Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Ancient Celts

The ancient Celts were not an ethnic unit but a conglomerate of different peoples of Indo/European extraction. Although they were known to have reached Spain and the Atlantic coast sometime in the 6th century BC, the first mention of them in classical literature (as ‘Celts’) comes in Herodotus’ The Histories (c. 440 BC) where he said that the Keltoi (Celts) lived on the Upper Danube and ‘’… beyond the Pillars of Heracles…’’ There was no such thing as a ‘typical’ Celt for they ranged from the small and dark to the tall and blond but what they held in common was their related languages, laws, history and religion. By the 3rd century BC, the Celtic world stretched from Ireland in the west to the Black Sea in the east, from where they traded with China.

They also held territory from the Baltic region of Scandinavia and Russia, down to the Mediterranean coast, and it was only with the advance of the Greek and the Roman world that the Celtic one began to shrink geographically. Although the Celts had kings, Caesar says that the real power lay in the hands of the Celtic priests who were called Druids. Caesar thought that this priesthood originated in Britain before it spread to the continent, and it was their great power over the tribes that the Romans tried to eradicate.

Christianity would have entered Britain with the Romans although archaeological evidence is sparse, and is seen mainly in the form of the chi-rho, which is etched into walls, lamps and other artefacts. The earliest written reference to Christianity in Ireland and Britain comes from Origen of Alexandra (d. c. AD 254) who wrote that those parts of Britain which were not under Roman sway, had been subjected to Christianity i. e. Northwest Scotland, Ireland, Brigantia (parts of northern England), Wales and Cornwall. We also know that 3 British bishops were present at the Synod of Arles in AD 314 – which means that there must have been some sort of Christian organisation by that time. However, there was no such a thing as a ‘unified’ Celtic Church with set beliefs and practices, for it had no centralised authority or hierarchy to tell it what to do (as did the continental Church). Basically, it developed local rules to suit local conditions, and interpreted the Scriptures as it thought best.

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