Some Thoughts on the Celts - Page 1

By Desmond Johnston

The Celts - Origin and Background

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

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

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

The Hill of Tara - Celtic Royal site in the Boyne Valley, Ireland
The Hill of Tara - Celtic Royal site in the Boyne Valley, Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celtic Language

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

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

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

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

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

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