I have just returned from a three week tour of what could be called the last outposts of Celtic settlement. (The term “Celt” comes from the Greek Keltoi—meaning barbarian. Since there is no soft “c” in Greek, the word should be pronounced with the hard “k” sound–unless you're a basketball team!) I understand many archeologists disagree that these coastal communities descend from the same unique tribe, but I don’t draw dividing lines through the centuries. There are strong cultural, artistic, and linguistic links between the coasts of Portugal, Spain, France, Wales, and Ireland. (We didn’t go as far as Scotland, but those links to Ireland are well known) Standing stones abound in all these areas to mark ancient history, and the haunting music of the pipes and rhythmic foot dance might vary but have more similarities than disparities. (photo is a store that sells "brujas" –witches–in Lugo, Spain)
The first Celtic tribes emerged from 8th century BCE Austria to spread throughout Europe. They reached Ireland some two hundred years later, where they settled into isolated communities. Given the distance, differences in culture are bound to appear. The Romans stomping through and driving them out in the 5th-8th centuries AD would have cemented the huge cultural diversification that separates the original Celts from later generations. That doesn’t mean those lingering hints of the original warrior race with the immense wisdom and strength to invade Rome didn’t remain in the tribes that were left behind.
Romans called them Gauls when they first entered Italy—it’s in chasing the Gauls that Caesar spread his troops across Europe. The Celts were fierce warriors who once brought Rome to its knees (much to the Romans’ surprise) and fought in Cleopatra’s armies as mercenaries, but they were also multi-talented artists. They were said to fight naked in battle, adorned only with their beautifully beaten gold torques and armlets. (photo: Roman mile marker in Portugal)
What fascinates me most is how the Celts carried their centuries of knowledge through their wise men, the Druids. Since the Druids were often more powerful than the kings they served, I’m betting King Arthur’s Merlin is a representation of these early wizards.
“And yet, they have both their own eloquence and their own teachers of wisdom, the Druids. These men claim to know the size and shape of the earth and of the universe, the movements of the sky and of the stars, and what the gods intend…” Pomponius Mela wrote in A.D. 43. “One of the precepts they teach — obviously to make them better for war — has [become] common knowledge, namely that their souls are eternal and there is a second life for the dead.” (Translation by E.F Romer)
I attempted to draw on this wisdom passed through the ages concept when I created the Magic series, but it’s difficult to take an ancient barbaric tradition and convert it to civilized Georgian England!
Even though the Celts were pagans and worshipped sun and other natural gods, you can see why it would have been easy to convert them to Christianity. Here’s a spring in Ireland that has been a site of worship since the days of the Druids. Can you tell my head is now full of more tales of old?
In following this rich history, we sailed from Lisbon, up the Portuguese and Spanish coasts to Brest, France, hearing the guides in all three countries claim their heritage is Celtic. The bagpipes in Spain and Portugal were certainly more melodic than the war cries of the Scots pipes, but listen to the music (if the video works, it's a fabulous group at the port of El Ferrol, Spain, there to give the ship a sailing ship a proper send off) and see if you can’t envision an ancient warrior race making their homes in the green fields of all these coasts.
And of course, in Ireland, we have the tales of the ancient settlers who built the round circles the fairies dwell in. Warriors, wizards, and beautiful iron work, plus the wonderful gift of gab and tall tale telling—this is the stuff writers are made from! (photo of ancient stone beehive house in Ireland)
I really need to spend more time in all these places, have more time to hear the folk tales and songs. Have you ever been to the lands the Celts roamed? What do you think? Are the Irish, Portuguese, Galicians, and Bretons different races or the descendants of one?
(I apologize in advance if any of the links don't work. Typepad seems to object to including both links and video.)