Early Celts were a barbaric migrant culture who considered warfare as
sport more than a means of territorial conquest. These fierce warriors were well known to the Greeks and Romans who considered them to be violently insane and usually referred to them disfavorably in historic records.
The Celtic culture is thought to have originated in Ireland and migrated to Asia Minor, better known as the Galatians of the New Testament. Interestingly, the word
Celt is derived from the Greek word for barbarian, Keltoi. Since the Greek language does not have a soft 'c' sound, all variations of Celt (Celtic, Celts, etc?) are correctly pronounced with a hard 'k' sound.
The first record of the Celts is found in Etruscan history around 400 B.C. as an unknown barbaric tribe descended from the Alps and attacked the Etruscans to displace them from the fertile Po Valley region. The Etruscans turned to the young Roman Empire for help. Instead of sending troops, the Romans sent three envoys to investigate these cultures and study them.
The Celts respected the Roman's peaceful approach and agreed to a peaceful resolution if the Etruscans would relinquish a part of their superfluous agricultural land. But the Celts also warned that if their demands were not met, the Celts would attack the Etruscans, so the Romans could see how fierce the Celtic warriors were.
When the Roman envoys ask why the Celts were attacking and if it was right to demand the Etruscans land, the Celtic leaders proclaimed it was their right to lay arms and said, "to the brave belong all things!"
Rome entered the war on the side of the Etruscans, and one of the Roman envoys killed a Celtic tribal leader. Outraged, the Celts sent their own envoys to Rome demanding satisfaction. Since all of the Roman envoys were from the Fabian family, the Celts insisted all members of this prominent Roman family were to be surrendered. Instead of giving the Celts justice, the Roman Senate appointed members of the Fabian family as leaders of tribunals (very high positions of power).
The Celts were outraged and saw this as an insult. Rome never expected what was to happen next. The Celts launched a fierce attack, breaking through several Roman battalions and after a seven month siege, handed Rome one of the most humiliating defeats of their history. Rome paid one thousand pounds of gold to the Celts as a tribute to end the siege.
The Celtic Warrior
The Celtic warrior was terrifying to look upon as they charged into battle. They were very muscular, tall with very white skin, and bleached their hair blonde with lime. Some wore bronze helmets with horns, others wore early chain mail shirts, but most Celtic warriors were content fighting in no clothes at all.
The battle strategy of the Celts was to create terror in the enemy soldiers and force the battle line to collapse. Before attacking, Celts rhythmically beat their swords against their shields and shouted in chorus with deep harsh voices as weird discordant horns were sounded. Having worked themselves into a fury, the Celts would run wildly charging forward and screaming the entire way. If the opposing soldiers did not break ranks, the Celts would stop the charge short, return to their original vantage point, and repeat the process.
When not attacking, Celts were clothed in simple pants (bracae), with brightly colored and embroidered shirts. The final adornment was a striped or checkered cloak of various colors and fastened at the shoulder with a broach.
The Celtic warriors were renowned swordsmen using both heavy, long-bladed slashing swords and one-handed short swords. Both versions of early Celtic swords were easily recognized by their human-shaped hilts. This sword design is unique to Celtic swords and incorporated matching upper and lower guards which curved away from the grip (symbolizing the arms and legs) and to complete the figure, a head-shaped pommel was used.
Celts were well known for their fierce fighting and placed a high value on fine weaponry. Many Celtic swords had richly decorated hilts, inlaid with amber, ivory or gold-leaf. Scabbards, shields and helmets were similarly decorated and often adorned with an adder (thought to have mystic powers).
Iron-working was introduced to the Celts during the Hallstatt period, but it was Roman influence on Celtic sword development that made the Celtic sword a masterful weapon. During the Roman occupation of England, local Celts who were armorers, weaponsmiths and swordsmiths found themselves in Imperial workshops making auxiliary Roman swords and weapons using steel and advanced folding and forging processes.
These Celtic craftsmen quickly learned the new modern techniques of making weapons which became an asset for the Celts as they fought the Saxons after the Roman occupation. With stronger materials (steel), Celtic swords became longer and stronger swords. Celtic broadswords, like the Scottish Claymore, were some of the largest recorded in history at 5' to 6' in total length.
In general, Celtic cultures were very mystic. Celts were the first people to give
names to weapons and attribute special powers to them. The most famous example is the legendary Excalibur sword of King Arthur. Another Celtic tradition is also significantly portrayed in the Legend of King Arthur. The deposition of swords, weaponry and other valuables into
sacred lakes and rivers was a popular Celtic practice to honor the dead. To this day, many rivers in England have been the best source of Celtic swords and artifacts.
The Truth About King Arthur and Excalibur
Yes, there was a real "Arthur" who was a great and skilled war leader performing many brave and heroic deeds. He was from the Celtic area of Brittan known as Wales, but was never a "king", nor is there any historical record of Merlin or Guinevere.
Most likely a nobleman of British-Roman ancestry, Arthur is thought to have had extensive knowledge of Roman military strategies and warfare which he successfully used against the Saxons. Fantastic tales of his life were shared through the generations as word-of-mouth stories and in reenactments.
Over the centuries, the truth of King Arthur had been forever distorted into a wonderful tale of mystery, magic and suspense. King Arthur, Excalibur and the legend were first made popular in 1135 A.D. when Geoffery of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain. The French Romancers Malory and Chrentiende Toryes embellished the tale to the flamboyant legend most well known today.
Although Arthur may have united many Celtic tribes together against the Saxons, there is no historical record of a "Round Table" or "King Arthur". The famed "Sword in the Stone" is not the Excalibur sword according to the legend, but actually the sword "Caliburn" belonging to Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur.
In the legend, it is the sword Caliburn which King Arthur draws from the stone. During battle, Caliburn is broken. Fearing King Arthur will fall, Merlin takes King Arthur to a magical lake where the Lady of the Lake thrusts her hand out of the water giving Excalibur to King Arthur.
Excalibur is a magical, unbreakable sword fashioned by an Avalonian elf smith. The scabbard of Excalibur is what would protect King Arthur as long as he wore it.
Late in the life of King Arthur, Excalibur was stolen by Arthur's wicked half-sister. Although the sword was recovered, the scabbard was lost forever. Now unprotected, King Arthur was mortally wounded at the Battle of Camlann.
Arthur then instructed Bedwyr to return Excalibur to the lake on behalf of The King, and throw it into the water. But when King Arthur asked what happened, Bedwyr replies, "nothing unusual". The King knows Bedwyr kept Excalibur and orders him to fulfill the command. Obeying King Arthur, Bedwyr returns to the lake, throws Excalibur into the water and witnesses a magical hand catch Excalibur, and draw it beneath the waters never to be seen again.
By the end of the 1st Century, the Celts had been pushed Northwest towards England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the Northern coast of France by the growing Roman Empire, German barbarians and the Huns. The Celts moved to the British Isles in several waves which created variations of the original Celtic tongue.
The original Celtic language originated from Ur-language (Indo-European) and is very similar to Italic, a precursor to Latin. In all, six languages evolved from the Celts as they migrated. The earliest variation is known as Goidelic (2000-1200 B.C.) followed by Brythonic. The Goidelic language led to three versions spoken in Ireland, Man and Scotland while Brythonic evolved into Welsh, Cornish and Breton (spoken in Brittany).
To this day, the greatest Celtic population is found in Ireland from which the most extensive Celtic history can be found.
For more information on this fascinating period in history, you may enjoy reading The Life of St. Patrick.
- Knights & Armor by Sadel Doc
- Gaelic and Gaelic Culture by Seàn O Mìadhachàin & Godfrey Nolan
- Encyclopedia of the Celts by Knud Mariboe
- Europen Middle Ages: The Celts by Richard Hooker
- World Of The Ancient Britons: A Historical And Archaeological Look At Our Ancestors by David Freeman
- A Discussion of the Origins of King Arthur's Sword by David Nash Ford
- Celtic Weaponry - Part 1 by Steven A. Culbreath
- Chronicles of the Celts by Iain Zaczek
- Celtic War Queen Who Challenged Rome by Margaret Donsbach
- From Rapier To Langsax: Sword Structure in the British Isles in the Bronze and Iron Ages by Niko Silvester
- The Legends of King Arthur by Dr. Barbara Winter, The Simon Fraser University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology