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Celtic Life

The Six Celtic Languages

  • There was a unifying language spoken by the Celts, called not surprisingly, old Celtic. Philogists have shown the descendence of Celtic from the original Ur-language and from the Indo-European language tradition. In fact, the form of old Celtic was the closest cousin to Italic, the precursor of Latin.
  • The original wave of Celtic immigrants to the British Isles are called the q-Celts and spoke Goidelic. It is not known exactly when this immigration occurred but it may be placed sometime in the window of 2000 to 1200 BC. The label q-Celtic stems from the differences between this early Celtic tongue and Italic. Some of the differences between Italic and Celtic included that lack of a p in Celtic and an a in place of an the Italic o.
  • At a later date, a second wave of immigrants took to the British Isles, a wave of Celts referred to as the p-Celts speaking Brythonic. Goidelic led to the formation of the three Gaelic languages spoken in Ireland, Man and later Scotland. Brythonic gave rise to two British Isles languages, Welsh and Cornish, as well as surviving on the Continent in the form of Breton, spoken in Brittany.
  • The label q-Celtic stems from the differences between this early Celtic tongue and the latter formed p-Celtic. The differences between the two Celtic branches are simple in theoretical form. Take for example the word ekvos in Indo-European, meaning horse. In q-Celtic this was rendered as equos while in p-Celtic it became epos, the q sound being replaced with a p sound. Another example is the Latin qui who. In q-Celtic this rendered as cia while in p-Celtic it rendered as pwy. It should also be noted that there are still words common to the two Celtic subgroups.
  • Today there are no remaining independent Celtic countries; however, the Celtic language (Gaelic) has survived in the form of Scots, Irish, Welsh, Breton, and Manx Gaelic. Irish and Manx Gaelic are the closest to the original language, retaining the Q sound in such words as cen (head), whereas the Breton and Welsh pen (also head) uses a P sound.

THE SERPENT'S STONE

  • The Serpent's Stone is a symbol of an ancient wisdom and fidelity; touchstone of universal truths. The complexity of earthly life sometimes obscures a simple truth. The four serpent heads emerge from the labyrinth of Creation to point the way through self-examination. The brilliant colours convey a sense of drama and intrigue. As a meditative glyph, it endorses the need for self-examination. Thus when truth becomes entangled in a moral dilemma, evoke the secret wisdom of the Serpent's Stone.

DRUIDS

  • The Druids, who were occupied with magico-religious duties, were recruited from families of the warrior class but ranked higher. Thus Caesar's distinction between Druids (man of religion and learning), eques (warrior), and plebs (commoner) is fairly apt. As in other Indo-European systems, the family was patriarchal

ECONOMY

  • The basic economy of the Celts was mixed farming, and, except in times of unrest, single farmsteads were usual.  Owing to the wide variations in terrain and climate, cattle raising was more important than cereal cultivation in some regions.

CLOTHING - TEXTILES

  • Textiles in ancient times were fairly advanced. Weaving is a very basic technology and was quite advanced as early as 5,000 BCE, and brightly colored dyes were readily available. If we met our Celtic ancestors, they would probably look as gaudy to us as they did to the Romans, since they were very fond of bright colors and ornamentation.
  • There aren't a lot of textile remains found for Celtic clothing from prehistoric times through the 16th century; we mostly have to rely on manuscripts and descriptions of what was worn at various times. However, I will make some educated guesses based on textile construction techniques from the few Celtic finds available, as well as evidence from the bog finds in Denmark, which could arguably be either Celtic or Teutonic. Obviously, fashions varied from place to place and time to time, so Celtic clothing wasn't universally the same in all places over the thousand or so years I'm spanning; however, similar techniques of constructing and decorating clothing were used throughout Europe, and results can be inferred from these.

HOMES

  • Hill forts provided places of refuge, but warfare was generally open and consisted of single challenges and combat as much as of general fighting.

ART - MUSIC

  • There are many modern 'politically correct' problems surrounding exactly what is Celtic and what is not. The most common error is to talk of 'Celtic knotwork', that complicated and elaborate interlacing of lines, curves and geometric shapes which seems to be appearing everywhere nowadays.
  • This style of design and decoration was in fact brought to Britain in the 6th century AD by Saxon Christian monks and was used exclusively to illuminate the handwritten Christian Gospels. The Saxon people used some of the art for personal decoration. Any of the knotwork that has animal shapes incorporated shows influence from the Vikings. It is indeed a very attractive and distinctive style of decoration - but it is not Celtic.
  • In Pre-Celtic Britain, there are many ancient places that were elaborately and painstakingly decorated and carved with many different styles of spiral, zigzag, diamond, line and curve but nowhere do these separate symbols and designs overlap or interlace and nowhere is there to be found an example of knotwork. It should also be noted that these elaborate designs and symbols are not Celtic either. They were carved into the rocks by an unknown race of megalith builders thousands of years before the Celtic culture arrived.
  • It is also a common practice for modern day Celtic groups to employ various symbols, such as the Crescent and V-Rod, the Switch, the Two Worlds etc, as part of their Celtic regalia and ritual but, once again, these ancient symbols are not Celtic they are Pictish. The Picts were a Scandinavian people and the only places where these symbols are to be found, carved on stones etc, are in the North East of Scotland and they are, therefore, as foreign to the British tribes as the 'Celtic' knotwork is.
  • Another modern addition to this confusing collection of symbolism is the ubiquitous pentagram which is unquestionably non-Celtic - Jewish, from the seals of Solomon.
  • What, then, were the symbols used by the Celts? It is true that they greatly admired all art-forms and decorative styles and that they used these to a great extent on just about everything from household utensils to battle-chariots. But the symbols they used are the ones that are still all round us today :-the trees, the birds, the animals, the hills and lakes and all the other manifestations of the life-force on Earth.
  • The Celts were a warlike, passionate people with a love of art. Truly, Celtic art is distinguished for its extensive curves and intricate knot work which is used to form complex decorations for weapons, Jewellery and body tattooing. Along with the extensive use of body tattooing the Celts highlighted their naturally fair hair by washing it in lime-water. This fondness for art and personal decoration was merged with acts of barbarism, such as beheading their enemies and carrying the severed heads around the necks of their horses. The head was the ultimate source of spiritual power; to posses the enemies head, was to posses his spirit. Riding naked on fast moving, light chariots, shrieking and swinging large hacking swords and throwing spears was a most effective method of warfare for instilling terror into their enemies.

WARRIORS

  • Celtic warriors were drawn from what we would describe as the middle and upper class. The warrior class did the actual fighting: the free poor served as chariot drivers. The Celt was a warrior in the heroic sense. Everything had to be larger than life. He lived for war. His glorification of bravery often led him to recklessness. Part of a warriors ritual was to boast of his victories, and fighting between warriors was an important part of life.
  • Most Celts scorned the use of Armour and before about 300 B.C. preferred to fight naked. Some Celtic tribes still fought naked at the battle of Telamon in 225 B.C. The Celt was renowned as a swords-man but he also used javelins and spears. Two spears which were found at La Tene in Switzerland were nearly 2.5m long. His only protection was his large shield which was usually oval. The suggestion that the Celt wore heavy bracelets in battle has to be questioned, as it is hard to understand how they would stay on his arm whilst he wielded his sword. Dionysius tells us that in battle the Celts whirled their swords above their heads, slashing the air from side to side, then struck downwards at their enemies as if chopping wood. It was this use of the sword that so terrified their enemies. The Celts did not fight in a rabble as is so often supposed. They were organized in companies. This can be proved by their use of standards.
  • The Celt was a head-hunter. In battle he would cut off the head of his fallen enemy and often hang it from his horse's neck. After battle he would display the severed head at the entrance to his temple. The severed head is a constant theme in Celtic art. At the battle of Beneventumin 214 B.C. the Roman general Gracchus had to order his army of freed slaves (presumably Celts) to stop collecting heads and get on with the fighting. After a battle the Celts would often dedicate their enemies weapons to the gods and throw them into a river or lake. The hundreds of weapons that have been dredged from the Lake of Neuchatel at La Tene were such offerings. In fact the site at La Tene has revealed so many Celtic artifacts that its name has been given to the whole Celtic culture.
  • The chiefs and the wealthiest Celts often did wear Armour particularly when they came into contact with the Greeks and Romans. They often adopted items of Greek or Roman Armour. A pair of greaves were found in the chieftain's grave at Ciumesti. Several graves have been found in Northern Italy which contain Etruscan Armour and Celtic weapons. Before a battle the chiefs would ride out, in front of the army clashing their weapons on their shields, proclaiming their great deeds and challenging the enemy to single combat. Caesar describes the British as dressed in skins (meaning leather) and decorated with woad, a blue dye. Some tattooed skin from a Scythian grave of this period suggests that the Britons were tattooed in blue.

Encyclopedia of the Celts

Book of the Kells

Celtic Feasts and Celebrations

  • Feasts and celebrations were the highlights of the Celtic year. They were usually rowdy, often extravagant affairs at which the Celts could indulge their love of eating and drinking. At large feasts the whole tribe could meet together to display their unity and loyalty to their chieftain. Some feasts were held to celebrate special festivals in the Celtic year, such as the New Year. Others were held just to bring people together.

  • Samhain - was the name for the Celtic New Year and was the most important of the Celtic festivals. It was celebrated on the 1st of November when the animals were brought in from grazing and those not needed for breeding were slaughtered for food. Because Samhain belonged to neither the old or new year, it was also thought to be a time of magic, when armies of magical soldiers marched out from caves and mounds in the earth, and people and spirits could mingle in each other's worlds. In Christian times, Samhain was replaced by All Saints Day or All Hallows Day. The day before it became known as Halloween. Some of the old Celtic beliefs still linger in traditional Halloween celebrations.

  • Beltane - was celebrated at the beginning of May and was the second most important day in the Celtic year. It marked the time when the cattle were sent out to graze in the open again after being sheltered and fed near the farmhouse all winter. As part of the celebrations, the Celts lit huge bonfires and drove their cattle between them. It was believed that this would protect the cattle from diseases.

  • Imbolc and Lugnasad - were celebrated by many of the Celts, but they were not as important as Samhain or Beltane. Imbolc on the 1st of February, was celebrated as the start of the lambing season when the ewe's milk was plentiful again. This was important not only for feeding the lambs, but also for making cheese. Lugnasad, on the 1st of August, was celebrated as the time when the crops began to ripen in the fields, giving the promise of a good harvest and plenty to eat over the coming winter.

 


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