Who were the Celts and why are they so Mysterious?
Winter Solstice 2022. A time of year where I am keenly aware of the changing patterns of light and dark. The Celtic origin myths and the lives of the Celts were much more attune with the natural world than we are now. How they lived and even their imprint upon the earth is very different than that of people today. Perhaps the allure of the Celts, or indigenous populations worldwide, is their closer connection with mother earth. I am aware of the importance of observation of our natural world. How living closer with nature, rather than trying to dominate and impose our will upon her, may be what separates the civilized from the uncivilized in what must be the great irony of our time. In that case perhaps it is better to emulate the latter.
The first thing to know is the Celts are not a race or a tribe of people. They are a culture composed of many tribes of people who spoke a shared Celtic language. At one time, celtic speakers encompassed a very broad area across Europe. The Celts were not mysterious to themselves, but were to some with whom they had contact. They did not leave written histories, so we are dependent on the writings of the Greeks and Romans for the little we know. And this is skewed in much the same way the Pilgrims viewed the indigenous people of America.
I can’t help but note the similarities in how the invading people, viewed the natives as primitive, barbarians and savages. The Celts, like Native Americans or indigenous peoples built mainly in wood or thatch or animal skins, so little of their communities remain. They did not have an early written language that survived. Unlike the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans who built out of stone and left voluminous histories the Celts and Native American history is recorded in myth and song. Like the story of the three little pigs it was the house of brick that survives. When my son lived in Wales I learned that the Welsh or Cymraeg language survived attempts to eliminate it, through singing Cymraeg in church. What survives, and how it survives says much about the need of dominant cultures– to destroy the heroes of the culture they attempt to eliminate. Destroying structures and icons of the past is part of an assimilation process designed to erase the previous cultures power.
We see this in religion as well as material structure. Remove the statues of the saints or gods from churches and sacred shrines, replace pagan holidays with Christian ones. Build your forts, palaces or churches on the sacred spaces that came before them. It is such an ancient pattern that we have a word for it acculturation. But the word hardly suffices to embody the violence and the attempt at historical erasure this often encompasses. The world of the Celts is mysterious because so little of it survived and because often there exists a concerted effort for its history to be obliterated. The wisdom traditions of so many “primitive” people may hold keys to our own survival as we face major climate change. Humans have faced such events before.
The Celts as a culture followed earlier cultures, but generally are said to have arisen in the Iron age from the Halstatt culture about 750-450 BCE and from thence to the La Tene culture about 450 BCE to 50 CE. Where we have the most data on the Celts is from DNA and early burials. The Celts did not become a culture in isolation, rather they are part of extensive trading network that showed the in and outflow of many different cultures. You see this in the development of Celtic coins which were heavily influenced by the Greek and Romans. The Celts operated under a barter economy and did not use money in the traditional sense. They began minting their own coins in about the 250 BC and were fashioned after the familiar Greek coins. What they called the coins, their denomination and value and the symbols they used can only be guessed at. They do show many of the stylized elements found in other Celtic artefacts with a strong emphasis on nature and curvilinear designs. As the Romans moved into formerly Celtic lands, Celtic coins became more commonplace and continued to be minted until their defeat by Rome.
I always think about where indigenous people built their communities. Not in the floodplain or forests, but the Celts built dunon, or oppida as the Romans called their hilltop forts, usually built on low hilltops, adjacent a waterway, but not in the mighty river’s path. Observing and living in close contact with the earth you learn how to stay out of harm’s way and learn how to create defensible space. According to Graham Lobb in his book ‘France: An Adventure History’; the Celts built impenetrable hedges by notching tender sapling branches together on either side and threading them through with brambles and thorns. These hedges if you recognize them today, are all that remain of the Celts of Gaul. His description seems very much the description of a hedgerow anywhere in Britain.
The patterns of so called primitive cultures informs practices of today and we seldom take note at all. A “sacred spring”Camp de Cesar’ actually a Celtic dunon, an ancient Roman road built upon an earlier Celtic one. In the ancient game of subsuming it is likely that the later culture built upon something of value and then forgot where it came from. On this auspicious day let us not forget that we, and everything we have ever built, is due to the careful observation of people for more attune to mother earth than we are.
I am the wind on the sea;Amergin
I am the wave of the sea;
I am the bull of seven battles;
I am the eagle on the rock
I am a flash from the sun;
I am the most beautiful of plants;
I am a strong wild boar;
I am a salmon in the water;
I am a lake in the plain;
I am the word of knowledge;
I am the head of the spear in battle;
I am the god that puts fire in the head;
Who spreads light in the gathering on the hills?
Who can tell the ages of the moon?
Who can tell the place where the sun rests?
Kelly Wheaton ©2022 – All Rights Reserved