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Greek philosopher Plato described them as “a drink-loving, warmongering people.” And while their enemies normally viewed them as cruel, uncivilized, barbarians, today a different picture of the Celts emerges. So, just who were the Celts, what were they like and what legacy have they left for modern mankind?
Rather than a centralized people, the Celts were a collection of people’s held together by a common language and style of craftsmanship, military structure and religious beliefs. It is more accurate, then, to speak in terms of a Celtic culture than of an ethnic group. They were comprised of the people known as Gauls, Iberian Celts, Senones, Cenomani, Insubres, and Boji and they inhabited the regions of modern day France, Spain, Austria and northern Italy.
The first historical reference to the Celts was made in the 6th Century B.C.E . At that time Herodotus described them as ‘the farthest most inhabitants of Western Europe.’The Celts of that time soon became renowned for their fearsome battle prowess. After conquering Rome in the 4th Century B.C.E, Celt leader Brennus uttered the famous words ‘vae victus’ – woe to the vanquished.
The Celts of that time were known as great warriors, endowed with amazing strength. They generally had imposing physiques, yet to impose even more fear in their enemies they would wet their hair with a chalk and water mixture that gave off a particularly ferocious appearance. Their long flowing beards and moustaches offset a look that would send terror into their enemy ranks.
The ferocious reputation of the Celts, however, did not deter the might of the Roman war machine led by Julius Casear. Toward the end of the 1st century, B.C.E., Caesar’s campaign against the Gauls finally subdued the Celtic warriors. The age of the Celts was over.
The Celtic heritage, however, survived and it’s influence is still felt today. It was the Celts, for instance, who popularised the wearing of trousers in the western world. They also invented barrels. Perhaps more than anywhere, however, Celtic influence is most noted in the area of religion. The daily life of the Celts was strongly influenced by religion. They believed strongly in life after death, going so far as providing food and drink in burial tombs for the deceased to have while journeying to the next world.
Each Celtic tribe had a priestly class, divided into three groups; the bards, the vates and the druids. The druids were responsible for spiritual teaching and dispensing of knowledge to the people. The position of druid was a very powerful one and everyone had to submit to the decrees of the chief druid. The Celts did not have any written religious records, with all things being transmitted orally. The Celts offered up human sacrifices to their many Gods. Notable among their worship is the reverence of triune Gods, the trinity representing omniscience.
The modern day belief in the trinity is just one example of the many ways that the lives of these fierce people from long ago have affected the world we now inhabit.