languages make up one of the major divisions of the Indo-European Language family. They are noted for their outstandingly beautiful
literature which has always maintained a high standard of poetic quality. The
Celtic cultures are often associated with a distinctive style of art which first
appears about 500 BCE in La Tene and is characterized by a use of spirals and
interlace. This art style is so distinctive that the Celts are one of the few
cultural groups that we feel confident in identifying in an archaeological
context absent of actual writing which would indicate the language spoken.
Geography and History
The Celtic languages were once
spoken from the Danube west of the Black Sea, to the coast of the Atlantic in
northern Europe, and as far east as Cappadocia in Turkey. Possibly it was spoken
by Scythians north of the Black Sea, but there isn’t enough information to be
sure. They also formed a substrate language in Greek and Roman (Italic) speaking
areas including Spain and France. Eventually many speakers of these languages
came to speak other languages, mainly Romance languages and English, in western
Europe. However Celtic languages remain in use in the northwest of France
(Brittany) and in Ireland, Wales and parts of Scotland although they have been
under constant political and cultural pressure for centuries. Even where other
languages have replaced the Celtic languages, many of the people who formerly
spoke Celtic languages remain proud of their Celtic heritage. [fuggle26]
The Celtic languages can be distinguished
from all other Indo-European languages by the loss of *p in most
environments. They are divided into two major groups, the P-Celtic and Q-Celtic.
The sound of *kw in the original Proto-Indo-European language became p
in Welsh, Manx, Cornish and Breton. The same sound remained Q in
Gaelic of both Ireland and Scotland, although it subsequently became ch
in most words. Both P-Celtic and Q-Celtic forms appear in early Gaulish
inscriptions. For example, the Goddess Epona “horse” appears in many votive
inscriptions, but Equos appears as the name of the month corresponding to
July/August in the Coligny calendar. There is such a wide variety of languages
and dialects in the Celtic language group, it would be unrealistic to try to
address them all in any detail in a short article.
Individual Celtic Languages
the general word for the Celtic languages spoken in France, northern Italy,
Spain, the Balkans and the British Isles. It is known from a few references in
Latin literature, as well as votive inscriptions and coins, most dating from a
few centuries BCE to a few centuries CE. The earliest inscriptions date to about
500 BCE and are in the Etruscan alphabet. There are hardly any substantial texts
in Gaulish (there is a curse tablet and at least one story retold by Plutarch),
but there are many Roman votive inscriptions which give the names of Celtic Gods
in both the P-Celtic and Q-Celtic dialects. Little is known about these deities
based on the inscriptions because they are often identified with Roman or Greek
Gods in the form of interpretatios which are more confusing than
revealing. However, in connection with the literary sources in later Celtic
languages and the wider knowledge of the Proto-Indo-European religion they can be easily
identified as cognate Gods of the Indo-Europeans. Most of the information about
the votive inscriptions was published in the CIL books, though more inscriptions
continue to be found, and in the last two centuries a much better understanding
of the cultural context has been developed by scholars.
More recent Celtic
languages are much better known, though some of these are hardly spoken now. The earliest sources about Welsh are in Latin but contain
early forms of Celtic names. By the Middle Ages there are substantial texts in
Welsh. The most outstanding text is known as the Mabinogion, a group of
tales which are thought to contain later forms of ancient myths. The earliest
were certainly composed by the 11th century. Other texts like the Welsh triads
are much more cryptic but contain recognizable elements of ancient Paganism.
Some of these Welsh myths became part of the popular Medieval literature and
eventually became the basis of modern operas such as Tristan and Isolde, and
The oldest writing in Cornish is a miracle play about St.
Meriadoc which dates to about 1508. Cornish continued in every day use until the
1800’s but is now effectively extinct. Because of its linguistic isolation from
English-speaking people, the Cornish people retained ancient traditions for a
very long time and some of the most beautiful songs were recorded in Cornish:
they are now sung in English as Christmas Carols. The people of Cornwall have
also maintained traditions like the Padstow horse which are well known to
The Manx language was spoken on Isle of Mona, or Manx island
which has influence from Celtic, Norse and English sources so it is not always
easy to pick out the origin of a particular custom. Although Manx is no longer
spoken, there are songs, charms and stories known in that language which
represent some ancient traditions.
Breton literature was one of the outstanding sources of
artistic inspiration in Medieval Europe. There seems to have been a substantial
literature in the language of Brittany, in northwestern France in the Middle
Ages. The stories provided the source for the greater part of Medieval romantic
literature all over Europe, although it seems that the originals often have not
survived. Breton is still spoken in Brittany, despite the best efforts of the
The earliest Irish texts consist of glosses and short texts
and date to the 8th century CE.
Later Irish literature includes mythological
tales such as:
• Heroic or Epic Cycles of the Fenians and
• The Book of Invasions (a legendary
history of Ireland)
• The Dindsennchas, a collection of
explanations for the names of geographic features which were very common in
Irish literature. Some of the explanations are quite fanciful but they often
contain elements of ancient Pagan myths.
Some of these ancient myths are
still sung in the form of folksongs in Gaelic, and they have been notated and
published by Peter Kennedy among others.
Scottish (or Scots Gaelic) is the language of the
Carmina Gadelica which is a collection in six volumes of the prayers,
charms and songs of the people of Scotland, collected by Alexander Carmichael
between 1900-1912. This isolated population retained ancient formulas of the
Indo-Europeans along with the rituals and customs often with the occasional
substitute of a saint’s name for the obvious God. The books are rarely
available, but the first two volumes (in Gaelic with English translation) are
available on the internet at Carmina Gadelica on the Sacred-Texts Archive.
Christianized versions of Celtic Gods and myths make up the major part of
Celtic Christianity. It is not at all clear when Christianity was introduced
into the northern Celtic-speaking areas, but most of the early Christian saints
and saints tales are actually Pagan Gods and myths with a very thin veneer or no
veneer at all (who exactly would St. Hawthorn be?). The Celtic Goddess Bride is
so christianized that she has an entire mass written for her.
English is certainly not a Celtic language but there is a considerable body
of literature in English on Celtic subjects which seems to have been produced by
native English speakers who had intimate knowledge of Celtic lore. Among these
we find substantial poems like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and many
beautiful lyric poems, some with music. Some poems like “Maiden in the Moor Lay”
may be connected to ancient rituals or myths. There is also a very substantial
ballad literature in English from Wales, Scotland and Ireland which is based on
Some of the more fun books to read are
the early translations of the Celtic literature, which are very widely
available. While these translations are not very accurate and they are sometimes
bowdlerized, they are stately and beautiful and make dramatic reading. I have
only rarely read anything intelligent on Celtic Pagan religion which dealt with
the linguistic relationship with other Indo-European languages. Much of the
scholarly analysis has been written by Englishmen (who hate the Welsh and Irish)
or by Germans who don’t seem to know they exist. The exception to this
unfortunate situation might be (not surprisingly), actual Celtic speakers. Gwyn
Jones’ translation of the Mabinogion is very beautiful and the
introduction explains the connection between the Welsh myths and Indo-European
myth in general and won’t put you to sleep.
Celtic sources provide nearly complete
information on the Celtic forms of the Proto-Indo-European religion. Many people may feel that
all was lost with the annihilation of the Druids by the Romans. Certainly much
literature has been lost, but more has been created and the old ways are
Gods and Goddesses
There are hundreds of Deities known from various sources and although there
is little information about them from the time when the Celts were still openly
Pagan, the languages and their relationship to other Indo-European languages are
transparent. In conjunction with the later mythological lore and the rituals
maintained in the Hebrides, it is clear that they correspond to the major Gods
among the rest of the Indo-Europeans. The Celtic Gods do come out slightly on
the Sanskrit side of the Pandemonium however, the reason for which is completely
unknown to me. Two well-known Goddesses of the Celts are Arianrhod and Rhiannon.
The Celtic Festival calendar has been somewhat
confused by the neopagan tendency to produce a geometrically consistent version.
However, noticeably, the cross quarter days were celebrated as major festivals
by the Celts in the islands. They are called cross quarter because they fall
half way between the equinoxes and solstice. The cross quarter days fall on Feb.
1st, Imbolc, a festival of light; May 1st, Beltaine, a festival for Bel; Aug.
1st, Lammas or Lughnasy for Lugh, a festival for the grain harvest; and Nov.
1st, Samhain, for a God whose name we pretend not to know, but it is probably
some form of the original Indo-European God *Yama.
The festivals fall somewhat earlier in the year compared to similar festivals in
Germanic language areas and may reflect the southern origin of Celtic people
(perhaps originally from Mediterranean areas of Europe) or it may reflect the
milder climate of lands on the west coast of the continent. The Celtic holidays,
based on an analysis of the oldest sources, are strongly oriented toward animal
husbandry and less so toward actual agricultural (grain growing) as compared to
Of the 28 Proto-Indo-European Myths easily recognized among the
Indo-Europeans many can be seen in Celtic myth and folklore, often in multiple
versions. These multiple versions represent an important element in Pagan
literature since they show the same myths with the same persons with the same
cognate names doing the same things. However, some versions are actual myths in
which Gods do godlike things, some are epics or fairy tales in which heroic
humans have supernatural abilities and supernatural problems; some consist of
early dynasties of legendary kings and some are folktales suitable for children
with only barely recognizable features. Often the basic skeleton of the story
remains the same but the motives of the characters vary greatly, most notably in
the hero tales which seem to require complex explanations for why humans would
do so such (absurd) things; the explanations create ever expanding back stories
which seem to increase the literary corpus. With the introduction of
Christianity, the same stories are told, this time with saint added before the
God’s name and a new set of motives which are often quite nonsensical. In the
literature of ballads and saints’ tales of western Europe there are some 200
versions of the Pagan myth about the death of *Yama which can be traced back to
either Celtic or Latin versions based on the forms of the names.
Descriptions of the traditional customs of the
Celtic people have been collected by folklorists since the 1800’s and though
these often have an admixture of Christian elements, it is easy to separate
these out by comparing them with other Indo-European traditions and also by a
careful examination of the linguistic evidence. Celtic rites consist of food
offerings to the Goddesses, especially as thanks for gifts received, celebration
with round dance and song, hymns of praise, and a series of charms used to heal
the sick, among other things. These are all typical of Indo-European religious
practices. Because of the political, geographic and linguistic isolation which
has characterized the relationship between Celts and some of their neighbors,
there is a tendency for ancient traditions to be continued among the Celts to
• Gamkrelidze, Thomas V., and Ivanov,
Vjaceslav V., Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and
Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture (Trends in
Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol. Set), with Werner Winter, ed.,
and Johanna Nichols, translator (original title Indoevropeiskii iazyk i
indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin & NY, 1995 (abbrev. G&I).
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas Q., Oxford Introduction to
Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, Oxford University
Press, Oxford, 2006.
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas Q.,
Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Fitzroy Dearborn, London, 1997.
• Puhvel, Jaan, Analecta Indoeuropaea, (a collection of articles),
published by Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft, Innsbruck, 1981.
© 2009, last updated 8/1/2016, piereligion.org/celtic.html