An introduction to the Celts
The Celts were a group of people who lived in Europe during the Iron Age and Medieval Periods. The Celts first appeared in around 1200 BC and by 1000 AD were increasingly marginalised as a people and culture.
1200 BC: The earliest evidence of Celtic culture appears in archaeological sites in Central Europe.
800-450 BC: The Hallstatt culture emerges in Central Europe, characterized by the production of iron tools and weapons and the development of complex social structures.
450-15 BC: The La Tène culture emerges in Central Europe, characterized by highly stylized art and a more decentralized political structure.
390 BC: The Celts sack Rome, marking the first recorded contact between the Celts and the Roman Empire.
279-275 BC: The Celts, led by Brennus, invade and conquer much of Northern Italy, including Rome itself.
58-50 BC: Julius Caesar leads a series of campaigns against the Celts in Gaul (modern-day France), ultimately conquering the region and bringing it under Roman control.
43 AD: The Roman Empire invades and conquers much of Britain, bringing the island under Roman control and ending the Celtic presence there.
5th-10th centuries AD: The Germanic tribes, including the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, invade and conquer much of the former Celtic territory in England, pushing the Celts to the fringes of the island.
The Celts were spread across many regions of Europe, including Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Over time the Celts were pushed to the fringes of land masses and their culture and religions were assimilated, adopted or destroyed. Today the areas where the Celtic influence is strongest are Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall.
The Celts had a rich culture and religion, with their own unique art, music, poetry, and mythology. Examples of Celtic mythology include:
The story of Cú Chulainn: This is a tale from Irish mythology about a hero named Cú Chulainn who defends Ulster from invasion. One of his most famous feats is the “Rage of Cú Chulainn,” where he fights an entire army single-handedly.
The legend of King Arthur: While the origins of King Arthur are debated, many scholars believe that the story of Arthur and his knights has Celtic roots. The tales of King Arthur typically involve battles against enemies, quests for magical objects, and complex relationships between the characters.
The tale of the Banshee: Banshees are mythical creatures from Irish folklore who are said to be spirits that wail and scream when someone is about to die. The banshee is often depicted as a woman dressed in white, with long hair and red eyes.
The story of the selkies: Selkies are mythical creatures from Scottish and Irish folklore who are said to be seals that can transform into humans. The stories typically involve a selkie falling in love with a human, but eventually returning to the sea.
The legend of the Wild Hunt: The Wild Hunt is a myth from Celtic and Germanic folklore about a group of supernatural hunters who ride through the night, often accompanied by fierce hounds. The Wild Hunt is said to be a harbinger of doom and misfortune.
The Celts were skilled metalworkers and created beautiful objects from gold, silver, bronze, and iron, including jewellery, weapons, and tools. Overtime much the objects created by the Celtic people have been lost, but there are some things that have survived – such as the following items:
The Ardagh Chalice: This is a magnificent silver and gold chalice from the 8th century, believed to have been made in the Kingdom of Munster, Ireland. The chalice is intricately decorated with elaborate designs featuring interlacing animals, birds, and mythical creatures.
The Tara Brooch: This is a stunning silver brooch from the 8th century, believed to have been made in the Kingdom of Tara, Ireland. The brooch is adorned with intricate designs featuring interlacing animals, birds, and human figures, and is considered a masterpiece of Celtic metalwork.
The Book of Kells: This is a beautifully illuminated manuscript from the 9th century, believed to have been created in a monastery in Ireland. The book is decorated with intricate designs featuring animals, mythical creatures, and religious scenes.
The Gundestrup Cauldron: This is a magnificent silver cauldron from the 1st century BC, believed to have been made in Denmark or Northern Germany. The cauldron is decorated with intricate designs featuring gods, goddesses, animals, and mythical creatures.
The Battersea Shield: This is a stunning iron shield from the 4th century BC, believed to have been made in Britain. The shield is decorated with intricate designs featuring interlacing animals, birds, and geometric shapes.
The Celts were known for their elaborate burial practices, with many graves containing rich treasures and offerings for the afterlife. Burial practices did however vary from place to place and over time.
Cremation: One of the most common methods of burial among the Celts was cremation, where the body was burned on a pyre and the ashes were collected and either buried or scattered. This practice was particularly common in the earlier Celtic period.
Inhumation: In later Celtic periods, inhumation or burying the body in the ground became more common. The body was usually placed in a simple grave, sometimes with grave goods such as pottery, jewellery, or weapons.
Burial Mounds: Celtic burial mounds, also known as barrows, were often constructed over the graves of important individuals or families. These mounds were usually made of earth or stones and could be quite large and impressive. Examples include, Newgrange and Knowth, both in County Meath, Danebury in Hampshire and Bougon in Nouvelle-Aquitane.
Rituals and Offerings: The Celts often performed rituals and made offerings to the gods as part of their burial practices. This could include offerings of food, drink, or other items, as well as prayers or chants.
Communal Burials: Some Celtic communities practiced communal burials, where several individuals were buried together in a single grave or burial mound. This could be a sign of social cohesion or shared identity.
The Celts were skilled warriors and were known for their bravery and ferocity in battle. Some of their most well known battles are:
Battle of Allia (390 BC): The Celts defeated the Roman army in this battle, which took place near Rome. The Romans were caught off guard and suffered a devastating defeat, with thousands of soldiers killed.
Battle of Magh Tuireadh (ca. 1400 BC): The Tuatha Dé Danann, a mythical Celtic tribe in Ireland, defeated the Fomorians in this legendary battle. The battle was said to have been fought over control of Ireland and resulted in the Tuatha Dé Danann gaining control of the island.
Battle of Telamon (225 BC): The Celts, led by a chieftain named Brennus, defeated a Roman army in this battle in northern Italy. The victory allowed the Celts to expand their territory into Italy.
Battle of Gergovia (52 BC): The Celtic leader Vercingetorix defeated Julius Caesar’s Roman army in this battle, which took place in what is now France. The victory was short-lived, however, as the Romans eventually defeated the Celts and conquered their territory.
Battle of Alesia (52 BC): This battle took place during Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (modern-day France). The Celts, led by Vercingetorix, were besieged by the Romans at Alesia. Despite putting up a strong defence, the Celts eventually surrendered, marking the end of Gallic resistance to Roman rule.
The Celts had a complex social hierarchy, with kings and queens ruling over tribes and clans. Celtic society was generally organized into tribes, which were groups of people who shared a common ancestry, culture, and language. Each tribe was led by a chieftain or king, who was responsible for making decisions on behalf of the tribe and maintaining its security. Within each tribe, there were different social classes. The highest class was the nobility, which included the chieftains and their families. Below them were the common people, who were farmers, craftsmen, and traders. At the bottom were slaves, who were often prisoners of war or debtors. The Celtic people had a complex system of religious beliefs, and there were specialized religious leaders who were responsible for performing rituals, making sacrifices, and interpreting the will of the gods. These religious leaders were often associated with the druidic tradition. Women played an important role in Celtic society and had more rights and freedoms than in some other ancient cultures. Women could own property, engage in trade, and participate in religious rituals. In some Celtic societies, women were even allowed to become chieftains or warriors. The Celtic people were known for their warrior culture, and warfare was an important part of their society. Warriors were highly respected, and battles were often fought between rival tribes over territory or resources.
The Celts were polytheistic and worshipped many gods and goddesses, many of these were adopted or absorbed when the Celts encountered other people. A detailed article about the gods of the Celts is here. Some of the key deities are:
Dagda: The Dagda was a god of the earth, fertility, and abundance. He was often depicted as a large, powerful figure with a magic club or staff that could both kill and resurrect.
Brigid: Brigid was a goddess of fire, healing, poetry, and smithcraft. She was associated with the spring season and was often depicted as a maiden, mother, and crone.
Cernunnos: Cernunnos was a god of fertility, animals, and the wilderness. He was often depicted with antlers and was associated with the stag and other horned animals.
Morrigan: The Morrigan was a goddess of war, fate, and death. She was often depicted as a crow or raven and was associated with the battlefield and the life cycle.
Lugh: Lugh was a god of the sun, light, and skill. He was often depicted as a warrior or hero and was associated with crafts, music, and knowledge.
Danu: Danu was a goddess of the earth, fertility, and rivers. She was considered the mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a mythical Celtic tribe in Ireland.
The Celts celebrated four major festivals throughout the year, including Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh.
Imbolc (February 1st): Imbolc marked the beginning of spring and the onset of the lambing season. It was associated with the goddess Brigid and was a time for purification and new beginnings.
Beltane (May 1st): Beltane marked the beginning of summer and was associated with fertility and the renewal of life. It was a time for feasting, dancing, and celebrating the union of the god and goddess.
Lughnasadh (August 1st): Lughnasadh marked the beginning of the harvest season and was associated with the god Lugh. It was a time for celebrating the fruits of the earth and giving thanks for the abundance of the harvest.
Samhain (November 1st): Samhain marked the beginning of winter and was associated with the dead and the ancestors. It was a time for honouring the spirits, divination, and preparing for the winter months.
The Celts were eventually conquered by the Romans and later by the Germanic tribes, but their legacy lives on in the modern cultures and traditions of many European countries. One of the most visible and accessible remnants of the Celtic culture is the Welsh language (spoken by around 20% of inhabitants) which can be heard in use in many areas of the country.
Who were the Celts? (Article about the origins of the Celtic people)
The Gods of the Celts (Article about the key Gods of the Celtic people)
Celtic Collection (Celt themed merch from High Speed History