Sacred Texts  Legends/Sagas  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

p. 18



But, before proceeding to recount the myths of the "Ancient Britons", it will be well to decide what people, exactly, we mean by that loose but convenient phrase. We have, all of us, vague ideas of Ancient Britons, recollected, doubtless, from our school-books. There we saw their pictures as, painted with woad, they paddled coracles, or drove scythed chariots through legions of astonished Romans. Their Druids, white-bearded and wearing long, white robes, cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle at the time of the full moon, or, less innocently employed, made bonfires of human beings shut up in gigantic figures of wicker-work.

Such picturesque details were little short of the sum-total, not only of our own knowledge of the subject, but also of that of our teachers. Practically all their information concerning the ancient inhabit-ants of Britain was taken from the Commentaries of Julius Caesar. So far as it went, it was no doubt correct; but it did not go far. Caesar's interest in our British ancestors was that of a general who was his own war-correspondent rather than that of an exhaustive and painstaking scientist. It has been reserved for modern archæologists, philologists, and

p. 19

ethnologists to give us a fuller account of the Ancient Britons.

The inhabitants of our islands previous to the Roman invasion are generally described as "Celts". But they must have been largely a mixed race; and the people with whom they mingled must have modified to some--and perhaps to a large--extent their physique, their customs, and their language.

Speculation has run somewhat wild over the question of the composition of the Early Britons. But out of the clash of rival theories there emerges one--and one only--which may be considered as scientifically established. We have certain proof of two distinct human stocks in the British Islands at the time of the Roman Conquest; and so great an authority as Professor Huxley has given his opinion that there is no evidence of any others. 1

The earliest of these two races would seem to have inhabited our islands from the most ancient times, and may, for our purpose, be described as aboriginal. It was the people that built the "long barrows"; and which is variously called by ethnologists the Iberian, Mediterranean, Berber, Basque, Silurian, or Euskarian race. In physique it was short, swarthy, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and long-skulled; its language belonged to the class called "Hamitic", the surviving types of which are found among the Gallas, Abyssinians, Berbers, and other North African tribes; and it seems to have come originally from some part either of Eastern, Northern, or Central Africa. Spreading thence, it was

p. 20

probably the first people to inhabit the Valley of the Nile, and it sent offshoots into Syria and Asia Minor. The earliest Hellenes found it in Greece under the name of "Pelasgoi"; the earliest Latins in Italy, as the "Etruscans"; and the Hebrews in Palestine, as the "Hittites". It spread northward through Europe as far as the Baltic, and westward, along the Atlas chain, to Spain, France, and our own islands. 1 In many countries it reached a comparatively high level of civilization, but in Britain its development must have been early checked. We can discern it as an agricultural rather than a pastoral people, still in the Stone Age, dwelling in totemistic tribes on hills whose summits it fortified elaborately, and whose slopes it cultivated on what is called the "terrace system", and having a primitive culture which ethnologists think to have much resembled that of the present hill-tribes of Southern India. 2 It held our islands till the coming of the Celts, who fought with the aborigines, dispossessed them of the more fertile parts, subjugated them, even amalgamated with them, but certainly never extirpated them. In the time of the Romans they were still practically independent in South Wales. In Ireland they were long unconquered, and are found as allies rather than serfs of the Gaels, ruling their own provinces, and preserving their own customs and religion. Nor, in spite of all the successive invasions of Great Britain and Ireland,

p. 21

are they yet extinct, or so merged as to have lost their type, which is still the predominant one in many parts of the west both of Britain and Ireland, and is believed by some ethnologists to be generally upon the increase all over England.

The second of the two races was the exact opposite to the first. It was the tall, fair, light-haired, blue- or gray-eyed, broad-headed people called, popularly, the "Celts", who belonged in speech to the "Aryan" family, their language finding its affinities in Latin, Greek, Teutonic, Slavic, the Zend of Ancient Persia, and the Sanscrit of Ancient India. Its original home was probably somewhere in Central Europe, along the course of the upper Danube, or in the region of the Alps. The "round barrows" in which it buried its dead, or deposited their burnt ashes, differ in shape from the "long barrows" of the earlier race. It was in a higher stage of culture than the "Iberians", and introduced into Britain bronze and silver, and, perhaps, some of the more lately domesticated animals.

Both Iberians and Celts were divided into numerous tribes, but there is nothing to show that there was any great diversity among the former. It is otherwise with the Celts, who were separated into two main branches which came over at different times. The earliest were the Goidels, or Gaels; the second, the Brythons, or Britons. Between these two branches there was not only a dialectical, but probably, also, a considerable physical difference. Some anthropologists even postulate a different shape of skull. Without necessarily admitting this,

p. 22

there is reason to suppose a difference of build and of colour of hair. With regard to this, we have the evidence of Latin writers--of Tacitus, 1 who tells us that the "Caledonians" of the North differed from the Southern Britons in being larger-limbed and redder-haired, and of Strabo, 2 who described the tribes in the interior of Britain as taller than the Gaulish colonists on the coast, with hair less yellow and limbs more loosely knit. Equally do the classic authorities agree in recognizing the "Silures" of South Wales as an entirely different race from any other in Britain. The dark complexions and curly hair of these Iberians seemed to Tacitus to prove them immigrants from Spain. 3

Professor Rhys also puts forward evidence to show that the Goidels and the Brythons had already separated before they first left Gaul for our islands. 4 He finds them as two distinct peoples there. We do not expect so much nowadays from "the merest school-boy" as we did in Macaulay's time, but even the modern descendant of that paragon could probably tell us that all Gaul was divided into three parts, one of which was inhabited by the Belgae, another by the Aquitani, and the third by those who called themselves Celtae, but were termed Galli by the Romans; and that they all differed from one another in language, customs, and laws. 5 Of these, Professor Rhys identifies the Belgae with the Brythons, and the Celtae with the Goidels, the

p. 23

third people, the Aquitani, being non-Celtic and non-Aryan, part of the great Hamitic-speaking Iberian stock. 1 The Celtae, with their Goidelic dialect of Celtic, which survives to-day in the Gaelic languages of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, were the first to come over to Britain, pushed forward, probably, by the Belgae, who, Caesar tells us, were the bravest of the Gauls. 2 Here they conquered the native Iberians, driving them out of the fertile parts into the rugged districts of the north and west. Later came the Belgae themselves, compelled by press of population; and they, bringing better weapons and a higher civilization, treated the Goidels as those had treated the Iberians. Thus harried, the Goidels probably combined with the Iberians against what was now the common foe, and became to a large degree amalgamated with them. The result was that during the Roman domination the British Islands were roughly divided with regard to race as follows: The Brythons, or second Celtic race, held all Britain south of the Tweed, with the exception of the extreme west, while the first Celtic race, the Goidelic, had most of Ireland, as well as the Isle of Man, Cumberland, the West Highlands, Cornwall, Devon, and North Wales. North of the Grampians lived the Picts, who were probably more or less Goidelicized Iberians, the aboriginal race also holding out, unmixed, in South Wales and parts of Ireland.

It is now time to decide what, for the purposes of this book, it will be best to call the two different

p. 24

branches of the Celts, and their languages. With such familiar terms as "Gael" and "Briton", "Gaelic" and "British", ready to our hands, it seems pedantic to insist upon the more technical "Goidel" and "Brython", "Goidelic" and "Brythonic". The difficulty is that the words "Gael" and "Gaelic" have been so long popularly used to designate only the modern "Goidels" of Scotland and their language, that they may create confusion when also applied to the people and languages of Ireland and the Isle of Mari. Similarly, the words "Briton" and "British" have come to mean, at the present day, the people of the whole of the British Islands, though they at first only signified the inhabitants of England, Central Wales, the Lowlands of Scotland, and the Brythonic colony in Brittany. However, the words "Goidel" and "Brython", with their derivatives, are so clumsy that it will probably prove best to use the neater terms. In this volume, therefore, the "Goidels" of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man are our "Gaels" and the "Brythons" of England and Wales are our "Britons".

We get the earliest accounts of the life of the inhabitants of the British Islands from two sources. The first is a foreign one, that of the Latin writers. But the Romans only really knew the Southern Britons, whom they describe as similar in physique and customs to the Continental Gauls, with whom, indeed, they considered them to be identical. 1 At the time they wrote, colonies of Belgae were still

p. 25

settling upon the coasts of Britain opposite to Gaul. 1 Roman information grew scantier as it approached the Wall, and of the Northern tribes they seem to have had only such knowledge as they gathered through occasional warfare with them. They describe them as entirely barbarous, naked and tattooed, living by the chase alone, without towns, houses, or fields, without government or family life, and regarding iron as an ornament of value, as other, more civilized peoples regarded gold. 2 As for Ireland, it never came under their direct observation, and we are entirely dependent upon its native writers for information as to the manners and customs of the Gaels. It may be considered convincing proof of the authenticity of the descriptions of life contained in the ancient Gaelic manuscripts that they corroborate so completely the observations of the Latin writers upon the Britons and Gauls. Reading the two side by side, we may largely reconstruct the common civilization of the Celts.

Roughly speaking, one may compare it with the civilization of the Greeks, as described by Homer. 3 Both peoples were in the tribal and pastoral stage of culture, in which the chiefs are the great cattle-owners round whom their less wealthy fellows gather. Both wear much the same attire, use the same kind of weapons, and fight in the same manner--from the war-chariot, a vehicle already obsolete even in Ireland by the first century of the Christian era.

p. 26

[paragraph continues] Battles are fought single-handed between chiefs, the ill-armed common people contributing little to their result, and less to their history. Such chiefs are said to be divinely descended--sons, even, of the immortal gods. Their tremendous feats are sung by the bards, who, like the Homeric poets, were privileged persons, inferior only to the war-lord. Ancient Greek and Ancient Celt had very much the same conceptions of life, both as regards this world and the next.

We may gather much detailed information of the early inhabitants of the British Islands from our various authorities. 1 Their clothes, which consisted, according to the Latin writers, of a blouse with sleeves, trousers fitting closely round the ankles, and a shawl or cloak, fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, were made either of thick felt or of woven cloth dyed with various brilliant colours. The writer Diodorus tells us that they were crossed with little squares and lines, "as though they had been sprinkled with flowers". They were, in fact, like "tartans", and we may believe Varro, who tells us that they "made a gaudy show". The men alone seem to have worn hats, which were of soft felt, the women's hair being uncovered, and tied in a knot behind. In time of battle, the men also dispensed with any head-covering, brushing their abundant hair forward into a thick mass, and dyeing it red with a soap made of goat's fat and beech ashes, until they looked (says Cicero's tutor Posidonius, who visited Britain about

p. 27

[paragraph continues] 110 B.C.) less like human beings than wild men of the woods. Both sexes were fond of ornaments, which took the form of gold bracelets, rings, pins, and brooches, and of beads of amber, glass, and jet. Their knives, daggers, spear-heads, axes, and swords were made of bronze or iron; their shields were the same round target used by the Highlanders at the battle of Culloden; and they seem also to have had a kind of lasso to which a hammer-shaped ball was attached, and which they used as the Gauchos of South America use their bola. Their war-chariots were made of wicker, the wooden wheels being armed with sickles of bronze. These were drawn either by two or four horses, and were large enough to hold several persons in each. Standing in these, they rushed along the enemy's lines, hurling darts, and driving the scythes against all who came within reach. The Romans were much impressed by the skill of the drivers, who "could check their horses at full speed on a steep incline, and turn them in an instant, and could run along the pole, and stand on the yoke, and then get back into their chariots again without a moment's delay". 1

With these accounts of the Roman writers we may compare the picture of the Gaelic hero, Cuchulainn, as the ancient Irish writers describe him dressed and armed for battle. Glorified by the bard, he yet wears essentially the same costume and equipment which the classic historians and geographers described more soberly. "His gorgeous raiment that he wore in great conventions"


p. 28

consisted of "a fair crimson tunic of five plies and fringed, with a long pin of white silver, gold-enchased and patterned, shining as if it had been a luminous torch which for its blazing property and brilliance men might not endure to see. Next his skin, a body-vest of silk, bordered and fringed all round with gold, with silver, and with white bronze, which vest came as far as the upper edge of his russet-coloured kilt. . . . About his neck were a hundred linklets of red gold that flashed again, with pendants hanging from them. His head-gear was adorned with a hundred mixed carbuncle jewels, strung." He carried "a trusty special shield, in hue dark crimson, and in its circumference armed with a pure white silver rim. At his left side a long and golden-hilted sword. Beside him, in the chariot, a lengthy spear; together with a keen, aggression-boding javelin, fitted with hurling thong, with rivets of white bronze." 1 Another passage of Gaelic saga describes his chariot. It was made of fine wood, with wicker-work, moving on wheels of white bronze. It had a high rounded frame of creaking copper, a strong curved yoke of gold, and a pole of white silver, with mountings of white bronze. The yellow reins were plaited, and the shafts were as hard and straight as sword-blades. 2

In like manner the ancient Irish writers have made glorious the halls and fortresses of their mythical kings. Like the palaces of Priam, of Menelaus, and of Odysseus, they gleam with gold

p. 29

and gems. Conchobar, 1 the legendary King of Ulster in its golden age, had three such "houses" at Emain Macha. Of the one called the "Red Branch", we are told that it contained nine compartments of red yew, partitioned by walls of bronze, all grouped around the king's private chamber, which had a ceiling of silver, and bronze pillars adorned with gold and carbuncles. 2 But the far less magnificent accounts of the Latin writers have, no doubt, more truth in them than such lavish pictures. They described the Britons they knew as living in villages of bee-hive huts, roofed with fern or thatch, from which, at the approach of an enemy, they retired to the local dún. This, so far from being elaborate, merely consisted of a round or oval space fenced in with palisades and earth-works, and situated either upon the top of a hill or in the midst of a not easily traversable morass. 3 We may see the remains of such strongholds in many parts of England--notable ones are the "castles" of Amesbury, Avebury, and Old Sarum in Wiltshire, Saint Catherine's Hill, near Winchester, and Saint George's Hill, in Surrey--and it is probable that, in spite of the Celtic praisers of past days, the "palaces" of Emain Macha and of Tara were very like them.

The Celtic customs were, like the Homeric, those of the primitive world. All land (though it may have theoretically belonged to the chief) was cultivated in common. This community of possessions

p. 30

is stated by Caesar 1 to have extended to their wives; but the imputation cannot be said to have been proved. On the contrary, in the stories of both branches of the Celtic race, women seem to have taken a higher place in men's estimation, and to have enjoyed far more personal liberty, than among the Homeric Greeks. The idea may have arisen from a misunderstanding of some of the curious Celtic customs. Descent seems to have been traced through the maternal rather than through the paternal line, a very un-Aryan procedure which some believe to have been borrowed from another race. The parental relation was still further lessened by the custom of sending children to be brought up outside the family in which they were born, so that they had foster-parents to whom they were as much, or even more, attached than to their natural ones.

Their political state, mirroring their family life, was not less primitive. There was no central tribunal. Disputes were settled within the families in which they occurred, while, in the case of graver injuries, the injured party or his nearest relation could kill the culprit or exact a fine from him. As families increased in number, they became petty tribes, often at war with one another. A defeated tribe had to recognize the sovereignty of the head man of the conquering tribe, and a succession of such victories exalted him into the position of a chief of his district. But even then, though his decision was the whole of the law, he was little more than the mouthpiece of public opinion.


19:1 Huxley: On Some Fixed Points in British Ethnology. 1871.

20:1 Sergi: The Mediterranean Race.

20:2 Gomme: The Village Community. Chap, IV--"The non-Aryan Elements in the English Village Community".

22:1 Tacitus: Agricola, chap. xi.

22:2 Strabo: Geographica, Book IV, chap. v.

22:3 Tacitus, op. cit.

22:4 Rhys: The Early Ethnology of the British Islands. Scottish Review. April, 1890.

22:5 Caesar: De Bello Gallico, Book I, chap. 1.

23:1 Rhys: Scottish Review. April, 1890.

23:2 Op. Caesar, op. cit.

24:1 Tacitus: Agricola, chap. XI.

25:1 Caesar: De Bellico Gallico, Book V, chap. XII.

25:2 Elton: Origins of English History, chap. VII.

25:3 See "La Civilisation des Celtes et celle de l’Épopée Homérique", by M. d’Arbois de Jubainville, Cours de Littérature Celtique, Vol. VI.

26:1 See Elton: Origins of English History, chap. VII.

27:1 Caesar: De Bello Gallico, Book IV, chap. xx

28:1 From the Táin Bó Chuailgné. The translator is Mr. Standish Hayes O’Grady.

28:2 Tochmarc Emire--the Wooing of Emer--an old Irish romance.

29:1 Sometimes spelt "Conachar", and pronounced Conhower or Connor.

29:2 The Wooing of Emer.

29:3 Caesar: De Bello Galileo, Hook V, chap. xxi, and various passages in Book VII.

30:1 Ibid., chap. XIV.

Next: Chapter IV. The Religion of the Ancient Britons and Druidism