Once a diverse cultural group that extended throughout western Europe and even farther south and east, the Celts are today generally associated with the northwestern locales of Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany, the Isle of Man, and especially Ireland, where individuals of Celtic ancestry predominate. Linked with the Insular branch of Celtic culture, these areas are contrasted with those of the Continental Celts, who occupied the region known as Gaul (today approximately occupied by modern France). In his Commentaries of the first century B. C., the Roman emperor Julius Caesar, then governor of Gaul, recorded his assessments of Celtic religion, mentioning some of their nearly four hundred appellations for divine beings and other specifics of their culture. As Celtic Gaul was absorbed by the Roman Empire, the continental Celts nevertheless continued to practice their native religion and culture until Christianity took firm hold in the region, as it had in the remainder of Europe, by the fifth century A. D. By this time, however, the newly-converted Christian monks in the Insular north, particularly in Ireland, had undertaken measures to preserve their heritage by transcribing manuscript copies of the ancient tales of Celtic gods and heroes. In their manuscripts, many of which where lost in the ensuing centuries of invasion, these scribes recorded the rich mythology of iron-age Ireland.
Preserved for centuries through oral tradition, the stories in these texts were popularly "rediscovered" in 1760 when Scottish poet James Macpherson published his Fragments of Ancient Poetry. He claimed that the poems were translations of verse composed by the third-century Gaelic poet Ossian (Oisín), but the works were shortly thereafter labeled bogus by scholars. Nevertheless, Macpherson's "translations" stirred considerable popular and scholarly interest in all things Gaelic—a Celtic language of ancient Ireland that has since evolved into modern Irish, Manx, and Scots Gaelic dialects. A little over a century later, in the 1890s, an Anglo-Irish movement known as the Irish Literary Revival—led by poet William Butler Yeats, playwright Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, and other prominent Irish literary figures of the era—spawned a renewed interest in the subject of Celtic mythology by re-introducing its themes, characters, and culture into modern works of Irish literature written in English.
In the contemporary era, scholars have attempted to reconstruct the culture and history of the Celts through what remains of their mythological literature, but have encountered several barriers. One such obstacle has been the long-standing conflation of ancient Irish myth and history. Until the mid-nineteenth century many scholars tended to view the heroes and gods of Celtic mythology as actual historical figures whose activities had simply been exaggerated or "mythologized" over the centuries. This practice (termed euhemerism) has since been largely forsaken and modern scholars no longer construe such figures as Fionn mac Cumhaill and Conchobar mac Nessa as real men of the past, nor regard the extant mythological texts as having any true historical currency.
Further complications for scholars have appeared as the result of the structure of Celtic culture itself. As Georges Dumézil observed of other Indo-European cultures, Celtic society was generally organized into three parts, consisting of groups of warriors (led by the tribal king), priests, and farmers/freemen. Members of the priestly class, called Druids, acted as intermediaries between ordinary individuals and the gods. Revered for their knowledge and wisdom, the Druids legislated in the spiritual realm and were the bearers of the Celtic religious system—which features an amoral ethic that thoroughly disavows good or evil in individual actions and offers a pervasive belief in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the soul after death. The historical Druids, like their mythological counterparts who often wielded magical powers and were largely characterized as seers with superhuman clairvoyance, demonstrated an aversion to the written word. Thus, their knowledge was transmitted orally, leaving no written record of the ancient sagas until they were first transcribed in the Christian era.
Despite the scarcity of written texts and a legacy of euhemerism in Celtic studies, scholars have been able to preserve and codify considerable portions of Celtic myth using two key manuscripts, both from the twelfth century—the Lebor Gabála Érenn, literally "The Book of the Taking of Ireland" and the Dindshenchas, sometimes rendered as "The History of Places." The former presents a mythological history of Ireland, while the latter amounts to a mythic geography of the island. The work describes Ireland as a pentarchy, divided into five provinces: in the north Ulster, Connacht in the west, Munster to the southwest, in the southeast Leinster, and Mide (corresponding to modern Meath, site of the mythological Tara, the seat of the ancient Irish High King) in the center. In addition to these geographical distinctions, scholars have also outlined four story cycles in Celtic mythology. These include: 1) The Kings Cycle; 2) The Mythological Cycle; 3) The Fenian Cycle; and 4) The Uliah or Ulster Cycle, also called the "Red Branch" Cycle.
The Kings Cycle focuses on a series of "historical" kings, while the Mythological Cycle is concerned with Ireland's mythic prehistory. Derived in large part from the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Mythological Cycle describes a series of heroes and peoples who were said to have invaded ancient Ireland. The first of these, Fintan, dates to the time of the Biblical Flood. He was followed by the hero Partholón, who along with his kinsmen battled the demonic Fomoire (one-armed and one-legged monstrosities). The next group of settlers, the Fir Bolg, reputedly divided the island into its five provinces, or cóiceds, and ushered in an era of relative peace. They were later defeated by the Tuatha Dé Danann (literally "The People of the Goddess Danu") at the First Battle of Mag Tuired. Suffering the loss of his arm during the battle—grounds for abdication according to Celtic cultural mores—the Tuatha Dé Danann King Núadu stepped down in favor of Bres (whose father was Fomoire and mother Tuatha). Seven years later the Fomoire and Tuatha collided again, this time under the leadership of Balor and the divine Lug, respectively, in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired. Lug defeated Balor and the Fomoire, but the Tuatha later acquiesced to a final group of invaders, the Sons of Míl (corresponding to the modern Irish), whose King, Eremon, forced the Tuatha Dé Danann underground into the so-called sīdh, or faery mounds, which dot the Irish mythological landscape and serve as entrances to a magical subterranean otherworld.
By far the most popular of the Celtic story cycles, the Fenian Cycle, takes its name from its warrior-hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (sometimes anglicized as Finn MacCool). Considered the "exemplary hero of Ireland," Fionn mac Cumhaill eventually becomes leader of the fiana, an elite band of hunter-warriors. Masterful in battle, Fionn possesses the peculiar ability to see clearly into the future and into the past by sucking his thumb—a power granted him when he touched the Salmon of Knowledge, procured by his tutor, the Druid Finegas. The Fenian canon also includes the famous story of Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne, translated as "The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne," as well as the tales of Fionn's father, Oisín, who plays an important role in the Fenian tale Agallamh na Senórach, "The Colloquy of the Old Men."
The Ulster Cycle features the exploits of the northern King Conchobar mac Nessa and the youthful hero Cú Chulainn. The central story of the cycle, the Táin BóCuailnge, or "The Cattle Raid at Cooley"—sometimes described as the "Irish Iliad"—details an attack on the kingdom of Conchobar mac Nessa by the army of Queen Medb of Connacht in order to steal the famed Brown Bull of Ulster. With all the warriors of Ulster waylaid by supernatural labor pains, Conchobar's nephew Cú Chulainn agrees to fight the attacking forces of Connacht single-handedly, engaging one champion per day. He defeats all of his opponents, but is later slain by trickery. Other important figures in the Ulster Cycle include the Druid Cathbad, King Fergus mac Roich, the troublemaker Bricriu, and the tragic Deirdre, who takes her own life rather than submit to the killer of her lover, Naoise.
Further sources of tales in the canon of Celtic mythology appear in two important early medieval manuscripts: Lebor na hUidre, "The Book of the Dun Cow," and Lebor Laignech, called "The Book of Leinster." The former, though fragmentary, contains thirty-seven mythic stories, while the latter includes complete texts of "The Cattle Raid at Fróech" and "The Cattle Raid at Cooley." Many more stories, culled from various sources, including the fourteenth-century text known as The Yellow Book of Lecan, have appeared in various modern editions and continue to delight and intrigue contemporary readers and scholars.
Proinsias MacCana (1970)
SOURCE: Introduction to Celtic Mythology, The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1970, pp. 11-18.
[In the following excerpt, MacCana explores the combination of unity and diversity found in the various branches of Celtic mythology.]
The earliest sources [of Celtic Mythology] are those relating to the Celts of the continent—mainly Gaul—and of Romanised Britain. Unfortunately they have serious shortcomings. Gaulish literature, being purely oral, disappeared with the Gaulish language: we have it on Caesar's authority that the druids of Gaul considered it improper to commit their learning to writing, and on this point he is substantially borne out by the Irish evidence. As a result, since mythology implies narrative of some sort or other, Gaulish mythology, properly speaking, is lost beyond recovery. There remains, of course, a considerable body of residual evidence, but, since by its very nature it is allusive rather than descriptive, or else is reported at second hand, the modern student is frequently in the uncomfortable position of working from the ambiguous to the unknown.
The evidence is of three types: dedicatory inscriptions such as occur throughout the territories occupied by the Romans, plastic representations of Celtic divinities, and observations by classical authors. In the first two categories the great bulk of the material belongs to the Roman period, and consequently it raises difficult problems of interpretation. For example, Gaulish sculpture developed under Greco-Roman influence and it is no easy task to determine precisely to what extent this influence may have affected the motifs of the sculpture as well as its form. As for the classical authors, it is a matter of scholarly opinion how much value should be placed upon their testimony. Most of them derive their information from earlier sources: even Caesar, who had a better opportunity than most to become acquainted with the Gaulish situation, is far from relying on his own experience and observation. And no doubt all of them were influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the forms and concepts of classical religion and mythology. These considerations have led some scholars to reject the classical evidence out of hand, which is probably an excess of scepticism. It should not be forgotten that a number of observations by the same classical authors on matters of Celtic custom and social organisation are corroborated by Irish literature: so closely in fact that certain early Irish tales might almost have been written to illustrate these comments on the continental Celts, and this few scholars would entertain as a serious possibility. The classical evidence therefore merits consideration, but it must be treated with extreme caution.
By way of contrast, the recorded testimony of Irish literature is later by a millenium or more, but, as we have seen, it has a conservative quality which more than outweighs the disparity in date. (The Irish language, despite the later date of its documents, seems in many respects to be more conservative than Gaulish, and the same may well hold true for the mythologies.) The writing down of Irish oral tradition had already commenced by the end of the sixth century, but time and the Viking raiders proved a ruthless combination and only a few manuscript fragments survive from the period before c. 1100. Then comes the first of a number of great manuscript compilations which between them preserve a wealth of varied material relating to the Irish past. These manuscripts are themselves relatively late, but they have been compiled from earlier sources and many of the individual items which they contain may be dated on linguistic grounds centuries earlier than their extant transcription. But, irrespective of their date of composition, it is beyond question that these texts contain a vast amount of pre-Christian matter.
Among the tales which formed an important part of the filidh 's repertoire there are some which concern themselves explicitly with the supernatural world, and for that reason modern scholars sometimes refer to them as the Mythological Cycle. But this is a rather misleading title since in point of fact most early Irish narrative is mythological to a greater or lesser degree. There is much to be said for the native system of classification which groups the individual titles not by cycle but by theme: plunderings, cattle-raids, wooings, battles, voyages, adventures, elopements, etc. But for the sake of brevity the remaining tales may be divided into three broad categories: miscellaneous tales assigned to the reigns of various kings, historic and prehistoric (though this distinction has little relevance to the historicity of their content), the cycle of the Ulaidh or 'Ulstermen' with Conchobhar mac Nessa their king and Cú Chulainn their youthful hero, and finally the cycle of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the roving bands of warriors known as fiana.
The Ulster cycle was the literature of greatest prestige in the early period; it is heroic literature par excellence and it concerns itself with the activities and virtues that typify heroic society everywhere. By contrast, the Fionn cycle (or fianaigheacht, as it is often called) was more popular among the lower orders of society and correspondingly less highly esteemed by the filidh, and it is in fact only from the twelfth century, a watershed in Irish history and culture, that it bulks large in the literary record. Nevertheless, its roots lie deep in the pagan past. The great delight of the fiana, and their principal activity, is hunting, and this fact alone gives the cycle a quite different temper to that of the Ulster tales. It is predominantly a literature of the open air that ranges far and wide throughout the changing landscape of Ireland, and in due course it becomes a convenient vehicle for numerous nature lyrics.
To this varied collection of tales one must add the pseudo-historical material, and in particular the Leabhar Gabhala, 'The Book of Invasions', and the Dinnshenchas, 'The History of Places'. The former is a twelfth-century compilation which purports to describe the several invasions of Ireland from the time of the Deluge (and even before it!). It is weak on history but relatively strong on myth. The Dinnshenchas, which also belongs to the twelfth century in its definitive form, is a massive collection of onomastic lore 'explaining' the names of well-known places throughout Ireland. Marie-Louise Sjoestedt has characterised the two rather neatly: Leabhar Gabhala is the mythological pre-history of the country and the Dinnshenchas its mythological geography.
There is enough evidence to indicate that Wales also inherited a rich mythological tradition, but, unfortunately, it is poorly documented. Like Ireland, Wales has its great manuscript compilations, the earliest of them from about the end of the twelfth century, but they do not preserve such a wealth of material from the early period as do their Irish counterparts. This is especially true of prose literature, and the earliest surviving tales, Culhwch and Olwen and The Four Branches, were probably first written in the eleventh century. The four tales, or 'branches', of the Mabinogi constitute one of the most important sources for British mythology. They abound in mythological themes and motifs and their dramatis personae are the ancient gods of Britain. Nevertheless, they represent the mere debris of a tradition recast in a loose narrative framework by a talented author who was less interested in preserving sources than in producing an effective piece of literature. There is also a considerable volume of mythological matter scattered throughout the remainder of medieval literature, but clearly any semblance of an integrated mythological tradition had passed away long before the extant literature was recorded. What remains is an imbroglio of anecdotes, allusions, motifs and characters which under close scrutiny gradually reveal the outlines of a number of familiar mythological paradigms within a British setting.
The Welsh evidence derives a special interest from its close association with the great continental cycle of Arthurian romance. Welsh together with Breton literary tradition provided the many Celtic elements incorporated in the Arthurian romances of Chrêtien de Troyes and his fellows, and not a little of the enduring fascination of these stories is due to their essentially mythological character. The original Arthur may well have been a historical person, but the King Arthur of medieval romance and his knightly entourage are much larger than life and share many of the mythological traits of the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his fiana.
The Diversity of Celtic Mythology
To speak of 'Celtic mythology' is not to imply a close unity, but merely to recognise a tangible relationship based upon common inheritance. What we know of the mythology of the continental Celts hardly suggests a sustained correspondence with that of Ireland and Wales, and this cannot be due entirely to the unequal documentation. Even among the insular Celts the differences are, at first glance, much more evident than the underlying similarities. Nor is this very surprising, for a number of reasons: the several peoples in question do not derive from a single community of continental Celts; over the last two thousand years or more they have evolved somewhat differently in their sd'cial and cultural organisation; in the case of Britain and Gaul, but not of Ireland, they have been conditioned to the physical presence of Rome over a period of centuries; and, finally, it can safely be presumed that all have assimilated much of the religious thought and usage of the pre-Celtic inhabitants of their several areas.
These considerations go far towards explaining the wide discrepancies between the three visible branches of Celtic mythology. But by themselves they are not sufficient to account for the lack of unity and order which is so evident within each separate branch. Instead, it has been argued that this incoherence simply reflects the decentralised structure of Celtic society, in which each tribe functioned as an independent political unit, the inference being that political autonomy was coupled with religious autonomy and that each tribe had its own special gods, which might, or might not, be common to neighbouring tribes. It may be that this is in fact one of the causes of what has been described as 'the local and anarchical character' of Celtic mythology, though its effects may well be exaggerated by a defective documentation dating in all cases from a period of drastic readjustment, when native religious usage was exposed to the influence of systems of greater sophistication and prestige.
The Celts being notoriously rich in paradox, it is perhaps not surprising to find that this local independence, which is such a feature of their political organisation, is in some respects counterbalanced by a highly developed sense of cultural affinity among the learned classes. Nowadays we know that what gave the Celts such unity as they possessed was not common racial origins but a common culture and environment. The classical ethnographers identified them—not infallibly it may be said—by their language, their shared characteristics, and their mode of life, as well as by their geographical location, and one can still sense something of this cultural coherence in the remarkable analogies, both of ideas and their expression, in the traditional literatures of Ireland and Wales. What is even more to the point, the druidic order existed throughout the Celtic world and its organisation appears to have been essentially the same in all areas. The cult of the centre to which its members attached such importance epitomises their professional solidarity and their assiduous fostering of an ideological unity transcending the political divisions within each nation or agglomeration of tribes. This is a persistent trait and nowhere is it evidenced more clearly than in post-Norman Ireland where the filidh conserved an astonishing cultural unity in a world of political strife and instability.
This faculty for combining unity with diversity, centripetal with centrifugal forces, is no less evident in the mythology. Here the externals present a bewildering variety. The nomenclature continually renews itself even when the underlying concepts remain undisturbed. The myths proliferate in endless narrative variants but their themes are constant and, so far as one can judge, in large measure common to the whole Celtic world. For instance, the theme of divine sovereignty which is such a permanent and such a fundamental element of Irish tradition was also familiar in Britain and in Brittany, though most of the literature to which it gave rise there is known only from occasional allusions. It is this underlying homogeneity that justifies us in speaking of one Celtic mythology rather than of several.
Jeffrey Gantz (1981)
SOURCE: Introduction to Early Irish Myths and Sagas, translated by Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin Books, 1981, pp. 1-27.
[In the following excerpt, Gantz offers an overview of Celtic culture, history, society, religion, and literature.]
One day, in winter, Derdriu's foster-father was outside, in the snow, flaying a weaned calf for her. Derdriu saw a raven drinking the blood on the snow, and she said to Lebarcham 'I could love a man with those three colours: hair like a raven, cheeks like blood and body like snow.'
'The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu' (p. 260)
This passage, from one of the finest stories ever written in Ireland, evinces much of what Irish literature is: romantic, idealistic, stylized and yet vividly, even appallingly, concrete. Most of all, it exemplifies the tension between reality and fantasy that characterizes all Celtic art. In Ireland, this art has taken many forms: illumination (the books of Durrow and Kells), metal work (the Ardagh Chalice and the Tara Brooch), sculpture (the stone crosses at Moone and Clonmacnois), architecture (the Rock of Cashel and the various round towers), music (Turlough O'Carolan). But this tension manifests itself particularly in the literature of Ireland, and most particularly in the myths/sagas—no more precise description is possible, at least for the moment—that survive in Irish manuscripts dating back to the twelfth century.
There are many reasons why this should be so. To begin with, these stories originated in the mists of Irish prehistory (some elements must predate the arrival of the Celts in Ireland), and they developed through the course of centuries until reaching their present manuscript state; consequently, they manage to be both archaic and contemporary. Their setting is both historical Ireland (itself an elusive entity) and the mythic otherworld of the Side (Ireland's 'faery people', who live in burial mounds called 'side' and exhibit magical powers), and it is not always easy to tell one from the other. Many of the characters are partially euhemerized gods—that is, they are gods in the process of becoming ordinary mortals—so that, again, it is not easy to tell divine from human.
At bottom, this tension between reality and fantasy is not accidental to the circumstances of literary transmission and formation but rather an innate characteristic, a gift of the Celts. The world of the Irish story is graphic: blood spurts not only from the calf flayed for Derdriu but also from the lips of Anlúan as his head is thrown across a table (in 'The Tale of Macc Da Thó's Pig'); the 'hero' of 'Bricriu's Feast' is tossed from the balcony of his house on to a garbage heap; the warriors of Ulaid (the Irish name for Ulster) are all but roasted in an iron house (in 'The Intoxication of the Ulaid'). Yet this story-world is also magically bright and achingly beautiful. Two pairs of lovers—Mider and Étaín (in 'The Wooing of Étaín), and Óengus and Cáer Ibormeith (in 'The Dream of Óengus')—turn into swans. The hero of 'The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel' can dispatch several hundred foes without even reaching for his weapons; Macc Da Thó's pig is so large that forty oxen can be laid across it. Myth obtrudes upon reality at every turn. In 'The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel', a bird descends through a skylight, sheds his bird outfit and sleeps with the woman Mess Búachalla, thus fathering the story's hero, Conare Már; in 'The Wooing of Étaín', Mider's wife, Fúamnach, turns her rival Étaín into a scarlet fly; in 'The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulaind', Cú Chulaind is horsewhipped and then healed by two women from the otherworld (shades of the German women in Fellini's Casanova). In these Irish stories, then, the pride and energy of reality are allied with the magic and beauty of fantasy—and the result is infused with a rare degree of idealism. In the otherworld of 'The Wooing of Étaín', not only are bodies white as snow and cheeks red as foxglove, but there is no 'mine' or 'yours'.
The traditions of these early Irish stories originated with the Celts, an Indo-European group who are the ancestors of the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, the Cornish, the Bretons and the people of the Isle of Man. When and where this group first appeared is, rather fittingly, an elusive, even controversial, question. The conservative view, and perhaps the most prevalent, is that the Celts surfaced with the beginning of the Iron Age in Europe, roughly 1000 B.C.; and this is certainly the earliest period in which the archaeological testimony affords positive proof. Myles Dillon and Nora Chadwick, however, propose to date the first Celtic settlements of the British Isles to the early Bronze Age (circa 1800 B.C.) and to identify the Beaker Folk as Celts.1 Leon E. Stover and Bruce Kraig go further still: comparing the Classical descriptions of the Iron Age Celts with what they infer from burials at Stonehenge and Únĕtice (a cemetery near Prague), they propose to classify 'the Wessex and Únĕtician warriors as formative Celts' and conclude by claiming that the Celts 'emerged as a dominant people in Europe by the beginning of the third millennium B.C.'2 The controversy is largely semantic. Wessex as presented by Stover and Kraig does look like an early form of what is described by Posidonius and Caesar, but then so does the heroic society of Homer's Iliad, and of course there is no linguistic evidence at all. Presumably, from the beginning of the third millennium on there developed, in Europe and subsequently in Britain and Ireland, heroic societies that gradually became, both culturally and linguistically, Celtic.
In any event, by the beginning or the early part of the first millennium B.C., the Celts clearly had emerged, not as a subset of their Slavic or Germanic or Italic neighbours but as a discrete Indo-European ethnic and cultural group; moreover, during the course of that millennium, they became the dominant people in non-Mediterranean Europe. From their homeland (probably in Bohemia), they expanded westward into France and Spain and, eventually, Britain and Ireland; southward into Italy; and eastward into Turkey, where they became the Galatians of St Paul. These early Celts took with them not only their chariots and their iron swords but also a distinctive geometric/linear art, called Hallstatt (after an important cemetery in Austria). By 500 B.C., a new art form had sprung up, this called La Tene (after a site in Switzerland); much less restrained than its predecessor, La Tene is a kind of baroque development, all curves and spirals and luxuriant plant and animal outgrowths. At this time, too, the Celts began to come under notice of the Classical authors: Herodotos, writing in the mid-fifth century, described the Keltoi as tall (by Mediterranean standards) and with light skin and hair and eyes, boastful and vainglorious but demonic in battle, childlike and ostentatious but hospitable, fond of hunting and feasting and music and poetry and glittering jewellery and bright colours; and his impressions were confirmed by subsequent accounts, particularly those attributed to Posidonius in the first century B.C.3
With their energy and warlike temperament, the Celts were able to expand quickly; by 390 B.C., they had sacked Rome, and by 279 B.C., Delphi. Many tribes settled in France, where the Romans called them Gauls, but their numbers also included the Boii (Bologna, Bohemia), the Belgae (Belgium) and the Helvetii (Switzerland); moreover, their settlements included Lutetia Parisiorum (Paris), Lugudunum (Lyon), Vindobona (Vienna) and Mediolanum (Milan), and they also named the Sequana (Seine) and the Danuvia (Danube). Unfortunately, Celtic tribal free-spiritedness was no match for Roman civic organization. Caesar's defeat of Vercingetorix, at Alesia in 52 B.C., signalled the decline of the Celts' hegemony in Europe; thereafter, they were overrun and assimilated. As a distinct entity, Celtic language and culture disappeared in Europe (though of course their influence persisted); in Great Britain, the Celtic tribes were driven back into Scotland, Wales and Cornwall (from where they eventually reclaimed Brittany) by the numerous incursions of Romans, Angles/Saxons and Normans.
Ireland was a different story. By virtue of its westerly and isolated geographic position, this island remained free of Roman colonization; thus, Irish society did not change appreciably until the advent of Christianity (in the fifth century) and the arrival of Viking raiders (some time thereafter). Consequently, the culture of the Iron Age Celts survived in Ireland long after it had been extinguished elsewhere. It is this conservatism that makes the early Irish tales, quite apart from their literary value, such a valuable repository of information about the Celtic people.
As elusive as the date of the Celts' emergence in Europe is the date of their arrival in Ireland. Such megalithic tombs as Knowth, Dowth and New Grange, which now appear to date from the middle of the fourth millennium, testify to the presence of an indigenous, pre-Celtic culture; but how soon afterwards Celts—even formative Celts—appeared is open to controversy. If the Bell-Beaker people are viewed as proto-Celts, then one might say that they—assuming they reached Ireland as well as Britain—represent the beginnings of Celtic culture in Ireland; against this, archaeological evidence of large-scale immigration to Ireland between 2000 and 600 B.C. is wanting. If the indigenous population evolved into a Celtic one at the behest of a small number of aristocratic invaders, however, no such large-scale immigration would have been necessary. In any event, we know that Celts of the Hallstatt type reached Ireland by the middle of the sixth century and that Celts continued to migrate to Ireland and Britain until the time of the Belgic invasion in the first century B.C.
How and in what form they arrived is even more uncertain. According to Lebor Gabála (The Book of Invasions), our earliest copy of which dates from the twelfth century, Ireland was subjected to six invasions, those of Cessair, Partholón, Nemed, the Fir Bolg, the Túatha Dé Danand and the sons of Míl Espane. Irish history being what it is, the particulars of the Lebor Gabála account are open to question; what matters is that Ireland was, or was felt to have been, settled by a succession of different tribes. That these people actually arrived in separate waves—as opposed to filtering in more or less continuously—is moot; but the early tales do reflect the existence of different ethnic groups.
The Ireland of these tales is apportioned into four provinces, called, perversely, cóiceda, or 'fifths': Ulaid (Ulster), Connachta (Connaught), Lagin (Leinster) and Mumu (Munster). The fifth province was probably Mide (Meath), though there is also a tradition, probably artificial, that Mumu was once two provinces. Either this fifth province was original and disappeared (while the word cóiced persisted), or else the original four provinces became five after the emergence of a new power centre. Mide, which encompassed both Bruig na Bóinde (New Grange) and Temuir (Tara), is the setting for the early mythological tales, and this argues for its status as an original province. On the other hand, Mide was also the territory of the Uí Néill, who by the fourth century had supplanted the Ulaid as the dominant power in Ireland; this argues for its being a later addition. Moreover, the name Mide, which means 'middle', looks palpably artificial—of course, the entire province setup may be artificial.
In any case, there are, in the stories of this volume, four centres of action. Mide, with its numerous burial mounds, is the setting for the early mythological tales. It is peopled by the Túatha Dé Danand (the People of the Goddess Danu), who, though presented by Lebor Gabála as a wave of invaders, appear in these tales as the denizens of the otherworld, the Síde. They interact freely with the ordinary people of the mythological stories, and they also appear in some of the more historical tales. Ulaid, with its capital of Emuin Machae (near present-day Armagh), is the primary setting for the historical (insofar as any of the Irish tales are historical) sagas of the Ulster Cycle; its king is Conchubur son of Ness, but its champion is the mythic hero Cú Chulaind. The arch-enemies of the Ulaid (province names apply to the people as well) are the Connachta, who have their capital at Crúachu, in the west of Ireland. These people may well have originally occupied Mide, for their queen, Medb, is often identified as the daughter of the king of Temuir, and she may once have been a fertility goddess. It also seems more logical that Ulaid's foe should have been centred in adjacent Mide rather than in the distant west; and this in fact would have been true if the Ulster Cycle tales reflect the historical conflict between the Ulaid and the emerging Uí Néill of Mide. The tradition that the Connachta were the enemies of the Ulaid coupled with the fact that Connachta was now the name of Ireland's western province would have given the storytellers sufficient reason to move Medb and her husband, Ailill, from Temuir to Crúachu. Finally, there are the people of Mumu; they play a more peripheral role in the Ulster Cycle, but the king Cú Ruí son of Dáre does figure prominently in several tales.
When the events related in these stories might have taken place is yet another mystery. The Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy, who wrote in the second century A.D. but is believed to have drawn upon sources at least two hundred years older, provides evidence that Ireland was then Celtic-speaking; however, few of his names—and they are restricted both in number and in location—suggest those of our stories, so that one might suppose the people of these stories (insofar as they were real) had not yet appeared. At the other end, the milieu of the tales predates the advent of Christianity, while the circumstances of the Ulster Cycle must predate the Uí Néill appropriation of Emuin Machae. Kenneth Jackson has placed the formation of the Ulster tradition somewhere between the second century B.C. and the fourth century A.D., which seems entirely reasonable.
What Irish life was like during this period is, fortunately, not such a difficult question. On the one hand, we have the evidence of the Classical authors, Posidonius (via Diodorus Siculus and Strabo) and Caesar—evidence that was taken from Gaul and Britain but must surely have been valid for the Irish Celts as well. On the other, we have not only the evidence of the stories but also that of the Irish annals and genealogies and law tracts.
What emerges from the collation of this evidence is a culture of extraordinary vitality and beauty. Irish society exhibited the same tripartism that Georges Dumézil perceived elsewhere in the Indo-European world: a warrior class headed by a king; a priestly class (the druids); and a class of farmers and free men. The king of a túath, or tribe, was often subject to an over-king, to whom he gave assurances of allegiance and from whom he received some kind of support; the over-king, in turn, might have been subject to his provincial king. (The idea of a high king or king of Ireland is probably a fiction, fabricated by later peopl'es—notably the Uí Néill—to provide a historical justification for their claim to rule Ireland and perpetuated by the romanticism of subsequent tradition.) Kingship seems originally to have been sacral—indeed, the 'kings' in the mythological tales are barely euhemerized gods. In some traditions, the tribal king was ritually married to the tribal goddess (Medb, for example); in others, he had a sympathetic relationship with the land: if he were healthy and virile, the land would be fertile, while if he were blemished or impotent, the land would become barren. (This Wasteland idea is not, of course, exclusively Celtic.)
In 'The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel', a druid partakes of the flesh and broth of a slaughtered bull and then lapses into a deep sleep, wherein he is expected to see the form of the new king. In later Irish history, however, the king was chosen from an extended family unit; and his position, continually contested by other family members (just as in fifteenth-century England), was far from secure. Curiously, the kings of the Irish stories are not battle leaders: either they betray vestiges of divinity (Cú Ruí, for example) or they have a young champion as heir and rival. Examples of this second pattern—which reflects the relationship of Agamemnon to Achilles and anticipates those of Arthur to Lancelot and Mark to Tristan—are legion: Mider temporarily loses Étaín to his foster-son Óengus; Conchubur loses Derdriu to the young warrior Noísiu and relinquishes supremacy in battle to Cú Chulaind; Cet rather than King Ailill is the champion of the Connachta.
The second class of Irish society, the priests, is more controversial. Popular notions of white-robed druids overseeing human sacrifices, cutting mistletoe with golden sickles and chanting spells over magic cauldrons persist—and not without reason. But Strabo points out that the druids
concern themselves with questions of ethics in addition to their study of natural phenomena. And because they are considered the most just of all, they possess the power to decide judicial matters, both those dealing with individuals and those involving the common good. Thus they have been known to control the course of wars, and to check armies about to join battle, and especially to judge cases of homicide. When there is a large number of these last, they suppose there will be a large return from the land as well. And both they and others maintain that the soul and the cosmos are immortal, though at some time in the future fire and water will prevail over them.4
Diodorus, moreover, makes mention of
certain philosophoi and religious interpreters, men highly honoured, whom they call Druids … It is their custom not to make any sacrifice without one of these philosophoi, since they believe that offerings should be rendered to the gods through the agency of those well acquainted with the divine nature (on speaking terms, one might say), and that requests for favours should likewise be made by these same men. In matters of war too the philosophoi are readily obeyed, they and the singing bards, and this by enemies as well as their own people. Often, in fact, when battle lines are drawn and armies close ground with swords and spears poised, they will step out into the middle and halt both sides, as if enchanting wild beasts. Thus even among the most savage barbarians, the spirit yields to the arts, and Ares reveres the Muses.5
Valuable as they are, these Classical accounts, at second hand and biased, should not be accepted at face value: the druids were, most probably, neither human-sacrificing savages nor great moral philosophers. Certainly, there is no evidence of either role in the Irish tales. In the mythological stories, druids are magicians: in 'The Wooing of Etain', Fuamnach, who has been reared by the druid Bresal, is able to turn her rival, Étaín, into first a pool of water and then a scarlet fly; in 'The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel', Ingcdl's druids bring about Conare's death by making him thirsty. The druids of the Ulster Cycle, however, are little more than wise old men (reminiscent of Nestor), though they claim some power of prophecy. Cathub and Senchae are greatly revered for their sagacity and for their peacemaking ('Bricriu's Feast' and 'The Intoxication of the Ulaid' fully confirm Diodorus's account of druidic intervention between combatants), but they display neither magical powers nor moral philosophy. It seems that the process of becoming a druid was a protracted one—according to Caesar, it could take twenty years—and involved the study of myth/history, law, science, religion and philosophy. Since the Celts in general and the druids in particular were averse to writing their knowledge down (out of fear that it might be corrupted if outsiders found it, but doubtless also because of the druids' desire to preserve their privileged status), all this material had to be memorized. In short, the druids appear to have been the caretakers of whatever knowledge—from magic to science—their people possessed.
The third class of people were free men who farmed and herded. As the clients of a chieftain or other land-owner, they received rent of the land, perhaps some stock, and some protection from enemies; in return, they surrendered a portion of what the land yielded and did some kind of service for their landlord. The upper class of these tenant farmers took possession of the rented stock after seven years; the lower classes did not and were in effect serfs. At the bottom of the social scale were the slaves; these were often people captured from neighbouring tribes, but they do not appear to have been numerous.
Irish society, especially that of the historical tales, was an aristocratic one. The strongholds of the Ulster Cycle—Crúachu and Emuin Machae—are not cities but rather compounds where the king lives with his household and where he regales his chieftains with feasts and entertainments: poets, singers, musicians, jugglers. These strongholds may also have been centres for rounding up stock in autumn and for the holding of annual fairs, such as the one described at the beginning of 'The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulaind': 'Each year the Ulaid held an assembly: the three days before Samuin and the three days after Samuin and Samuin itself. They would gather at Mag Muirthemni, and during these seven days there would be nothing but meetings and games and amusements and entertainments and eating and feasting.' And drinking. Such a lifestyle dictated an expansionist policy towards one's neighbours, since, in order to distribute wealth to their clients, kings and chieftains first had to accumulate it. Even in the mythological stories, the importance of land and possessions is patent: in 'The Wooing of Étaín', Oengus asserts his right to land from his father, the Dagdae, and it is the wealth of Bruig na Bóinde that enables him to compensate his foster-father, Mider, when the latter is injured.
The Irish year was divided into two parts: winter and summer. The first day of November, called Samuin, was both the first day of winter and the first day of the new year; the feast has since given rise to Hallowe'en/All Saints' Day and contributed the bonfire to Guy Fawkes celebrations. Samuin was a day of changes, of births and deaths; it was an open door between the real world and the otherworld. Oengus (in 'The Wooing of Étaín') dispossesses Elcmar of Bruig na Bóinde at Samuin, and he finds his beloved (in 'The Dream of Oengus') at Samuin. It is at Samuin that Da Derga's hostel is destroyed and Conare Mar is slain (the death of a king at Samuin is so common as to suggest regeneration myths and ritual slaying); it is at Samuin that, in 'The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulaind', beautiful birds appear at Mag Muirthemni and Cú Chulaind is entranced by Fand; it is at Samuin that, in 'The Intoxication of the Ulaid', the Ulaid charge off to the southwest of Ireland and are nearly burnt inside an iron house. Proinsias Mac Cana has called Samuin 'a partial return to primordial chaos … the appropriate setting for myths which symbolise the dissolution of established order as a prelude to its recreation in a new period of time';6 and there can be no doubt that Samuin was the most important day of re-creation and rebirth in Ireland.
The first day of May, called Beltene, marked the beginning of summer; this feast has since given rise to May Eve/Walpurgisnacht and May Day. Beltene was a less important day, and, consequently, less information about it has survived; the name seems to mean 'fire of Bel' (Bel presumably being the Irish descendant of the continental god Belenos) or 'bright fire', and there is a tradition that cattle were driven between two fires on this day so that the smoke would purify them. In any case, the rites of Beltene were probably directed towards ensuring the fertility of land and stock. The Welsh hero Pryderi is born on the first of May, and this fact coupled with the unusual circumstances of his birth (the concurrent birth of colts, the otherworld visitor) suggests that Beltene was also a day when the real and the fantastic merged.
The beginnings of spring and autumn were also celebrated, but even less is known about these holidays. Imbolg, which fell on the first of February, seems to have been the beginning of the lambing season; it is also associated with the goddess Brigit (Briganti in Britain), whose successor, Saint Brighid, has her feast day, significantly, on the first of February. Lugnasad, which fell on the first of August, was named after the god Lug and seems to have been a harvest festival; if so, it was probably a late addition, since harvest time (that is, the end of the grazing season) in a pastoral (as opposed to an agrarian) community would have fallen closer to Samuin. In any case, the opening sentences of 'The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulaind' show that the annual autumn round-up and assembly of the Ulaid took place at Samuin.
For Celtic and Irish religion, there is a wealth of evidence: the testimony of the Classical writers, especially Caesar; that of Gaulish sculpture and inscriptions; and that of the surviving Welsh and Irish myths. The resultant picture, however, is far from clear. Caesar identifies a Gaulish pantheon headed by Mercury and including Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva; corroborating evidence is so absent, however, that one has to suspect he is simply pinning Roman tails on a Celtic donkey.7 It is the Gaulish sculptures and inscriptions (we have no stories, unfortunately) that attest to the true nature of Celtic religion: no pantheon, but rather localized deities with localized functions; and this accords with what we know of the Celts politically, for they had little tolerance for centralized authority, even their own. The more widespread and possibly more important deities include Lugos (Mercury in Caesar, Lug in Ireland, Lieu in Wales; he gave his name to Lyon, Leiden and Liegnitz (Legnica), as well as to the Irish autumn festival of Lugnasad); Belenos, whose name means 'bright' and who might have been a rough counterpart to Apollo; Maponos (Mabon in Wales, the Macc Oc in Ireland; his name means 'great son'); Ogmios, whom Lucian describes as the Gaulish Herakles and as a god of eloquence;8 Cernunnos, whose name means 'horned' and who presumably is the horned figure on the Gundestrup cauldron; and Epona, a goddess whose name means 'great horse'. Much attention has been given to the trio of Esus, Taranis and Teutates in Lucan9 and to the sacrifices with which they allegedly were appeased (hanging, burning and drowning, respectively), but their true importance is uncertain. Evidence as to how these and other Celtic gods (who are literally too numerous to mention) related to each other—the kind of testimony we find in Greek mythology—is totally lacking.
The evidence of the Irish tales, our third and final source, is abundant, but it has suffered from faulty transmission, political distortion, historical overlays and church censorship; the result is no clearer than that from the continent. The Ireland of the tales comprises two worlds, 'real' and 'other'; but the line between them is not well demarcated. Even the location of the otherworld—which should not be confused with the Classical underworld—is uncertain: sometimes it is to the west, over the sea; sometimes it is in the southwest of Ireland (where it may be called the 'House of Dond', Dond being a chthonic deity); but usually it is found in the great pre-Celtic burial mounds of the Side, of which the most important in the tales is Bruig na Bóinde, today's New Grange. The Irish otherworld is, not surprisingly, a stylized, idealized version of the real one: everyone is beautiful, and there is an abundance of beautiful things, and the joys of life are endless—hunting, feasting, carousing, perhaps even love. Paradoxically (of course), though this otherworld makes the real one seem a shadow by comparison, it is the Side who are the shadows, for they have no physical strength for fighting; just as Pwyll, in 'Pwyll Lord of Dyved', is asked to fight on behalf of the otherworld ruler Arawn, so Cú Chulaind, in 'The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulaind', is asked to fight on behalf of the otherworld ruler Labraid Lúathlám. The Side are distinguished primarily by their power of transformation: they move invisibly, or they turn themselves (and others) into birds and animals. But they exert no moral authority, and, while they can injure and heal, they do not have that power over life and death characteristic of the Greek Olympians. Often they seem just like ordinary humans.
Relatively few of the names from Gaulish inscriptions reappear in Ireland—given the decentralized nature of Gaulish religion, this is not surprising. Lug is the major figure in 'The Second Battle of Mag Tured', but in the stories included in this volume he appears prominently only as the father of Cú Chulaind. The Macc Óc is a central character in both 'The Wooing of Étaín' and 'The Dream of Óengus', but he has been so thoroughly euhemerized that there is no trace of the Gaulish Maponos; and such names as the Dagdae, Mider, Bóand, Étaín, Cáer Ibormeith, Medb and Cú Ruí have no apparent continental counterparts. Many of the quasidivine figures in these tales are associated with animals or with natural features. The name Bóand, for example, means 'white cow'; but Bóand is also the Irish name of the river Boyne. At the outset of 'The Wooing of Étaín', Bóand sleeps with the Dagdae, whose other name, Echu, means 'horse'; Frank O'Connor saw this 'love affair' between a horse god and a cow goddess as a reconciliation between Bronze Age invaders and the indigenous Neolithic civilization, which gives some idea of how old these stories might be.10 Like Rhiannon in 'Pwyll Lord of Dyved', Macha of 'The Labour Pains of the Ulaid' is a euhemerized horse goddess; and the same may be conjectured of Étaín, whose epithet Échrade means 'horse troop'. A number of the Síde appear as birds: Mider and Étaín leave Temuir as swans, and Óengus (Mider's foster-son) and Cáer Ibormeith return to Bruig na Bóinde as sẘans; Conare Már's unnamed father discloses himself to Mess Búachalla in the form of a bird; and Fand and Lí Ban first present themselves to Cú Chulaind as birds.
Strabo's testimony, the evidence of lavish grave goods buried with the wealthy, and the identification of the Boyne burial mounds as the dwelling place of the Side all suggest that the Irish did believe in a life after death. But the Irish otherworld was not simply an anticipated joyful afterlife; it was also—even primarily—an alternative to reality, a world that the hero might enter upon the invitation of a king or a beautiful woman. Inasmuch as this otherworld, no matter how beautiful, is not quite human (there is, for example, no winter), the hero never stays; but the alternative—and thus the tension—is always present.
Finally, there is the language, as beautiful and elusive as any aspect of Irish culture. Just as the Celts were a distinct Indo-European entity, so their languages formed an independent branch of the Indo-European language tree; nonetheless, Celtic is more like Italic (that is, the Romance languages) than it is like any of the other Indo-European language groups, and many place and personal names in...
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W. B. Yeats (1898)
SOURCE: "The Celtic Element in Literature," in Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend and Myth, edited by Robert Welch, Penguin Books, 1993, pp. 189-200.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1898, Yeats discusses the importance of Celtic myth and folklore to modern European literature.]
Ernest Renan1 described what he held to be Celtic characteristics in The Poetry of the Celtic Races. 'No race communed so intimately as the Celtic race with the lower creation, or believed it to have so big a share of moral life.' The Celtic race had 'a realistic naturalism', 'a love of...
(The entire section is 22439 words.)
Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (1949)
SOURCE: Gods and Heroes of the Celts, translated by Myles Dillon, Turtle Island Foundation, 1982, pp. 11-36.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1949, Sjoestedt recounts the events of the "mythological period" of Irish prehistory as outlined in the Lebor Gabála and describes the characteristics of the continental Celtic gods in ancient Gaul.]
A discussion of the mythological world of the Celts encounters at once a peculiar difficulty, namely, that when seeking to approach it you find that you are already within. We are accustomed to distinguish the supernatural from the natural. The barrier...
(The entire section is 29998 words.)
A. G. van Hamel (1934)
SOURCE: "Aspects of Celtic Mythology," in Proceedings of the British Academy, 1934, pp. 207-48.
[In the following essay, van Hamel undertakes a comparative analysis of Celtic mythology, particularly of the Irish Fenian Cycle, in order to uncover the magical and religious undercurrents in the tradition.]
Some scholars look upon a myth as an article of faith of pagan times. Others take it as an expression of the early religious mind in a symbolical form. However, neither dogmatism nor speculation belongs to the primitive properties of religion. Their influence, great though it may become in the course of evolution, is not...
(The entire section is 29838 words.)
Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988, 268 p.
Comparative analysis of pre-Christian religion in northwestern Europe.
Feehan, Ellen. "Frank Herbert and the Making of Myths: Irish History, Celtic Mythology, and IRA Ideology in The White Plague." Science-Fiction Studies 19 (1992): 289-310.
Studies the architecture of Celtic mythology in Herbert's often neglected 1982 novel The White Plague.
Kearney, Richard. "Myth and Motherland." In Ireland's Field Day, pp. 61-80. London: Hutchinson, 1985.
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