The Irish evidence and international evidence as to how life must have been, not only for the Celts resident in Ireland, but also for international Celts living across Western Europe is mostly based on mythology. The international evidence can show us, for example, what kind of religion the Celtic speaking people of Europe believed in. The first thing we must do is define what exactly we mean by the word ‘Celts’, what exactly is a Celt? It is after all, a rather complex term worthy of close analysis.
We need to understand the Celtic societies all across Europe, not only in Ireland, but also in France, Spain and Germany. Looking at the Gods and Goddesses of the Celtic tradition we can ascertain many of the religious beliefs of the Celtic peoples. One of the areas most fruitful in our understanding of the Celts is archaeology where we can find physical examples such as Temples, ritual objects, and statues, and other types of artefacts and burial places, which can tell us a little bit about the religious beliefs of these people.
It must be said from the outset that there is not a lot of archaeological clues but the few we have available to us are worthy of close analysis. One needs to also look at history which includes pseudo history, tribal names and place names. This ‘pseudo history’ came about long after events took place and, with the passing of time, stories became somewhat romanticised or, depending on the agenda of the storyteller, would have a political or religious spin to it. Tribal names and place names can tell us a lot about certain different cults and figures. However, our primary source is Mythology.
There are four main cycles in time to be concerned with when trying to understand the Celts but when we talk about some of these cycles we have a problem in that the information available to us was, more than likely, prepared long after events actually took place. In many cases, evidence suggests, that such stories were relayed thousands of years later. In fact, some of the mythology available only came to us in the medieval period. But the fact is that the mythology survived in medieval manuscripts for the most part and modern scholars have broken it up to four different strands. Four different areas of mythology which are known as the Mythological cycle, the Ulster cycle, Fenian cycle and the Historical cycle.
The mythological cycle, which is mainly based on the contents of a book known as ‘The Book Of Invasion’ which was not really a history book but it discusses at great length the different tribes, one after another, which came to Ireland until eventually the final wave of invaders arrived to conquer the land, the Gael, who became the masters of the Ireland. One of the most important tribes to arrive prior to ‘The Gael’ was a tribe known as the ‘Tuatha De Danaan’ who were presented in ‘The Book Of Invasion’ as a group of magicians or magical figures whereas, in reality, they were a pantheon of Gods.
The ‘Ulster Cycle’ concerns a warrior and aristocratic society in the province of Ulster and is supposed by historians to have taken place around C.1 CE. It is primarily concerned with a mystical King known as Conchobhar MacNeasa (one who is desirous of warriors) and the various different peoples of his kingdom and rival kingdoms as well. There is a single story that is very important to this cycle and is known as the Brown Bull of Cooley. This tale is significant because it introduces a character known as Cu Chulainn who single handedly defends the province of Ulster against a great army. In any study of Irish Mythology one should be concerned not so much with the stories themselves but with the symbolism used in them. One should try to understand from where these symbols came and what is their true meaning or substance in history. For example, Cu Chulainn probably represents the warrior cult that came to Ireland from parts of Liverpool in the 1st century CE and the Kings may have represented a phase of kingship in Ulster in the centuries BCE. In short, if we break open the stories we can see clues to the realities of history within their meaning. We should never take the stories at face value. We could always examine them and try to find out that‘s underneath.
The next wave is known as the Fenian Cycle has a lot to tell us about certain cult figures. These stories are basically about Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fianna (Young Hunters). The story of the Salmon of Knowledge tells us of Fionn sticking his thumb into a salmon and tasting the juices thus gaining great knowledge. This can be interpreted as the salmon, having it‘s origin in the mystical world, and Fionn acquiring mystical knowledge by tasting the juices, and is therefor in some way super powerful. There are many stories in the Fenian Cycle of Fionn and the Fianna going to the mystical world and fighting supernatural warriors and it is from such stories that we can acquire a greater knowledge of how the Celts may have lived and what beliefs they may have had.
The historical cycle is also known as the cycle of the King‘s because it mainly deals with kingship, how King‘s are viewed, what powers King‘s had in both mortal and spiritual worlds. There are lots of stories of Kings taking trips to other worlds or encountering visitors from other worlds who were to bestow the role of Kingship upon them. It‘s all essentially political propaganda but these stories can tell us a fair amount as well about the Druids and the Druidic rituals.