Before the Celts: The Cosmic People
Little is known of the early Europeans who preceded the Celts; their day-to-day lives and customs can only be guessed at by the artifacts they left behind them. Long before the Celtic settlers began their westward sweep, these ancient people built astonishing monuments to the cosmos — their massive stone circles demonstrate a great knowledge of astronomy, and mysterious underground passage tombs reveal a belief in rebirth or resurrection. It is on these tombs that we find the earliest examples of the solar triple spiral, a symbol of eternity that is now nearly synonymous with Celtic spirituality.
As the Celts swept westward, they incorporated these ancient monuments and their symbols into their ceremonies and mythology. The stone circles became arenas of the gods, and the passage tombs became Sídhe, entrances to the Otherworld. Their people were viewed as the supernatural spiritual ancestors of the Celts, the Tuatha Dé Danann, or People of the Goddess Danu, who later passed into English folklore as the fairy-folk.
The word banshee (Ban sídhe) originally referred to a female of the Sídhe, but later came to refer to a type of mourning ghost in Celtic folklore whose appearance presaged death.
One of the best-known of these ancient monuments is the megalithic passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, a gigantic earthwork whose best-known feature is the annual illumination of its inner chamber by a shaft of sunlight at dawn during the winter solstice. Some theorize that the tomb was used to facilitate the passage of souls from death to new life, and the tomb is decorated with beautiful solar designs of spirals, lozenges, and circles carved into its gigantic stones. When the Gaels arrived in Ireland, they assumed that such an impressive structure must be the work of the Gods, and the tomb passed into lore as the home of Aenghus, the God of Love.
The Urnfield Culture
The archetypal early Celtic community began to take shape around 800
This combined culture had all the marks of a typical Celtic community. By all appearances, the Urnfielders loved life and attached great importance to simple acts of living — eating, drinking, and fighting with great gusto. They wore brightly colored clothing and elaborate jewelry, brewed mead and ale, raised cattle and crops, and skirmished endlessly amongst themselves.
The Urnfielders' burial practices clearly demonstrate a belief in the after-life. Their dead were carefully cremated and interred in wood-lined earthen tombs known as barrows. Urnfield dead were well provided for, with stores of food, jewelry, and beautifully decorated pottery.
The Halstatt Culture
Following the Urnfield period was an even more recognizably Celtic community, the so-called Halstatt culture, named for the area of Austria where the rich remains of their communities have been uncovered. The Halstatt people were by all accounts a sophisticated Iron-Age aristocracy, wealthy traders whose power derived from their control over rich salt mines whose output provided much income through international trade.
The great wealth of Halstatt tribes was likely responsible for a change in burial custom. Abandoning the simple cremations of their forebears, the Halstatts opted for elaborate grave mounds, where their wealthy chieftains would be buried in high style. Instead of earthen jars, members of the Halstatt aristocracy were laid to rest in fancy wood and iron carts, in which they would travel to the afterlife with all of their earthly possessions arrayed about them. The typical wealth of a Halstatt chieftain included elaborate jewelry and ornaments of bronze, fine weapons and armor, pottery and utensils, and even provisions of meat and grain. Wealthier graves often contained elaborate metal cauldrons and even wagons or war chariots.