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The Celts dominated Western Europe for well over a thousand years. But it is only recently that the importance of a Celtic influence on the cultural, linguistic and artistic development of Europe has been recognized. The Celts were not just one race or ethnic group. They were a group of tribes that had similar languages, cultures and religions. But, the Celtic influence has almost completely disappeared today except in places such as Wales, Brittany, Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.
The Celts transmitted their culture orally, and seldom put their history or facts into a written form. This accounts for the extreme lack of knowledge about them prior to their contact with the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. They were generally well educated, particularly on topics such as religion, philosophy, geography and astronomy. The Romans often employed Celtic tutors for their sons.
The bravery of the Celts in battle is legendary. They often spurned body armour, going naked into battle. Celtic society was typically more equal in terms of gender roles. Women were on more or less equal footing as men, being accomplished warriors, merchants and rulers.
The first human settlers in Europe were paleolithic hunter/gatherer tribes. At the end of the last ice age (some 10000 years ago) they began adopting an agrarian lifestyle. This occured over 2500 years during the mesolithic era. These agricultural societies began making clay pots around the year 5000 BC, the beginning of the neolithic period. The neolithic lasts until about 2500 BC. During this time we have no knowledge of the race or language of these early Europeans. It is not known if they spoke an indoeuropean language or still the pre-indoeuropean tongues. Little is known of the bronze age (2500 - 800 BC) either, the race character of the people is unknown, but since the first Greek migration occured in 1800 BC at least some of the people now spoke an indoeuropean language. It is not known if this was motivated by indoeuropean migrations out of Russia, or if Europe as a whole under went cultural evolution at the same time to become indoeuropean. Whatever the make up of the bronze age population, they formed the basis of the early iron age cultures. The first of these was the Hallstatt Culture.
The Hallstatt Culture
This was the first of the iron age cultures. The western regions of this culture, between France and west Germany, already spoke a Celtic language. Around the year 600 BC the Greek geographer Herodotus writes of the Celts dwelling beyond "the pillars of Hercules" (ie Spain) and the Upper Danube. The name "Celt" probably came from the dominant tribe of the Halstatt, and became a unifying concept for the whole culture. "Celt" is what the people called themselves, they referred to themselves when talking to the Greeks as the "Keltoi".
The La Tene Culture
The classic Celtic culture, the La Tene is named after Lake Neuchatel, Switzerland where a large amount of weaponry from this culture was found last century. This culture began around 450 BC
The Celtic Homelands
The original Celtic homeland is largely unknown but they migrated from an area of Austria, near southern Germany. From here they expanded over much of continental Europe and Britain.
At their peak, the Celts ranged from Ireland and Spain to Turkey. A brief rundown on some of the regions is given now:
The Welsh or Cymry (people) fought the Romans, Normans, Saxons, and Later the English peoples for the right to self govern. Up until 1282 AD they were well on their way to becoming an independent Celtic state. In that year Prince Llewellyn was killed and his title was usurped by King Edward II and given to his new born son. Today Wales is again working toward self rule. The Welsh language which almost disappeared during the early part of the 1900s, has made a spectacular comeback and is once again a force in Welsh culture.
England, Scotland and Ireland
The name Britain derives from Celtic. The Greek author Pytheas called them the "Pretanic Isles" which derived from the inhabitants name for themselves, Pritani. This was mistranslated into Latin as "Brittania" or "Brittani". The Celts migrated to Ireland from Europe, conquering the original inhabitants. In clashes with the Romans around the River Clyde a tribe called the "Scotti" came to prominence. Later the Scotti moved from Northern Island to establish the Kingdom of Dalriada in Argyll, on the West coast of Scotland. From here the Scots expanded and supplanted the Picts, an Celtic people who arrived in Scotland earlier. Ireland was never invaded by the Romans and retains what is probably the language closest to the original Celtic, Irish Gaelic.
Modern France is a composite of many earlier peoples. The Celts settled there and the largest tribe, called the "Galli" by the Romans, gave their name to the region and people, the Gauls. The Gauls were heavily involved in the invasions of Northern Italy. When the Roman Empire expanded many of the Gaullish tribes fled, but some stayed and became Romanised, losing the Celtic language. Later a Germanic tribe, the Franks, invaded the area and settled. The Franks gave their name to the region but adopted the language and customs of the people. Thus France is a Celtic people, speaking a Romance language in a country with a Germanic name.
Belgium is similar in situation to France. The dominant tribe, the Belgae, gave their name to the region. They were later conquered by the Romans.
The Galatians of the New Testament of the Bible were a Celtic tribe that migrated through the Balkans. They pillaged as they moved and attacked, but were defeated by the Greeks and eventually moved into Turkey, founding Galatia. They were destroyed and assimilated by the Turks early in the first millenium AD.
The Golden Age of the Celts
The Celts were at their height during the 4th and 5th centuries BC. During this time they waged three great wars, which had great influence on the history of southern Europe.
About 500 BC the Celts conquered Spain, wresting it from Carthage.
Around 400 BC they took Northern Italy from the Etruscans. Here they settled in great numbers.
At the end of the 4th century the overran Pannonia, conquering the Illyrians.
All these wars were fought in alliance with the Greeks. At this time the Celts and Greeks were on very friendly terms. The defeat of Carthage broke the monopoly on British tin and Spanish silver and freed the overland trade routes to Britain. At this time the Greeks and Celts were allied against the Phoenicians and Persians. Celtic hostility to Carthage helped save Greece from destruction from the East, no Celts enlisted in Carthage's mercenary army. Alexander the Great made alliance with the Celts in 334 BC, when he was about to embark on his conquest of Asia. The Celts kept the Greek dominions safe from attack during his absence.
The Celts and Rome
Around the year 400 BC the Celts were ruled by a king named Livy Ambicatus. At this time, the height of their power, they were unified as a military confederacy of tribes. They were attracted by the rich land of Northern Italy and invaded, battling and defeating the Etruscans. At this time the Romans were pushing at the Etruscans from the South, and the Celts and Romans acted in alliance. But the Romans despised the Northern barbarians, and at the seige of Clusium (391 BC) (which the Romans regarded as a bulwark of Rome against the barbaric North) the Romans betrayed the Celts. The Celts recognised former Roman envoys fighting with the enemy. The Celts applied to Rome for the family of Fabius Ambustus (whose sons were the envoys), the chief pontiff of Rome, in reparation. Rome refused and elected the Fabii as miltary tribunes the next year. Abandoning the seige of Clusium, the Celts marched on Rome. They passed cities and fortresses without stopping, there was no plundering. Their cry to guards on provinicial town walls was "We are bound for Rome". They reached Rome and defeated the mustered city forces in a single charge. Three days later they were in Rome, and stayed for a year. They extracted a great fine from Rome in reparation for the treachery at Clusium and left with a peace treaty. For nearly a century there was peace between Rome and the Celts. It was broken only when various Celtic tribes allied with the Etruscans in the third Samnite war, this was near the time of the breakup of the old Celtic Empire.
The Celts and the Germans
The Greek traveller Pytheas mentions the Germans about 300 BC, but they do not enter history until the Teutons descend on Italy to be defeated by Marius at the end of the second century. The ancient Greeks before Pytheas assigned all lands now known as Germanic to the Celts. It is probable that at this time the Germans were a subject people of the Celts and had no separate political existence. The German language borrowed many words from Celtic. But two things the Germans would not take from the Celts were language and religion. This race-pride gave rise to the German uprising and fall of the Celtic Empire hundreds of years later. The German and Celtic deities have different names, and the burial rites were markedly different. The Germans burned their illustrious dead on pyres, the Celts (who buried their dead) regarded such as a humiliation to be used on criminals or slaves.
Religion was a pre-eminent force in the Celtic culture. There's was a religion codified in dogma and administered by a priestly caste, the Druids. Druids were a major power within the Celtic empire, with all public and private affairs subject to their authority. The Celts were extremely superstitious, and regarded it as the worst punishment to be excommunicated. Caesar wrote an account of the Druids:
"They who are thus interdicted are reckoned in the number of the vile and wicked; all persons avoid and fly their company and discourse, lest they should receive any infection by contagion; they are not permitted to commence a suit; neither is any post entrusted to them... The Druids are generally freed from military service, nor do they pay taxes with the rest... Encouraged by such rewards, many of their own accord come to their schools, and are sent by their friends and relations. They are said to get by heart a great number of verses; some continue twenty years in their education; neither is it held lawful to commit these things [Druidic doctrines] to writing, though in almost all public transactions and private accounts they use the Greek characters."
The immense power of the Druids was the weakness of the Celtic polity. No nation that is ruled by priests drawing their authority from supernatural sanctions is capable of true progress. The Celts fanatic adherence to their religion inevitably helped bring down their empire.
It is likely that Druids were originally the priests of the megalithic pre-Celtic peoples of Western Europe. During the Celtic expansion the Druids were adopted by the highly religious Celts and the numerous Celtic deities and beliefs were adopted by the Druids.
The Fall of the Celtic Empire
By the year 300 BC the Celts had lost their political cohesion and the Empire began breaking apart. Tribes began wandering in search of new lands. Some went to Greece, where they outraged their former allies at the sack of Delphi (273 BC). Others renewed the war with Rome, in alliance with the Etruscans, and were defeated at Sentinum (295 BC) and Lake Vadimo (283 BC). One group went into Asia Minor, and founded Galatia where a Celtic dialect was still spoken until 400 BC. These were eventually assimilated into Turkey. Others enlisted as mercenaries with Carthage. Wars between Celts and Germans or Celts who had settled earlier were fought all over Mid-Europe, Gaul and Britain. By the end of this the only Celtic strongholds were Britain and Gaul. The beginning of the Christian era saw Britain under Roman rule.
Most people of European descent today can count on some Celtic ancestry. A typical impression of a Celt today is the short, dark haired Irishman. But by all ancient accounts the Celts were tall and fair of skin and hair. "True" Celts today do not really exist, the closest examples are the Highlanders of Perthshire and Northwest Scotland the families of the old ruling race in Ireland and Wales. Over the centuries the racial characteristics of the pre-Celt inhabitants of Europe has surfaced, the Celts typically settled in areas as a ruling class and held themselves apart from those there before them. The Celts, forming a strong warrior class, typically were at the forefront of battles and perished more numerously than the "subject" people. They never set themselves up to leave a lasting legacy in the racial traits of modern people. The main contribution of the Celts has been largely a cultural one, influencing the development of most of Europe and leaving the Celtic heritage of Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Celtic art developed separately from other "classical" cultures, such as Rome and Greece. The importation of objects from the Mediterranean gave the Celts contact with their art but the Celtic style was unaffected. Constant contact with eastern and northern neighbours of similar societal structure induced and "Orientalising" of Celtic art, eg the use of the Scythian/Thraco-Cimmerian animal style. Elements of Etruscan art were also abosrbed, but where ever the Celts took styles from they immediately altered them in such a way as to make them purely Celtic. There was no period in which the foreign style was used and developed, the style was Celticised immediately. The pottery of the Celts is never decorated withe figurative scenes (as in Greece for example) but always with textural designs and multi-colours. Their metalwork is highly sculptural, rejecting the Greek methods of integrating of form and surface. The Celts never looked to the classical societies as the centre of art work, considering their own developed style and tradition to be equal.
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Click here to link to our celtic artwork page.
Here is a Celtic reading list which contains some of the most important books on the Celts and Celtic topics. These are the best introductory texts available. Many of these books can be found in different editions. The copyright dates shown here are for specific editions that I own or have read.
The Celts emerged as a distinct group about 2-4000 years ago. Unfortunately, because they did not have a written language as we do, most of the knowledge about their culture comes from archeological finds and speculation derived from folklore, legends and dubious history.
An excellent book, which shows the reader how to recapture The Celtic Path, written in a scholarly fashion, yet easy to read. It carries the recommendation from Daithi O'hOgain at University College Dublin. Highly Recommended.
A Collection of tales, proverbs, and studies in the Irish tradition. This is a good addition to any Irish library or anyone interested in the Irish tradition. Highly Recommended.
This book explains the ancient traditions in Ireland, and how those traditions have survived until today. And excellent companion book, if you can get it, is A Year in Ireland by the same author. Unfortunately these books are hard to get outside of the UK, but they are worth a shot! Highly Recommended.
One of the best books on Celtic History. Markale's writing style make reading about history anything but dull. The book was well-researched and documented as well. Anyone interested in Celtic history, mythology, feminism, and gender issues will find this a worthwhile addition to their library. Also, check out: The Celts : Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture Highly recommended.
Learn the basics of Ogham. But beware the author's more personal opinions. Do not take them as strict fact. Another more academic book which is recommended is Ogham: An Irish Alphabet . Both of these books are recommended reading, but not as a main source of study.
Because of the author's research into Celtic history, this book offer a unique look into "what might have been". And don't forget to look at Morgan Llewelyn's other books (click here) as well! Highly recommended.
This book is a thourough and impressive work on the Druids as they appear in history. It is easy to read and understand to the beginner or advanced student of Celtic History. The author clearly unravels the truth behind the druids using an exhaustive list of historical sources and her own informed opinion. This book is a must-have for any Celtic library. Also, Green's other works, Symbol and Image in Celtic Art, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, and Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. Highly recommended.
This book is a mystical exploration of Shamanism and Celtic tradition that explores myths, tales, shamanic techniques, and cross-cultural connections. This book is worthwhile, and has good historical references. Excellent book on Celtic Shamanism. Highly Recommended.
Music lovers and those not musically inclined will both love this book, as it displays not only the music but also the words to many popular pagan songs. There are also new and old pieces included. Highly recommended.
Everyone seriously interested in Celtic Paganism should read this
book. It gives information and guidance on rituals, altars, and the journey through
the sacred OtherWorlds (a key element to Celtic mysticism). This book is well
researchedand will guide you in an exploration of your spirituality. Excellent Book.
This is a book which explains the basis for Brehon Law, the
ancient law system of the Gaels.
The author is careful to separate his ideas from what is already known. Great deal of history on the Glasonbury/Avalon area. Recommended for those interested in the ancient Druid and Arthurian mythology that revolves around this historical area.
The Celts: The People Who
Came Out of the Darkness by Gerhard Herm; 1976
The Celts (Peoples of the Past series) by Robin Place; 1977
The Celts certainly have some colorful mythology. As they encountered, conquered, and were subjugated by other cultures, they found parallels between their stories and the stories of other peoples. Rather than accepting one mythology and discarding the other, the Celts had a habit of intertwining the two to produce a hybrid mythology that survives today in the folk tales and songs of the British Isles.
Celtic Heritage by A & B Rees,1961, Thames & Hudson
Highly Recommended Celtic Ireland by Eoin MacNeill, 1921, Dublin A Celtic Miscellany, 1971, Penguin
An anthology of Celtic poetry & prose Celtic Mysteries by John Sharkey, Thames & Hudson The Celtic Realms by Miles Dillon & Nora Chadwick, 1967, London
Any of their works recommended. Celtic Wonder Tales by Ella Young, Floris Books, Edinburgh Every Day Life of the Pagan Celts by Anne Ross The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W. Y. Evans Wentz, 1977, Reprint Colin Smythe.
Good study of religion, the sidhe etc. at turn of 20th Century Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory, 1979, Colin Smythe Gods of the Celts by Miranda Green, 1986, Alan Sutton Publishing
Archaeology based. Very good, comprehensive study. The History of the Celtic Language by L. MacLean, 1840, London History of the Celtic People by Henri Hubert, 1 vol edition, 1992, Bracken Books
Includes archaeology, language, migration, tribes, etc. The History of the Celtic Place Names of Scotland by W.J. Watson, 1986, Reprinted Birlinn 1993 Definitive work Legends of the Celts by Frank Delaney, 1989, Grafton Books Ogham Inscriptions in Ireland, Wales & Scotland by Sir Samuel Ferguson, 1887, Edinburgh The Picts by Isabel Henderson, 1976, Thames & Hudson The Problem of the Picts ed. by F.T. Wainwright, 1980, Melven Press
Series of articles on language, dwellings, art etc. Recommended. The Religion of the Ancient Celts by J.A. MacCulloch, 1911, Reprinted by Constable, 1991 Silva Gadelica by S. O' Grady, 2 vols. (Irish), 1892
Highly Recommended but hard to find The Silver Bough by Marion McNeill, 4 vols., 1977, William Maclellan
Folklore & belief, local & national festivals of Scotland. Studies in the History of Dalriada by John Bannerman, 1974, Scottish Academic Press. The definitive work on the Dalriada kingdom Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland by Wood-Martin, 1902, 2 vols., Longmans, Green & Co. Excellent Folklore. Hard to find. The Bardic Source Book : Inspirational Legacy and Teachings of the Ancient Celts by John Matthews (Editor) A Celtic Reader : Selections from Celtic Legend, Scholarship and Storyby John Matthews (Editor), Pamela L. Travers (Designer) The Celtic Shaman : A Handbook (Earth Quest) by John Matthews The Celtic Shaman's Pack : Exploring the Inner Worlds/Book and Cardsby John Matthews, Chesca Potter (Illustrator) The Druid Source Book by John Matthews (Editor) The Elements of the Grail Tradition ('Elements of ... ' Series) by John Matthews Landscapes of Legend : The Secret Heart of Britain by John Matthews, Michael J. Stead (Photographer) The Celtic Spirit : Daily Meditations for the Turning Year by Caitlin Matthews The Celtic Book of Days : A Daily Guide to Celtic Spirituality and Wisdom by Caitlin Matthews Celtic Book of the Dead: A Guide for Your Voyage to the Celtic Otherworld (Cards-Spreadcloth) by Caitlin Mathews, Caitlin Matthews The Celtic Tradition ('Elements of ... ' Series)by Caitlin Matthews The Elements of the Goddess (The 'Elements Of...' Series)by Caitlin Matthews Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids by R. J. Stewart, Robin Williamson (Contributor), Chris Down (Illustrator) Celtic Gods Celtic Goddesses by Miranda Gray, Courtney Davis, R. J. Stewart Anam Cara : A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O'Donohue Celtic Sacred Landscapes by Nigel Campbell Pennick The Celts : Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture by Jean Markale Women of the Celts by Jean Markale Fire in the Head : Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit by Tom Cowan The Celtic Tarot/Book and Deck by Helena Paterson, Courtney Davis, Helen Paterson (Contributor) Women in Celtic Mythby Moyra Caldecott
ART AND KNOTWORK
Throughout their history, the Celts produced many fine works of art. The hallmark of their work is that every sculpture, tool, vessel, weapon, or other implement is decorated with intricate and abstract patterns.
There are a multitude of sites related to Celtic art, language, music, and traditions with many more coming online all the time. Some sites maintain excellent links to the best Celtic web pages.
The Bog Page
Austrian Society for Celtic Studies
British and Celtic
The Celt and
Celt: Corpus of
The Celts in Europe
Resources from Celtic-L@Dannan.hea.ie
Clannada na Gadelica
Early British Kingdoms Website
Encyclopaedia of the Celts
Every Celtic Thing on
of Vercingetorix - A Celtic Refuge
The Woad Page
The Ceolas Music Archive is a starting point for those who are interested in Celtic music.
Peter Suber's page that discusses knots in mathematical, artistic, and rope-tying terms. Nice links.
Merle's step-by-step instructions for drawing knots. It's simplified for easier computer implementation.
A virtual tour of Stonehenge is available online.
A more informative look at Stonehenge is also out there.
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