Celts is a modern term used to describe any of the European peoples who spoke, or speak, a Celtic language. The term is also used in a wider sense to describe the modern descendants of those peoples, notably those who participate in a Celtic culture. The historical Celts were a diverse group of tribal societies in Iron Age Europe. Proto-Celtic culture formed in the Early Iron Age in Central Europe (Hallstatt period, named for the site in present-day Austria). By the later Iron Age (La Tène period), Celts had expanded over wide range of lands: as far west as Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula, as far east as Galatia (central Anatolia), and as far north as Scotland. The earliest direct attestation of a Celtic language are the Lepontic inscriptions, beginning from the 6th century BC. Continental Celtic languages are attested only in inscriptions and place names. Insular Celtic is attested from about the 4th century AD in ogham inscriptions. Literary tradition begins with Old Irish from about the 8th century. Coherent texts of Early Irish literature, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge, survive in 12th century recensions. By the early centuries AD, following the expansion of the Roman Empire and the Great Migrations of Germanic peoples, Celtic culture had become restricted to the British Isles (Insular Celtic), with the Continental Celtic languages extinct by the mid-1st millennium AD. "Celtic Europe" today refers to the lands surrounding the Irish Sea, as well as Cornwall and Brittany on either side of the English Channel. The origin of the various names used since classical times for the people known today as the Celts is obscure and has been controversial.

The Latin name Celtus seems to be based on a native Celtic ethnic name. However, the first literary reference to the Celtic people, is by the Greek historian Hecataeus of Miletus in 517 BC; he says that the town of Massilia (Marseille) is near the Celts and also mentions a Celtic town of Nyrex (possibly Noreia in Austria). Herodotus seems to locate the Keltoi at the source of the Danube and/or in Iberia, but the passage is unclear. The English word Celt is modern, attested from 1707 in the writings of Edward Lhuyd whose work, along with that of other late 17th century scholars, brought academic attention to the languages and history of these early inhabitants of Great Britain. Latin Gallus might originally be from a Celtic ethnic or tribal name, perhaps borrowed into Latin during the early 400s BC Celtic expansions into Italy. Its root may be the Common Celtic *galno, meaning 'power' or 'strength'. The Greek Galatai seems to be based on the same root, borrowed directly from the same hypothetical Celtic source which gave us Galli (the suffix -atai is simply an ethnic name indicator). The English form Gaul comes from the French Gaule and Gaulois, which is the traditional rendering of Latin Gallia and Gallus, -icus respectively.

celtic cross
Celtic Cross

"Celticity" generally refers to the cultural commonalities of these peoples, based on similarities in language, material artifacts, social organisation and mythological factors. Earlier theories were that this indicated a common racial origin but more recent theories are reflective of culture and language rather than race. Celtic cultures seem to have had numerous diverse characteristics but the commonality between these diverse peoples was the use of a Celtic language. "Celtic" is a descriptor of a family of languages and, more generally, means 'of the Celts,' or 'in the style of the Celts'. It has also been used to refer to several archaeological cultures defined by unique sets of artifacts. The link between language and artifact is aided by the presence of inscriptions. Today, the term 'Celtic' is generally used to describe the languages and respective cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany, also known as the Six Celtic Nations. These are the regions where four Celtic languages are still spoken to some extent as mother tongues: Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton plus two recent revivals, Cornish (one of the Brythonic languages) and Manx (one of the Goidelic languages). There are also attempts to revive the Cumbric language (a Brythonic language from Northwest England and Southwest Scotland). "Celtic" is also sometimes used to describe regions of Continental Europe that have Celtic heritage, but where no Celtic language has survived; these areas include the western Iberian Peninsula, i.e. Portugal, and north-central Spain (Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Castile and León, Extremadura), and to a lesser degree, France. "Continental Celts" refers to the Celtic-speaking people of mainland Europe. "Insular Celts" refers to the Celtic-speaking people of the British Isles and their descendants. The Celts of Brittany derive their language from migrating insular Celts from southwest Britain and so are grouped accordingly.

The Celtic languages form a branch of the larger Indo-European family. By the time speakers of Celtic languages enter history around 400 BC (Brennus's attack on Rome in 387 BC), they were already split into several language groups, and spread over much of Central Europe, the Iberian peninsula, Ireland and Britain. Some scholars think that the Urnfield culture of northern Germany and the Netherlands represents an origin for the Celts as a distinct cultural branch of the Indo-European family. This culture was preeminent in central Europe during the late Bronze Age, from ca. 1200 BC until 700 BC, itself following the Unetice and Tumulus cultures. The Urnfield period saw a dramatic increase in population in the region, probably due to innovations in technology and agricultural practices. The spread of iron-working led to the development of the Hallstatt culture directly from the Urnfield (c. 700 to 500 BC). Proto-Celtic, the latest common ancestor of all known Celtic languages, is considered by this school of thought to have been spoken at the time of the late Urnfield or early Hallstatt cultures, in the early first millennium BC. The spread of the Celtic languages to Iberia, Ireland and Britain would have occurred during the first half of the 1st millennium, the earliest chariot burials in Britain dating to ca. 500 BC. Over the centuries they developed into the separate Celtiberian, Goidelic and Brythonic languages. The Hallstatt culture was succeeded by the La Tène culture of central Europe, and during the final stages of the Iron Age gradually transformed into the explicitly Celtic culture of early historical times. Celtic river-names are found in great numbers around the upper reaches of the Danube and Rhine, which led many Celtic scholars to place the ethnogenesis of the Celts in this area.

The Proto-Celtic language is usually dated to the early European Iron Age. The earliest records of a Celtic language are the Lepontic inscriptions of Cisalpine Gaul, the oldest of which still predate the La Tène period. Other early inscriptions are Gaulish, appearing from the early La Tène period in inscriptions in the area of Massilia, in the Greek alphabet. Celtiberian inscriptions appear comparatively late, after about 200 BC. Evidence of Insular Celtic is available only from about AD 400, in the form of Primitive Irish Ogham inscriptions. Besides epigraphical evidence, an important source of information on early Celtic is toponymy.

Very few references to the language of the Celts are found in ancient ethnography. Jerome (AD 342-419) in his commentary on St Paul's epistle to the Galatians notes that the language of the Anatolian Galatians in his day was still very similar to the language of the Treveri.

Traditionally the Celts were considered a Central European Iron Age phenomenon, through the cultures of Hallstatt and La Tène. However, archaeological finds from the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures were rare in the Iberian Peninsula, and did not provide enough evidence for a cultural scenario comparable to that of Central Europe. It is considered equally difficult to maintain that the origin of the Peninsular Celts can be linked to the preceding Urnfield culture, leading to a more recent approach that introduces a 'proto-Celtic' substratum and a process of Celticization having its initial roots in the Bronze Age Bell Beaker culture. The Iron Age Hallstatt (c. 800-475 BC) and La Tène (c. 500-50 BC) cultures are typically associated with Proto-Celtic and Celtic culture. The La Tène culture developed and flourished during the late Iron Age (from 450 BCE to the Roman conquest in the 1st century BCE) in eastern France, Switzerland, Austria, southwest Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. It developed out of the Hallstatt culture without any definite cultural break, under the impetus of considerable Mediterranean influence from Greek, and later Etruscan civilizations. A shift of settlement centres took place in the 4th century. The western La Tène culture corresponds to historical Celtic Gaul. Whether this means that the whole of La Tène culture can be attributed to a unified Celtic people is difficult to assess; archaeologists have repeatedly concluded that language, material culture, and political affiliation do not necessarily run parallel. Thus, while the La Tène culture is certainly associated with the Gauls, the presence of La Tène artefacts may be due to cultural contact and does not imply the permanent presence of Celtic speakers.

Polybius published a history of Rome about 150 BC in which he describes the Gauls of Italy and their conflict with Rome. Pausanias in the second century BC says that the Gauls "originally called Celts live on the remotest region of Europe on the coast of an enormous tidal sea". Posidonius described the southern Gauls about 100 BC. Though his original work is lost it was used by later writers such as Strabo. The latter, writing in the early first century AD, deals with Britain and Gaul as well as Hispania, Italy and Galatia. Caesar wrote extensively about his Gallic Wars in 58-51 BC. Diodorus Siculus wrote about the Celts of Gaul and Britain in his first century History.

At the dawn of history in Europe, the Celts then living in what is now France were known as Gauls to the Romans. The territory of these peoples probably included the low countries, the Alps and what is now northern Italy. Their descendants were described by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars. Eastern Gaul was the centre of the western La Tene culture. In later Iron Age Gaul, the social organization was similar to that of the Romans, with large towns. From the third century BC the Gauls adopted coinage, and texts with Greek characters are known in southern Gaul from the second century. Greek traders founded Massalia in about 600BC, with exchange up the Rhone valley, but trade was disrupted soon after 500BC and re-oriented over the Alps to the Po valley in Italy. The Romans arrived in the Rhone valley in the second century BC and encountered a Gaul that was mostly Celtic-speaking. Rome needed land communications with its Iberian provinces and fought a major battle with the Saluvii at Entremont in 124-123 BC. Gradually Roman control extended, and the Roman Province of Gallia Transalpina was formed along the Mediterranean coast. The remainder was known as Gallia Comata - "Hairy Gaul". In 58 BC, the Helvetii planned to migrate westward but were forced back by Julius Caesar. He then became involved in fighting the various tribes in Gaul, and by 55 BC, most of Gaul had been overrun. In 52 BC, Vercingetorix led a revolt against the Roman occupation but was defeated at the siege of Alesia and surrendered. Following the Gallic Wars of 58-51 BC, Celticia formed the main part of Roman Gaul.

Traditional 18th/19th centuries scholarship surrounding the Celts virtually ignored the Iberian Peninsula, since material culture relatable to the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures that has defined Iron Age Celts was rare in Iberia, and did not provide a cultural scenario that could easily be linked to that of Central Europe. Modern scholarship, however, has proven that Celtic presence and influences were very substantial in Iberia.

One group, from Galicia and along the Iberian Atlantic shores. They were made up of the Lusitanians (in Portugal and the Celtic region that Strabo called Celtica in the southwest including the Algarve, inhabited by the Celtici), the Vettones and Vacceani peoples (of central west Spain and Portugal), and the Gallaecian, Astures and Cantabrian peoples of the Castro culture of north and northwest Spain and Portugal). The Celtiberian group of central Spain and the upper Ebro valley. The group originated when Celts migrated from what is now France and integrated with the local Iberian people. The origins of the Celtiberians might provide a key to unlocking the Celticization process in the rest of the Peninsula.

There was an early Celtic presence in northern Italy since inscriptions dated to the sixth century BC have been found there. In 391 BC Celts "who had their homes beyond the Alps streamed through the passes in great strength and seized the territory that lay between the Appeninne mountains and the Alps" according to Diodorus Siculus. The Po Valley and the rest of northern Italy (known to the Romans as Cisalpine Gaul) was inhabited by Celtic-speakers who founded cities such as Milan. Later the Roman army was routed at the battle of Allia and Rome was sacked in 390 BC by the Senones. At the battle of Telemon in 225 BC a large Celtic army was trapped between two Roman forces and crushed. The defeat of the combined Samnite, Celtic and Etruscan alliance by the Romans in the Third Samnite War sounded the beginning of the end of the Celtic domination in mainland Europe, but it was not until 192 BC that the Roman armies conquered the last remaining independent Celtic kingdoms in Italy. The Celts settled much further south of the Po River than many maps show. Remnants in the town of Doccia, in the province of Emilia-Romagna, showcase Celtic houses in very good condition dating from about the 4th century BC.

The Celts also expanded down the Danube river and its tributaries. One of the most influential tribes, the Scordisci, had established their capital at Singidunum in 3rd century BC, which is present-day Belgrade, Serbia. The concentration of hill-forts and cemeteries shows a density of population in the Tisza valley of modern-day Vojvodina, Serbia, Hungary and into Ukraine. Expansion into Romania was however blocked by the Dacians. Further south, Celts settled in Thrace (Bulgaria), which they ruled for over a century, and Anatolia, where they settled as the Galatians. Despite their geographical isolation from the rest of the Celtic world, the Galatians maintained their Celtic language for at least seven hundred years. St Jerome, who visited Ancyra (modern-day Ankara) in 373 AD, likened their language to that of the Treveri of northern Gaul. The Boii tribe gave their name to Bohemia and Bologna, and Celtic artefacts and cemeteries have been discovered further east in what is now Poland and Slovakia. A celtic coin (Biatec) from Bratislava's mint is displayed on today's Slovak 5 crown coin. However, the Celtic invasions of Italy, Greece, and western Anatolia are well documented in Greek and Latin history. There are records of Celtic mercenaries in Egypt serving the Ptolemies. Thousands were employed in 283-246 BC and they were also in service around 186 BC. They attempted to overthrow Ptolemy II.

A large portion of the indigenous populations of Britain and Ireland today may be partially descended from the ancient peoples that have long inhabited these lands, before the coming of Celtic and later Germanic peoples, language and culture. Little is known of their original culture and language, but remnants of the latter may remain in the names of some geographical features, such as the rivers Clyde, Tamar and Thames, whose etymology is unclear but possibly derive from a pre-Celtic substrate (Gelling). By the Roman period, however, most of the inhabitants of the isles of Ireland and Britain were speaking Goidelic or Brythonic languages, close counterparts to the Celtic languages spoken on the European mainland. The Book of Leinster, written in the twelfth century, but drawing on a much earlier Irish oral tradition, states that the first Celts to arrive in Ireland were from Iberia. Later research indicated that the culture may have developed gradually and continuously between the Celts and the indigenous people of Britain or Spain. Similarly in Ireland little archaeological evidence was found for large intrusive groups of Celtic immigrants, suggesting to archaeologists such as Colin Renfrew that the native late Bronze Age inhabitants gradually absorbed European Celtic influences and language.

Under Caesar the Romans conquered Celtic Gaul, and from Claudius onward the Roman empire absorbed parts of Britain. Roman local government of these regions closely mirrored pre-Roman 'tribal' boundaries, and archaeological finds suggest native involvement in local government. Latin was the official language of these regions after the conquests. The native peoples under Roman rule became Romanized and keen to adopt Roman ways. Celtic art had already incorporated classical influences, and surviving Gallo-Roman pieces interpret classical subjects or keep faith with old traditions despite a Roman overlay. The Roman occupation of Gaul, and to a lesser extent of Britain, led to Roman-Celtic syncretism. In the case of the continental Celts, this eventually resulted in a language shift to Vulgar Latin (see also Gallo-Roman culture), while the Insular Celts retained their language. However, the Celts were master horsemen, which so impressed the Romans that they adopted Epona, the Celtic horse goddess, into their pantheon. During and after the fall of the Roman Empire many parts of France threw out their Roman administrators.

The Coligny Calendar, which was found in 1897 in Coligny, Ain. Based on the style of lettering and the accompanying objects, it probably dates to the end of the 2nd century. It is written in Latin inscriptional capitals, and is in the Gaulish language. The restored tablet contains sixteen vertical columns, with sixty-two months distributed over five years. There were four major festivals in the Gallic Calendar: "Imbolc" on 1 February, possibly linked to the lactation of the ewes and sacred to the Goddess Brigid. "Beltaine" on 1 May, connected to fertility and warmth, possibly linked to the Sun God Belenos. "Lúnasa" on 1 August, connected with the harvest and associated with the God Lugh. And finally "Samhain" on 1 November, possibly the start of the year. Two of these festivals, Beltaine and Lúnasa are shown on the Coligny Calendar by sigils, and it is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to match the first month on the Calendar (Samonios) to Samhain.

To the extent that sources are available, they depict a pre-Christian Celtic social structure based formally on class and kinship. Patron-client relationships similar to those of Roman society are also described by Caesar and others in the Gaul of the first century BC. In the main, the evidence is of tribes being led by kings, although some argue that there is evidence of oligarchical republican forms of government eventually emerging in areas in close contact with Rome. Most descriptions of Celtic societies describe them as being divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy; an intellectual class including professions such as druid, poet, and jurist; and everyone else. There are instances recorded where women participated both in warfare and in kingship, although they were in the minority in these areas. In historical times, the offices of high and low kings in Ireland and Scotland were filled by election under the system of tanistry, which eventually came into conflict with the feudal principle of primogeniture where the succession goes to the first born son. Little is known of family structure among the Celts. Patterns of settlement varied from decentralised to the urban. The popular stereotype of non-urbanised societies settled in hillforts and duns, drawn from Britain and Ireland contrasts with the urban settlements present in the core Hallstatt and La Tene areas, with the many significant oppida of Gaul late in the first millennium BC, and with the towns of Gallia Cisalpina. There is archaeological evidence to suggest that the pre-Roman Celtic societies were linked to the network of overland trade routes that spanned Eurasia. Large prehistoric trackways crossing bogs in Ireland and Germany have been found by archaeologists. They are believed to have been created for wheeled transport as part of an extensive roadway system that facilitated trade. The territory held by the Celts contained tin, lead, iron, silver and gold. Celtic smiths and metalworkers created weapons and jewelry for international trade, particularly with the Romans. Local trade was largely in the form of barter, but as with most tribal societies they probably had a reciprocal economy in which goods and other services are not exchanged, but are given on the basis of mutual relationships and the obligations of kinship. Low value coinages of potin, silver and bronze, suitable for use in trade, were minted in most Celtic areas of the continent, and in South-East Britain prior to the Roman conquest of these areas. There are only very limited records from pre-Christian times written in Celtic languages. These are mostly inscriptions in the Roman, and sometimes Greek, alphabets. The Ogham script was mostly used in early Christian times in Ireland and Scotland (but also in Wales and England), and was only used for ceremonial purposes. The available evidence is of a strong oral tradition, such as that preserved by bards in Ireland, and eventually recorded by monasteries. The oldest recorded rhyming poetry in the world is of Irish origin and is a transcription of a much older epic poem, leading some scholars to claim that the Celts invented Rhyme. They were highly skilled in visual arts and Celtic art produced a great deal of intricate and beautiful metalwork, examples of which have been preserved by their distinctive burial rites. In some regards the Atlantic Celts were conservative, for example they still used chariots in combat long after they had been reduced to ceremonial roles by the Greeks and Romans, though when faced with the Romans in Britain, their chariot tactics defeated the invasion attempted by Julius Caesar.

During the later Iron Age the Gauls generally wore long-sleeved shirts or tunics and long trousers. Clothes were made of wool or linen, with some silk being used by the rich. Cloaks were worn in winter. Broaches and armlets were used but the most famous item of jewellery was the torc.

Tribal warfare appears to have been a regular feature of Celtic societies. Polybius indicates that the principal Celtic weapon was a long sword which was used for hacking edgewise rather than stabbing. Celtic warriors are described by Polybius and Plutarch as frequently having to cease fighting in order to straighten their sword blades.

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Celtic Festivals
May Eve festival.
One of the ancient Celtic Fire Festivals. On this night, the cattle were driven between two bonfires to protect them from disease. Couples wishing for fertility would "jump the fires" on Beltane night. Embers were taken home and used to light fires which would never be extinguished till next Beltane. Also the traditional Sabbat where the rule of the "Wheel of the Year" is returned to the Goddess. This Festival also marks the transition point of the threefold Goddess energies from those of Maiden to Mother.
Fire Festivals
The cross quarter Sabbats of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lammas.
On the first day of February. Coincided with the start of the lambing season. Easter is actually a copy of this festival. In fact nearly all Christian festivals were stolen from the Celtic ways.
August 1st. The Old Celtic name for this festival is Lughnassadh. It is the Festival of the First Fruits, and is the first of the 3 harvests. This festival also marks the change of the Threefold Goddess energies from that of Mother to Crone.
The second Spring Festival.
Imbolc being the first and Beltane being the third. It is celebrated on the Spring Equinox. On this day, the night and day are in balance.
Celtic New Year Festival.
The festival of remembrance for the dead, held on the eve of Nov. 1st. It is the last of the three harvests. Bonfires were lit to remember the sun and encourage it`s return. All Hallows and Halloween actually come from this Celtic Festival.
The shortest day of the year and is considered a Quarter. It is celebrated on the Winter Solstice. An old Celtic tradition holds that the Oak King (rebirth) overcomes the Holly King (death), because the Sun will wax after the Winter Solstice.

Celtic Origins
The ancient Celts in many ways shaped the British Isles as we know them today. But because the Celts were an oral, not a written society, little information survives today as to their way of life. The Celts may have first emerged as an identifiable people around 100 B.C. near the river Danube. They eventually spread into surrounding Europe. They were highly skilled in farming, metal work and building roads. They could also be a highly effective warrior force. The arrival of the first Celts in Britain was around 800 B.C. The Celts preferred to record their laws and traditions in poetry, songs and stories. As such little information remains about the Celts.

Celtic Animal Beliefs
The Celts had a very strong affinity with animals. The Druids were believed to be able to talk to animals. Animals were used also in the Irish tradition. When the King died, the royal Druids would sacrifice an Ox. The animal most associated with the Celts was the Horse. Horses were represented on artifacts and coins. Horses provided a means of transport, and were used in sport and work. Goddesses associated with the Horse often took on it`s form. The diety Epona was a horse Goddess. The Deer too were sacred in Celtic beliefs. They often appeared as other worldly messengers. The wisest creature in Celtic beliefs was the fish, Salmon. Crows and Ravens were associated with battle. The Goddess Morrighan often took the form of a Raven.

Death And The Other World
The ancient Celts believed in life after death. The Other World existed alongside or even within the mortal world. The Celts believed it was even possible to stumble into the other world. Those who did find themselves in the Other World spent a few happy hours there before returning to the mortal world only to find they had been gone for years. The Celts believed that after a persons death the soul needed a physically clear path to make it`s way to the Other World. When a person died, all windows, doors, etc were opened to ensure a clear path. The most respected warriors of Celtic tribes were buried with weapons and chariots. The Gods decided the fate of mortals. In the casae of a battle, the outcome may be decided by the Gods with a game of chess.

Celtic Water Beliefs
As part of their celebration for the Beltane festival, the Druids collected May dew to use in rituals. Rivers, lakes and wells were all dwelling places to the supernatural creatures. The journey to the other side after death was across a body of water. Celtic legend contains a number of tales of underwater cities.

Celtic Tree Beliefs
Trees were highly regarded by the ancient celts. Each tree was believed to have it`s own spirit. The Oak was considered the most important among the trees. During the time of the Druids the dead were often buried in the hollowed out trunk of an Oak tree. The Oak was also used for Solstive festivals and Beltane festivals. Elder, Rowan, Birch and Hazel were also important in Celtic beliefs. Hazelnuts were considered a source of creativity and fertility.

Celtic Artifacts
Archeological discoveries at Celtic sites show the ancient Celts to be a very sophisticated society for that time. Among the most important artifacts in Celtic legend were the Hallows. The belief was that these artifacts would only work for those worthy of them.

The Hallows Of Ireland :

The Stone Of Fal : the place of inauguration for the Irish Kings.

The Spear Of Lugh : gives victory in every battle.

The Cauldron Of Dagda : no one would leave the cauldron unsatisfied.

The Treasures Of Britain :

The Chessboard Of Gwenddolau : the pieces played the game themselves.

The Mantle Of Arthur : a cloak of invisibility.

Dyrnwyn : the magical sword of Rhydderch the Generous.

The Hamper Of Gwyddno Garanhir : when food for one was put in, food for a hundred came out.

The Horn Of Bran : produced whatever drinks were wanted.

The Chariot Of Morgan The Wealthy : took it`s owner anywhere they wanted to go.

The Halter Of Clyno Eiddyn : bring it`s owner any horse they wanted.

The Knife Of Llawfronedd The Horseman : could carve for 24 men.



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Tanya Harris
This article on Celtic Belief is by Tanya Harris. Tanya has long held n interest in the research of celtic belief and has a large number of artifacts of celtic origin.

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