Celtic culture remains an ambiguous term. The origins and common elements of the Celts are constantly contested. For general purposes, Celtic refers to the peoples of Western Europe starting around 1200 B.C. Similarities between cultures can be found as far east as Anatolia and as far west as Ireland. There are two theories as to the Celtic movements. One is that they were centered in a location, possibly in Austria (several theories suggest this), and that through the migration of both themselves and other groups, they spread out greatly. This is a theory that began in the late nineteenth century and has since been disputed. The contesting theory is that there wasn’t a great migration. Instead, there were tribal groups who traded goods and ideas, developed languages similar to each other, but who were different from each other.
Ancient historians tended to group Celts to the northern reaches of Europe: Germany and above. Herodotus, hailed as the “father of history”, put them north of the Pyrenees Mountains. However, as they weren’t investigated or written on with great detail, it’s hard to know exactly which groups would have been Celtic, and which would have been something else.
By the time the Romans had hit the height of their empire, the Celts (as they’re defined today) were mostly organized to Ireland, the Isle of Man, Brittany, and pockets in Britain: Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. These peoples shared common linguistic, religious, and artistic traits that were easily identified. They also shared a tribal personality that became almost stereotypical: they were strong and stubborn, unafraid to fight for what they believed to be right, and loyal to a fault. The Celts the Romans encountered were so fierce that Julius Caesar couldn’t gain a footing in Britain, and even after the Romans had landed and conquered, they were never able to fully conquer all of Britain. Resistance was so strong in the north that Emperor Hadrian built a wall to deter the Celts from coming south in to the Roman colonized lands. And if the Celts in the north were fierce, the Celts in Ireland must have been terrifying: the Romans landed and only lasted three days in Ireland before leaving.
Like Celtic origins, there seem to be two sides to the Celts: the fierce warrior, capable of scaring a Roman Legionary, and the nostalgic storyteller, looking into the past and nature for inspiration. Both were true, and continue to be true today. This duality is best shown in the art and stories passed down from the ancient and medieval Celts.
Celtic art is widely recognized for its intricate details, natural themes, and spiraling shapes. The Book of Kells is a prime example of this: the intricate patterns for the Gospel pages take the meaning of the words to a whole new level. What might appear to be just a saint in another book becomes divine through the unique patterns of the Celts. These patterns also appear in their jewelry, relics, clothing accessories, and architecture. A Celtic cross is recognized. Its origins might be unknown, but the shape and the knots within tie it back into the beautiful heritage of the Celts.