The Celts

by Ériu

The first historical record of the Celts was by the Greeks about 700 BC, the Celts were a loose grouping of tribes that lived in an area north of the Alps around the Danube river in central Europe. Over the next few hundred years they spread east and west across Europe. The Celts first arrived in Ireland about 500 BC, there is no reliable information on how or when the Celts became the dominant Irish ethnic group. It is thought that the Celts arrived gradually, spreading slowly across the country, a process that could have taken several hundred years. By the fifth century AD and the arrival of Christianity, the Celtic language was being spoken all over the island of Ireland.

Newgrange tri-spiralAt Newgrange the tri-spiral design is often referred to as a Celtic design, however it was carved at least 2500 years before the Celts reached Ireland. Megalithic mounds entered Celtic mythology as sídhe or fairy mounds, Brugh na Bóinne (Newgrange) was the home of Oengus (Aonghus) the god of love. It was said that Oengus never aged while he lived at Brugh na Bóinne.

The Celtic Race never really existed in the way that we understand the term today. They were a loose amalgam of tribes, communities and disparate groups that come together for shared purposes such as defence, worship, trading and hunting. Unlike the Classical civilisations of Greece and Rome the Celts left little behind that scholars today can classify with any degree of certainty. The Celts were primarily of an oral tradition, however they did have a from of writing call Ogam or Ogham.


The Celtic ogham script was used in Ireland from the fourth century AD to the eighth century AD. The script consisting of stokes or notches where were cut into wood or along the edge of a standing stone. It was a clumsy method of marking, based on groups of one to five stokes for each letter, and was used only for short inscriptions, such as grave markers or memorials. It is speculated that the script is much older than it seems, and was originally based on a type of sign-language used by the druids, using the five fingers.

The Celts – Origin and Background

The object of these notes, as the title implies, is to express the writer’s ideas and opinions. One culture which unwittingly has caused much confusion in people’s minds is that of the Celts. In recent centuries the problem seems to have begun with the antiquarian William Stukeley (1687 – 1765) who associated such ancient monuments as Stonehenge and Avebury with the Celtic Druids, unaware of course that such monuments predated the Celtic Druids by a couple of millennia. Thus began the association of the Celts with the structures of the remote past.

The fact that the Celts as such were a relatively recent civilization, contemporaneous with the Greek, Roman, and Etruscan cultures did not gain wide acceptance until the 20th century – and even today many may find it hard to accept the flowering of Celtic culture as post 500 BC.

The question of the location of the heartland of Celtic culture has caused much confusion – even today many people would say Ireland / Scotland rather than the Upper Danube. Much Greek and Roman literature has survived and it ought to be easy to pinpoint the Celts on their home ground. Herodotus, a Greek historian of the 5th century BC, refers to the Danube “which has its source among the Celts near Pyrene – the Celts live beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) next to the Cynesians who are the most Westerly people of Europe”. What is happening here is confusion between the Celtic homeland on the Upper Danube and the limit of their influence – Iberia.

The Greek geographer Pytheas (4th century BC) comments on the location of the British Isles as being “North of the land of the Celts.” Again we have a reference to the fringes of Celtic influence rather than to their home ground.

Another Greek geographer Pausanias (2nd century AD) tells us that the Gauls “originally called Celts live in the remotest region of Europe on the coast of an enormous tidal sea. Okeanos (the River of Ocean which surrounds the world) is the most distant part of the sea – the people who live beside it are Iberians and Celts – it contains the island of Britain. The remotest Celts are called Kabares who live on the edges of the ice desert – a very tall race of people.” Again we have no reference to the source of the Celts but a clear indication of two major areas under Celtic influence – Gaul (France) and Iberia (Spain / Portugal) with a hint of a Scandinavian connection.

Julius Caesar (1st century BC) in his account of his campaigns in Gaul gives us a very clear picture of Celtic culture in one region in which it was dominant (Gaul). He also makes a statement which perhaps deserves more attention than it has generally received – “The Druidic doctrine is believed to have been found existing in Britain and thence imported into Gaul: even today those who want to make a profound study of it generally go to Britain for the purpose.” We will have occasion later to follow up this statement which implies that an important component of Celtic culture has another – and by implication – older – source which is located in the British Isles. Caesar goes on to refer to the areas of Gaul under greatest Celtic influence but does not include the territory of the Belgae in the North. It is the Belgae who migrated in large numbers to the South and East of Britain. So Caesar associates a large area of Gaul with Celtic influence but again makes no reference to a Celtic homeland.

A possible reason for the lack of information on this topic is that by the time of the authors quoted the Celts may have been losing ground in their homeland and were best known in the territories in which they had acquired influence. It is significant that it is the earliest account (Herodotus circa 450 BC) which gives us a clue to an Upper Danube location.

This has been confirmed by archaeology – the general area Switzerland / Austria is now accepted as being the source of the Celtic peoples. In looking into the origins of Celtic race / culture some writers have described the earlier manifestations of these as “proto-Celts” – a term not always acceptable. The earliest manifestation which can be specifically associated with the Celts is the Bronze Age Hallstatt culture, from post 1000 BC to around 500 BC. This culture was a wealthy one being centred on a salt-mining region, therefore trading widely with European areas generally and even further a field.

The use of iron was highly developed in this area by the end of the Hallstatt period. This gave a superiority in both tools and weapons and paved the way for the next phase in Celtic development – the La Tène period. It would appear that this development was largely an internal cultural one – not necessarily fostered by newcomers. The use of iron ploughs made possible a greater volume of agricultural production. Skills in textile making were highly developed. The use of iron weaponry also gave military superiority. From an early period the influence of the Celtic culture was through the process of migration and commerce spreading Westwards across Europe, notably into Spain, France, North Italy.

This influence would appear at this stage to be mainly due to peaceful penetration. Population growth in the Celtic area led to the need for more land for settlement. Spain in particular was a mineral rich country much in demand by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and later by Romans. In the early part of the La Tène period Rome was still a small settlement of little account politically or economically. The main players were the Carthaginians, Greeks, and Etruscans. Both Carthaginians and Greeks had established a chain of settlements and coastal trading stations along the shores of the Mediterranean and outside the Pillars of Hercules.

Massilia (Marseille) a Greek colony and Gadir (Cadiz) a Phoenician colony were typical examples. The Celts were in a position to make full use of such river systems as the Danube, Rhine, and Rhone to access markets and sources of supply. Recent discoveries in Asia along the Silk Road have indicated that along this route were bases occupied by people akin to the Celts from at least 1000 BC. The Tokharian language as spoken in the Turkestan area has links with Celtic. So early Celtic influence based on settlement and commerce extended from the Atlantic to Asia.

Celtic Language

The Celtic linguistic contribution to European culture seems to have been a major one. It is not that the megalithic peoples of early Europe did not have their own well-developed languages – that is evidenced in the case of Finnish, Hungarian, Basque and Etruscan. Nor were the early Indo-European languages deficient. But there is no doubt that the language of the Celts was taken up at an early stage in their spheres of influence. Presumably trade, travel, and communication with settlers made a common tongue a sensible solution. (Akin to the later spread of Latin as a “lingua franca” and the more recent spread of English.)

Celtic is a member of the Indo-European language family. A form of Celtic could well be one of the earlier manifestations of the Indo-European tongues. Certainly in the centuries post 1000 BC Celtic in one or other of its two main forms spread from Scotland to Turkey, Iberia to Switzerland. Roman conquests particularly post 100 BC eliminated the Celtic tongue pretty effectively from areas such as Spain, Portugal, France, England. What survived the Roman occupation was lost in the Dark Ages under the influence of barbarian immigrants from the North and East. The only areas of Western Europe to escape Roman and barbarian influence to a large extent were Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, where forms of Celtic still survive.

On the question of the language of the areas in question, Irish Gaelic (Goidelic) is presumed to be the older version of Celtic. It could well have evolved from a common tongue spoken along the Atlantic fringes of Western Europe in the Neolithic / Bronze Ages. The two branches of the Celtic tongue are Q-Celtic or Goidelic – the older form now native to Ireland and also spoken in Scotland as well as recently in the Isle of Man, and P-Celtic / Brythonic / Gaulish spoken in Wales, Brittany, Cornwall (until recent times), Gaul, England, Scotland until Roman times.

During and after the decline of the Roman Empire Q-Celtic speaking settlers from North-East Ireland gained control of most of Scotland and supplanted P-Celtic by their own Gaelic / Goidelic tongue. Wales preserved its P-Celtic linguistic autonomy in the face of Roman, Norman, Anglo-Saxon, and Irish pressure. England may have retained its P-Celtic speech to some extent during the Roman period and it is thought that the language revived for a time after the Romans’ departure. However continued exposure to Anglo-Saxon influences resulted in the loss of almost all the P-Celtic heritage except in a few place names.

Brittany may have retained some P-Celtic speech under Roman rule because of its geographical position, and the language is said to have got a boost in the Dark Ages with the immigration of refugees from South-West England and South Wales, as they left to avoid Anglo-Saxon and Irish infiltration. Cornwall did retain some P-Celtic speech until the 19th century. Q-Celtic likewise lingered in the Isle of Man until modern times. Migration of Irish warriors to countries like France, Spain, Austria from the 16th century led to the survival of pockets of Q-Celtic in corners of Europe. Similarly P-Celtic spoken by 19th century Welsh settlers to Patagonia has left traces. Likewise in small areas of Australia and New Zealand Scottish Q-Celtic survived for a time.

Growth of Celtic Influence in Europe

When we see the extent of Celtic influence in the culture of Western Europe we can understand the confusion felt by the Greeks and Romans as to where was the original source of that culture. The influence was not just linguistic but social, technological, spiritual, educational, artistic and cultural generally.

The Westward movement would appear to be largely caused by imitation sparked off by penetration – settlement and trade. It would seem to have been two way traffic with the Celts as they moved into the Western lands falling under the influence of the vestiges of the megalithic (Neolithic and Bronze Age) cultures of the Atlantic seaboard in both religious and linguistic areas.

Around 500BC the later La Tène culture emerges. This was named after an archaeological site in Switzerland. It would appear to be a natural artistic / cultural development rather than the effect of a new influence from outside. While La Tène is identified as an Iron Age culture it is in the bronze of this period that so much of the artistic skills are evident. It is to the use of iron that the power of the Celts has been largely attributed. War and agriculture were the beneficiaries. The La Tène period is characterised by a new phase in Celtic expansion. Now it was not just immigration and trade but war which endeavoured to spread Celtic influence, the movement was now Southwards rather than Westwards. In the end it proved less successful than previous centuries of gradual influence. However the La Tène art forms were a definite “success” with the spread of beautiful bronze and ironwork over Western Europe. The use of delicate curvilinear patterns is the hallmark of La Tène. It was influenced by Greek, Etruscan, and Scythian styles.

The “military” phase of Celtic expansion took place in the 4th and 3rd centurys BC. The main movement was southwards into Greece, Italy, and Turkey in particular. This was a movement of Celtic tribes on a large scale, not just brief raids for plunder but with the object of settlement. Classical writers give accounts of the armies being accompanied with women, children, and wagons of food and household goods. There were successful battles against Etruscans and Romans with the Celts besieging Rome before withdrawal and ultimate defeat.

In Greece the Celts reached Delphi in the South before being held and forced back. In Turkey they were more successful in establishing a Celtic province in the centre – Galatia – which survived long enough for its citizens to be taken to task by St. Paul in one of his Epistles. Alexander the Great, before beginning his advance against the Persian Empire deemed it expedient to negotiate what probably was a mutual non-aggression treaty with major Celtic chieftains. A further meeting ensued at Babylon between Alexander and the Celtic chiefs a few years later. Whatever plans they may have had to “share the world” between them ended with Alexander’s death. In spite of their failure to expand Celtic influence by force of arms, the Celts retained a military reputation with Celtic mercenaries serving in the armies of Egypt, Carthage, and other nations.

Gradually Rome succeeded in controlling the Italian Peninsula and also moved into Celtic spheres of influence such as Iberia, Gaul, Britain. By the end of the 1st century AD the “Celtic World” was under Roman control.

The Celts’ military adventures were doomed to failure. Without the existence of a nation state and a unified system of government their military efforts were piecemeal. Similarly the Greek city-states valued their own individuality too much to create a nation. Rome on the other hand was succeeding in uniting the Italian tribal areas under one banner. Already the disciplined Roman troops were more able than other forces to hold out against the terror-inspiring Celtic charge in the end. The Celtic tribes owed allegiance to their own chiefs and although an individual tribal leader could unify the tribes against a common enemy for a time such alliances tended to fall apart eventually. The leaders valued their autonomy too much to willingly sacrifice it to a concept of a common nation or race. A common culture, language, social and religious system did not lead to a centralised political system. Peter Berresford Ellis in “The Celtic Empire” quotes from a paraphrased comment by Tacitus on the Celts:

“Fighting retail, they were beaten wholesale, Had they been inseparable, They would have been insuperable.”

The Celtic reputation in warfare can give the impression that war to them was an end in itself. While this could well be the feeling of the “warrior” class we must seek to find underlying factors in their militancy. It would seem that prosperity brought an increase in population, an increase in population created a need for more land, hence war against neighbouring territories. Thus need rather than greed would the keynote of Celtic aggressiveness. The tribal system in general seemed to create warlike situations with disputes over land etc. with no central authority outside the tribe to appeal to. (Although one aspect of Druidism was concerned with the settlement of disputes one is left with the feeling that it lacked the authority of a central government.)

Growing populations as in the case of the Celts create pressures on resources. A military caste of front-line professional soldiers tends to emerge in such a situation. Such elements can do damage on their own home ground. In such a situation the mercenary system can be useful in diverting destructive energies in another direction. Hence the Celtic mercenaries employed in Egypt and elsewhere. The Swiss Guards cut to pieces in the French Revolution in defence of Louis XVI and those of the Vatican today are heirs of a long Celtic tradition.
The Druidic System

As well as a military caste the Central European Celts possessed a religio-intellectual elite in the form of the Druidic system. Julius Caesar gives a good account of his interpretation of their role and functions. It is hard to drag the popular imagination away from the pictures of bearded white-clad priests harvesting mistletoe from the sacred oak trees and of the present-day pseudo Druids holding artificially created ceremonies at Stonehenge and other megalithic sites which were in existence millennia before the Celts came on the European scene.

The Celtic level of education as it functioned via the Druid system was high. Such areas as science, geography, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, religion, philosophy, and law were studied. Much of this would develop out of a religious respect for Nature. While the complete course of education could last up to 20 years this is little different from the modern system of beginning education at age 5 and finishing post-graduate studies at age 25. There is no indication that all students in the Druid system continued the full course – any more than present-day students.

Much is made of the apparent contradiction in the fact that the Celtic education system was pursued entirely orally – relying on recitation and memory. But less than 50 years ago a lot of our own primary education was conducted on similar lines. Caesar, coming from a “book-dependent” system like our own, thought the system was a good one in that it trained the memory in a way that reference to books never could. It also had the advantage of keeping advanced knowledge out of the hands of those untrained to handle it. (Perhaps there is a lesson there!) That the same oral system was used by the Greeks in Classical times is evidenced by the “dialogue” format of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and others. On one occasion Alexander the Great took issue with his old tutor Aristotle for publishing his ideas in a book on the grounds that such a publication would result in “the knowledge we have acquired being made the common property of all”. The Celts could and did write, using Greek and Roman script, but such writing was reserved for commercial and other less esoteric purposes.

The Druid system receives a bad press from the Romans who had had occasion not just to respect but to fear its influence over the Celtic peoples. It is significant that when the Romans carried out the occupation of Britain a major target was the destruction of the Druid headquarters on Anglesea. There is much debate about the extent of human sacrifice in the Druid system. Assertions about the sacrifice of criminals do not sound credible as the gods would not have appreciated such “sub-standard” offerings! Bog burials in Denmark, England, etc. have been interpreted as offerings by some authorities. More than once Roman writers referred to “blood-drenched” altars in sacred groves. In that respect they would have mirrored the altars of Roman temples. Unless the blood was human in which case one would have to look to the Roman arena for a parallel. (A classic case of “the pot calling the kettle black?”)

The role of Druid-trained staff providing support services to ruling tribal leaders in matters of law, diplomacy, finance, as well as of religious observance indicates a parallel with the role of the Christian Church in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Church controlled education and provided professional expertise to kings and rulers just as the Druid system did. The monastic system at its best has parallels with that of the Druids. It is possible that the monastic system evolved out of the Druidic centres of religion and learning. Perhaps Ireland played a key role here since it preserved the Druid system throughout the Roman Empire period and on adopting Christianity it carried the system back into Europe.

When Caesar commented on the Druidic system having its roots in “Britain” it could well have been Ireland to which he referred. In any case the destruction of the Druid centre on Anglesea would have resulted in a migration of British Druids to Ireland where the system would have been free to flourish during the ensuing centuries of Roman rule. In those Western areas of Britain and Ireland with comparative isolation from Europe it is possible that the old megalithic religion survived through the Neolithic and Bronze Ages into the Iron Age. Thus the Druid system to which Caesar refers as being of “British” origin would have been a development of a much more ancient faith. The earliest Celtic contacts with the British Isles in the Bronze Age would have enabled concepts to move Eastwards into Central Europe and the Celtic heartland.