Classic Essays

The Celts, Part 1


Their origins and prehistory

by Nick Griffin

“The whole nation is war-mad, both high-spirited and ready for battle, but otherwise simple, though not uncultured.”
— Strabo, 1st century A.D. geographer

“Golden is their hair and golden their garb. They are resplendent in their striped cloaks, and their milk-white necks are circled with gold.”
— Virgil, 1st century B.C. poet

“CELTS”: If the name means anything to the average American, it probably calls to mind a parade in Boston on St. Patrick’s Day, when even the beer is dyed green. Beyond a vague notion that the Irish, Scots, and Welsh share a romantic common heritage in some way different from the English whose language they mainly use, the Celts lie forgotten and irrelevant in the mists of time. Such ignorance is one of the symptoms of a race on the verge of collective suicide, for those with no knowedge of, or pride in, their forefathers are no more likely to have any concern for future generations of their kinfolk either. (ILLUSTRATION: The Celtic God Cernunnos, a.k.a. the “horned God,” depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron found in Denmark. This masculine God represents fertility, life, animals, wealth and the underworld, and was worshiped throughout Gaul and the British isles.)

Yet the Celts are regarded by historians as “the fathers of Europe.” Genetically as well as culturally they played a major part in laying the foundations for the great achievements of the White race. Just as important, many of the mistakes they made which condemned them to defeat and collapse contain lessons today for those striving to save our race from sinking forever into a sea of color, ignorance, and eternal filth. Let us, then, find out more about the Celts. Who were they? Where did they come from? What sort of lives did they lead? How did they rise to dominate much of Europe? And why did they fall from such a pinnacle into the scattered obscurity of today’s “Celtic fringe”?

The Celts first burst into recorded history in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans in about 500 B.C. The great city-state civilization of Greece had been established centuries before by fair-skinned Nordic invaders from the north who had subdued and enslaved the Mediterranean aborigines. Already headed down the slippery slope of racial integration with their conquered subjects, and consequent ruin, the Greeks still maintained advanced standards of life and learning. They founded trading settlements in France, Italy, and Asia Minor, and even sailed out into the Atlantic, turning north to the British Isles and beyond.

The Greeks discovered that the area of central and northwestern Europe was dominated by a huge number of tribes who, although independent and often even at war with each other, possessed a common culture and common origins. They wrote the name by which these people referred to themselves as Keltoi and counted them, along with the closely related Scythians from the steppes of southern Russia, and the Persians and Libyans, as one of the four great barbarian peoples of the world. Among various reporters, the fifth century B.C. historian Herodotus recorded that the Celtic lands stretched from the headwaters of the Danube to all but the west coast of Iberia.

The Celts, then, were already a mighty and widespread people when they appear in recorded history. To trace their origins we must go back far into prehistory, where sometimes conflicting theories seek to make sense of the scattered evidence of archaeology.

pelican-the-celtsNora Chadwick, late professor of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge and internationally renowned authority on the origins and customs of the Celtic peoples, in her book The Celts (1970) traces Celtic prehistory to the end of the third millennium B.C. The crucial evidence is the spread throughout east-central Europe — modern Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Austria — of a distinctive type of socketed axe head, often found in graves under distinctive circular barrows. Clearly weapons of war, these were first made of polished stone, but their makers were also quick to adopt the new science of bronze working which appeared in Slovakia and the Carpathians in the first half of the second millennium B.C.

It has long been held that these “Battle-Axe People” were responsible for the initial spread of the Indo-European race and language. This conclusion is based not merely on archaeological evidence, but also on the study of the similarities among the languages which later developed from the Indo-European, or Aryan, tongue. Although all the languages involved have changed a great deal over thousands of years, linguistic changes follow certain philological rules. For example, the original Indo-European vowel e often remained an e in Latin, but mutated to i in the Celtic tongues and became a in the Sanskrit of ancient Aryan India. Thus the Latin word for king, rex, is paralleled by Celtic rix and Sanskrit raj.

Consonants also changed according to predictable patterns. The Indo-European sound at the beginning of words, for example, was retained in Sanskrit and Latin, and in the modern descendants of the latter, such as French. Meanwhile it mutated in German and English to v or f, and disappeared altogether in old Irish. Aware of these facts, we can at once see the common origins of Sanskrit pitar, Latin pater, Irish Celtic athir, German vater, and English father.

Whoever spread the language, one further example will suffice to show how even some of the now most diverse tongues of Europe spring from the same roots. There is an old and optimistic Baltic proverb, the meaning of which in English is: “God gave the teeth; God will also give bread.” In Lithuanian this reads: Dieva dawe dantis; Dievas duos ir duonos; in Latin: Deus dedit dentes; Deus dabit et panem; in modern Welsh, which derives directly from one branch of ancient Celtic, the first half of the proverb is: Duw rhoddodd y danedd. Translated into ancient Sanskrit, it would read: Devas adadat datas; Devas dadat apidhanas. From these it is possible to reconstruct the theoretical Indo-European original: Deivos ededot dntns; Deivos dedot dhonas.

When we also discover that English “tooth” once had the plural form “tand “, and that consonants such as d, g, p, b, and v have, in effect, swapped places with each other several times over the last two thousand or so years, we begin to see the less obvious connection between these examples as well as the collection of similar phrases which are found if the exercise is repeated with various modern Germanic languages such as Dutch, English, German, and Danish.

Such studies show that Celtic was closely related to the Italic language which gave rise to Latin, and also clearly connected with the Germanic, Slavonic, and Hellenic tongues, as well as with those of many of the early civilizations of the Middle East, including Persian, the recently rediscovered language of the Hittites, and the Sanskrit of northern India, which is preserved in texts dating back to 2,000 B.C. The waves of Indo-European warriors and civilization builders which spread the common parent of this great family of languages even reached as far as China.

Thousands of miles to the west, the Battle-Axe carriers seem to have collided with another distinctive people. Known today as the Beaker Folk, after the pottery drinking vessels found in so many of their graves, they inhabited a wide area from Bohemia to Britain and south into parts of Iberia, from which they may have spread northwards in the first place. They too were mainly pastoralists, although they favored sheep rather than the cattle associated with the immigrants from the east. Their chief weapon was the bow, firing arrows tipped with flint. This should not give the false impression that they were primitive savages, for they used bronze and possessed an advanced knowledge of astronomy. They also had developed a sufficiently sophisticated social organization to enable them to build the great megalithic observatories, such as the lines of giant stones at Carnac in Brittany and the huge stone circles at Stonehenge, Avebury, and nearby Silbury Hill, the last being the largest prehistoric structure in Europe.

Silbury Hill in Wiltshire England
Silbury Hill in Wiltshire England

The two groups merged, although the Battle-Axe element seems to have been dominant. From this time, around 2,000 B.C., the materially simple self-sufficiency of late Neolithic times is transformed into a society dominated by a warrior aristocracy equipped with bronze weapons and displaying their power and wealth with well made and decorated personal possessions which already have a uniquely “European” style, different from those of the emerging civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

Throughout this period there is a growing disparity between the grave goods of ordinary people and those buried with the aristocracy. At least some of this new-found wealth came from the growing trade in copper, tin, amber, and, no doubt, furs and other perishables, with the urban centers to the east and south.

This well developed Bronze Age culture is named after Unetice, a village south of Prague where particularly good examples of its artifacts, dating from around 1,800 B.C., have come to light. The area was a trading crossroads, and wealth and metalworking skill accumulated rapidly.

Within 300 years a fresh wave of Battle-Axe migrants from the east appears to have arrived without conflict, bringing with them the custom of raising round burial mounds like the kurgans with which they had covered their dead on the steppes. Under their influence the rich grave of a chieftain was marked by the tumulus from which this transformation of the older Unetice Culture takes its name. This Tumulus Culture spread beyond the bounds of its predecessor, stretching as far as Hungary in the east, but shifting its center of gravity westward into Bavaria.

In spite of this change, the close similarities between the artifacts discovered from these periods shows that there was a great deal of continuity. There is clear evidence for the development of local “schools” of metal working, and the steady continuation of trade also points to peaceful development. Toward the end of the second millennium B.C., however, technological innovation — this time the development of heavy, bronze slashing swords and armor and shields of the same metal — again seems to have sparked off a period of more violent expansion. Around 1,200 B.C. the tumulus inhumations give way to a new funerary rite in which the dead were cremated and their remains deposited in pottery urns buried in cemeteries without tumuli. The grave goods buried with them, however, remain fundamentally the same, and there is some overlap between the two customs, so archaeologists generally agree that this so-called Urnfield Culture was the result of a change in ritual rather than of a further large-scale invasion. Certainly there is no archaeological evidence of cremation back on the Russian steppes from which the earlier invaders had come.

On the other hand, it is clear that this time did see the widespread disruption of the eastern Mediterranean by “pirates from the north.” Around 1,200 B.C. the Mycenaean and Hittite civilizations, both already in decay as their rulers mixed with the non-Aryan natives, were devastated by the blonde invaders with their newfound superiority in warfare. The folk from the north who swept into Greece at this time were known as the Xanthoi — the Golden Ones — a name which reflected their ideals of nobility and greatness as well as their appearance. This wave of fresh Nordic blood laid the foundations of classical Hellenic civilization, particularly its Dorian branch, which was later to reach a peak in the city-state of Sparta. It was also at this time that the Egyptians recorded incursions of bands of tall, fair-haired warriors from across the sea.

All these upheavals probably resulted from technological advance among the peoples living on the upper reaches of the Danube and the Rhine, which shifted the interests of the aristocracy away from trade and toward warfare, plundering, and conquest on an epic scale. This would also account for the rapid development of hill-forts and larger houses which call to mind the great halls of local kings and their war bands which are featured so often in the poetry and sagas of later “Dark Age” Europe.

Their art by this time shows direct links in style with that of the later Celts, and the evidence of place-names shows that they spoke an early form of Celtic. These proto-Celts dominated the east and central European homeland of their forefathers, but also spread across the Rhine to the west and the Alps to the south. It is not possible to point to an exact date from which the term “Celt” may be used accurately, although the next development noted by archaeologists is universally accepted as involving a fully Celtic people and culture.

Georg Ramsauer, mid-19th-century director of the Hallstaat State Mine, near Salzburg, Austria, was fascinated by the discovery in the salt mine of the well-preserved body of a prehistoric miner. Inspired to find out more, he began to excavate a huge cemetery nearby. Some 2,500 graves revealed that from about 770 B.C. a society of aristocrats ruling over a settled peasantry used salt from the mine as the basis for widespread trade. The wealth and patronage of its rulers created a highly-skilled school of craftsmen utilizing a strong, new metal. The Iron Age had arrived.

The art and economy of this new culture, now named after the finds at Hallstaat, show close continuity with those of the earlier Urnfield folk of the same area, and it seems probable that they themselves adopted ironworking. But there is also widespread evidence that the Hallstaat period saw the arrival of the domesticated horse in central Europe. From the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. bronze harness mounts and horse-bits become widespread throughout eastern and central Europe and are even found as far west as Wales. At the same time, the Hallstaat chieftains adopted the practice of wagon burial, which, like the use of the horse, first appeared in the steppes to the east.

All this points to the arrival of another group of immigrants. The power and prestige created by their horses would have either made them natural new overlords or, if they were insufficient in numbers to take over completely, encouraged the established aristocracy to adopt their technology and customs. Since the move away from cremation was widespread but not universal, and since the two rites co-existed for much of the period, the latter is probably closer to the truth.

The discovery of iron had a revolutionary effect on the farming economy, as well as on warfare. Where their forebears had been largely confined to exploiting areas of light loess — soil deposits laid down by the wind as the glaciers had retreated — farmers with the new iron axes and heavy, iron-tipped plows, were able to clear and cultivate dense forests on heavier ground. Within a couple of generations this must have led to a very significant and accelerating population increase. Then, as boys grew to manhood, they were cheaply armed with weapons of higher quality than those owned by the most powerful chieftains of their grandfathers’ days.

This expanding population stimulated further trade with the civilizations to the south and east, but growing self-confidence also encouraged local craftsmen to new heights of skill in their own very distinctive style of sweeping abstract designs merging with the heads of fantastic animals and birds. The earliest burials to preserve these new developments are found along the Upper Danube, in Upper Austria and Bavaria, and in Bohemia. If we want to pinpoint a specific area, this may be regarded as the birthplace of the historic Celts.

By the start of the sixth century B.C. the pressure of population and perhaps the ambitions of young nobles led to rapid expansion to the west. Indeed, the whole center of the Celtic domain shifted into the Upper Rhine, southwest Germany, Switzerland, and Burgundy.

Two particularly fine graves tell us a great deal about the people involved. A grave mound at Vix, near Chatillon-sur-Seine in Burgundy, was found to contain the remains of a young woman of about thirty. She was laid on the frame of a wagon, whose four wheels had been removed and placed against the east wall of the wooden chamber. As in all such graves, no animals were buried, but complete sets of horse harness were provided for use in the next world. The rich grave goods which surrounded her show that she lived in a wealthy society which held women in high esteem. They included a magnificent, five-foot high wine krater from the Greek settlement at Massalia, modern Marseilles.

This evidence of the high standing of women is supported by literary references. Plutarch, for example, says that Celtic women were allowed to speak at tribal assemblies, while the surviving stories from Celtic Ireland tell us of queens, such as Maeve, who were as powerful in their own right as Boudicca and Cartimandua appear to have been in the Roman account of the conquest of Britain.

Another large burial mound was excavated in 1978 at Hochdorf near the Black Forest. The tomb consisted of two rooms with oak-beamed walls and roof, topped with a 24-foot pile of stone. In the burial chamber itself, one late summer around 550 B.C., a six-foot tall man of about 40 was garlanded with flowers and laid on a bronze couch covered with wool blankets and badger skins. He was decked in gold: even his shoes bore strips of gold. In the outer chamber, piled with bowls, knives, and cooking pots, was a cart with four well-made, iron-bound wheels. A row of ornate drinking horns hung on the wall, no doubt for use in the next life when the chieftain would wake and refresh himself from a large, bronze cauldron, which had originated in a Greek colony in southern Italy. When excavated it still held the sediment of the mead buried with him more than 2,500 years earlier.

The Hallstaat influence spread rapidly. Initially, at least, this may well have involved bands of marauding young warriors rather than complete tribal units. Finds in southeastern Britain dating from the seventh century B.C., for example, have produced Hallstatt warrior gear without the evidence of domestic crafts which normally accompany them in Europe. Such adventurers in all probability established themselves as a new ruling class over the previous inhabitants and, to a greater or lesser extent depending on their numbers, intermixed with them.

The Picts, the early inhabitants of Scotland. Also known as the "painted people"
The Picts, the early inhabitants of Scotland. Also known as the “painted people”

The same had happened with the earlier invasions of Neolithic Aryans and Bronze Age Celts. While, for example, the Goidels of Ireland appear fully Celtic, their Pictish neighbors in the west of Scotland seem to have retained a number of pre-Aryan customs, particularly matrilineal descent, which indicate that a significant portion of their population was descended from the aboriginal inhabitants of the land. This pattern of conquest followed by gradual integration was probably repeated a number of times.

The influx of Hallstaat warriors at this time may account for the sudden change in the Greek name for the British Isles. In the sixth century B.C. the term the Greeks used was Albion. Within 200 years though, Greek geographers began describing these westerly islands as Pretannia (Britannia). In all probability the change was the result of the dominance of the iron-using invaders’ Brythonic dialect, which replaced the older Goidelic tongue everywhere except in Ireland.

Back in continental Europe, the heart of the Celtic world saw further developments. Swords became longer, used for slashing, with short daggers used for in-fighting. The typically Celtic, long, wooden shield, edged with iron and sometimes covered with beautifully worked beaten bronze, also became common. The design of some helmets and armor still shows a degree of influence from the Greeks and Etruscans, as do some of the more elaborate hill-forts built during the sixth century. Evidence of burning and destruction at many sites points to widespread warfare during this period. This may have been merely inter-tribal cattle raiding, as is recorded in many of the later stories which survived in Ireland, but it also can be taken to support the theory that the cultural changes shown by the archaeological record reflect large-scale territorial expansion by particular groups.

By about 500 B.C. a final change in the military equipment of the Celts of the heartland, together with a further refinement of their artistic skills, led to the evolution of the La Tene culture, which takes its name from the village in Switzerland where a major find in 1858 first drew attention to the development. During construction work on the edge of Lake Neuchatel, a drainage operation exposed a row of blackened timbers. Subsequent excavations showed these to be the remains of a long pier, from the end of which votive offerings of harness, tools and weapons, and stunningly beautiful eating and drinking utensils, had, over several hundred years, been cast into the water in a typically Celtic sacrificial rite. The La Tene site is actually on the southeastern edge of the initial range of the new development, which seems to have been centered on the Middle Rhine.

Clearly directly evolved from the earlier Hallstaat style, this full flowering of the Celtic artistic genius is very closely identified with the aristocracy, which either gained or consolidated its power through the sudden development of a light and technologically advanced, two-wheeled war chariot. This immediately calls to mind the ancient stories preserved in Ireland of heroes racing past enemy lines casting spears at their opponents at the start of a battle.

Modern Celtic artwork that depicts the traditional knotwork around the edge, with wolves inside the circle.

The chariot owners showed off their status by commissioning local craftsmen to make drinking goblets, wine flagons, cauldrons, and personal ornaments of gold, bronze, coral, and, more rarely, silver. These masterpieces were richly decorated with intricate designs, repeated to cover every available space. Initially they were influenced by imports from Etruscan Italy, Greece, and beyond, but even obvious borrowings were heavily adapted and combined with the swirling knotwork which remains the hallmark of Celtic art. As Chadwick comments, the La Tene style “might be considered the first truly indigenous art of temperate Europe.”

The sudden flowering of the La Tene Culture coincided with the beginning of a vigorous expansion in all directions: an expansion which continued for several centuries. Further settlements were established in Britain and in Gaul. In the north the new arrivals reinforced the already Celtic population, but further south, in Aquitania, they rapidly mixed with the native Iberians to create a hybrid Celto-Iberian population and culture.

Example of Celtic knotwork that represents eternity, everlasting love and the circle of life in some interpretations.

A similar dilution of Celtic blood took place following the invasion of the Iberian peninsula itself. Greek writers begin to refer to Celts in Iberia from the fifth century B.C. Herodotus states that they were the most westerly people in Europe, except for the Cynetes, in what is now Portugal. In 350 B.C. the Greek writer Ephoros compiled a history of the world and noted that the Celtic domain extended to Cadiz.

However, the survival of place-names in the languages of the native Iberians and Ligurians in even the main areas of Celtic settlement in Spain shows that large numbers of the earlier inhabitants survived. In some areas the chiefs of Celtic war bands were probably accepted as leaders by the natives. The leading figures in the later Celtiberian war of independence against the Romans all bear Celtic names.

Other groups of Iberian Celts seem to have held their own territory by force of arms, for whereas most of the Celtic place-names in Gaul are based on words such as “field” and “plain,” suggesting peaceful settlement, the majority in Spain include the suffix –briga. This is cognate with German –burg and indicates a strongly defended hill fort. Notable examples include Segobriga (Segorbe) and Laccobriga (Lagos). Just as the chains of forts in Thuringia, on the eastern edge of the Celtic world, probably mark the shifting frontier between the Celts and their close cousins the Germans, so those at the western extremity show us settlers threatened by a numerous aboriginal population.

Even the well-organized civilizations of Greece and Rome were hard-pressed by the Celtic expansion. According to Livy’s The Gallic Wars, the Celts of Gaul, impelled by overpopulation, formed a confederation under Ambicatus, king of the Bituriges. He sent out two colonial expeditions, each under the command of one of his nephews. Sigovesus led one column eastward through the forests of Germany and down the Danube, while Bellovesus commanded an invasion of Italy over the Alps in 396 B.C.

Certain areas north of the River Po had already been settled by Celts in the previous century, and the estimated 300,000 newcomers passed through these peacefully. Further south, however, the cities of the Etruscan civilization were looted and destroyed. The people of the Boii tribe, whose original homeland still bears the name Bohemia, seized the countryside around their new settlement, which we know today as Bologna. Related tribes founded other towns, including Milan.

After a brief pause, the push south continued in 387 B.C. A Roman army sent to oppose them was so terrified by the war cries of some 30,000 Gauls that the soldiers panicked. The Roman force was utterly destroyed, and the triumphant Celts swept southward. A powerful army under Brennus completed the humiliation by occupying Rome and extracting an enormous ransom of gold before withdrawing to the north.

For the next 40 years Celtic armies terrorized Italy. Rome was attacked three more times, and much of central and northern Italy was repeatedly looted and laid waste.

Livy, however, also records that the ill-disciplined tribesmen often drank themselves into oblivion and grew fat on the rich but easy pickings. The invaders were decimated by plague and later by famine. Even worse, they had no idea of the power of organization. Where the Celts had tribal loyalties and reckless individual bravery, the Romans had devotion to the state and iron discipline.

Rome raised and trained new armies from the south and, around 349 B.C., went on the offensive. According to the Graeco-Roman historian Polybius, the Celts, once again marching to plunder Rome, were so surprised to encounter serious opposition that they fled. A series of Roman victories drove the surviving Celts back to the north. By 335 B.C. they were forced to accept harsh peace terms and settled down in Cisalpine Gaul (i.e., Gaul on the Italian side of the Alps), as the Romans named the new Celtic colony, noted for its productive agriculture.

Nothing is known directly of the movements of the colonial expedition sent out by Ambicatus to the east. Around this time, however, Celtic settlements appeared along the lower Danube and in parts of the Balkans. By 369 B.C. the Gaulish population of the region was strong enough for Celtic mercenaries to play a notable part in the Peloponnesian War.

From then on, Celts were regularly employed by the Greeks, both in their own civil wars and against their neighbors to the east. In 335 B.C. a delegation of Celts from the Adriatic paid court to Alexander the Great, who asked whether it were true that their people feared nothing. “Only,” they replied, “that the sky might fall.”

Hellenic civilization was by now fading rapidly, owing to widespread race-mixing between the Indo-European masters and their aboriginal slaves. In 280 B.C. the Celts moved to take advantage of this decadence. Two Celtic armies routed the Macedonian army. Macedonian resistance ended when a third army of Celts, commanded by another Brennus, arrived the following year to deliver the coup de grace. Brennus’ army was estimated at 150,000 foot and up to 20,000 horse and almost certainly included many former mercenaries with experience of Greek military organization.

In any event, having dealt with the Macedonians, Brennus marched on Greece. A largely Athenian army tried to hold the strategic pass at Thermopylae but was defeated much more easily than the Spartans had been two centuries earlier. Town after town went up in flames. Even Delphi was sacked and its sacred oracle looted. Some confusion followed, and Brennus was wounded, according to the Greeks by the god Apollo himself.

The Celts withdrew in good order, but Brennus, disgraced by the withdrawal and injury, committed suicide, and his mighty host broke up. A Celtic kingdom was established in Thrace, but a combination of interbreeding with the earlier inhabitants and pressure from its Greek neighbors meant that it was quickly Hellenized and overwhelmed.

Other Celts took service under various warring Greek rulers or moved northward founding various towns, including Belgrade. A thin line of Celtic place-names even runs along the coast of the Black Sea north of the Danube, with a scattering of La Tene artifacts being found in southern Russia, including a cemetery near Kiev, and as far as the Sea of Azov.

An army of 10,000 Celts with a similar number of dependents were invited to Asia Minor by a local king in 278 B.C. They quickly found it more profitable to operate on their own account, ravaging and extracting tribute from the terrified cities. Their antics were curbed eight years later by a crushing defeat at the hands of a Syrian force equipped with elephants. The majority then settled on a series of poor plateaux henceforth known as Galatia, now in Turkey.

The Dying Gaul

A generation later they backed the losing side in a local civil war and were repeatedly defeated by Attalus of Pergamum. To celebrate the victory, the Greeks created a series of magnificent bronze statues. The Romans copied several of these in marble, including the Dying Gaul of the Capitol and the Ludovisi group showing a Celt, having killed his wife, stabbing himself with his sword rather than surrender.

From then on, the Galatians stayed quietly in their new homeland. For several hundred years though, no prince in the East could do without his corps of Gauls. A revolt in Upper Egypt in 186 B.C. was put down with the help of Gaulish troops. During a lull in the campaign, four of them wandered into a deserted chapel of Horus, leaving grafitti telling how they caught a fox there.

The mercenaries quickly learned Greek, but as late as the fourth century A.D., St. Jerome wrote that the Galatians still also spoke a Celtic dialect similar to that used by the Treviri tribe of the Belgae. Other evidence bears this out. The leaders of the initial invasion and the settlements they founded often had Belgic names, and statues show that many of them wore the wide trousers for which the Belgae were always noted.

At the other end of Europe, Belgic immigrants probably also were responsible for the fresh continental influences which appeared in the British Isles in the last few centuries before the Roman invasion. Several items dredged from the mud of the River Thames — including a delicately embossed, horned helmet and the famous Battersea Shield — are among the finest examples of La Tene art in the world. In addition to this impressive war gear, changes in pottery and fortifications also can be seen as evidence of successive waves of settlers from the continent, some arriving as new overlords, others settling in new areas to establish island offshoots of continental tribes.

Having outlined the traditionally accepted view of the “coming of the Celts,” it must be noted that this migrationist school has in recent years been challenged by a diffusionist model, according to which such changes spread slowly through pre-existing populations as a result of emulation. In this theory the desire of local rulers to “keep up with the Joneses” is the chief agent in spreading new technology and cultural fashions. The diffusionists make the superficially convincing analogy of archaeologists several thousand years hence explaining the sudden appearance of highway networks, filling stations, and the rusted remains of automobiles in terms of aggressive expansion by the “Car People.” Since, they argue, we know this to be untrue, why should we imagine that the prehistoric spread of chariots, battle-axes, or styles of pottery was different?

It must be understood, however, that many of the advocates of this diffusionist view are motivated by egalitarianism. Their views owe less to the realities of history than to their ideological and emotional commitment to the myth of human equality. According to the diffusionists, the populations of prehistoric Europe were essentially the same in their temperaments and capabilities. Cultural and technological innovations are assumed to have arisen at random in this undifferentiated mass, before spreading in slow-moving ripples from these various centers. In this view, “Celt” is an almost entirely cultural designation with no connection to ethnicity.

According to the diffusionists, therefore, there was never a “Coming of the Celts”: they were already in possession of their lands before slow, cumulative cultural change made them into Celts. And, having developed this identity, they did not burst out in waves to impose it on much of Europe, either as colonists or as a ruling aristocracy.

As is so often the case though, such Politically Correct theorizing has litlte basis in reality and is totally at odds with the surviving contemporary reports. Classical commentators such as Strabo and Lucan noted the clear racial differences between the population of Gaul and that of Britain, and the fact that, while both groups were much fairer than the Mediterraneans, the pure Germans were blonder still. In a triumph ordered by Caligula, a parade of “German” prisoners was boosted for the benefit of the onlookers by the simple expedient of including a number of unusually tall Gauls whose hair was bleached for the occasion.

Caesar makes it clear that the inhabitants of Aquitania — roughly the area south of the Garonne valley — were much more like the mixed Celt-Iberians of Spain than their purely Celtic neighbors to the north. Many classical writers reported that typical Celts were tall and muscular with blue eyes and blonde or — like Boudicca, the warrior-queen who led the anti-Roman revolt by the southeastern British tribes — red hair.

The fourth century Byzantine writer, Ammianus Marcellinus, was drawing on first-hand reports from the first century B.C. when he commented: “Nearly all the Gauls are of a lofty stature, fair and of ruddy complexion: terrible from the sternness of their eyes, and of great pride and insolence. A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance, who is usually very strong and with blue eyes.”

Tacitus agrees on the generally Nordic nature of the Celts, but comments on the notable exception of the tribe occupying South Wales: “The dark faces of the Silures, their usually curly hair, and the position of Spain opposite, are evidence that the ancient Iberians crossed the sea and settled there.”

The diffusionist denial of the role of mass tribal migrations or warrior-aristocracy conquests in the ethnic history of various parts of Europe is also guilty of ignoring many reliable classical references to just such events. In his De Bello Gallico, Caesar tells us: “The inland part of Britain is inhabited by tribes declared in their own tradition to be indigenous to the island, the maritime part by tribes that migrated from Belgium to seek booty by invasion.” He also makes it clear that this was a recent development.

Unfortunately for the trendy theory that changes in grave goods are unrelated to changes in population, the pottery of this time found in southern England shows a sudden increase in continental influence. So the literary and archaeological evidence bear out the migrationist view.

Many Celtic place-names also give us glimpses of past migrations. Thus the Belgic Parisii not only held the area around the future capital of France, but also had a branch in Yorkshire, England. The Brigantes are best known in history as a powerful tribe in northern England, but it is likely that the town of Bregenz on Lake Constance marks their original home in the Celtic heartland, from which another wandering offshoot eventually reached Spain and founded the settlement of Brigantium on the site of modern Corunna.

Other Roman writers noted that the Celts themselves had an ancient tradition that they had come from low-lying areas on the fringes of the North Sea, from which they were driven by floods. It is very likely that this was an accurate folk memory of the rise in sea level which resulted from the melting of the northern ice cap during the unusual warmth of the middle of the Bronze Age, or of the return to much colder and wetter conditions which marked its end and would have led to repeated floods along the lower reaches of rivers such as the Rhine.

The traditions of classical Irish literature refer in detail to mass folk migrations, stating that their island had been invaded by five successive groups of settlers, and that the Celts themselves had arrived long after settlers from Spain had built the megalithic tombs which dot the landscape.

The Irish epic, the Tain Bo Cualnge — The Cattle Raid of Cooley — actually gives us a picture of a Celtic army setting off to war, followed by their families and cartloads of possessions: “Thereafter the hosts set out upon their march. It was difficult to attend to that mighty army, which set forth on that journey, with the many tribes and the many families and the many thousands whom they brought with them that they might see each other and know each other and that each might be with his familiars and his friends and his kin on the hosting.”

Livy’s history of the Gallic wars, and the even more detailed records of the last great Celtic invasion of Italy at the turn of the second century B.C., also give us direct accounts of mass migrations, telling of the widespread upheaval among the Celtic tribes which began when the Cimbri abandoned their homeland, probably in Jutland, and poured south. They were joined by the Teutones — whose name is of Celtic origin and means “people” — whose leaders, like those of the Cimbri, all bore Celtic names. The Cimbri attacked those of the Boii who had remained in Bohemia, then marched to the eastern Alps.

Defeated by a Roman army at Noreia in 113 B.C., the Cimbri moved into Gaul and annihilated two Roman armies. The horde then split up. Half rampaged homewards through Gaul, where the Belgae in the north later boasted that they were the only people to stand up to them, a success they attributed to the martial vigor inherited from their own “Germanic” origins from across the Rhine several centuries before. A 6,000 man Cimbri rearguard left behind in Belgium became an important tribe in its own right only fifty years later.

The other half marched into Spain to seek new land there. In 103 B.C. they returned to Gaul and linked up again with the Teutones. Together they swept through the Brenner Pass into Italy, but were smashed at Vercellae in 101 B.C. The following year the remainder clashed with the legions at Aix-en-Provence. Most were butchered, but thousands were dragged back to Rome as slaves.

The largely empty old territory of the Teutones was quickly filled by fully Germanic tribes. Where the Celto-German border at the start of the La Tene period was in Thuringia and Saxony, Germanic villages and forts now spread rapidly to the Rhine.

The modern liberal dogma of change through gentle ripples of peaceful emulation fits ill with this reality of wandering tribes bringing terror and destruction to everything in their path before being wiped out themselves by the next people destined to dominate Europe.

The diffusionist theory also calls for the rejection of the idea that cultural, military, and linguistic changes are often the result of changes in the ruling elite. The politically aware student of liberalism will not be surprised to note that it is very fashionable nowadays to downplay the role of elites and to explain everything in terms of economic determinism.

Indeed, grateful though we must be to the outstanding modern British scholar of prehistory, Professor Colin Renfrew, for his book Before Civilization, which established that our ancestors were early innovators rather than barbaric imitators of the cultures of the Near East, we must disagree with the neo-Marxist sentiments with which he concludes his later book, Archaeology and Language. Having criticized what he sees as the traditional Eurocentric and ethnocentric basis of historical analysis, he expresses the Politically Correct hope that from now on “we can attempt to rethink these issues, with less emphasis on specific ethnic groups and their supposed migrations, and rather more upon the underlying economic and social processes at work.” Clearly the professor’s groundbreaking scholarship is not matched by a similar ability to think for himself when he ventures into the realm of politics.

Certainly Renfrew’s rejection of elite dominance and mass migration bears little resemblance to the facts. Having denied that elite dominance is a major factor in producing linguistic change, he has to admit in passing that out of the four still-living Celtic tongues, two — Scots Gaelic and Breton — are entirely the result of this very process. The inhabitants of the north and west of Scotland originally spoke Pictish or a dialect of the Brythonic tongue which later developed into Welsh. It was only in the fifth century A.D. that the Ulaid of Ulster sent colonists over the narrow sea to Scotland to escape the attacks of their southern Irish neighbors. This new settlement, speaking a dialect of Goedelic Gaelic, gradually expanded until its language entirely replaced the earlier Brythonic and Pictish ones. As we shall see, the history of Breton is similar.

Nor does Renfrew take his brief quest for analogies in other times very far. It is a fine irony for a man writing in modern English to deny that a small group of well-armed and vigorous foreigners can take over an entire society and drastically alter its language. For the fact is that more than half of our vocabulary is of Latin origin, and that most of that portion entered our speech via French, as the result of the conquest of a population of several million by about six thousand French-speaking cutthroats who, unlike the natives, had perfected the art of fighting on horseback.

For at least a hundred years after 1066 it was possible that Norman-French would take over from Old English completely. Only King John’s loss of his French lands and the subsequent long struggle of later kings to regain them created an upsurge in nationalist feeling in England which led to French falling from favor and the recovery of the prestige of a much changed version of English.

The rise of Latin and of the Roman Empire is another classic case of elite dominance. Hungary — which, up until 1919 in particular, included millions of Slovaks, Ukrainians, and Serbs under the rule of Magyar gentry — shows up on Renfrew’s language map as an island of non-Indo-European speech in the heart of Europe. This was the result of another of the great invasions which have happened throughout recorded history but which the diffusionists deny took place in prehistory. Since human nature is unchanging, and since inequalities between different peoples, both innate and technological, have always existed, there is no reason why mass invasions and takeovers by warrior bands should have been any less frequent before and during Celtic times than they have been since.

Having said that, Renfrew is right to say that when we see a particularly dramatic change in population and language, whether sudden or gradual, we may expect to find its roots in some major practical development in the economic, military, or technological field which took place either at the same time or shortly before. As he argues so convincingly, in the prehistory of Europe and a large part of the Middle East as far as India, the only event significant enough to have led to such a widespread dispersal of Indo-European speakers is the introduction of agriculture.

Similarly, there is no doubt that a very significant military advantage would have been enjoyed by the first people to learn to make weapons of bronze and later of iron, and by the first folk to ride the horse or chariot into battle. In each of these changes we have the practical motor for change by elite dominance.

The idea that the first group to make each of these advances wouldn’t have taken advantage of them at the expense of neighboring peoples is too absurd for words. It is a basic part of human nature which can still be seen at work all over the world today, except on behalf of a White race softened by generations of drivel about “equality” and letting the ugly, the stupid, and the botched inherit the Earth. Our ancestors had no such qualms, which is why the archaeological evidence of burnt villages and periods of major fortification work bears out the classical accounts of widespread disruption at the start of both the Bronze and Iron Ages, and again with the introduction of the war chariot.

While it is certainly going too far to regard a simple change of fashion in prehistoric pottery as indicating the arrival of a new people, wherever we find evidence of a major increase in the effectiveness of the weapons of war, there is every reason to suppose that it upset the balance of power and led to the creation of new elites, if not to the displacement of entire tribes.

In the 1934 English translation of his monumental The History of the Celtic People, French expert Professor Henri Hubert uses linguistic evidence to make a convincing case for two major periods of expansion coinciding with the coming of bronze and iron. The first included the Nordic descent into Greece and Italy, as well as the breaking off of the linguistically conservative Goidels, whose language survives today in the Q-Celtic tongues of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.

By the time the dawn of the Iron Age led to the second great expansion, the language in the Celtic heartland had changed substantially. In particular, the consonant q or k had mutated into a p . The new dialect of the militarily and culturally dominant iron users became dominant throughout Gaul and mainland Britain, which is why modern Welsh, Breton and Cornish are described as P-Celtic. Only in remote Ireland did the older language survive.

Whatever the exact timescale of their dispersal and language changes, the Celts at their peak dominated a vast swath of Europe: from Spain to the Balkans, from the estuary of the Elbe to the southern foothills of the Alps, from the windswept Atlantic coast of Ireland to the forests of central Germany. Their influence went even further. Celtic ornaments have been found in Sweden, and some of the finest examples of La Tene craftsmanship are votive offerings recovered from the peat bogs of Denmark. These were made in the Celtic heartland, but seem to have been obtained by the local Germanic chieftains through trade with their southern neighbors. The magnificent Gundestrup Cauldron, for example, is made of silver from the middle Danube, and its typical Celtic decorations include an elephant. We have noted the role of Gaulish soldiers of fortune in Asia Minor and the settlements on the edge of the Black Sea. Even the Romans learned from them, borrowing their chariots, many of their words, and their long shields.

The Germans learned even more. Many important military, political, and economic terms in German were borrowed from the language of the Celts, including those for “hostage,” “office,” and “value.” The Celtic word for “inheritance” — orbe in Irish — gave the Germans Erbe. Where the King of a Gaulish tribe was known as the Rix, the old German Gothic tongue changed the word to Reiks, from which derived the modern Reich. The German for “breastplate” comes from the same Celtic root as the Irish and Welsh words for “chest,” bruinne and bron respectively.

The fact that the Germans learned the word for “iron” from their western neighbors suggests that the Celts very early came to influence or even to dominate the Germanic tribes to their east. It is even possible that groups such as the Teutones were partly or largely Germanic, but with an aristocracy descended from Celtic warbands, as we have already seen may well have been the case among the Celtiberians far to the southwest.

This study of the Celts will be published tomorrow on, first with a much closer look at the customs and culture of the Celts and then with the sad record of the Celts’ disastrous clash with Caesar’s legions.

* * *

Source: National Vanguard magazine, Number 115, November-December 1995

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Art Thief
Art Thief
10 October, 2019 3:11 pm

It would be nice if multi-part pieces like this – especially the really informative and enlightening ones like this – had links from part 1 to part 2 and so on.

In the mean time, I suppose searching works.

Joe Lowsac
Joe Lowsac
1 September, 2020 10:39 am

The sculpture is mislabelled. That is not ‘The Dying Gaul’, it’s know as ‘The Ludovisi Gaul’. They were from the same group. Both are Roman marbles circa 1st or 2nd century C.E., copies of 3rd century B.C.E. Hellenistic bronzes commemorating Pergamon’s victory over the Gauls. It stands nearly 7 feet, it’s at the Palazzo Altemps, Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome. ‘The Dying Gaul’ is at the Musei Capitolini, though originally the two were displayed together. And they were both part of the Ludovisi collection.