Fierce warriors, Druid priests, and intricate artwork are part of a mysterious yet enduring culture that got its start in European pre-history.
The first prehistoric people to emerge from obscurity in central Europe, the Celts were a warrior society made up of small rival clans. They were hospitable, fond of feasting and drinking as much as they were of quarreling and warfare, and prized the songs of the bards as well as the holy oak of the Druids.
In around 650 BC, the Celts started raiding the Greeks and Etruscans, where they became known for their superior weaponry, chainmail, a unique sword design, and their fortiﬁed towns called oppida (below).
Over the next few centuries, the Celts expanded into central France, the Iberian Peninsula, Britain, Eastern Europe, and even Italy. In 387 BC, Celtic tribes sacked and plundered Rome and by 279 BC, they had raided the shrine of the Greek oracle at Delphi. By the third century, they were serving as mercenaries in Greece, Anatolia, and Egypt. Even Julius Caesar battled the ferocious Celts in Gaul in the first century. By the end of the century, though, their power on the continent had given way to Rome’s rising inﬂuence and the incursions of the Germanic peoples from across the Danube.
When the Romans mounted a second invasion of Britain in 43 AD, they found some of the Celtic tribes to be friendly but under the leadership of the Druids and the fierce Queen Boudicca. Then in 61 AD, the Celts rebelled. In retaliation, the Romans killed 80,000 Celts and sacked the Druids’ holy island of Anglesey. Just 60 years later, the invading Romans marched north and built Hadrian's Wall in 122 AD as a bulwark against the indigenous tribes.
After a few centuries of skirmishes and invasions, the Romans were forced to withdraw most of their troops from Britain. From that point on, the Celts in Britain were ruled by rival warlords and was repeatedly attacked by the Picts and Germanic tribes. They even requested the return of Roman forces to help support their efforts to maintain a political stability in the region, but to no avail.
The Ruling Druid Class
According to the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, the Druids and the aristocrats were the only classes that mattered in Celtic society.
The Druids were comprised of priests and judges who led a hierarchical organization headed by an arch priest. Druids were exempt from military service and from most taxation, and their importance guaranteed a stream of candidates for training, which involved the memorization of tens of thousands of verses.
The Druids presided over seasonal festivals, in which the sun was honored with animal sacriﬁces. Druidic teaching included doctrines that described the immortality of the soul, reincarnation, and the sacredness of trees, which they believed to contain magical properties.
But the Druids were secondary to their Gods. Although tribes were protected by their own deities, a few gods were honored by all. The universal mother goddess Ana represented abundance and the earth, and was the goddess who kept the sacred Cauldron of Plenty. Lugu and Beli, Ana’s consorts, were the gods of light and fire. Likewise, Daronwy was the thunder god, and Epona the goddess of the horse. Place gods also protected sacred locations such as rivers, wells, forests, and groves.
Another important tradition was the Kingdom of Fairy, a magical realm that the Celts believed had their own classes and social organization. Individual fairies such as the leprechaun and banshee—as well as the spirits of the ﬁeld, woods, and rivers—were believed to provide good or bad luck to farmers, hunters, and fishermen. Fairies were said to appear most commonly on feast days, such as Beltane (May Eve), Midsummer, and La Samhna (November Eve).
Holy locations for the Celts included lakes, into which they hurled weapons and treasure captured in battle. In fact, a lake near Toulouse, France (right), when dredged by the Romans in 280 BC, was found to contain 110,000 pounds of silver and 100,000 pounds of Celtic gold treasure.
Another feature of Celtic religion was the cult of the head. The human head was seen as the essence of the individual and was carefully preserved by the Celts after ritual decapitation in battle. It was a point of honor never to return a captured head to the family or tribe from which it belonged, so the severed heads of rivals were placed on posts around fortresses as trophies, as they were considered to contain magical powers of protection.
The Celts’ practice of ritual human sacriﬁce was equally as gruesome. One practice was to burn victims in large wicker cage-work designed in a human shape while other victims were hung on sacred trees and then stabbed to death. Slaughter goddesses included Agrona and The Badb, a name deriving from the term for the carrion crow that preyed upon the dead on the battleﬁeld.
But the Celts were not just ﬁerce warriors who practiced gruesome death rituals; they were a society that had a central leadership and a long tradition of seers and bards.
Seers and Bards
Celtic society was made up of a king, a warrior aristocracy, and freeman farmers. The king served as the head of an individual clan, and only later in their history did such kings form larger nations made up of uniﬁed Celtic tribes.
At times, tribes abolished kingship by voting in a magistrate, or vergobret. In such instances, the nobility ruled through the magistrate in a kind of oligarchy, securing power through property transmission via marriage. Their ranks also provided the candidates for military generals and Druid priests.
The lower orders, on the other hand, were only able to advance either by obtaining great wealth in commerce or war, or through the system of “clientage,” whereby those who had fallen on hard times could pledge clientage to a nobleman who was obliged to protect them, defend them against the abuses of the more powerful, and provide them with gifts. The client returned his favors with loyalty and service. Celtic slaves, on the other hand, were exclusively foreigners captured in battle.
Apart from the Druids, the Celts had a long tradition of seers, including the Bards and Vates.
Vates were a class of diviners who interpreted omens and signs, such as the ﬂights of birds, or dreams. Unlike Bards and Druids, however, the Vates were selected according to inspiration, where qualiﬁcation could result from a particular revelation, illness, accident. or ordeal.
Bards, in contrast, were musicians, singers, and poets. Great emphasis was placed on an oral tradition and Bards, like Druids, were expected to know vast materials by heart, which included lore concerning heroes, gods, the history of the tribes, and all aspects of the natural world.
The mysterious Celts, with their affinity for ambiguity and non-narrative traditions, spoke through their artwork in a language based solely on motifs.
The earliest evidence of Celtic craftwork comes from the burial grounds of the Hallstatt period (12th -8th centuries BC) and includes ornately decorated yokes and harness ﬁttings, pottery, and metalwork. Early designs showed horned animal ﬁgures and geometric designs, but design work from the La Tene period (ﬁfth century BC) featured a curvilinear ornamental style that would later characterize Celtic art.
Weaponry design was also renowned across Europe and into Asia. Sword hilts were designed in the shape of men or gods, spears were engraved with elaborate whirling patterns, and shields bore special protective images, such as horses and boars, all combining function with a symbolic or magical purpose.
The interlaced ribbon pattern, a striking feature of Christian Celtic decoration, was found throughout most of Europe, yet how the Celtic artisans came by this design is difﬁcult to pinpoint. Scholars have conﬂicting theories, which range from the motifs’ development as an indigenous art form independent of outside inﬂuences, to the more commonly held view that the style evolved in different countries simultaneously.
Certainly, cultural diffusion through trade, exchange, contact with itinerant craftsmen, and monks who traveled from Ireland to Anglo-Saxon England and continental Europe spurred its dispersion and assimilation. But Celtic artists did not work in isolation. Having access to other cultures, these skilled artisans most likely borrowed artistic ideas from foreign countries, such as Italy, Greece, and the Near East.
The Hybrid Artistry of Illumination
A truly hybrid artform, Celtic knotwork was comprised of a fusion of Celtic designs with Coptic (Egyptian), Christian, Mediterranean, Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, and Scandinavian styles.
The Christian Period from the ﬁfth century AD onwards saw a remarkable fusion of traditional Celtic design with Christian symbology. During this phase, chalices and patterns were decorated with Celtic designs within the advanced metalwork of the Anglo-Saxons, such as filigree and chip carving. Interwoven with depictions of gospel scenes were elaborately wrapped animal ﬁgures and the well-known curved forms of Celtic carving and etching.
As the Celts became more literate, Christianity required a special written means through which The Word of God could be conveyed, especially to people suspicious of foreign ways.
To translate the ideas of a Latin-based religion into understandable terms, missionaries created illuminated Gospels, books that could be easily displayed at a church altar or during religious processions. Thus, the Celts received the Lord’s message through such works of art as the seventh-century Book of Durrow (above) or the ninth-century Book of Kells.
A magnificent combination of written text and pictorial representation, these illumined texts were an inspired way to visually instruct an essentially non-literate people in the Christian scriptures.
A Living Tradition
Archeologists now blame Viking raids for the decline of illumination but point out that a great period of stone sculpture, or "scripture cross” making followed, leading to the freestanding “high cross,” which was carved into panels depicting biblical scenes. So rather than ending, Celtic art became a living tradition that transcended the ages.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, workshops subsidized by rich patrons sprang up in Ireland to produce an abundance of ﬁne metalwork ornaments. One notable variation on the knotwork motif set silver ribbons into shallow grooves on a bronze gilded ground, banded on both sides with niello, a metal inlay paste composed of silver sulﬁde and copper.
In their lives and in the rituals of their deaths, the Celts conceived of a vastly interconnected world. Though a warrior people, they were devoted to the civilized cultivation of the arts, whether through their bardic traditions or in the highly decorative styles that sprang out of their spiritual views of the cosmos.
They were a noble people who saw spirits in trees, rivers, and wells, and who brought their sense of inclusion in the natural world into all of their activities and conquests. They flourished under contact with the Greeks, Romans, and Christians, developing a culture that has lasted from the beginnings of Europe to the present day.
This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine issue #19, authored by Duke Shadow and Ellen Seiden. It was reworked for Mystorical.