History

Appearance and Personality of Ancient Celts

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The Celts were first and foremost a very neat and cleanly people. They are one of the cultures credited for inventing soap and based on first hand accounts preferred to bath at least every other day, if not once a day when possible. Water was understandably considered divine in being essential for our existence and had a physically, mentally and spiritually cleansing property. Many first hand accounts claimed they took great pride in themselves and their physical appearance. Women and men were described as being beautiful and tall in stature. They may have commonly bleached their hair with a lime wash to make it lighter. The men commonly wore beards or a mustache and grew their hair long. Women also wore their hair long and both men and women sometimes braided their hair. They both wore it down in battle but also hardened it using the lime wash to keep it out of their face. They were sometimes described and depicted in stonework as having “hair like snakes” which likely meant braids. Druids may have worn their hair short or had a particular hairstyle to distinguish themselves. They were fond of personal decoration and could rarely be seen without wearing a gold neck torc if they could afford it. They had a taste for detailed craftsmanship. They were rumored to frequently tattoo themselves with swirls, animals and other artwork with a dye called woad made from the first generation of the plant Isatis Tinctoria. There is some evidence to be skeptical of this idea and many argue that if they did decorate their bodies, it was with melted metal like copper or iron.

celtic clothingTheir clothes were brightly colored, often in plaids or stripes, sometimes using fringe accents. The modern plaid is a wonderful remnant from ancient design. There is evidence to suggest there was a visible class system established by how many colors someone was permitted to wear. The kings, queens or rulers could wear seven colors, Druids, Vates and Bards could wear six and so on down the line until the common folk or slave would have worn only one color. However, during religious ceremonies, the Druids may have worn all white robes to represent purity of intention and heart. Linen tunics were worn by both men and women. Women’s tunics were floor length while men’s tunics stopped at the knee. Over top of that they wore a brat, a large piece of cloth worn like a cloak, generally made of very warm wool material in the winter and lighter linen in the summer. It was fastened with a brooch and sometimes a belt to keep it in place. Trousers called braccae were sometimes worn, especially at sea or when it was particularly cold by both men and women. They wore leather shoes and sandals.

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5th century BCE jewelry

The Celts were renowned for their love of drinking, dancing, celebration, riddles, poetry, music, art, stories, boasting and the occasional quarrel. Their festivals and parties were something of legend and were rumored to go on for many days and nights at a time as well as occur frequently. Some phrases used to describe them were friendly, welcoming, honest, boastful, genuine, direct and quick to fight, even to the death, for certain offenses. It was a common custom for Celts to welcome complete strangers with open arms not daring to ask who they were or why they were there until they were fed and comfortable. Often, they would have a central banquet hall with a large cauldron of food constantly boiling in case any passersby or late night travelers should arrive. The act of giving was seen as a mark of prestige and quality of high character. When someone was aiming to become leader, they would often spoil their citizens hoping to gain favor.


“He, aiming at becoming a leader of the populace, used to drive in a chariot over the plains, and scatter gold and silver among the myriads of Celts who followed him; and that he enclosed a fenced space of twelve furlongs in length every way, square, in which he erected wine-presses, and filled them with expensive liquors; and that he prepared so vast a quantity of food that for very many days any one who chose was at liberty to go and enjoy what was there prepared, being waited on without interruption or cessation. And once, when he had issued beforehand invitations to a banquet some poet from some barbarian nation came too late and met him on the way, and sung a hymn in which he extolled his magnificence, and bewailed his own misfortune in having come too late: and Lyernius was pleased with his ode, and called for a bag of gold, and threw it to him as be was running by the side of his chariot; and that he picked it up, and then went on singing, saying that his very footprints upon the earth over which he drove produced benefits to men.” -Posidonius (Greek, 135 – 51 BCE)

“The clothing of the Gauls is striking. They wear long shirts dyed in various colors and pants which they call bracae. They also wear cloaks fastened at the neck, thick in winter and light in the summer. These are also decorated with patterns of tightly packed squares. Their shields bear the images of bronze animals which stick out and serve not only as decoration but also for protection.” –Diodorus Siculus (Greek, 90 – 20 BCE)

“In Gaul there are no silver mines, but much in nature of the place supplies the inhabitants, without the labour or toil of digging in the mines. For the winding course of the river washing with its streams the feet of the mountains, carries away great pieces of golden ore, which those employed in this business gather, and then grind and bruise these clods of golden earth: and when they have so done, cleanse them from the gross earthy part, by washing them in water, and theu melt them in a furnace; and thus get together a vast heap of gold, with which not only the women, but the men deck and adorn themselves.” –Diodorus Siculus (Greek, 90 – 20 BCE)

“For stature they are tall, but of a sweaty and pale complexion, red-haired, not only naturally, but they endeavor all they can to make it redder by art. They often wash their hair in a water boiled with lime, and turn it backward from the forehead to the crown of the head, and thence to their very necks, that their faces may be more fully seen, so that they look like satyrs and hobgoblins. By this sort of management of themselves, their hair is as hard as a horse’s mane. Some of them shave their beards; others let them grow a little. The persons of quality shave their chins close, but their mustachios they let fall so low, that they even cover their mouths; so that when they eat, their meat hangs dangling by their hair; and when they drink, the liquor runs through their mustachios as through a sieve.” –Diodorus Siculus (Greek, 90 – 20 BCE)

“Gaulish women are very beautiful, not only equal to men in size, but they are a match in strength as well. The Gauls have a fearsome appearance and deep, rough voices. They are a people of few words and often speak in riddles, leaving many things for the listener to understand himself.” –Diodorus Siculus (Greek, 90 – 20 BCE)


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3rd century BCE – 1st century CE  golden necklace offering found on Angelsey in the lake Llyn Cerrig Bach.

“The Gauls are terrifying in aspect and their voices are deep and altogether harsh; when they meet together they converse with few words and in riddles, hinting darkly at things for the most part and using one word when they mean another; and they like to talk in superlatives, to the end that they may extol themselves and depreciate all other men. They are also boasters and threateners and are fond of pompous language, and yet they have sharp wits and are not without cleverness at learning. Among them are also to be found lyric poets whom they call Bards. These men sing to the accompaniment of instruments which are like lyres, and their songs may be either of praise or of obloquy. Philosophers, as we may call them, and men learned in religious affairs are unusually honoured among them and are called by them druids. The Gauls likewise make use of diviners, accounting them worthy of high approbation, and these men foretell the future by means of the flight or cries of birds and of the slaughter of sacred animals, and they have all the multitude subservient to them.” -Diodorus Siculus (Greek, 90 – 20 BCE)

“Outside, besieging Gauls climbed the thorny pathway, ambushed in shadow and the friendly dark of night without a star; their flowing hair was golden, and every item of their clothing was gold; their cloaks were glittering plaid; each milk-white neck bore circlet of bright gold; in each man’s hand two Alpine javelins gleamed, and the wild northern warriors bore long shields for defense.” -Virgil (Roman, 70 – 19 BCE)

“The Gauls are quite tall with fair complexions and rippling muscles. Their hair is not only light by nature, but they use an unusual method to make it even whiter. A lime wash is used frequently as a rinse on their hair, which they then comb back from the forehead all the way to the neck. Some shave off their facial hair while others wear a short beard. The upper class grow a long mustache which hangs over their mouth.” –Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)

“They also invite strangers to their feasts and feed them well before they would dare ask who they are and why they are there. Sometimes at dinner, if one of them is angered by an offhand remark and will, without any fear for their life, challenge the offender to fight them one-on-one.” –Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)

“In addition to their simple and high-spirited nature, they also possess a lack of seriousness and a love of boasting.” –Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)


scotland-2568180_1280“In addition to their trait of simplicity and high-spiritedness, that of witlessness and boastfulness is much in evidence, and also that of fondness for ornaments; for they not only wear golden ornaments — both chains round their necks and bracelets round their arms and wrists — but their dignitaries wear garments that are dyed in colours and sprinkled with gold. And by reason of this levity of character they not only look insufferable when victorious, but also scared out of their wits when worsted.” –Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)

“Babylon was very famous for making embroidery in different colours, and hence materials of this kind have obtained the name of “Babylonian.” The method of weaving cloth with more than two threads was invented at Alexandria; these cloths are called polymita; it was in Gaul that they were first used to create a checkered pattern.” -Pliny the Elder (Roman, 23 – 79 CE)

“Let men even, at the present day, wear gold upon the arms in form of bracelets known as dardania, because the practice first originated in Dardania, and called viriolæ in the language of the Celts, viriæ in that of Celtiberia, let women wear gold upon their arms and all their fingers, their necks, their ears, the tresses of their hair.” -Pliny the Elder (Roman, 23 – 79 CE)

“I remark, in the first place, that there are some foreign nations which, in obedience to long-established usage, employ certain plants for the embellishment of the person. That, among some barbarous peoples, the females stain the face by means of various plants, there can be little doubt, and among the Daci and the Sarmatæ we find even the men marking their bodies. There is a plant in Gaul, similar to the plantago in appearance, and known there by the name of glastum: with it both married women and girls among the people of Britain are in vile habit of staining the body all over, when taking part in the performance of certain sacred rites; rivalling hereby the swarthy hue of the Ethiopians, they go in a state of nature.” -Pliny the Elder (Roman, 23 – 79 CE)

“Soap, too, is very useful for this purpose, an invention of the Gauls for giving a reddish tint to the hair. This substance is prepared from tallow and ashes, the best ashes for the purpose being those of the beech and yoke-elm.” -Pliny the Elder (Roman, 23 – 79 CE)


“Before it was known in what estimation coral was held by the people of India, the Gauls were in the habit of adorning their swords, shields, and helmets with it.” -Pliny the Elder (Roman, 23 – 79 CE)

“There are many other medicines [text missing] of the Celts, which are men called “Gauls,” those alkaline substances made into balls, with which they cleanse their clothes, called “soap,” with which it is a very excellent thing to cleanse the body in the bath.” -Aretaeus, (Greek, 1st century)

“But among the Galatians,” says Phylarchus in his sixth book, “it is the custom to place on the tables a great number of loaves broken indiscriminately, and meat just taken out of the cauldrons, which no one touches without first waiting for the king to see whether he touches anything of what is served up before him.” But in his third book the same Phylarchus says that “Ariamnes the Galatian, being an exceedingly rich man, gave notice that be would give all the Galatians a banquet every year; and that he did so, managing in this manner: He divided the country, measuring it by convenient stages along the roads; and at these stages he erected, tents of stakes and rushes and osiers, each containing about four hundred men, or somewhat more, according as the district required, and with reference to the number that might be expected to throng in from the villages and towns adjacent to the stage in question. And there he placed huge cauldrons, full of every sort of meat; and he had the cauldrons made in the preceding year before he was to give the feast, sending for artisans from other cities. And he caused many victims to be slain — numbers of oxen, and pigs, and sheep, and other animals — every day; and he caused casks of wine to be prepared, and a great quantity of grain. And not only,” he continues, “did all the Galatians who came from the villages and cities enjoy themselves, but even all the strangers who happened to be passing by were not allowed to escape by the slaves who stood around, but were pressed to come in and partake of what had been prepared.” -Athenaeus (Greek, 2nd century)

“Almost all the Gauls are tall, fair and ruddy in complexion. They have terrible flashing eyes, love quarreling and are amazingly insolent. Most of them have voices which are both strong and threatening, whether they are happy or angry. And all of the Gauls take great pains to stay clean. Unlike elsewhere in the world, no man or woman, no matter how poor, is ever in dirty or ragged clothes.” –Ammianus Marcellinus (Roman, 3rd century)

For more information check out A Brief History of the Celts by Peter Berresford or Pagan Celtic Britain by Anne Ross!


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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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