Celts The History and Legacy of One of the Oldest Cultures in Europe

Author: Martin J. Dougherty
Publisher: Amber Books
Published: 2015
ISBN: 978-1-78274-166-4 (Hardcover)
Pages: 224 including bibliography, index, maps, and pictures (black and white and coloured)

Synopsis:

“They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses… They embalm the heads… [and]… display them with pride to strangers.” – Diodorus Siculus.

Before the Vikings, before the Anglo-Saxons, before the Roman Empire, the Celts dominated central and western Europe. Today we might think of the Celts only inhabiting parts of the far west of Europe – Ireland, Great Britain, France and Spain – but these were the extremities in which their culture lasted longest. In fact, they had originated in Central Europe and settled as far afield as present day Turkey, Poland and Italy. From their emergence as an Iron Age people around 800 BC to the early centuries AD, Celts reveals the truth behind the stories of naked warriors, ritual beheadings, druids, magic and accusations of human sacrifice. The book examines the different tribes, the Hallstatt and La Tène periods, as well as Celtic survival in western Europe, the Gallic Wars, military life, spiritual life, slavery, sexuality and Celtic art. Illustrated with more than 180 colour and black-and-white photographs, maps and artworks, Celts is an expertly written account of a people who have long captured the popular imagination.

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Review: If you’ve ever read Simon James’ book The World of the Celts, or Miranda Green’s The World of the Druids, then you know the kind of book this is. Basically, it is an introductory book. It has a little bit of everything in it. The history of the Celts (snapshot of it anyway), Celtic literature, Celtic Gods and Goddesses (well, some of them) and so on. Hardly ever a page goes by without an illustration, a picture or a map. This would be the kind of book I would recommend to someone who knows nothing about the Celts, and are not really sure they are interested in reading in depth about them.

I do have to say that because of the expertise of the author (he is a professional writer specialising in military history), the military bits are very interesting. I liked the book. Of course I read it in one sitting because there wasn’t anything new in it but it was still good. Of course, it wasn’t perfect either and I sometimes felt like the author was putting together a booklet for a Dungeons and Dragons game (he, the author is also a game designer so maybe that also came through in the writing?). I would recommend this book as a fun introduction to the Celts, but don’t look for anything in depth here.

Celtic Britain and Ireland 200 AD to 800 AD

Full Title: Celtic Britain and Ireland 200 AD to 800 AD – The Myth of the Dark Ages
Authors: Lloyd and Jennifer Laing
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Published: 1990, reprinted 1991
ISBN: 0-312-04767-3
Pages: 263, including Index and Bibliography.

Synopsis: The term ‘Dark Ages’ was coined to describe a period which was seen as a period of anarchy and violence, following the collapse of civilisation. Recent discoveries by archaeologists and historians have, however, radically altered this traditional view of the Dark Ages, and the period is now seen as one of innovation and dynamic social evolution. This book reconsiders a number of traditionally accepted views. It argues, for example, that the debt of the Dark Age Celts to Rome was enormous, even in areas such as Ireland that were never occupied by Roman invaders. It also discusses the traditional chronology suggesting that the date of ‘AD 400’ usually taken as the start of the ‘early Christian period in Britain and Ireland now has comparatively little meaning. Once this conventional framework is removed, it is possible to show how the Celtic world of the Dark Ages took shape under Roman influence in the centuries between about 200 to 800, and looked to Rome even for the immediate inspiration for its art. Such questions as the extent of British (that is, Celtic) survival in pagan Saxon England, and the Celtic and Roman contribution to early England are considered.

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Review: Honestly, I’ve read so many “old/out of date” books lately that I was settling down to another “been there and learned that”. I was pleasantly surprised though. Sure this book did have an element of “been there and learned that” but there are also some “Oh, huh, interesting” and “oh, huh, so that is why people these days assumed it was like that” elements too.

Over all I think that the Laings wrote an easy to read and follow book, telling the reader about a period in Britain and Ireland that the rest of the classical world called the Dark Ages. The book itself was organised very well, and it is very easy to find things that you want to find just by skimming to relevant chapters and sections because they were so clearly labeled, or by going to the Index.

They showed that in Britain and Ireland it was hardly the Dark Ages, and along the way you get to know how some interesting archaeology was done and by whom, and how some antiquarian societies came into being and how they became so much more than just amateur hour.The bibliography was also pretty interesting and extensive.

The Philosopher and the Druid

Full Title: The Philosopher and the Druid – A Journey among the ancient Celts

Author: Philip Freeman

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Published: 2006

Pages: 221 including an index, notes and suggested readings, a pronunciation guide, a glossary of Gaulish words, a timeline and some black and white pictures.

Synopsis:

Early in the first century B.C. a Greek philosopher named Posidonius began an ambitious and dangerous journey into the little-known lands of the Celts. A man of great intellectual curiosity and considerable daring, Posidonius traveled from his home on the island of Rhodes to Rome, the capital of the expanding empire that had begun to dominate the Mediterranean. From there Posidonius planned to investigate for himself the mysterious Celts, reputed to be cannibals and savages. His journey would be one of the great adventures of the ancient world.
Posidonius journeyed deep into the heart of the Celtic lands in Gaul. There he discovered that the Celts were not barbarians but a sophisticated people who studied the stars, composed beautiful poetry, and venerated a priestly caste known as the Druids. Celtic warriors painted their bodies, wore pants, and decapitated their foes. Posidonius was amazed at the Celtic women, who enjoyed greater freedoms than the women of Rome, and was astonished to discover that women could even become Druids.
Posidonius returned home and wrote a book about his travels among the Celts, which became one of the most popular books of ancient times. His work influenced Julius Caesar, who would eventually conquer the people of Gaul and bring the Celts into the Roman Empire, ending forever their ancient way of life. Thanks to Posidonius, who could not have known that he was recording a way of life soon to disappear, we have an objective, eyewitness account of the lives and customs of the ancient Celts.

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Review:

I want to start with what I enjoyed from this book. It was a good refresher, and the writing was very readable and very engaging. I loved that the author wrote this from the perspective of Posidonius. Unfortunately, we don’t really know much about what Posidonius would have done or how he would have done it because his writings only survived in fragments in other people’s writings. What I didn’t like was that it was full of “may have, could have, must have”.

The writer did however, take us on a journey from the beginning of the Celts until their “end”. He talked about the history, the social structure of the Celtic tribes, their warriors and kings, their feasts and their women. I’d consider this a great introductory book or a refresher for the fully versed.

Technologies of Enchantment

Authors: Duncan Garrow and Chris Gosden

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Published: 2012

ISBN: 9780199548064

Pages: 376 including bibliography and index. Also includes black and white pictures and illustrations.

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Synopsis:

While Celtic art includes some of the most famous archaeological artefacts in the British Isles, such as the Battersea shield or the gold torcs from Snettisham, it has often been considered from an art historical point of view. Technologies of Enchantment? Exploring Celtic Art attempts to connect Celtic art to its archaeological context, looking at how it was made, used, and deposited. Based on the first comprehensive database of Celtic art, it brings together current theories concerning the links between people and artefacts found in many areas of the social sciences. The authors argue that Celtic art was deliberately complex and ambiguous so that it could be used to negotiate social position and relations in an inherently unstable Iron Age world, especially in developing new forms of identity with the coming of the Romans.

Placing the decorated metalwork of the later Iron Age in a long-term perspective of metal objects from the Bronze Age onwards, the volume pays special attention to the nature of deposition and focuses on settlements, hoards, and burials — including Celtic art objects’ links with other artefact classes, such as iron objects and coins. A unique feature of the book is that it pursues trends beyond the Roman invasion, highlighting stylistic continuities and differences in the nature and use of fine metalwork.

Review:

Trying to review this book was very hard. In the end I decided to just compare it with other books on Celtic Art that I have read. Well, this book read more as a dissertation than a book really and the maps and illustrations provided don’t really tell you much. What it does offer is something a little different. It talks about these hoards in context rather than just how they look (though they talk about that too). They try to add some dimension to what you see, and give theories as to why the art they way it is. The period covered here is from 400 BCE to 100 CE and that is enough to give you the continuity of the styles after the Roman invasion. I also found it interesting how they related things to each other like torcs and coins.

Did I love this book…no not really. Would I recommend it to others…depends. Are you the type of person who loves to read about Celtic art and want to learn about huge quantities of it, how it was made and where it was found and open minded enough to listen to the theories put forward by the authors…then go for it. However, if you are just interested in a book more to do with Celtic Art archaeology than anything else then this is not for you.

The Shaping of the Celtic World by Patrick Lavin

Author: Patrick Lavin

Publisher: iUniverse

Copyright: 2011

Synopsis: The Shaping of the Celtic World traces the rise and decline of the great Celtic peoples. Ranging from prehistoric to modern times, it undertakes an examination of Celtic civilization, revealing a proud and independent society with its unique history, mythology, pantheon of gods, literature, and artistry. The romance of Celtic mythology is unsurpassed. It introduces us to many intriguing legends, of which the battles between the gods and giants are most alluring.Emerging in the 6th century BC, the Celts conquered and settled the greater part of Europe, laying the foundation for westerncivilization. Their contribution in shaping the modern world cannot be underestimated. As Europe languished in the barbarism of the Dark Ages, the great heritage of Western Europe was endangered of being entirely lost but for the Celtic monks of Ireland and Britain who scribed and illuminated Europes treasury of literature.The book is written for the millions who proudly identify with their Celtic rootsknown today by their ethnic identities as Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Mann, Breton, and Cornish. This concise yet user-friendly guide to ancient European history will be enjoyed by a variety of readers including students, travelers, history enthusiasts, and those interested in their Celtic origins.

Review: For the first time I am not sure how to write a review for a book I’ve read.  The material in the book is basically divided into three parts: history, religion and art.

The information in the historical part is basically correct but very much outdated.  The latest reference in the book is copyrighted to 2006 and that is a book that lists the classical writers’ quotes about the Celts.  His sources go all the way back to the early 1900s.  Good sources…just really OLD.  I do like that he went all the way to Christianity and beyond in terms of history since a lot of other books tend to stop just before Christianity comes to the Celts.

The part on the Celtic religion was very accurate considering he again was using old sources, but we really don’t have much of an update on that front even in new books, at least nothing that would change that information drastically.

In the arts part of the book the author talks about not just material art but also literature and it was actually very interesting in that he brings it all the way up to the 19th century, and not just to the Christian era.

I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t love it either.  So what is the problem?  I think what bothered me the most is that I didn’t see the author’s thoughts on the subject matter he was covering.  He isn’t a scholar but rather an enthusiast and I knew that so I was expecting to see that enthusiasm…which I didn’t. I felt like he had a bunch of points by other authors that he had to convey and he did…end of story.

Everyday Life of the Pagan Celts by Anne Ross

Anne Ross is a well-respected writer on the Celts most of her books are on the Celtic Reconstructionist lists and that tells you a lot because as a rule they are very picky.  This book is a part of a series called Everyday Life Of…The other two books in the series are The Everyday Life of the Vikings, and The Everyday Life of the Anglo-Saxons.

The book is copy righted to 1970 so right off you know it is an old book, with outdated information, though not much of it is.  People who are not new to the Celtic history will probably not find anything new in this book.  What impressed me though is the fact that she not only talks about the history of the Celts but their culture, society, and religion too.  She starts her survey when the Celts first burst onto the scene, and ends it at 500 CE.  Up front she tells you the limitations of the book and the aim she hopes to achieve with it.  The limitations are as follows: limitations in the evidence available (this of course has changed from the 1970s to now), and limitations of space.  The aim of the book is to find out something about the pagan Celtic world; about its origin; about the people who lived in it, what they did and how they conducted their day-to-day affairs.

Like all other writers on the subject of the Celts she starts her book with how we know about the Celts.  She discusses the sources, which ones are good, which are bad, and which are acceptable and how to combine them all to get a good picture of the Celts.

Then comes the substance.  She starts out with the structure of the society, how they looked, what they wore, their weapons and the way they conducted warfare, their roads, fortifications, houses, the games they played, their music and entertainment, their food and drink, their laws, their religion, and their artistic styles.

I loved all the details she provided for things that most scholars would have over looked like what they wore, and what they might have ate or drank.  It is a well-rounded book.  And it has it all. You learn exactly what the Celts have done in their everyday life, in war, and what they did for entertainment or for their worship.  You learn about their art and music, and it provides a vivid picture that you can carry of the people you want to study.

I highly recommend it.