Who Were the Celts? Unraveling Their True Origins and Lasting Impact

It’s time to rethink everything you thought you knew about history.

For many of us, the Celtics are synonymous with Ireland. In reality, the name refers to a massive, loosely affiliated tribe spread all over Western Europe.

Here’s the truth about the Celtic People.

Who Were the Celts?

Anthropologists describe the Celtic peoples as a group of central European tribes with similar cultural traditions. They spread across Western Europe, settling in modern-day Ireland, Britain, France, and Spain.

Most of the tribes functioned autonomously. Though they may have traded and fought with each other, they didn’t have a centralized form of government.

The most significant commonality is the language. We use the term “Celtic” to describe any European tribes of the period who spoke a Celtic language.

When Did They Live?

Celtic tribes flourished in central Europe from the late Bronze Age until the Roman period, when Roman armies conquered the last surviving tribes.

Archeologists debate their exact origin. Some say the Celtic language arose around 1200 BC in modern-day Germany, while others claim any early origin near Europe’s western coast. The earliest undisputed record of Celtic heritage dates to the 6th century BC in modern-day Switzerland.

Where Did the Name “Celt” Originate?

The term “Celts” comes from the Greek Keltoi, a term used by Hecataeus of Miletus to describe the people living in central Europe (the Gauls). It translated into Roman as Celtae.

It’s unclear whether they had a common name for all the tribes or whether each tribe had a unique name.  Julius Caesar reported that they called themselves “Celts,” but we don’t know if the word has Celtic origins or if they adopted it from the foreigners (Greeks) who first coined it.

After the Roman period, the term “Celts” was lost. It was rediscovered in the Victorian period and applied to the culture of the British Isles, including Scotland, Ireland, Britain, Wales, and Cornwall.

Celtic Languages

Language is the glue that holds the modern idea of the Celtic people together. Any tribe from the late Bronze to Classical period that spoke a Celtic language is considered Celtic.

The Celtic language is a branch of the Indo-European language group that includes Germanic, Slavic, Italic (Latin), and Indo-Iranian Languages. It shared a common language ancestor with these big, well-known language groups but branched off early enough to form a distinct family.

The Indo-European Langauages. The flowcart shows the major groups of Indo-European languages and some of modern languages that evolved from them. It's not all-inclusive.
Created in Canva.

Celtic languages, including Welsh, Irish, and Gaelic, are still spoken in parts of Great Britain.

Celtic Society & Culture

Celtic society thrived on hierarchy. The wealthy rulers at the top owned most of the land. The middle class consisted of artisans, traders, warriors, and priests, while farmers and low-skilled craft workers comprised the peasantry. Society was structured like a feudal system, where lower classes pledged loyalty and service to royalty in exchange for food, shelter, and protection.

Like many societies of the period, the Celts kept and sold slaves, who were generally acquired through warfare. Enslaved people occupied the bottom rung of society, but their masters could set them free and grant them land.  

Meaningful occupations in Celtic society included Bards, who graced the royalty with song; ironsmiths, who manufactured essential tools and weaponry; and artisans, who crafted pottery and tapestries used in daily life.

Although not much is known about women’s role in Celtic society, we have two historical examples of female rulers, and we understand that some women’s burial sites were given as much esteem as men’s, suggesting that women weren’t entirely subjugated. However, Caesar noted that husbands could kill their wives and children with impunity, so they didn’t enjoy equal standing.  

Celtic Religion

The early Celtics didn’t keep records of their religious beliefs. Most of what we know comes from Roman and Greek observations, which often attempted to force the Celtic beliefs into the classical pantheons.

We know they were pagan, worshipping many Gods whose Celtic names were often lost to time. Their priests, called Druids, performed rituals and served as teachers and judges. They studied astronomy, nature, philosophy, and religion and often engaged in ritualistic animal sacrifice.

According to the Romans, the Druids also performed human sacrifice, but we don’t know whether that is true. The Roman writers likely exaggerated what they saw to garner support for their conquests at home.

Druidism survives as a religion today, though it’s likely far different from the ancient belief system. Modern Druids use nature as a framework for spiritual beliefs, believing that nature is the true divinity and humanity is just a tiny piece of it.

Celtic Traditions We Use Today

When Christianity took over Ireland, the Catholic Church adopted many Celtic traditions. We can thank the Celts for many of our beloved holiday traditions, like decorating a Christmas tree and wearing Halloween costumes.

Even the Christmas Day celebration honors Celtic heritage. The Celts (like many pagans) held festivities honoring the solstice. The December Yule festival was one of their most prominent celebrations, and it morphed with the Mass of Christ to form Christmas. 

We rarely consider the origins of our most treasured customs, but if we search history, we’ll find that many came from pre-Christian Pagan rituals of Celtic and Germanic peoples. 

Why Do We Think of Ireland When We Think of the Celtics?

If the Celtics lived throughout Europe, why do we associate them with Ireland today?

We can blame the Romans.

Caesar Conquers Europe

Julius Caesar led a campaign to conquer most of Europe in Rome’s name. His most impressive campaign, the Gallic Wars, brought nearly all the Celts on the mainland under Roman rule. Caesar documented these conquests in great detail, allowing historians vivid insight into the wars.

You can read the accounts in his own words, as the original Latin texts survived the centuries and still appear in reprints today. I read them when I studied Latin in college.

The Battle Over Britain

Caesar chased the Celtic tribes across the English Channel to the British Isles, but his luck ran out. However, the Celts couldn’t rest for long.

After Caesar’s death, Rome invaded Britain again, forcing the Celtic people further North. In the 2nd Century, Emperor Hadrian built a wall, blocking off the new Roman settlements from attacks by the so-called “Barbarians,” who were, in fact, the last remnants of the Celtic people.

Hadrian’s Wall protected the Romans and helped save Celtic culture, which flourished in what is now Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Today, most of our knowledge of the Celts comes from these areas, so we often associate them with the region.

Celts vs. Gauls vs. Galatians – What is the Difference?

We use “Celts” as an overachieving term to describe tribes with a shared cultural heritage. The Gauls and Galatians are regional terms we use to define groups of Celtic tribes. The Gauls lived in modern-day France, whereas the Galatians migrated south toward Turkey.

There were dozens of other regional tribes, including the Britons, eastern Celts, and Hispania Celts. Each regional tribe included numerous individual tribes, which often fought, traded, and married among each other.

The Celts Were Bigger Than You Thought

Although Celtic tradition and culture only survived in the British Isles, they lived all over Europe throughout the Iron Age.

We don’t know as much about them because they didn’t value the written word like the Greeks and Romans. Therefore, we can only piece together their traditions and culture from the artifacts they left behind and the records their enemies kept.

Despite the lack of records, we know the Celts were far more than barbarians, as the Romans called them. They developed a rich cultural tradition filled with arts, song, poetry, and craftsmanship. Celtic tribes flourished for millennia before succumbing to a technologically advanced foe, but their traditions were so rich that we still cherish them today.

The Celtic people left something far more powerful than writing: a cultural impact.

We’re intrigued by the Celts because they’re still part of us as if cultural DNA has passed through generations. We still practice some of their traditions, use some of their words, and embrace some of their rituals.  

In a way, the Celts never disappeared. They’re all of us. When we learn about them, we learn about ourselves – where we came from and where we might be going.

It’s a far greater story than you imagined.