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Brittany is a Celtic region… Yes, but what does that mean? The Celtic culture evokes for each of us numerous images, legends and sounds, but it becomes harder when we try to describe its real connections with Brittany more precisely. What is Celtic and what is Breton? Historical, geographical and cultural confusions abound and they have been further disseminated by popular culture, the prime example being the adventures of Asterix and his village of indomitable Gauls, set in what is now Brittany. In the story, menhirs and dolmens are part of everyday life and appear to be the sole preserve of the inhabitants of the Atlantic coast. But in reality, menhirs and dolmens have been found all over Europe and do not date from the Gallo-Roman era but rather from the Neolithic period, which was several millennia earlier. As much from a geographical as from a chronological point of view, the origins of Celtic culture are therefore complex. However, today, Brittany as well as parts of the British Isles (Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall) are, in the collective mind, the Celtic lands. The reason is that, over the centuries, these regions are the only ones to have conserved a Celtic language, the Celtic languages of other European regions having been neutralised by invaders, first Romans then ‘Barbarians’, at the beginning of the first millennium.

It is not known with any certainty where the first Celtic peoples appeared. The Bronze Age civilisations referred to as Hallstatt (between the 14th and the 5th centuries BC) and La Tène (from 5th to 1st century BC), which developed in the northern Alps, are often considered the homeland of the Celts. It is generally maintained that, by the Iron Age, Celtic culture had spread as far west as the Atlantic coast and to the eastern edge of Europe. However, in the same period, the ancient Greek authors Hecataeus and Herodotus, then Pytheas, situate the Celts in western Europe. Later, Caesar pinpoints them more precisely between the Garonne and Seine rivers. Whatever the case, by the first millennium BC the British Isles were Celtic. At the time of the Roman conquest, they were less under pressure than other regions in Europe and so the Celtic culture persisted. Later still, the inhabitants of Great Britain settled in Armorique and created Brittany. This background explains why Great Britain and Brittany are the only regions now strongly associated with Celtic culture, despite the existence of remnants of Celtic peoples all over Europe. Languages of Celtic origin such as Breton, Gaelic, Welsh or Cornish have survived in these places and their decline is only recent. Galicia in Spain also carries evidence of Celtic habitation in archaeological remains and certain traditions (notably musical), but is only considered ‘unofficially’ Celtic because no trace of the Celtic language has been found in the region.

Arbres de la forêt Celtique

However, Celtic languages are on their way to disappearing nowadays; the Irish speak English and Bretons speak French. Nevertheless, the people of these regions hold their Celtic heritage dear, and their Celtic identity is a way of claiming a special status rooted in history. Celtic art developed across Europe in the first millennium BC. Its motifs, such as S-shapes and triskeles, are intimately linked to Brittany and Great Britain and directly evoke these regions for the inhabitants of neighbouring regions. Many people can be seen sporting a pendant or a ring with interlacing motif, bought from a Breton boutique. The phenomenon of claiming one’s Breton identity, at a time when Celtic languages are only spoken by a minority, seems like a desire for singularity, a return to one’s roots however tenuous. A strong solidarity exists between the Celtic regions of western Europe, evidenced by the many twinned towns in Brittany and Great Britain.

However, the wish to highlight Celtic culture should not be seen as isolationist but rather as a desire to preserve an original and magical culture. Celtic myths and traditions are enchanting; think of druidism or the legends of King Arthur. They contain so much mystery, just like the large stones which stand majestically in the silence of the green plains. The Neolithic megaliths (dolmens, stelae and menhirs) retrieved by the Celtic culture were probably used in druidic ceremonies. The most famous of these are Stonehenge in England and Carnac in the Morbihan department in Brittany. Right up to the present day, (neo-)druidic communities have a heart for preserving these unique practices, which are strongly linked to nature, and abundant in Celtic regions. Nature is an integral part of druidic rituals, providing plants for both medicinal and sacrificial purposes, for example mistletoe (yes, as used by the druid in Asterix’s village) which is harvested from oak trees. The elements are also important in druidism, for example: purifying water, sacrificial fire, a fog which renders one invisible.

nymph Forest

Just as there is only a small divide between druidism and neo-druidism, which has been crossed by some communities, Celtic identity too is being asserted in a more large-scale way, notably through contemporary cultural events. One of these is the Festival Interceltique in Lorient (in the Morbihan department) which welcomes 350,00 people every summer. This festival of Celtic music takes place this year between the 3rd and 12th of August, with Wales as the ‘guest of honour’ country. And so, synonymous with tradition as well as originality, Celtic culture still today retains all of its spirit and its allure.

Shérine Taia.