-adapted from “The Druids”, by Elis; “The Great Cosmic Mother”, bt Soor and Mor; and “Women of the Celts”, by Markale.
[Editor’s note: I can’t be any more specific on the references, because all that information has been lost several computer crashes ago. This was originally put together at Samhuinn, 2000, and since that time more evidence has come to light about the Celts having been as far north as southern Denmark and western Germany. Also genetic evidence shows that the Irish and Welsh share a link with the Basque people, and that the Basque people are more like these British Isles’ peoples in that respect than the Basque are to the French and Spaniards who are much closer. This supports the old legends about the Celts (the sons of Mil, or the Milesians) having originally come to the British Isles from “Spain.”]
In the Fifth Century B.C., Hecateus of Miletus and Herodotus of Halicarnassus were the first to record the existence of “Keltoi.” Their “place of origin” was identified at the headwaters of the Danube, the Rhine and the Rhone, and archeology would support this contention. By the time that these first classical Greek references were made, or rather, those which have survived, were being written, the Celts were spread across Europe from Ireland and Britain in the West as far east as the Central Plains of what is now Turkey, and from what is now Belgium in Northern Europe to Cadiz in what is now Spain, and were also established south of the Alps in northern Italy with the Apennines constituting their main southern borders.
The Celts had a highly advanced weaponry, having learned the art of smelting iron. Formidable axes, billhooks and other tools allowed the Celts to open up roadways through previously impenetrable northern European forests. Not only did the new metal working allow the Celts to become more mobile and to excel in farming techniques, but it provided them with new armaments of swords and spears which rendered them, for awhile, militarily superior to most of their neighbors.
By the Fifth Century B.C., they were in northern Italy and beginning to encounter the Etruscans and Romans. They populated the Po Valley and settled with the Apennine Mountains as their southern border and established themselves as far south as Ancona. About 474 B.C. these Celts defeated the Etruscans near Ticino and were in total control of the plains of northern Italy. Under their leader, Brennos (the name could mean a title, as “Brenin” is still the Welsh word for a king), the Celts defeated the Etruscans again, and when the Romans came to the aid of the Etruscans, the Romans themselves were defeated. This was in about 390-387 B.C., when, after their victory at Allia, the Celtic army poured into Rome itself and the Romans were forced to pay a large ransom to persuade the Celts to withdraw.
In 366 B.C. Celtic mercenaries were being employed in Sparta in their war against Thebes and playing a decisive role. Large groups of Celts were following the Danube Valley and reached the Carpathians, establishing settlements as they went. Soon the Celts were on the northern borders of Macedonia, and Alexander the Great journeyed north to meet the Celtic leaders on the banks of the Danube in 335-334 B.C. in order to arrange a peace treaty of equals. With Alexander’s death, the Celtic leaders considered the peace treaty null and void. They had, in 298 B.C. under Cambaleus conquered and settled Thrace. In 280 B.C. three Celtic armies were poised on the northern borders of Macedonia. The following year one of these armies, under Bolgios, defeated the Macedonians and slew Ptolemy Ceraunos, the heir of Alexander and his once favorite general, in battle. Another Celtic army lead by Brennos and Acichorios, entered the Greek peninsula, defeated the combined army of the Greek states, commanded by Callippus of Athens, at Thermopylae. They sacked the temple at Delphi, site of Pythiao Delphi, the Greek oracle and priestess of Apollo.
The Celts were eventually granted lands in central Asia Minor and established the Celtic state of Galatia, becoming the first Celtic peoples to later convert to Christianity by Paul of Tarsus, to whom he wrote his famous epistle. Back in Greece, a further 4,000 warriors and their families were recruited by Ptolemy the Second, the pharaoh of Egypt, and went to serve him there. Other bands of Celts decided to serve as mercenaries and armies of various kings such as those of Carthage and Syracuse, and even Syria.
The bravery of the Celts in battle was a byword in the ancient world and Aristotle claimed that they feared nothing: ‘neither earthquakes or waves.’ The classical writers have much to say on the battle tactics of the Celts, who excelled as cavalry which, with their superior iron weapons seemed to have given them the initial edge over the Mediterranean world.
Within Celtic society there was a band of professional warriors and this warrior class had their own rituals. They were professionals who sold their expertise to whoever would hire their services. Their world might be more quickly understood by comparing them with the Samurai, the military caste of Japan which was finally abolished at the turn of this century. This Celtic warrior caste is also parallel to Hindu society, which had a warrior class just below the caste of the Brahmins.
Celtic society had four main classes, very much similar to other Indo-European societies: the intelligentsia, the warriors, the producers of goods, and the menials or manual workers. By the time the Irish law system was codified, five basic classes had emerged which consisted of: the various forms of kings or chieftains, the intelligentsia or professionals, the officials and magistrates, the clansmen who worked the land and formed the army in time of war, and those who had forfeited their civil rights, which consisted mainly of criminals undergoing punishment, prisoners of war, and hostages.
The Celts were not patriarchal. Robert Graves has traced their Ogham script back to Anatolia, and relates the original Celtic people to the remains of the neolithic matriarchies of the Near East. Since ancient Anatolia (now Turkey) was once called Galatia, and branches of the Celts were called Galateans, or Gauls, this connection makes sense.
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the Celts:
Their wives are to every man the most sacred witness to his bravery. Tradition says that wavering armies have been rallied by women... They believe that the sex has a certain prescience, and they do not despise their counsels or make light of their opinions.
The Celts did not believe in capital punishment. Their tribal councils were attended and often presided over by women, and their inheritance of property and also kingship was matrilineal. Their male leaders were elected, and they had a reputation for democratic practices. As the Celts moved into new areas, they assimilated much of the native Neolithic culture. Ancient pre-Celtic influences survived liberally among Celticized people in Ireland, Wales, Brittany and the Basque country.
In Celtic law and custom, women were relatively free and powerful. They enjoyed greater economic, social, and sexual autonomy than women in modern day Britain, France or America. The early Celtic Christian church was suspect to the Roman Catholic orthodoxy precisely because it was pro-woman -- women celebrated mass. Women priests, called conhospitae, administered the sacramental wine while the male priests distributed the wafers. St. Patrick and Roman Christianity finally ended Druidic worship in Ireland, but the Irish church retained much of its pagan mysticism. Wales and Ireland, even in medieval times, preserved Celtic language, art, and literature, including the visionary ollave and bardic tradition of the Goddess with its sacred tree-alphabet.
The tuath (tribe) was the basic political unit in Ireland, owning the land communally. Cattle, not land, was the basis of wealth and the medium of exchange. Women also owned herds. The ruler of the tuath was commonly a man, but the queen was entitled to one-third of all war booty. There were many famous queen warriors, like the British Queen Boudicca in 61 BC. Powerful legendary women, like Queen Maeve of Connaught, were undoubtedly based on real people.
Celtic women owned their own property and were free to choose their mates, or “husbands.” In marriage, women didn’t enter legally into the man’s family, but retained independent status and property. Desiring divorce, the woman simply took back her belongings and dowry. Marriage was not a religious ceremony, and there was no concept of adultery. There were even “annual marriages,” entered into by both women and men, in which both parties agreed to be bonded for one year; at the end of each year the bond was mutually renewed, or abolished. Polyandry was practiced by some tribes; children belonged to the tuath. Legal contracts were made by the “wife” independently of her mate, and women were often the economic “heads” of families, with daughters inheriting equally with sons. Celtic heroes were named after their mothers -- and “heroism” was not confined to men. When upper-status Celts officially mated, she gave him a fine horse and a sword -- and he gave her a fine horse and a sword. The mutual exchange of nobility was the ceremonial band.
By the first century B.C., however, Celtic settlements and influence had been driven back from Thrace along the Danube out of areas such as Illyria, Pannonia, Norcium, and with Germanic tribal pressure from the northeast, the Celts were being pressed back westward over the Rhine, the great river whose Celtic name meant “the sea.” Only Gaul proper remained an independent Celtic territory, together with the islands of Britain and Ireland. Everywhere else the Celts had fallen either to the remorseless military machine of Rome or to the Germanic tribes. One of the clever devices used by the highly patriarchal Romans to divide and conquer the barbarians was to mock the tribal males for being “ruled by women.” Romans took captured men aside and laughed at them for “allowing their women” to be powerful and influential. The Romans promised them enhanced power and pleasure in the new regime if they would only turn against their women and become dominators of women, like the Romans were. When the tribal males succumbed and disavowed their strong women as leaders and equal partners in war and love, the tribes of Europe collapsed into disarray, making Roman conquest easier.
Between 58 B.C. and 55 B.C., Julius Caesar and the Roman armies defeated most of the Gaulish leaders. So successful were the Romans that in 55 B.C. Caesar was able to take an invasion force and land on the southern shores of Britain and defeat the Celtic Cantii (the tribe who gave their name to Kent). By 51 B.C. the Romans conquered the last independent Gaulish Celtic territory in a bloody campaign that ended around the hill fort of the Aquitani, although every few years the Gauls rose in unsuccessful attempts to regain their independence.
In about A.D. 40 - 43, the Romans invaded southern Britain but were never able to completely conquer Britain. Eventually they gave up the idea of subduing the northern part of the island, building the famous Hadrian’s Wall from coast to coast to mark their northern frontier. During the 360 years or so that southern Britain was part of the Roman Empire, insurrections against Roman rule occurred.
New conquerors now threatened what remained of the Celtic world. Jutes, Angles, and Saxons began to raid and settle in Britain and eventually annihilated large sections of the Celtic populations in the area which was to become England, causing those that remained to migrate in large numbers either to the western and northern areas, to Ireland, or to the European mainland. Only in Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall have the Celts survived in Britain until modern times. Large numbers of Celtic refugees split to Brittany, where their Celtic descendants remain to the present day.
Today the Celtic peoples have been pushed back into the islands and peninsulas of northwestern Europe, where they constitute a population of sixteen million, of which only two and one-half million still speak a Celtic language. These are the hearty survivors of the former predominant civilization of northern Europe which once spread from one side of the continent to the other and from north to south. It should be noted, however, that European Celts have migrated to the New World in large numbers at various times, and have also settled in New Zealand and Australia.