Introduction to Celtic Mythology
From my previous essay, Defining Myth, mythology was defined as a body of myths or a branch of knowledge that deals with myth. So Celtic mythology would be a body of myths or a branch of knowledge that deals with myth from the Celtic peoples. So in what way is Celtic mythology relevant to modern Celts in general and to people studying Celtic religion specifically? The aim of this essay is to find out the answer to this question.
Celtic mythology, as I mentioned above, is a broad term used to describe the myths of the Celtic peoples. These myths can be divided into subgroups corresponding to the branches of the Celtic language. The Celtic myths are usually divided into Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Manx and Breton myths, with the largest corpus of myths coming from the Irish and Welsh branches. Of these two branches, Irish myths seem to offer the most information, because it has a larger corpus of myths. 
The ancient Celts left us little written material but a lot of artifacts and the often-unflattering writings of the Romans and the Greeks. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of Christianity the Celtic peoples began their own written traditions, first in Ireland then in Wales. During the time of Henry VIII, monasteries were suppressed and it fell to the nobles and other patrons to record popular narratives and poetry. Also, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, learned travelers collected narratives in the field, mostly from storytellers who couldn’t write.
The Irish myths were first recorded by Irish clergymen and later copied in the medieval times. It is these copies that have survived until now. Surviving Welsh manuscripts, also produced by monks, date from the late medieval times, with the older materials having been lost.
The oldest known Irish text, The Book of Durrow, dates to the seventh century CE. The Book of Dun Cow, which was begun before 1106 CE, has versions of the Táin, Fled Bricrenn, Imram Brain, Tochmarc Étaíne and Fenian material. The Book of Leinster, which was begun in 1150 CE, gives a second version of the Táin, a large portion of The Book of the Takings of Ireland and tales of Tara. The Book of Armagh was written around 807 – 808 CE, The Book of Ballymote in 1390 CE, The Yellow Book of Lecan in 1393 CE, The Book of Lecan in 1397 – 1418 CE, The Book of Uí Maine in the late fourteenth to fifteenth century and The Book of Fermoy in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries.
None of the Welsh writings from the first millennium survived. The earlist Welsh writings date from a century after the Irish. The oldest Welsh manuscript is The Black Book of Carmarthen, which dates to 1250 CE, next comes the Book of Aneirin, which dates to 1265 CE, The White Book of Rhydderch, which dates to 1382 – 1410 CE.
There is no pre-Renaissance material in existence in Manx, Cornish, or Breton. The earliest known for Scottish Gaelic is The Book of the Dean of Lismore, which dates to the early sixteenth century CE. This doesn’t mean that folklore didn’t exist in these branches; this however, is not the scope of this essay.
From this survey you can see that when people say Celtic Mythology they usually mean the two branches of Celtic peoples that yield the most corpus of myths, the first is the Irish Branch and the second is the Welsh Branch, and sometimes the Scottish Gaelic Branch is included.
Across the time that Celtic mythology has been studied there has been many theories as to how to interpret them put forward. The earliest theory was that it was all history or related to history, this was championed by the likes of the great Irish historian Geoffrey Keating (1580 – 1645/50) CE. This is largely discounted now. Next the idea that these myths are a way to recover pagan knowledge from under all the Christian influences. John Rhys first championed this and his work influenced Irish commentators and scholars like Myles Dillon, Gerard Murphy and T. F. O’Rahilly. This theory still persists today. However, more recent scholarships downplay the pagan origins theory in favor of the classical influences from the early monasteries.
Each of these theories (the last two) have their merits, and perhaps we should keep an open mind in that not ALL the myths in either the Irish or Welsh corpus had their roots in the traditions that produced them. However, we should also not discount that some of them do have the knowledge that we need.
Studying the Celtic myths can help us also learn about Celtic lives. Of course this is only one source, which then needs to be corroborated by physical evidence. Combining the two, myths and physical evidence like bog bodies, Lindow man, and finds like Hallstatt and La Tene, we are able to gather information on domestic accommodations, dress, diet, artisanship, agriculture and funerary rites. From what is left the myths, oral traditions and the annals, we have a sense of a Celtic society that is governed by law, with complex social structure and a relatively strict morality.
We can also learn about the beliefs of the Celts from myths and physical evidence. We can’t always match a name to the faces of the gods but we can say that there is a belief in anthropomorphic deities. We learn about the stories of the gods, and we can see in some instances in the myths a trace of the old rituals, stories of the Otherworld and battle rites. The gods were not seen as infallible in the myths and they were not compartmentalized like other pantheons, rather they had many functions but one tended to be a bit more dominant than the others. From the myths we can also find out about the roles of the druids and what sort of power they held over the Celtic peoples. We know from the myths that they were interpreters of laws, they were healers, and they presided over spiritual celebrations and interpreted the divination that take place during these celebrations.
Warriors in pursuit of martial honor characterized early Irish and Welsh myths, they preformed feats and defended their tribes, but there were also stories of women in roles that were other than the spouse, mother, nurturer and focus of male desire. This portrayal of strong women doesn’t imply that the everyday life of Celtic women was a feminist’s dream come true just that they had more freedom than their Greek and Roman counterparts. Marriage had a different meaning in the myths and laws of the Celts. In the Brehon laws nine forms of marriage are mentioned. And the Hywel Dda laws of the Welsh also allow for multiple forms of marriage.
In studying Celtic mythology, the student will notice common themes and concepts that can be seen in the myths. Each story will have at least one or more of these themes and concepts.
The first concept is the concept of imram or immram (plural immrama). It literally means the act of rowin, or sea voyage. This concept can be found in the Old and Middle Irish myths in which travelers reach an Otherworld supposedly in the islands of the Western Ocean. The hero usually undertakes the immram voluntarily. The immram concentrates more on the voyage itself then on the final destination. The immram is considered to be more in tune with Christian thinking than with pagan thinking. Examples of immrama are: The Voyage of Mael Dúin, The Voyage of the Uí Chorra and The Voyage of Bran.
Another concept that is similar to immram is Echtra or Echtrae (plural Echtrai). Echtra is the Old Irish word for adventure, and they were mostly written down from the early medieval times to early modern times. In the Echtra the journey itself is not important (the hero has to either cross an ocean in a coracle or has to go through a plain with a mystical fog), the hero is usually enticed by a beautiful woman or a great warrior telling him of the marvels of a mysterious land. The hero sometimes never returns or he returns baring gifts and wisdom, but is in danger or of turning to dust as soon as his feet touch Ireland. Examples of Echtai are: Echtra Fergusa maic Léti, Echtra Mac nEchach Muigmedóin and Echtra Nerai.
The Otherworld of course is a concept that not a lot understands and everyone loves to talk about. The Otherworld was variously called Tír na mBeo (“the Land of the Living”), Mag Mell (“Delightful Plain”), and Tír na nÓg (“Land of the Young”), among other names. The Otherworld is a realm beyond the senses, not known to ordinary mortals without an invitation from a denizen. The Otherworld is thought (but not known) to be the realm of the dead, the home of the deities, or the stronghold of other spirits and beings such as the Sídhe. Tales and folklore describe it as existing over the western sea, or at other times underground (such as in the Sídhe mounds) or right alongside the world of the living, but invisible to most humans. The Irish and the Welsh accounts are frequently ambiguous and contradictory about the place of the Otherworld. Many Irish and some Welsh visions of the Otherworld are happy places, places where mortals find wisdom, order, and harmony. The time passes differently in the Otherworld than in the mortal world. Not all visits to the Otherworld are happy though, especially if the hero was not invited. It can be a dark place of shadow and fear.
Sovereignty is a huge concept in Irish and Welsh myths. Sovereignty is the personification of the power and authority of a kingdom as a woman to be won sexually pre-dates literature written in any Celtic Language. There is a relation between the ruler and deity, and that of the ruler and the land. The king was wedded in a sacred marriage to the goddess that was supposed to ensure the fertility of the land. Of course, it is not necessary that she is a goddess; she may be the queen or the representative of the goddess, like a priestess. The king’s consort, whoever she may be, is often described as the “Sovereignty Goddess”. The future fertility and prosperity of the kingdom depends upon the king mating with the sovereignty of the land.
In Irish mythology, a geis (plural geasa) is an idiosyncratic taboo, whether of obligation or prohibition, similar to being under a vow or spell. Many of the geasa are put upon men by women. In some instances this happens when a Sovereignty figure defeats a hero in a game or asks him a riddle he cannot answer, or when a heroine in love puts the hero under a geis to elope with her.
The story of exile, whether enforced or voluntary, and return to a place that has changed beyond recognition is an archetype that defines much of Celtic mythology. This concept can be found in the stories of the Children of Lir, the wandering of Aengus, and the mythic voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator.
The magic cauldron, it is evident that it was very important to the Celts since it appears in a lot of archeological sites and myths but what is the symbolism behind it? The cauldron in vernacular mythological tradition especially in Irish and Welsh tales seems to be concerned with Otherworld feasting and with rebirth or resurrection. The cauldron is sometimes associated with the God Daghda. In one story in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi the King Matholwch is said to posses a cauldron which dead warriors are put into and in the morning they emerge alive and healthy but with out the power of speech. Another magic cauldron is found in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen. This cauldron is full of Irish treasure. These are just a few examples of the cauldron being mentioned in the vernacular documents of Ireland and Wales.
Shape-shifting in the Celtic myths show that in the Celtic world there is no rigid or defined boundaries between human and animal. There are a lot of stories about gods changing shape to talk to humans or humans being changed into animals for punishment or spite or as a way to keep them prisoner until the hero comes to the rescue. It is very hard to trace shape shifting through archeology however, there are drawings and carvings of half human half animal shapes could they be shape-shifters or even vestiges of shaman-like practices?
There are many examples of the divine lovers in Celtic myths. These lovers are often one of three things; a union between a human and a god, the triangle of young man and woman and an old suitor, and both these brought about ruin and destruction on the land and community. And the third kind of lovers is the sacral Kingship in which a King is united with a Goddess and this union usually brings with it prosperity and abundance to the land. There is some archeological evidence of the divine couples found in both epigraphs and icons.
The Celtic landscape was numinous; tree, groves, forests and hills were sacred. The Dinnshenchas provide us with many stories to back this up. In the Celtic religion water was seen as a life force and the water cults were an important feature of the Celtic religion. Springs were important to healing cults because pure water was seen as having healing and cleansing properties. The wells were considered links between the earth and the Underworld. There is archeological evidence to prove that in what is found at the source of rivers and wells. People used to make offerings of precious objects and votive offerings.
Human head hunting was also important to the Celts and one of the very few rituals that we have evidence of in classical writings, archeology and vernacular writings. The Celts believed that the head was the source of power and the place where the human spirit resides. This is understood because of the way the Celts treated the heads. They embalmed them and kept them or the heads of enemies were offered to the gods.
“Myth and history represent alternative ways of looking at the past. Defining history is hardly easier than defining myth, but a historical approach necessarily involves both establishing a chronological framework for events and comparing and contrasting rival traditions in order to produce a coherent account. The latter process, in particular, requires the presence of writing in order that conflicting versions of the past may be recorded and evaluated. Where writing is absent, or where literacy is restricted, traditions embedded in myths through oral transmission may constitute the principal sources of authority for the past.” Myths are important to the modern Celts because they are a way to remember the past and incorporate it into the living present. These early memories can give us key ideas that remain in our consciousness to guide and inspire us. Myths give us a strong connection to our ancestors; provide information and wisdom as well as entertainment. Also from myths we might be able to piece together the old Celtic religion, finding clues and pieces of rituals within the texts that can be supplemented by anthropology and archeology. We might not be able to resurrect the exact old religion (nor I think do we want to) but we can come close!
 “Celtic Mythology” December 2009, Access Date: January 10, 2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celtic_Mythology>
 James Mackillop, Myths and Legends of the Celts (New York: Penguin Books, 2005) pp. xx – xxiii
 Ibid pp.xxv-xxvi
 H.R. Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1988) pp. 69-91, pp.167-188
 James Mackillop, Myths and Legends of the Celts (New York: Penguin Books, 2005) pp. 66-68
 James Mackillop, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) p.270
 “Immram” December 2009, Access Date: January 14, 2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immrama>
 James Mackillop, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) pp.168-169
 Ibid, pp. 359-360
 Ibid, p.390
 Ibid, p.249
 Miranda Jane Green, Celtic Myths (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998) pp. 37-42, pp. 50-54, p.71
 “Myth”, Encyclopedia Britannica. CD-ROM 2006 Accesses Date: January 14, 2010