Some Thoughts on the Celts - Page 2
By Desmond Johnston
Growth of Celtic Influence in Europe
When we see the extent of Celtic influence in the culture of Western Europe we can understand the confusion
felt by the Greeks and Romans as to where was the original source of that culture. The influence was not
just linguistic but social, technological, spiritual, educational, artistic and cultural generally.
The Westward movement would appear to be largely caused by imitation sparked off by penetration - settlement
and trade. It would seem to have been two way traffic with the Celts as they moved into the Western lands
falling under the influence of the vestiges of the megalithic (Neolithic and Bronze Age) cultures of the
Atlantic seaboard in both religious and linguistic areas.
Around 500BC the later La Tène culture emerges. This was named after an archaeological site in Switzerland.
It would appear to be a natural artistic / cultural development rather than the effect of a new influence
from outside. While La Tène is identified as an Iron Age culture it is in the bronze of this period that
so much of the artistic skills are evident. It is to the use of iron that the power of the Celts has been
largely attributed. War and agriculture were the beneficiaries. The La Tène period is characterised by a
new phase in Celtic expansion. Now it was not just immigration and trade but war which endeavoured to spread
Celtic influence, the movement was now Southwards rather than Westwards. In the end it proved less successful
than previous centuries of gradual influence. However the La Tène art forms were a definite "success" with
the spread of beautiful bronze and ironwork over Western Europe. The use of delicate curvilinear patterns
is the hallmark of La Tène. It was influenced by Greek, Etruscan, and Scythian styles.
The "military" phase of Celtic expansion took place in the 4th and 3rd centurys BC. The main movement was
southwards into Greece, Italy, and Turkey in particular. This was a movement of Celtic tribes on a large
scale, not just brief raids for plunder but with the object of settlement. Classical writers give accounts
of the armies being accompanied with women, children, and wagons of food and household goods. There were
successful battles against Etruscans and Romans with the Celts besieging Rome before withdrawal and ultimate
In Greece the Celts reached Delphi in the South before being held and forced back. In Turkey they
were more successful in establishing a Celtic province in the centre, Galatia
long enough for its citizens to be taken to task by St. Paul in one of his Epistles. Alexander the Great,
before beginning his advance against the Persian Empire deemed it expedient to negotiate what probably
was a mutual non-aggression treaty with major Celtic chieftains. A further meeting ensued at Babylon
between Alexander and the Celtic chiefs a few years later. Whatever plans they may have had to "share
the world" between them ended with Alexander's death. In spite of their failure to expand Celtic influence
by force of arms, the Celts retained a military reputation with Celtic mercenaries serving in the armies
of Egypt, Carthage, and other nations.
Gradually Rome succeeded in controlling the Italian Peninsula and also moved into Celtic spheres of
influence such as Iberia, Gaul, Britain. By the end of the 1st century AD the "Celtic World" was under Roman control.
The Celts' military adventures were doomed to failure. Without the existence of a nation state and a unified system
of government their military efforts were piecemeal. Similarly the Greek city-states valued their own individuality
too much to create a nation. Rome on the other hand was succeeding in uniting the Italian tribal areas under
one banner. Already the disciplined Roman troops were more able than other forces to hold out against the
terror-inspiring Celtic charge in the end. The Celtic tribes owed allegiance to their own chiefs and although
an individual tribal leader could unify the tribes against a common enemy for a time such alliances tended
to fall apart eventually. The leaders valued their autonomy too much to willingly sacrifice it to a concept
of a common nation or race. A common culture, language, social and religious system did not lead to a centralised
political system. Peter Berresford Ellis in "The Celtic Empire" quotes from a paraphrased comment by Tacitus on the Celts:
"Fighting retail, they were beaten wholesale, Had they been inseparable, They would have been insuperable
The Celtic reputation in warfare can give the impression that war to them was an end in itself.
While this could well be the feeling of the "warrior" class we must seek to find underlying factors
in their militancy. It would seem that prosperity brought an increase in population,
an increase in population
created a need for more land, hence war against neighbouring territories. Thus need rather than greed would
the keynote of Celtic aggressiveness. The tribal system in general seemed to create warlike situations with
disputes over land etc. with no central authority outside the tribe to appeal to. (Although one aspect of
Druidism was concerned with the settlement of disputes one is left with the feeling that it lacked the
authority of a central government.)
Growing populations as in the case of the Celts create pressures on resources. A military caste of front-line
professional soldiers tends to emerge in such a situation. Such elements can do damage on their own home ground.
In such a situation the mercenary system can be useful in diverting destructive energies in another direction.
Hence the Celtic mercenaries employed in Egypt and elsewhere. The Swiss Guards cut to pieces in the French
Revolution in defence of Louis XVI and those of the Vatican today are heirs of a long Celtic tradition.
The Druidic System
As well as a military caste the Central European Celts possessed a religio-intellectual elite in the form of
the Druidic system. Julius Caesar gives a good account of his interpretation of their role and functions.
It is hard to drag the popular imagination away from the pictures of bearded white-clad priests harvesting
mistletoe from the sacred oak trees and of the present-day pseudo Druids holding artificially created ceremonies
at Stonehenge and other megalithic sites which were in existence millennia before the Celts came on the European scene.
The Celtic level of education as it functioned via the Druid system was high. Such areas as science, geography,
mathematics, medicine, astronomy, religion, philosophy, and law were studied. Much of this would develop out
of a religious respect for Nature. While the complete course of education could last up to 20 years this is
little different from the modern system of beginning education at age 5 and finishing post-graduate studies
at age 25. There is no indication that all students in the Druid system continued the full course - any more
than present-day students.
Much is made of the apparent contradiction in the fact that the Celtic education system was pursued entirely
orally - relying on recitation and memory. But less than 50 years ago a lot of our own primary education was
conducted on similar lines. Caesar, coming from a "book-dependent" system like our own, thought the system
was a good one in that it trained the memory in a way that reference to books never could. It also had the
advantage of keeping advanced knowledge out of the hands of those untrained to handle it. (Perhaps there is
a lesson there!) That the same oral system was used by the Greeks in Classical times is evidenced by the
"dialogue" format of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and others. On one occasion Alexander the Great
took issue with his old tutor Aristotle for publishing his ideas in a book on the grounds that such a
publication would result in "the knowledge we have acquired being made the
common property of all
". The Celts could and did write, using Greek and Roman script, but
such writing was reserved for commercial and other less esoteric purposes.
The Druid system receives a bad press from the Romans who had had occasion not just to respect but to fear
its influence over the Celtic peoples. It is significant that when the Romans carried out the occupation
of Britain a major target was the destruction of the Druid headquarters on Anglesea. There is much debate
about the extent of human sacrifice in the Druid system. Assertions about the sacrifice of criminals do
not sound credible as the gods would not have appreciated such "sub-standard" offerings! Bog burials in
Denmark, England, etc. have been interpreted as offerings by some authorities. More than once Roman writers
referred to "blood-drenched" altars in sacred groves. In that respect they would have mirrored the altars
of Roman temples. Unless the blood was human in which case one would have to look to the Roman arena for
a parallel. (A classic case of "the pot calling the kettle black?
The role of Druid-trained staff providing support services to ruling tribal leaders in matters of law,
diplomacy, finance, as well as of religious observance indicates a parallel with the role of the Christian
Church in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Church controlled education and provided professional expertise
to kings and rulers just as the Druid system did. The monastic system at its best has parallels with
that of the Druids. It is possible that the monastic system evolved out of the Druidic centres of religion
and learning. Perhaps Ireland played a key role here since it preserved the Druid system throughout the
Roman Empire period and on adopting Christianity it carried the system back into Europe.
When Caesar commented on the Druidic system having its roots in "Britain" it could well have been Ireland to which
he referred. In any case the destruction of the Druid centre on Anglesea would have resulted in a
migration of British Druids to Ireland where the system would have been free to flourish during the
ensuing centuries of Roman rule. In those Western areas of Britain and Ireland with comparative
isolation from Europe it is possible that the old megalithic religion survived through the Neolithic
and Bronze Ages into the Iron Age. Thus the Druid system to which Caesar refers as being of "British"
origin would have been a development of a much more ancient faith. The earliest Celtic contacts with
the British Isles in the Bronze Age would have enabled concepts to move Eastwards into Central Europe
and the Celtic heartland.
Some Thoughts on the Celts by Desmond Johnston - Next Page (3)
Boyne Valley Private Day Tours
Pick up and return to your accommodation or cruise ship. Suggested day tour:
Newgrange World Heritage site, 10th century High Crosses at Monasterboice,
Hill of Tara the seat of the High Kings of Ireland and the Hill of Slane where St. Patrick let a Paschal fire in 433