Celtic Culture and European Celtic Mythology

Celtic culture is really an ancient culture with roots in most of Europe. The Celts (pronounced with a hard K sound, unlike the Boston basketball team) were unified by language groups that have evolved today into modern Breton, Irish, Cornish, Manx, Welsh and Gaelic.


Celtic Remains of Tintagel Castle

Jay Leno once did a "Jaywalking" segment in which he asked random people where Gaelic was spoken. One person answered, "Um. San Francisco?"

Classic television moment. But in classic Celtic history, the Celts lived in Spain, Turkey, Italy, Germany and France, and the culture eventually blended with Roman culture as that illustrious empire spread.

At one point the Celts even sacked Rome, around 390 BCE.

The Celts and Iron Age Roman Influences

Well, if you know your basic history, you'll know the Celts didn't hold onto Rome for very long. But they did hold onto some Roman culture.

Earliest Celtic culture and tradition was passed orally, so there are no original writings from the Celts. But the Romans wrote aplenty, and most of what we know about these early Europeans comes from their conquests of Britain around 43 A.D.

We know that the Celts were warring bands of tribes, and because of their aggression and their weapons they were pretty successful. Unfortunately, they weren't good at governing and organizing communities. Perhaps coming up with a written language would have helped at this point!

Though the Romans came to Britain to export metals and human slaves, they built forts and roadways, operated harbors and built defensive walls. They took control of Southern Britain, but wound up building Hadrian's Wall in the north to separate the civilized from the barbarians, Scottish Highlanders, or Picts.

Eventually, the Celts began copying the Romans. . .deities merged and Celtic mythology took on nuances of Roman mythology.

Celtic culture also took on Christian mythology as the Romans slowly converted to the new religion. For example, some historians believe St. Patrick is the son of Roman immigrants, born somewhere in Britain, possibly Wales. He was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland, where he too converted to Christianity while in prison.

Celtic Culture Resumes

Roman rule generally declined around the late fourth and early fifth centuries, A.D., and legend has it that King Arthur came to power in the late fifth century.

Celtic Remains of Tintagel Castle

Unfortunately, most of our current Arthurian legend stems from writings from a Christian monk many centuries later. Geoffrey of Monmounth wasn't just a historian. He was a historian with a 12th century religious mission. So Arthurian legend is often colored with a pro-Christian slant, as in the quest for a Holy Grail.

Celtic Mythology and Modern Times

And speaking of religion, the Aztecs weren't the only culture to sacrifice humans to their gods. According to Roman histories, Celtic Druid priests performed such sacrifices on a regular basis.

What else did the Celts sacrifice? Animals for one, but also some of their weapons, which they threw into lakes, rivers and bogs. Perhaps that's why we now have legends of Ladies in Lakes and Swords in Stones. It wasn't all just made up by the Monty Python crew!

Also, Celtic religion was closely tied to nature. Try reading Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy which starts with The Crystal Cave, to get a feel for how these ancients felt about their natural environments. You'll also get a feel for Roman influences on ancient Celtic culture.

But back to the Druids, who were the learned society of the Celts. They were revered as religious leaders, but they also acted as legislators, judging quarrels and issuing penalties. So no separation of church and state here.

The Druids as social leaders for the Celts, studied natural philosophy, astronomy and the ways of the gods. . . they were followers or "knowers of the oak tree," and oak forests as well as other naturally beautiful sites served as sacred places.

How does Druidism survive today? Some of our days of the week are named for Celtic deities.

Traditional Bagpiper and Celtic Culture

» Woden in Old English, is also Ooinn in Norse mythology, and Wotan in Old German. The stubborn "my way or the highway" ancient Romans of course, call the god Mercury. Woden's Day is Wednesday.

» Tuesday was formerly Tewesday, Tiwesdaeg, Teiwaz and Mars -- while Thursday comes from Thunor's Day, the Norse god Thor, and Jupiter of Roman culture.

» We can also thank Celtic culture for use of their Samhein (pronounced Sow-in) festival, which we now celebrate as Halloween.


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