Saturday, June 7, 2008

Celtic Mythology

Adventure, heroism, romance, and magic are a few of the elements that make Celtic mythology one of the most entrancing mythologies of Europe. Once a powerful people who dominated much of Europe, the Celts were reduced to a few small groups after the Roman invasions. However, their mythology survived, thanks largely to the efforts of medieval Irish and Welsh monks who wrote down the stories.

The Celts were a group of people who began to spread throughout Europe in the 1000s B.C. At the peak of their power, they inhabited an area extending from the British Isles in the west to what is now Turkey in the east. They conquered northern Italy and Macedonia, plundering both Rome and Delphi in the process. They had a reputation as fierce and courageous warriors and were viewed with respect by the Romans.
Celtic expansion reached its limit around 225 B.C., when the Celts suffered the first in a series of defeats by the armies of the Roman empire. Gradually, the Romans subdued the Celts, and by A.D. 84, most of Britain was under Roman rule. At the same time, Germanic peoples conquered the Celts living in central Europe.
Just a few areas, notably Ireland and northern Britain, managed to remain free and to continue and pass on the Celtic traditions. Six groups of Celts have survived to modern times: the peoples of Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany.
The ancient Celts were neither a race nor a nation. They were a varied people bound together by language, customs, and religion rather than by any centralized government. They lived off the land, farming and raising stock. No towns existed apart from impressive hill forts. However, by about 100 B.C., large groups of Celts had begun to gather at certain settlements to trade with one another.
Celtic society had a clearly defined structure. Highest in rank was the king, who ruled a particular tribe, or group of people. Each tribe was divided into three classes: the noble knights and warriors, the Druids (religious leaders), and the farmers and commoners. The Druids, who came from noble families, were respected and influential figures. They served not only as priests but also as judges, teachers, and advisers. In addition, it was widely believed that the Druids had magical powers.

The ancient Celts had a vibrant mythology made up of hundreds of tales. They did not, however, record their myths in writing but passed them on orally. Our knowledge of the gods, heroes, and villains of Celtic mythology comes from other sources—mainly Roman. Yet the Romans sometimes referred to Celtic gods by Roman names, so their accounts were not always reliable. Moreover, because the Romans and Celts were battlefield enemies, Roman descriptions of Celtic beliefs were often unfavorable.

Major Gods. The Celts worshiped a variety of gods who appeared in their tales. Most were all-powerful local deities rather than gods with specialized roles. Each tribe had its own god, who protected and provided for the welfare of that tribe. Some of them had similar characteristics. For example, Dagda, the god of life and death in Ireland—known as the good god—resembled Esus, the "master" god of Gaul.
Some deities had more clearly defined roles. Among these were Lug, or Lugus, a sun god associated with arts and skills, war and healing, and the horned god Cernunnos, who was god of animals and fertility. The Celts also had a large number of important female deities. These included Morrigan, the "Great Queen"—actually three war goddesses, Morrigan, Badb, and Nemain, who appeared as ravens during battle. Another important deity was Brigit, goddess of learning, healing, and metalworking. Epona, the horse goddess, was associated with fertility, water, and death.

Major Themes. Magic, magicians, and the supernatural played a significant role in Celtic mythology. A common theme was the magic cauldron. The cauldron of plenty was never empty and supplied great quantities of food. The cauldron of rebirth brought slain warriors to life again. Myrddin, a magician in the Welsh tales, later became Merlin in the Arthurian legends.

Other important themes in the myths were voyages to mysterious and dangerous lands and larger-than-life heroes. The heroes experienced all kinds of adventures and often had to perform impossible tasks before marrying their loved one. Love, romance, and mischief also figured prominently. The gods played tricks on humans and on one another. Animals changed shape at will.