Celtic Origins


AmeriCeltic provides accurate information on Celtic Culture and History.

Support our work!

Click Here to subscribe to our weekly Email Newsletter, and get updates every Friday.

Unequivocal DNA Evidence for Mass Migrations
from Europe into Ireland

The Origins of Celtic Heritage on Continental Europe


A short Summary of Recent Consensus

Most of us know that the name Celt generally refers to people from Ireland and Scotland, and some know that people from Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Mann, Brittany (in France), and Galicia (in Spain) are also Celts. A few remember that the Romans conquered a Celtic people they called Gauls in what is now France. But where did all these Celtic peoples come from?

Pre-Celtic Origins

Although the Sumerian empire has long been acknowledged as the first recorded civilization, (dating from no earlier than 6000 BCE), the Sumerians and the Celts both emerged from the earlier megalithic cultures of towns and city states dating to 10,000 BCE, just after the last ice age. These earlier megalithic cultures stretched from Ireland, where they built the oldest stone structure, Newgrange in County Meath circa 3200 – 3500 BCE, to southern England, where they built slightly later Pyramid of Djoser built circa 2700 BCE and Stonehenge built circa 2500 BCE, across South Central Europe from what is now southern Hungary, eastern Austria and the Balkans (all later Celtic areas) and lands now covered by the Aegean and Black sea (which was then a smaller, fresh water lake), to Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan.

From the origins in the northeast Mediterranean and South Central European areas, some groups expanded and flourished toward the southeast, eventually creating the city of Sumer in what is now Iraq, and its government, moved southward and eastward, abandoning some of the original territory when the Danube basin flooded from a collapse of a glacier and ‘dam’ in what is now Austria. Others expanded into Europe to the west. As the ice continued melting, sea levels rose. Between 7300 and 7400 BCE, sea levels rose approximately 150 feet, and flooding much the Aegean sea and by about 5600 BCE sea levels had risen high enough to flow through the Dardanelles, flooding the Black Sea with salt water.

Europe was thus cut off from the southern peoples, and the isolated northern peoples were free to begin developing a new cultures and languages, including Greeks and Etruscan-Romans around the Mediterranean Sea and Celts in the rest of Europe. By the time the Sumerian empire broke down about 4000 years ago, the Minoans circa 3000 BCE were creating their own empires in the islands and coastal areas of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Minoans may have inherited their seafaring ways from a yet earlier island and coast civilization a little further west, the Sicilian-Maltese megalithic civilization that began about 5600 BCE, when Malta was settled by people from Sicily. The Minoans are now proved to have mining copper as far away as Lake Superior in North America circa 3000 BCE. Perhaps this Bronze Age Trans-Atlantic trade is connected to the building of Newgrange in Ireland. The Minoans created colonies in what later became the Phoenician, Trojan and Carthaginian civilizations and, after the Minoan civilization was destroyed about 1400 BCE by the volcanic eruption of Thera/Santorini and subsequent tsunami, the Phoenicians took up the same trade routes and mining. It should be noted that the Myceneanan Greeks shared a language root with the Celts at this time and their civilization developed about 800-1000 years after the start of the Minoan civilization with some influence by trade with the Minoans.

When the Celts brought Iron Age culture to Ireland and Scotland circa 1000 BCE, these more ancient people were already there having built the great stone monuments and observatories the Celts then used. These megalithic people were described as smaller and dark haired speaking a different language and using bronze, made of copper and tin, rather the iron introduced by the Celts.

The splits of language and culture still exists today between the Mediterranean countries and the Celtic peoples in the rest of Europe. Oddly, Spain, at the western end of Europe, is the country most in the middle of the two worlds, perhaps because it experienced colonization from both ancient Greek and Phoenician cultures on top of the older megalithic cultures.

Celtic Origins

(Click for the full Wikipedia Article)

Celts Arise in Central Europe

The consensus of the Sciences of Archealogy and Pre-History are that, after the emergence of the Proto-Celtic language, Celtic culture developed at the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. Iron smelting requires a more complex process than bronze because, while copper melts at ~2000 °F. (1090 °C), iron melts at 2282 °F (1250 °C). To make this technologial leap to required the development of charcoal, produced by heating wood, and concurrently, higher temperature furnaces. These developments first occurred around 9th to 6th centuries BCE in and around Central Europe. This gave these first blacksmiths an edge in trade, agriculture and war, and the Celtic Culture began. Click this link to read an excellent Wikipedia article on origins of Celtic Culture and it’s spread throughout Europe from about ~ 600 – ~ 285BCE.

The Urnfield Celts

At this time the first group with a culture and language identifiable as Celtic appeared in central Europe (2000 BCE), in what is now Switzerland, Austria, southern Germany, western Hungary, Croatia and southeastern France. Preceded by the megalithic culture, who buried their dead in tumuli (mound) tombs, the Urnfield Culture was so named because they cremated their dead and buried remains in urns in flat graves.

The Hallstatt Celts

The Urnfield culture was succeeded by one that also buried at least its chiefs and other notables in tumuli, or mound-tombs, often timbered, called the Hallstatt Culture. The ‘barrow burials’ of the Vikings and others are a remnant of this tradition. The artifacts associated with this period and geography shows a common culture and probably a common language. The Hallstatt culture flourished in what is now Switzerland, Austria, southern Germany, and Hungary, from about 1200 to 500 BCE. The earliest cultural remains of the Hallstatt Celts show a continuity with the Urnfield Culture, but in the eastern and westernmost ends of their range, they mixed with other peoples.

In any event the Hallstatt culture was characterized by several things: hilltop fortifications and towns, the burial of dead in tumuli, the reverence for forests, and extremely well made metal objects of many types. Metal workers achieved a special protected status. The Celts, by this time also were well on their way to becoming excellent land-crossing and coastal merchants, traders, and salt miners (Hall is an ancient word for salt).

La Tene Celts

‘Celtoi’ were described by Greek historians about 550 BCE , who believed they were related to Thracians. They claimed that the Celts became more warlike when an eastern tribe of Celts from what is now Transylvania and what was part of Thrace developed better weapons and overcame the leaders of the earlier culture in what is now Austria. Some modern archeological evidence supports this, and researchers have named this later group La Tene Culture Celts. By about 400 BCE most of Europe north of the Mediterranean coast was dominated by the La Tene Celtic culture. They had become accomplished warriors and excellent boat-builders and navigators. Though Hallstatt Celts had preceded them in settlement, it was La Tene culture Celtics that eventually ruled the British isles, and sacked Rome several times during this period, and over time proved to be Rome’s most difficult opponents.

By the time of the Punic Wars, the Hallstatt Ibero-Celts had also adopted the La Tene culture, and in what is now Northwest Spain, they were building tall, round stone towers on their city walls. These Castellos provided an excellent defensive advantage, and made the conquest of Gallaecia most difficult Roman campaign ever. In his 1st-century epic on the First Punic War, Roman Punica, Roman historian Silius Italicus writes:

Fibrarum et pennae divinarumque sagacem flammarum misit dives Callaecia pubem, barbara nunc patriis ululantem carmina linguis, nunc pedis alterno percussa verbere terra, ad numerum resonas gaudentem plauder caetras.
(book III.344-7)

‘Rich Gallaecia sent its youths, wise in the knowledge of divination by the entrails of beasts, by feathers and flames who, now crying out the barbarian song of their native tongue, now alternately stamping the ground in their rhythmic dances until the ground rang, and accompanying the playing with sonorous caetras‘. (or gaethas, bagpipes, perhaps their earliest mention.)

When the Romans defeated Carthage and conquered most of the Iberian peninsula (Spain), some of the Celts from Gallaecia went to the British isles and Ireland but the province was only superficially Romanized in the time of Augustus, and the Iberian Celts hung onto the northwest of Spain against all challengers. In 410 CE, the Celtic Goetii (Goths), coveting Rome’s riches, took advantage of weaknesses brought on by the Roman empires unwieldy size, sacked the city of Rome itself. A large group took the eastern provinces of Roman Hispania (Spain) as their new homeland. These Western Goths (VisiGoths) soon controlled the entire peninsula, but could not defeat the Iberian Celts in the Northwest. To this day, both these Spanish provinces, Galicia and Asturias, retain a rich Celtic cultural heritage.

Celtic Art and Cultural Legacies

The La Tene culture combined animalistic and floral art depiction with abstract and spiral or knotted designs, and created many designs now thought of as traditionally Celtic, in wood and metal to decorate cloth and clothing. They also adopted bells for several uses, including decorative. Roman and Greek accounts described how women would sometimes sew small bells to the hems of their tunics. Large cauldrons for cooking were developed at this time, and continued in use much later in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Austria and Hungary, and even in Celtic Spain.

In France, Austria and Hungary, Celts developed specialized breeds of cattle and horses, crop rotation and new hybrids of grain, vegetables and fruits. The greatest of Celtic nations are very good agriculturalists and animal breeders and very adaptive to changing environments. Celts were the first to reserve and protect forests. Two of the earliest forest reserves that persist to this day were in Celtic Hungary in what is now Somogy county, and in western Transylvania near the Arad region. While England and France have lost virtually all their primeval forests, there are still remnants of ancient forests in Celtic-culture Scotland and Wales.

The Greeks described the Celts of Austria and the Danube areas as ‘tall,’ and often with blonde hair, although not naturally. Both sexes rinsed their hair in lime water, which bleached it, then pulled it back in braids or ties, often while wet. Women also piled their braids or coils on top of their heads. Men were clean-shaven except for mustaches, literally a 3500 year old or so Celtic tradition . The Greeks and Romans also described the Celts as a very clean people, who regarded smelly, dirty people with disgust, and credited the Celts with the invention of soap. Celtic houses, though smoky, were also clean. Women used cosmetics, especially to darken and delineate eyebrows, lashes (brown or dark brown, not black), and to make their lips redder, and both men and women adorned themselves with copious items of jewelry. They loved color and were known to wrap themselves in cloaks of ‘many colors with crossed striping‘ (plaids).

The Celts had a distinctive form of self-government. They organized themselves in family groups of clans, and then tribes. They also had few slaves, and any Celtic slave could earn his or her freedom by proving their value to the tribe, and thereafter would have all the rights of other Celts. Celts practiced the first true representative democracy. Celtic kings were elected, mostly on the basis of military or economic success. Some tribes gathered to elect a high king of that group of tribes. It was the leaders of the tribes that participated in the election of a high king, but men and women often participated together in the election of tribal lord or king. Kings did not always serve for life, and could be removed and/or killed by those who had elected them. The King could be succeeded by a member of the same family, but not always. The earliest Celts were matrilineal in determining inheritance, including leadership. This was a tradition that lasted in Scotland until Robert the Bruce. In Hungary, inheritance of titles and property is still from both parents.

In Northern Europe, where Franks (French), Allemanii (Alsacian), Helvetti (Swiss) and Germani (Germans), developed from the Celts of Central Europe, the tradition of elected kings lead to the creation of the college of Cardinals to elect the popes and to the electors of the ‘Holy Roman Emperors.’ The Swiss, dropped the idea of kings completely and elected an entire government from states in which their own governments were elected, beginning in the 13th century. Kings were elected into the 1500’s in Hungary and 1700’s in Poland. Hungarians referred to their own version of a Magna Carta and their treaties with foreign families allowing them to rule Hungary to justify their attempted revolt in 1660 against a Habsburg emperor. Although by a happy accident for the emperor the head of the conspiracy died of a heart-attack with papers all about the plan and though the Austrians prevailed, it was not a stable country until 1705, when Maria Theresa’s father, Leopold I acknowledged the rights of the nobles and restored them to their ranks, lands and privileges with the Peace of Szatmar. He needed the Hungarians to support his daughter (he had no sons) in becoming empress after his death.

Anyone could become a noble, a bard, or a vate (soothsayers, seers, healers), or a druid (priest or priestess in charge of rituals) based upon the success of his or her work, study, and natural born talents. Druids could be also warriors or even kings. This was a practice that actually predated the Celts and was shared by them. In Hungary, Poland and other countries, partly theocratic states, as the Celts once had, continued until the 13th or 14th century. One famous Hungarian family descended from the ‘Prince-Archbishop’ of Arad. The same practice, also existed in what became Switzerland and parts of Austria, and for a time in Ireland and Scotland and Wales.

Slaves were few, and often an export commodity for trade. Human sacrifice was practiced, but usually made from war captives. The most shocking practice of human sacrifice to the Roman and Greek observers was the occasional burning of men alive, usually in wicker cages suspended off the ground, but sometimes in wicker structures on the ground. The ‘Christian‘ practice of burning heretics and accused witches ‘at the stake’ on top of a mounded pile of fuel is a direct descendant of this ancient Celtic practice.

The most commonly noted ‘barbarity’ of the Celts by the Romans was the practice of taking heads and saving the skulls, even using them occasionally as drinking containers. The Celts believed that the real strength and essence of a man was in his head, and only by separating the head from the body that you kept his spirit from haunting and harming you. Additionally, to keep the head, meant you had power over the person whom you had killed and beheaded, and you added his strength to your own. Various European and American secret societies have continued something of this belief to this day and use skulls for some emblems.

Illyria Vinca Bronze Babe

Illyria Vinca Bronze ~ 4500 BCE

Celtic Antecedents in Illyria

Ancient Bronze Technology
Why did half-Celtic Alexander take Illyria, but nothing further west?

by Cecilia Fábos-Becker

During a trip to the Rosicrucian Egyptian museum I found out of date information in one of the exhibits, which were probably last updated many decades ago. In one gallery were some examples of early bronze pieces, including an ax head, and a partly correct statement that the Egyptians invented bronze about 4900 BCE. I remembered some discoveries reported in the 1970’s by the late archeologist and University of Minnesota professor Tom Jones, a former teacher of mine. Jones had been acquainted with and worked with Carl Blegen and other notable archeologists, was still in regular communications with archeologists active in the early 1970’s and supplemented his class materials with the latest research, sometimes before it reached general publication. So, I got online and looked up the modern research, articles and books on the history of bronze, and found that I my memories of those long-ago classes were and still are correct.

No one knows exactly where or how bronze was first discovered. However, it was not discovered or created first in Egypt, not just in Egypt. The oldest Egyptian bronze artifacts are several hundred years younger than the first Balkan artifacts and even some West Asian artifacts. The oldest artifacts anywhere, just not in Egypt, are from around the date given in the museum for the oldest Egyptian ones.

Bronze appears to have been developed independently in several places, where arsenic was found with copper ores. Bronze using a tin alloy instead of arsenic, Tainted ores and the rise of tin bronzes, was first created in the Balkans by a Mediterranean people who had moved northward into what is now southern Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia as the Mediterranean and Aegean sea levels rose. In 1972, a site was discovered near a village, now called Plocnik, and in December 2013, a study was published dating some tin bronze artifacts found there to 4,500 BCE. This site is also the mineral-rich region known to the Ancient Greeks and Romans as Illyria, and even then had evidence of both mining, metal working and much more. Other items found there were dated to just after 5000 BCE – that’s 7,000 years ago! It was very sophisticated culture of towns and villages, with two-story houses and palisaded walls, and the women already dressing to impress: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-archaeology-balkans/prehistoric-women-had-passion-for-fashion-idUSL0782181520071112

By about 4,000 to 3000 BCE, Indo-European speakers, peoples from four somewhat related language groups, moved up the Danube river and into the Balkans from somewhere north and east of the civilizations in Turkey. (At that time, the Turkish languages did not yet exist). There are many articles about this famous migration and related sites. Previous groups already in the Balkans were shoved southward again, into Italy, the islands including Malta and Crete, and southeast into Anatolia. Those Indo-European languages included Illyrian, which is related to ancient Greek. The peoples of ancient Illyria likewise are related to the later Hallstatt Celts, whose culture is overwhelmingly recognized as the oldest, and original ‘Celtic’ culture, which developed about 800 €’ 500 BCE.


Illyrians Prior to the Roman Conquest
(Click to Enlarge)

Hallstatt Celts

I wondered if the ancestors of the Hallstatt Celts, who were in Europe by 2000 BCE or before, had any relation to the Illyrians who took over the ancient Mediterranean people’s bronze-making area. In yesterday’s research, I found that they were indeed related, which makes them relevant to modern British and Irish Celts. Once they got past all that the Celts were NOT, the articles with the most recent research using modern means of studying people and their languages, generally agreed that the proto-Celtic peoples arrived in Europe from further east, not south from the Mediterranean, at the same time the Greek-related language groups, somewhere between 3000 and 4000 BCE, and that the Greek language groups originated in what is now northern Persia. For a few centuries before the Roman conquest, Greek historians had already observed that their Celtic neighbors shared some distinct cultural behaviors with the Doric Greeks and that some traditions ascribed to the Celts were recorded as practices of the ancient Mycenean Greeks and postulated that ultimately the Celts were related in a number of ways to the most ancient Greeks. It was believed there were even linguistic relations. One thing is clear in following the archeology of the Greeks and their neighbors, the Thracians, Macedonians, Illyrians and Celts, they did all come together into the Balkans at about the same time. There is some modern research substance to support the 2300 to 2700 year old Greek observations. Additionally, several Greek historians described the Celts of the late Hallstatt to early La Tene culture period as wearing ‘bracca’ (breeches) and a scarf or cloak about their shoulders of a checkered material. I also found some descriptions of an interesting recent phenomenon, based on this rediscovery of ancient Greek observations and some recent archeological discoveries. Austrians are now making and wearing tartan kilts: Is Austria the true home of the kilt?.

However, ‘related’ and ‘the’same’ are two different things. The Greeks, even the most ancient of them, were not wearing checkered scarves or cloaks. Bearing in mind that no language is static, the best the linguistic researchers have come up with in recent decades is the earliest forms of the Celtic and earliest Greek languages, have a common earlier root–considerably earlier than the arrival of any or all of them in the Balkans.

However, going through several forums, it seemed many others had already made connections between ancient Illyria, the Hallstatt Celts and Scotland and Ireland. Were they real connections, or were they, as one person described, ‘an attempt at neo-constructionism of an ancient pan-Celtic southeast, central and west Europe?’

So I looked online for everything written by real researchers and scholars and this is what I found. Historically, as reported by the Romans and the ancient Greeks and Macedonians, the Illyrians and Hallstatt Celts had merged together sometime between 1000 and 700 BCE and become one culture. They were excellent metal workers specializing in bronze and gold. They had been neighbors and comingled long before the Boii simply finalized the trend militarily. They owned the lands where tin-alloy bronze was first made. Both had come to the Danube and Balkan area at the same time, somewhere between 3000-4000BCE. Both were already making bronze from before 3000 BCE, and had learned their metallurgy in west Asia.

Copper is sometimes found in association with arsenic, and bronze began when arsenic was mixed with copper. In the Balkans, however, tin was available, and it was found to alloy better and more safely with copper than arsenic. In what became Illyria, tin was first used to make a safer bronze that didn’t cause nerve damage to the metalsmiths. If you ever wondered why the ancient Greek and Roman gods Hephaestus and Vulcan are always depicted as lame, this is why. Microscopic particles of arsenic, rising with the heated air, during the making of alloys and processing them into weapons and tools, were inhaled and caused neuropathy that first affected limbs. This was observed and reported by the Egyptians who mined copper ore in the western Sinai but had no tin mines and thus used arsenic as their bronze alloy. Egyptian used arsenic almost two thousand years longer than people in the Balkans, Mediterranean islands and Sumerian empire who had switched to tin as soon as they realized its superiority and greater safety.

In fact, making bronze with tin instead of arsenic first occurred in the Balkans, and then moved southward and southeast with the people themselves. into the Mediterranean–and Sumer. The early bronze implements found in Ireland, and the knowledge of how to make them, came with the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean sea empires that first settled there millenia before the much later Celts. As the first known copper mines in Ireland and Great Britain were developed along with the first tin mines in Cornwall, bronze making in the British isles undoubtedly had its origins in the Balkan cultures shoved southward by the first Indo-European language groups, including what later became the Celtic-Illyrians. The Egyptians eventually learned this technique from the Sumerian empires and it may have been a justification for invading Canaan, as one of the best known early deposits of tin was in what is now Syria. However, the people of Ireland and Great Britain were already making the safer superior bronze using tin from Cornwall about a thousand years before the Egyptians.

Iron Making

Not all the people of the two cultures of the Balkans left. The remainder of the two earlier cultures were absorbed into these four new peoples who had arrived pretty much together. Three of them were the ancient Mycenaean Greeks, the Macedonians and the Illyrians. By about 600 BCE, the Hallstatt Celts took over Illyria, the Illyrians and Hallstatt Celts became one and the same, tribes of the same cultural group, speaking a now related Celtic language. Ancient Illyrian, though was not originally related to Celtic.

These Hallstatt Celts type site, Hallstatt, is a lakeside village in the Austrian Salzkammergut southeast of Salzburg, where there was a rich salt mine, and some 1,300 burials are known, many with fine artefacts. What became the Hallstatt Celts learned tin alloy bronze making from these Illyrians, and developed it into some of the first iron smelting technology, kicking off the iron age. In West Asia, at nearly the same time the Hittites another early Indo-European speaking language people had also evolved from making bronze to iron, taking advantage of the iron deposits in Anatolia.

After the development of iron, in about the late 6th century BCE, an eastern Austrian tribe of Hallstatt Celts, called the Boii, moved southeast, conquered and merged with the Illyrians to the extent it was one people from the entire western half or more of the Balkans including the coastal areas of Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina and including Serbia, north through Croatia, Slovenia and southwestern Hungary into eastern Austria.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

Celtic-Illyrian Alexander

As Mycenae fell apart, and for seven hundred years afterward, what became the Hallstatt Celts and Illyrians merged and grew to rival Macedon. These Illyrians and Macedonians were alternatively allies and ‘competitive adversaries’ (they warred with one another). Philip II of Macedon’s first wife, Alexander the Great’s mother, was a Celtic Illyrian, and so Alexander the Great was half Celtic. The assassin who killed Philip, King of Macedon, was a Macedonian, but is described in the ancient histories of that time as having used a Celtic dagger from Illyria. (Some think that Alexander’s mother became annoyed enough at Philip taking consecutive wives, including another younger Illyrian, and trying to replace her son, Alexander, as heir, that she arranged his assassination). Illyria was a mighty power between 1000 and 336 BCE, a Celtic power, described as then having stretched from the southwestern coast and center of the Balkans all the way to Austria, – The Celts: A History, by Daithi O Hogain, pages 47-49 and additional sections; book published in 2003, by Boydell Press.

So what happened to the Celtic-Illyrians? First, they were allied with and ruled by Celtic-Illyrian-Macedonian Alexander the Great, who was Greek educated and promoted mostly Greek culture–and language. However, Alexander didn’t live long. Though by the time of Alexander’s death they had acquired some Greek culture and tastes, they were not Greeks and actually then invaded Greece itself, pillaging it and ruling some parts. Then they were conquered by Rome after three bloody wars with the last Illyrian (technically Celtic-Illyrian by then) king being captured and taken to Rome, in 167 BCE. By that time many Illyrians had been killed, and under Rome’s rule, Latin became the official language. After the two conquests of Celts and Romans, the original Illyrian, and even the later Celtic Illyrian language was largely wiped out.

After years of work of researchers trying to learn more about the language and that language’s ‘relatives.’, two linguistics researchers from Austria, Stefan Schumacher and Joachim Matzinger, working to establish the origins of the Albanian language found a few inscriptions from the pre-Roman period, mostly names, and about 32 additional words that are not Greek, though related to ancient Greek, nor were they from the later language, Albanian, whose people actually entered the area during Roman times. They proved that Albanian did not descend from Illyrian but it left the researchers then with as many questions as they’d just answered.

What was actually Illyrian and who were the Illyrians? From the histories written by Greeks from about 700 BCE forward, the first Illyrians were, like the Macedonians, not Greeks, but somehow distantly related to them, but then became as much Celtic as anything that was before, and the Illyrian language itself was altered. According to one of the most recent and renowned scholars and professors, David Stifter, a professor at Maynooth University, part of the National University of Ireland, the language spoken by the Hallstatt Celts–and then the Celtic-Illyrians was old Gaulish, and essentially the same language spoken by the Celts in Cornwall and other parts of what is now England and even the lowlands of Scotland and parts of Wales. Ironically, again the last of the Continental Gaulish language in what became France, and Austria was again supplanted by Latin, not by armies of Rome, but by Roman Catholic clergy schooled in and armed with vulgate Latin. http://eprints.maynoothuniversity.ie/3740/1/DS_Gaulish.pdf


The Celtic Confusion

We owe the confusion of what peoples were Celts to the Romans, depending on whether they became Romanized, or retained their Celtic character. About 50 BCE the Romans acknowledged that the Celtic people and culture were essentially one, but Rome had designs on France, Spain, the Balkans, and the Danube basin. These were prime agricultural areas, flat or gently hilly lands that made travel by large forces easier, and all the port areas of the northern half of the Mediterranean, important to maintain control with swift deployment of forces from the heartland of Rome. Rome had become an imperial mega-nation, and a slave economy, where no gentlemen or aristocrats worked. This was typical of most Mediterranean-focused civilizations and is a characteristic of Mediterranean culture. Thus the Romans made war on the Celtic peoples already occupying these regions to enslave them and force them to produce food and other goods for Rome.

In France they killed hundreds of thousands of them and deported a larger number as slaves. When a part of the Helvetii, a Celtic tribe east of the Rhine in what is now Switzerland, moved into France as a result of losing a battle to another Celtic tribe moving west from Austria as a result of Roman pressure on the Danube basin, the Romans asked a Celtic tribe allied with Rome to drive the Helvetii back across the Rhine or exterminate them. In the end, Rome had to seek another Celtic ally and killed most of both of the Helvetii and the first ally. The remainder finally fled back across the Rhine.

Thus, the Romans had names for a dozen or more Celtic tribes in the conquered regions. The rest, the Romans generally described with one term: Germanii. These were also Celts, according to the Roman historians and included tribes with names of Alemanii, Teutonii, and Goeti/Goths. Since the Romans conquered most of the Danube basin and what became southern Romania as well as France, the German forest and mountain Celts were confined to a much smaller area than what they had enjoyed prior to 50 BCE,, the Goeti eventually left, and skirted the Roman provinces along the Danube ending up in what is now the Ukraine and southern Russia and the northern shore of the Black Sea. They eventually came into eastern Romania, from pressures from the Huns, still Celtic-Goeti/Goths.

The Romans assimilated Celts in France, part of western Switzerland, and eastern Austria, Croatia, Thrace, and Hungary, holding them as serfs and slaves in their own homelands to grow food and manufacture other products for Rome. As mentioned above, when Roman forces from these regions were recalled to fight the Celtic-Goths in the Roman heartland, the Danubian Celts stayed behind, seeing a chance to regain their freedom. When the Goths then split, Visigoths in the west and Ostrogoths in the east, the eastern Goths merged with the other Celts of Austria, Hungary, and Croatia.

The Celtic Visigoths and Galicians held Spain until the 712 when the muslim Moors and Berbers conquered most of the peninsula; but they never conquered Galicia! The reconquest of Spain began from this Celtic stronghold in 718, and by 1252, had regained most of Castile, Aragon and Catalonia. It is important to remember the Goths were themselves Celts, just another tribe. This meant that during the ‘Dark Ages’ (roughly 450-950 CE), Spain and Croatia-Illyria, Austria and Hungary were all ruled by Celtic Goths, and their populations were Celtic descended.


Helvetia – Symbol of the Swiss Confederation

Forgotten Celts – Helvetii

How Irish Monks saved Switzerland

Music of the Welsh and Swiss in the Lydian mode

This week we are writing about something completely different than our usual subjects regarding Celtic nations and ancient traditions.

While researching my husband’s Swiss family history for his family’s third revised, updated and expanded edition of his family’s history, we were asked for more information about the family of his musical grandmother, an accomplished professional pianist and organist and consummate entertainer. We have always known of Tony’s Swiss cousins who had also played in the Zurich symphony orchestra, but recently found some useful state archives, a genealogical society and some websites about general Swiss history and culture. In reading through the various items on these websites, we were startled to find that, to this day, the Swiss proudly self-identify as a Celtic nation.

Did you ever wonder why all Swiss websites end with ‘.ch’? The ‘ch’ stands for ‘Confederation Helvitia’!

Several Swiss websites we reviewed emphasized that the Swiss people are descended from the ancient Helvetii, and have not changed appreciably in over 2,000 years. In the 5th century, a Germanic tribe called the ‘Alemanni’ moved into northern Switzerland,’ but did not occupy the whole of Switzerland and the Helvetii (Celts) and Alemanni lived side-by side and eventually began to intermarry. Then, In the words of an official Swiss history, ‘the Christianization of both the Helvetti and the Alemanni was not done by either Rome or Constantinople, but by Irish monks.’

In Switzerland, the setting up of monasteries and record-keeping was largely initiated by the Irish monks who famously re-introduced Christianity to Europe in the 6th and 7th centuries, when Continental Europe’s nominally Christian kings were looting anything that had gold, silver and nice stone work for their early palaces and churches, and burning earlier Roman records both Christian and non.

‘Interestingly enough, the task of preaching the christian gospel to the Alamannen in northern Switzerland was not taken over by Romans or people from Constantinople, but rather by wandering Irish monks. One of them, St. Gallus, settled as a hermit near today’s city of St. Gallen (eastern Switzerland) early in the 7th century. In 820 a monastery was founded there that became soon very influential. The city of St. Gallen was later built around the monastery.’


In the late 19th century, Tony’s grandmother’s Sonderegger and Germann families emigrated from the cantons of St. Gallen and Thurgau to the area near Monroe and New Glarus Wisconsin which retain their Swiss character to this day.

Despite the Swiss use of four more modern languages in its republic, there have not been many invasions and mergers with other peoples–except the Alemanni in northern Switzerland. Of those four modern languages, German, itself, is well known to have Celtic roots.

Switzerland’s very modern political origins reflect ancient Celtic political traditions. Like all ancient Celtic nations, Switzerland never had nor wanted a king. This is very much like what Ireland and Scotland were like before attempting national kingships. Earlier in its own history, pressured by the aggressively expanding Roman Empire, Switzerland figured out how to minimize intertribal strife and more peaceably elect tribal-state leaders everyone could agree upon and support. This, and their cold, mountainous homeland, gave the Swiss greater unified strength to avoid and repel invasions and the ability to throw out the tyrannical Hapsburgs who wanted absolute kingship. By 1291 there was a formal charter of ‘confederation’ and the Swiss demanded recognition from their neighbors, and Catholic Christian authorities, as a ‘confederation of tribal states,’ though loosely under the ‘German empire’ until 1648 when its de facto independence was formally accepted by international treaties.

Switzerland remained a confederation of tribal states influenced by monasteries and the occasional bishops until 1798 when it became Europe’s first national republic since ancient Rome. Ironically, 1798 was the year of Ireland’s rebellion against English rule led by Wolf Tone, which resulted in England ending Ireland’s parliament, the last remnant of any independence. For 700 years, Ireland was trying to eject English rule in much the same way that the Swiss ejected Habsburg and Austrian rule in the 13th Century. The Austrians were, by the 13th century, a mix of Germanic as well as ancient Austrian Celtic peoples who had chosen autocratic monarchy for governance, instead of confederation of ancient Celtic tribal states.

So we decided to see what else the Celtic Swiss had in common with the better known Celtic nations. It turns out that the Swiss also continue to practice one of the most ancient modes of music, Lydian mode, which precedes the Mixolydian mode commonly found in Scottish and Irish traditional music. Lydian mode music is still found today in the Penillion music of WALES, as one of the most ancient forms of Welsh music and some sites have noted that some ancient Scots and Irish music is also in this mode, though it is much more rare these days.

Penillion singing is largely done in Lydian mode, as is the Kuhreihen music of Switzerland (played mostly with these horns with or without accompaniment from a pipe organ, most frequently using various lengths of alphorns). The Swiss Folk music that was developed in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, featured other more familiar instruments, including the bagpipes, cittern, hammered dulcimer and recorders.

Interestingly,s Romans writers observed that the Helvetii and the ancient Austrian Celts were similar to each other, and spoke mutually understood languages. In the 4th and 5th centuries CE, the Romans called one group of Austrian Celts, ‘Cimmerians or Cimmerii,’ and during their occupation of southern Britain, the Romans even brought a group of Cimmerian horse troops to what is now England and Wales. The Welsh call themselves Cymry. Perhaps the Romans introduced long-lost cousins to one another? It’s interesting to think about. Switzerland and Wales are also both mountainous lands with haunting songs of longing and about herding.

So for your consideration and enjoyment, here are two pieces of music in the Lydian mode, one each from Wales and Switzerland. The Swiss piece is in the style of an ancient Kuhreihen–a song of longing for the mountains and the simple life of herding. The Welsh is a form of Penillion singing, in which ancient poems are sung in verse to the accompaniment of harps. Based on the number of horns and the size of the organ in the former, and the number of singers in the latter, ‘the pipes are calling’ (to you).

The Nantlle Valley (Welsh: Dyffryn Nantlle) is an area in Gwynedd, north Wales, characterised by its large number of small settlements, and Welsh traditions. Here is a selection from the Gwynedd Cerdd Dant Festival (Gwyl Cerdd Dant) – by the Arianrhod Choir of the Nantlle Valley (Côr Arianrhod Dyffryn Nantlle). ‘Cerdd dant’ loosely translates as an improvised performance, following quite strict rules, in which poetry is sung to one tune against the accompaniment of an instrument, normally a harp, playing a different tune. https://youtu.be/XPCdOzRG3xk

Engelberger Echo – Eric Dalest And The Brianconneurs – Pipe Organ and 10 Kuhreihen (Swiss Alphorns) https://youtu.be/rh-XJpMUmNA


Central Europe continued to be ruled by Celts once called generally ‘Germanii’ until the arrival of the Huns. However, even the Huns did not exterminate the Celts in the Danube basin and eastern Austria, but intermarried with them, and included them in their armies when they continued to attack Rome, and sacked its northern cities a second time. Their king Attila the Hun died leaving his kingdom to four sons, who soon squabbled. Less than 50 years after Attila’s reign, the Celtic-Gothic warlords re-emerged and ran most of Hungary until the arrival of the Avars in 560 CE.

The Slavs, a mixture of Celtic people and Sarmatians, Scythians and Cimmerians all related Indo-Iranian peoples, passed through but were not allowed to settle in most of Hungary and ended up in the Balkans. Hungary and eastern Austria, as well as Switzerland, and Germany and the latest evolution of France, continued to be all in Celtic Germanic-Gothic hands, populated by Celtic tribes of several names.

After the fall of Rome, Europe nearly became completely Celtic again. What destroyed this path was the Franks, ironically another German-Celtic tribe who adopted Mediterranean-Roman imperialist government, the Latin alphabet, and a large degree of Mediterranean-Roman culture, including Roman Christianity, to ensure longer-lasting dynastic control of a large area by a particular Frankish family. Charlemagne, the zenith of this family, created a large west-European empire on a Roman model, and then left his empire to four sons, creating four successor states. Until modern times, the rulers of those states, and successor states of those, claimed descent from Charlemagne and so the blessings of the Roman Catholic Church. The destruction of Celtic culture in France was a deliberate decision by the Frankish rulers in exchange for blessings of the Christian church and the persuasive powers of the armies of priests and monks on the masses for Charlemagne’s empire to help ‘legitimize’ it.

In the east, meanwhile, the Mongolian Avars too, being small in numbers, intermarried with the Celtic inhabitants of the Danube basin and Transylvania. The Germanic Celtic peoples were still frequently at war with Byzantium and the southern Danube regions and Balkans were often battle-grounds, a lot like the border area between England and Scotland. The Avars brought a kind of peace and stability to the region by creating a mostly neutral buffer state, but besides a temporary peace, the stirrup, and fresh bloodlines for horses, there was little else that the Avars contributed.

Another aspect of Celtic culture is that they have always been excellent metal workers. The ‘Avar Gold’ collection, now in the Louvre, coveted and taken by Charlemagne as he destroyed the Avar khanate, has determined to be largely made by Celtic workers under the Avar rulers. The Avars ruled, and some intermarriage took place, but they were not a large occupying force of their own accord, and had little unification among themselves. The Avars had been defeated and driven west by the Khazars just before the Franks unified France freeing their large army to move eastward. The Avars were not as sophisticated in making a living as either the Khazars or their Celtic subjects. They had some metal weapons-making skills, leather and felt making skills, and were excellent cavalrymen and bowmen, but their whole preceding way of life had been as horse herders and sporadic raiders, and they were more distant from the Celts in race and language than even the mostly Turkish Khazars. The Avars never really settled down in the Danube basin and fully adopted the existing culture.

The Mongolian Avars also had no intention of ever becoming Christian or adopting any religion that resembled it. It eventually made them easy to target as ‘non-Christian foreign invaders who should be destroyed’ by the Pope, at the urging of the Franks and other Celtic-Germanic peoples who were actually more interested in the Avar gold and horses. Charlemagne lead a combined army, defeated the Avars, and a few years later the resurgent Danubian Celtic-Goths attacked again killing many of the remaining Avars, and drove the rest them from the Danube basin. While a small group did remain in Hungary, firmly settling at long last among the Celtic-Goths, a larger group of Avars eventually settled in what became Moldavia, on the eastern side of the Carpathians from Hungary.

However, the Khazars still wanted a buffer between the Celtic-Germanic peoples, and the Byzantine empire, and realizing their mistake in sending the Avars, sent the Magyars, a people that had relationship with the Khazars, but was even more ancient and had previously been neighbors with and shared culture with the most ancient of the Celtic peoples themselves. The Magyars were also becoming a threat to the Khazars as they formed military and socio-political alliances and trade with two other large ethnic groups, the Onogurs and the Uighurs. The strategy of the Khazar emperor was to divide the Onogurs who were the middle link, and send 3 tribes of them westward with the more numerous 7 tribes of Magyars. According to the Societe des Sumerologistes at the Sorbonne, in a research published in 1975, the Magyars are the last living descendants of the Sumerian empire and spoke a language directly related to Sumarian. After 6,000 years they had finally returned to where some of their first towns and city states emerged, and where they had previously intermarried with and shared culture with the proto-Celts.

The Magyars stayed in the Danube basin, as the Celtic-Goths previously did. They were, like the Celts, a mixed agricultural and herding culture and good at both. They were also accomplished and persuasive traders. They entered Hungary in well organized tribal and clan groups with wagons and bags of seeds, cages of chickens, and driving herds of sheep, cattle and horses. They revered forests, were accomplished wood-workers, metal workers and bowmen, and knew how to distinguish edible mushrooms, and grow and use herbs. They were racially, also a mixed race, taller and shorter, red and brown haired, green, blue, gray, brown and hazel eyed. The language was now very different, but that was managed over time. Hungary developed as a ‘modern’ kingdom of two or more languages early on. One of them was German, a Celtic language. Even today, the two languages most Hungarians want to, and do, learn as a second language are German and English.

Modern Celtic Culture

The Germans never really lost their Celtic culture. They are still Celts, culturally, socially and politically. Except for couple of hundred years of mistakenly trying to emulate the Roman-French idea of imperialistic nationalism, fortunately done away with at the end of World War II, Celtic style democracy has prevailed. Democracy is a major aspect of Celtic culture, since with true democracy, even as representative democracy, there must be respect for all other people as yourself, and opportunities for all to advance economically as their skills and wills determine, so long as they don’t abuse others.

The closest linguistic and cultural relatives to the Germans are the Dutch (Netherlands) and Scandinavians. Since severely limiting their remaining monarchies, and giving more power to parliaments, and the Dutch ending their colonial empire in Asia, they too have returned to more traditional Celtic government and egalitarianism.

The best metals in Europe today, are widely acknowledged to be Scandinavian, German, British and Spanish. Shopping in Spain today is an arts-loving person’s dream, and one of the most popular items is the silver filigree jewelry and sculptures based on the old Celtic spirals, vines, and knotwork designs. Much of the earliest forms of what we now think of as Celtic music from the British isles had their origins in Ibero-Celtic Spain, and Gothic-Celtic Spain, both before and after the Moors, contributed many musical instruments now thought of as Celtic, or otherwise used to play Celtic music, including fiddle, flute, accordion and of course, bagpipes, (Gaita). Spain since the 1980’s has become a constitutional and parliamentary democracy and shed its remaining overseas colonial empire. Spain has also been rediscovering its ancient musical and artistic roots, and reviving arts along those lines, as well as combining them with the best of the Moorish influences.

Modern Austrian and Hungarian culture has also retained a great deal of traditional Celtic culture, from sophisticated agriculture, and tribal families, which Matyas Corvinus king of Hungary in the 14th century himself described in some detail as clans and tribes, to elected rulers, metal work, and decorative styles, and of course, bagpipes. Out of Celtic knotwork came lace and filigree, to which Hungarians added floral and other naturalistic embroidery over the lace while the Irish monks over painted letters with knotwork and natural images on parchment, such as in the Book of Kells.

The Venetii (Venetians) who as northern Italians also had a strong Celtic genetic and cultural influence, particularly before and after the fall of Rome, show Celtic traditions in their famous jewelry and glasswork. Glasswork, cloth, parchment are different mediums, but their decoration in the Celtic areas express many of the same basic ideals.

Celtic Genetics

Celts share a very high percentage of their genes with other European and West Asian groups, right across Europe from the British isles. There are very few differences in most European peoples. Recent genetic studies show that most Austrians and Hungarians share genetic links going back tens of thousands of years. The genetic maps drawn up between 2002 and 2005, in summaries of dozens of studies, show that the Austrians, Croatians, Hungarians, Germans and Ukranians were so similar to one another that there was no need to indicate more than one of them in the pie charts with the maps. They show amazing similarities to most of northern Europe, peoples of the British isles, and yet some peoples of central and west Asia as well. The first major differences seen in genetic compositions are in the extreme northwestern islands of Britain, the countries of Italy, Greece, and Romania who have links to north Africa, and as an increase in Asian genetic variants beginning in Kyrgyzstan and moving eastward and southward.


So who are the descendants of the Continental European Celts and that have retained the most Celtic cultural traditions? They are the Germans, the Dutch, the Swiss, the Austrians, the Scandinavian countries, southwestern France and Brittany, northern Italy, Croatia, Hungary, most of Spain, especially Galicia, Asturias and Leon. That’s all of Central Europe and most of Northern Europe, and part of Western Europe, in addition to Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man. Julius Caesar would be amazed. With the exception of France and Roman Catholicism, over 2,000 years, Europe has pretty much gone right back to the way it was when Julius Caesar first decided that conquering Gaul and destroying the Celtic culture in Iberia and Gaul was the way to become emperor of Rome. The Celts have prevailed after all.

Celtic Culture origins in Ireland and Scotland


(under construction)

(see video above)