Celtic Mythology

Cader Idris

Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris (1774).  R. Wilson.

[Robert Graves The White Goddess.]

The ancient Celts distinguished their poets from gleemen, who were originally priests and judges, as sacrosanct persons. In Irish fili is a seer. In Welsh the oak-seer is derwydd. Ogma was the god of eloquence and Brigit was the Three-Fold Muse. In ancient Ireland Ollave was the master poet as seen in the Book of Ollaves or Book of Ballymote. The Red Book of Hergest contains the Book of Taliesin and the Romance of Taliesin. The ancient Welsh myth called Cad Godden is known as The Battle of the Trees.

Goddesses transform into a sow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, tigress, mermaid, and hag. Innumerable names include White Lady, White Goddess, The Muse, Mother of All Living Things. The Night Mare was one of the cruellest aspects of the White Goddess.

Celtic Mythology.[Proinsias Mac Cana. London (1970)]

The earliest is the relation of the continental Celts of Gaul and Romanised Britain. Gaulish literature was oral and disappeared along with Gaulish. Thus Gaulish mythology is lost. Residual evidence is of three types. Thus (10 dedicatory inscriptions, (2) plastic representations, and (3) observations of classical authors.

With reference to Gaulish gods and insular equivalents there were numerous deity names – often local reference to tribal deities. Thus dea Brigantia or goddess of the Brigantes, or dea Tricoria the goddess of the Tricori. The Gaulish god called Teutates is a derivative of the Celtic word for tribe (teuta), thus the god of the tribe.

The Ulster Cycle tales include oath formulae that invoke the god of the tribe. Thus – tongu do dia toinges mo thuath means I will swear to the god to whom my tribe swear.

The Gaulish ‘Mercury’ is the Irish Lugh. Lugh – youthful, beardless plus cadeuces, petasus, purse, accompanied by a cock, goat (ram), and tortoise. Often associated with Maia or Rosamarta.  Gaulish Mercury’s name, and most recorded and Lugh’s cult was not common to Ireland.

The placename – Lugodonon (Latin – Lugodunum) includes Lugus. Derived – Lyon, Laon (France), Leon (Spain), Leiden (Holland), Leignitz (Silesia). Romano-British – Lugovallum or Carlisle. Lugovalos is “He who is strong like Lugus.”. Ireland = feast of Lughnasdh (commemoration of Lugh) or harvest festival. Lugh = Llen in Welsh – the Tale of Math ab Mathonwy in his shoemaker guise. Osma (Spain) inscription to Lugoves (plural of Lugus) on behalf of collegium sutorum (guild of shoemakers).

Lugh – the shining one is a colourful figure of the Tuatha de danaan. A solar deity (?). Victor over underworld malevolent beings (solar?). Possesses a spear, sling shot, and kills Baler (Baleful Eye). Lugnasadh = feast of Lugh = harvest festival. Thus “Two of the principal sites, Camun (?) and Talliu, and probably others besides, were the burial places of female deities who are clearly associated with the earth and its fertility.” (28).

Lugh = divine prototype of human kingship. Analogues are Odin, Veruna (Indian). Usual epithet is Lamhfhada or ‘of the long arm.’ See also Indian Savitar (of the wide hand) who controls day, night, moon and sun.. Lugh = Indo-European heritage.

Teutates, Esus, Taranis: Mars and Jupiter. Three Gaulish deities.  Teutates – blood sacrifice; Esus – barbarous altars; Taranis – compared – Scythian Diana. Victims of teutates – asphyxiated in full vat. Victims of Esus – suspended from Trees. Victims of Taranis – burned together in wood cages (The Wicker Man?).  Sacrifice of teutates – echo of Posidonius. Sacrifice of Esus – echoes Odin on world tree. Parallels to Esus sacrifices = Diamaid mac Cerbhaill and Muirchertach mac Erca. Plus – Norse Fjolnir.

Elaborately contrived death = Samhain (sacred festival – end of summer). Thus “…a recurrent mythological theme and, more specifically, with a rite relating to the sacred kingship.”  (31). Irish narratives and motif and Threefold Death. Teutates – Roman equation – Mercury or Mars. Gaulish Mars/Mercury is a functional overlap, an assimilation.

Hence epithets = Lovantucarus and Vellamus – both deities. Also “…Teutates appears originally to have been a descriptive term rather than a proper name…” (31). Esus is a guise of a woodcutter. Little evidence of a cult. Taranis – little substantial evidence of a cult. The Roman equation = Jupiter (symbol of Taranis is a wheel). The wheel is a solar symbol.

Components of the Gaulish Apollo. Numerous dedications are Gallo-Roman. Also drives away diseases. Numerous epithets include Belenus (special deity in Noricum in eastern Alps); Traces in Britain, orth Italy, south Gual. Recalls the Irish name of May Day = Beltane (tene  is fire, bel is shining), Belenus is a solar character. Atepomaros means possessing a great horse. Another name for Gaulish Apollo is Grannus.

The diversity of Celtic mythology shows no close unity. The relationship is one of common inheritance. Religious autonomy helped decentralise the Celts. Tribal gods and the myths “…proliferate in endless narrative variants but their themes are constant…in large measure common to the whole Celtic world.” (20).

Celtic myths – Old Irish, Old Welsh – written down = Christianity – firm hold. Christian scribes bowdlerised the ancients stories of gods, goddesses. Former priests – denigrated as wizards, sorcerers. Christian veneer – added to pagan vibrancy of myths/tales. Gods, goddesses = devoted to Otherworld spirits, entities, fairies.

Spoken Manx and Scots > diverged from standard – 6th and 7th centuries AD. Thus – myths – Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland = often same. Evidence – bards/storytellers – wandered freely.

Account – chief bard of Ireland = Seanchan Torpeist (570-647 AD). Arrived – Isle of Man – and entered literary contest. Manx literature emerged in 7th century.

Scottish Gaelic literature – emerged in 16th century – emerged from that shared with Ireland. Thus – The Book of the Dean of Lismore (in Argyll) = miscellany – compiled in 1516 – included sagas of Fiann of Finn mac Cumhaill.

Cornwall = written forms – 10th century AD. Reflective of the Mabinogi. Like Goidelic Celtic seanachaidhe (wandering bards) – the Brythonic Celts gad cyfarwydd. Arthurian poem – translation of earlier Cornish manuscript by John of Cornwall (12th century AD). Dated to 10th century AD = The prophecy of Merlin.

Breton – oldest text = 1450 > Dialog etre Arzor Roe d’an Bretournet ha Guynglaff  [Dialogue of Arthur, King of the Bretons]. Breton provenance. Not a copy of Welsh sagas etc. By end of 15th century – Breton literature in earnest – e.g., Buhez santaz Nonn hag he nap Devy (The Life of St Nonn, Son of Devy) = one of the first major works of the tradition. See – Barzaz Breiz: Chants Populaires de la Bretagne [Theodore Hersart de la Villemarque, 1839].



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