Kernow - Land of the Saints - or perhaps not?

Cornubia - Land of the Saints

Like so many other Celtic Nations, Cornwall's folklore is rich with tales of giants, of ancient kings, of little people, Druids and pagan beliefs and so on.

Almost to balance much of its ancient folklore, it has also been frequently called 'the Land of the Saints' so profuse are the hamlets, villages and towns named for a plethora of Celtic Saints. Indeed, the magnificent painting in Truro Cathedral by the late John Miller and entitled 'Cornubia - Land of the Saints' portrays the peninsula bathed in Heavenly light, with rays of sunshine reflecting across the many churches and with a host of angels approaching from the Isles of Scilly.

But to this day, many in Kernow see things slightly differently, perhaps through Celtic eyes, and in a recent survey of spiritual beliefs, pre Christian and related pagan beliefs ranked a remarkable third. Alternative Spiritual beliefs are all around in the Duchy and are accepted as being completely normal by many indigenous Cornish folks as well as by those who have made the place their home recognising that special sense of place.

The Faeries of the Cornish Tin Mines – Cousin Jack and the TommyKnockers

Cornwall coastal mine

The tin mines of Cornwall have an ancient history that extends back into the mists of time.  Cornish trade links with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, which pre-date the arrival of the Romans in Britain, are documented by Greek historians.  Around 2500 BC a trade started growing in tin and copper with these foreign traders exchanging bronze tools and gold ornaments for the minerals.

Faery faith and folklore has enjoyed a central role in the foundation and development of Celtic culture and Celtic Cornwall has many myths and legends involving Faeries which include a particularly Cornish variant in the form of the Faeries of the tin mines. These strange subterranean residents of Cornish mines are known by various names, one of the most common being Knockers (TommyKnockers). Over the centuries the legends surrounding these creatures became imbedded in the folklore and Faery faith of the Celtic miners to a remarkable degree. These folkloric traditions then followed the Cornish immigrants as they fanned out as prized mine workers around the world.

Irish National Land League - Conradh na Talún

Evictions in Ireland

In Irish history the Land War refers to a period of civil unrest in Ireland from the 1870’s until the early 1900’s which saw the rise of the Irish National Land League.  The background to this period of conflict in rural Ireland was the depression in producer prices, high rents and bad weather which had a catastrophic effect on the poor tenant farmers of Ireland. It once again exposed the unfair system of land tenure and the power of the landowners, many of whom were absentee landlords. It also highlighted the manner in which many of these owners had unjustly acquired Irish land.

In the 16th and 17th century the English crown undertook a programme known as Plantation and the aim was to plant people in Ireland who would be loyal and bear allegiance to England.  The campaign amounted to one of denying the Irish Catholic population ownership of land in their country.  It was seen as a way for England to conquer and subjugate Ireland. The historical legacy of which can be seen in six of the nine counties of Ulster in the north of Ireland. Here a Protestant majority was created which later led to the establishment of the artificial state referred to as Northern Ireland. However, the Plantation reached all parts of Ireland where land was confiscated by the British Crown and colonised by settlers.

Kannerezed noz – The Washerwomen of the Night in the Celtic mythology of Brittany

In the Celtic folklore of Brittany there are many creatures of the Otherworld, that mystical land occupied by spirits and deities who are rarely seen by humans. Many of these supernatural beings are benevolent and only deem to appear when and if absolutely necessary. Others simply want to be left alone to exist in the way that they have for thousands of years, long before the time of humankind. For some their role is to protect the environment and try and control the most damaging excesses of man. There are those who will deliberately seek out and help humans who care for the land of Brittany, cherish its ancient borders and protect its ancient traditions. However, amongst all of these creatures there are some who will, if encountered, be a harbinger of doom. They are to be avoided at all costs.

Amongst these darker entities of Breton mythology is the tall, skeletal, foreboding figure of Ankou. Dressed in black, carrying a scythe, he is accompanied by a cart pulled by black horses. Ankou is a night traveller that gathers the soles of the newly dead. Then there is the Nain who guard the ancient megaliths, stone circles and cairns that are found all over Brittany. Their faces are demon like with horns upon their head and their eyes are a glowing red. Dancing around the ancient stones and monoliths of Brittany they chant out the days of the week ‘dilun, dimerzh, dimerc'her, diyaou, digwener', but not the days of ‘disadorn and disul’ for these two days are held as sacred to the fairies. The night of ‘dimerc'her’ is their special night though, particularly the first one of the month of May. Ill fortune will befall those humans that should chance across and interrupt their ceremonies.

Ravens in Celtic and Norse Mythology

Hooded Crow

Animals and birds are a significant feature in Celtic and Norse mythology. We know that the Celts had and continue to hold a great respect for the environment. Nature, the elements and the other creatures which shared their land held a sacred significance. Animals and birds were vital to everyday life and wellbeing and they feature in art, literature, rituals and religious beliefs. We recently wrote about the horses in Celtic mythology.

In the Celtic world there have been many Scandinavian and Viking influences over the centuries that remain evident today. The Viking incursions in the Celtic lands began in the 8th century. All of the present six Celtic nations felt the impact of the Viking raids. They brought with them their legends and sagas the legacies of which are found in literature, folklore and carvings in many parts of the Celtic lands. As with the Celts animals and birds affected the everyday life of the Norse people and held a crucial place in their belief systems. In this article we take a particular look at the place of ravens, crows and their relatives in Celtic and Norse mythology.

Horses in Celtic Mythology

Boudica monument

Amongst Celtic peoples the horse has always been highly venerated and seen as a prized possession. Horses were viewed as status symbols, treated with great respect, treasured and well cared for. There was a great bond between Celts and their horses. The esteem in which they were held is not surprising when the impact of the animal on everyday life, survival and battle are considered. The Celts were known as very skilled cavalry fighters and charioteers. The Romans used mercenaries from Gaul because they were known to have these skills. The importance of chariots in battle is recounted in Irish medieval literature that draws on much older ancient folklore. Such stories are told in the Ulster Cycle featuring the legendary Irish warrior Cú Chulainn, son of the god Lugh associated with the pre-Christian Celtic pantheon of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Shetland Ponies

It was not only in regard to battle that horses played a prominent role in Celtic society. The Shetland Pony is one of many examples of their importance to humans. They are sturdy, have a thick coat, short legs and noted for their intelligence.They are suited to the environment of the Shetland Islands and it is thought that small horses have been kept on the Shetlands since the Bronze Age. They were vital for cultivation, transporting goods and people as well being adapted for use in a variety of settings. The Shetland fishermen also used the hair from the tails of the ponies for their fishing lines.

Three horses Celtic design

With this great importance in all areas of life it is perhaps not surprising that the horse took on religious significance in Celtic communities. They believed that the care that they took of them was reciprocated, with the horse acting as a protector. This religious importance is witnessed by the many ancient images of the horse carved in stone and onto landscapes. They hold a significant place in stories of the Celtic gods and mythological tales. The horse has featured in symbolism and Celtic art and design throughout the centuries. The ancient Celtic styled depiction of horses continues to be re-used today. One such example is The Celtic Council of Australia which uses the beautiful image of three horses interwoven in Celtic design as a symbol.

Interview with Bernard Moffatt, President of Mec Vannin, campaigner for inter-Celtic cooperation and Celtic rights

Logo of Mec Vannin

Transceltic is delighted to present this interview with Bernard Moffatt. Bernard Moffatt was one of the founder members of Mec Vannin, the Manx nationalist party. Bernard is now the elected Life President of Mec Vannin which in English can be translated as Sons of Mann. Bernard was born in the town of Peel (Purt ny h-Inshey) on the Isle of Man.

Mec Vannin is a democratic republican organization which has campaigned for the last 50 years on social, environmental and political matters, challenging government policies that are detrimental to the Isle of Man and its people.

Celtic nations

Bernard also held the position of General Secretary of the Celtic League from 1984 – 88 and again from 1991 – 2006. The Celtic League is an inter-Celtic organisation that campaigns for the political, language, cultural and social rights of the Celtic nations of Alba (Scotland), Breizh (Brittany), Cymru (Wales) Éire (Ireland), Kernow (Cornwall) and Mannin (Isle of Man).

Bernard talks about the motivation for setting up Mec Vannin and the movements continued importance today. Bernard goes onto look at the role of the Celtic League and the developments that have taken place in regard to self-determination in individual Celtic nations. In doing so he also calls on the necessity of continued support for Brittany. Bernard condemns the hostility of the French establishment towards Breton culture, language and identity.

Lughnasa - The Celtic Harvest Festival

Celtic Symbol

The last Celtic Feast day of the year is Lughnasa, the harvest festival named after the Celtic God Lugh. God of the sun, light and harvests, Lugh was a great warrior. According to the Ulster Cycle he fathered the legendary Cú Chulainn and is linked to a number of sites in Ireland. Lugh spent part of his childhood in the Isle of Man where he was trained by Manannán mac Lir, said to be first ruler of the Isle of Man. Legend has it that Lir fostered and trained Lugh on Man before Lugh was sent back to Ireland. Lugh is always portrayed as youthful, handsome and athletic.

Traditionally celebrated on the first of August, Lughnasa is the fourth and last of the Feast days of the Celtic year. The three Celtic Feast days preceding Lughnasa include the Celtic New Year of Samhain (Halloween) on November 1st, Imbolg on February 1st which has become the Feast Day of St. Brigid but was originally the day of devotion to the Celtic Goddess of the same name and Beltane celebrated on 1st of May. Beltane is viewed by most scholars as being unique amongst the Celtic feast days in that Beltane observances have survived in essentially archaic form in to modern times due in part to its simplicity in that the celebrations historically included the lighting of bonfires.

Lughnasa is the least known of the four feast days and is described by James MacKillop in his “Dictionary of Celtic Mythology" as follows:

Lughnasa may be the least perceptible in the industrial, secular society, but we know more about its ancient roots than any of the other three. The significance of Lughnasa began to fade and the date on which the shadows of the ancient harvest festival was celebrated began to be moved to suit its connection with modern, often Christian, celebrations observed at about the same time of year. The Christian Church did not oppose the continuation of the festival marking the beginning of the harvest…..but the different names applied to it obscured its pagan origin.

Rushen Abbey – Where the Chronicles of the Kings of Mann and the Isles were written

Rushen Abbey

Rushen Abbey was founded in 1134 by Monks of the Sauvignac Order. It stands close to the Manx village of Ballasalla (Manx: Balley Sallagh) on land granted to them by King Olaf I. In 1147 the order came into Cistercian control and by 1257 the Abbey Church was completed. The location of the Abbey was selected due to its close proximity to Castle Rushen (Manx: Cashtell Rosien), which is nearly two miles away in the town of Castletown (Manx: Balley Chashtal) which was the ancient capital of the Isle of Man (Mannin).

Rushen Abbey is associated with the writing of the Chronicles of the Kings of Mann and the Isles. The mediaeval manuscript was compiled around 1257 A.D. at the abbey. They record, in addition to other topics, events in Manx history from 1000 A.D. to 1316 A.D. and look at the Islands place as the centre of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles. Based on a number of sources, including oral history, this important document is at the present time held in the British Library in London. There has been a long standing campaign to have the Chronicles returned to the Isle of Man were they should rightfully be held.

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