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Who are/were the Celts?

Who were the ancient Celts?

Trying to define who the ancient Celts were can be very difficult as they did not live as a single, united nation and left no written records about themselves. In fact, most of the ancient Celts probably would not have used the term 'Celt' to describe themselves, but would rather have referenced themselves by individual family or tribal names.

Our knowledge of the Celts begins in the Iron Age with the first reference to them by Greek authors of the 6th & 5th centuries BC. The term 'Celt' comes from the Greek word 'Keltoi' by which the ancient Greeks refereed to the Central European tribes living north of the Alps. Celt came to be used generically to mean 'barbarian,' and the Greeks and Romans used it interchangeably with Gaul and Galatian. Thus, when you hear someone talking about any of these groups, they are all talking about the same ancient people.

So how do we differentiate between the Celts and other barbarian tribes of Iron Age Europe; by language. The one uniting thing among the ancient Celts was a similar language. Similar language created a basis for the development of similar culture, including: art, social customs, economy, and way of life. When we use language to distinguish who the ancient Celts were, we find that these loose tribes of Celtic-speaking people stretched from Spain (the Celtiberians) in the west to Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) in the east, and north into the British Isles.

So, who are the modern Celts?

While many Celtic-speaking peoples, mainly on the continent, eventually came to consider themselves as Celtic or Gallic as they came into contact with Roman, this identity did not survive into the Middle Ages. As various groups of people conquered and settled the Celtic lands, the people assimilated the new cultures and their self-identities changed with the changes in culture. But parts of Celtic culture survived, and the rediscovery of the ancient Celts by 17th & 18th century scholars brought about a resurgence of Celtic identity. It was during this time that the Celtic language family was defined, and it is the surviving languages that developed out of the ancient Celtic languages that defines the modern day Celtics.

The Celtic League, an inter-celtic organization that campaigns for the social, political and cultural rights of the Celtic nations, recognizes six Celtic countries based on language. "Each of the six Celtic nations possesses its own distinct Celtic language that is spoken by at least some part of its citizens." (quote taken from Celtic League, American Branch) The six modern-day Celtic 'nations' are: Scotland (Alba), Brittany (Breizh), Wales (Cymru), Ireland (Eire), Cornwall (Kernow), and the Isle of Man (Mannin).

Not all people in these areas consider themselves to be Celtic. Many of the people associate with other parts of their heritage. The majority of the people of the Orkney and Shetland Islands, for example, associate with their Norse roots rather than any Celtic past, and the majority of people in Man and Cornwall are of English decent. There are other regions that claim a Celtic cultural or historic heritage but they do not speak a Celtic language and thus aren't recognized by the Celtic League. The most notable of these regions are Galicia and Asturias in northwest Iberia (Spain & part of Portugal). The Galician language belongs to the same family of languages as Portuguese, and the Galicians do not feel that they need to speak a Celtic language to be Celtic.

The Galician attitude toward Celtic identity may become increasingly widespread, as exsisting Celtic languages struggle to survive in our age of global commerce. Two Celtic languages, Manx Gaelic and Cornish, are already extinct, and while there are attempts to revive them, they will probably never become habitually spoken. In the United States, there are many people who associate with their Celtic roots and do not speak the languages of "the old country." Perhaps in the future, we will need to find new ways to determine who the current Celtic people are.


Internet Articles on Who the Celts Were

There is a plethora of information available on the Internet about who the ancient Celts were. These are just a few places where you can start learning more about them.

The Modern Celtic Nations

While these links may also provide some answers to who the Celts were, they primarily focus on the Celts of today.

Books on the Celts, Celtic History, and Celtic Mythology

Do a search at your local library or favorite bookseller for Celts, Celtic History, or Celtic Mythology, and you will find a lengthy list of resources. The books listed below are just a few with which I am familiar. I especially recommend the Historical Atlas by John Haywood; it provides an excellent overview of the Celts from Iron Age Europe until today.

Patty's Pottery
by Patty Rau
Minneapolis, MN