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Who were the Celts?

The people who made up the various Celtic tribes were called Galli by the Romans and Galatai or Keltoi by the Greeks, terms meaning barbarian. Since no soft c exists in Greek, "Celt" and "Celtic" should be pronounced with a hard k sound.

This extract is from "The Sacred World of the Celts" by Nigel Pennick.

Celtic Warriors

The peoples known as the Celts are thought to have originated in central Europe, to the east of the Rhine in the areas now part of southern Germany, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. From around 3,400 years ago, these proto-Celtic peoples expanded across the Continent, and eventually inhabited a large portion of central, western, and northwestern Europe.

During the Classical period of Greece and Rome, Celtic culture was predominant to the north of the Alps. Even today, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall, Cumbria and Brittany are basically Celtic in character. Despite the changes that time has brought, the influence of Celtic tradition is still fundamental. The name Celt originated with the ancient Greeks, who called the barbarian peoples of central Europe Keltoi. Rather than being a broad cultural genetic 'race,' the Celts were a broad cultural-linguistic group. The area where they lived became a constantly changing collection of tribal 'nations.' The Celts were never an 'empire' ruled by one government.

The ancestors of the Celts were the people of the Urnfield culture, so-called because they buried their dead in cremation urns in flat ground. Between 1200 and 700 BC, they spread westward from their eastern European homeland into the area of modern Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and France. Here, their culture developed into a recognizably Celtic form. The earliest stage of Celtic culture is called the Hallstatt, after a village in the Austrian Salzkammergut where archaeologists discovered important artifacts. At Hallstatt and other places with the 'hall' (salt) name - Hallein, Helle, Schwabisch Hall - the Celts' wealth was based upon salt extraction and sale. The technology of iron, too, was embraced by innovative Celtic blacksmiths, who produced the best metal in Europe, that was in great demand outside Celtic Areas. An important two-way trade developed between the Celts and the Greeks, both in their homeland, and their colonies in what is now southern France.

Celtic Migration Map

Celtic Expansion in Europe & the British Isles

Hallstatt Artifacts

Hallstatt Artifacts

By the seventh century BC, the Hallstatt people had become prosperous in the salt and iron businesses. In around 650 BC, the Celts began to re-exchange raids with the Greeks and Etruscans, elements of whose culture they adopted. By adding and adapting Graeco-Etruscan elements to the Hallstatt culture, the characteristically Celtic style of art came into being. As a result of this, in northeastern France, Switzerland, and the middle Rhine, a new stage of Celtic development took place.

Archaeologists call it the early La Tene period, after the definitive artifacts found at La Tene, on Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. During the Classical period of Greece and Rome, Celtic culture was predominant north of the Alps. Celtic technicians of the La Tene period were technically superior to their Greek and Roman counterparts. Their superior weaponry, including a new type of sword, chain mail, and chariots, enabled the Celts to mount military expeditions against neighboring tribes and nations, including the Greeks and Romans. Celtic fighting men had such a good reputation that they were in great demand as mercenaries. The warrior culture was at the heart of Celtic society, as the heroic sagas of ancient Ireland record.

Partly as the result of wars, many Celtic tribes migrated from one region of Europe to another. From their homeland in central Europe, the Celts spread westward into modern France and the British Isles, southwest into Iberia, southward into northern Italy, and eastward through central Europe into the Balkans and Asia Minor. Ancient tribes now thought to be Celtic include the Helvetii, who lived in the area of modern Switzerland, the Boii in modern Italy, the Averni in modern France, the Scordisci in modern Serbia, and the Belgae, who inhabited northern Gaul and southern Britain in immediate pre-Roman times.

However, after the first century BC, they were in retreat. Driven out of eastern Europe by Slavic tribes, they were vanquished in the west by superior Roman forces. First the Celts in northern Italy came under Roman rule. Then they were overwhelmed in the rest of Gaul (modern France), modern Switzerland, southern Germany, and Austria. Perhaps as the result of the Romans' pressure, many of the Belgae emigrated from what is now Belgium to southern Britain in the first century BC. Then, during the first century AD, most of Britain fell to the Roman conquerors. In the third century AD, the Celts of southern Germany were overrun by the confederation of Germanic tribes called the Alamanni. Since then, many centuries have passed, with further inroads into Celtic lands by invaders, yet Celtic culture has never been eliminated from Europe and will no doubt continue to thrive well into the next millennium. Today, Celtic culture is the living heritage of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany. It has also left its mark on English and French custom and tradition.

Celtic Helmet

The Meyrick Helmet is considered to be a Celtic version of a Roman auxiliary helmet, combining a Roman shape with La Tène style decoration. Iron Age - 1st Century AD
British Museum London

Classic Celtic Designs

Trinity Knot Wedding Rings

Celtic Design Wedding Bands

Celtic Window to the Soul Necklace

Celtic Knot Necklace

Celtic Knot Silver Pin

Celtic Knot Pin

Additional Reading:

Celts at