The religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Celts


Among the ancient European peoples were the warlike Celts--muscular, light-haired wanderers who probably came from the distant steppes beyond the Caspian Sea. By 500 BC they were living in northeastern France, southwestern Germany, and Bohemia. The Celts, who were also called Gauls, continued to migrate in all directions.

About 400 BC Celtic tribes crossed the Swiss Alps into northern Italy. After capturing the fertile Po Valley region, they laid siege to Rome. At the same time other groups of Celts pushed down into France and Spain, eastward to Asia Minor, and westward to the British Isles. To what is now France they gave the ancient name of Gaul.

In Asia Minor they founded the kingdom of Galatia. St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians in the New Testament is addressed to the descendants of these Celts. In Britain, Celtic warriors overran and conquered the islands.

The Celts were a member of an early Indo-European people who from the 2nd millennium BC to the 1st century BC spread over much of Europe. 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 and were in part absorbed into the Roman Empire as Britons, Gauls, Boii, Galatians, and Celtiberians. Linguistically they survive in the modern Celtic speakers of Ireland, Highland Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, and Brittany.

The oldest archaeological evidence of the Celts comes from Hallstatt, Austria, near Salzburg. Excavated graves of chieftains there, dating from about 700 BC, exhibit an Iron Age culture (one of the first in Europe), which received in Greek trade such luxury items as bronze and pottery vessels. It would appear that these wealthy Celts, based from Bavaria to Bohemia, controlled trade routes along the river systems of the Rhône, Seine, Rhine, and Danube and were the predominant and unifying element among the Celts. In their westward movement the Hallstatt warriors overran Celtic peoples of their own kind, incidentally introducing the use of iron, one of the reasons for their own overlordship.

For the centuries after the establishment of trade with the Greeks, the archaeology of the Celts can be followed with greater precision. By the mid-5th century BC the La Tène culture, with its distinctive art style of abstract geometric designs and stylized bird and animal forms, had begun to emerge among the Celts centered on the middle Rhine, where trade with the Etruscans of central Italy, rather than with the Greeks, was now becoming predominant. Between the 5th and 1st centuries BC the La Tène culture accompanied the migrations of Celtic tribes into Eastern Europe and westward into the British Isles.

Although Celtic bands probably had penetrated into northern Italy from earlier times, the year 400 BC is generally accepted as the approximate date for the beginning of the great invasion of migrating Celtic tribes whose names Insubres, Boii, Senones, and Lingones were recorded by later Latin historians. Rome was sacked by Celts about 390, and raiding bands wandered about the whole peninsula and reached Sicily. The Celtic territory south of the Alps where they settled came to be known as Cisalpine Gaul (Gallia Cisalpina), and its warlike inhabitants remained an ever-constant menace to Rome until their defeat at Telamon in 225.Dates associated with the Celts in their movement into the Balkans are 335 BC, when Alexander the Great received delegations of Celts living near the Adriatic, and 279, when Celts sacked Delphi in Greece but suffered defeat at the hands of the Aetolians. In the following year, three Celtic tribes crossed the Bosporus into Anatolia and created widespread havoc. By 276 they had settled in parts of Phrygia but continued raiding and pillage until finally quelled by Attalus I of Pergamum about 230. In Italy, meanwhile, Rome had established supremacy over the whole of Cisalpine Gaul by 192 and, in 124, had conquered territory beyond the western Alps--in the provincia (Provence). 

The final episodes of Celtic independence were enacted in Transalpine Gaul (Gallia Transalpina), which comprised the whole territory from the Rhine River and the Alps westward to the Atlantic. The threat was twofold: Germanic tribes pressing westward toward and across the Rhine, and the Roman arms in the south poised for further annexations. The Germanic onslaught was first felt in Bohemia, the land of the Boii, and in Noricum, a Celtic kingdom in the eastern Alps. The German assailants were known as the Cimbri, a people generally thought to have originated in Jutland (Denmark). A Roman army sent to the relief of Noricum in 113 BC was defeated, and thereafter the Cimbri, now joined by the Teutoni, ravaged widely in Transalpine Gaul, overcoming all Gaulish and Roman resistance. On attempting to enter Italy, these German marauders were finally routed by Roman armies in 102 and 101. There is no doubt that, during this period, many Celtic tribes, formerly living east of the Rhine, were forced to seek refuge west of the Rhine; and these migrations, as well as further German threats, gave Julius Caesar the opportunity (58 BC) to begin the campaigns that led to the Roman annexation of the whole of Gaul.

The Celtic settlement of Britain and Ireland is deduced mainly from archaeological and linguistic considerations. The only direct historical source for the identification of an insular people with the Celts is Caesar's report of the migration of Belgic tribes to Britain, but the inhabitants of both islands were regarded by the Romans as closely related to the Gauls.

Information on Celtic institutions is available from various classical authors and from the body of ancient Irish literature. The social system of the tribe, or "people," was threefold: king, warrior aristocracy, and freemen farmers. The druids, who were occupied with magico-religious duties, were recruited from families of the warrior class but ranked higher. Thus Caesar's distinction between druides (man of religion and learning), eques (warrior), and plebs (commoner) is fairly apt. As in other Indo-European systems, the family was patriarchal. The basic economy of the Celts was mixed farming, and, except in times of unrest, single farmsteads were usual. Owing to the wide variations in terrain and climate, cattle raising was more important than cereal cultivation in some regions. Hill forts provided places of refuge, but warfare was generally open and consisted of single challenges and combat as much as of general fighting. La Tène art gives witness to the aesthetic qualities of the Celts, and they greatly prized music and many forms of oral literary composition.


Celts In Spain

Inland Spain followed a different course. To the west and north developed a world that classical writers described as Celtic. Iron was known from 700 BC, and agricultural and herding economies were practiced by people who lived in small villages or, in the northwest, in fortified compounds called castros. The people spoke Indo-European languages (Celtic, Lusitanian) but were divided culturally and politically into dozens of independent tribes and territories; they left behind hundreds of place-names. Celts, living on the central mesetas in direct contact with the Iberians, adopted many Iberian cultural fashions, including wheel-made pottery, rough stone sculptures of pigs and bulls, and the eastern Iberian alphabet on coins and inscriptions, such as the bronze plaque from Botorrita (Saragossa), but they did not organize themselves into urban settlements until the 2nd century BC. Metalworking flourished, and distinctive neck rings (torques) of silver or gold, along with brooches and bangles, attest to their technical skills. The Mediterranean way of life reached the interior only after the Romans conquered Numantia in 133 BC and the Asturias in 19 BC.


Celtic Switzerland

During the Iron Age, from 850 BC on, the area that was to become Switzerland was inhabited by Celts in the west and Rhaetians in the east. A rough boundary between the tribes ran from Lake Constance to the Gotthard by way of the Linth valley. The Helvetii, one of the most powerful of the Celtic tribes, controlled much of the area between the Jura and the Alps. Because of pressures from Germanic tribes, they attempted to migrate to southwestern Gaul in 58 BC but were denied permission by the Romans. Defeated in the opening campaign of the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar, the Helvetii survivors returned to their Swiss lands as dependent but privileged allies of Rome, thus filling a vacuum that otherwise might have precipitated further Germanic encroachment.

Much of what is now known about the Celts in Western Europe during the period from 400 to 50 BC was pieced together from information and artifacts gleaned from excavations at the lakeside encampment of La Tène, not far from the modern city of Neuchâtel. The Celts were noted for their metalwork, original ceramics, and the superb jewelry they crafted from gold. Most of the cities of the Swiss Mittelland and of the transverse Alpine valleys were originally settled by Celts.

Celtic Life and Religion

The Celts were organized loosely in tribes. Each tribe had a chief, nobles, freemen, and slaves. Usually it lived in a fortified village, often built on a hilltop, with fields and pastures outside. The tribes often fought each other. If one tribe conquered several others, its chief took the title of king.

The Celts brought many new skills to the peoples they conquered. They knew how to smelt iron and forge it into useful implements. They decorated their helmets, shields, and arms with artistic metalwork and enameling. The Celts were also adept in such practical matters as curing hams, keeping bees, and making wooden barrels.

Celtic priests were called druids, and their religion, druidism. Little is known of the druids because their rites were never written down. Apparently their gods were similar to those of other early peoples. The druids of Gaul were both judges and priests who sacrificed criminals to their gods. The druids of Britain were chiefly religious teachers.

Only men of good family could become druids. Membership was highly prized because druids did not have to fight or pay taxes. The druids taught that the soul was immortal, passing after death from one person to another. They deemed the mistletoe sacred, especially if grown on an oak tree. The oak was also sacred, and druids often held their rites in an oak forest. Wise in the lore of plants, animals, and stars, the druids were also magicians and astrologers. Many ancient stone monuments were once thought to have been built by druids, but scientists now date them from pre-Celtic times.

Celtic Decline

The Celtic domination of Western Europe lasted only a few centuries. In time the Romans made Italy, Gaul, and much of Britain into Roman provinces. The Carthaginians overpowered the Celts in Spain, and German tribes drove the Celts out of the Rhine Valley. Following the Roman conquest, the Anglo-Saxon invasion wiped out most traces of Celtic culture in England. Only on the fringe of Europe did the Celts manage to keep their distinctive traits and languages--in Brittany, the Isle of Man, Wales, Ireland, and the Scottish Highlands. There traces of Celtic culture still survive in folklore and in the Breton, Manx, Welsh, Erse, and Gaelic languages.

The name Celtic Renaissance was given to a revival of interest in Celtic languages, literatures, and history, which began in the late 1800s. The revival was especially strong in Ireland, where it led to the writing of plays with Irish-Celtic themes. Erse, or Irish Gaelic, is now an official language of Ireland.

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