Celts: Arts and Identity at the British Museum

The Celts. According to a certain popular series of history books they are ‘Cut Throat’ and little else. Little more quick glance at the intricate artwork produced by this civilisation, those complex knots and their graceful lines suggest that there’s more to the Celts that mere cut-throatedness.

Celts: Cut Throats?
Celts: Cut Throats?

Is that even a word? Let’s pretend it is for now.

As it did with the Vikings, the British Museum are exploring identities in their latest blockbuster exhibition Celts: Art and Identity. Are these people who we think they are?

To begin with, the ‘Celts’ as we think of them today never existed. Not at all. Not even a little bit. The word itself isn’t even celtic, but rather derives from the Greek Keltoi.

A photo of a page from a Greek Lexicon showing the greek word for Celts
Cellts: Keltoi

So, what on earth, who on earth are we talking about?

“To many, perhaps to most people…”Celtic” of any sort is… a magic bag into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come… Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight.” — JRR Tolkein

It appears that there’s a bit of an identity crisis afoot. As Tolkein said, anything is possible, so let’s leave our preconceptions at the door and step into this fabulous Celtic Twilight.

The immediate connection to the classical world strikes a surprising note. Yes, we know that the Romans brought a Greek influence with them when they conquered various territories that we would consider ‘Celtic’ but consider the torque-sporting Dying Gaul (or even this cast from the Museum of Classical Archaeology).

The Dying Gaul
The Dying Gaul

The Greek original was made in 200BC, and the Roman copy in about 50BC. It was shocking to realise just how back the connections between these civilisations went. Later examples of the cross-cultural influences, like this Roman inflected statue of Brigantia, a goddess local to the northern British tribe Brigantes.

Brigantia, a Cetic goddess
Brigantia, a Celtic goddess

So many aspects of her aspect resemble Athena/Minerva, right down to the Gorgon detailing in the breastplate.

Despite overlapping with the classical world, and some heavy borrowing from them, there is something inherently celtic about the art that the Celts produced, even if they didn’t really exist. This is especially evident when one considers the conversion to Christianity.

A Celtic cross from Scotland
A Celtic cross from Scotland

Just look at a Celtic cross. Despite being a Christian symbol, it still feels very pagan. The monumental crosses are impressive, but for me, the real show stopper is the Gunderstrup Cauldron.

Gundestrup Cauldron
Gundestrup Cauldron

A shining silver cauldron, shimmering in the light, with all sorts of strange scenes worked into the metal. Make sure to use the step to look inside the artefact, and keep an eye out for the mysterious antlered figure – could he be a god?

An Antlered figure inside the Gundestrup cauldron
An Antlered figure inside the Gundestrup cauldron

So excited was I about this piece, that I nearly made what could have been a very unfortunate typo on Twitter…


If you want to go and see Celts at the British Museum, and I recommend that you do, it’s on from 24th September – 31st January 2016. Tickets are £16.50 for adults and under 16s go free.


One Comment Add yours

  1. churchgeekery says:

    Really interesting to visit with a pagan friend – when an exhibition is religious pilgrimage, how can it live up to that? https://churchgeekery.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/the-celts-art-identity-british-museum/

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