what is celtic ethnicity and their history

The Celts were one of the representative European ethnic groups, and were called barbarians by Romans together with Germanic peoples and Slavs. The Celts had spread throughout the western Europe. In ancient times, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish and Bretons were all Celts. Modern representatives of Celts are Irish, Scottish and Welsh. Many of them made great achievements in academic and scientific fields as well as arts and crafts.

The appearance of Celts

celtic ethnicity

The origin of the name “Celt”: Celt was the Latino name given by Caesar to this ethnic group. As was described in Caesar’s war diaries, the most typical physical feature of Celts was their red hairs. v sc Today, in Scotland and Ireland where there are a large number of Celtic descendants, 8% of local people have red hairs.

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The life of Celts

Celts lived in large families or tribes. They kept expanding their living space so as to expand the tribe. Usually, the whole tribe was ruled by a Celtic knight or a tribal chief. One thirds of the tribal population was the privileged stratum, who was referred to as “the men of arts”. Among these privileged people, Druids and troubadours are better known to modern people for praising Celtic warriors with their poems and handicrafts. The whole Celtic society was built on complex genetic relationships and obligations. The aristocratic stratum must accumulate wealth and improve reputation by making contributions in agriculture, trade and victories of wars. Then they used the wealth to found or invest their own families or tribes.

Celtic boys could join the battles when they turned fourteen, while girls were allowed to get married and have children at the same age. A young nobleman or a descendant of free man was also allowed to be a retainer in the home of a feudal lord or Celtic knight at his fourteenth birthday. Such retainers were called the “Fenian”. By following those experienced warriors, these young men would have more chances to win for themselves the wealth and honor.

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The Celts might be the first ethnic group in human history which promoted gender equality and accepted abnormal sexual orientation, as a Celtic woman could not only become the queen, but could also became a religions leader. In later-times European countries not in compliance with the Lex Salica, a woman could inherit the throne, but would never be allowed into the religious domain (the Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islamism). The native religion of Celtic people (Druidism) accepted homosexuality in tradition, and the religions leader of Druidism was a Celtic woman.

The migration of Celts

The Celts had migrated in large scale to almost everywhere in Europe. They did business with Greeks, had wars with Romans; they also climbed over the Alps in droves, and brought ironwares to other areas in Europe.

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Around the first century BC, ancient Greek geographer Strabo described Celts that, “The whole their ethnic group madly love wars. They go to battle bravely and quickly. And whatever excuses you provoke them with, you will be in danger. They always have strength and courage, even when they do not have any weapons.” What we know about the Celtic culture today is based on writers and geographers at that time; as well as some relics of Celtic burial ceremony in Bavaria, Bohemia and northern Austria. Celts had founded a loosely organized empire whose territory included the Central Europe. But their territory was unfixed as they often migrated. Archaeologists today have discovered imprints of Celtic culture in a large area from the British Isles and southern Spain in the west to Transylvania and the Black Sea in the east.

The history of Celts

In the long history, Celts’ sphere of activity had greatly expanded, but later it gradually diminished.

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The Seine Basin, the upstream area of Loire river in Eastern France as well as the upstream areas of the Rhine and Danube was the birthplace of Celts. Around the early 10th century BC, they first appeared in these areas. In the following centuries, the Celts spread and migrated to surrounding regions in armed tribal unions. They were the first ethnic group in Europe that learned to make and use ironwares as well as golden ornaments. With iron weapons, they defeated other bronze-age tribes, and settled down in eastern and central France as early as 7th century BC.  

They began their infiltration and expansion all across the Europe from the 5th century BC.

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From around 500 BC, Celts invaded and conquered the British Isles from European continent. Some Celts settled down in Ireland and Scotland, while some others conquered southern and eastern England. Celts spoke the Celtic languages. Today, Gaels (Scottish Highlanders) in northern and western Scottish highlands still use this language. Before the formation of the English language, Celtic language was the only and earliest language discovered in the British Isles with relevant historical materials. Almost at the same time when Celts invaded the British Isles, some Celts went across the Rhine river, entered northeastern France, and settled down where was to the north of Seine river, to the west and south of the Ardennes.

Around 500 BC, France had been the main habitation area of Celts. Romans called the Celts living in France, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, southern Germany and northern Italy the Gauls, and referred to the region they lived in, which was approximately six hundred thousand square kilometers, as Gaul. Later, the Celts had once spread all over the European continent, and had conquered France, Spain, Portugal and Italy.

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In 387 BC and 279 BC, Celts invaded and plundered Rome and Greece. Some Celtic tribes even arrived in the Anatolia region in Turkey. At the peak of Celts, they conquered the vast land from Portugal to the Black Sea, and was almost as strong as the Roman Empire in later times. However, they ultimately failed to found a unified nation. With the rise of the Roman Empire, the Celtic culture began to decline. Facing the highly-disciplined and tactically-advanced Roman troops, tall and brave Celts were no match for them. But they remained a military force that could not be underestimated before the rise of the Roman Empire.

In 385 BC, Celts looted Rome. This painful part of history had always been remembered by Romans till Julius Caesar made the revenge by utterly defeating Gaulish Celts between 59 BC and 49 BC. Gaul, the cultural center of Celts, had became a province of Roman Empire since then. As a result of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, one million Celts were killed and another one million became salves.

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In the history of Britain, the real “Roman conquest” started in 43 BC. In that year, Roman Emperor Claudius led an army of forty thousand soldiers to conquer the middle part and south-central part of Britain Island in three years. After that, the whole England became firmly controlled by the Roman Empire. The Celtic culture gradually disappeared on the European continent following the Roman conquering wars and became integrated into the Roman culture. Only in Ireland (where Romans never arrived) and Scotland (where Romans never completely occupied), the Celtic kingdoms existed and continued. Romans occupied Britain for four hundred years. They did not give up their military presence until the year of 407 AD where they were beset with difficulties and contradictions in both internal and external affairs. Celts, the ancient inhabitants of Britain, thereupon re-established their order.

Around 449 AD, three Germanic tribes that lived in northwestern Europe invaded Britain. But they encountered heavy resistance from Celts, and their invasion lasted one and a half century. The heroic deeds of a tribal general during this time, integrating with the stories of three heroes in Celtic legends, were circulated in Europe. Finally they became the famous Arthurian legend. By the late 6th century, Celts, the original inhabitants on British Isles, were nearly extinct. The survivors escaped into the mountains or became slaves. This was the “Germanic Conquest” or “Teutonic Conquest” in British history.

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Ancient Celts did not have capitals. As they lived in tribes, their expansion in Europe could be seen as “tribal migration”. In the Middle Ages, some Celtic tribes began to fuse with each other and found the states of modern sense. The Celts in Ireland (Irish) captured Dublin from Vikings and designated it as their capital; while the Celts in Scotland (Scots) chose Edinburgh as the capital.

In the early Middle Ages, the Celts in Ireland maintained the custom of living in small groups. Four Irish provinces: Leinster, Munster, Connaught and Ulster, were not unified until around 800 AD.

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In 795 AD, Vikings invaded Ireland and began to establish permanent settlements in the middle 9th century, and the most important one was Dublin.

Around 1000 AD, Brian Boru became the first king of all Irishmen. And in 1014 AD, he led Irish troops to defeat Danes in Clontarf outside Dublin.

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The earliest inhabitants in Scotland were mostly Picts. In 6th century AD, a Celtic tribe named “Scot” from Ireland invaded southern Scotland (the Argyll county today ), settled down there and named this newly-occupied land after their tribe. Then they expanded southwards, accepted and fused with the native Picts (before that, the Picts were the mortal malady of Romans in the south). The Kingdom of Scotland was basically formed in 11th century, however, the Kingdom of England in the south soon expressed a keen interest in this land. As a response to the ambition of English, Scottish signed the “Auld Alliance” (Old Alliance) with French. The “Auld Alliance” was also the basis of Scottish diplomacy in the following centuries.

In 1296 AD, Edward I of England (also known as “Edward Longshank” and “the Hammer of the Scots”) annexed Scotland. William Wallace led Scottish people to rise up against English occupation, and he almost won the independence of Scotland after his victory in the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 AD. Following the failure in the Battle of Falkirk in the next year, William Wallace led his men to wage a guerrilla war against English, till he was betrayed by comrades and executed under the order of Edward I in 1305. After that, Robert Bruce declared himself the king of Scotland after assassinating his main political opponents. He gained a complete victory in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and drove all the English troops out of Scottish territory.

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In 1328 AD, Edward III of England was obliged to admit the independence of Scotland.

Welsh are also descendants of ancient Celts. But during that time Wales was divided internally and there was no warlord strong enough to unify this region.

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In the 13th century, the king of England even tried to stop the unification of Wales by aligning with numerous Welsh vassal states. Although Wales was within the English sphere of influence, it had been always a fortress of Celts. However, after the death of Prince llewelyn in 1282, Edward I started a war on Wales. He won the war and made Wales under the ruling of England. The Welsh maintained a high national sentiment, which was proved by the uprising led by Owain Glyndŵr in the early 15th century.

The Act of Union in 1536 and 1542 unified England and Wales administratively, politically and legally (that is why the crown prince of England is also referred to as the “Prince of Wales”).

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Agriculture

The Celtic economy was based on farming and herding. The Celts had been engaged in agricultural production before they began their military expeditions and migrations. They knew how to use work horses and iron ploughs. They also knew how to choose the right crop to grow according to the natural conditions in different areas. They mainly grew barley, wheat, rye, oat, as well as beet, turnip, flax, hemp, onion and garlic. Their abundant grain production provided an advantage condition for population growth. It is estimated that the population of Gaul increased from seven hundred thousand in 1000 BC to three million in 400 BC.

Animal husbandry

Animal husbandry was an important basic economic industry for Celts, only second to agriculture. The Celts raised horses, sheep, cattle and pigs. And horse-raising and sheep-raising were particularly common. Some tribal unions only raised one single kind of livestock, and they usually used the glades to raise pigs. In some areas, it was a popular way to raise semi-domesticated pigs in oak groves.

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Since the 5th century BC, in most areas of Gaul people had been living settled lives based on farming or a mixed economy of agriculture and animal husbandry. They built houses with wood and clay. There were no furniture in the house; the ground was covered by hay or straw, which was then covered by hides. There were cellars for storing grain in the most courtyards beside the houses.

Handicraft industry

According to archaeological materials, in the later phase of Hallstatt culture, the Celtic handicraft industry had begun to sprout up and become split from agriculture and simple household production. Mining, smelting and processing were the most important sectors in Celtic handicraft industry. During the age of Hallstatt Culture, Celts mainly exploited marsh ore mines and open-pit iron mines. And during the age of La Tene Culture, they began to look for high-grad iron mines which were easier to exploit, and smelted ores near the mines. In usual, they used charcoal as fuel and smelted iron ores in vertical furnaces. What came out of their furnaces were rectangular iron ingots with two cuspidal ends, each of which weighted 6-7 kilograms. In some areas, people used such iron ingots as the universal equivalent in trading. La Tene-age mine sites and workshop relics had been discovered throughout Gaul. Weapons (such as daggers) accounted for the biggest share of the Celtic ironwares; followed by production tools, including ploughs, sickles, files, pliers, chisels, saws, axes, drill bits, scissors and razors.

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Celtic handicraftsmen had superb skills in the processing of metals such as bronze, gold and silver. The Celtic bracelets, brooches and waist tags with vignettes and carved patterns were very popular in central and western Europe. They also knew how to inlay as well as plate gold and silver. In Europe at that time, Celts had the most advanced skills in the smelting and processing of metal as well as the manufacture of ironwares and other metalwares.

Apart from the smelting and processing of metal, Celtic handicraft industry also included the manufacture of leatherwares, potteries, glass, enamels and vehicles. In the 2nd century BC, the pottery industry in Gaul became more and more perfect. In Gaulish pottery workshops, there were not only pottery wheels, but also well-structured kilns. The Gaulish potteries were famous for the superb crafts and graceful styles. Leather was not only used to meet inhabitants’ daily needs, but also used to make various items, including soldiers’ jackets, sheath belts, saddles, harnesses, shield skins and helmets.

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Business

Celts had been engaged in handicraft production for the purpose of exchange since the late phase of Hallstatt Culture. The trade between Celtic tribes, between Celts and the Mediterranean coast as well as other areas in Europe also developed. In the late 7th century BC, some Greek settlements appeared along the Mediterranean coast in southern France. The most famous one among them was Massalia (Marseilles today). At first, Greek merchants and handicraftsmen established relations with inland Celts via the Ligurians in southern France, and thus made trades with Celts in central Europe. Corals, ivories, glass, wine, bronze vessels were transported from Mediterranean coast to inland region, while livestock, leatherwares and raw metals (such as gold, silver, tin) were exported from Gaul. Celts’ early commodity exchanging with outside world was mainly to meet the needs of tribal aristocrats’ luxury lives.

From the middle phase of La Tene Culture, the exchange between different areas in Gaul became active, and the commodities for exchange increased day by day. The commodity exchanging and trade between Celts and other areas became regular. In Gaul, they built a road network, as well as trading facilities at the intersections of roads and water roads. Chalon-sur-Saône and Mâcon on the Saône River, Orleans and Lyons on the Loire River, Paris and Vernon on the Seine River were all commodity transit points of both waterborne trade and overland trade. Chalon-sur-Saône was an important transit point on the trade routes from northern Gaul to southern Gaul. In Celtic languages, “magus” meant market. The places whose names ended with “magus” were mostly located at ferries or near bridges. They were the trade hubs at that time. Long-distance commodity exchanging also appeared following the establishment of trade routes and trade hubs.

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Also ,as a result of the development of commodity production and trade activities, Celts began to make coins. The earliest Celtic coin was an imitation of Tetradrachm of Philip II that appeared in western Gaul. After that, tribal groups in the northern, southern and central Gaul also began to make coins. The design and pattern of coins were imitations of ancient Greek coins, or characters, geometric figures. For example, on the coins used in Bretagne (Brittany), there was a head portrait with laurel on one side, and an image of soldier holding a spear and a shield on the other side.

Culture

As Celts lived in an appropriate geographical location in Europe, “where various influences rendezvoused”, they might have some connections and communications with other neighboring ethnic groups such as Germanic peoples, Illyrians, Ligurians, Italians and Greeks. Through such communications, Celts kept enriching themselves, strengthening themselves, and created their unique culture.

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Cultural process

The Celtic culture can be divided into following periods: 

1. The Bell-Beaker Culture and Battle-Axe Culture

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The Bell-Beaker Culture and Battle-Axe Culture (approximately middle 30th century BC – early 20th century BC)

seem somewhat related to the ancestors of Celts. They were named for the burial objects (such as distinctive bell-shape pottery cups and perforated stone axes) discovered in relevant tomb sites.

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2. The Unetician Culture

The Unetician Culture (approximately 17th century BC – 14th century BC)

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spread all over a broad region from the western Slovakian border, Moravia, central and northwestern Czech, to the central Germany. The richest tin mines in central Europe were located in the Ore Mountains (German: Erzgebirge; Czech: Krušné Hory). The tin ores from these mines and the bronze ores exploited locally or in nearby areas provided a good foundation for the development of bronze culture.

3. The Urnfield Culture

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The Urnfield Culture (approximately 13th century BC – 8th century BC)

was called ”a new cultural trend that gave birth to the Celtic society”. It sprouted out in northern Italy and the eastern part of central Europe, then spread to western Europe, the Nordic region and even Ukraine in the eastern Europe.

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4. The Hallstatt Culture

The Hallstatt Culture (approximately 1100 BC – 450 BC)

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was named after the Hallstatt relics near Salzburg, Austria. Its relevant historic relics spread over former Yugoslavia, Austria, western Poland and France. It succeeded the Urnfield Culture and preceded the La Tene Culture.

5. The La Tene Culture

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The La Tene Culture (approximately middle 5th century BC – late 1st century BC)

was named after the La Tene relics on the eastern coast of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. Its relevant historic relics also spread over Austria, France and Britain. The La Tene Culture was famous for its distinctive decorative art. It developed from the plain and simple geometric patterns in the Hallstatt Culture, and was also influenced by the images of weird animals in the Scythian Culture as well as the realistic style of classical Greek art, finally formed a decorative style centered on spiral curves and circle patterns, and supplemented with Greek-style flower patterns and Scythian-style animal veins.

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Language

The Celtic languages, or the Celtic language group, is a group of languages under the Indo-European Language Family. In ancient times, the Celtic languages had been very popular in western Europe. But today, only a small number of people in some areas of Britain and the Brittany peninsula of France speak Celtic languages (such as Cornish and Breton).

There are mainly four Celtic ethnic groups, but in the academic circle there also have been disputes regarding how to classify them. The languages of two Celtic ethnic groups had become extinct.

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Gaulish language: Gaulish language and its branch languages such as the Lepontic language and Galatian language had been widely spoken in a broad area from France to Turkey and from Holland to northern Italy.

Celtiberian language: it had been used in Aragón and other areas in Spain.

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Goidelic languages: including Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx.

Brythonic languages: including Welsh, Cornish, and Breton.

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Usually the four ethnic groups are classified into two categories, but there are two influential methods of classifying them. The first method puts the Gaulish language and Brythonic languages together and refers to them as the “P-Celtic languages”; Celtiberian language and Goidelic languages as the “Q-Celtic languages”.  The difference between P-Celtic languages and Q-Celtic languages can be seen from the word “son”: it is “map” in P-Celtic languages and “mac” in Q-Celtic languages (“c” here is pronounced as “k”).

Another method puts Goidelic languages and Brythonic languages in the category “Insular Celtic languages” and the rest in category “Continental Celtic languages”. (The theory of this method believes that the variation between “Q” and “P” takes place in every single language). Supporters of this method also pointed out that there were universal variations among the Insular Celtic languages, including the inflexion of preposition and variations in the word order of VSO (Verb–subject–object). But nobody believes that the Continental Celtic languages was derived from “Primitive Continental Celtic languages”. This classification is to make it easier to include all the non-Continental Celtic languages into one category.

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Religion

Ancient Celts were known for their Druidism. This religion was named after Druid, the priestly class entitled to a special status in Celtic society. The name ”Druid” was originated from “dru”, which meant “live oak”. Tall live oak was the idol and sacred tree to Celts. The Celtic Religious and scarification rituals were very arcane and often held in the quiet of the night. The rituals were often held in a grove or glade called “Holy Place”. Druid (priest) wore a white dress, cut mistletoes with a golden sickle, and held the scarification ritual with two white cattle under the sacred tree. In ancient Europe densely covered by desolate, dark, and silent forests, many ethnic groups regarded mistletoe as a holy plant or worshipped the sacred tree. But the highly mysterious Druid held the rituals following very distinctive customs.

The core of Druidic doctrine was reincarnation, which claimed that the soul would not perish after the death, but moving from one body to another.

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The deities worshipped by Druidists were mostly the guardians of regions and tribes, and usually named after the tribes.

Mythology

Similar to Celtic religion, Celtic mythology was also unique and distinctive. It was originated from the time when they lived in the inland region of central Europe to the north of the Alps. Had gone through all kinds of evolutions, the development of Celtic mythology was relatively stable before the Roman Conquest, but there was some delay in Britain. Celtic mythology and religion blended with each other. They comprehensively reflected Celts’ characters, philosophy and social lives in the form of idea. For example, Celts were good at hunting, so they had deities in the shapes of wild boar, deer and bear; they focused on farming and herding, so they had the protector god of farmland; they also had goddess Epona (protector of horses) and goddess Damona (protector of cattle).

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Celts loved to eat pork and hold feasts. There were such scenarios in Welsh mythology: there were inexhaustible sacred pots and hearty pork dishes in the luxury banquet halls in the other world. For another example, Celts were tough, intrepid and aggressive. Therefore, these Celtic disposition resulted in many images of war gods such as Belatukadros, Caturix and Cocidius; and their legends also created the images of some reckless, tough and chivalric guys who also loved to brag.

Among the Celtic gods, the most important one was the sun god Lugus. Ancient Greek litterateurs equated Lugus and Apollo, and believed that both of them were good at crafts and music. Another important god was the god of all animals Cernunnos who had antlers on the head.

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Among Celtic goddesses, the protector of horses (mares) was the strongest. She had different names in different regions: in Gaul, she was known as Epona; in Ireland, she was called Macha; and in Britain, Rhiannon. The same as the war goddess Morrigan, she closely controlled the fates of kings and tribes. The former represented death and rebirth, and the latter represented fertility. Goddesses in Celtic religion often appeared in three forms or in the form of trinity. For example: The Martellogne trinity in Gaul; in Ireland, goddess Brigid governed poetry, healing and metalwork; the “Great Queen” Morrigan had three forms which respectively represented death (prediction), war (fear) and being killed in battle. Another goddess was recorded by Luka. She accepted human sacrifices, had three faces and three forms – thunder, war and mysterious ox (symbolizing fertility).

Festivals

November 1st – the Day of the Departed

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May 1st – the Day of Belenus (people held sacrifice ceremony for war, herded, hunted and courted on this day)

February 1st – the Day of goddess Brigid’s early spring

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August 1st – the Day of Lugus’ marriage (also the Day of harvest)

Music

One theory is that the bagpipe was originated from Ireland, and it first appeared in Scotland in around 13th century. This theory is actually wrong. The bagpipe was not originated from Ireland, but northern Italy; it came to Britain following the Roman Conquest. In northern Italy, a similar musical instrument is still in use by local people. This musical instrument is largely identical to bagpipe, but is not often seen nowadays. The real Celtic traditional musical instrument is harp, which was originated from Ireland and later also widely used in Scotland.  

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Irish harp or Celtic harp (in Celtic languages, “clarsach”), is an important element in the Irish national emblem. It is about 90 centimeters in height and 55 centimeters in width. Traditional Irish harpist plays it with fingernails. According to legend, if the performance of a harpist made his audience feel distressed, his fingernails would break. When Celtic peoples brought this musical instrument to Africa, it was made of wood which was hollowed and became the castanets. It had three or five strings, and was wrapped by dried hide. There were small holes on the harp body so that the sound could come out.

Sports

The most popular sport among Celts – golf, was also invented by Scottish in Middle Ages.

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Troops

The majority of Celtic troops were the poor armed with spears and armors. Those who brandished sharp swords were the awful “Celtic swordsmen”. These guys had much more wealth than the others and could arm many others. But they did not wear helmets or armors, and only brandished their swords. They always went to war with great enthusiasm toplessly or nakedly. Similar to Viking Berserkers, they sometimes wore trousers or cloaks with distinctive patterns. They started their battle by vicious abuse, then madly charged at the enemy. In Celtic society, this was the standard behavior for a Celtic swordsman in tribal conflicts. These tribal conflicts also honed young Celts, making them qualified warriors. Celtic warriors were also known for joining other classical-age troops as mercenaries. The best example is, during the Second Punic War they joined Hannibal’s army to invade Roma, and made great contributions to the final victory.

Wars

In Brennus, Celts started their looting of Roman cities, which left indelible wounds in Romans’ hearts, and resulted in that Romans treated Celts in the same way. The mutual hostility never ended even when Gaul and Britain became independent from the Roman Empire.

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