Ancient Celtic Chieftains, Traders and Raiders


//
 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

Introduction

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 The first two unpublished novels, APOLLO’S RAVEN and RAVEN’S FIRE, are undergoing revisions to bring in more of the rich Celtic culture of 1st Century Britain.

Apollo

Statue of Apollo in Marseille France

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.

Marseille, France Coastline

Marseille Coastline

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.

Marseille Sunset

Sunset in Marseille, France

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.

 

Amphorae for Wine

Greek Wine Amphorae

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.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celtic Gaul

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.”

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

British Celtic Helmet

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.

References:

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.

 

 

Ancient Celtic History: Who were the Celts?

There are no final truths. The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right question.
—Claude Lèvi-Strauss.

 

Ancient Celtic History

Information on Ancient Celtic Celtic History is primarily derived by Roman and Greek accounts, archaeological finds, and mythology. The epic historical fantasy entitled, APOLLO’S RAVEN, is the first unpublished novel in a series that is set in Ancient Celtic Britain in 24 AD—a time when powerful Celtic tribes in continental Europe had been conquered by Julius Caesar and dynasties loyal to Rome had been established in Ancient Britain. The political unrest between British tribal rulers provides the backdrop for the odyssey of the heroine, Catrin—a spirit warrior destined to meet the great-grandson of Marc Antony and to become queen of her kingdom.

To understand the Celtic Mystique, one must understand the history of  a powerful Celtic people who dominated Europe for almost 500 years. The following series of posts will delve into Celtic history, culture, warrior society, and religious beliefs.

Hillside Coastal White Cliffs Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Britain

 

The Celtic Mystique

The Celtic Mystique conjures images of magic, warriors, castles, and 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. An example is the ‘Arthurian’ myth of a king with a predestined envoy. Unfortunately, the Celts have also been saddled with the image of being barbarians who were civilized by Rome on which the Western civilization was based.

Yet the Celts dominated Europe for over 500 years, and there is no doubt their presence had a profound impact on European culture.

Celtic Brooch

Celtic Brooch


Who were the Celts?

In 5th Century BC, the Greek writer Ephoros described the Celts 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. They were called Keltoi or Galatae by the Greeks and either Celtae or Galli by the Romans. Their homeland was known to lie north of the Alps.

Written and archaeological evidence suggests by 500 BC the Celts occupied lands stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to the upper Danube.  It is unclear how the Celts viewed themselves outside their tribal communities, but they were a distinct racial group who had similar material culture, social structure, art, religious beliefs, and language. Beginning in 450 BC, these people moved across Europe and became the Celtic tribes in Britain. Both archaeological finds and later legends strongly suggest Ireland and Britain actively traded with Greece. Many European personal names are similarly derive from ancient Celtic worlds.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Limited Sources of Evidence

The Celts left few written records about their world except for funerary inscriptions. Knowledge of their world comes from a variety of indirect sources: accounts of Greek and Roman writers; the later vernacular literature of surviving Celtic societies in the post-Roman period; and artifacts from archaeological digs. One of the primary shortcomings of historical accounts was the bias Greeks and Romans held of Celts as wild and savage people. Vernacular sources were mostly written in the Middle Ages in the Christian environment and were solely concerned with myths and legends of Wales and Ireland.

Dying Gladiator

Statue of Dying Celtic Gaul

Historical Chonology

The historical chronology of Celtic history can be roughly divided into two periods:

  • Halstatt period (750 – 450 BC), also known as the Age of the Princes
  • La Tène period (450 BC – AD 100)

Halstatt Period

The earliest distinctive Celtic culture appeared in 6th Century BC toward the end of the European Iron Age. The Halstatt Period, named after an excavation site in Austria, was noted for the large number of rich burials and hill-fort settlements of ‘princedoms’ scattered across an area near the headwaters of several major rivers such as the Danube, the Rhine, and the Saône. The period became known as the Age of Princes because of the elaborate and rich burial sites of local chieftains or local aristocracy which have been excavated.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

La Tène Period

At the beginning of the 5th Century BC, the Halstatt princedoms were replaced by wealthy warrior societies further north, which extended from northeastern France to Bohemia. The material culture and artistic style called La Tène—named after the excavation site in Switzerland where it was first identified—became synonymous with the Celts. The artifacts during the La Tène period (450 BC – 100 BC) indicated that not only was Central Europe populated with Celts, but the people in these regions were wealthy, had an aristocracy, and high standard of living. With these cultural conditions in place, the people evolved into an appreciation of art and developed a spiritual side to their nature.

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

British Celtic Helmet

 

To be Continued

The next series of posts will delve deeper into the Celtic history, warrior culture, and spiritual beliefs.

References:

Steve Blamires, Magic of the Celtic Otherworld:  Printed 2009, Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN.

Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior—300 BC – AD 100: 2001 Osprey Publishing, New York.

Claude Lèvi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques (1990), 7.