Celtic Mythology 1; History of the Celts of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany

Celtic Mythology 1; History of the Celts of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany

The Celtic peoples spread across much of Europe in the course of the Iron Age, but by Roman times the might of the legions and the advance of the Germanic tribes had driven them Westward. There they found a permanent refuge on the continent’s edge, in Brittany and Cornwall, but above all in Ireland and Wales.

All the evidence suggests that the Celts had an unusually rich mythology, but unfortunately contemporary sources are hard to come by. Our knowledge of the myths has had to be pieced together from archaeological findings or the reports of outsiders, or else from the work of authors writing many centuries later in the Christian era. The patchwork of narrative that has emerged is often infuriatingly vague and hard to follow, but also hugely stimulating in its poetic exuberance and narrative power.

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One notable feature of Irish myth is it the division into major narrative groupings. One cycle of stories concerns itself with the first inhabitants of Ireland, detailing The Strife between successive waves of Invaders, Fomorians, Firbolg, the Tuatha de Danann, or “Children of the goddess Danu.”

these Tales may have enshrined distant historical memories in their details, but mostly belong firmly in the land of Legend. Indeed, the tuatha are generally identified by modern Scholars not with any ethnic group but rather with the Celtic gods, who supposedly first established themselves on the island by defeating the Firbolg at the Battle of Moytirra. Another group of seemingly historical legends came together in the Ulster cycle, which turned on the deeds of the hero Cuchulainn, a chariot born warrior who defended Ireland’s Northeastern Kingdom from armies attacking it from Connaught. A key tale in the cycle is The Cattle Raid of Cooley, but there are many incidental episodes, such as the apparition of the Washer at the Ford. While the Ulster stories belonged firmly to the heroic age, those concerning the warrior leader Finn Mac Cumhaill and his followers the Fianna, mostly set further south in Munster and Leinster, are marked by touches of romance, as suggested by Finn’s acquisition of supernatural wisdom through a childhood encounter with the Salmon of Knowledge.

For modern readers, the prime vehicle of Welsh legend is the Mabinogion, a collection of traditional stories compiled by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 1830s. The main section of the book is taken up with a quartet of linked narratives, the so-called four branches of the Mabinogion, whose connecting theme is the life of the hero Pryderi. The first of the four contains the story of his birth, abduction and miraculous restoration. The fourth story tells of his death at the hands of Gwydion, and of that warrior’s own subsequent search for a nephew who had been magically spirited away.

The rest of the work is made up of unconnected romances, including the story of Culhwch and Olwen, much of it taken up with the epic hunt for the gigantic boar Twrch Trwyth. At least one of the stories, the Dream of Maxon, preserved distant memories of a real-life figure, the Roman general Magnus Maximus, who made a failed bid for the Imperial throne while stationed in Britain in the fourth century CE.

The best known of all the Cycles, however, was one whose popularity had already spread far beyond the Celtic lands by late medieval times. This was the epic of King Arthur and his Knights, believed to have lived and fought somewhere in Britain in the dark time after the ending of the Roman occupation. In their earliest forms the tales had their roots deep in Celtic folklore and magic. As embroidered by some of the Middle Ages’ finest poets and romancers, they became manuals of courtly etiquette, spelling out a chivalric code of honor and also an unmatched source of poetic imagery that would still thrill the imagination of poets and artists many centuries later.