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Celtic Mythology: Myths of the Ancient World

I have a particular interest in culture and history, especially the history of my home country, Ireland.

All about Celtic myths and legends.

All about Celtic myths and legends.

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 pagan people who did not believe in written language. However, they were far from unintelligent–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 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 the 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.

Cuchulainn's death, illustration by Stephen Reid (1904)

Cuchulainn's death, illustration by Stephen Reid (1904)

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)

The story of this cattle raid 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-handedly. 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.

Why is it called a cattle raid? Medb, the warrior queen of Connaught, wanted to match (or even exceed) the wealth of her husband, who owned a white-horned bull. The Bull of Cooley was supposedly more famous than this white-horned bull, so Medb sent an army to Ulster to capture it. Cu Chulain defended Ulster, but after days of fighting, the Bull of Cooley was eventually captured by the army of Connaught. Peace between the two provinces was restored after the Bull of Cooley killed the bull with the white horns.

In the Myth of Lir, children are turned into swans by their jealous stepmother.

In the Myth of Lir, children are turned into swans by their jealous stepmother.

The Children of Lir

This 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

This story is about the warrior Oisin, and how he is persuaded 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.

When he returns to Ireland, 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. At 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.

An early mosaic depicting King Arthur.

An early mosaic depicting King Arthur.

Myths From Celtic Britain

Below are two stories (one a legend, one a myth) from Celtic Britain that are famous both locally and around the world.

The Tales of King Arthur

The most famous legends 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.

You can find an entire copy of Tales of King Arthur by Andrew Lang (1918 edition) here.

Rhys and Meinir

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 Meinir. It is a sad tale of love thwarted, where Meinir goes missing on the day of their intended wedding, and Rhys goes slowly mad with confusion. Eventually, he finds the skeleton of his true love trapped in a tree and dies 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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Jean Bakula from New Jersey on August 30, 2018:

Lovely article about an interesting subject!

Hazel on July 03, 2018:

Very well explained. I now know the main strengths of celtic beliefs.

Brett on June 21, 2017:

Thank you for this wonderful insight into Celtic belief & mythology ✨

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on June 04, 2015:

Thanks for the tip!

Genevieve Halkett from Dayton, Ohio on May 31, 2015:

Nice-for a wonderful retelling, check out "Over Nine Waves" by Marie Heaney (wife of poet Seamus).

This article is a great intro.

Mary Kelly Godley from Ireland on July 24, 2013:

Love Irish Celtic tales too. My particular favorite is the Banshee who is said to have descended from the Morrigan. She was a very interesting Celtic lady/mystical spirit who I have read a lot about.

chrisnstar on February 05, 2012:

I am Greek, not Irish, but love the mythology of both peoples. I have a degree in American Indian studies too and studied their mythology. It's amazing the similarities.

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on February 05, 2012:

Lucky you - that is a beautiful area!

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on February 05, 2012:

I am glad you enjoyed it. I am passionate about myths and legends and very glad to share what I have picked up!

chrisnstar on February 04, 2012:

I stayed for awhile near the cooley and mourne mountains and walked part of the "tain way." enchanting place. very mystical

asmaiftikhar from Pakistan on February 04, 2012:

marie that's an awesome hub with useful info.thanks for sharing.