The Origin and History of Celtic Speaking People

Celtic Art

by John Arnott MacCulloch

SCRUTINY reveals the fact that Celtic-speaking peoples are of differing types--short and dark as well as tall and fairer Highlanders or Welshmen, short, broad-headed Bretons, various types of Irishmen. Men with Norse names and Norse aspect "have the Gaelic." But all alike have the same character and temperament, a striking witness to the influence which the character as well as the language of the Celts, whoever they were, made on all with whom they mingled.

Ethnologically there may not be a Celtic race, but something was handed down from the days of comparative Celtic purity which welded different social elements into a common type, found often where no Celtic tongue is now spoken. It emerges where we least expect it, and the stolid Anglo-Saxon may suddenly awaken to something in himself due to a forgotten Celtic strain in his ancestry.

Two main theories of Celtic origins now hold the field:

(1) The Celts are identified with the progenitors of the short, brachycephalic "Alpine race" of Central Europe, existing there in Neolithic times, after their migrations from Africa and Asia. The type is found among the Slavs, in parts of Germany and Scandinavia, and in modern France in the region of Caesar's "Celtae," among the Auvergnats, the Bretons, and in Lozère and Jura. Representatives. of the type have been a found in Belgian and French Neolithic graves. 1 Professor Sergi calls this the "Eurasiatic race," and, contrary to general opinion, identifies it with the Aryans, a savage people, inferior to the dolichocephalic Mediterranean race, whose language they Aryanised. 2 Professor Keane thinks that they were themselves an Aryanised folk before reaching Europe, who in turn gave their acquired Celtic and Slavic speech to the preceding masses. Later came the Belgae, Aryans, who acquired the Celtic speech of the people they conquered. 3

Broca assumed that the dark, brachycephalic people whom he identified with Caesar's "Celtae," differed from the Belgae, were conquered by them, and acquired the language of their conquerors, hence wrongly called Celtic by philologists. The Belgae were tall and fair, and overran Gaul, except Aquitaine, mixing generally with the Celtae, who in Caesar's time had thus an infusion of Belgic blood. 4 But before this conquest, the Celtae had already mingled with the aboriginal dolichocephalic folk of Gaul, Iberians, or Mediterraneans of Professor Sergi. The latter had apparently remained comparatively pure from admixture in Aquitaine, and are probably the Aquitani of Caesar. 5

But were the short, brachycephalic, folk Celts? Caesar says the people who call themselves "Celtae" were called Gauls by the Romans, and Gauls, according to classical writers, were tall and fair. 6 Hence the Celtae were not a short, dark race, and Caesar himself says that Gauls (including Celtae) looked with contempt on the short Romans. 1 Strabo also says that Celtae and Belgae had the same Gaulish appearance, i.e. tall and fair. Caesar's statement that Aquitani, Galli, and Belgae differ in language, institutions, and laws is vague and unsupported by evidence, and may mean as to language no more than a difference in dialects.

This is also suggested by Strabo's words, Celtae and Belgae "differ a little" in language. 2 No classical writer describes the Celts as short and dark, but the reverse. Short, dark people would have been called Iberians, without respect to skulls. Classical observers were not craniologists. The short, brachycephalic type is now prominent in France, because it has always been so, eliminating the tall, fair Celtic type. Conquering Celts, fewer in number than the broad and narrow-headed aborigines, intermarried or made less lasting alliances with them. In course of time the type of the more numerous race was bound to prevail. Even in Caesar's day the latter probably outnumbered the tall and fair Celts, who had, however, Celticised them. But classical writers, who knew the true Celt as tall and fair, saw that type only, just as every one, on first visiting France or Germany, sees his generalised type of Frenchman or German everywhere. Later, he modifies his opinion, but this the classical observers did not do. Caesar's campaigns must have drained Gaul of many tall and fair Celts. This, with the tendency of dark types to outnumber fair types in South and Central Europe, may help to explain the growing prominence of the dark type, though the tall, fair type is far from uncommon. 3

(2) The second theory, already anticipated, sees in Gauls and Belgae a tall, fair Celtic folk, speaking a Celtic language, and belonging to the race which stretched from Ireland to Asia Minor, from North Germany to the Po, and were masters of Teutonic tribes till they were driven by them from the region between Elbe and Rhine. 1 Some Belgic tribes claimed a Germanic ancestry, 2 but "German" was a word seldom used with precision, and in this case may not mean Teutonic. The fair hair of this people has made many suppose that they were akin to the Teutons. But fairness is relative, and the dark Romans may have called brown hair fair, while they occasionally distinguished between the "fair" Gauls and fairer Germans. Their institutions and their religions (pace Professor Rhŷs) differed, and though they were so long in contact the names of their gods and priests are unlike. 3 Their languages, again, though of "Aryan" stock, differ more from each other than does Celtic from Italic, pointing to a long period of Italo-Celtic unity, before Italiotes and Celts separated, and Celts came in contact with Teutons. 4 The typical German differs in mental and moral qualities from the typical Celt. Contrast an east country Scot, descendant of Teutonic stock, with a West Highlander, and the difference leaps to the eyes. Celts and Germans of history differ, then, in relative fairness, character, religion, and language.

The tall, blonde Teutonic type of the Row graves is dolichocephalic. Was the Celtic type (assuming that Broca's "Celts" were not true Celts) dolicho or brachy? Broca thinks the Belgae or "Kymri" were dolichocephalic, but all must agree with him that the skulls are too few to generalise from. Celtic iron-age skulls in Britain are dolichocephalic, perhaps a recrudescence of the aboriginal type. Broca's "Kymric" skulls are mesocephalic; this he attributes to crossing with the short round-heads. The evidence is too scanty for generalisation, while the Walloons, perhaps descendants of the Belgae, have a high index, and some Gauls of classical art are broad-headed. 1

Skulls of the British round barrows (early Celtic Bronze Age) are mainly broad, the best specimens showing affinity to Neolithic brachycephalic skulls from Grenelle (though their owners were 5 inches shorter), Sclaigneaux, and Borreby. 2 Dr. Beddoe thinks that the narrow-skulled Belgae on the whole reinforced the meso- or brachycephalic round barrow folk in Britain. Dr. Thurnam identifies the latter with the Belgae (Broca's Kymri), and thinks that Gaulish skulls were round, with beetling brows. 3 Professors Ripley and Sergi, disregarding their difference in stature and higher cephalic index, identify them with the short Alpine race (Broca's Celts). This is negatived by Mr. Keane. 4 Might not both, however, have originally sprung from a common stock and reached Europe at different times? 5

But do a few hundred skulls justify these far-reaching conclusions regarding races enduring for thousands of years? At some very remote period there may have been a Celtic type, as at some further period there may have been an Aryan type. But the Celts, as we know them, must have mingled with the aborigines of Europe and become a mixed race, though preserving and endowing others with their racial and mental characteristics. Some Gauls or Belgae were dolichocephalic, to judge by their skulls, others were brachycephalic, while their fairness was a relative term. Classical observers probably generalised from the higher classes, of a purer type; they tell us nothing of the people. But the higher classes may have had varying skulls, as well as stature and colour of hair, 1 and Irish texts tell of a tall, fair, blue-eyed stock, and a short, dark, dark-eyed stock, in Ireland. Even in those distant ages we must consider the people on whom the Celts impressed their characteristics, as well as the Celts themselves. What happened on the Eurasian steppe, the hypothetical cradle of the "Aryans," whence the Celts came "stepping westwards," seems clear to some, but in truth is a book sealed with seven seals. The men whose Aryan speech was to dominate far and wide may already have possessed different types of skull, and that age was far from "the very beginning."

Thus the Celts before setting out on their Wanderjahre may already have been a mixed race, even if their leaders were of purer stock. But they had the bond of common speech, institutions, and religion, and they formed a common Celtic type in Central and Western Europe. Intermarriage with the already mixed Neolithic folk of Central Europe produced further removal from the unmixed Celtic racial type; but though both reacted on each other as far as language, custom, and belief were concerned, on the whole the Celtic elements predominated in these respects. The Celtic migration into Gaul produced further racial mingling with descendants of the old palaeolithic stock, dolichocephalic Iberians and Ligurians, and brachycephalic swarthy folk (Broca's Celts). Thus even the first Celtic arrivals in Britain, the Goidels, were a people of mixed race, though probably relatively purer than the late coming Brythons, the latest of whom had probably mingled with the Teutons. Hence among Celtic-speaking folk or their descendants--short, dark, broad-headed Bretons, tall, fair or rufous Highlanders, tall chestnut-haired Welshmen or Irishmen, Highlanders of Norse descent, short, dark, narrow-headed Highlanders, Irishmen, and Welshmen--there is a common Celtic facies, the result of old Celtic characteristics powerful enough so to impress themselves on such varied peoples in spite of what they gave to the Celtic incomers. These peoples became Celtic, and Celtic in speech and character they have remained, even where ancestral physical types are reasserting themselves. The folk of a Celtic type, whether pre-Celtic, Celtic, or Norse, have all spoken a Celtic language and exhibit the same old Celtic characteristics--vanity, loquacity, excitability, fickleness, imagination, love of the romantic, fidelity, attachment to family ties, sentimental love of their country, religiosity passing over easily to superstition, and a comparatively high degree of sexual morality. Some of these traits were already noted by classical observers.

Celtic speech had early lost the initial p of old Indo-European speech, except in words beginning with pt and, perhaps, ps. Celtic pare (Lat. prae) became are, met with in Aremorici, "the dwellers by the sea," Arecluta, "by the Clyde," the region watered by the Clyde. Irish athair, Manx ayr, and Irish iasg, represent respectively Latin pater and piscis. P occurring between vowels was also lost, e.g. Irish caora, "sheep," is from kaperax; for, "upon" (Lat. super), from uper. This change took place before the Goidelic Celts broke away and invaded Britain in the tenth century B.C., but while Celts and Teutons were still in contact, since Teutons borrowed words with initial p, e.g. Gothic fairguni, "mountain," from Celtic percunion, later Ercunio, the Hercynian forest. The loss must have occurred before 1000 B.C. But after the separation of the Goidelic group a further change took place. Goidels preserved the sound represented by qu, or more simply by c or ch, but this was changed into p by the remaining continental Celts, who carried with them into Gaul, Spain, Italy, and Britain (the Brythons) words in which q became p. The British Epidii is from Gaulish epos, "horse," which is in Old Irish ech (Lat. equus). The Parisii take their name from Qarisii, the Pictones or Pictavi of Poictiers from Pictos (which in the plural Picti gives us "Picts"), derived from quicto-. This change took place after the Goidelic invasion of Britain in the tenth century B.C. On the other hand, some continental Celts may later have regained the power of pronouncing q. In Gaul the q of Sequana (Seine) was not changed to p, and a tribe dwelling on its banks was called the Sequani. This assumes that Sequana was a pre-Celtic word, possibly Ligurian. 1 Professor Rhŷs thinks, however, that Goidelic tribes, identified by him with Caesar's Celtae, existed in Gaul and Spain before the coming of the Galli, and had preserved q in their speech. To them we owe Sequana, as well as certain names with q in Spain. 2 This at least is certain, that Goidelic Celts of the q group occupied Gaul and Spain before reaching Britain and Ireland. Irish tradition and archaeological data confirm this. 3 But whether their descendants were represented by Caesar's "Celtae" must be uncertain. Celtae and Galli, according to Caesar, were one and the same, 4 and must have had the same general form of speech.

The dialects of Goidelic speech-Irish, Manx, Gaelic, and that of the continental Goidels--preserved the q sound; those of Gallo-Brythonic speech-Gaulish, Breton, Welsh, Cornish--changed q into p. The speech of the Picts, perhaps connected with the Pictones of Gaul, also had this p sound. Who, then, were the Picts? According to Professor Rhŷs they were pre-Aryans, 1 but they must have been under the influence of Brythonic Celts. Dr. Skene regarded them as Goidels speaking a Goidelic dialect with Brythonic forms. 2 Mr. Nicholson thinks they were Goidels who had preserved the Indo-European p. 3 But might they not be descendants of a Brythonic group, arriving early in Britain and driven northwards by newcomers

Professor Windisch and Dr. Stokes regard them as Celts, allied to the Brythons rather than to the Goidels, the phonetics of their speech resembling those of Welsh rather than Irish. 4

The theory of an early Goidelic occupation of Britain has been contested by Professor Meyer, 5 who holds that the first Goidels reached Britain from Ireland in the second century, while Dr. MacBain 6, was of the opinion that England, apart from Wales and Cornwall, knew no Goidels, the place-names being Brythonic. But unless all Goidels reached Ireland from Gaul or Spain, as some did, Britain was more easily reached than Ireland by migrating Goidels from the Continent. Prominent Goidelic place-names would become Brythonic, but insignificant places would retain their Goidelic form, and to these we must look for decisive evidence. 7 A Goidelic occupation by the ninth century B.C. is suggested by the name "Cassiterides" (a word of the q group) applied to Britain. If the Goidels occupied Britain first, they may have called their land Qretanis or Qritanis, which Pictish invaders would change to Pretanis, found in Welsh "Ynys Pridain," Pridain's Isle, or Isle of the Picts, "pointing to the original underlying the Greek Πρετανικαῖ Ηῆσοι or Pictish Isles," 1 though the change may be due to continental p Celts trading with q Celts in Britain. With the Pictish occupation would agree the fact that Irish Goidels called the Picts who came to Ireland Cruithne = Qritani = Pretani. In Ireland they almost certainly adopted Goidelic speech.

Whether or not all the Pictish invaders of Britain were called "Pictavi," this word or Picti, perhaps from quicto (Irish cicht, engraver"), 2 became a general name for this people. Q had been changed into p on the Continent; hence "Pictavi" or "Pictones," "the tattooed men," those who "engraved" figures on their bodies, as the Picts certainly did. Dispossessed and driven north by incoming Brythons and Belgae, they later became the virulent enemies of Rome. In 306 Eumenius describes all the northern tribes as "Caledonii and other Picts," while some of the tribes mentioned by Ptolemy have Brythonic names or names with Gaulish cognates. Place-names in the Pictish area, personal names in the Pictish chronicle, and Pictish names like "Peanfahel", 3 have Brythonic affinities. If the Picts spoke a Brythonic dialect, S. Columba's need of an interpreter when preaching to them would be explained. 4 Later the Picts were conquered by Irish Goidels, the Scotti. The Picts, however, must already have mingled with aboriginal peoples and with Goidels, if these were already in Britain, and they may have adopted their supposed non-Aryan customs from the aborigines. On the other hand, the matriarchate seems at one time to have been Celtic, and it may have been no more than a conservative survival in the Pictish royal house, as it was elsewhere. 5 Britons, as well as Caledonii, had wives in common. 6 As to tattooing, it was practised by the Scotti ("the scarred and painted men"?), and the Britons dyed themselves with woad, while what seem to be tattoo marks appear on faces on Gaulish coins. 1 Tattooing, painting, and scarifying the body are varieties of one general custom, and little stress can be laid on Pictish tattooing as indicating a racial difference. Its purpose may have been ornamental, or possibly to impart an aspect of fierceness, or the figures may have been totem marks, as they are elsewhere. Finally, the description of the Caledonii, a Pictish people, possessing flaming hair and mighty limbs, shows that they differed from the short, dark pre-Celtic folk. 2

The Pictish problem must remain obscure, a welcome puzzle to antiquaries, philologists, and ethnologists. Our knowledge of Pictish religion is too scanty for the interpretation of Celtic religion to be affected by it. But we know that the Picts offered sacrifice before war--a Celtic custom, and had Druids, as also had the Celts.

The earliest Celtic "kingdom" was in the region between the upper waters of the Rhine, the Elbe, and the Danube, where probably in Neolithic times the formation of their Celtic speech as a distinctive language began. Here they first became known to the Greeks, probably as a semi-mythical people, the Hyperboreans--the folk dwelling beyond the Ripœan mountains whence Boreas blew--with whom Hecataeus in the fourth century identifies them. But they were now known as Celts, and their territory as Celtica, while "Galatae" was used as a synonym of "Celtae," in the third century B.C. 3 The name generally applied by the Romans to the Celts was "Galli," a term finally confined by them to the people of Gaul. 1 Successive bands of Celts went forth from this comparatively restricted territory, until the Celtic "empire" for some centuries before 300 B.C. included the British Isles, parts of the Iberian peninsula, Gaul, North Italy, Belgium, Holland, great part of Germany, and Austria. When the German tribes revolted, Celtic bands appeared in Asia Minor, and remained there as the Galatian Celts. Archaeological discoveries with a Celtic facies have been made in most of these lands, but even more striking is the witness of place-names. Celtic dunon, a fort or castle (the Gaelic dun), is found in compound names from Ireland to Southern Russia. Magos, "a field," is met with in Britain, France, Switzerland, Prussia, Italy, and Austria. River and mountain names familiar in Britain occur on the Continent. The Pennine range of Cumberland has the same name as the Appenines. Rivers named for their inherent divinity, devos, are found in Britain and on the Continent--Dee, Deva, etc.

Besides this linguistic, had the Celts also a political unity over their great "empire," under one bead? Such a unity certainly did not prevail from Ireland to the Balkan peninsula, but it prevailed over a large part of the Celtic area. Livy, following Timagenes, who perhaps cited a lost Celtic epos, speaks of king Ambicatus ruling over the Celts from Spain to Germany, and sending his sister's sons, Bellovesus and Segovesus, with many followers, to found new colonies in Italy and the Hercynian forest. 2 Mythical as this may be, it suggests the hegemony of one tribe or one chief over other tribes and chiefs, for Livy says that the sovereign power rested with the Bituriges who appointed the king of Celticum, viz. Ambicatus. Some such unity is necessary to explain Celtic power in the ancient world, and it was made possible by unity of race or at least of the congeries of Celticised peoples, by religious solidarity, and probably by regular gatherings of all the kings or chiefs. If the Druids were a Celtic priesthood at this time, or already formed a corporation as they did later in Gaul, they must have endeavoured to form and preserve such a unity. And if it was never so compact as Livy's words suggest, it must have been regarded as an ideal by the Celts or by their poets, Ambicatus serving as a central figure round which the ideas of empire crystallised. The hegemony existed in Gaul, where the Arverni and their king claimed power over the other tribes, and where the Romans tried to weaken the Celtic unity by opposing to them the Aedui. 1 In Belgium the hegemony was in the hands of the Suessiones, to whose king Belgic tribes in Britain submitted. 2 In Ireland the "high king" was supreme over other smaller kings, and in Galatia the unity of the tribes was preserved by a council with regular assemblies. 3

The diffusion of the Ambicatus legend would help to preserve unity by recalling the mythic greatness of the past. The Boii and Insubri appealed to transalpine Gauls for aid by reminding them of the deeds of their ancestors. 4 Nor would the Druids omit to infuse into their pupils' minds the sentiment of national greatness. For this and for other reasons, the Romans, to whom "the sovereignity of all Gaul " was an obnoxious watchword, endeavoured to suppress them. 5 But the Celts were too widely scattered ever to form a compact empire. 6 The Roman empire extended itself gradually in the consciousness of its power; the cohesion of the Celts in an empire or under one king was made impossible by their migrations and diffusion. Their unity, such as it was, was broken by the revolt of the Teutonic tribes, and their subjugation was completed by Rome. The dreams of wide empire remained dreams. For the Celts, in spite of their vigour, have been a race of dreamers, their conquests in later times, those of the spirit rather than of the mailed fist. Their superiority has consisted in imparting to others their characteristics; organised unity and a vast empire could never be theirs.

Suggestions for Further Reading


9:1 Ripley, Races of Europe; Wilser, L'Anthropologie, xiv. 494; Collignon, ibid. 1-20; Broca, Rev. d'Anthrop. ii. 689 ff.

9:2 Sergi, The Mediterranean Race, 241 ff., 263 ff.

9:3 Keane, Man, Past and Present, 511 ff., 521, 528.

9:4 Broca, Mem. d'Anthrop. i. 370 ff. Hovelacque thinks, with Keane, that the Gauls learned Celtic from the dark round-heads. But Galatian and British Celts, who had never been in contact with the latter, spoke Celtic. See Holmes, Caesar's Conquest of Gaul, 311-312.

9:5 Caesar, i. 1; Collignon, Mem. Soc. d'Anthrop. de Paris, 3me ser. i. 67.

9:6 Caesar, i. 1.

10:1 Caesar ii. 30.

10:2 Caesar, i. 1; Strabo, iv. i. 1.

10:3 Cf. Holmes, 295; Beddoe, Scottish Review, xix. 416.

11:1 D'Arbois, Les Celtes, 175.

11:2 Caesar, ii. 4; Strabo, vii. 1, 2, Germans are taller and fairer than Gauls; Tacitus, Agric. ii. Cf. Beddoe, JAI xx. 354-355.

11:3 D'Arbois, PH ii. 374. Welsh Gwydion and Teutonic Wuotan may have the same root, see p. 105. Celtic Taranis has been compared to Donar, but there is no connection, and Taranis was not certainly a thunder-god. Much of the folk-religion was alike, but this applies to folk-religion everywhere.

11:4 D'Arbois, ii. 251.

12:1 Beddoe, L'Anthropologie, v. 516. Tall, fair, and highly brachycephalic types are still found in France, ibid. i. 213; Bertrand-Reinach, Les Celtes, 39.

12:2 Beddoe, 516; L'Anthrop., v. 63; Taylor, 81; Greenwell, British Barrows, 680.

12:3 Fort. Rev. xvi. 328; Mem. of London Anthr. Soc., 1865.

12:4 Ripley, 309; Sergi, 243; Keane, 529; Taylor, 112.

12:5 Taylor, 122, 295.

13:1 The Walloons are both dark and fair.

15:1 D'Arbois, PH ii. 132.

15:2 Rhŷs, Proc. Phil. Soc. 1891; "Celtae and Galli," Proc. Brit. Acad. ii. D'Arbois points out that we do not know that these words are Celtic (RC xii. 478).

15:3 See pp. 51, 376

15:4 Caesar, i. 1.

16:1 CB4 160.

16:2 Skene, i. ch. 8; see p. 135.

16:3 ZCP iii. 308; Keltic Researches.

16:4 Windisch, "Kelt. Sprachen," Ersch-Gruber's Encyklopadie; Stokes, Linguistic Value of the Irish Annals.

16:5 THSC 1895-1896, 55 f.

16:6 CM xii. 434.

16:7 In the Isle of Skye, where, looking at names of prominent places alone, Norse derivatives are to Gaelic as 3 to 2, they are as 1 to 5 when names of insignificant places, untouched by Norse influence, are included.

17:1 Rhŷs, CB4 241.

17:2 D'Arbois, Les Celtes, 22.

17:3 Bede, Eccl. Hist. i. 12.

17:4 Adamnan, Vita S. Col.

17:5 See 17:6 Dick Cass. lxxvi. 12; Caesar, v. 14. See p. 223.

18:1 Isidore, Etymol. ix. 2, 103; Rhŷs, CB 242-243; Caesar, v. 14; Nicholson, ZCP iii. 332.

18:2 Tacitus, Agric. ii.

18:3 If Celtae is from qelo, "to raise," it may mean "the lofty," just as many savages call themselves "the men," par excellence. Rhŷs derives it from qel, "to slay," and gives it the sense of "warriors." See Holder, s.v. Stokes, US 83. Galatae is from gala (Irish gal), "bravery." Hence perhaps warriors."

19:1 'Galli' may be connected with "Galatae," but D'Arbois denies this. For all these titles see his PH ii. 396 ff.

19:2 Livy, v. 34 f.; D'Arbois, PH ii. 304, 391.

20:1 Strabo, iv. 10, 3; Caesar, i. 31, vii. 4; Frag. Hist. Graec. i. 437.

20:2 Caesar, ii. 4.

20:3 Strabo, xii. 5, 1.

20:4 Polybius, ii. 22.

20:5 Caesar, i. 2, 1-3.

20:6 On the subject of Celtic unity see Jullian, "Du patriotisme gaulois," RC xxiii. 373.

Source: Chapter II from The Religion of the Ancient Celts by John Arnott MacCulloch (b. 1868, d. 1950) T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh [1911]

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