The Celts were never a nation in the way we think of nations today. They were held together more by a common language and culture, than by any form of governance. Their influence was felt over a huge area of what is now Europe and Asia Minor, from Britain and Ireland in the west to the Balkans in the east and from Germany in the
north, south to Spain, Portugal and Italy. Numerous clan chiefs, kings or princes held sway over the various tribes and making war was a way of life, either to expand territory or as infighting in power struggles. When united as one army they formed an alarmingly powerful force of ferocious warriors. many dyed their bodies blue with woad and bleached and spiked their hair by using lime, they must have made a remarkably scary sight to their foes.
In 390 B.C. the Celts laid siege to Rome after one of their princes had been murdered by a Roman envoy who was, supposedly treating for peace.
The siege lasted seven months and only ended when the Celtic leader Brennus accepted the offer of 1,000 lbs. of gold to basically go away. The Romans claimed that the Celts were using heavier than normal weights in order to maximize their gains, to which Brennus famously replied Voe Victus. Woe to the vanquished.
Rome was left weakened and obviously poorer but as in all things the situation gradually changed such that by the 1st Century B.C. the Celts found themselves in full retreat. Threatened by the Slavic tribes in the east, the Germanic forces to the north, but mostly by the burgeoning might of the vengeful Roman armies to the south; the Celts retreated north to what is present-day Belgium and from there crossed the English Channel to the relative safety of Britain. Not to be out done, Caesar’s legionnaires continued in full pursuit and by the 1st Century A.D. most of Britain had fallen under Roman control leaving only Brittany, Cornwall, The Isle of Man, Wales and Ireland to the Celts from their previously held territories.
The Romans took their lands but they could not dampen the Celtic spirit. Skirmishes continued for as long as the Romans remained in power, the most notable of these conflicts involved the Iceni, a Celtic tribe from East Anglia led by the Warrior Queen Boudicca. Another fly in the Roman ointment was provided by the constant invasions of the Picts (the painted people) from the north, which eventually led to the building of Hadrian’s Wall across 73 miles of the border region from the Tyne to the Solway.
Despite all the efforts of various Roman emperors to bring the Celts under Roman control many of the original traditions and customs have survived to the present and are celebrated all over the world. As the Roman Empire began to disintegrate in the latter part of the 4th century A.D. it left a void in the celtic world which would eventually be filled by the rise of Christianity. Monks and scholars travelled the known world spreading the word of the new religion and the Celts embraced it with a vengeance and in many ways made it their own. It would appear that they could not, or would not deny their own Druidic beliefs but they were also drawn to the new religion and being a very eclectic people quick to embrace any advances in the arts and technologies of he time the combined the two beliefs and came up
with what has become known as “Celtic Christianity”. The early Christian priests built their places of worship on sites already sacred to the Celts to demonstrate the power of the Christian God over the Celtic Pantheon. Celtic symbology was also adopted by the Early Christians to help the pagans feel more comfortable with they new religion, examples can be seen everywhere as carvings in old European churches. Gargoyles as protective serpents Knot work and trisckles as decorative motifs on crosses and illustrated manuscripts are filled with pagan references. In fact, the Celtic Cross with its many pagan associations has to be one of the most readily recognizable Christian images in the world. Many of the Saints have derived from ancient legend. Most notably Saint Brigid, who has both Pagan and Christian attributes and who, to this day, has a well and an eternal flame in Kildare.
So the Celts were a large and influential, if somewhat disorganized, people who farmed the land, lived at peace with nature, even though they couldn’t live at peace with each other and worked in metals, leather. wood, stone and paints with a high degree of dexterity and a natural eye for design which has been admired down the centuries. But because theirs is an oral tradition, the Celts themselves are an elusive people who we can only get a glimpse of through the writings of others or through the stories they told. Celtic Mythology is “as old as the Hills”. Because the Celts relied on the forces and cycles of nature, most of their mythology (if it’s not of the warrior tradition)comes from their interpretation and and explanation of the natural world. The Solstice and Equinox were important times and celebrations always took place on these occasions. Probably the most recognizable of these ancient celebrations is Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, when, in
Celtic tradition the veils between the worlds (under,earth and sky world) become so thin that all the spirits are able to walk the earth. It was a time for magic and was a very important festival marking, as it does, the advent of the new year. It is probably the best known of the Celtic festivals. Easter is another ancient festival of new life and although it is now “a moveable feast” it was always celebrated at the Spring Equinox
with fertility dances (Maypole) and much, shall we say, reveling. The Harvest Festival is another celebration which has its roots in early Celtic traditions of giving thanks to the gods for the bounty of the earth. The four Celtic seasons which roughly coincide with our spring, summer,autumn and winter are Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasadh (Lu-sa-na) and Samhain (Sawen).
One of the main legacies of the ancient Celts is the rich and highly embellished art and craft work found in prehistoric burial mounds, battle sites and places of archaeological interest throughout Europe.
The majority of these artifacts that we have today come from what has ecome known as the La Tene culture or the La Tene period named after the archaeological site of La Tene on the north side of Lake Neuchatel in present-day Switzerland, where a rich cache of artifacts was discovered by Hansli Kopp in 1857. The culture flourished in Europe during the late iron age from about 450 B.C. to about the 1st Century A.D. The find was one of the largest hoards of of Celtic artifacts ever uncovered and contained objects as large as carts and chariots dow to coins and pins and everything in-between. Celtic artwork of the La Tene period is characterized by the richness of the decoration and the quality of the workmanship, much of it iswrought in precious metals or bronze and it is obvious that the craftsmen had developed incredible skills in manipulating their media.
It is from experiencing this ancient culture and its artifacts at first hand in the museums of Europe; standing amongst the stones at
Avebury, Stonehenge and many other places in England and Ireland; simply standing in the great cathedrals of Europe; experiencing the many Celtic crosses which litter the towns and villages of England, amongst many other things which provide the emotional inspiration behind my work. The motivation comes from the past, is strained through the sieve of my life experience and provides a jumping off point for a more personal investigation of form, structure and belief manifested in the pieces I produce.