The Celts are traditionally ignored in world history textbooks and course, but the Celtic way of life, Celtic institutions, and the Celtic world view were superimposed onto Germanic and classical culture. The later monolithic European culture is greatly influenced by these early peoples.
Most of what we know about Celtic life comes from Ireland-the largest and most extensive of the Celtic populations, the Gauls in central and western Europe, we only know about through Roman sources-and these sources are decidedly unfriendly to the Gauls.
We know that the early Celtic societies were organized around warfare-this structure would commonly characterize cultures in the process of migration: the Celts, the Huns, and later the Germans. Although classical Greek and Roman writers considered the Celts to be violently insane, warfare was not an organized process of territorial conquest. Among the Celts, warfare seems to have mainly been a sport, focussing on raids and hunting. In Ireland, the institution of the fianna involved young, aristocratic warriors who left the tribal area for a time to conduct raids and to hunt. When the Celts came into contact with the Romans, they changed their manner of warfare to a more organized defense agains a larger army. It was these groups that the classical writers encountered and considered insane. The Celtic method of warfare was to stand in front of the opposing army and scream and beat their spears and swords against their shields. They would then run headlong into the opposing army and screamed the entire way-this often had the effect of scaring the opposing soldiers who then broke into a run; fighting a fleeing army is relatively easy work. If the opposing army did not break ranks, the Celts would stop short of the army, return to their original position, and start the process over agina.
Celtic society was hierarchical and class-based. Tribes were led by kings but political organizations were remarkably plastic. According to both Roman and Irish sources, Celtic society was divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy, an intellectual class that included druids, poets, and jurists, and everyone else.
Society was tribal and kinship-based; one’s ethnic identity was largely derived from the larger tribal group, called the tuath (“too-awth”) in Irish (meaning “people”) but ultimately based on the smallest kinship organizational unit, the clan, called the cenedl (ke-na-dl), or “kindred,” in Irish. The clan provided identity and protection-disputes between individuals were always disputes between clans. Since it was the duty of the clan to protect individuals, crimes against an individual would be prosecuted against an entire clan. One of the prominent institutions among the Celts was the blood-feud in which murder or insults against an individual would require the entire clan to violently exact retribution. The blood-feud was in part avoided by the institution of professional mediators. At least an Ireland, a professional class of jurists, called brithem, would mediate disputes and exact reparations on the offending clan.
Even though Celtic society centered around a warrior aristocracy, the position of women was fairly high in Celtic society. In the earliest periods, women participated both in warfare and in kingship. While the later Celts would adopt a strict patriarchal model, they still have a memory of women leaders and warriors.
Celtic society was based almost entirely on pastoralism and the raising of cattle or sheep; there was some agriculture in the Celtic world, but not much. The importance of cattle and the pastoral life created a unique institution in Celtic, particularly Irish, life: the cattle-raid. The stealing of another group’s cattle was often the proving point of a group of young warriors; the greatest surviving Irish myth, the Táin Bó Cualingne, or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” centers around one such mythically-enhanced cattle-raid.
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There was no urbanization of any kind among the Celts until the advent of Roman rule; in Ireland, urbanization did not occur until the Danish and Norwegian invasions. Society was not based on trade or commerce; what trade took place was largely in the form of barter. Celtic economy was probably based on the economic principle of most tribal economies: reciprocity. In a reciprocal economy, goods and other services are not exchanged for other goods, but they are given by individuals to individuals based on mutual kinship relationships and obligations. (A family economy is typical of a reciprocal economy-parents and children give each other material goods and services not in trade but because they are part of a family).
From the nineteenth century onwards, Celtic religion has enjoyed a fascination among modern Europeans and European-derived cultures. In particular, the last few decades have seen a phenomenal growth not only interest in Celtic religion, but in religious practices in part derived from Celtic sources. For all this interest, however, we know next to nothing about Celtic religion and practices. The only sources for Celtic religious practices were written by Romans and Greeks, who considered the Celts little more than animals, and by later Celtic writers in Ireland and Wales who were writing from a Christian perspective. Simply put, although the Celts had a rich and pervasive religious culture, it has been permanently lost to human memory.
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We can make some general comments about Celtic religion based on the often-hostile accounts of classical writers. The Celts were polytheistic; these gods were ultimately derived from more primitive, Indo-European sources that gave rise to the polytheistic religions of Greece, Persia, and India. The Romans in trying to explain these gods, however, linked them with Roman gods as did the Romanized Gauls-so we really have no idea as to the Celtic character of these gods and their functions. We do know that Celtic gods tended to come in threes; the Celtic logic of divinity almost always centered on triads. This triadic logic no doubt had tremendous significance in the translation of Christianity into northern European cultural models.
It is almost certain that the material world of the Celts was suffused with divinity that was both advantageous and harmful. Certain areas were considered more charged with divinity than others, especially pools, lakes and small groves, which were the sites of the cental ritual activities of Celtic life. The Celts were non-urbanized and according to Roman sources, Celtic ritual involved no temples or building structures-Celtic ritual life, then, was centered mainly on the natural environment.
Celtic ritual life centered on a special class, called the druides or “druids” by the Romans, presumably from a Gaulish word. Although much has been written about druids and Celtic ritual practice, we know next to nothing about either. Here’s what we can gather. As a special group, the druids performed many of the functions that we would consider “priestly” functions, including ritual and sacrifice, but they also included functions that we would place under “education” and “law.” These rituals and practices were probably kept secret-a tradition common among early Indo-European peoples-which helps to explain why the classical world knows nothing about them. The only thing that the classical sources attest is that the druids performed “barbaric” or “horrid” rituals at lakes and groves; there was a fair amount of consensus among the Greeks and Romans that these rituals involved human sacrifice. This may or may not be true; there is some evidence of human sacrifice among the Celts, but it does not seem to have been a prevalent practice.
According to Julius Caesar, who gives the longest account of druids, the center of Celtic belief was the passing of souls from one body to another. From an archaeological perspective, it is clear that the Celts believed in an after-life, for material goods are buried with the dead.
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