The Celts dominated much of Europe for many centuries, extending from Spain in the west to the Balkans in the east. They even settled in Asia Minor (Turkey). Yet despite being such a widespread nation, their mythology is poorly understood by many people today.
In fact, ancient Celtic mythology is not particularly well understood by anyone, including scholars of the subject. The reason is that we do not have anywhere near as many sources for it as we do for other mythologies, like Greek or Egyptian mythology.
Because the ancient Celts did not write much in the way of narratives, we have to rely almost exclusively on the testimony of non-Celtic peoples, such as the Romans and the Greeks.
However, there are extensive records about Celtic mythology from the medieval period in Ireland and Britain. There are quite a few examples of gods mentioned in those medieval stories who can likely be identified with gods attested in ancient Celtic inscriptions.
Although not ideal, these records can shed some light on the mythology of the ancient Celts. And in any case, the medieval Irish and Welsh were still Celts, so these medieval stories are still, directly, Celtic mythology.
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WHAT IS CELTIC MYTHOLOGY?
Celtic mythology refers to the myths and legends held by the diverse tribes of Europe collectively known as the Celts.
Not much is known about the intricacies of what the ancient Celts believed, but it does appear that they regularly engaged in the worship of the gods. Their numerous offerings and carvings to deities testify to their worship.
From this, we can say that their mythology certainly included gods and goddesses. But whether or not they had many stories of semi-divine heroes who went on adventures, like in Greek and Roman mythology, is unknown with any certainty.
However, the medieval records of Celtic mythology from Ireland and Wales contain numerous examples of adventures of humans and semi-divine heroes. It would not be surprising if this was also the case among the ancient Celts.
TYPES OF CELTIC MYTHS
Celtic mythology was not limited to just one type of myth. They can be classed into several different categories. Here are some of the main categories.
Myths of Origins
Like other nations, the Celts were interested in the origin of the world around them. Unfortunately, due to the almost complete lack of written sources from the ancient Celts themselves, it is difficult to discern what they believed about this matter.
By piecing together various Roman descriptions of Celtic stories, some scholars have reconstructed what may be the original Celtic creation myth.
In this myth, Heaven and Earth were so close together that there was no room for anything between them. To make room for creation, one of the children of this original pair castrated the father to separate them. The skull of the father became the sky, while his blood became the sea.
This story displays some clear parallels to the story in Greek mythology of Cronus castrating his father, the sky god Uranus. It would therefore not be surprising if the Celts also held some other stories of creation with similarities to Greek mythology.
In the Celtic mythology of Ireland, recorded in medieval times, there is a story of a divine woman called Cailleach who was responsible for the formation of the land as well as the creation of the weather. In a Scottish version, she was the mother of all other deities.
Myths of the Gods
There are many myths within Celtic mythology that speak about the activities of the gods. Very few of these stories come from records from or about the ancient Celts – they are virtually all from medieval writings from Ireland or Britain.
These stories frequently feature the gods getting involved in human affairs or having conflicts among themselves in the divine realm. The latter variety was not as common, however.
Although there are not that many surviving stories about the gods from ancient sources, there are enough sources to help us understand essentially how the pantheon functioned.
Depictions of the gods on carvings also reveal the roles of some of the gods, such as their powers or their activities.
In the medieval records, we get a much clearer picture of the gods and their activities, which were certainly the subject of stories. Usually, however, the gods were involved in events taking place on earth, in the realm of human activity.
Myths of Heroes
Celtic mythology is full of stories about mighty heroes. Again, most of these stories have been preserved in medieval writings from Ireland and Britain.
These stories often involve the characters engaging in dramatic adventures, such as fighting off armies or killing beasts.
They also involve lower-scale adventures, often featuring trickery and deceit. One example is the myth of Bricriu’s Feast in the Ulster Cycle, in which the king Cú Roí enables Cú Chulainn to win a challenge to determine the best warrior by magically disguising himself.
Occasionally, the heroes of Celtic mythology were semi-divine. For example, Cú Chulainn was portrayed as the son of a human woman and the god Lugh. Another example is Owain the son of Urien from Welsh mythology; although a historical figure, one story portrays him as the son of the divine being Modron.
From several ancient sources, we know that a number of Celtic groups considered themselves to be descendants of the Trojans. Based on this, we can say that the Celts doubtless must have had stories about the Trojans circulating within their mythology.
In fact, this is confirmed by the ancient writer Ammianus Marcellinus. He reported one story found in the land of the Celts, in Gaul, that the Trojans settled there after the Trojan War.
PROMINENT CELTIC MYTHS
Some of the stories within Celtic mythology include:
- Cattle Raid of Cooley: This story features in the Ulster Cycle. It tells of a cattle raid to steal a special, exceptionally fertile bull from the men of Ulster. The warrior Cú Chulainn holds back the invading army by challenging them to single combat.
- Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed: This story from the Welsh Mabinogion tales describes the friendship between Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed, and Arawn, the king of the Otherworld.
- Oghmios: The account of this god is found in the writings of Lucian. He resembled an older Heracles, dressed in a lion’s skin and wielding a club. He was continually followed by a group of men whose ears were bound to his tongue by long metal chains.
- Jupiter Trampling the Anguiped: Ancient monuments have been found in Celtic lands which depict Jupiter riding on a horse and trampling an anguiped, a human-like figure with snake legs. This must represent a story which once existed among the Celts.
- The First Battle of Mag Tuired: This story relates how the Tuatha Dé Danann conquered Ireland from a group called the Fir Bolg.
- Travelling to the Otherworld: The Celts appear to have believed in an afterlife similar to the Island of the Blessed, or Elysium, in Greek mythology. They believed that, if the divinities permitted, a person’s soul would be taken in a boat to an island after death, which was a type of paradise afterlife.
CELTIC MYTHOLOGY CHARACTERS
Celtic mythology had a large pantheon, where many of the gods may have just been regional deities rather than gods worshipped by the Celts as a whole. They also had various human or semi-divine figures. They include:
- Lugh: Known as Lugus in ancient inscriptions, he was one of the most widely worshipped gods among the Celts. Little is known about his activities or his exact role in the mythology, but he is likely the Celtic god identified as ‘Mercury’ by Julius Caesar.
- Belenus: A god of healing and of the sun, Belenus was an important god among the Celts. He is likely the Celtic god identified as ‘Apollo’ by Julius Caesar.
- Coventina: A Brythonic goddess of springs and wells. It is possible that she is also mentioned in two inscriptions found on the continent, meaning that she may have been worshipped quite widely.
- Andraste: A war goddess allegedly invoked by Boudica during her revolt of Britain.
- Cernunnos: A seemingly-popular god depicted as sitting crossed legged and with antlers on his head. He is usually interpreted as a god of nature and animals, although others suggest he was a god of travel or commerce.
- Maponus: A god of youth. It is possible that he appears in later Welsh mythology as the character Mabon.
- Nodons: This was a healing god associated in particular with a shrine in Gloucester, Britain. He is possibly the source of the character Nudd in Welsh mythology, although this is uncertain.
- Taranis: This was evidently a very popular god, worshipped throughout almost the entire Celtic world. He was a god of thunder. According to one Roman writer, human sacrifices were made to Taranis.
- Cú Chulainn: The main warrior of the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. He was a demigod, the son of Lugh and a human woman. He fought powerfully in defence of Ulster on several occasions.
- Ceridwen: She was an enchantress in Welsh mythology, said to possess a magical cauldron which would grant the power of inspiration. She is portrayed as the mother of Taliesin, a historical poet of the post-Roman era.
- Morrigan: The Morrigan was a shape-shifting goddess of war who features in Irish mythology.
- Modron: A divine being in Welsh mythology who is portrayed as the mother of Owain, a historical figure who lived in the post-Roman era.
CELTIC MYTHOLOGY SOURCES
Some of the key sources for Celtic mythology are:
- Writings of Julius Caesar: Julius Caesar wrote extensively about the Gauls, since he waged war in their country for many years. He provided useful descriptions of the beliefs of the Celts, including their primary gods.
- Writings of Ammianus Marcellinus: Like Julius Caesar, Marcellinus recorded plenty of useful information about the Celts of Gaul, including some beliefs which Caesar left unmentioned. This includes the legendary descent from the Trojans.
- Writings of Procopius: This Byzantine historian of the sixth century CE recorded information about the Gallic beliefs concerning the afterlife. This is one of the main sources for their belief about the afterlife being an island.
- Mabinogion: This is a collection of several tales written in medieval Wales. One of the tales is the story of Pwyll, prince of Dyfed and his friendship with Arawn, king of the Otherworld.
- Welsh Triads: A collection of triads about various aspects of ancient and medieval Britain. Many of the triads concern real or semi-legendary figures of the post-Roman era, but a few of them hint at mythological stories and characters.
- Mythological Cycle: This collection of Irish stories is focused on the activities of the Tuatha Dé Danann, god-like beings who are presented as being active early in Ireland’s history.
- Ulster Cycle: The collection of Irish stories written across several centuries that concern the activities of Cú Chulainn and his associates.
- Fenian Cycle: Another collection of Irish myths, this cycle focuses on the activities of the mythical or legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill.
FAMOUS CELTIC MYTHOLOGY ARTEFACTS AND WEAPONS
Celtic mythology is full of various special artefacts and weapons. Here are just a few of them:
- Gae Bolga: This was the spear used primarily by Cú Chulainn in Irish mythology. It was made from the bones of a giant sea monster. It was completely fatal to its victims, whom it killed by piercing them with numerous barbs once it entered the body.
- Fragarach: This was a sword forged by the gods and given to Nuada, the first high king of Ireland in Irish mythology. After Nuada was replaced as king by Lugh, Lugh became the new owner of the sword.
- Sguaba Tuinne: This was the boat of Manannán, a king of the Otherworld in Irish mythology. It was self-navigating and could expand to fit any number of passengers.
- Caladbolg: This was the sword of Fergus mac Róich in the Ulster Cycle. During the cattle raid of Cooley, Fergus used the sword to chop off the tops of three hills. It was said to have come from the god Saturn, passing into the hands of the heroes of the Trojan War, before eventually falling into the hands of Julius Caesar. It was then taken by Cú Chulainn, before finally being given to Fergus.
- Coat of Padarn Beisrudd: In Welsh mythology, this coat would fit anyone who put it on if they were a well-born nobleman.
- Chariot of Morgan Mwynfawr: In Welsh mythology, this chariot would quickly take its rider anywhere they wished to be.
- Mantle of Arthur: In Welsh mythology, this was the mantle of King Arthur. It was a cloak of invisibility.
- White-Hilt, the Sword of Rhydderch Hael: The blade of this sword from Welsh mythology was said to have erupted into flames when a worthy man wielded it.
- Pair Dadeni: This was a cauldron in Welsh mythology which had the capacity to resurrect the dead.
CELTIC MYTHOLOGY CREATURES
Here are a few of the creatures that feature in Celtic mythology:
- Anguiped: No myths about the anguiped appear to have survived, but it is evident that it must have featured in Celtic mythology because of the Gallic monuments depicting Jupiter on a horse trampling one. It is a human-like figure with serpents for legs.
- Y Ddraig Goch: This name means ‘The Red Dragon’. It features in an important role in Welsh mythology. In some stories, it represents the Welsh as a nation.
- Birds of Rhiannon: These birds from Welsh mythology help people to forget memories. They can also give people a sense of joy.
- Twrch Trwyth: This was a monstrous boar which had originally been a king. It ravaged Ireland and southern Wales, being pursued by King Arthur and his men.
- Hounds of Annwn: These hounds belonged to Arawn, the king of the Otherworld. They looked like normal dogs, except they had red ears.
CELTIC MYTHOLOGY IN POPULAR CULTURE
Examples of Celtic mythology being featured in modern popular culture include:
- The Alchemyst: This first instalment in the fantasy series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, released in 2007, includes the Morrigan as a character.
- American Gods: This 2001 book by Neil Gaiman features Suibhne, a figure from Irish mythology, as well as Gwydion fab Dôn, a figure from Welsh mythology.
- Everworld: This fantasy series, released between 1999 and 2001, features Daghda, an important god in Irish mythology. It also features Brigid, an Irish goddess of wisdom and poetry. There is also Donn, the extremely fertile bull over whom the cattle raid of Cooley was fought.
- A Riddle of Roses: This novel (released in 2000) follows the story of a girl who wishes to become a bard. The story contains influences from Celtic mythology.
- Marvel Comics: In the Marvel Universe, the Tuatha de Danaan appear as a race of advanced aliens. They came to earth thousands of years ago and were worshipped as gods by the ancient Celts. Their first appearance was in Thor, 1987.
These are just some of the many examples of Celtic mythology influencing modern popular culture.
Celtic Mythology Bibliography
- James MacKillop – A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
- Proinsias Mac Cana – Celtic mythology (Library of the world’s myths and legends)
- Philip Freeman – Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes
- Margaret Alice Murray – The God of the Witches