The term Celt, (pronounced Kelt), refers to a member of any of a number of peoples in Europe using the Celtic languages, which form a branch of Indo-European languages, as well as others whose language is unknown but where associated cultural traits such as Celtic art are found in archaeological evidence.
Historical theories were developed that these factors were indicative of a common origin, but later theories of culture spreading to differing indigenous peoples have recently been supported by some genetic studies.
The Celts had an intricate, indigenous polytheistic religion and distinctive culture, though the spread of the Roman Empire led to continental Celts adopting Roman culture. The eventual development of Celtic Christianity in Ireland and Britain brought an early medieval renaissance of Celtic art between 400 and 1200. Antiquarian interest from the 17th century led to the term Celt being extended, and rising nationalism brought Celtic revivals from the 19th century in areas where the use of Celtic languages had continued.
Today, "Celtic" is often used to describe the languages and respective cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany but corresponds more accurately to the Celtic language family - of which six languages are spoken today (Manx and Cornish being recent revivals): Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx (Goidelic languages) and Welsh, Breton and Cornish (Brythonic languages).
The first literary reference to the Celtic people, as keltoi is by the Greek historian Hecataeus in 517 BC. He locates the Keltoi tribe in Rhenania (West/Southwest Germany). According to Greek mythology, Celtus was the son of Heracles and Keltine, the daughter of Bretannus. Celtus became the primogenitor of Celts. In Latin Celta came in turn from Herodotus' word for the Gauls, Keltoi. The Romans used Celtae to refer to continental Gauls, but apparently not to Insular Celts. The latter were long divided linguistically into Goidhels and Brythons (see Insular Celtic languages), although other research provides a more complex picture (see below under "Classification").
The English word is modern, attested from 1707 in the writings of Edward Lhuyd whose work, along with that of other late 17th century scholars, brought academic attention to the languages and history of the original inhabitants of Great Britain. In the 18th century the interest in "primitivism" which led to the idea of the "noble savage" brought a wave of enthusiasm for all things "Celtic". The antiquarian William Stukeley pictured a race of "Ancient Britons" putting up the "Temples of the Ancient Celts" such as Stonehenge before he decided in 1733 to recast the Celts in his book as Druids. The Ossian fables written by James Macpherson and portrayed as ancient Scottish Gaelic language poems added to this romantic enthusiasm. The "Irish revival" came after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 as a conscious attempt to demonstrate an Irish national identity, and with its counterpart in other countries subsequently became the "Celtic revival".
In a historical context, the terms "Celt" and "Celtic" can be used in several senses: they can denote peoples speaking Celtic languages; the peoples of prehistoric and early historic Europe who shared common cultural traits which are thought to have originated in the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures; or the peoples known to the Greeks as Keltoi, to the Romans as Celtae and to either by cognate terms such as Gallae or Galatae. The extent to which each of these meanings refers to the same group of people is a matter of considerable debate.
In a modern context, the term "Celt" or "Celtic" can be used to denote peoples speaking Celtic languages and descendants of such peoples. There are seven modern nations typically defined as Celtic Nations; these are: Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Wales and Galicia (together with Asturias from which it is separated only by a river) . Only five, Wales, The Isle of Man, Scotland, Ireland and Brittany have 'mother tongue' speakers of Celtic languages and in none of them is it the language of the majority. All seven have significant traces of a Celtic language in personal and place names, and in culture and traditions.
Regions of England such as Cumbria and Devon likewise retain some Celtic influences yet haven't retained a Celtic language (even Cornwall became fully English-speaking during the 18th century) and are therefore not categorised as Celtic regions or nations. Cornish aside, the last attested Celtic language native to England was Cumbric, spoken in Cumbria and southern Scotland and which may have survived until the 13th century, but was most likely dead by the eleventh. As in the case of Cornish, there have been recent attempts to revive it, although the evidence upon which this is based is slight in the extreme. Another area of Europe associated with the Celts is France, which traces its roots to the Gauls. In Scotland, the Gaelic language traces at least some of its roots to migration and settlement by the Irish Dál Riata/Scotti. The settlement of Germanic immigrants in the lowlands — among other things — reduced the spread of the Gaelic language which was supplanting Brythonic in Scotland; this has meant that Scots-Gaelic-speaking communities survive chiefly in the country's northern and western fringes.
The use of the word 'Celtic' as a valid umbrella term for the pre-Roman peoples of Britain has been challenged by many writers — including Simon James, formerly of the British Museum. His book The Atlantic Celts - Ancient People Or Modern Invention? makes the point that the Romans never used the term 'Celtic' in reference to the peoples of Britain and Ireland, and points out that the modern term "Celt" was coined as a useful umbrella term in the early 18th century to distinguish the non-English inhabitants of the archipelago when England united with Scotland in 1707 to create the Kingdom of Great Britain and the later union of Great Britain and Ireland as the United Kingdom in 1800. Nationalists in Scotland, Ireland and Wales looked for a way to differentiate themselves from England and assert their right to independence. James then argues that, despite the obvious linguistic connections, archaeology does not suggest a united Celtic culture and that the term is misleading, no more (or less) meaningful than 'Western
Miranda Green, author of Celtic Goddesses, describes archaeologists as finding "a certain homogeneity" in the traditions in the area of Celtic habitation including Britain and Ireland — She sees the inhabitants of Britain and Ireland as having become thoroughly Celticized by the time of the Roman arrival, mainly through spread of culture rather than a movement of people.
In his book Iron Age Britain, Barry Cunliffe concludes that "...there is no evidence in the British Isles to suggest that a population group of any size migrated from the continent in the first millennium BC...". Modern archaeological thought tends to disparage the idea of large population movements without facts to back them up, a caution which appears to be vindicated by some genetic studies. In other words, Celtic culture in the Atlantic Archipelago and continental Europe could have emerged through the peaceful convergence of local tribal cultures bound together by networks of trade and kinship — not by war and conquest. This type of peaceful convergence and cooperation is actually relatively common among tribal peoples; other well known examples of the phenomenon include the Six Nations of the Iroquois League and the Nuer of East Africa. He argues that the ancient Celts are thus best depicted as a loose and highly diverse collection of indigenous tribal societies bound together by trade, a common druidic religion, related languages, and similar political institutions — but each having its own local traditions.
With the information gathered recently by population geneticists, it is becoming increasingly clear that the old idea of large-scale replacement by newer invaders is sometimes a misleading concept. The Celtic ethnicity debate took off at a particularly early stage in population genetic studies, a science still in its very early stages of development. Taking this into account along with the fact that these limited studies are dealing only with particular sections of DNA (eg. MtDNA, Y chromosome; no studies can currently be carried out regarding X chromosome inheritance), the results cannot be considered conclusive in any way.
In his book Neanderthal, archaeologist Douglas Palmer refers to genetic research conducted across Europe, then states the original modern genetic group in Europe arrived between 9,000 and 5,000 years ago with the spread of farming, displacing the earlier hunter gatherer populations. Such displacement coincided with a population explosion, since farming is capable of supporting up to 60 times greater population than the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the same area:
"None of Europe's subsequent historic upheavals - even catastrophic wars and famines - has seriously dented the old pattern set by the influx of farmers. The Goths, Huns and Romans have come and gone without any significant impact on the ancient gene map of Europe".
The Y-chromosomes of populations of the so called Celtic countries have been found in several studies to primarily belong to haplogroup R1b, which makes them descendants partially of the first people to migrate into north-western Europe after the last major ice age. According to the most recently published studies of European haplogroups, around half of the current male population of that portion of Eurasia is a descendant of the R1b haplogroup. Haplotype R1b exceeds 90% of Y-chromosomes in parts of Wales, Ireland and Spain.
In two recently published books - The Blood of the Isles by Brian Sykes and The Origins of the British: a Genetic Detective Story by Stephen Oppenheimer - it is claimed, based upon genetic evidence, that the majority of Britons have ancestors from the Iberian Peninsula, as a result of different migrations that took place during the Mesolithic and the Neolithic eras and which laid the foundations for the present-day populations in the British Isles.
The spread of the Celtic languages to Ireland, Britain and Iberia would have occurred during the first half of the 1st millennium, the earliest chariot burials in Britain dating to ca. 500 BC. Over the centuries they developed into the separate Celtiberian, Goidelic and Brythonic languages. Whether Goidelic and Brythonic are descended from a common Insular-Celtic language, or if they reflect two separate waves of migration is disputed. The La Tène culture, in any case, can be associated with the Gauls, but it is entirely too late for a candidate for the Proto-Celtic culture.
The Hallstatt culture was succeeded by the La Tène culture, and during the final stages of the Iron Age gradually transformed into the explicitly Celtic culture of early historical times. The La Tène culture was distributed around the upper reaches of the Danube, Switzerland, Austria, southern and central Germany, northern regions of Italy, eastern France, Bohemia, Moravia, Spain,Slovakia and parts of Hungary and Ukraine. The technologies, decorative practices and metal-working styles of the La Tène were to be very influential on the continental Celts. The La Tène style was highly derivative from the Greek, Etruscan and Scythian decorative styles with whom the La Tène settlers frequently traded.
Additional forays into Greece and central Italy during the historical period did not result in settlement, though the same movement that brought Celtic invaders to Greece pushed on through to Anatolia, where they settled as the Galatians.
The indigenous populations of Britain and Ireland today may be primarily descended from the ancient peoples that have long inhabited these lands, before the coming of Celtic and later Germanic peoples, language and culture. As to the original culture and language, little is known but remnants may remain in the naming of some geographical features, such as the rivers Clyde, Tamar and Thames whose etymology is unclear but may certainly derive from a pre-Celtic substrate. By the Roman period, however, most of the inhabitants of the isles of Ireland and Britain (the ancient Britons) were speaking Goidelic or Brythonic languages, close counterparts to Gallic languages spoken on the European mainland. Historians explained this as the result of successive invasions from the European continent by diverse Celtic-speaking peoples over the course of several centuries.
Some recent studies have suggested that, contrary to long-standing beliefs, the Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons) did not wipe out the Romano-British of England but rather, over the course of six centuries, conquered the native Brythonic people of what is now England and south east Scotland and imposed their culture and language upon them, in a manner similar to how Irish possibly spread over the west of Scotland.
At the dawn of history in Europe, the Celts in present-day France were known as Gauls. Their descendants were described by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars. There was also an early Celtic presence in northern Italy. Other Celtic tribes invaded Italy, establishing there a city they called Mediolanum (modern Milan) and sacking Rome itself in 390 BC following the Battle of the Allia.
The Celts settled much further south of the Po River than many maps show. Remnants in the town of Doccia, in the province of Emilia-Romagna, showcase Celtic houses in very good condition dating from about the 4th century BC.
A century later the defeat of the combined Samnite, Celtic and Etruscan alliance by the Romans in the Third Samnite War sounded the end of the Celtic domination in Europe, but it was not until 192 BC that the Roman armies conquered the last remaining independent Celtic kingdoms in Italy.
Under Caesar the Romans conquered Celtic Gaul, and from Claudius onward the Roman empire absorbed parts of the Celtic British Isles. Roman local government of these regions closely mirrored pre-Roman 'tribal' boundaries, and archaeological finds suggest native involvement in local government. Latin was the official language of these regions after the conquests.
The native peoples under Roman rule became Romanized and keen to adopt Roman ways. Celtic art had already incorporated classical influences, and surviving Gallo-Roman pieces interpret classical subjects or keep faith with old traditions despite a Roman overlay.
While the regions under Roman rule adopted Christianity along with the rest of the Roman empire, unconquered areas of Scotland and Ireland moved from Celtic polytheism to Celtic Christianity which was a major source of missionary work in other parts of Britain and central Europe.This brought the early medieval renaissance of Celtic art between 390 and 1200 A.D., developing many of the styles now thought of as typically Celtic, and found through much of Ireland and Britain, including the north-east and far north of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland. This was brought to an end by Roman Catholic and Norman influence, though the Celtic languages and some influences of the art continued.
Successive waves of Germanic speaking invaders settled and were absorbed by western Celtic countries, themselves having been forced by Huns and Scythians or simply population pressures out of their homelands. With the fall of the Roman Empire the Celts of Gaul, Iberia, Britannia and Belgium were all affected (linguistically more then genetically) by Germanic languages, the resulting languages of such countries combine various elements of Latin Celtic and Germanic languages. The ease and quickness with which several identified “German” tribes assimilated into Celtic cultures would seem to imply that they were simply compatible with Celtic countries or more decisively Celtic themselves. The Franks established peace with the rebellious Bretons by stating “we are all Celts” in the 7th Century.
Argument rages in the academic world as to whether or not the Celts in England were killed, however it is not likely that tens of thousands of Germans (some of whom would’ve been considered Celtic themselves) could complete a genocide of a population that is both exponentially larger and more firmly entrenched. (a late Roman census identified Britain as having 3 million inhabitants.) Many historians now argue that the "German" migration was smaller than previously believed or may have consisted merely of a social elite and that the genocide was cultural rather than physical due to such relatively few numbers of Anglo-Saxons mixing with the larger native population. A recent DNA study on Y-chromosome inheritance has suggested that the population of England maintains a predominantly ancient British element.
In the main, the evidence is of tribes being led by kings, although some argue that there is evidence of oligarchical republican forms of government eventually emerging in areas in close contact with Rome. Most descriptions of Celtic societies describe them as being divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy; an intellectual class including professions such as druid, poet, and jurist; and everyone else. There are instances recorded where women participated both in warfare and in kingship, although they were in the minority in these areas. In historical times, the offices of high and low kings in Ireland and Scotland were filled by election under the system of tanistry, which eventually came into conflict with the feudal principle of primogeniture where the succession goes to the first born son.
Archaeological discoveries at the Vix Burial indicate that women could achieve high status and power within at least one Celtic society. As Celtic history was only carried forward by oral tradition, it has been advanced that the traditions finally recorded in the seventh century can be projected back through Celtic history. If this is so then, according to the Cáin Lánamna, a woman had the right to demand divorce, take back whatever property she brought into the marriage and be free to remarry. If later Celtic tradition can be projected back, and from Ireland to Britain and the continent, then Celtic law demanded that children, the elderly, and the mentally handicapped be looked after.
Little is known of family structure among the Celts. Athenaeus in his Deipnosophists, 13.603, claims that "the Celts, in spite of the fact that their women are very beautiful, prefer boys as sexual partners. There are some of them who will regularly go to bed – on those animal skins of theirs – with a pair of lovers", implying a woman and a boy. Such reports reflect outsiders' interpretations of Celtic culture; however, it should be noted that Age-structured homosexuality was common, and often accepted as normal, in many pre-Christian European cultures.
There is archaeological evidence to suggest that the pre-Roman Celtic societies were linked to the network of overland trade routes that spanned Eurasia. Large prehistoric trackways crossing bogs in Ireland and Germany have been found by archaeologists. They are believed to have been created for wheeled transport as part of an extensive roadway system that facilitated trade. The territory held by the Celts contained tin, lead, iron, silver and gold. Celtic smiths and metalworkers created weapons and jewelry for international trade, particularly with the Romans. Celtic traders were also in contact with the Phoenicians: gold works made in pre-Roman Ireland have been unearthed in archaeological digs in Palestine and trade routes between Atlantic societies and Palestine dating back to at least 1600 BC.
Local trade was largely in the form of barter, but as with most tribal societies they probably had a reciprocal economy in which goods and other services are not exchanged, but are given on the basis of mutual relationships and the obligations of kinship. Low value coinages of potin, silver and bronze, suitable for use in trade, were minted in most Celtic areas of the continent, and in South-East Britain prior to the Roman conquest of these areas. The Coligny calendar, which was more accurate than the Roman calender, shows that the Celts in Gaul had some understanding of mathematics and astronomy.
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