The Celts, like other early European peoples, were polytheists, worshipping a variety of gods and goddesses. These tended to vary from region to region, but storm gods and horse gods were prominent. Religious experts called druids were prominent in many Celtic society, though their status seems to have varied over time, and from region from region.
Beginning at around the same time, and perhaps linked to the rise of the La Tene phase of Celtic culture, the Celts experienced another period of rapid expansion. From France, they moved southwest into Spain, mingling with the Iberian tribes to form the Celtiberian people. They crossed the Channel to establish themselves as the dominant group in the British Isles. Some groups migrated southwards to settle the Po valley of northern Italy. From there they raided down into the Italian peninsula, famously sacking Rome Britain, northern Spain, northern Italy, Austria and parts of central in the early 4th century BCE.
Yet another group moved further south east into the Balkans, eventually arriving in Greece in the early 3rd century BCE. Here they caused immense destruction before crossing over into Asia Minor and, defeated by local kings there, settled down to form the kingdom of Galatia. By this time, their original homeland had been overrun by German tribes.
These had expanded from their point of origin in southern Scandinavia and northern Germany to cover the whole of central Europe east of the Rhine, north of the Danube and as far as the Black Sea coast. Though the Celts shared a common language and culture, they were divided into numerous tribes, often at war with one another.
Many of these tribes were under kings, who seem to have been elected, though probably from within royal families. Koch which places the emergence of Celtic culture in Britain much earlier, in the Bronze Age, and credits its spread not to invasion, but due to a gradual emergence in situ out of Proto-Indo-European culture perhaps introduced to the region by the Bell Beaker People , and enabled by an extensive network of contacts that existed between the peoples of Britain and Ireland and those of the Atlantic seaboard.
Roman local government of these regions closely mirrored pre-Roman tribal boundaries, and archaeological finds suggest native involvement in local government. The native peoples under Roman rule became Romanised and keen to adopt Roman ways. Celtic art had already incorporated classical influences, and surviving Gallo-Roman pieces interpret classical subjects or keep faith with old traditions despite a Roman overlay.
In the case of the continental Celts, this eventually resulted in a language shift to Vulgar Latin , while the Insular Celts retained their language. There was also considerable cultural influence exerted by Gaul on Rome, particularly in military matters and horsemanship, as the Gauls often served in the Roman cavalry. The Romans adopted the Celtic cavalry sword, the spatha , and Epona , the Celtic horse goddess. To the extent that sources are available, they depict a pre-Christian Iron Age Celtic social structure based formally on class and kingship, although this may only have been a particular late phase of organization in Celtic societies.
Patron-client relationships similar to those of Roman society are also described by Caesar and others in the Gaul of the 1st century BC. In the main, the evidence is of tribes being led by kings, although some argue that there is also evidence of oligarchical republican forms of government eventually emerging in areas which had close contact with Rome. Most descriptions of Celtic societies portray them as being divided into three groups: In historical times, the offices of high and low kings in Ireland and Scotland were filled by election under the system of tanistry , which eventually came into conflict with the feudal principle of primogeniture in which succession goes to the first-born son.
Little is known of family structure among the Celts. Patterns of settlement varied from decentralised to urban. Slavery , as practised by the Celts, was very likely similar to the better documented practice in ancient Greece and Rome. The Old Irish and Welsh words for 'slave', cacht and caeth respectively, are cognate with Latin captus 'captive' suggesting that the slave trade was an early means of contact between Latin and Celtic societies. Archaeological evidence suggests that the pre-Roman Celtic societies were linked to the network of overland trade routes that spanned Eurasia.
Archaeologists have discovered large prehistoric trackways crossing bogs in Ireland and Germany. Due to their substantial nature, these are believed to have been created for wheeled transport as part of an extensive roadway system that facilitated trade. The myth that the Celtic monetary system consisted of wholly barter is a common one, but is in part false.
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The monetary system was complex and is still not understood much like the late Roman coinages , and due to the absence of large numbers of coin items, it is assumed that "proto-money" was used. Due to the large number of these present in some burials, it is thought they had a relatively high monetary value , and could be used for "day to day" purchases. Low-value coinages of potin , a bronze alloy with high tin content, were minted in most Celtic areas of the continent and in South-East Britain prior to the Roman conquest of these lands. Higher-value coinages, suitable for use in trade, were minted in gold, silver, and high-quality bronze.
Gold coinage was much more common than silver coinage , despite being worth substantially more, as while there were around mines in Southern Britain and Central France, silver was more rarely mined. This was due partly to the relative sparsity of mines and the amount of effort needed for extraction compared to the profit gained. As the Roman civilisation grew in importance and expanded its trade with the Celtic world, silver and bronze coinage became more common.
This coincided with a major increase in gold production in Celtic areas to meet the Roman demand, due to the high value Romans put on the metal. The large number of gold mines in France is thought to be a major reason why Caesar invaded. There are only very limited records from pre-Christian times written in Celtic languages. These are mostly inscriptions in the Roman and sometimes Greek alphabets. The Ogham script, an Early Medieval alphabet , was mostly used in early Christian times in Ireland and Scotland but also in Wales and England , and was only used for ceremonial purposes such as inscriptions on gravestones.
The available evidence is of a strong oral tradition, such as that preserved by bards in Ireland, and eventually recorded by monasteries. Celtic art also produced a great deal of intricate and beautiful metalwork, examples of which have been preserved by their distinctive burial rites. In some regards the Atlantic Celts were conservative: However, despite being outdated, Celtic chariot tactics were able to repel the invasion of Britain attempted by Julius Caesar.
The Gauls are tall of body with rippling muscles and white of skin and their hair is blond, and not only naturally so for they also make it their practice by artificial means to increase the distinguishing colour which nature has given it. For they are always washing their hair in limewater and they pull it back from the forehead to the nape of the neck, with the result that their appearance is like that of Satyrs and Pans since the treatment of their hair makes it so heavy and coarse that it differs in no respect from the mane of horses.
Some of them shave the beard but others let it grow a little; and the nobles shave their cheeks but they let the moustache grow until it covers the mouth. During the later Iron Age the Gauls generally wore long-sleeved shirts or tunics and long trousers called braccae by the Romans. Cloaks were worn in the winter. Brooches and armlets were used, but the most famous item of jewellery was the torc , a neck collar of metal, sometimes gold.
The horned Waterloo Helmet in the British Museum , which long set the standard for modern images of Celtic warriors, is in fact a unique survival, and may have been a piece for ceremonial rather than military wear. According to Aristotle , most "belligerent nations" were strongly influenced by their women, but the Celts were unusual because their men openly preferred male lovers Politics II b. Rankin in Celts and the Classical World notes that "Athenaeus echoes this comment a and so does Ammianus It seems to be the general opinion of antiquity.
Fighting in the buff?
Diodorus went further, stating that "the young men will offer themselves to strangers and are insulted if the offer is refused". Rankin argues that the ultimate source of these assertions is likely to be Posidonius and speculates that these authors may be recording male "bonding rituals". The sexual freedom of women in Britain was noted by Cassius Dio:. When the empress was jesting with her, after the treaty, about the free intercourse of her sex with men in Britain, she replied: There are instances recorded where women participated both in warfare and in kingship, although they were in the minority in these areas.
Plutarch reports that Celtic women acted as ambassadors to avoid a war among Celts chiefdoms in the Po valley during the 4th century BC. Very few reliable sources exist regarding Celtic views on gender divisions and societal status, though some archaeological evidence does suggest that their views of gender roles may differ from contemporary and less egalitarian classical counterparts of the Roman era. However, the evidence is far from conclusive. However, it has been suggested that "the weapons may indicate rank instead of masculinity". Among the insular Celts, there is a greater amount of historic documentation to suggest warrior roles for women.
In addition to commentary by Tacitus about Boudica , there are indications from later period histories that also suggest a more substantial role for "women as warriors", in symbolic if not actual roles. Posidonius and Strabo described an island of women where men could not venture for fear of death, and where the women ripped each other apart.
Under Brehon Law , which was written down in early Medieval Ireland after conversion to Christianity , a woman had the right to divorce her husband and gain his property if he was unable to perform his marital duties due to impotence, obesity, homosexual inclination or preference for other women. Both styles absorbed considerable influences from non-Celtic sources, but retained a preference for geometrical decoration over figurative subjects, which are often extremely stylised when they do appear; narrative scenes only appear under outside influence.
Energetic circular forms, triskeles and spirals are characteristic. Much of the surviving material is in precious metal, which no doubt gives a very unrepresentative picture, but apart from Pictish stones and the Insular high crosses , large monumental sculpture , even with decorative carving, is very rare; possibly it was originally common in wood. Celts were also able to create developed musical instruments such as the carnyces, these famous war trumpets used before the battle to frighten the enemy, as the best preserved found in Tintignac Gaul in and which were decorated with a boar head or a snake head.
The interlace patterns that are often regarded as typical of "Celtic art" were characteristic of the whole of the British Isles, a style referred to as Insular art , or Hiberno-Saxon art. The style was taken up with great skill and enthusiasm by Celtic artists in metalwork and illuminated manuscripts. Equally, the forms used for the finest Insular art were all adopted from the Roman world: These works are from the period of peak achievement of Insular art, which lasted from the 7th to the 9th centuries, before the Viking attacks sharply set back cultural life.
In contrast the less well known but often spectacular art of the richest earlier Continental Celts, before they were conquered by the Romans, often adopted elements of Roman, Greek and other "foreign" styles and possibly used imported craftsmen to decorate objects that were distinctively Celtic. After the Roman conquests, some Celtic elements remained in popular art, especially Ancient Roman pottery , of which Gaul was actually the largest producer, mostly in Italian styles, but also producing work in local taste, including figurines of deities and wares painted with animals and other subjects in highly formalised styles.
Rising nationalism brought Celtic revivals from the 19th century.
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Tribal warfare appears to have been a regular feature of Celtic societies. While epic literature depicts this as more of a sport focused on raids and hunting rather than organised territorial conquest, the historical record is more of tribes using warfare to exert political control and harass rivals, for economic advantage , and in some instances to conquer territory.
The Celts were described by classical writers such as Strabo , Livy , Pausanias , and Florus as fighting like "wild beasts", and as hordes. Dionysius said that their. Thus, at one moment they would raise their swords aloft and smite after the manner of wild boars , throwing the whole weight of their bodies into the blow like hewers of wood or men digging with mattocks, and again they would deliver crosswise blows aimed at no target, as if they intended to cut to pieces the entire bodies of their adversaries, protective armour and all".
Such descriptions have been challenged by contemporary historians. Celtic warriors are described by Polybius and Plutarch as frequently having to cease fighting in order to straighten their sword blades. This claim has been questioned by some archaeologists, who note that Noric steel , steel produced in Celtic Noricum , was famous in the Roman Empire period and was used to equip the Roman military. Polybius also asserts that certain of the Celts fought naked, "The appearance of these naked warriors was a terrifying spectacle, for they were all men of splendid physique and in the prime of life.
Celts had a reputation as head hunters. According to Paul Jacobsthal , "Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world. Denis carried his head to the top of Montmartre. A further example of this regeneration after beheading lies in the tales of Connemara 's St. Feichin , who after being beheaded by Viking pirates carried his head to the Holy Well on Omey Island and on dipping the head into the well placed it back upon his neck and was restored to full health.
Diodorus Siculus , in his 1st-century History had this to say about Celtic head-hunting:. They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money.
They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold. In Gods and Fighting Men , Lady Gregory 's Celtic Revival translation of Irish mythology , heads of men killed in battle are described in the beginning of the story The Fight with the Fir Bolgs as pleasing to Macha , one aspect of the war goddess Morrigu. Like other European Iron Age tribal societies, the Celts practised a polytheistic religion. Rites and sacrifices were carried out by priests known as druids. The Celts did not see their gods as having human shapes until late in the Iron Age.
Celtic shrines were situated in remote areas such as hilltops, groves, and lakes. Celtic religious patterns were regionally variable; however, some patterns of deity forms, and ways of worshipping these deities, appeared over a wide geographical and temporal range. The Celts worshipped both gods and goddesses. In general, Celtic gods were deities of particular skills, such as the many-skilled Lugh and Dagda , while goddesses were associated with natural features, particularly rivers such as Boann , goddess of the River Boyne.
Triplicity is a common theme in Celtic cosmology, and a number of deities were seen as threefold. The Celts had hundreds of deities, some of which were unknown outside a single family or tribe, while others were popular enough to have a following that crossed lingual and cultural barriers. For instance, the Irish god Lugh, associated with storms, lightning , and culture, is seen in similar forms as Lugos in Gaul and Lleu in Wales. Similar patterns are also seen with the continental Celtic horse goddess Epona and what may well be her Irish and Welsh counterparts, Macha and Rhiannon , respectively.
Roman reports of the druids mention ceremonies being held in sacred groves. Druids fulfilled a variety of roles in Celtic religion, serving as priests and religious officiants, but also as judges, sacrificers, teachers, and lore-keepers. Druids organised and ran religious ceremonies, and they memorised and taught the calendar. Other classes of druids performed ceremonial sacrifices of crops and animals for the perceived benefit of the community.
The Coligny calendar , which was found in in Coligny , Ain, was engraved on a bronze tablet, preserved in 73 fragments, that originally was 1. Based on the style of lettering and the accompanying objects, it probably dates to the end of the 2nd century. The restored tablet contains 16 vertical columns, with 62 months distributed over 5 years.
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The French archaeologist J. Monard speculated that it was recorded by druids wishing to preserve their tradition of timekeeping in a time when the Julian calendar was imposed throughout the Roman Empire. However, the general form of the calendar suggests the public peg calendars or parapegmata found throughout the Greek and Roman world.
Roman culture had a profound effect on the Celtic tribes which came under the empire's control. Roman influence led to many changes in Celtic religion, the most noticeable of which was the weakening of the druid class, especially religiously; the druids were to eventually disappear altogether. Romano-Celtic deities also began to appear: Other changes included the adaptation of the Jupiter Column , a sacred column set up in many Celtic regions of the empire, primarily in northern and eastern Gaul.
Another major change in religious practice was the use of stone monuments to represent gods and goddesses. The Celts had only created wooden idols including monuments carved into trees, which were known as sacred poles previously to Roman conquest.
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While the regions under Roman rule adopted Christianity along with the rest of the Roman empire, unconquered areas of Ireland and Scotland began to move from Celtic polytheism to Christianity in the 5th century. Ireland was converted by missionaries from Britain, such as Saint Patrick. Later missionaries from Ireland were a major source of missionary work in Scotland, Anglo-Saxon parts of Britain, and central Europe see Hiberno-Scottish mission. Celtic Christianity , the forms of Christianity that took hold in Britain and Ireland at this time, had for some centuries only limited and intermittent contact with Rome and continental Christianity, as well as some contacts with Coptic Christianity.
Some elements of Celtic Christianity developed, or retained, features that made them distinct from the rest of Western Christianity, most famously their conservative method of calculating the date of Easter. In , the Synod of Whitby began to resolve these differences, mostly by adopting the current Roman practices, which the Gregorian Mission from Rome had introduced to Anglo-Saxon England. From here they expanded over much of continental Europe and Britain.
The map below shows the extent of the Celtic settlements. At their peak, the Celts ranged from Ireland and Spain to Turkey. A brief rundown on some of the regions is given now: The Greek author Pytheas called them the "Pretanic Isles" which derived from the inhabitants name for themselves, Pritani. This was mistranslated into Latin as "Brittania" or "Brittani". The Celts migrated to Ireland from Europe, conquering the original inhabitants.
In clashes with the Romans around the River Clyde a tribe called the "Scotti" came to prominence. From here the Scots expanded and supplanted the Picts, an Celtic people who arrived in Scotland earlier. Ireland was never invaded by the Romans and retains what is probably the language closest to the original Celtic, Irish Gaelic.
Modern France is a composite of many earlier peoples. The Celts settled there and the largest tribe, called the "Galli" by the Romans, gave their name to the region and people, the Gauls. The Gauls were heavily involved in the invasions of Northern Italy. When the Roman Empire expanded many of the Gaullish tribes fled, but some stayed and became Romanized, losing the Celtic language.
Later a Germanic tribe, the Franks, invaded the area and settled. The Franks gave their name to the region but adopted the language and customs of the people.
Thus France is a Celtic people, speaking a Romance language in a country with a Germanic name. Belgium is similar in situation to France. The dominant tribe, the Belgae, gave their name to the region. They were later conquered by the Romans. They pillaged as they moved and attacked, but were defeated by, the Greeks and eventually moved into Turkey, founding Galatia. They were destroyed and assimilated by the Turks early in the first millenium AD. The Celts were at their height during the 4th and 5th centuries BC. During this time they waged three great wars, which had great influence on the history of southern Europe.
Here they settled in great numbers. At the end of the 4th century the overran Pannonia, conquering the Illyrians. All these wars were fought in alliance with the Greeks.
History of the Celts
At this time the Celts and Greeks were on very friendly terms. The defeat of Carthage broke the monopoly on British tin and Spanish silver and freed the overland trade routes to Britain. At this time the Greeks and Celts were allied against the Phoenicians and Persians. Celtic hostility to Carthage helped save Greece from destruction from the East, no Celts enlisted in Carthage's mercenary army. Alexander the Great made alliance with the Celts in BC, when he was about to embark on his conquest of Asia. The Celts kept the Greek dominions safe from attack during his absence. At this time, the height of their power, they were unified as a military confederacy of tribes.
They were attracted by the rich land of Northern Italy and invaded, battling and defeating the Etruscans. At this time the Romans were pushing at the Etruscans from the South, and the Celts and Romans acted in alliance. But the Romans despised the Northern barbarians, and at the seige of Clusium BC which the Romans regarded as a bulwark of Rome against the barbaric North the Romans betrayed the Celts.
The Celts recognized former Roman envoys fighting with the enemy.