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The ethnic origins of the Celts are somewhat complex, and often obscured by Celtic-influenced languages. Ancient writers referred to the Celts as tall, fair-haired people with blue or grey eyes, but they are more often considered to be the shorter, dark-complexioned Celtic-speaking peoples of France, Great Britain, and Ireland. In general, the Celts are believed to be a warrior race of the early Iron Age, originating north of the Alps, and spreading through central Europe during the La Tène period (500 B.C.E.-1 C.E.).

The Celts who settled in the British Isles comprised two strainsthe Brythons and the Goidels. The former became established in England and Wales, but the Goidels migrated from France to Ireland about the forth century B.C.E. At a later date Goidel contingents from Ireland formed settlements in England, Wales, and Scotland, eventually merging with the Brythons. The Gaelic-speaking Celts dominated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, whereas the Brythonic speakers were more common in Wales.

According to Lewis Spence, magic among the Celtic peoples in ancient times was closely identified with Druidism. Celtic origin and its relation to Druidism, however, is a question upon which much discussion has been lavished. Some authorities, including Sir John Rhys, believe it to have been of non-Celtic and even non-Aryan origin; that is, the earliest non-Aryan or so-called Iberian or Megalithic people of Britain introduced the immigrant Celts to the Druidic religion.

The Druids were magi as well as hierophants, in the same sense that the American Indian medicine man was both magus and priest. That is, they were medicine men on a higher scale, possessing a larger share of transcendental knowledge than the shamans of more barbarous races. They may be linked to the shaman and the magus of medieval times. Many of their practices were purely shamanistic, while others were more closely connected with medieval magical rites. The magic of Druidism had many points of comparison with other magic systems and seems to have approximated more closely to the type of black magic that desires power for the sake of power alone rather than any of the more transcendental type. It included the power to render oneself invisible, to change the bodily shape, to produce an enchanted sleep, to induce lunacy, and to cast spells and charms that caused death. Power over the elements was also claimed, as in the case of Broichan, a Caledonian Druid who opposed Saint Columba, as related in St. Adamnan's Life of St. Columba:

"Broichan, speaking one day to the holy man, says: 'Tell me, Columba, at what time dost thou propose to sail forth?' 'On the third day,' says the Saint, 'God willing and life remaining, we propose to begin our voyage.' 'Thou wilt not be able to do so,' says Broichan in reply, 'for I can make the wind contrary for thee, and bring dark clouds upon thee.' The Saint says: 'The omnipotence of God rules over all things, in Whose Name all our movements, He Himself governing them, are directed.' What more need be said? On the same day as he had purposed in his heart the Saint came to the long lake of the river Ness, a great crowd following. But the Druids then began to rejoice when they saw a great darkness coming over, and a contrary wind with a tempest. Nor should it be wondered at that these things can be done by the art of demons, God permitting it, so that even winds and waters are roused to fury.

"For it was thus that legions of devils once met the holy Bishop Germanus in mid-ocean, what time he was sailing from the Gallican Gulf (the British Channel) to Britain in the cause of man's salvation, and stirred up dangerous storms and spread darkness over the sky and obscured daylight. All which storms, however, were stilled at the prayer of St. Germanus, and, quicker than said, ceased, and the darkness was swept away.

"Our Columba, therefore, seeing the furious elements stirred up against him, calls upon Christ the Lord, and entering the boat while the sailors are hesitating, he with all the more confidence, orders the sail to be rigged against the wind. Which being done, the whole crowd looking on meanwhile, the boat is borne along against the contrary winds with amazing velocity. And after no great interval, the adverse winds veer round to the advantage of the voyage amid the astonishment of all. And thus, throughout that whole day, the blessed man's boat was driven along by gentle favouring breezes, and reached the desired haven. Let the reader, therefore, consider how great and saintly was that vulnerable man through whom Almighty God manifested His glorious Name by such miraculous powers as have just been described in the presence of a heathen people."

The art of rainmaking, bringing down fire from the sky, and causing mists, snowstorms, and floods was also claimed by the Druids. Many of the spells probably in use among the Druids survived until a comparatively late periodthe names of saints being substituted for those of Celtic deities. In pronouncing incantations, the usual method employed was to stand upon one leg and point with the forefinger to the person or object on which the spell was to be laid, at the same time closing an eye, as if to concentrate the force of the entire personality upon that which was to be placed under the spell.

A manuscript preserved in the Monastery of St. Gall, dating from the eighth or ninth century, contains magic formulas for preserving butter and healing certain diseases in the name of the Irish god Diancecht. These bear a close resemblance to Babylonian and Etruscan spells, and this goes to strengthen the hypothesis often put forward that Druidism had an eastern origin. All magic rites were accompanied by spells. Druids often accompanied an army to assist by their magic in confounding the enemy.

The concept of a Druidic priesthood descended down to the beginning of the twentieth century in a more or less debased condition in British Celtic areas; thus the existence of guardians and keepers of wells, said to possess magic properties, and the fact that certain familiar magic spells and formulas are handed down from one generation to another are proof of the survival of Druidic tradition. Females are generally the conservators of these mysteries, and that there were Druid priestesses is fairly certain.

There are also indications that to some extent witchcraft in Scotland was a survival of Celtic religiomagical practice. Amulets were worn extensively by the Celts, the principal forms in use being phallic (to fend against the evil eye ), coral, the serpent's "egg." The person who passed a number of serpents together forming such an "egg" from their collected spume had to catch it in his cloak before it fell to earth and then flee to avoid the reptiles' vengeance. Totemic amulets were also common.


De Jubainville, H. d'Arbois. Les Droides et les dieux celtiques à forme d'animaux. Paris, 1906.

Gomme, G. L. Ethnology in Folklore. New York: D. Appleton, 1892.

Green, Miranda J. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Laing, Lloyd Robert. Celtic Britain and Ireland, A.D. 200-800: The Myth of the Dark Ages. Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 1990.

Powell, T. G. E. The Celts. New York: F. A. Praeger, 1958.

Rhys, John. Celtic Britain. London, 1882.

Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

Spence, Lewis. Magical Arts in Celtic Britain. London: Rider, n.d.

Squire, Charles. Mythology of the Ancient Britons. London, 1905.

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Celts. From the 5th cent. bc, Greek ethnographers such as Hecataeus of Miletus and Herodotus described the Celts as one of the major ethnic groups of central and western Europe, locating them inland from Marseilles, or around the headwaters of the Danube. Later Latin and Greek authors equated them with the Galli and Galatae who invaded northern Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor in the 4th and 3rd cents. bc, though Posidonius, writing around 100 bc, contrasted the Celts of Gaul with the less civilized Galatae of central Europe. Caesar, in the opening passage of the De bello Gallico, states that only the Gauls of central and southern Gaul called themselves Celts, with Belgae living in the north of Gaul and Aquitani in the south-west; these contrasted with surrounding ethnic groups such as the Germani and Britanni.

Interest was revived in the Celts during the Renaissance, as the earliest named inhabitants of temperate Europe. In 1582 George Buchanan claimed that the former inhabitants of Britain were Celts or Gauls on the basis of similarity in ancient place-names in Gaul and Britain. This linguistic similarity was developed by authors such as Pezron and Llywd in the 17th cent. to define a group of related languages spoken in ancient Gaul, and still surviving in parts of Brittany and Britain, and which they termed ‘Celtic’. The term ‘Celt’ was thus extended to refer to speakers of these languages, or those whose recent ancestors had spoken it—Bretons, Celts, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Manx, and Scottish.

To identify the ancient Celts, 18th- and 19th-cent. scholars turned to archaeology, describing certain objects and burial rites as ‘Celtic’. In 1871 de Mortillet noted the similarity between burials in Champagne and northern Italy, suggesting this was the evidence for the historically documented Gallic invasion of northern Italy in the 4th cent. bc. Kemble and Franks, as early as 1863, had referred to objects from Britain decorated in a distinctive curvilinear art style as ‘Celtic’. This art style was also found on the objects fished out at La Tène on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, a site used by Hildebrand in 1874 to define the later Iron Age in central Europe; the cemetery of Hallstatt in Austria represented the earlier phase. Hildebrand considered both periods to be ‘Celtic’.

By the late 19th cent. archaeologists had defined a La Tène ‘culture’, with distinctive artefact types (brooches, swords, etc.), art style, and burial rites, and following the theoretical assumptions of Kossinna and Childe that archaeological cultures could be equated with ancient peoples, the La Tène culture became that of the Celtic peoples, and La Tène art became ‘Celtic’ art. It was also assumed that there was a close correlation between ethnicity, language, art, and material culture, and by using classical and Irish sources that an ancient ‘Celtic’ society and ‘Celtic’ religion could also be defined, and the former distribution of the Celts mapped, using a combination of historical, archaeological, and linguistic (especially place-name) evidence. On this model, the modern existence of Celtic languages along the Atlantic seaboard implies a ‘survival’ of Celtic ways, supported further by the La Tène art style and early Christian art in Ireland, and also in descriptions of Irish society. Thus the Irish and the classical sources are often combined to produce a ‘timeless’ and ‘placeless’ description of Celtic society and religion.

Scholars such as Powell (1958) and Filip (1962) used archaeology to seek the origin and spread of the La Tène culture. On the evidence of the continuity of burial rites from the preceding Hallstatt period, and of a concentration of richly decorated early La Tène art objects, the centre of origin was identified as northern France–western Germany, more specifically in Champagne, and the hill-ranges of the Hunsrück and Eifel on either side of the river Mosel. From these areas it was claimed the Celts expanded in the 4th and 3rd cents. bc by migrating into southern and western France, Britain, and central Europe, and, as documented by the historical sources, into Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, and Asia Minor. Subsequent revisions of this theory have extended the core area to include southern Germany and Bohemia, and back in time to the late Hallstatt period, to include the rich burials and ‘princely residences’ such as Asperg, the Heuneburg, and Mont Lassois.

This model has come under increasing criticism. It fails to account for Celtic-speaking groups in Iberia where La Tène objects are rare or unknown; the supposed invasion of Britain in the 4th–3rd cents. bc corresponds with the period when insular–continental contacts were at their lowest; and continuity from the early to the late Iron Age is seen as the norm in virtually all areas where the archaeological record is sufficiently complete (e.g. Britain). The supposed ‘expansion’ of the Celts is largely a product of the misinterpretation of the archaeological record. Most art objects, ornaments, and weapons are deposited either in graves or in ritual contexts; neither of these are characteristic of the 6th–3rd cents. bc in much of Britain, and, more pertinently, in the areas of Gaul described by Caesar as ‘Celtic’. It is therefore not surprising that early La Tène objects are rare or absent from these areas. Attempts to tie in the expansion of the Celts with early archaeological cultures (e.g. the late Bronze Age Urnfield culture) are equally unsatisfactory, and many archaeologists reject the simplistic correlation between language and material culture assumed by traditional approaches.

This fresh, and still disputed, view of the Celts is forcing us to adopt new models for the diffusion and adoption of language, material culture, and art styles, independent of one another. The naming of the language group as ‘Celtic’ is seen as an arbitrary choice by 17th-cent. scholars—it could have equally been Britannic, Belgic, or Gallic—as the Celts were only one of a number of ethnic groups using these languages. If we accept that there were never any Celts in antiquity in Britain, it follows that terms such as the ‘Celtic’ church (for the Scottish church of Bede), Celtic art (for early Christian Irish art), or indeed the description of the Welsh, Irish, and Scots as ‘Celts’ are without historical foundations, and any direct connection between the ancient and modern Celts must be rejected.

John Collis


Collis, J. , The European Iron Age (1984);
James, S. , Exploring the World of the Celts (1993);
Kruta, V., Frey, O. H., Raftery, B., and Szabo, M. (eds.), The Celts (1991);
Raftery, B. (ed.), Celtic Art (Paris, 1991).

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