Who are the Celts

By: Jeffery Moore

The documentary film series The Celts is a three part series that lasts about five and one half hours. It was produced by the BBC and shows their hallmark of historical quality and accuracy, as accurately as one can document the Celts. Written by Frank Delaney, born in Tipperary, Ireland, 1941, and directed by David Richardson, it was a very informative and eye-opening documentary. For most of the public it would surely answer their questions adequately about their Celtic roots, and evidently did, receiving eight of ten possible stars as a rating. Be it my inquisitive nature and/or Irish and German heritage, both of which are probably of Celtic origin, my appetite was just aroused by the film. In short, it left me hungry for more.

My appetite piqued, I trekked off to the Steen Library where I found many books about Celtic people. After narrowing down my search to four books and a little – Okay, a lot- of reading at home, I was very pleased with two of them. I found War, Women, and Druids by Philip Freeman ( 2002, University of Texas Press) and The Celts by T.G.E. Powell (1958, Frederick A. Prager, Inc.) to both be very readable and informative. War, Women, and Druids seems to approach Celtic history from a literary perspective; it includes many writings of classical historians, scholars and military leaders, using many Greek and Roman quotations from such a diverse sources as Homer, Hesiod and Julius Caesar. From their perspective the authors cannot help but refer to the Celts as “barbarians,” which leaves us at a huge disadvantage to find out who the Celts really were. However, I do understand their disapproval of these Celts: who would want neighbors who attacked them, naked, screaming, and with paint on themselves? That leaves us with the warning mentioned by Freeman in the preface to War, Women, and Druids, “Even with these shortcomings, the writings of the Greeks and Romans are our primary source of information on the ancient Celts.” Now we are warned.

From the most informative writings, those of Caesar, we see that he was more obsessed with his lust for land than with his preoccupation with the Celts. We must take Caesar’s motives into account when he refers to the Celts as “noble and brave” for it is as much for his glory as for theirs. But Caesar had ample reasons to be obsessed with the Celts for time and time again, since the sack of Rome in 390 B.C., the Celts had cost Romans many hard fought victories or occasional defeats. Evidently respect was also given the Celts by the Greeks after the sacking of Delphi in 279 B.C. when the defeated Celts regrouped and went off to settle Galatia in Modern Turkey.

We find in the book The Celts more than twenty references, some lengthy, by Caesar to the Celts. He undoubtedly had his hands full dealing with them. While Powell tells us that the very name Keltoi came from the writings of Greek scholars and was used by them and by the Romans as a comprehensive term to describe most if not all of the tribes that originated from north of Greece and Italy. Powell further instructs us that the actual use of the name Keltoi was only common among the tribe located in northwestern Spain near the city of Galicia and that the name was transformed into Galatae by Greek writers. Caesar makes it clear that Galli of his time knew themselves by the name Celtae. But as Shakespeare said “What’s in a name?” Most modern historians agree that they were the same people and eventually came to be known as the Gauls. Caesar’s greed for land and power led him into what is now modern France and because of the lack of a Celtic written language we must rely heavily, though reluctantly, on his words.

Caesar did do us the service of giving the names and locations of the Gauls and other tribes of the region, both Celtic and Germanic, though little doubt remains that they were at one time the same. The Gauls were found by Caesar from Northern Italy to the Danube. Another tribe of Celtic people was found further north and west and they were known as the Belgae and described by Caesar as “his most stubborn and warlike opponents.” These same Belgae were encountered by Caesar later when he invaded Britain.

The Celts of Britain and Ireland written about in the years before 530 B.C. as voyagers who departed from Massilis, modern Marseilles, France, sailed through the Pillars of Hercules then North in the Atlantic, skirting the western Spanish coastline. They reached a pair of “large” islands known as Ierne and Albion, modern Ireland and England. Here the Gauls, Celts of southern France, traded with their Celtic cousins for tin, valuable to Celts, Greeks and Romans alike, and other goods. The supply of tin was especially important militarily and suspicion exists that it was the need for tin that encouraged the easily encouraged Caesar to eventually invade Britain. The Celts, expert in metal work, had long used the tin to alloy with copper in making bronze. Evidently Caesar did not trust the supply that they furnished up to that point.

For the time before written records by the Celts existed, archaeology has helped to fill in some of the guesswork as to the locations and cultures of the Celts. Excavations at Hallstadt, Austria, La Tene, Switzerland, and Steinhaldenfeld near Stuttgart, Germany have revealed very complex societies. Artifacts dating back to 1,000 B.C. illustrate the skill of these people in metal working, manufacture of complex patterns of woven cloth and in making jewelry, pottery and glass, much of which is superior to items from the same time period found in Greece and Rome. Celtic people had come a long way, from being the hunters and gatherers that they had replaced in Europe, to a very structured and organized society with a form of governance, religion and very strong military. Druid priests, thought to be originally from the area north of India, showed strong ties to the Buddhist religion, with great reverence for the natural environment around them. Trees and water were especially sacred to their religion. All teachings from one generation to the next had to be memorized, as Caesar commented, “to make the mind sharper.”

The ruling class had aspects of both a theocracy and a gerontocracy. Much honor was given to the military and the priesthood, especially to those with age and wisdom. These two forms of government eventually gave way to a small kingdom structure. According to Freeman, Caesar tells us that up to eighteen separate tribes had their own kings in Gaul (France) and Germany. Among these standouts against Caesar include Dumnoriz, Gaulish king; Inclutimoarus, Gaulish king ; and probably the most famous of Gaulish kings, Vercingetorix. It was Vercingetorix who joined the tribes together for a last big push against Caesar. The Gauls under Vercingetorix put up a defensive stand from three hilltop forts near Aelesia, in modern central France. Only after receiving re-enforcements from German conscripts was Caesar able to take the hills. Vercingetorix offered himself up, after a severe siege, either dead or alive, and Caesar accepted the terms. After the Gauls had handed over all arms to the Romans, Vercingetrorix was led away to Rome, forced to march through the city in chains and then executed. He had told his council that the fight was for them all along. The lands of the Gauls now belonged to Rome for the next four hundred years. Freeman tells us in War, Women, and Druids that last great Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, wrote at the end of the fourth century, “Gauls of all ages were very fit for military service. The old men, made tough by the cold weather and constant physical labour, march forth with courage equal to that of the young, mocking the formidable dangers before them. Nor does anyone cut off his thumb to avoid service, as they do in Italy.” The Celts made a fine addition to the armies of Rome and were used far and wide for centuries.

Next on Caesar’s agenda was Britain. A most useful timeline was found at www.gallica.co.uk/celts/timeline.htm. It tells us that in 55 B.C. Caesar tried to land in Britain and was pinned down on a beachhead for two months. A seasick cavalry and approaching storms led him to withdraw back across the channel to Brittany. Another website, www.wsu.edu:8080/dee/MA/CELTS.html tells us that the Romans returned to Britain in 43 A.D. managed to drive the Belgae tribes north and conquer the island as far as the Pictish tribes of Scotland permitted. The Romans left northern England alone after 117 A.D. Rome occupied Britain until about 446 A.D. at which time a deteriorating situation in Italy and Roman civil war caused them to leave. The Celts, along with some new Angle and Saxon neighbors, now had Britain to themselves. Along with the Angles and Saxons, several smaller tribes had migrated from the mainland of Europe and London and the surrounding area had become quite cosmopolitan.

The western part of England, Wales, had a fairly minimal incursion from the Romans and managed to keep a strong Celtic culture. Ireland, which had not been invaded by the Romans at all, was a Celtic kingdom, or rather a collection of kingdoms. In the film The Celts, and in both books, War, Women, and Druids and The Celts, legends and stories abound in the Irish tales of kings, chieftains and battles. Names became famous like the Ui Ne’ll Clan, Brian Bo’ruma, Fionn mac Cumhaill and others too numerous to name: all fought great battles to run the Vikings out of Ireland. Eventually the Irish also invaded Scotland, completing the circle of Celtic nations to modern time.

On the note of archaeological finds, none is more puzzling to me than the “Mummies of China,” or “Cherchen Man.” At 3,000 plus years old and having reddish hair, fair skin and Celtic DNA, it would probably be easy to dismiss him as a lost traveler, were it not for the hundreds of other mummies with the same features and genetics as his. With him and on four other continents, the ancient Ogam writings have been found. There is some pretty solid evidence that the Celts actually travelled both “far and wide.” DNA samples of Irish, Cornish ,Welsh and Basque peoples are a virtual match and Scottish and English are very close. The original strain of the Celtic DNA, European Paleolithic, an ancient branch of the Indo-European, emerged about 33,000 years ago, and the oldest trace of Celtic/Basque type DNA (Atlantic model HAPLO Group), occurred in the Lake Baikal area of Siberia about 50,000 years ago. (www.atomicpecisionwordpress.com) With this new evidence we could legitimately ask, “Are we literally the descendants of cavemen?” The case is very strong.

I believe the most confusing aspect of this project has been that a people or peoples who have contributed so much to such a broad area of the planet can still be so understudied, and therefore remain underrepresented in a historical context. These “Fathers” of European society garnered fewer than thirty “mentions” in our textbook, A History of Western Society, McKay, Hill, et al.. It would seem that a people who have managed to endure for the better part of 50,000 years and outlast the greatest empires on earth, including the Egyptian, Assyrian, Mesopotamian, Persian, Greek and Roman should at least deserve a chapter if not an entire course of study. The very hearts beating in most of the chests of Europe and the United States are descended from them, in full or in part. We students of history should not let this continue. The European movement toward new Celtic studies may, someday, catch on here.