Miranda Aldhouse-Green, an expert in archaeology and shamanism, reveals how traditional Celtic characters and symbols can even be found in contemporary popular culture series such as Star Wars and Harry Potter.
Here, writing for History Extra, Aldhouse-Green recalls five of the most fascinating Celtic myths…
In the Middle Ages, Christian monasteries in Ireland and Wales were the engines of literacy and education. Many monks took it upon themselves to record pagan myths and legends dating to pre-Christian times, leaving us a rich legacy of gods, goddesses, supernatural heroes, enchanted animals and magical objects. But their Christian chroniclers seasoned these stories with a heavy sprinkling of early Christian ethics, so mythic warfare tended to end in disaster; amoral and over-powerful women inevitably came to grief, and good usually triumphed over evil in the end.
It is generally accepted that these myths were first written down between the 8th and 12th centuries AD. The two most important groups of Celtic myths are found in the Welsh Mabinogion and the Irish Táin Bó Cuailnge (more popularly known as the Cattle Raid of Cooley).
Pagan Celtic myths were originally transmitted orally, by storytellers who acted both as travelling entertainers and as peddlers of news. But the origins of the myths were probably very ancient indeed.
Like most mythic traditions, they came into being partly to explain natural phenomena, including disasters such as floods, famines and plagues, and to try to address basic human concerns such as ‘who are we? Why are we here? Who came before us? What happens to us when we die?’ But Celtic myths tap into another hugely rich vein of tradition: the pantheon of gods and goddesses worshipped by the pre-Roman Celts of Britain, Ireland and Europe, between about 500 BC and the Roman period.
Thus, for instance, we find the Celtic horse-goddess, Epona, who was venerated over huge areas of Roman Europe, transformed into the iconic figure of Rhiannon, the horse-heroine of Welsh mythology. Celtic myths are full of monsters, heroes, gods, shape-changers, spells, wars and love affairs. Apart from their interest as ancient pagan myths, they are richly entertaining stories. Here are five of the most fascinating…
Cú Chulainn: the Hound of Culann
Cú Chulainn was an Irish hero, son of a mortal and a god. He was a mighty warrior, champion of the Ulstermen in their war with the people of Connaught, who were led by their formidable queen Medbh (Maeve).
While he was still an infant, the Druid Cathbad prophesied that he would lead a short but glorious life. When he was five years old, Cú Chulainn routed the Ulster king Conchobar’s 50-strong youth brigade. While still a young boy, he demanded arms from the king, and shattered 15 sets of weapons before accepting those belonging to Conchobar himself. The young hero got his name, the ‘Hound of Culann’, when he accidentally killed the guard-dog of Culann the blacksmith. Ashamed of his deed, he pledged to redeem himself by acting in the dog’s place.
He grew up very fast, and quickly became Ulster’s war-leader. Like many ancient mythical heroes, he regularly communed with spirits, and he had a particular affinity with the Morrigan, a war-goddess who frequently appeared to him in the guise of a crow. A particular feature of Cú Chulainn was his habit of going into ‘warp-spasm’, or a berserk state, when roused. When like this, he was literally out of his mind, and his body did strange and monstrous things: one eye bulged out while the other sank into his cheek and his body rotated in his skin, while the ‘hero-light’ shone fiercely around his head.
Betrayed by his enemies, he met his death on the battlefield but when mortally wounded, he had himself bound to a stake so that he would die standing upright, facing his foes. In the end, the Morrigan betrayed him, perching on his shoulder to show his enemies that he was dead.
Blodeuwedd: the false flower-woman of Welsh myth
Blodeuwedd appears in the ‘Fourth Branch’ of the Welsh Mabinogion. She was not mortal, but was conjured from wild flowers (the oak, meadowsweet and broom) by two magicians, Math and Gwydion, for their kinsman Lleu Llaw Gyffes (the ‘Bright one of the Skilful Hand’).
Because he was illegitimate, Lleu’s mother Arianrhod cursed him at birth, denying him a name, weapons or a wife unless she herself gave them to him. The boy’s uncle Gwydion [although it is elswehere suggested that Gwydion is actually also Lleu Llaw Gyffes’ father] tricked his sister into endowing the child with both a name and weapons, but getting him a wife proved trickier, so he and Math got round the problem by creating Blodeuwedd.
But because she was not a mortal woman and was thus without morals (the Christian influence is perhaps showing here!), Lleu’s flower-wife betrayed him with another man, Gronw, and the lovers plotted his death. Lleu himself was clearly a hero or even a god, for he could only be killed in a peculiar, ‘impossible’ way; he had to be neither inside nor outside a house, naked or clothed or on water or land, and only a spear made during the hours that smithing was not permitted could kill him.
By huge cunning (together with a certain dimness on Lleu’s part), Blodeuwedd persuaded her husband to act out the only circumstances in which he was vulnerable: by making a bath for Lleu on a riverbank and erecting an arched roof above it, then thatching it so that it let in no water. She brought a billy goat and stood next to the bath, and then Lleu placed one foot on the back of the goat and the other on the edge of the bath. Whoever struck Lleu while he was in that position would be able to kill him.
Then, Gronw smote him with his spear. As he was struck, Lleu uttered a ghastly shriek, turned into an eagle and flew into an oak-tree. There Gwydion found him and restored him, but Blodeuwedd he cursed, turning her into an owl, and condemning her to hunt alone at night, shunned by all other birds, for eternity.
There is a Welsh mythic story called The Spoils of Annwn, which narrates a raid on Annwn (the Otherworld) by Arthur, whose target was a magical cauldron, described as made of shimmering bronze and studded with gems. This cauldron knew its own mind: it needed the breath of nine virgins to heat the broth within it, and it would never provide food for a coward.
Arthur’s cauldron-rustling expedition ended in a Pyrrhic victory: he gained the vessel but lost most of his men to the forces of darkness in so doing. Arthur’s cauldron is only one of many that had magical properties. For the Celts, cauldrons were vessels of rebirth. The myth of Brân the Blessed, lord of Harlech, a Welsh hero (so large that he could wade across the Irish Sea and whose severed head remained alive and talking after his death), contains an account of Brân’s most treasured possession, a cauldron that could bring the dead to life.
But, again, this was a vessel that had its own agenda. When Matholwch, king of Ireland, was insulted by one of Brân’s relatives when he came to woo his sister Branwen, he could be appeased only by the gift of the cauldron. Later on, when war broke out between Ireland and Wales, Matholwch used Brân’s gift as a weapon: every night, the Irish war-dead were cooked in the cauldron and emerged good as new to fight another day.
But these resurrected soldiers were, in fact, ‘undead’ zombies, for they had lost the power of speech. Ireland had its own cauldron-myths. Gods, such as the Daghdha (a father-god) had Otherworld ‘hostels’ in which they served food in ever-replenishing cauldrons, and where pigs that had been cooked and eaten – rather chillingly – returned charred and squealing to be re-cooked every day.
Shape-shifting Lovers: Oenghus and Caer
Oenghus mac Oc was an Irish god of youth. He was the son of two deities: the Daghdha and Boann, goddess of the river Boyne. But Boann was married already when she became pregnant with Oenghus, and so they enchanted the sun so that it neither rose nor set for nine months, until the baby was born. Thus Oenghus was conceived and born on the same day, and the illicit lovers managed to conceal their union from Boann’s husband Nechtan.
Given the circumstances surrounding his birth, it is not surprising that Oenghus became the patron god of star-crossed lovers. Indeed, he had his own love story: one night, he had a dream in which he saw a wonderfully beautiful girl and fell in love with her. When he woke, his passion was undimmed and he set out to discover who she was and how to find her.
Eventually Oenghus tracked her down to a lake where the girl lived with a bevy of other young women. Her name was Caer Ibormeith (‘Yew-Berry’). But Caer and her companions were under an enchantment. Every alternate year, at the Festival of Samhain on 1 November (the Celtic New Year), the girls were transformed into swans. Oenghus asked Caer’s father for her hand in marriage, but he refused.
Realising that the only way to win her was to wait until she was in swan-form, he went to the lake at Samhain and called her. When she came, he turned himself into a swan and both birds flew away, circling the lake three times and singing a spell as they flew, so that everyone below fell asleep and they could not be pursued. The lovers took up residence at Oenghus’ palace at Brugh na Bóinne and, it is to be hoped, lived happily ever after.
Rhiannon the Horse-Maiden
The ‘First Branch’ of the Mabinogion tells the story of Pwyll, lord of Dyfed in south-west Wales. Near his court at Llys Arberth (modern Narberth), there was a gorsedd, a magical mound. Anyone who sat on the mound was assured either of a catastrophic shock or a wondrous event.
One day, Pwyll was sitting on the gorsedd when he saw a beautiful woman riding, clad in shimmering white upon a dazzling white horse. He commanded his swiftest horsemen to ride after her and stop her but, however fast they galloped, she outpaced them, even though her own mount appeared to be ambling. So Pwyll leapt on his own steed and pursued her, to no avail.
In desperation he called out to her and immediately she reined in her horse and sat waiting for him. When he caught up with her, she told him she had only been waiting for him to address her before she stopped. The horsewoman’s name was Rhiannon (‘Great Queen’). The pair fell in love and married, but at first their union appeared cursed, for no child was born to them.
After three years Rhiannon produced a son, but even then the couple’s troubles were not over: on the night of May-eve, just before the spring festival of Beltane, the baby was stolen. Rhiannon’s watch-women had fallen asleep at their post. When they woke, fearing blame, they framed the slumbering Rhiannon, killing a puppy and smearing her hands and face with its blood, so that the mother appeared to have killed – and eaten – her own son.
Pwyll neither banished not executed Rhiannon, but imposed a strange punishment: she had to crouch by the gate of the palace and carry every visitor up to the door on her back, like a beast of burden.
But there was a happy ending: the baby was found and returned to his parents. Rhiannon named him Pryderi, which means ‘care’. Rhiannon’s recurrent association with horses probably betrays her origins as a pagan horse-goddess.
The Celtic Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, was published by Thames and Hudson in February 2015. To find out more, click here.