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The Golden Era of Celts: Highlights

The Celts were renowned for their love of storytelling as well as their fierceness in battle, independence, and the intricate beauty of their art. As for their history, have a look as you like:

Celts in Europe and Turkey between 800 BCE and 400 BCE
Where Celts once lived (approximation). The Hallstatt culture (green), 1200-750 BCE; La Tène culture (yellow). 450 BCE; Widest boundaries (brown) ca. 100 BCE.

Greeks and Romans on Celts

Lo CELTS were fond of good stories, and many have survived, perhaps in transformed shapes, but something is there.

Aristotle knew the Celts lived "beyond Spain". Eporbus (ca. 350 BC) has three lines of verse about them.They were using "the same customs as the Greeks" - whatever that may mean. He was on friendly terms with them, it appears. A bit earlier, Plato considered them to be barbarious, drunken and combative. Opinions differ, particularly of folks living far away - [17]

The Celts dominated Mid-Europe before the Roman Empire stretched westwards and northwards, and German tribes came from the north and east. No chronicles from the ranks of Celts about their civilisation and dominion have come down to us. Yet, from the traces that have been found and from accounts of Latin writers at their heyday and maybe later, much has been deduced "with certainty", as they say. [18]

The Celts is described as a fair race with many red-haired persons, or there often was a tinge of red underlying the black and dark brown. [19]

As they spread from their possible, ancestral regions near the Danube, they were not united enough to prevail till the end of time, and that's a fact as we see it. [20] But in the Golden Age of Celtdom in Continental Europe they waged successful wars as well, conquered Spain about 500 BC, and won Northern Italy.[21]

Celts as Allies

Greeks and Celts were friends and allies in the Golden Era of Celts, and waged wars together. But not a Celt was seen in Carthagianian ranks. In fact, Celtica helped in preserving the Greek sort of civilisation from Eastern despotisms, and by that helped in keeping alive freedom and humane culture in parts of Europe. [22]

An example: When Alexander the Great was about to get into Asia with his army, he first sought to make a deal with the Celts "who dwelt by the Ionian gulf" to try to secure his Greek lands and dominions while he was away. The friend and perhaps half-brother of Alexander, Ptolemy Soter, relates that the Celtic envoys that Alexander conversed with, were haughty men of great stature, and when they were drinking with Alexander he asked them what they feared the most, they answered,

"We fear no man; only one thing, that the sky should fall on us."

When the envoys left, Alexander turned to his nobles and whispered,

"What a vainglorious people." [23]

There is a folk-tale about Henny Penny, who went to tell the king that the sky was falling. [24]

Who Were They?

The Celts were an early Indo-European people who spread over much of Europe from the second millennium BC to the first century BC. Their tribes and groups eventually ranged from the British Isles and northern Spain to as far east as Transylvania, the Black Sea coasts, and Galatia in Anatolia. Celts were in part absorbed into the Roman Empire as Britons, Gauls, Boii, Galatians, and Celtiberians.

Celtic languages survived in Celtic speakers of Ireland, Highland Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, and Brittany.

Cultural Levels - Remains

In 1846 a pre-Roman necropolis was discovered in Hallstatt near Salzburg, in Austria. Dr. Arthur Evans went on to date relics found there, from about 750 to 400 BC, roughly. There were sheaths of gold and other tokens of the standard of civilsation attained there, in one of the first Iron Age cultures of Europe: it's even the oldest archaeological evidence of the Celts. [28]

In the fairly rigid geometric Hallstatt art there was a general tendency toward the extravagant and the Baroque. Greek influence was hardly there.

The arrangement of figures in pairs was largely characteristic; the designs, however, seem to be more concerned with straight symmetry than treating the arrangement as organic wholes. Plant patterns were very rare, although contrasts in colour and the breaking up of smooth surfaces were often used. ◊

IT WAS a hallmark of later Celtic art to reduce natural images or forms to more abstract, decorative elements. In this way natural forms, like foliage, were reduced to pure decoration. Celtic artisans appeared to enjoy forming sweeping curves and undulations alternating with spirals and some other simple motives that are found in classical Greek art too. Celts expanded on these in his system of decorations. Thus, pretty much of it was rooted in abstract geometric designs and stylized bird and animal forms. [29]

A typical bird motif is found in this art system. Perhaps it derives from Italy - or it may be traced back to late Helladic times in Greece. Basically, in the rigidly geometric Hallstatt art, major advances made were on technical lines.

It is also thought that the Celts were the first in Europe to master enamelling. [30]

Celts and Germans

From about 300 BC and onwards the Celts lost cohesion and gave way to German tribes during much warfare. When it had setteled down, Gaul and the British Isles remained under Celtic law and leadership, and nowhere else. However, d'Arbois de Jubainville considered that Germans who took the place of the Celts in many countries, at first lived under Celtic dominion as a "subject people". His viewpoint can't be proved properly looking into or guessing into word meanings and their diversified 'root system' of a sort. (There are fair roots, likely roots and possible roots and other great gambits of etymology). de Jubainville found words like Reich, which is of unquestioned Celtic origin. "What so?" and "What of it?" may look like very natural questions as to the real proof value (ascertainment value) of a word or five. [31]

One has to look for the best means at hand to prove (document) oen's case. It may work well to reduce far shots to a minimum, and guesses to nothing.

Now, it should be noted that neither the Celtic language nor the religion of Celts were handed over to German tribes who invaded Celtic tracts one by one. Germans used other names on deities, had other religious funeral customs. [33] The German custom of burning great-looking men on pyres, ties in the customs of early Greeks, but not those of Celts. [Mlb 331]

A Few of the Things Celts Were Devoted To

"There are two things the Gauls are devoted to - the art of war and speech subtleties." [Cf. Porcius Cato, 37]

From Julius Caesar's account of them they were:

  • Extremely superstituous;
  • Submitting to their Druids in all public and private affairs;
  • Regarding it as the worst of punishment to be excommunicated and forbidden to approach the (Druid-governed) ceremonies of religion. [All 37]
Druids were taught in Druid schools, where they were to learn by heart very many verses. Further, Druids used the Greek characters. [37]

Celtic Names Abound in Europe

Names differ and have ancestry too. Names like Milan is derived from Mediolanum, a Celtic name. One may find Celtic names in Spain too. [21, 35] Names that Celts put on various places have survived to this day. "London" is one such name. Many names have been simplified or transformed too.

By the way, the Latin poet Vergil stemmed from Celts. [21]


Visual Celtic Art

Art Expressions

CELTIC culture passed through several phases and regional variations. During several centuries BC and around BC, the Celts expanded throughout most of northern Europe and the British Isles. But in the mid-1st century BC most Celts lost their independence to Romans.

Some of their cherished art forms have survived, at least in fragments. During the Iron Ages the Celtic art style flourished and branched out into different schools of great beauty. The art styles influenced each other and were spread far and wide through such as exchange and mere copying.

Art expressions can be essential sources of insight into the sophistication of the people and societies may reveal themselves considerably through their art, because 'built-in' or shared understanding of such as central meanings of icons and the like.

Stylistic developments may be forerunners of great or deep changes in style, and thus outlooks as well, perhaps. Great or ennovating stylistic developments may reveal the presence of active developments, fairly good workshops and schools, and also what influences that remote people may succumb to later, if given the time and opportunities through some forms and levels of sharing. ◊

SUCH EXPRESSIONS and many others could profit from very thorough, ongoing interpretations, among other things because much evidence tends to disappear from the public eye too, into the fangs of collectors that are not museums or better. ◊

IN THE 4th century BC and after that, the perhaps most interesting branch of Celtic art was found in Britain, in a very individual development.

Celtic Customs and Ways Survived in Ireland

Roman soldiers came and took over Gaul and the bigger part of Britain. But Ireland was not visited. It carried on the oldest surviving form of the Celtic art and language, including facets of its literature. [34-35]

Spencer: "I have heard some great warriors say . . . they never saw a more comely horseman than the Irish man . . . very vigilant and circumspect". [38n]


Celtic Folktales

Folklore Roots

Celtic peoples in Western Europe have left vestigial remnants of their forebears mythologies. Some were put down in writing in the Middle Ages, but the surviving material is scarce. During the 1800s and 1900s there was a resurgence of interest in the folklore of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Yet, after all, not a few "Celtic folktales" are just stories told in a Celtic culture.

There are myths and mythic elements at the back of very many Celtic stories, as there are in Swedish and Danish folktales, for example. And as with Greek myths and others, there can be differing versions and corrupted material.

The arts of interpretation help. Within absurdies there is room for understanding, perhaps from a psychological angle, if none else. Carl G. Jung and Jungians put one special outlook onto tales, and other put other "spins" on what they come up with - through interpretations. There tends to be more than just one fit way of regarding this and that (phenomena).

Semi-mythological and poetic traditions of the British Isles have survived many damaging effects of time and low, clerical mentalities. Much of what is found inside common folklore today, has remarkable antecedents in Celtic myths and legends. One may find they share motifs and other parts that we love to hear and read of as we grow older. Fascinating tales of Arthur and his Knights may have some roots or 'resonances' here, in the intricate web of fiction passed down through the ages.

. . . the old gods . . . still lived on in legend as kings of ancient Britain reigning in a fabulous past anterior to Julus Caesar - such were King Lud, founder of London . . . as well as many others. [Mtc 5]

Very many legends or articles of belief of the Greek or Roman mythology may, in some modification, be traced in fairy systems of many countries of Europe. Fairy love still attaches herself to some favoured mortal, who is from then on lost to human affection. There is much valour to be detected, much scope for fiendishness and romance along with fascinating beliefs in these waters.

The term "the Good People," is applied to the fays in Ireland. But with Christianity many gods and goddesses were obliged to forego adoration and respect. As stories were altered, they lost a good deal of their beauty, and the best part of their amiability. Even frolicsome Pan degenerated into the hoofed and horned devil, if not a baleful character -

Charles Squire traced Welsh and Irish kings and saints and hermits back to "the elemental powers of earth and fire, and the spirits that haunted the woods and streams" of Celtic imagination. He has also taken part in disclosing primitive . . . deities under the medieval and Christian trappings of "King Arthur's Knights". Thus, Celtic mythology furnished some elements or even "prototype figures" for the Norman romance-writers that took over and told tales of King Arthur and his men. [Op cit 7]

Someone writes: "I too question the stories of my youth, but it is these stories that make us the people we are . . . passing them on to my own children only added to the joy . . . I feel it is keeping these stories and ways of old alive that will fuel the generations to question and learn . . . the old ways . . . We will have some fun . . . and enjoy the treasures."

Old tales tend to shed light on former social conditions and beliefs and perhaps many dominant hopes and aspirations of lay people, and also successes they believed in in those days - in short, they transmit past and present enculturation parts.

Innocent ones may possess much curiosity, and rational thinking seem unbearable to some. Maybe we can all learn something from fairy tales, for there may be an open-ended string of ideas of attainments to catch, if we accept metaphoric possibilities somehow.


Celtic folktales, fairy tales of Celts, Literature  

The folktales in this collection are from these books:

  1. Lover, Samuel and Croker, Thomas: Myths and Legends of Ireland. Twickenham: Tiger Books, 1998. — The work consists of (a) Samuel Lover's Legends and Tales of Ireland (1831), a collection of tales that was originally retold for the collector's (Lover's) friends; and (b) Thomas Crofton Croker's Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland (1825-28). The first editions of these books are in the public domain.

  2. Jacobs, Joseph: Celtic Fairy Tales. Twickenham: Senate/Tiger Books, 1994. — Celtic Fairy Tales (1892) and More Celtic Fairy Tales (1894) are both edited by Joseph Jacobs. Several first editions of these too are in the public domain.

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