Celtic Symbols and the Celts

Want to know more about the admirable originators of Celtic symbols? On this page we will trace the wanderings of the Celts from ancient Greek and Roman chroniclers.

The Celtic people's history and art are most fascinating and enduring, and their symbols are among the most stunning and inspiring in the world. Celtic symbols have also been used in countless ways, from architecture to clothing to pop culture and digital designs.

Many people in Europe, Australia and the US believe that their families can be traced back to the ancient Celts. It has created an almost cult-like following among the youth today, and many tattoo lovers have one or two Celtic symbols permanently adorning a part of the body.

If you have ever enjoyed reading the adventures of the brave Asterix of Gaul, then you already know a little about that fascinating group of people who fashioned the clever winding and undulating Celtic symbols.


1800 BCE (Before the Common Era) -- The Celtic culture flourishes. This was the time that historians believe the people they called the Celts started spreading far and wide throughout Europe.

Imagine these brave and fearless people waging war against and conquering regions near their original territory of Southern Germany and Gaul. Gaul covers a vast area that comprised France, Belgium, Luxembourg and certain parts of Switzerland, the Netherlands, Northern Italy and Germany.

1000-800 BCE - Some archeologists claim that the evidence of the first Celts go back to this time in Hallstatt, an ancient salt-mining area in Austria.

900 BCE - According to Celtologists, the Celts may not be indigenous to the British Isles and possibly came from the European continent through centuries of trade or exploration starting from this period.

The Celts were believed to be the Iron Age people of Western and Central Europe. These tribal people were expert metal smiths who traveled extensively. Many Celtic symbols of spirals and vines are featured in their swords, axes, spears and even vanity props such as combs. They ultimately settled in England, where they first landed. The Celts then went on to Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany and Isle of Man.

Wales was said to be their last stop, their final home.

800-600 BCE - The Greeks write about their (mis)adventures with the painted people living just north of the Alps.

600 BCE - Greek authors called these painted people the Keltoi, whose meaning has been lost in time. Hecataeus of Miletus first recorded their presence at this period. Some scholars insisted that Keltoi was only a word invented for the people of that region. Others claim that it was derived from an old Greek word meaning "to strike" since the Celtic men were remembered
as wielding swords and spears.

Incidentally, there was an ancient flat axe made of metal from the Iron age that was called a kelt or celt. Nobody really knows today the real meaning behind the word Keltoi.

What do you think the Celts called themselves back then? Do you think the word Celtic means something entirely different?

Ca 600 BCE - There were also Celts settled in Spain around this time.

500 BCE - We find the earliest Celtic settlements along the upper Rhine and near the upper Danube. From this period, the Celts have established villages in regions as far as the Black and Aegean Seas. Since then they also migrated to part of the Near East to the Meditteranean Sea and portions of Spain, Portugal, the British Isles and Ireland before penetrating Roman and German cultures.

In 500 BCE, Herodotus wrote that the Keltoi lived in the western regions of Europe and that the Danube river originates in the land of the Keltoi. This is a little doubtful since Herodotus was not very good in describing geography, as he himself admitted in his letters, and as evidenced by his account of the Egyptian people and terrain.

From 400 BCE, Ephorus sighted the Celts in Iberia, and as far as Gades (now Cadiz, Spain) on the southwestern Atlantic coast. The Celts living in this region were called the Celtiberians.

The Celtiberians knew how to fight in any kind of warfare, and they usually won. They gave the Romans a very hard time in battle. Diodorus wrote that the Celtiberians were defeated only after a prolonged struggle.

Late 400 BCE - The Celts were becoming more and more famous (or infamous?) among Greek travelers and writers. The Greeks referred to them as the tribe that settled all over western and central Europe.

The Greeks now also called the Celts Galatai, or people of Galatia, which was part of Turkey. The Roman writers meanwhile referred to the Keltoi as Galli, or settlers of Gaul.

400-300 BCE is known as the period of the great Celtic migration based on accounts by Greek and Roman historians.

Ancient Celtic Impressions

Greek historians generally described the Celts as barbaric, but I think the word fierce would be more accurate. If you've read a lot of ancient Greek and Roman gossip and news, chances are you know they tend to be condescending. These authors were often biased chroniclers. They have a flair for words and a keen eye for observation, but often they describe any culture outside of their own as barbaric.

Although Celtic symbols and art abounded, the Celts were presumed to have no writing system since nothing has been uncovered to prove otherwise. There were no written records of history, stories, way of life or activities uncovered that are earlier than 300 BCE, but their societies were sophisticated and technologically skilled, particularly in iron-working.

However, scientists uncovered evidence of Celtic writing on broken pottery in Southern France and coins in Southern Germany that date back to between 300 BCE and 200 BCE.

Did you know that the ancient people of Bohemia may have been Celtic?

If the Celtic linguists are to be believed, the word Bohemia can be traced from the defunct plural term Boii. The Boii belonged to the predominant peoples in the eastern Celtic area. This term in turn came from the proto-Celtic word bouios, which meant a cowman, or an owner of cows.

Based on Caesar's accounts, the Celtae were a tribal people, with the commoners under the leadership of the warrior and druidic classes in Gaul and Galatia. Ancient historians and travelers also referred to the Gauls as Celts.

The Roman historian Tacitus also noted that the British culture bore similarities with the Gaul culture. He also observed that the Britons and the Irish shared some aspects of spirituality, art and way of life. These ancient people also used Celtic symbols in their ceremonies and art.

The great historian Poseidonios (Posidonius) was keenly interested in the Celts and contributed the most detailed Celtic ethnography that included their religion, poetry, geography, migration and warfare.

Read more about the Celts' physical characteristics, Celtic literature and their links to the Picts.

You might also be interested in the Book of Kells, which feature magnificently colored and splendidly constructed illustrations that feature the unique Celtic knotting style.

Know more about Celtic art, the origin of Celtic symbols and spirituality here. You can also learn more about the Celtic Druids here.

Return to Celtic Symbols main page or go to the Symbolisms homepage.