Were the Celts White or Black?


Over the past several years, arguments have arisen as to whether or not the original Celts were black. Many people cite the Roman historian, Tacitus’, description of their “swarthy complexion” or raise the idea of the “black Irish” to support these claims. But were the Celts black?

Most historians agree that the Celts were primarily white, though there were some Celtic people with darker complexions. There were also some Asian Celts, known as the Galatians, who lived in the Anatolia region. Furthermore, there was a group of Picts who scholars believe were black.

This article will discuss the various ethnicities of the Celts and the various regions where they lived. It will also explore the differences between the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons.

Stone henge
What ethnicity were the Celts? See below

What Ethnicity Were the Celts?

The Celts included a wide variety of Ethnic groups, including Scottish, Welsh, Britons, Irish, and Gauls. There were also Celtiberians, Gaels, and Galatians. There were white European and Asian Celts, and the Celtiberians likely had some Spanish heritage.

It’s important to remember that these weren’t necessarily the names the Celts gave themselves. The Greeks and Romans referred to the various Celtic tribes in Iron Age Europe as barbarians. [1] The Greeks called them Keltoi, which is where the name “Celts” originates. The Romans called them Galli. Both words meant barbaric and uncivilized. 

The Celtic people thrived during the Iron Age, and historians usually date them from 600 BC to 43 AD. However, evidence suggests the Celts were around long before that – in 1200 BC, in fact. [2]

The Black Irish: Were They Actually Black?

In one notable passage, which is quoted ad nauseum online, Roman historian Tacitus describes the appearance of various Celtic tribes. When speaking of the Silures tribe, he remarks on their “swarthy features,” “curly black hair,” and dark eyes. 

Many people took this to mean that some of the Celts were black or descended from dark-complexioned Spaniards at the very least. [3] They combine that with the common phrase “black Irish” to insist that early Celts were black. 

However, there’s no DNA evidence to back this up. While it’s true that the Celtiberians may have been descended from Spaniards and had darker skin, there are no DNA links to suggest that early Celts were African, especially those living in the modern-day Ireland region. 

Instead, scholars have a few different theories about why this phrase originated. 

  • Some believe ‘black Irish’ referred to Irish people with darker features – dark hair, brown eyes, etc.
  • There were various invasions of the Irish area starting with the Celts in 500 BC. Other large- and small-scale incursions continued to plague the area until the Norman invasions of 1170 and 1172. These invaders had unique physical traits, some of which were darker complexions. This could be the origin of the phrase.
  • People often called those same invaders “dark invaders” to claim they had bad – “dark” – intentions. In that sense, “black Irish” could simply mean “bad Irish.”
  • When Irish farmers fled to America in 1845-1849, they did so to get away from the Great Famine in Ireland. This famine resulted from the blight on potatoes that caused them to turn black. As a result, 1847 was known as “black 47” because of the number of Irish escaping the black blight that was killing so many people. Some scholars believe a similar occurrence may have led to the nickname “black Irish.” [4]

There is a slight chance that the phrase “black Irish” could mean Irish people with darker ethnicities, but it’s unlikely. It’s similarly unlikely that there were any black Celts, other than the small group of Picts, whose origins aren’t entirely clear. [5]

Celtic people
Where did the Celts live? See below

Where Did the Celts Live?

The Celtic tribes lived primarily in central Europe, though many tribes migrated into southern Europe, western Europe, and other areas. There were Celts in modern-day Great Britain, Italy, Brittany, Cornwall, Scotland, Spain, France, Wales, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.

Today, most people associate the Celts with Europe, but one notable Celtic tribe, the Galatians, traveled far and wide, including into the Anatolia region of Asia. There were also Celts in the Iberian Peninsula and Portugal. 

Each region held its distinct Celtic tribe, and they all had marked differences, including skin tone, hair color, and eye color. What made them “Celtic” wasn’t their race or location. Instead, what made them Celtic were the things they had in common, which included their traditions and religious beliefs. They also shared a similar culture and society.

The Celtic tribes didn’t all share a language. However, many of them did. There were six primary Celtic languages. They were: 

  • Breton
  • Irish
  • Cornish
  • Manx
  • Scottish Gaelic
  • Welsh

People no longer speak the Cornish and Manx languages. However, the other four languages are still very much in use today. 

Because the Celts were so spread out, many people can trace their lineage to one of the Celtic tribes. However, most of the Celts’ descendants today inhabit Great Britain, Ireland, and Scotland.

Celtic boat
What’s the difference between Anglo-Saxons and Celts? See below

What’s the Difference Between Anglo-Saxons and Celts?

There were numerous differences between Anglo-Saxons and Celts, including their languages, representations of women, ethnicities, and more. Furthermore, the Celts were around long before the Anglo-Saxons, who didn’t officially emerge in Europe until 410 AD.

As discussed above, the Celts spoke six primary languages, with Welsh being the most commonly spoken. The Anglo-Saxons mainly spoke Old English, and that was only one of the many differences between the two. 

For example, while the Celts included several different ethnicities, Anglo-Saxons were Germanic. The term Anglo-Saxon actually refers to the invading German tribes who came to Europe in the fifth century. 

Women also played very different roles in each society. The typical ‘male hero rescues female damsel in distress’ legends may not have arisen with the Anglo-Saxons. However, they certainly popularized them. 

On the other hand, the Celts had numerous stories about strong, powerful females playing the hero role just as often as men. They also believed more strongly in magic and a connection with the Earth. While early Anglo-Saxons were also Pagan, their myths and legends didn’t put as much focus on mystical elements. 

Finally, the Celtic tribes predated the Anglo-Saxons by hundreds of years. The Anglo-Saxons, however, outlasted the Celts, whose societies died out about 200 years or so after the Anglo-Saxons arrived. 

Conclusion

While there may have been Celts with darker skin tones, the Celtic people were primarily white Europeans. The Picts may have been black, though.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source
[5] Source

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