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, Keltic
a branch of the Indo-European family of languages that includes Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton, still spoken in parts of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany. Modern Celtic is divided into the Brythonic (southern) and Goidelic (northern) groups
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Muirdach's Cross at Monasterboice. Contemporary carved Celtic crosses almost invariably signify a burial place, while the early freestanding or high crosses, some of which are more than 1,200 years old, were positioned as meeting places, often within a Celtic monastic settlement. Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Long before Rome conquered all of Europe, the people known as Celts (known by the Greeks as Keltoi) lived and practiced complex polytheistic religious traditions, including Druidism, from Britain and Ireland to Spain, France, southern Germany, and all the way to central Turkey. But they had no written language. Until modern archaeology began to reveal the depths of their culture, all that was known about them came from folklore, oral history, and Roman writers, particularly the quite prejudiced work of Julius Caesar (The Gallic War), Polybius, and Strabo. Caesar first spoke about Druids—intellectuals, judges, diviners, and mediators with the gods. But Celtic religion was widespread, and it varied from land to land. Lugh (the "shining light"), Teutates ("god of the tribe"), Andastra, Belenus, Artio ("the bear"), Camulos, Cernunnos ("the horned one," lord of the animals), and Vasio all had their followings. As is the case with many indigenous religions, gods had their own locations. A god of the grove sacred to one tribe might be recognized by another tribe but not worshiped, because he or she didn't live nearby. Instead, this other tribe would tend to worship the god of the lake near where they lived.

Celtic religious practice points out an important theological truth. When gods or spirits arise within the context of a particular place, the people connect with their environment and treat it accordingly. Indigenous people who worship in this manner, whether they are European Celts, Japanese Shinto, or American Indians, know that their environment is their cathedral. They live in their church, the home of their god. This kind of connection cements the bond between the land and the people. To cut down the sacred grove of the Druids, to kill the buffalo of the Dakota people, or to strip-mine a Cherokee mountaintop is religious blasphemy. Indigenous religion cannot be transported to another place. Missionaries cannot carry that religion with them to indoctrinate a new culture.

People of Jewish, Christian, or Islamic traditions often failed to understand this point of view. And when they did understand it, they usually exploited it. A people cut off from the "ground of their being," their god, are a defeated people. Julius Caesar understood. When he burned the Druid sacred groves and toppled the standing stones, he tore the soul out of the Celtic people, and with it their will to resist. Celtic religion went underground, practiced by old women who remembered herb lore and snatches of forgotten prayers and rituals. It was found in men's secret societies and existed in overgrown roadside shrines in the hollow hills of dim legend and folklore.

Only now, through the patient work of archaeologists, are we beginning to discover how much was lost. And who is to say whether the terrible record of environmental catastrophe in Western civilization is not a result of practicing religion in a way that separated humans from, rather than connected them to, the land they call home?



languages of the Indo-European family. They include Gaulish, Celtiberian, Irish, Manx, Gaelic (Scottish), Welsh (Cymric), Cornish, and Breton. The Gaulish languages were extinct by the fifth century A.D.; Celtiberian, spoken in the western and central Iberian Peninsula, died out somewhat earlier. Cornish was last spoken at the end of the 18th century. Manx is spoken by only a few people living on the Isle of Man (Great Britain).

The Celtic languages are usually divided into three groups— Continental (Gaulish and Celtiberian), Brythonic (Welsh, Cornish, and Breton), and Goidelic (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx). The Continental and Brythonic branches are related to the P-Celts, and the Goidelic branch is related to the Qu-Celts, who preserved the consonant *qu. The disintegration of the Brythonic branch into separate languages took place in the sixth through eighth centuries and of Goidelic, in the 12th and 13th centuries. Inscriptions in Gaulish and Celtiberian indicate their archaic character.

In the modern Celtic languages, as a result of accentual factors, the final syllables have been dropped. In Irish the case system has been partially preserved. Differences in the position of stress led to an opposition in the forms of the verb in Old Irish. In the modern Celtic languages, word order in a sentence is fixed as predicate—subject—object. But in the oldest examples of Irish the verb may also be in final position.

Studies, especially by the Irish scholar O. Bergin, the American scholar C. Watkins, and W. Meid of the Federal Republic of Germany, have shown that many characteristics of Celtic languages formerly considered to be the result of the influence of a substratum (for example, in the works of the German scholar J. Pokorny and H. Wagner of Switzerland) may be regarded as archaisms. Thus, the phenomenon of infixation and suffixation of pronouns has exact parallels in Hittite, Tocharian, Lithuanian, and other Indo-European langages. Numerous alternations of initial consonants in words in the Celtic languages originated in the course of what has been called the accentual revolution (changes in the stress system) during the fifth through seventh centuries A.D. and took on important syntactical functions.


Lewis, H., and H. Pedersen. Kratkaia sravnitel’naia grammatika kel’tskikh iazykov. Moscow, 1954. (Translated from English.)
Pedersen, H. Vergleichende Grammatik der keltischen Sprachen, 2 vols. Göttingen, 1909–13.
Thurneysen, R. A Grammar of Old Irish. Dublin, 1946.