Celtic Myth & legend

Celtic Harvest Festival of Lughnasa

Celtic cross

The Celtic harvest festival of Lughnasa, traditionally celebrated on the first of August, is the fourth and last of the Feast days of the Celtic year. Although these four feast days are usually referred to as festivals of the pre-Christian Irish Celts, there is evidence that each of the four feast days have more ancient roots and that they were at one time  celebrated throughout the Celtic world.

The connection between the four feast days and ancient Celtic religious practices is illustrated by the famed Coligny Calendar. The Coligny calendar records the important dates in the Celtic year. This artifact, unearthed in France in the late 1897, and which dates from about 200 AD, was created by the Celts of Roman Gaul. There is speculation that the calendar was created by Gaulish Druids to preserve the Celtic religious calendar at a time when Gaulish Celtic culture began to be submerged into the Roman way of life, three centuries after the rape and subjugation of Celtic Gaul by Gaius Julius Caesar.

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.

Scottish Legend Of The Blue Men Of Minch

The minch

The Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles (Scottish Gaelic: Na h-Eileanan Siar) is an island chain made up of 200 islands in a 130 mile archipelago off the north west coast of mainland Scotland. They form part of the Hebrides, separated from the Scottish mainland and from the Inner Hebrides by the waters of the Minch, the Little Minch and the Sea of the Hebrides. The Minch (Scottish Gaelic: An Cuan Sgitheanach, An Cuan Sgìth, Cuan na Hearadh, An Cuan Leòdhasach), also called North Minch. The Lower Minch (an Cuan Canach), also known as the Little Minch, is the Minch's southern extension.

Legend also tells that the Minch is home to a clan of mythical blue men. Most of the time “The Blue Men Of Minch” swim the seas, but sometimes sleep in underwater caves. While the Blue Men slept the weather could be fine and the seas calm. However, when awake they could conjure up storms whenever they wanted. These creatures, that are the size and shape of humans, are very strong and can be seen swimming and diving with pleasure when the seas are rough. Following the boats that are navigating the waters of the area they can be friendly towards humans, but this can be dependant upon their mood and if they are treated with respect.

The Swan In Celtic Mythology

Ler and swans

The Swan, which is called "Eala" in Scots Gaelic, "Eala" in Irish, "Alarch" in Welsh, "Alarc’h" in Breton, "Olla" in Manx and "Alargh" Cornish, is known for its majestic grace and gliding mystical beauty. Little wonder then that these birds of the family Anatidae within the genus Cygnus are associated with the gods and goddesses of the pre-Christian Celtic peoples. They are seen as having links to the Otherworld (Aos Si) community whose world was reached through mists, hills, lakes, ponds, wetland areas, caves, ancient burial sites, cairns and mounds. Within these realms dwelt the Celtic gods with all of their supernatural ability. Association with these deities gave the swan an exalted status linked to the Celtic festivals such as those of Beltane and Samhain.

Swan species are: Whooper, Trumpeter, Tundra, Mute, Black-necked, Black, and Berwick. A male swan is called a cob; a female is a pen, and the young are called cygnets. The Northern Hemisphere species of swan have a plumage of pure white. The Southern Hemisphere species are mixed black and white. The Australian black swan is black except for the white flight feathers on its wings. However, the white Mute Swan was also introduced to Australia and New Zealand. The South American black-necked swan has a white body with a black neck. Largest of the waterfowl family Anatidae, the swan is one of the biggest of the flying birds. The larger of the species, including the mute swan, trumpeter swan, and whooper swan, can be over 59 in (1.5 m) with a weight of over 33 Ib (15 kg). Wingspans can extend to over 10 ft (3.1 m). Swans are noted as usually choosing a mate that lasts for life.

Corineus - mythological descendent of Troy, great warrior and founder of Cornwall.

Corineus

Corineus, in medieval British legend, was a prodigious warrior, a fighter of giants, and the eponymous founder of Cornwall.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (1136), he led the descendants of the Trojans who fled with Antenor after the Trojan War and settled on the coasts of the Tyrrhenian Sea. After Brutus, a descendant of the Trojan prince Aeneas, had been exiled from Italy and liberated the enslaved Trojans in Greece, he encountered Corineus and his people, who joined him in his travels. In Gaul, Corineus provoked a war with Goffarius Pictus, king of Aquitania, by hunting in his forests without permission, and killed thousands single-handedly with his battle-axe. After defeating Goffarius, the Trojans crossed to the island of Albion, which Brutus renamed Britain after himself. Corineus settled in Cornwall, which was then inhabited by giants. Brutus and his army killed most of them, but their leader, Gogmagog, was kept alive for a wrestling match with Corineus. The fight took place near Plymouth, and Corineus killed him by throwing him over a cliff.

Gods and Goddesses of the Celtic Pantheon - Part II

The Druids were the caretakers of Celtic culture.  When he came into contact with the Druids during his conquest of Celtic Gaul, Julius Caesar confirmed their religious role:

The Druids officiate at the worship of the gods, regulate public and private sacrifices, and give rulings on all religious questions.  Large numbers of young men flock to them for instruction, and are held in great honour by the people.

Portrayal of an Arch-Druid.

Had it not been for the Celtic religious ban on committing the wisdom and learning of the Druids to the written word, our understanding of the Celtic Pantheon would be much greater today than it is.

Alas too few texts have survived the savagery and wanton destruction directed at the Celts over the centuries especially during the emergence of the modern nation states of England and France and the wholesale destruction in Ireland during its occupation. The surviving written Celtic source documents are due to accidents of history and geography, mainly Irish and Welsh in origin. The Folkloric traditions of all the Six Nations augment the written record and provide an important source of our knowledge of the Celtic pantheon.

This article is the second part of our survey of the Gods and Goddesses of the Celtic Pantheon. Read Part I here.

Greetings on the Celtic Celebration of Halloween 2015

Halloween turnips

The Celtic festival Halloween is celebrated on the night of 31st October and 1st November every year.

In the six Celtic Nations, Halloween marks the end of the summer and the beginning of winter. The festival is associated with the Celtic feast of Kala-Goañv (Breton), Calan Gwaf (Cornish), Samhain (Irish), Sauin (Manx Gaelic), Samhuinn (Scottish Gaelic) and Calan Gaeaf (Welsh).

Entirely pagan in origin, Halloween was traditionally a time of year when the worlds of the living and the dead were seen to be at their closest. It is a time when the creatures of the 'Otherworld' make their presence known to the people of 'this world'.

Halloween is now a globally celebrated festival, particularly in the 'New World' where its traditions were brought by waves of Celtic emigration. The lanterns, fires, costumes and belief in the supernatural remain deeply rooted in Celtic culture and tradition. So greetings on this Halloween or Hop tu Naa as it is known on the Isle of Man. Remember to enjoy this festival, but take care, spirits and entities not of this world arise on this night as our ancestors knew only too well. Pay respect to the creatures of the 'Otherworld' or there maybe a heavy price to pay!

If you haven't already, we recommend reading our exclusive interview with Dr Jenny Butler on the Celtic Folklore Traditions of Halloween.

Gods and Goddesses of the Celtic Pantheon - Part I

Celtic Pantheon

Celtic Mythology is a foundation stone supporting, along with the language, music and dance, our collective Celtic identity. Celtic Mythology is rooted in the Oral traditions of the six Celtic nations and in surviving manuscripts. Too few texts have survived the savagery and wanton destruction directed at the Celts over the centuries during the emergence of the modern nation states of England and France. The surviving written Celtic source documents are due to accidents of history and geography, mainly Irish and Welsh in origin. The Folkloric traditions of the Six Nations often amplify and sometimes deviate from the written record and provide an important source of our knowledge of the Celtic pantheon. This article is the first part of our survey of the Gods and Goddesses of the Celtic Pantheon.

Tuatha Dé Danann

Tuatha Dé Danann

The Tuatha Dé Danann form a significant feature in Irish, Scottish and Manx mythology. They are Celtic pre-Christian gods with supernatural ability and were of great importance to Gaelic people. They belong to the Otherworld (Aos Si) community whose world was reached through mists, hills, lakes, ponds, wetland areas, caves, ancient burial sites, cairns and mounds. Their association with ancient Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds is probably linked to the importance these sites had for the people of pre-history. They were places of communal interment for the ancestors of the Celts of northwest Europe who are descended from the native Neolithic peoples of these lands. Their story was passed on for many centuries in oral tradition. Many of these legends were recorded in a collection of poems and texts, some dating from the third century AD, and compiled in the eleventh century by Christian scholars in such works as the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann known in English as The Book of Invasions.

The Importance Of The Hare In Celtic Belief And Our Duty To Protect All Wildlife

Hare on old Irish three pence

Landscape, seas and geographic location plays a pivotal role in Celtic peoples history, beliefs and recognition of themselves. Our culture tells us that we are part of and completely tied to the lands in which we live and the sea that surrounds us. Consequently, as might be expected, Celtic mythology and folklore place the natural world at centre stage. In these stories everything in nature possess a spirit and presence of their own, including mountains, rocks, trees, rivers and all things of the land and the sea. Also forming part of the landscape and stretching back into the mists of time are the cairns, mounds and standing stones that are to be found everywhere in the Celtic lands of northwestern Europe. So accepted as a natural feature that they are seen as creations not of man but of nature or even the supernatural entities that were thought to live alongside the world known to humans.

Cairn L

Megalithic monuments were not placed in a random way but were large ceremonial complexes constructed for specific purposes. We can deduce that astronomical alignments, both solar and lunar, were important factors in the positioning of these remarkable structures. Our ancestors thought the constellations gave a special meaning to the world. Stone circles, cairns, other types of ancient stone monuments and Neolithic carvings have shown the Celts to be advanced astronomers. Ancient stones and tombs are placed in a way that capture moments of astronomical importance. According to archeologists the ancient Irish were the first to record a solar eclipse 5,354 years ago. A geometric etching illustrating the eclipse is thought to lie inside the Cairn L. This is one of the two large focal monuments on Cairnbane West outside Kells in Ireland’s County Meath. The carving of concentric circles and lines is at the back of the chamber of the cairn. As reported in a recent article in the Irish Post:

Faeries, Fraud and Frenzies: The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology by Dr James MacKillop

Book of Kells

Celtic Mythology is a foundation stone supporting, along with the language, music and dance, our collective Celtic identity.  “The Oxford “Dictionary of Celtic Mythology” by Dr. James MacKillop can be considered one of our primary reference texts. The author is a former Professor of English at Syracuse University, former visiting Fellow in Celtic Languages at Harvard University and is past president of the American Conference for Irish Studies.

Published by Oxford University Press in 1998, this work boasts over 4,000 alphabetised entries on deities, sacred places and the personalities associated with the Celtic revival and ancient texts. The entries are presented in a range from succinct definitions to comprehensive narratives. Included is a brief and lucid “Pronunciation Guide” to the modern Celtic languages. The modern Celtic tongues have branched  over the millennia in to two language groups.  This guide sets apart the Goidelic pronunciations of Manx, Scottish Gaelic and Irish versus that of the Brythonic pronunciations of Cornish, Breton and Welsh.

Celtic Mythology is rooted in the Oral traditions of the six Celtic nations and in surviving manuscripts.  Too few texts have survived the savagery and wanton destruction directed at the Celts over the centuries during the emergence of the modern nation states of England and France. The surviving written Celtic source documents are due to accidents of history and geography, mainly Irish and Welsh in origin.  The reasons for this are deftly placed into context by MacKillop in the introduction: “The phrase ‘Celtic texts’ in this volume refers primarily to those written in the Irish and Welsh languages.  Irish is the oldest written vernacular in Europe, with a literary tradition possibly beginning in the sixth century, with the coming of the Christian scribes, that has produced hundreds of narratives. Written Irish-language literary traditions survived the coming of the Anglo-Normans (1169), the flight of the native aristocracy (1607), Cromwellian pogroms (the 1650s) and in to the eighteenth century. Welsh literary traditions, for all its artistic splendour begins several centuries later, long after Christianity was well established and exists in much smaller volume.  A third, much more modest written tradition exists in Gaelic Scotland, related to old Irish...and continued by distinguished seventeenth and eighteenth century bards.”

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