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In part because of the bias of the Romans and the Hellenes, and partly because of the rising romanticism in the 19th Century there is many misconceptions about the Celts. In particular about the Druids, the practice of head-hunting, and about Celtic warfare. In this article we will look at some of the more well-known myths, and the truth behind them.
Posted by rgkimball on May 11th, 2008
In part because of the bias of the Romans and the Hellenes, and partly because of the rising romanticism in the19th Century there is many misconceptions about the Celts. In particular about the Druids, the practice ofhead-hunting, and about Celtic warfare. In this article we will look at some of the more well-known myths, and the truth behind them.
MYTH ONE: Celts went into battle bright blue and naked
Without a doubt the most famous misconception of all is the belief that those Celts who could not afford armor went into battle naked, tattooed bright blue. In truth the practice of the blue tattoos had died out by the time of 0 AD and was only practiced by the Brythonic Celts and Picts. As for going into battle naked, that practice was special to mercenary bands and religious groups like the Gaesatae. The purpose of which was too be closer to nature and the myriad deities they devoted themselves too.
MYTH TWO: Celts were bloodthirsty and constantly at war
When writing of the Celts the Roman historians called them bloodthirsty savages, constantly at war. In truth theCelts were not bloodthirsty or at war all the time. But the Celts did fight amongst themselves quite often. This was however confined to cattle raiding and other forms of minor fighting between individual warriors or bands, full scale war between tribes did happen but not as a everyday occurrence.
MYTH THREE: Celts were barbarians
Sadly when most people think of the Celts they think of them as a barbaric horde, and that Rome was doing them a favor by bringing 'good Roman culture'. Which was exactly what many Roman historians were aiming to do. Because of their view of the world the Romans and Hellenes considered those outside their 'world' to be barbarians and beneath contempt. In truth the Celts were most certainly not barbarians. While they never left behind any written records, we know that the Celts created a strong vibrant culture, and a identity separate of all their neighbors. Regardless of whether our modern sensibilities may regard some of their practices as barbarous, the fact remains that the Celts most definitely had a civilization, a legacy that we can identify asCeltic.
MYTH FOUR: Women warriors
This is a complicated misconception, partly because there is truth to it, and it is hard to discern the stories from reality. Within Celtic society women were given a great deal of freedom, and there was nothing stopping them from going into battle with the menfolk if they wished. The problem is the practice was not widespread. The fact women were fighting in the Celtic armies is undeniable, but apart from a few extraordinary instances (like the defense of Ynys Mon in Wales) women warriors are the stuff of stories.
MYTH FIVE: Celtic warfare
A great deal has been written about the manner in which warfare was conducted by the Celts, which would be well outside the purposes of this article. Instead we will cover some well-known misconceptions about Celticwarfare. First and best known was the belief that Celts fought as a disorganized mob. This is partly true, as theCelts placed a great deal of importance on personal bravery, but still they kept a certain amount of cohesion regardless. Another misconception, and probably the stupidest, is the Celts wielded inferior weapons to theRomans. In reality the forging techniques of the Celts yielded some of the best iron weapons of the ancient world.
MYTH SIX: Druids built Stonehenge
Another famous misconception is the belief the Druids built Stonehenge. In truth Stonehenge had been built and abandoned by whomever created it long before the arrival of the Celts in the 5th Century. However the Druidsmay have used Stonehenge for their own purposes, which is another matter.
MYTH SEVEN: Human Sacrifice
Many Roman historians, most famously Caesar and Didorus Siculus, asserted the Celts practiced human sacrifice. Even today the jury is still out, as the saying goes, on the matter. However for this article we will assume it is a myth. There is simply not enough archeological evidence either way. It must be stated however that much was once thought to support the theory of Celtic human sacrifice is just artifacts of the head cult (addressed below) or criminals.
MYTH EIGHT: Rituals
A good deal of misconceptions arise over the rituals of the Celts, mostly because our primary source on them, the Romans, did not understand the Druids (the Celts themselves didn't either for that matter). Samain, modernSamhain, probably is the worst distorted of all. Perhaps the biggest misconception is that Samain is the CelticNew Year, it just marked the end of the harvest season. Other myths, such as Samain marking the first frost, or the festival was a celebration of the dead, are inventions of either Halloween tradition or modern neopagans. In truth we do not know a lot about Druidic festivals or rituals.
MYTH NINE: Headhunters
The Celtic head cult has garnered much attention over the years, probably due to the neopagan movement. The fact the head cult existed is not debated, the details are another matter. In short what we do know about the head cult is the Celts esteemed the head over all other body parts, believing it to be the center of power. Taking an opponents' head after a battle was a normal ritual. From the archeological evidence these heads were taken home and displayed, probably to demonstrate a man's prowess in combat. Beyond that little can be said with surety on this mysterious aspect of Celtic religion.
MYTH TEN: Celtic ships were flimsy
This is a modern misconception and one that is easily refuted. While not much is known of the ship building skills of the Celts we do know that their vessels were fashioned from strong wood, and reinforced with iron belts much like a wooden barrel. We also know that the Celts built their ships big, Caesar himself notes this in his campaign against the Venetii.
MYTH ELEVEN: Horned Helmets
Much like the myth of women warriors (see above) this is a complicated misconception, but one nevertheless. Traditionally horned helmets have been considered to be merely ceremonial. However we know from the ancient historians that some Celts did wear horned helmets, and some wore even more extravagant headgear. This has led to the increasingly popular position that the horned helmet was ceremonial, but some of the more religious Celts or tribes (most notably the Carnutes) did choose to wear it.
MYTH TWELVE: All Celts used chariots in battle
This misconception falls into the same category as the one about blue tattoos. In other words by the time of 0 AD the practice had died out amongst the Celts in Europe, but remained intact in the British Isles, where it was used to great effect against the Romans by both the Brythonic and the Goidelic Celts.
MYTH THRITEEN: All Celts limed up their hair and became bald
Much like the myth about the flimsy ships the myth about the limed up hair is a recent invention. In truth the practice was not at all wide spread, many warriors did use lime to spike their hair and make them more intimidating, but was not used widely. It was a personal choice, or part of a religious vow. As for lime making one bald, using lime once was not enough to make a warrior bald, using it repeatedly was what did that.
MYTH FOURTEEN: Celts and Bagpipes
Another modern myth about the Celts is that they used bagpipes, both in battle and in peacetime. In truth there is no mention of bagpipes in the British Isles at all until the 8th Century AD, and not solidly until the 12th. The harp was the preferred musical instrument of the Celts.
MYTH FIFTEEN: Celtic Kilts
This misconception is a more of a product of Scot-Irish (or Gaelic) nationalism then a normal misconception. They assert, based any number of things, that the ancient Celts wore kilts. This is utter nonsense, the earliest kilt, the "Great Wrap" did not appear until the 16th Century. The leine and brat, a loose tunic and mantle used by the Irish, could have been used by the Goidelic Celts in 0 AD's time frame, but this is not certain, although possible.
MYTH SIXTEEN: Celtic Artwork
Perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of the Celts today is their artwork. Or to be precise the Celtic Knot. Unfortunately part of Celtic art's appeal is that today we just do not know a lot about its past. Nothing can be said with certainty before 450 AD, when Celtic Christian artwork first appeared. However we can say that the ancient Celts did use knot work, just what form it took is unknown.
In conclusion we have touched on only a few of the myriad misconceptions that surround the Celts. However it is the firm belief of the author that in the end these misconceptions will fall away. Because when you get down to it fact is always more fascinating then myth.