The classical writers all portray the Celts as a dramatic looking people, quite different in appearance than any of the Mediterranean people. "And this race of men from the plains were all the harder, for hard land had borne them; built of stronger and firmer bones, and endowed with mighty sinew, they were a race undaunted by heat and cold, plague, [and] strange new foodstuffs."
The Celts as a whole, differed greatly from the Mediterranean races in their lighter skin color and their greater bulk, they were by no means a homogeneous people. The ancients all made a point of how the Celts treated their hair. There is some variation, depending on the style of the region. Diodorus Siculus says that some Celtic men wore short beards while others did not. He adds, "the nobles shave their cheeks but let their mustache grow freely so that it covers the mouth." Writing of the Britons, Caeser tells us that, "they wear their hair long and shave the whole of their bodies except the head and the upper lip." Strabo states, "Their hair is not only naturally blond, but they also use artificial means to increase this natural quality of color. For they continually wash their hair with lime and draw it back from the forehead to the crown and to the nape of their neck, with the result that their appearance resembles that of Satyrs or of Pans, for their hair is so thickened by this treatment that it differs in no way from a horse's mane." The enemy would see both men and women of the Celts with their hair long, spiked or braided, their bodies tattooed and painted, drums beating and horns blaring while what seemed like a river of wild barbarian men and women ran shrieking into battle. They would wear the heads of their enemies on their belts and on the poles of their campsites, sometimes drinking an enemies blood from a skull! To the Celts it was of the highest honor in life to fight on the battlefield; surrounded by poets, friends and the slaughtered bodies of their enemies. This terrified their opponents, for the Celts did not fear death as they did, to face the Celts in battle was to freeze the blood and know death was upon you!
In terms of dress, Polybius gives us a vivid description of Gaulish invaders at the battle of Telamon, fought in 225 BCE He states that the tribes of the Insubres and Boii wore trousers (bracae), and light cloaks. The Gaesatae went naked, wearing nothing but gold torcs around their necks and gold armlets. In battle, the Celts often dyed their bodies with woad which produced a blue color and made them look more terrifying. In Ireland, the common dress is a tunic (l'eine) made of linen, and a woolen cloak (brat).
The civilized behavior of the Celtic warrior is opposite to their savage behavior on the battlefield. The Celts were very clean people using soap even before the Romans and often washed their hair in lime to lighten its color and thicken its texture. Both sexes wore brightly colored, plaid wool-dyed tunics clasped with ornate brooches. The Celts loved music, poetry, gold jewelry, precious metals, and games. They decorated ordinary objects with intricate spirals, lattices, matrixes, and knotwork designs to demonstrate their understanding of the changing-state of existence. Blacksmiths were held in very high esteem because of their ability to create using the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. The Celts spiritual belief in oneness with everything about them through symbolism in art, speech, and thought, connected within the matrix [patterns] of their culture!
The people who made up the various tribes of concern were called Gall by the Romans and Galatai or Keltoi by the Greeks, terms meaning barbarian. It is from the greek Keltoi that Celt is derived. Since no soft c exists in greek, Celt and Celtic and all permutations should be pronounced with a hard k sound. It is interesting to note that when the British Empire is distinguishing itself as better and seperate from the rest of humanity, it is decided that British Latin should have different pronunciation from other spoken Latin. Therefore, one of these distinguishing pronunciation differences is to make many of the previously hard k sounds move to a soft s sound, hence the Glasgow and Boston Celtics. It is the view of many today that this soft c pronunciation should be reserved for sports teams since there is obviously nothing to link them with the original noble savagery and furor associated with the Celts.
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 is 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. As an aside, take note that when the Irish expansion into Pictish Britain occurred (see below), several colonies were established in present day Wales. The local inhabitants called the Irish arrivals gwyddel savages from which comes geídil and goidel and thus the Goidelic tongue.
Ireland used to be divided up into five parts, the five fifths. There is a northern fifth, Ulster, a western fifth, Connaught, a southern fifth, Munster, an eastern fifth, Leinster and a middle fifth, Mide. The Ulster Cycle is a set of stories which are grounded in the five fifths. Indeed, they are primarily concerned with Cú Chulainn, the Ulster hero and his king, Conor Mac Nessa in their wars against the king and queen of Connaught, Ailill and Maeve. These figures play a prominent role in the what may be the greatest story of the Ulster Cycle, the Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Sometime after 300 AD, Ulster became steadily less important in status among the five farthings and the ruling family of Mide, the Uí Néill Sons of Niall started to take over large parts of Connaught and most of Ulster. A similar move is made in Muster by the ruling family of Munster, the Eoganachta family. Thus is Ireland divided almost entirely into two halves.
The people of Ulster were pushed to a small coastal strip bordering the Irish Sea. The kingdom changed it's name to Dál Riata. Yet eventually Dál Riata fell under the rule and influence of the Uí Néill. This family, not content with the boundry presented by the sea, launched colonies across the Irish Sea into then Pictish Britain. Thus is Scotland founded, for it is these Uí Néill that the Romans called Scotti, not the original Picts.
Indeed, it is this Irish Expansion which led to Christianity in Scotland in 563 AD. St. Columba, the patron saint of Scotland, is a member of a powerful family in Dál Riata and in order to keep his ties in Ireland he settled on an island that is close to both Scotland and Ireland, Iona. Of course, even more bizarre is the fact that St. Patrick, the man responsible for bringing Christianity to Ireland in the first place, is from Wales.
Each Celtic kingdom chose a king and because of his literal, direct relationship with the land, he had to be without a physical blemish for fear the imperfection would spread to the land itself causing drought or famine. The king is also the military leader surrounded by an elite of warriors, intellectuals and craftsmen.
The Celts had detailed legends concerning sovereignty of the land layered with different levels of meaning and importance. For the Celts sovereignty did not mean supreme rule or power over an area, instead it translated to a relationship of the people with the land itself, personified by the Great Goddess. The Celts did not simply invade and conquer a country, instead they felt their role was to unify the forces of male and female by acting as stewards of the land which belonged to the whole tribe and in turn, the Kingdom. The Celts felt that there must be a vital, fertile relationship between the land [the immortal goddess] and its king [mortal man]. The disruption of this relationship spawned some of the most valiant, timeless heroes of all time in their quest to reestablish the balance between man and nature.
They recognized four realms of existence that humans either descended into or rose from determining the soul's path or destination:
The ancient Celts lived in places with few cities or towns, in lands that were covered with forests, mountains, and open plains. The spirit of the Celtic people merged with the spiritual nature of the land seeing animals, lakes, trees, stones, the sun, moon, and seasons as aspects of themselves. The Celts often chose oak groves and forests for places of worship ,and for them - each place had a spirit whose name represented the natural energies of the area.
Each of the Celtic provinces had a sacred place of worship as the center of their cultural activities. The name of this location established a relationship between the Kingdom of the land and the people; recognized through the sacredness of deity, the four elemental directions, and clans. These elements were reflected in social and political divisions:
The Celts saw trees as being supremely divine because their roots existed in the underworld, their trunks in the physical world and their branches in the heavens. Like humans, trees were entirely linked to Nature and had personal souls which manifested themselves in their special qualities, strengths and medicinal value. The Celts believed that the forests held eternal, elemental forces that can be described as deep feelings of calm and serenity coupled with the heightening in awareness of one's surroundings. The wild wood and forest represented the untamed, wild aspect of the lands Kingdom.
The Celts love of nature is often associated with Druidic teachings. The Druids and Dryads were the judges, astronomers, teachers, oracles and religious leaders of the Celts. As teachers they taught the triads as laws, rules, and actions of everyday life. They carried tremendous political influence, being able to mediate in warring tribes with amnesty, and to speak before the king in public arenas.
The Druidic priesthood contained three divisions:
Their Teachings were shamanic and ecstatic in nature, enabling them the ability to understand, conceptualize, and enact a lifestyle in rhythm with the natural cycles of the world. The Druids were able to move between the worlds of the dead and undead and the conscious and unconscious mind. Through a process of personal initiation in a succession of trance-like states they gained access to the otherworld as emissaries, representing the worlds within each other. The Druids were seen as the living embodiment of the collective consciousness of the Celts on all the realms, teaching and upholding the laws, and divining the future, inseparable from the natural lore of the forests where they lived.
The Druidic realm of the Celtic mysteries is considered extremely important because it contained omens, signs and other extraordinary events which a Celtic warrior could pit his life against. Celts had to live within the limits of their own predestined fates decided upon by the geis or prohibitions given to them at birth. This knowledge empowered the warrior with extra-ordinary awareness, respect, an awareness of fear, alertness and self-confidence allowing him/her to win the battle between the forces of darkness and light, within and outside the self. With this type of initiation and training from birth, Celtic warriors, who were both male and female, possessed an unwavering ferocity and a complete absence of fear towards death. Death is not a mystery, for at the time of birth - their future is read and a geis [succession of events] is foretold. The geis limited their actions in such a way that to break the geis [following through the succession of events] would bring about their death!
Sacred Mysteries: The Druids maintained an oral tradition that protected the secrecy within their priesthood and acted as a reminder of the origin of all sacred mysteries- the breath of the word. The Druidic or Ogham alphabet is a secret language communicated through hand gestures and scratches on rock. Consisting of twenty letters based upon characteristics of certain trees, the alphabet created in 600 BCE is used for divination and religious purposes.
Druidic Calendar: The Druidic calendar follows the cycles of the moon and sun. The beginning of Celtic time on the physical plane began when the Tuatha De Daanans defeated the Formorians [light over darkness. The Celtic day began at midnight. The Druidic calendar is based upon the moon and divided into thirteen months named after trees corresponding to the Ogham alphabet. The solar year is also recognized as one revolution of the sun around the earth and the Celts adjusted their lunar year accordingly by inserting an extra thirty day month alternately at two-and-a-half and three year intervals. The Druidic cycle consisted of thirty years broken into clusters of five years and a Druidic era consisted of 630 years.
Druids presided over Celtic festivals which were an integral part of society because they renewed the relationship between the people's Kingdoms and the landscape and unified their scattered tribes. Festivals were held at night and celebrated the solstices, equinoxes and moon phases with the main four highlighting the cycles of the Celtic farming system: plowing, sowing, growing and harvesting. Contemporary Celts continue to honor these celebrations.
The deities worshipped by the Celts were subject to the rhythms of life and the demands of a particular locale. Each Celtic god and goddess possessed characteristics relating to physical, spiritual and ethereal planes.
Goddesses symbolized the divine feminine psychic principle of receptivity and the relationship between the moon cycle and the flow of menstrual blood. The Celtic belief in reincarnation is personified in the aspects of the Mother Goddess:
The Goddess could be either merciless or bountiful and is seen as a direct representation of nature.
The God symbolized the divine
male psychic principles of Life and Death whose origins reach back approximately
15,000 years to Paleolithic times. He is personified in Cerrunos, The Horned
One of the Fields [The Stag], who is the god of:
* the underworld
* the opener of the gates of life and death
He is the Cylenrach [The Green Man] the male couterpart to the Cailleach, celebrated by Druids in shamanic rituals where they projected their animal natures to demonstrate that the hunter and hunted are one.
The Stone of Destiny: or Lia Fail from Falias which is said to moan or scream when a rightful king is enthroned. This legend still exists today in the form of the Stone of Scone, which has recently been returned to Scotland from its captors in England, and resides under the coronation chair of the king.
The treasures or grails can be grouped into male and female principles:
The invincible Sword of Lugh bound the destiny of man to his weapon while the magic spear, known to drip blood, acted as both a healing and wounding instrument arming the hero with a tool that penetrates to the essential core of human nature by cutting through the illusion of ego.
The Cauldron of the Dagdga has taken many forms within Celtic mythology:
As a symbol of the Great Mother's cosmic womb and reincarnation, the importance of the cauldron in Celtic society is affirmed by its presence in temples and hearths.