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Early History of the Celts
The Ancient Celts were not an illiterate people, but they transferred their knowledge orally. They had an alphabet of twenty letters called Ogham. Each letter was named after a tree from the land where they lived. Ogham was used on standing stones, primarily on graves and boundary markers.
The primary sources of information about the Celts are, in that light, the texts written by the Romans who were in touch with them and Christian monks, who lived in Irish monasteries in the Middle Ages. Caesar, Livy and Tacitus, wrote about their contemporaries who lived in a way different than themselves and therefore were considered ‘barbarians’, but even though they did not have a positive attitude towards them, they still left some useful information about Celtic society, religion, way of life, and so on. One of the problems that arise from this is that many things in these writings are romanised, e.g. Caesar interprets Celtic gods and calls them by the names of their Roman equivalents:
‘They worship as their divinity, Mercury, in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions. Next to him they worship Apollo, and Mars, and Jupiter, and Minerva; respecting these deities they have for the most part the same belief as other nations: that Apollo averts diseases, that Minerva imparts the invention of manufactures, that Jupiter possesses the sovereignty of the heavenly powers; that Mars presides over wars.’
The second type of sources are the books written from 6th - 13th century on by Christian monks in Ireland and Celtic Britain. These books were written several centuries later, so the oral tradition might have changed and much of the information was under Christian influences.
The Celts were one of the most significant and powerful peoples in Europe from fourth until first century BC, and their culture one of the most influential. From then on they had a turbulent history, and their legacy continues to live even today.
The following pages will be an attempt to
Today, Celtic is a family of languages of the Indo – European group. The Celts are, by definition, all the people who spoke or speak one of the Celtic languages. A unifying Celtic language existed probably somewhere between 1200 and 750 BC, in the Bronze Age, when Urnfield culture was at its peak. This people spoke a language that would later develop into Celtic. Their ‘ur- Celtic’ developed in two dialects, first Goidelic (or Q – Celtic) and later Brythonic (or P – Celtic). The P/Q differentiation came from the diverse pronunciations of an Indo – European sound /kw/. In Goidelic it became /k/, in Brythonic /p/. Goidelic transformed into the languages spoken in Ireland, Isle of Man and Scotland; Brythonic into Welsh, Cornish and Breton.
The next period of Celtic history is connected with Hallstatt culture, which existed approximately from 700 to 500 BC. The later Iron Age phase of Celtic culture is called La Tène, after a site in western Switzerland and dates from 5th to 1st century BC. The Celts almost certainly began to expand to the British Isles during this period. Their influence extended from what are now France, Spain, and British Isles to the shores of the Black Sea from the Ukraine to Turkey. When the Romans came to these territories, they ended the La Tène culture, but in the places they did not occupy, like as Ireland and Scotland, the La Tène culture prospered until about 200 AD.
The word Celt comes from Keltoi, the name that Greek writers gave to these people. To the Romans, the Continental Celts were known as Galli and Galatae, or Gauls and they called those in Britain Pritanni. In the 4th century BC the Celts invaded the world in possession of the Greeks and Romans, conquering northern Italy and sacking Rome, while also conquering Macedonia and Thessaly. They raided Rome in 390 (or 387), conquered southern Italy between 282 and 272, sack Delphi in 279, and the Gauls came to Asia Minor in 278/277. After the height of their power, the Celts (the first Indo-European group to spread across Europe) were pushed north and west by Germans and Romans. Most of Britain came under Roman rule in the 1st century AD and the Celts of central Europe came under the domination of the Germans. When Huns from Asia came later, the Celts were pushed west and north, to England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland and the northern coast of France. In medieval and modern times the Celtic tradition and languages survived in Brittany (Western France), Cornwall, Galicia (North Western Spain), Galatia (Central Turkey), Wales, the Scottish Highlands, Isle of Man and Ireland, and to a lesser extent in the Norse/Celtic culture of Iceland.
Social Structure of the Celts (Caesar)
‘The various Celtic tribes were bound together by common speech, customs, and religion, rather than by any well defined central governments. The absence of political unity, contributed substantially to the extinction of their way of life, making them vulnerable to their enemies.’ Warfare was the basis of the early Celtic societies. Their technique of warfare was to run towards the rival army and scream and beat their spears and swords against their shields, and it seemed that not only the Celts, but also the land around them was making the noise, so the enemy was often shocked and tried to run away. They fought in smaller groups. The Celts' main weapons were sword and spear. Shields were common and were made of basket weave or wood, sometimes they were covered with leather. Bows and slings were sometimes used as well, but were not common. Until the arrival of the Romans, Celtic warfare was primarily among themselves. They liked to settle their battles in such way that the chieftains or kings fought one on one. If the king died, the whole tribe was defeated.
When the Celts came into contact with the Romans, they had to change the way they fought to a more structured defence against a larger army, but were never able to entirely unite against the Romans. Caesar describes them like this: ‘The most civilized of all these nations are they who inhabit Kent, which is entirely a maritime district, nor do they differ much from the Gallic customs. Most of the inland inhabitants do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and are clad with skins. All the Britains, indeed, dye themselves with wood, which occasions a bluish colour, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long, and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip. Ten and even twelve have wives common to them, and particularly brothers among brothers, and parents among their children; but if there be any issue by these wives, they are reputed to be the children of those by whom respectively each was first espoused when a virgin.’
Celtic society was based almost exclusively on the raising of cattle or sheep; there was some agriculture in the Celtic world, but not much. Their main crop was wheat. There was no trade or commerce; everything was in the form of exchange. They refused to take money for their goods from other peoples; they only accepted trade i form of recprocity.
Social structure – Ireland
Celtic society was tribal and based on kinship, connected by a system of laws and social customs, known as the Brehon Laws, which existed in Ireland intact for centuries. This was a customary law, based on tradition. The Druids guarded the legal matters and determined the results of disputes. They decided on matters of inheritance, property, marriage, and so on. The extended family, called 'fine' or 'clann', was the basic social unit, and it consisted of several generations of male descendants from one ancestor. The clan stood behind its members, providing them protection. The whole clan reacted when one of their members would be murdered or insulted. Each individual had his "honour price" which showed his worth in the fine. Any damage or death imposed by another person required compensation to be paid to the fine of the injured party. Blood feud existed as an institution, but it was often avoided with help of professional mediators. Since it was the duty of the clan to protect individuals, crimes against an individual would be crimes against an entire clan. When several families settled on a particular territory they formed a 'tuath', which was the basic political structure, ruled by a chieftain or a king. Becoming a king was established on a blood relationship, but it was not hereditary. His role was principally dealing outside the tuath and as a war leader. The king was a sacred person – his death in a battle would mean the defeat of the tuath. The king was the key element of the social structure. He was responsible for the prosperity of the tribe. The king was responsible for the redistribution of wealth in his kingdom. Inside the tuath, society was fundamentally divided into three classes: the Nobility, landowners and warriors; the Aes Dana, men of art and learning, craftsmen, and included the Druids; and the Commoners or Churls who did not own any land but were free and not slaves. Slavery existed amongst the Celts, but their slaves were war captives and other conquered people. The kinship group, and not the individual, was the most important under Brehon law. The kinship group was responsible for the actions of all its members. ‘Celtic society was rigidly divided into a class system. Similar class systems predominated among the Indians as well with largely the same categories. The Druids were the educated and occupied the highest social position, just as the Brahmin class occupied the highest social position among the Indians. The Druids were responsible for cultural and religious knowledge as well as the performance of rituals, just as the Brahmins in India.’
Celtic society had a sharply defined structure of rank or caste (with a possibility of moving up) – serfs and peasants; freemen and craftsmen; warriors; nobles; kings and priesthood. The Brehons, or judges, were from the Druid caste. Responsibility was proportional to the rank; systems of behaviour were set for each caste - the higher the status, the stricter the rules. The position in society was determined by the ownership of cattle (there was no land ownership in early Celtic society). Land was usually owned in common by the fine, but the leader of the fine probably determined the use of the land. The concept of clientship was important: a nobleman had ‘clients’ – lower classes who gave him products and services for his protection and support. Rank inside the circles of the nobility of the tuath was determined by individual strength and skill.
Special Role of Druids
When Celtic religious functions are mentioned, ‘Druid’ is the first word that comes into our minds and is associated with the word ‘priest’. ‘The Druids combined the functions of the priest, the magistrate, the scholar, and the physician. They stood to the people of the Celtic tribes in a relation closely analogous to that in which the Brahmans of India, the Magi of Persia, and the priests of the Egyptians stood to the people respectively by whom they were revered.’ Druids were around from the 2nd century BC to the end of the 2nd century AD, when the Romans conquered the Celtic and with Christianity the Druids' pagan religious functions disappeared. There is very little knowledge of the Druids’ ways because they relied on oral tradition and not on written records. The Druids were responsible for all rituals and for all contacts with the gods. The people could communicate with the gods only th
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