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  • Writer's pictureJeff King

Celtic History Explained: Part 1 - What’s in a Name? Celts & Celticism in Literature

Updated: May 28, 2019

The first instalment in this ten-part series on Celtic history, from ancient times to the modern era.

The word Celtic brings up all kinds of images. From bagpipes to basketball teams, from St. Patrick’s Day parades to the barbarian kings that defied Rome. What do all these things have in common? Are they actually bound together by anything more than a name? What is “Celtic”, really?

“For two and a half thousand years the Celts have continued to fascinate those who have come into contact with them. For the Greeks and Romans the fascination was tinged with fear tempered with a degree of respect for Celtic prowess in battle. Later generations, further removed from the reality of the barbarian Celts of the First Millennium BC, generated their own myths and stereotypes about the past, re-creating Celtic ancestors for themselves in the image of the day designed to explain their own attitudes and aspirations and to provide a legitimacy for actions.” (Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts)

I want to kick off the series off by questioning its own premise. I originally intended to start with something simple, the origins of the Celts and their earliest history (don’t worry, I still get to that in the next post). This changed once I remembered my early experiences with Celtic studies. My first forays into Celtic history led me to realize that there were still more questions than answers, and the debates seemed to grow more heated the further in I waded.

For one thing, some authors spoke of a massive Celtic cultural sphere which stretched from Central Europe to the British Isles. Other authors insisted that the idea of a unifying “Celtic” culture was a myth based on vague cultural similarities and misappropriated terminologies. All sides of the many-faceted discussion raised valid points based on archaeological evidence, ancient and Medieval literature, oral traditions, and folklore. Clearly, there was a lot of ground to cover, and that seems like a natural place to start any introduction to Celtic history & culture.

Greek & Roman Descriptions of the Celts

The earliest references to the Celts in literature come from Greek and Roman authors, since the ancient Celts had a long-lasting aversion to writing. The English term Celt comes from the ancient Greek term Keltoi (Κελτοί), which was adopted into Latin as Celtae.

Hecataeus of Miletus, living in the late 6th Century BCE, wrote the earliest surviving account of the Celts in his geographical treatise. Hecataeus described the Keltoi as a people who inhabited lands to the north of the Greek colony Massalia (modern day Marseilles). Archaeological evidence has revealed that there were in fact thriving communities to the north of Massalia, which had extensive trade ties to the Greek Mediterranean.

Greek and Roman authors who lived after Hecataeus were increasingly interested in the Celts, and texts begin to describe them much more frequently from the 5th Century BCE onwards. The Romans preferred the term Galli or Galatae to describe these peoples. However, these terms were evidently known to refer to one and the same people, and Caesar states in his account of the Gallic War:

“We call [them] Gauls, though in their own language they are called Celts.”

It has been suggested that Keltoi/Celtae was an umbrella term for Celtic peoples, while Galli/Galatae specifically referred to the tribes who migrated south and east to regions nearer the Mediterranean. These “Celts”, “Gauls”, “Galatians”, or whatever else we might call them, were apparently a multi-cultural collection of peoples who had linguistic ties and shared traditions.

Ancient accounts of the Celts generally treat them as stereotypical barbarians who were pitted against the heroic Greek and Roman forces which opposed them. These accounts are tinged with stereotypes and bias, but they do contain kernels of truth which have helped historians to construct a picture of Celtic culture and society.

According to Graeco-Roman authors, Celtic tribes dwelled in territories stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to the Alps. It might come as a surprise that ancient authors only used this term to describe certain Iron Age peoples from the European continent, never the inhabitants of Britain or Ireland. It was thousands of years later, during the early modern period, that the peoples of Ireland and Britain were christened “Celts”.

Rediscovering the Celts

For the most part, interest in the Celts (and the very name itself) died out altogether during the Medieval period, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It was not until the Renaissance sparked a sudden fascination with Graeco-Roman literature in the early 16th Century that interest in the Celts, Gauls, and ancient British peoples really took off. Publications and translations of Greek and Latin texts like Caesar’s Di Bello Gallico exposed a whole new generation of scholars to ancient history, which was reinterpreted in light of modern societal issues and scholarly theories.

Scottish historian George Buchanan (1506 – 28 September 1582) was the first to use the term “Celt” as an all-encompassing ethnic and cultural label in his 1582 work Scottish history, Rerum scoticarum historia. Authors like Samuel Daniel (1562 – 14 October 1619) used material from explorations of the “New World” and Africa as a comparison to prehistoric and ancient Europe. The image of the archetypal Celt that emerged in early modern historical works was heavily inspired by the “Noble Savage” stereotype used to depict peoples who were deemed “uncivilized” by polite European society. The Celts were portrayed as an enlightened but primitive people, clinging to their ancestral traditions in a rapidly changing world.

One of the next big developments in the modern idea of the Celts came from the Welsh naturalist, botanist, and antiquarian Edward Lhuyd (1660 – 30 June 1709). Lhuyd coined the concept of a Celtic family of languages after he noticed that Welsh, Cornish, British, and Irish languages were strikingly similar, and that ancient Gaulish, Irish and British languages also seemed to be related.

Based on his linguistic findings, Lhuyd hypothesized that a wave of Celtic settlers migrated to Britain from Gaul in pre-history, but they were displaced by a second wave of Celts from the mainland. The first wave of Celts ended up being pushed into Ireland and northern Britain, while the second wave settled in southwest Britain.

In 1707, Lhuyd published his ideas in his Archaeologia Britannia. Lhuyd’s theories could have faded into obscurity, like so many 17th Century hypotheses, but instead they took a peculiar hold over the imagination of the linguists and antiquarians who came after. For nearly two centuries, the basic premise of Lhuyd’s theories were accepted, and later scholarship was based on this foundation.

The Celtic Revival in Early Modern Europe

In the 18th and early 19th Centuries, a so-called Celtomania swept Europe, igniting an interest in all things that could be construed as Celtic. This was an outgrowth of the Antiquarianism of the period, which saw authors sloppily combining language, literature, and early attempts at archaeology with ideology and myth, creating a pastiche which did not always resemble history. This phenomenon, where it pertains to Celtic studies, is known as the “Celtic Revival”, and you can thank it for kicking of the scholarly interest in Celtic culture which ultimately led to me writing this blog.

Fueled by nationalism, the hunt for Celtic origins was on, not just in Britain and Ireland, but even in France (especially Brittany). Ethnographers rapidly set about recording and promoting “Celtic” traditions preserved in the folklore and practices of European peasantry. Ancient ceremonies and traditions were invented out of whole cloth. Histories of the Celts and Gauls were written, and virtually every megalithic structure was suddenly attributed to Druid priests.

This business of guesswork and invention was not without its critics, even at the time. James MacPherson (1736 - 1796) was immediately questioned by Irish scholars when he published what he claimed was a translation of an ancient Gaelic poem about Fingal, along with composed by Ossian, the son of the mythological Finn mac Cumhaill. Errors and anachronisms were pointed out, as were the fantastic (and unsubstantiated) circumstances of MacPherson’s alleged discovery.

The pre-Roman period in the British Isles, Ireland, and Western Europe was labelled “Celtic” by default in the scholarship of these early modern authors who were steeped in this historiographical zeitgeist. However, by the early 20th Century, archaeologists were questioning the idea that a single Celtic civilization or even culture existed in Britain or Ireland in early Antiquity. Even whether or not a broad continuum of Iron Age material finds in Europe should be considered “Celtic” was (and is) up for debate. However, recent research has gone a long way towards constructing a more reliable history of the Celts, whoever or however we may best imagine them.

Unfortunately, popular perception is often a few steps behind prevailing professional opinions, and the field of history is no exception. So-called Celtic tattoos, magic, and faux-historical information is easier to find online than hard fact, and this doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.

At this point, it might seem like a silly task to even attempt to chronicle a “Celtic history” but I’m going to give it a go anyway. Tune in next time as I try to outline what we know about the origins of the “Celts” in ancient times, and their spread across Europe.

Sources & Bibliography:

  • Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford University Press.

  • Cunliffe, Barry. The Celts: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

  • Koch, John T. and Minard, Antone. The Celts: History, Life, and Culture, Volume I and Volume II. ABC-CLIO.

  • Freeman, Philip. Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes. Oxford University Press.

  • Rankin, David. Celts and the Classical World. Routledge.

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