And their culture played a pivotal role in the emergence of Europe

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Large areas of Europe, from Ireland to Galatia in central Turkey, were dominated by peoples with broadly similar traditions of art, culture and language over two thousand years ago, who did not achieve a cohesive political nation. The Greeks and Romans called them keltoi or celtae and their culture played a pivotal role in the emergence of Europe.

Two distinct racial stocks colonised the British Islands before the Roman period. One was the small dark-haired, dark-eyed and long-skulled Iberian stock and the other stock were the tall, fair, light-eyed and broadheaded Celts, who spoke an Indo-European language. The Celts consisted of two groups: Gaels (or Goidels) and Britons (or Brythons). The Goidels conquered the Iberian natives then occupying the British Isles. They were followed by the Brythons, with a more developed religion and mythology. When the Romans invaded the British Islands, they found Brythons (present-day Welsh and Cornish) in possession of the south and west, Goidels (modern-day speakers of Irish Manx and Scots Gaelic) in possession of Scotland and Ireland, and Picts (a hybrid Iberian and Goidelic peoples) in the far north.

The Celts appeared in Europe about 900 BC. Rich tombs, full of native goods, fortified sites and the existence of salt mines suggest a princely ruling class whose power depended on trade. The next period in the history of the Celts, named La Tene, began about 500 BC. It is characterized by a particular form of art work, which spread into every area of Celtic influence including Ireland and the British Isles. The La Tene phase marks the maximum extension of Celtic civilization. Between 900 and 300 BC, various groups with an iron-based metal economy expanded to include central Turkey, through the Balkans and Bohemia, parts of Italy, Spain, Portugal, southern Germany and France, and eventually Britain and Ireland. Celtic societies developed in response to differing historical and geographical circumstances. They were not only dependent on trade, but also their main activity was farming or stock breeding.

The people called “Celts” wrote down nothing of themselves. Their culture was transmitted orally and history and facts were memorized in the form of verse. Although most of what is known about the Celtic life comes from archaeological sources, their religious practices were also described by Romans and Greeks and by later Celtic writers in Ireland and Wales, who were writing from a Christian perspective.

The aim of this dissertation is to present the Celts in Britain and their culture which had a great influence on the development of civilization in the British Isles, especially in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.

Chapter One concerns the genealogy and settlement of the Celts. Not only are the beginnings of the Celtic people and ancient references to the Celts described but also Celtic tribes living in hill-forts and the main Celtic kingdoms in Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Everyday life of the Celts is presented in Chapter Two. Physical description and character of the Celtic people, their family life, important occupations and war craftsmanship are shown there. Chapter Three in this dissertation deals with the Celtic religion. Aside from the beliefs of the Celts, druids and Celtic legends, this part concerns animal symbolism in Celtic mythology. The Celtic legacy is shown in Chapter Four. Not only are the Celtic customs which survived till modern times described but also the Celtic languages still spoken in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and on the Isle of Man. The last part of Chapter Four presents modern-day references to the Celtic motifs which are used to emphasize ethnic or regional identity, and are present in music and literature.

1. Survivals of Celtic customs into modern times

Customary observances do not vanish very quickly because they are based on religion. Therefore, Celtic customs can still be met in Britain, especially in folklore. The celebration of the old solar or agricultural festivals of the spring and autumn equinoxes and of the summer and winter solstices can be evidence of the survival of the ancient religion into modern times.

There is no doubt that the Celtic worship centred around the important days in the year which present the rise, progress, and decline of the sun, and therefore of the fruits of the earth. The festivals were: Beltaine which fell at the beginning of May; the Feast of Lugh in August showing the turning-point of the sun’s course; and the sad festival called Samhain, which was the beginning of the ancient Celtic year (Squire 2000: 232).

The first festival called “Beltaine” in Ireland, “Bealtiunn” in Scotland, “Shenn da Boaldyn” in the Isle of Man, and “Galan-Mai” in Wales was celebrated on 1st May (ibid.: 233). The festival was held as the great spring-summer fertility gathering symbolized by the lighting of the fires. Livestock were driven between the twin flames to encourage the growth of crops and the health of cattle. Such ceremonies of cattle purification are still practiced (Delaney 1986: 85). The Maypole dance has its origin in the mad dance around the May fires, and now maypoles are sometimes seen as part of a fete, and the dancers are usually children.

The opposite to it was the sad festival called “Samhain” in Ireland and Scotland, “Sauin” in Man, and “Nos Galan-gaeof” in Wales (Squire 2000: 233). It was the greatest Celtic festival, which marked the beginning of the year, celebrated on the night of October 31st, now called Hallowe’en. It was a pastoral affair, a day when the harvest fruits had been gathered and offerings made to the ancestors to share in good fortune. This custom is still met in Ireland, in the cleaning of the house and leaving of food for the family spirits at Hallowe’en (Sharkey 1975: 18).

Hallowe’en customs today, although happy rather than sober, follow ancient practices. When children wearing scary costumes, masks or witches’ hats, carrying jack o’lanterns go for “ trick or treat” round the neighbourhood they are carrying ancient traditions. Apart from going trick-or-treating, children and older people sometimes go to Hallowe’en parties, where they play games, such as trying to catch an apple floating in water by using their teeth. Food at the parties is made to look strange by making it in the shape of a ghost or a witch. Hallowe’en is celebrated in both the US and the UK.

The main summer festival called “Lugnassad” in Ireland, “Lla Lluanys” in Man, and “Gwyl Awst” in Wales was held on 1st August and it was once of hardly less importance than Beltaine or Samhain (Squire 2000: 234). On the Sunday next to 1st August, thousands of pilgrims climb a mountain, Croagh Patrick, in the far west of Ireland. They commemorate Saint Patrick, but Lugh-the sun-god, was also worshipped there. On the same day in other parts of the country pilgrimages take place to holy wells and to local shrines (Delaney 1986: 84).

Another form of Celtic pagan survival is found in examples of the adoration of water, wells and stones. Well-worship was popular among the Celts and “holy wells” were resorted to for the cure of diseases, to obtain change of weather or “good luck”. The rich would sacrifice one of their horses at a well to secure a “good luck” and a blessing upon the rest. Fowls were offered at St Tegla’s Well near Wrexham by epileptic patients. In modern times offerings are still made but things offered by people are such trifles as coins, coloured pebbles, pins and rags (Squire 2000: 237).

Stone occupied an important place in Celtic spiritual life. Stones of all dimensions, standing in groups or alone in the middle of fields have survived as Celtic totems. Famous Stonehenge on a hill on Salisbury Plain in the south of England, Avebury in Wiltshire in the east, Stanton Drew in Somerset in the west, and Rollright in Oxfordshire in the north of Britain were used by Druids as temples. In Connemara, in the west of Ireland, old people still murmur in the name of Crom, who identified a stone deity (Delaney 1986: 90).

Old Celtic customs have survived and are still cherished. Things which were once practiced for religion, are still done for “luck”. On the one hand people fear that unless they are fulfilled, “something may happen”, but on the other hand they are just aware of necessity of supporting their own tradition.

2. The Celtic languages

The Celtic languages are a branch of the Indo-European family tree and survived

only on the north-western fringes of Europe. The Romans, who were widely spread in Europe, imposed their own way of life and culture and encouraged the Celtic ruling class to adopt the Roman language – Latin. Although the Roman province of Britannia covered most of the areas in present-day England and Wales, the people living there were not fluent at Latin. It was a language used mainly by officers in the army, by the Roman administration and by rich families, who often educated their children in Rome. In the countryside, where most people lived, Celtic speech continued to be dominant (O’Driscoll 1995: 16). Therefore, a limited impact of Latin in England and Wales and its absence in the other areas of the British Isles, allowed the Celtic languages to survive. These languages are named “insular Celtic” and the Celtic languages spoken on the Continent, which have disappeared, are called “continental Celtic” (Lipoński 2001: 31-32).

The Celtic languages which remained in Britain are divided into two significant groups: Goidelic and Brythonic. The Gaels of Ireland, Man and Scotland occupy the Goidelic group called “Q-Celtic”, but the speakers of Welsh, Cornish and Breton belong to the group called “P-Celtic”. In Goidelic an original “qu” remains as “q” in the earliest period and becomes “k” (written “c”), whereas in Brythonic an original “qu” appears as “p” (Dillon, Chadwick 1967: 206).

Goidelic led to the formation of the three Gaelic languages spoken in Ireland, Man and Scotland. Brythonic gave rise to two British Isles languages: Welsh and Cornish, and also survived on the Continent in the form of Breton, spoken in Brittany. An English word “son” in Irish and Scottish Gaelic is “mac”, and in Welsh and Cornish is “map” (Lipoński 2001: 32). There are similarities and differences between the Celtic languages. A word “river” in English has such equivalents in the Celtic languages: “abhann” in Irish Gaelic, “abhainn” in Scottish Gaelic, “awin” on the Isle of Man, “avon” in Welsh and in Cornish. But there are also such words which are quite difficult to be associated in the Celtic languages. An English word “year” is in Irish Gaelic “bliain”, in Scottish Gaelic “bliadna”, in Manx Gaelic is written “blein”, in Welsh “blwyddyn”, and in Cornish “bledhen”. But most words in the Celtic languages differ from each other so much that it is really difficult to associate them. An English word “money” is written in Irish Gaelic as “airgead”, in Scottish Gaelic “airgiod”, on the Isle of Man as “argid”, in Welsh “arian”, and in Cornish “arghans” (ibid.: 34).

The Celtic languages are still spoken and they are very essential to preserve ethnic identity of people living in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and on the Isle of Man.

The Welsh language is a highly-important symbol of Welsh identity. Although everybody in Wales speaks English, the Welsh language is the mother-tongue for about twenty per cent of the population. Therefore, for these people the Welsh identity means not only living in the region named Wales. Owing to successive campaigns, the Welsh language is taught at school. Moreover, there are many local newspapers in Welsh, a Welsh television channel and almost all signs and notices are written both in English and in Welsh (O’Driscoll 1995: 44).

The preservation of the Cornish identity may most of all be perceived in the proliferation of Cornish place-names, in words which begin with the renowned root “pen” or with “tre” – meaning “house”. Although the last native speaker of Cornish died in the 18th century, there are still people who can speak Cornish but not as a first language. The Cornish language in broadcasting, in the publishing of newspapers, on signposts and public amenities and in religious worship is used in limited ways. But the language is popular as a souvenir element and Cornish words can be found on dishcloths, stamps and various stickers or badges (Delaney 1986: 160-161).

The Manx language originated mainly from the relationship with Ireland and Scotland. Fewer and fewer people speak the language. In 1961 only 160 speakers of the Manx Gaelic remained, and few of those were native-speakers. The last person for whom Manx was a mother-tongue was Ned Maddrell, a fisherman who died in 1974. The dependence of the island upon the outside world has contributed to the decline of the language, and to the situation in which Manx Gaelic will eventually amount to no more than some names on bungalow gateposts (ibid.: 163).

The Scottish Gaelic is spoken as a first language by fewer and fewer people, mainly in the northwest of the country and in the islands off the west coast.

The Irish Gaelic is spoken along the western seaboard, in which native speakers continue to use the Gaelic vernacular. And although these areas receive special funding, Gaelic continues to decline.

Ethnic identity is much stronger if people speak their own language, which is the source of their culture. Therefore, the six Celtic languages which have survived into modern times should be cherished.

3. References to Celtic motifs

Celtic words have survived into modern times and are often met in Britain. In

England the names of some rivers such as Thames, Mersey, Severn and Avon, and two large cities, London and Leeds are Celtic. The name of the city “Dublin” means “black pond” and exists in the Celtic language as “duv linn”. Similarly, the name “Lindow” consists of the same words but in reverse order. Words such as “avon (“river”) and “pen” (“hill”) are frequent in place-names in Britain, especially in the south of the country (Cremin 2001: 11). Pentire in Cornwall and Kintyre in Scotland derive from “ceann tire”, which literally means “the head of the land”.

As far as clothes are concerned, the Celtic people in the past wore striped and checked cloaks fastened by a pin. Scottish tartan and dress developed from those striped cloaks and became a symbol of “Scottishness” and ethnic identity.

Being “Celtic” today means creating a kind of ethnic elite. The modern Celt is proud of his or her roots and supports the Celtic culture. In Wales the National Eisteddfod offers an annual legitimate forum for the display of poetry, song, music, and its purpose is to promote the Welsh language, literature and customs (Gierek 1998: 148). The very word Eisteddfod also calls up images of the Druid and the Bard. The Assembly of Bards of the Isle of Britain – “Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain”, meets on significant Welsh cultural occasions. The members comprise the Order of Ovate, who wear green robes and who are regarded as having contributed to Welsh and other Celtic culture. They also comprise the Order of Poet, Author and Musician, whose members wear blue gowns and the Order of Druid, in white robes, comprises invited people who have made significant contributions to Welsh language. So the Gorsedd is an association of bards, writers, musicians and artists noted for their service to the Welsh language and culture. The members meet in pageantry five times a year to remind the Welsh of their cultural roots and to cherish their “Welshness” (Delaney 1986: 204-205).

The contemporary Celts are in a minority in Britain, and only in Ireland are they a nation, having a sovereign country. Ethnic minorities in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and on the Isle of Man demand autonomy to protect their native languages and customs against disappearing, and also to be politically independent. The Celtic regions emphasize their aspirations for independence, using their own flags and emblems, for example an Irish harp. The growth of nationalism in these regions led to establishing nationalist parties. In Wales the party Plaid Cymru (“fellow countrymen”) became a strong political force, and in Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party became the second party in this country. These parties having more seats in the British Parliament, try to gain more rights for their own nations through diplomatic channels (Gierek 1998: 151). A political movement Mebyon Kernow (“the Sons of Cornwall”) was founded in Truro in 1951. The aim of the movement was to preserve and maintain the character and interests of Cornwall as a Celtic nation and to support Cornish studies and culture (Delaney 1986: 160).

Ethic and regional identity is clearly seen and strongly felt at sporting events such as football matches. Supporters bring flags, emblems and sing songs or anthems typical of their regions. The names of sports teams, for example “Celtic Glasgow”, show that descendants of the Celts attach weight to their roots.

The so-called “Celtic music” has become very popular and is having some of its best moments. It is the traditional folk music of the Celtic countries such as Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The music is so widely spread because it is lyrical, easy-going and dreamy. Relaxing and evocative songs by Enya and the Corrs are international bestsellers. The term “Celtic” is also applied to groups playing “pub ballads”. A veteran Irish group the Chieftains, who began playing in pubs, now give concerts at major venues all over the world. The “Celtic music” has a unique character owing to such instruments as the harp and the Ulleann pipes, which are national instruments in Ireland. The Ulleann pipes are a kind of sophisticated bagpipes, and featured in the film Titanic directed by James Cameron. The harp, the panpipes and the tuba were already known and used by the Celts (Schlette 1987: 173-174). The instruments commonly used by bands and musicians performing the “Celtic music” are the cello, the violin, the Scottish and Irish lute and the tinwhistle. Music is an important element of Irish and Scottish culture.

Celtic motifs have always been present in literature. A growing interest in Celtic culture, myth and legend took place in the second half of the 18th century. Thomas Gray, influenced by the Welsh culture, wrote odes The Bard and The Triumphs of Owen. During the Romantic period James Macpherson’s Ossianic poems, which were forgeries, were very popular. Macpherson claimed that he had collected from old people, mainly in the west of Scotland, several pieces of ancient poetry by a legendary Ancient called Ossian in the Gaelic. Then it appeared that they were written by Macpherson (Delaney 1986: 196). During the 19th century several English writers were affected by Celtic culture: Thomas Love Peacock, Alfred Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Among the Scots a novelist William Black and a poet and novelist William Sharp used Celtic themes in their romances. William Butler Yeats, an Irish writer of poems and plays, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, published The Celtic Twilight, a collection of stories in folklore (Cuddon 1999: 117). Celtic motifs are often presented by poets such as Walter de la Mare, Sorley MacLean and Bobi Jones. In 1980 Howard Brenton wrote a play The Romans in Britain about the Celts and their invaders. Celtic elements are also used by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in his novel Silmarillion.

The Celtic culture is still very popular because it is deep-rooted in the consciousness of people who are descendants of the Celts. Celtic motifs are widely used to emphasize regional and ethnic identity. Apart from this, “Celtic” implies mysticism, magic and evokes nostalgia.


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Cuddon, J. A. (1999). The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books.

Delaney, F. (1986). The Celts. London: HarperCollins.

Dillon, M., Chadwick, N. K. (1967). The Celtic Realms. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Gierek, B. (1998). Celtowie. Kraków: Znak.

Lipoński, W. (2001). Narodziny cywilizacji Wysp Brytyjskich. Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie.

O’Driscoll, J. (1995). Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schlette, F. (1987). Celtowie. Łódź: Wydawnictwo Łódzkie. [Trans. Sława Lisicka, Bożena Wierzbicka]

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Opracował: Krzysztof Kwiatkowski

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