A Celtic Tribe in Kazakhstan? July 29, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
When Beach was still a green blogger – before he had learnt about spiders, search engine optimization and RSI feeds – he spat out a little post about a group of Celtic hoodlums who, as mercenaries, travelled around the Mediterranean causing havoc everywhere they went. Beach sold this as a Wrong Place post: an example of Celts ending up surprisingly far from home and so, in a modest kind of way, it was. But recently he has come across an example that is far more dramatic: a Celtic militia who apparently wandered from North Western Europe and ended up half a world away on the Silk Road to China.
The evidence is admittedly not all that it could be. In fact, it is one lonely word in Ptolemy’ Atlas. Ptolemy, the ancient geographer, gives a series of placenames relating to the Europe-China trade route recorded originally by a Macedonian merchant named Maes, who may have actually travelled the road in question. Describing the tribes of ‘Scythia’, a word that can mean anything in ancient and medieval sources from Scandinavia to Central Asia, but that probably here means Kazakhstan, he lists one group called the Tektosakes.
At first glance – indeed at second and third glance – there is a Celtic word hiding here. The Tectosages were a series of Celtic tribes that are attested from southern France into Turkey. The different tribes were either related or, more probably, Tectosages meant something like ‘raiders’ and was applied to young braves out for new land and gold: memories of the Irish Fian, the cub-scouts from hell. One explanation here then is that a group of young warriors had fought their way into near Asia and had then been sucked down the Silk Road eventually getting trapped thousands of miles from home.
There are, of course, other more tedious explanations. Tektosakes may simply be a word from another language: the Celtic philologist – a wanw wanw Patrick Sims-Williams – who noted this strange Celtic word in Asia also noted the Iranian word sakas which apparently denotes the general geographic region. There is the possibility too that Tectosakes has been transmitted badly in the manuscript tradition. An alternative spelling is the far less exciting Tektosades.
Still we can dream… They had grown up in central Gaul, they had fought with their druids through the Danube, they had defeated the Greeks of the Black Sea, they had passed beyond the Stone Tower where the merchants to China waited for armed escorts and now they stand twenty day’s march from the Himalayas!
Any other tribes that got lost but that are attested, however faintly, in reliable sources? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
29 July 2011: Billie writes in with this link to the controversial Celtic mummies of western China. These are Caucasian, the controversy is whether they can really be aligned to Celtic culture (a slippery concept). Rejected or accepted they certainly belong in this post though! Thanks Billie!
30 July 2011: Cory writes in: ‘I just read your Celtic Tribe in Kazakhstan post — and I suspect it’s only the tip of a very large iceberg. This is one of those topics I have on my ‘look into this some day and don’t shoot off your mouth about it until you do’ list — but there are a few points I think I can offer without being too much in danger of saying anything really stupid: (1) Northern Eurasia has often formed something very close to a single cultural sphere, from Europe to Siberia. The late Paleolithic culture that produced the “Venus” figurines reached from France to Lake Baikal. The horse-drawn chariots that originated in Central Asia had by 1200 BC appeared everywhere from Ireland to China (where, if I recall correctly, the word for “horse” is of Indo-European origin.) The domain of the Mongols in the 13th century stretched from the Khanate of the Golden Horde in southern Russia to the empire of Kublai Khan. (2) This is one of the bits I’m less sure about, but I believe this cultural zone was most unified during cold periods, when much of it was open steppe, and tended to fragment at warmer times when it was broken up by areas of forest. The period between about 900 and 300 BC was one of those cold spells (as was the 13th century AD), and this was the time when both the Scyths and the Celts underwent their greatest cultural expansion and also interacted to one another culturally to a great extent — which is particularly evident in the similarly stylized art of both peoples. (3) The world of 900-300 BC was not at all like the more familiar classical world of c. 300 BC – 300 AD. In particular, the northern cultures were a great deal more vibrant and exploratory than those of the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The Celts were powerful enough to attack both Greece and Rome, and the Greeks themselves had more direct knowledge of the lands north and west of the Black Sea around 500 BC or so than they retained even a couple of centuries later, when they had begun to consider the northern peoples as far-off barbarians. (4) Some 10 or 15 years ago, I ran into something online arguing that a number of elements in Arthurian romance were derived from Scythian mythology — particularly the Sword in the Stone and related materials. Whoever wrote it wanted to blame the association on Scythian-born Roman legionaries posted to Britain, which I found quite unconvincing, but the possibility of an earlier transmission would make a lot more sense. [Beach: the book in question is Littleton and Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot] (5) And to expand the topic even further, there are a couple of very specific themes which appear in both Celtic and Japanese mythology — too specific to be the result of either coincidence or independent invention — but this is getting into the area where I have lots of question marks and no hard answers. If the connection is genuine, though, my best guess is that it goes back to this same 900-300 BC period, when the ancestors of present-day Japanese were still located somewhere in Korea.’ Thanks a million, Cory!