An Introduction to Celtic Mythology
by Alexei Kondratiev, illustrations by Mercy E. Van Vlack

The Celtic peoples have long been famous for storytelling, and the rich imagery of their tales has had a profound influence on European literature in general, from the courtly romances of the Middle Ages to the science fiction and fantasy of today. Yet even apart from their considerable entertainment value, the stories have always played an important role in transmitting the core values of Celtic culture to their audiences, and in teaching them the culture’s basic beliefs about the origins of the world, of society, and of social customs. While today we are most familiar with this material in the literary form it was given in the Middle Ages by the learned classes of Ireland and Wales, it would originally have been presented to Celtic communities as a part of their ritual activities — either in the shape of the formal storytelling that took place on winter nights in many parts of the Celtic world; or as an accompaniment to (and explanation of) the rituals that marked the turning of the seasons and the stages in the agricultural cycle; or within the context of an individual’s life passages, such as birth, coming of age, marriage and death. Professional storytellers learned hundreds of different stories, choosing and embellishing them in response to the needs of specific audiences.

Traditional Celtic society was composed of three primary occupational classes, to ensure the proper exercise of what Indo-Europeanist scholars have come to call the “three functions” necessary to the survival of a community. The First Function deals with the basic values of a society, with what is right and wrong, true and false, permitted and forbidden: it thus includes clergy (who administer the community’s dealings with the gods and the Otherworld), poets (in so far as their art is seen as sacred), legal experts (who discover what is “right”, and have the final word on it), and loremasters (who are their community’s memory, knowing all the precedents that have established current laws and customs). The Second Function has to do with defending the community, and is thus the duty of the warrior class, who need to cultivate a particular kind of ethos to be successful in their calling. The Third Function assures the material survival and well-being of the community, and so is the province of farmers, merchants, healers, etc., and deals with everything that promotes wealth, physical health and fertility: because all these activities are so dependent on the environment, the Third Function is very much preoccupied with relating to the unpredictable, mysterious nature of the Land. Each of these classes in early Celtic society had a body of mythological lore that was aimed directly at its specific concerns.

First-function mythology is about the origins of things: how the world came to be; where the ancestors came from, and how genealogy relates them to people today; how social customs began, and why it is important to maintain them. When the Celtic peoples were Christianised in the 5th and 6th centuries many of these stories — which were intimately related to pre-Christian gods and their worship — came into conflict with the new religion; yet it was difficult to discard them completely, since so much of the native legal and political system was based on them. In Ireland the learned class embarked on the project of updating the lore to make it conform to the Christian world-view, and the result (produced between the 9th and 12 th centuries) was the immense compendium known as Lebor Gabála Érenn (the Book of the Conquests of Ireland). It substitutes the Creation story from Genesis for whatever variant of the Indo-European creation myth had been current before that, and takes pains to correlate its chronology with that of the Bible and of the Classical world. However, it also preserves a great deal of earlier material, since many of the characters are recognisable as gods whose names were recorded on the Continent in Roman times. A particularly rich section of the plot concerns the fifth invasion, the Tuatha Dé Danann (figures with magical powers, who excel in crafts), and their conflict with the greedy and uncouth Fomorians. This correlates with the conflict between the gods of culture and the gods of nature, which is a major theme of Indo-European mythology in general. Scholars have sometimes called the material based on the Lebor Gabála the “Mythological Cycle”, and there are other well-known stories related to it, such as Cath Maige Tuired (the Battle of Maigh Tuireadh). There’s evidence that the Celts of Britain attempted a similar reworking of their native lore during the early Middle Ages, but not as much of it has survived: mainly the Latin accounts of Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the later Welsh summary called Brut y Brenhinoedd. However, the cycle of colourful Welsh tales called Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi (the Four Branches of the Mabinogi), probably composed in the 12th century, features characters and themes reminiscent of what we have in the Irish “Mythological Cycle”, and probably reflects a much-transformed survival of similar pre-Christian lore.

The Brown Bull of Cualnge and the White Bull of Aí The mythology of the Second Function is intended to serve as a model for the warrior class by focusing on the exploits of ideal warriors. In Ireland the figure who emerged as the undisputed paragon in such stories was the hero Cú Chulainn, who was said to have lived in Ulster around the time of Christ. The stories about him tell of his extraordinary conception and birth (he is born three times before he is truly rooted in the physical world, and his Otherwordly father is the god Lúgh); the gaining of his adult name (at the age of seven he kills the fierce hound belonging to the smith Culann, and promises to fulfill that hound’s duty himself, thus becoming “Hound of Culann”); his first taking up of arms (when he first undergoes the riastradh or “warp-spasm” that makes him invincible on the battlefield), his winning of his bride, Éimhear (which involves his training and initiation by the warrior-woman Scáthach); his gaining of the championship of Ulster (through the intervention of an Otherworld figure, Cú Roí Mac Dáire); his many adventures; and his spectacular death. The centerpiece of his exploits is Táin Bó Cualnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), which tells of Queen Maeve of Connaught’s invasion of Ulster to steal a famous bull, and of Cú Chulainn’s primal role in repelling the invasion. The Táin is a fine example of second-function lore, as its main focus is the behaviour of aristocratic warriors on the field of battle. One of the main themes is the constant competition between the warriors for primacy in their social hierarchy, as well as the need to always save face, regardless of the emotional cost involved (Cú Chulainn kills his own son in such a situation). The stories concerning Cú Chulainn and his contemporaries at the court of king Conchobhar Mac Nessa of Ulster are often referred to collectively as the “Ulster Cycle”. No similar material has survived in Welsh, but the famous poems attributed to the bard Llywarch Hen seem originally to have been part of a long saga about the tragic destiny of a warrior family.

The stories that comprised third-function lore — the mythology of the farmers, the people who lived close to the land — also dealt with warriors, but warriors of a very different sort. The warrior-bands called Fianna were composed of people who had cut themselves off from mainstream society (often because they had no hope of gaining wealth or status within it) and created a counterculture of their own. They had renounced allegiance to their birth-kin, retaining allegiance only to each other. They served as mercenaries for tribal rulers, but for much of the year they lived by hunting and gathering in the wilderness. It was this intimacy with the land, this ability to survive away from human settlements, that made them relevant to the concerns of third-function people. Living on the border between culture and nature, they felt at home in both, and were bound by neither. This disregard for boundaries meant that (in the stories about them) they often interacted with creatures from the Otherworld, and could assume the shapes of the animals they hunted. Most of the surviving stories are about Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his band of Fenians from Leinster (scholars often call this the “Leinster Cycle”), who are also in the service of the High King. In contrast to the aristocratic warriors of the Ulster Cycle , who are all competing for the same roles and thus behave in similar ways, Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s men are all drawn as individuals: Oisín the poet and mystic, Diarmuid the lover, Caoilte the conciliator, Conán the boastful but cowardly bully, the scrupulously fair Oscar, and so on. Part of the delight of the stories is how these diverse and contrasting personalities manage to cooperate in order to ensure the group’s survival. They also embody the third-function ideals of generosity and hospitality.

Fionn with his animal aspects Traditional Gaelic storytellers refer to this body of material as Fiannaíocht. Since it was a type of lore associated with common people, there wasn’t as much incentive to write it down as there was for the aristocratic lore, and we don’t find very many such stories in the earliest period of Irish literature. After the 11th century, however, when Southern dynasties held the High Kingship, Fiannaíocht gained prestige as a specifically Southern lore and thus a counterweight to the Ulster cycle and its Northern associations, and literary treatments of Fenian stories were produced. The most famous compilation of these stories is the 12th-century Agallamh na Seanórach (The Conversation of the Elders), which has Oisín and Caoilte return from the Otherworld to an Ireland long after their own time, where they reminisce about their former lives in the presence of St Patrick. This conceit became a fixture of the later verse “ballads” about Fionn Mac Cumhaill (such as those collected in the Duanaire Finn), where it is assumed that the speaker is Oisín addressing St. Patrick. While other stories relating to this material are to be found in Late Mediaeval and Early Modern manuscripts, by far the greater part of extant Fiannaíocht was collected over the past two and a half centuries from oral tradition in both Ireland and Scotland.

In Wales and the other Brythonic countries somewhat similar stories are told about King Arthur and his men. Although in some stories Arthur’s role as king is pre-eminent, Arthurian lore still retains a sense that his origin was as the leader of a guerrilla band, not unlike the Fianna; and the adventures his men undergo have a similar quality of Otherworldly testing. Both Fionn and Arthur have ambiguous death-stories, with many storytellers leaving open the possibility that they might return as saviour-heroes in the hour of greatest need.

These three broad categories of lore by no means exhaust the variety of stories related to Celtic mythology. We also have a body of lore called dinnsheanchas, which explains the origins of place-names, rehearsing the community’s memory by bringing the landscape to life. There are stories about idealised ancient Irish kings, like Niall of the Nine Hostages and Conn of the Hundred Battles, exemplifying the virtues proper to a king (and of course some of the Welsh stories about Arthur serve this purpose as well). There are tales where one travels to the Otherworld by crossing the sea in a ship, and where the traveller seems to get a glimpse of the afterlife; many of these stories (called iomramha) are given a very Christian spiritual message, but at least one of them (The Voyage of Mael Dúin’s Curragh) is full of outlandish imagery that may have more ancient origins, and has been called a “Celtic Book of the Dead”. And there are tales of quests for healing — of an individual or an entire land — in which a hero journeys to an Otherworldly place where, after much perilous testing, a female figure gives him the means to renewed life. The stories of this last type developed into the Grail Quest romances of the Middle Ages, but they are still an important feature of the oral tradition of Celtic countries, particularly Brittany.

All of this lore is a central and irreplaceable part of the cultural heritage of the Celtic peoples, and deserves to be widely known and appreciated today.