Prionsias Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology (London: Hamlyn 1970) - Introduction

Table of Contents
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Introduction [11]: The rise of the Celts [11]; The decline of the Celts [11]; The conservators of tradition [14]; The sources [16]; The diversity of Celtic mythology [18].
Gaulish gods and insular equivalents [23]: The gods as noted by Caesar [23]; Gaulish Mercury: Irish Lugh [27]; Teutates, Esus, Taranis, Mars, Jupiter [29]; Gaulish Minerva: Irish Brighid [34]; Gaulish Vulcan: Irish Goibhniu, Welsh Gofannon [35]; Gaulish Ogmios-Hercules: Irish Oghma [37]; Gaulish Dis Pater: Irish Donn [41]; Sucellus and Natosvelta [44]; Cernunnos [44]; Triadic groups [48]; Goddesses: divine consorts, Matres [49]; Cult associations of inanimate nature [50]; Cult associations of animate nature [50]
The Tuatha Dé Danann [57]: The Book of Invasions [57]; The Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh [58]; The coming of the Gaels [64]; The retreat of the Tuatha Dé [64]; The Dagdha [66]; Irish Nuadha: Welsh Nudd [67]; Manannán Mac Lir [69]
The gods of Britain [75]; The family of Don [75]; The family of Llyr [75]; Pwyll, Rhiannon and Pryderi [80].
The goddesses of the insular Celts [85]: Medhbh of Connacht [85]; Goddesses of war [86]; Macha [90]; Goddesses of the happy otherworld [91]; Édaín [91]; The goddess of sovereignty [94].
The heroic tradition [97]: The Ulster Cycle [97]; The foretales: Deirdre and the sons of Uisnech [97]; The Feast of Briciu [99]; Cú Cuchulainn [101]; The Fionn Cycle [101]; The elopement of Diarmaid and Gráinne [110]; Fionn and Arthur [115].
Sacral kingship [117];
The otherworld [123]: The Feast of Samhain [126]; The land of the dead [128].
The integral tradition [131].
Further reading [138] - Acknowledgements [138] - Index [139].
Note: Only the text of the introduction is given on this page. For further extracts from the chapters and sections listed above, go to the work itself.

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The unity of the Celts of antiquity was one of culture rather than of race. Those peoples whom the Greeks and Romans knew as Celts no doubt were sprung from various ethnic origins, but in the view of external observers they had sufficient shared features in language and nomenclature, social and political institutions, and in general their way of life - to mark them off as a recognisably distinct nation. So far as the Celts of continental Europe are concerned, we must take the commentaries of Posidonius and his learned progeny largely on trust, since the communities of whom they wrote have long since been merged in other socio-cultural groupings. But the insular Celts remain albeit in sadly reduced circumstances and their separate traditions, which are important both in their extent and in their antiquity, not only reveal a close affinity between the cultures of the Irish and the British Celts, but also corroborate some of the more striking factual comments made by classical authors on the Celts of the Continent.

Moreover, down the ages there is a remarkable consistency in the comments of foreign observers writing about the Celts. Thus, while the popular notion of them as reflected in modern literature has undoubtedly been coloured by eighteenth and nineteenth-century romanticism with its susceptibility to mist, magic and melancholy, it certainly did not originate there. In fact, many, of the attributes which it ascribes to the Celts - eloquence, lyric genius, volatile temperament, prodigality, reckless bravery, ebullience, contentiousness, and so on have a much longer lineage, appearing in the accounts by classical authors of two thousand years ago. And how often, when reading the comments of Elizabethan gentlemen on the native Irish, does one experience the odd sensation of having seen a great deal of it before, in Posidonius and his derivatives to be precise. All of which seems to suggest that ethnological misrepresentations. once they, are born, never die - or alternatively. that such abstractions as the ‘Celtic character’ and the ‘Celtic temperament’ may ultimately have some basis in reality.

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The rise of the Celts
By the fourth century B.C. the Celts were accounted one of the four peripheral nations of the known world, beside the Scythians. the Indians and the Ethiopians - and not without reason. for already they had begun to intrude themselves, rudely and dramatically, into the affairs of the great Mediterranean centres of political and cultural influence. From their original homeland, which comprised southern Germany and part of Bohemia, they moved with explosive energy to the eastern and western limits of the European continent and threatened the rising power of Rome. By the end of the fifth century the area of Celtic settlement had already been considerably extended beyond its original limits and in Spain Celtic peoples were well established over much of the country following successive immigrations.

Then began a period of further rapid expansion. About 400 B.C. Celtic tribes invaded northern Italy, and while the main body settled there to form what was to be known as Gallia Cisalpina. others advanced on plundering raids throughout the peninsula and in 390 B.C. captured and sacked the city of Rome. To the east, other tribes advanced into the Carpathians and the Balkans where their presence is attested as early as the first half of the fourth century. The general impression is of a continual ferment of movement. whether in search of plunder and mercenary service or merely somewhere to settle. In 279 a section of them entered Greece and plundered the shrine of Delphi. and in the following year three of their tribes, known collectively as Galatae (an equivalent of the commoner term Keltoi / Celtae), crossed into Asia Minor and established themselves in the region which still bears the name Galatia.

By this time most of Britain was within the Celtic realm. The earliest immigration which can be confidently defined as Celtic took place in the fifth century B.C., another important influx is dated to the third century, and the final phase was reached with the arrival of the Belgae in the early part of the first century. Ireland presents a still more complicated problem, and widely divergent dates have been proposed for the coming there of the first Celts. As matters stand. however, it is only from about the third century B.C. onwards that the archaeological record permits us to speak with complete assurance of the Celts in Ireland, though there is a strong presumption that earlier settlements should be assigned to them.

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The decline of the Celts
In the early years of the third century the energy and resources of the Celts might have appeared inexhaustible. Masters of a vast area extending from Galatia in the east to Britain, and probably Ireland, in the west, they might have seemed ideally placed to establish an enduring empire or confederation. In the event. however, the Celts had reached the apogee of their power, and thereafter they entered upon a period of rapid decline which in retrospect seems to have been almost inevitable. The very ease and extent of their conquests carried the seeds of their undoing. Distance weakened lines of communication and encouraged disintegration. In some areas the ruling Celts were a small minority in the midst of an indigenous population, while at the same time they squandered manpower on purely mercenary ventures.

In sum, the Celtic peoples lacked the sense of cohesion and the flair for centralised organisation that could have consolidated this scattering of tribes into an empire or commonwealth. Whether they, would have developed these qualities, given time, is matter for pure speculation: in the event. they, were soon pressed hard on several sides, in the north by the Germans, in the east by the Dacians, and in the south by the Romans, and the end of the third century saw a steady recession of Celtic influence. A century later only fragments remained of their vast dominions, and the Celtic realm had come to be associated in a special sense with Gaul, where the Celts preserved their independence and separate identity until their conquest by Caesar.

Nor did this bring an end to their decline. In the first century B.C. Gaul was conquered by Caesar and incorporated within the Roman Empire. and a century later the subjugation of Britain followed. When the Western Empire collapsed in the fifth century A.D. the Gaulish language was all but extinct: the language which continues to be spoken in Brittany is of different stock, having been introduced afresh by immigrations from south-west Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries. In Britain itself the Roman presence came to an end in the fifth century, only to be followed by that of the Anglo-Saxons, and from then on the area of Celtic speech and sovereignty was steadily reduced: today the British branch of Celtic survives only in Wales and in Brittany.

During this time Ireland enjoyed almost complete security from outside aggression, its inhabitants speaking a Celtic language. which linguists label Goidelic and which in its modern form is known as Gaelic. We know from Tacitus that the Roman general Agricola intended it otherwise and claimed that the country could be taken and held by a single legion and a few auxiliaries. But Agricola’s plan never came to fruition and Ireland suffered no major intrusion until the coming of the Vikings in the ninth century and the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth. Consequently, the Irish social order and the learned system which it maintained remained immune from violent assault until long after Ireland had become a Christian country, and Irish a written language. This must be accounted one of the causes of the remarkable continuity and the conservative character of Irish learned tradition.

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The conservators of tradition
It is clear that in the several Celtic areas for which we have evidence the cultivation of literature and learning, and in earlier times of religion, rested upon a highly organised system of professional classes. One gathers from Greek and Latin writers (whose information, as already noted, derives mainly from the Greek geographer Posidonius) that there were three such classes: the druids, the bards, and between them an order that is variously named in the several texts but which seems to have been best known by a Gaulish term vatis, cognate with Latin vatis. The druids had the highest social status, and even though their powers and functions may have been the subject of varying degrees of misrepresentation by writers from Julius Caesar to our day. their influence must nevertheless have been considerable. They officiated at sacrifices, made and enforced legal decisions, and conducted their own elaborate system of education. The vates are generally represented as experts in divination, but it is not possible to make any rigid distinction between their functions and those of the druids, and some would argue that they do not constitute a separate class but rather a subordinate division of the druidic order. The bards were the class primarily concerned with literature, and in view of the heroic character of Celtic society it is hardly surprising that classical sources should describe them principally as singers of praise-poetry.

This scheme of things, attested by classical authors, is substantially confirmed by Irish tradition. Again we find a threefold division, here comprising druids (druidh), filidh, and bards (baird), As in the case of Gaul, here again it is difficult to distinguish rigorously between the intermediate class and the druids; indeed, already by the seventh century A.D. the filidh had become virtually the sole inheritors of such druidic functions and privileges as survived the stresses of the first few centuries of Christianity. Whereas the druids, as the foremost representatives of pagan religion, had borne the brunt of the Church’s opposition until they finally disappeared as a distinct order, the filidh succeeded in establishing a remarkable modus vivendi, with the ecclesiastical authorities which the two bodies separate complementary spheres of authority permitted the filidh to continue many of their ancient functions and prerogatives, including some which had belonged to the druids. Thus the filidh, whose title is often translated poets, were in fact very much more: they were seers, teachers, advisers of rulers, witnesses of contracts, and down to the seventeenth century when the native order finally collapsed under the might of English government, their power of satire remained an effective social sanction.

But as poets they also extended their range of interest at the expense of the baird. The Irish bards were once closely associated with the composition of praise-poetry, like their counterparts in Gaul, but gradually the filidh expanded own role until finally they could claim the monopoly of this important social function. The status of the bards suffered and throughout most of Irish literary history they are presented as an inferior class of rhymers, storytellers and entertainers. In Wales, on the other hand, the term bardd survives with enhanced dignity into the historical period, being used as a general title for the learned poets who correspond to the Irish filidh.

The parallel between the Irish and Gaulish systems of learning is not merely one of titles and hierarchical status; it extends also to details of internal organisation and practice. According to Caesar the Gaulish druids were both teachers and disciples of learning: distrusting the written word, they memorised vast quantities of poetry, and some continued their studies for as much as twenty years. In Ireland the curriculum of the student filidh extended over a period of at least seven years, and for the rest, Caesar’s observations are as relevant as for Gaul. He also says that the Gaulish druids had at their head one who held chief authority among them, and that, at a certain fixed time of the year, they met in assembly at a holy place in the lands of the Carnutes, which was regarded as the centre of Gaul. Similarly, the Irish druids, and their successors the filidh, had a leader elected from their own number, and they were closely associated in tradition with Uisnech, the ‘navel’ of Ireland, the location of the primal fire and reputedly the site of a great assembly (mórdháil Uisnigh).

In its essentials the system was evidently pan-Celtic. The geographer Strabo (IV, 4, 4) implies as much, and other evidence confirms it. Druidism probably existed in Galatia as well as in Ireland, Britain and Gaul, and one of the key-words of religious ritual, nemeton, ‘a sacred place’, often used more particularly of a sacred grove. is attested in place-names throughout the Celtic world. Again from Strabo we learn that the council of the Galatians met in assembly, at a place known as drunemeton. ‘oak-sanctuary’ (X II, 5, 1). which is clearly analogous to the locus consecratus, ‘consecrated place’,, where the Gaulish druids forgathered.

On a more general level one finds analogous institutions among several other peoples of the Indo-European linguistic group. The privileged priesthood of the druids had its counterpart in the Brahmans of India and the pontiffs of Rome, and it has been shown that these several priestly orders preserved elements of a common Indo-European religious terminology. What is still more important, they maintained, especially in the peripheral areas of India and Ireland, many cultural institutions and traditions bearing the unambiguous marks of common origin. As late as the seventeenth century the Irish filidh continue usages which find their closest detailed parallel in the sacred texts of the Indian Brahmans: there could be no more eloquent testimony to the conservatism of Irish learned tradition.

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The sources
The earliest sources 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 millennium 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, &c. 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 every where. 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 Gabhála, ‘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 Gabhála 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 an 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 Chrétien 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.

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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 social 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, m 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.

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