Celts and Myth


Did the Celts Exist? Charleton Wyman 16/12/94.



This ontological question is pernicious in that it challenges a word already in evidence. Celts must exist in a least some sense as such a concept is suggested by the existence of the word itself. However, Celt is more than just a word and corresponds to a set of meanings. It is these meaning which determine an answer, or set of answers in the affirmative. Meanings rely on context. And this word like many others has a multitude of contexts which pertain. There are six contexts for Celt identified by Renfrew(1987). A Classical designation, a people who call themselves Celts, a language group, an archaeological definition, an art style and a warlike spirit. Where this in itself reveals a basis for confusion not everyone would divide the meaning in such a way as such divisions are somewhat overlapping and the voracity of their claims to Celt or Celtic vary enormously. However, the first definition would seem a chronologically sensible place to start. The word and its roots have been used since the onset of written history. In the context of Ancient Greece we must rely in part on a minority (literate) opinion to offer its own meaning. celtoi were first identified by Greeks who came into contact with a culturally different group inhabiting Europe.


Early contacts by Greeks at Massilia brought descriptions as to physical appearance: tall and fair as opposed to short and olive skinned (Mac Ed. 1977). There is good reason to assume that there was a people in the 1st century BC who knew themselves by this name and became ethnically defined by the civilised world. This early definition was to be extended to the rest of Europe and the “kindred races” beyond the Rhine. Tacitus was responsible for the sundering of the Germani from the Celts forging an artificial division which cannot be justified by material culture distribution. The reading of the classical writers has led to the formation of a Celtic caricature, taught to school children (Macdonald Educational 1977) and portrayed in museums and other forms of popular media. It has been strapped to material culture finds of La Téne art uncritically which defines Celt as a unity from the point of view of a political perspective of single sovereign bounded nation states inherited from an earlier perspective of Roman imperialism which conveniently lumped together the diverse peoples of Europe. This caricature is based on the “facts” of history offered by the Classical authors. The warlike Celts spent much of their time fighting. They were uncivilised and indulged in acts of barbarity which included human sacrifice. They were to be distinguished by their dress, particularly their hair which was caked with clay and formed into spikes. It is often said they were never united. This reflects a simple contradiction in that the categorisation of Celts as a group is unjustified by the statement, simply a contradiction in terms. Their unity when it did occur was in the face of a common threat. Defined en mass, client kings could then be seen as both collaborators and traitors as it suited the prevailing power. There is some evidence that a ethnic group applied the term to themselves at this time. Caesar, however restricted the term to those Galli that inhabited the region bordered by the Marne, Seine and Garonne. Both the Germani and Britanni were linguistically distinguished from Celts (Hubert 1934, Collis 1994), there being no suggestion that Britons were either Celtic or Galatian (Dio. Sic. V.3.2.). So Alpine and Massilian dwellers were Celtae the rest of those inhabiting the Roman defined area know as Gaul were otherwise known. Already by the time of Strabo we see a confusion of the term. He points to a inconsistency between the Roman and the Greek designation. Those that inhabit Narbonensis  are those “who men of former time called Celtae”. Whom the Greeks called “Celti” were actually Galatae “on account of the fame of Celtae, or it may be also that the Massiolites, as well as other Greek neighbours contributes to this result on account of their proximity” (Strabo Geo. 4,1,14).  His description, generalised to include all Gallic and Galatic peoples, can still be clearly recognised in many popular texts and applied to “Celts”. They are simple, war mad, high spirited, quick to battle and easily defeated by a strategem but not ill mannered and are able to learn. His words cannot be used to support the application of the term to any of the British tribes. Significantly the Germans are the most alike of these people. The British are different in that they are taller, bandy-legged  and not so yellow haired being also more simple and barbaric. The Ierne (Irish) are the most savage of all being man-eaters and have intercourse with their mothers and sisters (Strabo 4,4,2, 4,5,2 (p237 & 259)).  It is likely that the term Celt, if it can be said to be applied emicly at all cannot be applied to those in the regions of Britain. Paradoxically the British Isles is thought, by many, to be the last refuge of the displaced Celtic people having a unbroken tradition of Celtic culture (Delaney 1986).  So it would seem that the group known as Celts dwelled in the regions of southern Gaul in the first century. Since that time the history of the Celts becomes on of a transference of a name and not the movement of a people (Guest 1883, p1).


For archaeology, Celt is a term for the ethnic group associated with two archaeological cultures, Halstatt and La Téne. Certain similarities in decorative style are used to justify this material typologically. It varies, however from “Celtic art” which is a designation used for medieval decoration and quite different from that of the first century BC. Despite Clarkes’ warning that “an archaeological culture” is just that: not to be confused with an ethnic group, archaeologists have applied the term casually to confuse them. The Halstatt culture is dated to around 700BC-500BC and La Téne is chronologically defined to develop from 500BC onwards. Fine pottery and decorated metalware comprise this material culture and maps of its spread across Europe abound in endless repetition through the popularist books (Powell 1958, Norton-Taylor 1974,). This evident confusion leads Otto Hermann Frey (Moscati, p77) to ask: “what was the original homeland of the Celts?”, without first considering whether the question is an appropriate one. What is the kind of claim he his making by asking the question? The answer, he thinks, lies in the region of sixth century Halstatt “Celtic Princes”. He assumes that the Celtic culture of Narbonensis had to have come from somewhere, why not German territory? It is just as possible that the people of Narbonensis stayed there all along and the material culture forms developed in situ or with outside influence. Once it is realised that a material culture expansion is not equal to a movement of a people then the question is null and void. Another assumption demonstrated by this is the puzzling question of the Halstatt to La Téne transition, surely just another non-question (Collis 1994)? We should feel no surprise that Venclová’s (1993) sceptical analysis of “Celtic” shrines reveals diversity reflecting local traditions. Archaeological discourse on this matter ignores the tribal divisions described by the ancient authors wiping out all  particulars in the interests of generalisation. What was once a method to characterise “uncivilised” peoples for colonisation can be seen now as a move to wipe out national differences in the name of pan Europeanism.


The myth of a pan European culture of the first century BC cannot be said to have derived from classical authors who on the one hand see them all as “barbarian” (Hall, 1989) still recognised at least some differences. The term lay dormant until a Scotsman named Buccanan introduced it to describe peoples who had never known the term. This usage was further developed by Edward Lhuyd (- d.1709AD) (Norton-Taylor 1974, p19) who used the term to describe a linguistic “family”. He recognised similarities between Welsh, Irish and Scots Gaelic and Breton. Assuming a single and common root he dubbed these languages “Celtic”. We have already seen that Caesar applied Celt to refer to a people of  Southern Gaul.  John Collis (1994) is at a loss to explain Buccanan’s use of the term. We might venture to suggest that these two non English Britons’ interpretation may have been politically informed, wishing to seek common ground with the French, seeing the (Germanic) English as “other” (paradoxically even Germanic people can now be Celtic). It is known that Lhuyd’s grandfather paid for and recruited a troop of cavalry for the Scottish king in the civil war (Roberts 1980). To take a less political view it could be suggested that the term was based on the rather superficial view of Ephorus who divided the world into Greece and four peripheral nations, Indians to the east, Scythians to the north, Ethiopians to the south and Celts to the west (Tierney). Whatever reason Lhyudd chose the term it has remained with us since. It is the growth of the term and the multitude of associations it implies which have enabled its survival, perhaps satisfying some needs.


Linguistics has grown from that time and has been used to reconstruct history. It has applied a tree like evolutionary form which assumes that similarities between languages arose from a common origin (fig 1).




It must be noted that all these languages to the left are putative in that none actually existed in their own right. This method could be rejected as destroying cultural particulars reducing the language forms to gross generalisations. Thus Renfrew has criticised this methodology as presupposing an urheimat, urvolk and ursprache  (Renfrew 1987, p77). The philosophical basis for this methodology may be said to have two foundations. Christian ideology is founded on the concept of a an origin. It is a Western obsession that all phenomena have origins. All languages are thought to derive from the time when god dispersed humanity from the tower of Babel to the four corners of the earth. Covalent with this view and to some degree a replacement for it we have evolutionary theory which applies a similar tree like form influenced by Charles Darwin (ibid., p102). A tree like development can be easily justified for the evolution of species as species once divided cannot be rejoined. This is not so with language, they are not immutable and may mix freely. A treelike pseudo-evolutionary pattern as applied to language is useless. Quoting Trubetskoy (in Renfrew, p108); ” … it is just as plausible that (ancestor languages) were originally quite dissimilar, and that through continuing contact and mutual influence became closer” we might suggest that languages can develop both by aggregation and by divergence. It is simply not possible that the peoples of Europe spoke a mutually intelligible language. If I now suggest a sequence which may be more familiar (Fig 2), it is plainly demonstrable that in order to follow a single root or core of a language into the past it is necessary to privilege certain aspects of the language system if the scheme of  Fig 1 is to be used.




We may also reflect that English, nominally a Germanic language (Fig 1) is also and to a “higher degree” a Western or Atlantic language having basic features in common with Insular Celtic, French, Spanish and Basque. Scots Gaelic, nominally Celtic relates to West Norse and Lapp (Wagner 1971, p203ff, Roger 1884). A choice is made between a language’s various influences. This choice will inevitably be informed by history. The linguists whose chief concern is “Celtic” languages have privileged a connection with first century Gaul. Linguistics has a methodological problem which privileges certain typologies in the light of historical presuppositions and may be seen as an example of a methodology that “produces object in advance”(Shanks and Tilley 1992, p48).  For this reason it is easy to see how Renfrew has overturned the previous chronology for the emergence of Indo-European by making it contemporary with the Neolithic. It is demonstrable that the branches and twigs of causality sprout in both directions. Language then may be seen as a process and negotiation and we may safely jettison the prime mover Indo European.  We should also realise the basis upon which Welsh, Breton and Irish and Scots Gaelic are termed Celtic: surely no more than a misnomer.


Henri Hubert (1934, ix-x) saw the Celts as “involved in the politics of the whole world… agents for the unification and progress of mankind … native and homogenous”. He saw them as a poetic culture pressed from behind by a lower culture, the Germans and in the enviable position where Rome allowed certain metal qualities to survive.This enabled to flourish the lyric stories of Parsifal and Tristan which could just as easily be claimed for Frankish[1]  and British heritage. Despite the Frankish role in the establishment of the French state Hubert sees the Celts “making the France of today.”


What is fascinating is how this identifying term has come to mean so much to so many people. It has managed effectively to sunder English people from other inhabitants of the British Isles and Germans from the rest of Western Europe. The currency of the term as a racial division is closely associated with its linguistic one. Indeed it is one of the few facts used to justify it. Despite the difficulties in the terminology Celts are big business and are being used in a propaganda exercise to justify European roots (Collis 1994). Despite the simple logic of Collis’ position it is clear that the term is here to stay. I would have to conclude that the Celts do exist. You have only to ask those inhabitants of Ireland, Scotland and Wales that have a little knowledge of history. But I would conclude with J.C. Roger (1884, p89, p12) that Celticism is “a large superstructure raised upon a slender foundation” and that ” the entire system is the result of national vanity, evolved out of the inner consciousness of a few, whose conclusions have been gulped down implicitly by a large number of persons, who are either unable or unwilling to examine the matter for themselves”. Despite the slender foundation Celticism serves a need for roots and origins which if pandered to, could eventually lead, once again, to European conflict as Kossinna’s Germanic Celtic distinction was used.


Today Celticism seems to be enjoying a renaissance. The introduction to Moscati claims that the ultimate origins of all the peoples of Europe may be found in the study of the Celts. Moscati claims a multitude of items for Celticism including, the Gundestrup cauldron (oddly claimed as Thracian workmanship) found in Denmark. Even the remote Ireland, where little if any La Téne ever penetrated is accepted into the cosy Pan-European fold. Germans can now be thought of as Celtic as the Austrian Halstatt finds are thought to developmentally precede La Téne. No one is now safe from this term and despite the frustration of sound archaeologists such as Collis the term is here to stay. The term is so general that it is meaningless. A confusion of race, ancient nation and language.





Collis John, 1994, “The Celts: the development of a Myth”, lecture delivered SDUC.(December).

Delaney Frank, 1986, The Celts, Hodder and Stoughton.

Guest, E. 1883, Origions Celticae, Macmillian.

Hall, Edith,1989, Inventing the Barbarian, Clarenden Oxford.

Hubert, Henri, 1934, The Greatness and decline of the Celts, Keagan Paul.

Macdonald Educational, 1977, The Celts, MAC.

Moscati (ed), 1991, The Celts, Thames and Hudson London.

Montagu, Ashley, 1974, Frontiers of Anthropology, Putnam NY.

Norton-Taylor, 1974, The Celts, Time-Life.

Powell, TGE., 1958, The Celts, Thames and Hudson London.

Raftery J, 1960, The Celts, Mercier Press Cork.

Renfrew, Colin, 1987, Archaeology and language, Jonathan Cape.

Roger, James Cruikshank, 1884, Celticism: a Myth, E W Allan, London.

Ross, Anne, 1970, Everyday life of the Pagan Celts, Batsford.

Shanks and Tilley, 1992, Re-constructing Archaeology,, Routledge, 1992.

Strabo, The Geography of..III,VI-VII, H. L. Jones (trans.), Heinemann LOEB. 1961.

Tierney, JJ, 1960, The Celtic Ethnography of Posidonius in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol 60, sect C, p189ff.

Venclová, Natalie 1993, “Celtic shrines in Central Europe:a skeptical approach”, in Oxford Journal of Archaeology 12(1).

Wagner H, 1971, Studies in the Origins of Celts and of Early Celtic Civilisation, Institute of Irish Studies Belfast.


[1]The Franks were a Germanic group.


About Chaz Wyman

Sculptor Historian Teacher Atheist Favorite Philosophers: Hume, Kant, Spinoza
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