Celts—A number of barbarian tribes organized under the name Celtae (or the Greek form Keltoi), and spread across Europe and the British Isles; the Irish Celts gave history SAMHAIN, the forerunner of the modern version of Halloween. We know surprisingly little about the Celts, since most of their history and lore was transmitted orally, as opposed to being written down; and since it has only been within the last four decades or so that serious archaeological evidence of Celtic culture has been unearthed. Greek and Roman historians (including Caesar) recorded some observations of the Celts, but their observations are often colored by their perceptions of the Celts as both foes and pagans. Most of what we know of Celtic CELEBRATIONS and mythology comes from the Irish sagas, which were first set to paper by Christian monks, mainly from the ninth to the twelfth centuries.

Our understanding of Celtic history is further obfuscated by the unfortunate tendency of historians of the past to romanticize the Celts. When the DRUIDS were first rediscovered from classical sources, the philosophies then current in Britain had developed the ideal of the “noble savage” and the concept of “natural religion,” both of which played a large role in the rise of the antiquarians’ fascination with the Druids, megalithic monuments and the origins of the British people. The “Age of Enlightenment” had seen the rise of scientific thinking, but following it came the rise of Romanticism and many fringe areas of speculation. British and Anglo-Irish antiquarians such as William Stukeley, John Toland and Edward Davies, to name a few, started publishing a great deal of this sort of work. In their fervor, they even sometimes confused Celtic traditions with those of other pre–Christian peoples; for example, the popular misconception that Samhain was the name of a Celtic “lord of death” may have confused the name of the Celts’ New Years’ celebration with the name of an ancient Hindu deity, Samana.

The Greeks thought the Celts were one of the four great Barbarian peoples of the world (along with the Scythians, the Persians and the Libyans). Evidence of Celt warriors has been found as far south as Egypt; they can be traced clearly from about 450 B.C. on. The Romans frequently fought the Galli, or the Gauls, who were a Celtic people. After they suffered a devastating defeat at Delphi in 279 B.C., the Celts began to move north through Europe, leaving behind a few scattered tribes (including the Galatians in Northern Phrygia). By 58 B.C. the Romans had conquered Gaul, leaving Britain as the final outpost of Celtic power.

There may be traces of the Celts in northeastern Scotland as early as 600 B.C. (and mythology records the Celts in Ireland as early as 939 B.C.), but most historians agree that it wasn’t until about 250 B.C. that Celtic settlers came from France to the east and south coasts of Britain, spreading west and south. The Celtic tribes brought with them their famed two-wheeled war chariots, their art style, and possibly the Druids. In 55 B.C. Caesar invaded Britain; in A.D. 43 Claudius began the conquest of Britain.

The history of Celtic tribes in Ireland is difficult to trace. They spoke a different dialect of the Celtish language, probably having first arrived around the sixth century B.C. Ireland remained unconquered by Rome, although the later Christian church modified and absorbed pagan beliefs and lore.

Celtic culture was divided into castes, mainly the warriors, the Druids, and the fili (who served as bards and seers). Celtic religion featured a pantheon of gods and created a rich and complex mythology. Two of the chief gods were the Dagda, a male deity whose name means “the good” or “the allcompetent,” and who served as protector of his tribe, controlling warfare and wisdom; and the Morrigan, sometimes known as “the Queen of Demons,” who is both fertile and destructive. The coming together of the Dagda and the Morrigan on the night of the festival of Samhain ensured the continuing prosperity of the tribe and the fertility of the crops and animals in the coming year.


The Halloween Encyclopedia Second Edition written by Lisa Morton © 2011 Lisa Morton. All rights reserved