Today, Celtic mythology referred to stories from the ancient race of people known as the Celts, who spoke the Celtic language. During the early medieval period, they were confined to certain areas in Western Europe.
Celtic myths survived mostly from medieval writers in Ireland and Wales, though some earlier description from classical Greek and Roman writers existed. The classical writers wrote concerning Gallic deities during time of ancient Roman Empire.
|Who were the Celts?|
|Timeline of Celtic Myths|
|Literature of Celtic Myths|
The Celts were members of people who spoke one of the Indo-European languages. They probably originated from Central Europe, during the late second millennium BC (late Bronze Age). Traces of their earliest existences can be found in Austria, Germany and France. They established Late Bronze/Iron Age culture called Hallstatt culture, in Austria during the 9th or 8th century BC. When the Iron Age Hallstatt began to displace the Bronze Age Hallstatt, a rich, flourishing trade existed between the Greeks and the Celtic tribes living in the region of Bavaria to Bohemia.
The Greeks called them Keltoi; the name has its root probably in the 5th century BC. While the Romans called them Galli, which is the “Gauls”.
A new Iron Age culture emerged during the 6th century BC, called La Tène around the Rhine River. La Tène introduced the distinctive style, which the Celtic arts were famous for. Swords and spear were founded buried with their warriors. The Celtic society had become more warlike.
Since 600 BC, a Greek colony in southern France, had transformed into a prosperous city called Massilia (Marseille), because of its trades with the Gauls. The Gauls had adopted Greek writing system as a form of communication between them.
It was during this period that the Celts in Continental Europe reached the height of their power. It was the Golden Age of the Celtic people. They migrated as far west as Spain, and their boundary stretch towards the east, settling in the region called Galata, in the Anatolia (Turkey), the south-west coast of the Black Sea. Sometimes during 6th century BC, they crossed the English Channel, to the British Isles. The Celts who migrated to Britain became known as the Cymic Celts.
In Gaul, (France, Belgium, and the Lowlands), over twenty different Celtic tribes were identified by the time of Caesar. Some of the Celts crossed the Pyrenees into Spain sometimes between 8th to 6th century BC. The Celts settled mostly in the north and central Spain as well as in Portugal. This pushed Iberians, the native people in Spain, into moving to east and southern Spain. Some of the Celts settled and intermingled with the Iberians, produced a group of people known as the Celtiberian tribes.
During the fifth and fourth century BC, several Celtic tribes from Transalpine Gaul (southern France) penetrated the Alps and settled around the region called Cisalpine Gaul, in northern Italy (north of the river Po). Cisalpine means “This side of the Alps“. The Senones were the first arrived in Italy, followed by the Insubres who settled in Lombardy. The Boii settled in a region Bononia (Bologna). The migration of the Gauls from the north, putting pressure upon the Etruscans city-states in Etruria (Tuscany), that allowed the Romans to conquered Etruscan neighbours.
In 391 BC, the Gauls (Senones) under their chieftain Brennus(?), badly mauled the Roman army in Allia. The following year, the Gauls had sacked Rome. Then the Gauls withdrew from Rome after killing and looting. According to the Roman tradition, an exiled Roman general name Marcus Furius Camillus, gathered what was left of the Roman army, defeating and driving the Gauls out of Rome. More likely the Gauls withdrew from Rome of their accord and with no resistance from the Romans.
During the 3rd century BC, Macedonia and Thessaly (northern Greece) were overrun by the Celts. The Celts penetrated further south, where they attacked and looted Delphi in 279 BC.
When Germanic tribes began their migration during the second century BC, the Celts were pressured and forced to seek refuges further west of the Rhine and south of the Danube.
Julius Caesar spend much of his time in 59-50 BC, with military campaigns in Gaul (France and Belgium), creating a new Roman province. Beacause of Gaul contained a number of tribes, the lack of strong leadership and unity, Caesar made great use of the military maxim – “divide and conquer” – to defeat each Gallic tribe.
Caesar described in his memoirs, Gallic Wars, their warrior society, such as their customs and religion. Caesar admired his foes for their bravery and skills in warfare. The Gauls provided Caesar with the best sources of cavalry.
By the time Augustus, Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, had established a Roman Empire, he had divided Gaul into three different provinces (not including Narbonese Gaul (southern France), which have been a Roman province since 121 BC): Aquitania, Lugudunesis and Belgica, with Lugdunum (Lyons) as the capital. In Spain, the province was also divided into three separate provinces. In the west, comprising all of Portugal, was Lusitania; while in southern Spain was the province of Baetica (the valley of the river Baetis). These two provinces were originally known as Hispania Ulterior (Furthur Spain). The rest was province of Hispania Citerior (Nearer Spain) was called Tarraconensis.
Caesar even crossed the English Channel for two years (55-54 BC), where he encountered more Celtic people in southern Britain. Though Britain (Britannia) did not become a Roman province until the Emperor Claudius, between AD 43-51. Britain was largely divided into tribal regions, since the regions was named Belgae, Brigantes, Catuvellauni, etc. The Catuvellauni and Atrebates were most powerful Celtic tribes. Other tribes, who arrived later and settled in Wales and southern England, were from Belgica Gaul such as the Belgae, Iceni, Parisi and many others. (See Historical Background from the Arthurian Legends, when Britain was a Roman province.)
Later other Celtic kingdoms became part of Roman Empire, such as Noricum (Switerland and Austria) by Augustus, and Galatia (northeast of Asia Minor) during Claudius’ reign.
At the greatest extent of the Roman Empire, only Ireland (Hibernia) escaped Roman rule and influence. Christianity didn’t arrived in Ireland until mid-fifth century AD.
During the 3rd and 4th century AD, revolts were frequent in Gaul, due to instability and weakness of Rome and the encroachment of the German tribes on their Rhine borders. By the 5th century, three Germanic tribes had taken over the province, with Visigoths occupying Aquitania, the Franks settled in Belgica, while the Burgundians controlled the Rhine. Some Romanised Celts fled to the Armorican Peninsula (Brittany), the last stronghold of Celtic civilisation in Gaul.
By 410 BC, with shrinkage of Western Roman Empire, Honorius withdrew the legions garrisoned in Britannia. Britannia became isolated suffering attack from the Picts from the north, the Scoti (or Irish) from the west (from Ireland), and the Germanic tribes of Jutes, Angles and Saxons from the east. The Britons tried to established their own kingdoms and tried to defend themselves from invaders. The Welsh-speaking Briton kingdoms in the north fell to the Angles, while other Britons in the south fled from the Saxons to the western extremes of Britain, in Wales and Cornwall. Other Britons crossed the English Channel into Armorica, where the region was renamed Brittany, which means “Little Britain”.
Between the 8th and 11th century, the Vikings from Scandinavia repeatedly raided Britain and Ireland, before establishing settlements on both islands. Brian Boru, the Irish high king (1002-1014; he ruled one of the smaller kingdom called Dál Cais, since 976), had tried to drive the Norse invaders out of Ireland. Though, his son commanded the army and won the battle at Clontarf (1014), some Northmen came across his tent and killed the aged king.
It wasn’t until this period, that the Irish myths were recorded.
The Irish myths can be set at certain period that coincided with legendary and historical time-line.
The arrival of the Partholanians was said to coincide with that of Noah and the Biblical Flood. Nemed was descendant of Noah’s grandson, Magog, son of Japheth. The Firbolgs and the Tuatha Dé Danann were in turn, descendants of Nemed. The Firbolgs were enslaved race in Thrace and Greece, before they arrived in Ireland. While the Tuatha Dé Danann learned all sort of magic, druidism, science and arts from the nother.
Japheth’s other son, the fictional Fenius Farsaid was said to be the ancestor of the Mil and the Milesians. The Milesians were said to have arrived in Ireland in the 3rd century BC.
While the tale of Cu Chulainn in the Ulaid Cycle took place in the 1st century BC, though the death of Conchobar, king of Ulster, coincided with the day Jesus Christ was crucified (c. AD 30).
While the reign of Cormac Mac Airt in the Fenian Cycle was said to have set during in the 3rd century AD. Though in the “Colloquy of the Ancients”, the heroes Caolite and Oisín survived, during the time of the missionary of St Patrick, in the 5th century AD.
It should be noted that the ancient Gallic and British people left no literature on their myth of their gods and religion, during the Roman Empire. These ancient gods survived on from mainly archaeological evidences, such as inscriptions and their art works (eg. statuettes), and from classical Greek and Roman historians. I have given brief description on some of the Gallic and British deities.
According to a 1st century BC Greek poet, Parthenius, the Celts were descendants of Heracles. As Heracles travelled back to Greece with the cattle of Geryon, Celtine, daughter of Bretannus, saw and fell in love with the hero. One day, she hid the cattle, and would not tell Heracles their whereabout until he made love to her. Heracles slept with her, and Celtine became the mother of Celtus, ancestors of the Celts.
According to another legend about Heracles, written by Diodorus Siculus, the hero met and seduced a nymph named Galata. She was the mother of the Galatians.
No literature survived from Cornwall and Brittany. Breton literature on myth and legend survived only through the writings of French writers.
The majority of the literature Celtic myths, come from Irish and Welsh, and to a lesser extent from the Scots.
Celtic myths, particularly those concerning the Irish cycles (myths) was preserved through oral tradition, probably between the period of Viking settlements in Ireland, from the eighth to the eleventh century AD. They were composed by bards, who would recited the stories, entirely in verses. The Irish sagas weren’t written down until the twelfth century AD by monastical scholars.
These tales were recorded in two main manuscripts: the Book of Leinster and the Book of the Dun Cow. These were collection of hundreds of stories about the Ulaid Cycle and Fenian Cycle. Another manuscript also deserved mentioning, is the Yellow Book of Lecan written in the 14th century, containing a large number of stories. The Colloquy of the Ancients can be found in Scottish manuscript called the Book of the Dean of Lismore, in the 16th century.
More authors added more stories to the Celtic myths, in the 16th and 17th century. The most interesting work was that of James Macpherson (1736-1796), a Scottish poet. He caused controversy, when he claimed the work to be that of Oisín, a warrior-poet of the 3rd century AD. It was discovered that much of the works were really his own invention.
Another author was the Irish writer was William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Yeats and Macpherson were responsible for renewing people’s interests in Celtic myths. They also influenced the Romantic movements in art as well as literature.
The main source for the Welsh myths were the Mabinogion. The Mabinogion contains eleven tales. Some of these tales are related or belong to series or cycle.
Dating the individual tales in the Mabinogion, is difficult, because they were probably composed by different writer and at a different time. Culwch and Olwen was one of earliest, continuous tales of King Arthur. The last three Welsh romances paralleled with the works for of the French writer, Chrétien de Troyes who used these materials for his Arthurian romances. (Note that the three Welsh romances does not appear in the Celtic myths, because I preferred the French version in the Arthurian Legends.)
There are even earlier tales of Welsh legends, such as those composed by Taliesin and Aneirin from the 6th century.
Taliesin’s poetry were preserved in the Book of Taliesin from 13th century. It was more a collection of eculogies, one of them were on King Urien of Rhegedn, mourning for his son’s death (Owain).
Aneirin was said to have composed a poem called Y Gododdin, but was preserved in a manuscript known as the Book of Aneirin, that dated around 1250. The Y Gododdin may contained the earliest reference to Arthur.
What I found disappointing about the Irish myths, were the influences of Christianity to the Irish literature. The pagan Celts regarded their gods as their “gods”; whereas the Christian writers had degenerate the deities into little more than fairy people.
Also was the introduction of the legends of Saint Patrick to the Fenian cycle. There are many stories or biographies of other saints mixed with Celtic legends. The lives of these saints were purely propaganda showing that the Church was stronger than other gods. The legends of these saints were mostly to stamped out pagan tales of gods and heroes.
Please note, that a number of tales found in Celtic myths, also contain stories about King Arthur and some of his companions. Except for the “Culhwch and Olwen” and the “Dream of Rhonabwy”, all other Welsh tales of Arthur or his companions from the Round Table will be found in the Arthurian branch. The except for those two tales I have mentioned, which don’t belonged to the mainstream Arthurian cycle.