The Celts—Their Influence Still Felt
By Awake! correspondent in Italy
THOUGH one hears little about them today, they have left indelible traces on the Western world. They came on the scene over 2,500 years ago. They have influenced European history, art, and religious customs. And strange as it may seem, they have also affected our daily lives. They were of Indo-European origin, and at the height of their glory, they dominated a great stretch of the ancient world from the Atlantic to Asia Minor, from northern Europe to the Mediterranean Coast. Who were they? The Celts.
Without realizing it, we see traces of the Celts every day. It was they, for example, who spread the use of trousers in the Western world; they were also the ones who invented barrels. There are other more visible evidences of their passage through history. In areas of Europe, you can still see hundreds of fortified hills, or hill forts, and burial mounds, or barrows, covering ancient tombs—all left by the Celts. Many cities or regions today have names of Celtic origin, for example, Lyons and Bohemia. If your community has the custom of memorializing the dead at the end of October or the beginning of November, you may be sure that centuries ago the Celts did the same thing. Also, if you know the stories of England’s King Arthur or well-known fables like Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, then you are acquainted with more or less direct legacies of that Celtic civilization.
Like many other peoples, the Celts, in time, came to be viewed in different ways depending on who described them. Plato (Greek, fourth century B.C.E.) described them as a drink-loving, warmongering people. In the eyes of Aristotle (Greek, fourth century B.C.E.), they were a people who scorned danger. According to the Greek-Egyptian geographer Ptolemy (second century C.E.), the Celts feared only one thing—that the sky would fall on their heads! Their enemies generally presented them as cruel, uncivilized barbarians. Today, thanks to progress made in Celtic studies, “we can paint a very different picture of the Celts from what we could have done only twenty years ago,” says Venceslas Kruta, one of the most authoritative scholars in this field.
Their Rise and Fall
The Celts were actually a collection of tribes held together “by a common language and style of craftsmanship, military structure, and religious beliefs that were sufficiently unitarian to be recognizable.” (I Celti, La Stampa supplement, March 23, 1991) It is therefore more accurate to speak of Celtic culture than of an ethnic group. Gauls, Iberian Celts, Senones, Cenomani, Insubres, and Boii were the names of some of the tribes who inhabited what we now know as France, Spain, Austria, and northern Italy. Others, in the course of time, colonized the British Isles.
It seems that the original Celtic nucleus spread from central Europe. There is no mention of them in historical writings before the sixth century B.C.E. Greek historian Herodotus was among the first to mention them, describing them as “the farthermost inhabitants of western Europe.” Ancient historians recall more than all else their military exploits. Various Celtic tribes marched against the Etruscans in northern Italy and then against Rome at the beginning of the fourth century B.C.E., conquering it. According to Latin chroniclers, such as Livy, the Celts left only after a suitable ransom had been paid and after Brennus, the Celts’ leader, had pronounced the words vae victis, “woe to the vanquished.” Even in modern times, the Celts are remembered by those who read the adventures of the fictional Gaulish warriors Asterix and Obelix, featured in comic books in many languages.
Greece’s turn to know the Celts came about 280 B.C.E., when another Celtic Brennus reached the doors of the famous Delphi sanctuary without, however, succeeding in capturing it. In that same period, some Celtic tribes, referred to by the Greeks as Galatai, crossed the Bosporus and settled in northern Asia Minor, in the region that subsequently came to be called Galatia. In 50-52 C.E., some early Christians lived in that area.—Galatians 1:1, 2.
The Celts were known in ancient times as bold warriors, endowed with great physical strength. Not only did they have an imposing physique but, to strike terror in their enemies, they would wet their hair with a chalk and water mixture that, when dry, gave them a particularly ferocious appearance. And that is exactly how they were represented in ancient statues, with “plaster-cast hair.” Their physique, their ardor in fighting, their weapons, the way they wore their hair, and their typical long mustaches all helped to forge that image of Gallic fury so feared by their adversaries and epitomized in the Asterix sagas. This was probably why many armies back then, including the one led by the Carthaginian commander Hannibal, enlisted Celtic mercenaries.
Toward the end of the first century B.C.E., however, the power of the Celts began inexorably to be subdued. The Gaul campaign of the Romans, led by Julius Caesar and other commanders, brought the Celtic military apparatus to its knees.
Innovators in the Field of Art
For various reasons the direct testimony that this people left for us consists almost exclusively of manufactured goods, found particularly in their numerous tombs. Ornaments, various types of vessels, weapons, coins, and the like, ‘unmistakable and original’ according to the experts, were objects of large-scale commercial exchange with neighboring peoples. In Norfolk, England, various gold objects have recently been brought to light; among these are some torques, the characteristic rigid necklaces. As can be seen in the photographs on these pages, Celtic goldsmiths had extraordinary skill. “It seems that metal was the Celts’ art material par excellence,” affirms a scholar. To work it better, they used furnaces that were very sophisticated for that time.
Interestingly, unlike contemporary Greco-Roman art, which attempted to imitate reality, Celtic art was primarily decorative. Living forms were often stylized, and symbolic elements abounded, frequently with magical and religious functions. Archaeologist Sabatino Moscati says: “We have before us undoubtedly the oldest, the greatest, and the most illuminating form of ornamental art that Europe has ever had.”
An Existence Regulated by Religion
The Celtic tribes generally led a very simple life, even in the oppida, their characteristic fortified cities. The tribes were ruled by the aristocracy, and the commoners hardly counted at all. Because of the harsh climate of the regions in which they lived, life was not easy. Perhaps an important reason for their moving toward the south was not only economic gain but the quest for milder weather.
Religion strongly influenced the daily life of the Celts. “The Gauls are a very religious people,” wrote Julius Caesar. “Their faith in the life to come and in the immortality of the soul was such,” related the scholar Carlo Carena, quoting a Latin historian, “that they would quite happily make loans, accepting that the repayment be made even in hell.” As a matter of fact, beside the corpses in many tombs, food and drink have been found, obviously provided for the supposed journey to the other world.
One of the common features of all the Celtic tribes was a priestly caste, organized into at least three categories: bards, vates, and Druids. While the first two groups had a less important function, the ones who were responsible for dispensing both sacred and practical knowledge were the Druids, which word perhaps means “very wise.” The scholar Jan de Vries explains that such a “priesthood was a very powerful one, headed by a chief druid, to whose decision everyone had to submit.” The Druids were also the ones who at fixed times would carry out the ritual cutting of mistletoe in the “sacred” forest.
It was by no means easy to become a Druid. It would take the novice about 20 years to learn the caste’s religious and technical knowledge by heart. The Druids would never put anything concerning religious matters into writing. Their traditions were transmitted orally, which is why we have so little knowledge of the Celts. Why, though, did the Druids forbid the use of writing? Jan de Vries points out that “orally transmitted traditions are renewed with every generation: The original contents are kept intact and at the same time can be continually adapted to fit changing circumstances. For this very reason, the Druids were able to keep pace with their progressive knowledge.” The writer Sergio Quinzio explains: “The priesthood, being the sole custodian of sacred knowledge, had greatly magnified authority.” Thus, the Druids were always in control.
Little is known about the Celtic divinities. Despite the fact that many sculptures and portraits of them have been found, nearly all have been nameless, and it is therefore difficult to say which god or goddess each artifact represented. There are what appear to be portraits of some of these gods in the famous Gundestrup caldron found in Denmark. Names like Lugh, Esus, Cernunnos, Epona, Rosmerta, Teutates, and Sucellus do not mean a lot to us today; nevertheless, these gods greatly affected the daily lives of the ancient Celts. It was not unusual for the Celts to offer up human sacrifices (often enemies conquered in battle) in their honor. Sometimes the victims’ heads were worn as macabre ornaments, and at other times human sacrifices were made with the sole purpose of gathering omens from the way in which the victims died.
A salient characteristic of the Celtic religious world was the divine triad. According to the Encyclopedia of Religion, “probably the most important element in the religious symbolism of the Celts is the number three; the mystic significance of the concept of threeness is attested in most parts of the world, but among the Celts there seems to have been a particularly strong and continuous awareness of it.”
Some scholars say that to conceive a divinity as triune or as having three faces is the same as considering it to be all-seeing, omniscient. Three-faced statues were put at the crossroads of important routes, perhaps for the purpose of “supervising” commercial exchange. Sometimes the triads, affirm certain scholars, gave the impression of “the unity in three persons.” Today, in the very regions where sculptures of Celtic triune divinities have been discovered, the churches of Christendom still represent the Trinity in that same way. The Sacred Scriptures do not, however, teach that God and Jesus are coequal and part of a Trinity.—John 14:28; 1 Corinthians 11:3.
Yes, the present daily lives and thoughts of many peoples are influenced by the Celts, perhaps more than we may think.
[Diagram/Map on page 18]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Rome 390 B.C.E.
Delphi 279 B.C.E.
Galatia 276 B.C.E.
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
1. Ambiorix, chief of the Eburones;
2. Gundestrup cauldron;
3. Iron helmet;
4. Bronze, iron, and gold helmet;
5. Bronze bracelet;
6. Stylized stone head;
7. Note three-headed god on terra-cotta vase;
8. Gold torque;
9. Gold decoration;
10. Gold torque;
11. Bronze boar helmet decoration
Photos 2-6, 8-11 Courtesy of Palazzo Grassi, Venice; 7 Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris