Who Are the Celts? Unpacking a Tricky Identity

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

In yesterday’s textbooks, the story of the Celtic people was fairly straightforward. But in recent years, scholars have uncovered new information that makes it complicated to define the Celtic identity, and, therefore, the Celtic history.

Old celtic cross
The Celtic cross, like this one in Rock of Cashel, Ireland, is a symbol used by Celts, and has its roots in Gaelic Ireland.

Who are these Celts who have had such a huge impact on modern culture around the world? Answering this question used to be very straightforward, but recent scholarship has made the question of the Celtic identity much more complex. The story formerly taught in school is no longer the same story taught in a classroom today.

The Original History of the Celts

The story of the Celts is a story of an aggressive and warlike people who gave one of the most powerful empires in European history a run for its money. The Celts are a people who arose in central Europe in the middle of the 1st millennium B.C. They created a culture that produced a particular art style that focused on beautiful abstract patterns and stylized animals.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Celtic cavalryman
Besides being artists, Celts were also dedicated warriors, determined to win glory in battle.

But besides being artists, the Celts were also dedicated warriors, determined to win glory in battle. The Celts spread out from their central European homelands throughout Europe. When they campaigned to the south and the east, they clashed with the Romans and the Greeks, who wrote the first descriptions we have of the Celts, some of which are truly bloodcurdling. In addition to sacking the city of Rome in 390 B.C., the Celts desecrated the shrine of Delphi in Greece, the home of the famous oracle, in 279 B.C., and afterwards established themselves in central Anatolia, which is now Turkey, becoming the ancestors of the Galatians that we know of from the New Testament.

But the Celts also spread west, into Gaul and down into Spain. Then, around 200 B.C. or so, they took to the seas and invaded Britain and Ireland, where they conquered the native inhabitants and established their own culture and language. At one point, then, the Celts dominated most of the continent of Europe, even extending down into northern Italy, where the Romans were hard-pressed to restrain their advances. A map of Europe would show a uniform Celtic hegemony from Ireland to Greece, and from Spain to Austria.

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But then the tide turned against the Celts. Slowly, the Romans pushed the Celts back. The Romans conquered Spain first and then Gaul, and finally, Britain, though they never managed to subdue the entire island; they left the wild north of Britain, which is now Scotland, unconquered, and they never even tried to conquer Ireland. But when the Romans were forced to withdraw from Britain, the Celts took up arms again and bravely fought a series of unsuccessful battles against a new group of invaders: the Anglo-Saxons.

The Celts were driven into the more remote corners of the island of Britain: the beautiful, mountainous north and west and southwest. Some of them migrated to western France, to the region now known as Brittany, and even to northern Spain, where some remnants of Celtic populations also survived. These regions on the periphery of western Europe, along with the entire island of Ireland, became known much later as the “Celtic Fringe.”

Thus, the story goes, only in these remote parts of Britain and in Ireland, plus Brittany and northern Spain, did the original Celtic civilization that had once covered most of Europe manage to survive. Over the centuries, the Celts clung to their cultural autonomy by cultivating their distinctive traditions in music and literature and art. All the while, they progressively came to be dominated by the strong nation-states that arose in England, France, and Spain.

The Celtic areas suffered from persecution of various kinds, as these nation-states tried to impose their own culture, and especially their language, on the stubborn Celtic population. These cultural traditions survived underground until they were revived in the 19th century as part of the great wave of nationalism that swept Europe, leading to the successful struggle for Irish independence, and the revival of Celtic pride throughout the Celtic world.

The Plot Thickens

This version of the history of the Celts, as a people that once ruled Europe, has been enormously influential in the modern world. But recent scholarship has uncovered evidence that the story is much more complicated, and more interesting, than we used to think.

For one thing, it is becoming clearer and clearer that the definition of “Celtic” is much harder to pin down than scholars have traditionally believed. The Celts have usually been identified by several key traits, primarily their language, their art, and their social and military customs, as we read about them in the works written about the Celts by Greek and Roman authors. The idea has been that the Celts came with a kind of Celtic cultural package: all Celts spoke Celtic languages, produced Celtic art, and did stereotypically Celtic things, like, for instance, collecting and revering severed human heads. The idea was that a Celt was a Celt, wherever you might encounter him or her in the far-flung Celtic world.

Today, we associate the Celts primarily with Ireland and the British Isles, because that is where the Celtic languages survived the longest, and one of the most important aspects of this Celtic hypothesis is the notion that the residents of the British Isles and Ireland can be identified with the residents of the European continent who battled against the Romans and Greeks.

If the Irish and the Welsh are really just the cousins of the Gauls who confronted Julius Caesar, then we are looking at one unified story, of which the Irish and British chapter is just one part. If the Celtic hypothesis is true, then the Irish and the Welsh and the other residents of the Celtic Fringe regions can consider themselves part of a story that dates all the way back to the origins of the Celts in central Europe. The Celts who sacked Rome would be their ancestors.

A New Version of the Story

Modern scholarship, however, is causing the Celtic hypothesis to unravel. It turns out that the peoples of Ireland and Britain may have had no ethnic connection to the peoples on the continent of Europe. Scholars no longer believe that there was one unified Celtic culture spread by a specific group of people who shared a common genetic descent.

Instead, it looks as though the traits we associate with the Celts today, such as their language and their art, may have spread around Europe to various peoples who had no genetic connection to each other, and these characteristics may not have started out in the same place. The art we think of as Celtic may have developed in one part of Europe, while the language we think of as Celtic may have developed in another part of Europe. It is no longer necessarily the case that we can pin one specific set of cultural features to one specific group of people.

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This new scholarly approach to the Celts flies in the face of centuries of settled beliefs about where the Celts came from and how they spread. Now, something is definitely lost if we abandon the old model. The earlier idea has Celts on the move, conquering Europe and then surviving against all odds in Ireland and the fringes of Britain. This view makes the Celts look extremely powerful, and it gives them a kind of romantic status as the last remnants of a lost civilization. But the problem with the model is that it’s probably not true. There is now very little evidence to support the idea that there ever was a “Celtic” civilization. If you asked people from different parts of the so-called “Celtic” world in say, 200 B.C., whether they were Celts, they wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. People in Ireland would have had no notion of being part of a unified civilization that extended all the way to the Galatians in Turkey.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Now, I know it is somewhat surprising in an article about the Celts to attack the very idea that you can identify the Celts as one unified people. But rest assured, the Celtic phenomenon is even more interesting than the old model would suggest, and we are left with three really fascinating questions. The first question is: “What happened among the disparate peoples who have been identified as Celtic to make them adopt the cultural traits that we associate now with Celticness?” In other words, how do cultural identities form in the first place?

The second question is: “If the Celts were not a unified people, how did this idea of the Celts as a single people arise in the first place?” The Celts were, in a sense, “invented” by scholars beginning in the 16th century. At that time, scholars decided that the Celts they were familiar with from Caesar’s wars against the Gauls must have been related to the people they were familiar with now in contemporary Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, and the connection stuck. So, we are going to learn about how an idea was born, and then how it started to come under stress based on new scholarly work in the late 20th century and beyond.

The third question, though, is going to be just as interesting: “Why did the culture that came to be associated with the Celts become so successful around the world?” What is it about the music, art, and literature of the Celtic realms that has captured the imagination of so many people, even those who have no claim to Celtic ancestry? Is there something that we can identify as a Celtic approach to art, or even to life, that speaks to people today? These questions explore the most expansive possible definition of the Celtic world and its fascinating history.

From the lecture series The Celtic World, taught by Professor Jennifer Paxton