The Rise of the Celts

17 April 2012, 15:58

The concept of Celtic heritage is effectively attached to European national identities, albeit often paradoxically. The modern French believe that they are descended from Celts, despite the fact that their ancestors had cruelly assimilated the Bretons, the last people of the Celtic group in Continental Europe. The Irish and the Welsh are proud of their Celtic origins even though their ancestors never referred to themselves as Celts. Meanwhile, Celtic traditions are part of both the fictitious and the real past of Europe, including that of the territory now covered by Ukraine.


About three decades ago the initial phase of Celtic history did not spark any debate in academic circles. The common belief was that towards the end of the Bronze Age, the ancestors of the modern Irish, Scots, Welsh and Bretons lived in the Middle Rhine Valley, the Upper Danube and north-western part of the Alpine foothills. Leaving their ancestral homelands, armed with iron swords and seated in chariots, ancient Celts spread in all directions, from Anatolia to the British Isles in the 6th-3rd centuries B.C., to be subsequently conquered and assimilated by the Romans and Germans. New facts, however, have caused European researchers to revise this simplified scheme. It is clear today, that ancient the Celtic civilization was formed in several centers. One covered the Atlantic coast of what is now Spain, Portugal and France, Ireland and part of Britain. The population was genetically related to ancient farmers inhabiting Europe before the arrival of Indo-Europeans. In the last thousand years B.C. or possibly even earlier, the Celtiberians of the Iberian Peninsula and the ancient Irish spoke in the most archaic Celtic dialects; the source of the modern Irish language. The second center of the Celtic world was deep in the European subcontinent, inhabited by the tribes called Celts or Galatians by the Greeks and Gauls by the Romans (the name comes from gal, a para-Celtic root meaning fierce and courageous).  

The Celts appeared on the historical arena when the La Tène[1] archeological culturewas formed in the early 5th century B.C. The heart of its habitat was in the Marne and Moselle river basins and Bohemia, from which it quickly spread all over Central and Western Europe. The Celts were a linguistic and cultural community parts of which were influenced by conquered peoples and neighbours, rather than a single ethnos. At the same time, the achievements of the La Tèneculture were also adopted by non-Celtic tribes, including Germans, Thracians, Dacians and Early Slavs.

Ptolemy's Europe: Geographer Claudius Ptolemy signed modern Ukrainian towns Zalishchyky and Kamianets-Podilsky as Carrodunum, a Celtic title translated as "a chariot fortress"


These were the words said by Brennus, a Celtic chieftain, when he thought that the ransom proposed by the Romans for lifting the siege of their plundered city was not adequate. Ironically, this quote was later often used against the Celts. In the 2nd century B.C. the borders of the Celtic world shrank considerably. In 52 B.C., Gaius Julius Caesar finally conquered Gaul, the heart of the Celtic world. Another 50 years later, the last Celtic chiefdoms surrendered to the Romans or Germans. The British Isles were the only place where the Celtic culture continued to thrive. Neither the Romans, nor the Anglo-Saxons succeeded in conquering them entirely during the early Middle Ages.

The end of the 1st millennium brought prosperity to Ireland. The remote island that the Greeks and Romans thought to be inhabited by wild people and cannibals faced a new religion as a powerful cultural impulse in the 5th century. Christianity quickly dominated the land, without causing undue pain, although Ireland never entirely dropped paganism. Another specific feature of Ireland’s Christian culture was the visible impact of Greek and Egyptian Christianity. Unlike other West European countries, the island’s population did not forget the Greek language along with the best achievements of Ancient Greek literature, philosophy and natural sciences.

The Irish developed the art of book miniatures and calligraphy, church singing, etc. Its wandering monks carried their achievements to Europe where the Benedictine monasteries they founded turned into centers for art and education. According to “The Life of St. Mariano”, Irish monks reached Kyiv in about 1070. The court of Prince Iziaslav Yaroslavych gave them a warm welcome and presented them with gifts of precious furs, worth 100 pounds in silver. Using these funds, the Irish built the St. Jacob and St. Gertrude abbey in Regensburg, which in time became the center for all Irish monasteries in Europe, both de facto and de jure. Gertrude, chosen as their patron saint, is viewed as undeniable proof of the Irish abbey’s close ties with Gertrude, the wife of the Kyiv Prince. Contact with the Irish enriched the Rus culture. The powerful impact of the Irish book illustration school can be seen in the ancient Rus miniatures from the Gertrude Psalter and Ostromir Gospels.


Viking raids, and particularly the expansion of England and France, resulted in the loss of the Celtic peoples’ independence and the decline of their culture. Their heritage was not revealed until modern times when European nations began to create a “historical myth” of sorts. Several countries, primarily France, recognized Celts as their official ancestors. Even the 1789 revolution was interpreted as a revolt of the oppressed Gauls and Romans against the usurpers, meaning the king and the aristocracy whose representatives were proud of their Frankish noble ancestry dating back to the reign of Clovis I and Charlemagne. Napoleon III was a big defender of France’s Celtic roots. He funded massive archeological digs of Gallic villages and the construction of a memorial on the site of the last battle between the Gauls and Caesar. In the 20th century, Celts were viewed as the avant-garde of “white Aryan Europe” or as an ancient prototype of European multiculturalism. The founding fathers of the EU liked the concept of Celtic heritage, which at one time united all countries of the Old World from Ireland to Turkey. This explains why the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1991 was preceded by a Celtic Exhibit in Venice, a show of unprecedented scale that involved nearly 250 museums from all over Europe.   

The Celtomania that swept through Europe during the 19th century deserves a special mention. European writers, musicians and artists had long fuelled interest in Celts, lured by the mysterious ancient culture. William Shakespeare, James McPherson, Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Vincenzo Bellini, Richard Wagner, John Tolkien, and dozens of other artists used many motives of Celtic legends in their creations. A romantic image of a Celt was gradually shaped in mass culture and everyone could find something appealing in it. Fans of military history appreciated the desperate courage of Celtic warriors. Those involved in esoteric were attracted by mentions of the mystical philosophy of druids, while feminists focused on the high social status of the woman in ancient Celtic society. Musicians were inspired by Irish folklore and environmentalists viewed Celts as the “forest people” who lived in harmony with nature.


[1]The name of an archeological site in Switzerland

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