The Celts

Most of our conceptions and misconceptions about the early Celts, until quite recently, have been based on a few scattered reports of ancient Greek and Roman writers, and on the myths and legends of the Celts themselves. All of these sources mixed fact and fancy to varying degrees. Not until the late nineteenth century did serious efforts to sort out the truths about the Celts begin. Scholars in several disciplines—archaeology, history, linguistics, and the physical sciences—have conducted extensive and intensive research into what the Celts were truly like. Many of the old notions have been revised and today we probably have a better understanding of the ancient Celts than their contemporaries did. There is much that is still puzzling, but the curtain of mystery has been somewhat lifted; the Celts have partially come out of the darkness.

Gerhard Herm is not himself a trained archaeologist or historian; he is a professional writer with an interest in ancient history. One of his previous books, a popularized study of the Phoenicians, has been translated into twenty-four languages and seems to have been widely read. To gather materials for The Celts, Herm traveled through Europe studying the sites of Celtic settlements, and he has also drawn substantially upon the writings of such authorities in the field of Celtic studies as Nora Chadwick, Jean-Jacques Hatt, and Kenneth Jackson.

Always intriguing are the researches of scholars into the possible origins of various human societies. As to the origins of the Celts, Herm finds plausible a current theory which suggests that the Celts—and all Indo-Europeans—emerged from certain tribes living in the steppe lands of the lower Volga River around 3000 B.C. One archaeologist has called those particular tribes the Kurgan (mound) people, and has found that they were taller, more long-headed and possibly more graceful than the squat, round-headed, Ukrainian tribesmen who inhabited the same general area. Some linguists consider it possible that the Kurgan tribes spoke what is known as the “Ur-language,” the supposed ancestor of the later Indo-European tongues. By c.2400-2300 B.C., the theory continues, the Kurgan people had domesticated horses and, hitching those animals to their carts, the tribes began migrating eastward and westward, probably impelled by population pressures. Those who migrated eastward came into contact with the Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, adopted elements of civilized life from those more advanced societies, and then migrated on further to Iran and India.

The tribes which traveled to the west settled in the plains and mountains of Bohemia and central Germany where they found copper and tin which they used to make bronze. The Bohemian bronzemakers established the Untice culture which, at its greatest extent around 1500 B.C., included much of central Europe. Two subsequent Indo European cultures probably emerged from the Untice: the Urnfield in northern Europe and, later, the Hallstatt in Western Europe, differing from the Untice in the kind of burial for the dead they used, and probably in the languages they spoke. The Urnfield and Hallstatt cultures by c. 1000 B.C. resembled what is known to be the Celtic way of life at a later date: ironmaking had appeared, people resided on solitary farms rather than enclosed villages, had more interest in raising animals than in the cultivation of the soil, included a warrior class which used two- or four-wheeled chariots and fought with battle axes, and priests who sacrificed to sun gods.

It seems likely that Celts or Proto-Celts shared in and learned these cultural features, and that sometime between 1300 and 600 B.C. a distinctive, identifiable culture which can be called Celtic evolved. However, scholars will surely never be able to say “suddenly the Celts arrived” because no people come out of the darkness into history with a full panoply of the national customs, language, and culture already intact. As Herm puts it, rather picturesquely, the Celts appeared when the first man said “good morning” to his wife in Celtic, but no one will ever know just when that happened.

In the mid-nineteenth century, at a site in Switzerland called La Tène, archaeologists uncovered a rich store of various artifacts dating from the fifth century B.C.—swords, spears, tools-many of them decorated in almost naturalistic patterns which came to be known as the La Tène style, which is now regarded as uniquely Celtic. The Celtic artists were eclectic, taking motifs from the arts of the Mediterranean and from the splendid artwork of the Scythians who lived to the east. Over several centuries following the early La Tène artifacts, Celtic artists and craftsmen produced numerous practical and decorative objects, many of which were brilliantly executed and technically perfect.

From Bulgaria and Rumania in eastern Europe, to...

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Booklist. LXXIII, May 1, 1977, p. 1318.

Books and Bookmen. XXII, February, 1977, p. 31.

Christian Century. XCIV, August 31, 1977, p. 763.

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New Yorker. LIII, August 1, 1977, p. 71.

Times Literary Supplement. April 29, 1977, p. 535.