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Celtic Myths

[ Cultural Studies ]

Celtic Myths

By Miranda J. Green

Celtic Myths explores the mythology and beliefs of the pagan Celts between about 600 B.C. and A.D. 400.

For sale in the United States, its dependencies, Canada, and Latin America only

1993

$14.95$10.02

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Paperback

6 3/4 x 9 1/2 | 80 pp. | 40 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-72754-0

Celtic Myths explores the mythology and beliefs of the pagan Celts between about 600 B.C. and A.D. 400. At their peak, the Celtic peoples inhabited a vast area of Europe, Great Britain, and Ireland. As non-literates, they have left no written record of their lives, their beliefs, and the stories which were such an important part of their culture; however, contemporary commentators from the Classical world, later Christian scribes recording oral traditions, and the archaeological evidence can give us fascinating, though fragmented, glimpses. Dr. Green draws on all these sources to discuss the myths and the religious beliefs and ritual which she believes inform them.

The heroic and magical tales of the Book of Invasions, the Fionn stories, the Ulster Cycle, and the Mabinogi are the subject of the first chapters. These stirring stories, though recorded in medieval times by Christian writers, preserve fascinating evidence of their pagan origins. Dr. Green then goes on to look at the evidence for Celtic religious beliefs and raises some interesting questions as to how far we can establish links and recognize common features between the story material and the archaeological record.

  • Map
  • How do we know about Celtic myths?
  • The divine race of Ireland
  • Myths of the Ulster Cycle
  • Some early Welsh myths
  • The divine lovers
  • The sky and sun myths
  • Fertility, land and water
  • Animals in cult and myth
  • Druids, sacrifice and ritual
  • Death, rebirth and the Otherworld
  • Suggestions for further reading
  • Index

What do we mean by 'myth' and 'mythology'? These are flexible terms with a variety of meanings. For me myths are inextricably associated with religion. A useful definition involves the perception of a myth as a symbolic story, similar to a parable, a means by which human imagination can express a concept whose meaning is too complex and profound to be conveyed by simple verbal messages. In this way myths can deal with fundamental issues such as who we are, why we exist, what happens when we die: universal concerns which are unanswerable in terms of the rational explanations born of human experience. Myths can explain the phenomena of the natural world--the behaviour of the sun, weather, drought and flood--in terms of the supernatural. Thus myths exist by virtue of their link with the divine and with cult. They contain traditions of sacred beings--gods and heroes--and their association with mortals, which contribute to the framework of belief-systems. In this book the stories themselves, as they exist in the vernacular traditions of Ireland and Wales, form the fundamental core of myth in its strictest sense. But to my mind, because myths are so closely linked with religion, it is equally important to examine the other evidence for Celtic belief-systems, namely the chroniclings of the Classical writers and the archaeological material.

Time and space

Celtic Myths sets out to explore the mythology and beliefs of the pagan Celts between about 600 BC and AD 400, although some of the evidence cited in the book falls outside this range. At the period of maximum expansion (fifth-third centuries BC) the Celtic world occupied an area from Ireland and part of Spain in the west to Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the east (but including Galatia in Asia Minor), and from northern Scotland to north Italy and what was formerly Yugoslavia. Mediterranean authors first speak of Keltoi about 500 BC and it is then, or even earlier, that archaeologists can distinguish a certain homogeneity in material culture over much of Europe north of the Alps. From the third century BC, Celtic place-names and personal names endorse this geographical distribution of Celtic peoples.

There is no clear-cut boundary between the end of paganism and the beginning of Christianity in Celtic Europe. The old gods lingered long, but during the fourth century AD Christianity was officially adopted as the state religion by the Roman world, and in Britain and Ireland, where Celtic traditions were arguably sustained longest, the Celtic Church was established during the fifth century AD.

The problem of finding Celtic myths

The main difficulty in reaching Celtic myth and religion is that the pagan Celts were virtually non-literate and therefore did not describe their beliefs and their attitudes to the supernatural world in writing. This means that all our evidence is, in a real sense, indirect. That which exists falls into three categories, between which there are tensions and contradictions and all of which have, to a degree, to be treated separately: the chronicles of contemporary commentators from the Classical world; the later vernacular documents of Ireland and Wales; and the archaeology.

The evidence of the Classical commentators

Observers from the Greek and Roman world commented on the traditions, cults and rituals of their northern, 'barbarian' neighbours. Their testimony has the value of contemporaneity but it has inherent problems of bias, distortion, misunderstanding and omission. Unlike the Celts these observers belonged to a culture in which cities played an important role and, indeed, were regarded as the key to civilisation. Alongside rural and private cults, Mediterranean culture possessed an organised state religious system, based upon these urban centres. Thus Classical commentators on the Celts were witnesses to a set of traditions and thought-processes which were alien to them and which were based upon a less sophisticated religion. So there is the danger that Mediterranean authors selected and sensationalised aspects of cult-behaviour which they felt would fit the image of a primitive people, beyond the edge of the civilised world. Certainly the picture painted by these writers is very fragmentary. There is little information about divine beings and, where it does occur--as in the case of Caesar's chronicles--there is confusion and sometimes spurious equation between Celtic and Roman deities, and Celtic religion is frequently perceived according to the framework of the Graeco-Roman world.

Many Classical writers make some allusion to Celtic religion. A main source was Posidonius, a Greek philosopher of the Stoic School, whose first-century BC writings are lost but whose observations were quarried by a number of later commentators. Our main sources are Caesar (writing in the mid-first century BC); Strabo (late first century BC-early first century AD); Diodorus Siculus (writing c. 60-30 BC); Lucan (first century AD) and Dio Cassius (later second-early third century AD). Between them they present a large body of evidence mainly concerning ritual practices: druidism, divination, human sacrifice and head-hunting. They also comment on the Celtic attitude to death and the Otherworld (the perception of life after death as similar to that of earth).

What is missing is any clear picture of a Celtic pantheon or belief-system. Occasionally we can discern links between these ancient documents and other sources of evidence. Thus the divinatory powers of the druids are chronicled in the early Insular (Irish) tradition. Classical writers, archaeology and the earliest Celtic stories all bear witness to the importance of water-cults; the religious significance of the human head; and a strong belief in life after death.

The vernacular sources

The earliest stories written in Irish and Welsh contain a large body of material which pertains to a Celtic mythological tradition. We use these stories, and not the early archaeological record, as our starting point for discussion since they are the sources most familiar to modern readers interested in Celtic mythology. However, this category of evidence has to be approached with caution if any attempt is made to link the myths and constant allusions to the supernatural world in this literature to the world of the pagan Celts as defined by archaeology or the Classical documents. First, the vernacular sources are late in their extant form and, moreover, they were compiled within a Christian milieu, many of them by Christian redactors, monks working within monasteries. Second, these writings relate specifically and solely to Wales and Ireland, which were on the western periphery of the Celtic world during the pagan Celtic period.

Ireland

The Irish oral tradition began first to be preserved in written form during the sixth century AD. However, the majority of the surviving manuscripts date from no earlier than the twelfth century. Their value lies in their undoubted inclusion of material which relates to a much earlier phase of Irish settlement, perhaps referring as far back as the pagan period: that is, before the fifth century AD.

There are three collections of Irish prose tales which are especially relevant to the Celtic world of the supernatural. One is the 'Mythological Cycle', which includes the Leabhar Gabhála or Book of Invasions, and the Dinnshenchas or History of Places, both compiled in the twelfth century AD. The Book of Invasions has its origins in much earlier compilations of monastic scholars constructing a 'History of Ireland' in the sixth and seventh centuries AD. It describes a succession of mythical invasions of Ireland from before the Flood, culminating in the coming of the Gaels or Celts. Its purpose seems to have been to establish a Myth of Creation, an explanation of the nature of Ireland and the presence of the Celts. The 'invasion' of greatest interest in the present context is that of the Tuatha De Danann, the divine race of Ireland, who consisted of numerous gods and goddesses, each with particular functions and concerns. The Dinnshenchas is less useful, but it comprises a collection of topographical lore, in which the names of places are explained in terms of myth.

The second group of tales is contained in the Ulster Cycle, of which the most important form a collection of stories known as the Táin Bó Cuailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley). This chronicles the great conflict between the two most northerly of the five ancient provinces of Ulster and Connacht. The Táin is steeped in the supernatural: Ulster is peopled by superhuman heroes, such as Cu Chulainn, and by druids, such as Cathbadh; Connacht is ruled by a euhemerised (i.e. a divine being perceived as a historical figure) queen-goddess, Medb; and the destiny of the two kingdoms rests in the hands of the great warand death-goddesses, the Morrigán and the Badbh. The Ulster Cycle, as its name suggests, is a mythological tradition which belongs only to Ulster; there is nothing comparable for any other region of Ireland. Part of the earliest-known form of the Táin is contained within a flawed and fragmentary text in the oldest manuscript, called the Leabhar na h Uidre or Book of the Dun Cow. This was compiled in the twelfth century at the Monastery of Clonmacnois. In origin, however, the Táin is much older: the language of the earliest form of the story belongs to the eighth century, but many scholars believe some passages to be several centuries earlier still, although others challenge this view.

The third group of relevant stories is found within the 'Fionn Cycle', again compiled in the twelfth century. It contains less material of relevance to a study of myth, but it chronicles the activities of the hero Finn and his heroic war-band, the Fianna, all of whom are of supernatural status. The interest of these stories lies in their close affinity with the natural world and in the supernatural creatures which inhabit it. This animistic attitude to the world is a tradition for which close parallels can be found in the archaeological evidence for Celtic religion.

There is a great deal of controversy as to the value of the early Insular (Irish) sources in contributing to a construction of Celtic mythology. Not only were they compiled in the medieval period and within a Christian context, but the language used often suggests that the stories were produced no earlier than the eighth century. Indeed some of the descriptions themselves are strongly indicative of medieval Ireland. It is dangerously speculative to make close links between Irish epic literature and the pagan Celtic society chronicled by Classical writers. The gap in space and time between the Celtic Europe of the later first millennium BC and the Ireland of the early historical period is too great a gulf to ignore. But there is, nonetheless, incontrovertible evidence that some of the Irish material contains records of a Celtic tradition that is pre-Christian. This archaism is especially apparent in the Ulster Cycle, which describes a situation prior to the fifth century AD when Ulster's political position within Ireland fundamentally changed. The early, pre-Christian, political organisation encapsulated here is explicable in terms of the function of the compilers, which was to chronicle the past. There are other factors which point to pagan origins. Christianity is not apparent in these Insular legends, and a world is described whose perception of the supernatural belongs to a pre-Christian tradition.

Whatever the date the tales were compiled, they contain much that is pagan and mythological. Even so, there are genuine problems if attempts are made to link the written myths with the archaeological evidence for pagan Celtic religion, although some concepts, such as the sacred power of 'three' are prominent in both sources. While the personalities of Celtic divinities are present in the literature, no allusion is made to the forms of worship or the belief-systems associated with them. With very few exceptions it is impossible to make direct identification between the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the deities whose names were recorded on inscriptions in the early first millennium AD. The name of the Irish god Nuadu may be philologically linked with Nodens, whose large sanctuary on the River Severn was erected in the third century AD, and there are other examples of possible connections, but they are rare indeed. The problem with the Insular material could result from Christian 'laundering' of pagan tradition, whereby redactors who were either ignorant of or hostile to Irish paganism may have deliberately redefined or restructured the world of the supernatural in order to neutralise it. Thus Celtic religion is diluted and all that is left are superhuman heroes or gods who have been cut off from their original theological systems.

Wales

The early Welsh vernacular tradition contains elements of a rich mythology, but it is poorly documented compared to that of Ireland, and it shows evidence of greater modification from later stories. God is invoked constantly and the great array of pagan divinities seen, for example, in the Irish Book of Invasions, is nowhere present in the Welsh tradition. It is also possible to observe that international story-motifs are interleaved within the early Welsh material. There are links, too, between the mythological traditions of Wales and the Continental cycle of medieval Arthurian romance. The Welsh Arthur is a hero, who champions causes and braves the Otherworld in the thirteenth-century poem in the Book of Taliesin, the Spoils of Annwn.

Little in the extant Welsh manuscripts is demonstrably early enough for us to make direct links between the myths of Wales and the religion of the pagan Celts. So these myths can make, at best, a limited contribution to the construction of a pagan Celtic cult-system. The Welsh mythology is present but it has largely been reshaped within a different context, so that it is often barely recognisable as myth. The most relevant and the earliest material is contained within the Pedair Ceinc y Mabinogi, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (sometimes known as the Mabinogion) and the Tale of Culhwch and Olwen, together with other material such as The Dream of Rhonabwy and Peredur.Culhwch and Olwen is perhaps the earliest of the mythological Welsh stories, dating to the tenth century in its original form. The Mabinogi was first compiled later, in the eleventh century. The early Welsh tradition is preserved in two collections: the White Book of Rhydderch, written in about 1300, and the Red Book of Hergest, which dates to the later fourteenth century. Much of the subject-matter both of Culhwch and Olwen and the Four Branches appears to relate to traditions which belong to earlier centuries than the ones in which they were compiled in their present form.

All the tales chronicle the activities of euhemerised supernatural beings whose divinity is not overt but is betrayed by their physical and moral stature. The myths of Wales abound in enchanted or magical animals; metamorphosis from human to animal form; heads with divine properties; and cauldrons capable of resurrecting the dead. There is a pagan Underworld, Annwn, presided over by Arawn, perceived as similar to life on earth and indeed very akin to the Otherworld described in the Irish tradition.

As with the Irish myths it is difficult to make other than tenuous links between Welsh myth and pagan Celtic religion as evidenced by archaeology. Occasionally Welsh beings may be directly related to Celtic divinities: Mabon the Hunter in Culhwch and Olwen is surely the Maponus of Romano-Celtic dedications in north Britain and Gaul. The supernatural qualities of cauldrons, human heads and animals are very close to the religious traditions which may be observed in the material culture of the pagan Celts. In addition there are some direct links between the Irish and the Welsh myths: shape-changing, animalaffinities, magical cauldrons exemplify this commonality of tradition.

The archaeological evidence

The main category of evidence which pertains directly to the pagan Celtic period is that of archaeology, the study of the material culture of Celtic religion: sanctuaries and sacred space; burial customs; ritual behaviour; epigraphy; and iconography (imagery, as portrayed in, for instance, sculpture, figurines or coins). This group of evidence has its own inherent difficulties: archaeologists can deal only with what has survived and, in addition, there are bound to be real problems associated with the interpretation of the thoughts and beliefs of communities who lived 2000 years ago solely from material remains of those beliefs. The other major problem with the archaeological evidence is that much of the iconography relating to Celtic religion dates from the time of Roman influence on Celtic lands, thereby making it difficult to disentangle Celtic symbolism and belief from the Roman tradition with which it became so closely intertwined.

The relevant archaeological evidence encompasses a period when Celts can first be distinguished by their material culture (c. seventh-sixth centuries BC) until the official demise of Celtic paganism, which is roughly coeval with the end of the Roman occupation of Celtic lands (around AD 400).

There is substantive archaeological evidence for pre-Roman Celtic religious space (see 'Druids, sacrifice and ritual', page 66-7). Built shrines did exist, although these did not conform to a formalised religious architecture. But sacred space often consisted of open-air enclosures, holy lakes, woods and springs. The Celts also dug deep pits or shafts in order to communicate with the powers of the Underworld. There is evidence, too, of repeated and formalised activity which has no apparent functional purpose and therefore may, with some confidence, be termed 'ritual behaviour'. This includes votive deposition in watery contexts, the ritual destruction of offerings, and sacrifice of living things.

In the 'free' or pre-Roman Celtic world there were relatively few stone or metal images of the gods (although the chance preservation of wooden objects leads us to believe that these may have been relatively common). Before the introduction of Graeco-Roman influences, resulting in a rich blend of intrusive and indigenous religious traditions which have left abundant material traces in the archaeological record, evidence of a Celtic belief-system is inconclusive. Celtic art was concerned more with the production of abstract design than with figural and overtly religious imagery. But there are some examples of free Celtic stone iconography in the form of reliefs and statues, the earliest dating to the sixth-fifth centuries BC, which occur in two main geographical regions: the Lower Rhône Valley (perhaps due to the influences of the Greek colony of Marseille, established in 600 BC) and central Europe. In the last two centuries BC figural imagery became more common, and bronze representations of animals, especially boars, may have had a quasi-religious function. The unique gilt-silver cult-cauldron from Gundestrup in Jutland, which probably dates to the second or first century BC, has long been accepted as important evidence for Celtic religious iconography. Its inner and outer plates are decorated with mythological scenes and deities, some of which betray exotic, eastern influences. But many features of the imagery are undoubtedly Celtic--the torc-bearing antlered god and the ram-horned serpent belong to the religious repertoire of Gaul--and the soldiers depicted bear Celtic Iron Age arms. Controversy surrounds the cauldron's place of manufacture: the best silversmiths of the period came from Thrace and Dacia in south-east Europe, and the vessel could have been made by foreign craftsmen for Celtic use. Such smiths may have heard descriptions of exotic creatures and thus included them in their art. There have been recent arguments in favour of an Indian origin for the Gundestrup Cauldron, but these conjectures overlook the close links between its religious art and that of Celtic Europe. The presence of the vessel in Denmark may be the result of looting by the Teutonic Cimbri from Gaulish territory.

Once Roman culture was established, its presence interacted on Celtic religious traditions which had previously been unexpressed in material terms. This interaction resulted in wide-scale representation of the gods, many of whom were totally alien to the Graeco-Roman pantheon. It also produced the tradition of dedicatory inscriptions which has given us names for Celtic divinities. This abundance of religious evidence, which expressed itself only under Roman influence, argues for the presence of a complex system of belief already in existence in the free Celtic period.

Archaeology and literature

Of the three groups of evidence summarised above, only archaeology and the vernacular sources contribute substantially to the construction of Celtic myth. In essence these two strands of mythological evidence have to be treated virtually as separate entities. Because of the chronological and spatial divergences already outlined, it is not possible to perceive the two as part of the same continuum of evidence. Nonetheless it is undoubtedly true that some links can be established between the material and literary sources. There are features common to both, which are too idiosyncratic to be due to chance: the sanctity of 'three'; the symbolism of cauldrons; the supernatural power of the human head; beliefs in an Otherworld similar to earthly life are a few of the traditions which bridge the gulf between the two main strands of testimony for Celtic myth.

Miranda Green is a lecturer in archaeology and Celtic studies, School of History and Archaeology, University of Wales, College of Cardiff.