Celtic Mythology: Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

Image by John James Audubon – Public Domain – Source

This article by zteve t evans was first published on FolkloreThursday.com on 30th July, 2020 under the title, Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods in Celtic Mythology

Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

Animals played an important part in the everyday life of the ancients Celts. In Celtic mythology the lives of animals, birds, humans and gods are interwoven to provide rich stories alluding to important matters in their society such as life and death, love and hate, jealousy and lust. Provided here is a brief review of some of those myths and legends.

The Dream of Aengus

Swans were much admired by the Irish Celts and had some special places in their mythology. One story from Irish mythology called the Dream of Aengus, tells how a young god named Aengus fell in love with a beautiful woman from his dreams. Her name was Caer Ibormeith and she was the goddess of sleep and dreams.

Aengus set out to find her and discovered that she was a real person who had been placed under a spell which transformed her into a swan. Every other Samhain she was able to return to human form for one day beginning at sunset and then revert back to swan form for one year until the following Samhain when the transformation cycle would be repeated.

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Celtic Mythology: The Tuatha Dé Danann

Riders of the Sidhe – John Duncan – Public domain

The Tuatha Dé Danann

In Irish and Celtic mythology the Tuatha Dé Danann were a supernatural race who were known to interact with and form relationships with humans.  They had a reputation for being adept in the sciences, arts, magic and necromancy. Their name translates as the people of the goddess Dana or Danu and they are seen as being the main gods of Ireland before the arrival of Christianity.   Along with the Fir Bolg they were the descendents of Nemed, who ruled the third wave of invaders of Ireland and was reputedly descended from the Biblical Noah. They were believed to have come from Falias, Gorias, Murias and Finias which were four cities  located somewhere to the north of Ireland. They brought with them four magical treasures; the Dagda’s Cauldron, the Spear of Lugh, The Stone of Fal, and the Sword of Light of Nuada.

Each individual of the Tuatha Dé Danann was seen as being a representation of certain aspects of the natural world and some of them were associated with more than one.  Some individuals were also known by other names which may vary from region to region. The Tuatha Dé Danann were the traditional enemies of the Fomorians who appear to represent the dark destructive forces of nature.  They were personifications of drought, pestilence, chaos, darkness and death, whereas the Tuatha Dé Danann were gods of civilisation and growth. 

Christian Records

It was the Christian monks that recorded and wrote down Irish mythology and in doing so altered and rewrote some of it to a degree.  They often saw the Tuath Dé Danann as kings, queens and heroes from a bygone era and credited them with having supernatural powers. Another view was that they were fallen angels being neither good or evil. Other medieval writers  saw them as being gods or spirits because some characters are found in tales that are from different times often separated by centuries. This lent to the belief that they were divine or immortal beings. For example, Manannán mac, Aengus, Morrígan and Lugh all appear in tales from different eras which many see as supporting the idea of their immortality.

The Lebor Gabála Érenn

The Lebor Gabála Érenn  is a collection of poetry and writing collected in the Middle Ages.  It claims to tell the history and origin of the Irish and Ireland up to the time it was written.  Many versions exist but the earliest were believed to have been written in the 11th century. According to this work the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived in Ireland in ships bringing,  “dark clouds”.  They were said to have landed on the mountains of Connachta bringing three days and nights of darkness.  Another later version says that they burnt their ships on arrival so there was no way they could go back. The smoke from the ships filled the air and was the cause of the dark clouds and darkness.  

King Nuada

Their leader was King Nuada who led them in the First Battle of Magh Tuireadh where they defeated the Fir Bolg, the native inhabitants of Ireland.  Although they won, King Nuada lost an arm fighting Sreng, the Fir Bolg champion. Despite this Sreng and his three hundred followers were losing the battle and facing defeat  vowed to fight to the death. The Tuatha Dé Danann were so impressed with their valor and fighting ability they offered them a one fifth of Ireland if they pulled out of the fight.   This was agreed and they chose Connacht and the people there were said to be able to trace their ancestry from Sreng up to the 17th century.

However, Nuada had been badly wounded, losing an arm and this meant that he was no longer unblemished.  According to Tuatha Dé Danann tradition this meant he had to relinquish the kingship.   Bres, who was half-Fomorian became king and he demanded tribute from the Tuatha Dé and enslaved them.

Dian Cecht, a great healer, replaced the lost arm of Nuada with a fully functioning silver one which allowed him to take back the kingship.   Miach, the son of Dian Cecht was not satisfied with the replacement arm of Nuada and cast a spell saying which made flesh grow over the artificial silver arm in nine days and nine nights.  Jealous at the skill and success of his son Dian Cecht murdered his him.

Bres was forced to hand back the crown to Nuada and consulted with Elatha, his father who would have no part in any scheme to win back the kingship. Instead he advised him to seek help from Balor the king of the Fomorians.  Balor agreed to help Bres and from this came the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh where the Tuatha Dé Danann fought the Fomorians led by Balor, who killed Nuada with his poisonous eye. Then the Tuatha Dé, champion, Lugh killed Balor and became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

The Invasion of the Milesians

The arrival of invaders to Ireland from what today is known as Galicia in  Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula brought further conflict. These invaders were believed to be Goidelic Celts, who were believed to be descendants of Míl Espáine and known as Milesians.

They met three of the Tuatha Dé Danann, goddesses;  Ériu, Banba and Fodla who requested them to name the island after them which is where the modern name Éire came from.  The husbands of these three goddesses were Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine who were kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann requested a three day  truce with the Milesians. During these three days the Milesian fleet would anchor nine waves distance from the coast. They agreed and complied with the truce but the Tuatha Dé Danann using magic summoned up a storm hoping to sink the enemy fleet or drive their ships out to sea.   

Tir na nOg

The Milesians called on their  poet Amergin for help. He calmed the seas with his poetry and they managed to safely land.  This resulted in a battle with the Tuatha Dé Danann at Tailtiu which the Milesians won. Amergin was tasked with dividing the island up between the two sides and in a stroke of genius gave the part above ground to his own folk while allotting the underground part to the Tuatha Dé Danann.  According to this tradition this is where the Tuatha Dé Danann took up their residence and is called Tir na nOg, which was a paradisaical place and often an island. It was one of the Celtic Otherworlds that could be reached in several ways including by entering ancient burial mounds or sidhe, going either over or under water, or by traveling through mist. In later times the Tuatha Dé Danann became known as the Aos Si or fairies.

© 10/03/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 10th, 2020 zteve t evans

Winter Folklore: Traditions and Customs of the Cailleach Bheur

Gustave Doré [Public domain]

In Scottish, Irish, Manx and Gaelic mythology the goddess of winter is known as the the Cailleach, Beira or the Cailleach Bheur, which means old woman or hag. In Celtic mythology she had a similar role to Jörð in Norse mythology  and Gaia, in Greek mythology.

Donald Alexander Mackenzie

The Scottish folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1873 – 1936) wrote frequently on the subjects of mythology, anthropology and religion and developed a theory that there was a matriarchal society spread across Europe in Neolithic times.  In his book,  Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe (1917), he argues that these early societies were gynocentric and matriarchal venerating goddesses above gods but during the Bronze Age a patriarchal society evolved supplanting it.  Mackenzie called the Cailleach Bheur by the name of Beira, Queen of Winter.  

He saw her as a giantess with  a single eye who had her mountain throne on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain and the highest in the British Isles.  According to him she had white hair, dark blue skin, and rust-colored teeth. She had a magic hammer that she used to create the mountains and valleys  of Scotland.  Loch Ness was created when she changed a careless maid named Nessa into a river which then formed the loch.  Each year her rule would come to an end when the longest night of the year arrived when she would seek out the Well of Youth and drink its waters which made her grow younger by the day. 

As the Cailleach

In Scottish folklore and mythology, as the Cailleach she was believed to have created many of the mountains and hills.  She carried a wicker basket containing rocks and as she strode across the land at such a pace many of these rocks accidently fell out creating hills and mountains as she went. Sometimes she was said to have created the mountains on purpose and carried a hammer which she used to shape the hills and valleys.   She opposed Spring and herded deer and when she strikes the ground with her staff the ground freezes. 

The Cailleach and Brigid

Sometimes she is seen with the goddess Brigid in partnership or operating as two faces or aspects of one goddess.  They ruled the winter and spring months between November 1st or Samhain to May 1st or Beltane. Brigid rules from Beltane through summer and autumn  to Samhain.

In some traditions the Cailleach turns to stone on Beltane and reverts to her human form on Samhain to rule the winter and spring months. However, this is not straightforward,  in some traditions the transfer of jurisdiction between the two goddesses and winter to spring can be celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brigid or February 1st, Latha na Cailliche or March 25th and Beltane or May 1st.  Festivals named after either of the two goddesses are held in between these dates.

Saint Brigid’s Day

According to tradition the Imobolc, or the 1st of February or  Là Fhèill Brigid is the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for winter.  If she is planning a long winter she will make that day sunny and bright to help her find plenty of fuel to last her through the cold days of winter.  Therefore with this legend in mind people are pleased if the weather on February 1st is wet and dismal as the winter will be short. A tradition on the Isle of Man  where she is called Caillagh ny Groamagh, says that on St. Bride’s day she has been seen to take the form of a giant bird that flies around collecting sticks in its beak.

The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan

Another tradition from the west coast of Scotland tells how the Cailleach by washing her great plaid, which can be a kind of kilt, or sometimes a large shawl, in the waters of the Gulf of Corryvreckan causes the whirlpool in the gulf and brings in winter.  This also causes a storm that can be heard twenty miles away and lasts for three days.  When she is finished her plaid is clean and white and covers the land as snow. 

Harvest Traditions

There was an old custom in Ireland and Scotland where the farmer who was first to finish harvesting his crop of grain made a corn dolly that represent the Cailleach from the last sheaf that he cut.  This would be thrown into the field of one of his neighbors who had yet to finish bringing in his harvest.  If the farmer finished before his other neighbors this was passed to one of them. This was passed on until it at last came into the hands of the last unfortunate farmer to finish who it was implied had the misfortune to have to take care of the corn dolly for the following year. In doing so he was obliged to feed and house the Cailleach, the hag of winter, until summer returned.  This gave all of the farmers the encouragement and motivation to get their harvest in quickly.

© 06/12/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attribution and Further Reading

Copyright December 6th, 2019 zteve t evans