Celtic Gods and Heros: Introduction to Celtic Mythology
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Youngsters of school age almost effortlessly learn about the gods and
heroes of Greek and Roman mythology. Names like Zeus, Hercules, Diana,
Ulysses, Mercury, Venus, and others become widely familiar. Paintings,
popular movies, and books trace their stories for enjoyment and
enrichment. Most people even know something of Germanic mythology from
films about the Vikings or the operas of Wagner. Thor, Odin, Siegfried,
and the Valkyries are well-known, and in the English language, four of the
seven days of the week are named after German gods.
Well, a wonderful surprise awaits Americans and others of Irish, Welsh,
and Scottish descent. A Celtic mythology of broad dimensions and rich
quality exists, recounting the heroic stories of ancestral peoples of some
2,500 years ago. This Celtic mythology has hundreds of characters and is
perhaps even more fantastical than Greek and Roman myths. And lovers of
ancient stories who are not of Celtic descent will no doubt appreciate the
many splendid Celtic myths, which for most are relatively unknown.
For a thousand years of antiquity, the Celtic myths were in the domain
of an oral tradition, not yet reduced to writing, and told to the members
of each generation by bards, the Celtic poets and lyric story-tellers.
Then, sometime after 500 A.D., Irish monks and their Welsh counterparts
began capturing the Celtic myths of old on parchment and paper. The Irish
monks applied the alphabet of the Romans to the Irish Gaelic language and
diligently recorded the mystical stories of their ancestors in a Celtic
tongue. In doing this, according the P.B. Ellis, the Irish Celts created
Europe's third oldest literature, behind Greek and Latin.
Perhaps the best known character in Celtic mythology is King Arthur of
Camelot. But we know him in a rather skewed fashion as a sort of medieval
English king, an image given to us by Malory, Tennyson, and various French
romances of the Middle Ages. In reality, Arthur most likely existed as a
noble Celtic chieftain in Wales and Cornwall, who before dying around 540
A.D., fought valiantly against the Saxons, the tribe which along with the
Angles formed the fabric of Germanic England. There is in fact a whole
set of Arthurian legends that are purely Celtic in character and predate
the images created of him in the age of chivalry. An example of this is
the story we'll discuss later of Arthur and Celtic giant named Hawthorn.
Celtic mythology, though, extends much further than Arthur, even if
unfamiliar to most Americans of Celtic descent. Names like Lugh,
Gwydion, Etaine, Ceridwen, Cuchulainn, Pwyll, Medb, Branwen, and Finn
MacCool loom large in Celtic mythology, and the Celtic ancestors were
well-acquainted with these figures and their tales. Every bard knew by
heart the epics of the Celtic gods and heroes, and the stories were told
So then, the objective of this series of articles is to offer an
impressionist's view of the Celtic gods and mythic heroes for people who
haven't yet been introduced to the subject. Those of Celtic descent will
learn some of their cultural heritage, and anyone else can grow to
appreciate a profuse literature obscure outside of the insular regions of
The myths themselves teach a lot. We learn about how ancient Celtic
peoples behaved, for instance their love of feasting and that they were
generally fond of excitement. The freewheeling nature of the Celtic mind
unfolds through the colorful talking in the myths and through the
unbridled bursts of imagination in mythical events. And the epics help in
understanding the pre-Christian religious systems of the Celts. Another
point is made by nineteenth century British poet Matthew Arnold. In The
Study of Celtic Literature, Arnold claimed that while the Anglo-Saxon
heritage was important in helping Great Britain build its empire, the
Celtic heritage provided a poetic vision that helped fuse a body a English
literature, a literature he thought to be the most brilliant since the
Irish and Welsh Myths
Celtic mythology is largely an Irish and Welsh
phenomena. Although no doubt Celtic myths existed on the European
mainland, it was not written down there. Classical writers said that the
druids, the Celtic priests, forbade the writing of the myths because they
were of sacred knowledge, and to be offered only by druids and bards.
Though we have the names of many Celtic gods on the European mainland,
their stories there have long been forgotten.
Likewise, the Celtic peoples of Scotland and the Isle of Man to a large
extent identify with the Irish mythology, and the Celtic peoples of
Brittany, and Cornwall and other parts of England to some extent identify
with the mythology of Wales. This is not to say that the people of
Scotland, Brittany, Isle of Man, and Cornwall don't have a large Celtic
folklore. They do. Examples are the foundation myths of the Trojans in
Great Britain, as well as the Cornish tales of Jack the Giant Killer.
Still, these kinds of folklore haven't developed to the same level as the
mythology of ancient Ireland and Wales, a literature written in the
Celtic tongues of Irish Gaelic and Welsh.
Prime existing source-books of Irish mythology include six major works:
the Book of Leinster, the Book of Dun Cow, the Book of Ballymote, the Book
of Lecan, the Yellow Book of Lecan, and the Book of Lismore. The four
ancient books of Wales are: the Black Book of Caermarthen, the Book of
Aneurin, the Book of Taliesen, and the Red Book of Hergest.
There are many other sources of Celtic myths, including works in the
White Book of Rhydderch and other codexes; some sources are large works,
others small. The earliest existing editions of most of these books come
from the Middle Ages, though it's generally agreed that they were copied
from much earlier versions that are now lost. Efforts to gloss archaic
usages are frequent, and in many cases the names of early bards or
"history-sages" are given as the original sources of the manuscript. At
times one can see where a monk attempted to summarize a portion of the
myth in clear language, then quoted the poetic version of the bard himself.
Charles Squire talks of an "inner core of primeval thought" contained in
the Celtic myths, and says: "The bard who first put them into artistic
shape was setting down the primitive traditions of his race. We may
therefore venture to describe them as not of the twelfth century or of the
seventh, but as of a prehistoric and immemorial antiquity." Another point
made by T.C. Lethbridge is that: "There is no doubt that the bulk of
[Celtic] mythical tales was once very great and that what remains is but a
small fraction of the whole."
It is also important to remember that there are often many versions of
the same basic myth preserved in different reliable source books. For
example there are at least three existing versions of the Irish "Book of
Invasions" from centuries past. These sorts of varying redactions can
account for some of the differences in detail in the telling of particular
myths. For instance, there is variation in the tales of how the Irish god
Lugh killed the Fomor giant Balor.
And then there is the question of the creative license of the Irish monks
and their counterparts in Wales. The monks were quite liberal about adding
Christian elements to these Celtic myths of a clearly pre-Christian age.
Some consider these monkish inventions as an intrusion, while others find
the added material as a source of amusement. An example is the story of
Cessair. She was the granddaughter of Noah, according to the monk-edited
myth, and she and her companions were recorded as the first inhabitants of
Ireland. Another monk invention was that the great Celtic King Conchobar
of Ulster died of a fit of rage upon hearing of the crucifixion of Christ.
A particularly clever story added by the monks related to a fellow called
Gaedel Glass. He purportedly was the inventor of the Irish Gaelic
language. This Gaedel Glass was reported to be present at the Tower of
Babel in ancient Biblical times, and he studied the some seventy-two
languages of the antediluvian world. Gaedel then picked the best parts of
each language, ultimately to be included into Gaelic. Well, the Irish of
past and present enjoy a good yarn, and are not above a bit of hyperbole!
The Nature of the Gods
Celtic gods and goddesses appear throughout
Irish and Welsh mythology, as do male and female mortals. For example in
Ireland, the Dagda and Morrigan were important male and female deities,
respectively; Fergus and Diarmaid were notable male mortals, and Deirdre
and Grainne were major female mortals. In Welsh mythology, Brân and
Arianrod were male and female gods, in that order (and lovers of 1970s
rock music might appreciate that Rhiannon was a Welsh goddess of the
underworld); Taliesen and Aneurin were said to be mortal bards in ancient
Wales, and Gwynhwyvar and Olwen were female mortals (the former being the
early version of King Arthur's wife). And all of these mythic characters
had traits and stories of their own, some of which we'll explore later in
Like Greek and Roman myths, the Celtic gods and goddesses often had
specific functions to play. For instance, the male deity Angus was a sort
of Irish god of love and beauty. In Wales, Branwen the Fair Bosomed was a
goddess of love. Lir was an Irish god of the sea, and Lugh was a solar
god. The Welsh had numerous gods of the underworld, such as Pyderi, son
of Pwyll and Rhiannon.
To a large extent, the Celtic gods were anthropomorphic--human
characteristics were attributed to them. For instance, some gods could be
physically injured or even killed. Nuada, an early king of the Irish gods,
lost his hand in battle with the Fir Bolgs, mythic mortals who were
predecessors of the Celts. Later, Nuada is killed by a Fomor giant. In
Wales, the head of the god Brân is severed (but continues to talk
gregariously for a long time thereafter).
The Celtic gods loved their feasting, as did their mortal counterparts in
myth. And legendary gods and mortals engaged in a great deal of warfare
and single combat. Still, the gods and goddesses fell in love, married,
and had children who were also gods. There are a lot of examples of this.
Llyr, the Welsh sea god, married the goddess Penardun, who bore a male son
named Manawyddan. Llyr later married Iweridd, and fathered Brân and
Branwen, the former who had a son named Cardwac the Strong-armed.
Another point though is that mortals in Celtic myths often had superhuman
powers. Cuchulainn, the great champion of Gaelic Ulster, could kill one
hundred opponents in one day with his single sling. And Cuchulainn was so
radiant that snow melted for thirty feet all around him. Ith, an ancestor
of the Celtic Irish, could look from his tower in northern Spain and see
night-fires all the way across the sea in Ireland; according to the
stories, it was he who decided that Celts should explore the Irish
mainland. Amergin, the bard-druid of the Milesians (the first Celtic
conquerors in mythic Ireland), used spells and incantations to help the
Gaels in taking the island.
So then, suffice it to say that Celtic mythology is a realm of
enchantment. There's a Glass Castle, a Stone of Destiny, magic swords,
charmed spears and javelins, giants and dragons, figures who can change
their appearance (shape-shifting), a salmon of knowledge, a mantle of
invisibility, war horses like the Gray of Battle, "hero light" halos and
fearsome battle furies, a Land of Promise, a Plain of Delights, an
Island of Women, fairy mounds, a dream maiden and a maiden made of
blossoms, a Battle of the Trees, a Celtic Amazon, a magic harp and magic
cauldrons, ale of immortality and bejeweled drinking horns, an afterlife
of perpetual feasting, and all manner of phenomena expressed best in myth.
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