The Celtic Controversy

The Controversy

There is a certain level of baggage involved when one discusses Celtic culture, history, and heritage. Some historians have disputed the term, arguing that there was no self-described Celtic nation, but instead a vast, diverse group of tribes spreading from Britain to Portugal to Turkey. Historically, the term actually referred to a linguistic branch including Gaulish, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton.

The Celtic people started out in what we now know as Central Europe before spreading to the Mediterranean and British Isles.
A map of the Celt’s spread across Europe; the yellow represents the original Celtic territories, gradating into dark green, representing areas occupied by modern speakers of the Celtic languages. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I am not an archaeologist or historian, and I have neither the education nor the desire to contribute to the controversy. When I use the term “Celtic”, I am simply referring to the early people of Ireland, Scotland, Britain, and Wales. I feel that it is necessary to use some generalization when discussing the complex topic of folklore.

Culture, Generalization, and Folklore

In many cases, it is impossible to draw a clear line between a piece of folklore and a single culture; sometimes the best you can do is a messy, complex, and beautiful web.

In our day of paperback novels, publishing presses, and copyright laws it’s easy to forget the ease with which stories once spread and evolved. Oral storytelling allowed the tale to shift with each telling to suit the storyteller’s whims and worldview. Stories crossed cultural lines with ease, simply adapting to suit the needs of the dominant society. It’s why we can see the same pieces of mythology–from dragons to Noah’s Ark–reflected in cultures around the globe.

That’s why it’s difficult (if not impossible) to discuss “Irish mythology” or “British folklore”. Culture doesn’t exist in a bubble, especially not folklore. “Celtic” is a convenient term to describe the cultures of a group of people who, despite their cultural diversity, lived in close proximity to each other and spoke the same language.

Their mythology is distinct in nuance, but whether due to intermingling cultures or the fault of the people who first recorded their legends, the stories and motifs are, generally, the same.

It’s not perfect. It’s not clear cut.

But that makes it all the more interesting, doesn’t it?


Page sources:

A Very Short Introduction: The CeltsĀ by Barry Cunliffe

The Cultural Evolution of Storytelling and Fairy Tales

BeforeĀ Noah: Myths of the Flood Are Far Older Than the Bible

Ancient History Encyclopedia: Celts

Merriam Webster: Indo-European Languages