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How Do You Define the Celts?

Updated on April 21, 2010

Typical Celt?

Who were the "Celts"?

In recent years fervor has arisen among archaeologists from Ireland and Great Britain on how to define ‘Celticity’ in the 21st century. Previous conclusions about ‘Celticity’ in the 19th and 20th centuries defined all tribal communities in the Iron Age as ‘Celts.’ Archaeologists and Linguists found similarities in languages and material remnants. Now modern archaeologists find these conclusions wrong. The differences outweigh the similarities. The other major question is whether there is a definite set of qualities to define a ‘Celt’?

Ellis Evans describes how fresh attempts are made every year to, “trace the emergence and interrelationship of Celtic languages.” Evans like other scholars including Simon James finds the term, ‘Celtic’ vague. Evans also adds that in previous generations some scholars felt that ‘Celtic’ should only have a linguistic connotation.

Nico Roymans establishes in his article that ethnic identity is established through language, material culture, oral tradition and ritual acts. Scholars use to depict Celtic settlements collectively as “homogeneous like static units whose specific identity was reflected in the material culture.” Roymans describes how archaeologists like Sian Jones and Stefan Brather, criticize these past views of ethnicity. Roymans includes new ways to define ‘ Celticity,’ the identity to ethnic groups needs to be based upon a notion of communal pasts, hence the importance of origin myths. Ethnic categories of ancient societies acquire form and meaning through interaction with outsiders. Groups and culture cannot be observed when in isolation. It is also impossible to exactly pinpoint every Celtic community as expressly ‘Celtic.’ Individuals belong to numerous identity groups, which brings another point that ethnic formations are constantly changing. A ‘Celtic’ tribe in ancient Britannia would have little similarity to a ‘Celtic’ tribe in Asia Minor. Roymans concludes that too much attention is paid to “grand ethnic formations,” rather than to the small tribal ethnicity.

Lauren Toorians finds that the core business of Celtic Studies consists of linguistics and philology of Celtic languages. Celtists previously concerned themselves with “texts and languages as their prime source or ‘raw material’” as the answer to the complexities of the Celts in the pre- Iron Age and after. She concludes that the use of ‘Celtic’ for languages is “no arbitrary label for a group of related languages belonging to the Indo- European language family.” More forceful in her argument about ‘Celticity,’ Toorians states that medieval literature cannot inform scholars about pre-medieval Celts. Strangely Toorians concluding sentence finishes rather inconclusively that it is alright to not know answers about pre- Iron Age Celtic settlements, because no sources exist to provide all the answers.

Simon James, perhaps the most controversial voice in the discussion on how to define ‘Celticity,’ explains how the previous ideas about ‘Celtic’ migration and invasion no longer explain the similarities between the ‘Celtic’ tribes. Similarities between the ‘Celtic’ tribes because of periods like the Hallstatt period and La Tène period. James decrees that previous ideas about Iron Age Celts can no longer explain the culture, language, and history to modern day people. James also informs that ancient people in Britain and Ireland would be surprised to hear themselves referred to as ‘Celts.’ He even declares that it would be beneficial to discredit all previous ideas about the Celts.

Raimund Karl’s ideas are comparable to Simon James in the manner that he informs how “no one, but some Gauls considered themselves Celts.” Celts consist of many different tribes. Some scholars believe that some tribes cannot be called Celts. Karl’s uses the example that apples and orange are completely different, yet both are called fruit. Karl therefore believed that it is acceptable to call refer to all the tribes coming from the parent tribes of Celts, yet there should be a great explanation and understanding to the different tribes. Barry Cunliffe unites all views by explaining the two opposing views of ‘Celticity.’ One view described as New Celtomania that explains a certain European past, that will bring comfort when “ethnic divisions [become] a painful and disturbing reality.” The other perception follows the popular politically correct view. Those that follow the politically correct view believe that scholars use the term ‘Celtic’ to increase sales of books to appeal to the mass population.

Celts in Ancient Europe

What do the "experts" think?

All the opposing views of Karl, James, Toorians, Raymond, Ellis, and Cunliffe discuss valid points in the ‘Celticity’ debate. Each view establishes how ideas of ‘Celticity’ and ‘Celts’ must change in the 21st century. Past views from the 19th and 20th centuries are no longer valid. All viewpoints explain that language, material remnants, and oral traditions make up the all encompassing ‘Celtic’ history. Many viewpoints also follow similar ideas, because all scholars, archaeologists and historians read about new discoveries in the field prompting new ideas and conclusions. Language plays a definite role in all of the viewpoints. They all agree that language is not the only factor in the definition of ‘Celticity.’ Ellis’ viewpoint more so than the other articles focuses on the shifts in the Celtic languages. He believes that linguistic evidence is vital to the knowledge of ‘Celts.’ Archaeologists and linguists have an understanding of how languages diverged, but answers are not conclusive on when they shifted or even why. These missing answers are due to the unknown knowledge of the parent Celtic language.

The term “Celt” appears to be an overused term. In modern times "Celt" appears to be an all-encompassing word for certain groups of people living during the Iron Age. The "Celts" all lived during the same period but had vastly different languages, art forms, architecture, etc. In relative terms compare how people use “English.” Many people speak English but they have to differentiate their type of English: British English or American English. Archaeologists know that "Celts" can only be the all-encompassing term because correct names for the different factions are not as clear. The "Celtic" language is not one uniformed language. Many languages find their origins in languages such as Manx, Britannica, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Lipontic, Celto- Iberian, etc. Not all exist to this day. Due to the great distances between the Celtic clans languages, culture, and material objects varied from the Asia Minor settlement to the British Isles.

Simon James' idea makes sense to have students and celtic followers adopt a new idea of the"Celts". History of the Celts from the 17th and 18th centuries is now just legend and myths, that hold no actual truth, but like most history stories, is now romanticized. James states that, “modern Celtic identity has to be taken seriously as a real entity, not as a groundless fantasy.” Nothing is completely universal. The thirteen colonies follow the example of the different settlements in the Celtic world. James asks the appropriate question of who and what can be legitimately be termed ‘ Celtic?’ Can there be one single, cultural ethnic meaning of ‘Celtic?’ As recent studies have shown the answer is no. There is no real capital to the Celtic world and no settlement emerged as the leader to the other settlements. Many villages caused fervours in trading and art practices, but no one settlement is identical to the other. Rather like the United States, location, settlement, and society define each state. Many understandings of the past are all hypotheses not proven facts. An open mind to new ideas and discoveries is crucial to understanding history, especially those in the B.C. era and those without written documentation.

Amazing Craftmanship

Does the author even have a clue?

I find the terms ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ define those living in settlements that differed from the Greeks and other previously established groups in the ancient world. Certainly with the understanding that the Celtic world included settlements in the British Isles to modern day Turkey, it would be easier to refer to each settlement separately, but this idea is hindered by the fact that with many differences and similarities bind the settlements. Customs, culture, art, and rules in each language easily make it conclusive that archaeologists and academics term all settlements and people with one word: “Celt.” Periods such as Hallsatt and La Tène unify the different settlements in practices of art and burial practices. The term of “Celticity” causes an enigma, but the easiest definition is to describe people living from the Iron Age. My use to Celtic and Celts opposes my argument, but for lack of better word I must, and people still follow the rules set by academics and archaeologists from the 18th and 19th centuries. Until there is an accepted agreement about the “Celtic” world and when to use the word, many other students will use the word “Celtic” as I have.

Throughout each century scholars ask different questions from history. It appears with each new generation new questions are asked, unfortunately those outside the world of academia cling to ideas learned in the early days of education or even ideas from their parents generation. Cunliffe describes this idea best,

“It is difficult, indeed impossible, to study the past without our understanding being encumbered and perverted by the impediment of the social mores in which we live and the transient values of the moment.”

Scholars always have opposing views about their focus of study, but it is the large choice of educated opinions from scholars that allows students as well as the mass population to have a general idea about the mysteries of the past. ‘Celticity’ will remain difficult to accurately describe until new discoveries come to light or perhaps these questions will always remained unanswered.

References Used

Barry Cunliffe. The Ancient Celts. (London: Oxford University Press, 1997)

Ellis D. Evans, ‘The Early Celts. The Evidence of Language,’ The Celtic World, ed.

Miranda Green, (London, 1995)


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    • Kendall H. profile imageAUTHOR

      Kendall H. 

      6 years ago from Northern CA

      Thank you liam gaelgoir for the information. I always like to learn new things!

    • profile image

      liam gaelgoir 

      6 years ago

      Gael and gaelic comes from the Welsh,gwy del, meaning wild

      man and the Irish for police is Garda Siochana meaning keepers of the peace.

    • Kendall H. profile imageAUTHOR

      Kendall H. 

      7 years ago from Northern CA

      Thanks PR Morgan! It really is a mysterious period that could tell us so much. Thanks for reading and providing your thoughts!

    • PR Morgan profile image

      PR Morgan 

      7 years ago from Sarasota Florida

      An awesome hub..great work and info! It really is an interesting time period that most don't really know...including myself! Now I know more. Thanks!

    • Kendall H. profile imageAUTHOR

      Kendall H. 

      7 years ago from Northern CA

      Thank you!

    • profile image

      Simon James 

      7 years ago

      Nicely done.

    • Kendall H. profile imageAUTHOR

      Kendall H. 

      8 years ago from Northern CA

      Thanks James! Your comment means a lot since so many of your hubs deal with extensive historical aspects that are very well presented.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      8 years ago from Chicago

      I enjoyed your treatment of this complicated subject. Thank you for the fine read. Well done!

    • Kendall H. profile imageAUTHOR

      Kendall H. 

      8 years ago from Northern CA

      Thanks Nell for your comment because I learned a lot! I don't know if they'll ever sort it out but it will be fun to see who argues the most about who they are. Since I don't know too much about the Isle of Man I wonder on their attitude or if they were safe from their marauding Romans. :) Boadicca was a fascinating woman so much to learn from those people!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      8 years ago from England

      Hi, I think the one thing that gets me is the fact that Scottish people and welsh and Irish, all say that they are Celts, but English people are not! But Scottish are in fact Gaelic, which comes from Gaul, in france and if you trace back Irish ancestory, they are in fact Spanish! notice the way that the Irish word for police is Guarda and the spanish word, Guardi. The South of England is in fact probably the only place that really is Celtic. Boadicca lived in the east of England, and is known as the most famous Celtic queen! One day they will sort it out!! The funny thing is, that the Romans brought the word Celtic over here, meaning Europeans or foreigners!! Confused? yep I am!! Thanks again for a great hub. nell

    • Kendall H. profile imageAUTHOR

      Kendall H. 

      8 years ago from Northern CA

      I agree Dolores. There is no logical reason to group so many diverse tribes from Britain to the Iberian Penninsula and call them 'Celts'. Yet they must due to the little known about each individual tribe. It seems like a next to impossible task. Thanks for reading!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      How can you pinpoint any aspect of a group as widespread as the constantly moving Celts? So many groups traveled and intermingled throughout Europe's past that it would be next to impossible to really understand. Interesting hub.

    • Kendall H. profile imageAUTHOR

      Kendall H. 

      8 years ago from Northern CA

      Thanks Jane! As far as I know Gaelic is partly from the Celts but like all languages was gradually changed with each new group added so for instance after the Viking and Gothic tribes invasions Gaelic changed again from what it had once been during the Iron Age. The Celts definitely had the best jewelry from the photos of artifacts I've seen.

    • Kendall H. profile imageAUTHOR

      Kendall H. 

      8 years ago from Northern CA

      Thanks E. Nicolson! It will be interesting to see what scholars will come up with in the future. There is so much unknown about the "Celts" and who knows if they'll ever find the answers. It is funny to compare the actual Celts with the New Age idea of 'Celticity'.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 

      8 years ago from Oregon

      Excellent research and writing! I have long been fascinated by the Celts also. I'm curious: do you know if Gaelic comes from a tribe of the Celts or if it has other origins?

    • E. Nicolson profile image

      E. Nicolson 

      8 years ago

      A great treatment of a troublesome topic. I have often puzzled over the term "Celt", and wondered how the scholars could label such a large group and area with the same name.It will be interesting to see what they will come up with in the future as more info is dug up.


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