Even today, very little is known about the mysterious, elusive culture of the Celtic peoples.
What we do know of the Celts today is largely thanks to the descriptions of Roman writers, including Herodotus, who named them the "Keltoi." To the orderly, developed world of the Roman empire, the Celts seemed barbarous and primitive. But archaeology is beginning to reveal that the Celts possessed a powerful, complex culture, which was to have a large impact on human civilisations for centuries to come.
Our earliest archaeological evidence of the Celts originates from what is now France and western Germany. It dates back to the Bronze age, around 1200 BC. They probably began to settle in the British Isles during the Iron Age (8th century to 6th century BC), while between the 5th and 1st centuries BC, their influence extended from what is now Spain and the shores of the Black Sea. In the 4th century BC, the Celts invaded the lands of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and were able to conquer northern Italy, Macedonia and Thessalia. They ravaged the Roman city of Delphi in 279 and even plundered Rome in 390, going on to penetrate Asia Minor. However, in the 2nd century BC, the Celts of northern Italy, known as the Gauls, were conquered by the Romans, France and the Rhineland was subdued in the 1st century BC by Julius Caesar and by the 1st century AD, most of Britain was under the rule of the Roman empire. In the same period, the Celts of central Europe were dominated by the Germanic peoples. In medieval and modern times, the Celtic tradition survived in Bretagne of western France, Wales, the highlands of Scotland, and Ireland.
The Celtic tribes themselves were united by common speech, customs and practises, and religion. Their economy was governed by pastoral and agricultural activities, for the Celts had no true urban life. They spent their lives working on fields, tending crops or animals, and depended on the fertility of the soil and the conditions of the weather throughout the seasons. Each tribe was headed by a king and was divided by class into the Druids, or priests, warrior nobles, and commoners. The nobles fought their enemies on foot with swords, shields and spears and were fond of feasting and drinking.
Religion and Rituals
In the same way as all other cultures, the lifestyle of the Celts influenced the structure and beliefs of their religion, known as Druidism. When Anglesey was settled by the Celts in about 100 BC, it became the centre of this religion. It consisted of Pagan beliefs in deities of the Earth, spirits of the woodland, sun gods, as well as elves and demons.
The supreme god of the Celts was Lug, who gave his name to this city of Lyons ("Lugundum" in Latin). Taranis, or Dagada as he was known in Ireland, was the god of the spiritual world. Ogomis, the god of warriors and kingship, was said to have a face which smiled to the right but glowered on the left. Fertility gods and goddesses were abound in Celtic tradition, including Cernunos the Antlered, who was also the god of the untamed forces of nature, and Bridget, the patroness of fire. He was often depicted as being surrounded by deer, serpents and other woodland creatures. A number of animals were seen as sacred by the Celts, including the wild boar. In Gaul, the hunting and killing of the boar stood for the mortal running the spiritual to ground.
A large number of festivals celebrated in the Western world can be attributed to the ancient
traditions of the Celts. The festival of Halloween, on October 31st, is likely to have stemmed from the Celtic holiday of Samhain, the last day of the Celtic
year in which the boundaries between the world of the living and the dead were at their closest. Samhain traditionally began at the sundown of October 31st and
extended into the following day. According to the Druids, the spirits of those who had died in the preceding year roamed the earth on Samhain evening. The
Celts would seek to ward off the spirits with offerings of food and drink.
Samhain was one of four feasts of Druidism which marked the cycle of the seasons. Lugnasad celebrated the light at its zenith on August 1st, Beltana, the festival of fire, was held on May 1st and Imbolc was also celebrated as a key festival in the Pagan calendar.
Celtic rituals were spectacular events. They often involved the building of immense fires at sacred hilltops, where they could be close to the gods. Standing stones and columns of wood were often erected at the ritual ground in specific patterns. The rituals themselves consisted of wild, sacred dance, songs and chants. Offerings were frequently made, sometimes in the form of animal sacrifices. The early Celts even practised human sacrifice to make the lands fertile, but as time passed this tradition was replaced by the performances of magical spells and preaching of Druids and poets.
The Celtic religion was strictly oral, and in order to preserve it the Druids learned a large number of sacred texts and teachings by heart. They travelled widely, in order to conserve the sense of unity between the many tribes. As the priests, wise men and prophets, it was their duty to keep alive learning and morality.
The Celts had great respect for the Earth, so many natural elements and areas were considered sacred. The great oak tree was honoured, and the mistletoe which grew on its branches was gathered during services. Lakes and rivers too were revered, notably the river Avon in Bath, England, which was attributed with mysterious healing powers, attributed to the goddess Sulis. The river Seine in France was also a place of Celtic pilgrimage, where Sequana, goddess of healing, was worshipped.
For the Celts, the soul was immortal and death simply a passing from one world to the next and the places of the living and the dead were continually exchanged. The warrior princes of early Celts were buried in their chariots with all their weapons and household possessions, as well as their rank insignia. The tomb was then covered with a funeral mound, known as a tumulus, and often a statue was placed on top.
Art and Architecture
The art and architecture of the Celts was widespread and diverse, and today is still considered one of the first great contributions to European art as a whole. It was influenced by ancient Persian, Etruscan, Greek, Roman and Scythian art, yet developed and retained a distinct style of its own. In showing their respect for nature, the Celts most often depicted entwining plant and animal designs, such as oak trees, vines, flowers, deer, hounds, serpents, dolphins, boars birds, lions, griffins and dragons. Few representations of humans exist in comparison. Much of their artwork was more abstract, incorporating knotwork, elliptical curves, spirals, chevrons and labyrinthine patterns. These designs were composed in a highly sophisticated and geometric patterns, in which the dynamic elements were harmoniously balanced.
The Celts used their artistic skills to decorate all manner of objects, including their
weapons, household items, religious statues and jewellery. Items of jewellery included the torc, which was a metal ring worn on the neck with two open ends
decorated with stylised animal heads. The wearing of the torc, usually by men, may have carried both social and religious significance. They also made carved
objects of wood and stone depicting gods and monsters. But perhaps the most stunning artistic achievement of all performed by the Celts, or indeed any ancient
culture, was the giant Uffington White Horse, measuring a stunning 109m in length, carved into the chalk Downs in Berkshire, England.
The Romans and the Celts
In the 1st century AD, the Celtic way of life was to face a huge turning point, when the British Isles were conquered by the Romans. However, the Romans did not, as a whole, try to prevent the Celts from practising Druidism, or forcibly convert them to their religion. When they arrived at the Celtic lands, they realised that their beliefs were very similar to the old Roman religion; the belief in formless, vague spirits known as the "numina." This aided the Romans in their understanding of the Celtic culture.
When the Romans made an alliance with the ancient Greeks, they took a considerable liking in the Greek religion, with its powerful gods including Zeus, Aphrodite and Hermes. But instead of completely rejecting the belief in numina, they combined the two beliefs, identifying the Greek Gods with Roman spirits: Zeus was identified the Roman spirit Jupiter, Aphrodite with Venus and Hermes with Mercury. This was one factor which helped unify the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and the Romans knew that they could use this strategy to help win favour of the Celtic tribes.
One of the most largest projects of this kind was the building of a Roman bath at the river Avon - today known as Bath. The Romans identified the Celtic goddess Sulis, worshipped by the Celts at this site, with their own goddess Minerva. Thus, the shrine to the deity Sulis-Minerva was built upon the Avon, in an effort to merge the two cultures, which lead to the development of the city of Aquae Sulis. But the unification between Celtic and Roman cultures was not the only motive behind the creation of the great city. The Romans greatly publicised the reputed healing powers of the river Avon, and it became a prominent place of pilgrimage. Romans from all over the empire came to Aquae Sulis in order to be healed of sickness or injury by bathing in the mystical waters of the Avon - now made into the Roman equivalent of a spa with the building of heated baths. The sick would also prey to the goddess Sulis-Minerva in desperate hope of a cure, at the shrine of Aquae Sulis. This in turn lead to the growth of shops and stalls around the shrine, where merchants would sell all manners of charms and offerings to pilgrims. The once sacred area pilgrimage had become something of a commercial site of tourism.
Not all Celtic tribes accepted Roman rule, and indeed many opposed them vehemently for invading their land and culture by attacking them whenever possible. However, there were tribes which formed partnership with the Romans, in order to yield the benefits of their highly developed civilisation and to keep the peace between Britons and Romans.
Christianity and Celtic Beliefs
The Romans did not destroy the Celtic culture, which was to last until the Middle Ages. At this time, a new religion arrived in Europe from the east - the religion of Christianity. It spread with great speed throughout Britain, leading to the building of churches and cathedrals all over England. Sadly, it was at the time perceived that Christianity could not be compatible with the Pagan beliefs. Over time, the Christian priests claimed that the old religion of the Celts was blasphemous, and embraced the powers of evil. The Celtic woodland gods, with their animal features of horns and tails, were said to be incarnations of the Devil, and the faeries and elves believed to be Angels who fell from Heaven out of their disloyalty to God. The Celtic rituals were wholly condemned as practises of black magic, leading to the burning of those who were accused of witchcraft. Gradually, Druidism became crushed under the power of the Christian church and its relationship with the monarchy, which constantly assured that anybody practising Pagan traditions would be condemned to eternity to Hell.
It must be noted that despite its intolerance of the Celtic religion, the Christian church was never able to rid Paganism without trace and in many cases, Druidism had to be integrated into the practises of Christianity. The images of the egg and new-born animals used by the Celts to convey fertility, for example, were adopted as symbols of Easter, while the idea of rebirth was carried across as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The hare, one of the strongest of all Pagan icons for its sacred powers connected to the Spring, was transformed into a character of ridicule in later times - the Easter Bunny. The holiday of Samhain became All Soul's Day.
At times, however, the leaders of both religions did try to lend a sense of unity between the cultures. As a symbol of both Celtic and Christian traditions, the Celtic Cross was formed, combining the Christian cross with the circular and knotwork designs of the Celts. This symbol is still seen widely today, particularly in Ireland where a strong Christian tradition still pays homage to the Gaelic peoples in the art and architecture of the church. Even in the ancient Christian texts, we read of Joseph of Aramathia coming to the Pagan lands, and sharing greetings and blessings with the Druids.
As told in one of the greatest Celtic legends of all time, the legend of King Arthur, the Celtic way of life disappeared beyond medieval times. However, today we are beginning to increase our understanding in the unique and special culture which was the Celtic Pagan tradition, and the wide gap between Paganism and Christianity is slowly closing. We are starting to realise that the Celtic peoples were not the evil devil-worshippers as portrayed for so long. They in fact shared far more Christian values than Satanist, and like Christians of today, they regarded the Earth as the property of far more divine forces than human kind, and treated the land and all its creatures with respect and reverence.