Who are the Celts?

 Celt: One who lives in a community where a Celtic language is used traditionally, or one who has strong ties to such a community.

Celtic: Anything relating to the identity and traditions of such communities.  

Who are the Celts? This, it turns out, is a surprisingly difficult question to answer -- mostly because the term "Celt" has acquired a variety of meanings today, not all of them compatible; and some of them are either too vague to be useful, or are based on incorrect assumptions. This doesn't mean that there isn't, in fact, a perfectly objective and useful definition of the word "Celt', but we will first have to unravel it from the many other meanings people have given to the word over time.

The word "Celt" first appeared in Greek writing of the 6th century BCE, when the Greeks were establishing many new settlements in the western half of the Mediterranean and opening trade contacts with the people who lived to the north of that area. They originally made a distinction between the people they called _Keltoi_ and those they called _Galatai_, but later considered the two terms to be synonymous. The Romans picked up the former term and Latinized it as _Celtae_, but they more often spoke of the people as _Galli_, or "Gauls". During the Middle Ages and Renaissance the term "Celtic" was still used occasionally in a geographic sense, denoting people or things from Western Europe in general and from France in particular (one should note that "Celtic" was never used to refer to Ireland or Scotland -- the countries most often thought to be "Celtic" today).

Then, around the year 1700, Edward Lhuyd, a Welsh scholar working in Oxford, discovered that the language spoken by the people who had been called Celts in Classical antiquity (as far as one could tell from personal and place names) was closely related to his own native Welsh language. He also found that five other modern languages -- Irish, Scots Gaelic, Breton, Cornish and Manx -- shared in this relationship. He decided to use the term "Celtic" to describe this particular group of languages, both ancient and modern. This is the definition of "Celtic" that all Celtic scholars use to this day: a specific family of languages, the communities that have spoken them through history, and the cultural traditions that have been passed down through the medium of those languages.

However, several political and cultural developments during the nineteenth century obscured this original definition. The rise of nationalism led to a search for "national" characteristics that were innate in a people and had always tied them to a particular territory. This in turn led to a fascination with the notion of "race" as an explanation for the way such characteristics were inherited. The rise of colonialism, which sought to justify itself with the argument that colonized peoples were naturally "inferior" and in need of guidance, seized on racialism (the belief that people who share certain physical traits like skin or hair color also share the same moral and intellectual traits) as a "scientific" basis for such policies. Racialism and nationalism became a part of popular culture, often leading to an inappropriate perception of linguistic and cultural categories as racial categories.

Thus the six Celtic nations, which had been called "Celtic" because of the language which served as the basis for their national culture, were now thought to have distinguishing characteristics on the mistaken premise that they were composed of racially separate people called "Celts". This is why so many people today think of themselves as "Celts by blood". Tracing their ancestry back to one of the six Celtic countries gives them a self-sufficient Celtic identity, which they assume includes a genetically inherited personality type. In reality, of course, there's no such thing as a Celtic "race", or a distinct genetic profile that could be called "Celtic". Celtic language and culture were adopted (and abandoned) by many, genetically diverse communities across Europe at various times: their Celtic identity wasn't based on anything they had inherited physically.

Another definition of "Celtic" --which developed out of the racial definition -- is the "spiritual" one: that "Celtic" refers to a "philosophy", a "view of life", which need not be tied to the traditions of any specific language-community. This "philosophy" often relates to stereotypes created by the dominant culture, which are usually included among the racial characteristics attributed to the Celts: that they're dreamy, imaginative, mystical, creative, impractical, undisciplined (because of their great love of freedom), etc. This is really a matter of the dominant culture adopting a Romantic view of a minority culture and projecting its own hopes and desires onto it. The Celts are then seen as a counterculture within the dominant culture rather than as an autonomous cultural tradition in their own right. But this kind of "spiritual" definition is hard to apply to Celtic reality. People in Celtic-speaking communities display the full range of personality types one finds in any culture, from "dreamers" to hard-headed pragmatists. The traits that define their "Celtic-ness" are to be found at a much deeper level than any easily defined "philosophy", and have to do with the cultural consciousness that is sustained by the languages they speak.

The only "hard" definition we're left with, then, is the original linguistic one. Celtic communities are communities where Celtic languages are spoken. Celtic culture is what is passed down within those communities. Celts are people who are members of such communities or have close ties to them. Tracing one's ancestry to a Celtic community may give one a very powerful motivation to identify with and learn about Celtic culture, but it will not provide one with an automatic understanding of that culture. The Celtic languages are the medium of Celtic tradition, and the key that gives access to all the other elements that make up the culture.

This should not be taken to mean that all Celtic-language communities share the same culture. These communities have, through the course of history, adapted to a wide range of circumstances, and each one has developed customs and institutions unique to itself. The use of "Celt" as a blanket term for them is, as we have seen, a modern innovation: none of these communities would, before the nineteenth century, have ever called themselves by that name. During Antiquity and the Middle Ages they would have identified with the tribal units they belonged to -- even a term like "Irish", when applied to the early mediaeval period, is a projection of a modern concept onto the past, since most people in Ireland would have had no concept of allegiance to a nation embracing the whole island, but only to their local tribal kingdoms. However, this does not mean that applying  modern categories of this kind to the interpretation of historical events in the remote past is necessarily illegitimate or without value.   

The term "Celtic", as we have defined it, has real, objective content: the languages do have a common origin, the communities that speak them do have continuous identities going back to Antiquity and, because of geographical proximity and many shared institutions inherited from their common past, have tended to undergo similar experiences during the last two millennia of European history. By using "Celtic" as an overarching term to designate these peoples we choose to emphasize what they have in common rather than what sets them apart. In the historical sketch that follows, we will refer to "Celts" when discussing events or circumstances that affected all or most Celtic-language communities at a given time, and we will use names of specific communities when we mention local events that affected only them.

Celtic languages and cultures are themselves descended from an older Indo-European tradition, which is ancestral to most of the linguistic and cultural traditions of Europe, Iran and India. There still isn't complete agreement among scholars about where and when the original Indo-Europeans lived, but most of the evidence points to the area between the Black and Caspian Seas between 5000 and 4000 BCE. Their economy was based primarily on herding, and their society was dominated by a horse-riding warrior class (whence the importance of the horse in their culture as a symbol of sovereignty and leadership). Among the important features of their belief system that we can reconstruct are: a tri-functional model of society, with a hierarchy of complementary castes (a religious/juridical caste, a warrior caste, and a merchant/farmer caste), each with its own internal rules of conduct; two pantheons of deities in conflict, one associated with the sky-realm, order and culture, the other with the watery Underworld, chaos and fertility; and nurturing goddesses linked to specific territories, often associated with rivers. All these elements remained a part of the Celtic heritage when the Celts first began to differentiate themselves from other Indo-Europeans as a distinct ethnic group, probably around 1200 BCE.  

Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx are referred to as Goidelic or "Q-Celtic" languages, while Welsh, Cornish and Breton are the Brythonic or "P-Celtic" languages. The terms "Q-Celtic" and "P-Celtic" are a reflection of the fact that the original sound 'kw' of Old Celtic turned into a 'c' in Goidelic languages, but became a 'p' in Brythonic languages. The word for "head", to give an example, is _ceann_ in Irish and _pen_ in Welsh.]