The term “Celts” refer to the Celtic people (pronounced Keltic) that thrived in both ancient and modern times. Today, the term often refers to the cultures, languages and people that are based in Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany in France.
“Today six Celtic languages survive — the Gaelic group comprising Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx and the Britonic group comprising Welsh, Breton and Cornish,” wrote the late professor Dáithí Ó hÓgáin in his book “The Celts: A History” (The Collins Press, 2002). He notes that Manx and Cornish originally died out but have now been revived.
The relationship between modern-day Celts and their ancient forbearers is a contentious issue that scholars have different opinions about. Languages change over time, and people move. How much modern-day Celtic peoples, language and cultures are related to the ancient Celts is an open question.
Nevertheless the Celts, both ancient and modern, have provided humanity with some fantastic art, culture and stories of martial prowess.
The Ancient Celts
The Celtic People were first referenced in texts about 2,500 years ago. Many of the ancient sources, however, were written by Greeks, Romans and other non-Celts.
Evidence indicates that the Celtic People were spread out across a vast area of continental Europe. They lived as far east as modern-day Turkey and even served as mercenaries for the Egyptian
queen Cleopatra. They were never politically united as a single people but consisted of different groups, including Gauls (from areas including France) and Celtiberians (based in Iberia).
They spoke different languages and, in fact, “given the size of the language area it is rather unlikely that all the people identified by the Greeks and Romans as Celtic Peoples would have been able to communicate with each other in the same language,” writes Felix Muller, of the Historisches Museum in Berne, in his book “Art of the Celts: 700 B.C. to A.D. 700” (Historisches Museum Berne, 2009).
He notes that identifying particular works of art as “Celtic” can also be challenging. But if we look at art from areas where the Celtic Peoples were said to flourish, we can see some of the wonders they produced. For instance, more than 2,500 years ago, at a burial mound at Ins in western Switzerland, they left behind a golden globe-shaped object, less than an inch in diameter, that was “decorated with approximately 3600 granules,” an example of the incredibly intricate gold work the Celts could produce.
Ancient writers tended not to discuss Celtic People’s artistic achievements but rather their reputation for fierceness in war. Gauls had succeeded in sacking Rome in 390 B.C. Later that century, when Alexander the Great was campaigning, he received a party of Celts.
“The king received them kindly and asked them when drinking what it was that they most feared, thinking they would say himself, but that they replied they feared no one, unless it were that Heaven might fall on them,” wrote the Greek writer Strabo who lived ca. 64 B.C. – A.D. 24 (translation through Perseus Digital Library).
Did the Celtic People Fight in the buff?
It was said that some Celtic People would strip completely naked before going into battle; something meant to impact their enemies psychologically.
“Very terrifying too were the appearance and the gestures of the naked warriors in front, all in the prime of life, all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold torques and armlets,” wrote Polybius (200-118 BC), in an account of a battle they fought against the Romans. (Translation through University of Chicago Penelope website) Perhaps not coincidentally, ancient sources also say that the Celts detested being overweight and had penalties against this. Strabo, quoting another writer named Ephorus, wrote “that they endeavor not to grow fat or pot-bellied, and any young man who exceeds the standard measure of the girdle is punished.”
Celtic People and Religion
While the Celtic People would eventually be Christianized along with much of the Roman Empire (in time the Romans would conquer many of their lands) ancient sources provide hints at the religious beliefs of the Celtic People.
A poem by Lucan (A.D. 39-65) describes a grove what was sacred to the Celts. This poem, along with other sources, suggests that human sacrifice was practiced.
“There stood a grove
Which from the earliest time no hand of man
Had dared to violate; hidden from the sun…”
“No sylvan nymphs
Here found a home, nor Pan, but savage rites
And barbarous worship, altars horrible
On massive stones upreared; sacred with blood
Of men was every tree …”
The Celtic People were interested in Druidism. Robert Wisniewski of the University of Warsaw notes in an article published in the journal Palemedes that in A.D. 43 Pomponius Mela wrote about the Gauls as follows:
“And yet, they have both their own eloquence and their own teachers of wisdom, the Druids. These men claim to know the size and shape of the earth and of the universe, the movements of the sky and of the stars, and what the gods intend…” he wrote. “One of the precepts they teach — obviously to make them better for war — has [become] common knowledge, namely that their souls are eternal and there is a second life for the dead.” (Translation by E.F Romer)
For more information about the Celtic People and the wonderful tradition of Celtic jewelry, browse our catalog and read about the interesting history of many of the pieces. Celtic Elegance is your source of everything Celtic!