Celtic Europe

An online resource for students
by Leigh T. Denault

Icham of Irlaunde
Ant of the holy londe of irlonde
Gode sir pray ich ye
for of saynte charite,
come ant daunce wyt me,
in irlaunde
Anonymous, fourteenth century

Table of Contents:

An Introduction to Celtic History

The lands occupied by Celtic peoples, whose existence can be traced over more than 25 centuries, were vast. Celts occupied land in modern day Eastern Europe, Greece, Spain, Northern Italy, Western Europe, England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Celtic people have mystified anthropologists and historians for generations. They were a non literate culture whose history and literature was preserved through oral tradition. The only written records of their civilization are the texts left by classical authors, the first of which appear circa 500 BCE. These accounts, inaccurate as they may be, are important in that they demonstrate that the Celts came into cultural contact, and sometimes competition, with the Greeks as well as the Romans.

In recent years, modern archeology has been successful in reconstructing an echo of the "voice" of the ancient Celts. Facets of Celtic society, economy, and religion completely ignored by Classical texts have been brought to light. The classical image of Celtic life describes barbaric men and women dressed in uncured animal skins in primitive villages, people who worshipped strange deities and whose lives were consumed in blood feuds. Because of the authority of the classical authors, these ancient misconceptions were pervasive. They are visible, for example, hundreds of years later  in some of the Shakespearean characters that people Cymbelline and King Lear.

The Celts impressed the Greeks and Romans with their bold dress and powerful appearance. Generally characterized by classical observers as a people of fair hair, of red or gold, and fair complexions, (although the people of the British Isles were described as small and dark-haired) most Celtic women apparently stood taller than the average Roman citizen. Celtic women, upon reaching maturity, adopted a complex braided style for their hair, and wore dyed and embroidered dresses. Plaids, or wrapped woven cloaks, were common for men and women alike, and gold and silver torques and armrills, as well as rings, adorned wealthy Celts. Brooches that held closed the openings of dresses and plaids were another common feature of Celtic dress. Gallic men commonly spiked their hair and bleached it to an almost white color with chalky water, and wore their beards long, while the Bretons and Picts tattooed their arms and faces with blue. Many Danish and English bogs have yielded archeological evidence of cloth and dress, and Roman historians such as Tacitus also document some of the customs of everyday Celtic life.

Some features of Celtic life were not as closely chronicled in classical sources. The quality of Celtic metal-work was technically and artistically advanced. Most Celtic people lived in well-populated farming villages, with larger towns linking smaller settlements and acting as meeting sites for economic and cultural activity. Fortified cities and shrines were erected along well-travelled roadways. This  evidence of a more complex society in pre-Roman Europe has led some scholars to rethink conclusions drawn from classical texts by such authors as Caesar, Polybius, and Strabo. Celtic societies, once considered "barbaric" as seen through the lens of classical observers, are now looked upon as advanced cultures networked through the bond of a common linguistic heritage. 

Piecing together the culture and lives of the ancient Celts, in the absence of clear archeological or textual record, is not an easy task. No one is even sure where the term "Celtic" comes from. With a great deal of inconsistency, classical sources provide tantalizing but incomplete information about the peoples called Keltoi and Galatatae by the Greeks, and Celtae or Galli by the Romans. Two thousand years ago, the term Celt was used specifically for peoples inhabiting continental Europe; the denizens of England and Ireland were not to be called "Celts" until seventeenth and eighteenth-century linguistic scholarship began to identify the inhabitants of the pre-Roman British Isles as Celtic peoples.

Who were the Celts? The issue is further obscured by the eighteenth and nineteenth-century Romantics. Clumping all of the Celtic peoples into one homogeneous family with a single ethnic identity, the Romantics exalted the idea of the "noble savage." The notion of the "romantic highlander" and the modern conception of the druids are based on these romanticized images of Celtic history and culture. Modern nationalist writers such as William Butler Yeats in Ireland and Sir Walter Scott in Scotland used such idealized portraits as the basis of a new pan-Celtic movement that offered resistance to the modernization and imperialism of Victorian Britain.

Evidence From the Past: Text, Linguistics, and Archeology

There are three types of evidence from the Iron Age through the Roman period available to archeologists and scholars of Celtic history. The first of these is documentary sources, or texts. Because concepts like language and cultural identity have no physical manifestation, written records are our only source for reconstructing them. The second source is linguistics, in the form of Celtic names and words referred to in Classical records, or place-names. These give philologists clues as to where the Celtic branch of languages may be placed in relation to other languages of the world. Celtic languages are now identified as one branch of the large Indo-European family. 

Ogham is the first Irish method of writing, dating from the fourth century, CE. Supposed by some historians to have resulted from contact with Latin Roman numerals, the resulting ogham alphabet is unique to Ireland. Its beauty and usefulness lie in its absolute simplicity - ogham can be easily cut into wood or carved into stone. The central line on which the characters sit is usually the edge of the writing surface, such as along the edge of a stone monument.

Although we know that the majority of the ogham writings were made on wood for everyday use, (as chronicled in the Táin ) the only texts to have survived to the present day are tombstones and other stone markers, the majority of which were made between the fifth and seventh centuries CE. These stone markers were found in Southern Ireland and the West coast of Britain, among the ancient Irish settlements there.

Each of the letters of the ogham alphabet represents the common name of a species of tree. The ogham chart to the left of the table depicts each letter or sound in the ogham alphabet, including the combination vowel sounds. In the table, each letter is matched with the tree-name it represents, in Irish, Welsh, and English.



























draenen wen




derwen, dar




















eiddew, iorwg








draenen ddu








































eirin Mair






The third source of evidence is archeological. On its own, archeology can seldom provide historians with a complete picture of a culture or society. But archeology as a method of identifying patterns of human life offers concrete evidence against which the textual evidence supplied by classical authors may be judged and better understood. Geographical distribution, laboratory analysis of the chemical composition of various artifacts and types of material, and the patterns of settlement and land usage are invaluable in the process of reconstructing the history of the ancient Celtic peoples.

Archeological digs at the La Tène site in Western France have changed the way in which Celtic art and technology is viewed by the modern world. It was initially suspected that a society so lacking in any form of written record keeping (ogham was a later addition to the Celtic tradition) would be unable to produce the geometrically and technologically complex works of art that were produced contemporaneously by the Greeks and Romans. However, examples of knotwork, metal-working, pottery, glass, and geometric circle-drawing of an extremely sophisticated nature were uncovered at La Tène . Simple geometric elements such as parallel lines, concentric circles, and chevrons later are merged with compass construction techniques to create complicated geometric patterns. In Kirkburn, (East Yorkshire) a sword of over seventy pieces, including a worked-iron blade, studs, and scabbard plates, was discovered. Its intricate construction and design attest to the skill of Celtic craftsmen.

Although the classical world studied the development of new and different arms and armour, the Celts wore no armour at all until circa 300 BCE, the approximate date of the invention of chain mail. Chain mail is of Celtic origin, the earliest known examples appearing in graves dating from the third century. The concept of thousands of small, interlocking metal rings is a complex one, and its implementation required considerable skill on the part of the blacksmith. Because chain mail was difficult to make, and expensive, only senior warriors or royalty are thought to have made use of it initially, although it became more widespread later on. Chain mail was soon adopted by the Romans when it proved effective in battle.

Ireland contains the sites of many ancient, abandoned Celtic settlements, some of which date back to almost prehistoric times. Formations of great earthworks, such as ring-forts, are thought to have been constructed during the Iron Age, and many examples survive to this day. By far the most commonly occurring archeological site is the ring-fort, which surrounded a single dwelling place. Called raths (earthwork), cashels (stonework), and duns (more adequately defended sites), these fortifications surrounded a central house, usually thatched with heather and banked with earth. The entire construction was roughly circular, and some of them lasted long enough to build up their surrounding raths prodigously (such as the early Christian rath located in Deer Park Farms, County Antrim.)

Celtic culture lives on through the languages and traditions of the Celtic peoples of the British Isles. Although many of the Celtic languages are now exinct, six Celtic languages still exist today. These are classified into two categories: Q-Celtic, or Goidelic, and P-Celtic, or Brithonic. Scholars once believed that the dividing line between these two language groups (based on the pronunciations of "q" and "p" sounds) resulted from two distinct waves of immigration. More recent studies suggest that Celtic languages evolved gradually across their huge territory, rather than moving rapidly from a single concentrated area.

Celtic Mythology

Table of Contents:

Celtic Gods and Heroes

    Early Celtic Gods



    victory goddess of the Iceni tribe


    sun god and healer, his name means "brilliant"


    forest goddess, her name means "bear"


    god of war (for Britain and Gaul)


    lord of the animals, name means "the horned one"


    Gallic horse goddess, also goddess of fertility


    the high God, his name means "lord"


    Treveni god of healing


    goddess of the Seine River


    hammer god, (like the Irish god Dagda) name means "good striker"


    mysterious sky god, name means "the thunderer"


    his name means "god of the tribe", possibly the god of many tribes


    Vocontii god, Gallic in origin

Celtic Number Mythology

Three   was a sacred number in ancient Celtic mythology and religion. Riddles and triadic phraseology are frequent in Celtic mythology. The triskel, a figure composed of three spirals, signifies the three-layered nature of a human soul, and is itself a central figure in ancient Celtic symbolism. The earth, sea, and sky were thought to share a three-fold marriage in oaths and as witness to deeds, and represented sacred elements.

The number five signified the family unit and order in Irish tradition, because of the five provinces of Ireland, and also the five laws imposed on provincial Irish kings.

Seventeen   was a number associated with the cycles of the visible moon, particularly the new moon. On this day of the moon's cycle, many influential and monumental events were thought to have taken place. The 17th generation was supposed to be the farthest reaches of ancestral memory, putting the longevity of memories within a clan at approximately 400 years.

Twenty-seven   represented the sacred number nine tripled three times, which supposedly triples its potency. Twenty-seven also signified the number of warriors comprising a war-band, and the number of the members of a Celtic chieftain's royal court. The number nine may also have been associated with a nine-day lunar week.

Thirty-three   represented the royal or judicary number, signifying great honor. The courts of great gods and heroes number thirty-two, with the king of the gods making the tally thirty-three. This also represented the number of islands that Maelduin had to visit before he could find his homeland.

Welsh Days of the Week

On a Monday , marriages and loans were to be avoided because "work begun on Monday will never be a week old". Monday was considered a bad day to begin new endeavors.

Tuesday was thought a fortunate day, good for travelling and getting married.

Wednesday was believed to be a witching day, in which new projects should be avoided, for fear the witches might make plans go awry.

Thursday was an oportune day for a christening, but a bad day to move house.

Friday was the day that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, and therefore represented the most unlucky day of all in the Welsh reckoning. Fruit trees were not to be pruned on a Friday, or else they would not blossom or bear for three more years. Waters were believed to be controlled by the fairies on Friday, and was also avoided.

Saturday was considered to be a lucky day in Welsh tradition. An ideal day for marketing or for conveying a newly-wed couple's belongings to their home, but never a good day for marriage, or else the couple might not live out the year.

Sunday was a good day for weddings. A knife-wound on a Sunday would be very slow to knit, a remnant of the tale of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who was slain with a blade forged during the Sunday mass.

Online Resources for Celtic History

Bibliography of Sources for Further Study

Ashe, Geoffrey. Mythology of the British Isles. Methuen London, London, 1990.

Ashe, Geoffrey. Kings and Queens of Early Britain. Methuen, London, 1982.

Barber, Chris. Mysterious Wales. Granada, London, 1983.

Brander, Michael. Scottish and Border Battles and Ballads . Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., New York, 1975.

Buchan, David. Scottish Tradition. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1984.

Cantor, Roman F. The Medieval Reader. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1994.

Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Mercier Press, Dublin, 1972.

Flanagan, Laurence. A Chronicle of Irish Saints. Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1990.

Goetink, Glenys. Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends . University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1975.

Hartley, Dorothy. Lost Country Life. Pantheon Books, New York, 1979.

James, Simon. The World of the Celts. Thames & Hudson, London, 1993.

Knightly, Charles. The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain. Thames & Hudson, London, 1986.

Loomis, Roger Sherman. Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance. Columbia University Press, New York, 1927.

Loomis, Roger Sherman. Wales and the Arthurian Legend. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1956.

Murphy, Maureen O'Rourke, et al. Irish Literature: A Reader. Syracuse University Press, New York, 1987.

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley. Celtic Heritage. Thames & Hudson, London, 1961.

Simpson, Jacqueline. The Folklore of the Welsh Border. B.T. Batsford, London, 1976.

Toulson, Shirley. The Celtic Year. Element, Shaftsbury, 1993.

Towill, E.S. The Saints of Scotland. St. Andrews Press, Edinburgh, 1978.

Trevelyan, Marie. Folk Lore and Folk Stories of Wales. Elliot Stock, London, 1909.

Yeats, William Butler, ed. Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. The Modern Library, New York, 1994.

Contents Copyright © 2003 Leigh T. Denault