By Erik Wroblewski

Versão em Português

Theory Basis – Subjects and Methods

As we saw earlier, during the study of issues related to the Celtic peoples, we must constantly question and have a concern to identify the mistakes of our predecessors, whether or not these misconceptions are of “innocent” character, or derivative linked to a cultural conception process or a particular historical period, and especially in the accounts of Antiquity, full of rumors and prejudices, as well as in works written in the Victorian era, permeated by romantic fantasies and nationalists’ philosophies.

Foremost, it is needed to identify how to perform the processes of study in each of the disciplines that make up the study of the “raw Celtic”, what are their perspectives, contributions and limitations, where they can be apply and, specially, how they can be used across disciplines, in order to complete each other to clarify the inconsistencies and gaps of those studies.

It is important to highlight that the vastness of elements and sources found, associated with its fragmentary and not epigraphic character, along with disputes between schools of thought and disciplines, as well as the frequent neglect of Celtic material culture in detriment of that was produced by the classical world, contribute greatly to make the study more difficult, the current attitude, even today, is to treat the “Celtic world” a marginal culture of Rome, forgetting that these peoples were the main Europe occupants in Antiquity, and preferring to relegate them to the margins of history and forget about it before their contact with the Latin and/or Christians.

This discussion leads us to another important point: the Indo-European expansion. It is understood by Indo-European a group of invader peoples, which spoke related languages and that left the Northern Eurasia, around 4 to 5 thousand years, invading and settling along its path towards Western Europe, and giving rise to different populations, which include the Celts, Germans, Norse and Hindu. Thus, the Celts were the wave of Western newcomers and repelled, destroyed or assimilated everything that was anterior to them.

Therefore, it is virtually impossible to determine the exact point in time these people settled in Western Europe, how this process was and what its repercussions. Nor is this the goal of our work: we simply say that is clear and evident their presence there, which the World Classic texts and archaeological evidence is more than sufficient evidence of their existence, so that, knowing this, our concern is to look at their movements and its civilization, the fact that “we will not say that nothing existed before them or that nothing survived after them.”[1].

Another aspect that must be remembered, and is essential not only for the understanding of the Celtic world, but also for all people of Indo-European origin, is that the “world” Indo-European is based much more on the tribe, or in the kinfolk, than in political-economic units. Thus, before proposing a definition of the Celts is then necessary to specify that the Indo-European world is largely less a political unit, linguistic or economical than a way of living and thinking, which assumes strong kinship origin.[2]

It is within a community of institutions and beliefs – sufficiently attested from the Vedic India to pre-Christian Ireland, through Rome and Germany – of a Koine, which became lax and wide enough to tolerate numerous contradictions and contrasts, a pair of simple differences. Elements understood as myth in India and among the Celts became myth and history in Rome. What is mythic and cosmic in Ireland is “national” and contingent to Tito Lívio. Similar schemes are treated differently, and the same words may have lost a part of its substance or no longer had equivalent orientation semantics.

Thus, unlike the Roman imperium, the Celtic “State” did not subdue the individual to a central power, as there was no subordination of the spiritual to the temporal. The last considerations with regard to this matter are that the formation of Celtic ethnicity – as shown in archeology – is much older than that reported in the Greek historians of the Antiquity, and that already in the VI century before our era, the Celts had their borders defined and established their occupations, and limited to maintain or expand their territories.

Having clarified this, and taking into account the current scientific knowledge, we have a number of disciplines and methods that attempt to account for this diversity, the main – or more significant to our study – on which we will discuss below. In a first step, we have the Anthropology, but this is perhaps the academic discipline that most presents generalizations and inaccuracies, as it often resort to ethnic analysis. These inaccuracies rest in the fact that not always the material culture reveals the intellectual level of the object of study – especially regarding Celtic and Indo-European – and that many people can speak the same language, which could include a substrate pre-Celtic, “Celtization” in an artificial classification.

We know that the Celts belonged to the “white race”, but it is impossible to specify precisely the groups that made up this table. Europe must not be evaluated in terms of races, but of languages and ethnicities. However, the question to be raised – and merit of the subject – is how we can use this type of study to verify the validity of our sources to our study and especially regarding to how we can interpret relationships and changes through the contacts established between different people and cultures, such as the contact between Celtic and Roman, in this case.

In turn, archeology involves the contact of two populations – the Celtic invaders and the natives – and the formation of a material culture resulting from this contact. Nevertheless,  the fallibility of archeology is the inability to verify with precision the “Celtic” occupation in Europe, while many traces indicate that they were not there during the “Civilization Urnfield” and the Bronze Age, the linguistic findings indicate their presence of at least 3 thousand years before our era, which would include, with a good margin, the above-mentioned periods. It is attested constantly that the similarity or “continuity” of a material culture does not represent a linguistic unit.

Thus, the Archaeology serves mainly as an indicator of the technological levels of a particular civilization, but if Celtic difficulty is even greater, often lacks the substrates made of wood, perishable, making up a gap and insurmountable barrier to the study. Another complicated issue in the study Celtic refers to the field of Linguistics and Philology. Only in the XIX century structures to describe the languages are created, and as a rule, do not respect the original language structures, opting always for a systemic approach to Latin or Hebrew. For Celtic, all grammars of Celtic language, developed until this date, meet schemes from the Latin language.

What philology and linguistics come to show us is that the various Celtic’s ethnics probably had some awareness of a common linguistic past, and that recognize a certain cultural and religious identity, although the extent to which escape us, since there was never any political unification. From the earliest times, there was an interaction between them, in relations of friendship and enmity. To conclude, let us hold the key: it is virtually impossible to go back beyond the history of the Celts in Western Europe. They created most of the cities, borders or regional units to which we are accustomed. Their languages do not remain in this vast domain, but they left traces. Great cities of Europe have Celtic names: Paris (Lutétia), London (Londinium), Geneva (Genava), Milan (Mediolanum), Nijmegen (Noviomagus), (Bonn), Vienna (Vindobona), Krakow (Carrodunum).

Finally, the comparisons that are allowed between the literary texts of the insular Celts and ancient documents relating to the continental Celts provide proof – that archeology does not provide – of a stunning religious unity, both the identity of doctrine, as the cohesion of the priestly class . In turn, the History of Religions and Comparativism provide us with the means to study the myths and structures that characterized the Indo-European tradition, before being considered and placed in historical time by Christianity. Therefore, this is the discipline best suited to the study of the Celts, being its main author Georges Dumézil. Followed these disciplines, we cite the Folklore and Ethnography, but these apply only approaches historically much more recent movements, which will appropriate a certain content of the Celtic past, is a matter of pure innocence to believe that the popular memory can learn “pure” topics and go back to the Celtic period.

To conclude this brief discussion, we also have to deal with a huge body of documents: the Antiquity and Medieval written sources. The most used documents are still of Greco-Roman origin, written mostly in Latin, and become more accessible to researchers, which are familiar with Latin and Greek, but hardly with the native languages of its object of study. They are inaccurate, even when referring to specific populations, and in these reports are always charged classic features (like rhetoric), they omit facts, and usually content vague character. A priori, the most of classical authors copied what his predecessors had said, not running the risk of a long journey.

Still, the scattered documents are numerous, small notes or observations so difficult to classify as to use. Far from having a lack of information, often the historian, linguist, and archaeologist struggle with the difficulties of having a vast  amount of pieces of information, hardly usable in isolated and whose fragmentation is an obstacle to any synthesis. Celtic is, par excellence, the mastery of particular facts, especially within the major disciplines such as Linguistics, History of Religions and the Indo-European Archaeology. On the continental Greco-Roman sources which were contemporary of the Celtic antiquity, we still have to resort to the report given by Julius Caesar, the De Bellu Gallico, because it is still the most complete known source and available. The referred book discusses, first, the advantages and difficulties of the conquest (keeping a geographical area more or less complete and plausible), followed by a description of the population, informing the religious, social and ethnographic.

In turn, the epigraphic field of study still finds great difficulty, since they usually are post-Roman periods, and there are rare examples containing a full and meaningful text, typically these are funerary inscriptions. The bigger problem is that rarely the epigraphist is a celtcist, and vice versa. There is much uncertainty about the separation of grammatical forms and words; at most, there are only conjectures about the real meaning of the text.

The topominic study itself is a risky terrain, the linguist specializing in topominic rarely understand a word of Celtic language, and not uncommon, the development of linguistic structures with Celtic nomenclature is after the Roman penetration, making it almost impossible to determine the period they were created. Even the subtitles in numismatics and ceramics are uncertain, making essential the archaeological dating. However, should never be discarded a priori, no source of research that can use in a secondary and complementary character, and it is necessary to filter the hype and misconceptions and biased in the “primary” sources to the study.

Sources from Insular medieval Irish and Welsh, in turn, have a richer field for the Celtic study, since the Roman penetration in Insular Britain never been complete and effective, and Latin was never to replace the native languages, disappearing as spoken language after the departure of Roman legions in V century. Ireland, in turn, has never known Roman rule and only met its influence after the beginning of the Christianization in the V century. Moreover, it didn’t suffered the great invasions that culminated with the fall of the Roman Empire, allowing time for monks to contribute to the “Carolingian Renaissance”, developing a literary compilation in the Gaelic language. So strange paradox, the Christianization of Ireland was responsible for the perpetuity of the mythological background and pre-Christian tradition.

These are oral accounts which the writing took over, which always refer to periods long before the writing of its redaction, without major changes in their original linguistic features, showing ancient and primitive structures and archaic words. His “Christianization” was given at once, at the time of its writing, possibly the first time in a VIII century and later in the XII century, since they do not have any reference to the Christian purgatory. They are divided between the Welsh texts (most recent) and the Irish (older), and the former have little mythological background, and are adapted to the medieval style, like cavalry romances, while the second typically have little or no change theme and style, and in general, always depict a civilization far more ancient than the time they were written.

It is assumed the mythological kinship between Ireland and Wales, with current opinion that it is due to Welsh loans. But this version is a solution too easy, and should be rejected because the similarities are such that it is better to think of common origins, obscured by differences in treatment. It is inevitable that the Welsh, who preserved their language, have also retained clear traces of mythology in literary themes. While these classifications of medieval myths were made by their themes (romance, courtship, hunting, war, etc. …), modern classifications are made through the mythological and literary structure of themes and how they are presented, as well as by “mythological dates” (the continuity of relates and permanence of characters, for example).

Although the classification of these literary groups or “cycles” is still subject to some questions, the most widely accepted classification is as follows:

a) Mythological Cycle, which its fundamental text are the Cath Maighe Tuireadh, that recounts the battle of the Tuatha De Danann (mythological people who later turn up again on the gods of Ireland) against the Fomoire (original inhabitants of Ireland), the Tochmarc Etaine that account of the wanderings of the goddess Etain, allegorical personification of the land of Ireland, and the series of Immrama or “Navigations”, who report travels to the Irish Otherworld that are initiatory paths of Irish religious tradition, much more Christianized than the rest of the texts;

b) Heroic Cycle of Ulster, Red Branch Cycle, which is more alive and diverse. Recounts the actions of characters well characterized, simple in nature, which animate a large number of adventures. The text most important by far is the Táin Bo Cúalnge or “Cattle raid of Cooley”, which in many structural and thematic aspects is comparable to the Iliad. Celtic society is described in the earliest period that it can be attributed, that is, it is characterized in times of Hallstatt and La Tène;

c) Finn Cycle, erroneously called of “Ossian Cycle” (Ossian and his short stories are a creation of Edward Williams, who also used the pseudonym Iolo Morganwg, in the XVIII century) and tells the story of a group of warriors, The Fianna led by Finn and his son, Oisin. It is this mythological cycle which was the subject for the decals romantic of Mac Pherson in the XVIII century, as their heroes survived better in memory of the people;

d) Historical Cycle, or Cycle of the Kings, very present in the Irish annals, which otherwise are only pseudo historical and legendary stories. The main text is the Lebor Gabála Erenn, or “Book of Conquests of Ireland[3]”.

In turn, the Welsh texts are divided into:

a) The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, which referred to the oral learning of Welsh poets, divided into Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, Branwen, daughter of Lyr, Manawyddan, son of Lyr and Math, the son of Mathonwy that make up the mythological cycle Brythonic itself. The best known and most important text is the Llyfr Coch Hergest, or “Red Book of Hergest”.

b) The Arthurian cycle, which is approximately similar to the Irish Ulster Cycle, but they are already sensitive to differences of style, not treating more as a word for word transcript of an oral tradition, but a much more contemporary literary creation and refined under heavy French influences.

To finish this work, we can conclude, then, that among the greatest barriers faced the study of the Celtic world is the confusion caused by the diversity of sources, the huge number fragmented information, and the tendency to shun a inter-disciplinary approach, as a discipline does not always confirm the data presented by a particular other, sometimes the difference was striking. In this respect, another major difficulty is the lack of understanding of how to operate the studies conducted in other disciplines.

Among these difficulties, figure also the fact that the Irish translations for other languages are rare and full of errors, without revisions, and often second or third translations, thus being something that further aggravate the previous mistakes, not to mention the use of Latin linguistic structure. Finally the attitude of historians and archaeologists to put the Celtics in a secondary role and treat them as an attachment to the the Greco-Roman civilization, reducing its historical role simply because it is a complicated study, leads us to reflect on how history has been studied over the years, and think to review these priorities and methods, particularly with regard to the academy.

Bibliographic Reference:

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CHADWICK, Nora. The Celts. London: Penguin, 1991.

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Ó NEILL, Pádraig. “The Latin Colophon to the Táin Bó Cúailnge in the Book of Leinster: a Critical View of Old Irish Literature.” Celtica, 1999: 269-275.

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

[2] LE ROUX, Françoise e GUYONVARC’H, Crhuistian-J. A Civilização Celta.Mem Martins, 1999. p.18.

[3] LE ROUX, Françoise & GUYONVARC’H, Christian-J. A Civilização Celta. p. 44-46.