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Monday, March 16, 2009

Who Were the Ancient Celts?

The ancient Celts were Iron Age communities of western and central Europe that existed around the eighth century BC to first century AD. It is difficult to describe the Celts precisely, not just because of the fragmentary evidence that exists, but because there was so much cultural and regional variability from one time to another. Furthermore, their world was full of contrast. On one hand they had a desire for battle and warfare, and on the other they produced sophisticated and beautiful artwork. Additionally, the Celts left few written records and the majority of the literary evidence for them is provided from the classical world. The Greeks and Romans viewed the Celts as primitive peoples. Unlike the literate and civilized societies of the eastern Mediterranean, the Celts never formed an empire but were essentially a tribal people who lived mainly by farming. They built no great architecture, lacked the gift of the written word, and their religious practices were considered macabre, involving animal and even sometimes human sacrifices.

In the fourth century BC the Greek historian, Ephorus, stated that four barbarian peoples existed at that time: the Libyans of Africa; the Persians to the East; the Scythians in the European Balkans; and what he termed as the “Keltoi” (or Celts) in the northwest of Europe. It is thought that the Celts originated in central Europe, in the basin of the Danube, but around the fifth century BC onwards they spread into northern Italy, Spain and Portugal. They also moved into the area of modern-day Denmark and swept southeast into Greece and the Balkans. This period also marks the likely appearance of the Celts in the British Isles. This was an enormous territorial expansion. At their broadest expanse, the Celts had settled lands scaling from what is now Ireland to Turkey and Scotland to Spain.

Although the Celtic Iron Age period can be distinguished by much cultural and regional diversity in time and space, the defining characteristics of the Iron Age Celts relate to their use of the Hallstatt and, later, La Tène artistic styles, which are named after two sites of major Celtic archaeological finds. The origins of Celtic art stem from the time when objects were traded and exchanged between Celtic peoples north of the Alps and the Mediterranean world. The Celts began to imitate the very elegant and formal classical style produced by the Greeks and Romans, but essentially it developed into something completely different. This fusion of formulaic classical design with indigenous Celtic patterns led to wonderful abstract art with intricate curvilinear motifs. Archaeological excavations have recovered enormous numbers of Iron Age Celtic objects in many parts of Europe. The types of artifacts found include weapons such as swords, shields and spears, drinking cups and storage vessels, bronze cauldrons, sculptures, mirrors and massive hoards of jewellery.

The ancient Celts also shared many other common traits, namely an Indo-European language and a firm social structure. Their social structure was extremely hierarchical. At the top were the ruling kings/queens/chiefs. Below this was a class of nobles, which included both the priesthood and warriors. Beneath this were the commoners (or free people), such as farmers, tradesmen and craftsmen, and at the very bottom were the slaves. Nobles, such as bards and druids, were important to Celtic society and acted as the priests, judges, historians, healers, and poets to their community. Celtic women had a great deal more freedom and status than those in contemporary classical societies, and it was possible to attain high office in their own rights.

Celtic religious practices varied from region to region, and different tribes worshipped different deities. However, it is possible to recognize universal features within the complex Celtic belief system. The Celts worshipped many gods, both male and female, and these were perceived to be all around them and to permeate all aspects of life. The Celts particularly saw spiritual associations in water (such as lakes, springs, rivers and marshes), which was thought to possess healing powers. Animals and plants were also considered sacred. The Celts had a tradition of burying valuable objects in the ground or in water as gifts to the gods, in order to appease them in return for a blessing. In fact, today’s custom of tossing a coin into a well may actually stem from this ancient tradition.

Although in part a nation of farmers, classical writings and archaeological remains, such weapons and fortified hillforts, would indicate that warfare was vital to Celtic society. Being a great warrior was considered to be a prestigious quality, and each warrior wanted to achieve as much glory for himself as possible. There are many accounts of Romans being terrified of Celtic warriors not only because of their apparently flamboyant and boisterous nature in battle, but also due to their remarkable skills in chariot warfare.

Despite the progressive Romanisation of the Iron Age Celts, they nevertheless left their mark on European culture, which still seems to resonate throughout the world today. Although often regarded as a modern political agenda in order to promote identity, some scholars would nevertheless be as bold as to say that the ancient Celts were the first Europeans.

I would love to hear your ideas about any particular ancient Celtic issue that you would like me to address in future posts. Please share your comments!

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