The Celts: Origins, Myths, Inventions
Author: John Collis
Publisher: The History Press
Published: 2011 (first published in 2003 by Tempus Publishing)
Synopsis: We use the word “Celtic” fast and loose – it evokes something mythical and romantic about our past – but what exactly does it mean? Furthermore, why do people believe that there were Celts in Britain and what relarionship do they have to the ancient Celts? This fascinating book focuses particularly on how the Celts were re-invented in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and how the legacy of mistaken interpretations still affects the way we understand the ancient sources and archeological evidence.
About the author: John Collis is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, and the leading Brittish aurhority on the European Iron Age.
Review: So this book was really tough for me to read. I didn’t want to read this book because from what reviews of the book I read, the author is a Celt denier. So not a point of view I would be interested in. A few weeks ago I decided I wanted to read the author’s reasons for what he thinks and so I ordered the book. I was curious to see if there is merit to his arguements or if it is as one reviewer put it, the British imperialistic thought process at its best. Considering the author’s credentials I was actually more than curious. The book started out pretty good actually. The author had a list of questions at the beginning of his book that he said he was going to answer and they were questions that I’ve thought about often. I really liked the Introduction to the book. The author took the time to explain where he is coming from, what his thoughts on the research that came before are, and what he intends to accomplish in his book and by what method. Then I started reading the first chapter…
Okay, let me start with what I liked about this book. The author is right in that the classical records have their problems of not being the original source, and having their bias problems. He did also open my eyes to a couple of interesting things. There are some people who wrote about the Celts who were Celts or at least claimed Celtic ancestors. The ancient definition of Celt may not be ours, and that not all classical sources are created equal as some of them were too far removed from the event for their writings to be completely accurate. I found his assessment of the sources fair and informative. He also listed all the important classical writers who wrote about the Celts in their chronological order and this helps in the evaluation of the sources. I also liked his survey of all the different people who wrote about the Celts from the seventeenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century. There were people in there that I didn’t know, in fact there were A LOT of names there that I didn’t know and it will be interesting to look for these writings if I can find them.
Now for what I didn’t like. To be honest, the way he chose to interpret the information he provided grated on my nerves. Everything he wrote (in my humble opinion) didn’t really support his theory of the Celts being a myth. The final chapter of the book listed his conclusions and I kept laughing out loud at them because they are that…well…silly. The author has an agenda and it isn’t wrong to have one. Every writer does. No one is really ever neutral, the problem is his bias is VERY obvious, and it colours his interpretation of EVERYTHING. His theory, the way I read the book was not that the Celts were a myth, but rather that Britain is not Celtic…ummm, I’m pretty sure no one said it completely was (Wales can be classified as Celtic after all). He even has a problem with Ireland being Celtic and here I’m not sure if he means Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, either case they have a Celtic language and that means they are Celtic by the current definition of what a Celt is. Oh, and he has a problem with defining the Celts by their language, and I got the feeling that he thought that Welsh should not be classified as a Celtic language, but he didn’t explicitly say that so it could just be a misunderstanding on my part. I’m pretty sure he wants to define the Celts by genetics because this would definitely fit in with his theory. Celticity is not a genetic designation.
I think I’m inclined to agree with the reviewer on Amazon who said that this was fuelled by a British superiority complex. The book was not a complete waste of time as I mentioned above, but the author simply failed to convince me of his theory or the thought process behind it. Some will say that I am too invested in the Celts because of my spiritual path to accept this theory and the truth is a lot of things have changed for me lately (I’m more focused on studying the Irish with out generalising on to the Celts) and I went into this book with a very open mind, still not convinced. Does Ireland have a problem of how and when the Celts (or if you like the Celtic language) arrived sure, does that mean that I’m going to say that they (or the language) didn’t exist? Umm no, it surely exists.
The best rebuttal of this book are Facing the Ocean by Professor Barry Cunliffe and The Atlantic Iron Age by Jon Henderson. Read them if you haven’t yet.