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 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.
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.
Some Thoughts on the Celts - Next Page (2)
Boyne Valley Private Day Tour
Immerse yourself in the rich heritage and culture of the Boyne Valley with our full-day private tours.
World Heritage site, explore the Hill of Slane, where Saint Patrick famously lit the Paschal fire.
Discover the Hill of Tara, the ancient seat of power for the High Kings of Ireland.