By Erik Wroblewski

Versão em Português

SUMMARY: Although studies in relation to the Celtic peoples have advanced greatly over the past decades, we’re still under the influence of many assumptions and misconceptions generated, for the most part, both by an apparent lack of the right concern in locating and putting the work of scholars of the XVIII and XIX centuries in their proper contexts, and the difficulty in accessing the bibliographic and documentary material relating to this study in a Brazilian reality, because in its overwhelmingly majority, these works are in foreign languages and are accessible only through the import. Therefore, this article will try to bring, briefly to the reader, some of the ongoing discussions in the Academy about who were the “Celtic” peoples, as well as the disciplinary basis for the study of these populations.

KEYWORDS: Celts, study, methodology.

Who and what were the “Celts” And where did they live?

To look to the past and ask yourself how people lived in another time, what were their concerns and desires, and how they perceived themselves and the world around them is always a complicated and dangerous process. As more as we try to find an answer that seems pleasant and plausible to us, more easily we may fall into the traps of our own personal desires, inferring to our thoughts anachronistic perspectives, by which we will select for our study those elements that can support personal perspectives, rather than look for those that cause confusion, tending to put aside all things that are obscure in favor of what is easy and secure to us.

Certainly, this theme is a recurring problem in the career of every historian, but somehow it has turned out to be something more or less characteristic of the trajectory of what we call “Celtic Studies”, which started during the XIX century. Driven by a huge diversity of interests, which were mostly not guided by the desire or need for a coherent scientific approach, but almost always  linked to very clear political or economic ideologies, these “studies” are in urgent need of a deep review, and therefore, new perspectives.

This does not mean, however, that there are no serious studies on culture and civilization of those we call “Celtic peoples”. On the contrary: we have witnessed, since the early 1980s, a growing concern in filling the huge gap that was left by historiography with regard to this issue and, more importantly, we have a wide variety of studies that appeared, oriented for a need to discern the history and culture of these people through the sources themselves have left to us, putting  a bit aside the view “borrowed” from the classical authors, and looking at this past in search of a new perception, until now unknown to the “traditional” history.

These perspectives, however, require some “unprecedented” efforts from the researcher, meaning that its known theoretical framework, although in some cases old, have been articulated only recently in order to favor the “Celtic theme,” something that happened over the last two or three decades. Efforts that primarily require from the researcher a knowledge of heuristic and interdisciplinary approach, since, at least at present, the theoretical basis of a single academic discipline is insufficient to encompass all the variety of this subject, to explain the richness and diversity of this “civilization”, as we will discuss later in this paper.

Returning to the questions raised above, we encounter the first major issue relating to our study object, being it of semantics order: the very terms that designate these populations (“Celt”, “Celtic”) are somewhat vague and include numerous misconceptions and generalizations of Romantic authors, from the “Classical World”, as well as those who are our contemporaries[2]. The first reference to the term, “Keltoi” is found in Herodotus, who uses it to describe a specific population, which inhabited the region of modern Belgium, and later was expanded and used by both the Greeks and the Romans, by whom these reports had come to us.

It is, however, a more modern invention than an ancient one since, although being a generic term, we know that there was the concern of historians of antiquity to know the populations inside and outside their own territories. The greatest example of this approach is exemplified by Julius Caesar in his Bello Gallico where, among other things, the Roman general is concerned to make an “extensive  ethnographic study”, through which he seeks to provide the populations with whom it comes to contact by “regional” ant “ethnic” denominations, according to specific characteristics, identifying these people as allies or enemies of Rome, and precisely how and where they could come to join the Roman state body[3].

So, which in turn means the word “Celtic”? This definition has been the subject of many questions, including how and when to apply the name: the term Celtic designates an ethnicity, while the other denominations (Britons, Gauls, etc.) just qualify different people? The answer is not easy and perhaps impossible. The meaning itself is almost of exclusive access to an academic elite, outside of which is practically impossible to distinguish, in the modern languages of Latin origin, the difference or the distinction between the term Celt – noun with ethnic value – and Celtic – adjective with linguistic and cultural value[4]

However, Peter S. Wells, in his article “Who, Where, and What Were the Celts?”, gives us a good starting point for understanding the meaning of the term:

“The words “Celt” and “Celtic” can mean many different things. In the fields of archeology and history, “the Celts” usually refers to the prehistoric Iron Age peoples of Continental Europe and the British Isles. But the adjective “Celtic” is most often used in a different way, to designate medieval, early modern and modern traditions, including myths, legends, music, and craftwork in metal and textiles, especially in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, but also in Brittany and anywhere that styles and practices from those regions have been transplanted. “Celtic” is also a linguistic term that refers to ancient languages such Gaulish and Old Irish, and to modern ones of the same family, including Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Breton. These different meanings of Celt and Celtic are related to one another, but they are distinct and should not be confused”[5].

Another major issue, which also is a concern about definitions, is reflected in the choice of sources and bibliography for study. If we ignore the hundreds of volumes of pseudo-historical character that employ the term “Celt” and “Celtic” in their titles, what are our options in relation to primary sources and academic theory we can use as reference? In this step, we met with a difficult decision: in one hand we have almost a contrast of the sources of classical antiquity in relation to archaeological sources of Celtic origin itself, since the main characteristic of the first is the use of writing, and the second, her absence.

We are in the same situation in relation to medieval literary sources of “Celtic” origin: although they have been developed through religious and literary tradition truly Celtic, they have been rewritten and turned over nearly ten centuries by writers whose cultural and religious affiliations were, respectively, Latin and Christian. Finally, we have a big problem in a more structural and theoretical way in relation to literary sources: the vast majority was “rediscovered” during the XIX century, for both the romantic literary movement of the Celtic Revival, and by “official historians” linked to British colonial expansion process, which left us very widespread versions of these sources, imbued with nationalistic and romanticized feelings from the Victorian era.

In relation to historiography itself, there is a similar concern. The XIX Century was famous, such as the historians as Hobsbawm tell us, both for the invention of traditions[6], and for the search of various justifications to explain the need for other cultures to be “civilized” by European view of the “colonial projects” and the expansion of markets, a “feeling” that took the whole of Europe during this period.

In the specific case of the “Celts” we find, above all, the romanticized ideal of Gaul among the French, especially in the figure of the hero Vercingentorix, “unifying the Celts,” against the Roman Empire as a way to create a “national identity” able to stop political and territorial incursions of what would become the “Nazi Germany[7]”, and also among the Englishmen who, posing as the “successors of Rome in the task of civilizing the barbarians,” undertook extensive conclusions about how the Roman presence has shaped the character of the Celtic ancestors of the English, to reflect it in the image of Victorian England as the apex of Western civilization[8], where the figure of someone of “barbaric blood”, like Queen Boudica who would never surrender has been melted with one like the Emperor Adrian, who contained with its wall the advancing hordes of Picts and finally brought civilization to Britain, in the form of the modern English peoples.

Faced with all these issues, we would like to point out that our position is, first of all, not to discard any document we may have in hands, but rather to perform, as needed within our study, and our research, a thorough analysis of it in order to identify the extent to which this document is useful in, and what can be revealed through him.

Obviously, we are guided by the need to limit our sources and references so we can undertake a coherent study process, but this selection will take into account the characteristics of the document and its relevance to our study, not politics, social or a cultural set, a priori, nor the need to find, in the documents, something that will make our study something of a final or decisive character, rigid and static; our main concern in this work is scientific, by which we propose to answer some questions, but also raise many others.

Finally, there are two other questions: where they lived the “Celts”, and what distinguished them as such?

“Se existe uma noção vaga para a maior parte dos europeus contemporâneos, no caso de não a ignorarem por completo, é a de <<celta>>. A definição é urgente: <<quem são os Celtas?>> Como, através de que meio e segundo que critério podem ser identificados? Enfrentamos, então, o problema, bastante moderno, do conceito de nacionalidade. Foi uma nacionalidade que eles constituíram ou quiseram constituir, através da utilização da língua, ou trata-se de um nome herdado de um passado longínquo? Ou constituirão eles ainda uma nacionalidade quando, por vezes, queriam deixar de a constituir?

Os Helvécios, que se tornaram Suíços, continuam a ser Celtas quando falam alemão ou francês? E, se assim é, são-no mais ou menos, se não de facto pelo menos de direito, que os Irlandeses de Dublim, que já não falam o gaélico, ou que os bretões da Alta-Bretanha, que falam o românico há dois séculos? No primeiro caso, agrupamos quase toda a Europa, da Baviera à Boémia ou da Bélgica à Itália do Norte; no segundo caso, a imensa maioria dos Irlandeses e dos Escoceses é constituída apenas por anglófonos, sem qualquer originalidade, e só restam Celtas em algumas regiões recuadas do Kerry ou do Donegal.”[9]

The question and the answer offered by the French historians, although made on a criterion unusual and somewhat anachronistic, gives us at least the size of the complexity and perhaps impossibility of the task that is to classify and categorize where the Celts lived, and what characteristics defined them as such. Another attempt, and subsequent questioning, can be seen in the following passage:

“On the basis of Herodoto’s information that the people on the upper Danube were Celts, archeologists have linked them with the Iron Age material culture known as La Tène… For over a century, pre-historians have used this connection between the Celts named by the fifth-century B.C. Greek authors and Iron Age archeology to designate as Celts all of the communities in greater central Europe that used similar jewelry, weapons, pottery and burial practices. The assumption has been made that every place where material culture ornamented in the La Tène style is found was inhabited by Celts… But the principal problem with this traditional approach is that neither Herodotos nor any of the other ancient writers until Caesar and Strabo in the final century B.C. name any other peoples in this region of temperate Europe.”[10]

Thus, and despite the difficulties already evidenced by archaeological approach regarding to this problem, we can still raise other questions: will still be “Celtic” the peoples who lost their “independence” in relation to the Romans in ancient times? And besides, they will continue to be it after they was converted to Christianity, a process that was inevitably followed by the assimilation of these populations for the “imperium” of the Latin language or for the “Germanic Invasions” since the IV century?

These responses will never be clear: while the material, political and religious culture of the “dominated” change, accepting foreign elements and accommodating themselves to the new conditions imposed by the “dominator”, the “conquerors” will also be profoundly changed by the “subdued”, accepting many other foreign elements to themselves, coming from the contact, i.e., the changes occur in both directions, as we can see, there are not the extinction of one or another culture, but the “creation” of a hybrid of both, in various social spheres[11].

For if there are ruptures, there are also continuities, and these are exactly what must be taken into account, and is often just what is omitted, deleted or modified to bring some kind of disclosure in relation to questions of the researcher. If Ireland in the VII century is no longer based around a framework that accepts the sacerdotal authority of the Druid[12], who was replaced by Christian priest, it continues to exist as wise, as bard, as guardian of family and legal traditions among the kings and their courts until at least the XVI century[13]. The same is true to the ideals of nobility, royalty and social[14], interaction, which remain deeply connected with ideological pre-Christian models and law and almost structurally unchanged until the middle of the same century[15].

Thus, we can admit only a portion or all these aspects among this myriad of meanings that can represent the terms, “Celts” and “Celtic”? We do not see at the present time, a different way to proceed in relation to this field of study: there is no other alternative, even taking into account all of the risks of such choice, but to put in a position of relativity the use of such terms, and this relativity is subject to spatial and temporal contexts very well located within the research.

As an example, we will accept the Old Irish literary tradition of pre-Christian background designed in Irish language as being “Celtic”, as opposed to the Latin vernacular and ecclesiastical literary tradition, in the late Antiquity Ireland. We seek to find through it the political and social values established through legal collections, which have maintained and regulated the legal structure of the Irish kingdoms and whose production was prior to the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, since the maintenance of ideals that have survived to this conversion process are constant targets of the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church.

However, this “valuation of the Celtic” is only valid for this specific case, and is not used, for example, to the Roman or pre-Roman Gaul, as it is not likely to give an account of all the specifics that relate to “Celtic expansion” which began around the IV century BC, that led these populations across Europe to Asia. So what we propose is that we can’t discard the ratings of the various disciplines concerned with the subject, but within each one of them, seek to understand the references that enable us to determine what constitutes a “Celtic Civilization” in relation their cultural, social and political, especially in terms of “traditional.”[16].

So said, we will favor the pre-Roman and pre-Christian, trying to find in its relation of opposition or conformity to the implementation of the new order brought by religious or social processes of domination or conversion something that can make us able to understand how the cultural, social and politics institutions will be affected, bringing the reflections, paradoxes, continuities and ruptures that can, to some extent, tell us something about that time and about the people who lived in.

[1] Original title presented in WELLS, Peter S. “Who, Where, and What Were the Celts?” American Journal of Archeology, Vol. 102, Nº 4, 1998, p. 814-816.

[2] LE ROUX, Françoise e GUYONVARC’H, Christian-J. A Civilização Celta. Mem Martins, 1999. P.16

[3] CAESAR, Caius Julius. “De Bello Gallico” and Other Commentaries. Project Gutenberg, 2004 – Last access 5th May 2008.

[4] LE ROUX, Françoise e GUYONVARC’H, Crhristian-J. A Civilização Celta. Mem Martins, 1999. p.16

[5] ‘The words “Celt” and “Celtic” can have a lot of different meanings.  In the Archaeological and history fields, the term “Celts” is usually referred to the pre-historical people of Iron Age in continental Europe and British Islands. But the adjective “Celtic” is usually used in a different way, to designate medieval, modern and contemporaries  traditions, including myths, legends, music and metal and textile crafts, especially in Ireland, Gales, and Scotland, but also in Britain and in any place to where the styles and practice of this regions had been relocated. “Celtic” is also the linguistic term which refers to the ancient languages as the Irish Gaelic, Gaelic, Scottish, Gaul, and Breton. These different meanings of “Celtic” and “Celt” are related between them, but they are distinct and mustn’t be confused.’ WELLS, Peter S. “Who, Where, and What Were the Celts?” Londres, 1998, p. 814.

[6] HOBSBAWM, Eric e RANGER, Terence. A Invenção das Tradições. Rio de Janeiro, 1984.

[7] DIETLER, Michael. Our Ancestors, the Gauls: Archeology, Ethnic Nationalism, and the Manipulation of Celtic Identity in Modern Europe. American Anthropologist, vol. 96, nº3, 1994. p. 584-605

[8] O’BRIAN, Jhon. Assimilation Theory and Celtic Ethnicity. Current Anthropology. Vol.23, Nº 2, 1982. p. 196

[9] LE ROUX, Françoise e GUYONVARC’H, Crhuistian-J. A Civilização Celta. Mem Martins, 1999. p.15.

[10] WELLS, Peter S. “Who, Where, and What Were the Celts?” Londres, 1998, p. 815.

[11] Some authors, as CHARTIER, FINLEY, LE GOFF, MOMIGLIANO, e WEBSTER demonstrate, in a emblematic way, how these processes developed themselves in different cuts, open a large perspective of study and comprehension, in their respective works: CHARTIER, Roger. A História Cultural entre Práticas e Representações. Lisboa: Bertrand, 1990; FINLEY, Moses. Ancient History Evidence and Models. London: Chatto and Windus, 1985; LE GOFF, Jacques. O maravilhoso e o cristianismo no ocidente medieval. Lisboa: Edições 70, 1966; MOMIGLIANO, Arnaldo. Os limites da helenização. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor, 1989; WEBSTER, Jane. Roman Imperialism: post-colonial perspective. Leicester: University of Leicester, 1996.

[12] LE ROUX, Françoise and GUYONVARC’H, Crhuistian-J. A Sociedade Celta. Mem Martins, 1995. p.

[13] HERBERT, Maire. ‘Rí Éirinn, Rí Alban, kingship and identity in the ninth and tenth centuries’. In TAYLOR, S. (Editor) Kings, clerics and chronicles in Scotland. Dublin, 2000. p. 62-72

[14] SIMMS, Katharine. Images of Warfare in Bardic Poetry. Celtica vol.21. Dublin, 1990. p.608

[15] KELLY, Fergus. A Guide to Early Irish Law. Dublin, 1988.

[16] We need to highlight that, by “traditional”, we must understand the social, politic and religious structure of those societies that are based in the repetition of their myths, specially to those of origin, in which were not yet rationalized and secularized, and the tradition transmission are in ritual acts of non-historical structure, as ELIADE, Mircea e CRIPPA, Adolpho, demonstrate in their works Aspectos do Mito. Lisboa, 1989; e Mito e Cultura. São Paulo, 1975, respectively.