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To any confused students:

With my Professor Morgan's recent retirement, there may be some slightly confusing references to her in the lesson. I solely serve as the temporary steward for this course as I am well versed in many of its topics. In the meantime, you may see some of the references disappear in order to diminish the amount of work the new professor will need to do. 

 

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Lesson 5) Introduction to the Celts

The students enter the Ancient Studies classroom and quickly note the change of decor. Gone are the togas and Greco-Roman pillars which have been replaced by Celtic artwork and motifs. The room seems somewhat cozier bedecked in deep forest tones.

Professor Morgan stands at the front with a welcoming smile on her face, obviously eager to begin the lecture.

Welcome back, students! I know you are all a bit nervous about your midterms today - do not worry! I’m sure that you will all do just fine. Before we hand out the quills and parchment for your examinations, let us start our exploration of the ancient Celts and their use of magic. Some of today’s information you may remember from History of Magic, however they way of life and the beliefs of the Celtic people tie directly into how they practiced their magic, so it is important that we review this material before we discuss their magic use next class.

A Brief Review of Celtic History

The first thing to remember about the Celts is that they did not start out in Ireland. This is a common misconception, and one I hope to dispel! The Celtic civilization emerged from the peoples settled in modern day Austria, Germany, France, and Switzerland as early as 800 BCE. Obviously, the Celtic peoples migrated a fair amount - have a look at the map below to see where the Celtic people settled over the course of history.

Celtic peoples map

The Hallstatt Period 800-450 BCE

The Hallstatt period fell during the Iron Age of Europe - that is, when humanity starting working with iron as a material for creating tools and weapons. The Scythians are considered to be both the original users of iron, as well as the progenitors of the Celtic people.

And why is iron so important? Quite simply, using iron allowed the people to make better tools. In turn, those tools allowed them to have a better harvest. Being better fed, they were able to both expand their civilization, as well as focus on other aspects of their culture other than survival, such as art and infrastructure.

The Hallstatt period is characterized by the emergence of geometric art that you may be familiar with. Additionally, during the latter part of this period, great citadels and fortresses were built.

In terms of culture, the late Hallstatt period featured rich settlements that were lead by unified dynasties. These dynasties were clan based, and ruled by powerful princes. The clans were linked together simply by their common language. Some of these clans, though not all, were magical families.

Another interesting feature of this period is the shift from cremating the dead to entombment, especially for those of the ruling or aristocratic class. Entombment was not in a sarcophagus in the manner of the ancient Egyptians, nor was it in a box similar to what we use today. In point of fact, the ancient Celts buried their deceased on a four-wheeled wagon. Similar to other cultures, they were buried with their most precious possessions by their side.

La Tène Period 450-50 BCE

Sun disc brooch - gold plated bronze, 4th century BC  La Tene period. Discovered in France

While the Hallstatt Period could be defined as a time of growth and expansion, the La Tène Period is most certainly defined as a time of conflict. As the Celtic civilization expanded, it came into direct conflict with other civilizations - most notably the Romans. Modern tellings of these times often depict the Celtic people as far inferior to their Roman counterparts, however during this period of history, Celtic technology was not only equivalent but also was in some ways superior to their Greek and Roman counterparts.

This period of history saw an increased separation between the wealthy and the poor. On one side, there were the very poor living standards for the masses, and on the other side, there was a great increase in the use of elaborate decorations on artifacts created for the upper class. The artwork shifted from being purely geometric to a new style of swirls, as well as human and animal forms.

The burial rights during this period shifted as well to a more elaborate two-wheeled chariot, most likely influenced by the Greco-Romans. One of the most famous burial sites during this period is the resting place of the Princess of Vix, sometimes called the Priestess or Lady of Vix, in modern day France.

The Muggles accidentally stumbled upon the historical settlement of Vix in 1930 when a farmer quite literally tripped over a piece of metal sticking out of the ground. The metal was actually part of a weapon, and over the next few decades both Muggle and magical anthropologists and archaeologists have worked to uncover the settlement. The discoveries have ranged from impressive architecture to a trove of pottery and jewelry.

It was a great find for the magical community in particular, not simply because of what we learned about that settlement, but because it finally puts an end to the discussion of whether a certain druid did in fact exist. Like much of history, the oral tradition can cloud our judgement as to whether a story is true or not. The small snippets of druid lore that have survived the centuries have suffered the same fate.

One story that has survived down the ages was of a particularly skilled druid. She was a healer that lived in a vibrant trading community and was greatly respected - even more so than many of the other druids at that time. She was said to have healed an incredible number of patients during her life, but what set her apart was her willingness to heal and educate anyone. Magical or Muggle, Celtic or outsider, she had a good heart and treated everyone as an equal. She was seen as the epitome of what a druid should be and took her responsibilities very seriously.

She was so loved by her community that upon her death in 500 BCE they gave her the most elaborate burial they could manage. The other local druids worked a spell to protect the grave that lasted until the earth had been turned over too many times to hold the magic - but it lasted for almost 2500 years.

The discovery of the Princess of Vix, her village, and the manner in which she was buried all line up with the details of her legend - sadly, the name of this druid has not survived the passage of time, so we will simply have to remember her as the Princess, Priestess, and Lady of Vix. It is wonderful to know that some of our heroes of history did exist - even if all of their tales of wonder may not be exactly true.

Yes, yes, I can see you all shooting your hands into the air - she died before the La Tène period officially began. Good catch! A civilization does not simply change from doing one thing one day, to a different practice the following day. These things evolve over time. We can say that the majority of the civilization had switched from one period’s practices to another by a certain point of time, but there are going to be some areas that changed their practices before others, and some that changed long after the somewhat arbitrary date we place on the past. The area around Vix was heavily exposed to outside influences, and as such displayed many of the La Tène characteristics before that date, therefore we classify it as belonging to that period. Slightly confusing? Perhaps. Just remember that the traditions speak louder than the actual date.

Let’s return our attention to other aspects of the La Tène period. Historically, this period was the most eventful for the Celtic civilization in mainland Europe. It was during this time that they pushed their civilization geographically into modern day Spain, Portugal, the lower parts of England, and even as far east as Galatia: modern day Turkey. This great spread of the civilization was mostly due to their tribal mentality. Unlike the Romans, there was no central governing person or body for the clans; they were on their own.

A lack of one central leader did not deter the Celts from pushing their civilization ever outward - even if that push resulted in battling others for land. The Celts were ferocious in battle and had a tendency to terrify their enemies by cutting off the heads of their opponents, embalming them in cedar oil, and displaying them as trophies on the walls of their houses. Not a pleasant end, that’s for certain!

The most notable events involving the Celts during this time were in 390 BCE when they sacked Rome, and in 279 BCE when they sacked the Oracle at Delphi. Certainly magic played a part in these and other major battles - some of which we will learn about in more detail in our next lesson.

Needless to say, Rome was less than impressed by these events. As the Roman Empire grew, it became quite intolerant of the Celtic civilization. Coupled with its great advancements in battle technique and strategy, their constant conflict with the Celts ultimately led to the Gallic Wars of 58-50 BCE. The wars ended the independence of the Celts, and they were slowly, but surely amalgamated into the Roman Empire.

Romano-Celtic Period 50 BCE - 476 CE

There is not much to tell about this period of Celtic history. A great majority of the civilization was assimilated into the Roman Empire with only the extreme west (Ireland) and east (Anatolia) areas surviving in some form. Certainly the Celtic people were, and are, still around, however it was their culture that was absorbed and only now exists in small pockets in Ireland. That said, the influence of their culture, art, beliefs, and magic are still highly visible to this day.

An Introduction to the Druids

Now that we have had our history review, I am certain that you are all yearning to learn more about magical practice in the Celtic civilization.

Magical practice in the Celtic civilization centered around one group of practitioners - the druids. The druid order contained both male and female practitioners of magic, as well as some Muggles (mostly bards). What you could call the “true” druids were the magic practitioners. They were great spell casters, astronomers, and astrologers (vates), and bards. They were also considered the wise men of the clans, and acted on behalf of the human world when dealing with the otherworld.

Do not think that these men and women were simply consultants for the clan leaders. They were so much more. The druids were considered to be the only ones who could communicate with the gods. As such, they were the most authoritative force in the civilization. They were both judge and jury in decision making, and at a single word could end a war between clans.

Yes, you heard that correctly. Whatever decision they made - not matter how kind or harsh - the decision of a druid was accepted as absolute. They were never, ever questioned.

The druids have been described as the people of true vision. To become a full druid, the postulant studied for twenty years. That certainly puts your seven years at Hogwarts into perspective, now doesn’t it! Not only was the training intense, but it was also only passed on in an oral tradition. There are no books, parchments, secret scrolls, or anything written down on the teachings and traditions of the druids by the druids themselves. Any writings are simply those of an outside and, quite frequently, biased observer.

There is much, much more to tell about the druids and their use of magic in the Celtic civilization, but we shall save the rest of that discussion until our next class. We will also talk about some famous historical magical battles and a few other intriguing aspects of magic use in this culture. Which brings us up to today’s assignments - your midterms and a quick quiz on today’s materials.

A quick word of advice: take your time! All the information you will need is in the lessons - review them and you should be fine. Also, be as thorough as you can!

Take a deep breath, and off you go!

 

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Definitions:

Bards: One of an ancient Celtic order of minstrel poets who composed and recited verses celebrating the legendary exploits of chieftains and heroes.

Vates: A Celtic divinely inspired poet, soothsayer.

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Sources:

Cremin, Aedeen. 1997. The Celts. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. New York.

Green, Jen. 2008. Ancient Celts. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.

Hughes, Kristoffer. 2014. The Book of Celtic Magic. Llewellyn Publications. Woodbury, Minnesota.

Lavin, Patrick. 1999. The Celtic World. Hippocrene Books Inc. New York.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vix_Grave

Our studies of magic use in ancient civilizations continues this year with our examination of several European groups, including the ancient Romans, Greeks, Celts, Norse, and more! It will be a year filled with curious enigmas and amusing occurrences.
Course Prerequisites:
  • ANST-401

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