The Celts are an indigenous people of central Europe with large numbers in the United Kingdom, in France, and in Ireland where they are in the majority.
The first literary reference to the Celtic people as keltoi or hidden people, is by the Greek Hecataeus in 517 BC.
“Celt” is pronounced /kelt/, and “celtic” as /keltIk/ (in SAMPA). The pronunciation /seltIk/ should only be used for certain sports teams (eg. Boston Celtics NBA team).
The Origins of the Celts
The Urnfield people were the largest population grouping in late Bronze Age Europe and were preeminent from c. 1200 BC until the emergence of the Celts in c. 600 BC. The period of the Urnfield people saw a dramatic increase in population probably due to innovations in technology and agricultural practices. The spread of iron-working led to the development of the Hallstatt culture (c. 700 to 500 BC). The Hallstatt culture effectively held a frontier against incursions from the east by Thracian and Scythian ethnic tribesmen.
The subject of the succession of Halstatt culture by La Tène culture, the final stage of the Iron Age, and its gradual transformation into a characteristically Celtic culture is both complex and diverse, however the technologies, decorative practices and metal-working styles of the La Tène were to be very influential on the Celts. The La Tène style was highly derivative from the Greek, Etruscan and Scythian decorative styles with whom the La Tène settlers frequently traded.
Geographical distribution of the Celts
Their original homeland has been shown by archaeological findings to have been around the upper reaches of the Danube, Switzerland and southern Germany, and before that perhaps the central Asian steppes. From central Europe they spread as far south as the Iberian peninsula, as far north as Scotland and Denmark and as far west as Ireland, no doubt assimilating the previous inhabitants of these regions as they went. It was not the Celts but these previous inhabitants who had built Stonehenge and the other Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic monuments in Europe. But even if the Celts had not constructed these monuments themselves, the religious significance of these places may well have endured among the conquered people and the Celts eventually adopted the practice of worshipping there as well. Many Celts settled in present-day France. These were the Gauls who are described by Julius Caesar in his De Bello Gallico (The Gaulish wars).
Other Celtic tribes invaded Italy, establishing there a city they called Mediolanum (modern Milan) and sacking Rome itself in 390 B.C. Not until 192 B.C. did the Roman armies conquer the last remaining independent Celtic kingdoms in Italy.
Other Central European tribes moved eastwards and settled in Asia Minor, there to become the Galatians (that is, Gauls) to whom an epistle of St Paul’s is addressed.
Although they were for a long time the dominant people in central and western Europe, the Celts in France, Britain and Spain were eventually conquered by the Romans, while elsewhere they were pushed further westwards by successive waves of Germanic invaders, who had themselves been evicted from the Indo-European homeland on the Southern Russian steppes by Mongols, Huns and Scythians. Thus, today the Celts are still the most westerly of European peoples, as they were in Herodotus’s time, since their modern descendants still inhabit the Atlantic coast. These include the Irish, Scots, Welsh, Breton, Manx and Cornish peoples and their descendants in the New World and other ex-colonies. (In fact, there are more people of Celtic descent in the United States alone than there are in all the Celtic countries combined!)
Elsewhere, the Celtic populations were assimilated by others, leaving behind them only a legend and a number of place names such as the Spanish province of Galicia (i.e., Gaul), Bohemia, after the Boii tribe which once lived there, or the Kingdom of Belgium, after the Belgae, a Celtic tribe of Northern Gaul and south-eastern Britain. Their literary heritage has been absorbed into the folklore of half a dozen other countries. For instance, the famous Arthurian tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is clearly an adaptation of a much older Irish legend about the exploits of the hero Cu Chulainn.
The Celts had a well-organised social system, which was harmonious with nature. They produced little in the way of literary output, preferring the bardic, oral, tradition. They were highly skilled in visual arts and produced a great deal of intricate and beautiful metalwork.