy was probably based on the economic principle of most tribal economies: reciprocity. In a reciprocal economy, goods and other services are not exchanged for other goods, but they are given by individuals to individuals based on mutual kinship relationships and obligations. (A family economy is typical of a reciprocal economy—parents and children give each other material goods and services not in trade but because they are part of a family).


From the nineteenth century onwards, Celtic religion has enjoyed a fascination among modern Europeans and European-derived cultures. In particular, the last few decades have seen a phenomenal growth not only interest in Celtic religion, but in religious practices in part derived from Celtic sources. For all this interest, however, we know next to nothing about Celtic religion and practices. The only sources for Celtic religious practices were written by Romans and Greeks, who considered the Celts little more than animals, and by later Celtic writers in Ireland and Wales who were writing from a Christian perspective. Simply put, although the Celts had a rich and pervasive religious culture, it has been permanently lost to human memory.

We can make some general comments about Celtic religion based on the often-hostile accounts of classical writers. The Celts were polytheistic; these gods were ultimately derived from more primitive, Indo-European sources that gave rise to the polytheistic religions of Greece, Persia, and India. The Romans in trying to explain these gods, however, linked them with Roman gods as did the Romanized Gauls—so we really have no idea as to the Celtic character of these gods and their functions. We do know that Celtic gods tended to come in threes; the Celtic logic of divinity almost always centered on triads. This triadic logic no doubt had tremendous significance in the translation of Christianity into northern European cultural models.

It is almost certain that the material world of the Celts was suffused with divinity that was both advantageous and harmful. Certain areas were considered more charged with divinity than others, especially pools, lakes and small groves, which were the sites of the cental ritual activities of Celtic life. The Celts were non-urbanized and according to Roman sources, Celtic ritual involved no temples or building structures—Celtic ritual life, then, was centered mainly on the natural environment.

Celtic ritual life centered on a special class, called the druides or "druids" by the Romans, presumably from a Gaulish word. Although much has been written about druids and Celtic ritual practice, we know next to nothing about either. Here's what we can gather. As a special group, the druids performed many of the functions that we would consider "priestly" functions, including ritual and sacrifice, but they also included functions that we would place under "education" and "law." These rituals and practices were probably kept secret—a tradition common among early Indo-European peoples—which helps to explain why the classical world knows nothing about them. The only thing that the classical sources attest is that the druids performed "barbaric" or "horrid" rituals at lakes and groves; there was a fair amount of consensus among the Greeks and Romans that these rituals involved human sacrifice. This may or may not be true; there is some evidence of human sacrifice among the Celts, but it does not seem to have been a prevalent practice.

According to Julius Caesar, who gives the longest account of druids, the center of Celtic belief was the passing of souls from one body to another. From an archaeological perspective, it is clear that the Celts believed in an after-life, for material goods are buried with the dead.

The Gauls

The earliest Celts who were major players in the classical world were the Gauls, who controlled an area extending from France to Switzerland. It was the Gauls who sacked Rome and later invaded Greece; it was also the Gauls that migrated to Asia Minor to found their own, independent culture there, that of the Galatians. Through invasion and migration, they spread into Spain and later crossed the Alps into Italy and permanently settled the area south of the Alps which the Romans then named, Cisalpine Gaul.

The Gauls were a tribal and agricultural society. They were ruled by kings, but individual kings reigned only over small areas. Occasionally a single powerful king could gain the allegiance of several kings as a kind of "over-king," but on the whole the Gauls throughout Europe were largely an ethnic continuity rather than a single nation.

Ethnic identity among the early Gauls was very fluid. Ethnic identity was first and foremost based on small kinship groups, or clans—this fundamental ethnic identity often got collapsed into a larger identity, that of tribes. The main political structures, that of kingship, organized themselves around this tribal ethnic identity. For the most part, the Gauls did not seem to have a larger ethnic identity that united the Gaulish world into a single cultural group—the "Gauls" as an ethnic group was largely invented by the Romans and the Greeks and applied to all the diverse tribes spread across the face of northern Europe. The Gauls did have a sense of territorial ethnicity; the Romans and Greeks tell us that there were sixteen separate territorial nations of Gauls. These territorial groups were divided into a series of pagi, which were military units composed of men who had voluntarily united as fellow soldiers.

The Gauls, however, were not the original Europeans. Beginning in an area around Switzerland, the Celts spread westward and eastward displacing native Europeans in the process. These migrations begin around 500 BC. The Gaulish invasion of Italy in 400 was part of this larger emigration. The Romans, however, pushed them back by the third century BC; native Europeans in the north, however, were not so lucky.

Two Celtic tribes, the Cimbri and the Teutones ("Teuton," an ethnic for Germans, is derived from the Celtic root for "people"), emigrated east and settled in territory in Germany. The center of Celtic expansion, however, was Gaul, which lay north of the Alps in the region now within the borders of France and Belgium and part of Spain.

The earliest account of the Gauls comes from Julius Caesar. In his history of his military expedition first into Gaul and then as far north as Britain, Caesar dexcribed the tribal and regional divisions among the Gauls, of which some seem to have been original European populations and not Celtic at all.

The Gaulish tribes or territories frequently built fortifications that served as the military and political center of the region. These fortified centers took their names from the larger tribe—for instance, Paris took its name from the tribe of Parisi and Chartres was originally named after the tribe, the Carnuti, which had built it.

Gaulish society, like all of Celtic society, was rigidly divided into a class system. Similar class systems predominated among the Indians as well with largely the same categories. According to Julius Caesar, the three classes of Gaulish society were the druides, equites, and plebs , all Roman words. The druids were the educated among the Gauls and occupied the highest social position, just as the Brahmin class occupied the highest social position among the Indians. The druids were responsible for cultural and religious knowledge as well as the performance of rituals, just as the Brahmins in India. However obscure these religious functions might be, the druids were regarded as powerful over both society and the world around them. The most powerful tool the druids had was the power of excommunication—when a druid excommunicated a member of a tribe, it was tantamount to kicking that person out of the society.


The British did not appear in history until Julius Caesar crosses the English Channel from northern Gaul and began his failed conquest of Britain. The Romans returned in 43 AD and began a systematic conquest of the island until they reached the Pictish tribes in the Scottish highlands. Rome would abandon northern England, however, in 117 AD

The Romans found a disunified group of tribal kingdoms organized around the same logic of warfare as the Gauls. Most of the tribes were new arrivals—the bulk of southern Britain had been conquered by the Belgae from northern Gaul. In the process of emigrating to the island, the Celts pushed the native populations north—these refugee tribal groups would become the cultural ancestors of the Picts, a mysterious culture that dominated Scotland until the Irish invasions.

Many of the tribes, particularly those in Wales, however, were restive. The Romans were beset by rebellions by some Celtic tribes and depredations by the northen Picts—throughout the fourth century, as the Roman empire was strained in every quarter, the Romans slowly lost control of Britain. The official break came in 446 when the Romans in response to a British plea for help against the Picts and the Scots, declared Britain independent.

As in Gaul, the Romans brought Roman urban and military culture; however, other than southern England, Roman institutions and culture were not enormously influential on the British Celts. The Celts in the north and in Wales fiercely resisted Roman culture, and the Romans never even set foot in Ireland. On the whole, the Romans more greatly respected and tolerated Celtic institutions and religions in Britain, so there was considerably less assimilation than in Gaul.

Because of this, when the Romans left Britain, there was a renaissance of Celtic culture. The British, however, had learned a very important concept from the Romans: political unity. The most famous of the Celtic princes was Vortigern, who ruled over eastern Britain. In order to fight against the Pictish invasions, he sent across the channel to get help from the Saxons, a Germanic tribe that had begun emigrating into western Europe in the fifth century. The Saxon mercenaries, however, grew in number as more and more Saxons came to Britain. Whether or not the story of Vortigern is true, Britain fell prey to the same Germanic emigrations and invasions that spread across Gaul, Spain, and Italy. The Saxon emigration began in eastern England until they spread entirely across lowland England. The mountainous areas to the west (Wales) and the north (Scotland), however, remained Celtic, as did Ireland. By the end of the fifth century AD, only Wales, Scotland, and Ireland remained of the great Celtic tribal kingdoms that had dominated the face of Europe.


It was in Ireland that Celtic culture and institutions lasted the longest—although Christianity was introduced at an early date, Ireland did not suffer any major invasions or cultural changes until the invasions of the Norwegians and the Danish in the eighth century. The Irish also represent the last great migration of Celtic peoples. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Irish crossed over into Scotland and systematically invaded that territory until they politically dominated the Picts who lived there. The settling of Scotland in the fifth century was the very last wave of Celtic migration.

For Celtic culture, Ireland is much like Iceland was to the Norse. It was sufficiently removed from mainstream Europe to protect it from invasions and to isolate it from many of the cultural changes which wracked the face of early Europe. It allowed a singular perpetuation of pagan Celtic culture to fuse with Christian and the emerging European culture. This unique synthesis would provide the single most productive line of cultural transmission between Celtic culture and the European culture which grew out of classical and German sources.

Written history in Ireland began in the fifth century when Patrick came to Ireland and introduced literacy. Patrick came to the Celtic tribal kingdom of Tara, which was ruled by Leary, the son of Niall Noígallich. The sons of Niall ruled over two kingdoms in northern Ireland; these rulers formed a dynasty that would be called the Uí Néill; the south of Ireland was largely under the control of Munster. Patrick himself confined all of his activities to northern Ireland and the Uí Néill, particularly around the area of Armagh. Because he introduced the Irish to Christianity, European culture, and writing, he became the patron saint of Ireland.

In the 700's, Ireland became subject to Scandinavian raids and emigrations, just as most of the rest of Europe. The first to arrive were the Norwegians who attacked various islands and some of the headlands; in the 800's, however, the Norwegians began to attack the western coast of Ireland. In the mid-800's and all through the 900's, the Norse actively began to build fortified towns along the eastern coast of Ireland. In 841, they built the fortified town of Dublin (which the Irish called Ath Cliath, or, "the hurdle ford"), and would later establish fortifications at Cork, Waterford, and Wicklow, some of the central towns of later Irish history. Of these towns, however, Dublin was the center of all the Norse activity and served as their central base for raids all around Ireland and the Irish Sea.

The Irish at this time did not concentrate their population along the coast but lived inland—the Irish also did not live in large and fortified towns. The introduction of both fortifications and something resembling urban life was originally introduced by the Norse.

Eventually, however, the Norse would come in conflict with the Danish and the area around Dublin became part of the Danish kingdom that had been established in northern England. The Irish, however, lived in individual tribal groups that were not united—it wasn't until 1014 that Munster Irish under the leadership of Brian Bóruma defeated the Danish at Clontarf and finally expelled the Norse for good.

The Norwegians and the Danish, however, had largely stripped Irish culture of its greatest cultural artifacts. The only histories that were written of the Norse in Ireland were written by the Irish—these historians were far from sympathetic to the invaders! Ireland, however, gained a fundamental shift in its cultural and economic practices. The Irish inherited from the Danes and Norwegians fortified coastal towns and a new economy based on trade and commerce with other Europeans. They also gave to the Irish more sophisticated skills in ship-building and travel.

The most important legacy that the Irish bequeathed to Europe was Irish Christianity. When Patrick came to Ireland in the fifth century, Christianity had spread across the face of Celtic culture but hadn't really penetrated the various Celtic cultures. It was spread very thin and practiced by a perishingly small minority in Gaul and Britain. It was also assuming a new, distinct character among the Celts, who combined Christianity not only with native Celtic institutions and religions, but with a plethora of eastern mystery religions. (Much of what we call modern "paganism" which points to Celtic sources actually originates in eastern, mystery religions that had been imported into Celtic culture.) It was this Celticized version of Christianity that Patrick brought with him to Ireland.

The Saxon invasions, however, wiped out Christianity in England, but not in Wales or Ireland or Scotland, where the religion had been introduced by Columba, an Irish saint. It wasn't until the late sixth century that Christianity was reintroduced into Britain; this brand of Christianity, more aligned with the practices of the Roman church, came into conflict with Celtic Christianity and its unique practices. By the tenth century, the unique Celtic Christianity of Britain had largely been subordinated to Saxon Christianity.

It was in Ireland that Celtic Christianity thrived during the Germanic invasions and then the later subordination of Celtic Christian practices to Saxon practices.

The Christianity that Patrick brought to Ireland was episcopal or diocesan Christianity—the standard form of Christianity in Roman occupied territories. Episcopal Christianity is oriented around the organization of Christians as lay people under the spiritual and partiall secular control of a bishop ("episcopus" in Latin). Episcopal Christianity, however, was wholly unsuited to Ireland, for it relies on a certain level of urbanization. For the largely rural, disorganized, and tribal nature of early Irish society, the episcopal structure had nothing to work with. So Irish Christianity soon developed into monastic Christianity, which is oriented around the centralization of a small Christian community under the leadership of an abbot. This would become the uniquely Irish form of Christianity that in spirit and in practice was much different from the predominantly episcopal character of Roman Christianity.

The monastic centers became the areas where Irish Christian culture thrived—they also introduced some political stability and agriculture into Irish society. While they were nominally under the authority of Rome, because they were so removed they operated with relative independence. This would eventually bring them in severe conflict with the Roman church. Before that, however, Irish missionaries would spread Celtic culture and Christianity all over the face of Europe. Even though the Irish Christians eventually submitted to Roman pressures, Irish Christianity had diffused across the face of Europe.

This is because the most innovative and distinct feature of Irish Christianity was wandering, called perigrinatio in Latin. While many Christians became monks in monasteries, some became anchorites, that is, solitary monks. The Irish anchorites, however, saw their mission not as living in isolation, but as wandering around by themselves. These were not specifically missionary wanderings, but they had that effect. In the sixth century, one of Ireland's greatest saints, Columicille (or "Columba" in Latin), successfully introduced Christianity to Scotland.

As the middle ages progressed, however, the uniquely Celtic character of the Irish church, with its profoundly brilliant fusion of Celtic art with Christian art, its fusion of Celtic social organization and laws with monastic life, and its unique perigrinative character disappeared into the homogenizing trend of the higher middle ages.

Richard Hooker