Who Are the Celts? Unpacking a Tricky Identity
Former textbooks provided a very straightforward overview of the Celtic people. Yet, fresh evidence has emerged in recent years that makes defining Celtic identity, and thus the Celtic history, hard.
Who are these Celtic who have had such a huge influence on modern culture around the world? Responding to this topic used to be relatively simple, but new scholarship has made the Celtic individuality question considerably more complicated. The version previously taught in school is no longer taught in a classroom today.
The Original History of the Celts
The tale of the Celts is one of a hostile and warlike people who gave one of Europe’s most powerful empires a fight for its money. The Celts were a people who emerged in central Europe around the middle of the first millennium B.C. They established a community that generated a specific art style centred on gorgeous abstract patterns and stylised animals.
This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
But, in addition to being artists, the Celts were warriors who sought glory in battle. The Celts spread throughout Europe from their central European homelands. When they fought to the south and east, they encountered the Romans and Greeks, who recorded the earliest stories of the Celts, some of which are genuinely horrifying. In addition to sacking Rome in 390 B.C., the Celts defiled the shrine of Delphi in Greece, the home of the famous oracle, in 279 B.C., and later settled in central Anatolia, which is now Turkey, becoming the progenitors of the Galatians mentioned in the New Testament.
Nonetheless, the Celts expanded west, across Gaul and down into Spain. They then became seamen and invaded Britain and Ireland, where they conquered the original population and established their own culture and language in approximately 200 B.C. At one point, the Celts dominated most of Europe, even stretching as far south as northern Italy, where the Romans struggled to keep them at bay. A map of Europe would show a consistent Celtic dominance stretching from Ireland to Greece, and from Spain to Austria.
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The tide then shifted against the Celts. The Romans gradually forced the Celts back. The Romans conquered Spain first, then Gaul, and lastly Britain, though they never conquered the entire island; they left the wild north of Britain, which is now Scotland, unconquered, and they never attempted to conquer Ireland. As the Romans were forced to leave Britain, the Celts resurrected their weapons and heroically fought a succession of fruitless wars against a new group of invaders: the Anglo-Saxons.
The Celts were driven into the island’s more distant corners: the picturesque, mountainous north, west, and southwest. Some of them moved to western France, to what is now known as Brittany, and even to northern Spain, where certain Celtic populations still exist. These areas on the outskirts of Western Europe, as well as the entire island of Ireland, became known as the “Celtic Fringe” considerably later.
According to legend, only in these distant portions of Britain and Ireland, as well as Brittany and northern Spain, did the original Celtic civilisation that once encompassed most of Europe survive. Over the years, the Celts maintained their cultural isolation by preserving their distinct language and culture. traditions in music and literature and art. All the while, they gradually came to be dominated by the strong nation-states that arose in England, France, and Spain.
The Celtic lands were subjected to various forms of tyranny as these nation-states attempted to impose their own culture, particularly their language, on the recalcitrant Celtic populace. These cultural traditions remained underground until the nineteenth century when they were resurrected as part of the great wave of nationalism that swept Europe, resulting in the victorious campaign for Irish independence and the resurgence of Celtic pride throughout the Celtic world.
The Plot Thickens
This account of the Celts’ history as a nation that once ruled Europe has had enormous influence in the modern world. Recent scholarship, however, has shown evidence that the story is far more nuanced and interesting than we previously thought.
For one thing, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the categorised meaning of “Celtic” is far more difficult to pin down than researchers previously imagined. As we read about the Celts in works published by Greek and Roman authors, we can usually identify them by many major characteristics, including their language, art, and social and military conventions. The assumption has been that the Celts arrived with a Celtic cultural package: the Celts spoke Celtic languages, created Celtic art, and did traditional Celtic practises like collecting and revering severed human heads. The concept was that a Celt was a Celt wherever he or she might be found in the vast Celtic globe.
Today, we associate the Celts primarily with Ireland and the British Isles because those are the places where the Celtic languages have survived the longest. One of the most important aspects of this Celtic premise is the idea that residents of the British Isles and Ireland can be identified with residents of the European continent who fought against the Romans and Greeks.
If the Irish and Welsh are simply cousins of the Gauls who turned against Julius Caesar, then we are dealing with a cohesive story, of which the Irish and British chapters are only one element. If the Celtic premise is correct, then the Irish, Welsh, and other Celtic Fringe peoples can claim to be part of a story that dates back to the Celts’ origins in Central Europe. Their ancestors would be the Celts who plundered Rome.
A New Version of the Story
However, modern research is forcing the Celtic concept to fall apart. It turns out that the peoples of Ireland and the United Kingdom may have had no ethnic ties to the peoples of Europe. Researchers now doubt that a cohesive Celtic culture was conveyed by a single group of individuals who shared a common genetic ancestry.
Instead, it appears that the features we associate with the Celts today, such as their language and art, may have spread over Europe to peoples who had no genetic relationship to one another, and that these characteristics did not originate in the same area. The art we call Celtic may have developed in one part of Europe, while the language we call Celtic may have developed in another. We can no longer automatically attribute one set of cultural characteristics to a specific group of individuals.
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This new conceptual approach to the Celts contradicts centuries of established assumptions about where the Celts originated and how they spread. If we abandon the previous model, we will undoubtedly lose something. According to the older theory, Celts were on the march, conquering Europe and surviving against all odds in Ireland and the outskirts of Britain. This perspective elevates the Celts to the rank of idealists as the final survivors of a vanished civilisation. The problem with the model is that it is most likely incorrect. There is presently very little evidence to support the concept that a “Celtic” civilisation ever existed. If you polled people from various regions of the so-called “Celtic” world They wouldn’t have known what you were talking about in, say, 200 B.C., whether they were Celts or not. People in Ireland would have had no idea they were part of a united culture that stretched to Turkey’s Galatians.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Now, I understand that attacking the idea of the Celts as a cohesive people in an article about the Celts is somewhat odd. But don’t worry, the Celtic phenomena are even more fascinating than the previous model suggests, and we’re left with three truly intriguing questions. The first question is, “What happened among the many peoples designated as Celtic to cause them to embrace the cultural qualities that we now connect with Celticness?” To put it another way, how do cultural identities emerge in the first place?
The second question is, “If the Celts were not a unified people, how did the concept of the Celts as a unified people emerge in the first place?” Scholars “imagined” the Celts in some ways beginning in the 16th century. Scholars decided at the time that the Celts they knew from Caesar’s wars against the Gauls had to be linked to the people they knew now in modern-day Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, and the relationship stayed. So, we’ll study how a notion came to be and how it began to be challenged by fresh scholarly research in the late twentieth century and beyond.
The third topic will be as intriguing: “How did the Celts’ culture become so well-known around the world?” What is it about Celtic music, art, and literature that captivates so many people, including those who do not claim Celtic ancestry? Is there a Celtic attitude to art, or even to life, that people today can relate to? These questions dive into the most in-depth portrayal of the Celtic realm and its interesting history.
Adapted from the lecture series The Celtic World, taught by Professor Jennifer Paxton