Celtic Myth & legend

Patricia Monaghan and The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore

The prolific Patricia Monaghan, at the time of her recent death in November 2012, was Professor at Chicago's DePaul University School for New Learning (America's largest Catholic University). The author of "The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore", Monaghan is from an Irish American family and held dual citizenship. She was author of over 20 books reflecting a general interest in Celtic and non-Celtic deities, an example being her "Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines" first published in 1981. An author of eclectic interests, Monaghan also penned the 2008 "Wineries of Minnesota and Wisconsin" and at the time of her death at age 66 had just completed an anthology entitled "Brigid: Sun of Womanhood" which is set for 2013 publication.

We are grateful for Professor Monaghan's interest in spirituality and mythology for it led to the 2004 publication of "The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore". This work contains over 1000 entries spanning 500 pages which enjoy generous source citations for further reading and covers topics of Celtic mythical heroines, sacred Celtic places and objects, religious concepts and the Celtic pantheon. One of the sacred places cited is Lough Gur near modern Limerick in Ireland, which is the site of the largest extant Stone Circle in Ireland The Grange. This sacred place is believed to be an entrance to the Otherworld, a belief common in Celtic lands where water was seen as the "dividing line between this world and that of the Fairies".

Selkie

SelkieThe Selkie-folk, in the mythology of Orkney and Shetland, are a supernatural race of shape-shifting seal creatures.  They are said to be able to shed their seal skin and then take human form. However, it was vital for the Selkie never to lose its seal skin for it was that which gave them the ability to return to their original seal from. Sometimes the Selkies were known for shedding their skins and sunbathing on the beaches and rocks in their human form.

Selkie males were said to be able to turn into handsome mortals and are noted for their encounters with the women they were able to seduce. Selkie females are also said to be highly attractive in their human form to men. In the tale of ‘The Goodman o’ Wastness’ a handsome young man finds a group of Selkie-folk lying naked on the rocks in the sunshine. He surprises them and all but one manages to retrieve their seal skins and escape to the water. In her haste one of the Selkie-folk leaves her skin on the rock and is not able to return to seal form. The Goodman takes the skin.

Kelpie (Mythical 'Water Horse' in Folklore of Scotland)

A Kelpie in the Celtic mythology of Scotland was originally a name given to a ‘Water Horse’. This supernatural entity could be found in the lochs and rivers of Scotland and also has a place in Irish folklore. The description of their appearance can vary in different tales. Sometimes white with smooth cold skin, or black and grey. Some of these variations and the stories associated with the Kelpie are regional in origin.

In some stories they are described as ‘shape shifters’. They are able to transfer themselves into beautiful women who can lure men and trap them. However, the Kelpie does not always take a female form and are mostly male. They are also described as posing a particular danger to children when in the shape of a horse. Attracting their victims to ride them they are taken under the water and then eaten.

In Orkney a similar creature exits known the “Nuggle”. Again this creature takes the form of a horse and waits by the waterside. Any human mounting the horse is taken into the river or loch and drowned. In the Shetland Islands the water horse is known as “Shoopiltie” and again lures people to ride but then plunges into water with its doomed human cargo.

Korrigans

Korrigans

In the rich Celtic mythological tales of Brittany the Korrigans form a group of female entities who are associated with rivers and wells. Sometimes they are described as fairy like creatures with beautiful golden hair. They are seen in some tales as changelings who can alter their shape. They can lure men with their beauty and have the power to make them fall in love with them. If a man falls in love with a Korrigan they will kill him.

Korrigans are sometimes described as druidesses who fought against the Christian conversation of their supernatural domain. They are also associated with Halloween, which has its origins in the old Celtic New Year on 31st October. On this night some say they can be seen, waiting for victims near the ancient megalithic dolmens, tumuli and menhirs that are found in abundance in Brittany. Most famously in the Carnac area of Morbihan where Neolithic alignments of standing stones date back tothe 5th millennium BC.

Ankou

In the Celtic mythology of Brittany the figure of Ankou is associated with death. Tall and wearing a long dark coat, a wide brimmed hat and carrying a scythe over his shoulder, the skeletal Ankou is a collector of the souls of the dead. Ankou is sometimes said to have two skeleton helpers who assist in loading the souls of the dead into a rickety cart drawn by black horses. 

There are a number of tales about Ankou. One is recounted in the book of Breton myths, legends and music compiled and published in 1839 by Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué, ‘Barzaz Breiz’.

It involves the story of three young drunken friends who when returning home one night met an elderly man dressed in black on an old cart. The man was Ankou. Two of the men started to taunt the old man and throwing stones broke the axel of his cart, they then ran away.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J.R.R. Tolkien

Sigurd StoneUsing traditional verse, J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, tells the legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. The dragon slayer Sigurd's dramatic exploits are vividly recounted by Tolkien, who combines his skill as an author and academic.

In the Celtic world, there are many Scandinavian influences, particularly Norwegian. Dublin, the Irish capital city, was founded by the Vikings. You can learn more about Dublin's Viking history by visiting the Dublinia Viking and Medieval Museum, which has excellent exhibitions on Viking Dublin.

The Islands of Scotland and the Isle of Man formed the Northern and Southern Isles. The Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney were known to the Norse as  Norðreyjar. The Southern Isles forming the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles consisting of the Hebrides, the islands in the Forth of Clyde and the Isle of Man were known as Suðreyjar. Geneticist Professor David Goldstein led a fifteen month genetic study which formed the basis of a five part BBC documentary that looked at the Viking heritage remaining in these areas. Concentrations of Norwegian genetic heritage were found.

The Norse influences on the life and peoples of these islands remain clear today. The festival of Up Helly Aa is held in Shetland in January every year culminating in the burning of a Viking galley. The Isle of Man has retained the system of government introduced by the Norse. The Manx Parliament known as Tynwald is the oldest continuous parliament in the world and it is thought the Vikings adapted it from an existing ancient Celtic ceremony dedicated to the Sun-God.

Buggane

A Buggane is a Celtic ogre type creature that features in Manx mythology. A shape shifter his natural look is fearsome. Large, long black hair, tusks, claws, cloven hoofs and a mouth that could rip the head of any prey; woe betide those who upset a Buggane. There are many tales of people who have for one reason or another had the misfortune to get on the wrong side of a Buggane.

The Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend by Miranda Green

Meayll Circle on Isle of Man

Professor Miranda Green of Cardiff University in Wales is the author of several books related to Celtic Culture including the well known "The World of the Druids".

The Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend by Prof. Green has been widely hailed as an excellent reference text for the expert or layman with an interest in Celtic Mythology. The praise is justified.

In over 200 pages of alphabetized Divinities, Mythological Beings, Sacred Animals, Symbols and Natural Phenomenon, Professor Green provides a masterful reference text to the pre-Christian Celtic world. Richly illustrated, this is an easy and enjoyable read for those of us seeking a lucid presentation of the rich myth and legend of the ancient Celts. The fourteen page introduction, if dutifully read and absorbed, gives the reader a firm grounding in this mesmerizing subject matter.

Halloween poem by Scotland’s Robert Burns

Halloween in Scotland has its roots in Celtic pagan tradition. This old Celtic New Year celebration of Samhuinn (Scottish Gaelic) starts on the eve of 31st October when witches, fairies  and the spirits of the dead roam the countryside. The poem below was written by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns (25 January 1759-21 July 1796)

 

Upon that night, when fairies light
On Cassilis Downans dance,
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly coursers prance;
Or for Colean the route is ta'en,
Beneath the moon's pale beams;
There, up the cove, to stray and rove,
Among the rocks and streams
To sport that night.

Among the bonny winding banks,
Where Doon rins, wimplin, clear,
Where Bruce ance ruled the martial ranks,
And shook his Carrick spear,
Some merry, friendly, country-folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, and pou their stocks,
And haud their Halloween
Fu' blithe that night.

Nos Galan Gaeaf - The Welsh Halloween Night

Welsh halloween

Calan Gaeaf is the first day of the winter and the old Celtic New Year. The night of Halloween October 31st is called Nos Galan Gaeaf in Welsh and it is when spirits and ghosts roam the land. In parts of Wales the ghosts such as the white lady (Ladi wen) would be seen on this night or the tail-less black sow (Hwch ddu gwta). Traditional celebrations on Nos Calan Gaeaf are rooted in pagan times and vary in different locations, including special foods and apples and the lighting of bonfires.

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