Not Celt (Briton)

Not Celt (Briton)

Mixed media, Indian Khadi Paper

The Celtic construct, the Britons and the Western sea routes.

I was brought up with the notion that I was a Celt, and that held particular meaning. Confused by the knowledge that the Celts were supposedly blue eyed, tall and fair of hair, I never really fully fell in with this ethnicity. I felt somehow connected to northern Spain as a destination, and at times it felt good to be connected to the Irish and the Scots as fellow Celts. It seems that, despite the plethora of books produced on Celtic themes, historians have questioned this term for a long time. For many reasons, it has become deeply embedded. It has had its uses, but such essentialism is, in the long term limiting and damaging to any identity.

When the people who spoke the early form of the language now known as 'Welsh', arrived on these islands circa 500BC they gave the islands the name Prydein... (pryd meaning the look of.. or appearance, as it still does in Welsh). It may be that this referred to the appearance of it's inhabitants, with tattoos and body paint. These early Welsh speakers, who arrived by sea had dominated the islands of Prydein by the time the Romans arrived, some 500 years later, and they in turn adapted the name for the place into Brytein or Britannia.

The Britons (Brythoniaid) survived Roman occupation and the language developed. It was spoken in most of the islands as place names suggest. It also migrated to northern France where Brittany literally means little Britain and Great (or larger) Britain were the islands. When the Anglo-Saxon incursions began, the name Wealch (Welsh) was given to the Brythons, (meaning Romanised Foreigners). There was a period of co-existence, and Anglo-Saxon names given to Brythonic forts and settlements in places now in England and Scotland prove this.

Celts are first documented in the 6th century B.C. writings of Hecatateus of Miletus as the Keltoi of Massilia, present day Marseilles. Thereafter, peoples defined as Keltoi appear in countless Greek writings as, according to Plato, ‘one of the six barbarian warlike peoples, who are given to drunkenness, as opposed to Spartan restraint’. As the Roman state expanded, the area in which these Keltoi lived came to be known as Gaul and all its inhabitants Galatai, so that in the texts a confusing mixture of Celts and Gauls, sometimes interchangeable, is constructed.

The term 'Celt' was only introduced to describe the remnants of the Brythons still speaking Welsh in the west by the expanding kingdoms of the Anglo Saxons, by the Welsh historian and antiquarian Edward Lhuyd (Llwyd)(1660-1709). It might have been that there was a general feeling that this 'construct' might more truly evoke the power and glory of the Brythonic past. Constructs even more imaginative had been created by John Dee, (1527-1609) Welshman, mathematician, astrologer, astronomer, philosopher, occultist at the court of Elizabeth 1, and used to secure her claims to the New World. It was he who first coined the term, "British Empire". As a (Welsh) Tudor Queen, she was, of course, heir to the Brythonic throne, descendant of Prince Madoc of Gwynedd (who legend claims, established himself in north America). He was likely to have been the inspiration for Shakespeare's Prospero. Later, in 1819, Iolo Morganwg , a London based Welshman, added his constructs to the structures that the brilliant Dee had comprehensively established. The Gorsedd of Bards of the Islands of Britain were formed. Celtic mysticism of the Victorian era segues into 1960's new age baloney.

The English added enthusiastically to this myth, firstly since it helped them to establish themselves as the ‘British'; usurping the title in fact, whilst casting the Brythonic races as 'other', much in the way the Greeks and Romans had done with their Keltoi. So the English became inheritors of the mantle of Greece and Rome.. civilised, reasonable, and true Britons... whilst the Welsh, Scots Gaels and Irish could be classed as inferior and given the attributes of the original 'Celts' as they appeared in Greek and Roman texts, i.e. uncivilized, unreasonable, driven by exuberance and equally, melancholy.

In Ireland also, Celticism was propounded by, amongst others, Yeats and Synge as a tool of nationalism and independence. The fact that the term Celtic has stuck to the people of the western fringe is due to a host of reasons, political in the case of Ireland, and in recent times, as a marketing tool. There can be no denying however, that sea-born links existed between the west of Britain, Ireland, Brittany and across the Bay of Biscay to northern Spain and Portugal, and as far as north Africa. Archaeology and recent DNA testing concur. However to call these culturally connected people ‘The Celts’ is merely to give them a 'tag' from a more recent date... and also to impart a bogus generic ethnicity. They may as well be called the Atlan