Although there is uncertainty regarding the origins of the Iberians, there is agreement that another significant group, the Celts, formed part of a general European migratory phenomenon which, in Spain, is marked by two waves, the first traditionally placed around 900 BC and the second around 700-600 BC. Recent investigations, however, tend to identify the early arrivals as Indo-European tribes and argue for a process of infiltration over an extended period, from around 1000 to 300 BC, rather than invasions.
The first arrivals appear to have established themselves in Catalonia, having probably entered via the eastern passages of the Pyrenees. Later groups (more identifiably Celtic) ventured west through the Pyrenees to occupy the northern coast of the peninsula, and south beyond the Ebro and Duero basins as far as the Tagus valley. Why the Celts did not continue down the Mediterranean coast is not known, but probably the strong Iberian presence was an inhibiting factor.
What happened along common borders is conjecture. Some believe that the Celtic and Iberian tribes mingled and formed a separate culture, especially in the vicinity of the Middle Ebro, the basin of the Duero and the eastern Meseta as far as the upper Tagus. Others argue that tribal identity was so strong that they would have remained apart. The Romans simply identified them all as Celtiberians, and the name has since been used as a convenient way of describing the confusing medley of tribal groups that inhabited the hinterland. Two settlements that have been identified as Celtiberian by proponents of a fused culture are Cabezo de Alcalá (near the village of Azaila, Aragón), and Castro de la Coronilla (near Molina de Aragón, Aragón).
According to Roman sources, the Celts were a warlike people, fiercely independent and courageous in battle, if somewhat lacking in discipline. Despite tribal rivalry amongst themselves –and there is a long list of tribes, e.g. Lusitanians, Cantabrians, Asturians, Carpethans, Arevaccans etc.– they proved a handful to the highly trained Roman legions. In war, they favoured guerrilla tactics, moving swiftly on horseback or adopting hit-and-run action according to the terrain. To facilitate speed, they bore small round shields and armed themselves with short double-edged swords, bows and arrows, double-bladed axes and javelins. Those killed in battle were left on the field to the vultures and other carrion birds which, apparently, would transport their souls to heaven.
Celtic lore, even nowadays, is full of magic and mystery, with a strong bond to nature. Like other European Celtic tribes, those of Spain revered the sun and the moon, and attached great significance to forests, rivers, wells, and mountains. The oak tree was particularly venerated (still a common feature in most Celtic societies), and worship was carried out in natural sites or clearings rather than temples. In Galicia, many still believe in the power of witches and druids, in the transmigration of souls and in animals with special powers. They practice rituals similar to those in parts of the British Isles and Brittany.
The Celts were pastoral by nature. The Greek geographer and historian Strabo (ca 64 BC- ca 23 AD), describes them as eating goat’s meat and ham, and butter rather than olive oil. Largely spurning urban niceties, they left little that reveals their presence, especially in the interior, although the original sites of some Celtic settlements may be identified by the ending -briga. What does remain is to be found in the north west of the peninsula, especially in Galicia and Asturias. Here archaeological digs and reconstruction show that the Celts built their villages on hills for strategic defence, and that the houses were circular with low stone walls and conical, thatched roofs of straw and broom; there were probably no windows. The buildings –arranged somewhat haphazardly– housed both family and animals. These are common features of Celtic style in other Celtic lands: Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, or Brittany for example.
Modern day pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia can get a good feel for a Celtic village when stopping at the hamlet of O Cebreiro. A kind of time warp exists on this windy hilltop pass where a number of restored circular Celtic dwellings –called pallozas– evoke a distant time, especially when the mists and rains –so common in this area– are swirling around.
Relatively little remains to show the artistic side of the Celts. Simple clay pottery is widespread and we know they practised metalwork, and probably introduced ironwork in the north at about the same time that the Phoenicians spread it in the south (i.e. the 8th century). In the centre of the peninsula, in the vicinity of Avila, there are a series of heavy, granite animals called the toros (bulls) de Guisando, generally attributed to the Celts (although there are also those who favour an Iberian source). A lesser known example can also be seen further west in Ciudad Rodrigo, earlier known as Miróbriga. The shapes of these animals, however, are so amorphous that they have also been viewed as pigs, an identification that would not be amiss, given that pork was a favoured meat of the Celts and lard was widely used.
Celtic Spain is now almost exclusively reduced to Galicia. It may come as a surprise to visitors that many Galicians are fair-skinned and that the green, mist-laden, hilly countryside is reminiscent of Ireland or Scotland. And they may be forgiven if they think they have landed in the Scottish Highlands if they
hear the swirl of the bagpipes –the gaitas, Galicia’s native instrument– or witness the jig that often accompanies them. They may also be lucky enough to be present at dusk when a genuine queimada –a traditional fiery brew– is being prepared to ward off the winter chills. Accompanied by the wails of the bagpipes, a bruxo or sorcerer dressed in skins and wearing a horned helmet will call on the powers of heaven and earth and the spirits of the sea and fire as he stirs and ladles the flaming, potent drink. The witches of MacBeth would be at home here!
Collins, Roger Spain: An Oxford Archaeological Guide Oxford, 1998
Santos Yanguas, Juan Los pueblos de la España antigua Madrid, 1989
Trutter, Marion ed. Culinaria Spain Cologne 1999
Vincent, Mary and Stradling, R.A Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal Abington Oxfordshire, 1994
For an interesting article on the stone bulls/pigs, see www.typicallyspanish.com,and type “toros de guisando” in the Search Box.
Image of Celtic castro: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prehistoric_Iberia
Click here for the significance of the Celts (and Iberians) in 19th and 20th century Spain.
A useful general survey of the Celts in Europe can be found in http://www.realmagick.com/6305/story-of-the-celts-the-ancient-celts/
An interesting article on Galicia’s relationship with other Celtic nations can be found at: https://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2017/05/castro-culture