LIFE ON THE FRINGE - 1: THE CELTS In Britain And Northwestern Europe

The boar was one of the Celts' foremost creatures. Gods and heroes who changed shape preferred the boar for its ferocity
The boar was one of the Celts' foremost creatures. Gods and heroes who changed shape preferred the boar for its ferocity | Source

Who were the Celts?

Although geographically nearer to us, the Celts seem more remote than, say, the Romans, the Greeks or even the Ancient Egyptians. As a tribal society they were no empire builders, nor did they wish to imprint their culture on others - not even Celts of other tribes.

They could write, but there is a dearth of written sources on their lifestyle. Perhaps the Druids dictated that certain matters were not for writing down. So we are left with an oral tradition, tales passed down through generations from father to son, mother to daughter. There are therefore variations in the telling, as there are in the way names were recorded. Not until relatively recently has our knowledge of the Celts been broadened - more from archaeological sources than from those written or 'bardic' (only certain members of Druid society were entrusted with passing on tribal knowledge).


Believing the dead to pass on to the Otherworld; Celtic graves were furnished with artefacts the living thought they would need to carry on their 'lives'. Grave goods included carts, wagons - even horses - as well as dishes, tools and jewellery. These items have helped in understanding a fairly advanced - if little known - society.

Britannia Major, or Britannia Superior, was the territory taken 'under the wing' of the Roman emperor, known now as England and Wales. At the time of Boudicca's revolt in AD60-61 Suetonius Paulinus was engaged in putting down the Druids in Anglesey (North Wales). On the Continent the Celts were widespread on an east-west axis between what is now modern Greece and France - then Gaul - and between the Jutland Peninsula and Spain - then Iberia - going north to south. Knowledge of culture centres such as Hallstatt (Austria) and La Tene (Switzerland) comes down to us from archaeological finds.

Here for you (to begin with) is a general catalogue of Celtic references, the beasts they worshipped and the most famed Celts. .

ANIMALS in Celtic mythology and belief played an important role. Shape-changing was central to Celtic mythology. The shapes a man or god took or needed to take would be those of animals. Stags and bears were prominent in Celtic animal lore, as well as horses, swine, rams and hounds - hunting hounds in particular - which were the primary domesticated creatures. Archaeological finds show evidence of animal sacrifice to their gods. Bears were central to the culture. They were respected for their ferocity, and linked to war making. Helmets were often decorated with boar crests and war trumpets decorated with boar heads. The boar symbol is often shown with raised bristles, as in attack. When the Romans came to Britain they adopted the Celtic boar symbol in the naming of their northern capital, 'Eboracum'. (This was taken up by the incoming Aengle -Angles - in their naming the city 'Eoferwic' - later Jorvik and now York). As with the boar, so was the stag a hunting totem, and associated with feasting. Boar meat was the great staple for feasts, especially with the Gaels in the west, across the Irish Sea. The boar's role in legend is celebrated in the tale of Diarmaid na Duibhne.

ARTHUR was associated with Celtic lore, although he was a semi-historical figure of the fifth or early sixth centuries after the departure of the Romans (officially AD410) from Britain. In Arthurian legend, based around the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table, Arthur was the high mediaeval king of the 'Morte d'Arthur'. There seem to be no Celtic references for an Arthur - either historical or legendary, although he was associated in the tale of Culhwch,, and in the tale of the journey to Annw to find the enchanted cauldron. Arthur is linked with Celtic mythology, but this could be a later association, an invention of Malory, the French romantic author of 'Morte d'Arthur' . There is a hint that he came to his 'throne' in the later days of the Celts and a web of legend grew around him as the Celts were driven westward by the advancing West Saxons. There is little hard evidence, literary or documentary, that links Arthur to the early 'Dark Age' episode of Welsh/Cornish history;

BELENOS/BEL - from Gaulish Celtic mythology - distantly linked with Welsh Celtic or Brythonic - Belenus was a god associated with light, 'bel' meaning 'right'. He was linked with the sun, with healing and later likened to the classical Apollo;

BELTANE/BELTAINE/BELTENE was one of four main annual Celtic festivals, celebrated on/around May 1st and marking the onset of the Celts' summer. The festival was named after Belenus and associated with bonfires lit the night before the festival. Ordinary household fires would be doused and the Druids lit the bonfires using torches (supposedly) lit by the sun's rays. The festival was linked to regeneration and new growth after the hard winter months;

BOGS in Celtic mythology were vital. Offerings to the gods were often left in bogs. It may have been thought - treacherous by their often firm outward appearance - that they were home to spirits that needed to be 'kept sweet'. Cauldrons were often left in bogs, a fine example being the Gundestrup cauldron. Parts of waggons and carts have also been retrieved from bogland. Bogs also appear to have been used for animal and human sacrifice - see also Lindow Man;

BOUDICCA or BOADICEA , a warrior queen was the wife of Prasutagas, leader of the Iceni (in modern East Anglia). Her husband had kept some self rule from the Romans. When the Romans plundered the royal goods, raped his daughters and had his widow flogged she raised an initially dangerous campaign, destroying the Romans' cities of Colchester and London before losing spectacularly to Suetonius Paulinus in the east midlands. She and her daughters are said to have taken poison rather than be taken prisoner;

A BRUTUS in Romano-British legend is supposed to have landed at Totnes in Devon and defeated giants said to have lived in the West Country;

BULLS were central to Celtic mythology, symbols of strength and virility was much as attacking spirit, symbolised by their horns, often shown in carvings, figurines and so on in cartoon-like form. Bull heads were sometimes used as handles for pails. Bull statues appear in reliquary dating back to the 7th Century BC;

CARACTACUS, chief of the Catuvellauni, a British tribe who led a campaign against the Roman invaders. He was betrayed and given over to his Roman foes by Cartimandua, queen of the rival Brigantes. Said to have been taken to Rome, he was pardoned and granted his freedom by the emperor Claudius;

CAULDRONS were a recurrent theme in Celtic mythology. The Daghda had a cauldron that fed the people of the tribe who never hungered. Benigeid Vran gave the Gaelic king Matholwch a magic cauldron that could heal the wounded and bring the dead back to life. Midhir also owned a magic cauldron. Archaeological evidence has been revealed of cauldrons. The Celts preserved cauldrons by burying them in lakes and bogs, often as offerings to the gods, the most famous of these being the above-mentioned Gundestrup cauldron;

CELTIC LANGUAGE and DIALECT formed a branch of the Indo-European.family of languages. sometimes divided into Continental Celtic - extinct tongues spoken from around 500 BC-500 AD between the Black Sea and the Iberian Peninsula, and Insular Celtic (further divided into Brythonic or British Celtic and Goidelic or Irish (Gaelic) Celtic. Goidelic Celtic is often spoken of by philologists as Q-Celtic and Brythonic Celtic as P-Celtic due to a sound-shift that happened from 'q' to 'p' in the Brythonic tongues. There is the Irish 'ceann' and Welsh 'pen', both meaning 'head'. These two linguistic groups are thought to have gone their separate ways around two-and-a-half millenia ago. Goidelic Celtic is the source of Irish and Scots' Gaelic, and of the now little-used Manx Gaelic, an offshoot of Irish Gaelic. The Picti, or 'painted people' north of Hadrian's Wall, were related to the 'Welsh' Celtic tribes who were dislodged by the incoming Aengle and Seaxne (Saxons). The Picti were unrelated to the incoming Scots until the time the Bernician (northern) Northumbrians expanded their kingdom northward to the Firth of Forth in the 6th/7th Century. The Picti left their legacy in the names of towns in the north-east of present day Scotland such as Aberdeen and Dundee;

The god Cernunnos, drawing by Andrea Koupal - looks similar to Herne the Hunter, the British stag-headed god celebrated in the south-eastern London district of Herne Hill
The god Cernunnos, drawing by Andrea Koupal - looks similar to Herne the Hunter, the British stag-headed god celebrated in the south-eastern London district of Herne Hill

Cernunnos

Lord of the animal world, his name means 'the horned' and he is shown alternately wearing antlers or horns, sometimes furnished with a torc and often has both human and animal ears. He is often shown seated cross-legged, accompanied by a stag or bull, often also shown holding a ram-headed snake. He was likely to have been linked to fertility, abundance and re-birth as well as with hunting. Cernunnos survived Celtic mythology into the Romano-Celtic era.

The Romans adopted many practices they had observed being around their Celtic neighbours, adopting gods and introducing new ones where the population was receptive. Is there a connection between Cernunnos and Herne? .

Herne the Hunter, one of the best known in Britain of the Celtic gods. There are places named after him, such as Herne Hill in South East London. He has also 'appeared' in the televised Robin Hood series with Jason Connery (a figure in the mist with stag's head, carrying a hunting bow). He's elusive, could you catch him?

In Search of Herne The Hunter

Herne the Hunter

Herne the Hunter, an interesting British Celtic deity (courtesy www.patheos.com) - ladies, don't swoon, you'll only hit your heads on the monitor...
Herne the Hunter, an interesting British Celtic deity (courtesy www.patheos.com) - ladies, don't swoon, you'll only hit your heads on the monitor...

The Druids - bloodthirsty or lyrical?

This is the sort of image we associate with the druids, this one at Stonehenge, summer solstice, 2011 - courtesy National Geographic
This is the sort of image we associate with the druids, this one at Stonehenge, summer solstice, 2011 - courtesy National Geographic

The characters in British history alone tell a story of outstanding heroism - and foolhardiness: Caractacus, betrayed by the queen of a rival clan, Boudicca and the Iceni taking on the might of Rome, and many others on the Continent who challenged Rome's military genius. Take a look inside...

DRUIDS

In Celtic culture druids were priests. The reference is thought to stem from 'drus', the old name for the oak tree - sacred to the druidic orders. Besides being priests druids were also teachers, poets (bards), philosophers, seers and judges. They represented the most powerful body of men in Celtic society, highly trained - their schooling lasted possibly as long as two decades.

Think of Merlin being a druid instead of a magician/sorcerer, and you are probably on the right track for the Arthurian era.

In 61 AD the Roman general Suetonius Paulinus was 'dealing with' the druids in Anglesey when Boudicca's rebellion broke out. The Romans viewed the druids' activities largely in their sacrificial role as priests, and took a dim view of the practice of human sacrifice. Paulinus was determined to root out the order, and had been largely successful when diverted by the new threat to Roman rule.

Celtic themes

The Celts in Europe around 400 BC
The Celts in Europe around 400 BC
One of many Celtic stories around animals, this illustrates one of a deer turned hare by magic - Celtic witchcraft was something of wonder, not of fear  (littleredelf.com)
One of many Celtic stories around animals, this illustrates one of a deer turned hare by magic - Celtic witchcraft was something of wonder, not of fear (littleredelf.com)

Knowing and understanding the Celts - a summary

The Celts were first noted by the Greeks as 'Keltoi', perhaps from a narrative term meaning 'the hidden folk'. A link with 'concealment' may come from them not setting down their history, leaving it to oral tradition to pass on their story. It was only from the 6th Century AD that we learn anything of their background. Although able to write they only recorded information on pottery and gravestones. The Celts are believed to have been under a ban by the Druids from recording their culture.

They are thought to have started out from Central Europe, around the Danube basin, the Alpine forelands, parts of Gaul and Germania around 1200 BC. Beginning as stockmen and growers, they later became skilled ironworkers. Around the 6th Century BC they are thought to have spread into the Iberian peninsula and over the next centuries into Britannia, the southern Alps and the Balkans.

However, unlike the Romans the Celts were not empire builders, being essentially tribal migrants and settlers. In the 1st Century BC they were restricted by Roman and Germanic expansion toward the fringes of the continent. The second Roman incursions into Britain midway through the 1st Century AD - about a century after Julius Caesar first attempted landings - further reduced them in status. The incoming Jutes, Angles and Saxons saw them 'shoe-horned' into the outlying corners of mainland Britain and Ireland.

Nevertheless within Deira in the southern half of Northumbria the Celtic kingdom of Elmete was allowed to flourish under a succession of Anglian over-kings. Celts within East Anglia were allowed to stay where they were if they so wished, and the pagan Mercian king Penda formed alliances with his Celtic western neighbours against his Anglian and Saxon neighbours.

The Romans never went further west in Britannia than the furthest reaches of Wales, leaving Ireland alone, and it was only with westward Viking expansion that Germanic folk arrived there from the 7th/8th Century onward, as they also settled in territory yielded by the Picts in the far north - Caithness and Sutherland.

Chariots - War Chariots

A Welsh war chariot - image courtesy members.efn.org
A Welsh war chariot - image courtesy members.efn.org
This is the statue of Boudicca and her daughters on the Victoria Embankment near Westminster Bridge opposite the Palace of Westminster.  London SW1 . Note 'scythes' mounted on the wheel hubs - courtesy wordinfo.info
This is the statue of Boudicca and her daughters on the Victoria Embankment near Westminster Bridge opposite the Palace of Westminster. London SW1 . Note 'scythes' mounted on the wheel hubs - courtesy wordinfo.info

Chariots were of great note to the Celts, mainly for war use. They were often noteworthy as vehicles in the Celts' belief system, shown being driven by goddesses (the sculptor of the Boudicca statue above may have been aware of this aspect when he created his work). The importance of chariots can be seen in the interment of the Celtic elite, with their chariots, carts or waggons as evident in the High or Halstatt period.


Next: From EPONA, the Gaulish goddess of horses...

Celtic Study Association of North America (CSANA), a site of special sociological interest for our friends across the Pond
Celtic Study Association of North America (CSANA), a site of special sociological interest for our friends across the Pond | Source

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8 comments

Rolly A Chabot profile image

Rolly A Chabot 3 years ago from Alberta Canada

Hi Alan... wow you have put a great deal of work into this and I have learned much. Congratulations on this achievement. Very well done...

Rolly in Canada


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Rolly. There's more for you to get through, from 2-7. I shall add No.8 before long. Why not skip through the 'Profile' page and test the me'n'u to see what tasty dishes you can find to read by your fireside.

How about this for a 'hook' on your site/next Hub page:

'Solely Rolly'.

My younger daughter likes Montreal because she speaks French, wanted to study there on her exchange but didn't quite make it on points so went to Buffalo instead. Graduated with her Masters in Maths & Physics in July this year at Sheffield. She's in Austria now, at Lienz, doing a spot of coaching at their Uni. The wife likes Canada as well.

What's the take there about the story of Canada's name? I've heard one of the early French colonists asked after the name of the land and, taking the enquiry to be about his village the chief answered 'Canada', meaning 'my village'.


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 2 years ago

I agree, stellar hub. This is very interesting to me as I’m trying to learn ancient British Isles history. You are so knowledgeable of a very complicated history. I especially enjoyed the Celtic Language and Dialect paragraph. I am not a linguist, so Gaelic is very foreign to me. My husband learned a little when he was a pilot for a government agency that I won’t name. The pilots used it as code during the Vietnam War just as the military used the Navajo Code Talkers during WWII.

The photos and drawings are fascinating, and some are just beautiful. I especially liked the map of Celtic Europe and the drawing of Cernunnos by Andrea Koupal.

“…fires (supposedly) lit by the suns rays”. If the Druids possessed glass, maybe they learned how to start a fire by magnifying the sun’s rays with a magnifying glass. If so, the Druids might have practiced this “magic”. Just a thought. Voted you up++ and will continue to read the rest in your series as I have time.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello MizBejabbers, glad you enjoyed this.

To get a good idea of the complicated history of the Celts in Britain the book by J D Mackie A HISTORY OF SCOTLAND (mine was a second edition published 1978 by Pelican ISBN 014020671X), gives you an insight into the relationship between the Picts, related to the Welsh, the Scots and Northumbrian Angles. The time-line to look at is between the coming of the Romans - the building of the Antonine Wall - and the Northumbrian expansion under King Ida in AD547. The first Scots' king of Alba (Scotland) was Kenneth McAlpin in AD843, who acquired the kingship from the Pictish female line. By this time the Northumbrians had conquered the Lothians as far as Dunedin (formerly Dinas Eiddin, now Edinburgh). Sort that one out.


Jemjoseph profile image

Jemjoseph 2 years ago

Until now my knowledge of the Celts was more or less limited to Celtic art, jewelry and music. Often when history is relayed by oral tradition, rather than being well documented, the details can get lost through the generations. Thanks for sharing the rich history and culture of "the hidden folk".


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello again Jem, a veritable 'Scarlet pimpernel' (she''s here, she's there, she's everywhere, so beware!)

That's the difference between archaeology and history. Archaeology can tell you what, when and where, history tells you why and how. Lots of historians (or 'distortians' as they often turn out to be) get things wrong, but the Romans set down a lot of information on their Gallic neighbours - some of that was wrong as well, though, especially Tacitus because he went by hearsay. He wrote a lot about Britannia but didn't show much in these parts!

We're left scratching our heads a lot of the time, reading between the lines, and it doesn't get much better as it goes on.


Jemjoseph profile image

Jemjoseph 2 years ago

You've quite a sense of humor Alan, yes you should beware because you never know when or where I'll appear next, I'll see you around :)


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

[Says he with a twinkle in his eye]: There's a lot of choice - another 270-odd to get around - fancy a shuffle around the rest of these LIFE ON THE FRINGE pages... ? Lots of monsters and other nasties to keep you awake in the night [Ooh - what was that?] as well as hunky heroes and saintly types to keep you safe.

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