Saturday, January 23, 2010

On Celts and Celticness

by J J Cohen

I've taught and used the work of Simon James in the past. His challenge to rethinking prehistory is vigorous. James argues that the Celts are a modern invention, and that by projecting their supposed unity back upon the Iron Age we flatten prehistory so that it supports current identities. He writes of his own approach:
The roots of the new approach are to be found, I believe, in the post-colonial emphasis on multiculturalism, and the celebration of difference between cultures. This makes it possible to consider the Iron Age peoples of Britain, for instance, not as generic Celts, but as a mosaic of distinct societies, each with their own traditions and histories.
(You can see what James's approach has in common with the "Acts of Separation" chapter of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity as well as the "Infinite Realms" section of Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages). The quotation reproduced above is from his fascinating website, which gives an overview of the conventional history of the Celts as well as his own archaeologist's take on that history. I found it via


Lisa L. Spangenberg said...

Good morning, and thanks for the link!

The odd thing about the two conflicting presentations of things Celtic is that they each tend to ignore or misinterpret the data of the other school. The divide between the archaeologists/post-colonialists and the art historians/lit folk is awfully similar to the divide between nativists (Proinsias MacCana), and the opposition which finds a non-Irish source for everything (Kim McCone).

Yet there's no reason for any of this to be a binary. We're talking about more than 3,000 yeas of history for peoples who spread across continents.

But--there's no argument about the languages spoken by these peoples. They spoke I.E. Celtic languages. It's also interesting to me that neither camp acknowledges the way the people seem to have thought about themselves--which was very much in terms of local relationships and kin-groups. This is apparent in the languages, the stories, the laws, the history of warfare, and even the settlement and migration patterns.

There's a practice of oath-offering in Old Irish: "Tongu da dia toinges mo thuath [I swear by the gods by whom my people swear] which very much emphasizes the forbidden nature of naming gods, and the local nature of those gods.

Eileen Joy said...

Simon James's website is a fantastic teaching resource, so thanks for sharing that here.