Celtic History

This piece provides a broad overview of the rise and evolution of Celtic cultures, encompassing numerous nations that have been influenced by or have left their imprint on the Celtic heritage we see today.

While many tend to view nations as distinct entities, a retrospective journey through history reveals our interconnectedness, often in surprising ways.

Before the advent of Christianity, the Celts boasted a sophisticated social structure grounded in class and kinship and adhered to a religious system now known as Celtic polytheism. Tribes were led by elected Kings, and society was divided into three primary segments:

A warrior aristocracy,
An intellectual class comprising Druids, poets, and jurists,
The remainder of the populace.
Intriguingly, women held roles in both warfare and kingship. High and low kingship positions were filled via election under the system of tanistry, a practice that baffled Norman writers accustomed to the principle of primogeniture, where the eldest son inherits the crown.

Information on family structure is scant, but Athenaeus, in his Deipnosophists, 13.603, alleges a sexual preference for boys among the Celts, insinuating a potential for bisexual relationships.

Understanding how Celtic tribes amalgamated over time is essential to gain a comprehensive view of their journey through Europe, Britain, and Ireland.

Numerous online resources offer different perspectives on this topic. In the following pages, I aim to narrate Celtic history in a story-like format rather than delving into date-specific details. I’ve provided numerous links for those interested in a deeper study of Celtic history.

The Celtic culture has left its mark on many nations through conflict, trade, and artistic influence. Some of these cultures include Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France (i.e., Gaul), Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Russia, and the United States.

While investigating the origins of the Celts, I encountered various opinions regarding their initial homeland. Dr. Proinseas MacCana proposes that the Celts originated from regions in southern Germany and Bohemia, while author Frank Delainy suggests eastern France as the initial Celtic settlement. Interestingly, Bohemia translates to “home of the Boii”, a Celtic group that resided in the area.

Contrarily, the earliest known Celtic homeland is believed to be in Central Asia – East and West Turkestan, located north/northwest of Tibet. Celtic remains and artifacts have been uncovered by British archaeological expeditions since the 1920s, with some discoveries dating back over 25,000 years B.C. The unearthed items include kilts, tartan woolen clothing, engraved knives and swords typical of the Celts, and even skulls with blonde and red hair.

The Celts are credited with being the first ancient civilization to domesticate horses over 20,000 years ago. This historical evidence strongly suggests that the prominent Genghis Khan had direct Celtic lineage, potentially contributing to his numerous successes during his rule.

British archaeologists have been conducting excavations in the region for many years, unearthing artifacts and skeletal remains that provide proof of Celtic inhabitants over 20,000 years ago, including several red-haired corpses.

Moreover, evidence has surfaced of the Celtic race’s presence in North America dating back over 50,000 years, casting doubt on the claim that Christopher Columbus was the first to discover America.

The Celtic culture was firmly established throughout Europe, including most of Spain. Around 400 B.C., Celtic tribes converged on Northern Italy, dominating the land to create what was known as Gallia Cisalpina. They subsequently laid siege to Rome, occupied it after a fierce battle, and were paid a ransom of 1,000 pounds of pure gold by the Romans to leave and not return, an arrangement that suited the warrior tribes who weren’t keen on city living.

Meanwhile, in the east, the Celts continued their conquests, with many opting to settle in the new lands. A group of these Celts invaded Greece and looted the renowned shrine of Apollo at Delphi. Three different tribes, known as Galatae or “keltoi” in Greek, eventually settled in Galatia. By this time, most of Britain was under Celtic control.

However, the Celts then entered a period of decline, being pushed back on several fronts. Even Gaul (France) was conquered by Caesar and absorbed into the Roman Empire. By the fifth century, most of Britain was part of the Roman Empire, while Ireland remained largely untouched until the ninth century arrival of the Vikings. This isolation is why Ireland’s language, then known as Geodelic (Gaelic), was preserved.

The social structure of Iron Age Celtic society was highly advanced, significantly ahead of other cultures of the time. This tribal society was bound together by a sophisticated system of laws and social customs known as ‘Fenechas’ or the law of the Feine (Freemen), more commonly referred to as the Brehon Laws. These laws served the Celtic people for centuries.

The most comprehensive collection of Brehon Laws was codified in 438 A.D. under the order of Laighaire, one of the High Kings of Ireland. This codification was achieved by three kings, three Brehona (the Recitors of the Law), and three Christian missionaries. These laws created a functioning legal framework for both Pagan and Christian followers. The law, as laid out in the “Senchus Mor”, was primarily local, with national laws playing a secondary role. The Brehons acted as the recitors of these laws.

In Celtic society, the nobility functioned as judges, with Brehons reciting the law before a ruling could be issued. Given the lack of a written language, knowledge, history, laws, etc., were memorized and verbally passed down from one generation to the next, to be recited back to the community as needed.

The Brehon laws governed social interactions, defining hospitality, etiquette, and other behavioral codes, leaving little room for ambiguity. All family members were bound by these codes and expected to adhere to them.

The Druids, part of Celtic society, performed sacrifices of crops, animals, and even humans during specific festivals. In the Celtic societal framework, people were never executed for crimes outside of these festivals. The mode of execution varied depending on the god to whom the sacrifice was dedicated, with human sacrifices to the god Essus being among the most notable.

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