1992-08-31: The Celts

The Celts (1975)

by Gerhard Herm (1931-)

In this 1975 book, Herm explores the nature and origins of the Celtic peoples.  The first four chapters cover the writings of ancient authorities, historical movements and conflicts between the Celts and Romans and others.  These make clear the awe and fear that the ‘barbarian’ Celts inspired in the settled, civilized people of the time.  Their use of horse-mounted shock troops, their fluid battle tactics and focus on rapid attack and victory, built-in preparations for withdrawal were all foreign to the Romans, as was their apparent disregard for death.  These factors gave the Celts a psychological advantage whenever the two sides met, which was sometimes decisive.

Chapter 5 examines the archeological and philological evidence regarding the origins of the Celts in the earliest cultural record.  This is traced back to the so-called Ur-people (Ur=’proto’, ‘original’).  This proto-Indo-European people lived in the steppe and Caucasus region, and were a nomadic herding people.  They domesticated the horse and harnessed it to carts, and later learned to ride it.  Their settlements were based on grazing livestock more than raising crops, and they were ready and willing to move to greener pastures.

These chapters, though containing much conjecture, can be used to isolate a number of memes differentiating cultures from about -4000 to about -100.  The Ur-people spread west (and other directions), and dominated the people they encountered.  These earlier people were Earth-Mother worshippers, with a matriarchical society.  The Ur-people had a patriarchical society, with a strong hierarchical structure, and worshipped the sun.

Herm describes the difference between two cultures:

Peasants leave their land unwillingly and drive their well-fed herds along dusty tracks to unknown and meagre pastures only when forced to.  They are attached to what they know, the regular pattern of sowing and reaping; they are accustomed to long-term planning, to thinking in terms of generations.  All of this requires computable qualitites, familiar circumstances, a stable world within known horizons.  Adventurers are cast in a different mould.  To react in a crisis by pursuing some promise of paradise just over the hill, or even, if need be, to base one’s existence on vague hopes alone, is to have vagabond blood and a nomadic character.  Such a person regards property as something tangible that can be easily mobilized.  This makes him a speculator who places his capital where it can produce the highest return.

He further gives a list of characteristics of the Celts.  The movement of tens of thousands requires organization and technology: solid carts, draft animals, tents, portable furniture, herdsmen to keep great herds together, wagon-drivers and riders to scout the road ahead.  In attack, they preferred great mobility, rapid attack, rapid victory, fixed aim, and easy plunder.  All of this was made possible by the horse.

Someone discovered that a horse-drawn cart was faster and more comfortable than an ox-cart.  Others discovered that their lives had become more perilous: they could be attacked and plundered by hordes who vanished as they appeared, leaving ruin behind.  Horse-owners felt themselves masters of space, seeing distances dwindling, acquiring a taste for speed and regarding the far-off as a challenge.  Settlements became springboards for plundering which, in a few days, could bring more than several years’ toil.  When it was realized that this effortless profit could be secured in the long-term if the people attacked were also enslaved, the history of great armies and military leaders began.  Warrior castes evolved, claiming noble status, with their own ‘chivalric’ modes of conduct.

The Mycenaean Greeks, for example, knew business only in the form of exchanging goods of equal value.  Profit was available only through war.  The later Gauls were good businessmen, in the conventional sense.  But they continued to cultivate a horse-bound mentality: fighting, boasting, drinking, living for the day.  What was lost today could still be won tomorrow.  The world was vast, and somewhere in it a man could either make his fortune or find his grave.  Huns, Pandurs, Hussars, cowboys, and Celts were all alike in this: the horse had made them what they were.

There are three interesting aspects of the /Ur/Indo-European/Celtic phenomenon: their origins as separate peoples, their integration (as conquerors and conquered) with surrounding cultures, and their internal socity structure. Internally they seem to have had three classes: the memetic leadership (e.g., Druids), the “knightly” class of horse warriors, and a class of artisans/herdsmen/foot-soldiers. The Druidical class was instrumental in the spiritual/judicial aspects of Celtic life, and also in the integration of cultures; they provided new memetic formulations to justify the melding process. It seems unlikely that Druids were involved with the domestication of the horse, and the rise of the knightly class must have been at their expense. The best way for them to counter the challenge to their power would be to ‘discover’ and interpret a new class of gods appropriate to the new reality.

As the (pre-)Celts became integrated with the peoples and cultures around them, the mix of their own memes and those they encountered led to unique new cultures, but with some memes in common (e.g., a three-class system, belief in multiple incarnations). The process of fusion, if it could be discerned in detail, would be a fascinating memetic study. Other examples of cultural fusion (not conquest) in historical times should be sought. As the Celts and their descendants were conquered by the Romans and their descendants, the process of accomodation provided another memetic phenomenon: the peaceful fusion of Christianity with Celtic culture in Ireland. This must have been the work of Druids who were in contact with British and continental counterparts, and aware of the results of resistance. In the 4th-5th century, they must have formulated memetic positions that let the bulk of Celtic culture survive beneath a Christian veneer. The Irish monk/druids later were crucial to the Christianization of the Germanic peoples who overran the Romanized Celts of Europe. One effect of the process was the absorption of certain Celtic memes that recurred in sagas and tales such as the Arthurian and Grail series.


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