The Celts were a distinct ethnic group made up of tribes spread across Europe. They shared similar languages, traditions, religions, and cultural practices and were known for their fierceness in battle and the fact the Romans perceived them as a culture of barbarians. Even the name given to them by the Romans (Galli) translates to barbarian. Although the first mentions of the Celts were in Roman texts from around the 7 th Century AD, the Celtic culture is thought to have emerged around 1200 BC.
Despite the picture the Romans painted of a savage and brutish society of uncultured, unrestrained ruffians, their culture was a complex one. Their distinctive artistic style has survived into the 21 st century, likewise some remnants of their traditions and language. The way the Romans depicted the Celts has influenced our modern opinions of their society, as evidenced by popular depictions like the Asterix comics, but there are a lot of fascinating facts about Celtic society which show a different side of the Celts altogether.
1. The Celts Did Not Originate in Ireland or Scotland
Today, people think of the Celtic culture as being a part of Irish and Scottish heritage. The instantly recognizable Celtic art style is something people associate with Ireland, and movies such as Braveheart cement the idea that the Celts were present in Scotland. Furthermore, most British school children are taught about Hadrian’s Wall , built by the Roman emperor Hadrian in 122 AD to keep the Picts, a Celtic tribe in modern Scotland, confined to the North.
So, it comes as a surprise to learn that the Celts were not originally from either of these regions. In fact, the earliest evidence of Celtic culture is from the site of Hallstatt, Austria. The site has over 1000 burials with Celtic features, dated to approximately 1200 BC.
Celtic warrior. ( Gorodenkoff / Adobe)
2. The Celts Paid Attention to Their Hygiene
Thanks to the Roman accounts, we tend to think of the Celts as scruffy, dirty, and smelly. However, the archaeological evidence shows that this is far from true. Celtic sites have an abundance of grooming tools, such as combs and hair pins. There is even evidence that it is the Celts introduced the Romans to soap, and that it was mandatory in some tribes for the men to bathe before enjoying their evening meal.
The reverse side of a Celtic bronze mirror from 50 BC. (Rotatebot / Public Domain )
3. They Were Head-Hunters
Although many of the Roman ideas about the Celts were exaggerated or entirely inaccurate, they did have some traditions which were barbaric. One of the grimmer aspects of Celtic tradition was the practice of head-hunting. The Celts believed that human souls resided in heads, and so after victory in battle Celtic warriors would decapitate their enemies. Having a large collection of enemy heads was a sign of prestige to the Celts, and they would even go so far as to decorate the doors to their houses with the heads of their enemies to show off how successful they were in battle. At one site in France there is even a pillar with special niches carved out to display severed heads.
4. They Developed Weaponry Long Before Their Rivals
The fact the Celts were able to spread across such a large part of Europe and survive so long was probably due to their advanced weaponry. The Hallstatt Culture was one of the first to adopt iron for weapons, which was far superior to the bronze weapons used by their rivals. This edge on their competitors – perhaps more accurately described as their victims - was something they took full advantage of to grow their empire and spread far further than would otherwise have been possible.
Celtic swords 120 BC to 43 AD. (Völkerwanderer/ Public Domain )
5. They Had Their Own Complex Calendar
While the Romans had the Julian calendar, the Celts had their own calendar for predicting the seasons and calculating time. The Coligny calendar was found in woods near Coligny, France in the 1890s, and consisted of a large bronze tablet with intricate engravings. It was originally a mystery what the tablet, which is 1.48 meters x 0.9 meters (4’10” x 2’11”), represented though it was ascertained to have been made during the 2 nd Century based on the artifacts it was found with.
When it was reconstructed, it was finally revealed to be a calendar which covered 5 years divided into 12 months per year with an extra month once every third year which functioned in the same way as a leap year. The calendar was extremely complex, and even accounted for the different times the sun and moon took to circle the earth which meant it kept time accurately, unlike the Julian calendar which sometimes resulted in the Romans celebrating the start of Spring in August. The calendar was probably created and used by druids and functioned partly to help with the timing of festivals and rituals.
6. They Were Very Skilled at Horse Riding
The Celts were known for their prowess in battle and in particular for their skills on horseback. They had a special kind of sword called a Spatha, worshipped a horse goddess called Epona and were even recruited into the cavalry of the Roman armies after their regions had been conquered. They would also use horse drawn carriages in battle and were very skilled in this technique. They were known to decorate their horses and chariots with the heads of their enemies to show how many people they had killed in battle and so intimidate the enemy.
Celtic Horsemen. ( Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe)
7. They Worshipped a Huge Number of Gods and Goddesses
There were hundreds of gods and goddesses in the Celtic pantheon, and some of them were so niche that only a single tribe or even family worshipped them. The druids, who led religious ceremonies, were in charge of rituals which included sacrifice. These ceremonies would usually take place at shrines in natural locations such as hilltops and streams, but there were some secret ceremonies which would be conducted in hidden sacred groves. The druids were very important in Celtic society as they served as judges, teachers, and lore-keepers.
8. Celtic Women Could be Warriors Too
Unlike many ancient civilizations, there are many accounts of women who were warriors in the Celtic society. One such female warrior is Boudicca who infamously fought to prevent the Romans from invading her territory . When she was eventually defeated, she committed suicide by drinking poison rather than submitting to the Romans. There are many other contemporary accounts of women participating in and even leading battles. The Romans found the idea of female warriors particularly shocking, and the writers Posidonius and Strabo both described an island of Celtic women where men could not venture for fear of death.
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Celtic woman warrior woman ready to attack. ( danrentea / Adobe)
Many of the Roman accounts of the Celts are propaganda designed to provoke an image of wild savages, both to excuse their failures against a people who fought like wild animals and to make their victories over them even more glorious. But despite this propaganda and fearmongering there are some elements of truth – the Celts were fearsome in battle, and the practice of headhunting in particular was something which must have helped to cultivate the image of a barbaric people who acted like wild animals. It should be remembered in the case of the Celts that history is written by the victors. It was easy for the Romans to erase the accomplishments of this complex society, particularly when they themselves had been trying to avoid the headhunters!
Top image: The Celts had many female warriors Source: Syda Productions / Adobe Stock
By Sarah P Young
Celtic Life. 2017. Top Ten Facts About the Celts. [Online] Available at: https://celticlife.com/top-ten-facts-about-the-celts/
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Collis, C. 2003. The Celts: Origins, Myths and Inventions . Stroud: Tempus Publishing
Hadian’s Wall Country. Date unknown. Hadrian’s Wall: The Facts. [Online] Available at: https://hadrianswallcountry.co.uk/hadrians-wall/hadrian%E2%80%99s-wall-facts
Klimans, K. 2019. 42 Brutal Facts About The Celts, The Scourge Of Ancient Rome. [Online] Available at: https://www.factinate.com/things/facts-celts/
Koch, J. 2005. Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia. Santa Barbara. [Online] Available at: https://www.academia.edu/7205055/Celtic_Culture_A_Historical_Encyclopedia_
Matthews, C. 1989. The Elements of the Celtic Tradition. Element Books ltd.
What is an interesting fact about the Celts? ›
In fact, the Celts had their own network of roads to connect places for trade, created beautiful jewellery, sophisticated iron weapons and developed their own calendar long before the Romans came along. Evidence suggests that Celts put great store by cleanliness and, in fact, introduced soap to the Romans!What are some fun facts for kids about the Celts? ›
The Celts were skilled in working with metals. They were one of the first peoples in Europe to work with iron. They made swords, shields, helmets, and gold and silver jewelry. The Celts practiced a religion called Druidism.How do we know so much about the Celts? ›
Celtic literary tradition begins with Old Irish texts around the 8th century AD. Elements of Celtic mythology are recorded in early Irish and early Welsh literature. Most written evidence of the early Celts comes from Greco-Roman writers, who often grouped the Celts as barbarian tribes.What do we know about the ancient Celts? ›
It is believed that the Celts arrived at the shores of Britain at approximately 1,000BC and lived there during the Iron Age, the Roman Age and the post Roman era. Their legacy continues today where examples of the language, culture and traditions continue to exist.What was the Celts known for? ›
Across Europe, the Celts have been credited with many artistic innovations, including intricate stone carving and fine metalworking. As a result, elaborate Celtic designs in artifacts crafted from gold, silver and precious gemstones are a major part of museum collections throughout Europe and North America.What did the Celts invent? ›
The Celts have been credited with a number of inventions, including iron, harps, longbows, soap, chainmail, bagpipes, fiddles, Scottish plaid, Irish linen, spiral artworks, numerous reels and jigs, and countless literary folk tales.What was the animal of the Celts? ›
Horse (Each): A popular totem animal of the Celts; sacred to the Goddesses Epona and Rhiannon. The horse was considered to be a faithful guide to the Otherworlds.What did Celts do for fun? ›
For amusement Celts played board games. They were also very fond of music and played flutes and lyres. In good weather, they held horse or chariot races. The Celts also enjoyed hunting wild boars on horseback.What did the Celts wear? ›
The Celts' clothes showed their status and importance within the tribe. Men would wear a tunic with a belt, a cloak and trousers. Women wore dresses fastened with brooches. And if you were an important member of the tribe, you would wear a neck torc of gold, silver or iron, decorated with patterns.What God did the Celts believe in? ›
Deities found in many regions include Lugus, the tribal god Toutatis, the thunder god Taranis, the horned god Cernunnos, the horse and fertility goddess Epona, the divine son Maponos, as well as Belenos, Ogmios, and Sucellos. Celtic healing deities were often associated with sacred springs.
What was it like being a Celt? ›
The Celtic way of life was essentially rural and centred upon the farm. Herds were tended and protected, families raised, houses built and pasture maintained, while fields were routinely ploughed and crops harvested.What do the Celts believe in? ›
The Celtic religion was closely tied to the natural world and they worshipped gods in sacred places like lakes, rivers, cliffs and bushes. The moon, the sun and the stars were especially important - the Celts thought that there were supernatural forces in every aspect of the natural world.What did the Celts call themselves? ›
Progression in Celtic dialects
In general terms, the Romans coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now central, northern and eastern France. As reported by Julius Caesar these tribes called themselves Celtae.
Celtic languages constitute one distinct branch of the Indo-European languages. The modern Celtic languages are divided into two subfamilies: the Goidelic (or Gaelic) languages and the Brythonic (or Brittonic) languages. The two subfamilies can also be referred to as P-Celtic and Q-Celtic.Who was the Celts main god? ›
The Dagda. The Tuatha Dé Danann were a collection of supernatural beings that lived in the Otherworld but were able to interact with human beings within the mortal realm. The Dagda was their leader, making him the head of the pantheon of Celtic gods.Why did the Celts disappear? ›
Caught between the Germanic tribes from the North-East and the Romans from the South, Celtic culture went down and disappeared, more or less by assimilation - except in the more remote corners of Europe like Ireland and Scotland.Who wiped the Celts? ›
The Celts were eventually defeated by Romans, Slavs and Huns. After the Roman conquest of most Celtic lands, Celtic culture was further trampled by Germanic tribes, Slavs and Huns during the Migration Period of roughly 300 to 600 A.C.What did the Celts drink? ›
Ancient Celts were partial to beer, mead and imported Greek wines.What games did the Celts play? ›
The Celtic nations have produced some truly unique sports. Shinty (Scotland, Isle of Man), hurling (Ireland) and Gaelic football (Ireland) have many elements of hockey, soccer and rugby, but add their own Celtic twist.Is there a Celtic zodiac? ›
Each Celtic Zodiac Sign is associated with a specific tree, an Ogham alphabet letter, a Guardian Animal, a Celtic God, and other elements such as gemstones. Motivated, ambition-driven, passionate.
Who is a Celt today? ›
Today, the peoples of Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales make up the six Celtic nations with surviving Celtic languages. Additionally, the people of Galicia in Spain claim Celtic heritage, although no Celtic language survives in the region.What is the symbol of the Celtic dog? ›
Celtic Hounds symbolize hunting, healing, and the Otherworld in Celtic legends. Hounds were the traditional guardian animals of roads and crossways and are believed to protect and guide lost souls in the Otherworld.Did the Celts like to fight? ›
The Celts were fierce, proud warriors who loved fighting and feasting. They held great banquets, lasting several days, to celebrate victories in battle. Unlike the Romans, who fought in tightly disciplined groups, the Celts battled as individual warriors, each seeking personal glory.How did Celts wear their hair? ›
Generally, the Celts wore their hair long. Soldiers were sometimes an exceptions; they also wore their hair in rounded, bowl cuts. The Celts were usually described as blond, whether naturally or through the use of chalk or lime-water to lighten the hair.Did Celts get tattoos? ›
There's actually no evidence of Celtic tattooing, according to Anna Felicity Friedman, a tattoo historian who runs a blog called TattooHistorian. In fact, while people in other parts of the world have been tattooing themselves for thousands of years, the practice only came to Ireland in the last century.What is the symbol of the Celts? ›
A Celtic Knot is a symbolic pattern of a looped knot that has no start or finish. The looped pattern goes on infinitely, which is thought to symbolise the eternity of life. You can date the use of Celtic Knots all the way back as far as the 8th century, used in artwork and decoration.Do the Celts still exist? ›
Although partially absorbed or constrained by the Roman Empire and then by the Germanic and Slavic expansions, descendants of the ancient Celts still survive today - the Irish, Manx and Scots, the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons.Who is the strongest Celtic god? ›
The Dagda (Old Irish: In Dagda, Irish: An Daghdha, pronounced [daɣða]) is an important god in Irish mythology. One of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Dagda is portrayed as a father-figure, king, and druid. He is associated with fertility, agriculture, manliness and strength, as well as magic, druidry and wisdom.What are Celtic death traditions? ›
Funeral Traditions from Ireland – The Irish Wake
The body would be wrapped in a shroud, tied and decorated with ribbon or flowers. The wake would last a few days during which the body would never be left alone. Men would partake in smoking tobacco together to socialize and keep evil spirits away from the body.
Skeletal finds in graves provide the following age statistics for the ancient Celts: the average age at death was 35 years old; 38 for men and 31 for women.
What weapons did the Celts use? ›
The Celts fought with iron swords and daggers as well as using long spears like javelins which they swung about their heads and threw into enemy ranks. The Celtic weapons were often crafted from iron. They either fought on foot or horseback with oval-shaped shields covered with animal hide to protect them.What did Celts do for a living? ›
Most Celts were farmers, and they lived in houses that were round instead of square. In battle, Celts mainly fought with swords and spears, and they used long shields to protect themselves. Some people can still speak Celtic languages such as Welsh and Gaelic.How many gods did the Celts have? ›
The ancient Celtic pantheon consisted of over 400 gods and goddesses who represented everything from rivers to warfare. With perhaps the exception of Lugh, the Celtic gods were not universally worshipped across Iron Age Europe but were very often limited to only several regions or a specific area.Do Celts believe in heaven? ›
Because of this belief, the Celts did not identify a particular place that one went to after death and had no concept of heaven or hell. Instead, the Celts believed there was a home for their supernatural figures, a place where humans occasionally strayed during life, or where they rested between lives.What words did the Celts give us? ›
- Banshee (a female spirit who warns of death)
- Bog (wet or muddy ground)
- Bother (annoy)
- Hooligan (a troublemaker)
- Galore (a lot of or in abundance)
- Leprechaun (a key figure in Irish folklore)
- Limerick (a funny 5-line poem)
- Phoney (fake)
Continental Celtic mythology
The Gauls divided the universe into three parts: Albios ("heaven, white-world, upper-world"), Bitu ("world of the living beings"), and Dubnos ("hell, lower-world, black-world").
The Proto-Celtic word *nemos signifies the heavens and is derived from the Indo-European root *nem “bend, curve.” It is likely that Celtic belief was similar to that of many other peoples who understand the sky to be held up above the earth by pillars: the Goidelic word for earth is talam (with the sense “ground,” ...Did the Celts have slaves? ›
Slaves were the lowest class in Celtic communities and were both men and women. Slaves were used in Celtic society and as an item for trade, in the latter case the source being those captured in warfare or people who could not pay their debts.Who originally spoke Celtic? ›
During the 1st millennium BC, Celtic languages were spoken across much of Europe and central Anatolia. Today, they are restricted to the northwestern fringe of Europe and a few diaspora communities.Where did the Celts come from originally? ›
What is this? The ancient Celts were a collection of people that originated in central Europe and that shared similar culture, language and beliefs. Over the years, the Celts migrated. They spread across Europe and set up shop everywhere from Turkey and Ireland to Britain and Spain.
What did the Celts believe in? ›
Celtic religion was polytheistic, believing in many deities, both gods and goddesses, some of which were venerated only in a small area or region, or by a particular tribe, but others whose worship had a wider geographical distribution.What did the Celts call their gods? ›
Teutates, also spelled Toutatis (Celtic: "Him of the tribe"), was one of three Celtic gods mentioned by the Roman poet Lucan in the 1st century, the other two being Esus ("lord") and Taranis ("thunderer").What did the Celts do for fun? ›
For amusement Celts played board games. They were also very fond of music and played flutes and lyres. In good weather, they held horse or chariot races. The Celts also enjoyed hunting wild boars on horseback.