Celtic Martial Arts

It is commonly held that the Martial Arts originate only in the Orient, and that no Western counterparts or equivalents can be found. This assumption, sometimes passionately held, will be seen as erroneous in the light of the information compiled here. Enjoy.

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It is commonly held that the Martial Arts originate only in the Orient, and that no Western counterparts or equivalents can be found. This assumption, sometimes passionately held, will be seen as erroneous in the light of the following facts:

The method of folding steel to manufacture swords in Spain predates the techniques used to make Katana by the Japanese. Most fencing exponents hold Toledo steel to be the best in the world, and blades from that region are easily the equal of many Japanese swords.

Existing texts of European fencing from the middle ages onwards contain methods and techniques equally as detailed and effective as any ancient Oriental manual of Kung-Fu.

Tapestries of the time show Watt Tyler and his men armed with a variety of farming implements, including threshals, a corn-flail resembling an outsized nunchaku. The common history of nunchaku training is that it evolved from the Okinawan peasant’s application of framing tools to combative use.

In virtually every armed encounter, western forces have triumphed over Japanese or Chinese forces. Most people are aware that Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War”, but less known is the fact that Niccolo Machiavelli also published a book by the same title.

Throughout England and across the USA, re-enactment societies and Western Martial Art revivalists have made headway into re-discovering the methods and applications of historical sword, weapon, and unarmed techniques.

The modern ROSS system, or Russian Martial Art, traces its roots back to early Russian folk dances and ritual training. These same traditions survive today in English Morris dancing. Some few groups still retain the ancient, somewhat gruesome practices of the original Pagan rituals, beside the choreographed stick-fighting and foot-work routines.


The oldest records of martial training in the UK go back to Julius Caesar’s records of his campaigns here and the remaining language and stories of the people themselves.

Caesar records the method by which the Kelts fought, lifting their arms to strike over or under the rim of their shields with sword or spear.

There exist in Gaelic specific words, not only for slashing as opposed to stabbing techniques, but interestingly, for Chi (breath power) – Gwei.

The story of Cuchullain, perhaps the most reliable of the native Irish accounts. Allegedly, the story was recorded as poetry by Fergus MacRoy, a contemporary of Cuchullain and an eyewitness. While specific retellings and translations vary in degrees, all agree that Cuchullain, Ireland’s greatest living warrior, was a small man who trained first at a school for warriors in the islands north of Scotland. The name of his teacher was Skaya, remembered today in the Isle of Skye.

The warrior arts of the Samurai were war, poetry and calligraphy. Warriors in Ireland were required at various times throughout history to educate themselves in poetry and Fidchell (chess). Many accounts, those of heroes besides Cuchullain (Finn MacCumhal, Lugh Lamfada, Fergus MacRoy, Kian, Bedwyr, to name but a few), include certain “feats” that a hero was required to know in order to qualify for certain prestigious warrior bands and groups – The Feat of the Spear, which required him to kick three thrown spears out of the air in quick succession, The Chariot Pole Feat, which involved fighting in battle from the chariot pole, standing between the shoulders of his two horses. A similar feat, known as Roman Riding, was performed by cavalrymen of the Roman Legions before they ever came to Britain. To enter the Fianna, Ireland’s most prestigious warrior band, a hopeful was required to jump over a bar the height of his shoulder, then duck beneath one level with his knee at the run, while his prospective comrades pursued him through the woods. At the end of the course, the challenger was buried up to the waist in the ground and required to defend himself with a staff against nine attackers. There was therefore among the Keltic warrior classes an existing tradition of at least athletic and martial training. The skill of English staff-men and Welsh archers have been well documented in history, as have regional variations in sword and shield techniques. Archaeology provides a ranging account of the evolution of Keltic swords.

The Keltic religions of Druidry, Wicca and Shamanism are based on theories, beliefs and ideas that equate (but do not necessarily replicate) to those of Feng Shui and Taoism. The traditional “Animal Forms” of Kung-Fu and their related totems are no more complex and detailed than the totemic symbolism of Keltic shamanism.

Essentially, many beliefs and practices taken for granted by modern martial artists are not in fact unique to Oriental cultures. While it would be a simple enough matter to examine the practical uses of Keltic bronze-age weapon systems, a large number of groups are already or have hitherto been engaged in similar activities. No-one, to my knowledge, has as yet given thought to exploring the presumed internal martial practices of the Kelts and other spiritually-inclined western peoples of their era.


Traditionally, a Keltic warrior would carry a broad-bladed sword up to four feet long, a long knife, a shield, two light spears and a heavier fighting spear. He rode in a chariot or on horseback, and was usually accompanied by a driver.

In Keltic Shamanism, the left hand was seen as governing defensive and the right offensive, outgoing magical and ritual actions. This is mirrored in physical combat, since a boxer traditionally puts his left hand forward and keeps his right back, while a swordsman would wear his shield on the left arm and attack with the right. The Keltic directional system went into detail similar to Feng Shui, with meanings and symbols for colours, objects, directions, animals, birds and plants.

Besides learning his trade away from home, schooled in warfare just as druids and bards were educated in philosophy and poetry, the Keltic warrior believed in and practiced the Riastradh – a meditiational battle-frenzy akin to the Viking berserker tradition. The Kelts believed that the Riastradh was a result of energy that a warrior could channel up through the earth and so put to use, similar to the Chinese concepts of Chi and Jing. Additionally, the ancient Vikings held that knotwork patterns painted or tattooed on the body functined as an “energy-knot”, trapping and regulating divine power within the warrior’s flesh.

The noted examples above already provide for a broad sword and shield system, with a circling pattern of footwork and a thrusting system with the long bronze and iron swords. It has been supposed that Keltic swordsmanship was very poor, because bronze swords do not hold a good edge and so do not cut, relying on force to cause injury. It is further suggested that a man with a short roman sword can therefore beat a Keltic longsword, since the Romans were a more advanced race. Giving some credit to our Keltic ancestors for just one moment, and returning to the accounts of Julius Caesar himself, a system of swordplay arises that uses the sharp point of the sword to thrust around, over and beneath the shield rim, pushing and lunging with the shield itself to get past the opponent’s guard.

The Picts, from north of Hadrian’s Wall, used a smaller shield than their English and Welsh cousins, arming themselves with a dagger in their left hand and strapping the shield to their arm. Striking with the broadsword, they would engage their opponent’s guard with the shield and attempt to bring the dagger to bear. Despite this shield-reliant system, the Kelts were not known for fighting in tight formations like the Romans or the Greeks. Therefore each had to be a formidable and skilled fighter in his own right, since he did not rely on his companions to guard his back. This pattern of warfare was familiar to the Samurai, who also fought for personal honour above tactical considerations.

More esoteric notes include a number of Keltic warrior-women, most obviously Skaya, who taught Cuchullain to fight. Various groups and warrior societies existed in Keltic Britain, most of them being absorbed into the Cult of Mithras in the centuries following the Roman invasion.


Besides the physical and personal benefits of practising any martial art, the relevance of a revived Keltic system to modern self defence would include:

A coherent and systematic approach to personal defence, using Keltic symbolism and Western concepts rather than Oriental to provide a mnemonic and strategic framework for armed and unarmed self-protection.

Familiarity with weapons easily improvised from modern surroundings; Martial Artists have long valued broom-handles and pool cues as staves and sword-sticks; the Celtic methods of broadsword and spear fighting would be equally transferable.

Keltic fighting would re-introduce the concept of using a shield, improvised from a coat or bag, anything that can be used to assist defence and obstruct the opponent’s view of the defender’s body.

A system of knife-fighting suitable to train anti-knife disarming techniques.

A moral and philosophical tradition for the personal improvement of all adherents to the system.

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  1. Jacob
    Posted March 24, 2008 at 12:17 am

    wow, i wish i knew more of this celtic martial art :)
    i never thought about that; even though the celts had little armor, no formation, and the romans had formation, better equipment, heavier armor, and martial discipline (unit wise)
    the celts were still a problem, which would oviously make them excellent fighters in thier own right. wow.
    great article man. is there any schools that teach this yet? or is it all lost to history?
    i want to know some of my celtic tradition. and im a swordfighter: this would come in handy. >;)

  2. Samuel Z Jones
    Posted March 25, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    There is one school that teaches threshal (English nunchuks) in the UK, and a number of Viking and Keltic recreation societies in the UK and US. Your main source for esoteric study would be the work of Kaledon Naddair, whose books may or may not still be in print. You could also research Cuchullain, the Fianna and the accounts of Julius Caeser. There are good examples of fightig with simlilar weapons to the Kelts in the film Troy. The Chinese concept of Jing is also echoed in some Keltic sources, suggesting that Jing (kinetic force / chi momentum) is key to Keltic swordfighting techniques.

  3. TheScottsman
    Posted May 30, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    I’ve always been interested in the western martial arts and i would a agree that you’ve done a hell of job on the article
    I’ve have always been facinated by the pics and the fighting arts of the ancient scottish highlands and how familiar it is to the shaolin monks martial art is incredible
    There have been accounts of meditation,animal forms martial arts,feats,and the use of chi(gwei)etc. in the scottish highlands and they were extremly spiritual people and unrivaled in combat the romans thought of them as demons cut from stone and whith every failed attempt to conquer the pics the only thing they succeded in doing was uniting the clans of the loosley political connected tribes there were no laws in there society the greatest warrior was pronounced king. everyone who attemed to conquer the pics failed the vikings,britions,saxons,northumbrians,scots,romans,etc.
    I think that all of the western based martial arts in the Brition and irealand started in scottland and if you want to look a bit deeper into it you should take a look at the pictish standing stones and the highland tales


  4. Samuel Z Jones
    Posted June 1, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Thanks. Even if the Picts weren’t the sole originators of Keltic martial arts, they were definately superior exponents of it; the most famous school of warriors was on the Isle of Skye, but I didn’t mention that the Khugarvhad warrior cult also originates in Scotland. The Khugarvhad cult is possibly the most mysterious branches of Keltic mysticism; the name literally means ‘Black Lion’. The cult predates Druidry and was so powerful that the legends of it still persist in the Beast of Bodmin and other big cat myths all over the UK; there’s even at least one martial artist that I know of living out on Bodmin, practising Tai Chi on the moors and hunting the Beast at night.

    Its possible martial arts don’t have one common source, but a number of seperate threads that form one history; the meditations and mysticism of Oriental Martial arts trace back to Yoga and ancient India, possibly even to Tibet, but the combat systems themselves are native to their respective regions.

    There’s also evidence of Egyptian contact with the Kelts; the Egyptians were far from famous as martial artists, but they had strong spiritual traditions. I found out today that an ancient egyptian scroll was unearthed at Glastonbury, and there’s some evidence to suggest that the Arthurian name ‘Guinevere’ has an Egyptian root. There’s also the Vikings to consider, the similarities between Odinist Mysticism and Native American practices, and the strange cameo appearances of ‘Votan’ (Wotan, Odin) in Aztec mythology.

    Either there’s one common spirituality to all mankind, or the Keltic Irish myths of the Tuatha DeDanaan are really talking about an advanced worldwide civilisation prior to accepted history; no other theories would account for all the correlations.

    Its a massive subject that I don’t think anyone has seriously looked into; I haven’t had the opportunity as yet to make any indepth discoveries myself. Any insight or information anyone else has would be welcome.

  5. EricCadle
    Posted January 16, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Great article man! I’m a self proclaimed student of history and love this kind of stuff. My family heritage on both my mom and dad’s side is Welsh. Besides the Welsh archers, do you know of any other martial practices originating from them?

  6. Bernard
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 6:26 am

    am a passionate advocate of western and early matrial arts. Sadly, however, there are many missunderstandings and mistakes in this article, particularly about “Celtic” (by which I presume Iron Age is meant) religion. We really know very little about it, Wicca is 20th century and there is no such thing as Celtic shamanism. I suspect the author has been reading some rather unfounded new age works. It’s a pity because the general thrust (no pun intended) of the argument is sound.

  7. Posted October 22, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    What I’ve been reading, Bernard, are the surviving source documents of the Celts, corroborated by the eye-witness accounts of the Romans.

    We know rather a lot about their religion, actually; the great myth perpetuated into the present day is that the Romans effortlessly stamped out all vestiges of the Celtic culture.

    We can also compare the information we have on the Celts to their neighbours, the Norse in their various guises, and chart the similarities and exchanges of religious and martial practice between the two cultures.

    The Vikings, for example, are famous for their use of long swords. However, the earlier Saxons were named for their use of a short sword; the saex. It was only after visiting the British Isles and engaging Celtic swordsmen that surviving generations of Norsemen adopted the long sword. The same is true of the Romans; all across the ancient world, the short sword predominated. Only when the Romans encountered Celtic longswords did Roman officers and cavalry adopt the use of the longer blade.

    Celtic swordsmanship, and ergo swords, excelled that of their contemporaries. The linguistic evidence likewise supports a codified body of knowledge regarding swordsmanship, while the oral tradition of the Celts speaks unequivocally of established formal schools of warrior training where men studied both acrobatic combat skills and esoteric mysteries.

    There is nothing New Age in any of that; it is all right there, in archaeology, history and mythology.

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