Britain Begins – Debunking the Myth of Celtic Invasions

I have recently read Barry Cunliffe’s Britain Begins for the first time as part of my research into the origins of the veneration of the Brythonic gods. This excellent book has overturned one of the faulty preconceptions I have held since coming to Brythonic polytheism – the myth of Celtic invasions.

Up until now I had been working under the popular misconception put forward by earlier scholars that the Celtic people came from the east and migrated across Europe to invade Britain bringing their gods with them at some point during the Iron Age. This was based on the combination of the Biblical story of Noah’s children spreading out after the flood and classical sources recording Celtic migrations into Italy and Greece and the Balkans and Asia Minor. It was problematic for me as it ran against my gnosis that the Brythonic gods have been venerated here far longer and was a source of confusion.

Cunliffe has thankfully debunked this myth. He argues that there is no evidence for Celtic invasions. He begins his account of the beginnings of Britain with the first hunter-gatherer people moving north from Northern Iberia along the Atlantic seaways and west from the North European Plain across Doggerland. His argument is based on contemporary genetic research.

‘There is broad agreement amongst geneticists that a high percentage of the modern population can trace its ancestry back to the period of recolonization between the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the beginning of the Neolithic period. One study offers quite startling figures for the percentages of the population whose ancestry pre-dates c.4000 BC: 88 per cent of the Irish, 81 per cent of the Welsh, 79 per cent of the Cornish, 70 per cent of the Scots, and 68 per cent of the English.’

‘Genetics… is demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt that a very high percentage of the British population, both male and female, are descended from hunter-gatherer pioneers who arrived before 4000BC, and it is showing that the Atlantic littoral zone provided one of the major corridors of movement.’

Archaeology combined with genetic studies and linguistics shows that the Celtic language, culture and religious system developed in Western Europe, in western and central Iberia, Gaul, Britain and Ireland.

Rather than our religion being imported the evidence suggests its origins may lie with the first people to repopulate Britain after the Ice Age and their networks of interactions with nearby peoples via the Atlantic and North Sea seaways and with settlers who arrived in two main movements.

Firstly people carrying the Linearbandkeramik and Impressed Ware cultures from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean brought ‘the Neolithic package’ – ‘a fully developed food-producing strategy based on the cultivation of barley and emmer wheat and the husbanding of domestic cattle, pigs, and sheep’. This spread amongst the indigenous people between 4200 – 3800. The excess time and energy created by farming led to the communal monument building traditions of long barrows, passage graves, cursus monuments, causewayed camps and later henge monuments and stone circles.

Secondly the influx of ‘Beaker people’ originating from the Tagus Valley in Iberia in 2500 BC brought metallurgy and the tradition of single burials with the famous bell beaker.

Cunliffe argues that the Celtic language developed as a Lingua Franca spoken in the Tagus Valley in Iberia between 4500 and 3000 BC and developed along the Atlantic seaways. Celtic was spoken in Britain and Ireland by 2000 BC and this was when the split appeared between the Goidelic and Brythonic languages.

It would have been at this time that the gods who were honoured in natural places such as rivers, lakes, springs, and groves, and at man-made monuments became known by Brythonic names.

Cunliffe suggests that, as the Celtic language developed in the West, so did the religious system. He says: ‘It may even be that Caesar was correct and that it had originated in Britain. At any event, the practice that became recognised as druidism in the last century of the first millennium BC had its roots deep in prehistory.’

Cunliffe’s argument fits with my gnosis that the veneration of the gods who I worship may have originated with the first people to colonise Britain and that they became known by Brythonic names as the language developed. Rather than, for example, Bel being imported by the Belgic peoples he may long have been a presence in Britain whose veneration spread to a continental tribe who made him their patron.

I have long felt that Vindos/Gwyn has been venerated here since at least the Ice Age as a hunter god who led the people back to Britain following the reindeer and wild horses with his wolves and ravens. Also that Rigantona/Rhiannon may have been a leader of these horse followers. Both have felt like very old and primal presences within the land and live on to today as Fairy King and Queen.

Cunliffe’s debunking of the myth of Celtic invasions has not only freed me from a flawed misconception but confirmed that it is legitimate to enquire into the origins of my deities in Britain’s deeper past.

5 thoughts on “Britain Begins – Debunking the Myth of Celtic Invasions

  1. peterjeffs says:

    Absolutely! Thank you for sharing his argument. Cunliffe also wrote a book called “Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples, 8000 BC to AD 1500”. Before “nation-states” there were peoples travelling, sharing and sea-faring, and this aligns for me, sites like Newgrange, the Wessex monuments, and Gavrinis (along with the proliferation of sites in the Morbihan, in Bretagne). I am sure that these peoples were very connected and that more so, rights of passage through sea-rituals, were part of their common heritage.

  2. angharadlois says:

    Britain Begins has been on my to-be-read list for such a long time! I find it really interesting – important, even – how scholarship meets gnosis and gnosis informs scholarship in your work.

  3. Greg Hill says:

    I read Britain Begins soon after it was published and was immediately impressed with it, particularly the inclusion of the section on the mythic narratives that precedes the archaeology. Cunliffe’s embracing of the need to link developing discoveries in archaeology, linguistics and work on ancient DNA led him to co-ordinate a number of regular conferences bringing people from those disciplines together, two of which were held in Aberystwyth and which I was able to attend. While the approach remains problematic in that the conclusions of the three disciplines don’t always coalesce, this does seem to be the way to go in researching prehistory.

    I found Cunliffe’s conclusions about links between Britain and the European mainland most instructive, particularly his suggestion that eastern Britain retained sea links across the shallow waters of what had been Dogger Land, while the West had always had sea links between Britain, Ireland and what is now western France and Spain. That questions the theory that the British Celts were driven into the West of Britain and suggests, rather that the West was always culturally different to the East. My own conclusion from this is that it implies the possibility that the same mythic narratives took different cultural forms in different parts of the Island of Britain which had links with different parts of Europe and that this would have been the case for as long as the sea lanes remained the main lines of communication between Britain and Europe.

    But also, as you say, that there is greater degree of continuity between earlier and later inhabitants of Britain than theories of invasion and genocide suggest. Even where new warrior elites invaded and became dominant, these were only ever a small percentage of the population, and were not necessarily very different from the people that were in Britain already. But it is their stories that get recorded in history, and the stories of those that replaced them. But all the time the common folk, though invisible to history, would have continued to tell their stories.

  4. Bogatyr says:

    This book has just gone on my to-read list!

    I think the case you’ve outlined here is pretty much indisputable at this point; genetic research has been demonstrating for many years now that there has been continuity of population from the Neolithic to the present day in much of Britain. Spend any time on the hilltops of Britain’s western seaboard, and it’s obvious that sea travel would have been the dominant mode, rather than overland. As for myth, I wrote a while ago about how archaeological discoveries are demonstrating that the pig drive of the Fourth Branch reflects memories of an actual Neolithic practice:

    https://ymgyrchiannwfn.wordpress.com/2019/05/11/the-enduring-power-of-myth/

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