Celtic Britain

Map of Celts
 Grianan of Aileach
 Extent of Celtic Influence Grianan of Aileach

A very witty remark is reported to have been made by the wife of Argentocoxus, a Caledonian, to Julia Augusta. When the empress was jesting with her, after the treaty, about the free intercourse of her sex with men in Britain, she replied: “We fulfill the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.” Such was the retort of the British woman.

    —Cassius Dio (Roman Historian writing of the Roman occupation of Britain)



Contrary to the yearnings of certain family members whose surnames begin with “Mc” or “O,”  archeological and genetic evidence does not currently support the existence of a group of people with distinctly Celtic bloodlines.  (This revisionist nostalgia sounds uncomfortably close to the desire for a “pure race,” and we all know how that went!)  Having said this, “Celtic” does indeed refer to a distinct and identifiable Iron Age culture and language family that dominated central Europe from the Balkans in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west.  Physical evidence suggests that this culture emerged sometime between 1000 and 800 B.C.E. in the plains north of the Alps, near the headwaters of the Rhine and the Danube in present day Austria and, over the course of half a millennia, spread east and west along river valleys.  Areas today with the highest distributions of Celtic-derived place names are France, Germany, England, and Spain, although some Celtic tribes rather notably invaded and sacked Rome in 390, invaded Greece in 279,  and migrated as far east as Turkey (think Galatians compared to Gaul).   The Celtic languages that survive today are Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, Manx, and Cornish, although there are very few speakers of the last two. 


Much of what is known of Celtic culture was reported by contemporary Greek and Roman historians, though some of this record should be read critically:  the Romans and Greeks were not fond of their neighbors to the North and few of their accounts can be taken at face value.  When they weren’t referring to them as hairy barbarians, the historians wrote that the Celts were a generally fair and tall people who kept themselves clean, wore their hair long, and were fond of pigmenting their skin (either women wearing make-up and painting their nails or men sporting the blue decorations made famous in Braveheart).  The men shaved their beards but kept their mustaches very long.  Men and women both wore brightly colored clothing and were fond of gold jewelry. The Celts also frequently scorned wearing clothing into battle as a sign of weakness. Celtic warriors also liked to take their enemies’ heads as souvenirs and use them for decorations in their homes, believing them to hold great power.


The physical legacy of the Celtic cultures is relatively well-preserved.  Their artwork tended to depict highly abstract images of animals and humans and featured repeating geometric curves and spirals.  They worked primarily in bronze, gold, and iron.  They tended to live in tribal groups governed by a warrior aristocracy who held court from some fortified settlement.  Such ring forts of various sizes can still be found all over central and western Europe.  Their mounted warriors often fought from the decks of speeding chariots.  Cattle and horse-raiding skirmishes were frequent between tribes, though large-scale warfare was unusual because tribes typically maintained a fierce independence from each other.  Women were also given much freedom, enjoyed nearly equal legal rights as men, and frequently fought in battle.


One of the better known features of Celtic society are the druids, an elite class of highly educated men and women.  Druids were the high priests and shamans, the doctors, the scientists, the judges, the historians, and the bards.  It was said that the king could not speak before his druid.  Unfortunately, the druids considered their knowledge sacred (and privileged!) and memorized everything rather than allowing it to be written down, so consequently we know very little about what the Celts believed.  The Celts in central Europe often built stone temples, but many in Gaul and the British Islands worshiped in ancient sacred groves and powerful natural settings called “nemetons.”  They often depicted their deities as having three aspects—essentially trinities.  


The Celtic sacred calendar focused on four major fire-festivals:  Samhain (pronouned Sah-wahn), the festival of the dead at the beginning of winter, around November 1st, Imbolc, associated with childbirth and lambing at February 1st, Beltene associated with the fertility of the fields and the coming of summer around May 1st, and Lughnasa associated with the beginning of the harvest around August 1st.  The Celtic calendar was lunar, so these feast days were believed to fall on full moons, but when the Roman Church was trying to convert the Celts, these ancient pagan holy days were designated on the first of the month adopted for use in the Christian calendar. 


The influence of Roman government, military, and Church would almost completely supplant the distinctively Celtic culture on mainland Europe, but in England these influences would prove less effacing.  Roman administration introduced new new tastes in architecture, food, and art, the Church influenced the way people worshipped, and the legions destroyed or absorbed the warrior class.  The conquerors imported the luxurious lifestyles of the Roman elite to pacify and buy the loyalty of some of the Celtic tribes.  However, the daily life of the vast majority of British people probably didn’t change a great deal.  Furthermore, In Scotland and Wales and especially in Ireland, the Celtic culture would survive and evolve long after the Romans abandoned Britain in 410. 

Related Links

Celtic Nementon   Shamanic God Cernunnos  Tobernalt
 Celtic Nemeton  Shamanic God Cernunnos  Tobernalt

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