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Celtic culture in antiquity

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Edited by Maxwell Lewis Latham, Tuesday, 2 July 2013, 10:47
Having been for a long time now, fascinated by the history of the Celts since being a young boy, on a school history field trip to the magnificent Mai Dun hill-fort, in Dorsetta. It's been quite a while since I became moon-struck by the Celts, in light of their remaining jewellery, ancient artefacts exhumed and examined, their plaid, just generally the feral 'vibe' that Celtic tribes had. In biology (long before the advent of genetics) our Victorian throwback teacher (who, although strict, was an excellent teacher and had a warm heart, beneath her spiky and aloof classroom demeanour) said that the Celts typically had dark hair and brown eyes, whereas the Scandinavian peoples generally had blonde or reddish hair, and blue or grey-eyes. [Presumably because they spent more or less time in the light or dark, colouring their hair, skin and changing their eye colour to see better at night: in the case of blue or grey, and day: with brown. Depending of course on where they settled, north or south]. The Greeks and Romans (whom I have become infatuated with since 'digging beneath the surface' about three years ago) called them barbarians, from the word barberoi meaning 'person who does not speak Greek' (In Our Time: The Etruscans; if indeed I have spelt that correctly). J.J. Doucet claims the word has its origins in barbe (beard). Fellow Frenchman and historian D. Deman, as having studied etymology to depths profound, claims that French words have their roots in Greek more than Latin, seemingly. Whether barbarians are named so because they were bearded or because they didn't speak Greek, is however, of no avail.

“...The civilisation known as Minyan arose in Bœotia and in Peloponnesus. There was a noticeable lowering in standards... which linguistic considerations lead us to attribute to an invasion of the first branch of the Greek peoples, presumably the Ionians. These barbarians were incapable of appreciating the subtleties of Cretan products and, at least at first, contact between the island of Crete and the Greek mainland was almost entirely broken off. Little by little it was renewed in the nineteenth century B.C.E. through the intermediacy of Argolis, but towards 1,700 B.C.E. the arrival of a fresh wave of barbarians, the Achæans, drove both the newly settled and older populations southwards. One of the retreating bands took possession of Crete and utterly destroyed the first palaces. The disaster was... only temporary.” (Dunan/Bowle, 1981 [1964], p.68)

Barbarians called so because they do not speak Greek? Evidently the Hellenes rose out of barbarism, but it took over a thousand years for them to do so. Ah, the irony. Anyhow: here's the meat and potatoes, xerox style.

Celtæ: a name given to the tribe(s) that inhabited the country between Palus Mæotis and the ocean, according to some authors. ... This name, though anciently applied to the inhabitants of Gaul, as well as Germany and Spain, was more particularly given to the part of the Gauls, whose country, called Gallia Celtica, was situated between the rivers Sequana and Garumna, now known as la Seine and la Garonne. The Celtæ seemed to have recieved their name from Celtus, a son of Herculēs or Polyphemus. The promonotory which bore the name Celticum, is now called [Cape] Finisterre. (Lempriere, 1845 [1788], p.149)

Celt: name used by Classical writers to describe the tall, fair-haired, blue or grey-eyed peoples living north of the Alps and surviving today in Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Scottish Highlands. In England their civilisation was superseded to some extent by Roman and Anglo-Saxon culture. The Celts were responsible for the dissemination of the early Iron-age culture, out of which there developed in Ireland, a native art of singular beauty. (Hammerton, c.1935, p.243)

An Account of the interesting Folk who formed the Barbaric Background to Greek and Roman Civilisation.

by R.A.S. MacAlister ([Who was] Professor of Celtic Archæology, University College, Dublin).

The word 'Celtic' is one of the most difficult to define in the whole range of anthropological or historical literature. The word was used by ancient Greek and Latin writers as a label by which they denoted certain peoples of central and northern Europe. Whence they derived it is unknown; they may have learnt it from some of the folk whom they thus designated; but the word has no certain etymology in any of the existing Celtic languages. As used by the Classical writers in question, it cannot be maintained that it had any exact scientific connotation; at best it was a vague geographical term, conveniently standing for the barbarians (as they were considered) of a certain area of the Continent, but in no respect defining them racially or linguistically.

In modern literature the word is almost equally vague, except in the department of philology. The languages called 'Celtic' are distinguished from other members of the Indo-European family of languages by certain definite peculiarities.

[Then follows a brief excursion into the phonetic subtleties]. ... The languages thus distinguished fall into two classes, called Goidelic and Brythonic... [...] ...

Materials for the study of ancient forms of these languages exist in the early inscriptions of the Continental Celts (the only records of the Continental Celtic languages that have survived, except a few scattered proper names and other words preserved by Classical writers); the early inscriptions of Great Britain and Ireland, especially those in Ogham character; and the ancient literatures of Ireland and Wales. The Breton language of France is to be grouped with the Insular Celtic languages, not as with the the Continental, as it was the tongue of a colony from Britain, founded by the Celts driven out before the advancing Saxons.

If we turn from this clearly defined group of languages, and analyse the racial peculiarities of the people who spoke them, we find ourselves involved in utter confusion. Tall and fair people, short and dark people, pass before us, all of them with seemingly equal claims to be the true and original Celts. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that there are many different racial types among the Celtic speakers as there are among the inhabitants of the whole of Europe.

Julius Cæsar, for instance, tells us that the Celts, Belgæ and Aquitani differed in language, institutions and laws; while on the other hand he sees no difference between the Gauls and the Germans except in customs. On the other hand Strabo, writing at the end of the first century B.C.E., notes a difference between the Gauls and the Germans in physical character, the latter being taller and fairer, but a similarity in manners.

A number of inconsistencies of the same kind might be collected, tending to show that the ancient writers were but superficial observers, and that their classification of people as 'Celtic' was not rigorously scientific; but it was a mere label, and probably included scattered tribes here and there that were not Celtic in any real sense at all.

The Gauls who sacked Rome [around circa 390 B.C.E. (Marriott, c.1935, p.764)] are described as having been tall, with fair or red hair, and white bodies which were, "soft and easily fatigued, impetuous in attack, they soon wearied."

This description, once established, was vaguely taken as the stock description of all the European Celts. In reading it we must not forget that it was written by Italians, a people dark by the nature of their race and by the action of the sun; and that it referred to strangers of the cold North into the enervating heat of Italy, in which they naturally soon wearied. Those who, like Tacitus in the second century C.E., came into direct contact with the Celtic people observed that they were not racially homogenous. Tacitus distinguishes three types in Great Britain: the large-limbed, red-haired Caledonii, the ruddy faced, curly haired Silurēs, and the dwellers on the south coast of England, who resembled the Gauls.

The writers of Classical antiquity differ as widely on the moral as on the physical qualities of the Gauls, and they show about as much judgement as Jean Jacques Rousseau with his eulogy of [Voltaire as being] the 'noble savage' [precise translation: 'good old-fashioned savage' (Harrap)], or Artemus Ward with his 'Injuns is pizen, wherever found.'

Julius Cæsar and Livy describe them as being above all things religious; Cicero denies that they possess any feelings of piety and justice. Polybius says that they are perfidious [putrid]; Strabo says they have a simple and open nature, devoid of guile. Pausanias extols the strategic skill of their leader when they attacked Delphi; Strabo says that various Celts fought with courage but without military ruses.

Diodorus speaks of their being inordinately fond of gold; Athenæus asserts that some of them allowed no gold to enter their country. Some say that they were hospitable to strangers; Diodorus says that Heraclēs abolished among them the custom of sacrificing strangers. Cato declares that the Gauls of Gallia Cisalpina cultivated two arts with success - the art of war and the art of speaking. Polynius admits their skill in war, and also in agriculture, which Cato does not mention; but he denies that they possess any other art. [Evidently, from the unearthed fruits of archæology, many Celts had an artistic flare for creating metallic brooches, ornate shields and various other delicately wrought paraphernalia].

Diodorus tells us that the Gauls of Gallia Transalpina had an affectation for expressing themselves in enigmas, leaving it to the skill of the listener to divine their meaning; Strabo apparently did not succeed in this mental exercise, for he says that they were silly and senseless.

The word 'Celtic' as a racial term is devoid of scientific meaning; if it is to be used at all to denote communities of people, it must be employed in the strictly geographical sense given to it by ancient writers, or else as a convenient generic label for the Celtic speaking peoples.

This, however, is not a complete statement of the case. The parent language of the Celtic group must have developed in some single, probably isolated, community, which we may presume to have a certain racial uniformity. If we can find a place of origin, and determine the racial characteristics of its inhabitants in early times, then it is legitimate to regard characters as distinguishing the original Celtic people.

The French scholar D'Arbois de Jubainville has endeavoured to find such a place of origin, and he has fixed it in the region between the head-waters of the Rhine and those of the Danube. The reason for this?

Most countries that the names of rivers are usually the oldest topographical terms on the map. It often happens that river names are unintelligible, while the names of places past to which they flow - towns, villages, homesteads, rocks, mountains and so forth - are explicable with the help of languages still spoken, or known to have been spoken in the neighbourhood. The river names are the sole surviving instances of yet older, prehistoric languages.

D'Arbois argues that if the territory can be found in which the river names are predominantly Celtic, then that territory is the place where the Celtic languages were of origin, aboriginal. The region twixt the Rhine and the Danube satisfies these conditions. If this be granted, we must deduce that the short, stocky moderately dark complexioned, broad-headed Alpine man as the atypical Celt... [...]

At the time when the Celtic language was in the process of formation, Europe must have been occupied by a large number of small scattered communities, in the Neolithic stage, separated each from the others by belts of forest land, and speaking a babel of different tongues, very few of them belonging to the Indo-European familial branch. The ancestors of the Celtic-speakers must for a long time have lived in close connexion with the people who formed the Italian branch of tongues, of which Latin is the best known representative; for among the Indo-European families of languages, the Italian branch is that which comes most nearly into relationship with the Celtic family. After these had hived off, the Celts seemed to have begun a career of conquest through the regions of Europe north of the Alps, subduing one by one, the smaller aboriginal communities; forcing their language, religion, their culture upon them... [...]

The map of Europe is strewn all over with Celtic traces. Stray scraps of information may be gleaned from various Greek and Roman writers; but they are only fragments, and not above suspicion in the manner of trustworthiness.

The Greeks were fairly well acquainted with the Mediterranean coast, with which they had direct interplay; but their information about the geography of central and northern Europe was sometimes quite exiguous. Aristotle seems to have imagined that the Danube rises in the Pyranees; Strabo thought that the Caspian Sea opened into the North Sea. ...

Plato speaks of the Celts as being warlike, and their having a likeness for strong drink. Aristotle recommends as worthy of imitation, their practice of hardening the physique of children by clothing them lightly only during cold weather; but he is less sympathetic to their excesses of fearlessness, exemplified by the fact that they had no terror of earthquakes or tidal waves. Strabo quotes (but with characteristic incredulity) the statement of Euphorus to the effect that their youths were punished if they allowed themselves to become too fat to wear a certain girdle; from another authority, unnamed, he derives the information that they were so intrepid that if their houses were washed away by the sea, they rebuilt them on the same place.

But it is a writer from the end of the second century B.C.E., Poseidonius of Apamea, that we obtain our fullest information as to the social life of the Gauls. It is really quite regrettable that the book in which he described his travels is lost, along with the rest of his numerous writings; the fragments which survive - quotations embedded in the works of more fortunate but less deserving authors such as Athenæus, Strabo and Diodorus of Sicily - show us what a heavy loss this is. He was evidently a man of kindly and sympathetic nature, and a good observer.

Poseidonius of Apamea's travels included Gaul, and extended to Belerion, that is, to Cornwall. He notes the inhabitants of Great Britain dwelt in unpretentious houses, for the greater part made of reeds and wood. Their manner of life was simple and they knew nothing of the luxury borne of riches.

Speaking of Gaul, Poseidonius tells us how the rivers are frozen in winter, and how it was a custom to spread straw on the surface of the ice, to give travellers a sure foothold. The Gauls, he tells us further, made a drink from barley called ‘zythus’; they also flavoured water with honey, and used it to drink. There was an abundance of gold in their country, and they made massive ornate collars from it. In their temples and sacred enclosures were found large quantities of gold consecrated to the gods; but none were very avaricious, none of them dared to touch the stores for fear of their deities.

The Gauls were tall, and had white skins. They had blond hair, which they were in the habit of washing frequently in a decoration of lime, in order to make it lustrous. They brushed their hair up to the top of the head, and thence to the nape of the neck. Some shaved their beard [again, ironically] while others allowed it to grow to a moderate length. The nobles shaved the cheeks, but allowed the moustache to grow until it covered the mouth.

During meals they did not sit upon benches, but on hides of dogs or wolves, spread upon the ground; and the youngest children, boys and girls, acted as attendants. At the side were blazing fires upon which were cauldrons, and spits upon which were entire quarters of meat. The best part of the joint was offered to the chief men as an honour. Passing strangers were invited to partake in the banquets, and it was a point of etiquette not to ask their names or their business until the feast was over.

The food consisted of large quantities of meat and gravy, accompanied by a few loaves. The table manners of the Gauls were hardly up to today's standards, for it seems to have been the fashion for the diners to take a whole joint with both hands, and gnaw off mouthfuls, ‘after the manner of beasts.’ The party sat in a circle, he who was most distinguished by military prowess, lineage or wealth in the middle, and the other guests arranged on each side, in regular order of precedence. Behind each guest stood his armour bearer, with his large oblong shield. The attendant spearmen sat in a circle by themselves.

In wealthy companies the drink was Massilian wine; whilst the poorer folk drunk ‘corma’, a sort of beer brewed from wheat and sweetened with honey. They drank from a communal cup, carried around by an attendant boy, who began at the right-hand end and worked round to the left.

Frequently words would lead to quarrels, and these to duels à outrance. Before a battle one warrior would go in front of the lines, and would challenge the bravest of the enemy to a duel; and should any combatants accept the challenge, his side would sing the prowess of their ancestors and vaunt their own deeds; while heaping abuse and reviling upon the enemy. Slaughtered enemies were beheaded, and the heads were hung on the necks of horses; when carried home they were embalmed, and either preserved in caskets or nailed on the houses. The custom at first disgusted Poseidonius, though in time he became accustomed to it.

Marriott, J.A.R. (1935) Concise History of the World - Illustrated, P.R. Gawthorn, London, p.746.

Dunan, M., Bowle, J. et al. (1981 [1964]) Encyclopedia of Ancient and Medieval History, Larousse, London, p.68.

MacAlister, R.A.S., Hammerton, J.A. et al. (c.1935) Universal History of the World - Volume Three - the Hellenistic Age to the Roman Era, The Educational Book Company, London, pp.1507, 1509-1511 & 1513.

Lempriere, J. (1845 [1788]) Classical Dictionary, T. Allman, London, p.149.

Hammerton, J.A. et al. (c.1935) The Modern Encyclopedia [Brittanica], Amalgamated Press, London, p.243.


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