THE ANCIENT CELTS, PAGE ONE
Info on the Ancient Celts: The Greeks encountered the Celts around the sixth
century BC and called them Keltoi. When Julius Caesar encountered the Gauls
around 58 BC, he said they called themselves Celts. One suggestion is that the word
is derived from the Indo-European root ‘kel,’ which means ‘hidden.’ The Celts were
the hidden people. The term 'Celt' applies to any of the European peoples who
spoke a Celtic language. The historical Celts were a diverse group of tribal societies
in Iron Age Europe.
The Celts left their legacy behind in Britain, Ireland, Spain, France, southern
Germany and the Alpine lands, Bohemia, Italy, the Balkans and even central Turkey.
Greeks and Romans portray them as barbaric and there are no written texts written
by the Celts to defend this accusation.
Archaeology has proved that these people were not the barbarians they were
accused of being, but that their society was a superior one, especially in the areas of
metalworking. Many of their lands were well populated and farmed, dotted with
settlements and gathering places. Forts and shrines were often found at these sites.
The Celts were wealthy and intelligent and played a pivotal role in the making of
Timeline of Celts: 500 BC: Celts first appearance in history. They have spread over much of the Alpine region and areas in France,
and in parts of Spain. These Celts are associated with the Halstatt culture of the European Iron Age. Excavations have revealed rich
tombs of the chieftains or royal classes. Evidence discovered in these tombs points to trade with the Classical Mediterranean.
400 BC: A Celtic culture arose in eastern France to Bohemia named after the archaeological site of La Tene in Switzerland. Rich tombs
were also found here. Soon after 400 BC, these Celts blazed over the Alps, seizing and settling in the Po valley and sacking Rome in
about 390 BC. The Romans called them ‘Galli,’ Gauls—a term later used for the Celts in France. Other Celts migrated through the
Balkans, attacking Greece and possibly sacking Delphi in 279 BC. The Greeks called them Keltoi or Galatae. Some of these Celts tore
across the Hellespont and started a kingdom in central Turkey (Galatia).
Beginning in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the Celts spread north to France and the British Isles. Decorated metalwork from the La
Tene culture was found in these areas. But recent evidence reveals that the Celts may have been occupying these areas in an earlier
By the third century BC, the Celts stretched from Ireland to Hungary, with isolated tribes from Portugal to Turkey. But during the later
third and second centuries BC, Celtic lands were beginning to come under pressure from the Germans and falling under the rule of
Rome. In Turkey, the Romans crushed the power of the Galatians. They were almost annihilated by the kingdom of Pontus in the 80s
BC. The greatest blow to the Celts was the conquest of Gaul in the 50s BC. This left the British Isles. Claudius invaded southeastern
Britain in AD 43 and by the early 80s the Romans had conquered as far as the Highlands of Scotland (Caledonia). The legions were
unable to hold the north, which remained a free zone of Celtic people or at least people who were partly Celtic.
Roman rule seems to have wiped out the Celtic culture. After Rome fell in the fifth century AD, the old Celtic lands came under Germanic
rule, even the name of Gaul was replaced by France (derived from the Germanic tribe of the Franks).
Following the appearance in Britain of the proto-Welsh and other British kingdoms, there was a resurgence in Celtic culture.
Ireland retained much of its Celtic history because it had not been Romanized like the British Isles.
The Celtic revival in the early Middle Ages was halted by the appearance of the Vikings at the end of the eighth century.
The story of the Celts in the later Middle Ages is one of gradual absorption and partial assimilation by France.
England and Scotland were formally unified in 1707. The Gaelic speaking clan society of Scotland’s Highlands was destroyed after the
rebellion of 1745. Ireland was also incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1801.
Today, some Celtic culture lives on in some of the British Isles and in Ireland.
Celtic society: Warriors and craftsmen (this included druids and bards) were held in high regard in Celtic society and were
considered to be part of the noble class. A king or chief was in charge. Farmers were part of the lower class in Celtic society. Despite
their reputation as being barbaric, they were quite skilled in metal working and made fine jewelry from gold, silver, copper and bronze.
Celts took great care in their appearance and frowned on those who let their bodies get soft. Brightly colored cloaks, golden torcs and
bronze armlets adorned their bodies to express their wealth and high rank. Celtic women wore makeup and styled their hair in plaits.
Celtic women: ‘The women of the Gauls are not only like men in their
great stature, but they are a match for them in courage as well.’ Quote
from Diodorus Siculus
Celtic women had fierce pride and they enjoyed a freedom and power that
women in ancient Rome did not have. I think what I like about the Celts is
they had a more balanced society. Though they were a warrior society,
their gods and goddesses were equal and that was not the case in other
religions. There is not a lot of evidence pointing to women warriors among
the Celts, but Queen Boudica led an army against the Romans around
AD60. Celtic women were not to be messed with.
Celtic warriors: Celtic warriors have been described as resembling the
Roman god, Pan, for the way they lime their hair and make it stand up and pull
it back to the nape of their neck. This was probably a battle tactic to make
themselves look frightening to the enemy. They also beat their swords and
spears against their leather shields, creating an awful sound meant to scare
the enemy. In earlier times, they even fought naked. Fierce and proud, warriors
liked to boast about their feats of great valor on the battlefield.
Celtic men: Celtic men wore their hair long and shaggy and the nobles had
long mustaches. They painted themselves with blue paint called woad. The Picts
in the Scottish highlands were heavily tattooed, even their women. There is some
debate as to whether the Picts were Celtic, but I am sure they inter-married. I like
to compare them to modern day rockers or metal heads. They wore colorful dyed
tunics and trousers or bracae. Their cloaks were striped and held together with a
brooch. They took great care in their appearance to impress each other and to
alarm their enemies. The men wore just as much jewelry as the women to show
off their wealth.
Druids: According to Caesar, the Druids were a highly organized intertribal brotherhood, which met annually in the territory of the Carnutes in
Gaul to confer and elect a Chief Druid. The word ‘Druid’ is connected with the Celtic term for oak, and trees and sacred groves undoubtedly
loomed large in Celtic religious life. Their gathering places were in sacred groves called ‘Drunemeton’ or ‘oak sanctuary.’
They were not pious priests who abstained from violence or sex. It is not known whether each tribe had its own specific group of Druids, but
later Irish tales record that kings were served by a personal Druid.
Druids believed in the reincarnation of the soul and keeping a balance in the universe. To do this, sometimes it was necessary to sacrifice
animals and even humans. When they had to make a human sacrifice, the victims (usually warriors of an enemy tribe), were burned to death in
a wicker basket that was hung from an oak tree. The victims had to be free of fear to appease the Creator, so they were drugged and usually
died of smoke inhalation. The Picts in northern Scotland were known to drown their victims. When the victims died, the Druids would chant,
praising them for their courage.
Druids were guardians of the tribe’s traditions and administered tribal law. As privileged members of a learned class, the Druids were exempt
from military service and taxation. They were involved in politics and diplomacy and even though the chieftain or king ruled the tribe, the Druids
had the final say in these matters. This was the reason why the Romans attacked the Druidical center in the territory of the Carnutes and later
the Isle of Mona. The Druids were getting in the way of Rome’s progress.
In some accounts there are different tasks associated with each Druid. One might be the Sacrificer, one might be a healer and one might be
musically skilled (Bard).
The Druids passed on their teachings to novices for initiation into the Druidical order. Novices were expected to memorize a great number of
verses, laws, histories, magic formulae and other traditions. It could take as long as twenty years for a Druid to complete his or her studies.
Druids usually wore white hooded robes and carried an oak staff. Some accounts say they shaved their forehead from ear to ear. There was
an air of mystery surrounding the Druids and they were well respected and possibly even feared by other members of the tribe.
Shrines that were used by Druids were often situated close to the powers of nature on hilltops or in grottoes. Some were in sacred groves, holy
lakes, pools and springs, as well as formal religious temples.
“Having made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls…Clad in a white robe, the priest
(druid) ascends the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and it is received by another in a white cloak. They then kill the victims,
praying that the god will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has granted it. They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink,
imparts fertility to barren animals, and that it is an antidote for all poisons…”
Pliny, Natural History
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