The Celts

Author: Wolfgang Meid
Publisher: Innsbruck
Copyright: 2010

Synopsis: “The Celts” – who were they? Did they really exist, or are they as some archaeologists seem to believe, a mere scientific construct, a fictitious entity? The basis of this misapprehension is the fact that it is not possible to diagnose Celticity by archaeological means alone. “Celtic” is, in the first instance, a linguistic concept, and disregarding this linguistic foundation must lead to an impasse. It is the proven relationship of the so-called “Celtic” languages and their derivation from a common ancestor which justifies this scientific concept.

“Celts”, on the other hand, is an ethnic term attested for population groups in western Continental Europe, but which has been extended to include also population groups in the British Isles for which this name is not attested. The basis of this terminological extension has been the discovery of the genetic relationship of the languages spoken by all these groups, which consequently have been termed “Celtic” languages, going back to a common prehistoric ancestor language termed “Proto-Celtic”, a distinct branch of the Indo-European language family. Since a language presupposes speakers, those could be called “Celts”. From a linguistic point of view these “Celts” were real people; today their descendants would be rather called by other names, like Irish or Welsh.

Review: This is another introduction to the Celts, however, this is written from the point of view of a linguist and philologist as opposed to an archaeologist.  The author says “It is the author’s opinion that material culture, by itself, is insufficient to define Celticity (which explains the Celto-scepticism virulent among archaeologists); it needs to be combined with, and backed up by, the linguistic evidence which is the primary indicator.” (Page 5) Since I completely agree with the author I was very excited to read what he had to say.

The book is divided into seven chapters: origins and early evidence of the Celts, Celtic archaeology, expansion of the Celts and the quest for new homelands, the Celts in the British Isles, society and culture, religion and the insular Celtic literary tradition.  The focus of the book is varied and it encompasses a little bit of everything from archaeology to history to literary (and linguistic) records.  It is a small book (only 182 pages including the selected bibliography) so I was not expecting a real indepth study in linguistics and philology.

I really loved the fact that the author started with a discussion of what the Celts used to name themselves, what others have called them, and what it means when modern scholars talk about “Celts” or “Celtic”. It leaves no question as to what the author himself means when he uses these names. In chapter 2, the author does an amazing job at explaining the confusion about the Hallstatt and La Tene cultures being Celtic or not. He also makes a good job of explaining where that confusion came from. The chapters on society, culture and religion are very interesting as well. They give a good overview of the subject matter. And the final chapter on the literature of the Celts is a very good introduction on mythology.

Now there are a few times when I thought [huh??] in the religion and society chapters but that is to be expected no book is perfect after all, and the book could have used a few more maps really but otherwise nothing major to detract from it. I would say it is a very good book if you want to revise somethings and clear up a few others, and it is a good book to start with if you want an introduction to the Celts.

I hope this author translates more of his books or writings from German to English because he certainly has a good point of view to counter a lot that is out there.