Most of what we know about Celtic life comes from Ireland—the largest and most extensive of the Celtic populations, the Gauls in central and western Europe, we only know about through Roman sources—and these sources are decidedly unfriendly to the Gauls.
We know that the early Celtic societies were organized around warfare—this structure would commonly characterize cultures in the process of migration: the Celts, the Huns, and later the Germans. Although classical Greek and Roman writers considered the Celts to be violently insane, warfare was not an organized process of territorial conquest. Among the Celts, warfare seems to have mainly been a sport, focusing on raids and hunting. The stealing of another group's cattle was often the proving point of a group of young warriors; the greatest surviving Irish myth, the Táin Bó Cualingne, or "The Cattle Raid of Cooley," centers around one such mythically-enhanced cattle-raid.
The Celtic method of warfare was to stand in front of the opposing army and scream and beat their spears and swords against their shields. They would then run headlong into the opposing army and screamed the entire way—this often had the effect of scaring the opposing soldiers who then broke into a run; fighting a fleeing army is relatively easy work. If the opposing army did not break ranks, the Celts would stop short of the army, return to their original position, and start the process over again.
Celtic society was hierarchical and class-based. Tribes were led by kings but political organizations were remarkably plastic. According to both Roman and Irish sources, Celtic society was divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy, an intellectual class that included druids, poets, and jurists, and everyone else.
One's ethnic identity was largely derived from the larger tribal group, called the tuath ("too-awth") in Irish (meaning "people") but ultimately based on the smallest kinship organizational unit, the clan, called the cenedl (ke-na-dl), or "kindred," in Irish. The clan provided identity and protection—disputes between individuals were always disputes between clans. Since it was the duty of the clan to protect individuals, crimes against an individual would be prosecuted against an entire clan. One of the prominent institutions among the Celts was the blood-feud in which murder or insults against an individual would require the entire clan to violently exact retribution.
The position of women was fairly high in Celtic society. In the earliest periods, women participated both in warfare and in kingship. While the later Celts would adopt a strict patriarchal model, they still have a memory of women leaders and warriors.
Celtic economy was probably based on the economic principle of most tribal economies: reciprocity. In a reciprocal economy, goods and other services are not exchanged for other goods, but they are given by individuals to individuals based on mutual kinship relationships and obligations. (A family economy is typical of a reciprocal economy—parents and children give each other material goods and services not in trade but because they are part of a family).
Celtic ritual life centered on a special class, called the druides or "druids" by the Romans, presumably from a Gaulish word. Although much has been written about druids and Celtic ritual practice, we know next to nothing about either. Here's what we can gather. As a special group, the druids performed many of the functions that we would consider "priestly" functions, including ritual and sacrifice, but they also included functions that we would place under "education" and "law." These rituals and practices were probably kept secret—a tradition common among early Indo-European peoples—which helps to explain why the classical world knows nothing about them. The only thing that the classical sources attest is that the druids performed "barbaric" or "horrid" rituals at lakes and groves; there was a fair amount of consensus among the Greeks and Romans that these rituals involved human sacrifice. This may or may not be true; there is some evidence of human sacrifice among the Celts, but it does not seem to have been a prevalent practice.
According to Julius Caesar, who gives the longest account of druids, the center of Celtic belief was the passing of souls from one body to another. From an archaeological perspective, it is clear that the Celts believed in an after-life, for material goods are buried with the dead.
There were two major migrations of peoples from the Indo-Aryan region who were the original Celts.
The first group left their mark during the Hallstatt period( 8-6 century BC) of the Early Bronze Age. They were found from Ardennes in the West, to Vienna in the East, and Bohemia in the North.
Trade was spread into Iberia and the British Isles, most likely in the Celtic language.
Southern European people of Indo-Aryan origin who traveled West in search of the home of the sun.
Lowland Kelts-Danube River area -àSwitzerland, Ireland, Danube Valley Metals: gold, tin and bronze. Agricultural, herdsmen, tillers, burned dead rather than buried. Peacefully blended with the megalithic people and contributed to their religion, art and customs. Matriarchal
The second group of the La Tene period, 450 BC- the 1st century AD) is what everyone thinks are the TRUE celts.
They started out in the Carpathians and the Balkans, trading with the Greeks for tin, amber, furs, and wool. Their elaborate burials show how widespread their trading actually was. They spread out into Iberia, Southern Germany, The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, Italy and Asia Minor.
They made hill forts and towns and had elaborate rituals some of which included decapitation. They were also responsible for the lake dwellings at Glastonbury Tor (hill fort) and other places in Ireland.
They were a Military Aristocracy and loved fighting for the sake of it and hired out as mercenaries to the great armies of the day. Responsible for sack of Rome.-àconquered much of Europe and British Isles.
They were Chivalrous, and brave, and courageous, but also greatly sensitive to music, poetry and philosophy. Buried their dead and held elaborate rites to the Sun god Lugh.
They were described as tall, powerfully built with blue eyes, reddish-blonde hair; light skin and oval faces. Their colouring was more of a “reddish” kind than the ashy blonde of the Germanic/Anglo Saxon tribes and they had freckles.
These Celts had a distinctive Class System as described above.
The British did not appear in history until Julius Caesar crosses the English Channel from northern Gaul and began his failed conquest of Britain. The Romans returned in 43 AD and began a systematic conquest of the island until they reached the Pictish tribes in the Scottish highlands. Rome would abandon northern England, however, in 117 AD
In the process of emigrating to the England, the Celts pushed the native populations north—these refugee tribal groups would become the cultural ancestors of the Picts, a mysterious culture that dominated Scotland until the Irish invasions.
The Romans were beset by rebellions by some Celtic tribes and depredations by the northern Picts—throughout the fourth century, as the Roman empire was strained in every quarter, the Romans slowly lost control of Britain. The official break came in 446 when the Romans in response to a British plea for help against the Picts and the Scots, declared Britain independent. The Celts in the north and in Wales fiercely resisted Roman culture, and the Romans never even set foot in Ireland. On the whole, the Romans more greatly respected and tolerated Celtic institutions and religions in Britain, so there was considerably less assimilation than in Gaul(France).
Britain fell prey to the same Germanic emigrations and invasions that spread across Gaul, Spain, and Italy. The Saxon emigration began in eastern England until they spread entirely across lowland England. The mountainous areas to the west (Wales) and the north (Scotland), however, remained Celtic, as did Ireland. By the end of the fifth century AD, only Wales, Scotland, and Ireland remained of the great Celtic tribal kingdoms that had dominated the face of Europe.
The Irish also represent the last great migration of Celtic peoples. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Irish crossed over into Scotland and systematically invaded that territory until they politically dominated the Picts who lived there. The settling of Scotland in the fifth century was the very last wave of Celtic migration.
Much of what we call modern "paganism" which points to Celtic sources actually originates in eastern, mystery religions that had been imported into Celtic culture.
The ancient Celts revered nature and the elements, and worshipped the sun, moon, the stars and the Earth Mother, with a wide range of goddesses and gods. They celebrated their deities, ancestors, life, the natural world and its creatures, and the changing of the seasons through their music, poetry, story telling and art. Their poets and musicians, the Bards, and their wise holy men, the Druids, were very high up in the social hierarchy of the tribe, training for many years in their orally learnt crafts, as nothing was written down.
Celtic culture had become restricted to the British Isles (Insular Celtic), and the Continental Celtic languages ceased to be widely used by the sixth century. "Celtic Europe" today refers to the lands surrounding the Irish Sea, as well as Cornwall and Brittany on either side of the English Channel. Galicia (NW Spain), Northern and Central Portugal (together with Galicia, part of ancient Gallacea) and Asturias (Northern Spain) are also clearly seen as Celtic lands, but without a surviving Celtic language. Some see the Basques as one of the original Celtic settlers.
The Celts had an polytheistic religion and culture. Celtic shrines were situated in remote areas such as hilltops, groves, and lakes.
Celtic religious patterns were regionally variable; however, some patterns of deity forms, and ways of worshiping these deities, appear over a wide geographical and temporal range. The Celts worshipped both gods and goddesses. In general, the gods were deities of particular skills, such as the many-skilled Lugh and Dagda, and the goddesses were associated with natural features, particularly rivers (such as Boann, goddess of the River Boyne). This was not universal, however, as goddesses such as Brighid and The Morrígan were associated with both natural features (holy wells and the River Unius) and skills such as blacksmithing(Goivnhiu) and healing(Diancecht).
A number of Celtic deities were seen as threefold. The Three Mothers was a group of goddesses worshiped by many Celtic tribes (with regional variations) that exhibited this trait, such as Ana, Babh and Macha who became the Morrigan.
The Celts had literally hundreds of deities, some unknown outside of a single family or tribe, while others were popular enough to have a following that crossed boundaries of language and culture. For instance, the Irish god Lugh, associated with storms, lightning, and culture, is seen in similar forms as Lugos in Gaul and Lleu in Wales. Similar patterns are also seen with the continental Celtic horse goddess Epona, and what may well be her Irish and Welsh counterparts, Macha and Rhiannon, respectively.
Roman reports of the druids mention ceremonies being held in sacred groves. La Tène Celts built temples of varying size and shape, though they also maintained shrines at sacred trees and votive pools.
This next part is part shows how the Celtic mythology absorbed the other cultures they came in contact with.
The coming of Partholan:
They supposedly came from the West, where the Irish fairyland was said to be. It was also called The Land of the Happy Dead.
The island was already inhabited by the Formorians, an evil, and misshapen race. Partholan fought the Formorians for the land and drove them out towards the northern seas. The Partholanians were wiped out by a plague.
The Fomorians were said to have come from Africa or Asia because they were described as having dark skin and hair. They were also reputed to have great magical powers and lived underwater. Fomor in Gaelic is faoi-mhuir meaning “Beneath the Sea”.
According to the ancient accounts in the Lebor Gabala Erenn the tribes of the Nemedians, Fir-Bolg, and Tuatha Dé Danaan all spoke the same tongue and were supposed to be descended from the same family, the Fomorians were a completely separate race, with separate language and customs. Now we can see where they were going with this…the newcomers shoved the indigenous folks off to the side and considering them chattel or below themselves…
Partholan and his bunch is said to have come from Greece by way of Sicily. Dealgnat, their 3 sons and 1000 followers sailed into Donegal bay on the north-west coast of
His wife cheated on him with one of her attendants and he killed her dog in revenge…AND allegedly he had killed his parents to inherit the kingdom, good reason to have left Sicily and he was sent a plague which took out him and his descendants in Eastern Ireland.9,000 of them in a week!
Next up is the Nemedians:
Their fleet of ships sailed from Scythia on the shores of the Black sea, through the Bosporus and up the western coasts of Europe. Not all of Nemeds fleet survived the harsh journey with only one ship with 30 people on it actually reaching Ireland. Nemed fought the Fomorians again and the Fomorians were finally victorious, leaving only 30 Nemedians who fled the country. Some went to Scotland, some went to Greece and became slaves…200 years later, they came back and were called:
Firbolgs( bag people):
They were named that because of the leather bags that they carried when they arrived back on their previous homeland.
Five sons got together at Tara and divvied the island up into 5 pieces. And things were going swimmingly until the Tuatha de Danaan showed up. The Firbolgs were defeated after a 4 day battle in which Nuada lost his hand. Because the Firbolgs put up such a great fight that they gave them one quarter of their island back. They got stuck with the Aran Island chain.
Tuatha de Danaan arrived finally.
These are the people that everyone thinks of when they think of Ireland and the Fae. Sometimes referred to as Gods, but weren’t immortals in the Irish legends. Druids thought they were deities of science. The common folk thought they were fertility spirits.
“Tuatha de Danaan” means Children(or People) of Danu, the Goddess of Wisdom and Fertility.
The Fomorians came back again and gave them trouble too! The Tuatha won the whole island finally.
Under their two greatest heroes, Lugh of the Long Arm and Nuada of the Silver Hand, they had a great period of prosperity until the Milesians came by.
As they were a “magical” people they decided to go underground into another dimension of space and time the entrances to which are at many sites around Ireland; one of the most famous being Brugh na Boinne (Newgrange).
It was reputed that only iron weapons could injure them. They became like gods to the later Celtic people and were worshipped as such. They became known as the people of the Sidhe (mounds) and there are many Faery Mounds in existence in Ireland today.
It is said that the Tuatha came from the Danube River area of Europe. And that they were descendents of the Nemedians who came before them…
They were said to have arrived on Ireland on May 1st which is STILL a Celtic holiday.
Another holiday named after a Tuatha is Lughnasadh for Lugh
The Tuatha also brought 4 Treasures with them from their founding cities:
LiaFail. the Stone of Destiny where the Kings of Ireland were crowned kept in Tara.
Sword of Lugh of the Long Arm No one ever escaped from it once it was drawn from its sheath, and no one could resist it.
Magic Spear of Nuada No battle was ever sustained against it, or against the man who held it.
Cauldron of the Dagda No company ever went away from it unsatisfied.
Do THESE things sound familiar?
The last invaders of Ireland were the Milesians who were said to have come from Spain, Scythia or the Mediterranean…
These are the people who still live there today. Milesian is a word meaning Son of Spain and that’s one of the place there were said to have come from.
These guys finally sent the Tuatha de Danaan to their hidey-holes forever. It was probably safer that way anyways…
They left it up to Manannan Mac Lir (son of the Sea God)who knew all sorts of enchantments to find them a place where they could be undisturbed. So he chose out the most beautiful of the hills and valleys of Ireland for them to settle in; and he put hidden walls about them, that no man could see through, but they themselves could see through them and pass through them.
And he made the Feast of Age for them, and what they drank at it was the ale of Goibniu the Smith, that kept whoever tasted it from age and from sickness and from death. And for food at the feast he gave them his own swine, that though they were killed and eaten one day, would be alive and fit for eating again the next day, and that would go on in that way for ever.