December 24, 2020
Wales is one of the six Celtic nations that exist in modern times. For those who are curious, the other five are Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. There are other regions such as Asturias, Cantabria, and Galicia that have sought a similar status. However, the main criterion used for Celticity is a surviving Celtic language, thus ruling them out in spite of their cultural connections. By this point, it should come as no surprise to learn that while there are still Celtic peoples in the present, there were even more Celtic peoples in the past.
First and foremost, it is important to note that the Celts were never a single people even in ancient history. As a result, there has been much debate about who can and can’t be considered Celtic, which is something that has continued into modern times. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this means that we don’t have a clear understanding of the origin of the Celts, not least because we know so little about pre-Celtic Europe. As such, we have to paint in very broad strokes. For instance, the Celtic languages are a subset of the Indo-European languages descended from the Proto-Indo-European language, which makes sense because the Celtic peoples are a subset of the Indo-European peoples descended from the Proto-Indo-European people. The most popular line of speculation is that the Proto-Indo-Europeans came from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, but there are other lines of speculation that point to other places such as Anatolia and Armenia.
According to new research the grandparent of the Welsh language may first have been spoken in Turkey more than 8,000 years ago. Most likely Turkish farmers have uttered the first Indo-European words, as as we know one of the Indo-European’s daughters is Celtic, from which Welsh emerged in around 500 AD.
An analysis of 87 languages, including English, Lithuanian and Gujarati, indicates they originated at a crossroads between Europe and Asia at a time when agriculture first took root.
The findings fit a controversial theory put forward by archaeologist Colin Renfrew that Indo-European speech – one of many language families in the world – had its roots in Anatolia, in modern-day Turkey. But the theory has received little support from linguistic experts, who believed Indo-European’s origin was open to question.
The descendants of the Proto-Indo-Europeans wandered very far from their ancestral homeland, which should come as no surprise considering the name. One excellent example would be the Tarim mummies found in what is now Northwestern China, who are believed to have been Caucasian-looking individuals who spoke Indo-European languages. Something that would make them distant cousins to the Celts. As for the Celts themselves, they are believed to have come into existence in Central Europe, with the earliest undisputed evidence of a Celtic language having been found in the Alpine region.
By classical times, there was a wide range of Celtic peoples living in a wide range of locations. To name some examples, there were Celts in France, in the British Isles, in the Low Countries, in the Iberian Peninsula, in the northern part of the Italian peninsula, much of Central Europe, and Poland. On top of this, it is interesting to note that there was once a Celtic people called the Galatians, who started out as a splinter of a huge Celtic horde that had invaded Greece in 281 BC.
As such, we know a fair amount about these Celts because of their numerous interactions with the Greco-Romans. Generally speaking, they were seen as barbarians by Mediterranean cultures, which is an impression that has managed to make its way to us in the present. However, some of the Celtic peoples were very sophisticated. For instance, the Gauls who inhabited Cisalphine Gaul and Transalphine Gaul were excellent craftsmen, which contributed much to the prosperity that made them appealing targets to the Romans.
Furthermore, even the less sophisticated Celtic peoples were quite capable in their own right, though it should be mentioned that Stonehenge can’t be credited to them. After all, it was built sometime from 3000 BC to 2000 BC, which was well before the Celts made their way to the British Isles from about 700 BC to 100 BC. Besides this, it is worth mentioning that some people think that latter Celts managed to make their way over the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas as well. Their supporting evidence is based on markings that they have chosen to interpret as the early Irish alphabet Ogham as well as stone structures (American Stonehenge etc) that they have chosen to interpret as being of early Irish construction, but this is very much a fringe opinion. Something that is particularly true because there is a long, unpleasant history of Native American works being interpreted as having been of European origin. Still, there were definitely Europeans in the Americas before Columbus, so the idea of the early Irish having made their way there isn’t wholly impossible.
According to Welsh legend, Prince Madog ab Owain Gwynedd discovered America long before Columbus.
A Welsh poem of the 15th century tells how Prince Madoc sailed away in 10 ships and discovered America in 1170. The account of the discovery of America by a Welsh prince, whether truth or myth, was apparently used by Queen Elizabeth I as evidence to the British claim to America during its territorial struggles with Spain.
Unfortunately, none of the Celtic peoples of these times have left their writings to us. Due to that, we are limited to the perspectives of outsiders, which can be explained in some cases by the practices of the Druids. Nowadays, the druids are remembered as religious figures. Their places of worship (‘Temples of the Druids’) were quiet, secluded areas, like clearings in woods and forests, and stone circles, nowadays few examples can be found in Wales.
Probably the most famous stone circle in Britain is Stonehenge, an ancient megalithic monument dating back to about 2400 B.C. There is disagreement though, about whether the Druids built Stonehenge or not. It is not clear exactly when the Druids came to Britain, but it is likely that they actually arrived after Stonehenge was built.
However, they were also involved in everything from law and medicine to lore-keeping and political counselling, meaning that they were a high-ranking class that was multi-disciplinary in nature. In any case, while we have very good reason to believe that the Druids were literate, we also have very good reason to believe that their doctrine forbade them from recording their knowledge in written form. Thanks to that, when the Romans carved out an empire that stretched from the British Isles to the Middle East, druidic knowledge died out for the most part. Something that happened to a lot of other Celtic institutions under Romanization.
To understand the creation of Wales, it is important to understand the Roman province of Britain. For those who are unfamiliar, the Romans set foot on the British Isles for the first time under the famous Gaius Julius Caesar, who launched a couple of invasions with rather mixed results before returning to Gaul to focus on more important matters. Later, the Roman Empire conquered territories that included what is now England, what is now Wales, and the southern part of what is now Scotland for a short period of time. For the most part, Roman Britain wasn’t the highest of Roman priorities. However, a lot of people from throughout the Roman Empire proceeded to settle there, bringing with them everything from urban planning to new construction methods and new agricultural methods. The result of this process was the Romano-British culture, which became more and more distinct from their northern counterparts through their blending of Roman introductions with the indigenous practices of the Celtic Britons.
The end of Roman rule in the British Isles didn’t happen in a simple and straightforward manner. Instead, there was a gradual decline over time, which corresponded with the gradual decline of Roman power in Western Europe. By 410 AD, the Roman Emperor Honorius outright rejected an appeal for assistance from Romano-British communities, which were beleaguered by enemies that ranged from the Saxons to the Picts. This would be the time of King Arthur, who is said to have stopped the encroachment of the Saxons for a time by winning the Battle of Badon around 490 AD. However, interested individuals might recall that said figure was supposed to have been successful for no more than a time, which reflects historical realities. Simply put, Post-Roman Britain was replaced bit by bit by Anglo-Saxon England, with the result that Wales became the biggest of the British regions that remained under Brythonic control.
In time, Wales was subjugated by the Norman kings of Anglo-Saxon England. However, Welsh culture continued strong, as shown by how 43.5 percent of the Welsh population could still speak Welsh by 1911. Having said that, it is important to note that it was similar to the other Celtic nations in that it received a considerable boost from the Celtic Revival in the 19th and 20th centuries, which was spurred on in considerable part by the Romanticism that overtook Europe in response to the Enlightenment as well as the Industrial Revolution. In the present, interest in the Welsh language is holding its own, as shown by how the decline in Welsh speakers that happened in the 20th century is now being reversed in the 21st century. On top of that, the Welsh people have spread throughout the world in much the same manner as the other peoples of the British Isles, with the result that they and their descendants can now be found on every continent.
References:Who were the Druids? by Ben Johnson
August 28, 2023