Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The Celts I: "Abounding in Men and in the Fruits of the Earth"

The Celts were the first European people north of the Alps to emerge into recorded history. During the period of Celtic expansion, Celtic tribes and confederations of tribes spread through the ancient world challenging all who opposed them and settling as the dominant people in the areas they conquered. In this fashion they spread down the Iberian peninsula, into northern Italy and east through what is now Czechoslovakia, along the Danube valley as far as the Black Sea, moving on into Asia Minor, where they established the Galatian state in the third century BC, which state gives us our first information about Celtic political institutions. At one time they dominated the ancient world (see map)from Ireland in the west to Turkey in the east, and from Belgium in the north, south to Spain and Italy. They even made their presence felt in the Egypt of the Ptolemy pharaohs where they attempted a coup d'etat to gain control of the country. They sacked Rome in 390 BC, invaded Greece in 279 BC and destroyed every army the Greek city states could throw against them. Their sophisticated weapons and war chariots devastated all adversaries. According to the Roman historian Livy (Titus Livius: 59 BC-AD 17), at the time when Tarquinius Superbus was King of Rome (c. 534-508 BC), Ambigatos of the Bituriges ruled over a Celtic empire "so abounding in men and in the fruits of the earth that it seemed impossible to govern so great a population."
              The Celts were the dominant tribal people of northern Europe for over a thousand years from the time of their earliest-known appearance (c. 1200-1000 BC) to the start of the Christian era, when they were being crushed by the expansion of the Roman Empire from the south and the pressures of German tribes from the north and Dacians in the east. Their civilization began to recede to the north-western seaboard of Europe and to the islands of Britain and Ireland, where Celtic tribes had settled in successive waves from the fifth to the third centuries BC and perhaps for some time before . After the Roman occupation of Britain, the Celts of Ireland, known as the Gaels, lived secure from invasion for another thousand years despite the coastal depredations of the Vikings between the 8th and 11th centuries. Parts of Ireland were subjugated after the coming of the Normans in the 12th century but large areas of the country, most notably Ulster in the north, retained their political and cultural independence throughout the High Middle Ages and the subsequent rise of political dynasties in continental Europe and England. It was a disastrous series of events beginning in the late sixteenth century and culminating with the Williamite wars of the late seventeenth century that finally brought an end to Gaelic civilization in Ireland.
              Two thousand years of a Celtic social order in Ireland has left an indelible stamp on the country and its people and explains in large part not only the stubborn resistance of the Irish to three centuries of foreign political control but also their rejection of all concomitant efforts to enforce cultural assimilation. The Irish are an innately conservative people and the political and military process - the talking and the fighting - by which the modern nation was forged drew heavily for its inspiration and support upon their loyalty to a cultural identity that was (and is) firmly rooted in the religion, traditions and customs of the Gaelic past. But cultural nationalism as a political force has scant regard for historical accuracy. The nationalists of the nineteenth century were awash with wolfhounds, round towers, harps and shamrocks and all the other imagery and symbols of a glorified Golden Age in which the functions of mythology (or to put it more crudely, the needs of propaganda) quite often superceded or even actively suppressed the archaeological and historical record. The rather freewheeling attitude of the Celts to sex and the role of women is a case in point. Their easy acceptance of divorce, the property rights of women and the bloodthirsty behaviour of female chieftains -- the warlike Medhbh (Maeve) of Connacht springs immediately to mind as does the 16th century pirate queen Granuaile; in Britain, the most famous examples are Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) who led an uprising against the Romans and Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes -- along with innumerable references in their literature to instances of female (in addition to the more acceptable male) promiscuity, abductions, seductions, illegitimate offspring and the casual cuckolding of older men did not sit at all well with the moral conventions of a later age.
              What were they really like? "The modern student," to quote Professor Proinsias MacCana speaking, admittedly, of the Celts of Gaul, "is frequently in the uncomfortable position of having to work from the ambiguous towards the unknown." With the Celts of Ireland we do have the legends and tales of the oral tradition because they were eventually transposed into literature by monastic scribes of the seventh and eighth centuries; in addition, we have the archaeological record of their constructions, inscriptions and artefacts; finally, we have the comments and observations of outsiders who came into contact with them. This last is of particular interest.
              The unity of the Celts of antiquity was one of culture rather than of race. Those peoples whom the Greeks and Romans knew as Celts no doubt were sprung from various ethnic origins, but in the view of external observers they had sufficient shared features - in language and nomenclature, social and political institutions, and in their general way of life - to mark them off as a recognizably distinct nation. So far as the Celts of continental Europe are concerned, we must take the commentaries of Poseidonius (c.135-50 BC) and other classical writers largely on trust, since the communities of which they wrote have long since been merged in other socio-cultural groupings. But the insular Celts remain - albeit in reduced circumstances - and their separate traditions, which are important both in their extent and their antiquity, not only reveal a close affinity between the cultures of the Irish and the British Celts, but also corroborate some of the more striking factual comments made by classical authors on the Celts of continental Europe. Moreover, down the ages there is a remarkable consistency in the comments of foreign observers writing about the Celts. Thus, while the popular notion of them as reflected in modern literature has undoubtedly been coloured by eighteenth and nineteenth century romanticism with its susceptibility to mist, magic and melancholy, it certainly did not originate there. In fact, many of the attributes which it abscribes to the Celts - eloquence, lyric genius, volatile temperament, prodigality, reckless bravery, ebullience, contentiousness, and so on - have a much longer lineage, appearing in the accounts by classical authors of two thousand years ago. And how often, when reading the comments of Elizabethan gentlemen on the native Irish, does one experience the odd sensation of having seen a great deal of it before, in Poseidonius and other classical writers to be precise. All of which seems to suggest that ethnological misrepresentations, once born, never die - or alternatively, that such abstractions as the "Celtic character" and the "Celtic temperament" may ultimately have some basis in reality.