Who Were the Ancient Celts?

pic of horned god statue

Irish Myths is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission.

They had an affinity for metalworking and road-building.

Their culture—their language, their religion—spread across Gaul, Iberia, and Italy, and up to the coastal fringes of Northwestern Europe.

Their priest-judges, the druids, were well-known across the ancient world for (amongst other things) their advanced knowledge of astronomy and their sophisticated takes on philosophy.

They were one of—if not the first—Iron Age peoples to posit a belief in an immortal soul.

Were they fierce warriors? Of course they were. Men and women alike. (The immortal soul thing likely contributed to their fearlessness.)

They sacked Delphi in 279 BCE.

Oh, and they sacked Rome (re: the Battle of Allia, 387 BCE).

These were the ancient Celts.

Need I say more?

Well, I mean…I’m going to. (That’s sort of the whole point of me doing this.)

What Does ‘Celtic’ Mean to You?

Swirling, complex knot designs? A rich mythology with antlered gods? A nature-obsessed pagan religion led by robed, bearded wizard-types? Long-haired warriors painted in blue woad shedding their tartan-patterned kilts as they storm, frenzied, into battle? Foot-stomping fiddle music? Henges?

an A.I. rendering created with Craiyon.com using the prompt “Celts”

To quote from British historian Peter Berrestford Ellis’s 1998 book, The Celtic Empire (which I reviewed, right here, in an earlier IrishMyths.com post):

“Few ancient civilizations have been so romantically portrayed as that of the Celts. From the nineteenth century there have been countless volumes which have merged fact and fiction, conjuring images of the Celts, on the one hand, as ‘noble savages’—the American Indians of Europe—and, on the other, as all-wise, all-knowing ancient mystics who, in spite of their ancient wisdom, went under before the barbarity of the Roman Empire.”

British Archaeologist Barry Cunliffe concurs with this description of the Celts, noting in his 2010 book, Druids: A Very Short Introduction, that some of the most popular early depictions of the Britons—i.e., the Celtic peoples who inhabited ancient Britain—were inspired by drawings of Native Americans. And I quote:

“Speculation about our British ancestors was greatly stimulated by reports of ‘savages’ brought back from the New World by John White who, in 1585, had accompanied the group of Englishmen sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to found a colony on the coast of North Carolina. White’s carefully observed drawings of Native Americans became the inspiration for Theodor de Bry’s spirited images of ancient Britons published in 1590 – the first attempts to visualize prehistory.”

These days, the term “Celtic” is often used colloquially as a synonym for “Irish”—or “Scottish,” or “Manx,” or “Welsh,” or “Cornish,” or “Breton.”

These are the six so-called “Celtic nations” of the modern era. Sometimes Galicia in northwestern Spain is thrown in there as well. It’s a fluctuating list.

But in the academic sphere, “Celtic” has a much more nuanced definition.

The Definition and Etymology of “Celt”

More often than not, when Celtic Studies professors talk about “the Celts,” they’re referring to the ancient Celts of continental Europe—including, and especially, the Gauls, with whom Classical historians (and conquerors, like Julius Caesar during his Gallic War) had the closest contact. Indeed, as Cunliffe notes, “the names ‘Gauls’ and ‘Celts’ were often used interchangeably.”

That being said, it’s also widely understood that today, “Celtic” has become an umbrella term, one that can be applied not only to Gaulish-speaking tribes but to several other ancient Indo-European peoples who spoke similar (Celtic) languages and shared other cultural touchstones (e.g., a druid class, the making of torc necklaces, etc.).

These peoples include the Boii; the Celtiberians; the Gallaeci; the Galatians; the Lepontii; the Gaels, who would settle in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man; and the aforementioned Britons, who would settle in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany.

These are the universally agreed upon major Celtic tribes or language groups. But there is still much debate to be had around whether certain prehistoric cultures (e.g., the Hallstatt culture, the Urnfield culture, etc.) qualify as “Celtic.”

An (arguably) even more contentious debate is currently raging—well, maybe not raging— around where, precisely, the Celts got their start. Did Celtic culture originate in Eastern Europe? The Alps? The Atlantic seaboard? That’s a topic for another article—this article: “Where Did Celtic Culture Originate?”

Nuances aside, the consensus among academics today is that the ancient Celts were not a singular ethnic group.

Or as Scottish scholar J. A. MacCulloch put it back in 1911:

“Scrutiny reveals the fact that Celtic-speaking peoples are of differing types… Ethnologically there may not be a Celtic race, but something was handed down from the days of comparative Celtic purity which welded different social elements into a common type, found often where no Celtic tongue is now spoken.”

source: The Religion of the Ancient Celts

So while the Celts were not a continuous lineage of people, it’s not as if the “Celtic” label was applied at random. As we’ve established, there were clear social and linguistic commonalities amongst the tribes.

So to those who would argue that the term “Celtic” is misleading or made-up, my response would be…

Sure, I can see how it could be misleading (if one lacks the proper context). And yeah…all terms and classifications were made up at some point.

Here’s how Ellis explains the origin of the term “Celtic”:

“It was the Greek chroniclers who first designated them as Keltoi. It has been suggested that the word means ‘hidden people’ because of their reluctance to commit their vast store of scholarship and knowledge to written records until the turn of the Christian era. The etymology of the word may well be the same root which gives us ceilt, an act of concealment, and also the word kilt, the short male skirt of traditional Celtic dress.”

source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)

Why Is There So Much Confusion About the Celts?

With Celtic culture originating somewhere in continental Europe and flourishing there for more than a thousand years (approximately 500 BCE to 500 CE), one might assume that history would be brimming with accounts of these continental Celts.

But one would assume incorrectly.

The Celts are one of Europe’s most misunderstood and misrepresented ancient peoples. And this suppression of knowledge about the Celts was, in part, intentional on the parts of their neighbors, the Greeks and Romans.

Remember: the Celts—Gallic tribes specifically—sacked Delphi and Rome. And while that was back in the early days of transcontinental warfare (predating the arrival of Hannibal and his elephants), the Greco-Roman world had a long memory.

As the centuries progressed, the “barbarous” Celts were increasingly targeted by the Roman military. Extensive campaigns in Gaul, Iberia, and Britain—coupled with the expansion of warring Germanic tribes—would lead to the (near) total annihilation of Celtic culture.

The Dying Gaul (Dying Gladiator) from Pergamus at Capitoline Museum, about B.C. 230. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The fact that the druids were notoriously opposed to writing down sacred knowledge, choosing to pass it on orally instead, certainly didn’t help matters (re: preserving Celtic culture).

Here’s how Ellis describes the lack of a significant Celtic presence in the historical record:

The conqueror always writes the history books and for centuries the Celts have been almost edited out of their true place in the historical development of European civilization…

With the remnants of the ancient Celtic peoples giving way before the conquests of the English and French, much of their pre-Christian past was ‘mislaid’. Rediscovery came accidentally during the European Renaissance when scholars began to examine the works of ancient Greek and Latin writers and found references to the Celts and their ‘priesthood’—the druids.

source: The Celtic Empire (1998)

This “rediscovery” of Celtic culture, however, was not a purely intellectual pursuit.

The English and French in particular seized on this renewed interest in Celtic scholarship to bolster their respective national myths.

As Cunliffe notes:

The French were the first to make use of the texts in the 16th century to bolster their quest for nationhood: a common Celtic ancestry became a powerful political tool at a time when Brittany was being incorporated into the French state.

source: Druids: A Very Short Introduction (2010)

Both the French and English would go on to appropriate legendary Celtic heroes—perhaps none more notable than King Arthur. To quote Ellis:

“The English and French began to seize hold of Celtic figures and weave them into their own national history-myth. Arthur, for example, was turned from a Celtic chieftain, fighting for the independence of his people against the invasion of the pagan Germanic ancestors of the English, into a suave medieval English king. Tristan and Iseult became part of French folklore. Boudicca (Boadicea) has even been referred to in an English history textbook for schools as ‘Queen of the English’!”

source: The Celtic Empire (1998)

For context, Boudica was the queen of the Brittonic Iceni tribe who famously led an uprising against the invading Romans in 60 CE. And while the uprising would ultimately fail, Boudica would succeed in sacking and burning down Londinium, London’s Roman predecessor. (Mental note: adding this to my list of “famous cities conquered by Celts.”)

This renewed interest in Celtic culture (the sometimes dubious intent behind that interest notwithstanding) would culminate in the so-called “Celtic Revival” of the 19th and 20th centuries—a topic I’ll explore in more detail in a future article.

For now, I shall sum it up thusly:

The Celtic Revival was a double-edged sword. Because along with the renewed academic interest (which is the reason you can enroll in a “Celtic Studies” class today) came the opportunists and the forgers like James Macpherson and Iolo Morganwg, whose “contributions” to the discourse have only served to blur the lines between what is Celtic fact (or, at the very least, evidence-based speculation) and what is pure Celtic fabrication.

Further Reading:

The Ancient Celts by Barry Cunliffe

A Brief History of the Celts by Peter Berresford Ellis

The Celts: Search for a Civilization by Alice Roberts

The Historical Atlas of the Celtic World by Dr. Ian Barnes

Celts: The History and Legacy of One of the Oldest Cultures in Europe by Martin J. Dougherty

The Celtic World by Miranda J. Green

The Celts: The People Who Came Out of the Darkness by Gerhard Herm

The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture by Jean Markale

P.S. Interested in Celtic culture? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: