The animal envoys of the Unseen Power no longer serve, as in primeval times, to teach and to guide mankind. Bears, lions, elephants, ibexes, and gazelles are in cages in our zoos—Joseph Campbell
Celtic symbolic lore conjures images of magic, warriors, hill fort castles, and animal spirits. Each Celtic locality throughout Europe had differences, but there were common cultural characteristics that spurred the 5th Century BC Greek writer Ephoros to describe them as one of the four great barbarian peoples, together with the Scythians, the Persians, and the Libyans, who lived beyond the confines of the ‘Classical Mediterranean world’. Common threads of art, language, and hierarchical structure weaved these tribal communities into a distinct Celtic cultural identity.
Celtic Cultural Identity
During the La Tène period beginning in 450 BC, the Celts were on the move and seeking riches and glory by plundering. Also the Celtic warrior society was developing a unique craftsmanship that was distinctive from the classical art of peoples they invaded along the Mediterranean. The Celtic craftsmanship was more abstract—elusive, dream-like, shape-shifting, fantastical, and zoomorphic. The Irish novelist and broadcaster, Frank Delaney, described the art as ‘a tendril of a plant teased into itself, then spun outwards until it becomes a pattern, a whorl, a whole inner world, leaping, coiling, dancing.”
This eloquent craftsmanship reflects the rich mythology of a Celtic-speaking people who at one time spread from Britain across continental Europe to Russia and Turkey. These patterns symbolized their belief that worlds of the living and the dead connect with each other; souls reincarnate into other living beings. Why should a warrior fear dying in battle when life and death hold hands in a continuum? Brass cauldrons were crafted with images of zoomorphic gods featuring both human and animal forms. The antlered god, Cernunnos, was possibly the patron of the chase and lord of the forest. Warriors called upon animal spirits for their strength, swiftness, and cunning. Another favorite was the goddess Epona, who the Romans adopted as their own for protecting their horses.
There are different theories as to whether the widespread discovery of La Tène artifacts was the result of Celtic acculturation or invasion. Surely, the southward and south-eastward expansion was the result of raiding on rich cities and sanctuaries replete with prestige objects. And of course, the lands of wine they craved. Although these tribal communities displayed a degree of unity in their craftsmanship, there were distinct differences in the local communities. For example, the La Tène art was rare in Spain and Ireland.
Most mainland Celts built square houses, while those of the islands and parts of Iberia built round ones. Wheel-made pottery appeared in the mainland La Tène core but was not used in Britain until first century BC.
Although a common Celtic language was spoken over very extensive regions, its characteristics were complicated by the likelihood that its speakers were in close contact with speakers of a variety of other languages. It has been difficult to reconstruct the ancestral language as most written accounts were derived from Greek and Roman historians. We can’t assume that there was monolingual uniformity in any inhabited area in ancient times.
The classical authors disrespected the Celts because of their reluctance to commit to writing. Rather, Celtic priests memorized their rituals. Minstrel bards sung of a ruler’s bravery—or ridiculed them—depending on the noble’s generosity. Nonetheless, Celtic words and inscriptions have been found on ceramics, weapons, coins, and metal and stone monuments at various locations throughout Europe. The scripts employed were mostly borrowed from neighboring people: Etruscan, Phoenicians, Iberians, Greeks, and Romans. Though the linguistic evidence is fractured and incomplete, it provides evidence that Celtic was indeed spoken from Spain to Turkey, from Ireland to Pannonia, and from Belgium to Italy.
Other Common Markers of Celtic Identity
Other markers for Celtic identity were religion, warfare, and hierarchical structure. But even these attributes varied from region to region. For example, the war chariot was an integral part of warfare in 1st century BC Britain, but had been abandoned in Gaul (modern day France) at least a century earlier. Previous posts on Apollo’s Raven described how Briton charioteers reeked havoc on Roman legionnaires in Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC.
In general, the La Tène society appeared to be highly hierarchical in their communities, though inlet Britain probably had a simpler, more egalitarian structure. Celtic rulers were originally considered semi-divine figures, but by the 1st century power was in the hands of an aristocracy with one or more chief magistrates in Gaul. In his accounts, Julius Caesar regarded only two classes of any status in the Celtic society—the druids (spiritual leaders) and the knights (noble warriors)—which were evidenced in Irish and Welsh culture.
The Celts had profound local and strong diversities, but they also had common craftsmanship, language, and hierarchical structure that gave them a distinct Celtic cultural identity. The next series of posts will delve into the warrior and spiritual culture (spirit warriors) that inspired the rich Celtic mythology.
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.
Delaney, Frank, The Celts (London, 1986)
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers; An Anchor Book published by Doubleday, New York, 1988