by Yaacov Levi
To many who are interested in the history of the Celtic peoples and their modern descendants in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Brittany and Cornwall, and from their descendants around the world a subject that is often brought up is possible connections with the ancient Israelites, in particular the “Lost Tribes” of Israel.
The purpose of this article is not to establish ‘connections’ to the Lost Tribes, but to discuss some of the many common characteristics of these modern Celtic peoples and the ancient Israelites. These characteristics I call Commonalities. I am not attempting in this short article to establish connections which has been addressed in many other volumes such as The Tribes and Ephraim by Yair Davidy and The Lost Tribes of Israel - Found! by Steven Collins as well as in ancient works. I am simply going to point out and discuss a very few of the great many commonalities between these peoples.
The Lost Tribes of The House of Israel
The peoples we refer to as the Lost Tribes were part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel which was conquered by the Assyrians around 740-720 BC. and exiled to areas in Assyria and to the north. This is told in the the Bible in 2Kings chapters 17 and 18. About the same time a contingent from the Kingdom of Judah were also exiled to the northern lands. It is these peoples and their immediate descendants that are also variously referred to as the Lost Tribes, and the subject of many works and studies.
Being both Irish and Jewish, I grew up familiar with customs and the cultures of both peoples, only in later years becoming aware that they were quite difference cultures and had greatly varying cultural characteristics. Yet growing up with both cultures, I had noticed similarities even on a casual basis. Over the years I began to see more of this similarity and in recent years I began to collect this data into what I term an Overview which I am still assembling. It is this Overview in differing areas of life that I will discuss here.
There are a number of areas that I have been looking at which includes: language, agriculture, religion and taboos, burial practices, music and folk dancing, the traditions and self determinations and self-identification of the Celts and other areas as the arise. I will point out a few items in each category and note that these are just a few of a great many commonalities and I mention them as examples.
Language is one of the subjects that led to my overall interest in the topic as early on I had noticed similarities. Considering the long period of time from the expulsion of the Israelites to our time, it would seem unlikely that there would be little, if any, common letters, words or structure, but that is not the case - there is indeed much in common.
Gaelic is a member of the Celtic group of the Indo-European family of languages that includes Russian, English, German, Spanish, French, Hindi and Italian. The Celtic group has been confined to the British Isles and part of the French coast.
The Celtic group is divided into two divisions which has three languages in each division. Each division makes up its own unique language.The two branches are:
the BRYTHONIC branch which is made up of the Welsh, Breton and Cornish lan guages; and
the GOIDELIC branch with the Irish, Scots and Manx Gaelic languages.
The Breton and Cornish languages are seeing some resurgence after near extinction while the Irish, Scots and Welsh languages are holding their own at this time. Manx is an ancient form of Irish and is considered to be oldest and purest Irish Gaelic in existence. Manx is very close to the extinct dialects of nearby Ulster and Galloway and separated from Old Irish in about the fifth century of our era. It occupies much the same position to Old Irish as Icelandic does to Old Norse. For the purpose of my study I have chose to concentrate on Manx and Scots Gaelic. I am sure though that an indepth study of Welsh or the other Gaelic languages would provide much food for thought on this issue.
The Gaelic alphabet as well as the ordinal numbers show more commonality than could be expected after 2,700 years of divergence; for example we have a Hebrew “S” retained in the modern Gaelic - the Hebrew Sheen, pronounced Shh is found in the Irish “S” as in the name Sean pronounced Shawn. Other letters are similar, the ordinal numbers 6 & 7 are pronounced almost the same as Hebrew and Gaelic. Words with same or similar meanings abound; for instance the Hebrew word for holy in common usage according to Halacha (Jewish law) is Kasher. The word in Manx Gaelic for hallowed or holy is Casherick. The syntax of Gaelic is entirely different from any other European language, especially English. RL Thompson, in his work Outline of Manx Literature and Language says that “in several respects Gaelic syntax has similarities with that of languages like Hebrew and Arabic”.
As in Hebrew, adjectives follow the noun that they describe: for example “ben vie” = “a good woman” in Gaelic and “Rosh ketan” = “small head” or “stupid” in Hebrew. Vie of ketan being the adjectives. The word order also is similar in Hebrew in that the verb is usually first in the sentence unlike English or many other European languages. These are just a very few of the many commonalities that I believe suggest a definite connection between the two languages and their family streams. This alone could constitute a major comparative study.
Commonalities in Ethnic Customs
One of the first areas in which I noticed similarities was in customs, notably folk dancing and later, musical instruments. The Hebrew Hora and other old traditional dances are parallelled in many Gaelic folk dances and especially the wedding dance of the Gaels which is very similar to the traditional Ashkenazic wedding dances of Europe. The musical instruments of the Gaels are
found in the Israelite tradition, notably the harp in both Celtic tales and certainly Hebrew tradition as the favoured instrument of the psalmist David [see the article “The Harp of David and the Harp of Ireland” by John Wheeler in the August-October issue of Origins of Nations - ed]. But, one of the most intriguing things to come up was that the Irish and Scots pipes we are all familiar with has its origins in the desert flute played daily throughout the Middle East. The flute of the desert shepherds is identifiable in the “chanter” of the Irish and Scots pipes.
Amazing Religious Parallels
The ancient religion of the Celtic peoples prior to Christianity was generally believed to be Druidism, of which we know very little; yet that which we do know has many overtones of the Canaanite religions that the northern tribes turned to after the split of King Solomon’s Kingdom under his son into a Northern and a Southern Kingdom. Like the pagans of Canaan, their sacred places became high hilltops and sacred groves, notably oaks. There is a great deal of similarities from what we know archaeologically in both the Northern Kingdom ritual sites and the Druid sites in the Isles. Additionally, the burial practices of both the peoples of the northern Kingdom and the Celts bear much similarity in the presence of Dolmens - large slabs of stone place horizontally across upright stones with the graves under them. These are found throughout the area of Europe which Celtic peoples passed and are found also in the areas of present day Jordan and Israel in which the Northern Israelite tribes dwelled.
You can find pictures of these dolmens in Yair Davidy’s book Ephraim on pages 137-38. This book is available from History Research Projects. Overseas it may be purchased direct from Yair Davidy in Israel (addresses on inside back cover).
Even Agricultural Similarities!
Agriculturally there are interesting commonalities - the grain crops are much the same, and even though wheat was known to them in their passage through Europe it was not a major crop in their final homes. In fact oats and barley were their staple grains. As with the Israelites, the cattle were of several colours, but the preferred colour for ritual for both peoples was red. The virgin cow used in the Hebrew ritual for purification was the forerunner of the red cattle used by the Druids in their rituals.
After the invasion of the Romans into the Isles, white cattle were introduced and later used; until that time red was the preferred colour. One of the most famous wars in Irish history was over a Red Bull stolen by a northern Irish tribe. Also, swine were not raised in any of the early Celtic areas until after they were introduced by the Romans; the Celts had a taboo against them, along with scaleless fish as eels and shellfish. The Celts, in similitude to the Israelites, were excellent headsman and developed identifiable breeds of sheep, cattle and horses, that carried on the traditions of the Israelites.
Perhaps one of the most telling of the commonalities is simply the self-identification as Israelites - the Hibernians - the name of the Irish and the Scots and the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland. The Milesians, one of the early Celtic peoples to come to Ireland from Spain had a tradition that they were of the Lost Tribes. The name Heber, Eber, or H’berian is found
throughout early literature to describe the Celts as they described themselves to be “Of Eber” - the grandfather of Abraham.
What I have presented here in greatly abbreviated form just skims the surface of the commonalities between the Celtic Peoples and the Israelites. There is a tremendous amount of information available for those who would like to look at this closer themselves. A few resources are listed at the end. This is one of those subjects in which at first one can say “oh - that's an interesting coincidence”. But the sheer mass of these “coincidences” that build up after one goes from discipline to another becomes totally overwhelming. The fact that so much of the languages are similar almost three thousand years later, that customs are clearly identifiable as being related, that religious practices are uniquely similar and that the everyday agricultural practices and crops were similar - all along with the many other commonalities bespeak a common origin.
For those interested in pursuing this I wish you well and much enjoyment.
Suggested information sources:
Manx Gaelic Society
Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh
Isle of Man IM7 2EW
Gaelic Books Council
Dept of Celtic
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ
PO Box 595
Chadwick, N (1965) Celtic Britain. London.
Chadwick, N (1970) The Celts. United Kingdom.
Rankin, H (1987) Celts and the Classical World. London.
Squire, C (1905) Celtic Myth and Legend, Poetry and Romance. London.
Squire, C (1909) The Mythology of Ancient Britain and Ireland. London.