The People of the Arthurian Age, Episode I: The Celts

A lot has changed in the fifteen centuries since the Arthurian Age. Britain and Europe are much different places, with different people, cultures and languages. This is the first in a series of articles about the people and cultures described in my books.

Around 1200 BC, about the time of the Trojan War and when Moses is thought to have led the Israelites out of Egypt, an Early Iron Age culture emerged, speaking a language we call Proto-Celtic. Most researchers say that the language originated in Central Europe, but some suggest it developed along the Atlantic seaboard. Considering that construction of Stonehenge began around 3100 BC, the indigenous people of the British Isles did not originally speak a Celtic language.

Wherever Celtic began, it would be inaccurate to describe Celts as an ethnic group. Aside from some cultural similarities among the many Celtic speaking tribes, the only unifying aspect appears to have been language. Rather than mass migration and warfare replacing the indigenous people, Celtic language and culture is thought to have spread through trade, cultural exchange, small migrations and possibly by political domination of a small but powerful ruling elite, with the indigenous population adopting the culture of their rulers.

By the 6th century BC, the culture and language had developed into Celtic and had spread across Europe to the British Isles and east as far as Turkey. As the Celtic language and culture spread, it branched out into very different dialects.

In the 5th and 6th centuries AD, the time of the Arthurian Age, Celtic dialects were spoken as primary languages only in the British Isles. Other dialects may have survived in Gaul and across the continent to Galatia in modern day Turkey, but soon became extinct.

At this time, there were two distinct dialects in the British Isles. In Ireland, they spoke Primitive Irish, while in Britain they spoke Brittonic, which is thought to have been closely related to Gaulish. The Picts, who lived in modern day Scotland, are believed to have spoken a dialect related to Brittonic. These different languages were still similar enough that their speakers would have noted the relationship, rather like English and German speakers today. But within a couple centuries, those similarities would nearly disappear.

Today, the descendants of these dialects are Modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx from Primitive Irish, while Brittonic would become Welsh, Breton and Cornish. Despite attempts at revivals, all of the remaining Celtic languages are in danger of extinction.

The cultures of the Irish and the British do not appear to have differed greatly, though by the Arthurian Age, Roman occupation had a very strong effect on the southern Britons, and decreasing impact further north and in Ireland.

The first mentions of the people of the British Isles are by a Greek explorer named Pytheas around 310 BC. He reported that Britain was cold and that the numerous natives had simple manners, lived in thatched cottages and were content with plain food, baking bread from grain stored in subterranean chambers. They were ruled by many kings and princes and their warriors fought from chariots. The inhabitants of the area known today as Cornwall mined and smelted tin, making ingots the shape of knuckle-bones, which were traded throughout Europe.

A few centuries later, we get more information from the Romans. Celtic society is said to have been hierarchic, with a warrior aristocracy, an intellectual class of druids, and a lower class of farmers, artisans and slaves. However, wealth and reputation were of greatest importance, and a person was not locked into their caste.

The Celts were a heroic warrior society, prizing skill in combat and seeking individual glory in battle. Warfare was endemic, though more often consisting of raids for cattle or slaves, or to harass rivals than attempts to take territory.

The typical Celtic warrior fought as an infantryman. The most common weapons were spears, javelins, slings and, for elite warriors, the sword. Nearly everyone had a shield, some had helmets, but other armour was rare. The Celts are believed to have invented chainmail around the 4th century BC, but it remained an expensive luxury limited to the wealthiest.

Celtic armies used a variety of tactics, but the Romans described them as primarily rushing en masse at their foes, crashing into them and attacking in a frenzy. Single combat was considered the most honourable form of fighting, and warriors would often challenge their foes to meet in the middle between the opposing armies. Before battle, the Britons would sing, scream insults or battle cries at their foes and bang their weapons, creating as much noise as possible to terrify their opponents before charging. Some warriors are said to have used lime to spike their hair, and tattooed or painted their bodies with a blue dye. Some were said to charge into battle naked, with only their shield and weapons, in a fashion familiar to the storied berserkers of the Germanic and Norse tribes. The Celtic belief in the indestructibility of the soul and reincarnation is said to have given them no fear of death.

The Celts were renowned horsemen. In the early era, cavalry were only used for skirmishing, while the chariot was used by elite warriors. This would change over time, with cavalry taking on a larger role. By Caesar’s time, chariots were only still in use in Britain. Caesar’s description of the Britons included:

“Their mode of fighting with their chariots is this: firstly, they drive about in all directions and throw their javelins and generally break the ranks of the enemy with the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels; and when they have worked themselves in between the troops of horse, they leap from their chariots and engage on foot. The charioteers in the meantime withdraw a little distance from the battle, and so place themselves with the chariots so that, if their masters are overpowered by the number of the enemy, they may have a ready retreat to their own troops. Thus they display in battle the speed of horse, together with the firmness of infantry.”

Another notable description of Celtic warriors is that they were said to be head-hunters. The Greeks and Romans report that Celts would take the heads of their slain enemies as trophies, believing that the soul was kept in the head. These would be tied to their belts, their horses’ tack, their chariots and even the doors of their homes. There are mentions in early stories from Britain and Ireland that recall this custom and suggest that the heads had a protective purpose.

We know very little of the religion of the Celtic tribes. The Romans described a variety of deities, but associated them with their own gods and assumed that they were the same, just with different names. It appears that the Celts worshipped aspects of nature, endowing divinity on every mountain, spring, tree and lake. Water sources had feminine divine associations, such as the goddess Sulis at Bath. Most religious activities are said to have occurred outdoors, within groves or on hilltops. The oak and mistletoe were revered, and the term “Druid” is thought to have come from the Proto-Celtic for “Oak-Knower”.

The Druids were a religious class with several responsibilities. They were exempt from paying taxes or being conscripted for military service, and they could excommunicate people, making them social outcasts. The Greek historian, Strabo, described three orders. The Bards were musicians, poets and keepers of historical knowledge. They would offer songs of praise or satire, depending on the occasion and the target, and their favour was considered vital to the status of the aristocracy. The Vatis were diviners, specialists in the physical world and healers. They were responsible for sacrifices, auguries and rituals. The Druids were the judicial, moral and philosophical branch. They were teachers, advisors to rulers, keepers of the laws and judges. They were so respected that they could stop a battle just by stepping between the opposing armies.

The Druids were said to be literate, and the scope of their learning impressed their Greek and Roman contemporaries. But Druidic doctrine forbade committing their learning to writing. Instead, their lore was enshrined in verses which they were required to commit to memory. It may be that the Welsh Triads, legendary verses in groups of three, were an example of the mode in which learning was passed down. Their training, done secretly in caves and forests, took up to twenty years to complete. The island of Anglesey in Britain seems to have been the centre of Druidic training for all of Gaul and the British Isles.

We know only a little about their religious doctrine. Druids were taught to live in harmony with nature, accept that pain and death are not evils but part of the divine plan and understand that the only evil is moral weakness. Their chief proverb was that people should worship the gods, do no evil and be courageous. Reincarnation was a key aspect of their belief. As Caesar wrote:

“With regard to their actual course of studies, the main object of all education is, in their opinion, to imbue their scholars with a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul, which, according to their belief, merely passes at death from one tenement to another; for by such doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed. Subsidiary to the teachings of this main principle, they hold various lectures and discussions on astronomy, on the extent and geographical distribution of the globe, on the different branches of natural philosophy, and on many problems connected with religion.”

The rituals of the pre-Roman British and Gauls were reported to be very similar. Some involved bonfires, fire walking and feasting. Sacrifices were offered, usually involving the ritual slaughter of animals or the casting away of metalwork, especially war booty, into lakes, wells or rivers. Numerous weapons have been recovered from rivers, especially the Thames, but also the Trent and Tyne. A memory of this may be found in later legends, such as Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake.

The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, describes what is thought to be one of the more important rituals:

“The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak…. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the bulls, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.”

There are also reports, as well as archaeological evidence, of the Celtic practice of human sacrifice. According to Caesar, thieves and other criminals, as well as war prisoners, were preferred, but if not available, innocents would be acceptable, and there is some evidence that some may have volunteered to be sacrificed.

Different methods are described, such as ritual stabbing, decapitation, hanging, impaling, drowning and burning. Caesar described groups of prisoners being burned in a giant wooden effigy. Bodies have been found in foundations of forts that suggest sacrifice, and the story of Myrddin being sought as a sacrifice to make Vortigern’s tower stand is likely a memory of this practice.

Not all sacrifices were offerings. Diodorus describes how Druids would use sacrifice as auguries in times of emergency:

“These men predict the future by observing the flight and calls of birds and by the sacrifice of holy animals: all orders of society are in their power… and in very important matters they prepare a human victim, plunging a dagger into his chest; by observing the way his limbs convulse as he falls and the gushing of his blood, they are able to read the future.”

It is difficult to determine how much of the reporting by ancient sources is accurate and how much is coloured by bias and disdain for “barbarian” practices, but there is little reason to doubt that the reports are essentially true. Suppression of the Druids began after Gaul was conquered, but the religion continued for much longer in the British Isles. The religion was nearly destroyed in about 61 AD when, frustrated by constant revolts, the Romans destroyed their spiritual stronghold on the island of Anglesey. Despite this blow, declining pockets of Druidism persisted in Britain until the completion of Christianization in the 7th century AD. After this, only the Bard and Seer remained until about the 13th century.

Source: commoners of the Celtic world were mostly farmers, slaves or artisans. Farming was, of course, the most common vocation. Cattle and sheep were the most common domestic animals, but pigs and horses were also common. British hunting dogs, famed throughout the Roman world, were a major British export. The traditional house was a “round-house” consisting of low walls of either stone or more often wattle and daub (a woven wooden framework covered in a mixture of mud, straw and animal dung), with a tall, conical thatched roof. Over time, Britons would adopt other building styles through Roman and Germanic influence.

Wool was the most common material for cloth, though linen and leather were also common. The very rich may have had access to cotton from Egypt, or silk from China, through the trade routes of the Roman Empire.

The Celts were considered the finest metalsmiths in Europe. The invention of chainmail is attributed to them, and they created beautiful works in gold, bronze, glass and ceramics.

The Celts were a male dominated society and the role of women in Celtic society is not well understood. It appears that they had somewhat more rights than in Mediterranean cultures, especially in marriage, divorce and inheritance, but they were not treated as equals as suggested in some modern depictions. There are some examples, particularly the famous revolt led by the Iceni queen, Boudica, that women carried substantial political weight. But even in these cases, it appears to have been under unusual circumstances. Female druids have been reported, including on an island off the coast of Brittany that was forbidden to men.

Celtic culture was vibrant and strong enough in Britain that, even after nearly four centuries of Roman rule, the Britons quickly reverted to their ancient customs after the Roman occupation. At the time of the Arthurian Age, the Britons are struggling to maintain their lands and identity in the face of barbarian invasions from the Irish, who they called the Scoti, the Picts of northern Britain, and Germanic tribes they called Saxons.  The Saxons will be the subject of the next article.

I hope you enjoyed this. Please feel free to comment to discuss!

Some sources:

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historia

Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico

Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia

Pomponius Mela, De Situ Orbis Libri III

Strabo, Geographica

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