Celts and Gauls: Matters of Terminology and Identity: Before we go any further, we need to address one of the simplest and yet most divisive questions found in Celtic Polytheist circles. To be sure, we won’t be able to come up with a final answer here, but we can at least come up with very provisional answers for the purposes of this column. Every few months, the Celtic Polytheist internet is convulsed by yet another debate on the question of the meaning of the word “Celtic” and of the Celtic identity. The issue goes to the heart of modern Celtic Polytheism, because the answer to the question may, depending on whom one asks, have to do with who has the real right to practice various kinds of Celtic spirituality. Questions of ethnicity, nationalism, colonization, and cultural appropriation are involved. The exact nuances of the issue are complex, and there is no consensus of opinion, even among those actually native to modern Celtic countries.
We cannot hope to solve those issues here. That would take a whole book, and even then no minds would be changed. What we can do is use such scholarly consensus as exists to put down tentative and provisional definitions of some terms, so that this column uses a consistent and understandable vocabulary.
According to Celtic scholar Bettina Arnold, modern Celtic studies scholars assign the word Celtic a primarily linguistic significance. To them, it means the groups of historic peoples known to have spoken a Celtic language. Among these clearly are the inhabitants of the modern Celtic countries – Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man.1 Arnold further contends that archaeologists, however, give the term has a different significance, denoting an ancient people sharing a common material culture and a distinctive art style. This definition includes the peoples of Central Europe and the British Isles who shared this complex, beginning in the late Halstatt period, and continuing down to the Roman conquest.2 Celtic linguist Raimund Karl has a related view, holding that the Keltike, as he calls it, denotes a cultural continuum linking various peoples in Iron Age and modern Europe. Among the structuring factors of this cultural continuum are the presence of Celtic languages and of a related material culture.3
These definitions share much, including a focus on two sources of Celticity – the presence of Celtic languages and, in the archaeological context, of a shared material culture. For our purposes here, we will use the definition that “Celts” are effectively two groups of people united in a shared cultural and linguistic continuum. Modern Celts are those who either currently speak, or whose ancestors recently spoke a Celtic language. These include the inhabitants of the six modern Celtic countries: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man. Ancient Celts are those who participated in the Halstatt and LaTene archaeological horizons, and who, for the most part, also spoke ancient Celtic languages, among them the ancestors of the modern Celtic languages, and extinct languages like Gaulish.
To make this definition work, we need to define what we mean by Celtic languages. According to archaeologist and Celticist Barry Cunliffe, the Celtic languages are one division of the Indo-European family of languages, most closely related to the Italic languages. Today spoken on the Atlantic fringe of Europe, they were once spoken over a large area of the Continent, from ancient Iberia, through Gaul, the Alpine region, down the Danube Valley, and into the Balkans.4 According to Cunliffe, the Celtic languages are divided into two groups – the Continental Celtic languages and the Insular Celtic languages. The Continental Celtic languages were spoken on the European mainland. All are now extinct, except insofar as modern people are reviving some of them. The Insular Celtic languages were, and with the exception of Breton still are, spoken in the British Isles. They are divided into two groups, Q-Celtic and P-Celtic. The modern Q-Celtic or Gaelic languages include Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx. The P-Celtic, or Brythonic, languages include Welsh, Cornish, and Breton.5
Celtic linguist David Stifter agrees with Cunliffe, seeing the Celtic languages as one of the 12 attested branches of the Indo-European family. He likewise divides the Celtic languages into Continental and Insular, though he notes that some scholars have made the division into P-Celtic and Q-Celtic primary, which is a perfectly legitimate alternative view.6 Stifter includes a fascinating list of ancient Celtic languages in his discussion, all spoken at the time of the maximum extent of the Celtic languages:
1.Celtiberian (spoken in Iberia, today Spain),
2. Transalpine Gaulish (spoken in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Southern Germany, Austria, the Danube Valley, and the Balkans),
3. Cisalpine Gaulish (spoken in northern Italy),
4. Galatian (spoken by Celtic migrants to Anatolia, today Turkey),
5. Lepontic (also spoken in northern Italy),
6. Lusitanian (spoken in roughly Portugal, and only para-Celtic, with significant divergences),
7. British (spoken in England, Wales, and Southern Scotland, ancestral to the modern Celtic languages of Welsh, Cornish, and Breton),
8. Goidelic (spoken in Ireland, ancestral to Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx), and
9. Pictish (spoken in northeast Scotland)7
This brings up the question of who we mean by the Gauls. Now that the Celts have been defined, the Gauls need to be defined more specifically. For our purposes here, the Gauls, then, are the ancient Celtic peoples who spoke the Gaulish language, including both Transalpine and Cisalpine Gaulish, as well as Galatian. We can see from the discussion of languages above, that they inhabited much of Europe, including France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Southern Germany, Austria, western Hungary, Slovenia, the modern Czech Republic, and Slovakia. They eventually expanded by conquest to include the rest of Hungary, Croatia, northern Italy, the Banat, Romania, Bulgaria, and central Turkey, among other regions. It should be noted that they never formed a unified empire, but were divided into many independent tribes who often fought each other. “Gaulish” identity was always subordinate to tribal identity.
Nonetheless, they did have a name for themselves, according to Celtic linguist Kim McCone, in his ground-breaking study of the subject. According to McCone, the term Κελτος is first used in Herodotus to refer the inhabitants of Europe north of the Greek Colony at Massilia. Julius Caesar, in his Gallic War, clearly recognized Celtae as the native Gaulish term for the inhabitants of Gaul.8 Based on this and some linguistic analysis, McCone is able to reconstruct *Keltoi as the native term used by the Continental Celtic peoples to refer to themselves.9 McCone derives the name from *klitos (the Hidden One), a likely by-name for the deity called Dis Pater by Caesar, from whom the Gauls apparently claimed descent.*Keltos would thus mean roughly “Offspring/Descendants of the Hidden One”.10
McCone also analyzes the word Galatis, used by the Greeks to refer to the Gauls, and thought by many to be a self-designation. Galatis makes a somewhat later first appearance in Greek than Keltos, but is firmly attested by early 3rd century BC.11 According to McCone, it is probably derived from a native Celtic word, itself derived from the root galā, having the primary meaning of “can, to be (physically) able to, have the power to”, but also having connotations of “warlike ardor, hatred, ferocity, enmity”. A galatis, then, is someone endowed with galā.12 McCone’s take on the matter is that galatis refers to an unmarried member of the warband, who fights in a state of rage and ecstasy.13 This kind of mystic, ecstatic warrior is an old part of several Indo-European traditions, the Celtic included. Probably the best known example was the Nordic berserker. Another example of this heritage of warrior frenzy is found in the Iliad, where battle frenzy is referred to as λνσσα (lyssa), probably referring to “wolfish rage”, the warrior becoming like a wolf or predator. Still another example, of great importance to us here, is the warrior frenzy of the hero Cú Chulainn in the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, where it is referred to as ríastrad. Here, we see the physical and psychic transformation of the warrior described in great detail, the reversal of the joints within the skin, one eye squinting to a tiny size while the other bulges out, the hair standing on end, a fierce light appearing about his head, and so on. Indeed, light and heat were important features of ecstatic warriors in several Indo-European traditions, suggesting that they were general by-products of galā.14 Be that as it may, McCone argues that the term came into Greek as a result of the Celtic invasions of Italy and Greece. Given that those invasions were likely led by warbands, with young, unmarried warriors prominently represented among them, it was natural enough for the Greeks to pick up this word and apply to it the Keltoi as a whole. It is important, however, to understand that therefore galatis is not an ethnonym or ethnic self-designation.15
The Laton term gallus, also meaning “a Gaul” is analyzed by McCone in terms of the word galatis, but in this case he proposes a complex derivation from Etruscan to explain the peculiar features of the particular Latin word.16
The most important result of McCone’s study is that we are left with only a single native self-designation for the ancient Gaulish Celtic people. The ancient Gauls called themselves Keltoi, a term that in ancient times was not used to refer to the inhabitants of Britain or Ireland. In this column, we will use these terms in the following way: the modern Celt and Celtic will be used to refer to the Celtic peoples in general, using both the meanings advanced by Celtic studies and by archaeologists. The term Keltos/Keltoi will be used to refer specifically to the Gaulish-speaking Celts of the Continent. It will be treated as synonymous with the modern term Gaul, which we will also use, as most people know what it means, though the Keltoi themselves did not in fact use it.
Modern Gaulish Polytheist Self-Designations: Modern Gaulish Polytheists tend to use various terms for themselves and for what they are doing. The most common and straightforward, in English, is to call the tradition Gaulish Polytheism and those who follow it Gaulish Polytheists. Gaulish Paganism is perhaps a broader term. Once upon a time, the terms were synonymous, but they have since diverged. The term Gaulish Reconstructionist has a more specific meaning, which I follow C. Lee Vermeers in using to refer to the use of the reconstructionist methodology – the use of the best available modern research and scholarly methods to as much as possible reconstruct accurately what early Pagans really thought and did. While some Gaulish Polytheists are also reconstructionists, others are not, and still others are only to a degree. Many modern Gaulish Polytheists are also modern Druids, and many others are not. It should only be noted here that modern Druidism has its own history and to some extent community, centered less on belief than on the use of typically modern Druid symbols and rituals.
Another term for specifically Gaulish Polytheism is Senobessus, a modern coinage taken from the Gaulish seno-, meaning old, and bessus, meaning custom, thus “The Old Custom”. The term is deliberately designed to be similar in sense and meaning to terms like Forn Sed, used for Scandinavian Heathenry. I coined it on September 10, 2011, at 12:58 a.m., in a conversation on Facebook with Cainogenos, the founder of the Gaulish Polytheism Community on Facebook. He put the term into a poll in the community, which it won a couple days later. Cainogenos then used the term in a number of posts and egroups for a while, but it never quite caught on. I still like it. A different term was coined by Condêwios, another former leader of the Gaulish Polytheism Community. He suggested Celtocrabion, meaning simply “Celtic Religion”. Still other folks have suggested Creddîmâ Celticâ, which I dislike on all kinds of levels, to be honest, including the Christian-derived notion that religion is primarily belief, and the lack of distinction between Gaulishness and broader Celticity, which to me smacks of appropriation.
In the German speaking world, the Celtic Reconstructionist community, most of whom are in fact followers of Gaulish traditions and deities, use the term Celtoi to refer to themselves. This obviously is another spelling of Keltoi. Except for an inadvertent, unfortunate, and unavoidable resemblance to the English term Celtic, the term is well-nigh perfect. This resemblance does not exist in German, by the way. Celtoi does not especially resemble the German word for the Celts, Kelten.
The term Galatis, in various forms, is also still in use by some Gaulish Polytheists, especially in the Portuguese-speaking world. I rather favor a version of it. Although it is a-historical, it has the advantage of preserving a unique and recognizable form that cannot be confused with “Celts”. It therefore does not appropriate Celticity, which is important, at least to me. There is, moreover, the possibility that the term for “warband warrior” did in fact at some point come to be used by at least some Gaulish-speaking tribes as a name for themselves, although we cannot prove it. The plural form of this word would be Galaties or Galatîs, by the way.
Out of respect for the modern Celtic peoples, when discussing modern Gaulish Polytheism in this column, we will mostly use the term “Gaulish Polytheism”, and “Gaulish Polytheists” when writing in English, though other terms will occasionally make an appearance, including especially Keltoi/Celtoi and maybe Galatîs.
We need to be careful in all of this to stress that Gaulish Polytheism is a wholly reconstructed tradition. The Gauls no longer exist as an ethnic or cultural group. There is no unbroken Gaulish lineage, no cultural continuity. There is only what we can reconstruct from the best sources we have. At the same time, the modern Celtic people do still exist, do preserve their culture today, and are struggling for linguistic survival. We must not allow our reconstruction to become a cultural colonization of the existing Celtic peoples. We must be careful not to claim labels like “Indigenous Celtic” or “Indigenous European”, or to argue with them about what constitutes authentic practice. They exist, modern Celtic culture exists, and we must not harm it in our own efforts.
Another nasty little danger we must put to rest at the outset is that of race. There is no place is Gaulish Polytheism for racism or racial theories. Race is a modern concept, part of the process of European expansion and global colonization that began post-1500. In particular, it did not exist as part of any premodern Celtic culture. The Gauls did have a concept of some kind of common relationship among them, but there is no evidence that was anything like racial identity in any sense. Some myths preserved in Greco-Roman texts would seem to argue that they regarded themselves as a mixed people, made up of one part indigenous Celts, one part colonists from the islands in the ocean, and one part migrants from across the Rhine. Racial theories are thus particularly problematic when applied to Gaulish Polytheism. This is doubly so because Gaulish “blood”, to the extent it can even be said to have existed, is from a culture that became extinct so far in the past that it is distributed throughout the global population. While there are no doubt people with more “Gaulish blood” than others, everyone has some. Everyone has the kind of blood right to practice Gaulish Polytheism that the racists go on about. Anyone who is called by the Gaulish Gods, Spirits, and Ancestors is welcome. There is no reason to exclude anyone.
I must also be careful to stress that in no way does this column speak for anyone but me. In particular, I cannot and do not speak for the modern Celtic peoples. Nothing here represents any modern Celtic tradition, Pagan or otherwise. It cannot be used to gain access to Irish or any other modern Celtic culture. You cannot become “Celtic” by reading it or practicing anything I will write about. It will represent my own reconstruction of the culture of the ancient Gauls, adapted for modern practice. It will represent nothing more or less than that. Other Gaulish Polytheists have their own ideas which resemble mine in some ways, differ in various particulars, but are still valid. While I use some of their ideas and they use some of mine, in both cases only with proper attribution, they do not speak for me nor I for them. Still, I think readers will find that this column will represent a good introduction to Gaulish practice, and is a perfectly valid approach, as valid as any other, and reasonably well backed by the sources. That is really all that anything of this type can offer.
1 Arnold, Bettina and Gibson, D. Blair. “Beyond the Mists: forging an ethnological approach to Celtic studies”, in Celtic Chiefdom, Celtic State: the evolution of complex social systems in prehistoric Europe/ edited by Bettina Arnold and D. Blair Gibson – New York: Cambridge University Press, c1995, p 2
2 Arnold, “Beyond the Mist”, p. 2
3 Karl, Raimund, “*butācos, *wossos, *geystlos, *ambactosCeltic Socio-economic Organisation in the European Iron Age†” Studia Celtica 40 (2006), 21-41.
4 The Ancient Celts/Barry Cunliffe – New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p 21.
5 Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, pp 21-22
6 Sengoidelc: Old Irish for Beginners/David Stifter – Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, c2006 pp1-2
7 Stifter, Sengoidelc, p. 3
8 McCone, Kim, “Greek Κελτος and Γαλατις, Latin Gallus ‘Gaul’” in Die Sprache, 46, 1 (2006), p 94
9 McCone, “Κελτος”, p 94
10 McCone, “Κελτος”, p. 94-95
11 McCone, “Κελτος”, p 95
12 McCone, “Κελτος”, p. 98
13 McCone, “Κελτος”, p. 102
14 McCone, “Κελτος:, p. 98-102
15 McCone, “Κελτος”, p. 102
16 McCone, “Κελτος”, p. 103-107
While I’ve certainly enjoyed reading your previous entries, I am especially impressed with this one. It contains a depth of scholarship that I *wish* I’d see more of from polytheists, pagans, and occultists, especially where language is concerned. I tip my hat to you, sir, and look forward to your next pieces, :).