Book Review: The Celts : A History

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For those of you who know me rather well, you know that the majority of my family tree comes from Scotland. Many is the time that I have recited the immigration story, as I find it very unique. It was not the result of economic need and forced immigration as with many Highland villages. Nope, it was in an effort to escape from the wrath of royalty. Was this religious persecution or political pressure? No! It was because my ancestor lost his temper and threw his workman's tools into the front seat of Queen Victoria's favorite carriage. Why was this a problem, you may ask? Because it had to go through the dashboard to get to the front seat. Needless to say, he decided it was time to leave the country.

So, with that little tidbit out there, and with my BA in Ancient History, you may understand my fascination with the Celts of Britain and Ireland. They represent a large portion of my background, and indeed the background of a large percentage of those living in the United States and Canada. So I have been interested in researching the culture that has had a huge impact on my up-bringing, whether I was aware of it or not.

With that now understood, here is my review of The Celts: A History by Peter Berresford Ellis.

Thousands of years ago, before Rome was breaking itself from the Etruscan empire, there existed a group of people with a similar language, belief system, and cultural interaction (laws, crafts, etc.). These have been referred to as the Celts, representing a distribution from the Po Valley in modern Italy to the majorty of Spain, to the central region in modern Turkey (Galatia), Following the Rhine to the great Northern Islands of Britain and Ireland.

The Celts were an Iron Age people, which meant that they used Iron in much of their daily implementation from weapons to cookware. Because they can be grouped into this larger designation, many modern Archeologists have tried to deny the label of Celt to this culture, preferring to designate them "Iron Age" instead. Peter Ellis does an excellent job in explaining how the logical distinction between other Iron Age groups (i.e., the Greeks, Romans, Numedians, etc.) can be drawn with the use of linguistic and cultural lines.

Ellis then continues on to address the cultural aspects of the Celtic people, referring to both the insular Celts (Britain and Ireland), and the Gaulic, or Continental, Celts. These chapters seem to be in a defensive mood, first addressing those that question the existence of a "Celtic" people, and then defending the image of the Celts against the works of the Roman references to the Celtic tradition. In some portions of the book, such as when the question of human sacrifice is addressed, Ellis seems to attack the Roman criticisms by pointing out the Roman use of human sacrifice. But at no time does he admit to the Celtic use of human sacrifice, as archaeological evidence (i.e., bound and beaten victims found in bogs with golden bonds) has indicated. The closest he came to an admition is the acknowledgement that all Indo-European cultures have at some time performed human sacrifice. I would like to add, that in those instances it generally was a period of great need for the people, and seen as the only way to pacify particularly hostile dieties.

The first problem that is addressed in the book is that of no written cultural records in a native Celtic tongue. Ellis points out that the Celts had an Oral tradition that kept their records. For those that are not familiar with the Oral tradition of maintaining histories and cultural experiences, I would like to point out that both the Illiad and the Odyssey were both compositions that were handed down to Homer through an oral tradition, and many aspects have been proven historically accurate that would have been obscured at the time of Homer, some 300 years after the fall of Troy. So oral tradition has been proven to keep many facts accurate over long periods of time.

That being said, there are several written records by both Romanized and Christianized Celts, as well as ancient Irish records that help shed light on the Celtic culture and mythology. As such, it becomes the job of the scholar to wade through the biases that they are faced with to try to get a clear picture of the ancient Celts as they existed. The same it true for any book written, as all scholars have their own level of bias. Ellis is unique to a number of scholars that I have read in that he acknowledges that bias at the beginning of the book, and allows it to surface in assumptions could be made based on incomplete evidence.

The one portion that interested me the most was that of Celtic architecture. Nothing, in my mind, has more impact on a culture than their architecture. The Celts were incredibly practical when it came to their designs and buliding materials, and created villiages and cities that were easy to maintain as well as completely functional in their given environment. The best example that I can think of are the insular Celts and their use of round wattle and cob housing. The shape maximized the efficiency of heat retention, while the building materials provided for a quick and easy way to construct and maintain a lasting structure. A great example of such architecture can be found at the current Butser's Ancient Farm, where a number of ancient structures have been created in a 1 to 1 scale archaeological experiment.

For those interested in a quick introduction to Celtic belief systems, Ellis provides a comprehensive overview of the belief system as given to us by archaeological finds and existing epics in the old Irish. As one reads the evidence presented, it becomes clear how the Celts can be considered Indo-European, as it parallels various Sandskrit, Latin, and Germanic belief systems.

All in all, the book is an amazing read, and I would recommend it for anyone interested in a quick overview of the Ancient Celts as a cultural identity. The list of suggested reading also provides a number of additional references should you become interested in more indepth examinations into the Celtic peoples of the pre-Roman era.