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 texts. One 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)
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
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.