The greatest contribution of the Celts was, and still is, myth. It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back–Joseph Campbell
The word “Celtic” conjures different images—magic, warriors, castles, animal spirits—based on the rich mythology of a people who at one time spread from the British isles across continental Europe to Russia and Turkey. The history of the Celts has been derived, in part, from their symbolic lore and are based on Roman and Greek writers, archaeological finds, and written folklore. All of this provides the backdrop for my epic historical fantasy, SPIRIT WARRIOR CHRONICLES. The first two unpublished novels, APOLLO’S RAVEN and RAVEN’S FIRE, are undergoing revisions to bring in more of the rich Celtic culture of 1st Century Britain.
Ancient Celtic Chieftans
Mediterranean Trading Routes
During the early Hallstatt period (750 – 600 BC), Celtic sites extended from eastern Hungary to southern German. In the years after 600 BC, the Celtic centers shifted westward, which is partly explained by active trading with other Mediterranean ancient peoples. The establishment of the Greek colony of Massilia (modern day Marseilles, France) was a major influence in trading.
Founded by the colonists from Phocaea (modern Turnkeyon the Aegean cost of Asia Minor), Massilia became a major trading center between peoples of the Mediterranean and those of the European Hinterland. Main arteries of trade were located in the valleys of the Rhóne and the Saóne and onwards to the Rhine, Seine, and Danube.
Celts not only traded with Greek colonies of the Western Mediterranean but also with the Etruscans of the region between the rivers Po and Tiber. The product most often sought by these ancient civilization was tin, primarily mined in Cornwall (southwest Britain) and Britanny (northwest France). Archaeologists postulate Atlantic trading routes existed along the western European continent and Britain.
Celts primarily exchanged slaves in exchange for luxury goods, including glass and coral for making jewelry, rich fabrics, and ornaments.
But above all, wine.
“The Celts crave it,” wrote Plato. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus added, “The Celts are exceedingly fond of wine and sate themselves with unmixed wine imported by merchants. Their desire makes them drink it greedily and when they become drunk, they fall into a stupor or maniacal disposition. And therefore many Italian merchants in their usual love of lucre look on the Gallic love of wine as their treasure trove. They transport the wine by boat on the navigable rivers and receive in turn an incredibly high price. For one jar of wine they received a slave—a servant in exchange for a drink.”
Keep in mind these Greek historians probably exaggerated these claims as they stereotyped Celts as barbarians.
Opulent Burial Sites
Male and female chieftains along the trade route controlled and manipulated the transfer of goods. The Celtic rulers displayed their wealth and power through opulent burial. Archaeological digs have uncovered luxury goods of pottery and bronze vessels which held food and drink. In several excavated graves, corpses were buried in 4-wheeled vehicles. In one grave near Stuttgart, a corpse was found in a bronze coach decorated with depictions of chariots and stick-like male figures of men dancing. Also found was a Greek-made bronze cauldron adorned with lions which could hold 500 liters of liquid.
In another tomb located on the upper Seine in Burgundy was the corpse of a woman who had suffered a disease causing a twisted face. Archaeologists surmise she was a priestess with divine attributes. Other excavated elaborate tombs of women provide evidence of the important role women played in these societies. Later, historical counts of the warrior queens, Boudica and Cartimandua, in 1st Century Britain reinforced women could hold leadership roles in powerful tribal kingdoms. The status of women as defined in Irish and Welsh law codes also provided further evidence that Celtic societies held women in comparatively high regard.
War Mad Raiders
Burial sites also provide evidence that the dominant social group in the Celtic society were warriors, as evidenced by the stockpile of swords, lances, armor and shields in the burial sites. The emphasis on weaponry suggests a society geared for war.
Strabo wrote, “The whole race is war mad, high-spirited and quick to battle.” Polybius wrote of one encounter of how the Celtic enemies were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host, and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn blowers and trumpeters and the whole army was shouting their war cries.”
Diodorus Siculus added, “They blow into their trumpets and produced a harsh sound which suits the tumult of war…they loudly recite the deeds of valour of their ancestors and proclaim their own valorous quality, at the same time abusing and making little of their opponent and attempting to rob him beforehand of his fighting spirit.”
In the Celtic tradition, the elite upheld their positions through success as raiders, which allowed them to reward their followers with feasts and prestigious treasures. Once the raid had become an established part of the status system, there was an inbuilt impetus to expand their wealth and power. The more successful a raid leader, the more followers and greater expeditions of ever-larger marauding warriors into other territories.
To be continued….
The next series of posts will focus on the culture of the Celtic warrior society.
John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces; 3rd Edition Reprinted by New World Library, Novato, CA.