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Who were the Ancient Celts? 

1uidimage001The word “Celt” is a modern term applied as a generic name for 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. The Celts were not native to Britain, but arrived by the 4th or 5th century B.C. The Gaels, Gauls, Bretons, and Cisalpine Gauls were all considered Celtic people.

Before the Roman invasions, Britain in the first century BC was divided into regions, each occupied by a tribe. These tribes are commonly referred to by the generic name “Celts”. They were extremely territorial and fiercely independent, believing that war was a necessary part of everyday life and, therefore, fought each other for territory and influence. It was not until Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans (60-61AD) that they first became united.

No Written Language

It appears they had no written language, which means written records of their tribal traditions are scarce. They did, however, pass down their history and culture through an extensive oral tradition. On long winter nights, the tribes would hold gatherings where they would talk of their past victories in battles and the exploits of heroes of the past.

1uidmap3Coinage is one of the best indicators to determine the extent of each tribal province. Each tribe would manufacture its own coins from base metals mined throughout the region. The coins bore an image of the head of their leader at the time. By analyzing where the coins have been found and matching the image against records of known leaders, it has been established where the borders of each tribe’s province were drawn.


Tribal warfare appears to have been a regular feature of Celtic societies. Some of the surviving tales of courageous exploits depict Celtic warfare as more of a sport focused on raids and hunting rather than organized territorial conquest. However, historical records do provide evidence that occasionally warfare was used to exert political control and harass rivals for economic advantage, and in some instances to gain additional territory.

It is impossible to directly compare the strength of one tribe with another, since they were all very similar and the only real difference was the actual numbers in each tribe. Without a good knowledge of the opposing tribe, a leader would not potentially sacrifice their own throne for the sake of a needless war, War was only declared if it was thought necessary and their chances of winning were good. War was common amongst these tribes, but there always had to be a trigger of some sort, such as a raid by an adjoining tribe to steal cattle or women to spark a full scale confrontation.

Methods of Fighting

Each tribe had their own method of fighting battles. By far the most common was in the use of the chariots to charge into the enemy's ranks, swords blazing out death. Once they had done their work, the soldiers would then join the battle at points where their leaders thought they would be most effective. It is important to mention here, that contrary to popular belief, the British chariots did not have swords jutting out from the wheels ready to take the legs off whoever was in range. This is one of those myths that has been around for so long, it has been taken as fact.

As can been seen, this method of fighting was limited to fast assaults where the battle would last a relatively short time. A longer battle involving greater numbers on each side would soon degrade purely due to the physical exhaustion of all involved.

Manhood and the Need to Prove It

A young warrior would not be allowed to enter into battle until he had proved his manhood. He managed to prove himself in open display without the need to confront an enemy in battle. These people had a basic attitude to life. They regarded warfare as a part of life, as did many societies of this type throughout the world. It was considered part of their background to have rites that all young men had to perform to pass from adolescence to manhood. This process would show which youths were the fittest and strongest, thereby, enabling them to develop into mature warriors. The weaker youths or physically uncoordinated did not survive and would often be cast out of the tribe. As such, they would not survive and so perish when left to fend for themselves. A brutal method, but it ensured that the tribe remained strong and healthy.


This did not mean that all weaker youths were outcasts. Those showing a high degree of intelligence would be placed under the care of the priests who would nurture and encourage them to develop their talents for the good of the tribe. It is from these “educated” and “trained” people that new techniques and advances would come. Others who did not possess the physical characteristics to be a warrior, would be placed on farms. So there was at least something most members could perform to contribute to the tribe.


The tribes had basic swords and weapons, along with their own techniques of fighting that developed over time. The ancient Britons had chariots in which they would ride amongst the enemy, hurling their spears into the ranks. It is said these chariots spread terror and confusion amongst the enemy. Indeed during the first Roman expedition of 54 BC. the chariots were very effective against the Legionaries. The standard Roman battle tactics were developed to be used against ground troops, not such fast moving vehicles of war. The chariots were the most effective weapon, splitting the enemy ranks and allowing the fast moving warriors to run amongst an opponent's soldiers, slashing at them with highly sharpened swords that dealt out death and severe injury to those unfortunate enough to be a target. Romans were reluctant to face an enemy employing a method of 1uidattackfighting that was unfamiliar to them.

Rome Meets the Celts

On the continent, the expanding Romans defeated various Celtic groups and supplanted their culture. Julius Caesar 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 did not conquer the island - he came; he saw; he left. Ninety-seven years later, in 43 A.D., the Romans, under the reign of Claudius, invaded Britain again, but this time pushing the warring Celts to the west (Wales and Cornwall) and north (Scotland).

According to the Roman writer Livy, the Romans had dealt with the Celts much earlier, as evidenced in his writing of 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 superfluous agricultural land; because 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 to Etruria for in the first place? The latter defiantly retorted that their right lay in their arms: To the brave belong all things.

The Roman historian Diodorus also noted:

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 foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse's mane. Some of them are clean shaven, 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 of food...

The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly colored 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 separate checks close together and in various colors. [The Celts] wear bronze helmets with figures picked out on them, even horns ...while others cover themselves with breast-armor 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 rhythmically against their shields.

The Celts were described by other classical writers such as Strabo, Livy, Pausanias, and Florus as fighting like "wild beasts", and in hordes. Dionysius said that their "manner of fighting, being in large measure that of wild beasts and frenzied, was an erratic procedure, quite lacking in military science. Thus, at one moment they would raise their swords aloft and smite after the manner of wild boars, throwing the whole weight of their bodies into the blow like hewers of wood or men digging with mattocks, and again they would deliver crosswise blows aimed at no target, as if they intended to cut to pieces the entire bodies of their adversaries, protective armor and all". Polybius indicated that the principal Celtic weapon was a long bladed sword (Spatha), which was used for hacking edgewise rather than stabbing, like the Roman Gladius. He also asserted that many of the Celts fought with little or no armor.

Head Hunters

1uidhead1Celts believed the whole nature and soul of a person resided in the head. As a result of the practice of decapitating their enemies gained a reputation as head hunters. If a warrior took a head from an enemy, he believed that he took on the heroic qualities of his victim. Heads were kept as trophies and the slaying of an opponent and the removal of the head by a youth was seen as automatic qualification of manhood and he would be accepted as a full member of his tribe.

Diodorus Siculus, in his 1st-century History had this to say about Celtic head-hunting:

They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold

An advantage of the Bretons trading with Europe was the traveling merchants could also collect information on techniques of fighting used in foreign lands. One such technique used, copied from the Germans, was to ride into the battle on horseback, then to leap from the animal and engage in face to face combat using swords. This was highly effective, as the enemy had expected an attack from warriors on horseback, then had to quickly adapt to a frontal ground advance.


Most of the income came from the land in the form of arable and livestock farming. Growing cereal crops such as wheat and the rearing of livestock of which cattle and sheep where the main source of meat provided a source for trade. This was very much widespread throughout Britain and Europe, which made trade with the continent a viable business. If a country lacked certain items, they could buy it from elsewhere or exchange goods with their neighbors. It is interesting that while Celtic tribes made and used coins, they preferred to barter goods rather than money

1uidmap_tradeOn the subject of the tribes, Pytheas, a historian of the time recorded :

This wheat the natives thresh, not on open floors, but in barns because they have so little sunshine and so much rain.

He also wrote:

They (the Celts) refuse to accept coin and insist on barter, preferring the exchange of necessities rather than fix prices.

It is interesting to note that this attitude to bartering goods was still very strong in the period directly before the first Romans, who were avid coin makers, came to Britain in large numbers. The first coinage that we have evidence if did not appear in Britain until the second century BC. This did not mean that Britain was inhabited by total savages set in their old ways, far from it.

Diodorus Siculus said :

The inhabitants of that part of Britain which is called Belerion (Land's End) are very fond of strangers and, from their intercourse with foreign merchants, are civilized in their manner of life. They prepare tin, working very carefully the earth in which it is produced. The ground is rocky, but it contains earthy veins, the produce of which is ground down, smelted and purified. They bear the metal into masses, like astragal, and carry it to a certain island off Britain called Ictis. Then the merchants buy the tin from the natives and carry it over to Gaul, and after traveling overland for about thirty days, they finally bring their load on horse to the mouth of the Rhone.

In this, the time of the Iron Age, the Celts were very advanced in the production of items from metal, in particular tin from the mines of Cornwall where the raw materials were abundant. From the metals the Celts could forge and shape nearly anything, especially in bronze, of which tin is a major component. They were able to manufacture almost anything from the finest swords, spears and chariots to intricate designs on jewelry worn by the aristocracy. Considering their, by today's standards, primitive tools, their achievements were outstanding.

Metal was not the only material they could make into artifacts, the Celts were also very adept at making items of clothing from materials made to a high standard. The cloth trades were more towards the east of Cornwall where the tin mines were less concentrated. The most valuable item of attire was the sagum which was a woolen cloak worn by the Roman upper classes. To own such an item gave the impression of the wearer being in the height of fashion.


Caesar's report to Rome from his expedition made very interesting reading, for it painted a picture of a savage and backward society. This was far removed from the general opinion of the Romans, who regarded the quality of Celtic goods with envy and awe.

Celtic art is generally used by art historians to refer to art of the La Tène period across Europe, while the Early Medieval art of Britain and Ireland, is what "Celtic art" evokes for much of the general public. The later “Celtic” art is actually called “Insular” art in art history. Both styles absorbed considerable influences from non-Celtic sources, but retained a preference for geometrical decoration over figurative subjects, which are often extremely stylized when they do appear; narrative scenes only appear under outside influence. Energetic circular forms, triskeles and spirals are characteristic. Much of the surviving material is in precious metal, which no doubt gives a very unrepresentative picture, but apart from Pictish (modern day Scotland) stones and the Insular high crosses, large monumental sculpture, even with decorative carving, is very rare; possibly it was originally common in wood.

The interlace patterns that are often regarded as typical of "Celtic art" were in fact introduced to Insular art from the animal Style II of Germanic Migration Period art, though taken up with great skill and enthusiasm by Celtic artists in metalwork and illuminated manuscripts. Equally, the forms used for the finest Insular art were all adopted from the Roman world:

In contrast the less well known but often spectacular art of the richest earlier Continental Celts, before they were conquered by the Romans, often adopted elements of Roman, Greek and other "foreign" styles (and possibly used imported craftsmen) to decorate objects that were distinctively Celtic. After the Roman conquests, some Celtic elements remained in popular art, especially Ancient Roman pottery, of which Gaul was actually the largest producer, mostly in Italian styles, but also producing work in local taste, including figurines of deities and wares painted with animals and other subjects in highly formalized styles. Roman Britain also took more interest in enamel than most of the Empire, and its development of champlevé technique was probably important to the later Medieval art of the whole of Europe, of which the energy and freedom of Insular decoration was an important element. Rising nationalism brought Celtic revivals from the 19th century.

What was ancient Celtic Culture like?

  • Primarily agrarian (farmers protected by war-lords), nature-based, ritualistic.
  • They typically lived in small settlements, not large cities.
  • They lived in round thatched huts, not stone buildings.
  • Thy lived in loosely affiliated tribes—no large central government like the Roman Senate.
  • They were skilled at war as individual warriors, not tactical discipline like the Romans. They fought in “war bands” and did not use tactical formations.
  • Their weaponry included chariots and a long sword called a “Spatha”. Little or no armor and midsized or small shields.
  • In Celtic society, women had political and spiritual power. Sometimes fought as warriors, and some were Druids.


  • 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. Sound familiar?

Religious Beliefs and Celtic gods and Goddesses?

Little is known about their religious beliefs, but we do know:

  • They were Polytheistic (believing in many gods and goddesses).
  • Many of their gods and goddesses were localized.
  • They believed that 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. Sulis: goddess of the hot springs at Bath.
  • Druids oversaw the religious 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 because they were considered seditionists against Roman rule.
  • 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.
  • The Romans believed, that in accordance with animal sacrifices, they practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism. There appears to be evidence of this. For sacrifices, the preference was to use criminals, but there are also stories of innocence children or adults being sacrificed as well.
  • The sky / sun was important.
  • Belief in an afterlife. People were buried with their possessions and in some cases their horses, spouses, etc. They also believed that the soul lived in the head; thus, the practice of decapitating their enemies. Caesar stated:

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 valor, since the fear of death is disregarded (Gallic War VI, 14)

  • Belief in "parallel" life, divine or magic entities operating, like fairies, spirits, etc.
  • Belief in magic.
  • Threes, heads, animals, spirals, knots, weaves were all important and recurrent in art.

Celtic deities were more localized and to specific tribes rather than the gods and goddesses of larger, more centrally controlled civilizations like the Romans. However, some widely known and worshipped gods and goddesses have been identified:

  • Dagda -- All powerful, fertile, protective, good at things, but sometimes characterized in comical ways too, with ill-fitting pants, embarrassing 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, wanted sacrifices.
  • 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.
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