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The Celts – Simplified

April 24, 2013

Obviously there are numerous and far more scholarly commentaries on the Celts than this will be, so for anyone looking for detailed information this will be a disappointment as it is intended for young school students. This is a simple introduction to a complex and still unfolding part of our history and I’ve set it out as the FAQs I get asked.
So who were the Celts?
Celt is a general name used to describe any one of a number of tribal groups living in Western and Northern Europe at the time the Romans started to expand from their base in Italy. It is a name we use for them, but not one which they used themselves. Even the tribal names ( such as Iceni) that we use for groups living in England are not necessarily how they would have identified themselves.

The Celts were mainly farming communities and their settlements were primarily defensive rather than designed as bases from which they could attack. Although they did raid and attack other tribal groups they did not generally engage in expansionist policies in the way that the Romans and later settlers (such as the Saxons, Vikings and Normans ) chose to do. There is clear evidence of their settlements at Maiden Castle in Dorset or at Old Sarum in Wiltshire. A Maidun (or fortified settlement) was excavated at Taplow, near the bank of the River Thames in Buckinghamshire.
How do we know about them?
We have two main sources of evidence.
1/ We have what the Romans wrote about them. Men like Tacitus and Julius Caesar, for example, wrote about the peoples that the Roman army conquered. We have to remember, though, that they wanted to show themselves in a good light and their enemies in a bad one. Consequently it is wise to look carefully at what they say and question whether there is exaggeration or embellishment. We can’t take what they say as the simple and accurate truth unless there is supporting evidence from a completely different source.
The Celts relied on storytelling (known as the oral or spoken tradition) and did not write down their history, though perhaps fragments still survive today muddled into folk legends. The earliest accounts of Celtic stories were not written down until the eighth century, so the time interval means that these, too, are not reliable sources.
2/ We have the items that the Celts left behind them. These are random finds that happen to have survived because of the conditions around them; they are not an exhaustive set of everything they may have owned. They do give us an indication of what sort of things they possessed, such as tools and weapons, but these, too, only give part of the story. We can see their skills in metal working, for instance, because weapons would be buried with a chief or warrior to travel with him into the next life, whereas the clothes in which he was buried will usually have rotted away. Tiny fragments of material that survive, perhaps because they are still attached to a brooch or clasp, can be analysed and the material reconstructed. Thus we know that they enjoyed bright colours provided by vegetable dyes and that they mainly wore spun wool and linen, which they obtained from the flax plant which they grew. Thus finding out about the Celts is a bit like being a detective, using the scraps that have survived as clues. Some of the old traditions that still just about survive in the country may also help us: the Celtic festivals of Herfest and Samhain have many similarities with our Harvest and Hallowe’en.
How did they live?
In England the evidence shows they usually lived in round houses. These had a main supporting structure of thick upright wooden posts which were driven into the ground. Darkened soil areas are usually the only surviving evidence of the position of these post holes. The walls between these posts were made from interwoven panels of thin wood such as willow. These frames were then covered in daub, which was a mixture of cow dung, lime and hair or chopped straw and local mud or clay. When two people work together at covering a wattle frame (one on each side), the aim is to synchronise the daub hitting the wall from both sides at the same time. This knocks out any possible air pockets and the daub dries hard to provide a cement – like finish and eliminates draughts. The steeply pitched roofs were thatched with reeds or straw, and sometimes (especially in the North) with heather. The overhanging thatch prevented the walls from getting wet in the rain, and the smoke rising from cooking fires in the middle (where the roof was at its highest point) provided a sooty, greasy layer over the inside of the thatch which helped to protect it from the wet and provide discouragement to pests that would otherwise live in the roof.

Smoke holes in the roof, by the way, are a Victorian invention which have no bearing in fact: it would be illogical to weaken the roof by introducing deliberate holes, and reconstructions show that the smoke rises happily to around eye height then disperses which is why most of the time inside would be spent sitting or lying down. Loch Tay, in Scotland, has a number of Crannogs which are round houses built out on islands or stilts in the river. Archaeological discoveries give evidence of how the roofs were constructed.

Fire was always a danger in these round houses, and when possible cooking would take place in fire pits outside, though the central hearth was a common feature, where the risk of sudden draughts would be least. Now, the only evidence we have of where fires were situated is the layer of darkened burnt earth that survives.
Fortified settlements, such as the one at Maiden Castle, relied on a complicated system of deep trenches and high earth mounds through which attackers would have to fight to reach the settlement of round houses. The entrances were often built like a maze, so that the way into a settlement would be far from clear to any newcomer or attacker. These surviving earthworks are indications of great feats of co operation between the people who lived there as they were dug entirely by hand.
Did the Celts really paint themselves?
The picture we have of painted barbarians comes mainly from Roman accounts and has been enthusiastically followed by Hollywood. We do know that they tried to make themselves look fierce for battle in the hope they would terrify their enemy, and it is quite possible that to do this they used a blue dye obtained from the woad plant and patterned their bodies with spirals and zig zags.

Many of these symbols probably had meanings which are lost to us, but they may have thought they were harnessing magic powers that would help them. They are also supposed to have stiffened their hair using lime water so that it stood in spikes and on occasions the Romans refer to them removing clothing before fighting. For a long time the Celts didn’t make distinctions between the sexes in the way that the Romans and later people did which is why, for example, we have Boudicca (Boadicea) becoming leader after her husband’s death. Women could have wielded spears and bows alongside men as they had as much to lose and sometimes more if they were defeated.
Is there no written Celtic language?
There is an ancient written script known as Ogham. It consists of straight strokes made above, below or through a long horizontal line. However, the Celts did not have access to paper or parchment and had not developed the wax tabulae which were widely used by the Romans, so they were restricted to what could be carved into stone or wooden ‘wands.’ Also, of course, writing simply was not important to them.

Their society was far more highly developed than we tend to think, and they had a class or group of trained and professional storytellers and tradition keepers who learnt their stories by heart and who then told them to the group when they gathered together in the evenings when work for the day was done. Unlike the Romans, they understood that when something has been written down and passed around the writer loses possession of his work: a reader will put his own interpretation and stress onto the writing which can change the original meaning. As a result, only important and unchangeable things were written down and something written was highly valued, unlike the Romans who wrote down everything: shopping lists, invitations, requests for socks* and so forth, as well as important records.
*Vindolanda, along Hadrian’s wall in Northumberland, has found a large and important collection of thin beech wood sheets, some of which are still being deciphered, preserved in the local mud. These contain all sorts of notes and messages such as the ones mentioned above.
Were the Celts barbarians?
This is a difficult question. The Romans clearly thought that many Celtic practices were barbaric because they were unfamiliar or different from their own habits. Their evidence of Celtic barbarism ranged from the fact that they wrapped their legs in braies (primitive trousers) to the sight of decapitated heads at the edge of some enclosures. However, it is important to understand the theory behind the action. A draped toga over a tunic may be very well in a Mediterranean climate, but not for somewhere known as the ‘land of mists and fogs’. Roman troops based along Hadrian’s wall came to adopt braies themselves after a while as they were practical for the climate.
Decapitated heads are another matter. Archaeological evidence has suggested instances of ritual slaughter and even, on occasion, the possibility of cannibalism. If we are honest, we do not know why these instances occurred. Suggestions have ranged from sacrifice for the greater good (perhaps in times of drought or famine) to execution for crimes, but they are only retrospective suggestions. However, it seems that generally the Celts respected the value of life which is why there is evidence of some of their battles getting no further than the exchange of insults and a parade of strength. When life was taken it is entirely possible that like other ‘primitive’ groups around the world they respected the strength of their fallen enemy and displaying their heads allowed them to share in that strength. The fact that it might discourage others from attacking would be a bonus. There is also the theory that removal of the head allowed the spirit to soar free. They may not have wanted trapped spirits lurking near their homes.
Although it was driven beneath the surface of society when the Romans arrived with their panoply of gods, the Celts also had a complex system of gods and beliefs. Their year was driven by its seasons and festivals just like ours today. Despite how little was written or recorded, some of their ideas are still in our consciousness today. Holly, ivy and mistletoe, which come into our houses for Christmas were also used in their midwinter celebrations which marked the shortest day and the start of lengthening days towards Spring. Below are some of the Celtic gods and goddesses but they also respected and venerated a host of lesser spirits who cared for rivers, springs, woods etc.
BELENUS – also known as Bel or the bright one. The god honoured at Beltane at the start of May
CERNUNNOS – also known as Cernowain. He seems to represent the lord of the animals, and is shown on the Gunderstrup Cauldron (an important artefact) with stag antlers on his head.
DAGDA – well known in Ireland where he is also called Eochaid or the father. He was supposed to possess many magical powers, bring fruitfulness to the earth and was shown with a cauldron that never emptied and fruit trees that were always in fruit.
DON – the leader of the children of Don. They held the power of the light and engage in perpetual battle with the children of Llyr or the power of darkness.
GOIBNU – also known as Gofannon. Metal working was an important and valued part of iron age society and there are a number of ‘smith-gods’. He was respected along with a wheelwright, Luchta, and a metal worker called Creidhe. Gofannon was reputed to harness healing powers and assist men in careful building.
LLYR – the father of the children of Llyr, he was known both as a god of the sea and sometimes as the god of the underworld.
LUGH – the Celtic word for light, this is the god honoured at Lughnasadh(the feast in early August). He was a smith, carpenter, Druid, poet and builder.
OGMA – the warrior god. He was also the god of eloquence, and the ogham alphabet is named after him.
SUCELLUS – the god of protection and provision. Art shows him with a mallet in one hand (protection) and a drinking vessel in the other (provision)
TARANIS – the thunder god, he was usually represented with a wheel and a thunder flash.
ARIANRHOD – the moon goddess, who cared for the wheel of life
CERRIDWEN – the sorceress who manipulated the cauldron (a large cooking vessel) of wisdom
BRIGHID – another figure best known in Ireland, she was also known as Brid and was a major Celtic figure: the goddess of arts, crafts, divination and prophecy. She was responsible for healing and was honoured at imbolc, the women’s festival of rebirth which took place at lambing time in February.
EPONA – also known as Rhiannon, the (mainly Welsh) horse goddess who could talk to the birds.
The last word comes from the Romans. This is a translation from Diodorus Siculus writing in the first century B.C.
“The Celts are terrifying in appearance with deep sounding and harsh voices. They use few words but speak in riddles. They exaggerate to make themselves look good and others look weak. They are boasters and threateners, but they have quick minds and a natural ability for learning.”
Remember their ability to hold their history and stories in their memory?

From → Early Periods

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