HIDDEN HISTORY: Eight Surprising Things You Should Know About the Celts – By Sarah P. Young

Source – ancient-origins.net

  • “…One of the grimmer aspects of Celtic tradition was the practice of head-hunting. The Celts believed that human souls resided in heads, and so after victory in battle Celtic warriors would decapitate their enemies. Having a large collection of enemy heads was a sign of prestige to the Celts, and they would even go so far as to decorate the doors to their houses with the heads of their enemies to show off how successful they were in battle. At one site in France there is even a pillar with special niches carved out to display severed heads”
The Celts had many female warriors

By Sarah P Young

Eight Surprising Things You Should Know About the Celts

The Celts were a distinct ethnic group made up of tribes spread across Europe. They shared similar languages, traditions, religions, and cultural practices and were known for their fierceness in battle and the fact the Romans perceived them as a culture of barbarians. Even the name given to them by the Romans (Galli) translates to barbarian. Although the first mentions of the Celts were in Roman texts from around the 7 th Century AD, the Celtic culture is thought to have emerged around 1200 BC.

Despite the picture the Romans painted of a savage and brutish society of uncultured, unrestrained ruffians, their culture was a complex one. Their distinctive artistic style has survived into the 21 st century, likewise some remnants of their traditions and language. The way the Romans depicted the Celts has influenced our modern opinions of their society, as evidenced by popular depictions like the Asterix comics, but there are a lot of fascinating facts about Celtic society which show a different side of the Celts altogether. https://www.youtube.com/embed/YE6KRPMu04o

1. The Celts Did Not Originate in Ireland or Scotland

Today, people think of the Celtic culture as being a part of Irish and Scottish heritage. The instantly recognizable Celtic art style is something people associate with Ireland, and movies such as Braveheart cement the idea that the Celts were present in Scotland. Furthermore, most British school children are taught about Hadrian’s Wall , built by the Roman emperor Hadrian in 122 AD to keep the Picts, a Celtic tribe in modern Scotland, confined to the North.

So, it comes as a surprise to learn that the Celts were not originally from either of these regions. In fact, the earliest evidence of Celtic culture is from the site of Hallstatt, Austria. The site has over 1000 burials with Celtic features, dated to approximately 1200 BC.

Celtic warrior. (Gorodenkoff / Adobe)

Celtic warrior. ( Gorodenkoff / Adobe)

2. The Celts Paid Attention to Their Hygiene

Thanks to the Roman accounts, we tend to think of the Celts as scruffy, dirty, and smelly. However, the archaeological evidence shows that this is far from true. Celtic sites have an abundance of grooming tools, such as combs and hair pins. There is even evidence that it is the Celts introduced the Romans to soap, and that it was mandatory in some tribes for the men to bathe before enjoying their evening meal.

The reverse side of a Celtic bronze mirror from 50 BC. (Rotatebot / Public Domain)

The reverse side of a Celtic bronze mirror from 50 BC. (Rotatebot / Public Domain )

3. They Were Head-Hunters

Although many of the Roman ideas about the Celts were exaggerated or entirely inaccurate, they did have some traditions which were barbaric. One of the grimmer aspects of Celtic tradition was the practice of head-hunting. The Celts believed that human souls resided in heads, and so after victory in battle Celtic warriors would decapitate their enemies. Having a large collection of enemy heads was a sign of prestige to the Celts, and they would even go so far as to decorate the doors to their houses with the heads of their enemies to show off how successful they were in battle. At one site in France there is even a pillar with special niches carved out to display severed heads.

4. They Developed Weaponry Long Before Their Rivals

The fact the Celts were able to spread across such a large part of Europe and survive so long was probably due to their advanced weaponry. The Hallstatt Culture was one of the first to adopt iron for weapons, which was far superior to the bronze weapons used by their rivals. This edge on their competitors – perhaps more accurately described as their victims – was something they took full advantage of to grow their empire and spread far further than would otherwise have been possible.

Celtic swords 120 BC to 43 AD. (Völkerwanderer / Public Domain)

Celtic swords 120 BC to 43 AD. (Völkerwanderer / Public Domain )

5. They Had Their Own Complex Calendar

While the Romans had the Julian calendar, the Celts had their own calendar for predicting the seasons and calculating time. The Coligny calendar was found in woods near Coligny, France in the 1890s, and consisted of a large bronze tablet with intricate engravings. It was originally a mystery what the tablet, which is 1.48 meters x 0.9 meters (4’10” x 2’11”), represented though it was ascertained to have been made during the 2 nd Century based on the artifacts it was found with.

When it was reconstructed, it was finally revealed to be a calendar which covered 5 years divided into 12 months per year with an extra month once every third year which functioned in the same way as a leap year. The calendar was extremely complex, and even accounted for the different times the sun and moon took to circle the earth which meant it kept time accurately, unlike the Julian calendar which sometimes resulted in the Romans celebrating the start of Spring in August. The calendar was probably created and used by druids and functioned partly to help with the timing of festivals and rituals.

6. They Were Very Skilled at Horse Riding

The Celts were known for their prowess in battle and in particular for their skills on horseback. They had a special kind of sword called a Spatha, worshipped a horse goddess called Epona and were even recruited into the cavalry of the Roman armies after their regions had been conquered. They would also use horse drawn carriages in battle and were very skilled in this technique. They were known to decorate their horses and chariots with the heads of their enemies to show how many people they had killed in battle and so intimidate the enemy.

Celtic Horsemen. (Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe)

Celtic Horsemen. ( Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe)

7. They Worshipped a Huge Number of Gods and Goddesses

There were hundreds of gods and goddesses in the Celtic pantheon, and some of them were so niche that only a single tribe or even family worshipped them. The druids, who led religious ceremonies, were in charge of rituals which included sacrifice. These ceremonies would usually take place at shrines in natural locations such as hilltops and streams, but there were some secret ceremonies which would be conducted in hidden sacred groves. The druids were very important in Celtic society as they served as judges, teachers, and lore-keepers.

8. Celtic Women Could be Warriors Too

Unlike many ancient civilizations, there are many accounts of women who were warriors in the Celtic society. One such female warrior is Boudicca who infamously fought to prevent the Romans from invading her territory . When she was eventually defeated, she committed suicide by drinking poison rather than submitting to the Romans. There are many other contemporary accounts of women participating in and even leading battles. The Romans found the idea of female warriors particularly shocking, and the writers Posidonius and Strabo both described an island of Celtic women where men could not venture for fear of death.

Celtic woman warrior woman ready to attack. (danrentea / Adobe)

Celtic woman warrior woman ready to attack. ( danrentea / Adobe)

Many of the Roman accounts of the Celts are propaganda designed to provoke an image of wild savages, both to excuse their failures against a people who fought like wild animals and to make their victories over them even more glorious. But despite this propaganda and fearmongering there are some elements of truth – the Celts were fearsome in battle, and the practice of headhunting in particular was something which must have helped to cultivate the image of a barbaric people who acted like wild animals. It should be remembered in the case of the Celts that history is written by the victors. It was easy for the Romans to erase the accomplishments of this complex society, particularly when they themselves had been trying to avoid the headhunters!

Top image: The Celts had many female warriors                 Source: Syda Productions / Adobe Stock

Related…

The Fearsome Wicker Man: An Eerie Way Druids Committed Human Sacrifice

The wicker man is purported to be one of the means by which the ancient druids made human sacrifices. According to a number of classical authors, the druids partook in human sacrifice, though these authors usually did not specify the way these sacrifices were carried out. Nevertheless, references to a form of druid human sacrifice which utilized the ‘wicker man’ can be found in two classical sources.

Pagan ceremony involving the Wicker Man ( CC by SA 4.0 )

Second-Hand Knowledge of the Druids

The druids were a class of people within the societies of the Celts who inhabited Britain and France. Almost everything we know about the druids today can be regarded as second-hand knowledge. Known surviving texts that mention them were written by non-druids, most notably the Roman leader Julius Caesar.

The druids were thought to be highly revered, and played a variety of important roles in their community. The druids served, amongst other things, as teachers, judges, philosophers, and mediators between human beings and gods. Ancient sources write that the druids often performed human sacrifices, which may or may not be true. If it is true, one of the means by which the druids supposedly sacrificed their human victims was with a device now known as a ‘wicker man’.     

"Two Druids", 19th-century engraving based on a 1719 illustration by Bernard de Montfaucon.

“Two Druids”, 19th-century engraving based on a 1719 illustration by Bernard de Montfaucon. ( Public Domain )

The Gallic Wars

In Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars , it is recorded that the Celtic tribes inhabiting the region of Gaul were extremely superstitious. Additionally, Caesar wrote that the Celts believed “that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods cannot be rendered propitious”. Thus, human sacrifices were said to have been commonly performed by druids employed by those who are afflicted by severe diseases or engaged in battles or dangers. Nevertheless, human sacrifices “ordained for national purposes” may have also been performed.

"Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar", 1899, by Lionel Noel Royer

“Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar”, 1899, by Lionel Noel Royer ( Public Domain )

Caesar also claimed that human sacrifices involving criminals were “more acceptable to the immortal gods”, though when supply was short, the innocent would also be sacrificed. During this discourse of Celtic human sacrifice, Caesar provides one example of the way the druids carried out this task, which involved “figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men,” These figures are the so-called ‘wicker men’, which would then be set on fire, and the men in them would be destined to perish in the flames.

Another 18th century engraving of a wicker man filled with people.

Another 18th century engraving of a wicker man filled with people. ( Public Domain )

Strabo’s Geography

This form of human sacrifice can also be found in Strabo’s Geography. This ancient writer claimed that the Celts “devised a colossus of straw and wood” for the purpose of sacrifice. Unlike Caesar, however, Strabo records that “cattle and wild animals and all sorts of human beings” were thrown into this colossus, and then burnt. Strabo also asserts that the ‘wicker man’ was just one method of human sacrifice, and two other examples of how the druids performed human sacrifices are given, “they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples”

Strabo as depicted in a 16th-century engraving

Strabo as depicted in a 16th-century engraving ( Public Domain )

Wicker man today

In reality, it is unknown if the druids actually used ‘wicker men’ for human sacrifices. It has been argued, for instance, that such a device would have been neither practical nor realistic. Although wicker objects are said to be quite strong, they would lose their structural integrity quite quickly when set on fire.

A live animal or person within a ‘wicker man’ could also struggle and break it an attempt to escape. It may be possible that the people / animals prepared for the sacrifice were drugged prior to being placed in the ‘wicker man’, though neither Caesar nor Strabo recorded such a practice.

The story of the ‘wicker man’, which may have been quite obscure, became popular thanks to a 1973 British horror film called The Wicker Man . This film revolves around a devoutly Christian Scottish police sergeant who is sent to an isolated Hebridean island called Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. The climax of the film occurs when the sergeant is sacrificed by the inhabitants of the island, who are pagans, in a ‘wicker man’.

Scene from the movie ‘The Wicker Man’ (1973).

Scene from the movie ‘The Wicker Man’ (1973). ( Curnblog)

The ‘wicker man’ is also used in today’s neopagan practices, specifically for the celebration of a fire feast or at harvest time. Fortunately, however, humans / animals, are no longer placed within this structure.

Featured image: Burning a modern wicker man. (Wicker Paradise/CC BY 2.0)

Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods He has been an active participant in archaeological fieldwork, and has been on excavations around the world, including the UK, Egypt, and Italy.

https://www.ancient-origins.net/users/dhwty

2 thoughts on “HIDDEN HISTORY: Eight Surprising Things You Should Know About the Celts – By Sarah P. Young

  1. European Literature was required for me to graduate high school (sorry Shakespeare is NOT to my liking) – I would have liked to have learned about the Celts instead.

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