Celtic Myth & legend

Changelings, Fairies, Deities, and Saints: The Integration of Irish Christianity and Fairy Tale Belief

Fairy tales, folklore, and legends play a notable role in the foundation and development of nearly every culture and society. These stories serve as entertainment, education, and a means of socialization, and can often be linked to other cultural phenomena such as religion and spirituality. The fairy tales of Ireland are specifically rooted in spiritual beliefs and superstitions, and while modern religions have widely replaced these early belief systems, Gaelic and Celtic folklore has shaped the culture of Ireland in significant and lasting ways. Just as the Grimm brothers’ tales were used as entertainment as well as educational and moral lessons for children, Irish fairy tales were aimed at instructing and engaging all ages. According to Joseph Jacobs in his book Celtic Fairy Tales, "nowhere else is there so large and consistent a body of oral tradition about the national and mythical heroes as amongst the Gaels" (Jacobs, xx). The effect of the fairy faith’s absorption of  modern Christianity created a canon of tales that intertwines spiritual beliefs, lessons of morality, and entertainment value to create a lively and unique set of fables and a lasting impact on the culture of Ireland.

Myfanwy of Dinas Bran - A Sad Welsh Tale of Unrequited Love

The remains of Castell Dinas Bran stand above the Welsh town of Llangollen. The brooding site is the backdrop for the sad love story of Myfanwy. She is a princess and renowned for her beauty throughout Powys in Wales. Myfanwy is proud of her looks and wants her many suitors to proclaim her beauty in song and verse. Many come to court her but are not able to compose songs that truly reflect her looks. She rejects them all.

However, in the valley beneath the castle lives a poor bard Hywel ap Einion. Taking his courage in his hands the young bard goes to the castle and sings and plays for Myfanwy. Whilst he performs his song to her she is captivated and will look at no other. Hywel ap Einion believes his love for her to be reciprocated because of this.

Bunworth’s Banshee

Bunworth's Banshee

The story of the Reverend Charles Bunworth and the Banshee took place in Buttevant, County Cork, Ireland in the eighteenth century. The Reverend was a much respected man in the area and admired as an accomplished harpist. When he became ill local people became concerned. This was a concern that was heightened, not by the immediate prognosis of his illness, which was not thought to be terminal, but the strange events that took place in the area prior to his demise.

A servant of the household reported to the concerned family of Reverend Bunworth that he had heard the wailing of a banshee. He described how the woman had wailed and moaned and clapped her hands in despair, repeating the Reverend’s name. Local people knew that this could only mean one thing. For the banshee was known to all as the lone female figure whose cries of despair herald an impending death.

The Afanc - Mythical Welsh lake monster

Lady Charlotte Guest

The Afanc is a mythical Welsh lake monster. It is said to live in a number of different lakes in Wales such as llyn Llion, Llyn Barfog and Llyn-y-Afanc which bares its name. The creature also described variously as resembling a beaver, a dwarf and also a crocodile. It features in the tale of Peredur son of Efrawg (where it is known as the Addanc) contained within a collection of prose drawn from Celtic pre-Christian mythology and medieval Welsh manuscripts known as The Mabinogion. The Mabinogion is taken from The White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch) written in the mid-fourteenth century and in The Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) written later in the same century. Both contain a collection of the earliest Welsh prose texts. The stories draw from earlier pre-Christian Celtic mythology and contain the first examples of Arthurian tales.

Culhwch and Olwen (Welsh: Culhwch ac Olwen)

The story of Culhwch and Olwen is a remarkable Welsh tale told in two manuscripts. Partially in The White Book of Rhydderch (Welsh: Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch) written in the mid-fourteenth century and in total in The Red Book of Hergest (Welsh: Llyfr Coch Hergest) written later in the same century. Both contain a collection of the earliest Welsh prose texts. The story is included in a group of tales that was later known under the title The Mabinogion. Culhwch is connected with King Arthur who features in the tale and having been formulated prior to the 11th century is perhaps the earliest Arthurian tale. The stories draw from earlier pre-Christian Celtic mythology.

The White Book of Rhydderch is now located in the National Library of Wales and has been split into two volumes. One containing Christian scripts in Welsh translated from Latin and the other a collection of pre-Christian mythology. The Red Book of Hergest gets its name from its association with Hergest Court, where the Vaughan family had it in their possession, and the colour of its binding in leather. Written on vellum it is noted as an extremely important medieval Welsh manuscript and contains a collection of welsh poetry and prose. It is now located in Jesus College Oxford. The book gives an account of the story of Culhwch and Olwen a synopsis of which follows. 

Cormoran the Cornish Giant and Jack the Giant Killer

Celtic giantThe Celtic nation of Cornwall has many myths and legends involving giants. One such giant was Cormoran.  His legendary home was St Michaels Mount and from this base he launched many raids on the terrified locals, stealing their livestock. The desperate people offered a reward to anyone who could rid them of the giant and allow them to live in peace. Not fully expecting anyone to be brave enough to rise to this challenge they were surprised when a young boy called Jack stepped forward.

Tom Bawcock - A legend from Mousehole Village, Cornwall

Mousehole

The story of Tom Bawcock emanates from the Cornish village of Mousehole (Porthenys). The village is located on the shores of Michael’s Bay (Cammas an Garrek Los) to the south of Penzance (Pennsans). It is set in a stormy winter many years ago. The relentless winds had prevented the fishing boats from leaving harbour. As Christmas approached the local people were becoming desperate and there was a danger of starvation.

A fisherman, Tom Bawcock, seeing the misery and desperation of the people, decided to risk his life and take his boat out into the turbulent seas. He set out on 23rd December and his vessel was tossed and thrown on the crashing waves. Brave Tom Bawcock continued to fish, defying the weather to do its worse. When he arrived back into port he brought with him a mighty catch of fish; enough to feed the village. They were baked into a pie, with the heads of the fish pushed upwards through the pastry.

Morveren - The Cornish Mermaid of Zennor

In Cornwall the cove of Pendour is located close to the village of Zennor. A local legend tells of the story of Morveren the mermaid who lived at Pendour Cove. She was attracted to Mathew Trewella a handsome young local man and was captivated by his beautiful voice. Morveren would visit the church at Zennor just to hear him singing hymns and look upon his fine features.

Eventually Mathew began to notice the beautiful woman who had disguised her mermaid form. They fell in love, but Morveren knew that she could not survive for long away from her home in the sea. She felt compelled to tell Mathew the truth about herself and that as a mermaid she could not settle down to life on land. Sadly Morveren had to say to Mathew that she would have to go. Mathew was distraught and told her that he could not live without her.

Mathew told Morveren that wherever she went he would follow. He went with her to Pendour Cove and as she plunged into the waves he followed her. They live together now in the seas surrounding the beautiful Cornish coast. Local people living close to Pendour Cove will tell you that on calm still nights the sweet voice of Mathew can be heard carrying across the waves as he sings of his undying love for Morveren, The Mermaid of Zennor.

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.

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