The Celts: Origins, Myths, Inventions

Author: John Collis
Publisher: The History Press
Published: 2011 (first published in 2003 by Tempus Publishing)
ISBN: 9780752429137

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.

16 thoughts on “The Celts: Origins, Myths, Inventions

  1. I haven’t read this one yet, but I may not after what you’ve said. I’m about halfway through Blood and Mistletoe by Ronald Hutton and find it very fair but also quite interesting – he concentrates more on the existence of the Druids than of the Celts themselves. It’s quite good but a slow read for me.

    • celticscholar says:

      I would actually recommend that you read it but also read the two books that I suggested at the end. If you ignore the interpretations that he superimposes on the things he reports on, you’ll have a good set of information to work with on the development of the theories on the Celts that are floating around now. He reminds me a lot of Ellis but from the opposite direction. In Ellis’s eyes the Celts can do no wrong and the Roman and Greek writers were all wrong about them. Neither extreme is right. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

  2. Dafydd says:

    I’ve read John Collis’s earlier book, The European Iron Age (pub.1984), and I found it thought provoking, although like you I find his anti-Celtic stance can be rather overbearing at times. Collis does make some great points about the discrepancies in Celtic studies, but I find it odd that his criticisms about ethnic identity in the Iron Age don’t extend to the other peoples of Europe or Asia. For instance he doesn’t spend much time criticising historians/archaeologists who use the the term Hittite, even though the Hittites wouldn’t have actually called themselves by that name (they called themseleves the People of Hatti and their language was called Nesili). The very same could be said about the Scythians, Thracians, Dacians and other peoples.
    If Collis was really concerned about ethnic identity in the Iron Age he would be just as vocal in his criticisms of those who carelessly use the terms Thracian, Dacian etc, but he isn’t. His criticism of the Celts seems to be driven by modern politics and his own disgust with people who use the term Celtic for what he calls “Unacceptable ends”. I’d find his hypotheses much more sound if he applied his ideas about ‘ethnic identity’ to all the peoples of Iron Age Europe rather than just the Celts.

    • celticscholar says:

      Exactly! Thank you! Michael Morse does make a better case in his book How the Celts came to Britain. He is very concise in his term use and he makes a point of criticising both sides of the argument equally pointing out the flaws in both. My definition of the Celts is a linguistic one so I can’t conceive of there not being Celts but I will say that trying to make them more than a linguistic, cultural group is very problematic and even with the cultural aspect you run into trouble in Ireland so…The truth is I think there has been some good research done by people on the Atlantic Fringe. The problem with John Collis is he has this huge bias that probably will stop him from REALLY reading the research with out that filter in place.

      • Dafydd says:

        Yes, Collis does make some good points about material culture, especially his ideas that Iron Age people buried with La Tene items doesn’t necessarily mean that they were Celts, anymore than the fact that a modern day European who uses Chinese utensils makes them Chinese.

        Collis has a negative perception of the Celtic languages too. I don’t think he believes that Welsh or Irish are Celtic, while he also believes that many of the languages spoken across Iron Age Europe weren’t Celtic either, but were forms of Italic, Germanic or another language group. For instance I think he says that the Belgae of northern Gaul spoke a Germanic rather than a Celtic language. He’s also had heated arguments with Professor John T. Koch about the existance of Celtic langauges in Iberia during the early Iron Age – especially Tartessian, which remains a linguistic oddity. Collis also disagrees with defining a group of people through language, as he states that it would mean that the Brazilians could be called the descendants of the Romans, considering Portugese is one of the Romance languages. I don’t think that many linguists agree with his ideas on the Celtic languages though.

        • celticscholar says:

          No they don’t. Like I said he might have good points unfortunate his tone and bias stop him from giving them any justice.

  3. H. Bourne says:

    Hopefully you will be able to help with the following. Somewhere along the line, an article relating Irish origins with Gaelic sornames in the west of Ireland. Unfortunately, I did not record the source
    Are you able to help with a reference?

    • celticscholar says:

      I don’t know of any specifically for the West of Ireland though google was able to provide a few sites with Irish surname origins. Sorry

  4. H. Bourne says:

    A point to add the excellent ones raised by your correspondents is that nor are Classical writers known to make any reference to Druids in Iberia or Ireland. There is a curious reference to Iberian Druids meeting St Paul in Iberia in Raymond Capt’s article on the “lost” chapter of the Acts of the Apostles but this is probably best put aside.
    Old-Irish literature is the oldest native literary corpus in west Europe, so despite efforts to frequently represent it as a mish-mash of imaginitis plus plundering of Classical sources, it has long seemed to this non-academic that this seriously underestimates the authentically Celtic nature of Old-Irish tradition.
    With this in mind, when Irish tradition has it that the incoming Milesians/Proto-Gaels from Iberia brought Druids with them to Ireland, at the very least, notice should be taken.
    We can also remind ourselves that no Classical historian is known to mention Irish Druids but simple reference to Irish sources deinitely and defifinitively attest there were Irish Druids.

  5. Jurgen Diethe says:

    There is a lot of confustion in this discussion. Collis does not deny the existence of Celts. But he says (and a lot of scholars agree with him) that there was no Celtic migration to Britain and Ireland. Just language and culture got there (although exactly how remains open), and the latter then devoloped, in terms of “insular fusion”, in a very individual way. The great irony is that in the early Middle Ages Britain and Ireland contained the last Celtic-speaking areas in Europe – Britanny was “re-colonised” from here. Who were the people? I can only conclude that they were the indigenous population that was already there, from a much earlier migration, possibly the original migration. The builders of Stonehenge, Scara Brae etc. If you define Celticity as linguistic and cultural, fine. But this is not what people are doing, is it? None of the above is absolutely certain, but I am pretty much convinced. The companion volume to the great exhibition in the British Museum even places the origins of the Celtic languages in a strip of land along the Atlantic coastline: Portugal, north-west Spain, Britanny, Ireland, the west of England/Wales and Scotland, in the Bronze Age, around 2000 BC. That, too, is problematic (how can it work across such a geographic spread?) and would place the whole of Celticity in the linguistic/cultural area. (This book is not only beautiful but well worth reading: “Celts. Art and Identity”). “Ethnicity” is anyway a huge problem in the population cauldron that was Europe in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages!

    • celticscholar says:

      That is not what I got from the book at all, so perhaps it is time to re-read it. I have to say though that I’ve read better books than his that seem to say pretty much the same thing. It seems to be a British thing.

      What you are talking about seems to be what Barry Cunliffe and John T. Koch are saying have you read Celtic from the West 1 and 2?

      • Jurgen Diethe says:

        I must admit that I haven’t. I was just trying to get some background information for the second editiion of my (German) book on the Picts. This is not really affected by the question whether they were ethnic or just cultural Celts! History and relations remain the same, of course. My real “period” is the 17th century, and I really want to get back to my book on Marchamont Nedham (“the first journalist). Nice talking to you!

  6. Harry Bourne says:

    The notion of messrs. Collis and Ellis at either end of whether there were ever Insular Celts was interesting. However, it seems to me more valid opposites are John Collis and John Koch.
    On a personal level, I have a lot of time for the works of Peter Beresford Ellis. As they are not just scholarly but also written in a popular tone, this not makes them accessable to such non-academics as myself. Nor are his works actually being very readable make them any the worse for that.
    For me, more apposite as opposites are messrs. Collis and Koch.
    Here it seems most probable that the differences between the two are best explained by the very obvious one of John Collis approaching the subject as an archaeologist and John Koch doing so as a linguist. They also clearly contrast on the matter of whether Celts ever phyically got to Britain plus Ireland.
    Something that may be of interest to Mr. Dieth re. his comment about the possible continuity of population in these islands giving rise to British and Irish “Celts”. Somewhere along the line, it is my understanding thatn such proninent academics as Myles Dillon. Colin Renfrew plus others have expressed just this view.
    On the other hand, scepticism can be taken to risible lengths. A case in point are the French views that were published in the British Press some years ago denying there were ever Gaulish/French Celts.
    On the matter of whether there were ever Gaulis or Insular Celts, messrs Caesar and Koch are well quoting. Julius Caesar is oft-cited as having written “Those we call Galli call themselves
    Celtae. There surely can’t be a clearer usage of these terms as ethniae from antiquity. On the matter of Insular Celts, John koch wrote a long article in the Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmorodion (was there ever a Dishonourable Society of ….?) years ago and wrote of the fact that no Classical writer is known to refer to Insular Celts, “So what?”.

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