Celtic Mythology: Myths of the Ancient World
Celtic mythology - stories from the ancients
The 'Celts' is often a name given to the people who lived in Britain and Ireland in ancient times, and also in northwestern France and northwestern Spain. We know of their existence because historians at the time of the Roman Empire wrote about them, their culture and their characteristics. They were a pagan people, who did not believe in written language. However, they were far from illiterate - the Celtic people had a rich tradition of oral stories full of gods and monsters, heroes and beautiful women.
The myths of the Celts were recorded in the medieval period. For example early Christian monks in Ireland wrote down the the mythological cycles of stories which were recited in the courts of kings as a form of collective history. In England it was the Norman invaders who interested themselves in local legends of a magical king called Arthur. The Arthurian romances are some of the most famous stories from the Celtic world. They speak of a time before church and state when individuals and tribes had to make a life for themselves as best they could in a world beset with inexplicable forces.
Celtic mythology is rich with symbolism of life, death and rebirth, replete with the magic of nature and the ancient world. This article outlines some of the most famous stories from Celtic mythology, in Celtic Ireland and Britain.
Myths from Ireland
The Celtic mythology of Ireland was well recorded by Irish monks in the middle ages, and so many ancient sagas - many of them tragedies - have survived up to the present day. Here are some of the most well known Irish legends:
- The Cattle Raid of Cooley (tain bo cualigne) comes from the Ulster cycle of myths and involves the hero Cu Chulain defending the province of Ulster from raiders in the south. Cu Chulain was said to be the greatest warrior that Ireland had ever seen and there are many tales of his prowess and feats, as well as his love for the beautiful Emer. Sadly though he was not invincible and the legend has it that he died finally defending Ulster single-handed. It was a proud warrior's death and it was no one less than the Goddess of War and Death ( Morrigan) who brought it about through her magic.
- The Children of Lir is a sorrowful tale of four children who are turned into swans by their stepmother Aoife who is jealous of the love their father, Lir, has for them. Aoife curses the swan-children and condemns them to live on water for nine hundred years before they can regain their human form. At the end of nine hundred years the children finally can come to shore - but they are children no more. Ancient and shriveled, they set foot on land again, only to die and find peace at last.
- Oisin in the land of Tir na nOg tells how the warrior Oisin is persuade to come to the land of the ever-young by a beautiful goddess, Niamh. In Tir na nOg no one grows old or dies, and there is feasting and music every day. One day however Oisin realizes he misses his friends and family in Ireland and tells Niamh he wants to return. She gives him a white horse to take him back to Ireland, but warns him he must not get down from the horse under any circumstances. Oisin is shocked and saddened to learn that he has been away for hundreds of years, everyone he knew has long since died and the land has changed. While pondering this sad truth, he sees a man trying to roll a large stone out of a field he is clearing and Oisin leans down from his horse to help him move the stone. In that moment, the strap around his saddle snaps and he falls to the ground. In an instant hundreds of years of time catch up with Oisin, and he turns to dust.
Myths from Celtic Britain
The most famous myths from ancient Britain are the tales of Arthur and the knights of Camelot. These stories were heavily influenced by medieval Norman writers who imposed their own values of chivalry, courtly love and Christian themes on the older Celtic legends. However, in the druidic figure of Merlin and in the deadly goddess-character of Morgan Le Fay we can glimpse something of the original, Celtic mythology underpinning the medieval romances.
Arthur features in a medieval Welsh collection of stories called the Mabinogi - a great source of early Celtic legends. One of the saddest, and most well-known, Welsh stories is that of Rhys and Meneir. It is a sad tale of love thwarted, where Meneir goes missing on the day of their intended wedding and Rhys goes slowly mad with grief. Eventually he finds the skeleton of his true love trapped in a tree, and dies himself in that moment of shock and grief.
The Wisdom of Celtic Mythology
As you have probably noticed early Celtic tales tend not to have happy endings. They are at best bittersweet. Many are tragic and speak to the nature of happiness as a brief, passing moment which cannot overcome the inevitable separation of death.
However, these sad tales can also be a source of inner strength, they remind us to live for the present because death is inevitable. The stories also tell tales of great human qualities like courage, soul-love and faithfulness. Most of all, they are set in a world of magical forces, where anything is possible and where individuals can shape their own destinies - at least for a while.
Moreover, Celtic mythology is imbued with faith in eternal life. While heroes and heroines might die in this mortal life, the Celts believed that their souls would pass into the undying lands. So in Celtic myth and legend, even tales of death are ultimately a story of rebirth.