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The Celtic Fallacy

Exploring new interpretationsof past and place
in archaeology, mythology and folklore

Bob Trubshaw

How often have you read that in pre-Roman Europe near-enough everyone was Celtic. A whole industry of book publishing, visitors centres and nationalistic political activists has built up to promote this assertion. Near enough every person born in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany would regard themselves as Celtic. But this opening sentence, however widely believed, is nothing but a lie.

'There was no cross-European Celtic people. There was no broad-based Celtic art, society or religion. And there were never any Celts in Britain. 'So states John Collis [1]. Who's he? Professor of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield. Why does he say this? Because, although most Roman writers are vague about the Celts, one author is quite specific. This is Julius Caesar. In describing Gaul he observes that it was divided between three groups - one part was occupied by the Belgae, another by the Aquitani and the third part by the Celts. Their territory was what is now central France, separated from the Aquitani by the River Garonne and from the Belgae by the Seine-Marne. The Celts extended into northern Italy and probably into south-western Germany.

Professor Collis notes: 'No ancient author ever referred to the inhabitants of Britain - the Britanni - as Celts. It was not until the sixteenth century that the term was applied to Britain, and then it was used mainly to denote a group of languages spoken in western Britain and Brittany. '

Now this use of the term Celtic by linguists does have a valid basis - the Celts, Belgae, Aquitani and Britanni (and a few other tribes elsewhere in Europe) did indeed speak dialects of a common root language. In the wild and woolly antiquarian approach to archaeology in the nineteenth century - long before any real appreciation of true dating and sequencing of artifacts had been achieved - it was fairly inevitable that subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences and regional variations would be submerged beneath a desire to link together all pre-Roman iron age artifacts. By the early twentieth century the emerging archaeological academics kept this 'lump it all together' approach, with the slight qualification that the style of decoration known as La T ne followed the more diffuse Hallstatt styles.

This fitted in with a 'diffusionist' approach to the changes in European culture. Now that radiocarbon dating has blown diffusionism away in the breeze, it soon became clear that the chronologies that had been created to accommodate the diffusion of a homogenous Celtic culture were also also found to be at best warped. There was no common culture in pre-Roman Europe. Indeed, there is far more regional diversity in the iron age than for any preceding period in prehistory.

Does it matter? Again, allow Professor Collis to hit the nail on the head: 'As an archaeologist, I am concerned not only with that elusive goal, the truth, but also with the way in which archaeology can be used for unacceptable political ends. 'We are not just talking about aspects of German archaeology in the Nazi era. Bear in mind also the frequency with which the concept of rights to 'traditional homelands' is appearing throughout the world - including parts of the imagined Celtic culture.

No doubt all these niceties will not worry the likes of the Celtic publishing bonanza. Truth is, after all, rarely as interesting as well-honed fiction.


1: All quotes from 'Celtic fantasy', J. Collis, British archaeological news, March 1994; itself a version of a paper first given at the 'Celts in Europe' conference, Cardiff, December 1993.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No. 20 (1994).

Celtic fallacy foregone

Part 1

Alby Stone defends the Celts

John Collis's controversial 'Celtic Fantasy' thesis (as outlined by Bob Trubshaw in Mercian Mysteries No. 20) makes for stimulating reading. It is always good to come across specialists who are not afraid to speak their minds, especially when what they say flies in the face of accepted wisdom. Too many fallacies have been perpetuated long after their sell-by date just because controversy is frowned upon in some academic quarters. However, a line must be drawn between controversy for its own sake, and balanced and relevant argument.

Collis asserts that there was 'no broad based Celtic art, society or religion'. This is true in one sense, and false in another. On the whole it would probably be more accurate to say that there were a series of broadly similar societies and religions among Celtic-speaking populations; and that these do not necessarily coincide exactly with the distribution of certain artistic styles. It has long been a source of pain to me that otherwise sensible scholars do persist in identifying Celtic-speaking populations with artistic styles that were far more widely dispersed, and associating them with 'Celtic-style' artefacts that have no definite Celtic provenance at all - the Gundestrup cauldron and the Book of Kells being the two best-known examples. But is Collis right to deny the very existence of 'the Celts' as he does? The social and religious customs of the different Celtic peoples do show an essential similarity that is reinforced by the linguistics of terminology, albeit with the kinds of variation one would expect from dispersed populations.

Julius Caesar's testimony concerning the three peoples of Gaul is largely irrelevant, as is Collis' statement that no ancient author ever referred to the inhabitants of Britain as Celts. The inhabitants of Britain are not known to have referred to themselves as 'Britons' until well into the Roman occupation, and even then we are forced to rely on Roman authors for this information - the term seems to have been used by the early Irish (as the Q-Celtic form Cruithin) with reference to the Picts, but there are no reliable indications that it was ever used to refer to themselves bythe rest of the Celtic-speaking population, who went by a variety of tribal names. But we do not know if the ancient Britons ever did have a generic name that they applied to themselves as Celtic-speaking inhabitants of the 'Brettanic Isles', or if they did not.

Even within his own parameters, Collis' argument has serious flaws. For example, it is known that at least one of the tribes in that part of Gaul ascribed (by Caesar) to the Celtae had relatives in the British Isles: the Parisi occupied part of Yorkshire, as well as the region in which the French capital now lies; and they were also to be found in what is now Ulster. This alone would be enough to refute his claim that there were never any Celts in Britain. Moreover, some of the Gaulish Celtae are known to have had close fraternal links with British tribes. Any migratory factors would be, in the context of Collis' claims, irrelevant. It should also be pointed out that at least one of Caesar's Gaulish peoples - the Belgae - were perceived by other 'Gauls' (and this the Belgae themselves are said to have believed) to be of Germanic ancestry, and probably spoke a Germanic tongue or a Celto-Germanic creole, if personal and tribal names are any guide. The Aquitani, on the other hand, may not even have been strictly Celtic-speaking at all, but rather speakers of an Italo-Celtic language closer to that of the Celts than of the Latins, as seems to be true of Pictish.

What this means is that, in accordance with Collis' own evidence, all of the certain Celtic-speakers of Gaul can be included among those who allegedly called themselves Celtae. As it is, the Romans generally used the word Galli to denote all Celtic-speakers, a name that can be dated to the sacking of Rome by barbarians in 390 BCE - the word derives from the same Italo-Celtic source as known Celtic words meaning 'stranger'. No Celt ever referred to his or her self as a Gaul, except under pressure from Rome - and, to cite a modern example, what do the Welsh call themselves in their own tongue? On the other hand, the term Briton seems to have been imposed upon British Celtic-speakers by Rome, patently because the name Brettanike had become current in the Classical world since it was mentioned by Pytheas of Massilia in the fourth century BCE. The Greeks, meanwhile used Keltoi to signify Celtic-speakers in general; and the name Galatai, referring to Celtic-speaking migrants to Anatolia, may well be a variant form of that ethnic cognomen.

What can we conclude from this? Only that some Celts called themselves Celts; some Celts called themselves by other names; all Celts may, at some point in the dim and distant past, have called themselves by a form of the word Celt; some non-Celts only called some Celts by that name; and some non-Celts used the word to describe all Celts. Perhaps it ought to be borne in mind that a very long time elapsed between the first appearance of the word Keltoi in Greek literature (by Hecataeus of Miletus in the sixth century BCE) and the Three Gauls as noted by Caesar; a lot can happen in nearly half a millennium. Incidentally, Hecataeus - who knew enough to be able to distinguish between the Celts and Ligurians north of Massilia - also mentions a 'Celtic city' named Nyrax, which has been identified (albeit tentatively) with the Latin toponym Noreia. If correct, this would thus locate named Celts in Austria some 550 years before Caesar.

Basically, though, it doesn't really matter what various Celtic-speakers called themselves or each other. 'Celtic' is a catch-all term, encompassing a limited spectrum of linguistic, mythological, religious, artistic, and social factors that have demonstrable affinities and explicable variations. OK, so the Iron Age inhabitants of Ireland may never have thought of themselves as Celts - but to the linguist, the anthropologist, and the mythologist that is just what they were. But within that broad continuum there is plenty of room to manoeuvre, and differentiation must be acknowledged.

As far as the presentation of Celtic studies is concerned, Collis is shooting a horse that is already dead. I do not know of any recent serious scholar who has used the term 'Celt' in the sweeping ways he describes. Take any recent specialist author - Myles Dillon, Anne Ross, Miranda Green, Prionsas MacCana, Barry Cunliffe, Graham Webster, and H. D. Rankin all readily spring to mind - and you will find careful delineations and qualifications with regard to ethnicity, dialect, and distribution. Indo-Europeanists are generally just as careful. Popular Celtic revivalists are, it is true, often at fault on just those points which Collis stresses; but I suspect that very few of them read the journals in which his work has appeared.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No. 21 November 1994.

Part 2

Nigel Pennick confronts Collis

In 'The Celtic fallacy' (sic) Bob Trubshaw reports Professor Collis's assertions that the Celts, as commonly envisaged, did not exist. This is a claim based on a certain reading of taxonomy which needs clarification. If he means that there was never one monolithic 'Celtic Empire' across much of western and central Europe, then no one can argue with him. If he means that everyone who uses the name name 'Celt' to describe a certain multivalent European cultural current is mistaken, then that is quite different.

Nationality is the invention of states, and such consciousness rarely existed in lands where the autonomous family, clan and tribe were the basic units of society. To imagine the different tribal regions as linked together by any political consciousness is, of course, a modern projection upon the past. However, all names are a matter of taxonomoy, and the name 'Celtic' has been attached to the pagan culture current in central and north-western Europe, and later descendents in areas where the Celtic languages were predominant. It is also attached to religious systems: both the paganism recorded best in Irish writings, and the church that was based largely in Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany.

However, to some post-structualist thought, in the world there is nothing typical: everything is a unique case, both in place and time. There is nothing particularly objectionable to this viewpoint; however, its logical result leads to our loss of any means of classification or of understanding relationships, and all description must, of necessity, break down into chaos. The one thing we must remember when classifying is that all classification is artificial - it is a human invention, based upon an inevitably selective choice of descriptive parameters. Buts, as all taxonomists know, it we take care in selecting the parameters, we can come up with a working system that serves us better than working without a descriptive system. Naturally, this applies philosophically to the description of the whole world. When discussing serious matters it is rarely necessary to keep discussing this point.

As reported, his observations that Caesar described Gaul as divided into three tribal confederations, ethnic groups or nations are not quite believable. The name 'Celt' was not used by Caesar. It was a Greek word used to describe those non-Greek-speakers who invaded Greek-speaking territory. The Romans used the word (translated as) 'Gaul' to describe these people. Hence the designation of the land of Gaul (which included the three groupings mentioned above). Roman authors on Britain refer to many distinct tribes in Britain. The religious and artistic traditions of Europe north of the Alps may equally be described as 'northern tradition', yet, whilst Celtic things are within the northern tradition, they are often distinct in themselves and can fairly be described as Celtic.

It appears that Professor Collis is concerned with the use of historical information as political justification. In modern times, the creation of the state of Israel has come about precisely through this process. Zionism has become the model for certain nationalistic ideas, though the mythos of the return to the origin is pan-human. When people claim rights to 'traditional homelands' it is usually because of some perceived oppression, not some idle idea conceived in a moment of leisure. He speaks of the way that archaeology can be used for 'unacceptable political ends'. If archaeology sheds light on the Scottish victims of the Highland clearances, for instance, is the information so gained to be censored because it may shed light on the present-day successors of the inhuman lairds? Is the pursuit of social justice an 'unacceptable political end'? Such judgements are easier to make in the hallowed halls of a university than outside in reality.

Historically, the peoples of Celtic countries have suffered real cultural oppression. The Cumbrian and Cornish languages were suppressed and deliberate attempts were made by the English ruling classes to extirpate Welsh. As late as 1930 the inhabitants of St. Kilda were removed forcibly at gunpoint by the Royal Navy. These people were forced out of their 'traditional homelands', both physical and spiritual, by unscrupulous people whose only intention was to command and control. Today, in England, the resistance against motorways destroying peoples' homes is an assertion of their rights to keep their 'traditional homes'. If people do not stand up for their rights, they will be removed as were the Highland crofters.

The question of identity is an important one psychologically. A deracinated urban proletariat is a perfect consumer-audience. But humans, like plants, need roots. To those who subscribe to the theory of 'political correctness', assertion of collective identity is taboo. But assertion of collective identity is not fascism or racism when it occurs within the framework of mutual respect and social justice for all. The failure of modernism means that increasing numbers of people are seeking their roots, and only the most distorted vision of the Celts would see this reassertion as a campaign for Greater Celtia or a crusade to take back Bratislava from the Slovaks.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No. 21 November 1994.

Copyright 1994, 1996. No unauthorised copying or reproduction except if all following conditions apply:
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b: No changes are made.
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Bob Trubshaw
Created April 1996; updated May 1998