Do You Know Your Celtic History?

Welcome to Tursan Tuesdays, where I take you on a journey through the Celtic world.

Today, we’re going to take a look back at the history of the Celts. This may be a refresher for some, or something new for others.

Ok, really, I’m sick. I’m surrounded by germ infested children, and my house has turned into a contagion zone – they’re going to have to put up the white tents soon…

That said, we’re taking a bit of a break on our Gods & Goddesses comparisons, but fear not! A brand-spanking new post will be up next Tuesday…even if it kills me 🙂

And now, here you are, a brief history of the Celts…

Who Were The Celts?

A better question would be “Who IS a Celt?” because the Celts are alive and well today my friends, just as they were thousands of years ago.

Some say a Celt is a mystic or witch who dances around stone circles in the moonlight. Some say a Celt is a nature loving person who is kind to animals and people. Some say a Celt is someone who lives in either Scotland or Ireland. Still others say that a Celt is one who speaks the Celtic language, produces Celtic art, or proclaims himself or herself a Celt.

My opinion? Sure, any of those could be correct, but there is much, much more to a Celt than that. Celts are not an ethnic group, and there are many varied religious beliefs associated with them.

The fact is, Celts embrace a certain way of life, a certain way of being.

I believe, however, in order to understand the modern Celt, you must first know their history. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this brief.

First, let’s talk about the “text book” stuff.

The ancient Celts were the first European people north of the Alps to emerge into recorded history. They distinguished themselves from their fellow Europeans by virtue of the languages which they spoke, now known as the Celtic languages (i.e. p-Celtic, q-Celtic, Gaelic, etc.).

Now, the exact geographic location from whence the Celts came is unknown, but you better believe everyone has a theory.

There are historians who say they branched off from other tribes in the lands between the Baltic and Black Seas. Some scholars argue that they originated in the areas now known as Switzerland and South-West Germany.

Regardless of exactly where they began, it is well-known the Celts migrated north, expanding their settlements in various lands throughout Europe. Due to the rise of the Roman Empire, and then the expansions of both the Slavs and the Germanic Peoples, the Celts eventually settled in the lands of Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. These six are now known as the Celtic Nations.

However, I would like to point out that there are Celts living in almost every country on the planet, from Argentina to Australia, and from Russia to Canada and the U.S.

Now, let’s chat about the fun stuff.

The Celts were and are a very resilient people, known for their fiery passion, strength, courage, imagination, creativity and easy eloquence.

The mystic and otherworldly aspects of the Celts are certainly real, but only a part of who they are as a people. Not every Celt is a witch, and not every witch is a Celt!

*Fun Fact: Many of the traditional Christian beliefs have roots in ancient Celtic culture.

The Celtic people believe in the power of Nature; they see the land as the embodiment of the Great Mother – nurturing, loving, and elemental. They lived then, and now, in tune with the rhythms of nature and their yearly cycle of festivals reflect this. They are a harmonious and peace-loving people, unless threatened…then, watch out! Their passion, courage, and unwavering devotion to their cause are the hallmarks of a Celt.

So talk to me. Do the characteristics of the Celtic People ring true in you? Do you notice any similarities between yourself and the Celts? I am passionate about these people and love learning about them! What knowledge do you have about the history of the Celts?


20 thoughts on “Do You Know Your Celtic History?

  1. Thanks for this great run-down of traits. While we have but a tiny bit of Irish blood in us, my son loves the Celtic traditions and is drawn to them. He enjoys reading your posts if he’s around when I’m blog hopping.

    Keep up the fun facts!

  2. Very interesting! I didn’t originally know what a Celt was like. I just thought of Celtic as a mystical way of life. I can relate to being in tune with nature and animals, and having a generally peaceful ambiance. Thanks for this info and presenting it in an enjoyable-to-read way. 🙂

  3. Okay, I’ll do the ‘bah humbug’ bit and come out and say – there is no such thing as a historical Celt, certainly not in an ancient world context. You might get away with the Alps locale, by virtue of their being a single, identifiable tribe in the region that bore a name similar to the word Celt, but otherwise, it is a fallacious term of definition. Certainly there is no such thing as a Celt in a British or an Irish Iron Age context. The modern Celt is a very different entity, self defined by people who call themselves Celts, nothing wrong with that, it is a definable identity embraced by many. Today, the Celt is a real unifying identity, and is therefore real, in an ancient context, it is an arbitrary definer that has no real application, no one called themselves Celtic, no one identified themselves with faraway neighbours as both being Celtic, there simply was no ancient world Celt – like I say, someone had to be the bad guy and say it, and I await the backlash this observation always receives 😉

    1. You may be right in that the peoples that migrated north from the Danube probably did not literally call themselves “Celtic.” Is there any written, factual evidence either way? No. It IS a fact, however, that the word, Keltoi, relative to Celt, was first used in reference to some of these peoples as far back as the fifth century B.C.

      The names Galacia, Galatia, Gallia, Gaidheal, Gael, Gaeilge, and Keltoi are all related. They are all forms of a name which this ancient people had for themselves. The Greeks called them Keltoi after the Celts’ own word for themselves; the Greeks did not pull this name out of thin air.

      Furthermore, the term, “Celtic” is used to define a people who share similar languages, cultures, beliefs, and other identifying traits. The peoples who migrated north from the Baltic and Black Seas shared those similarities just as their descendants do today. Therefore, using the term, “Celt” to describe them is not wrong. It is a means by which to educate the people of today about the people of yesterday.

      Europe is full of Celtic place names; Patrick Sims-Williams (prof at U Aberystwydth in Wales) has published a book on them called Ancient Celtic Placenames in Europe and Anatolia (2006). Barry Cunliffe and John T Koch, both scholars, have edited and contributed to a book called Celtic from the West (2010) These academics seem to believe in Ancient Celts.

      I appreciate your comment, and the debate. Thanks for stopping by!

      1. The big problem with Cunliffe and company, is that they are all very happy to use the term ‘Celt’ in their coffee book table publications, but they would either never, or barely at best, make use of it in their academic publications. It is a critical double standard, use ‘Celts’ for the plebs the academics say, it’s easier and simpler for them, while in the privacy of white halled academia, the use of it is totally frowned upon – a frustration. For those cited above, Celts is something to believe in when selling books, and not much more (have a look at some of their journal offerings and see how many times Celt will appear).

        Then, the practical argument that is often used for Celts, is undermined by the European model. Take the modern EU, how practical would it be to introduce someone to all the shared nations that live under the EU flag, as one shared cultural landscape with an integrated identity? Simply, you wouldnt, the model does not work today for the word European, just like it is critically flawed to consider the areas defined as ‘Celtic’ in the same manner.

        In a classical context, Greeks and Romans were never overly concerned with the names of neighbours, generalisation were common, and great cultural variety in the classical world was often lumped together under an easy to use single name term. Put simply, Greeks and Romans were lazy with their cultural definitions, akin to describing all the nations of South and North America today simply as ‘Americans’.

        Then for shared names, well, ask the Baltic nations is they are all united. After all, they have similar place names, similar languages, similar visual appearances. Yet, infer that they are the same people, and you would have a riot on your hands.

        I recognise that ‘Celtic’ as a term is a practical starting place for many, but equally, for many, that is where it ends. A blank acceptance that all of these people in Europe were Celts, they all spoke the same language, therefore they shared the same culture, and were all in bed together as part of a pan European cultural crowd. Simply not the case. Even academics who use the term have long since moved away from any notion of a shared Celtic notion across European. Look at JD HIll for instance, keeper for Iron Age collection at the British Museum – who stated quite clearly about four years ago, that there were no Celts in Britain or Ireland. Educating is all well and good, but if that education stops at the point where the mass audience simple accepts that Celts were everywhere – then the education process has broken down, that is the inherent failing of the word, and use of the word ‘Celt’.

        Always enjoy discussing this one – look forward to your thoughts.

      2. Celtic from the West is most definitely an academic publication. And it is important to remember that languages, mythology, legends and folklore help form a rich picture of the past. Without knowledge of these things, you are overlooking a significant part of history. Your arguments are intelligent and well spoken, what are your qualifications on the subject of Celtic culture? Are you an historian? An archaeologist perhaps?

        I must disagree with your analogy using Modern Europe. Modern states have borders which are fixed and firm; governments that protect the official languages of their states and discourage others. You cannot compare it to the fluid state of populations over 2500 years ago. I wonder what your thoughts are on the linguistic implications of the Celtic place names I mentioned earlier (Keltoi and Celtae as well as Galatia, Galatae, Gaul, Gallia, Galiicia, Gaelic, Gàidhlig, Goidel. These names are all related). With regard to the Baltic nations, again, you cannot compare modern state with Iron Age Europe.

        I believe that your arguments have some merit, in the sense that people in general do not like to be lumped together, and do prefer to express their unique individuality; however I do not believe they can be applied here.

        There were, in fact, cultural differences which are now being studied. Linguistic differences resulted from the migration of a portion of this early people from the original group. It is normal for any migrating people who have settled in an unfamiliar land to absorb those local customs and weave them within their own culture. As the Celts settled in various parts of northern Europe, they absorbed local habits, manners, routines, and vocabulary. Pre-literate languages change rapidly without the conservative influence of writing and notions of “proper” languages. Throughout this, the Celts, however, retained their essence, that which made them Celtic.

        I would also argue that a conservator at a museum is not necessarily an expert in linguistics. If an expert such as Professor Patrick Sims-Williams were to say there were no such things as Celts in Britain, I would believe him, however he has not said this. Furthermore, I’d argue that archeological evidence, local folklore, and cultural beliefs have pointed toward the same.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth! I’ve had a few Nyquil induced restful nights, so I’m on the mend. Hopefully nothing else gets us; before this we were battling bronchitis!

      Woohoo! You rock, you Celtic woman you! 🙂

  4. Hi Kate, sadly time is against me today to offer a fully measured response to your last message, hopefully I’ll be able to do so in the coming days. But to briefly touch on the issue of linguistics, I think it is a little short-sighted to dismiss the ancient-contemporary comparison. Take a look a recent world history, the boundaries and defining lines of separation between arbitrary national boundaries today are and have been far from fixed. The whole notion of a boundary is almost redundant in many instances. Look how chopped and changed Poland is, Georgia, Finland, Serbia, but perhaps look more specifically, the Breton region of France, Cornwall in England, the Basque region of Spain. A linguistic connection is no guarantee of national-regional-cultural identity, not does it apply with automatic application in the reverse. An attempt to define the so called Celtic speaking peoples of Europe as a coherent identity, IS as flawed as attempting to so in the Balkans, central Europe, and the wider speaking English world.

    Taking the modern analogy further, you want archaeological evidence? How about mobile phones? We all use them, they are cultural, therefore are we of one culture? Of course not, fashion, taste, and practicality of material culture has no fixed boundary. Because someone carries ‘Celtic’ art, does not mean that they must be Celtic. Look at Roman pottery, in circulation in Britain pre conquest – does that mean they were all Roman to begin with, of course not, things are traded, exchanged, stolen, the presence of material culture does not confirm the presence of the origin culture.

    Go from Silures to Durotriges, to Averni to Helvetti, all so called Celtic tribes, all culturally distinct. We would not say they were all from the same body today, why on earth can we presume to do so in an ancient world context where movement of people and line of communication are so critically slower – the notion is absurd.

    (Hrm, looks like I do have some time after all)

    On experts, well, show me one expert who sides with one side of the debate (that of a strong nationalist who loves the idea of coherent Celtic culture, I’ve met Sims-Williams a few times, his politics play their part in his interpretations), I’ll give you Simon James on the other. But generally speaking, have a look at JD Hill’s work in a little more detail, to dismiss him as just a museum curator is a shortcoming when it comes to appreciating the wider body of work on Iron Age studies out there.

    Finally for now though, this whole discussion fails to acknowledge the one critical problem in the whole debate, that the whole definition of this piece of history and block of land, as Celtic, is based on an arbitrary set on conclusions derived a few centuries ago. Look into the works of Paul Yves Pezron and Edward Lhuyd, here you will find your Celtic origins. Starting the identification of the branches of a linked family of languages, these figures, upon identifying one of the tribal groups you cite above, took that as the name for the language, and applied it to all related languages. From that point on, if you were seen to speak a ‘celtic’ language, you therefore became Celtic. Again, go to the modern examples, if you are speaking English – you become English. Yes, it is not applicable in a modern context, but equally so it is critically flawed in an ancient one. This is what the pan Celtic identity is based upon. It is based upon the notion that if you speak a language that has similarities to a language defined as Celtic, then you are Celtic. It’s like saying modern day Welsh is derived from Latin to everyone in Wales is Italian, seriously, that is the whole rationale upon which this notion of shared Celtic identity is based upon. Subsequent studies continue to perpetuate this critical myth, largely for fear of upsetting those who hold the Celtic myth in such high regard (as occured in the mid 1990s).

    1. Hi Eyes…what is your name, by the way? Calling you “Eyes” is a bit weird for me… :p

      Keep in mind the belief Edward Llyd coined the word, “Celt” cir. 1700, is erroneous. It is quite clear the Greeks themselves called the Celts by that name hundreds of years earlier based on their interpretation of what the Celtic peoples called themselves, as I’ve stated previously. How can you, personally, account for the Celtic place names throughout Europe? What is your explanation for the relationship between the names this ancient people had for themselves? What is your explanation for why Celtic languages are spoken in Britain to this day, which are similar to the languages spoken on the continent by people the Romans and Greeks called “Celts.”

      Whatever his nationalist tendencies, Sims-Williams is an expert on language. Ancient peoples named places in their language to identify them, not because the name was cute or trendy. I offer Ancient Celtic Placenames in Europe and Asia Minor: Publications of the Philological Society, No. 39, for reference.

      You cannot compare cell phones, and artifacts created by a people thousands of years ago; apples and oranges. Your Roman pottery argument would have merit if we were arguing trade items, but we’re talking about languages.

      My pointing out J.D. Hill as a museum curator was not in dismissal, I was simply stating that his area of expertise is not languages.

      You stated you didn’t have time to delve into your arguments much today; however, it would seem your focus is centered more on modern times rather than the linguistics of 2000 years ago or more – which is central to this argument. The Indo-European language families are well-defined. You can see any introductory text on the topic. I offer Robert S P Beekes, Comparative Indo-European Linguistics.

      This is a bit out of my sphere of knowledge, but I think you may be referring to the money spent on creating Welsh television programs and improving education in Wales in the 1990s? I wonder, what are your thoughts on David Cameron’s ‘one nation’ policies?

      1. In terms of an analysis on languages, old Edward WAS amongst the first to coin the word Celt in relation. The Greeks, and occasional Roman references, discuss generalised peoples as Celts. This has been mentioned earlier in reference to the term ‘barbarian’, it was a generalised descriptive term that encompassed many peoples – this we can say with some certainty. However, what is my explanation for place names and linked languages – language travels. You are really undermining your argument I feel with a simple dismissal of modern day comparative examples. You need only look to China where the growth of a variant of the English language is now recognised as one of the fastest growing languages in the world. As stated though, just because people in China are increasingly speaking a language that is derived from English, does not make them English. Put in a classical context though, evidence from Caerwent in South Wales, clearly shows local populations using Latin – but that does not mean the local population were Romans. Language can just not be used as a clear definition of culture. As for naming of place, well, your reference supporting the notion that ancient peoples named places in ‘their’ language to identify them, is as spurious as me suggesting that they did it because they liked the sound of the word – there is no one way or the other to make either theory stick based on evidence, that is mere guess work.

        You can compare cell phones with artefacts created however many years ago, as both are clear cut examples of relevant social commodities. They both serve a functional process and are visually important, functional and stylistic, two key determining factors in the definition of material culture.

        Anyway, as for modern languages, there is a problem here, and it goes back to Llwyd. Llwyd and near contemporaries, as I explained above, arbitrarily concluded that languages related to that which they defined as Celtic, were also Celtic, and that those speaking them were in turn, Celtic people. As you have already stated though, these family of languages though could as easily be described as ‘indo european’. A group of related languages, but not something that would be recognised as the indo-european culture. But lets say for instance that Welsh is a Celtic language by route origin. This does not mean that the people in Wales were Celtic. In fact you would be hard pressed to find many Iron Age archaeologists who would put their names to a Celtic ‘people’ living in Britain or Ireland at all. Yes plenty will hold firm to a Celtic language, but very few to a Celtic people. Why? Because in the archaeological community today, very few accept that there was a Celtic ‘race’ living in Britain, if anywhere. It is a hugely important distinction – language does not mean culture. What people can be identified as ‘Celtic’, or Keltoi from tribal naming, are culturally distinct from other groups when we consider the archaeological assemblages.

        The problem had with looking at Britain today is that you have plenty of people who call themselves Celts, are project it backwards to some idealised image of Iron Age Britain where everyone was part of some giant Celtic party. The archaeological evidence does not back it up. For all its problems, Celtic can work as a descriptive term for a group of languages, okay. Culturally it is flawed, inadequate and totally misleading in terms of understanding the complexity and variety of the Iron Age European World.

        As for the 1990s, no, nothing to do with language campaigning, that was to do with Simon James and John Collis being attacked for trying to ‘contemporary ethnic cleansing’ on modern day Celtic peoples. They of course were not doing this at all, and actually supported the notion of the modern day Celt, as we have people calling themselves Celts. We have no evidence at all of so called Celtic people calling themselves Celts. We have passing reference in Greek and Roman culture to a people named as Celtic, but to take that reference as the basis for a pan Celtic European culture is dangerously flawed. It is to assume the Greeks did not use their own terminology, which we know they did for many things, and it is to assume that the tribe in question went along with that given name. A shared Europe wide Celtic cultural community, based on an assumption and a potentially made up Greek word.

        But here is a thought for you, if all these languages derive from one culture, and are all ‘Celtic’, explain this. While you can stand a Welsh speaker and a Cornish speaker next to one another and they will understand each other perfectly fine, stand either next to a Scots and Irish Gallic speaker, and the respective languages would be unintelligible to each other. While scholars can sit and poke at the roots of language, and say that Welsh and Gallic are born of one seed, is fine on paper, sit down respective carriers of the language today and see how well these ‘related’ speakers communicate with one another, in short, it would be impossible.

        The modern Celt is alive and well, defined by those who call themselves as such, the ancient Celt is a complicated fallacy of assumption, generalisation and the use of a word for no better reason that it keeps things simple for everyone to understand.

      2. Mornin’ Eyes…

        Looks like we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this. My schedule is picking up, and as you can see from the delay in my response, I just don’t have the time to devote to this. I will say that no one knows when the neolithic languages spoken in Britain died out, and few place names are older than Celtic ones.

        Thank you so much for the debate ~ I truly enjoyed it!

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