Thursday, 20 March 2014

Celts - Who Were They & What Happened to Them?

A typical Celtic pattern of three spirals


Noun. Also Kelt. Mid-16th century.
[Latin Celtae plural from Greek Keltoi (later Keltai, perhaps from Latin); later from French Celte Breton (as representative of the ancient Gauls.]

1 Historical. A member of any of a group of ancient peoples of western Europe that included the Gauls and Britons. M16

2 generally. A member of any of the people descended from the ancient Celts
or speaking a Celtic language, as the Irish, Gaels, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Bretons. L18

Boudica Haranguing the Britons
John Opie (1761-1807)

Who Were the Celts?

The Celts have a bad rap. Popularly imagined as something between drunken, kilt-wearing buffoons and Braveheart, they're confused with Vikings and are often jumbled up with contemporary nationalism, stoking particularly strong feelings in modern-day Britain and Ireland. But who were the Celts? What happened to them? And (critically for us wordy types) how is Celt pronounced?

The Celts were essentially an ethnolinguistic group of loosely connected tribes and societies with a similar set of technologies and culture. However, they were not one unified group: rather, they were a population of peoples whose spread throughout continental Europe and the British Isles can be traced through archaeological records and the (often derogatory) accounts of other cultures around them. Thus, a lot of what we know about the Celts comes from ancient Greek and Roman textsOne such gem of an account comes from Roman historian Cassius Dio (155-235AD) who wrote:

They dwell in tents, naked and unshod, possess their women in common, and in common rear all the offspring.
Their form of rule is democratic for the most part, and they are very fond of plundering; consequently they choose their boldest men as rulers.” 

Unfortunately for historians and their own posterity, the Celts themselves weren't great record keepers. Even Boudica, queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe and a British folk hero for her rebellion against Rome, is largely known from the likes of Dio and Tacitus, and again their personal angle is suspect. One historian, Gildas, was probably talking about Boudica when he wrote of a "treacherous lioness [who] butchered governors who had been left to give fuller voice and strength to the endeavours of Roman rule." Unsurprisingly, Gildas makes no mention of what the Romans did to Boudica, which was renege on a deal made with her late husband (the king), flog her, and rape her daughters; her subsequent fury and rebellion are easy to understand and, though she was ultimately defeated, her army sacked both Colchester and London, inflicting significant losses on the Romans stationed in Britain.
The Battersea Shield, dated 350-50BC, is one of the most significant pieces of Celtic art found in Britain
(image courtesy of the British museum)

Celtic History

The Celts were a society (or, more accurately, a collection of societies) who lived in Medieval Europe and were united by related Celtic languages, the use of iron, and a certain degree of ethnic and cultural similarities. In contrast to the Braveheart/buffoon of modern imagination, the distinguishing features of the Celts were their common art, mythology, and language.

They spread throughout Europe and more or less ran the place for a few hundred years until the Romans drove them out. Although dates are notoriously tricky in that era, archaeologists mark the start of the Celtic formation at around 1200 BC, with the first real flourishing in Austria in approximately 800 BC. By 450 BC, the Celts had spread from central Europe to France, Bohemia, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Northern Italy, the British Isles, and (later) the Balkans.

The specific point of origin for the Celts is hotly debated in academic circles (my favorite kind of bickering, if you’ll recall). The key archaeological sites are Hallstatt, Austria (800-475BC) and La Tene, Switzerland (500-50BC). If you’re excited about ancient tribal history, the Gauls were Celts, and were mentioned by none other than Julius Caesar himself. And if you're excited about comics, Asterix was a Gaul and thus, yes, Axterix was also a Celt.

Notably, the Celts in the British Isles - England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland - became known as Insular Celts and became particularly well-established in the region. As the Romans and Germanic peoples spread throughout Continental Europe during the first part of the Common Era, the Celts were mostly displaced except for these Insular Celts, particularly in Ireland and northern parts of Britain.

Due to their lack of written records, much of what it known about the Celts comes from the artifacts they left behind. The iron swords and distinctive jewelry (particularly gold torcs - large necklaces) mark their territory, but it's often difficult to definitively link them to a specific time or people. One example is the important recovery of a La Tene sword in County Donegal, Ireland, which has a distinctive Gaulish style bronze hilt and was found in a fishing net. Other artifacts are commonly recovered in Ireland during turf-cutting, but this often leaves the items damaged and the site destroyed. Other aspects of Celtic culture, such as druid-led polytheism, leave even fewer artifacts for historians to study. Referenced: A New History of Ireland Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, edited by Daibhi O Croinin, 2005

Emblem of Celtic Football Club

How is Celt Pronounced?

Let me also touch briefly on the question of pronunciation - is it the hard 'C' of keltic or the soft 'S' of seltic, as pronounced when talking about Celtic Football Club? The disappointing consensus to an opinionated person such as myself is that both are correct. However, Celtic historians and Medievalists tend to favor the hard 'C' keltic pronunciation, and at least one argues that this is more linguistically accurate, which may well be the case because:

  • The word Celt is derived from the Greek word keltoi, meaning 'barbarian'.
  • Both modern Irish and Welsh use the letter 'C' to indicate the English 'K' sound (which is interesting but turns out to not be particularly relevant, since the Celts did not refer to themselves this way - probably because they didn't like being known as barbarians).
  • It sounds better (or is that just me?)
  • However, the OED says both are correct, so you can decide.
Vercingetorix, chieftain of the Celtic Arveni tribe, surrendering to Julius Caesar
Painting by Lionel Royer (1852-1926)

 What Happened to the Celts?

Varying waves of innovation, invasion, and other changes meant that the Celts largely disappeared from Continental Europe, with the Roman Empire being particularly responsible for their decline. However, the British Isles, particularly in Ireland and Scotland, saw a continuation of the Celts and their culture. The Celts mingled with the existing peoples as well as subsequent visitors to the territory.

A modern reemergence of Celtic identity began in the 18th century, with linguistic, political, and cultural implications for many in the British Isles. This was particularly at work in the Irish Home Rule Movement in the 1900s and the nationalist movement based on a Celtic identity, as separate from the British identity. Some scholars argue that the idea of a common identity between the Celts was not even in operation in ancient times, and so this remains a debated issue. For those many individuals (including this humble blogger, herself a descendent of the Celts via the Irish diaspora), the Celtic history and identity continue to exert a strong influence on the ancestral imagination.

Are you of Celtic ancestry?

Do you identify with Celtic culture?

Do please comment in the box below.

This post is Part I of a two-part special in Lexicolatry.
Check back tomorrow for John Kelly's analysis of Celtic languages and their influence on English.


  1. It is indeed hard to run away from the strong influence on the ancestral imagination.
    But even harder to run from acknowledging what's left behind, even centuries after their disappearance.

    It is believed that Celts arrived Iberia around 900 years BC and in Portuguese we pronounce it (S)Celt(a)s and their cultural influences can still be felt; specially on the North of the Country (I believe that's where Celtiberos (Celta+Iberos) refuged when Romans invaded the Peninsula, so their influence - being confined - was more deeply absorbed and held) - in its traditions, folclore and even on toponymy...

    A few years ago a study concluded that 55% of Portuguese have Celtic genes and I still remember listening to people saying - when a child was born with blond hair and green eyes - "it's the Celt in him/her".

    I don't know if I have Celtic ancestry but after you mentioned "They dwell in tents, naked and unshod, possess their women in common, and in common rear all the offspring." I can understand why that subject never came up at family gatherings ahahahah.


    1. Hi Teresa,

      This history of the Celts in Portugal is so interesting! I love it that people say "that's the Celt in him/her." What a fascinating regional detail.

      It's funny that, being from the United States, I often slip into the mistaken idea that Europeans are generally less ethnically diverse than we are in the United States. Americans of European descent are such a mix of different pasts and heritage. Naked tent dwellers and all.


  2. I really liked the way you went into the history of the Celts, as for once I actually understand their background and how they weren't "drunken, kilt-wearing buffoons" or "Vikings. Which definitely helps when you have to learn about them in school.

    1. Heeeyyyyyy.....You're giving drunken, kilt-wearing buffoons a bad name!

  3. I remember in History at school filling out a questionnaire on personal preferences. I can't remember many, but two of the questions were whether we preferred having neat, short hair or letting it grow long and flowing, and whether we preferred to work in short, intense bursts or at a steady pace over longer periods. The result was meant to illustrate that we all had Roman and Celtic influences in our culture - I think we were too young for any questions about sleeping naked or possessing women in common though.

  4. Great post!
    I was so excited when I got to the pronunciation part, and thought finally, here it is, the right way to pronounce Celt, Celtic, etc.
    But, bugger! Both are correct? No, no, no! It can't be! I have to be right don't you know!
    My husband and daughter have fought with me for years on this!
    It's time to end this family feud! It's Celtic with a hard C, not that S nonsense, right?!
    This is when you all say yes!

    1. Jingles I agree wholeheartedly; in fact I agree almost drunkenly and kilt-wearingly.

      Scotland has a football team called Celtic {Seltic}, popular in Ireland for religious reasons.

      Until 2007 Ireland experienced a phenomenon known widely as the Celtic {Keltic} Tiger - a flimsy economic situation constructed with a generous mix of credit, corruption, stupidity, greed and the breakfast roll (an entire fried breakfast served in a baguette).

      There should be a support group for the likes of you and I. We could call it the Society Earnestly Promoting The 'k' sound In Celtic. (SEPTI...... oh.)

    2. I'm with you guys on the hard-C for Celtic. However, I've never known it to be pronounced any other way, apart from with the football club, which I'd just always dismissed with a "That's weird" shrug.

    3. I occasionally hear the "seltic" in the US, usually from people who appear to be trying too hard to be worldly.

      It gets on my nerves in a similar way to an inappropriately placed apostrophe. But unfortunately I'm going to need to take a chill pill... It's extra obnoxious to be that up in arms about an "error" that's not actually an error...

  5. I'm mostly from a Germanic background, but am about 1/4 Celtic through my paternal grandmother who is Irish, whose parents were from Galway.

    I'd probably identify as a Germano-Celt, something similar to the Belgae, near the modern day Belgium.

    1. Id imagine most folks here donot know that the Egyptians conquered the Irish, hence tbe term Black Irish. In addition, Nefertiti's oldest daughter named Scotland, after herself, as her name was Scotia. Just a tid bit more of history. This way when you decide you all decide you want to identify as Celtic, you may also have Egyptian, Italian, and possibly moorish dna as well. The moorish dna would come from the 800 year period when the Berbers of NW Africa united with the Islamic Arabs,thus becoming the Moors. The Moors invaded Spain & Portugal and stayed there around 800 years until 1492. They would probably still be there today had Christian crusaders not united and overthrown them sendinv them back to North West Africa. By the way, Celts also lived in Northern Africa, and tne Middle East, and are believed to be descendents of Ham...a son of Noah's.

  6. just a few words, I presume that this site is american and thus lacking the actual links and histories common to understanding the celts... the celts were a people of similar culture that largely existed in central europe. search links to la tene culture and beaker peoples to see the cultural spread throughout europe post the last ice age. they were largely not identified by their germaic or iberian neighbours. at the height of celtic cultural expansion they managed to sack rome, greece and also cross the hellispont to settle in modern day turkey. there was an old celtic cultural alligiance called the "tribes of the wolves" or volcae that decided instead of raiding other similar cultures it would be best to band together to raid others. this they were very successful in. as mentioned sack of rome by brennus then later onto greece. you have to understand the ages of development in europe to understand the celts rise and fall. largely the iron age. as the ice age depelted the original inhabitants of britian and ireland were either displaced conquored or simply killed as very little records show of them. there was however a district celtic arrival. much of the original inhabitants is unknown. as you mentioned the declime of the celtic empire is due to the rise of the romans, this is not the full picture. there is also a rise in global temeratures at this time which leads to a rise in the collection of the germaic peoples and the advancement first to the romans of the iron age coupled with an unfortunate civil war within the celtic empire which lead to thier downfall. also the military genius that was ceasar didnt help their chances. the romans then [ushed into britain after gaul. t hus pushing celit influence to the extremes of scotland and ireland. see the incident at anglsy to see why the majority of drudic influence was lost in britain. notably the quenn of the iceni is an interesting story but one short lived. celtic britian simply wasnt as advanced in warfare tactices of the wide spred of iron weapon ry to resist the con centrated efforts of roman expansionism especially when they sent over gaius seutonius paulinius who was very succesful in dacia and also note the romans had a thing for names. this man has important names. you would often gain a name like africanus for your victories in africa or seutonius for your victories against that germanic tribe. ultimatly celtic peoples and thier culture was being lost to latinism and being cornered to ireland and scotland. it is pronounced selltic the football club. i have had a beer so please excuse the spelling mistakes and slao druidic culture was oral, it took 25 years of trainig to be a druid, supposidily they were able to do brain surgery and had a great understanding of natural philosophy. think of anglesy as probably not the burning of the library at alexandria but foir western druidic culture anglsey was the burning of the library of alexandria. please seek more information on the celts. they were a very intersting people and traveled far and wide. ultimatly desteroyed by technologically advanced peoples, romans, but managed to thrive well in turkey untill the romans got them there too

  7. Why did the Celts not build up a civilization.

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