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This article is about the European people. For the tool, see celt (tool).

In ancient times, the Celts were a number of interrelated peoples in central Europe sharing a branch of Indo-European languages indicative of a common origin. Today, "Celtic" is often used in order to describe the people and their respective cultures and languages of several ethnic groups in the British Isles, the French region of Brittany and the Spanish region of Galicia who also share many of the same common traits in their cultures and languages as the original Celts but who in ancient times were not necessarily considered related to them by outsiders. (However tribes or nations, such as the Atrebates, Menapii, and Parisii, from mainland Celtic regions, including Gaul and Belgium, are known to have moved into Great Britain and Ireland and contributed to the make up of those peoples.) Please note however, that the use of the term Celt to refer to people in Ireland and Britain arose in the 18th Century.

The first literary reference to the Celtic people, as keltoi or hidden people, is by the Greek Hecataeus in 517 BC.

Nowadays "Celt" is usually pronounced as and "Celtic" as /'kɛltɪk/ (in IPA when referring to the ethnic group and its languages, while the pronunciation /'sɛltɪk/ remains in use mainly for certain sports teams (eg. the NBA team, Boston Celtics, and the SFA side, Celtic FC, in Glasgow). (The pronunciation with /s/ reflects historical palatalization of the letter 'C' when it occurs before 'I' or 'E' in words of Latin origin; in the Classical era Latin 'C' was always pronounced as /k/. The modern pronunciation with /k/ is a reversion to the original, whereas the pronunciation with /s/ has not been reverted.)

The term 'Celt' or 'Celtic' can be used in several senses: it can denote a group of peoples who speak or descend from speakers of Celtic languages; or the people of prehistoric Europe who share common cultural traits which are thought to have originated in the Hallstatt and La Tene Cultures. In contemporary terms the 'Seven Celtic nations' are usually defined as Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Isle of Man,Brittany and Galicia. Other areas of Europe are associated with being Celtic, such as Asturias and England (particularly Devon and Cumbria). Modern day DNA research (such as that by University College London) indicate that the current population of England is primarily descended from Celtic/ancient British ancestry, although England lacks a surviving common Celtic language. In Scotland, the Gaelic language came from migration and settlement of the Irish Dalriada/Scotti and is therefore still more predominant in the country's northern and western fringes.


The origins and geographical distribution of the Celts

The Celtic language family is a branch of the larger Indo-European family, which leads some scholars to a hypothesis that the original speakers of the Celtic proto-language may have arisen in the Pontic-Caspian steppes (see Kurgan). However, as the Celts enter history from around 600 BC, they are already split into several languages groups, and spread over much of Central Europe, the Iberian peninsula, and the British Isles.

Some scholars think that the Urnfield culture represents an origin for the Celts as a distinct cultural branch of the Indo-European family. This culture was preeminent in central Europe during the late Bronze Age, from ca. 1200 BC until 700 BC. The period saw a dramatic increase in population in the region, probably due to innovations in technology and agricultural practices. The spread of iron-working led to the development of the Hallstatt culture directly from the Urnfield (c. 700 to 500 BC). Proto-Celtic, the latest common ancestor of all known Celtic languages, is thought to have been spoken at the time of the late Urnfield or early Hallstatt cultures, in the early 1st millennium BC.

The spread of the Celtic languages to Britain and to Iberia would have occurred during the first half of the 1st millennium, the earliest chariot burials in Britain dating to ca. 500 BC. Over the centuries they developed into the separate Celtiberian, Goidelic and Brythonic languages. Whether Goidelic and Brythonic are descended from a common Insular-Celtic language, or if they reflect two separate waves of migration is disputed. The La Tène culture, in any case, can be associated with the Gauls, but it is entirely too late for a candidate for the Proto-Celtic culture.

The Hallstatt culture was succeeded by the La Tène culture, and during the final stages of the Iron Age gradually transformed into the explicitly Celtic culture of early historical times. The La Tène culture was distributed around the upper reaches of the Danube, Switzerland, Austria, southern and central Germany, eastern France, Bohemia and Moravia, and parts of Hungary. The technologies, decorative practices and metal-working styles of the La Tène were to be very influential on the continental Celts. The La Tène style was highly derivative from the Greek, Etruscan and Scythian decorative styles with whom the La Tène settlers frequently traded.

It is not known whether the Picts of Scotland were Celts or the remnant of an earlier population of the British Isles who had been pushed to the margin by Celtic invasions. However, in historical times Scotland was colonized by the Celtic Scotti from Ireland. Additional forays into Greece and central Italy during the historical period did not result in settlement, though the same movement that brought Celtic invaders to Greece pushed on through to Anatolia, where they settled as the Galatians.

As there is no archaeological evidence for large scale invasions in some of the other areas, one current school of thought holds that Celtic language and culture spread to those areas by contact rather than invasion. However, the Celtic invasions of Italy, Greece, and western Anatolia are well documented in Greek and Latin history.

It was not the Celts, but rather earlier inhabitants of Europe who built Stonehenge and the other megalithic monuments in the areas settled by the Celts. But though the Celts did not construct the monuments, the religious significance of these places may well have endured among the conquered people and the Celts eventually adopted the practice of worshipping there as well.

Celts in Ireland and Britain

The conventional historical view holds that the Celtic influence in Ireland and Britain was the result of successive invasions from the European continent by diverse Celtic-speaking peoples over the course of several centuries.

The nature of their interactions with the indigenous populations of the isles is unknown. However, by the Roman period most of the inhabitants of the Isles were speaking Goidelic or Brythonic languages with close counterparts to Gaulish languages spoken on the European mainland. The degree to which the spread of Celtic languages was due to peaceful cultural interaction, or to military conquest, is a debated point among historians. The relative paucity of surviving information about the inhabitants of the British Isles prior to Celtic influence suggests conquest.

An alternate theory, proposed during the 1970s by Colin Burgess in his book The Age of Stonehenge theorized that Celtic culture in Great Britain 'emerged' rather than resulted from invasion and that the Celts were not invading aliens, but the descendants of the people of Stonehenge. Support for this idea comes from the study by Cristian Capelli, David Goldstein and others at University College, London which shows that genes typical of Ireland and Scotland are common in England and Wales and these genes are similar to the genes of the Basque people, who speak a non-Indo-European language. This similarity, they argue, shows that the non-Indo-European native inhabitants of Britain were not wiped out by invasions of either Indo-Europeans bringing farming or Celts in 600 BC. They suggest that 'Celtic' culture and the Celtic language were imported to Britain by cultural contact not mass invasion. The genetic similarity is less marked in women in Britain who have a genetic makeup closer to that of Northern Europe —possibly because women tended to move to their husbands' homes.

Celts conquered by the Romans

At the dawn of history in Europe, the Celts who had settled in present-day France were known as Gauls, and were described by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars. Other Celtic tribes invaded Italy, establishing there a city they called Mediolanum (modern Milan) and sacking Rome itself in 390 BC. Not until 192 BC did the Roman armies conquer the last remaining independent Celtic kingdoms in Italy.

Under Caesar the Romans conquered Celtic Gaul, and from Claudius onward the Roman empire absorbed parts of the Celtic British Isles. Roman local government of these regions closely mirrored pre-Roman 'tribal' boundaries, and archaeological finds suggest native involvement in local government. Latin was the official language of these regions after the conquests.

Later these regions adopted Christianity along with the rest of the Roman empire. The unconquered Ireland adopted Christianity as well, and was a major source of missionary work in central Europe.

Celts pushed west by Germanic migration

Elsewhere they were pushed further westwards by successive waves of Germanic invaders, perhaps themselves at times pressured by Huns and Scythians or simply population pressures in their homeland of Scandinavia. With the fall of the Roman Empire the Celts of Gaul, Iberia and Britannia were 'conquered' by tribes speaking Germanic languages.

Elsewhere, the Celtic populations were assimilated by others, leaving behind them only a legend and a number of place names such as the Spanish province of Galicia (i.e., Gaul), Bohemia, after the Boii tribe which once lived there, or the Kingdom of Belgium, after the Belgae, a Celtic tribe of Northern Gaul and south-eastern England. Their mythology has been absorbed into the folklore of half a dozen other countries. For instance, the famous Medieval English Arthurian tale of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is almost certainly partially derived from the medieval Irish text Fled Bricrend The Feast of Bricriu.

Argument rages in the academic world as to whether the Celts in Britain were mostly wiped out/pushed west as the lack of evidence for influence of the Celts on Anglo-Saxon society suggests, or whether the Anglo-Saxon migration consisted merely of the social elite and that the genocide was cultural rather than physical due to such relatively few numbers of Anglo-Saxons mixing with the far larger native population. Recent DNA studies have supported the idea that Anglo-Saxon England evolved from the imposition of a new culture on the previously Celtic people of England. Interestingly too, contrary to popular ideas of 'Celtic Nationhood', DNA evidence in England shows greater representation of ancient British influence than in Scotland, which has more Scandinavian influence.

Celtic social system and arts

The pre-Christian Celts had a well-organised social hierarchy. They produced little in the way of literary output, preferring the bardic, oral, tradition. They were highly skilled in visual arts and produced a great deal of intricate and beautiful metalwork.

In some regards the Celts were conservative with respect to other known branches of Indo-European culture, e.g. they still used chariots in combat long after they had been reduced to ceremonial roles by the Greeks and Romans.

Celtic warriors were known to have worn dreadlocks, which they moulded with mud.

Celts as head-hunters

"Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world." - Paul Jacobsthal, Early Celtic Art.

The Celtic cult of the severed head is documented not only in the many sculptured representations of severed heads in La Tene carvings, but in the surviving Celtic mythology, which is full of stories of the severed heads of heroes and the saints who carry their decapitated heads, right down to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight who picks up his own severed head after Gawain has struck it off, just as St. Denis carried his head to the top of Montmartre. Separated from the mundane body, although still alive, the animated head acquires the ability to see into the mythic realm.

Diodorus Siculus, in his 1st century History had this to say about Celtic head-hunting: "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 carry off as booty, while 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; thus displaying what is only a barbarous kind of magnanimity, for it is not a sign of nobility to refrain from selling the proofs of one's valour. It is rather true that it is bestial to continue one's hostility against a slain fellow man."

The Celts also believed that if they attached the head of their enemy to a pole or a fence near their house, the head would start crying when the enemy was near.

The Celtic headhunters venerated the image of the severed head as a continuing source of spiritual power. If the head is the seat of the soul, possessing the severed head of an enemy, honorably reaped in battle, added prestige to any warrior's reputation. According to tradition the buried head of a god or hero named Bran protected Britain from invasion across the English Channel.

Celt – a contested term?

The use of the word 'Celtic' as a valid umbrella term for the pre-Roman peoples of Britain has been challenged by a number of writers - including Simon James of the British Museum. His book The Atlantic Celts - Ancient People Or Modern Invention? makes the point that the Romans never used the term 'Celtic' in reference to the peoples of the Atlantic archipelago , i.e the British Isles. He makes it clear that the term was coined as a useful umbrella term in the early 18th century when England united with Scotland to create Great Britain. The Unionists found it expedient to use the hitherto neutral term British for their own imperial ends. Thus a new term was needed to unite nationalists in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. The term 'Celtic' fit the bill. James makes the point that archaeology does not suggest a united Celtic culture and that the term is misleading, no more meaningful than 'Western European' would be today, and is also anachronistic.

In his book Iron Age Britain, Barry Cunliffe concludes that "..there is no evidence in the British Isles to suggest that a population group of any size migrated from the continent in the first millennium BC...". Cunliffe tempers his remarks by pointing out that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but modern archaeological thought tends to disparage the idea of large folk movements without facts to back them up.

Whether there are valid linguistic reasons for classifying the languages of Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, and Ireland with those of Brittany and of historical Gaul and Galatia has also been questioned. Cunliffe prefers what he calls the 'widely held view' amongst linguists that Indo-European language reached Europe and thus the British Isles in the Neolithic. The various languages in the region therefore developed from this base, given shared terms by trade links but diverging due to relative geographic isolation in the intervening millennia.

The term 'Celtic' has been adopted by linguists as a term of convenience, since the Atlantic peoples of north western Europe did not have a standard umbrella term for themselves.

Names for Celts

The origin of the various names used since classical times for the people known today as the Celts is obscure and has been controversial. It appears that none of the terms recorded were ever used by Celtic speakers of themselves. In particular, there is no record of the term "Celt" being used in connection with the inhabitants of Ireland and Britain prior to the 19 th century.

The name "Gauls"

English Gaul(s), French Gaulois(es), Latin Gallus or Galli, German Gallier might be from an originally Celtic ethnic or tribal name (perhaps borrowed into Latin during the early 400s BC, Celtic expansions into Italy). Its root may be the Common Celtic *galno – power or strength. Greek Galatai (see Galatia in Anatolia) seems to be based on the same root, borrowed directly from the same hypothetical Celtic source which gave us Galli (the suffix -atai is simply an ethnic name indicator). There may also be an element of ancient "fake etymology" in the Greek word "Galatai": "gala" is the Greek word for milk and the Gauls undoubtedly appeared milky-white in complexion compared to darker-skinned Mediterraneans.

The word "Welsh"

The word Welsh is a Germanic word, yet it may ultimately have a Celtic source. It may be the result of an early borrowing (in the 4th century BC) of the Celtic tribal name Volcae ("Falcons" in Gaulish) into Primitive Germanic (becoming the Primitive Germanic *Walh-, "Foreigner" and the suffixed form *Walhisk-). The Volcae were one of the Celtic peoples that barred, for two centuries, the southward expansion of the German tribes in central Germany on the line of the Hartz mountains and into Saxony and Silesia.

In the middle ages certain districts of what is now Germany were known as "Welschland" as opposed to "Teutschland", and the word is cognate with Vlach (see: Etymology of Vlach) and Walloon as well as the 'wall' in Cornwall. During the early Germanic period, the terms seems to have been applied to the peasant population of the Roman Empire, most of whom were, in the areas immediately settled by the Germans, of ultimately Celtic origin.

The name "Celts"

English Celt(s), Latin Celtus pl. Celti (Celtae), Greek Κέλτης pl. Κέλτες seem to be based on a native Celtic ethnic name (singular *Celtos or *Celta with plurals *Celtoi or *Celta:s), of unsure etymology. The root would seem to be a Primitive Indo-European *kel- or (s)kel-, but there are several such roots of various meanings to choose from (*kel- "to be prominent", *kel- "to drive or set in motion", *kel- "to strike or cut" etc.)

Related topics


  • Collis, John. The Celts - Origins, Myths & Inventions. Stroud: Tempus Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-7524-2913-2.
  • Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0198150105.
  • Cunliffe, Barry. "Iron age Britain." London: Batsford, 2004. ISBN 0713488395
  • James, Simon. The Atlantic Celts - Ancient People Or Modern Invention? University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, August 1999. ISBN 0299166740.
  • Kruta,V., O. Frey, Barry Raftery and M. Szabo. eds. The Celts. Thames & Hudson: New York, 1991. ISBN 0847821935.
  • Laing, Lloyd. The Archaeology of Late Celtic Britain and Ireland c. 400--1200 AD. 1975.
  • McEvedy, Colin. The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History. Penguin, 1967.
  • Mallory, J. P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth. ISBN 0-500-27616-1.
  • Powell, T. G. E. The Celts. Thames and Hudson: New York, 1980. third ed. 1997. ISBN 0500272751.
  • Ward-perkins, Bryan. "Why Did The Anglo-Saxons Not Become More British?" English Historical Review, June 2000.
  • Weale, M. Y Chromosome Evidence For Anglo-Saxon Mass Migration. Society For Molecular Biology And Evolution. 2002

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