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Celts: Common Misconceptions about the Celts

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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.

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 to be closer to nature and the myriad deities they devoted themselves too. Most Celts went into battle with clothes and some rudimentary armor. Full armor, such as chain-mail, was reserved for the nobility and their retainers. The issue of how widespread the helmet was is a separate issue, and not easy to answer.

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 the Celts 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, like honor duels and blood feuds between clans. Full-scale war did occur, but not any more or any less frequent for any other people in the ancient world.

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'. This 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 their records are scarce and not well understood today, we know that the Celts created a strong vibrant culture, and an identity separate of all of their neighbors. Despite the somewhat nebulous nature of Celtic civilization, it did exist, and was quite advanced. In some areas, the Celts were on par with Rome and Hellas. It is important here to note the ancient understanding of the word 'barbarian' was different from the modern understanding. To the Hellenes, a barbarian was one did not speak a Greek language. To the Romans a barbarian was one who did not live by the standards of Roman or Hellene civilization. While they viewed the Celts as barbarians according to their worldview, the modern view of the Celts as barbarians is incorrect.

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 men folk 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 hero legends (such as in the Gaelic legends of Cu Chulainn).

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 Celtic warfare. First and best known was the belief that Celts fought as a disorganized mob. This myth is borne out of the differences in the Helleno-Roman and Celtic approach to warfare and battle. In general, the former stressed the cohesion and discipline of the whole formation, relying on the ‘group’. The latter focused on the skill, prowess, and training of the individual, or a small formation. Heroic culture was much of the inspiration for this. It is important to stress here the Celts were not incapable of formation warfare, indeed the Romans learned many of their tactics from the Celts, but they did not place as great an importance on it. A second myth we shall tackle is about the quality of Celtic weapons. Contrary to popular belief, the Celts were masterful weapon makers, and surviving battle paraphernalia is highly prized. This is especially true of swords, which could be of a very fine quality if made for a noble. The Romans sometimes mocked Celtic swords, but only because the Celts used their swords differently then Rome. Whereas the Romans used their swords for thrusting and slashing, the Celts used theirs more like a cudgel.

MYTH SIX: Druids

There are several famous misconceptions about the Druids. First, we will examine the myth of the Druids building Stonehenge. In truth, Stonehenge had been built and abandoned by whomever created it long before the arrival of the Celts around 500 BC. However, the Druids may have used Stonehenge for their own purposes, which is another matter. Other myths about this group will be addressed by listing what the Druids actually were. The Druids of the Celtic world were their culture’s educators, scholars, healers (and doctors of varying kinds), poets, and occasionally war leaders.

MYTH SEVEN: Human Sacrifice

Many Roman historians, most famously Caesar and Didorus Siculus, asserted the Celts practiced human sacrifice. Even today, the controversy still rages 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. Samain, modern Samhain, probably is the worst distorted of all. Perhaps the biggest misconception is that Samain is the Celtic New 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 neopaganism. 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 (a Celtic invention most likely). 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. Such as the famous helmet unearthed in modern Romania with a metal raven fixed to the top. 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. However, the horned helmet had likely died off as a popular piece of battle-gear by the late 3rd Century BC at the earliest.

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. Celtic mastery of the chariot was impressive (as recorded by the ancient authors), and the Romans respected and feared the chariot warriors, who were undoubtedly the elite.

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. Some forms of Celtic soap were also used in the spiking/balding process. The ingredients are still a mystery, even though theories abound.

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. Evidence of this can be found in surviving Celtic hero poetry and in the epic cycles of Ireland.

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 Goidelic Celts may have used the leine and brat, a loose tunic and mantle used by the Irish, in 0 AD's period, 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. 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.

MYTH SEVENTEEN: Celtic Roads

There are many myths about Celtic roads, perhaps the most widespread being that Celtic roads were poor or just dirt paths. This is incorrect the Celts did build roads, and possibly started building them even earlier then Rome (the archeology is unclear). Celtic roads were built of wood and other materials, using a sophisticated system of planks and runners. In the later phases of Celtic history, they even used stone. Julius Caesar in his De Bello Gallico speaks highly of the Celtic road system, and admitted the speed of his advance was owed to the far spread and excellence of the roads in Gaul.

MYTH EIGHTEEN: Celtic Height

A very common misconception exists about the height difference between the Hellenes and Romans on the one hand, and the Celts on the other. Archeological findings have discovered that there was no great height difference between the Celts and their more ‘civilized’ enemies in Hellas and Rome. This has led to some confusion, as both Hellene and Roman writers frequently commented on the great height of the Celts. It could be the Celts simply seemed that much bigger due to the other factors. Possibly these writers were referring to certain extraordinarily tall exceptions that had been mistaken for the general height of Celtic warriors.

MYTH NINETEEN: Celtic Writing

Until fairly recently it had been taken as fact that the Celts left no written records whatsoever. However, recent advances have not only uncovered examples of Celtic writing, especially the Gaulish dialect, but also have allowed us to decipher it to an extent. While no historical writings have been discovered, if they exist at all, existing examples of Celtic writing have significantly added to our understanding. While no full alphabet has been uncovered in any of the known scripts used (for Gaulish: Etruscan, Greek, and Latin) it is now a misconception to say the Celts lacked writing.

MYTH TWENTY: The Celts lacked hygiene of any kind

Another common myth is the idea the Celts lacked hygiene or did not value cleanliness. This is not true and in fact the Celts were quite health conscious. While under dispute, it is generally accepted the Celts did in fact invent soap, which was varied in quality, composition, and usage. Three types we know of definitely are bar soap, a greasy compound, and head soap. The difference between the three is the lye content of the soap, which the Celts extracted from the fats they used in the soap making process. In addition, archeology as unearthed evidence the Celts may have discovered how to make artificial hot baths before the Romans brought their own hot water systems into Celtic lands. Undoubtedly, the Celts use did natural baths and hot water springs, but the discovery is still important. The Germanic cultures neighboring the Gallic and Belgic Celts apparently learned much of this, and in fact the Romans held the soap of Germania in higher regard then that of Gaul due to the much higher concentration of fat (and hence lye) in German soap.

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.

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This is an excellent article, though it would have been nicer to highlight more of the greater achievements of the Celts, such as their impressive pre-Roman roads. More 'misconception' articles about other ancients would also be greatly interesting!

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I was talking to Paul yesterday about how more of these would be great reads. Especially with '300' being released, articles on the Persians and Hellenes would be wonderful.

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Yeah I agree Mythos. That would be good eh.

This is a great article. I love it. I must contact Shogun about the boats and see if he knows what they were called for the Antiquity project.

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Good article.

What about the Celts shown in the screen shots with blue swirly tattoos? Are those designs going to be removed for historical accuracies' sake?

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