Exploring Celtic Roots in Brittany and France

Originally posted on & updated on 11th January, 2024

This month Beth explores Celtic Heritage and roots in Brittany in France, Britain and across Europe. Beth knows a thing or two on the subject, her most recent book is aptly called, Fat Dogs and Welsh Estates. When we first discussed writing about the Celts, the myths associated with Druids and magic forests, she was excited to share her skills and knowledge and take up the challenge ...enjoy!

France – A Celtic or Gaul Nation?

“Actually, both. The answer begins during a period pre-dating the Iron Age, 1200 BC. The Celts were a collection of tribes originating in central Europe, sharing similar languages, religious beliefs and traditions. Gradually, the tribes spread throughout Western Europe, including Britain, Ireland, France and Spain. To the Greeks in 540 BC, they were primarily known as Keltoi, ‘barbarian’ people, and to the Romans, Celti, Celtae and Galli.  

In later centuries, invasions from Germanic tribes and Roman legions threatened the settled tribes. During Julius Caesar’s conquests, France and other territories, including Belgium, became known as Gaul or Celtica, hence the peoples becoming known as Gauls or Celts.

The Celts living on the islands now known as the British Isles were called ‘Pretani’, a Celtic word that probably means ‘the painted ones’. They were an ancient people of the Bronze Age. Following his invasion of 55 BC, Julius Caesar changed the P of Pretani to B, eventually leading to the name Britanni or British.

Migrations and Brittany

During the Dark Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain, forcing many British to retreat to their western strongholds. Many also migrated south across the sea to join their cousins in the northwest part of Gaul, then known as Armorica. Part of the area, which encompassed Normandy, eventually became the land of the Britons and was renamed Brittany.

A Celtic Alliance

Today, the Celtic homelands in Britain are Ireland, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Cornwall. Many Galicians in northwestern Spain consider themselves Celts. In France, whilst Celtic influences are found throughout the country, it is in Brittany where Celtic life flourishes.

Celts – Seafaring Adventurers

The Celts are seafaring peoples. Initially, this was partly due to forced migrations over centuries of invasion and an ambition to influence others with religious beliefs. Recorded history from each Celtic country describes perilous voyages made by Celtic saints during the Middle Ages aiming to link Celtic societies with Christian centres in the Mediterranean, as far north as Iceland and south to the Azores.

Boat building and navigation skills improvements enabled the adventurers to fare farther afield; nevertheless, there were many disasters at sea. The fate of the Welsh priest Maclovius is one such example.

Welsh Maclovius and Saint-Malo

The priest Maclovius (whose name appears with several different spellings) was born in Glamorganshire during the sixth century. He eventually left Wales and sailed to Brittany, where he founded Saint-Malo and became the bishop of Aleth. Much of the legend surrounding him is hazy, but many churches in Brittany are named after him. Maclovius later died at sea.

Many Celtic legends describe seafaring adventurers, though some are based in folklore. The Irish have a collection of voyaging tales encapsulated in the ancient Immram Brain: the Voyage of Bran son of Febal, in which the hero, Bran, travels to the western Otherworld. Likely written in the seventh century, it is thought to belong to the oldest stratum of Irish mythological literature.

Celtic Skilled Orators

The ancient Celts did not write their histories, sacred stories and laws to safeguard their information. That was primarily left to druids, vates and bards who passed the word orally from generation to generation.

Druids throughout the Celtic lands were figures of great respect and honour and acted as priests, teachers, and judges. Vates were diviners and natural philosophers, while Bards were originally storytellers. Bards often roamed the country, reciting stories about heroes and their deeds, combining their skill as raconteurs with song.

Even though Celtic tribes never unified politically as one kingdom, their verbalised traditions and travels helped to create and maintain cultural unity across great geographical distances. It helps explain why Celts were most easily identified by their similar languages.

Celtic Languages

There’s a saying in Wales, ‘Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon’, ‘A nation without a language is a nation without a heart’. The preservation of Celtic languages has a chequered and often painful history, but their revival is now flourishing in several Celtic lands.

Of the Celtic languages known to have existed, six are still spoken today: Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Cornish and Welsh. Many Galicians consider themselves Celtic due to their unique culture, though no Celtic language has been spoken in the modern era.

The singsong Welsh language is at the heart of its culture and still nurtured today. It’s the same in Ireland. According to Foras na Gaeilge, the body responsible for promoting the Irish language throughout the island of Ireland, Gaeilge, or Irish as it’s known locally, is one of ‘the oldest and most historic written languages in the world’.

The Manx language was formerly spoken on the Isle of Man. The language, which English displaced in the 19th century, is currently enjoying a revival. The Cornish language, also called Kernewek, may have died with one of the last native Cornish speakers, Dolly Pentreath, in 1777, but it is seeing a resurgence, too.  

For Scotland, the language, similar to its Celtic cousins, declined over the centuries as its usage was considered a cause of political instability in the country. Recent years have seen a revival in Gaelic, emphasising Gaelic medium teaching in some areas.

The Bretons are fiercely proud of their language. In 1464, the Catholicon, a trilingual Breton-French-Latin dictionary, was written. This was also the first French dictionary. Part of the Brythonic group of languages to which Welsh and Cornish also belong, Breton shares an identical basic vocabulary, which makes sense given the migration links during the fifth and sixth centuries.

Today, more than 250,000 people in Brittany speak or understand Breton. Most Breton speakers are in the west of the region, though it is estimated that 31 per cent of the population of Brittany understand several words and expressions in Breton.

Focus on Brittany

Brittany is an exceptional French region whose inhabitants are proud of its Celtic background and sense of individuality. This independence has many expressions, including the region’s distinctive black and white flag. Its stripes represent the traditional dioceses of Brittany and eleven ermine, symbolising purity, innocence, and courage.

Tucked in the northwest, Brittany has many extraordinary features. The peninsula has over 1700 miles of coastline lapped by the precarious English Channel, the Celtic Sea, and the Bay of Biscay to the south.

Over the centuries, Breton shores have witnessed epic storms with monster tides, among the biggest in Europe, and raging seas. Protecting vessels from the craggy coastline led to the building of lighthouses. Here, you’ll find the greatest concentration of lighthouses in the world.

The Carnac Stones

Brittany is home to the world’s greatest number of megalithic stones in one site. Seven thousand years old, the mighty Carnac stones are one of the most important centres of European prehistory. More than 3,000 perfectly aligned prehistoric standing stones were carved and erected during the Neolithic period. It is an extraordinary place to visit.

Over the centuries, many myths have surrounded the purpose and precise age of the Carnac stones. One legend purports they were a Roman army turned into stone. But nobody really knows. There is less mystery surrounding the Vallée des Saints in Carnoët.

In an ongoing Celtic project, sculptors are creating immense four-metre-high granite statues of Breton saints. The aim is to craft 1000 statues spread across a hilltop. Eventually, it will become a permanent stage for musical, theatrical, cinematic and historical re-enactments. A Celtic monastery and its surrounding environment will also be reconstructed.

The Magic of Brocéliande

Other, perhaps more ethereal, features exist in Brittany, which give rise to its reputation as a land of myths and legend. The Paimpont forest is classified as a natural area of interest for ecology, flora and fauna, but it is also the site of magic and wonder. This is the realm of the mythical Celtic forest of Brocéliande.

Since the Middle Ages, many springs in the forest have been known for their lifesaving, magical or evil powers. Heroic adventures of King Arthur, featured in early Welsh literature, including the celebrated Mabinogion, also take place in this enchanted place. Forest sprites thrive here, as do many myths about Arthurian feats. In this forest, the sorcerer Merlin is said to have died at the hands of the fairy Vivien.

Modern Celtic Culture

Today, popular Celtic culture is blooming. Remember Asterix the Gaul? He and his band of merry men lived in a Breton village. Their exploits against Roman invaders were recounted in cartoon books first published in the 1950s. They quickly developed a cult following, which is still flourishing. There’s even a dedicated Asterix amusement park in Paris.

Bretons love the arts and share close music links with their Celtic cousins. Bagpipes, called biniou or cornemuse, may cause the Irish, Scots and Galicians to smile in recognition. It’s the same with the Welsh and the Breton use of harps. Song and theatre are equally important.

A key event in the Breton Celtic calendar is the Interceltic Festival of Lorient. Boasting a ‘Universal declaration of Celticness!’ the festival was started in 1971 and celebrates music, dance, theatre, and food from all over the Celtic world. It is now one of France’s great summer music festivals, attracting performers from the Celtic regions of Europe and over 700,000 visitors.

Bretons enjoy many exchanges with their Celtic counterparts, especially Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Twinned towns, joint events, invitations to festivals; each occasion is designed to promote Celtic kinship and enrichment. While Brittany may be considered the centre of Celtic activity in France, there are many other regions where Celtic influences are evident.

Celtic Identity in France

Ancient megalithic stones are present throughout France, with the most significant number of prehistoric tombs discovered in the southwest.

Ancient History

The dramatic gorges and eerie white plateaus of the limestone Causses and the Cévennes encompass parts of Aveyron, Gard, Hérault and Lozère and contain over 2000 megalithic tombs. In Ardèche, the Grosse Pierre standing stone is one of the nine menhirs documented in the area.

In Burgundy, excavations revealed the Celtic oppidum of Bibracte. Known as ‘a Gallic town under the forest’, the settlement lies in the heart of a 1000-hectare forest. With an estimated population of between 5,000 and 10,000, it was inhabited during the pivotal period of the Roman conquests.

Other examples of Celtic inhabitation include the small mounds built over graves called tumuli. The six Tumuli of Haut Val de Sèvre in New Aquitaine is an exceptional historical site. Though older, some believe they are reminiscent of the mounds of Newgrange in Ireland. In the north, possibly the most famous tumulus is in Saint-Michel near Carnac in Brittany, which was constructed sometime between 5000 BC and 3400 BC.

Iron Age burial sites have also been discovered in Paris. Archaeological evidence exists in Glanum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, founded by a Celto-Ligurian people called the Salyes in the 6th century BCE. It later became a Roman city.

Triskels and Celtic Knots

Despite their early reputation, Celts were far from savages. Archaeological finds of intricate designs, metalwork, and jewellery excavated from ancient Celtic hill forts and burial mounds across Europe are testament to their artistry.

Triskels (or triskele in Breton), the Celtic ‘Spiral of Life’, are present in many forms in France. The design represents clockwise motion through its three stylised legs or spirals. Whilst having many interpretations of their meaning, the triskel has become the most widespread Celtic symbol.

A Celtic knot with its symbolic pattern of a looped knot with no start or finish is another design synonymous with the culture. For many, it represents eternity and an endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Others believe it means eternal love, faith, or a symbol of the infinite nature of the knots to mythology cycles.

Today, there are numerous Celtic knot designs, and as with the triskel, you’ll see them throughout France. Bearing a close resemblance to their Celtic cousins overseas, patterns are often celebrated with tattoos, jewellery, pottery, stone, clothing and accessories.

A Celtic welcome in France

France is home to a vibrant Celtic heritage. With its Celtic history and thriving communities, there’s little wonder that Celts from overseas feel at home here. Strong links and exchanges exist, especially between the Irish, Welsh and Scottish.

Visit most major cities in the country, and you’ll find an Irish pub bursting with bonhomie, inviting you in for the craic. It’s the same for the Welsh and Scottish. Festivals, a love of the arts and historic sites reminding us of a shared turbulent history; it’s all here together with affordable living and an enviable quality of life. So, if you’re looking for some special Celtic magic in France, rest assured you won’t have to travel far. That kinship is easy to find.”

For more stories about living in France, check out Beth’s Welsh Estates latest book on Amazon, perfect for an inspiring read by the fireplace!

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