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Life among the "barbarians" **,
This review is from: The Celts ; A History. (Paperback)
In the Western world no libel has endured with greater persistence than the one of "barbarian" levied against the Celts. The ancient Greeks applied the term "Keltai" to the peoples living north of their peninsula. They described them as "barbarians" which originally meant "outsider" or "foreigner". The meaning of "barbarian" changed over the centuries, especially when the Roman Empire's expansion was checked by these ancient people and Caesar became a propagandist in his campaigns against them. He admired their courage and fighting abilities, but disparaged nearly every other aspect of their culture. And his depiction persisted for centuries.
In an outstanding brief overview, Ellis provides a corrective to that portrayal. We learn the Celts have Indo-European roots reaching into deep time. We also learn all those centuries allowed the Celts to achieve high cultural attainments in society, urban development and the arts. Oh, yes. They also successfully defeated nearly every force sent against them. Only a long war of attrition plus a few renegade leaders turned defectors ultimately led to Rome's overrunning them. Which didn't destroy their culture. It took the Christians to achieve that.
In describing Celtic society, Ellis frequently reminds us that these "first Europeans" had no written records. In large part, this lack was due to the prohibition of religious matters being set down in writing. Their leading intellectual class, the Druids, who had a far larger role than chanting in oak forests, maintained a detailed oral tradition. Not until the Christians came among them were any of their legends committed to parchment, and those, in Ellis' words were "bowdlerised" versions, designed to transform Celtic historical and mythical figures into the Christian mythology.
Ellis guides us through the metaphysical and concrete aspects of Celtic life. Gods proliferated, with countless local deities, but some which appear to be common across their areas of occupation. The Celts had a strong sense of the human soul, which they knew resided in the head, not in the stomach of Greek philosophy. The Christian Trinity, not "officially" promulgated until Nicea, may have originated with ideas derived through a Celtic bishop a century before the "Creed". Kings and warriors played their roles, but the Celts had a highly talented artisan class. While swords were significantly superior for their time, they also produced superb jewellry and other artefacts. Their technology, going far beyond weaponry, included a strong use of glass and enamelling techniques. They built strong houses and castles, expanding some sites into major urban centres. While the libel against them has persisted, so have many of their ideas, words and deities. As Ellis has attempted to do with this book, a better balance needs to be struck. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
** with thanks to Atheen