What is Celtic?
For many people, the term “Celtic” is a homogenized one, popularly used to apply to cultural groups located in the British Isles and Ireland. However, from an anthropological standpoint, the term “Celtic” is actually fairly complex. Rather than meaning just people of Irish or English background, Celtic is used by scholars to define a specific set of language groups, originating both in the British Isles and in the mainland of Europe.
Celtic studies scholar Lisa Spangenberg says, “The Celts are an Indo-European people who spread from central Europe across the European continent to Western Europe, the British Isles, and southeast to Galatia (in Asia Minor) during the time before the Roman Empire. The Celtic family of languages is divided into two branches, the Insular Celtic languages, and the Continental Celtic languages.”
Today, the remains of early Celtic culture can be found in England and Scotland, Wales, Ireland, some areas of France and Germany, and even parts of the Iberian Peninsula. Prior to the advancement of the Roman Empire, much of Europe spoke languages that fell under the umbrella term of Celtic.
Sixteenth-century linguist and scholar Edward Lhuyd determined that the Celtic languages in Britain fell into two general categories. In Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland, the language was classified as “Q-Celtic,” or “Goidelic.” Meanwhile, Lhuyd classified the language of Brittany, Cornwall and Wales as “P-Celtic,” or “Brythonic.” While there were similarities between the two language groups, there were distinct differences in pronunciations and terminology. For specific explanations on this fairly complex system, read Barry Cunliffe’s book, The Celts – A Very Short Introduction.
Because of Lhuyd’s definitions, everyone began considering the people who spoke these languages “Celts,” despite the fact that his classifications had somewhat overlooked the Continental dialects. This was partly because, by the time Lhuyd began examining and tracing the existing Celtic languages, the Continental variations had all died out. Continental Celtic languages were also divided into two groups, the Celt-Iberian and Gaulish (or Gallic), according to Carlos Jordán Cólera of the University of Zaragoza, Spain.
As if the language issue wasn’t confusing enough, continental European Celtic culture is divided into two time periods, Hallstatt and La Tene. The Hallstatt culture began at the onset of the Bronze Age, around 1200 b.c.e., and ran up until around 475 b.c.e. This area included much of central Europe, and was focused around Austria but included what are now Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, northern Italy, Eastern France, and even parts of Switzerland.
About a generation before the end of Hallstatt culture, the La Tene cultural era emerged, running from 500 b.c.e. to 15 b.c.e. This culture spread west from the center of Hallstatt, and moved into Spain and northern Italy, and even occupied Rome for a time. The Romans called the La Tene Celts Gauls. It is unclear whether La Tene culture ever crossed into Britain, however, there have been some commonalities between mainland La Tene and the insular culture of the British Isles.
In modern Pagan religions, the term “Celtic” is generally used to apply to the mythology and legends found in the British Isles. When we discuss Celtic gods and goddesses here at About Pagan/Wiccan, we’re referring to the deities found in the pantheons of what are now Wales, Ireland, England and Scotland. Likewise, modern Celtic Reconstructionist paths, including but not limited to Druid groups, honor the deities of the British Isles.
Author: Patti Wigington, Pagan/Wicca Expert
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