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world wide wednesdays :: imaginationland

so many generic tattoos to answer for...
while i was thinking up a topic for last week's "world wide wednesdays" post, i had two ideas that i wanted to pursue. the one i went with was about brazil, which i thought was appropriate given the proximity to the beginning of lent [which is preceded, of course, by carnival]. i wish i could tell you what the other one was, but, as certain as i was that it would stick with me, i lost track of the idea some time between last wednesday night and this morning.

i'm mentioning this because it is an obvious lesson in the importance of writing things down and it ties in directly to the topic of today's post, which is basically a look at what happens when people don't write anything down for hundreds of years and the mess it can make of your history. today, ladies and gentlemen, we're talking about the celts. [side note :: i'm guessing that some of you are already trying to decide whether you should pronounce that word as if it starts with an 's' or a 'k'. please don't. both are acceptable. if you want to get picky, the original name was an interpretation of a tribal name by a roman and latin speakers of the time would have pronounced it with a hard 'k', as in julius caesar, which you've also been pronouncing wrong your whole life, because a roman would have said it as "yoo-leeus kaiser". the confusion stems from the same place for both examples: the latin language lost the hard 'c' pronunciation at some point and the change filtered down to english through this later latin and old french. the "retro" approach of using the classical latin pronunciation was something that arose as part of a revivalist movement in the 19th century, but more on that a little later. for now, just pick whichever pronunciation tickles your tongue muscles and go with it. believe me, things will be confusing enough without getting hung up on details at this stage.]

chances are when i say the word "celts", you have some idea that's related to a romantic past of druids and red-haired warriors and misty landscapes with enya playing in the background. perhaps many of you take pride in a certain amount of celtic heritage. if you're of european extraction, it's almost likely that you have some type of celtic blood in you, not because your ancestors were druids, but because the term celtic is so broad that it's nearly meaningless in a genetic sense. this is compounded by the fact that many people don't agree one who should be considered celtic, even now in the age of advanced dna typing, because, with such a long passage of time and such a broad area of origin, knowing when to draw the line can get tricky. and then there's the problem of written records: in a lot of cases, there aren't any. celtic written languages are limited to very specific areas and only developed in those areas after about the fourth century, when celtic culture was only a remnant of its earlier self. that means that the information we have on the earlier, more powerful celts comes entirely from other sources, who realised the importance of writing stuff down. it also means that we know next to nothing about the actual origins of the celts, because while their culture was incubating, no one was around to document it.

in getting to know the celts, the most important first step is to realise that all common knowledge we might have about them is tainted. modern knowledge of the celts, and particularly the romanticism that surrounds them, stems not from any meaningful history, but from a celtic revival and nationalist movement that took place across the modern day united kingdom and ireland in the eighteenth to the twentieth century. there were a lot of reasons for this revival, but a key one was that the celtic dominated parts of the islands had become socially and economically disenfranchised, as the rise of the industrial age favoured larger cities, which were of anglo-saxon origin. [reactionary movements against modernisation included such people as the pre-raphaelites, the romantics in literature and the classicists who decided that "celtic", which had been pronounced "seltic" for centuries, should thenceforth be pronounced "keltic". thanks, guys.] a revival of traditions served to assert outlying groups' identity versus the monolithic centre, which had political implications as well, kick-starting the irish nationalist movement. like most cultural identities, it was based more on perceptions of how history might have been and far more on art and literature than on fact. that image of the celtic world has persisted, aided in the latter part of the twentieth century by the new age movement. [side note :: the british isles was not the only place to experience a celtic revival at that time. around the same time switzerland went through something similar, rediscovering their country's roots with the hevetii, a celtic group of tribes who lived in what was to become switzerland in roman times and earlier. ironically for a culture that had no written language, they are known in the contemporary world chiefly for giving their name to a popular font, but in switzerland, they are still closely linked with national identity. the neo-latin name for switzerland is the "confœderatio helvetica", which is why swiss websites always end in ".ch".]

so now that we've established that most of what we know about the celts is, if not wrong, at least highly misleading, we can start looking at who the these people really were. the easiest way to do this is by looking at the celtic languages, which offer the clearest connection between groups. unfortunately, our knowledge of celtic languages starts quite a while after they did, so we're left to rely on third-person accounts and educated guesses. we know that celtic languages are/ were all part of the indo-european family, but they aren't connected to other branches, which means that they split from the original stem and didn't descend from anything else. although the early celts didn't leave any writings, they did leave some brief inscriptions, the oldest of which are found in southern switzerland and northern italy. even at that point, however, it seems that there were a number of celtic languages, or at least dialects, spread over continental europe. the most prevalent theory is that all of the celts originated with the central european urnfield culture, named because of their practice of placing the cremated remains of their dead in urns and burying them in fields. [that might seem like a pretty uninspired way to name a culture, but it's probably better than naming them the buddy-eating culture after the disturbingly widespread indications of cannibalism.]

urnfield culture expanded into the more diverse halstatt and la tène cultures [the source of most of the flourishes we now think of as celtic art], spreading from the "homeland" of central europe and breaking into many, many different groups and by the time the romans took note of them in the second century bce, tribes speaking celtic languages were everywhere. they stretched from the iberian peninsula to the british isles to modern day turkey, which is why i said earlier that anyone with european ancestry has at least a decent shot at having some celtic in their background. the romans interacted with these groups in many different locations and it is from them that we learned that they referred to themselves as celts, or something close to it. the romans, however, decided to call them gauls.

one of the notable things about celtic/ gaulish culture is that they loved to fight. they fought the romans. they fought each other. basically, if there was a battle to be had, the celts were there. the romans were shocked/ intimidated/ probably titillated/ all of the above to find that not only celtic men but also women were up to a fight and even tried to ascribe celtic combativeness to the fact that they let their women boss them around too much. this has given rise to the new age fallacy that celtic cultures were female-centric. they were not. however, there does seem to be evidence to indicate that women were at least more free than they were in roman society. [they had some property rights and were able, under certain circumstances, to occupy positions of leadership, as well as the aforementioned participation in ass-whooping.] since it's the romans who transcribed the history, we're left with the impression that it was some kind of gender free-for-all across the celtic world. [side note :: in every sense. diodorus sicilus wrote that, beautiful as the british celtic women were, the men there preferred to snuggle up with each other, or with whatever men they happened to meet. ok, he didn't say snuggle, but you get the idea.]

celtic territories, just before it all started to go to hell
with that great appetite for fighting, you'd think that the gauls/ celts would have been formidable opponents and to some extent they clearly were, or else they never would have been able to conquer the amount of territory they did. however, pitted against the romans, things started to crumble pretty quickly. part of the problem was that same appetite for fighting: the celts were a broad group made up of dozens if not hundreds of small groups who were at least as interested in fighting each other as they were in fighting anyone else. they were able to put up a temporarily unified front against the romans at first, but ultimately, there was no place in which they were able to prevail. every celtic language on the european continent has been extinct for hundreds of years, because all of the existing tribes fell to the romans and became "romanized", adopting latin in place of their original language.

things went somewhat better for celts in the british isles. celtic tribes in britain were forced out to the edges of the country, but never fully assimilated, either under the romans or by the subsequent anglish and saxon invaders. they were never strong enough to rival the dominant culture for control, but they were able to maintain aspects of their culture, including their own languages. one of the chief reasons that celtic culture is associated with the british isles is that it survived much longer there [long enough to be written down]. all of the remaining "living" [meaning that there are native speakers and children who are learning the language from birth] celtic languages, save one, are in britain: irish gaelic, scottish gaelic and welsh. in addition, two other celtic languages, manx and cornish, have been revived. the so-called insular celtic languages [differentiated from the european celtic languages] were almost all teetering on the edge of extinction at the turn of the century. in the last fifteen years, the number of speakers of each one has grown. [side note :: the one surviving celtic language not in the british isles is breton, which is spoken in the northern french region of brittany. the breton language is closely related to welsh and cornish, having apparently developed from immigrants of those regions who came to france. like the other celtic languages, it has experienced a rebirth in recent years.]

arise, ye bloodthirsty buggers and bitches!
the trend towards celtic revivalism, in a number of different forms, shows no sign of abating. at the moment, only those areas with surviving languages [ireland, scotland, wales, brittany, isle of man and cornwall] are considered "celtic nations", but there are movements in other areas to re-establish older celtic connections. most notably, former territories of the iberian celts [including a swath of northern spain stretching from the basque territories to the atlantic and much of northern portugal] have shown an interest not just in reconnecting with their celtic history, but also in bringing their gallaic language back to life. [the iberians take their celtic heritage seriously. the spanish province of asturias is home to the international bagpipe museum.] some czechs have also gotten in on the game, claiming that their relation to the celtic boii tribe [from whose name we get the word "bohemian"] makes them as much celtic as germanic. that might not be romanticized hot air, either. dna testing conducted in the czech republic at the turn of the century showed a high incidence of a genetic subgroup common among celts, but rare among slavs. [side note :: part of the interest in rediscovering celtic culture in northern spain stems from the fact that regional customs were suppressed under the fascist dictatorship of francisco franco. he sought to unify spain under a single national culture, which was largely drawn from traditions of the andalusia region. franco eliminated the special status given to a handful of spanish provinces fearing- not without cause- that these autonomous regions were breeding grounds for political opponents. ironically, franco himself hailed from galicia, one of the provinces whose autonomy was stripped, and the traditional heartland of celtic culture in spain.]

i'm guessing at this point that not only do you not have a better understanding of who the celts are, but that you're having trouble remembering your own name. yes, it is exceptionally confusing, so let's try to boil it down to basics:

  • the term "celtic" does not and never did refer to a single group.
  • the celts were a very diverse linguistic group and never had a unified political structure.
  • at one time, celtic tribes held some level of control over much of europe.
  • the vast majority of celtic languages disappeared as the tribes were brought under roman control. 
  • celtic languages survived in a handful of territories in great britain and northern france and modern celtic identity is associated chiefly with those areas. 
  • since the nineteenth century, there has been a revival of interest in the celts, although it has not necessarily been tied to historical facts. 
  • other regions with long-standing ties to celtic cultures have also experienced revival of interest in their heritage.

% of population with celtic blood: it's not an exclusive club
much of the romantic and new age claims about the celts can be dismissed as fantasy, however there are grains of truth hidden among them: celtic women, particularly those in great britain, were known to join the men on the field of battle; there were actual druids, but they were more like a caste of elder statesmen and educators, not magicians; celts do have a higher incidence of red hair than any other group. [they're also disproportionately prone to hemochromatosis, but that isn't as exciting.]

as people start to get drawn to the complexities of history, both of the world and their own lineage, it's little wonder that the celts hold a special fascination. they are the bearers of a vast and dramatic history, but have almost nothing to show for it. they seem to be everywhere and yet almost nowhere. vast numbers of people are descended from them [we haven't even touched on communities descended from celts in diaspora, like the new world irish and scottish] and yet no one seems to be able to pinpoint exactly where they come from. they are both the ultimate genetic mystery and the ultimate genetic mess.

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