Who Were the Ancient Celts?


Quite simply they were a loosely tied linguistic and cultural group of various tribes across Europe and the British Isles. In their largest expanse, they covered central Europe all the way down through Spain, up through much of Germany and east through Hungary as well as the British Isles. Although debatable, the first Celtic type language and culture is thought to have evolved out of the late Bronze Age Urnfield cultures in modern day Austria. Although, based on a few obscure quotes, some people propose the Druids and Celts originated from Britain itself. The discovery of Celtic artifacts allows us to establish a definitive time frame in which a Celtic type culture existed but it doesn’t tell us absolutely whence or precisely where it came into being. The culture likely could have existed long before this period. Some of the idealisms in Druidry harken us back to ancient sun, moon and earth goddess worship as well as the beginning of agriculture itself. There is speculation and reason to believe that Druidry is one of several branches of spiritualities and ways of life that are part of the same indigenous, agricultural, pastoral, polytheistic, earth worship tree of thought so to speak. Celtic and European nations share many commonalities with cultures that emerged in India thousands of years ago, and which gave birth to the ‘Dharmic religions’ like Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. There are no genuine genetic markers for Celticism. The term “Celt” comes from the Greek word Keltoi, a name given to them by the Greeks although it’s unclear what exactly the word means. One proposed story of origin could be that of a love story. Greek writer Parthenius of Apamea (1st century BCE) tells us of a Greek character named Heracles. He wandered through Celtic countries while tending his cattle. He came across a Celtic king, his estate and family. One of his daughters, a girl by the name of Keltine fell in love with him immediately. She hid his cattle and refused to give them back to him unless he slept with her. She was in fact very beautiful and he happily obliged. She became pregnant from their union and bore a son who was named Keltos of which the Celts (Kelts) got their name.

2nd-34d century limestone british isles
2nd century limestone head

They were also called Galatae, Galatian, Gaul, Gaulish or Galli. Of course there are numerous cultures and names currently descendent of the Celtic culture we could list such as the Irish, Scottish, Picts, Manx, Welsh, Bretons, Cornish, Iberians etc. It is not known exactly what they called themselves other than their tribe names but they likely wouldn’t have identified as Celtic despite having so many cultural similarities. I imagine a rich agricultural and trading landscape of various, relatively stable communities. Of course, much like the later Scottish clan system, some groups were allies while others may have been enemies. They likely shared language in many locations for trading purposes. Undoubtedly, the best of their ideas, craftsmanship and stories and the most popular idealisms took hold over time and looked very similar across the landscape, even great distances away. They were quick to make rhymes, songs and folktales in relation to their land, their ancestors and their heroes. We have surviving tales of Bards traveling great distances to share their stories even up through the Medieval period. Wherever they settled, these stories changed, some more or less than others. All of these cultures adapted in their solitude to their surroundings, left some traditions behind and created new ones over the course of many millennia. The Celts were undoubtedly one of the most influential cultural groups in Europe and continue to be a large source of inspiration for many.  An immeasurable cauldron of ageless, eternal wisdom and inspiration, the Druids and Celts are legends of their time.

“All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called “Celts,” in our language “Gauls,” the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws. The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae. Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war; for which reason the Helvetii also surpass the rest of the Gauls in valor, as they contend with the Germans in almost daily battles, when they either repel them from their own territories, or themselves wage war on their frontiers.” -Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“The interior (of Britain) is inhabited by those who are traditionally said to be natives of the island itself; the sea-coast by those who have crossed from Belgium for the sake of spoil or war, their settlements being almost all called by the names of the places whence they came. Having carried war into Britain, they remained there and began to cultivate the fields.” -Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“The druidic order is supposed to have been created in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed thither for the purpose of studying it.” -Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“And now it will be useful to draw a distinction which is unknown to many: The peoples who dwell in the interior above Massalia, those on the slopes of the Alps, and those on this side the Pyrenees mountains are called Celts, whereas the peoples who are established above this land of Celtica in the parts which stretch to the north, both along the ocean and along the Hercynian Mountain, and all the peoples who come after these, as far as Scythia, are known as Gauls; the Romans, however, include all these nations together under a single name, calling them one and all Gauls.” -Diodorus Siculus (Greek, 90 – 20 BCE)

600 bce brooch bronze
6th century BCE bronze horse brooch

“In my opinion these Veneti were the founders of the Veneti in the Adriatic, for almost all the other Celtic nations in Italy have passed over from the country beyond the Alps, as for instance, the Boii and Senones. They are said to be Paphlagonians merely on account of a similarity of name. However, I do not maintain my opinion positively; for in these matters probability is quite sufficient. The Osismii are the people whom Pytheas calls Ostimii; they dwell on a promontory which projects considerably into the ocean, but not so far as Pytheas and those who follow him assert. As for the nations between the Seine and the Loire, some are contiguous to the Sequani, others to the Arverni.” -Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)

“It is evident that the Celtici have sprung from the Celtiberi, and have come from Lusitania, from their religious rites, their language, and the names of their towns.” -Pliny the Elder (Roman, 23 – 79 CE)

“Opposite to this coast is the island called Britannia, so celebrated in the records of Greece and of our own country. It is located to the north-west, and, with a large tract of intervening sea, lies opposite to Germany, Gaul, and Spain, by far the greater part of Europe. Its former name was “Albion”; but at a later period, all the islands, of which we shall just now briefly make mention, were included under the name of “Britanniæ.” -Pliny the Elder (Roman, 23 – 79 CE)

fairyglen-1913393_640“Who were the original inhabitants of Britain, whether they were indigenous or foreign, is, as usual among barbarians, little known. Their physical characteristics are various and from these conclusions may be drawn. The red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia point clearly to a German origin. The dark complexion of the Silures, their usually curly hair, and the fact that Spain is the opposite shore to them, are an evidence that Iberians of a former date crossed over and occupied these parts. Those who are nearest to the Gauls are also like them, either from the permanent influence of original descent, or, because in countries which run out so far to meet each other, climate has produced similar physical qualities. But a general survey inclines me to believe that the Gauls established themselves in an island so near to them. Their religious belief may be traced in the strongly-marked British superstition. The language differs but little; there is the same boldness in challenging danger, and, when it is near, the same timidity in shrinking from it. The Britons, however, exhibit more spirit, as being a people whom a long peace has not yet enervated. Indeed we have understood that even the Gauls were once renowned in war; but, after a while, sloth following on ease crept over them, and they lost their courage along with their freedom. This too has happened to the long-conquered nations of Britain; the rest are still what the Gauls once were.” -Tacitus (Roman, 55 – 120 CE)

“In the fifth year of the war Agricola, himself in the leading ship, crossed the Clota [Clyde], and subdued nations previously unknown in a series of victories. In that part of Britain which looks towards Ireland, he posted some troops, hoping for fresh conquests rather than fearing attack, inasmuch as Ireland, being between Britain and Spain and conveniently situated for the seas round Gaul, might have been the means of connecting with great mutual benefit the most powerful parts of the empire. Its extent is small when compared with Britain, but exceeds the islands of our seas. In soil and climate, in the disposition, temper, and habits of its population, it differs but little from Britain. We know most of its harbours and approaches because of the trade of merchants. One of the tribal kings of the nation, driven out by internal faction, had been received by Agricola, who detained him under the semblance of friendship till he could make use of him. I have often heard him say that a single legion with a few auxiliaries could conquer and occupy Ireland, and that it would have a advantageous effect on Britain for the Roman arms to be seen everywhere, and for freedom, so to speak, to be banished from its sight.” -Tacitus (Roman, 55 – 120 CE)

“The Pyrenees mountains extend from the Tyrrhenian sea to the Northern ocean. The eastern part is inhabited by Celts, otherwise called Galatians, and more lately Gauls. From this part westward, beginning at the Tyrrhenian sea and making a circuit by way of the Pillars of Hercules to the Northern ocean, the Iberians and Celtiberians dwell. Thus the whole of Iberia is sea-girt, except the part embraced by the Pyrenees, the largest and perhaps the most precipitous mountains in Europe. In coasting they follow the Tyrrhenian sea as far as the Pillars of Hercules. They do not traverse the Western and Northern ocean, except in crossing over to Britain, and this they accomplish by availing themselves of the tide, as it is only half a day’s journey. For the rest, neither the Romans nor any of the subject peoples navigate that ocean. The size of Iberia (now called “Hispania” by some) is almost incredible for a single country. Its breadth is reckoned at ten thousand stades, and its length is equal to its breadth. Many nations of various names inhabit it, and many navigable rivers flow through it.” -Appianus (Alexandrian, 95 – 165 CE)

“They say that the country [Illyria] received its name from Illyrius, the son of Polyphemus; for the Cyclops Polyphemus and his wife, Galatea, had three sons, Celtus, Illyrius, and Galas, all of whom migrated from Sicily; and the nations called Celts, Illyrians, and Galatians took their origin from them. Among the many myths prevailing among many peoples this seems to me the most plausible. Illyrius had six sons, Encheleus, Autarieus, Dardanus, Mædus, Taulas, and Perrhæbus, also daughters, Partho, Daortho, Dassaro, and others, from whom sprang the Taulantii, the Perrhæbi, the Enchelees, the Autarienses, the Dardani, the Partheni, the Dassaretii, and the Darsii. Autarieus had a son Pannonius, or Pæon, and the latter had sons, Scordiscus and Triballus, from whom nations bearing similar names were derived.” -Appianus (Alexandrian, 95 – 165 CE)

3rd-2nd century BCE glass
3rd century BCE glass bracelet

“Herakles, it is told, after he had taken the cattle of Geryones from Erutheia, was wandering through the country of the Keltoi and came to the house of Bretannos, who had a daughter called Keltinē. Keltinē fell in love with Herakles and hid away the cattle, refusing to give them back to him unless he would first content her. Herakles was indeed very anxious to bring the cattle safe home, but he was far more struck by the girl’s exceeding beauty, and consented to her wishes; and then, when the time had come round, a son called Keltos was born to them, from whom the Keltoi derived their name.” -Parthenius (Greek, 1st  century)

“These Galatai inhabit the most remote portion of Europe, near a great sea that is not navigable to its extremities, and possesses ebb and flow and creatures quite unlike those of other seas. Through their country flows the river Eridanus, on the bank of which the daughters of Helius [the Sun] are supposed to lament the fate that befell their brother Phaethon. It was a long time before the name “Galatai” came into use; for in ancient times they were called “Celts” both amongst themselves and by others.” -Pausanias (Greek, 2nd century)

Some asserted that the people first seen in these regions were indigenous, called Celts from the name of a beloved king and Galatae (for so the Greek language terms the Gauls) from the name of his mother. Others stated that the Dorians, following the earlier Hercules, settled in the lands bordering on the Ocean. The druids say that a part of the people was in fact indigenous, but that others also poured in from the remote islands and the regions across the Rhine, driven from their homes by continual wars and by the inundation of the stormy sea. Some assert that after the destruction of Troy a few of those who fled from the Greeks and were scattered everywhere occupied those regions, which were then deserted.” –Ammianus Marcellinus (Roman, 3rd century)

“In early times, when these regions lay in darkness as savage, they are thought to have been threefold, divided into Celts (the same as the Gauls), the Aquitanians, and the Belgians, differing in language, customs, and laws. Now the Gauls (who are the Celts) are separated from the Aquitanians by the Garonne river, which rises in the hills of the Pyrenees, and after running past many towns disappears in the ocean. But the Gauls are separated from the Belgians by the Marne and the Seine, rivers of identical size; they flow through the district of Lyons, and after encircling in the manner of an island a stronghold of the Parisii called Lutetia, they unite in one channel, and flowing on together pour into the sea not far from Castra Constantia. Of all these nations the Belgae had the reputation in the ancient writers of being the most valiant, for the reason that being far removed from civilized life and not made effeminate by imported luxuries, they warred for a long time with the Germans across the Rhine. The Aquitanians, on the contrary, to whose coasts, as being near at hand and peaceable, imported goods are transported, had their characters weakened to effeminacy and easily came under the sway of Rome.” -Ammianus Marcellinus (Roman, 3rd century)

For more information, check out The Druids by Stuart Piggott or The Ancient Celts by Barry Cunliffe!

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Isla MacKinnon

Writer and Herbalist

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A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.


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