Celtic Mythology in Context
Adventure, heroism, romance, and magic are a few of the elements that make Celtic mythology one of the most entrancing mythologies of Europe. Once a powerful people who dominated much of Europe, the Celts were reduced to a few small groups after the Roman invasions. Their mythology survived, however, thanks largely to the efforts of later Irish and Welsh monks who wrote down the stories.
The Celts were a group of people who began to spread throughout Europe in the 1000s bce. At the peak of their power, they lived in an area extending from the British Isles in the west to what is now Turkey in the east. They conquered northern Italy and Macedonia, plundering both Rome and Delphi in the process. They had a reputation as fierce and courageous warriors, and the Romans respected them.
Celtic expansion reached its limit around 225 bce, when the Celts suffered the first in a series of defeats by the armies of the Roman empire. Gradually, the Romans pushed back the Celts, and by 84 ce, most of Britain was under Roman rule. At the same time, Germanic peoples conquered the Celts living in central Europe. Just a few areas, notably Ireland and northern Britain, managed to remain free and to continue to pass on the Celtic traditions. Six groups of Celts have survived to modern times: the peoples of Ireland, Scodand, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany.
The ancient Celts were neither a race nor a nation. They were a varied people bound together by language, customs, and religion rather than by any central government. They lived off the land, farming and raising stock. No towns existed apart from impressive hill forts. However, by about 100 bce, large groups of Celts had begun to gather at certain settlements to trade with one another.
Celtic society had a clearly defined structure. Highest in rank was the king, who ruled a particular tribe, or group of people. Each tribe was divided into three classes: the noble knights and warriors, the Druids (religious leaders), and the farmers and commoners. The Druids, who came from noble families, were respected and influential figures. They served not only as priests but also as judges, teachers, and advisers. In addition, it was widely believed that the Druids had magical powers.
The Tragedy of Deirdre
The heroine of the Ulster Cycle is the beautiful Deirdre. King Conchobhar intends to marry the young woman, but she falls in love with Naoise and flees to Scotland with him. When they return, the king has Naoise killed. Forced to lived with Conchobhar, the grief-stricken Deirdre never smiles and makes clear to the king how much she hates him. The story ends with Deirdre taking her own life by striking her head against a rock. Deirdre's tragic tale served as inspiration for poetry, plays, and stories by later Irish writers, including William Butler Yeats and J. M. Synge.
Core Deities and Characters
The Celts worshipped a variety of deities, or gods, who appeared in their tales. Most were all-powerful local deities linked to places rather than to specialized roles. Each tribe had its own god who protected and provided for the welfare of that tribe. Some of them had similar characteristics. For example, Dagda , the god of life and death in Ireland—known as the good god—resembled Esus, the “master” god of Gaul.
Some deities had more clearly defined roles. Among these were Lug , or Lugus, a sun god associated with the arts, war, and healing, and the horned god Cernunnos , who was a god of animals and fertility. The Celts also had a large number of important female deities. These included Morrigan, the “Great Queen,” who was actually three war goddesses—Morrigan, Badb (pronounced BAV), and Nemain—who appeared as ravens during battle. Another important deity was Brigit, goddess of learning, healing, and metalworking. Epona, the horse goddess, was associated with fertility, water, and death.
The ancient Celts had a vibrant mythology made up of hundreds of tales. They did not, however, record their myths in writing but passed them on orally. Our knowledge of the gods, heroes , and villains of Celtic mythology comes mainly from Roman sources. Yet the Romans sometimes referred to Celtic gods by Roman names, so their accounts were not always reliable. Also, because the Romans and Celts were battlefield enemies, Roman descriptions of Celtic beliefs were often unfavorable.
Major Celtic Deities
Brigit: goddess of learning, healing, and metalworking.
Dagda: god of life and death.
Danu: fertility goddess and mother of the Tuatha Dé Danaan.
Epona: goddess associated with fertility, water, and death.
Lug: god of the sun, war, and healing.
Morrigan: goddess of war and death.
Much of what is now known about Celtic mythology is based on manuscripts that were prepared by monks in the Middle Ages. Irish collections dating from the 700s ce and Welsh collections from the 1300s recount many of the myths and legends of the ancient Celts.
Many myths told of the otherworld. In this mysterious place, there was no work and no death, and the gods and spirits who lived there never got old. The Celts believed that humans could enter this enchanted place through burial mounds called sidhe, through caves or lakes, or after completing a perilous journey. After reaching the otherworld, they would live happily for all time.
Early Irish myths blend mythology and history by describing how Ireland was settled by different groups of Celtic deities and humans. Filled with magic and excitement, the tales tell of batdes between forces of light and darkness. They describe a time when gods lived not in the heavens but on earth, using their powers to create civilization in Ireland and to bring fertility to the land.
There are four cycles, or groups, of connected stories. The Mythological Cycle focuses on the activities of the Celtic gods, describing how five races of supernatural beings battled to gain control of Ireland. The chief god was Dagda, whose magic cauldron could bring the dead back to life. The Ulster Cycle recounts the deeds of warriors and heroes, especially Cuchulain (pronounced koo-KUL-in), the warrior and champion of Ireland. The Historical Cycle tells of the adventures and battles of legendary Irish kings. The Fenian Cycle deals with the heroic Finn Mac Cumhail, or Finn Mac Cool, leader of a band of bold warriors known as the Fianna. This cycle is filled with exciting adventures and tales of hand-to-hand combat.
Welsh mythology is found in the Mabinogion (pronounced MAB-eh-no-ghee-on), a collection of eleven tales. In the Welsh myths, as in those of Ireland, the heroes often are half-human and half-divine and may have magical powers. Many of the stories in the Mabinogion deal with Arthurian legends , accounts of the deeds of Britain's heroic King Arthur and his knights.
In fact, the popular Arthurian tales of medieval European literature are a complex blend of ancient Celtic myths, later stories, and historical events. The legends are clearly rooted in Celtic mythology, however, and references to Arthur appear in a number of ancient Welsh poems. Scholars also note that there are many similarities between the Arthur stories and the tales of the Irish Finn Mac Cumhail, suggesting a shared Celtic origin.
Another famous romantic story of Celtic origin is that of Tristan and Isolde . The tragic tale, probably based on an early Cornish poem, concerns the knight Tristan who falls in love with Isolde (pronounced i-SOLE-duh), a princess who is fated to marry his uncle the king. In the Middle Ages, Gottfried von Strassburg wrote a poem based on the legend that is considered a literary masterpiece.
Key Themes and Symbols
Magic, magicians, and the supernatural played a significant role in Celtic mythology. A common theme was the magic cauldron (kettle). The cauldron of plenty was never empty and supplied great quantities of food. The cauldron of rebirth brought slain warriors to life again. Myrddin, a magician in the Welsh tales, later became Merlin in the Arthurian legends.
Other important themes in the myths were voyages to mysterious and dangerous lands and larger-than-life heroes. The heroes experienced all kinds of adventures and often had to perform impossible tasks before marrying their loved one. Love, romance, and mischief also figured prominently. The gods played tricks on humans and on one another. Animals changed shape at will.
Celtic Mythology in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Celtic mythology has proven to have enduring popularity in modern art and literature. Many tales of Celtic mythology have been retold by later authors, especially the tales of King Arthur. Other Celtic tales were collected by writers, such as Herminie T. Kavanagh and Lady Gregory. Popular films featuring Celtic mythology include Excalibur (1981) and Darby O'Gill and the Link People (1959).
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The Mountain of Marvels: A Celtic Tale of Magic, Retold fom the Mabinogion by Aaron Shepard (2007) offers readers a tale of the horse goddess Rhiannon, the nobleman she loves, and an evil magician. The author has been awarded an Aesop Accolade from the American Folklore Society for his myth-based stories for children and young adults.
"Celtic Mythology." U*X*L Encyclopedia of World Mythology. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/celtic-mythology
"Celtic Mythology." U*X*L Encyclopedia of World Mythology. . Retrieved November 13, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/celtic-mythology