An Introduction to Theories of Origin and Definitions of the Celts.
I decided that after setting the stage with my other essays on the history of Europe in the Mesolithic and Neolithic Ages, it was time to talk about the Celts and to be precise about the question of Celtic origins and what constitutes a Celt.
Through my research and reading I realized that even now there are some uncertainties about the origin of the Celts. There are three different theories on this subject, and each one has its supporters and detractors. The first theory is the one that scholars have been talking about for the last 150 years and it places the origin of the Celts in Central Europe around 1000 BCE. The second one argues for the origin of the Celts in the west of Europe, the Atlantic zone to be more precise, and this theory was put forward by Barry Cunliffe (2001 and 2010) and supported by John T. Koch (2009 and 2010). The third theory is dominant in British Archeology and seems to be gaining support on the Continent. This theory says that there were either no Celts in antiquity in the British Isles, put forward by Simon James (2000) or that there were no Celts at all, put forward by John Collis (2003).
I think that the main problem that most people have had with the Celts is that there is no unified idea of who can be considered a Celt or what can be considered Celtic. Over the many years that the Celts have been the object of study there were many different definitions put forward as to what constitutes a Celt.
The concept of “Celt” first appeared in the records made by the Greeks while they were establishing new settlements in the western half of the Mediterranean and opening trade routes with the people who lived to the north of that area around the sixth century BCE. At first they talked about two distinct groups, the Keltoi and the Galatae, but later on spoke of them as the same thing. The Romans Latinized the term Keltoi into Celtae, but more often spoke of the Galli or Gauls. In the Middle Ages the term Celtic was used to denote a geographic area more associated with France but never Ireland or Scotland, which are the areas more associated with the Celts today. After the discovery of Edward Lhuyd that the six languages of Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish and Breton were one language group, scholars used this as the basis of what constitutes a Celt, someone who speaks a language from this specific family of languages, or someone from the communities that have spoken them through history, and someone who follows the cultural traditions that have been passed down through the medium of those languages. During the nineteenth century things were muddied up by nationalistic tendencies and the original definition was forgotten. And this is the reason the six Celtic nations, which had been called “Celtic” because of the language which served as the basis for their national culture, were now thought to have distinguishing characteristics on the mistaken premise that they were composed of racially separate people called “Celts”.
In Celtic From the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archeology, Genetics, Language and Literature Raimund Karl gives a definition of who he thinks we should call a Celt; “a Celt is someone who either speaks a Celtic language or produces or uses Celtic art or material culture or has been referred to as one in historical records or has identified himself or been identified by others as such.” (1) The late Alexei Kondratiev defined Celt and Celtic as follows: “Celt: One who lives in a community where a Celtic language is used traditionally, or one who has strong ties to such a community. Celtic: Anything relating to the identity and traditions of such communities.”
Looking at all these definitions the only “hard” one we are left with is the linguistic, cultural one championed by Raimund Karl and Alexei Kondratiev.
So, if I am going to use this definition then the third theory which says there were no Celts in the British Isle in Antiquity or no Celts at all is not something that I can subscribe too. And as such I will be talking more about the first and second theories in a coming essay.
(1) Raimund Karl, “The Celts From Everywhere and Nowhere, A Re-evaluation of the Origins of the Celts and the Emergence of the Celtic Cultures.” Celtic From the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literature edited by Barry Cunliffe and John T. Koch. Oxbow Books, Oxford: UK. 2010 (p.47)