The Kurgans

Interestingly, we must go to Russia to begin the story of where the Celts came from. There is in Russia today, just east of the Ural Mountains on the Tobol River a town and an Oblast (Russian for province) known as Kurgan. The town and the term is Russian for tumulus, the distinctive mound-grave of the nomadic culture to whom the name Kurgan was given.


The Kurgans were a pre-Celtic peoples from whom the Celts evolved. The Kurgans came from the steppes of Russia and mixed with the people who were just north of the Black Sea, the North Pontic Culture, and formed a new culture. Between 2400 and 2300 B.C. the people of this newly evolved culture invaded southeast into the territory of the Trans-Caucasians and developed into the Indo-Europeans. Some of them moved west into Europe. From these latter people emerged the Battle-Axe Culture, Tumulus and then the Urnfield Culture which spread into central Europe and evolved into the Halstatt Culture. The other group of these same pre-Indo-Eropean peoples migrated south from the Trans-Caucuses to what is today Turkey, Iran and India.To get some idea of the diversity of languages and cultures that developed from the Indo-Europeans, see a list from an encylopedia. Three of the groups listed there, the Thracians, Macedonians and Greeks were Celtic tribes important to our story. For they settled Greece, Asia Minor and the Greek trading centers on the Black Sea. Thucydides, another Greek historian, reported the original Hellenes, the tribes settling what became Greece, were called Danaans. A name very close to another you will soon learn about.

A larger view of the TransCaucuses, the cradle of the Indo-European languages as it is today.

The people who moved in the Black Sea area when the early Kurgans moved on, where Cimmerians. They may have been a later generation of Kurgans moving west from the Russian Steppe as were those who displaced them, the Scythians. The Scythians were an outgrowth of the Kurgans. The Scythians pushed the Cimmerians in two directions, into Europe where they became known as the Cimbri, and into Asia Minor and Assyria.


The Scythians were either a pre-Celtic peoples or a people who greatly influenced the Celts.

Though the Scythians were in the Black Sea area and made raids into central Europe, Asia Minor and into southern central Asia, their original homeland was a band of land from the Dnieper River where it enters the Black Sea north to the headwaters of the Danube in central Europe, east to most of what was the southern Soviet Union and arcing north to Siberia. Their eastern boundary appeared to be the Yenesei River that feeds into Lake Baikal. The Greeks named their king after a son of Hercules, Scythes. Their lands were called Scythia and the peoples Scythians. The Persians called them the Sakas. The Scythians called themselves the Scoloti.

The particular tribe of Scythians we are interested in is the Massagetae.

The Massagetae were also called East Goths, their first known locale before the westward migration (900 B.C.) was in an area immediately east of the Amu-Darya River that flows into Lake Aral from the mountains of Afghanistan. Their place in history was made when they repulsed an invasion by the Persians . They defeated and killed Cyrus I of Persia in 529 BC. Tradition has it that it was a Massengetae Queen, Tomyris, who actually killed Cyrus and took home his head as a trophy. Scythians allowed women to rise as warriors and leaders if they were so inclined and skilled. Herodotus wrote of the Amazons among the Scythians, but these women lost none of their femininity. For buried in their graves along with their bows, arrows and knives were jewellry, mirrors, perfume and make up.

Limpriere’s Classical Dictionary, 1922 gives a few interesting facts about the Massengetae-

They were nomads who lived in tents. They held their wives in common. They worshipped the sun and made offerings of horses. When their parents came close to a certain age, they generally put them to death and ate their flesh mixed with that of cattle.

This tribe migrated west as did the Kurgans and Scythians generally. Some of them went in other directions. Some stayed just on the other side of the river, others moved to what became Iran, and others in Turkmen, while still others migrated all the way to the Middle East. At each place they melded with the local population and built a new tribe. An example are the Scythians between the Caspian and Aral Seas who moved south to mingle with kinsmen known as Dahae from whom the Parthians emerged. Others moved into India. These were the people known as Sakas by the Persians. Other known Scythian tribes include the Alazones, Aroteres, Neurii, Androphagi and the Melanchlaeni.

There were many tribes that filled the vast plain from the Dnieper River Valley to the edge of Mongolia, most all of them where known collectively as Scythians in the period 522-486 B. C. During their peak the Scythians penetrated into Europe as far as Hungary and East Prussia. A grave of a Scythian and possibly his family was uncovered at Hallstatt, in Upper Austria, in 1995. Ceramics belonging to the Scythians have been found in Lower Austria.


A Celtic culture began to emerge in Europe around 800 BC as loosely associated Celtic tribes who shared a common language, cultural ties and closely related religious ideas began to interact. The Celts were the first ogranized group of tribes, a civilization, to be organized north of the the Alps. Thus, it can be said they were the founders of European civilization. The coming together of the various tribes was brought about, it seems, by the introduction of ironworking. With their better quality iron tools and weapons, the Celts began to unite against other groups. This early iron using Celtic culture is called the Halstatt Culture. It got this name because of a major find of Celtic artifacts at a burial site discovered in Halstatt, Austria.

Celtic tribal organization was basically the same for all the related tribes. A tribe (tuath) was ruled by a king (ri) with the aid of a general assembly (oenach). A Chief was a leader of his people (sometimes just a family). There could be sub-chiefs under him (in the case of extended families) all of whom owed allegiance to the king. There were, at times, an “over-king”, a king (ard-ri) who had other kings subject to him. Celtic Law held that only a king and a chief could rule his people. No chief of chiefs or ard ri could impose direct rule over a lesser king or chief’s people or area.

Celtic Law was based on custom and not by enforcement from autocratic authority. The land, for instance belonged to the tribe or clan, not the king or chief. The family enforced, through custom and tradition, the law as guided by legal specialists called brehons.

Women were given a high place in Celtic society. According to marriage laws, women controlled all the possessions they owned before the marriage, and could leave with them if she wanted. If a woman’s wealth exceeded that of her husband’s, she controlled the household. Wives frequently were trained as warriors and joined their men in battle. One of the most famous was Boudicca who assisted in the burning of Rome.

The Celts introduced soap to the Greeks and Romans. They gave the basic shape to many of the tools still used by man today: the handsaw, chisel, files and other tools. The Celts developed the seamless iron rim for chariot wheels. These wheels were exactly 4’8″ apart, a standard that is today shown in the gauge of our railroads.. Other Celtic contributions to civilization include the iron plowshare, the rotary flour mill, rotary reaper and horseshoes.

The Halstatt Culture yielded to the La Tene period in around 500 BC. This cultural era is alaso named for an archeology site.

The site is located in Switzerland on the shore of Lake Neuchâtel. The La Tene Period was the peak of Celtic cultural development and produced elaborate art of pre-Roman Europe. An interesting aspect of some of the art was its abstract nature.

Many of the place names used today in Europe come from Celtic tribes. Paris is named for the Parisii, Rheims comes from the Remi, Helvetia (the official name for Swtzerland) comes from the Helvetii. Belgium is named for the Belgae. The Boii tribe left forms of their names in Bologna and Bohemia. The Gauls left their name in Galacia, Spain, Galacia, Poland* and Galatia, Turkey.
(*in the twentieth century Galacia was a part of Austria, then Austro-Hungary, then Poland, then USSR and now


As we have said earlier the Celts emerged from a number of influences and traditions most notably the Scythians and, as you will see, the Greeks. You can see on the maps above that both these peoples continued their own cultures during the emergence of the Celtic culture. They also continued to contribute to Celtic culture. We will return now to the Scythian/Greek connection to the Celts.

< This map shows the Celtic dispersion post La Tene


In the steppes area they repulsed an invasion by Persian Emperor Darius in 531 B.C. The Scythians made several incursions into the southern provinces of Asia. In 624 B.C they invaded Asia Minor and held it for 28 years. They also penetrated into Europe and as far southwest as Egypt. In the first century, after Christ, they invaded the Roman Empire with the Sarmatians.

The Scythian form of government was monarchial, and the deference which they paid their kings was unparalleled.

Herodotus, an early Greek historian, provides most of the information on the Scythians. He was born in a Greek city on Asia Minor in 484 B. C. He travelled extensively throughout the areas of interest to this aspect of our story: Asia Minor, Scythia, Colchis, the Black Sea area, as well as Thrace and Greece.

The people living on the Black Sea coasts came, through trade, in contact with the Crete based Minoan Culture of the Aegean Sea (2400 B.C.).

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