Who were the Ancient Celts?
The Celts were a European cultural group first evident in the
7th or 8th century B.C. The Romans called them Galli
and the Greeks called them Keltoi-- both meaning barbarians.
Their maximum expansion was in the 3rd to 5th century
B.C., when they occupied much of Europe north of the Alps (see
maps). The Celts arrived in Britain
by the 4th or 5th century B.C. and Ireland by the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., and
possibly earlier, displacing an earlier people who were already on the islands.
The Gaels, Gauls, Britons, Irish, and Gallations were all Celtic people.
Why are the Celts associated
today with Ireland, Wales, and Scotland?
Celtic culture survived longer in these areas
than in continental Europe. In many ways it still survives today.
On the continent, the expanding Romans defeated various Celtic groups and subsumed
their culture. Julius Ceaser conducted a successful campaign against the Gauls
in 52-58 B.C., and as part of that campaign invaded Britain
in 54 B.C. but was unsuccessful in conquering the island. Ninety-seven years
later, in 43 A.D., the Romans invaded Britain again, pushing the Britons to
the west (Wales and Corwall) and north (Scotland). Hadrian's
Wall was built beginning in
120 to protect the Romans from the northern Celtic tribes.
The Romans never occupied Ireland, nor did the Anglo-Saxons who invaded Britain
after the Romans withdrew in the 5th century, so Celtic culture survived more
strongly in Ireland than elsewhere (partly because of hill
forts). Christianity came to Ireland in the 4th century, St.
Patrick coming in 432.
Many of the Celtic cultural elements integrated with Christianity.
The most "religious" aspect of Celtic culture, Druidic practice, diminished,
and many say that the Druids were systematically supressed and killed. However,
many cultural elements lasted, including ancient oral stories which were recorded
by Irish monks in both Irish and Latin (without much editorial interference).
Viking invasions in the 7-9th century A.D. interrupted the Irish
culture and destroyed many cultural elements, including many manuscripts lost
in plundered monastaries. The Vikings founded several Irish cities, such as
Belfast and Dublin. However, they never really took over the island.
Ireland was not truly occupied by another nation until 1160,
when the Normans invaded from England. British occupation of Ireland lasted
until 1922 (five northern counties are still part of Britain). Even under English
occupation many elements of Celtic culture survived, so in many ways Celtic
culture has been continuous in Ireland for 2400 years or more.
Are there Celts left? Tá! (Yes)
- Gaelic (Gael-tech / Celtic) culture still survives strongly
in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Corwall, Brittany, and other places. In Ireland,
- Most Irish consider themselves Celtic in heritage.
- Up to 100,000 speak Gaelic as a first language. Half
a million speak it as a second language.
- Gaelic language is on street
signs, storefronts, phone books, etc. In the west, some areas are posted
in Gaelic only.
radio and TV stations operate in Ireland.
- The "Celtic" aura is not only an authentic cultural
element but a big marketing angle in Ireland and elsewhere. Watch out for
new-age products and web pages that play loud Irish music!
THE LORD'S PRAYER IN IRISH GAELIC
Ár n-Athair, atá ar neamh: go naofar d’ainm. Go dtaga
do Ríocht. Go ndéantar do thoil ar an talamh, mar dhéantar ar neamh. Ár
n-arán laethiúl tabhair dúinn. Maith sinn ár bhfiacha, mar mhaithimid
dár bhféichiúnaithe féin. Agus ná lig sinn i gcathú, ach saor sinn ó olc.
Óir is leatsa an Ríocht agus an Chumhacht agus an Ghlóir, tré shaol na
SOME IRISH CURSES
- Imeacht gan teacht ort. ------ May you leave without returning.
- Titim gan éirí ort. ------- May you fall without rising.
n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat.
-----May the cat eat you, and may the cat be eaten
by the devil.
How do we know about the
Celtic culture stretched over much of Europe and lasted several
centuries, so the evidence and the culture itself that is represented varies
widely. We know about them in three ways: through artifacts, historical accounts,
and manuscripts that come mainly from Ireland and Britain.
- Artifacts from all over Europe and Asia Minor:
case-spirals case-circles case-cuchallain case-animals Web page
- Historical mention, mostly by Roman Writers.
From Livy's The Early History of Rome, after the Celts had attacked
the Etruscans in the Po Valley.
[The Celts told the Roman envoys that] this was indeed the first time they
had heard of them, but they assumed the Romans must be a courageous people
because it was to them that the [Etruscans] had turned to in their hour of
need. And since the Romans had tried to help with an embassy and not with
arms, they themselves would not reject the offer of peace, provided the [Etruscans]
ceded part of their seperfluous agricultural land; that was what they, the
Celts, wanted.... If it were not given, they would launch an attack before
the Romans' eyes, so that the Romans could report back how superior the Gauls
were in battle to all others....The Romans then asked whether it was right
to demand land from its owners on pain of war, indeed what were the Celts
going in Etruria in the first place? The latter defiantly retorted that their
right lay in their arms: To the brave belong all things.
Roman historian Diodorus notes:
Their aspect is terrifying...Their hair is blond, but
not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it
in lime and combing it back from their foreheaads. They look like wood-demons,
their hair thick and shaggy like a horse's mane. Some of them are cleanshaven,
but others ... shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the
whole mouth and, when they eat and drink, acts like a sieve, trapping particles
The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly
coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and
cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch. ... These cloaks are striped
or checkered in design, with the seperate checks close together and in various
colours. [The Celts] wear bronze helmets with figures picked out on them,
even horns ...while others cover themselves with breast-armour made out
of chains. But most content themselves with the weapons nature gave them:
they go naked into battle...[where] Weird, discordant horns were sounded,
deep and harsh voices, they beat their swords rythmically against their
know about Celtic stories through manuscripts written down by Irish
monks beginning 7th c. in both Irish and English. (Many lost to
Norsemen.) The most famous surviving ones are.
- The Book of the Dun Cow (Leabhar na hUidhri, pronounced
yower no hoodra). Compiled by over 1000 monks around 1100
A.D., it records myths, legends, customs and events, from the 7th and 8th
century and perhaps earlier.
- The Book of Leinster (Leabhar na Núachongbála).
Also compiled around 1100 A.D.
- The Book of Invasions (Leabhar Gabhala) -- compiled 12th
c. based on earler 6th / 7th c. work of Irish monks. Tells of the various
creatures and people who populated Ireland. The closest the Irish have to
a creation myth.
- The Book of Places (Dinnschenchas) -- compiled 12th c.
based on 6th / 7th c. compilations . Tells about Irish place histories and
Story “cycles” identified in the above works:
- Mythological cycle: "Foundation" stories.
- Ulster Cyle -- Cuchallain, Queen Maeve
- Finnian Cycle -- Fin MacCool
What was ancient Celtic
- Agrarian (farmers protected by war-lords), nature-based,
- Typically lived in small settlements, not large cities,
in huts or stone dwellings.
- Loosely affiliated groups—no large central government like
- Skilled at war--weaponry
/ chariots. Sacked Rome in 369 B.C. and Delphi in 246.
- We don't know specific religious doctrines with certainty,
but we do know:
- Polytheistic: many gods and goddesses. Many were very
- Towns, lakes, rivers, valleys, etc. had spirits or gods/goddesses.
Places of water were especially important. Offerings of artifacts and
sacrifices have been found in many lakes, rivers, and bogs (coins in a
well?). Sulis: goddess of the hot springs at Bath.
- Druids and filidhs administered the practices, foretold
prophecies, and judged civil and criminal cases. Their roles were formalized.
Some were women. Druids studied for up to 20 years. They were targeted
by the Romans and probably the early Christians in Ireland.
- Oak and mistletoe may have been important. Druids conducted
rites in oak groves.
- Animals were important, recurrent in the artifacts and
later in the stories. Bulls were worshipped and sacrificed. In the ritual
of bull sleep, recorded by Romans, a chosen person was fed bull
flesh and chanted to sleep by four Druids. When he awoke, he would prophecy
who the next king would be.
- Sky / Sun was important (sun wheel; Lugh)
- Belief in afterlife. People were buried with their possessions
and in some cases their horses, spouses, etc.
Caesar said: They [The Druids] are chiefly
anxious to have men believe the following: that souls do not suffer death,
but after death pass from one body to another; and they regard this as
the strongest incentive to valour, since the fear of dieath is disregarded
(Gallic War VI, 14)
- Belief in "parallel" life, divine or magic entities
operating, like fairies in Irish stories. In the Book of Invasions,
the Tuatha de Danaan go underground in Ireland and only come out through
- Belief in magic--the geiss bond, for example.
- Practiced sacrifices: human and animal.
- Threes, heads, animals, spirals, knots, weaves were all
important, recurrent in art.
- In Celtic socity, women had political and spiritual power.
Sometimes fought as warriors, and some were Druids. As one of many examples
in myth, see the story of Cuchallain
- Imbolc (Em-bolc):
Feb 1. Centers around Brigit, with emphasis on fertility of livestock
and crops (return to life; lambing season), on the home, the hearth fire,
and on purification.
- Beltane (Biel-ten-eh):
May Day. Ribbons wound around a May pole. Great bonfires were kindled
outside, people and animals would jump over or go between them for purification
(Jack Jump Over the Candlestick?). Woman washed their face with May dew;
a May Queen was elected. Regional and national (Irish) celebrations.
- Lughsheana (Loo-ness-a):
Aug 1. Harvest time; warriors came back to help! Fairs held, with sporting
contests, music, and story-telling. Regional and national celebrations.
- Samhain (Sow-en):
Oct. 31 / Nov. 1. Summer's end. Lugh dies and passes to the underworld.
The Celts put out their home hearth fire and re-lit with the village's
communal fire. Boundaries to the other world are temporarily suspended--spirits
can mix with the living. Masks must be worn so the spirits won't recognize.
Who were the Celtic gods and Goddesses?
Celtic dieties were more localized and particular to specific
tribes than the gods and goddesses of larger, more centrally controlled civilizations
like the Romans. However, some recurrent figures can be identified:
- Dagda -- All powerful, fertile,
protective, good at things, but sometimes characterized in comical ways
too, with ill fitting pants, embarrasing actions, etc.
- Morrigan -- Dagda's consort
-- could change into a crow or raven and gloat over the blood of enemies.
- Lugh -- The Shining One,
god of sun and light, skilled in arts and crafts.
- Brigit -- goddess of fire,
fertility, poetry; became St. Brigit in Catholic tradition.
- Taranis -- Thunder God,
- Maev / Madb -- legendary
Queen of the province of Connacht, personifying fertility, sovereignty,
and power. She took various lovers, had a squirrel and a bird on her shoulders,
and could reduce the strength of men just by her presence.
- Cuchallain -- strong and
cunning legendary hero of Ulster who was the leader of the Red Branch knights.
Son of Lugh.
- Tuatha de Danaan -- mythical race inhabiting Ireland
before the Gaels (Celts) came. Descendents of Danu. They defeated
the Fomorians (monsters) but were later defeated by the Gaels. They
agreed to live underground.
Which stories are
the best known?
How do we approach these stories? Find
good ones! "The Three Etains" is an adaptation of two "Etain"
stories found in the Book of the Dun Cow and The Yellow
Book of Lecan (where it is more complete).
Resources if Needed
Extra Ireland Photos:
boar-head // case-boar
// cemetary // stone
mountain // green hill //
hill fort 1 // hill
fort 2 // hill fort 3
// hill fort 4 // hill
fort cliff // stone axes
// metal axes.