Summary: Language and culture shape our identity and I contemplate the modern Celtic misnomer and the boiling pot of history, archaeology and linguistics from whence it came.
Ask anyone in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the other regions along the Atlantic fringe of the British Isles who they identify with and many will say they are Celtic. From a very young age, I was taught that I was Celtic and that the language of my ancestors, Welsh, was also a Celtic language. The phenomena also extends to the diaspora of Gaelic-speaking peoples following the Great Potato Famine and the Highland Clearances. Celtic culture pops up from Auckland to Boston and everywhere in between.
Thanks to Irish music, Guinness stout, silver knot-work jewellery, modern-day revivals of Pagan religions and festivals and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Celts became cool. Celts in the popular imagination are the defiant yet tragic underdogs of history; the woad-tattooed poetic, beer-drinking warrior who gave a collective ‘Up Yours’ to successive invasions of Romans, Germans, Normans and, eventually the English.
It’s a great image – something to hang your hat on – but alas, the truth as always is much more complex. The modern Celt is a constructed modern myth hanging by the thread of some pretty dodgy scholarship.
Unlike the story of Gelert, this myth began innocently enough when a pioneering linguist, Edward Lhuyd, made the leap that the native languages of the British Isles belonged to a group of people identified in Classical Greek and Roman sources as the Celts.
Lhuyd was an excellent linguist. He noted, for example the linguistic differences and similarities that define the two branches of the native language family: Brythonic and Goidelic. His linguistics were sound; his interpretation of history was not.
Lhuyd concluded that the Brythonic languages (Welsh, Breton and Cornish) originated from France and the Goidelic (Irish and Gaelic) languages originated from Spain. In fact Lhuyd, was drawing on the assertion made by Paul-Yves Pezron, a 17th century monk who wrote a book about the common origins of the Breton and Welsh people. Linguistically, Welsh and Breton are closely related but linking them to the Celts was at best, an educated guess.
Linguistics is a fascinating and invaluable discipline, but I believe that far too much is placed on its shoulders. When dealing with written sources, it’s a valuable tool for drawing connections between groups and sometimes it can provide history and archaeology with the context of language. Where it breaks down (and does so rapidly), is when it’s used in prehistoric studies to connect reconstructed languages to people who left no written records.
What’s irksome to me, is the assertion that Welsh and Irish are Celtic is still accepted as fact by modern Linguists and an embarrassingly large amount of TV historians. Again, the linguists are sound, but the history (and Archaeology and Genetic evidence is not): they are related languages but there’s no evidence they belong to the group of ancient peoples we call the Celts.
So who were the Celts?
The word celt comes to us from several Classical Greek writers who used it to describe the various tribes that inhabited Central and Western Europe, two regions of which, I might add, the Greeks knew little about and cared even less. In the language of my ancestors, Cymraeg, we do not use the word Celt for self-identification and never have. Keltoi (Welsh for Celt) is an 18th Century loan word. Using other people’s languages is for self-identification is not cool.
Anyway, much later, Julius Caesar noted during his campaign of genocide in what is now modern France, some of the tribes he encountered (which the Romans called Gauls), self-identified as Celts (remember Celt is a Greek word). Caesar viewed the world through the lens of a Roman conqueror and not an impartial modern anthropologist. He was not interested in documenting the Gauls for the sake of posterity, he wanted to wipe them out, and his self-aggrandising writings were intended to elevate his own standing among the Romans.
When Caesar crossed the English Channel, he noted similarities between the natives with the Gauls in what is now modern Belgium.
So in both instances, Greek and Roman sources, we’ve got outsiders pinning a label on what are a hodge-podge of illiterate, Iron Ages tribes. Indigenous Australians invariable dumped in a single ‘Aboriginal’ bucket by Europeans will feel some sympathy. It never sits well having your identity defined to you by others.
The Romans, bless their hobnailed sandals, liked to paint the world with rather a broad brush. If you were a barbarian hailing from the west of the Danube, you were a Gaul, to the east and north you were a German. The operative word was barbarian–itself a loan word from Greek describing someone who did not speak Greek.
Visitors to Britain are often amazed at cultural and linguistic differences between neighbouring counties. To lump everyone from Southern France to Ireland as the same, is sloppy, even by Roman standards.
But what about archaeology, La Tene and Hallstat?
Often cited as the material basis of Celtic culture is a host of spectacular archaeological finds centred in what is now Switzerland and Austria. The best known are rich finds in La Tène and Hallstat. Archaeologists tend to be more pragmatic than historians and so they name the associated peoples after these prominent sites – not after a group of tribes mentioned in 2000-year old travel and campaign literature.
At some point though, someone ran with the idea that La Tène and Hallstat material artefacts belonged to our hitherto elusive Celts.
On the face it seems to fit, the finds belong to areas roughly described as Celtic by the Greeks and the spread of that material culture can be found in the areas that Romans called Gaul.
Goods have a habit of being traded far and wide. Most of what I own was manufactured in China but that does not make me Chinese, nor can you make political conclusions from what is essentially a complex trading network. People then as now traded goods from far afield and did so with different ethnic and linguistic groups.
La Tène and Hallstat culture is strongly correlated with Central Europe, but their material remains start to thin out the closer you get to the Atlantic.
Another problem for Celtophiles is that there are unique material artefacts that you find in Western Europe that don’t turn up in Austria and Switzerland. For one thing, Britain, Ireland and Western France is littered with standing stone and barrow graves. These are not a feature of La Tène or Hallstat culture at all; in fact these monuments pre-date La Tène and Hallstat culture by thousands of years.
There’s also cultural differences – big ones. The Druids, and rituals associated with them, as noted by classical writers were centred in Britain and Western France. Anglesey in Wales was described by Tacitus as the epicentre of the Druidic religion and power. I find it odd the notion that language, technology and manufacturing can have one origin (Austria/Switzerland) but religion and social practices be centred on the extreme peripheral of that culture. There’s also strong evidence that suggests that the core belief system of the British Isles emerged even earlier than the classical period, in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages and in the Orkney and Shetland islands no less.
Genetics tell a very different story
Let’s assume the Celts and their languages originated in Central Europe. Would it not then make sense that the bulk of the British population also hail from this region?
Turns out this isn’t true either.
Thanks to extensive genetic testing carried out by geneticist, Bryan Sykes, most of the assumptions made by historians, archaeologist and popular culture as to the origin of the British have been turned on their head. In the book, Blood of the Isles, he demonstrates that Central Europeans have left a minimal impact on the DNA of the British.
The Welsh, Irish, Scots, Cornish, even most of the English, are predominantly descended from the original Mesolithic and Neolithic inhabitants who migrated to and recolonised the British Isles after the glaciers of the last Ice Age thawed out. These people originated from the refugia zones of the Iberian Peninsula and the Western Mediterranean. We’re talking more than 10,000 years prior to the height of La Tène and Hallstat cultures commonly associated with the Celtic people. The language they spoke was quite likely something related to Basque or some other language from Old Europe.
Subsequent groups of ‘invaders’: the Celts, Romans, Germanic tribes, Vikings and the Normans had only very minimal or localised impact on Britain’s genetic legacy. They left their language, technology and a sprinkling of DNA. They did not supplant the local population.
So where does that leave us?
It starts to get tricky when we start to identify our ethnicity as belonging to one of these invader/trader groups. We describe English people as Anglo-Saxons; but that only really applies to those from the south east and then only 20% of their DNA is from Anglo-Saxon tribes. Even less Central European Celtic DNA is found in the Welsh and Irish, but we label them Celts.
Of course, the cultural impact of these migrations is much greater and it’s that legacy that we hang our hats on. Ideas of race are nonsense. Humanity is a single species with regional environmental adaptations. It’s the shared cultural and linguistic traits to which we cling – often to the point of tragedy and suffering to ourselves and the rest of humanity.
You have a real problem on your hands when your culture and identity are defined by others. Celt is a Greek word, Scott is a Latin word, Welsh is an English word.
I was born in Wales less than a 30 minute drive from the border with England. My ethnicity describes me as White-British according to the countries in which I’ve lived. My mother tongue is English, although I learnt Welsh as a child – neither language is native to the British Isles just as my Mesolithic ancestors were not.
Of all the labels I could hang on myself, ‘Celt’ is the most remote, inaccurate and irrelevant.