Identity, Ethnicity and Ethnonyms



Human beings are by nature social animals: it is human nature for us to be members of groups larger than ourselves. These groups can include our family, neighbourhood, profession, tribe, nation, etc. Being a member of a social group gives us a sense of belonging; our sense of who we are is based, at least in part, on those groups of which we are a member. Although there are many alternatives, one useful definition of an ethnic group is

a firm aggregate of people, historically established on a given territory, possessing in common relatively stable particularities of language and culture, and also recognizing their unity and difference from other similar formations (self-awareness) and expressing this in a self-appointed name (ethnonym). (Dragadze, quoted in Megaw and Megaw)

Ethnicity is an important aspect of our sense of self, our sense of community and our perceptions of others. Our ethnicity influences how we experience our lives, especially in relation to other people. To unpack the above definition slightly, ethnicity, whether in ancient or modern times, tends to have a number of common characteristics:

  • Ethnicity is about contrast: defining who “we” are is only possible by contrasting “us” with some other “them.”
  • Ethnicity is about perceptions, not necessarily about “facts” or visible, physical features. There are many possible bases for ethnic difference: language, customs, social status, religion, etc.
  • Ethnicity is concentric. This means that there are nested layers of belonging to ever larger social groups: you belong to a family which belongs to a community which belongs to a province which belongs to a nation-state, and so on.
  • Ethnicity is contextual. This means that the “layer” which is most relevant or applicable to us at any particular time depends on our current context.

There must be some stable core, some elements which provide group cohesion, in order for an ethnic group to persist.

There can be no identity without memory (albeit selective), no collective purpose without myth, and identity and purpose or destiny are necessary elements of the very concept of a nation. But this is also true of an ethnic community; it too must be felt to have an identity and destiny, and hence myths and memories. (Anthony Smith quoted in Megaw and Megaw)

In order to appreciate the role of myth in ethnicity and identity, you must understand the technical meaning of myth as “narrative which explains and justifies,” rather than the colloquial usage of myth as “untruth.” It is not accidental that the motto of Quebec is Je me souvien “I remember,” or that the study of language and literature have been instrumental in the survival of Jewish culture and identity.

Class Discussion

What memories or myths work on behalf of the identity of your nation (the United States, Canada, etc.)? How are these memories and myths embodied, enacted, performed, and kept meaningful?


Race – the idea of ethnicity being based on genetic makeup and reflected in physical features – is a modern concept, dating only from the eighteenth century. It is certainly not relevant in understanding the Celts: as is clear from archaeology, historical texts, genetic markers, and casual observation, there is no correspondence between genetic origins and Celtic ethnicity.

As Celtic groups on the continent of Europe lost their language, absorbed Roman language and culture, were invaded by other peoples, and were integrated into other political infrastructures, their sense of Celticity disappeared and they became something else: French, English, Austrian, Portuguese, etc. The Norse were one of the ethnic groups which invaded Celtic regions during the medieval period, but because of settling amongst and marriage into Celtic families, their descendants became “Celticized” and hence lost their Norseness. This same process is still underway, as some Celtic peoples become assimilated into other language-culture groups, and people of foreign origin assimilate into Celtic communities.

Recent genetic studies have confirmed the lack of a biological basis for Celtic identity. Not only is there no common genetic “signature” across Celtic communities (Central Europe to Ireland, for example), but some studies assert that most of the genetic makeup of the British Isles derives from the Paleolithic Age, the age of hunters and gatherers; that is to say, millennia before the emergence of the Celts. This should alert us to the fact that Celticization must have happened in some areas, like the British Isles, without a sudden invasion of large numbers of Celts, but by longer and more sustained social and cultural processes.

Class Discussion

Read Tacitus Agricola §11. What does this suggest about the likelihood of a “racial definition” of Celts?

Material Culture (the La Tène Culture Group)

The presence of “La Tène” artifacts has conventionally been interpreted as evidence of Celtic peoples (as explored further below in the unit on the origins of the Celts). This approach has now been shown to have its limitations in that La Tène culture is only one Iron Age manifestation of Celtic culture; regardless, the manufacture and adoption of a distinct style of material culture and set of objects with particular functions does suggest some kind of common core to the people whose culture it was, even if these people were the élite of society (rather than the larger number of commoners). Although there is much regional and chronological variation in La Tène style art, we should be sensitive to the possibilities that the distribution of these artifacts – military equipment, prestige jewelry, vehicles – suggests some kind of connected cultural phenomenon:

It is our contention that much of the apparently ‘abstract’, ‘non-figurative’ art of the European Iron Age similarly displays a visually encoded language which rendered it all the more significant in La Tène society. […] the appearance of such symbols clearly shows the growing connections across much of non-classical Europe in the pre-historic period. (Megaw and Megaw)

Class Discussion

Does your nation (Canada, etc), region or ethnic group have a distinctive material culture? What artifacts might qualify and why or why not?

Ethnicity and Ethnonyms

Most ethnic groups identify themselves with an ethnonym: a name signifying themselves as a collective whole. Examples of modern ethnonyms are “American,” “Canadian,” “Navajo,” “Mennonite,” and “Mormon.” Just as ethnicity itself is dynamic, so do can ethnonyms change over time so that come to signify (or point to) a different group of people than they did originally.

For example, until the late seventeenth century the (French) ethnonym “Canadien” referred to the indigenous peoples who occupied the territories along the St. Lawrence River. By the late seventeenth century it was used by the French settlers in that area to differentiate themselves from the French of France. By the time of Canadian Confederation, the idea of what constituted Canada expanded, and the ethnonym “Canadian” expanded accordingly. Other terms were then required to refer to the Francophone population.

Similarly, the term “American” originally referred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas; it began to be used in English refer to the European colonists in North America in the mid-seventeenth century which contrasted with the term “Indian” for the indigenous peoples; during the American Revolutionary War, the term “American” came to refer most specifically to the colonists in the newly created United States. Thus, in the course of just over a century, the term “American” changed meaning drastically.

It has often been the case that an ethnonym comes from outside of the community itself but is adopted by the community, so we should be aware of the ability of externally generated labels actually becoming meaningful to the group internally and being adopted by them.

Names and Origins

It also appears to be a universal phenomenon of social groups to seek, create, and transmit narratives which explain their origins and their name. These origin legends very commonly attempt to explain the group’s ethnonym by way of a founder who had the same or similar name. We have to remember that while it is possible for origin legends to reflect some historical fact, they more often exhibit a great deal of creativity and imagination, attempting to connect the ethnic group with a person (real or imaginary) who was considered by them to be prestigious at some time. Given that origin legends are meant to enhance group solidarity by providing common origins, only descent from an illustrious ancestor would be claimed! Once the origin legend no longer “makes sense” due to the emergence of a different sense of history, or because the founding figure loses relevance, a new origin legend will be created to take its place.

Imagine that in an apocalyptic future, all written records are lost except for the Bible. People remember the ethnonym “Canadian” but no longer know the origin of the name. If those people looking for their origins were Christian and considered the Bible to be a valid source of history, they might notice that the ethnonym “Canaanite” has a faint resemblance to “Canadian.” Given that the Bible claims that the Canaanite tribes were scattered, they might imagine that one tribe wandered as far as Canada. This would provide a “legitimate” origin legend tying their own existence to a recognized and valued ethnic group in a treasured story about the past.

Although this may sound like a far-fetched example, there are many examples of outrageous stories being invented and adopted because they served some compelling social function for an ethnic group at a particular time.

Class Discussion

Although the documents written by Greeks and Romans are the longest and most detailed sources we have for this early period, these writers were outsiders to Celtic society. They did not understand the nuances of Celtic culture from the inside, so misunderstandings and inconsistencies plague their writings. Keeping these shortcomings in mind, read the following sources for how these authors perceived Celtic ethnicity: What ethnonyms do they use and to whom did they apply? What do they say about the origins of these names? What do they indicate as to the scales/levels of ethnicity and identity, and the connections between identity and language?

Modern Analysis of Celtic Ethnonyms

“Celt” and “Celtic”

The difficulty with the ethnonym “Celtic” (or “Keltoi,” as it originally appears in the earliest Greek texts) is that we don’t know where it comes from and we don’t have any surviving records of the peoples we now call “Celts” using it for themselves. The validity of the ethnonym and even the concept of Celts has been called into question, in part, because of these uncertainties.

Think, for example, of how carelessly most early European writers were when referring to the native peoples of the Americas, simply calling them “Americans,” “Indians” or “savages,” despite the indigenous inhabitants having more specific ethnic names for themselves. Many of the more specific native ethnonyms were poorly transcribed and sometimes Native Americans were known by the names given to them by their enemies. We must be wary of Classical authors using terms like “Celt(ic),” “Gaul(ish)” and “Galatian” in similarly inaccurate and misleading ways.

If the term Keltoi can be shown to be a native ethnonym – if it could be shown to derive from Proto-Celtic roots and to have been used by Celts – this would be a strong argument in favour of the Celts being, at one time, a people who were conscious of having a distinctive ethnic identity of their own and who coined a name for themselves as an ethnic group (an ethnonym) to reflect that ethnic consciousness.

In favour of this possibility, the root Celt can be found in the personal names of people widely dispersed across the Celtic world: the personal name Celtius was found in western Iberia in the region of Celtic settlement; the personal names Celticus (male) and Celtica (female) were used in Galicia; the personal name Celtchar was used in early Ireland; the name of the father of the famed Gaulish leader Vercingetorix was Celtillus.

The root Celt can also be found in group names: in western Iberia can be found the family name Celtigun “the descendants of Celtius”; the Celtiberian family name Kaltaikikos was written on a tessera (stone block) near Castile-Leon in the north of Spain; Strabo (§3.3.5) mentions the Celtici.

That widely dispersed Celtic speakers, who shared a common linguistic base but had been separated for centuries, were using the element Celt in personal names and ethnonyms legitimates the hypothesis that they could have used it in the ancient past as an all-inclusive ethnonym for themselves as Celts.

Kim McCone has recently devised a clever argument which provides a meaning for Keltoi and a narrative which might connect to it. One meaning of the root cel(t) in Proto-Celtic is “hide.” Julius Caesar (Commentaries on the Gallic War §6.18) says that the Gauls claimed to be descended from Dis Pater and that this was one of the teachings of the Druids. Caesar is here trying to make sense of Gaulish gods by relating them to Roman ones. Dis Pater was the Roman god of the Underworld, associated with the sources of fertility and wealth in and under the earth. This mythic figure may be connected to the widespread Celtic practice of making sacrifices and offerings in pits, trenches, and watery places.

It is probably also dimly reflected in the Irish tradition of the ancestral founder figure named Donn “the Dark One,” to whom people returned when they died. The ethnonym Keltoi, therefore, may have originally signified “the descendants of the Hidden One.”


The issue of Celtic ethnonyms is complicated by the fact that there was not one but two macro-scale ethnonyms used by the Greek writers of antiquity: Keltoi and Galati (and variations of these terms).

McCone and Koch reconstruct the Greek Galatai from Proto-Celtic *Galatis “fighter.” Given that these terms are already widespread in our earliest sources and that they can be understood in terms of Celtic roots, we should accept them as Celtic ethnonyms. The ethnonym Galatai seems to be used of the Celts who were bearers of La Tène material culture. Not only were they engaged in local and far-range raiding on their own initiative, they were employed as mercenaries all over the Mediterranean. It would not be surprising if their capacity as warriors was reflected in an ethnonym that matched the stereotype of their mercenary activities in the Mediterranean region.


Although the Romans used the ethnonym Britanni for the peoples of Britain, the Proto-Celtic form has been reconstructed as *Kwritenoi. It appears in the forms Priten (Old Welsh), Prydein (Middle Welsh) for the name of the island of Britain; in the forms Pritdin (Old Welsh) and Cruithin (Old Gaelic) it refers to the Picts (the Celts of northernmost Britain). The early Celtic ethnonym was picked up by the Greeks as Prettanoí and the Romans took the name from the Greeks but changed it to Britanni. After Roman rule, the native Celts themselves took on the Romanized form of the name.

Several different interpretations of the original Celtic ethnonym *Kwritenoi have been offered based on the root *kwrito- “cut.” The conventional theory (based on usages in medieval Celtic languages) has been to relate “cut” to being shapely, well-formed, perhaps even to the use of tattoos. McCone suggests that the “cut” being referred to is the ocean, so that the Celts of the British Isles are the “people who are cut off” from the Celts of the continent. Finally, Koch relates “cut” to the making of artistic forms, both tangible material artifacts and oral literature, so that the ethnonym could be “the makers of artistic forms.”

In support of this, cerd is “craftsman” in Old Gaelic and “song or poem” in Old Welsh, and the derived Welsh term prydyd means “highest-ranking poet.” Koch also relates the arts to the means by which Celtic language and culture spread (see further the “Celtic Origins and Celticization” Unit). The ethnonym *Kwritenoi seems to emerge during or after the creation of La Tène culture, perhaps suggesting that the makers of these new artifacts (and whatever literary traditions and cultural conceits accompanied them) saw themselves as distinctive from the other Celtic societies which preceded them.

Other Celtic Ethnonyms

Quite a large number of names of Celtic nations survive, having been recorded by Greek and Roman writers or preserved in inscriptions. Although it is important to consider whether an ethnonym has been created by the people who bear it or imposed on one group by another, and we lack sufficient evidence to make such distinctions in most cases, the meanings of these names can provide further insights into the beliefs, practices, values and aspirations of Iron Age Celtic communities. We cannot generalize the implications of these names too far, but they help give a sense of personality to these communities.

While some groups are named for the particular regions that they inhabited – thus implying commitment to a certain locale –, others were noted as mobile (at least at the time that their ethnonym was coined). For example, we have the Arverni “people of the marshes,” Ambianes “people of both sides [of the river],” the Antobroges “people of the border,” the Nantuates “people of the valleys,” and the Ivernioi “the people of the Ivernis region.” The names of some groups seem to be based on specialized professions which require permanent settlement, such as the Acitauones “field-workers,” the Silures “seed-planters,” the Blatonoi “millers of grain,” and the Sailinoi “salt-miners.” By contrast we have the Lepontioi “those who have left their settlement,” the Alauni “the walkers,” the Cenomani “distant travellers,” and Allobroges “foreigners.”

Some Celtic groups named themselves after animals. In some cases, such as the Boii “people of the cattle,” the Taurini (and Taurisci) “people of the bull,” the Bechunes “bee-keepers,” and the Caeracates “shepherds,” the animals probably represent the economic base of their communities. In other cases, such as the Neri (and Nerusii and Nervii) “people of the boar,” the Roturci “people of the great boar,” the Cadurci “people of the battle boars,” the Kyntes “people of the hound,” and the Brannovices “raven fighters,” the animal may have been a clan totem displayed on their war gear for protection and/or help in battle.


Koch, “Mapping Celticity.”

—, “On Celts Calling Themselves.”

McCone, The Celtic Question.

Megaw and Megaw, “Celtic Ethnicity Ancient and Modern.”

Meid, The Celts.

Stempel, “Linguistically Celtic Ethnonyms.”