The Reality of the Celts
THE concept of the Celts has many realities born of different disciplines. The earliest awareness to break upon the academic world was the vision provided by the Greek and Roman authors, a vision which, as we have seen, was moulded through closely circumscribed historical traditions to produce a range of familiar metaphors. These were translated into visual form through Hellenistic statuary, which in turn became widely known through Roman copies. Together these sources produced a 'classical reality', the great and lasting advantage of which is that it gives the Celts a place in history endowing them with motives, passions, names, and a fearsome alien character. Through the eyes of the classical world, the Celts, though familiar in some ways, were sufficiently foreign to send a frisson of fear down the spine whenever their name arose.
This clearly sculpted model began to take on a more complex character in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through a growing understanding of the intricacies of the Celtic language, further to be enlivened by the great vernacular literature of the Insular Celts of Ireland and Wales, which offered a quite different insight into the 'Celtic character'. The crisply defined Celts of Roman sculptors and Greek and Roman historians became worryingly distorted by the unreality of magic and shape-shifting.
Archaeological advances in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provided a new reality through the discovery first of the weapons and artefacts used by Celtic peoples and later of the settlements in which they had lived and the detritus of the economies which had sustained them. Finally, in the 1930s and 1940s, the art of the Celts came to be recognized as a subject worthy of study, making it possible to bridge the gap between the classical vision, the vernacular mystery, and the harsh, if somewhat mundane, archaeological reality. The excitement of the subject is that it can be approached from these very different directions, all of which have a validity within their own academic parameters, and yet what emerges presents an altogether different set of images.