Books

Asia Minor’s forgotten Celts
The World of Books

The Dying Gaul

Every summer some 700,000 people come together in the Breton town of Lorient for the Festival Interceltique, which sees a gathering not just of musicians and singers, but also poets, writers, and community leaders from the Celtic fringe of Western Europe, from Galicia to Galloway.  

But in all this feast of what is locally called “Celtitude”, which at times has even paid homage to Bohemia and Switzerland as the home of the ancient Celts, there is one strange absence. Or perhaps not so strange, for the people I am referring to are barely alluded to in the great catalogue  of the pan-European exhibition The Celts, mounted at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in  1997 by Sabatini Moscati, Otto Hermann Frey, Barry Raftery and others – one of the most remarkable assemblies of Celtic art and artefacts ever seen.

In the authoritative text of the catalogue the Galatians, to whom St Paul addressed one of the most significant of all epistles, are barely acknowledged as being Celts at all.

Modern city

The Galatians occupied in classical times a large territory around the modern city of Ankara, the capital of Turkey since the revolution 1923. Seen as “Hellenogalata” by Greek writers,  these people arrived there from the south of Gaul, by migrating across Italy, Greece and Thrace, arriving in 278 BC.

What I know of the Galatians in detail comes largely from Fernand Lequenne’s Les Galates (Artheme Fayard, 1959), which recounts their interesting connections, not only with the European Celts, but also with the ancient Jews and the early Christians.

Lequenne has no doubts about their Celtic nature, as demonstrated by their hardihood in war and their religious beliefs. Here too, in the central mountains of Asia Minor, were to be found those sacred oak groves, with which we in Ireland are so familiar. Twenty miles from modern Ankara there is a place called in antiquity Drunementon, “the sacred place of the oak”, an echo of our own city of Derry.

The Galatians left a distinctive mark on Hellenistic art, through statues such as “The Dying Gaul”, or another found in a temple at Pergamum of a defeated Celtic warrior, committing suicide by driving his short sword down behind his sternum into his heart. These were often copied in late classical times.

Celtic words still survive, I understand, in modern Turkish, but not enough it seems to gain these hardy highlanders, now Muslims, a summer invitation to Lorient.

Legends

In an almost casual aside Lequenne speaks of medieval legends that the Mary the Mother of Jesus was not Jewish, but was a blonde Celt of Galatian origins. But, as he exclaims in despair at one point, “legends, legends... .”

But there is nothing legendary about St Paul’s epistle – which after all provides the New Testament with a Celtic aspect. Though the Galatians retained much of the ancient character of the Gauls, and something of their ancient language, the everyday language used was Greek, as was the case throughout Asia Minor. The monumental inscriptions found at ancient Ankara are in Greek, and St Paul himself wrote his epistle in Greek, the letter being composed about 56 AD.  

We  might, with a little latitude, see it as being written to all non-Jewish, non-Roman peoples, of which the Celtic elite of this island would then have been another example.

This is a key document in the development of Christianity. A party of Jewish Christians had been persuading the Galatians that to be full Christians they would have to follow the Mosaic code – Jewish culture would have to prevail over all others. 

That party insisted that circumcision of Gentiles was essential. This Paul denied. The Mosaic code belonged to the earlier dispensation.  

Paul described for the Galatians the substance of the new covenant: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  

Whatever about Jew and gentile, slave and free, the distinction between male and female is all too present in the world today, according to some critics. Perhaps we should all pay attention to what St Paul had to say to Asia Minor’s almost forgotten Celts.