Celtic history is steeped in mystery. You’ve no doubt heard of the Celts, but because they left behind no written records, what we know about them can often be chalked up to myth and legend. Contemporaries and frequent enemies of the Roman Empire, these warriors were quick to fight, and vicious in attack.
But like we said at the beginning, despite what we think we might know about the Celts, much of it has been skewed and twisted throughout history, many of the tales having been told by people, such as Herodotus, who were on the outside looking in. Still, Celtic culture was, and remains, fascinating to delve into. Here are 10 things you should probably know about the Celts.
10. They Probably Didn’t Originate in Ireland
Your mind has just been blown, right? Over the years we’ve come to associate the term “Celtic” with Ireland (thanks in large part, in recent history, to the NBA team the Boston Celtics, whose logo is a leprechaun covered in shamrocks). But historians have concluded that the Celts almost certainly didn’t originate in Ireland – or Scotland, or Wales, or even England, for that matter.
Instead, their roots have been traced back to central Europe, with Austria being the likeliest point of origin. Emerging from the late Bronze Age along the Danube River, Celtic tribes are believed to have initially lived throughout continental Europe. Eventually, these tribes expanded north and did settle in the United Kingdom. But when you think of ancient tribal warriors from Ireland, the odds are pretty strong you’re not thinking of the Celts; you’re thinking of the Gaels. Of course, even that is a little more complicated than it sounds, so we’ll come back to that later.
9. The Romans Had Nothing On Their Roads
While Romans often get credited for being the road-builders of Europe, there’s substantial evidence to suggest that the Celts beat them to the punch. Not that the history books would ever tell you that, because as we all know, history is written by the winners. And for the bulk of early recorded history, the winners resided in the Roman Empire. When you’re the biggest, baddest dude on the block, you can take what you want, including credit for things others have done.
And according to some, that includes the building of roads. Archaeological evidence now suggests that it was the Celts, and not the Romans, who were the first to build roads. Remnants of these roads would seem to indicate that they were constructed before the Roman conquest reached the British Isles. These roads were constructed largely out of wood, which was carbon dated to the Iron Age – an indication that they predated the Roman Empire expanding that far north. And speaking of the Iron Age…
8. They Were Among the First to Utilize Iron Weaponry
One aspect of Celtic culture you’re no doubt aware of is their reputation as fierce warriors. They were also technologically ahead of their time, which gave them a pretty giant leg up on their enemies. After all, this is the group that invented the exact chainmail that was later adopted by the famous Roman Legions. That obviously flies in the face of old rumors that the Celts fought naked, since we can’t imagine chainmail would feel particularly great clanging against your junk.
But it wasn’t just superior armor that gave the Celts an advantage in battle; it was superior arms, as well. The Celts are believed to be among the very first to forge iron into swords, replacing the flimsier bronze swords most had been using up until sometime around 800 BC. They also began to utilize smaller, lighter swords and daggers, also made of iron, around 600 BC. These were far less cumbersome than broadswords, enabling the Celts to be more agile and quicker to strike on the battlefield.
7. The Celts Were Hugely Wealthy
While history often paints the Celts in broad strokes as being somewhat barbaric, savage warriors, that’s not exactly the case. Sure, they did participate in some acts of barbarism, and many practiced ritual human sacrifice. And yes, we’re going to get to that in just a bit. But that aside, they were also massively wealthy, thanks in large part to being highly active in trade of the time. Being among the first to utilize iron certainly helped fill their coffers as well.
Gold was so abundant among the Celtic regions that they used it in their armor, weaponry, and art. Silver and bronze were also widely used, and they became renowned for their finely crafted and ornate jewelry. Their artistry was among the best in the world at the time, and their scientific and technological prowess was a big part of that. Through their art, their wine, their vast quantities of gold, and their advancements in technology, the Celts were able to line their pockets very nicely indeed.
6. They Had Slavery… Kind Of
Now, to be sure, the Celts did indeed practice a form of slavery. But – and not that this is justification or makes it even remotely better, in principle – it was much closer to the serfdom of Medieval times than the actual slavery we’re most familiar with from history books. And as usual when you’re talking about tribes prone to war, many of these slaves were prisoners of war who were held within the tribe’s region and forbidden traditional rights and privileges of anyone actually from that tribe.
When a prisoner was taken, or a criminal offered to the victim’s family as restitution for his crime, he was bound to that person or family for life. He had no right of inheritance, was forbidden from taking up arms, and was more or less simply the lowest rung of the sociological ladder. Most of what we know of slavery in Celtic society comes from remnants of law texts from places like Ireland and Wales, so obviously there are pretty massive gaps in the information we’ve got. That said, while you were afforded virtually no rights as a slave held by one of the Celts, the consensus seems to be that treatment was still more humane than slaves of many other cultures throughout history.
5. They Had Progressive Views on Gender and Sexuality
While we can’t exactly call the Celts progressive in terms of their views on slavery, we absolutely can when it comes to women and sexuality. Now, don’t get us wrong: even in a somewhat progressive tribal society, it was still patriarchal. But that doesn’t mean women didn’t have a say, or couldn’t rise to power, or even become warriors or dignitaries. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Particularly before the Roman conquest, Celtic women could lead tribes, as was the case with Boudica.
Obviously, Boudica represents far from the norm, but was one of a few Celtic women to rise to power and lead her people before her death circa 60 AD. She was the queen of her tribe, and led her warriors into battle against the Roman Empire.
And speaking of gender and sexuality, one element of Celtic culture that’s become widely believed is that not only could women hold positions of power, but that Celtic men often preferred the, ahem, “company” of other men. It was commonplace for men to seek out sexual companionship with their fellow male warriors, and likewise, women practiced free love in Celtic culture, according to historical records from their contemporaries.
4. They Weren’t Savages But They Did Hunt Heads
As we’ve mentioned a few times at this point, the Celts were far from the barbarians history has often painted them to be. They were an advanced society, took great care and pride in their appearance, and were wise enough to know it was an affront to wine connoisseurs everywhere to water the stuff down like those simpletons in the Greek and Roman Empires. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t participate in at least a few practices that might qualify as barbaric and savage.
Chief among those practices – other than ritualistic human sacrifice, which we’ll get back to shortly – was headhunting. As with ritualistic sacrifices, Celtic headhunting was driven by religion, for the most part. You see, the Celts believed that the head contained a warrior’s soul, so by taking his head you are, in fact, capturing that soul. At least, that’s one popular theory as to why they hunted heads, though the exact reason is not known, and likely varied from tribe to tribe, and warrior to warrior, particularly since the practice continued even after most Celtic tribes had converted to Christianity.
3. The Number Three Had a Huge Significance
We’ll be delving into the religion of the Celts in just a moment, but a substantial part of their belief system was the concept of “triplicity.” While that may sound like a knockoff travel website, in reality it has to do with the number three. Specifically, things coming in the form of ‘triplets’, so to speak. That means three realms (Sky, Land, and Sea), and three types of gods (personal, tribal, and spirits).
Now, the Celts didn’t just have three gods, mind you. They had many. When we talk about the Celts worshipping three types of gods, we’re talking about the kinds that guide you when you’re alone, the kinds that are with you when you’re in groups, and those that protect your home. To put it simply, triplicity refers to three things that come together to form a whole. It’s an important part of cosmology and astrology, which were integral parts Druid paganism. Which leads us to…
2. For Most of Their Existence They Were Polytheistic
Eventually, some Celtic tribes adopted Christianity as their preferred spiritual path. But for the bulk of Celtic existence, they practiced polytheism; the worship of many gods. It’s not unusual that they’d have worshipped numerous gods, considering the same was true of their contemporaries, like the Greeks and Romans. And the chief purveyors of Celtic polytheism, or Celtic paganism, were the Druids.
Believe it or not, much of what we know of the Druids and Druidism comes from, of all people, Julius Caesar. Obviously, that’s part of what renders our knowledge of the Druids information that should probably be taken with at least a small grain of salt, considering Caesar and his Empire were frequently at war with the Celts. Still, Caesar relayed that the Druids were teachers and priests, and also rendered judgement and penalties resulting from crimes and squabbles within their tribes.
As alluded to in the previous entry, the stars played a significant role in the Celtic religion and Druidism. They also practiced ritual sacrifice to appease their gods (with the burning of Wicker Men – sacrificial victim or victims inside – which will send a shiver down Nic Cage’s spine should he read this), and believed in reincarnation.
1. The Celts Weren’t Really, Well, “Celts”
Confused? Don’t be. It’s a lot simpler than the header probably makes it sound. You see, the group you think of as the “Celts” isn’t really the Celts, at least not in the sense that the Romans were the Romans, or the Greeks were the Greeks. That’s because the Celts weren’t just one group; they consisted of many, including the aforementioned Gaels, the Britons, the Gauls, and the Galatians, among others. See, “Celtic” really referred to language, and the somewhat similar dialects these various tribes used.
That said, grouping all of those tribes together under one umbrella – which, again, was done by contemporaries like the Greeks and Romans, since the Celts themselves didn’t keep written records – is probably misleading. Some historians suggest that the languages were different enough, and the groups so spread out (as far east as Turkey, all the way west to the Atlantic Ocean) that it’s highly unlikely most of the tribes were remotely united. In fact, it’s believed part of the reason they were ultimately defeated by the Romans was because of their lack of unification. In essence, calling a Gaul “Celtic” would be akin to calling a German “European.” Technically correct, but highly generalized.
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