There are very few clues as to the lifestyle and culture of the people who inhabited Ireland at the end of the Stone Age. Far away in central Europe at the north of the Alps, at around 1000 BCE there lived a warlike people, named by their enemies as Keltoi tribes, a name they also adopted for themselves. Linguistics research relates this word to “warriors”. These peoples, according to evidence found, were uniquely horse riders which had given them an advantage in warfare and travel.
They journeyed across Europe and fortified and conquered large areas which they made their own. One of these areas was Hallstatt in Austria where large-scale salt mining took place which made the location a most important trading area. Those who lived and worked in Hallstatt were an enormously prosperous people who made great ceremony of displaying wealth and opulence in their attire, jewellery, tools, customs and burial ceremonies. The power base of these warlords extended along the valley of the upper Danube progressively, over a century, moving east to west to create an area known as the country of the Keltoi. The development of trade routes meant further prosperity for these tribes of metalworking, cattle, slave and gold trading entrepreneurs.
Lust for land was the primary motive of the aggressive Celts clearly satisfied to eliminate all in their path to accumulate land, wealth and power. However, around the ninth century BCE, with the arrival of iron and its use in weapon manufacturing, came the true source of power for Celtic expansion. Large iron working centres were established, around the 6th century BCE to manufacture weapons, tools and jewellery all adorned with gold and silver. These aesthetic but functional items were uniquely Celtic in design, shape and appearance. This is known as the ‘La Tene’ period when the Celts were renowned for power, wealth, brutality and desire for artistic beauty in clothing, jewellery, armoury and transport.
It was perhaps inevitable that Celtic tribes conquering Europe were not only at war with their common enemies but also at war with each other. The great migrations from the 6th century BCE meant that many of these tribes crossed paths and went to war to secure territory. A rapid increase in populations meant that ambitious younger male tribal warriors had desires to form their own tribes and acquire their own lands. This, in fact, means that as these tribes slowly but surely crossed Europe they also segmented as parts of the tribe move forward while others stayed behind. Some tribes headed north to now modern day Paris while others went east re-crossing the Rhine. Burial customs along these routes suggest the interconnection between these tribes. The northern tribes sought new territories and moved westward and as they spread their settlements they would have encountered indigenous peoples who had been descendants of the original Celtic tribes of some six centuries earlier.
The Romans tended to call the Celts by the name “Gauls” which was a corruption or slang form of “gal” meaning one of ability or valour. Those tribes that remained in France were known as Gauls. Meanwhile the new tribe known as ‘Belgae’ or ‘furious ones ‘ emerged from central Germany and quickly gained a reputation of being barbaric, brutal and bloodthirsty land grabbers. All across Europe new tribes were increasing in strength and influence at such a pace that the Romans saw them as a single Celtic culture even though many of these tribes where independent of each other were independent of each other. The Celtic influence soon spread in all directions but mostly West and South Europe as the tribes established themselves in strong hill forts scattered in thousands of locations across mainland Europe. These populations grew so rapidly that a 5th century BCE population explosion meant tribes were rapidly advancing toward European coastlines.
The first written reports of the geography of Europe concerns a voyage around part of the Atlantic Coast sometime around the year 530 B.C.E. which was later reported upon in Greek and this text gives a few insights into prehistory. It’s accuracy in relation to the size of Europe and the islands beyond is far from correct. In relation to Britain and Ireland the text is extremely vague and difficult to decipher boss, interestingly, some historians argue that there are references within the text to the Cliffs of Dover. Ireland, which they referred to as ‘Hierni’; a word derived from an old Celtic language meaning land or soil. The Greeks called the island ‘Hivera’ meaning “sacred isle”; an island rich in green pastures amid the waves. Britain was heavily populated with tribes who had arrived earlier from northern France in the fourth century B.C.E. and these migrants became known in time as Brigantes or ‘high ones’ naming themselves after the Celtic mother goddess Briganti. These tribes brought with them iron weapons and tools similar to those later found across the sea in Ireland. Archaeological evidence suggests that warriors used such weapons in the fifth century B.C.E. but it is most likely that these weapons came from displaced peoples from Britain who were pushed forward by the arriving Celts. The full impact of Celtic culture was not felt in Ireland for another century or so.
The social structure of Celtic society was tribal which most Celts considering themselves to be descended from the same divine ancestor which was their common bond and right to be members of their tribe. The social structures varied from tribe to tribe boss each tribe had three distinct classes; the nobility, commoners and slaves or bondmen who were captives taken in war. Economic pursuits were mostly agricultural but also there appears to have been a significant amount of trading between tribes who met at places of public assembly used for seasonal religious ceremony and bartering. To the Greeks the Celts were a bewildering race who were unprejudiced and vegetarians. The Greeks wrote that the Celts were ‘fat conscious’ people who punished and a young man with a big belly. However, such tall tales were perhaps the propaganda of enemy tribes. Aristotle praised the Celts for their courage but added that they were rash to the point of madness. Aristotle also questioned the sexual mores of the Celts, claiming that they openly approve of physical connection with their fellow males. Celts were often portrayed as uncivilized, Plato saw then as drunkards and Ephorus castigated them for going to war with the sea to prove that they are unafraid of any enemy. However, the ferocity of the Celts in battle can not be doubted and this late to great demand for their warriors.
From most accounts it seems that the Celts were tall in stature with moist white skin. They had golden hair and cultivated beards and used gold for personal ornamentation. They wore tunics dyed in various colours, striped cloaks, trousers and straps, buckles, belts and chains. The dining habits of the Celts are also well documented and it seems feasting was a common occurrence. While some accounts claim that the Celts were vegetarians other accounts are emphatic that they were ardent meat eaters. They were also very heavy drinkers and aggressive drunks who went into duals to the death rather than prolonged verbal argument. They considered it a glory to die and a disgrace to survive without victory. In the event of a battle they would lay down their weapons and retire if their leader was defeated. They were generous by disposition and every man’s house was open to all comers and food would be shared as if the stranger were a member of the family. The writer Strabo thought them naïve but subservient and loyal to their leaders. Pytheas, a mariner and explorer, thought them as exotic and from a sacred place where the sun sleeps. The ancient Greeks, from Homer spoke of them coming from Elysian, a heavenly place, and the Greeks themselves were influenced by this thinking and from this came the characterisation of Ireland as a sacred island. Reports such as this lead to the imaginations of classical writers who depicted a ‘strange island’ inhabited by strange people in the Celtic mist. The Celts were primarily sun worshipers but they also talk of rivers as being a principal fertilizing aspect of life and were worshiped by naming them after their goddesses. There was also widespread tendency to associate wells and springs with goddesses, paired with male deities and the importance of this appears to be the coupling of the male sky with female or so as to ensure fruitfulness. Each deity had a specific function such as the production of rain, sun, crops, fertility and the guaranteeing of social and commercial contracts. The sound was the ultimate father and ear was the ultimate mother and this doctrine was protected by the wise men of the Celts. These wise men were the singers and poets known Bards, Vates who acted as communicators with the Gods to determine sacrifice and Druids who were experts in the science of nature. The most prestigious of these were the Druids. They were divinely inherited ‘mediators’ with the spirit world and held in supreme esteem. A King functioned as a substitute for a deity and was the ‘husband’ of the earth goddess but the elevated position of King was very much controlled and dictated by the Druids. If the King was doing his job properly then the tribe would be happy and the reverse could result in the removal of the King by the Druid. It is clear from this that the Celts were a very superstitious people vulnerable to the mercy of the Druids which placed them at the centre of the social order an in control of the space between the King and the Gods. The Druids had, according to some accounts, magical powers and could cast spells over warrior tribes that prevented warfare. However, such power is invested in the Druids by the commoners terrified of offending or provoking the Gods by ignoring the Druids. One has no way of tracing how these Druids became so powerful within their tribes or what is the chronology of the Celtic religion, myths and practises. The Druids assembled at locations such as forest clearings known as Nemeton (sky-place) where the trees climbed upwards and connected the sky to the earth. It is also interesting that the Druids thought (according to Caesar) that all people are descended from one divine ancestor and for this reason they count periods of time not by number of days but by the number of nights. The night is followed by the day and not the other way around. This implies a connection between the darkness of night and the ancestral lord. It also implies that time is absent with the sun as it sunk to abide with the dead. The Celts, according to some Greek writers, spent their nights near the tombs of their dead where they awaited inspiration which emanated from darkness and thus reconciled the living with the dead. There were separate deities for daylight and night-time hours and the latter seemed to have dark powers while the former had powers of fertility and life giving influences. The Druids taught that life is eternal, even after death, and thus disposed of the earthly possessions of their dead. They even allowed tribesmen to defer debt or completion of business until their arrival in the next world. The afterlife was not perceived as sad and dreary but happy and a new and valuable place of existence. Such beliefs may account for the valour of the Celts who have a disregard for life and will fight to the death just to make passage to the next world. According to Diodorus Siculus , the Celts were wont to resort to fighting on the least provocation, regard their lives as nothing.
The Celts – A Chronological History
Dáithí Ó Hógáin.