Who Were the Celts?
The terms Celt and Celtic seem familiar today— familiar enough that many people assume that they are ethnic descriptions, words that define a people related by blood and culture. Such people are imagined as fair-skinned, possibly red-haired, often freckled. More important, it is presumed they share an inborn mystical inclination. They see in ways that others do not or cannot. They acknowledge a world beyond the world of the senses. Some even have the second sight, the ability to see fairies and other spirits dancing through the soft evening. For evening always gathers around the Celts, a misty twilight where things are never quite solid and defined.
The image is a charming one; it has drawn many to the study of Celtic culture. But it is also incorrect. The word Celt is not as exact as many people presume. It does not define a race or a tribe; the alleged Celtic mysticism is not an invariably inherited trait. Nor does "Celtic" describe a culture that was so centralized that all Celts everywhere felt the same way toward nature, worshiped the same gods, and performed rituals in the same fashion.
No ancient people called themselves "the Celts." They called themselves Belgae, Cantii, Icini, Brigantes, Voconces, Arverni, or by any one of scores of other tribal names. Where contemporary imagination sees a single culture, these ancient people themselves knew dozens of linguistically related groups, each bearing a name derived from an ancestor, a god or a goddess, a totem animal, a sacred location. The word Celt may originally have been one of these tribal names, used by other Europeans as a generic term for the whole people.
If the name itself is not exact, neither is what it names. There is no one agreed-upon definition of what constituted Celtic society and the Celtic worldview. Indeed, some claim that Celtic peoples adapted themselves to and absorbed influences from pre-Celtic cultures wherever they lived and that, therefore, the idea of a Celtic culture is itself hopelessly flawed. Narrowly, a Celt can be defined as someone who spoke or speaks a Celtic language. Beyond that, scholars and other experts disagree as much as they agree.
The Celts in Classical Literature
Literacy is not a value shared by all cultures. The Celts did not write down their myths and histories, honoring instead the spoken word and the human memory. As a result, we have no written documents from early Celtic times, when they were settling central Europe. Instead, the earliest writings we have about the Celts are in the languages of their enemies: the Greeks and, later, the Romans.
The Celts were already a mature culture when they began to appear in the writings of their southern neighbors. Until then, they lived too far away to be of interest, and besides, they were no threat to the wealth and power of Greece and Rome. In the last several centuries before the common era, however, the Celts began to seek new territories. Whether this was because they were being pushed out of traditional homelands by other invaders, or because a population explosion put pressure on resources,we do not know. But within a few hundred years of their first appearance in historical documents the Celts posed a real threat to the safety and stability of the Mediterranean world. Simply put, the Greeks and Romans had land and resources that the Celts needed. Conflict was inevitable.
The earliest written reference to the Celtic tribes is found in the late sixth century b.c.e. in the works of Hecataeus of Miletus, who described Narbonne, in today’s France, as a city of the Celts. A hundred years later, the Greek geographer Herodotus described a people, the Kelto^ as the most westerly of the European people but also holding territories at the source of the Danube River. The fourth-century b.c.e. Greek writer Ephoros described the Celts as one of the four great barbarian races, the equal of the powerful Libyans, Persians, and Scythians to the south, east, and north of the Greeks respectively. These writers were reporting what they had learned from travelers; they had no firsthand experience of Celtic ways.
For two centuries, central and western Europe was essentially under Celtic control. Then the Celts began to expand, moving south and west. At the height of their expansion, Celtic tribes occupied territory that stretched from Galatia in Asia Minor—today’s Turkey—west to Ireland, and from northern Germany to Italy. They were the first truly European civilization.
They were also aggressive in expanding their territories. Around 387 b.c.e. the Celts reached the steps of the Roman capital, where the city leaders were hiding in terror. A siege ensued, broken when the sacred geese in the temple of Juno called an alarm that roused the captives against the last rush of the invasion. Had the geese not squawked when they did, Europe may well have been a Celtic continent. But the tides of fortune turned against the Celts, and by the first century c.e. a Roman empire stretched across much of the ancient Celtic territory.
It is from this period that we learn the most about Celtic traditions, religion, and ritual. But the source is suspect: The writer was their fiercest enemy, the Roman general who would become emperor, Julius Caesar, who fought the Celtic people and recorded what he knew of them in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. In the Celts, whom he called Gauls, Caesar faced the most significant impediment to his imperial plans. As aggressive as the Celts had been in their period of expansion, the Romans under Caesar were just as aggressive.
This time, the Celts were fighting to maintain their home territories, not to move into new ones. Classical sources tell us of the fierceness of Gaulish and British warriors, but if the Celts were a people to be feared, they also occupied lands the Romans wished to conquer. And because the Celtic warriors fought individually, for personal glory, while the trained Roman legions were pawns in a larger economic game, the Celts were ultimately beaten back. Classical literature tells of the carnage of battle and the horror of massacre that, even from the point of view of the victors, was unendurable. Roman historian Tacitus tells us of the rebellion of the British queen Boudicca against the invading Romans who had raped her daughters; Polybius tells of the powerful Celtic warriors who wore little clothing apart from their great gold neckpieces and who sliced off the heads of their vanquished enemies, only to die as miserable captives after being paraded naked through the streets of Rome.
Because the Celtic people themselves left no written records, we only hear the voices of their literate enemies. Although Caesar, Ammianus Marcellinus, Tacitus, Diodorus Siculus, and others recorded many interesting details about Celtic culture, we cannot rely solely upon them. They were writing, after all, for an audience that cheered the extermination of this fierce foe. The temptation was strong to portray the Celts as more savage and brutal than they were in reality. Such Roman material must be read with suspicion. When Marcellinus speaks of the "great pride and insolence" of the Celtic warrior, for instance, it is easy to dismiss the comment as intended to drive fear into the hearts of the Roman citizenry. But what of his claim that Celtic women helped their men in battle? Was this an observed fact, or a way of showing the Celts to be more barbaric than the Romans, who left their wives at home when they invaded Celtic lands? When Strabo says that the Celts are "war-mad and uncouth," we can recognize his propagandizing tone, but what of his report that the Celts placed a premium on education and eloquence?
Despite their defeat, the Celtic peoples were not exterminated. Many remained in their old territories, intermarrying with Roman soldiers to become the ancestors of many of today’s Europeans and, by further migration, European-Americans. Others migrated into territories traditionally occupied by the Germans, whom they fought or married or both. Celtic languages and Celtic customs continued to migrate and adapt.
Both on the Continent and in Britain, the Celts had constant contact with the German or Teutonic tribes, who spoke a different language and had different customs, but who shared enough of their characteristics philosophically and socially that at times the two groups are difficult to distinguish. The Anglo-Saxons, a Germanic group that invaded England in early historic times, encountered Celtic people there; the resulting British culture combined features of the two parent cultures. There, and in other Celtic lands as well, contact with Scandinavians occurred when Vikings raided, and sometimes settled in, the coastal areas; these visitors brought their own languages and religions, so that in the ancient Celtic lands we often find words, myths, and folklore of Scandinavian origin.
Thus what we know today as "Celtic culture" is based in part upon biased literature written by enemies of the Celts, and in part upon oral traditions written down in medieval or later times in lands where the Celts mingled with other tribal people; both sources raise questions even as they answer them. But scholars have other ways of finding information about the Celts that are not reliant upon these potentially tainted sources. They are archaeological excavations of Celtic sites (material culture) and analysis of Celtic languages (nonmaterial culture).
Where language cannot reach, the archaeologist reads instead the artifacts of ancient cultures. Unlike warrior generals who slander their opponents, potsherds and earthen walls do not deliberately lie nor distort the facts. But because time destroys anything not made of stone, metal, or bone, even the richest site leaves many unanswered questions about cultures of the past. Leather, cloth, and even ceramics can decay after several hundred, much less several thousand, years. Thus archaeologists are forced to piece together a picture of Celtic life that relies solely on non-decaying materials, sometimes comparing their finds with the written texts in a search for common themes. It is impossible to know with certainty how close the re-created Celtic culture is to the original.
The search for the origins of the Celts begins more than three thousand years ago, in Bronze-Age central Europe. There, faint traces of an energetic people have been found and categorized by scholars, who seek to determine which of the related and contiguous cultures were proto-Celtic and which were not. The analysis of archaeological remains points to religious and social changes that led, with unusual rapidity, to the creation of a dynamic culture. At what point this culture can be called Celtic is a subject of debate.
Approximately 1,400 years before the common era, people buried their dead in a distinctive way, by building mounds or "barrows" over the graves. A few hundred years later, burial practices changed: after cremation, ashes of the dead were placed in urns and buried in designated cemeteries. This, the Urnfield stage, was the first of many steps in the development of a distinctive Celtic culture; the culture of this time is usually considered proto-Celtic, for while it is not yet fully Celtic, it appears related.
The Celts remained in prehistory longer than other Europeans did, for they did not develop writing, except for a rudimentary script called ogham that was used for short inscriptions. But illiterate does not mean unintelligent or lacking in genius. The Celts were both inventive and artistic, as the beautifully wrought objects from the second stage of Celtic culture— named for its primary archaeological site, Hall-statt in Austria—reveal. By this time, the Celts had become metalworkers of some renown in the ancient world. The mirrors, jewelry, weapons, and other splendid metal objects from the Hallstatt culture were created during the Iron Age, from 800 to 450 b.c.e.; most were found in barrow graves, for unlike the preceding Urnfield people, those of Hallstatt had resumed erecting great mounds over their gravesites. Examples of their workmanship have been found in non-Celtic areas of Europe, showing that there was significant trade in their metalwork.
The manufacture of ornate but useful objects continued in the late Iron Age culture called La Tene, from "the shallows" of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland, where a hoard of metal objects was discovered and dated to approximately 450 b.c.e. From then until the 1st century b.c.e., the fluid style developed at La Tene was the dominant one among the European Celts; its influence affected neighboring people as well, while the skillful artists and artisans of La Tene expanded their repertoire by using designs inspired by the Etruscans, the Scythians, and other distant cultures. Some scholars date the beginning of Celtic culture to this period.
From these early sites in central Europe, the Celtic tribes moved out to settle throughout western Europe. Celtic migrations began early, with people colonizing today’s Spain and France in the Hallstatt period. Later, Celtic people moved from their continental homelands to the islands off the west coast of Europe. First Britain and then Ireland were invaded by groups of Celts who found earlier, non-Celtic people in residence. Joining with or fighting these groups, the Celts created what is called insular Celtic culture, in which elements of earlier culture survived in vestigial form. Scholars disagree about when the Celts arrived, but agree that the migration took place in several, or many, waves—a belief that is found as well in ancient literature and medieval scholarship.
After the arrival of the Roman legions, Celtic art and artifacts changed. Whereas in earlier times, the Celtic people did not portray their divinities in human form, later artists adopted Roman styles, probably to please their patrons and clients. From this period (ca. 100-400 c.e.) we find statues and reliefs of gods and goddesses, many clad in Roman togas but wearing Celtic jewelry or carrying Celtic cult objects. Some such sculptures are inscribed with names of the divinity depicted. Because the Roman legions practiced what was called the "interpretatio Romana," giving the names of their gods to those of the people they colonized, many Celtic gods were labeled with Latin names. In some cases, the original name was included, but often not even that survived. Thus Celtic and Roman cultures were also melded and can be difficult to distinguish.
At base, the term Celtic refers not to a culture but to a language group. In addition to the similarities of archaeological finds like the Urnfield burials and the swirling metal patterns of the La Tene artists, similar words are found across the old Celtic lands—today’s nations of Germany, Austria, France, England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. While the names of gods and goddesses may differ, some words found in place-names suggest the spiritual values of the people who used Celtic languages, like nemeton for "sacred grove" and find for both "white" and "radiant." What the word Celtic itself means is unknown; if it was not, as many assume, the name of a small group within the larger Celtic world, it may derive from the Old Norse word for "war," for the Celts were known as a warrior people.
Celtic is a branch of the great Indo-European language family that includes Germanic languages such as English and Dutch; Romance languages such as Italian, Spanish, and French; Slavic languages such as Russian; the Baltic languages, Lithuanian and Latvian; Sanskrit, the language of ancient India; and the odd outpost of Tocharian along the Silk Road near China. The Indo-European-speaking people are not, as was assumed in the 19th century, all racially related. But they share a linguistic family tree that reaches back to central Europe in approximately 2,500 b.c.e. The Celtic tongues were among the first to branch off from the trunk of that tree; thus some ancient verbal forms are maintained in the Celtic tongues that were lost in later branches of the language tree.
Today, six Celtic tongues are known. They fall into two groups, divided by pronunciation and, to a lesser extent, by grammar. Irish and Scottish, both called Gaelic, and Manx, the dying language of the tiny Isle of Man, are called Goidelic Celtic or P-Celtic, while Welsh, Breton, and Cornish are called Brythonic or Q-Celtic. The Goidelic languages are more grammatically complicated, while the Brythonic tongues are slightly more streamlined; in addition, the letter pronounced as Q (or C) in the Brythonic languages became P in the Goidelic, hence their alternate names. For instance, the number "four" in Irish is ceathar; the same word in Cornish becomes peswar. Similarly, "head" and "son" in Irish are cenn and mac, while in Cornish they are pen and map.
Although these languages have lasted more than three thousand years, they are in danger today. Some 16.5 million people live in the ancient Celtic lands, but only approximately 2 million people speak Celtic tongues, and fewer still speak them as first languages. Political and cultural pressure has meant that other lan-guages—notably French and English—are the official tongues of Celtic countries. Only in Ireland is the indigenous language the language of the state, and even there English is used for most communication. Scots Gaelic is spoken on both sides of the Atlantic, in the Cape Breton Island and in the aptly named Nova Scotia as well as in Scotland itself, but it is a minority language, as is the case in Wales, where the Celtic tongue, Welsh, was not officially recognized until 1969.
Breton boasts 1 million speakers, but because the peninsula of Brittany has been part of France for the last six hundred years, schoolchildren there are taught French, not Breton. The last native speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell, died in 1974; in Cornwall the language lost its native status more than a hundred years ago. Both languages are now the domain of scholars and cultural enthusiasts.
The economic value of speaking English, the world’s major language for commerce, has been a primary reason for the decline in the use of Celtic languages over the last several centuries. Because Celts are not racially distinct people but people who speak Celtic languages, if those languages die, so do the Celts.
The Oral Tradition
Literate people often presume that something transcribed into writing is permanent and unalterable, while the spoken word disappears quickly and can be readily changed. But written works are more fragile, and memorized works more enduring, than is commonly believed. The Greek poet Sappho was only known from a few lines quoted by other writers and from her reputation as one of the great poets of antiquity, until a mummy was discovered whose embalmer had used strips from an old manuscript of Sappho’s poems in his work. The burning of libraries, as at Alexandria in Egypt in the third century c.e., has meant incalculable loss to human learning. If the written word is not necessarily permanent, neither is it unalterable. Changes in dialect or in spelling can create misunderstandings at a distance in time or place. Writing something down does not in itself insure that it will survive as the author intended.
Conversely, skilled storytellers have been found by researchers to be astonishingly accurate in their recall of details and compositional frameworks. It is now believed that the epics of Homer, despite their great length, began as orally transmitted works and were written down only later; the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed aloud and shared through public recitation rather than private reading. In addition, oral societies have social structures that support frequent recitation of stories, dispersing those stories through the community in a way that the solitary experience of reading cannot match.
So although they were not literate, the Celts did not lack learning or poetry or historical knowledge. They believed that words gained power by being spoken rather than written. To the Irish Celts, the craft of poetry was a form of magic, related to incantation and enchantment. Especially powerful was the satire, a stinging verbal rebuke so strong and effective that it could change the physical world. A satire could raise boils on the skin of a stingy king or twist the arm of a thief. While we do not know whether the continental Celts held the same beliefs, evidence from classical writers emphasizes the importance they placed on eloquence.
Even after literacy was introduced, it was not widespread, and extemporaneous composition of stories and poems continued. At the same time, works held in the oral tradition were written down, so that early Celtic literature was preserved and passed along by a newly literate class: the monks, who in Christian times took the place of the bards of antiquity. Ireland, which was spared the ravages of Roman invasion and therefore never developed artistic styles that imitated those of the conquerors, is the source of the greatest number and variety of written sources, with Wales and Britain trailing behind, while little remains to tell us the myths of the continental Celts.
Celtic Textual Sources
For the earliest periods of Celtic culture and for the continental Celts into historical times, archaeologists must listen to the mute testimony of artifacts. Few texts exist from ancient Gaul. After Roman occupation, some Celts became literate, no doubt for economic and social advancement. From several of these literate Celts, we have inscriptions connected to religious practices. Written on rugged lead tablets, the inscriptions were found in graves and at cult sites; although short, they reveal some information (names of gods, social rank, family names) about the people who inscribed and deposited them.
Among the insular Celts, the situation was dramatically different. Celtic languages continued to be spoken after the arrival of literacy, which in most cases was contemporaneous with Christianization. In Ireland many early poems and epics—previously recited and memorized by the bardic classes—were written down by monks who belonged to the culture whose works they were transcribing. In Wales the same thing occurred, although somewhat later. While the transcribers may not have felt any temptation to propagandize against their Celtic ancestors, they may also have been uncomfortable with some of the values expressed in the stories they were writing down. Especially when it comes to women, the insular Celtic written sources must be read with care. But compared to the works of their Roman enemies, the words of the Celtic storytellers offer complex and nuanced information about the society from which they sprang.
In some cases, the works were transcribed in the original languages; in a few cases, the language used was classical Latin, the language of the Church. Sources in Celtic languages carry with them some of the values embedded and encoded in the words and structure, while Latin and other tongues may occasionally convey different meanings than the original may have intended. The greatest number of Celtic-language texts are in Irish, which boasts the distinction of being Europe’s third-oldest literary language, after Greek and Latin.
In addition to works of direct transcription of myths, we have some early writings by Celtic people themselves that reveal religious beliefs and practices, such as the geographical and historical works of the historian Nennius and the author Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales). These are not necessarily free from bias, whether deliberate or not, for authors can only write from their own perspective, which is necessarily limited.
Texts were typically written on fragile material like vellum made from sheepskin or on parchment made from plant fibers. Unless such materials are carefully preserved, they can quickly deteriorate. In addition, the vagaries of history—including several centuries of Viking raids—meant that some great works were lost to fire, water, and other destruction. What we have today often survived by an accident of history. It is impossible to know if other surviving texts may someday be unearthed and might change our view of the Celtic past.
Nonetheless a number of significant manuscripts have survived for more than a thousand years. The most famous, the topic of Kells, records no mythic material but is completely devoted to Christian scripture. More useful for the scholar of mythology are the topic of the Dun Cow, written down in the 11th century (allegedly on the hide of a cow whose milk-giving powers recall a mythological image of abundance); the Book of Leinster, written in the late 12th century; the Book of Ui Maine, written in 1394 by Faelan mac Gabhann; the Book of Ballymote, transcribed ca. 1400 c.e.; and the Yellow Book of Lecan, composed by three scribes in 1417. Each of these compilations includes a number of stories and poems, some of which are called "books" (as in the Book of Invasions); because this can be confusing to the nonspecialist, we will use the term book to refer to any compilation and the term text to refer to a single story.
One of the oldest of the texts is the Book of Invasions (also called the Book of the Taking of Ireland), which was written down in the 12th century in several versions. This text describes the history of Ireland from the beginning of time. While there are obvious biblical interpolations (Noah, for instance, appears as an ancestral figure), there are also many mythical figures prominent in the works; thus the Book of Invasions is a major source for information about Irish, and through it Celtic, mythology.
Another text written down at about the same time, but based on much older material, is the Dindshenchas or place-poetry. Each poem tells the history of a place-name, and as many such names derive from their connection to myth, the poems of the Dindshenchas provide valuable mythic information. In addition, a series of Irish texts variously categorized as adventures, visions, wooings, cattle raids, elopements, and voyages provide vivid images of Celtic life. Some of the most important are the Irish epic called the Tain bo Cuailnge; the legal texts called the Senchas Mor; the short poems called the Triads; the collection of Welsh myths, the Mabinogion; and the poems of the great and presumedly historical Welsh bard Taliesin.
Unfortunately, less than one-quarter of the known texts have been translated into English. Many of those are difficult for the average reader to obtain. In addition, even when translated, the texts often present problems in interpretation. The valuable medieval texts that make up the Dindshenchas, for instance, are filled with allusions to stories and figures who are now unknown.
Because all of these texts were created after Christianization, it is impossible to tell whether the stories were altered to fit the new worldview or whether they truly reflect the viewpoint of the Celts. In general, where a story conveys a meaning different from the later (in this case Christian) worldview, it can be assumed to be correctly transcribed, while anything that agrees is suspect. If, for instance, a monk describes a world-destroying event as a flood, it would be impossible to tell whether that was originally a Celtic idea or whether it was imported from biblical sources. Conversely, if the same monk described a god who wheeled a huge mallet around on a cart—a figure not found in the Bible—we can assume that the image was originally Celtic.
In addition to the 500 or so tales and poems that survive from ancient Ireland, some texts are known from other insular Celtic societies. After Ireland, the greatest wealth of mythological material was transcribed in Wales: the White Book of Rhydderech, composed in the early 14th century, and the Red Book of Hergst, composed some fifty years later. Together, the tales compiled in the two books comprise the Mabinogion, a great cycle of myths as complex and rich as any known to the literate world.
Although in early times the literary language of Scotland was "common Gaelic" or Irish, by the late Middle Ages some works were being transcribed in the local language, Scots Gaelic. An important source from that time is the Book of the Dean of Lismore, written in 1516, which includes stories known from Irish sources as well as some original to the document. On the Isle of Man a ballad written down in 1770 reveals the extent of the island’s oral tradition, while in Cornwall only fragments of mythic material remain, leaving us to guess at the great tales that have been lost. In Brittany written texts are mostly late, from the 15 th century and beyond, but 12th-century French poets Marie de France and Chretien de Troyes appear to have based their romances on oral Celtic sources.
The Folklore Movement
Literacy and the oral tradition came together in the late 19th century, when across Europe literate people began to be aware of the depth and richness of their indigenous cultures. Rural life, which had gone on relatively unchanged for many generations, was suddenly threatened by increasing industrialization. In places where for generations the same festivals had been held, the same stories told, railroads now cut through quaint villages, luring young people to factory work in the increasingly crowded cities. The old tales, based as they were in ancient religious and cultural visions, were in danger of being lost, as storytellers died with no one to carry on after them.
The great era of folklore collection began then. In Germany the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, gathered scores of stories from country residents. Some of these, like "Cinderella" and "Snow White," are now part of the collective heritage of the world’s children, for although originally myths describing the actions of gods and goddesses, the subjugation of these ancient religious ways meant the diminishment of deities into mere human heroes and heroines, their grand adventures becoming merely amusing tales.
In Finland Elias Lonrott trekked through the winter weather to collect stories that are clearly mythical. He wrote them in a curious chanting rhythm into a collection called the Kalevala, still one of the primary texts for those who desire to learn about ancient Finnish religion. In Lithuania collectors transcribed thousands of daina or folk songs, most of them addressing the land’s ancient goddesses; the songs permit scholars to tentatively reconstruct the ancient mythology of the Baltic region.
In the Celtic lands, too, the folklore movement made its mark. But rather than being merely a cultural effort, in Scotland and Wales and, especially, in Ireland, folklore and literature joined forces. It began with the curious case of James Macpherson, a Scottish poet who created a sensation with the release of his collections of "ancient" poetry from the Highlands. A jaded public was inspired by the Celtic passion of Macpherson’s work, then scandalized to learn that it was not word-by-word translation but an imaginative reconstruction—what today would be called ethnopoetic transcription.
But if Macpherson himself fell from favor, a renaissance of Celtic learning had begun. Suddenly collectors in Wales, Brittany, and Ireland were transcribing the stories and songs that had, only a decade previously, been scorned as the inconsequential yarn-spinning of illiterates. William Carleton and T. Crofton Croker set down Irish legends, the great J. F. Campbell published huge collections of Scottish tales, and Lady Charlotte Guest published the first English translations of the Mabinogion. The movement continued and deepened in Ireland with the "Celtic Revival" movement spearheaded by the great poet William Butler Yeats, and it continues to some extent today as rock bands name themselves after ancient Celtic goddesses and movie directors mine the tales of the past for new entertainments.
Celtic Life and Society
That Celts did not develop writing did not mean that they had no way to record their history and beliefs. As we have seen, Celtic peoples placed great emphasis on the spoken word as a means of conveying both historical and religious information, leaving us ancient documents describing Celtic life and beliefs. Examination of contemporaneous texts by Roman and other Mediterranean writers offers information naturally biased by their enmity toward the Celts. Archaeology supplements the written word with artifacts found in Celtic sites, both on the Continent and on the islands. Finally, vestiges of Celtic beliefs can be traced through oral recitation and storytelling.
Scholars and writers rely on these three major points of access for information about the Celts, but every statement made is necessarily conjectural. There is much we do not know about the Celts. Over the last two hundred years, theories about how they lived and what they believed have been espoused and then discarded. Many aspects of Celtic life remain subject to intense, often acrimonious, debate. With no definitive text to illuminate questions, such debate is likely to continue. Nonetheless, some features of Celtic life are accepted by most scholars.
Celtic society was based upon a balance of powers among the leaders, who included both kings and druid-poets. Kings could not continue ruling if the land ceased to be productive for the farmers and herders, in which case the druid-poets had to use their magic to end the king’s reign. This balance of powers was symbolized by the "marriage" of the king, at his inauguration, to the goddess of the land. As her consort and spouse, the king’s job was to keep her happy; the goddess revealed her contentedness by permitting the land to produce food in abundance. Should the king, however, lose the favor of the goddess, pestilence and famine would follow. Thus the king did not expect his people to serve him; rather, he served them as the goddess’s husband.
The role of the druid-poet was complex. In both Continental and insular Celtic society, great importance was placed upon eloquence. Since Celtic culture was nonliterate, recitation played a very important role in conveying historical, genealogical, and mythological information from generation to generation. As a result, members of the druidic orders were highly trained in memorization and extemporaneous composition. In addition, they practiced what we might call psychic skills: casting oracles, interpreting dreams, reading omens.
The druids were the priests of the Celts; they were also the poets, historians, judges, troubadours, and professors. Not all druids practiced all of these arts. Some specialized in one or the other, but all fell within the social role of the druid. Nor did the druids form a separate class in the way priests today typically do. They were, rather, spread through society, where they satisfied their various roles.
These social roles remained, to some extent, in Celtic lands even after Roman conquest, Christianization, and occupation by Germanic and Norse overlords. The Romans, who had already cut down the sacred groves on the Continent, destroyed the last druid sanctuary, on Anglesey island off Britain, in ca. 64 c.e. Roman historian Tacitus described the massacre, as robed priestesses and monks fought desperately to preserve their sacred land. As they were cut down, one by one, the knowledge they carried was killed, just as surely as if a great library had been burned to rubble and ash.
The position of Celtic women is hotly contested among scholars. Evidence can be found that Celtic women fought alongside male warriors when their lands were threatened, that queens ruled and led armies into battle, that women were poets and druids. But some scholars dismiss such evidence as indicating only occasional extraordinary women, arguing that the average Celtic woman had few legal rights and served her husband in all matters. This area is one of the most contentious in contemporary scholarship, with some scholars arguing that evidence of matrilineal succession (passage of property and social standing through the mother’s family) suggests a non-patriarchal social organization, while others assert that the Celts were a fervently patriarchal warrior culture and any counterevidences were vestiges of pre-Celtic cultures.
Most religious systems begin with a creation myth that explains how the world we know came into being. There is, however, no extant Celtic creation myth. One may have existed that has been lost, but we find no references or allusions that suggest as much. This has led some scholars to describe the Celts as positing a world that is continually creating itself, or one that has been always in existence as it is today.
That world, however, does not only include what is tangible to our senses, for according to Celtic belief an Otherworld exists beyond our immediate reality. This Otherworld resembles the Dreamtime of the Australian peoples, for it is a place contiguous with our world, where deities and other powerful beings dwell and from which they can affect our world. These beings cannot enter and leave at will, but only at points in time and space where access is possible.
The Celts also believed that human beings could enter the Otherworld. Some did so accidentally, by mistaking it for this world. Others were kidnapped into it—for example, by a fairy lover who desired the human as a companion, or by a fairy hostess looking for a fine musician for a dance. The Otherworld looked like this world, only more beautiful and changeless. Trees bore blossom and fruit at the same time there; no one ever aged or grew infirm; death had no dominion in the Otherworld.
This world was not mundane as opposed to sacred; the Celts appear to have had no such dual-istic conceptions. Although different from the magical Otherworld, this world had its sacred points as well. The four directions were oriented around a sacred center, not necessarily physical nor located in the center. The sacred center was a concept rather than a specific place; it could move, it could multiply, it could even leave this world entirely and become part of the Otherworld.
In the Otherworld lived the great gods. There is no specific pantheon of gods found among all Celtic peoples. Rather, there were many gods, most of which were specific to a region or environment. So polytheistic were the Celts that the standard oath was, "I swear by the gods my people swear by." But however decentralized was the pantheon, some divinities appear in many places, usually under various names. These include the triple mothers, a horned god, and divinities of rivers and other landscape features.
The Celts typically did not depict their divinities in human form. Because divinities had the power of shape-shifting—assuming multiple forms, including those of humans and animals— there was no native tradition of sculpting or painting them in physical form. It was only after the Roman conquest that we find examples of the Mediterranean tradition of showing gods and goddesses in the forms of Roman men and women.
Similarly, the Celts did not bandy about the names of their deities. If all words had power, how powerful were the names of the gods, which were not to be casually invoked. We are not even certain if the words recorded, often by non-Celtic authors, represented divine names or titles. Christians refer to the same deity as Jesus, Christ, Our Lord, the Savior, and the Son of God; a non-Christian reader, finding those names in various texts, might make the understandable mistake of imagining five different gods. It is impossible now to be completely certain whether the names recorded in Roman times and later refer to one or many gods.
Nonetheless, scholars generally agree that the Celts did not have an organized, hierarchical pantheon. Rather than a court arranged in descending order under a king of gods, they saw divinities as arranged in families, as for example the descendants of Danu or Don, both mother goddesses. These gods did not live in the sky but in mountains and the sea, in trees and in running streams. This form of religious vision, seeing the divine within the physical world, is known as pantheism and is distinct from those religions that see divinity as separate from or transcendent over nature.
Although all Celts did not share the same gods and goddesses, each group having its own divinities associated with features of their land, there are some commonalities among the tribes.
The Celts all believed in a goddess whose generosity and fecundity made life possible. Often this mother goddess was the ancestor of the entire people, while at other times she was viewed as the ancestor of the gods themselves. Her name in myth is Danu or Anu or Don, which has been connected with a hypothesized central European goddess Dan, whose name survives in such rivers as the Danube and the Don. Although she was a goddess of the land, the mother goddess also ruled the rivers that watered the soil; thus most rivers in Celtic lands are, even today, named for goddesses.
The goddesses are often depicted as triple. During Roman times, they were the Deae Matres, the "mother goddesses," shown as three women with similar features, two apparently younger than the third. As contemporary genetics has shown that a woman with at least two daughters is most likely to pass her inheritance through the ages, the ancient portraits of three goddesses may represent a mother-ancestor and her descendants rather than, as was commonly assumed, the same woman passing through different phases of life.
The powers of the god matched and complemented those of the goddess. Although not invariably matched into pairs and rarely into monogamous units, Celtic gods and goddesses are often associated. The male force was imagined as representing skill, as compared to the goddess’s powers of fecundity. Many gods were called "many-skilled" or "many-gifted" because they offered their gifts of magic, craft, and poetry to humanity. Gods appeared both as mature men and as young, even vulnerable, sons. The latter could be stolen or lost, and then regained, as several myth-cycles attest.
Archaeology tells us that the Celts did not build many temples. Rather, they celebrated their religion in the open air, a setting appropriate to a people who envisioned divinity as resident in the natural world. Their ritual sites were on hilltops, where great blazes marked the turning seasons;at wells of fresh water, which were honored for their connection to the goddess of sovereignty who empowered kings; and in groves of trees, especially oaks, where ceremonies were held.
Because of the lack of written documents, we have little idea what these rituals entailed. Classical writers liked to claim they had witnessed butchery: animals and even humans killed as sacrifices to the gods. Such commentary, long believed to be merely propaganda by enemies of the Celts, has more recently been examined in light of bodies found in bogs. Because the sterile waters and tannic acid of boggy lands preserve organic material for centuries, even millennia, it is possible to autopsy such corpses to determine the manner of death. Several bog-bodies found in Celtic lands show that the victims were people of leisure, well-fed and well-groomed, who were killed by being strangled, stabbed, and then drowned. This "threefold death" corresponds to some textual evidence, suggesting that in times of crisis human sacrifice may indeed have been practiced.
It is not, however, believed to have been a standard component of Celtic ritual. Most Celtic ceremonies were, rather, centered on the turning of the seasons. Although some scholars argue that the four recognized Celtic holidays were in fact only Irish, most agree that the Celts marked two seasons, each of which had a beginning and an ending half, thus making four seasonal festivals. The two most important were at the turning points of the year: from summer to winter at Samhain on November 1, and from winter back to summer on Beltane on May 1. The secondary festivals marked the midpoints between those great events: Imbolc, on February 1, when winter moved towards spring; and Lughnasa, on August 1, when summer died into fall.
These festivals are distinctively Celtic, for other people marked their year off by noting the solar shifts of solstices (June 21 and December 21) and equinoxes (March 21 and September 21). That the Celts marked the season’s midpoint rather than the point of change may relate to the insistence upon the sacredness of the center, which is both a geographical and a spiritual concept.
Tales of Arthur
Some of the most famous tales of western Europe are those of the Matter of Britain, also known as the Arthurian Cycle. From the historian Nennius, who rarely let himself be inhibited by fact, we learn of a Celtic king of the island named Arthur, who rallied his fellows and fought against the Germanic Saxon invaders sometime in the early Christian era, approximately the sixth century c.e. References to the same or a similar figure appear in the Welsh annals, so it appears that there is some historical reality to the regal figure of Arthur, who finally was killed in an internecine battle with his fellow Celts.
Whatever the facts, the story that grew around the figure of Arthur is more mythical than historical. A single Celtic theme repeats itself in the tales, which were developed by writers and artists over many centuries, so that the originating pattern became embedded in complication and elaboration. That theme is the power of the goddess of sovereignty, without whose approving presence the king’s right to rule is in danger. The love triangle between the queen and her two lovers (which appears in the Tristan-Iseult-Mark story as well as that of Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur) is a human reflection of the myth of a goddess who marries one king after another. Similarly, when the Fisher King is wounded in his generative organ and therefore unmanned, the land becomes barren, for in the Celtic framework, a blemished king finds no favor with the land’s goddess. Thus although not part of Celtic religion, the tales of Camelot and the knights of the Round Table form an important cultural expression of Celtic ideas and ideals.
The Fairy Faith
Much of oral tradition in Celtic lands involves tales of fairies, beings of the Otherworld who interact with humanity. In Ireland such figures are diminished gods, the race of the Tuatha De Danann (tribe of the goddess Danu) who went into hiding within the hills and bogs of Ireland after being defeated by the human invaders, the Milesians. Similarly, in Brittany the old gods became korrigans, while in other areas of the ancient Celtic world, we find magical beings whose behavior suggests that they were originally divine.
The early scholar W. Y. Evans-Wentz named these tales and traditions the "fairy faith," claiming that it was a functional religion. In other words, there was both myth (or in this case, legend) and ritual to be found among believers in the fairy people. Stories about the likelihood of being kidnapped by fairies on certain days were connected to rituals of protection, such as wearing clothing backward or carrying iron implements. Although the claim that the fairy faith is a true religion is controversial, there appear to be religious elements to the belief system.
Whether that belief system is connected to earlier Celtic beliefs is similarly controversial. Legend claims that the fairies were originally gods, and some, like the familiar leprechaun, bear the names of divinities known from mythological texts (in this case, Lugh). While some scholars dismiss or question the connection between folkloric figures and the great gods and goddesses of mythology, most see resonances between what has been recorded from oral folk-loric sources and the written evidence found in manuscripts that record early myths. The heroic figure of Fionn mac Cumhaill, for instance, appears in folklore as the somewhat less-than-heroic giant Finn McCool, and many similar tales are told of them.
Pronunciation and Spelling
Celtic mythology did not begin in text; it began in story. When transcribers (whether monks or folklorists) wrote down these stories, they spelled in various ways, caring less about the orthography and more about plot and character. For years, indeed for centuries, there was little standardization among Celtic names. As a result, various texts will offer various spellings—some-times several spellings in a single text.
To popularize their work, 19th- and early 20th-century writers often anglicized Celtic words, creating a hybrid language that was easy on the eyes of the English-speaking reader but that had no scholarly support. Because Celtic languages and the people who speak them have so often been politically disadvantaged in comparison to their English conquerors, the angli-cization of Celtic words can be offensive to some. Yet the variations of ancient, early modern, and late modern spellings, with and without diacritical marks, can be confusing and off-putting, especially when accompanied by a pedantic insistence on one formulation over another. Because this topic is aimed not at the specialist but at the general reader, the entries include as many alternative spellings as were available. For words in
Celtic languages, the spelling that most scholars accept is used as the primary entry name. When that represents a challenge to English-speaking readers, the anglicized spelling appears as the first alternative as a guide to acceptable pronunciation. In the rare case where an anglicized spelling is so common as to render the Celtic spelling not readily recognizable—as with the magician Merlin, correctly spelled Myrddin— the procedure is reversed, with the most acceptable Celtic spelling appearing in brackets immediately after the entry. Latinized names of continental Celtic divinities, which are readily pronounced by English speakers, are not given anglicized forms.