Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Among those who have had the leisure, the means, and the courage to seek for the origin of nations, there have been some who have found that of our Celts, or at least would make us believe that they had met with it. This illusion being the only recompense of their immense travail, we should not envy them its possession.

If we wish to know anything about the Huns — who, indeed, are scarcely worth knowing anything about, for they have rendered no service to mankind — we find some slight notices of those barbarians among the Chinese — that most ancient of all nations, after the Indians. From them we learn that, in certain ages, the Huns went like famishing wolves and ravaged countries which, even at this day are regarded as places of exile and of horror. This is a very melancholy, a very miserable sort of knowledge. It is, doubtless, much better to cultivate a useful art at Paris, Lyons, or Bordeaux, than seriously to study the history of the Huns and the bears. Nevertheless we are aided in these researches by some of the Chinese archives.

But for the Celts there are no archives. We know no more of their antiquities than we do of those of the Samoyeds or the Australasians.

We have learned nothing about our ancestors except from the few words which their conqueror, Julius Cæsar, condescended to say of them. He begins his “Commentaries” by dividing the Gauls into the Belgians, Aquitanians, and Celts.

Whence some of the daring among the erudite have concluded that the Celts were the Scythians, and they have made these Scythio-Celts include all Europe. But why not include the whole earth? Why stop short in so fine a career?

We have also been duly told that Noah’s son, Japhet, came out of the Ark, and went with all speed to people all those vast regions with Celts, whom he governed marvellously well. But authors of greater modesty refer the origin of our Celts to the tower of Babel — to the confusion of tongues — to Gomer, of whom no one ever heard until the very recent period when some wise men of the West read the name of Gomer in a bad translation of the Septuagint.

Bochart, in his “Sacred Chronology”— what a chronology! — takes quite a different turn. Of these innumerable hordes of Celts he makes an Egyptian colony, skilfully and easily led by Hercules from the fertile banks of the Nile into the forests and morasses of Germany, whither, no doubt, these colonists carried the arts and the language of Egypt and the mysteries of Isis, no trace of which has ever been found among them.

I think they are still more to be congratulated on their discoveries, who say that the Celts of the mountains of Dauphiny were called Cottians, from their King Cottius; that the Bérichons were named from their King Betrich; the Welsh, or Gaulish, from their King Wallus, and the Belgians from Balgem, which means quarrelsome.

A still finer origin is that of the Celto-Pannonians, from the Latin word pannus, cloth, for, we are told they dressed themselves in old pieces of cloth badly sewn together, much resembling a harlequin’s jacket. But the best origin of all is, undeniably, the tower of Babel.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25