The Celts: A History by Peter Ellis
Historians who talked about the Celts can be fit into three categories. The first category includes the Classical writers who wrote to demonize them, and the writers who wrote to show how unsophisticated they are. The second category includes the people who wrote to show what a great society they were and how misunderstood they were and those include both modern and classical writers. And the third and final category is the writers who were somewhat unbiased and these are very few. The author of this book falls in the second category.
Peter Ellis set out in his book to tell us the story of the origins of the Celts and their ancient history. Also to show a thematic survey of the Celtic culture, way of life, and what they left behind. On the first count he didn’t do such a good job but on the second he did an amazing job, but not without bias.
One of the first problems I noticed in this book was of course the bias of the writer. It was so glaringly obvious. The Celts were the first in everything it seems and they were good at everything. Another glaring problem was that for the most part he doesn’t always mention his sources clearly. He does however, have a good further reading list at the back of the book. Keeping all this in mind you can still get a good set of information and details that other writers don’t bother to discuss or are not interested in discussing.
In the first chapter PBE discusses the origin of the Celts and gives us comparison between the Hindu gods and creation myth and the Celtic equivalents. The etymologies he presented for the word Celt was very interesting. The structure of the Celtic tribes was something discussed in this chapter also. The Celts were divided into tried, ruled by kings and a group of tribes could be ruled by an over-king. Tribes could be as small as 20,000 or as large as 250,000.
The next chapter covers the fact that the Celts were not an illiterate society. They wrote things in the Greek Etruscan and sometimes Latin alphabet. The fact that they did not write down anything about their religion does not automatically make an illiterate society of them. So the Celts are not so barbaric after all.
The next chapters talk about the layers of the Celtic society, which is a side of the Celts that people don’t mention very much. The kings, chieftains, druids, warriors, women farmers, physicians, road builders, artists and craftsmen all got chapter of their own. The information was something that is needs to be covered more by other writers, unfortunately, they don’t seem to be covered much or have interest shown in them. The fact that Celts had surgeons and neurosurgeons is just amazing. The fact that they also had laws that regulated the care of the sick is very advanced and shows a healthy respect for the individual. The role of woman though I think that PBE embellished it a bit is still more prominent then other cultures living in the same area. The fact that they may have had roads that the Romans just built over is not something that is widely known. I think one thing that is worth mentioning in the chapter on Celtic Warriors because of how it effected the image of the Celts later is the march on Rome. The story of how and why they marched pretty much makes them out as the opposite of what a barbarian is. How can a barbarian be so strict about law? Also the way they treated the people who were not involved in the conflict, is very interesting and something I think the Romans never did. It also shows that contrary to what a lot of people said about the Celts they were not undisciplined, if they were able to contain their followers as they marched on Rome, then they showed a lot of discipline.
Celtic cosmology was a very interesting chapter that showed the Celts as astrologers and astronomers, a far cry from the barbarians of classical writers. Though one detail is very worrying, the mistake of saying that Samhain was named after the God Samhain. This mistake is huge for someone who is supposed to be in the field of Celtic studies.
The chapter on architecture is one of the chapters that are really interesting. It gave an idea of the difference between the way the continental and the insular Celts built their homes, farms, and cities. Though not a lot has survived, it was still enough to see the differences.
The Celtic religion is something that is being debated around the world. What we know and what we don’t know is a bone of contention among scholars and common folk alike. There is some knowledge out there, and this is what PBE tried to summarize in this chapter. It is Polytheist religion and perhaps an animistic one also. There are 400 Celtic Deities recorded, the majority would only appear once and are probably local and tribal deities. Of these four hundred at least 100 appear all over the Celtic areas. The Celtic deities are fallible, unpredictable and subject to all the human vices as were the Greek, Roman and Hindu pantheons. Dagda is the Creator Destroyer God; Danu is the mother of the Tuatha De. The deities have triple forms and the number three had its significance to the Druids. There is a Celtic belief that the soul resided in the head, hence the taking of the head of their enemies. The Celts believed in an afterlife, which is called by many names, like the Otherworld, land of the young and so on. Moral salvation is the responsibility of the individual and the Celts practiced divination. This is not an insignificant amount of information. Though PBE makes the mistake of saying that the Celts didn’t use human or animal sacrifices and he bases that on (in my opinion) the fact that the Romans said they did, so they didn’t. There is some evidence out there of Bog Bodies that do show some from of ritual murder, a better argument would have been, we just don’t know for sure one way or another.
PBE’s chapter on Celtic mythology contained the major themes of the Celtic myths and a small discussion of them. The themes included: the star crossed lovers, the magic Cauldron and others. A more comprehensive discussion would take books.
In the final chapter of the book PBE tries to sum up the early Celtic history. What is unique here is that PBE also brings in the mythological tales to help explain where the Gaels come from. This is something that is not really done in many books. What also makes it unique is the plausibility of it since the myth talks about the sons of Míl and that they came from Spain to settle in Ireland and there were Celts in Spain.
Though the book has its problems it also has its good points which out way the problems. It gives details that a lot of other writers ignore, or just don’t feel interested in writing about. Keeping the biases of the author aside and reading the book critically you will be able to get a lot of information out of it that give a whole different image to the Ancient Celts.