Manual Kingdoms of the Celts - A History and Guide

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  1. Account Options
  2. Celts - Wikipedia
  3. How did Iron Age people live?
  4. In Search of Ancient Ireland

Then the Boii and Ungones came over by the Poenine pass, and finding all the country between the Alps and the Po already occupied, crossed the river on rafts and expelled not the Etruscans only but the Umbrians as well; they did not, however, pass south of the Apennines. While Livy's account may be more legendary than factual, the central idea that overpopulation was the driving force behind the expansion may have some historical truth.

The archaeological evidence of the shift from the Hallstatt culture to the La Tene culture shows continuing interaction with the influences of the Mediterranean, but a distinctive change in art style. The simpler geometric patterns of the Hallstatt era - the chevrons, circles and stripes - become, in the art of the La Tene period, something much more elaborate, fluid and complex. Plant motifs, notably of acanthus and lotus, become more common, and there appears throughout the La Tene period a remarkable freedom of artistic expression, in which forms are allowed to wander into other forms without restraint: leaves become faces, animals become plants, figurative representations melt into abstract swirls, whorls and trefoils.

The geometry of these designs is extremely complex, and suggests a sophistication, social as well as aesthetic, quite at odds with the traditional picture of early Celtic society as crude, belligerent and brutish. Much of the La Tene art is concentrated in articles of personal adornment. The Romans and Greeks decorated their buildings, but the Celts decorated themselves.

Almost all of the finest works of La Tene art are portable artefacts - mirrors, swords, scabbards, helmets, brooches, clasps, Interestingly, when Rome later occupied Gaul, the Celtic masterpieces disappeared within a generation, and shoddy Celtic copies of Greek and Roman statuary rapidly replaced them as the predominant art form. Celtic art and culture were emasculated in less than a century, in much the same way that Scottish Highland art and culture were sanitized and emasculated by English victories, many centuries later.

The La Tene culture reached Britain around BC, and the British Celtic aristocrats and royal houses continued their traditions long after Gaulish princes and warrior-chieftains had become Romanized tavernkeepers, booksellers and grocers.

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The traditional Celtic warrior-king societies survived longest of all in Ireland, to which Rome's grasp never extended. At the head of the tribe was the king or queen, whose role the bulk of this book is intended to examine. Inheritance of the royal status the Celts did not use actual crowns, so the metaphorical 'crown' seems inappropriate was both patrilinear and matrilinear; the overriding principle appears to have been the fitness or appropriateness of the candidate, in keeping with the general religious principle of the 'fitness of things', which we shall examine shortly.

The vernacular tales reveal a common theme of unusual birth: the king, queen, god, goddess, hero or heroine is born of an adulterous or incestuous relationship cf. Arthur's siring by Uther Pendragon in the guise of Gorlois , or is born in an unusual setting. Fosterage, which was a common Celtic practice, also appears frequently in the tales of royal childhood.

The king or queen is physically unblemished, an acknowledged warrior of perfect and absolute courage. Fierce personal loyalty to the tribe, to its king or queen, to its nobles and chieftains, and to its tutelary gods appears to have been the most important binder of the Celtic social fabric. There are Celtic laws - indeed, many of them are older than Greek or Roman law in origin - but the politics of statecraft in Celtic society was based in two linked societal patterns: the universal reverence for a common set of religious beliefs, which Caesar and other classical commentators describe in some detail, and an equally universal system of tribal allegiances.

There were, then, three main classes in early Celtic tribal societies: the aristocracy, headed by the king or queen; the priestly class, led by the druids; and everyone else. As in many warrior societies, exceptional valour or battle achievement was frequently rewarded with exceptional social status, even kingship in some instances.

Celts - Wikipedia

Very different to most other early warrior societies is the high status also given to the priestly class. These were not knights in shining armour; rather; it means that druids were equivalent to senior members of the royal family, and there are, indeed, examples in the classical and vernacular texts of druids being described as if they were of equal rank to kings, since they frequently gave judgment on kings. The druids, and their retinues of ovates prophets, or interpreters of omens and bards poets, chroniclers, writers of eulogies and satires , sometimes even kept their own small armies, and kings and queens whom the druids served were expected to feed and house them.

There must also have been a higher rank among the lowest class, peopled by artisans with particular skills, notably the jewellers, weaponsmiths, chariot-builders, and so on. However, all the evidence suggests that membership of the clan or tribe, and the concomitant right of protection from the tutelary aristocratic family, was the most important indicator of status, and that even the humblest farmer with one pig and one plough was a somebody if his tribe had standing. This pattern of tribal allegiance was eroded very rapidly in Gaul after the Roman occupation, but remained strong in Britain and Ireland for many centuries, and, to some extent, still survives in the Scottish clan allegiances, although a lot of that modern clannish identity has more to do with revival than with survival.

Another distinguishing feature of early Celtic tribal society is the high status accorded to women.

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Indeed, apart from the followers of the school of Pythagoras, who encouraged women to be leaders, there are very few examples of early societies which routinely gave positions of high rank, status and wealth to women, as the Celts did. We know that many tribes were led by queens rather than by kings.

We also know that Celtic women fought in battle alongside their menfolk. Caesar mentions an unusual custom relating to the marriage dowry which gives further evidence of equal status between men and women: The men, after due reckoning, take from their own goods a sum of money equal to the dowry they have received from their wives and place it with the dowry. An account is kept of each sum, and the profits are saved.

Whichever of the two survives receives the portion of both, together with the profits from previous years. However, in the same passage, Caesar goes on to tell us how, if a Celtic nobleman died, his wife and family were interrogated under torture if there were suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, and he states specifically that 'men have the power of life and death over their wives', which seems inconsistent with the earlier description.

Miranda Green points out the fact that women and men are usually portrayed as being the same size in Celtic art, which is strongly indicative of a symbolic relationship. We shall look more closely at wooing and marriage customs, among kings and queens and gods and goddesses as well as mortals, in later chapters. Fosterage was an important bonding agent in the fabric of Celtic life.

The traditional practice, mentioned by classical authors and very frequently described in the vernacular texts, was for the son or sons of a particular noble family to be raised by a different family. The foster-parents would teach the child the arts of war and statesmanship. The advantage to the foster-parents was that they could ally themselves to a powerful royal or noble house, with all the advantages of status and political power afforded by such an alliance. The advantage to the natural parents was that strong ties could be established with the foster family, so that in times of war it would be very easy to call on that family for material and military support, and so pull together large and effective fighting forces.

One of the results of the fosterage system was the development of a profound sense of honour, which permeated Celtic society, which was even further intensified in the mediaeval code of chivalry, and which still has a deep influence on western society. The word of a foster or client family was its bond. The speaking of truth, and with it the importance of correct utterance, also became a fundamental tenet of druidism. A promise given was sacred, and debts of honour were inviolable.

The reader may be familiar with the story of King Arthur, whose natural father was King Uther Pendragon, being fostered by Merlin to Sir Ector, whose natural son was Kay; the foster-brother bond which developed between Kay and Arthur, despite their mutual antagonism as young boys, became a powerful political alliance in adulthood. Fosterage encouraged this kind of bonding throughout Celtic society.

A critical time for the tribe was the onset of winter, when a store of harvested grains principally oats and barley and of salted meat became an urgent necessity for survival. There were frequent cattle raids before the main slaughter and meat-salting in late autumn - one of these raids, or at least a highly dramatized variant of one, is the central theme of the Tain Bo Cualgne or Cattle Raid of Cooley, one of the great Irish vernacular texts. Links of fosterage often helped to temper the ferocity of such predations and skirmishes.

The Celts of King Arthur's Britain

Another powerful bond between tribes was the accepted significance of religion, and the universally acknowledged power of the druidic priesthood. Several classical commentators comment on the religiosity of the Celts, sometimes respectfully, sometimes disparagingly. The druids functioned as a kind of judiciary, since they were of high rank, sometimes even equal to kings, but they were also often independent of territorial or tribal obligations.

How did Iron Age people live?

A visiting druid could command bed and board for his retinue under the accepted rules of hospitality. As a consequence, many political and military disputes were settled by the priesthood, without recourse to bloodshed. Cowards and wrongdoers could be punished by the composition and declamation of satires or lampoons, which were thought sufficiently powerful to raise boils, sores and cankers, even to bring on death. The classical descriptions repeatedly tell us what a disordered shambles the Celts were, at least by comparison with the measured and orderly might of Rome.

Livy, for example, describes the Celtic warriors after the Battle of Clusium: They are big men - brave men, too, at a pinch - but unsteady. Always they bring more smoke than fire - much terror but little strength. See what happened at Rome: the city lay wide open, and they walked in - but now a handful of men in the Citadel are holding them.

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Already they are sick of the siege, and are off - anywhere, everywhere - roaming the countryside; crammed with food and soused in drink they lie at night like animals on the bank of some stream unprotected, unguarded, no watches set - and a taste of success has now made them more reckless than ever. But Celtic social and military structure was not quite so disordered as Livy's comments suggest. There is a good correlation between sources to demonstrate otherwise: comments from other classical authors, the vernacular texts and, in particular, the Irish law tracts and archaeological evidence tend to agree in their descriptions.

The king or queen was the head and shaping influence of the social structure with one notable exception: by the time Caesar had completed his conquest of Gaul, some of the Gallic Celts had, to a large extent, replaced traditional kingship with rule by elected chief magistrates, called vergobretos, who ruled alongside aristocratic families.

Below the king or queen came the chief nobles, heads of families or clans. In Gaul, the priests always came from this class, and there is good reason to believe that the same pattern obtained in Britain and in Ireland.

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Below the aristocratic families came the freeborn gentry, landowners and farmers, and chief artisans, especially metalsmiths and jewellers. Alwyn and Brinley Rees identify specific groups of trade or craft specialists, similar to the sudra caste in ancient India, which included carpenters, wheelwrights, potters, dog-leaders, huntsmen, jugglers, entertainers and musicians. The lowest of the common people were, according to Caesar, 'nearly regarded as slaves'.

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  • Celtic revivalists had a hard time accepting that slavery was a part of traditional Celtic society, but the evidence is irrefutable: slave chains and manacles for working gangs of slaves have been found at La Tene on the continental mainland, in the lake at Llyn Cerrig Bach in Anglesey in Britain, and elsewhere. Diodorus Siculus tells us the value of a slave: 'For one jar of wine they receive in return a slave - a servant in exchange for a drink. Although Gregory's servant called them Angles, these may well have been slaves of Celtic stock.

    The early Celtic tribal societal pattern is very similar to that which survived into the eighteenth century in the clans of highland Scotland, which retained the traditions both of fosterage, already described, and of ceilsine, or clientship.