by John Arnott MacCulloch
SCRUTINY reveals the fact that Celtic-speaking peoples are of
types--short and dark as well as tall and fairer Highlanders
or Welshmen, short, broad-headed Bretons, various types of Irishmen. Men
with Norse names and Norse aspect "have the Gaelic." But all
alike have the same character and temperament, a striking witness to the
influence which the character as well as the language of the Celts,
whoever they were, made on all with whom they mingled. Ethnologically
there may not be a Celtic race, but something was handed down from the
days of comparative Celtic purity which welded different social elements
into a common type, found often where no Celtic tongue is now spoken. It
emerges where we least expect it, and the stolid Anglo-Saxon may
suddenly awaken to something in himself due to a forgotten Celtic strain
in his ancestry.
Two main theories of Celtic origins now hold the field:
(1) The Celts are identified with the progenitors of the short,
brachycephalic "Alpine race" of Central Europe, existing there
in Neolithic times, after their migrations from Africa and Asia. The
type is found among the Slavs, in parts of Germany and Scandinavia, and
in modern France in the region of Caesar's "Celtae," among the
Auvergnats, the Bretons, and in Lozčre and Jura. Representatives. of
the type have been a found in Belgian and French Neolithic graves. 1
Professor Sergi calls this the "Eurasiatic race," and,
contrary to general opinion, identifies it with the Aryans, a savage
people, inferior to the dolichocephalic Mediterranean race, whose
language they Aryanised. 2
Professor Keane thinks that they were themselves an Aryanised folk
before reaching Europe, who in turn gave their acquired Celtic and
Slavic speech to the preceding masses. Later came the Belgae, Aryans,
who acquired the Celtic speech of the people they conquered. 3
Broca assumed that the dark, brachycephalic people whom he identified
with Caesar's "Celtae," differed from the Belgae, were
conquered by them, and acquired the language of their conquerors, hence
wrongly called Celtic by philologists. The Belgae were tall and fair,
and overran Gaul, except Aquitaine, mixing generally with the Celtae,
who in Caesar's time had thus an infusion of Belgic blood. 4
But before this conquest, the Celtae had already mingled with the
aboriginal dolichocephalic folk of Gaul, Iberians, or Mediterraneans of
Professor Sergi. The latter had apparently remained comparatively pure
from admixture in Aquitaine, and are probably the Aquitani of Caesar. 5
But were the short, brachycephalic, folk Celts? Caesar says the
people who call themselves "Celtae" were called Gauls by the
Romans, and Gauls, according to classical writers, were tall and fair. 6
Hence the Celtae were not a short, dark race, and Caesar himself says that Gauls (including
Celtae) looked with
contempt on the short Romans. 1
Strabo also says that Celtae and Belgae had the same Gaulish appearance,
i.e. tall and fair. Caesar's statement that Aquitani, Galli, and
Belgae differ in language, institutions, and laws is vague and
unsupported by evidence, and may mean as to language no more than a
difference in dialects. This is also suggested by Strabo's words, Celtae
and Belgae "differ a little" in language. 2
No classical writer describes the Celts as short and dark, but the
reverse. Short, dark people would have been called Iberians, without
respect to skulls. Classical observers were not craniologists. The
short, brachycephalic type is now prominent in France, because it has
always been so, eliminating the tall, fair Celtic type. Conquering
Celts, fewer in number than the broad and narrow-headed aborigines,
intermarried or made less lasting alliances with them. In course of time
the type of the more numerous race was bound to prevail. Even in Caesar's
day the latter probably outnumbered the tall and fair Celts, who had,
however, Celticised them. But classical writers, who knew the true Celt
as tall and fair, saw that type only, just as every one, on first
visiting France or Germany, sees his generalised type of Frenchman or
German everywhere. Later, he modifies his opinion, but this the
classical observers did not do. Caesar's campaigns must have drained
Gaul of many tall and fair Celts. This, with the tendency of dark types
to outnumber fair types in South and Central Europe, may help to explain
the growing prominence of the dark type, though the tall, fair type is
far from uncommon. 3
(2) The second theory, already anticipated, sees in Gauls and
a tall, fair Celtic folk, speaking a Celtic language, and belonging to the race which stretched from Ireland to Asia Minor,
from North Germany to the Po, and were masters of Teutonic tribes till
they were driven by them from the region between Elbe and Rhine. 1
Some Belgic tribes claimed a Germanic ancestry, 2
but "German" was a word seldom used with precision, and in
this case may not mean Teutonic. The fair hair of this people has made
many suppose that they were akin to the Teutons. But fairness is
relative, and the dark Romans may have called brown hair fair, while
they occasionally distinguished between the "fair" Gauls and
fairer Germans. Their institutions and their religions (pace
Professor Rhŷs) differed, and though they were so long in contact
the names of their gods and priests are unlike. 3
Their languages, again, though of "Aryan" stock, differ more
from each other than does Celtic from Italic, pointing to a long period
of Italo-Celtic unity, before Italiotes and Celts separated, and Celts
came in contact with Teutons. 4
The typical German differs in mental and moral qualities from the
typical Celt. Contrast an east country Scot, descendant of Teutonic
stock, with a West Highlander, and the difference leaps to the eyes.
Celts and Germans of history differ, then, in relative fairness,
character, religion, and language.
The tall, blonde Teutonic type of the Row graves is dolichocephalic.
Was the Celtic type (assuming that Broca's "Celts" were not
true Celts) dolicho or brachy? Broca thinks the Belgae or "Kymri"
were dolichocephalic, but all must agree with him that the skulls are
too few to generalise from. Celtic iron-age skulls in Britain are
dolichocephalic, perhaps a recrudescence of the aboriginal type. Broca's "Kymric"
skulls are mesocephalic; this he attributes to crossing with the short
round-heads. The evidence is too scanty for generalisation, while the
Walloons, perhaps descendants of the Belgae, have a high index, and some
Gauls of classical art are broad-headed. 1
Skulls of the British round barrows (early Celtic Bronze Age) are
mainly broad, the best specimens showing affinity to Neolithic
brachycephalic skulls from Grenelle (though their owners were 5 inches
shorter), Sclaigneaux, and Borreby. 2
Dr. Beddoe thinks that the narrow-skulled Belgae on the whole reinforced
the meso- or brachycephalic round barrow folk in Britain. Dr. Thurnam
identifies the latter with the Belgae (Broca's Kymri), and thinks that
Gaulish skulls were round, with beetling brows. 3
Professors Ripley and Sergi, disregarding their difference in stature
and higher cephalic index, identify them with the short Alpine race (Broca's
Celts). This is negatived by Mr. Keane. 4
Might not both, however, have originally sprung from a common stock and
reached Europe at different times? 5
But do a few hundred skulls justify these far-reaching conclusions
regarding races enduring for thousands of years? At some very remote
period there may have been a Celtic type, as at some further period
there may have been an Aryan type. But the Celts, as we know them, must
have mingled with the aborigines of Europe and become a mixed race,
though preserving and endowing others with their racial and mental
characteristics. Some Gauls or Belgae were dolichocephalic, to judge by their skulls, others were brachycephalic, while their
fairness was a relative term. Classical observers probably generalised
from the higher classes, of a purer type; they tell us nothing of the
people. But the higher classes may have had varying skulls, as well as
stature and colour of hair, 1
and Irish texts tell of a tall, fair, blue-eyed stock, and a short,
dark, dark-eyed stock, in Ireland. Even in those distant ages we must
consider the people on whom the Celts impressed their characteristics,
as well as the Celts themselves. What happened on the Eurasian steppe,
the hypothetical cradle of the "Aryans," whence the Celts came
"stepping westwards," seems clear to some, but in truth is a
book sealed with seven seals. The men whose Aryan speech was to dominate
far and wide may already have possessed different types of skull, and
that age was far from "the very beginning."
Thus the Celts before setting out on their Wanderjahre may
already have been a mixed race, even if their leaders were of purer
stock. But they had the bond of common speech, institutions, and
religion, and they formed a common Celtic type in Central and Western
Europe. Intermarriage with the already mixed Neolithic folk of Central
Europe produced further removal from the unmixed Celtic racial type; but
though both reacted on each other as far as language, custom, and belief
were concerned, on the whole the Celtic elements predominated in these
respects. The Celtic migration into Gaul produced further racial
mingling with descendants of the old palaeolithic stock, dolichocephalic
Iberians and Ligurians, and brachycephalic swarthy folk (Broca's Celts).
Thus even the first Celtic arrivals in Britain, the Goidels, were a
people of mixed race, though probably relatively purer than the late
coming Brythons, the latest of whom had probably mingled with the
Teutons. Hence among Celtic-speaking folk or their descendants--short, dark, broad-headed Bretons, tall, fair or rufous
Highlanders, tall chestnut-haired Welshmen or Irishmen, Highlanders of
Norse descent, short, dark, narrow-headed Highlanders, Irishmen, and
Welshmen--there is a common Celtic facies, the result of old
Celtic characteristics powerful enough so to impress themselves on such
varied peoples in spite of what they gave to the Celtic incomers. These
peoples became Celtic, and Celtic in speech and character they have
remained, even where ancestral physical types are reasserting
themselves. The folk of a Celtic type, whether pre-Celtic, Celtic, or
Norse, have all spoken a Celtic language and exhibit the same old Celtic
characteristics--vanity, loquacity, excitability, fickleness,
imagination, love of the romantic, fidelity, attachment to family ties,
sentimental love of their country, religiosity passing over easily to
superstition, and a comparatively high degree of sexual morality. Some
of these traits were already noted by classical observers.
Celtic speech had early lost the initial p of old
Indo-European speech, except in words beginning with pt and,
perhaps, ps. Celtic pare (Lat. prae) became are,
with in Aremorici, "the dwellers by the sea," Arecluta,
"by the Clyde," the region watered by the Clyde. Irish athair,
Manx ayr, and Irish iasg, represent respectively Latin pater
and piscis. P occurring between vowels was also lost, e.g.
Irish caora, "sheep," is from kaperax; for,
"upon" (Lat. super), from uper. This change took
place before the Goidelic Celts broke away and invaded Britain in the
tenth century B.C., but while Celts and Teutons were still in contact,
since Teutons borrowed words with initial p, e.g. Gothic fairguni,
"mountain," from Celtic percunion, later Ercunio,
the Hercynian forest. The loss must have occurred before 1000 B.C. But
after the separation of the Goidelic group a further change took place.
Goidels preserved the sound represented by qu, or more simply by c
or ch, but this was changed into p by the remaining continental Celts, who
carried with them into Gaul, Spain, Italy, and Britain (the Brythons)
words in which q became p. The British Epidii is
from Gaulish epos, "horse," which is in Old Irish ech
(Lat. equus). The Parisii take their name from Qarisii,
the Pictones or Pictavi of Poictiers from Pictos (which in the
plural Picti gives us "Picts"), derived from quicto-.
This change took place after the Goidelic invasion of Britain in the
tenth century B.C. On the other hand, some continental Celts may later
have regained the power of pronouncing q. In Gaul the q of
Sequana (Seine) was not changed to p, and a tribe dwelling
on its banks was called the Sequani. This assumes that Sequana was a
pre-Celtic word, possibly Ligurian. 1
Professor Rhŷs thinks, however, that Goidelic tribes, identified by
him with Caesar's Celtae, existed in Gaul and Spain before the coming of
the Galli, and had preserved q in their speech. To them we owe
Sequana, as well as certain names with q in Spain. 2
This at least is certain, that Goidelic Celts of the q group
occupied Gaul and Spain before reaching Britain and Ireland. Irish
tradition and archaeological data confirm this. 3
But whether their descendants were represented by Caesar's "Celtae"
must be uncertain. Celtae and Galli, according to Caesar, were one and
the same, 4
and must have had the same general form of speech.
The dialects of Goidelic speech-Irish, Manx, Gaelic, and that of the
continental Goidels--preserved the q sound; those of Gallo-Brythonic
speech-Gaulish, Breton, Welsh, Cornish--changed q into p.
The speech of the Picts, perhaps connected with the Pictones of Gaul,
also had this p sound. Who, then, were the Picts? According to Professor Rhŷs they were
but they must have been under the influence of Brythonic Celts. Dr.
Skene regarded them as Goidels speaking a Goidelic dialect with
Brythonic forms. 2
Mr. Nicholson thinks they were Goidels who had preserved the
Indo-European p. 3
But might they not be descendants of a Brythonic group, arriving early
in Britain and driven northwards by newcomers
Professor Windisch and Dr. Stokes regard them as Celts, allied to the
Brythons rather than to the Goidels, the phonetics of their speech
resembling those of Welsh rather than Irish. 4
The theory of an early Goidelic occupation of Britain has been
contested by Professor Meyer, 5
who holds that the first Goidels reached Britain from Ireland in the
second century, while Dr. MacBain 6,
was of the opinion that England, apart from Wales and Cornwall, knew no
Goidels, the place-names being Brythonic. But unless all Goidels reached
Ireland from Gaul or Spain, as some did, Britain was more easily reached
than Ireland by migrating Goidels from the Continent. Prominent Goidelic
place-names would become Brythonic, but insignificant places would
retain their Goidelic form, and to these we must look for decisive
A Goidelic occupation by the ninth century B.C. is suggested by the name
"Cassiterides" (a word of the q group) applied to
Britain. If the Goidels occupied Britain first, they may have called
their land Qretanis or Qritanis, which Pictish invaders
would change to Pretanis, found in Welsh "Ynys Pridain,"
Pridain's Isle, or Isle of the Picts, "pointing to the original
underlying the Greek
Ηῆσοι or Pictish Isles," 1
though the change may be due to continental p Celts trading with q
Celts in Britain. With the Pictish occupation would agree the fact that
Irish Goidels called the Picts who came to Ireland Cruithne = Qritani
= Pretani. In Ireland they almost certainly adopted Goidelic
Whether or not all the Pictish invaders of Britain were called "Pictavi,"
this word or Picti, perhaps from quicto (Irish cicht,
became a general name for this people. Q had been changed into p
on the Continent; hence "Pictavi" or "Pictones,"
"the tattooed men," those who "engraved" figures on
their bodies, as the Picts certainly did. Dispossessed and driven north
by incoming Brythons and Belgae, they later became the virulent enemies
of Rome. In 306 Eumenius describes all the northern tribes as "Caledonii
and other Picts," while some of the tribes mentioned by Ptolemy
have Brythonic names or names with Gaulish cognates. Place-names in the
Pictish area, personal names in the Pictish chronicle, and Pictish names
like "Peanfahel", 3
have Brythonic affinities. If the Picts spoke a Brythonic dialect, S.
Columba's need of an interpreter when preaching to them would be
Later the Picts were conquered by Irish Goidels, the Scotti. The Picts,
however, must already have mingled with aboriginal peoples and with
Goidels, if these were already in Britain, and they may have adopted
their supposed non-Aryan customs from the aborigines. On the other hand,
the matriarchate seems at one time to have been Celtic, and it may have
been no more than a conservative survival in the Pictish royal house, as
it was elsewhere. 5
Britons, as well as Caledonii, had wives in common. 6
As to tattooing, it was practised by the Scotti ("the scarred and painted men"?), and the Britons dyed themselves with
woad, while what seem to be tattoo marks appear on faces on Gaulish
Tattooing, painting, and scarifying the body are varieties of one
general custom, and little stress can be laid on Pictish tattooing as
indicating a racial difference. Its purpose may have been ornamental, or
possibly to impart an aspect of fierceness, or the figures may have been
totem marks, as they are elsewhere. Finally, the description of the
Caledonii, a Pictish people, possessing flaming hair and mighty limbs,
shows that they differed from the short, dark pre-Celtic folk. 2
The Pictish problem must remain obscure, a welcome puzzle to
antiquaries, philologists, and ethnologists. Our knowledge of Pictish
religion is too scanty for the interpretation of Celtic religion to be
affected by it. But we know that the Picts offered sacrifice before
war--a Celtic custom, and had Druids, as also had the Celts.
The earliest Celtic "kingdom" was in the region between the
upper waters of the Rhine, the Elbe, and the Danube, where probably in
Neolithic times the formation of their Celtic speech as a distinctive
language began. Here they first became known to the Greeks, probably as
a semi-mythical people, the Hyperboreans--the folk dwelling beyond the
Ripan mountains whence Boreas blew--with whom Hecataeus in the fourth
century identifies them. But they were now known as Celts, and their
territory as Celtica, while "Galatae" was used as a synonym of
"Celtae," in the third century B.C. 3
The name generally applied by the Romans to the Celts was "Galli,"
a term finally confined by them to the people of Gaul. 1
Successive bands of Celts went forth from this comparatively restricted
territory, until the Celtic "empire" for some centuries before
300 B.C. included the British Isles, parts of the Iberian peninsula,
Gaul, North Italy, Belgium, Holland, great part of Germany, and Austria.
When the German tribes revolted, Celtic bands appeared in Asia Minor,
and remained there as the Galatian Celts. Archaeological discoveries
with a Celtic facies have been made in most of these lands, but
even more striking is the witness of place-names. Celtic dunon, a
fort or castle (the Gaelic dun), is found in compound names from
Ireland to Southern Russia. Magos, "a field," is met with in
Britain, France, Switzerland, Prussia, Italy, and Austria. River and
mountain names familiar in Britain
occur on the Continent. The Pennine range of Cumberland has the same
name as the Appenines. Rivers named for their inherent divinity, devos,
are found in Britain and on the Continent--Dee, Deva, etc.
Besides this linguistic, had the Celts also a political unity over
their great "empire," under one bead? Such a unity certainly
did not prevail from Ireland to the Balkan peninsula, but it prevailed
over a large part of the Celtic area. Livy, following Timagenes, who
perhaps cited a lost Celtic epos, speaks of king Ambicatus ruling over
the Celts from Spain to Germany, and sending his sister's sons,
Bellovesus and Segovesus, with many followers, to found new colonies in
Italy and the Hercynian forest. 2
Mythical as this may be, it suggests the hegemony of one tribe or one
chief over other tribes and chiefs, for Livy says that the sovereign
power rested with the Bituriges who appointed the king of Celticum, viz.
Ambicatus. Some such unity is necessary to explain Celtic power
in the ancient world, and it was made possible by unity of race or at
least of the congeries of Celticised peoples, by religious solidarity,
and probably by regular gatherings of all the kings or chiefs. If the
Druids were a Celtic priesthood at this time, or already formed a
corporation as they did later in Gaul, they must have endeavoured to
form and preserve such a unity. And if it was never so compact as Livy's
words suggest, it must have been regarded as an ideal by the Celts or by
their poets, Ambicatus serving as a central figure round which the ideas
of empire crystallised. The hegemony existed in Gaul, where the Arverni
and their king claimed power over the other tribes, and where the Romans
tried to weaken the Celtic unity by opposing to them the Aedui. 1
In Belgium the hegemony was in the hands of the Suessiones, to whose
king Belgic tribes in Britain submitted. 2
In Ireland the "high king" was supreme over other smaller
kings, and in Galatia the unity of the tribes was preserved by a council
with regular assemblies. 3
The diffusion of the Ambicatus legend would help to preserve unity by
recalling the mythic greatness of the past. The Boii and Insubri
appealed to transalpine Gauls for aid by reminding them of the deeds of
their ancestors. 4
Nor would the Druids omit to infuse into their pupils' minds the
sentiment of national greatness. For this and for other reasons, the
Romans, to whom "the sovereignity of all Gaul " was an
obnoxious watchword, endeavoured to suppress them. 5
But the Celts were too widely scattered ever to form a compact empire. 6
The Roman empire extended itself gradually in the consciousness of its power; the cohesion of the Celts in an empire or under one king
was made impossible by their migrations and diffusion. Their unity, such
as it was, was broken by the revolt of the Teutonic tribes, and their
subjugation was completed by Rome. The dreams of wide empire remained
dreams. For the Celts, in spite of their vigour, have been a race of
dreamers, their conquests in later times, those of the spirit rather
than of the mailed fist. Their superiority has consisted in imparting to
others their characteristics; organised unity and a vast empire could
never be theirs.
Suggested Further Reading
Ripley, Races of Europe; Wilser, L'Anthropologie, xiv.
494; Collignon, ibid. 1-20; Broca, Rev. d'Anthrop. ii. 689
Sergi, The Mediterranean Race, 241 ff., 263 ff.
Keane, Man, Past and Present, 511 ff., 521, 528.
Broca, Mem. d'Anthrop. i. 370 ff. Hovelacque thinks, with Keane,
that the Gauls learned Celtic from the dark round-heads. But Galatian
and British Celts, who had never been in contact with the latter, spoke
Celtic. See Holmes, Caesar's Conquest of Gaul, 311-312.
Caesar, i. 1; Collignon, Mem. Soc. d'Anthrop. de Paris, 3me
ser. i. 67.
Caesar, i. 1.
10:1 Caesar ii. 30.
Caesar, i. 1; Strabo, iv. i. 1.
Cf. Holmes, 295; Beddoe, Scottish Review, xix. 416.
D'Arbois, Les Celtes, 175.
Caesar, ii. 4; Strabo, vii. 1, 2, Germans are taller and fairer than
Gauls; Tacitus, Agric. ii. Cf. Beddoe, JAI xx. 354-355.
D'Arbois, PH ii. 374. Welsh Gwydion and Teutonic Wuotan may have
the same root, see p.
105. Celtic Taranis has been compared to Donar, but there is no
connection, and Taranis was not certainly a thunder-god. Much of the
folk-religion was alike, but this applies to folk-religion everywhere.
D'Arbois, ii. 251.
Beddoe, L'Anthropologie, v. 516. Tall, fair, and highly
brachycephalic types are still found in France, ibid. i. 213;
Bertrand-Reinach, Les Celtes, 39.
Beddoe, 516; L'Anthrop., v. 63; Taylor, 81; Greenwell, British
Fort. Rev. xvi. 328; Mem. of London Anthr. Soc., 1865.
Ripley, 309; Sergi, 243; Keane, 529; Taylor, 112.
Taylor, 122, 295.
The Walloons are both dark and fair.
D'Arbois, PH ii. 132.
Rhŷs, Proc. Phil. Soc. 1891; "Celtae and Galli," Proc.
Brit. Acad. ii. D'Arbois points out that we do not know that these
words are Celtic (RC xii. 478).
See pp. 51, 376
Caesar, i. 1.
Skene, i. ch. 8; see p.
ZCP iii. 308; Keltic Researches.
Windisch, "Kelt. Sprachen," Ersch-Gruber's Encyklopadie;
Stokes, Linguistic Value of the Irish Annals.
THSC 1895-1896, 55 f.
CM xii. 434.
In the Isle of Skye, where, looking at names of prominent places alone,
Norse derivatives are to Gaelic as 3 to 2, they are as 1 to 5 when names
of insignificant places, untouched by Norse influence, are included.
Rhŷs, CB4 241.
D'Arbois, Les Celtes, 22.
Bede, Eccl. Hist. i. 12.
Adamnan, Vita S. Col.
Dick Cass. lxxvi. 12; Caesar, v. 14. See p.
Isidore, Etymol. ix. 2, 103; Rhŷs, CB 242-243; Caesar,
v. 14; Nicholson, ZCP iii. 332.
Tacitus, Agric. ii.
If Celtae is from qelo, "to raise," it may mean
"the lofty," just as many savages call themselves "the
men," par excellence. Rhŷs derives it from qel,
"to slay," and gives it the sense of "warriors." See
Holder, s.v. Stokes, US 83. Galatae is from gala
(Irish gal), "bravery." Hence perhaps warriors."
'Galli' may be connected with "Galatae," but D'Arbois denies
this. For all these titles see his PH ii. 396 ff.
Livy, v. 34 f.; D'Arbois, PH ii. 304, 391.
Strabo, iv. 10, 3; Caesar, i. 31, vii. 4; Frag. Hist. Graec. i.
Caesar, ii. 4.
Strabo, xii. 5, 1.
Polybius, ii. 22.
Caesar, i. 2, 1-3.
On the subject of Celtic unity see Jullian, "Du patriotisme gaulois,"
RC xxiii. 373.
Source: Chapter II from
The Religion of the Ancient Celts by John Arnott MacCulloch
(b. 1868, d. 1950) T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh