Ancient Celtic Mythology: Stories, Symbols, and Gods of the Mist
Imagine the Celts — fierce warriors, ancient kings, skilled artisans, and lyrical poets. Tales of faeries, powerful goddesses, all-knowing magicians, musicians, and lyrical bards. The rich Celtic culture continues to fascinate today.
To pin down the origin of the Celtic culture is to travel across lands, times, and languages; across empires, religious beliefs and traditions. A collection of tribes with origins in Central Europe, the Celts (pronounced with a hard ‘c’) ruled over a large section of Europe during the Iron Age into the Medieval period. Pushed onto the western coastal islands by enemies on the European continent, the Celts survived and flourished despite attempts to destroy them, including an unsuccessful invasion by Julius Caesar in the first century BCE. Once referred to as “galli,” or barbarians, by the Romans, nothing could be further from the truth.
CELTIC GODS, GODDESSES, AND COSMOLOGY
This divinity is embedded in a complex cycle of powerful myths. The Celtic gods include:
Danu was the great mother goddess, considered the oldest Celtic deity. She was the mythical mother of the Tuatha dé Danann, the tribal ancestors of the Gaels, the last Celts to settle in Ireland. Great Britain and Ireland’s legendary mist was said to be Danu’s loving spirit, and has become a symbol of Celtic culture, and mythology.
Father of the gods, Daghda is likened to the Greek god, Zeus. The original renaissance man, Daghda’s name translates into “good god,” as in good at everything he touched, similar the the Greek god, Midas. His symbols and powers include a magical harp, the cauldron of abundance, and the power to bring the dead back to life.
The god of all the arts, and is considered to be the Celtic ancestral savior, blacksmith, poet, warrior, musician, Lugh is eternal guide of the road, as well as wealth and prosperity.
The Morrigan is the great queen and wife of Daghda. She is a shapeshifter, presiding over freshwater lakes, ponds, streams, and bogs. The ancestral mother of magic, the Morrigan is revered for her powerful sorcery, the time from twilight to dawn, and all aspects of the cycles of birth and death. Her beauty is legendary. Morrigan’s sacred animals are ravens and crows.
ORAL TRADITIONS: CELTIC POETRY AND MYTH
Like the land from which they emerge, Celtic myths are lush and sensual. Recorded in the oral tradition of storytelling, poetry, and music, they can be divided into three categories: Otherworld, Warrior Society, and Cycles.
The Otherworld is the realm the Fairy/Faerie people, and sometimes the dead. The otherworld, hidden from human eyes with magic, is located on islands, dunes, hills, heathers, forests, lakes, and rivers. For the Celts, suffering, mortality, and time were non-existant in the otherworld. Myths and stories describe a dream-like, thin veil between realms. The Myth of the Silver Bough epitomizes a transmutable reality; the bough was a the portal to the otherworld, the site of four magical treasures: the Stone of Destiny, the Sword of Lugh, the Sword of Nuada, and Daghda’s Cauldron.
Warrior myths centered on Celtic deities from the otherworld typified in “The Harp of the Daghda.” In this tale, Daghda’s most prized possession, his harp, or Uaithne, is captured by the Fomorians, a supernatural and rival tribe, (note: by who?) in the battle of Moytura, as described in the Lebor Gabála Érenn or Book of Invasions. Daghda summons the harp with a special chant that returns it. Using the harp, Daghda lulls his enemies into an impenetrable sleep, bringing victory to the Celts.
Irish Myths are divided into historical periods:
The Book of Invasions:
Documents early Celtic succession. The best known story is Children of Lir, a tale of a jealous stepmother who turns her step-children into swans. This is believed to be one of the source myths for Swan Lake. Other stories from this cycle include The Wooing Of Étain, Cath Maige Tuireadh and The Dream of Aengus.
The Ulaid Cycle:
Also called the Ulster Cycle, is made up of stories about Ulster, and the military order known as the House of the Red Branch. This cycle centers on the myth of one of the Celt’s greatest heroes, Cú Chulainn, son of Lugh.
The Fenian Cycle:
Also known at the “Finn Cycle,” or the “Ossianic Cycle,” is a collection of stories and bardic poems about Finn MacCumhaill and his warriors, the Fianna Éireann. The Finn Cycle remains at the heart of Irish folk lore.
The Cycle of History:
Also called the “Cycle of Kings,” includes stories about the relationship between human royalty and the gods, and contains advice on how to be a benevolent,wise leader who is capable of bringing prosperity to his tribe.
Ancient Celtic values and cosmology were represented by wheels, spirals, and took lunar phases constellations into account. Celtic iconography include knots, crosses, and the Celtic triquetra, also known as the “trinity” knot. To the Celts, these intertwined forms represented unending cycles of life, death, and rebirth, as well as mind, body, and soul.
Repeated triplicate intertwinings symbolized the significance of the divine, as well as deep connections to nature. Because the Celts used an oral tradition, few written records remain — but an abundance of physical relics portray the symbols of the mythical Celtic culture, and are often seen today in jewelry, architecture and art. Three of the most recognized Celtic symbols are:
The Triquetra: Meaning, tri-cornered, or triangle, the Triquetra is one of the most lasting Celtic symbols. The intersecting pieces represent a divine trinity originally associated with the triple goddesses (maiden, mother, crone), as well as three earthly elements of fire, water, and air, and the cycle of life. It is referred to as the rune of protection.
The Triskelion: This image can be interpreted as threebent human legs, and is one of the most well-known and important Celtic symbols representing human action, progress, revolution, and completion or advancement.
The Dara Celtic Knot: This symbol traces back to the word “doire,” meaning ‘oak,’the most sacred of trees. The Dara Knot represents the oak’s deep root system, and symbolizes power, inner strength, wisdom, leadership, and fate, or destiny.
Left to Right: Triquetra, Celtic Knot, Triskelion
CELTIC INFLUENCE TODAY
What is the legacy of the resilient, creative Celts? The answer is wide-reaching and global. Musical influences, the arts, music, expert craftsmanship , dancing, education, and generational oral traditions of storytelling, all of which enrich our modern society.
May green be the grass you walk on,
May blue be the skies above you,
May pure be the joys that surround you,
May true be the hearts that love you.