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Celts; Celtic Witchcraft

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Celt (or Kelt) is derived from the Greek Keltoi, a name the Greeks used for a group of people spread across Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. Most authorities recognize the Celts as dwelling from the Black Sea across to the Atlantic Ocean and from the North Sea and Denmark, down to the Mediterranean. They were known as Kelten in Germany; Celtes (with the soft C) in France. Much of their expansion was due to their use of iron, rather than bronze, for weapons. The Celts were a distinctive group of related tribes who emerged in the eighth century BCE. Their social system was divided into three parts: king, warrior aristocracy, and freemen farmers. They introduced the use of iron to northern Europe. Their inventions and introductions were numerous: chain mail, soap, horseshoes, iron rims for wheels, chisels, files, and handsaws.

The Celts measured time in nights rather than days, dividing months, or moon spans, into two halves: bright and dark. Even today, the language of the Celts survives in Britanny, Wales, the Isle of Man, and along the west coasts of both Scotland and Ireland. In recent years, it has been revived in Cornwall, England, where the Celtic revival has been intense, with renewal of celebrations of the past and big festivals, including the lighting of balefires on hill tops across the county on the main feast days.

Each of the various Celtic tribes had its own leader and its own laws, yet there was great similarity among all tribes. Originally the leaders were known as Kings but later, with the exception of Ireland, the title became Chieftain. One form of their language, today known as P-Celtic, was spoken in Gaul and Britain while another form, Q-Celtic, was spoken in Ireland.

Although the Celts had a knowledge of Greek writing, their laws, histories, and religious beliefs were not committed to writing but were passed on orally. Caesar commented on this when speaking of the Celtic priesthood, the Druids. In his De Bello Gallico he said, "(They) learn by heart a great number of verses, and therefore some persons remain twenty years under training."

There were four main festivals in the Celtic year: Imbolc, Beltane, Lugh- nasadh, and Samhain, which were celebrated at the main sacred site of each tribe. The priests and priestesses for these rituals were the Druids, although little is now known of them. It is known, however, that they were recruited from warrior-class families but were then regarded as of higher rank. The Druids were believed to be not only religious leaders and teachers, but also magicians and shape-shifters.

The Celts practiced human sacrifice. Dr. Anne Ross refers to three of their gods, Teutates, Esus, and Taranis, commenting that the Roman poet Lucan told of people being drowned in a vat in sacrifice to Teutates, stabbed and then hung in a tree in sacrifice to Esus, and burned in sacrifice to Taranis. Animals were routinely sacrificed and the bull sacrifice (tarb-feis) was featured at the crowning of a new king.

Anu (or Danu) was the Mother of the Gods. From her came the Irish gods known as the Tuatha De Danann (Tribes of the Goddess Danu). It is possible that the goddess Brigit is Danu known by another name. It was a custom to give a number of different names to any one deity, although some of these names were simply epithets.

Amulets and talismans were popular with the Celts. Many of the talismans were ithyphallic, others were described as "serpent's eggs." One of the most impressive Celtic cult animals—and peculiar to the Celts—was the ram-headed serpent, a snake with ram's horns depicted on many Celtic amulets and jewelry.

A number of modern day traditions of Witchcraft link themselves to a Celtic background. Irish, Welsh, and Scottish Witchcraft are obviously linked. The American Celtic tradition in the United States was started by Jessica Bell, a selfstyled "Witch Queen" who used the Craft name Lady Sheba. Generally, Celtic forms of Wicca embrace the Celtic pantheon, using the names of various Celtic deities according to coven preference.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Greek, Keltoi), tribes closely related in language (seeCELTIC LANGUAGES) and material culture who initially inhabited, during the first half of the first millennium B.C., the basins of the Rhine, Seine, and Loire and the Upper Danube and who later settled what is now France, Belgium, Switzerland, the southern Federal Republic of Germany, Austria, northern Italy, northern and western Spain, the British Isles (the Celts of Britain were called Britons), Bohemia, and parts of Hungary and Bulgaria. The Romans called them Galli (Gauls), and the name of the principal territory they settled—Gaul—is derived from this usage. The Celts who penetrated Asia Minor during the third century B.C. were called Galatians.

There were two periods in the development of the material culture of the Celts: the Hallstatt culture (900–400 B.C.), followed by the La Tène culture (second half of the first millennium B.C.). After being dispersed, the Celts merged with local tribes—Iberians, Illyrians, Thracians, and others. The development of the Celts of southern France was related to the ancient city-states, and hence they achieved a higher level of culture. Expelled by the Romans from northern Italy during the second century B.C., the Celts established themselves in central and northwestern Bohemia (these were the Boii tribes, from which the area received the name of Bohemia). The most important Celtic tribes were the Helvetii, Belgae, Sequani, Lingones, Aedui, Bituriges, Arverni, Allobroges, Senones, Treviri, and Bellovaci. Farming and stock raising played a large role in the economic life of the Celts. Also highly developed was the production of metal, glass, leather, and ceramics as well as shipbuilding. The Celts probably invented the heavy plow with a colter.

Celtic art was distinguished by geometric, floral, and zoomorphic ornamentation on metal—engraved in its early period and later in relief, combined with inlay and enamel work. Greatly reworked borrowings from Greek and Roman art were characteristic of Celtic metal and stone sculpture (stylized masks and figures of deities, heroes, beasts, birds, and fantastic creatures). The buildings of the Celts were, for the most part, primitive: semi-subterranean dwellings; the simplest, frame out-buildings and workshops; and rectangular sanctuaries. The Celts, primarily those in southern France, built hill forts (oppida) with stone structures surrounded by massive walls of stone blocks. These subsequently became city-fortresses and trade and artisan centers (Bibracte, Gergovia, Alesia, Stradonice).

The principal social units of the Celts were the pagi—territorial districts of individual communities whose members were related by blood. The druids had great influence among the Celts; concentrated in their hands were the religious offices, the highest juridical authority, and education.

Celtic tribes were at various stages in the disintegration of the communal-clan system. Traditions of the clan-tribal organization were especially strong among the Belgae and the Aquitanian tribes in Gaul and among the Celts of the British Isles. In the more developed tribes, responsible officials began to emerge; a tax system appeared along with other attributes of a state organization.

Internecine wars, which weakened the Celts, facilitated the invasion by Germanic tribes from the east and the Romans from the south. During the first century B.C. the Germanic tribes drove part of the Celts beyond the Rhine. In the period 58–51 B.C., Julius Caesar conquered all of Gaul. During the reign of Augustus the Romans conquered the areas along the Upper Danube, northern Spain, and Galatia, and during the reign of Claudius (the middle of the first century A.D.), a considerable portion of Britain. While part of the Roman Empire, the Celts underwent intensive Romanization. Beginning as early as the first century B.C., ceramic, glass, and bronze ware of the Roman type was widespread among the Celts; subsequently, Gallo-Roman architecture and sculpture emerged (seeFRANCE). The Celtic traditions of ornamentation and metalworking were preserved during the first millennium A.D., particularly in Ireland.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.