The Celts were a group of tribal societies in Iron Age and Medieval Europe. They were found in the British Isles, France and the Low Countries (Gauls), Bohemia, Poland and much of Central Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, northern Italy and as far east as central Anatolia. Today's Celtic nations consist of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany. These are known as the Six Celtic Nations. Within these six nations, four Celtic languages are still spoken; Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Breton as well as two others that are in the process of being revived: Cornish and Manx.
The Celt society was based on a division of three main classes: warrior aristocracy, intellectual which included Druids, poets and jurors and the third class was comprised of everyone else as commoners. Kings were elected but this practice was eventually challenged by hereditary rights to the throne. The economy was heavily based on the weapons and jewelry made by Celtic smiths and metalworkers. These items were made from the tin, lead, iron, silver and gold that were present in large quantities in the lands occupied by the Celts. While they mostly conducted trade with the Romans, they also traded internationally. The Celtic monetary system is not fully understood but was a combination of money and bartering.
Through trade, the Celtic culture influenced the Romans. Gauls served in the Roman calvary and influenced Roman military practices and horsemanship. The Romans adapted the spatha which was a Celtic calvary sword and the Celtic horse goddess, Epona.
The Celts practiced slavery. It is believed that they acquired most of their slaves from war, raids, and penal and debt servitude.
While little is known about Celtic family structure, we do know that their settlement habits were both urban and decentralised. Most non-urban Celts lived in hillforts and duns while their urban counterparts resided in oragnized towns and settlements. All Celts, whether urban or rural maintained the same dress patterns. They clothed themselves in long-sleeved tunics and long trousers made of wool or linen. The rich also used silk. They wore cloaks in cold weather and decorated their attire with brooches, armlets, and torcs (a neck collar made of metal, sometimes gold).
Celts have been accredited with exhibiting unorthodox behavior in battle. Customarily enough, Celts used shields and helmets in battle and their primary weapon was a long sword but their fighting style has been recorded in historical accounts crediting them with fighting as "wild beasts" or hordes. One of the more amusing and apparently effective methods employed by the Celts on the battlefield was to have the younger well-built men fight naked. This display was described in one historical account as a "terrifying spectacle" leading readers to believe that the intended effect was acheived.
The Celts were also reputed as having a been fond of removing the heads of their slain foes. It is believed that they felt the head was the center of the soul, the emotions and of life itself.
To add to the oddity of the Celtic battle practices, Celt women often fought alongside the men. This was not a common practice among other societies of that time. When women were not embroiled in battle, they would serve as ambassadors to avoid war.
When it came to religion, the Celts were no different than any other European Iron Age society in that their religion was polytheistic. Most of what we know about Celtic gods comes from Roman accounts. Their preists were Druids and their shrines were located in remote places such as secluded groves, hilltops and lakes but they were also known to build temples. Celtic gods began their existence in non-human forms and late in the Iron Age they evolved into human form. The Celts worshipped both gods and goddesses. Gods were worshipped as deities of particular skills and goddesses would represent natural features as well as skills. The goddess Brighid represents holy wells and blacksmithing and goddess Morrigan, the river Unius and the skill of healing. There were hundreds of deities and some were widespread while others were only known to a specific tribe or family. Another vital aspect of Celtic religion was triplicity. It was also a common concept in their interpretation of cosmology.
After the Roman invasion, Celtic religion saw changes such as the weakening and eventual disappearance of the druids, Romano-Celtic deities, the adaptation of the Jupiter Pole and the switch from wooden to stone monuments to represent gods and goddesses.
In the 5th century, Christianity began to take hold and had a great impact on not only religion but also on Celtic art. Two primary examples of this Christian influence and mixture are the Book of Kells and the Ardagh Chalice. Most of the symbolism and art we know today comes from this period in Celtic history while the rest stems from the mystery of the times before it.