Friday, August 26, 2016

The Celtic Community

by Annie Whitehead

In the first of this series, Who Were the Celts*, I relied mainly on archaeological evidence. For the second, How the Celts Lived,** I relied on the Greek writers, who seem to have said little about the role of Celtic women, but are still our only real sources. Some of the information for this portion is taken from the findings of modern scholarship.

Women used to provide a dowry, but the men had to offer comparable value from their own property. Husbands had absolute power over their wives.

Among the Bretons, the women belonged to ten or twelve men at a time, particularly to brothers, fathers, or their children; however, the children born of such unions belonged to the man who had the woman while she was still a virgin. In Ireland, it was thought perfectly natural for men to have sexual relations with other men’s wives, mothers or sisters. Community of wives was the rule in Caledonia.

The status of women among the Celts seems to have been quite wretched. However, in the mid-first century AD, in what is now Great Britain, the Brigantes were in fact governed by a woman, Cartismandua (Cartimandua) and, in 61 AD, Boudicca, a woman of royal  blood, commanded the army of the ancient Britons. Yet no similar state of affairs can be found among other tribes or at earlier periods.

Queen Boudica by John Opie - public domain

The fidelity of Celtic women was famous throughout the ancient world, as can be seen from certain legends. Polybius [1] apparently spoke to a Galatian woman, Chiomara, wife of the king of Tolistobogii. She had been captured and raped by a Roman centurion around 189 BC. He was promised a large sum of money for her return. As she was being returned, she signalled to her compatriots to cut off the centurion's head. She presented the head to her husband, saying that it was finer thing even than fidelity, that only one man who had been her lover should remain alive.

Besides conjugal fidelity, Gaulish women had other qualities. Apparently they were beautiful, fertile, good nursing mothers, and they took great care of their children.

It is known that the Celtic women accompanied their menfolk into battle. The wives of the Helvetii defended entrenched positions against the Romans; the wives of the Britons encouraged them to a greater ardour in combat. Before the conquest of Cisalpine Gaul (Gaul on the Roman side of the Alps), a terrible civil war was fought, and the women strode into the midst of the armies, taking the role of arbiters to resolve the dispute.

Caesar wrote that in Gaul, the father had the power of life and death over his children. This was also true of the Ancient Britons, and the Irish. Caesar also reported on a distinctive custom:
“The Gauls are unlike the other peoples in that they do not allow their children to address them in public until they have reached the age at which they are capable of performing their military service; they feel it is a disgrace for a man’s son to appear with him in public while still a child.” [2]
This could mean that sons remained with their mothers until they reached the age of military action or that children were brought up away from home.

The Family Unit
Irish Iron Age Celts had larger units consisting of four generations of descendants from a common great-grandfather; this unit was known as the derbfine and had its own identity in law, owning land collectively. The larger group, known as tuath or 'tribe', was ruled by the chief or king.

Below the nobles were ordinary freemen, farmers who paid food-rent to the king and received cattle from the nobles in return for obligations. At the bottom of the social pyramid were, unsurprisingly perhaps, the slaves. There were learned men, the aes dána (men of art) whose skills gave them status above that or their birth and placed them on a similar level in society to warriors.

There is some evidence to suggest that homosexuality was fairly openly practised among the Celts, and that it was not frowned upon. Diodorus [3] wrote that

“The Celtic women are not only as tall as the men but as courageous … but despite their charm the men will have nothing to do with them. They long instead for the embrace of their own sex. It is particularly surprising that they attach no value to either dignity or decency, offering their bodies to each other without further ado. This is not regarded as at all harmful; on the contrary, if they are rejected in their approaches, they feel insulted.” [4]

Strabo [5] confirms these homosexual practices with the brief mention that the young men of Gaul were “shamelessly generous with their boyish charms.”

Gerhard Herm wrote that as soon as they were old enough to bear arms, young people indeed lived away from home, living almost wholly with others of their own sex. They learned riding, swordsmanship, hunting, and drinking. They had to prove themselves in the field, and saw their like as the only suitable company. It is easy to see that this placed emphasis on male friendships, and Herm suggested that this gave rise to the cult of the male body. Certainly, according to Strabo, the Celts "tried to avoid becoming fat or pot-bellied, and they punished any boy whose waist was larger than the standard they set." Diodorus linked this to the wearing of the "armbands of all sorts" and said that the Celts "wear about their necks heavy rings of solid gold."

The Celtiberians used to abandon their dead for the vultures to eat. The Gauls who took Rome used to bury their dead; and it was not until an epidemic occurred that they began to pile up corpses to burn them. Plutarch [6] remarked that the Gauls did not lament the passing of a dead man.

The Dying Gaul - public domain image

The funerals of the Celts of Gaul, who were relatively highly civilised, were quite splendid affairs. Anything thought to have been valued by a person during his lifetime was put on the pyre along with the body, even domestic animals.

At the time when bronze was the predominant metal for the manufacture of weapons, incineration was practised in various parts of Gaul, particularly in the southeast and north. When bronze swords disappeared, to be replaced by iron, burial under artificial mounds (tumuli) or in the earth itself, became more common.

Galician Celtic Stele for the deceased, called Apana, presumably an aristocrat of the tribe of Celtic Supertamáricos. Second Century of the Common Era. Image - public domain

One section of the Celtic community with which most people are familiar is the Druidic tradition. The Druids and their role will be examined in the last of this series, which will focus on government and Social Structure.

Next time: Occupations and Leisure Activities
*  ** Read the previous articles HERE and HERE

[1] Polybius, or Polybus, was a Greek historian born between 210 and 205 BC, in Arcadia. He wrote a general history of his time, and died around 125 BC
[2] Quote/translation The World of the Celts - G Dottin p40
[3] Diodorus (Sicilus) of Sicily was a Greek historian who used varied literary sources with little judgement of his own, and often without regard to exact chronology. For certain periods, though, he provides the best evidence available
[4] From Gerhard Herm's The Celts p57
[5] Strabo was a Greek geographer, who lived from about 58 BC - AD 25
[6] Plutarch was a Greek historian, biographer, and essayist, who lived from 45-120 AD


Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016 and has been awarded an indieBRAG medallion. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now. She is also a contributor to 1066 Turned Upside Down, an anthology of short stories re-imagining the events of 1066.
Annie's Author Page
Alvar the Kingmaker
To Be A Queen
Annie's Website
Annie's Blog


  1. Fascinating read:) Although the Romans left us these wonderful writings, I definitely take them with a large grain of salt when they discuss the Celtic people who they saw as pretty barbaric:)

    1. Thanks Mark :) Yes, indeed, they were fairly biased, but along with the Greek writers they at least left us something to go on. What's fascinating is that things are constantly being re-evaluated with each new archaeological discovery. Every time something new is dug up, it deepens or changes our understanding, and there's a lot being dug up just now.

  2. Thanks Annie for this. Remarkable stuff. You make me want to go and study it further.

    1. Thanks Christopher, glad you enjoyed it. There will be two more in this series. I'm always a little bit conflicted, like the old woman who loves birds and cats and gets upset when one catches the other - difficult sometimes to reconcile an interest in the Celts with a love of all things Anglo-Saxon ;)


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