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Celtic Origins — The First Northern Europeans, Part III

Celtic Origins — The First Northern Europeans, Part III

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at Celtic Origins with Part III and how the Celts became the first Northern Europeans. (Click here for Part I or Part II.)

Last time we saw how the Celts were an advanced civilization long before Rome. Whatever name is first given to a mountain, lake, forest, or river is the name subsequent peoples usually adapt. We saw how because the Celts named much of European geography, we know they settled many areas first. Celtic names survive not only in geographic features, but also in the cities of modern-day Britain and in the Germanic areas east of modern-day France. Archaeologists named the first period of Celtic culture the Hallstatt period, from 1200 BC to 475 BC. It was an iron-using culture marked by geometric art.

The La Tène Period

The second period of Celtic archaeology is named for discoveries found in the shallow waters of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. Numerous articles thrown into the water as offerings for the gods heralded a new, different, and even more advance culture. The La Tène period covers the fifth to first century BC. Fast, two-wheeled chariots and ornamental art forms marked the kinds of artifacts found.

A Culture as Advanced as Any on the Planet

This new Celtic culture brought improved living standards. Their farmers were skilled in raising crops and livestock. Celtic engineers built roads and developed irrigation systems in the Po River valley of the Italian peninsula. They mined precious metals such as gold and silver. They dug up utilitarian metals such as tin, lead, and iron. They mined salt, necessary to preserve and season food. Their craftsmen manufactured superior tools and weapons. Their artisans created exquisite personal items. In all but Ireland, Celtic tribes cast coins in clay molds to create currencies of gold, silver, and bronze of uniform weight and value. The Celts of this time also traded with Greece and Italy, obtaining luxury goods from the Mediterranean region. In short, for a time, the Celts were as advanced a civilization as any on the planet.

The Great Celtic Expansion

During this time, the Celts ended up in nearly every part of Europe. How did this great expansion occur? Peter Beresford Ellis suggests that the Celtic tribes numbered as few as 20,000 or as great as 250,000, and they sometimes formed great coalitions. Around 600 BC, these great tribes crossed the Alps into the Po Valley of Italy and defeated the Etruscan armies, driving them south. As mentioned in a previous post, to address a point of honor, the Senones tribe crossed the Apennines and crushed the Roman legions. For seven months, they occupied Rome. Then they settled northeast of Rome on the coast.

The Celts Occupied Most of Europe

In the seventh or sixth centuries BC, Celtic tribes pushed east through the Danube River valley into the lands of the current Czech and Slovak states, settling the southern Black Sea area. In the north, they occupied Belgae, now called Belgium, and parts of Gaul, or modern-day France. From the ninth century BC, the Celts occupied much of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Around the same time, they crossed the sea into Britain and Ireland. They even ruled for a time in Thrace (Greece) then migrated farther into Asia Minor (Turkey), forming the state of Galatia, a country to which the Apostle Paul ministered. Bands of Celts even settled in Syria, in the Israel of Herod the Great, in the Egypt of Pharaoh Ptolemy, and in North African Carthage.

The End Came—Rome and the Germanic and Slavic Hordes

This great expansion lasted until the rise of the Roman empire. In the second and first centuries BC, as Rome’s power grew and Germanic and Slavic tribes migrated west, Celtic borders receded. As we have seen, the conquering Romans were fond of maligning and slighting Celtic accomplishments. And they got to write the history. Yet the Romans owed far more to the Celts than history acknowledges.

The source for this post was from The Celts, by the great Celtic historian, Peter Berresford Ellis.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.

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Celtic Origins—The First Northern Europeans, Part II

Celtic Origins — The First Northern Europeans, Part II

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues his look at Celtic Origins and how the Celts appeared suddenly on the European stage and spread across the continent. (Click here for Part I.)

The Celts Were the First Northern Europeans

Last time we saw how the Celts were already a civilization in 600 BC, long before Rome was a gleam in the founders’ eyes. Once, the Celts spoke a common language, possibly around 4,000 BC, and so we know they started out as a single people. But by the time they arrived in northern Europe, they had already split into many tribes, each with their own dialects. We also looked at the amazing similarities between Indian Sanskrit and Old Irish. This tells us that these two disparate peoples once had a common origin.

(This, by the way, agrees with the account in Genesis 11, where all of civilization was once concentrated in Babylonia, and was scattered at the Tower of Babylon because they had begun to view themselves as greater than God and had turned away from their Creator.)

The evidence from archaeology and linguistics tells us that when the Celts arrived in Europe, there were distinct cultures in Switzerland and southwest Germany, at the headwaters of the Danube, the Rhine and the Rhône rivers.

The Celts Named Much European Geography

The River Danube–A Name of Celtic Origins

Here’s a truism about the naming of geographical places such as rivers, mountains, and forests: The first people to settle there get to name the place. And all those who come after will refer to the place by the original name. What are some of the Celtic names applied to Europe’s geography?

  • The great River Danube, named after Danu, the Celtic goddess.
  • The name of the Rhône River in France derived from its original name, Rhodanus. (See the goddess Danu in there?) The word is preceded by the Celtic word, ro, for great.

What about Gaul, now modern France? Celtic names there are rare, telling us it wasn’t settled by the early Celtic tribes.

The list of Celtic names given to rivers and towns is extensive. Here’s a smattering of river names: Avan, Dart, Don, Ouse, Thames, and Trent. Of hills and forests: Barr, Brent, Cannock, Crich, Malvern, and Penn. Names of towns: London, Carlisle, Dover, and York. Names of whole areas: Kent, Wight, and Leeds.

Thus we see how the Celts were some of the earliest settlers in many regions of northern Europe.

The Hallstatt Period

The Strettweg Wagon–Hallstatt Period

Archaeologists divide Celtic culture into two periods based on artifacts found and the nature of their art.

The first was named after Lake Hallstatt in Upper Austria that produced some of the earliest finds. Hallstatt covers the period from 1200 BC to 475 BC. This was an iron-using culture marked by the use of geometric art. Such art was found in large chambers inside the mound tombs of Celtic princes. The princes’ bodies were laid out in four-wheeled wagons with exquisitely crafted harnesses and yokes bearing the geometric art. We know the Celts built sophisticated roads over which these wagons traveled.

This ability to smelt iron and other metals and to make iron weapons and tools probably was the reason for the Celts’ sudden appearance in the first millennium BC. It was simply a superior culture. Artifacts from as far away as Carthage, Greece, and Etruria—the area to the north of present-day Rome—also attest to an extensive trading network. This was a culture far in advance of the founding of Rome.

Next week, we’ll conclude our look at the origins of the Celts with the La Tène Period and how the Celts spread throughout Europe.

The source for this post was from The Celts, by the great Celtic historian, Peter Berresford Ellis.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.

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Celtic Origins — The First Northern Europeans, Part I

Celtic Origins—The First Northern Europeans, Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher delves into Celtic origins. Where did the Celts come from? When did they first appear in recorded history?

Celtic Origins — First Contact With the Greeks

Celtic Expansion, 1200 B.C.

Perhaps the first recorded contact with this mysterious race called the Celts was by a man named Colaeus. It was 630 BC, and this intrepid merchant was sailing from a Greek island in the Aegean sea for trade with Africa when a storm drove him off course. The winds and tide brought his ship to Tartessus, a harbor city and region on the south central Atlantic coast of Iberia (Spain and Portugal). He sailed up the Guadalquivir River, and there, for the first time in recorded history, they encountered a tribe of the Keltoi. But this was no barbarian, uncultured people. Their king was Arganthonios, and his tribe mined and fashioned items made from silver. About thirty years later, other Greek merchants returned to the Keltoi, made a treaty, and began trading goods for silver.

Celtic Achievements Were Downplayed

That by 630 BC the Celts were already a civilization as advanced as any other is a fact history has overlooked. Why, we ask? It’s because those who recorded it, the Romans, looked down upon and denigrated most of the cultures they came into contact with.

It’s also because the Celts, themselves, seemed to have a prohibition about writing down their history. The word “Celt” itself comes from old Irish celim (“I hide”) and old Welsh celaf. The word means “hidden”. The Celts were “the hidden people”. Caesar wrote: “The druids believe that their religion forbids them to commit their teachings to writing, although for most other purposes, such as public and private accounts, the Celts use the Greek alphabet.”

Once a Single People

The Celts were the first European people north of the Alps to burst into the historical record. It was their Celtic language that made them unique. But by the time they arrived in northern Europe, the Celtic tribes already spoke many dialects. Linguists tell us that once they all spoke a common, Celtic tongue. Some speculate that an original parent language existed around 4,000 BC and that it came from the Baltic or Black Sea area. So the Celts were once a single people that, over time, divided into different tribes.

Common Root Languages? — Indian Sanskrit and Old Irish

Now here is something truly extraordinary. Old Irish is similar to the Sanskrit language of India in the Vedic period, from 1500-500 BC. Two cultures, thousands of miles apart, and many words are similar. From The Celts, by Peter Berresford Ellis:

Sanskrit                         Old Irish
Arya (freeman)               aire (noble)
Naith (good)                    noeib (holy)
Minda (physical defect)  menda (a stammerer)
Raja (king)                      Rí (king)
Vid (knowledge)             uid (knowledge)

India and the Celts — Once a Common People

What does this tells us? That both the peoples of the Indian subcontinent and the Celtic peoples were once a single people. Indeed, Irish and Indian mythology also share common themes, stories, and names.

For instance, Danu was the Irish mother goddess. In the beginning of time, her “divine waters” rushed out of chaos to the earth and watered Bile, the sacred oak. From this tree sprang the other gods and goddesses of Celtic mythology. Danu’s waters formed the Danube (the Danuvius). This story is similar to myths about the Boyne and Shannon rivers in Ireland, and their goddesses, Boann and Sionan. The story also resembles how Ganga became the Hindu goddess of the Ganges River in India.

We’ll continue our exploration of Celtic origins next time, with Part II.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.