The term "Celtic" conjures images of a fierce, nomadic people, nature-worshipping druids in groves of ancient oaks and eerie stone circles -- all usually accompanied by a mass of perpetually swirling mist. The often-asked question "who were those mysterious Celts?" is difficult to answer authoritatively.
Perhaps instead of repeating that timeless query, we could approach the question differently and investigate the traces that are left of the Celts and how those traces lead us to the thoroughly modern Celt.
So instead of who let us ask what was a Celt?
The use of the word "Celtic" is controversial in itself. The use of the phrase "Celtic language" was not utilized in the English language with its present meaning until the beginning of the 18th century.
The people we define as Celtic left no written record and did not see or identify themselves as a distinct ethnic group. Some scholars believe the word "Celt" derives from the Greek "keltoi," which was used to describe people north of present-day Marseilles. Julius Caesar noted that the Gauls described themselves as "Celtae" although no related word exists in either Old Irish or Old Welsh.
A prime factor in describing a region or a people as Celtic today is whether they speak or ever spoke what we define as either a P- or Q-Celtic language.
The Celtic language is a subfamily of the Indo-European group of languages. Divided into two families, P-Celtic and Q-Celtic, the distinction between P- and Q-Celtic is made by the substitution of "p" for the original Indo-European "qu."
The modern P-Celtic languages are Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Modern Q-Celtic languages include Irish, Scottish Gaelic and the near-extinct Manx. The P- and Q-Celtic languages are also referred to as Brythonic and Goidelic, respectively. Of course, many areas included both P- and Q-Celtic speakers; hence the distinctions are not absolute.
Like the language, another strong factor in the identification of Celtic regions of influence is the archaeological record, including artwork which has survived to present-day.
Some of the earliest traces of a culture or style that we might today refer to as "Celtic" were found in upper Austria at the salt-mining complex of Hallstatt which overlooks a lake of the same name.
Dating from approximately 1200-600 BC, the early Iron Age works of art found at this site portray a severely geometrical, non-representational style that seems secondary perhaps to the high level of functional achievement found in each piece.
This "Hallstatt" period of Celtic development was followed by the "La Tene" period, so-named for a trove of votive figures unearthed from a settlement on the eastern end of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland.
Dating from approximately 500 BC we find the swirling, non-narrative, typically rounding patterns that, though influenced by Greek and Etruscan art, define a style that we today recognize and refer to as "Celtic." This style, with its shifting, symmetrical elements persisted throughout all parts of Celtic Europe until the Roman invasion and in Ireland until as late as the Norman Conquest. As Ruth and Vincent Megaw write, "However ambiguous, Celtic art is one of the few certain, if obscured, windows on the Celtic spirit."
Although language and archaeology give us our most certain glance at these elusive people, there are other sources of information about them. For although the Celts wrote nothing of themselves, there were others who wrote about them and about their mythology.
Julius Caesar's (100-44 BC) seven-volume "De Bello Gallico (Gallic War)" is a much quoted source of information on Celtic ethnography and religion. However he was not the only Roman historian to observe the Celts. Caesar relied upon the reports of subordinates and his work is thought to have plagiarized the earlier historian Poisdonius (135-51 BC).
Poisdonius was a Syrian-born Roman philosopher and may be our most important observer of Celtic affairs. Other historians of this period include Pliny the Elder who wrote the closest examination of the Druids to be found among the Classical commentators.
Though a certain wealth of information from these classical historians remains, it is at best a biased, and at worst an inaccurate, accounting of the people we call Celts. Caesar assigned names and functions to Celtic deities of whom he had no knowledge. However, as no non-Roman evidence survives, we are obliged to accept these observations even as we question their authority.
Ironically, the Druids, a caste of male and female priest-philosophers of pre-Christian Celtic society were specifically concerned with the preservation of their culture and conventions. Their non-literate, oral tradition made use of intricate memory devices and decades of rigorous training to both transmit and preserve the law, history, stories, songs and mythology of their people. Their tradition did not survive the Roman conquest of the continental Celts or the disappearance of the Irish Druids into the early Celtic Christian church.
Unfortunately, most of what popularly drifts about as Druidic knowledge in our culture is information originally promoted by John Aubrey (1626-97 AD) and William Stukeley (1687-1765 AD). Based on his beliefs on Druidism, Stukeley created a religious order that still exists today.
Like the Druids, few things are more mysterious and evocative to us as than the stone monuments which so quickly come to mind when one thinks of anything Celtic. Although mute, they offer enduring testimony to the devotion of those who constructed them.
But it was not the Celts who built the ancient stone circles, tombs and complexes found throughout Europe that are so readily associated with them today.
By the time the Celts arrived in Ireland in approximately 250 BC, Ireland had already been occupied for over 7,000 years. From the outset of the post-glacial Mesolithic period (8000-4000 BC), hunter-gatherers settled into Ireland from the area of Europe. The southern-most tip of Ireland remained ice-free during the last ice age and is generally considered to be the area of original settlement for these first immigrants.
The first stone monuments in Ireland were erected during the Neolithic period, roughly 4000-2000 BC. The dramatic and well-known passage tomb Newgrange dates from approximately 2475 BC.
It is commonly felt that the advent of agriculture gave rise to the creation of the stone circles and monuments that speak so eloquently to us. As settlers became more stationary, they became more concerned with propitiation, ancestor worship and their place in the cosmos.
A thousand years later when the Celts did arrive, the monuments and the ancestors of those who built them were waiting. These indigenous people had their own spiritual traditions, lore and ritual. The deities of the Celts joined with the earlier goddesses and gods of the land to form a rich pantheon of mythology and folklore which we still revere today. This pantheon was later enlarged when the goddesses and saints of Christian mythology arrived in Ireland.
Scholars of Celtic mythology rely on a collection of texts which purport to contain the mythology and traditions of the pre-Christian era. These texts, compiled almost a thousand years after the Celts arrived in Ireland were written by Irish and Welsh clerics in parchment and vellum and preserved in the monasteries and great houses of Ireland.
The most reliable of these texts are the Lebor na hUidre (or Book of the Dun Cow) and the Lebor Laignech (or the Book of Leinster) which contains the Dinshenchas (a collection of Old Irish legends and tales which explain and give meaning to Irish place names). The Book of the Dun Cow was recorded around 1106 AD at Clonmacnoise, a monastic centre on the river Shannon while the Book of Leinster was compiled after 1150 AD. Other texts such as the Yellow Book of Lecan, the Book of Ballymote, the Books of Lecan and Lismore and the doubtable Lebor Gabala Erenn (or Book of Invasions) were written later.
So a Celt was an individual whose culture may have begun around 1200 BC and who spoke either a P- or Q-Celtic language. He or she had a rich artistic and mythological heritage. This individual belonged to a clan that, with others, began to spread throughout what we now call Europe around 500 BC. In 390 BC the people we now call Celts sacked Rome and extended into the Balkans and as far as Asia Minor. They overran Delphi in 279 BC and also settled Africa and what was then Iberia.
In groups and in tribes these people are believed to have moved into the area of the British Isles around 200 BC. Evidence points to their gradual acceptance into and creation of a basic Celtic substratum rather than an invasion or migration en masse.
Then how do we define who is Celt and what is Celtic today? Is it blood, language, geography or soulful identification? The fractiousness of the ancient Celts was partially responsible for the downfall of their developing consciousness as a political entity. Let us not make those mistakes of division today. Let us agree to learn from our forbears and set aside differences to recognize the Celtic spirit in all who claim it.