A large portion of the indigenous populations of Britain and Ireland today may be partially descended from the ancient peoples that have long inhabited these lands, before the coming of Celtic and later Germanic peoples, language and culture. Little is known of their original culture and language, but remnants of the latter may remain in the names of some geographical features, such as the rivers Clyde, Tamar and Thames, whose etymology is unclear but possibly derive from a pre-Celtic substrate (Gelling). By the Roman period, however, most of the inhabitants of the isles of Ireland and Britain were speaking Goidelic or Brythonic languages, close counterparts to the Celtic languages spoken on the European mainland. The Book of Leinster, written in the twelfth century, but drawing on a much earlier Irish oral tradition, states that the first Celts to arrive in Ireland were from Iberia. Later research indicated that the culture may have developed gradually and continuously between the Celts and the indigenous people of Britain or Spain. Similarly in Ireland little archaeological evidence was found for large intrusive groups of Celtic immigrants, suggesting to archaeologists such as Colin Renfrew that the native late Bronze Age inhabitants gradually absorbed European Celtic influences and language.
Under Caesar the Romans conquered Celtic Gaul, and from Claudius onward the Roman empire absorbed parts of Britain. Roman local government of these regions closely mirrored pre-Roman ‘tribal’ boundaries, and archaeological finds suggest native involvement in local government. Latin was the official language of these regions after the conquests. The native peoples under Roman rule became Romanized and keen to adopt Roman ways. Celtic art had already incorporated classical influences, and surviving Gallo-Roman pieces interpret classical subjects or keep faith with old traditions despite a Roman overlay. The Roman occupation of Gaul, and to a lesser extent of Britain, led to Roman-Celtic syncretism. In the case of the continental Celts, this eventually resulted in a language shift to Vulgar Latin (see also Gallo-Roman culture), while the Insular Celts retained their language. However, the Celts were master horsemen, which so impressed the Romans that they adopted Epona, the Celtic horse goddess, into their pantheon. During and after the fall of the Roman Empire many parts of France threw out their Roman administrators.
The Coligny Calendar, which was found in 1897 in Coligny, Ain. Based on the style of lettering and the accompanying objects, it probably dates to the end of the 2nd century. It is written in Latin inscriptional capitals, and is in the Gaulish language. The restored tablet contains sixteen vertical columns, with sixty-two months distributed over five years. There were four major festivals in the Gallic Calendar: “Imbolc” on 1 February, possibly linked to the lactation of the ewes and sacred to the Goddess Brigid. “Beltaine” on 1 May, connected to fertility and warmth, possibly linked to the Sun God Belenos. “Lúnasa” on 1 August, connected with the harvest and associated with the God Lugh. And finally “Samhain” on 1 November, possibly the start of the year. Two of these festivals, Beltaine and Lúnasa are shown on the Coligny Calendar by sigils, and it is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to match the first month on the Calendar (Samonios) to Samhain.
To the extent that sources are available, they depict a pre-Christian Celtic social structure based formally on class and kinship. Patron-client relationships similar to those of Roman society are also described by Caesar and others in the Gaul of the first century BC. In the main, the evidence is of tribes being led by kings, although some argue that there is evidence of oligarchical republican forms of government eventually emerging in areas in close contact with Rome. Most descriptions of Celtic societies describe them as being divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy; an intellectual class including professions such as druid, poet, and jurist; and everyone else. There are instances recorded where women participated both in warfare and in kingship, although they were in the minority in these areas. In historical times, the offices of high and low kings in Ireland and Scotland were filled by election under the system of tanistry, which eventually came into conflict with the feudal principle of primogeniture where the succession goes to the first born son. Little is known of family structure among the Celts. Patterns of settlement varied from decentralised to the urban. The popular stereotype of non-urbanised societies settled in hillforts and duns, drawn from Britain and Ireland contrasts with the urban settlements present in the core Hallstatt and La Tene areas, with the many significant oppida of Gaul late in the first millennium BC, and with the towns of Gallia Cisalpina. There is archaeological evidence to suggest that the pre-Roman Celtic societies were linked to the network of overland trade routes that spanned Eurasia. Large prehistoric trackways crossing bogs in Ireland and Germany have been found by archaeologists. They are believed to have been created for wheeled transport as part of an extensive roadway system that facilitated trade. The territory held by the Celts contained tin, lead, iron, silver and gold. Celtic smiths and metalworkers created weapons and jewelry for international trade, particularly with the Romans. Local trade was largely in the form of barter, but as with most tribal societies they probably had a reciprocal economy in which goods and other services are not exchanged, but are given on the basis of mutual relationships and the obligations of kinship. Low value coinages of potin, silver and bronze, suitable for use in trade, were minted in most Celtic areas of the continent, and in South-East Britain prior to the Roman conquest of these areas. There are only very limited records from pre-Christian times written in Celtic languages. These are mostly inscriptions in the Roman, and sometimes Greek, alphabets. The Ogham script was mostly used in early Christian times in Ireland and Scotland (but also in Wales and England), and was only used for ceremonial purposes. The available evidence is of a strong oral tradition, such as that preserved by bards in Ireland, and eventually recorded by monasteries. The oldest recorded rhyming poetry in the world is of Irish origin and is a transcription of a much older epic poem, leading some scholars to claim that the Celts invented Rhyme. They were highly skilled in visual arts and Celtic art produced a great deal of intricate and beautiful metalwork, examples of which have been preserved by their distinctive burial rites. In some regards the Atlantic Celts were conservative, for example they still used chariots in combat long after they had been reduced to ceremonial roles by the Greeks and Romans, though when faced with the Romans in Britain, their chariot tactics defeated the invasion attempted by Julius Caesar.
During the later Iron Age the Gauls generally wore long-sleeved shirts or tunics and long trousers. Clothes were made of wool or linen, with some silk being used by the rich. Cloaks were worn in winter. Broaches and armlets were used but the most famous item of jewellery was the torc.
Tribal warfare appears to have been a regular feature of Celtic societies. Polybius indicates that the principal Celtic weapon was a long sword which was used for hacking edgewise rather than stabbing. Celtic warriors are described by Polybius and Plutarch as frequently having to cease fighting in order to straighten their sword blades.
Beltane – May Eve festival.
One of the ancient Celtic Fire Festivals. On this night, the cattle were driven between two bonfires to protect them from disease. Couples wishing for fertility would “jump the fires” on Beltane night. Embers were taken home and used to light fires which would never be extinguished till next Beltane. Also the traditional Sabbat where the rule of the “Wheel of the Year” is returned to the Goddess. This Festival also marks the transition point of the threefold Goddess energies from those of Maiden to Mother.
The cross quarter Sabbats of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lammas.
On the first day of February. Coincided with the start of the lambing season. Easter is actually a copy of this festival. In fact nearly all Christian festivals were stolen from the Celtic ways.
August 1st. The Old Celtic name for this festival is Lughnassadh. It is the Festival of the First Fruits, and is the first of the 3 harvests. This festival also marks the change of the Threefold Goddess energies from that of Mother to Crone.
Ostara – The second Spring Festival.
Imbolc being the first and Beltane being the third. It is celebrated on the Spring Equinox. On this day, the night and day are in balance.
Celtic New Year Festival.
The festival of remembrance for the dead, held on the eve of Nov. 1st. It is the last of the three harvests. Bonfires were lit to remember the sun and encourage it`s return. All Hallows and Halloween actually come from this Celtic Festival.
The shortest day of the year and is considered a Quarter. It is celebrated on the Winter Solstice. An old Celtic tradition holds that the Oak King (rebirth) overcomes the Holly King (death), because the Sun will wax after the Winter Solstice.
The ancient Celts in many ways shaped the British Isles as we know them today. But because the Celts were an oral, not a written society, little information survives today as to their way of life. The Celts may have first emerged as an identifiable people around 100 B.C. near the river Danube. They eventually spread into surrounding Europe. They were highly skilled in farming, metal work and building roads. They could also be a highly effective warrior force. The arrival of the first Celts in Britain was around 800 B.C. The Celts preferred to record their laws and traditions in poetry, songs and stories. As such little information remains about the Celts.
Celtic Animal Beliefs
The Celts had a very strong affinity with animals. The Druids were believed to be able to talk to animals. Animals were used also in the Irish tradition. When the King died, the royal Druids would sacrifice an Ox. The animal most associated with the Celts was the Horse. Horses were represented on artifacts and coins. Horses provided a means of transport, and were used in sport and work. Goddesses associated with the Horse often took on it`s form. The diety Epona was a horse Goddess. The Deer too were sacred in Celtic beliefs. They often appeared as other worldly messengers. The wisest creature in Celtic beliefs was the fish, Salmon. Crows and Ravens were associated with battle. The Goddess Morrighan often took the form of a Raven.
Death And The Other World
The ancient Celts believed in life after death. The Other World existed alongside or even within the mortal world. The Celts believed it was even possible to stumble into the other world. Those who did find themselves in the Other World spent a few happy hours there before returning to the mortal world only to find they had been gone for years. The Celts believed that after a persons death the soul needed a physically clear path to make it`s way to the Other World. When a person died, all windows, doors, etc were opened to ensure a clear path. The most respected warriors of Celtic tribes were buried with weapons and chariots. The Gods decided the fate of mortals. In the casae of a battle, the outcome may be decided by the Gods with a game of chess.
Celtic Water Beliefs
As part of their celebration for the Beltane festival, the Druids collected May dew to use in rituals. Rivers, lakes and wells were all dwelling places to the supernatural creatures. The journey to the other side after death was across a body of water. Celtic legend contains a number of tales of underwater cities.
Celtic Tree Beliefs
Trees were highly regarded by the ancient celts. Each tree was believed to have it`s own spirit. The Oak was considered the most important among the trees. During the time of the Druids the dead were often buried in the hollowed out trunk of an Oak tree. The Oak was also used for Solstive festivals and Beltane festivals. Elder, Rowan, Birch and Hazel were also important in Celtic beliefs. Hazelnuts were considered a source of creativity and fertility.
Archeological discoveries at Celtic sites show the ancient Celts to be a very sophisticated society for that time. Among the most important artifacts in Celtic legend were the Hallows. The belief was that these artifacts would only work for those worthy of them.
- The Hallows Of Ireland
- The Stone Of Fal : the place of inauguration for the Irish Kings.
- The Spear Of Lugh : gives victory in every battle.
- The Cauldron Of Dagda : no one would leave the cauldron unsatisfied.
- The Treasures Of Britain
- The Chessboard Of Gwenddolau : the pieces played the game themselves.
- The Mantle Of Arthur : a cloak of invisibility.
- Dyrnwyn : the magical sword of Rhydderch the Generous.
- The Hamper Of Gwyddno Garanhir : when food for one was put in, food for a hundred came out.
- The Horn Of Bran : produced whatever drinks were wanted.
- The Chariot Of Morgan The Wealthy : took it`s owner anywhere they wanted to go.
- The Halter Of Clyno Eiddyn : bring it`s owner any horse they wanted.
- The Knife Of Llawfronedd The Horseman : could carve for 24 men.