Celtic Myth & legend

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:

Deirdrê - Tragic Heroine In Ancient Irish Mythology

Deirdre painting

Deirdrê is the tragic heroine in Irish pre-Christian legend, whose story is told in the ancient Irish mythology of the Ulster Cycle. Deirdre was born in the reign of Conchobar mac Nessa King of Ulster. She was the daughter of Fedlimid mac Daill who was bard to the royal court. Her beauty was foretold at her birth by Cathbad the chief druid. He also gave a warning that her beauty would result in Kings going to war over her and sorrow would follow. Conchobar ignores this warning as he intends to marry her when she comes of age. He seeks to possess this woman of such great beauty and sends Deirdrê to be brought up in seclusion by the wise old woman Leabharcham, away from the gaze and desires of other men. Leabharcham fulfils her duty of raising and educating Deirdrê, until her return to the court of King Conchobar.

Destiny cannot be denied however, as the prophecy of Cathbad the chief druid is already taking shape. Leabharcham, for all the care she has taken, has also told Deirdrê about the handsome young warrior Naoise. He was the nephew of King Conchobar mac Nessa. When they met Deirdrê fell in love with Naoise. Although he knew that she was destined to marry the King the couple eventually eloped. Along with Naoise's two brothers, Ardan and Ainnle, the couple are pursued across Ireland by Conchobar and eventually have to flee to Scotland. But even in Scotland there are Chiefs who seek to take Deirdrê for their own and she and Naoise must move from place to place. King Conchobar still remains determined and angry in his quest. He tracks them down and sends Fergus mac Róich to meet them promising a guarantee of safe passage home. This was a guarantee that Fergus believed to be promised in honour, but Conchobar had other ideas. On the journey to the King’s royal seat at Emain Macha, Fergus was ordered to separate from those he was escorting home and join King Conchabar. Directing his own son to protect them, Fergus sent Naoise, Deirdrê, Ardan and Ainnle on to Emain Macha.

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.

Eye Witness Account - Beware the Frenzy of the Fairy Ring - Limerick Residents Wary

Fairies

In its current newsletter, The Fairy Investigation Society has proffered an eye witness account of a Fairy Ring. The Fairy Investigation Society was founded in 1927 and was active until World War II, lapsed for a period of time and was again active from the 1950s until again falling dormant in the 1990s. The Society, whose membership roll once included Walt Disney and Hugh Dowding, the hero of the Battle of Britain, was comprised of “Fairy Believers” according to the group’s website. 

In 2013 the Society was again launched but in a departure from its long history now welcomes anyone with an interest in “Fairy Lore” rather than a belief in Fairies.

Brigid - Celtic Goddess To Christian Saint - The Feast of Imbolg

During the period of Christian conversion of Ireland in the 4th and 5th centuries, it was the strategy of monastic scholars to ensure an easy transition from Celtic to Christian belief. The disciples of Saint Patrick successfully deceived the Celts into thinking that the new faith of Rome was a mere extension of their traditional religion.

Christian missionaries incorporated elements of the peoples veneration of the Celtic Gods into Christian doctrine. The often used example of this religious shift is the fate of Brigid. Brigid was deftly transformed from a daughter of ‘The Dagda’ of the Tuatha Dé Danann into the Saint of the same name. In the early tales of the Christian Saint, Brigid is portrayed as the daughter of a Druidical household before her embrace of the new religion. The Druids were the priests of the pagan Celtic religion but were also akin to today’s upper middle classes: “The Druids were the professionals of pre Christian Celtic society. They comprised all the professions – doctors, lawyers, teachers, philosophers, ambassadors...(and priests of the Celtic Faith)” (Ellis). Thus with her conversion to Christianity, Brigid abandons the Celtic Gods and their priests, the Druids. To reinforce this transition the early church adopted the feast day of the Celtic Goddess Brigid, or Imbolg, to the feast day of the Christian saint.

Ker Ys (Breton: Kêr-Is)

In the Celtic mythology of Brittany Ker Ys (Breton: Kêr-Is) was a City lost under the sea. The City was said to have been built by Gradlon, legendary 5th century King associated with the area of Cornouaille in Brittany. King Gradlon was said to be a great warrior and was engaged in warfare against lands in the far north. He had many ships which he used to conduct his attacks. Although successful his sailors became tired of fighting and decided to return home leaving Gradlon alone in the north. It was then that Gradlon met the magician and Queen of the North, Malgven.

Impressed by his prowess as a warrior, she persuaded Gradlon to join her in killing her husband, the King of the North. The pair then took Morvarc'h, Malgven’s magical black horse, who is described as being able to ride on the sea and breathed fire from his nostrils, One version say’s that they caught up with the fleet of boats carrying Gradlon’s sailors, but that a storm separated them from the main fleet. Another says that the fleet scattered out of fear of the site of Morvarc'h. The result of either was that Gradlon and Malgven were adrift for many months. On the long journey Malgven gave birth to their daughter, Dahut. In some versions of the story Malgven died during childbirth. In others, she did not die but decided to return to her own land having established that Gradlon loved and cared for the child. She asked Gradlon to drop her off on an island and told him that Dahut would always have Malgven’s face to remind him of her.

The Celtic Roots of Christmas Traditions

Celtic Christmas

The roots of the Christmas traditions that we recognize today can be traced back to pre-Christian celebrations of the Winter solstice. The solstice is the twice yearly event when the sun appears to be at its highest or lowest point above the horizon. In the northern hemisphere the Winter solstice usually occurs annually between December 20 and December 23.

The Winter solstice was seen by the ancient Celts as one of the most significant times of the year. The Neolithic monuments of Newgrange in Éire, Maes Howe in Orkney, Scotland and Bryn Celli Ddu in Ynys Môn,  Wales are examples of burial chambers scattered throughout the Celtic nations constructed to capture the full impact of sun’s rays during the solstices.

Druids, the priestly class in ancient Celtic society, celebrated the festival of Alban Arthuan (also known as Yule) at the time of the Winter solstice. It was on this day that they ceremonially gathered mistletoe from oak trees. A practice described in the writings of Roman historian Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus AD 23 – August 25, AD 79).

Giants Causeway - the stepping-stones created by an Irish giant

Giants Causeway (Irish: Clochán an Aifir or Clochán na bhFomhórach) is a remarkable and beautiful place that is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a nature reserve. Located on the northern coast of County Antrim (Irish: Contae Aontroma) in the northeast of Ireland (Irish: Éire). The area is made up of about 40,000 interlocked basalt columns resulting from a volcanic eruption some 60 million years ago. The majority of the columns are hexagonal, but others have a different number of sides.

Sgáthach the legendary Scottish warrior queen

Scottish warrior

In Gaelic legend, Sgáthach, or Scáthach, is a Scottish warrior. She features in the Ulster Cycle (Irish: an Rúraíocht) one of the four cycles in Irish mythology along with the Mythological Cycle, Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle (also known as the Cycles of the Kings). Sgáthach was said to be a warrior queen whose fortress, Dún Scáith or Dùn Sgàthaich (Fortress of Shadows) is named after her and is on the Isle of Skye (Scottish Gaelic: An t-Eilean Sgitheanach). The remains of  Dunscaith Castle now stand on the site where her fortress was once said to be located.

Sgáthach trained the legendary Irish hero Cú Chulainn, who also appears in Scottish and Manx folklore. He is said to be the son of Lugh, a god in Irish mythology and member of the pre-Christian Gaelic pantheon the Tuatha Dé Danann. In the Ulster Cycle, Lugh fathered Cú Chulainn with the mortal maiden Deichtine who was the sister of Conchobar mac Nessa the king of Ulster. The instruction of Cú Chulainn by Sgáthach is described  in Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer), one of the stories in the Ulster Cycle. Cú Chulainn had fallen in love with Emer, daughter of Forgall Monach, who opposed to the match. He suggested that Cú Chulainn should complete his training as a warrior with Sqáthach in the land of Alba (Scotland) before marrying Emer. Forgall’s expectation was that Cú Chulainn would be killed in the process.

Interview with Dr. Jenny Butler: The Celtic Folklore Traditions of Halloween

Dr. Jenny Butler

By popular demand, we are re-featuring this exclusive interview with Dr. Jenny Butler, originally published in October 2013.

The ancestry of modern Halloween, which needs no introduction here, leads on a straight line back to Samhain, the Celtic feast day of the Dead. One of the four annual feast days of the Celtic world, Samhain was such an important feast day that it did not escape the notice of Julius Caesar as he ravaged Celtic Gaul who remarked that the Celtic god of death and winter was worshipped on this day.

Samhain was the principal feast day of Celtic Ireland prior to the arrival of Christianity. Over time, the Christianisation of Celtic religious belief re-made Samhain into All Saints Day, a principal Holy Day of the Catholic Church, which as the name of the Holy Day suggests, gives a nod to its roots as the Celtic feast of the dead. The smooth transition from Celtic Samhain to the Christian holiday honouring dead Christian Saints is just another example of how expert were St. Patrick’s missionaries in weaving Celtic myth into Christian belief making it seem as if the new religion was really an extension of the existing faith in the Gods of the Celtic Pantheon.

Transceltic are honoured to have had the opportunity to interview Dr Jenny Butler on her insights into the origins of Halloween. Dr Butler is a folklorist based at University College Cork's Folklore and Ethnology Department with a PhD thesis on the topic of Irish Neo-Paganism. Dr Butler’s principal interests are in the areas of mythology, belief narratives, folk religion, ritual and festival. A member of The Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (ISASR), she has numerous articles to her credit. Dr Butler is currently working on a book about Irish contemporary Paganism.

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