Archaelogical Traces.
Celtic Expansion.
Linguistic Traces.
Celtic Daily Life.
Social Organization and Education.
Tomb of a Celtic Prince.
The Druids.
Time and Faith.
The Gundestrup Cauldron.
Ireland - the Last Celtic Outpost.
Sources and links.

Some people have designated the Celts the Indians of Europe, and the comparison is perhaps not so far fetched. Through the centuries they have been exposed to reckless subjugation, persecutions and regular political homicides, for instance by Oliver Cromwell's "final solution" for Ireland, and the ill-famed eradication of natives in the Scottish Highlands. It all started off with Julius Cesar's massacres of the Gauls on the Mainland in the mid 50's BC. Their language was - until quite recently - forbidden by law, and during the Victorian age their mother tongue literally was beaten out of their children. By various efforts of assimilation, politicians have done their very best to eradicate their cultural identity. detail of the armaghchalice

The Celts appear on the historical arena for the first time ca. 600 BC in the encounter with the Greeks, and later (400 BC) with the Romans. The People are described by contemporary historians, and the descriptions are of course colored by the fact that they constituted a barrier or threat to the "civilized" Empire builders of the day. They were regarded as uncultivated barbarians and portrayed in a disparaging fashion. The Greeks called them Keltoi, and the Romans Celtae. The designation is probably a derivation of the Celtic word - ceilt - meaning secret, hidden, covered. The word for the Scottish national costume - kilt - is derived from the same word.

The Greek geographer and historian Strabo (63 BC - 21 AD) characterize them in the following manner in his work "Geographia" :

"The whole race is fanatically fond of warfare. They are vociferous and act on impulse. When they are upset, they immediately gather together in groups in the open, to urge on to warfare, without the slightest preparation or reflection. They are therefore quite easily deceived and overpowered."

Gradually both Greeks and Romans would get better aquatinted with the war making skills of the Celts, but the very first encounters had peaceful intentions. When the Greeks established the trading colony of Massalia ca. 600 BC (corresponding to today's Marseilles), they opened up to the exchange of merchandise with peoples inhabiting the central parts of Europe. For the first time this part of Europe got aquatinted with the olive tree and the grape vine. Wine soon became a popular merchandise among the Celtic tribes. The historian Diodorus from Sicily (ca. 100 BC) relates :

"The Gauls are strongly addicted to the use of wine. They fill themselves up with the wine brought into their lands by our merchants. They drink it unmixed, and as they drink without moderation, they soon fall unconscious to the ground or become mad. Many merchants sees the Gauls' love of wine as a blessing for themselves. For they transport the wine on the navigable rivers - and on wagons through the inland, and they obtain an incredible price for it - for a jar of wine they receive a slave in exchange".

In exchange the Celts probably traded furs, amber, tin and salt, scarce products in the Mediterranean countries. The Greeks not only spread their goods to this part of Europe, but their culture as well. Among other things the Celts got aquatinted with the written alphabet. The Celts did not have any tradition for writing, but on the other hand they had a living oral tradition, maintained for centuries by scholars like the druids and bards. Learning things by heart, and relating from memory, was a virtue in the Celtic world.

The Greeks had already for some time been trading tin with the British Isles (Kassiterides = tin islands). Tin was a much sought after metal, needed in bronze alloys. The seafarer Pythias from Massalia travelled to Cornwall in the 4th century BC, and reported how the miners extracted tin here. He named the country the Pretanian Islands, because the inhabitants named themselves Pretani. This was perceived and pronounced by the Romans as Bretani, which in turn gave name to the Roman province of Britannia. Pretani was possibly the name used by the whole population at the time, but later it was used more specifically about the people named Cruithni by the Irish or Picti in Latin (all three names have the same origin and means "painted people" or "people with pictures"). Through history the British have been known to decorate their bodies with patterns and pictures (the maritime tattoo-tradition).

Who were these Celts ? From where did they originate ? Apart from the colourful and more or less prejudiced contemporary narratives of the Greeks and Romans, together with the writings of Irish monks in the 7th and 8th century AD, we must rely on the laboriously acquired knowledge from the scientific branches of archaelogy and linguistics. Archaeologists engage in uncovering remnants of earlier settlements and analyzing the contents of graves, while linguists engage in tracing common language elements back through history.

Archaelogical Traces.
Europe has from prehistoric times been a melting pot for different tribes invading from the plains of Central Asia. The steady-growing need for fresh grazing lands for horse and cattle as the population increased has been the motivating force. Around 3000 BC it looks like the resident agrarian culture of Central Europe was “disturbed” by invading nomads from Central Asia. Indications of this are chiefly based on finds of earthenware from this period. The richly embroidered pottery abruptly changes character and becomes ruder and simpler in expression (cord-patterned ceramics). At the same time other finds indicate influence from the easternbound Kurgan-culture – the traditional “mother-goddesses” disappear, tools change in type and form, burial customs change. The agrarian culture in Europe at that time showed few signs of any political centralization. People lived in small agrarian communities without any visible hierarchical structure. The nomadic cultures in the east, on the other hand, were based on a hierarchical chieftain system and a strong military organization. They had tamed the horse, and therefore were more mobile than the resident farmers. They also were more keen on ensuring access to mineral and food resources.

Archaelogists usually name these tribes from the east and north the Battleaxe-people, due to the characteristic axe-handle holes in axe-finds of copper and stone from this era. The Battleaxe People were probably the first to speak an Indo-European language (Proto-Indo-European). They were also probably the first Europeans that posessed knowledge of the wheel. Their burial customs - where the dead were buried in earthen mounds or cairns (kurgans, tumuli) - was maintained in many parts of Europe up to the Age of the Great Migrations (400 - 600 AD) and Merovingan time (600 - 800 AD).

About the same time another culture appeared in the Iberian peninsula (todays Portugal), and gradually spread to the north and east. This culture has been named the Bell Beaker-Culture by the archaelogists, due to the characteristic bell-shaped form of their pottery. In this area there were rich supplies of copper, so the people here had developed an advanced metallurgic technique, which they brought with them in their migration to the northeast.

Some time after 2000 BC these two cultures melted together in Central Europe. They melted together the metals tin and copper - and so the bronze age of Europe had begun. Archaelogists name this new culture the Unetice-Culture, after a village in Czechia where the first settlements were uncovered. This area is perfectly situated for trading and contact with outside cultures. The Uneticians lived a simple life in small villages protected by timber palisades and surrounded with farmland. Probably the metal-workers enjoyed a special status, and were excused from agricultural and military duties. The tribal structure consisted of chieftains and warriors making important decisions, and who were responsible for fortifying the palisades. This class-divided society existed for a long time, and spread to all of Europe.

Around 1250 BC traces of change in the archaelogical material indicate the development of a Celtic-speaking branch of Indo-European. The so-called Urnefelt-Culture is considered a continuation of the Unetice-Culture. The most striking change is the introduction of a new burial practice - cremation. The cinerary urns were placed in special graveyards. Most linguists are of the opinion that these people must have spoken an early form of Celtic - proto Celtic.

Main Entry: cinerarium
Pronunciation: \-e-?m\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural cineraria
Etymology: Latin, from ciner-, cinis
Date: 1880
: a place to receive the ashes of the cremated dead
- cinerary \adjective

The main expansion of Celtic society from their original homelands of Central Europe took place in the last Millenium BC. Knowledge of the extraction and use of a new metal - iron - had arrived to the area, and European Iron Age had startet. The common name to this cultural stage is the Hallstatt Culture (ca.750 BC - 400 BC), named after a village in Austria, where archaelogists discovered remnants of old settlements. The people living here had extracted salt from the mountains from ca. 1000 BC - 50 BC (Salzkammergut, Salzburg).

The next step in the cultural development is named La Tène, after a village by the Lake Neûchatel in western Switzerland, and is by researchers reckoned to be the first distinctive Celtic culture. The finds from this area are characterized by an exceptionally rich ornamentation of weapons, utensils, jewelery, etc. This Celtic craftmanship also carries distinguishing features of Greek, Skythian and Etruscian influence.

Celtic Expansion.
Around 400 BC the Celts really begin to move about. They crossed the Alps into the Po plains, where they attacked and conquered important Etruscan regions (the city state of Veii), newly annexed by the Romans after long lasting struggles. From there, they steered their course against Rome itself. Rome was attacked in 380 BC, torched and plundered. The Capitol Fortress of was under siege for 7 months, and the government, who had deserted the city, had to pay tons of gold in ransom to get rid of the raging Celts. The Celts - or Gauls, the name the Romans designated to these raging tribes - settled down in northern Italy (Gallia Cisalpina). It was not until Cæsar's famous Gallic wars (58 - 51 BC) that they were forced to withdraw, and from then on the Celts or Gauls were permanently invalidated as a political force in Europe.

Another group of Celts migrated eastward along the Danube towards the Black Sea, and settled in Transylvania (Rumania). When Alexander the Great started on his raids of conquest (ca. 335 BC), he first had to curb turmoil occurring among some tribes north of Macedonia. These were the Scordisai and several other Celtic tribes. It was during a party of reconciliation with these tribes that Alexander asked what they feared the most of all things in the world, and they answered with the famous words : "The only thing we really fear is that the sky will fall down on us". Alexander had expected them to answer that they feared him most of all, so they diplomatically added : "But we judge the friendship of a man like you higher than anything else."

When Alexander died in 323 BC, his enormous empire fell apart. It was finally split between three of his generals. At the same time the Celts began moving south into Illyria (Illyrian refugees were granted asylum in Macedonia), and founded a Celtic kingdom in Thrakia (Bulgaria) in the year 297 BC. They moved further south into Greece, and sacked the Temple of Delphi of inconceivable treasures before they withdrew.

At this time in history, Asia Minor was a patchwork of different peoples and states, all of which had been subjugated by Alexander, but which, by now were beginning to claim their independence back. One of these states was Bithynia in the northwestern corner of Asia Minor. In the year 278 BC there was a struggle for succession to the throne in the country between the brothers Zipoetes and Nikomedes. Nikomedes sought support from the Macedonian king Antigonos Gonatas, who recruited 3 Celtic tribes - the Tolistoboians, the Tectosagians and the Trocmanians, altogether 20,000 men. They swiftly secured victory for Nikomedes. After this there was nothing more the Celts in Bithynia could do, so they started collecting taxes (galatika = Celtic tax) from the Greek city-states along the coast. Finally they were subdued by the Syrian king Antiochos, who used elephants in his attack against the Celts.

Along the coast of Phrygia - another of the many states in Asia Minor - a new kingdom was established in the year 281 BC - Pergamon. They made an agreement with the Celts. They were allowed to settle in the interior parts of Phrygia if they promised to live in peace. This country was later to be known as Galatia, and the three tribes claimed their own part; the Tolistoboians settled in the upper part of the river Sangarios, the Tectosagians east of these, and the Trocmanians further east, around the city of Ancyra (today's Ancara). The Celts however did not keep their promise for long, and they managed to beat Antiochos in a battle near Ephesos in 265 BC, before they continued ravaging along the coast of Asia Minor. Finally they were subjugated by the strong king Attalos of Pergamon. Little by little however, they adjusted, keeping up their traditional farming practices for many centuries. The language was Celtic until 600 AD. A Christian missionary - St. Jerome - travelling through Asia Minor at the time, said the language reminded him of an accent spoken in Treveri, a Celtic tribe in the Rhinelands.
In Britain Celtic influence is obvious from around 750 BC. Archaeological traces of the Hallstadt Culture can be seen from 500 BC, and from 300 BC a new wave of immigrants brought La Tèe culture with them. North and east of the Celtic heartland, new tribes were continuously moving south and west - Cimbrians, Alemanni, Marcomanians, Teutonians, Langobards, Svebes, etc. Historians often use the generic term Germans to embrace all of these tribes. The Romans named all tribes east of the Rhine Germans. Many of these were in fact Celts, other tribes belonged to non-Celtic people speaking a closely related Indo-European language. Julius Cæsar was in fact the first one to separate the different Celtic tribes in his work on the Gallic Wars - "De bello Gallico". His work opens with the sentence : "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres" (The land of Gallia can be divided into three parts). The true Germans were primarily the Teutonians and the Alemanni. These names are reflected today in the French term for Germany = L'Allemagne, and the Germans own native name for their country - Deutschland = Teutonland = Tyskland (Norwegian). The term Teutones is really a Latin form of a Celtic word meaning people (related to the Norwegian tjod), and we find the name once again for the Gallic God Teutates.

Linguistic Traces.
Linguists have long since established as a fact that the Celtic language belongs to a branch of the great
Indo-European language family, as is the case with the German, Slavic and Italic languages. About the same time as La Tène culture becomes evident in Central Europe, a division occurs in the Celtic language. Among the most characteristic changes is that the original Indo-European Q-sound transforms into a P-sound. Therefore, one variety of the Celtic language is named P-Celtic, Continental Celtic or Brythunian, while the other is named Q-Celtic, Isle-Celtic, Goidelian or Gaelic. Q-Celtic is today only spoken in Ireland and on the Island of Man, and in Scotland by invading Scots from Ireland. According to legend the Irish originated in Spain (the Romans called Ireland Hibernia = (H)Iberian peninsula ?), and probably they spoke Q-Celtic. It may be that the Hallstadt Celts (Q-kelts) were expelled by the La Tène Celts (P-Celts) ? One possible reason for such linguistic changes may be that invading tribes have difficulty in pronouncing all the "captured" peoples' language sounds or vice versa. They may be unable to pronounce certain words correctly, and thus simplify them.

Q-Celtic (Goidelic or Gaelic) is considered by linguists to be the older of the two languages, P-Celtic (Brythonic or Cymrian) developing at a later stage. The arguments for this opinion are that P-Celtic has undergone a great deal linguistic simplifications compared to Q-Celtic. P-Celtic simplified itself in its case endings and in the loss of the neuter gender and dual member. Differences occurred also in the matter of initial mutation and aspiration. The original Indo-European qu (kw)-sound is transformed to a p-sound. The word for "son" becomes "mac" in Gaelic, while in Brythonic it becomes "map" (Cornwall), "ap" (Wales) and "mab" (Bretagne). The word for "head" in Irish and Scottish Gaelic is "ceann", but in Bretagne it is "penn" and in Wales and Cornwall "pen".

It was the Scottish historian George Buchanan (1506-1582) who first discovered the relationship between the Gaelic language spoken in Ireland and Scotland, and the language spoken by the old Gauls in Central Europe. His assumption was confirmed a century later by the Welsh linguist Edvard Lhwyd (1660-1709). In the following centuries the linguistic classification "Celtic" was expanded as a term to comprise a whole people and a distinctive culture. However the Celts had far from any unitary ethnical identity, although many of the Celtic-speaking tribes had common traits and customs.

The 18th century's desire for romantic glorification of the past, together with the search for historical identity, was especially predominant in Scotland. The kilt was an invention from this period. It was "invented" by the English industrialist Thomas Rawlinson in 1730 as a kind of uniform for his Scottish workers. Ironically it was not the Scots themselves, but a predominantly British aristocracy, that made the kilt famous, The Scots themselves preferred trousers (like their ancestors the Celts).

Today the Celtic language predominates in Wales (Cymru), where approximately 1 million people speak the tongue (Cymrian) daily. In Scotland (Alba) ca. 50 000 people speak Scottish Gaelic. In Ireland (Èriu) there are around 10,000 people speaking Irish daily. In Bretagne (Breizh) in France Bretonian (tb - Brezhoneg) is spoken by 300,000 people daily. In addition to these living languages, Manx is spoken by a few hundred enthusiasts in the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, and in Cornwall, enthusiasts are trying to re-create the old tongue from old records and recordings. In Galicia in Spain, an area dominated by Celts, the tongue has unfortunately been long since extinct.

Celtic Daily Life.
One reckons the "Celtic Golden Age" in Europe from ca. 600 BC, when the first trading contacts with the Greeks - and later on with the Etruscans - were established, until ca. 100 AD, when the Celtic people had become fully assimilated into the Roman Empire. From ca. 250 BC, when the Celtic territory was at its greatest, it shrank under Cæsar to comprise just Gaul (France), a small part of the Iberian peninsula (Celtiberians) and the British Isles. A century later, Celtic culture survived only in Ireland. Here Celtic culture had been able to develop in peace from foreign influence. The Romans never invaded Ireland, nor did the later Anglo-Saxons. The Norwegians Vikings made some brave efforts, but they too were eventually chased back into the sea.

In contemporary writings, the Celts are described as a people fond of warfare. They loved to feast, drink and brag. Unfortunately, this is the picture that has been conveyed to history, and the picture that has fastened in ordinary peoples' consciousness. Celtic daily life was however a lot more abundant and manifold. The Celts attended their farms and acres with great skill and diligence, and they worshipped their Gods in sacred forest glades guided by sacrificing priests (druids). In their heyday, they took an active share in shaping and giving direction to European culture. It was the Celts who first introduced iron to the areas north of the Alps. It was also the Celts who invented the iron plough, the scythe, and even the very first reaper. They made farming more efficient by introducing the rotation of crops. They refined and improved their grain strains by selective breeding, and their agricultural products were widely appreciated for their quality. Their beef cattle were likewise refined through generations of breeding, and was a very popular commodity and sought after delicacy among the fastidious Romans.

We can also be thankful to the Celts for various transportation enterprises, like brick-laying and expansion of the road system in Central Europe - and improvement of the wheel. Earlier civilizations had constructed the wheel from several pieces of wood. The Celts constructed the wheel from one piece only, on to which they forged an iron-tyre. The tyre was shrunk to the wooden rim when still hot by means of a technique long since forgotten, and had to be re-invented recently. The Celts also were skilful craftsmen, and employed their skills in building boats and fortifications.

Although the Celts were feared by their enemies, they were far from uncultivated barbarians. The Greek – Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (400 AD) wrote :

The Gauls are very concerned with their appearance and Hygiene. No Gaul is allowed to appear dirty or untidy in the Country, no matter how poor they are.

Plinius relates that soap was inventet by the Celts, and that they took baths regularly. The Romans in fact adopted their famous bathing culture from the Gauls. The women used cosmetics, and admired themselves in beautifully decorated bronze mirrors. The men usually appeared smoothly shaved, apart from the characteristic drooping moustaches. It was a virtue keeping one's body in shape. Fat men were sacked from the army. Both sexes were strict with their clothing. The toga-bearing Mediterraneans were especially impressed by the Celtic trousers, a fashion later adopted by the Romans as part of the uniform for the military cavalry - cavalry mostly recruited from Celtic tribes. Knee-long tunikas of linen were used by both sexes, as were the colourful woollen cloaks, worn over the shoulders. Celtic leather goods were also very popular by the Romans, especially the Gallic boots. Richly decorated textile fragments and metal works shows an advanced level of craftmanship. Diodorus describes the Celts being of high stature and fair-haired, with loud voices and intense piercing eyes. The women are just as big and strong as the men, and just as quick-tempered. Tacitus relates that the Caledonians in Scotland are easily recognized by their red hair, while the Silurians in Wales were tanned with dark curly hair. Strabo mentions that both sexes are equally concerned about their appearances and in wearing loads of jewellery. This is confirmed by the archaelogical material found in graves ( heavy torques of gold, broches, rings and bracelets).

"The Gauls are of high stature with bulging muscles and a white complexion. They are fair-haired, but not always from nature. They have this habit of intensifying natures own colour with artificial means. They always wash their hair in lime-water, and then they pull it backwards from their foreheads to the top of their heads and down towards their necks. This makes them look like satyres and Pan, while the treatment of their hair makes it so heavy and rough that it resembles horses' mane.” (Diodurus Siculus, 1. century BC).

Social Organization and Education.
The Gauls of the 1st century BC, as well as the Irish of the first centuries AD, all had a privileged class of noblemen, warriors and individuals with special skills – in Ireland they were called "men of art". These "men of art" include the Druids, the Vates, the Bards, craftsmen and artisans. A similar class-division probably existed in most of the celtic world, although there were variations. For instance, Druism was probably limited to Gaul and the British Isles. Descriptions of "ordinary" people are scarce. Slavery existed, but probably not in so large a scale as in the classical world. Slaves were still an important "commodity" for export.

Tribe identity was strong. To ensure continuity the Celts therefore attached great importance to the upbringing and education of their children. The children lived at home with their parents until they were about 7 years old. Then they were placed in foster-families, usually relatives or close friends. (The Vikings had a similar foster system. Harold the Fairhaired’s son Håkon was fostered by King &AElg;thelsten in Northumbria). The parents had to pay for this. Girls were more expensive than boys. The rearing of a girl cost 8 heifers or 2 milk cows, while a boy cost 6 heifers or 1 1\2 milk cow, even if the girls only stayed with their fosterparents until the age of 14, while the boys stayed until they were 17. In the foster-homes the children learned the skills they would need later in life. For boys from the warrior class it was important to excel in warfare skills. Classical writers mention the widespread homosexual practice in celtic society, especially among groups like the Gaesataerians. The Gaesataerians were a kind of mercenary recruited to different war missions around Europe. This was a very popular "occupation" for young boys. Just like the spatanians in Greece they possessed a very strong "esprit de corps", undoubtedly strengthened by bands of love between boys and older men.

"And among the barbarians the Celts enjoy - and even prefer - the intimate company of young boys, although their women are quite beautiful. Some of them have two lovers, sleeping together with them on hides." (Athenaios).

Discovering the Tomb of a Celtic prince.
In the small village of Hochdorf, northwest of the city Stuttgart in Germany, an eight meter high tumulus was dug out in the late 1970s. In the centre of the tumulus the archaeologists struck upon a stone- and timber-protected crypt surrounded by a clay mound. Inside the crypt they found the remnants of a Celtic nobleman, lying stretched out on a bronze-couch, adorned with all his precious earthly belongings, and surrounded with all he needed for his journey to the Afterworld. The grave was dated to about the year 550 BC (early Iron Age or Hallstatt period), in other words before the great Celtic expansion began. Researchers were astonished over the find, and some historical assumptions had to be readjusted. Celtic society at the time must indeed have been more stratified than earlier assumed, probably even including an aristocratic class.

The Hochdorf Wagon The Hochdorf Tumulus The bronze Cauldron

The man was in his 40s when he died and of very high stature (183 cm) - a head taller than his typical contemporaries. Average life span at the time was around 30 years. Around his neck he wore a gold torque, and his clothes – made from richly patterned cloth with embroidery in Chinese silk - were fastened with intricately made gold brooches. Even his broad leather belt was adorned with a band of gold. He wore a dagger fit in a gold hilt, and around his wrist he wore a gold armband. His shoes were also embellished with strips of gold. Among his personal items were a birch bark hat, iron nail clippers and fishhooks. The most surprising and outstanding item was however the bronze couch on which he lay stretched out. This large bronze sofa was supported by eight foot high cast-metal statues of women. These figurines balance on functional wheels of bronze and iron. Embossed in bronze on the bench back, figures perform a funeral dance, and two horses pull a four-wheeled cart to eternity. Such an item had never been excavated before !

The golden Dagger The Hochdorf Couch The Hochdorf Fibula

The Celts sent their dead to the Afterworld with huge amounts of food and drink. Placed in the northwest corner of the tomb stood a huge round bronze cauldron - large enough to hold about 400 litres of liquid. Inside it the archaeologists found a pure gold drinking bowl and the dried remains of mead - a honey-based alcoholic drink. Apart from the gold drinking bowl there were plenty of drinking horns hung on the walls surrounding the tomb. Across the burial chamber, opposite the bronze couch, was placed a most remarkable four-wheeled wagon. On top of it plenty of slaughtering and carving tools were stacked, together with bronze plates and platters. The walls of the chamber had been decorated with opulent fabrics. Due to bacteria-killing oxides from the metal artifacts, they had been nicely preserved, and making the grave the richest trove of woven materials and textiles from this period in all Europe.

The golden bowl The Hochdorf Prince The Golden Shoes

The Druids.
The Druids formed a special caste of priests or judges with great influence in the Celtic world. Our knowledge of their importance is almost solely based on writings of contemporary roman historians (Tacitus, Diodorus, Strabo, Posidonius, etc), and primarily on Cæsars own eyewitness-accounts in his work “De bello Gallico” (50 BC). As mentioned earlier it was a Celtic virtue to train one’s memory. They distrusted the written word, a nd regarded it as bluntening on the faculty of memory. Cæsar was of the opinion that the headquarters of the Druids was in Britain, more precisely on the Island of Anglesay (Mona) in the Irish Sea. He believed that if he could manage to hit and overrun their headquarters, half the victory over Britain would be secured. The Roman legions were therefore quickly commanded to move in the direction of Anglesay.

The word "druide" (druidai, dryadae, druides) may be derivated from the Greek word for "oak" = drus. Dru can also mean "strong", whereas wid can mean "knowledge". Trees and sacred forest glades were important ingredients in the religious life of the Celts. According to Cæsar, the Druids were a well organized brotherhood, representing many tribes. They gathered once a year in hidden forest glades, performing their secret talks and rituals, and to choose a "high priest". The Druids were highly respected in Celtic society, as intellectuals, judges, oracles, astronomers and as links to the Gods. There were however other less distinguished men - the socalled Vates - who Strabo describes as "seers and nature philosophers", and there were also female priests (priestesses).

Cæsar was especially impressed by the demanding training needed to become a Druid. It is expected that the apprentices shall learn a great many verses, laws, legends and magical formulas by heart, and the training could last up to 20 years. The Druids were responsible for maintaining the society’s feeling of identity and continuity. They were the guardians of the tribes laws and traditions, were called upon to mediate in conflicts, and had the power to pass sentence and yield fines and punishments. However the aspect of the Druids activities given the most attention in historical writings is their role as sacrificing priests. The Celts sacrificed both animals and humans, activities described with frightening horror by the Roman historians, and taken as evidence of the barbaric nature of the Celts. The fact is that the Romans were not at all unfamiliar with the practice of human sacrifice themselves.

The most horrifying practice above all was the head cult. The Celts had a strong belief in the potency and the magical power of the human skull. They decapitated their victims and brought their heads back home. The heads were either nailed over the door openings, or placed on stakes around the house of the victor. Some tribes decorated the sculls with gold and used them as drinking mugs, or they placed them in boxes of cedarwood. Sometimes they even fastened the skulls of conquered enemies to their belts, or hung them across their horses’ necks.

Time and faith.
In a vineyard outside the french village Coligny some bronze-fragments were dug out in 1897. They proved to be remnants of an old Celtic calendar. When the "jigsaw-puzzle" had been laboriously put together, it formed a bronze plaque about 60 inches high and 42 inches wide, divided into 16 vertical columns with information on seasonal changes and weather signs. The Coligny calendar was estimated to have been constructed around the 1st century BC, at the same time the Julian calendar was being rigorously introduced into the Roman world.


The Celtic calendar is a moon calendar. However the months does not begin with the new moon (as is the case in most moon calendars), but with the full moon. Thus the Coligny calendar is no "natural" calendar. In a natural calendar every month starts with the observation of the new moon, and observation of the solstice introduces a new year. The Neolithic stone observatories (like Stonehenge) and the old passage-graves (like Maes Howe in Orkney), were built to be able to decide the exact time for solstice and equinox. In the Coligny calendar one has instead made use of a mathematical rule in deciding the New Year (equivalent to the leap-year rule in the Gregorian calendar that is used today), where 30 years are equalized with 371 months. In the Coligny calendar one looses almost 1 1\2 day in 30 years, making it not so mathematically exact as the Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar, inherited by the Romans from Egypt at the same time, comes out 1\4 day in advance in 30 years, so even that calendar is slightly better. However the Coligny calendar is a step forward compared to a pure sun calendar with 365 days a year, loosing more than 7 days in 30 years.

The Celts reckoned time in nights instead of days (fortnight = 14 days). 15 nights constituted the bright time of the month (increasing moon), while 15 nights constituted the dark time of the month (decreasing moon). The Celtic year was divided into four seasons, each with an introductory festival. The year starts in the autumn with the month Samonios (seed-fall) :

oct / nov
nov / dec
dec / jan
jan / feb
feb / mar
mar / apr
apr / may
may / jun
jun / jul
jul / aug
aug / sep
sep / oct
The Darkest Depths
Time of Ice
Time of Winds
Time of Brightness

Just as the year starts in the autumn, the day starts at sunset. That is why the celebration of a festival starts the evening before the day of the festival (as Christmas Eve today). The largest festival of the year was the New Years festival, which started the evening before November 1st. It was called Samain (Samhain) and marked the end of the harvest and the coming of winter. Nowadays we celebrate it as All Saints Day or Halloween. On this day order was created from chaos when the world was created. One believed that the spirits of the dead were released this evening, and it was therefore important to prevent the impending danger by massive sacrificial offerings. The next of the year's festivals was Imbolc on the 1st of February. This was the time when the spring-lambs were born and ewes came into milk. The Godess of fertility Brigit or Brigantia was the protector of this festival. The second largest festival in the celtic lands was Mayday or Beltaine (named after the patron God Belenos). It was held in honour of the Druids, but it was also a fertility festival - mainly of newly plantet crops and of cattle just put out to graze on green pastures. On this day the Druids performed their cleansing-rituals. Cattle were driven through the smoke from bonfires.

Day and night were also divided into 8 watches, each lasting 3 hours. In modern welsh they are named :

Midnight (22.30 - 01.30)
Dawn (01.30 - 04.30)
Morning (04.30 – 07.309
Lack of vapour (?) – (07.30 – 10.30)
Midday (10.30 – 13.30)
Rest (13.30 – 16.30)
Dusk (16.30 – 19.30)
Disappearance (overcast) (19.30 – 22.30)

It is not easy to describe Celtic mythology. In the first place it varied strongly between countries, and even between districts - and over the ages, under the influence of Roman culture. Researchers have registered more than 400 different Gods. In addition worshipping took place on different levels. Every family could have their own private house-gods (like the Romans’ penates and lares) for protection of home and family. The Celts believed in rebirth and reincarnation, supported by several excavations, where the deceased was buried with all his earthly goods, and with food and drink for his journey. Some Gods and Godesses however is found through a major part of the Celtic world :

(from irish for "shining light") is recognized in many place names, for instance Lugdunum (Lyon). He might have been a Sun God, but was also connected with the raven (lugos). He was worshipped from Ireland to Spain. The celtic festival of Lughasa (1st of August) is named after him.
(“Bright” or “Radiant”). A Gallic Sun God and curer. Connected with the May festival Beltaine.
(The “horned one”). Protector of animals. Depicted on the famous Gundestrup cauldron.
A War God in Britain and Gaul.
Gaulish horse- and fertility Godess.
The Icenians Godess of Victory.
A healing God by the Treverians.
The “Good Striker”. A hammer God. Related to the irish God Dagda.
“God of the Tribes”. Might be a generic term for several gods.
”Stammens gud”. Kanskje fellesnavn på flere guder. Jmfr. teutoner = deutschland.

In contrast to the classical world, the Celts did not imagine their gods in human guise until late in the Iron Age. Hardly any images or statues of their gods are discovered prior to this. The Celtic army commander Brennus, who captured the Delfi-oracle around 390 BC, mocked the God-statues he saw there. Gradually, as celtic culture became influenced by the Romans, a kind of integration took place of the Gods and Godesses of the Celts into the magnifold of Roman divinities. Mars became identified with Lenus, Minerva with Sulis, Merkur with Rosmerta, and so on. (This phenomenon of religious integration can also be clearly seen in India, where Buddha has become one of the hinduic God Shivas reincarnations).

The Gundestrup cauldron.
From a peatbog in northern Jutland in Denmark one of the most astonishing finds from celtic Bronze Age was unearthed in 1891. The Gundestrup silver cauldron measured 27 inches at the rim, and was intricately imbossed with hammered picture panels both inside and outside. Centrally in the bottom of the cauldron is a relief of a dying bull. Researchers have dated the cauldron to ca. 100 BC, and are of the opinion it was brought here as war-booty from somewhere in Central-Europe. Probably it was placed in the bog as a sacrifice to some Celtic God. Some researchers attach the vivid and picturesque oramentations to an old Isish epic legend – Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid at Cooley) – written down by Irish monks ca. 700 AD. The myth described in this legend is probably based on a still older continental myth. The Cauldron is today kept in the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen.

In short, T´in relates the story about the rivalry of the two Irish kindoms – Ulster in the northeast and Connaught in the Northwest. A young boy - Cúchulainn – nags his mother Queen Medb in Connaught about wanting to be engaged by King Conchobar in his court in Ulster as a fosterson (there are already 150 fostersons connected to the court). The King is the boy's uncle and reputed for being the greatest warrior in the whole of Ireland. Cúchulainn defies his mother and travels alone. This episode provokes a war between the two kingdoms, where a white and a black bull play the main parts.

Ireland – the last Celtic Outpost.
Like in Britain, Ireland developed its own version of La Tène-culture in the last decades BC. Refugees from internal fights in Britain and Gaul probably inhabited the country from late Iron Age. The high quality craftmanship reaches its climax in the 2nd and 3rd century AD. The artifacts that are found from this period are often richly decorated with intricate and characteristic geometrical patterns, a style of art which later on became prototypical of Celtic art. This art style really was a blend of many different cultural influences, with elements from the nordic "animal style", and from Pictish and Anglo-Saxon traditional art. Gradually a special class of artisans came into being in Ireland - the monks.They are responible for magnificent illuminated handwritings and drawings of the Gospels, like for instance the "Book of Durrow" (ca. 680 AD) and the "Book of Kells" (ca. 800 AD). The artists, working with very primitive tools, were able to accomplish striking effects. The pages were made of vellum (fine parchment) produced from the hides of calves and sheep. Dozens of animals were needed to produce one single bible. The parchment-pages are drawn and coloured with the use of a varied assortment of pens and fine brushes, after painstaking preparations with rulers and callipers. The pages are finally bound together into splendid volumes.

Ireland’s apostle - St. Patrick - christianized the island around 400 AD, and in a short time the irish church flourished into one of the leading educational learning centres of its time. Students from all of Europe flowed to the irish monasteries. Irish monks sought salvation on top of distant cliffs off the coasts of Britain and Ireland, while others wandered around preaching the gospels to celts in southern Ireland, picts in the north, and to german and anglosaxon settlers in Britain. Sadly - the Celtic "Golden Age" suddenly was brought to an abrupt end by the invasions of the Nordic Vikings, who invaded Dublin in 795 AD.

A specific form of writing – Ogham – was also developed during this era. It consisted of simple lines or strokes, and was - like the runic alphabet - easy to carve on stone and tree. Each letter in the Ogham-alphabet is connected with a certain tree or plant, all of which have a specific religious connotation. The alphabet consists of 20 letters and trees :

Letter Name Spelling Wood Latin name
B Beth BBEH Birch Betula pendula
L Luis LWEESH Rowan Sorbus aucuparia
N Nion NEE-uhn Ash Fraxinus excelsior
F Fearn FAIR-n Or Alder glutinosa
S Saille SAHL-yuh Willow Salix spp.
H Huath HOO-ah Hawthorn Crataegus spp.
D Duir DOO-r Oak Quercus robur
T Tinne CHIN-yuh Holly Ilex aquifolia
C Coll CULL Hazel Corylus avellana
Q Quert KWAIRT Apple Malus sylvestris
M Muin MUHN Vine Vitis vinifera
G Gort GORT Ivy Hedera helix
Y Ngetal NYEH-tl Reed Phragmites communis
Z Straiff STRAHF Blackthor Prunus spinosa
R Ruis RWEESH Elder Sambucus nigra
A Ailm AHL-m Silver fir Abies alba
O Onn UHN Furze Ulex europaeus
U Ura OO-rah Heather Calluna vulgaris
E Eadha EH-yuh Poplar Populus tremula
I Idho EE-yoh Yew Taxus baccata

Sources and links.
Simon James :
"The World of the Celts" (Dansk utgave, 1994).
Duncan Norton-Taylor :
"The Celts" (Time-Life Books, 1980).
The Celts
What we don't know the ancient Celts
The Celts