The following is a synopsis of Chapters 1 and 2 from ‘Celtic Mythology’ (Geddes & Grosset, 1999). I have extracted some of the key points in relation to the Irish Celts.
Gerard J. Hannan.
The Celts are much less well known to us than the Greeks and the Romans were although theirs was a great civilisation in its own way. The Celts were not empire builders, they were a tribal society. It is a problem that there is a serious lack of contemporary written history or literature in relation to the Celts. They had the ability to write but never really bothered to do so and it has been suggested that writing was not part of their social or religious culture and that their Druids or high priests forbid them to write things down.
Because of this, modern historians rely very much on oral tradition. Perhaps this is why the culture is rich in marvellous legends and stories handed down by word-of-mouth and as such are subject to variation. Archaeology has helped historians to understand the Celts.
It is rather fortunate that because the Celts believed that a dead person travelled to other worlds and should be accompanied by his or hers earthly possessions such as jewellery, clothing and valuables that we are left with some significant information about the culture. What the Celts have left us is positive evidence to the reality that theirs was an advanced culture.
Ireland’s earliest legendary and poetic records are of great interest and value. These records influenced the destiny of the Celts that created them and indeed the destiny of Ireland. In the period in which they were still fresh, belief and pride in them were powerful enough to bring scattered tribes together into Confederation. Furthermore they give inspiration to sculptors and poets to produce an art and literature unsurpassed, if not unequalled, by any other age or race. When the glory of the Celtic age had faded and her people had entered into the modern world they had left behind them a significant account of their culture for modern archaeologists.
Mythology is vital to literature. Celtic mythology has little of the heavy crudeness that repels one in Germanic and Scandinavian stories. It is as beautiful and graceful as the Greek and, unlike Greek, which is the reflection of a Mediterranean climate quite different from our temperate zone, it is our own. Gods should, surely, seem the inevitable outgrowth of the land they move in. The Celtic gods and heroes are the natural inhabitants of the Irish landscape, not seeming foreign and out of place in a scene where there is no vine or olive but shading in with our home grown Oak and Bracken, gorse and heath.
In the legend haunted Ireland, the Hills and Dales still hold memories of the ancient gods of the ancient race. There are regions once mysterious and romantic that the Celts held to be the homes of gods or outposts of other worlds. In Ireland, there is scarcely a place that is not connected in some way with the traditional exploits of the Red Branch champions or of Fionn and his mighty men. But the old deities are still remembered, dwindled into fairies perhaps but keeping the same attributes and often the same names. Many of these deities live on in modern culture as, for example, long dead saints of the early churches of Ireland. Their wonderful attributes and adventurers are in many cases only those of their original namesakes, the old gods, told afresh. And they still lived on in another more potent way. They have become a significant part of modern literature and their influence is immense, their primary poetic impulse is still resonant in Irish literature, playing a particularly strong part in works by 19th-century poets and writers. The elemental powers of earth and fire, and the spirits which haunted the waves and streams appear again as kings in the Irish annals or as saints and hermits. To trace the Irish kings and saints back to ‘elemental powers of earth and fire, and the spirits that haunted the woods and streams’ of Celtic romanticism is not an impossible stretch of the imagination.
The fabled deeds of St Patrick are embellished by romantic writers. These writings are contained in parchment manuscripts long preserved from destruction in great Irish houses and monasteries. Only during the 19th century have they been brought to light, copied and translated by patient scholars who grappled with the long obsolete dialects in which they were transcribed. Many of these volumes are curious miscellanies. Usually a single record of a great house or monastic community, everything was copied into it that the scholar of the family or brotherhood thought to be worth preserving. Hence they contain diverse material. There are translations of portions of the Bible and of the classics, lives of famous saints, together with works attributed to them; poems and romances of which, under a thin disguise, the old Gaelic gods and heroes; together with treatises on all the subjects then studied – grammar, prosody, law, history, geography, chronology and genealogies of important chiefs.
The majority of these documents were put together during the period that, roughly speaking, lasted from the beginning of the 12th century to the end of the 16th century. It was a time of literary revival after the turmoil of the previous epoch. In Ireland, the Norsemen, after long ravaging, had settled down peacefully and rendered the country comparatively quiet. The scattered remains of history, lay and ecclesiastical, of science and of legend were gathered together.
Of the Irish manuscripts, the earliest, and, perhaps the most important, on account of the great store of ancient Gaelic mythology which, in spite of its dilapidated condition, it still contains, is in the possession of the Irish Academy. Unfortunately, it is reduced to a fragment of 138 pages, but this remnant preserves a large number of romances relating to the old gods and heroes of Ireland. Among other things, it contains a complete account of the epic saga called the ‘Tain Bo Cuailgne’, the ‘raiding of the cattle of Cooley’, in which the hero, Cuchulainn, performed his greatest feats. This manuscript is called The Book Of The Dun Cow, from the tradition that it was copied from an earlier book written on the skin of a favourite animal belonging to St Ciaran, who lived in the seventh century. An entry on one of its pages reveals the name of its scribe, one Maelmuiri, whom we know to have been killed by robbers in the church of Clonmacnois in the year 1106.
Far more voluminous and only a little less ancient is the book of Leinster, which is said to have been compiled in the early part of the 12th century by Fionn Mac Gorman, Bishop of Kildare. This also contains an account of Cuchulain’s mighty deeds, which supplements the older version in the Tain Bo Cuailgne. Somewhat less important from the point of view of the student of Gaelic mythology: the Book Of Ballymote and the Yellow Book Of Lecan, belonging to the end of the 14th century, and the Books Of Lecan and of Lismore, both attributed to the 15th century. Besides these six great collections, there survive many other manuscripts that also contain ancient mythical lore. In one of these, dating from the 15th century is to be found the story of the Battle of Magh Tuireadh, or Moytura, fought between the gods of Ireland and enemies, the Formorii, or demons of the deep sea. Other ancient manuscripts found in Scotland corroborate these Irish documents, add to the Cuchulain saga and make a more specialist subject of the other heroic cycle, that which relates the no less wonderful deeds of Fionn, Oisin and the Fianna. They also contain stories of other characters that are more ancient then either Fionn or Cuchulain, these are the Tua De Danaan, the God tribe of the ancient Gaels. The native literature bearing upon the mythology of Ireland may be attributed to a period that lasted from the beginning of the 12th century to the end of the 16th. This day’s marks the final amalgamation of the contents of the manuscript into the form in which they now exist without bearing at all upon the time of their authorship. As they are copies of ancient poems and tales from much older manuscripts, these books do not fix the period of the original composition of their contents. This has been proved both directly and inferentially. In some instances as with the Book of the Dun Cow the dates of authorship are actually given. In others, we may depend upon evidence that, if not quite so absolute, is nearly as convincing. Even where the writer does not state that he is copying from older manuscripts, it is obvious that this must have been the case from the glosses in his version. The scribes of the earlier Gaelic manuscripts very often found, in the documents from which they themselves were copying, words so archaic as to be unintelligible to the readers of their own period. To render them comprehensible, they were obliged to insert marginal notes that explained these obsolete words by reference to other manuscripts more ancient still. Often the mediaeval copyists have ignorantly moved these notes from the margin into the text, where they remain, like philological fossils, to give evidence of previous forms of life. The documents from which they were taken have perished, leaving the mediaeval copies as their sole record. The ancient legends of Ireland may not have been mere inventions of scholarly monks in the middle Ages. Circumstantial evidence can be an adduced to prove that the most important portions of Gaelic literature can be safely relegated to a period of several centuries prior to their now existing record. Our earliest version of the episode of the ‘Tain Bo Cuailgne’, which is the nucleus and centre of the ancient Gaelic heroic cycle of which Cuchulain, is the principal figure, is found in the 12th century Book of the Dun Cow. But legend tells us that at the beginning of the seventh century the Saga had not only been composed but had actually become as obsolete as to have been forgotten by the Bards. Their leader, Seanchan Torpeist, a historical character and chief bard of Ireland at that time, obtained permission from the saints to call Fergus, Cuchulain’s contemporary and a chief actor in the ‘Raid’, from the dead and received from the resurrected hero a true and full version. This tradition, dealing with a real person, surely shows that the story of the ‘Tain’ was known before the time of Seanchan and probably preserves the fact either that his version of Cuchulain’s famous deeds became the accepted one or that he was the first to put it in writing. Such considerations as these push back, with reasonable certainty, the existence of the Irish poems and prose tales, in something like the present shape, to a period before the seventh century. But this, again, means only that the myths, traditions and legends were current at that, to us early, but to them, in their actual substance, late date, in literary form. A Mythology must always be far older than the oldest verses and stories to celebrate it. Elaborate poems and sagas are not made in a day or in a year. The legends of the Gaelic gods and heroes could not have sprung full born out of some poet’s brain. The bard who first put them into artistic shape was setting down the primitive traditions of his race. We may therefore venture to describe them as not of the 12th century or of the seventh but as of a prehistoric and immemorial antiquity. Internal evidence bears this out. An examination of the Gaelic legendary romances shows, under embellishing details added by later hands, an inner core of primeval thought that brings them into line with the similar ideas of other races in the earliest stages of culture. Their ‘local colour’ may be that of their last ‘editor’ but their ‘plots’ are pre-mediaeval, pre-Christian, prehistoric. The characters of early Gaelic legend belong to the same stamp of imagination that created all Olympian and Titan, Aesir and Jotun. This aspect of the Celtic literary records was expressed by Matthew Arnold when he said, ‘it is evident that the mediaeval storyteller is pillaging and antiquity of which he does not fully possessed the secret’. So, too, with the figures, however reconciled with history, of the tree great Gaelic cycles: that of the Tua De Danaan, of the heroes of Ulster, of Fionn and the Fianna. Their divinity outshines their humanity; true their masks may be seen the faces of gods.
Yet, gods as they are, they had taken on the semblance of mortality by the time histories were fixed in the form in which we have them now. Their earliest records, if those could be restored to us, would doubtless show them as eternal and undying, changing their shapes at will but not passing away. But the post-Christian copyists, whether Irish or not, would not continence this. Hence we have the singular paradox of the deaths of immortals. There is hardly one of the figures of the Gaelic pantheon whose demise is not somewhere recorded. Usually they fell in the unceasing battles between the gods of darkness and of light. Their deaths in earlier cycles of myth, however, do not preclude their appearance in later ones. Only, indeed, with the closing of the lips of the last mortal who preserved his tradition can the life of a God be truly said to end.
Geddes & Grosset, 1999. Celtic Mythology. 2006 ed. New Lanark: Geddes & Grosset.