Celtic History and Culture
The name Celt originated with the ancient Greeks who called the barbarian peoples of central Europe, Keltoi. However, the word Celt does not indicate a race of people, but rather a language group. They were never an empire ruled by one government.
400 BC is generally accepted as the approximate date for the invasion of migrating Celtic tribes. By the third century they had settled from the central plain of Turkey in the east through the Balkans, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland and Northern Italy to France, Belgium, Spain, Britain and Ireland. They migrated from one region to the other partly as a result of wars and their expansion was quite successful early on due to their iron weapon technology and fierceness in battle. However, Celtic domination of Western Europe lasted only a few centuries. They were in retreat by the first century BC as their political and geographical power began to decline, primarily due to the ruthless military empire of Rome. Area by area they were pushed back, annihilated or assimilated; the only area escaping being Ireland and some of Britain. Following the Romans were the Slavic tribes driving them out of Eastern Europe, the Germanic conquerors, the Franks (who created France) and the Anglo Saxons coming out of England. Today, “Celts” refers to only six peoples who have survived into modern times: Irish, Manx, Scots (the Gaelic speaking branch) and the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons who represented the Brythonic speaking branch.
The oldest archaeological evidence of the Celts comes from Hallstatt, Austria, near Salzburg. Excavated graves of chieftains there, dating from about 700 BC, exhibit an Iron Age culture (one of the first in Europe), which received in Greek trade such luxury items as bronze and pottery. The Celts were an advanced race for their era, making use of chain mail in battle and machines for reaping grain. They were also a clean people, using soap long before the Romans. They brought many new skills to the peoples they conquered. They knew how to smelt iron and forge it into useful implements. They decorated their helmets, shields, and arms with artistic metalwork and enameling. The Celts were also adept in such practical matters as curing hams, keeping bees, and making wooden barrels.
Their basic societal structure was organized loosely into tribes and divided people into three classes: the Royal Class, Warrior Aristocracy and the Common People. Slavery constituted a small percentage but was generally frowned upon. They were far from uneducated and placed high regard on a through education and life-long study historians also concluded they had a written language but made little use of it except on coins and memorials. Instead they placed a greater value on the ability to remember vast amounts of information correctly. Women were technically equal – they could own property, choose their own husbands and could also be war leaders, such as Boudicca. Virginity was not highly valued, and abortion or choice of a male was a woman’s right.
Celtic language and mythology is predated by Greek and Latin only because it was written down early in the Christian period. Knowledge of Celtic mythology comes from two sources, those recorded in Ireland and Wales during the same time. Much of Celtic history comes from oral traditions, primarily through the efforts of bards and poets.
In general, Celtic gods were deities of particular skills such as Lugh and Dagda, while goddesses were associated with natural features such as Boann. This was not universal however, in such cases as Brigid and the Morrigan. In all their stories, a happy spirit pervades even the tragedies; there is an eternal spirit of optimism. Death is never a conqueror and we are reminded that the Celts were one of the first cultures to evolve such sophisticated thoughts of the immortality of the soul. The druids taught that death is only a changing of place and that life goes on with all its forms in the Otherworld.
Both deities and the heroes and heroines aren’t simply beautiful beings with empty heads. Their intellectual attributes are equal to their physical ones. They are totally human, subject to all the same virtues and vices and no sin is exempt from practice by them. Above all, while discovering their myths and stories, we should never forget the mischievous fun that runs through them; they are meant to be enjoyed as well as learned from.