Episode 6: The Celts
Today’s episode is about the first recorded inhabitants of France, the Celts. Historians still debate who the Celts, were, but what we do know is that the Celtic language was at one point the most widely-spoken language in Europe. The Celts began as a group of people centered around modern-day Austria who migrated in all directions around 1000 BCE. These peoples spread across Europe, inhabiting the British Isles, France, northern Italy, and what would become Switzerland, western Germany and the Low Countries. Previous scholarship held that the Celts migrated into the Iberian peninsula and across Eastern Europe, inhabiting lands from modern-day Austria to Romania and even Turkey, though recent work calls that into question.
It’s hard to say exactly who were the Celts as ‘Celt’ was a catch-all term for Greco-Romans to refer to any nature-loving barbarians north of their own lands. In the Greco-Roman view, the world north of Greece and Rome was nothing but barbarians, with Celts to the north and Scythians to the northeast; as such modern historians recognize that the ‘Celts’ was a lumping together of very different groups of people sharing some basic cultural and linguistic distinctions, rather than one ethnolinguistic group. The Celts didn’t recognize themselves as a united people, but divided into their own tribes and subcultures. While occasionally a strong leader could form a confederation of many tribes, most of the time the Celtic tribes lived separately and even warred with each other. The Celts didn’t keep written records so we have very little knowledge of their cultures, making it easier for us in the present to lump all the different cultures into one; but any group of people who spread out from Portugal, France, Britain, Romania and Turkey, would obviously have major differences.
Case in point, imagine if the Celts referred to all people south of their border as ‘Mediterraneans.’ We would think it would be pretty silly to lump in Egyptians with Israelites, Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks and Carthaginians. Even someone with a rudimentary sense of history can tell you that an Egyptian and a Roman are clearly not the same. That the Greco-Romans referred to these peoples as all ‘Celts’ is just as ridiculous, and shows the hubris that they had when referring to everyone who wasn’t part of a Mediterranean, city-based culture as being a ‘barbarian.’
So, to make things clear: ‘Celt’ is a word referring to numerous different cultures who share the same language family and some far removed history, but probably little else. Within each of these cultures that had similar languages, religions and history were numerous different tribes, as these peoples were not politically united. So, going back to roughly 500 BCE, France was inhabited by a culture known as the Gauls, who themselves were divided into numerous tribes. By the end of this episode I can start to talk about the Gauls specifically, but for now, let’s talk about who the Celts were in general, before narrowing in on Gaul.
The word ‘Celt’ comes to use from ceilt, a Celtic word meaning ‘secret’ or ‘hidden’ and coincidentally is where we get the word ‘kilt.’ Historian Peter Ellis believes that Celts identified themselves as the ‘hidden people’ because of a religious prohibition on writing. The druidic leaders forbid the use of writing so that non-Celts wouldn’t learn of their ways, and because they believed that people who wrote down their thoughts weakened their memorization skills. As such, the Celts didn’t leave behind any written records until their druidic beliefs were exorcized during the Christian era.
Celtic tribes were organized around small farming communities centered around hill-forts made of mounds of earth with wooden palisades. In the last two centuries BCE the hill forts of Gaul gave way to oppida, or small fortified towns that served as trading hubs. Oppida boasted massive earth and timber ditches, rampart walls, and were situated along trade routes, which were often major rivers.
The early Celts smelted bronze and later iron. These tools gave Celts obvious military superiority over other tribes, but they were also used to reconstruct the world around them. The Celts made extensive roadways throughout Europe by cutting down trees and laying down wooden roads. While the Romans claimed that they laid down the roads in Gaul and Britain, often they only laid down the stones, whereas the Celts cleared the trees and created wooden pathways. These roads connected Celtic peoples across Europe, allowing for trade and cultural exchange. It also allowed for military excursions as the Celts rode four-wheeled war chariots into battle, something which was only possible because they had created crisscrossing road networks across Europe north of the Alps.
Despite Greco-Roman records referring to Celts as warmongering barbarians, Celtic society was highly-developed. Chieftains were decided by election and were expected to benefit the whole community. Women had substantial rights and could be elected as chieftains and even war leaders, most famously in the British case of Boudica. The Celts were skilled in medicine, and in large communities even set up special buildings for the care of the sick, creating some of the earliest hospitals, or healthcare facilities in northern Europe.
Aside from the chieftain, druids led these societies. Druids were not merely religious leaders, but were philosophers, teachers, natural scientists, and lawyers. They were expected to lead religious rituals, arbitrate disputes, calculate the position of the stars, produce healing herbs and teach the next generation the oral traditions of their culture. No wonder it took 20 years to become a druid. Druids possessed incredible knowledge of astronomy, far eclipsing that of the ‘civilized’ Romans, and created precise calendars, the most famous being the Coligny Calendar, found near modern-day Lyon. The Coligny Calendar is a five-year calendar, based on the cycles of the moon. Furthermore, they reckoned time with ‘nights’ rather than days.
Another high-ranking profession was the bard. Bards were highly-respected, due to the artistic spirit of the culture they inhabited and their role as keepers of knowledge. In this period, bards not only had the task of composing beautiful music, often played on lyres, but also of holding and relaying the oral history of their people. This gave them power, because without written records history was not a commodity that could be accessed by every member of the community at the time of their own choosing; history was an interpersonal experience and a transitive form of knowledge. If a young Celt wanted to learn their people’s history they would have to go to a bard, who had lived through some of his or her own tales. Likewise, for a young bard to learn history they would have had to receive it from an older bard. Thus, history was a great chain of personal experience told through musical narrative that bound that community together through shared past and shared interpretation of the past.
As you have probably guessed, the Celts were a highly artistic people. The Gauls in particular, operated 200 gold mines before the Roman conquest. They worked with gold and precious stones, and created intricate patterns in designing brooches, necklaces and other finery. Aside from luxury items, they also made high-quality clothing from lamb’s wool, which was highly-sought after in the later Roman world. These luxury products meant that many Gauls were quite wealthy. While the Romans portrayed the Gauls as backward, woods-loving barbarians that were little more than bloodthirsty savages, these people were often wealthy, towns-dwelling merchants and traders. Even in the last few centuries BCE, Gauls frequently traded with Rome, particularly for wine, meaning that Celts were surprisingly cosmopolitan as they understood Roman culture. Furthermore, Gallic trade was extensive, as evidenced by the Vix burial mound in northern France. Dated around 500 BCE, the Vix burial mound holds a Gallic princess who was also a seer. She was buried there with a Greek bronze krater or 450lb vessel for containing wine, and is perhaps the best-preserved Greek bronze-work still in existence. Alongside Greek items were Etruscan vessels and other foreign goods. While the Vix mound is the most famous, other Gallic sites have goods from much further abroad, with one site even possessing Chinese silk, which at the time would have been a rare commodity even in Rome.
Celtic religion was polytheistic and animistic. Gods and goddesses inhabited and embodied the wind, the rivers, the forests. Many Celtic deities were actually the ancestors of the Celts, who lived heroic lives. Hero myth was strong in Celtic culture, as these people were more likely to venerate heroic figures than creator deities, as is done in some other cultures. The Celts believed in reincarnation, holding that when someone died in this world, their spirit went to the Otherworld, and vice-versa. A death in Otherworld meant a birth in this one, which led one historian to note that when a Celtic baby was born it was met with mourning while death was celebrated. Again, we can’t be sure if this is true, as the Greco-Romans had a tendency to exaggerate the strangeness of other cultures.
Very little is known of Gallic religion, and Celtic religion in general, since they didn’t keep a written record. By the time Celts adopted writing, Christianity was the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, and Christians discouraged the writing of heretical beliefs. The Romans depicted the Gauls as worshiping in the woods in mad revels of spontaneous energy; akin to modern day raves. Yet, modern archeology proves that this was yet one more stereotype that doesn’t match the facts as Gallic religion was organized, ritualized and sophisticated. Aerial photos of east-central France taken in the 1970s uncovered sites of huge Gallic temples. Archeological reconstruction shows that these temple complexes were huge, serving entire villages. These temples most likely had altars where pigs, lambs and cattle were sacrificed to the gods in the temple proper. In the courtyard, the entire village could assemble for festivals and rituals. A few trees grew within the complex, as nature was important to their religion, and represented life.
But, with life comes death, and these temples boasted a very grim nature as well. The temples also served as receptacles of dead bodies, which the Gauls believed possessed a certain spiritual power. Animal bodies were discarded into a large pit, while skulls were nailed to the gate; with potentially hundreds of animal skulls affixed to the gate and the wooden walls surrounding the complex, this must have been quite a site. Alongside animal skulls, trophies were made of captured enemy weapons. In one temple, nearly 1,000 dead enemy soldiers’ bones were ritually crushed and burned, as one Gallic people claimed symbolic domination of a rival tribe. It’s understandable how the Romans could be shocked and appalled to find a massive temple adorned in skeletons, and a burial pit with thousands of dead human bodies, and think that these people were mad.
On the topic of madness, we need to talk about everyone’s favorite historical subject: war. When Celts did go to war they were ferocious fighters. Their prowess in battle meant they were hired as professional soldiers in as faraway places as Carthage, Egypt and Syria. The Celts carried decorated wooden shields as tall as they were, and wore bronze, then later iron, armor and helmets. Their weapon of choice was the long-sword, which was used for cutting, unlike the short sword preferred by Romans for stabbing. The Celts were stone-slingers and by all accounts were far more deadly than early archers. Wealthy Celts wore what is known as a torc, a carved gold neck-ornament that gave symbolic protection.
The first stage of a Celtic battle was the war chariot rush. The Celtic war chariot was little more than a platform on wheels, drawn by a horse, which the charioteers could hurl javelins from as they sped around their enemies, sowing confusion. After this initial assault, the charioteers fell back to their own lines and locked the chariots in place so that they could ride them out of battle if it went against them. The charioteers would then join the foot soldiers, as Celts did not fight on horseback. Next came the terrifying charge, which was heralded by a device called a carnac or war horn. The carnac was a long tube, taller than a man and carved at the top to look like a ferocious animal. When Celts went into battle their warriors screamed at the top of their lungs while the heralds blew the carnacs, making a chaotic tumble of sound that seemed to reverberate from everywhere, no doubt terrifying their enemies.
One curious aspect of Celtic society was that when Celtic tribes went to ‘war’ with another, their members often didn’t fight; instead, a duel was held between the opposing chieftains. Ancient Romans occasionally even accepted these duels, though this practice was outlawed in 340 BCE, supposedly because the Romans argued the fate of a people shouldn’t be decided by a fight between two men, but perhaps the Romans were just chicken and didn’t want to go mano-a-mano with these northern warriors.
The Celts were notorious headhunters, something which drew the ire of the Greeks and Romans, who viewed this as barbaric. Here, I think it’s worth recounting in full a passage by Greek historian Diodorus Siculus about this brutal practice:
“They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold.”
While this may seem barbaric, Ellis notes that the Celts viewed the Romans as the real barbarians because they slaughtered prisoners and sold hostages into slavery, rather than ransoming them back to their own people. In the Celtic perspective, what harm is there to mutilate the dead? Isn’t it far more barbaric to torture the living, which was what the Romans did?
Obviously the Celts and the Romans didn’t see eye to eye on most issues. This culture clash will come to a head in 387 BCE, when the Gauls invaded and sacked Rome, traumatizing the young republic and ensuring ever-lasting hatred between these two peoples.
Ancient History Encyclopedia
Diodorus Siculus Bibliotheca historica
Dr. William Parkinson’s public lectures on the Celtic migrations