Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Lady Traveler's Guide to Celtic Britain

If you're going to be a woman in ancient history (which btw I do not recommend), the place to do it would be Celtic Britain.

The facts about pre-Roman-invasion Britain are murky and largely have to be interpreted through the accounts of Romans during and after the invasion in 43AD, since the Celts weren't real big on writing things down. "The Celts" just refers to the ethno-linguistic group that was hanging around northwest Europe at the time, by the way. A lot of the facts about Celtic Britain probably apply to Ireland as well, but it's difficult to prove since the Romans didn't hang out much with the Irish. And by hang out, I mean conquer, because that is how Rome rolls.

What we do know is that Britain had no overarching monarchy; it was comprised of many small tribes. Still, the culture of the tribes was fairly similar; too much interaction would have occurred between the tribes for it to be otherwise. There was a huge focus on honor and personal valor They were more spiritual than religious - their druids certainly had a role, but they didn't dictate the rules. (They were probably too busy getting high and communing with lightning.) And there's no proof that women weren't completely equal to men.

Women couldn't be married against their will in Celtic society - a fact which dovetails with the Celtic society's focus on individual glory. In a society where armies had a tendency to fall apart as the warriors would veer off to seek the most impressive feats of valor, it is easy to imagine young ladies refusing suitors who didn't please them, even if their parents attempted to interfere.

And marriage itself did not transfer ownership of a woman: both men and women were allowed to divorce their partners for any reason, and marry again as many times as they wanted. (Probably not very many because the average life expectancy was like 25.)

Since they weren't considered property themselves, women could own property. Even later, after the Roman culture had such a huge influence on Britain, under Brehon law women still retained the majority of their personal property rights. 

Celtic women could take part in politics and wield power. Both Cartimandua of the Brigantes and Boudica are examples of where the Celtic warriors were happy to follow women leaders. It probably didn't hurt that girls were frequently trained in combat, and the records show them fighting Romans right alongside the men.

And when they weren't beating their enemies brains out, Celtic women sometimes acted in official capacities as diplomats, judges and mediators. Recording that must have sucked for Cicero, who had once written, "Our ancestors, in their wisdom, considered that all women, because of their innate weakness, should be under the control of guardians."

The Celtic myths are pretty light on stupid, jealous wives seething quietly at home while their husbands go cheat with everything. They also don't go in much for this "goddess of the hearth" nonsense. The greatest warrior in Celtic mythology was trained in combat by two women, and goddesses were just as dark and powerful as the gods. The queens of Celtic mythology don't play supporting roles - they're just as complex and deeply flawed as the men. One of the most famous Celtic myths is about Queen Medb, who started a cattle raid because she was miffed that her husband had a more awesome bull than she did. (Ancient people were weird.) 

The testament to the respect women had in Celtic Britain is proven by the rights that women maintained for hundreds of years after the invasion of Roman culture. Even after the Catholic Church reared its head, British women never completely lost the influence they once had. When you compare the list of British queens regnant to the lists of other European countries, it's startling to realize that while France and Italy and Germany were never once ruled by a female monarch, Britain had fifteen reigning queens. I mean, dang.


  1. Great info! I love ancient history, love the religious history and understanding the culture through religion. The fact the older civilizations had formidable goddesses is fascinating. It almost feels as if we've gone back in power as women. lol

    1. In comparison to Celtic Britain, we just might've!

  2. I love this stuff!
    I knew the Celtic history was awesome, but I didn't know it had all this going on. It sounds great. Well, except for the life expectancy. Lol! I've always loved everyone's mythologies in general, but I'm going have to whip out the gigantic mythology book and brush up on the Celtics. Sound like they just might scoot the Norse stories out of first place.