The Celtic Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends

New book documents magical tales of pagan gods and heroes from Ireland and Wales

Miranda Aldhouse-Green: Celtic myths are  ‘magical tales containing talking animals, enchanted cauldrons, severed human heads that continued chatting after being cut off, semi-divine heroes, salmons of wisdom, and vengeful spirits who forged wars and went in for wholesale slaughter’.

Miranda Aldhouse-Green: Celtic myths are ‘magical tales containing talking animals, enchanted cauldrons, severed human heads that continued chatting after being cut off, semi-divine heroes, salmons of wisdom, and vengeful spirits who forged wars and went in for wholesale slaughter’.

 

My book, The Celtic Myths, came about as the result of a long journey, which began when I first went to my secondary school in London. I was a “late developer’”, and struggled to find my academic feet with my peer group.

My elder sister was already at the school and, on my first day I was greeted with the comment by the head of the English department that she hoped I would do as well at English as my sister. But despite being cowed and overwhelmed by “big school”, I decided there and then I was not going to play the competing game, andI would find something totally different from my sister in which to try and excel.

A year or so later, I found that something quite by chance. I was in the middle of reading a children’s novel about Shropshire and encountered a scene where one of the characters came across a cave, where she found an ancient Roman spoon. As she picked it up, she saw a vision: a long line of Roman soldiers, in red cloaks and with shining helmets, marching past the cave mouth.

Something happened to me as I read this passage: I became instantly hooked upon the past. Badgering the school into letting me study ancient history at A level (though it wasn’t part of the curriculum) along with my Latin and English, I then took up a place at Cardiff University to read Archaeology.

Once there, and surrounded by modern Celts, I soon switched my allegiance from Romans to ancient British Celts, partly because I felt a connection with underdogs, and partly on account of the comparative absence of hard evidence for how they lived.

Even more interesting to me were the tantalising hints at an elusive but fascinating religion, a belief system full of spirits that constantly strayed into and meddled with the world of humans. And so began a lifelong study of Celtic religious beliefs, gods, Druids, symbolic art and human sacrifice, and writing books about them.

As a child I loved reading stories, and still do. From the age of four, the ability to plunge into other worlds and other people’s lives was an escape from reality. Alongside this love of fiction, I had the good fortune to have parents who fed my fascination with drama and storytelling. My mother was a Shakespeare addict. She knew and would readily recite great chunks of his plays, usually from the juicier and gloomier of the Tragedies, as she went about her daily life with the family. My father was an artist, with a knack for reading poetry, and it was to the sound of his melodious voice reading me Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot or W.B. Yeats’ The Stolen Child that I fell asleep each night.

I think all this seeped into my subconscious and turned me towards the rich and largely neglected subject of Celtic mythology. My love of Celts, their archaeology and legends led me eventually to a chair in archaeology at Cardiff University, where I had begun my studies. How could I have even dreamed that study of the Celts would take me so far?

The greatest body of Celtic myths comes from Ireland and Wales. Although their content is heavily slanted toward the pagan gods and heroes, they were first compiled in written form by medieval Christian clerics working in monasteries, the main centres of learning in the Middle Ages. These monks got their inspiration from a range of sources, principally from the long-established tradition of oral storytelling, but also from the ancient pagan monuments and sculptures they encountered on their travels, and from their knowledge of Classical literature.

The result is a wonderful kaleidoscope of magical tales containing talking animals, enchanted cauldrons, severed human heads that continued chatting after being cut off, semi-divine heroes, salmons of wisdom, and vengeful spirits who forged wars and went in for wholesale slaughter. In these mythic stories, we encounter a strange underworld where people are reborn and live forever on food gained from hunting supernatural beasts cooked in ever-replenishing cauldrons. But woe betides anyone who crossed the fearsome goddesses of this underworld, for they had the power to inflict great torment and terror on any human who dared to cross into their territory while still alive.

Let us meet some of the protagonists of Celtic myths. Perhaps my favourite Irish character is Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Culann, the young Ulster champion who, at the age of five, routed 50 of the royal boys’ brigade and, while still a child, shattered all the weapons offered to him except those of the king.

The Druid Cathbad foretold that he would live a short but glorious life, and so it transpired. Cú Chulainn led the Ulstermen in the great war with the Province of Connacht under its supernatural goddess-queen Medbh. Neither province was truly victorious: both sides sustained enormous losses, and the only real winners were the hideous shape-changing raven-goddesses, the Morrigán and the Badbh, who picked over the corpses of the slain on the battlefields.

Cú Chulainn was a complex figure: half human half god, he had a love-hate relationship with the battle-goddesses. When fighting, he had a weird habit of going into “warp-spasm”’, a kind of berserk, out-of-mind blood-lust state in which his body revolved in its skin, his face became hideously distorted and he glowed with heat from head to foot. On one occasion, he went so mad in battle that he began to attack his friends, and the only way to bring him back to his senses was by parading naked Ulster women in front of him.

The Welsh myths are equally fizzing with weird and wonderful beings. One delightful character is a magical and capricious cauldron encountered by Arthur on a raid to the Welsh Otherworld of Annwfn. This great vessel shone like the sun, and the light winked from the hundreds of precious stones embedded in its surface. It was certainly not any old cooking pot but something with a mind of its own. It required the breath of nine virgins to heat its fire and cook the food inside it, and it utterly refused to boil meat for a coward.

Welsh myths make constant reference to close connections with Ireland, being laced with tales of wars between the two countries, marriage alliances, journeys across the “Celtic Pond” and shared supernatural themes, such as cauldrons, magical human heads and sacred lakes.

How can anyone resist this rich and complex seam of mythic tales? There is so much more in the stories than can be mentioned here. In my view the legends of the Celts offer something just as fascinating - more so in fact - than the much better known tales from Classical Mythology. Quite apart from revealing information about the Celtic past, these myths are such racy and entertaining yarns.

The Celtic Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends by Miranda Aldhouse-Green is published by Thames and Hudson at £12.95.

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