Unless preceded by the Iberians, the Celts formed the first of those vast waves of Indo-European immigration that, first from the Himalayas and then from the Caspian Sea, spread themselves over Europe. This people, of unknown antiquity, not only at one time held all of Western and Central, but also an important part of Southern and Eastern Europe, and their armies threatened Rome and Asia Minor. Pressed back by the German tribes, and then conquered by the Romans and Saxons, the Celts have now ceased to be active agents in history as distinct national bodies, and have, indeed, a clear descent, as an unmixed race, only in Brittany, in France, Ireland, Wales, and part of Scotland and the smaller British Isles.
The Celts occupied a low stage of culture. They despised agriculture, were skillful traders and miners, and passionately fond of war, piracy, ornaments, and wine. They were cruel to their wives and children on the death of chiefs, practiced polygamy, had few roads, but built many fortified cities and villages. They had no compact national union, but were divided into clans and districts, having but a slight federative union. Their society gradually became more and more aristocratic, so that feudalism seems, from its many points of resemblance, to be but the development of the Celtic social order.
The Celts had, however, a powerful bond of union in their religion and priesthood. In many features the priests resembled those of the ancient Egyptians. The numerous and powerful body of priests called Druids not only fulfilled all the offices of religion, but they were also the judges, the expounders of civil law, the physicians, the astrologers, the instructors of the youth, and had, in short, in their hands all the spiritual life of the entire people. They were not held to military service, paid no taxes, and bore none of the burdens of the state. With such privileges attached to their order, the children of rich and noble families often were placed in the priesthood, or sought it of their own wills. These novices were placed under a training which often lasted twenty years, being compelled to commit to memory an immense number of verses containing the secrets of the religion. As it was never permitted to commit these verses to writing, most of the particulars of the Celtic religion have been lost. The Druids were a secret or close corporation, wore a peculiar costume, had various grades of priesthood, and were presided over by a high-priest elected by the whole body. To the ordinary priests were entrusted the preservation of the sacred legends, and the teaching of them to the young priests. They usually had their places of residence and instruction in retired places, as in deep forests, dark valleys, or in islands. The vates (seers) dwelt in cities and villages, and there conducted the prayers, sacrifices, and other religious rites, and foretold the future and the counsel of the gods from the flight of birds and other phenomena of Nature. The bards preserved, developed, and sang to the people lyrics of the religion and of the glorious traditions of heroes among their ancestors. They often appeared on the battle-field, firing the soldiers to deeds of heroic valor. By the touching tones of their lyres and songs they often stayed the flow of blood between hostile clans. In the early ages the bards stood in the highest esteem. At Cæsar's time they had sunk to be beggar-poets, seeking their living by singing flattering songs in the palaces of rich men and princes.
The religion of the Druids seems to have been originally a monotheism, which developed later into the deification of the powers of Nature, and the final incorporation of them as deities. Tavann (the Thunderer) was the god of heaven, the ruler of the universe, the highest judge, scattering the thunderbolts of his vengeance among mortals. Belen was the benevolent son of God, who gives life to the vegetable world and healing power to plants. Hesus, Heus or Hu, originally the founder of the religion of the Druids, was the god of war and of agricultural labor. Teutates was the god of manufactures, the arts, and trade, therefore was identified by the Romans as Mercury. Fairies, "motherly virgins," were female deities who spun out the thread of life and of fate, and who were guardian angels of both lands, cities, and individual persons, and in the minds of the people were clothed with all attractions and virtues. Many places had also their local female deities.
The instruction in the schools of the priests consisted largely in tracing out the attributes of their deities. This was done with a surprising completeness. Instruction was also given concerning the stars and their courses, the size of the universe, the nature of matter and of existence, and especially of the human soul. The Druids taught the immortality of the soul; that after death it enters into another body, and that it leads in a more beautiful world than this a happy life, like the earthly life in its better phases, with the same occupations and enjoyments, so that the dead and living stand in a certain communication. At burial, letters were thus often thrown into the flames, that the dead might read them. This belief gave the Celts a high regard for their dead, and spurred them to deeds of great bravery. But it also brought with it deeds of horrible cruelty. In their earlier history it was not unusual, on the death of a man of station, for some of his nearest friends to throw themselves into the flames of his funeral pile. This led to tragic results. Thus, after the feudal system of the late Celtic period had developed itself, it was not rare, on the death of a chieftain, for some of his favorite slaves or followers to be killed and burned on his pile or buried in his grave. The warrior's favorite steed, his arms, dress, and ornaments, were also buried with him, that he might lack nothing in the other life.
Sacrifices formed the chief part of the Celtic religious rites. Human sacrifices were frequent, being regarded as the most effectual and acceptable way of appeasing Deity. It was believed that one human life could only be redeemed by the life of another human being. Thus, a person suffering from a dangerous sickness, a person in danger or in battle, offered to the deities instead of animals a human being, or vowed to do so, availing themselves of the Druids to fulfill the vow for them. In behalf of the state also the Druids offered human sacrifices. Great figures in the human form, made of wicker-work, were filled with human beings and then set on fire. The sacrifice of criminals was considered especially grateful to the deities. When they were lacking, innocent persons were offered up. For a long time also prevailed the custom of sacrificing all prisoners of war, accompanying the dreadful offering with loud songs and wild music, and out of the flowing blood and quivering members to divine the future.
The Celts also had Druidesses, or female priests, who, however, had less espect and privileges than the Druids. Companies of these priestesses inhabited certain islands, which no man dared to set foot upon. When they wished to have intercourse with the people of the main land, they had to come in boats, and then return to their islands. These islands were avoided by sailors, as their fancy attributed to the Druidesses the power of sending tempests to destroy them. Once each year these priestesses had to remove the roofs from their houses, and to restore a new one before the setting of the sun. If one of them, crowned with ivy and other leaves, let a stick fall while at this work, the others fell upon her with wild cries and tore her to pieces.
All legal questions were decided by the Druids. All the Druids gathered every year at Chartres, and there decided all matters of dispute, both public and private. They appointed the punishment for murder and other crimes, and decided all disputes of inheritance and boundaries of estates. If any private person or chieftain refused to stand by their decision, he was refused permission to attend the religious rites — the most severe punishment they could inflict. He was an outcast, a godless criminal, avoided by all, and deprived of all rights at the hand of his fellow-man or of the law itself.
The medicine of the Druids consisted mostly in incantations, the plants used being deemed only the vehicles of communicating the healing influence. The most prized plant was the mistletoe. This was gathered from the oak in dark forests on winter's nights of the holy festival days, and was cut with golden sickles. It was called the "all-healing."
Talismans of various kinds were prepared with incantations by the priests and given to the people. The eggs of snakes, gathered by moonlight and carried in the bosom, were considered the most powerful protection against evil fortune. Many of these rites have left their traces on the religious customs of modern times, and are the foundation of many superstitions in Celtic lands of today.
Carnac, a small village in Brittany, has remains attributed to Druidical worship. They consist of four thousand massive rocks, placed upright in eleven rows. These rocks are often ten or fifteen feet high, and nearly as many feet apart. Over these are similar rocks, laid horizontally. In other places in Western France are similar remains of Druidical worship, also in Anglesea (Wales), on the Isle of Man, and other places in England. The tombs of the chiefs are mounds, or subterranean chambers. In the first are usually found bronze and earthen urns, bones, and ashes; in the latter, skeletons, earthen vessels, knives, battleaxes, chains, and other articles of furniture or ornament. — Amed. Thierry, Histoire des Gaulois (Paris, 1857, 2 vols.); Eckermann, Celtische Mythologie (Ha le, 1847); Diefenbach, Celtica (Stuttg. 1839-41); Mone, Celt. Forschungon (Freiburg, 1857); Contzen, Wanderungen der Celten (Leipz. 1861). SEE DRUIDS.