Information on the Ancient Celts

The Greeks encountered the Celts around the sixth century BC and called them Keltoi. This name 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 Europe.

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 time period.

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. It wasn't wise to mess with a Celtic woman.

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 back 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. 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

Farmers: For livestock, Celtic farmers relied on sheep, cattle and pigs. Pigs were much closer in appearance to their wild ancestors and the sheep looked more like goats. Sheep were kept for their wool to make clothes and probably for milk. The cattle, a now extinct variety known as the Celtic Shorthorn, were quite small compared to modern cattle. They were bred to be powerful oxen for pulling plows and heavy wagons. Horses, mostly ponies, were raised for light draught work and for war rather than for heavy tasks.

Many breeds of dog existed, small ones to large ones. The large ones were probably used for hunting. Hunting was a favorite pastime for Celtic lords and the warrior elite. Chickens and cats can be traced back to Celtic times. Donkeys and mules were not introduced until the Roman period.

The Celts grew a number of cereals—several kinds of wheat (emmer, spelt and barley). Beans, peas and lentils were also cultivated. Bitter Vetch, Fat Hen, Gold of Pleasure and other plants now regarded as wild may have been cultivated, or at least collected. From these plants and from fruits and berries, Celtic people had access to good sources of protein, carbohydrates and vitamins. Celtic Farms and Villages: Houses tended to be circular in Britain and Ireland and rectangular in Gaul and elsewhere. Circular components of larger buildings. These could have consisted of more than one roundhouse, with other ancillary buildings such as cooking shacks or work sheds, plus storage facilities.

These roundhouses (even the smaller ones) offered considerable floor space under a conical thatched roof, without the need for freestanding roof posts: the weight of the roof could be transmitted directly to wattle walls. Weatherproofed with clay daub, these circular walls—the ring completed by the wooden door lintel—were remarkably strong. Larger houses usually had an inner post ring to provide additional support for the long rafters. Some of the larger dwellings could have been residences of the nobility. Some walls may have been painted with circular designs or decorated with embroidered wall hangings depicting hunting or otherworldly scenes.

Sources tell of the Gauls sitting on pelts and using low dining tables. Domestic gear that has been unearthed are drinking gear like cups or horns, gaming counters, cooking utensils like cauldrons, and iron firedogs.

There was usually a central hearth from which hung a cauldron on an iron or bronze chain. Animal skins were used as floor coverings and cups, bowls and other utensils would be arranged around the hearth. There might be leather or wooden chairs, a goose feather stuffed pallet bed with woolen blankets or animal pelts. There were probably wooden chests used to store personal items. A loom probably sat in one corner to weave clothes from wool. Meat would be hung from the rafters where the smoke from the central fire would ‘smoke’ and preserve the meat. There were probably herbs hung from the rafters as well.

Some tribes lived in hillforts that were fortified with high walls to protect them from warring neighbors. The layout was usually the same-- just behind high walls. Some of the people lived outside the fortresses and would seek shelter inside in times of war. There may have been no distinct, universally worshipped Celtic deities at all, perhaps because of the diverse histories and origins of the Celtic people.

Certain deities were associated with particular locations like certain springs or lakes, obvious sources of life.

Many deities were worshipped in triads, or were three aspects of one god, sometimes depicted as three faced. Some gods were shapeshifters and able to adopt various animal guises at will, at least in the Irish myths. Gods and goddesses varied from place to place.

Andrasta (Andraste): Victory goddess of the Iceni. When Queen Boudica rose up against the Romans in AD60, she sacrificed Roman women to Andrasta.

Artio: ‘Bear,’ a forest goddess.

Belenus (Bel or Belenos): ‘Bright’ or ‘brilliant,’ a Gaulish sun god and healer. During Roman period this god was identified with Apollo.

Branwyn (Branwen): Goddess of love and the sea.

Brigid, Brigit, Brighid (Ireland), Bride(Scotland), Brigantia (Britain): Solar goddess, Goddess of fertility, blacksmithing, feminine creativity, martial arts & healing. She is often depicted with one side of her face beautiful, the other side ugly.

Camulos: A war god (Britain and Gaul).

Cernunnos: ‘The horned one,’ lord of animals. He is shown wearing deer antlers and a torc. He holds a torc in his right hand and a serpent in his other hand. He is associated with the ‘wild hunt’ in which spirits of the dead were carried to the Otherworld. He controlled the culling, purifying and health of the herds.

Cerridwen: Moon goddess, goddess of dark prophetic powers, keeper of the cauldron of the Underworld, in which inspiration and divine knowledge are brewed. Her totem animal is the sow, representing the richness of the Underworld and the terrible strength of the Mother (Goddess). She is sometimes depicted as the Crone aspect of the Goddess.

Coventina: Goddess of rivers, abundance, inspiration and prophecy.

The Crone (The Cailleach): One of the triple goddess aspects, goddess of winter, the darkness and the waning moon.

Eostre: Goddess of Spring, rebirth, fertility and new beginnings.

Epona: Gallic horse goddess with fertility aspects. The horse was a major symbol of energy, power and fertility.

Esus: ‘Lord.’ He is connected to a lost myth involving the cutting down of trees and to the totem animals of three cranes and a bull. Could he have been the Celtic Jesus, a god who was sacrificed? Maybe he is connected to the ‘oak king,’ the sacrificial son or consort of the Goddess who reigned for a year and then was sacrificed.

Latis: Goddess of water and beer.

Lenus: Healer god of the Treveni.

Lugh: Sun god, god of war, magic and good harvest. He is the hero of the Tuatha de Danaans who fights against the Formorians and kills his own grandfather, Balor, who was the Formorian king.

Morrigan (Phantom Queen): Goddess of war and vengeance, magic and prophecy. Usually seen in the guise of a crow or raven near battlefields. Sometimes she would appear as an old woman washing the bloody clothes of a warrior who was going to die. In one tale, she (death goddess) mates with the Dagda (god of life) on Samhain, representing the great universal forces at work.

Sequana: Goddess of the Seine. Her totem bird was the duck.

Sucellus (Sucellos): The ‘good striker,’ hammer god related to the Irish deity, the Dagda.

Sulis (Sul, Sulis/Minerva): Goddess of the spring at Aquae Sulis (Bath).

Taranis: ‘The thunderer,’ an enigmatic sky god. He carries a wheel and a thunderbolt and is associated with the Roman Jupiter and the Greek Zeus.

Teutates: ‘God of the tribe,’ perhaps the title of many different gods.

The Triple Goddess: The maiden, mother and crone—birth, life and death or moon, creator, destroyer. This title has been given to more than one goddess. Perhaps the Celts saw all goddesses as having different aspects.

Vasio: God of the Gallic Vocontii, at Vasio.

Here are some other gods and goddesses associated with the Celts:

Amaethon (Welsh): God of agriculture, master of magic.

Arawn (Welsh): God of the hunt and the Underworld.

Arianrhod (Welsh): Star and sky goddess, goddess of beauty, full moon and magical spells. Her name means ‘silver wheel’ and she is a goddess of time, space and energy. As a weaver, she has control of human lives and of creation itself.

Badb (Irish): Goddess of war, death and rebirth. Her name means 'raven,crow.' May be part of a triad with Morrigan.

Cailleach (Scottish, Irish, Welsh): Goddess of weather, earth, sky, seasons, waning moon and winter. Associated with the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess.

Cliodna (Irish, Scottish): Goddess of beauty and other realms.

Creide (Irish, Scottish): Goddess of women and faeries.

The Green Man (Welsh): God of the woodlands, fertility.

Morgan Le Fay (Welsh): Goddess of death, fate, the sea and curses. May be associated with Morrigan, the war goddess. Morgan Le Fay appears in the legends of King Arthur as his half-sister, but in some stories she is the Faery Queen and goes by the names of Morgana or Morgaine.

Oghma (Scottish, Irish): God of communication, writing and of poets.

Rhiannon (Welsh): Goddess of birds, horses, enchantments, fertility and the Underworld.

Skatha (Welsh) or Scathach (Ireland): Goddess of the Underworld, darkness, magic, prophecy and martial arts. In Ireland, she ran a martial arts school on the Isle of Skye and young warriors of the Celtic lands traveled to her school. She is credited with teaching Cuchulainn his impressive fighting skills.

Celtic Festivals:

Evidence found in Ireland suggests that the Celts annually celebrated four main festivals, each associated with fertility and the changing seasons. Along with reflecting seasonal cycles of the farmers and herders, these festivals also relate to politics and religion of the community. Celts loved to attend feasts and festivals where they could show off their vast wealth and the warriors could brag about their great valor on the battlefield. One ancient Celtic custom was for two warriors to fight over the hero’s portion of a pig at the feast. Pigs (boars) were held in high regard by Celts because they represented immortality.

Imbolc: Celebrated on February 1st, linked to the lactation of ewes. In Ireland, sacred to the goddess Brigid.

Beltaine: Celebrated on May 1st, connected with the sun’s warmth and the fertility of crops and cattle. It is not known if it was celebrated outside Ireland, but it was perhaps associated with the sun god Belenos, who was worshipped in Gaul, Italy and the Alps.

Lughnasa: Celebrated on August 1st, Harvest festival associated with the Irish god, Lugh. A major festival was held in Lugdunum, ‘stronghold of Lugh,’ (Lyon) on that day.

Samhain: Celebrated on November 1st, the most important festival, marking the start of the Celtic year and the beginning of winter. Celebrated on the eve and day of November 1, it coincides with the modern Halloween, the barriers between the world of the living and that of the gods and the dead (Otherworld) were thin. Irish tales tell of living heroes visiting the realm of the dead.

The echo of these fiercely proud people lives on in spirit. I can imagine them in their brightly colored cloaks tending to everyday life. I can hear dogs barking and children at play, the strong smells of farmland animals permeating the air. I can picture the women tending to their looms, weaving clothes and the men tending to the farm. I can picture the warriors hunting to keep their warrior skills sharp and from the druids, I feel the power that surrounded them with their wisdom and mystique. I can picture the white robed druids chanting in the mist-filled oak grove, moonlight splashing down through the trees, illuminating the forest in silver light.

They were truly a magical people.

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