Celtic Myth

These are posts about Celtic myth. Much of what we know about early Celtic myth is derived from monastic scribes writing in Medieval Irish and Medieval Welsh. We also have earlier fragments of curse tablets and iconographic data from metal and stone objects, which often contain names of deities mentioned in the medieval texts. We have many more Irish and Welsh medieval texts than we have Breton, Cornish, or Manx texts, and Irish manuscripts outnumber those of any other Celtic language. While the monks who preserved Medieval Irish and Welsh mythological texts were Christian, they clearly also valued the Celtic myths of their pagan past. The best known Welsh myths are collectively referred to as the Mabinogion, and the four central mythic texts as the Mabinogi . We also have references to myths in the Welsh triads. The Irish contributions to Celtic Myth are the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, a large group of tales associated with the Táin, and many tales that aren’t directly tied to the Táin but are clearly mythological in nature.

  • Emain Macha or Navan Fort

    Emain Macha (said roughly like evan macka) features largely in Irish mythology, though you’ll find it on maps by its English name, Navan Fort. Technically, Navan Fort isn’t a fort. It is instead best described as a ritual complex, about 1.6 miles west of the city of Armagh, in Northern Ireland. The complex sits on a low mound, and is visible quite clearly for some distance. The site was largely abandoned by the first century C.E. The central area is a circular area about 820 feet in diameter, set off by a raised bank and a ditch, with the ditch atypically outside the bank—this suggests that the site was used…

  • Archaeology,  Celtic Myth

    Navan Fort as Feasting Site For People From Across Ireland

    A group of researchers led by Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University analyzed pig, sheep, and cattle bones discovered via excavation at Navan Fort in Armagh, Northern Ireland. The analysis included the bones of 35 animals (primarily pig, but also cattle and goat/sheep). After performing multi-isotope analysis on samples of tooth enamel to determine where the animals spent their formative years (water leaves a unique identifiable locality trace in the enamel), the researchers concluded that people brought animals over great distances with the intent of feasting at the Navan Fort ritual complex. This is important since in some cases the animals traveled 100 miles before being consumed at Navan Fort, indicating…

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  • Calendar,  Celtic Myth

    Things I Dread About Samhain

    Because I have a Celtic studies website, every October my email is peppered with messages from two large groups: fundamentalist Christians of various persuasions, and Neo Pagans of various paths. Both sects are writing to inform, deny, assert or correct me regarding Halloween and the Celtic feast known as Samhain in Modern Irish (Samain in Medieval Irish). The amount of email (and comments) increases every year. And the articles posted all over the Web get a little more annoying in their diligent perpetration of myths. Several years ago I even wrote my own FAQ What Is Samain or Samhain to try to stem the tide, to no avail. Both groups…

  • Celtic Art & Archaeology,  Celtic Myth

    Saint Patrick, Saint Bridget, and the Brewing of Beer

    Despite the idiocies of Saint Patrick’s Day in the U.S. (by which I mean the consumption of green beer rather than blessed Guinness, and the over-enthusiastic endorsement of imbibing while Irish, there is a genuine, and historical, connection between Ireland and beer, or cuirm, in Old Irish. For one thing, there’s a long and documented history of Irish brewing that is very legitimate. So legitimate, in fact, that beer laws occur in the medieval corpus of traditional Irish law known as the Senchus Mór, which was colloquially known as Cáin Padraic, or Patrick’s Law, since the bodies of traditional Irish civil law and church law were said to have been…

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  • Calendar,  Celtic Myth,  Games Fairies Play,  Music

    Tam Lin: Love, Sacrifice, and Halloween

    I can’t really think about Halloween, or Samain, if you prefer, without thinking of the ballad of “Tam Lin,” especially this part:   And ance it fell upon a day A cauld day and a snell, When we were frae the hunting come, That frae my horse I fell, The Queen o’ Fairies she caught me, In yon green hill to dwell. And pleasant is the fairy land, But, an eerie tale to tell, Ay at the end of seven years We pay a teind to hell; I am sae fair and fu o flesh, I’m feard it be mysel. But the night is Halloween, lady, The morn is Hallowday;…

  • Celtic Myth,  Celtic Studies Books,  Literature

    Lady Charlotte Guest

    The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s “Life of the Week” post this week is a biography of Lady Charlotte Guest, the translator of the Mabinogion, including the four mabinogi proper, as well as the three Welsh tales, and the four Arthurian romances, as well as several other tales, including the prose Taliesin fragment from the sixteenth century, edited by Patrick Ford as the Ystoria Taliesin in 1991. Lady Guest’s translation, with the accompanying notes, is actually quite wonderful; it was the first translation I ever read, and it still remains well-worth reading. It has become fashionable to sneer at her—and imply that she wasn’t responsible for the work. She was;…

  • Celtic Myth

    Salmon and the Celts

    I live very near a small fresh water estuary and salmon hatchery in Washington state. This month, the Pacific salmon are swimming upstream to spawn. They are stunning; gorgeous silver scales with bands and spots of pink and green, even blue. They are much larger than I’d expected; many are well over a foot in size, and wider than the palm of my hand. These salmon have come from miles away, upstream, over rapids and falls and fish ladders to arrive at their original hatchery, where they jump over a series of fish ladders, to reach their home. There they will remain to spawn (and then die), or in some cases,…

  • Calendar,  Celtic Myth,  Games Fairies Play,  Literature

    Halloween, Samhain, and such

    It’s the time of year when I start seeing incredibly daft posts about the antecedents of Halloween, particularly Samain (Samhain, for you moderns). This year, I’ve created an FAQ about Samain, and what it means. For those of you already in the know, here’s a link to a translation by Kuno Meyer of the very odd Echtra Nera, mostly based on Eg. 1782. Echtra Nera is a tale tied closely to Samain, and features a sojourn in a síd, as well as the observation that “the fairy-mounds of Erinn are always opened about Halloween.” In the beginning of the tale, a dead man directs Nera to take him to a…

  • Celtic Myth,  Games Fairies Play

    The Otherworld, White Horses, and Genetics

    She turned about her milk-white steed, And took True Thomas up behind, And aye wheneer her bridle rang, The steed flew swifter than the wind. “Thomas the Rhymer A” Child 37 The horse she rode on was dapple gray, And in her hand she held bells nine; I thought I heard this fair lady say These fair siller bells they should a’ be mine. “Thomas the Rhymer B” Child 37 In the first branch or tale of the medieval Welsh mabinogi Pwyll Pendeuic Dyfed, Pwyll and his retinue, desiring to see a marvel (rywedawt), sit on the mound or gorsedd of Arberth, where he in fact does see a marvel:…

  • Celtic Myth,  Games Fairies Play

    They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die: Speech and Silence in Medieval Fairy Narratives Kalamazoo 2008

    I’m going to be doing a link-post to others who are blogging Kalamazoo, and maybe add some general impressions of my own, in a bit. I’ve uploaded my paper on medieval fairies, and speech and silence in Sir Orfeo, Thomas of Erceldoune, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight “‘They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die’: Speech and Silence in Medieval Fairy Narratives” here. Mostly I’m smug that I aimed for a fifteen minute paper, and I nailed it, even though it meant reducing about twelve thousand words to three thousand.

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