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 Tene 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 Tene 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 Tene 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 Tene 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 Tene. 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 defeat.

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 which survived 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.

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