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The Celts

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Even today, very little is known about the mysterious, elusive culture of the Celtic peoples.

What we do know of the Celts today is largely thanks to the descriptions of Roman writers, including Herodotus, who named them the "Keltoi." To the orderly, developed world of the Roman empire, the Celts seemed barbarous and primitive. But archaeology is beginning to reveal that the Celts possessed a powerful, complex culture, which was to have a large impact on human civilisations for centuries to come.

Our earliest archaeological evidence of the Celts originates from what is now France and western Germany. It dates back to the Bronze age, around 1200 BC. They probably began to settle in the British Isles during the Iron Age (8th century to 6th century BC), while between the 5th and 1st centuries BC, their influence extended from what is now Spain and the shores of the Black Sea. In the 4th century BC, the Celts invaded the lands of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and were able to conquer northern Italy, Macedonia and Thessalia. They ravaged the Roman city of Delphi in 279 and even plundered Rome in 390, going on to penetrate Asia Minor. However, in the 2nd century BC, the Celts of northern Italy, known as the Gauls, were conquered by the Romans, France and the Rhineland was subdued in the 1st century BC by Julius Caesar and by the 1st century AD, most of Britain was under the rule of the Roman empire. In the same period, the Celts of central Europe were dominated by the Germanic peoples. In medieval and modern times, the Celtic tradition survived in Bretagne of western France, Wales, the highlands of Scotland, and Ireland.

The Celtic tribes themselves were united by common speech, customs and practises, and religion. Their economy was governed by pastoral and agricultural activities, for the Celts had no true urban life. They spent their lives working on fields, tending crops or animals, and depended on the fertility of the soil and the conditions of the weather throughout the seasons. Each tribe was headed by a king and was divided by class into the Druids, or priests, warrior nobles, and commoners. The nobles fought their enemies on foot with swords, shields and spears and were fond of feasting and drinking.

In the same way as all other cultures, the lifestyle of the Celts influenced the structure and beliefs of their religion, known as Druidism. When Anglesey was settled by the Celts in about 100 BC, it became the centre of this religion. It consisted of Pagan beliefs in deities of the Earth, spirits of the woodland, sun gods, as well as elves and demons.

The supreme god of the Celts was Lug, who gave his name to this city of Lyons ("Lugundum" in Latin). Taranis, or Dagada as he was known in Ireland, was the god of the spiritual world. Ogomis, the god of warriors and kingship, was said to have a face which smiled to the right but glowered on the left. Fertility gods and goddesses were abound in Celtic tradition, including Cernunos the Antlered, who was also the god of the untamed forces of nature, and Bridget, the patroness of fire. He was often depicted as being surrounded by deer, serpents and other woodland creatures. A number of animals were seen as sacred by the Celts, including the wild boar. In Gaul, the hunting and killing of the boar stood for the mortal running the spiritual to ground.

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Celtic Shield brooch, available at the Spiral Online Shop

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