Celtic Mythology, also known as the mythology of Celtic ‘polytheism’, dates back to the early centuries and have survived through oral tradition, mainly storytelling. These legends and sages were first recorded by Christian monks in Ireland and by Norman invaders in England. Most of the records were taken around the 11th century. Some of the stories have become popular, especially the Arthurian romances. These myths happened at a time before the existence of the church when tribes and individuals survived as best as they could in a world plagued by mysterious forces. Symbolism of death, rebirth, and life are found in Celtic mythology. The magic of the ancient world and nature abound in these legends. Since most of the records were by Romans, Celtic gods were given Roman names and descriptions.
Celtic Mythology originates from the ancient people of Ireland and Wales. ‘Celts’ also lived in the French region of Brittany, Scotland, Isle of Man and Cornwall. At the peak of their power, they dominated a large part of Europe, from the British Isles to what is now Turkey in the east. The Celts were neither a nation, nor race; they were groups of people bound by culture, language, and religion. They didn’t have a centralized government, but lived in hill forts.
The Celts made a living through livestock and farming, with a reputation of brave warriors. They conquered Macedonia and Northern Italy before the Roman invasions that reduced them to a few small groups. The Germans also subdued the Celts in Central Europe. Their way of life and culture and were documented by Roman Empire historians. The Celts were described as pagans, and had no belief in written language, but chose to pass on their myths and sacred teachings orally. Despite this, they were cultured and had a rich oral tradition made up of hundreds of stories with elements such as gods, heroes, beautiful women, adventures, romance, magic and even monsters.
Structure of the Celtic Society
Every tribe had a king, who was the highest in rank in the community. There were three classes in each tribe namely; the religious leaders (druids); the warriors and noble knights; and the farmers and commoners. The druids were the most influential of the groups; they serve as priests, teachers, judges, and advisers. In fact, the people believed they had magical powers.
Celtic Mythology has four sub-categories or groups:
- Mythological Cycle: This is the record of the invasions by supernatural beings and deities. The Cycle focuses on the activities of the Celtic gods, mainly about how five races of supernatural beings went into war to gain control of Ireland. Dagda was the chief god, and legends record tales of his magic cauldron could bring the dead back to life.
- Fenian Cycle: This details the hunting adventures Fionn Mac Cumhail who led a heroic group of warriors known as Fianna to protect the Scottish and Irish lands. The stories describe exciting experiences and hand-to-hand fights.
- Ulster Cycle: Stories of warfare and victory tales of warriors, especially Cuchulain, the champion of Ireland.
- The King’s Cycle: This is a series of tales of the battles of legendary Irish kings that have inspired the Celts.
Celtic tales are filled with accounts of many gods that the people worshipped. Each tribe has its god, who was regarded as all-powerful. They provided for the people and protected them. Some of these gods have some similarities. An excellent example is Dadga, the god of life and death in Ireland who has a striking resemblance to Esus, the ”master” god of Gaul. Some of the essential female deities are Morrigan, Badb, and Nemain the three war goddess who appeared as ravens during battles. Brigit, the goddess of learning, and healing was also important as well as Epona, the horse goddess, believed to be the goddess of water, fertility, and death.
The supernatural beings, with magic and magicians, are playing a significant role.
- Magic Cauldron: A large magical kettle which supplied vast quantities of food. It was never empty. It also brought slain warriors that were killed in battle back to life.
- Voyages to mysterious lands.
- Larger than life heroes: They experienced all kinds of adventures, and often had to undertake difficult tasks before marrying their loved ones.
- Love and romance
- Mischief: The gods played tricks on the one another and humans.
- Animals changed shapes at will
- Life after death: Humans enter the underworld after death. In this mysterious place, there was no work and no end, and the gods and the spirits live happily ever.
Celtic mythology has many similarities between Christian stories in the bible and ancient Celtic tales. In Irish mythology, the characters include kings and queens, male and female deities, druids and other figures such as animals and warriors. Recently, there has been a revival of Celtic beliefs. Indeed, some movies, video games, and storybooks have been inspired by Celtic mythology.
Here is some symbolism that has their origin in the Celtic oral tradition:
- Boars for courage and strength
- Fish for knowledge
- Birds for prophetic knowledge
- Horses, pigs, and cattle for fertility
- Serpents and dragons for trouble
Mythology of the Irish and Welsh
The early Irish myths are a blend of history and mythology, with tales of different groups of humans and deities who settled in Ireland. These legends are filled with excitement and magic and accounts of battles between the forces of light and darkness go into battle. The stories describe a time when gods lived as humans among men on earth, using their power to bring fertility to the land and create civilization in Ireland..
Welsh legends, on the other hand, is a collection of 11 tales found in the Mabinogion. Like the Irish myths, the characters in the Welsh legends are half-gods and half-human. Most of the stories deal with accounts of the heroic acts of Britain’s King Arthur and his Knights (Arthurian legends).
Most Celtic tales do not have happy endings. They can be described as bittersweet, regarding happiness as a brief experience. They remind humans that death is inevitable. The legends also depict inspiring human qualities like faithfulness, soul love, and courage. Besides, they are set in a magical world where anything is possible. Most importantly, Celtic mythology is built on faith in eternal life. The heroes and heroines might die physically, but their souls will live forever in the undying lands. Indeed, death is regarded as a transition to the ‘rebirth’ state, in which the person becomes immortal.