Who were the Celts?  Where did they come from?  How did they live?  What did they believe?  Well, no one knows for sure what exactly happened in the beginning or what our ancient ancestors believed.  All we can do is attempt to reconstruct a lineage using similarities in art, what writing remains, and archeological artifacts.  Little would the ancient Celts know, that eventually their influences would have a major impact on the world, the Neo-Pagan and Wiccan religious movements.  This 2 part journey is to discover what we may of the Celts as a people, how they lived and how they tamed the West, Western Europe, that is.

Who Were the Celts?

“The ancient Celts lived in tribal societies throughout Europe for about eight centuries before the birth of Christ.  Ancient Greek and Roman writers described the Celts as ferocious warriors, but there was more to the Celtic civilization than warfare.  The Celtic people were also farmers, miners, traders and seafarers.  They produced vibrant works of art and exquisite jewelry, and at feasts their bards recited from memory the tales of their gods and heroes.

The Celts were an Indo-European and ethno-linguistically diverse group of tribal societies in Iron Age and Roman-era Europe who spoke Celtic languages.  The earliest archaeological culture that may justifiably be considered as Proto-Celtic is the Late Bronze Age Urnfield culture of central Europe from the last quarter of the second millennium BCE.  Their fully Celtic descendants in central Europe were the people of the Iron Age Hallstatt culture (c. 800-450 BCE) named for the rich grave finds in Hallstatt, Austria.  By the later La Tène period (c. 450 BCE up to the Roman conquest), this Celtic culture had expanded over a wide range of regions, whether by diffusion or migration: to the British Isles (Insular Celts), France and The Low Countries (Gauls), much of Central Europe, the Iberian Peninsula (CeltiberiansCeltici and Gallaeci) and northern Italy (Golaseccans and Cisalpine Gauls) and following the Gallic invasion of the Balkans in 279 BCE as far east as central Anatolia (Galatians). [1]

Click on this link, Timeline of the Celts: The Celts as a Proto-Historic People, to view the “resume” of the involvement of the Celtic peoples in Europe and with the Romans in Britain.

The core Hallstatt territory (HaC, 800 BCE) is shown in solid yellow, The eventual area of Hallstatt influence (by 500 BCE, HaD) in light yellow. The core territory of the La Tène culture (450 BCE) is shown in solid green, The eventual area of La Tène influence (by 250 BCE) in light green. The territories of some major of the late La Tène period are labeled.

Human head with ornamental hairdo on the face of a gold stater from the first coinings of the Parisii in Gaul.

The ancient Greeks named the Iron Age people of Europe the Keltoi.  The Celtic tribes were diverse but spoke Celtic languages and had a similar approach to social organization.

Understanding the Celts

Information about the Celts comes from archaeological finds and from the comments of ancient Greek and Roman writers, who were fascinated by their barbarian neighbors and recorded details of Celtic social customs. Celts did not record their own history so the names of towns or leaders are often unknown.

Men wore tunics and trousers of wool or linen, unlike the draped clothing of the Greeks and Romans.

Heroic Society

A warrior aristocracy, headed by kings and chieftains, led the Celtic tribes. Archaeologist have found spectacular tombs belonging to unknown Celtic aristocrats, including ‘the Hochdorf prince’ and the ‘princess of Vix.’ Within the Celtic tribe, the majority of members were farmers.  Between the aristocrats and the farmers was another class, consisting of craftsmen, bards and priests – the Druids.

Celtic Warriors

The ancient writers describe Celts as boastful, argumentative, fierce and quick to wage war.  The Celtic tribes were often on the move, shifting into new lands, and fighting each other frequently.  Chiefs led cattle raids against neighboring tribes to acquire their land, capture their cattle and take control of the population.


Reconstruction drawing of a Celtic feast in full flight in Iron Age Britain, by Chris Evans (English Heritage Graphics Team).

Feasts and Fables

The head of the tribe entertained his followers lavishly.  Men sat in a circle on the floor in a specific order, their shield bearers standing behind them, and their spearmen seated opposite.  Food was prepared in huge cauldrons or on spits and served with imported wines or local beer.  The tribe’s bards recited the legends of the tribe and its warriors to entrain the guests.





Boudica addresses her troops

Women in Society

The classical writers tell us that Celtic women were not only as tall as their menfolk, but rivaled them in strength as well.  Celtic women could enjoy high status and even act as ambassadors to prevent war; equally, they could incite war and lead their tribe into battle.  One of the most famous Celtic women is Bouddica, who led the Iceni and other British tribes against the Romans.

Fearsome Heroine

In around 60 AD, Boudicca led an uprising of the Iceni and Trinovantes tribes against the Roman occupation of Britain.  Although the Britons recognized women as heirs, the Romans did not.

The statue of the dying Gaul shows how some Celtic warriors went into battle – naked, wearing only a torc (neck ring), which they believed protected the wearer, and body paint.  In Britain, the Celtic warriors used woad to paint their bodies blue.  Warriors washed their hair in limewater to make it white and also stand on end – contributing to their frightening appearance.

The Dying Gaul is a Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic work of the late third century BCE. Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Villages, Fort and Town

Most Celts lived on farms or in small villages.  In the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, Celtic leaders in different parts of Europe built vast hillforts.  Later Celts often lived in an oppidum, or fortified town, while in coastal Scotland they built defensive stone towers.

DEFENSIVE – Living in an oppidum did not guarantee security.  However, the Celts were usually well prepeared for any situation, with an array of strong weapons of bronze and iron – including daggers, long swords, spears, javelins and bows and arrows – and a simpler weapon, the slingshot.


An artists impression of Maiden Castle during late Iron Age occupation, viewed from the western entrance, looking east.

Strong Defenses

The Heuneburg in Germany, Mont Lassois in France and Maiden Castle in England are all Celtic hillforts.  At Maiden Castle, walls and ditches that were 66 feet deep enclosed an area of 45 acres.  Hillforts were built in troubled times when Celts needed protection from other tribes shifting across Europe, as they often controlled the trade routes.  Nearby, burial mounds concealed rich funeral treasures.




Even the most practical items were made beautiful by Celtic craftspeople. This bronze-mounted wooden bucket is one example.

Life in an Oppidum

From the 2nd century BCE many Celts built fortified towns like wealthy Manching in Germany.  Manching’s 4.5 miles long walls enclosed 939 acres of land.  Five to ten thousand people lived here in single-story houses set on a neat grid of streets.  In the town’s manufacturing area the industries included iron-working, metal recycling and coin making, as well as jewelry, pottery, textile and glass making.  There were even some farming inside the town walls.






The Mousa Broch, one of Scotland's best preserved brochs. Courtesy of the Shetland Museum, Lerwick, UK.

Approximately 500 broches (stone-walled towers) have been found in northern Scotland and the northern islands.  These massive towers could be 50 feet wide, inside double walls that were 10 feet thick.  Mousa Broch in Shetland, the best-preserved example, is 44 feet tall.  Brochs housed a single family.

Miners at Work

Salt, silver, gold, iron, tin and copper – these essential Iron Age resources were all found in Celtic lands across Europe and the British Isles.  Valued minerals were essential to Celtic trade with the lands fringing the Mediterranean Sea.  The miners who collected and extracted them had a hard life, but their work has also resulted in some fascinating archaeological remains.

In the Salt Mines

The early Iron Age Celts were the first to mine the salt in Germany’s Salzburg Mountains.  Slaves dug tunnels reaching 980 feet underground, and the remains of their pine twig torches can still be seen in the mines today.  Salt gave the local rulers great wealth, but life underground was unpleasant and dangerous.  In 1734, the preserved body of one of the ancient Celtic miners was found; it had been well preserved by the surrounding salt.

Salzburg Mountains (Austria) seen from Bavaria (Germany)

Examples of fine Celtic metalworking include the bronze Witham Shield.

Collecting Iron

Collecting and working iron to make tools and weapons defines the Iron Age in Europe.  Iron is strong, much more easily found than the materials needed to make bronze, and easier to work.  It was often collected as lumps from bogs, for instance, and towns like Manching probably grew rich from collecting and working the local bog iron.

Fire and Water

Bronze, made from copper and tin, was used throughout the Iron Age. Copper was often found in extraordinarily hard rocks.  To extract the ore, the Celts used fire-setting: a fire was lit against the ore-bearing rock and, when the rock was hot, they threw water at it – the sudden change in temperature cracked the rock, making it break up.

Mines and Metal

The mountains above Hallstatt, were rich in salt, which the Celts exploited. In addition to mining, they mastered the art of bronze and iron metalworking.  A typical item was the spear tip often used by both men and women.


A very precious metal, tin, was essential for bronze making, is very rare in Europe.  It was thought to be so precious that it was even used to make beads for jewelry.

Tin from Cornwall, in southwest England, was probably already being traded across Europe in the Bronze Age, and the Celts continued to sail there to collect tin until the 1st century BCE.  Later, the Romans also mined tin in Cornwall.” (Excerpt from “The Celts – How the Barbarians Tamed Europe ” – Ancient Civilizations, by International Masters Publishers. pp. 1-9)

Next week, I’ll post the other half of this blog for the Pagan Blog Project focusing on the letter C. So… “C ” you next week!


“The Celts – How the Barbarians Tamed Europe ” by Ancient Civilizations.