7. The Story behind the Stories: Celtic Mythology and Folklore
With exciting plots, strong characters, and an aura of magic and mystery, the mythological tales of the Celts make for terrific storytelling. Warriors careen in chariots across the landscape and leap out to engage in single combat. Heroes travel through fog and mysterious caves to adventures in the Otherworld. Women skilled in warfare give their teaching and love to aspiring warriors. Masters of magic, women and men alike, weave enchantments around people, animals, objects, and landscapes. Many characters shift shape from human to animal or even stone or wave. Such figures suggest an important theme of Celtic mythology: things are often more than they seem. So it is with these mythic tales, which are indeed good stories but also much, much more.
What is Mythology?
In popular usage, the word "myth" often seems to mean "an untrue story." This represents a misunderstanding of the real function of myths. They are not and never were meant to be an accurate, detailed recording of historical events. While a myth may incorporate details of a historical happening such as a tribe's arrival in a place or a great battle, the purpose of a myth is to express and pass on the values and beliefs of the people in story form. Many ancient societies such as the Celts used stories to embody and transmit their beliefs and values. Indeed, even cultures that eventually made use of philosophical or theological treatises to pass on their beliefs also used stories. An example familiar to most Westerners can be found in the parables of Jesus, who chose to convey his teachings in stories that many continue to find meaningful and inspirational today.
The word "myth" comes from the ancient Greek word mythos, meaning story or tale. The role and function of myth varies somewhat from one culture to another. Myths may have sometimes been related to rituals now lost. We don't know to what extent this once was true among the pre-Christian Celts, but some Celtic stories account for why certain ritual events took place. Most of all, the stories tell us what the Celts believed about the world around them. In pre-Christian Celtic societies, myths did not simply describe the world perceived by the five senses; they also expressed beliefs about the relationships between humanity and the divine and between the visible world and the unseen. Even when a story is not obviously or specifically about sacred topics, we can broadly, but usefully, define a myth as a sacred story that tells us:
· What a people believed about its origins, deities, and culture heroes, and
· The values and behavioral standards that were expected to govern individual and public lives.
The content of myths can be seen as a belief system, a collection of beliefs and attitudes about life, death, society, the world, the universe, and, among groups like the pre-Christian Celts, the unseen.
Mythology among the Ancient Celts
The telling of sacred stories has always had a recognized and prominent social role among the ancient Celts. Their myths operated on a different plane from that of science, history, or even fiction. Unlike fiction, myths were meant to express the perspective of the culture much more than that of any individual author or storyteller. Also, though every story tries to some extent to touch the audience emotionally, Celtic myth aimed at something more: insight into and perhaps even contact with the unseen.
For the pre-Christian Celts, the retelling of myths, whether by a storyteller or through re-enactment, was a kind of ritual in itself. In the retelling, the storyteller or actors invoked the inspiration and power of the Otherworld, and brought the audience into contact with those powers and all the generations who had heard the story in earlier times. Each retelling evoked the past and the tradition of all that had come before, and re-inforced community bonds. Through symbolic language, the storyteller tried to trigger deep levels of connection with existence and lead the listeners into contact with the mysteries. Even today, traditional storytelling gives form to the unseen, so that the limited human mind can begin to know the unknowable. Through symbolic language, Celtic myths express a vision of reality by using a symbolic way of looking at the world.
When mythology is compared to other belief systems-especially scientific or intellectual ones-myths can indeed appear to be "untrue stories." Actually, in the sense that they express the most basic truths, myths are more true than reality-based historical accounts or scientific analyses. For example, an account of the Cattle Raid of Cooley by a journalist or historian would describe the main participants and the outcomes of the battles. But would a journalist or historian describe the behind-the-scene activities of the gods and goddesses who helped to determine the outcome? From a mythological viewpoint, such activities are among the most important events of the story because they express what the early Irish believed about how the world functioned, why it functioned as it did, how the seen and unseen interacted, and how one was supposed to live.
Every Celtic myth contains a basic tale that can be enjoyed simply as a good story. However, a myth is also full of symbolic imagery that conveys additional levels of meaning to those with the knowledge and insight to understand. Thus, the appearance of a carrion bird on a battle field signals the presence of a deity. A woman who acts like a horse-either by racing against horses or by acting as a beast of burden-is likely a goddess who grants sovereignty. Nuts often symbolize wisdom or Otherworldly knowledge. Springs and lakes are sources of healing and wisdom. Boars symbolize the qualities needed in a warrior, while stags often lead hunters into Otherworldly adventures. Only a foolish warrior or hunter would harm an animal that was white with red ears: such markings were considered sure signs of Otherworld origin. By becoming familiar with these symbols and their use among the ancient Celts, we add to our appreciation of the story's message.
The laws and stories of Ireland and Wales indicate that some individuals were thought to have special skill to see the world clearly and express their insights in song, poem, and story. In Celtic communities, such people of skill and gift were highly valued members of society.
Pre-Christian Celtic culture was by and large oral rather than literate. We know that the learned people in many Celtic tribes did indeed use the Greek or Roman alphabets to write letters and keep accounts, and that Greek letters were used to inscribe the ancient Coligny calendar. The Irish ogham alphabet, developed early in the Common Era, appears to have been used primarily for inscriptions and signs, though there are several instances of ogham being employed for magical purposes. However, this appears to have been the extent of pagan Celtic literacy. Anything of enduring importance was committed not to writing, but to the memories of the lore-keepers.
Everyone in society had some role in learning and passing on the lore necessary to do their jobs well, including the charms and prayers associated with their tasks. In using oral tradition to pass on its lore, ancient Celtic society developed a high value for the role of words in giving expression to the emotional and spiritual, invoking power, and causing action to occur. Re-enacting or retelling the myths was thought to bring the events and characters to life once more and to invoke their energy into the physical and social domains. Telling and acting out stories were, in that sense, religious acts, and the lore-keepers were considered religious functionaries and high-status members of their societies. In early Irish law, the highest grade of fili (poet), the ollam, was allotted the same honor price as the king of a tuath. Lore-keepers also had the freedom to travel outside their own kin groups and territories without threat of harm, a privilege accorded to few in Celtic areas. This gave them a unique ability to acquire valued knowledge and experience.
The tales themselves sometimes demonstrate the honor accorded the lore-keepers. For example, in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, the great wizard Gwydion twice goes traveling in the guise of a poet. Both times he is wholeheartedly welcomed into noble halls, and his hosts ask him to recite "lore" (kyvarwydyt; modern Welsh cyfarwyddyd). Both times the narrator of the Mabinogi praises him as the best "reciter of lore" (kyvarwyd; modern cyfarwydd) in the world. As Rees and Rees point out, "the old Welsh word for 'story,' cyfarwyddyd, means 'guidance, direction, instruction, knowledge, skill, prescription.' Its stem, arwydd, means 'sign, symbol, manifestation, omen, miracle,' and derives from a root meaning 'to see.' The storyteller was originally a seer and a teacher who guided the souls of his hearers through the world of mystery.
Transmission of the Celtic Myths
Today, we know the myths in three forms:
· Stories, lists of tales, and other material containing references to tales recorded by medieval and early modern scribes
· Folktales passed on by modern storytellers
· Folk dramas and processions often associated with calendar festivals
There are no written remains of the mythology of the continental Celts, although images in artwork such as the Gundestrup Cauldron, and various Romano-Gaulish altars appear to illustrate scenes from sacred stories. Some classical writers occasionally refer to mythic stories told by the Gauls or other Celts, but the stories themselves were never recorded. Tales among the Bretons were not recorded until late, and they probably reflect the tradition of Celts in Britain at least as much as those who lived in Gaul.
The surviving mythological tales were written down in Wales and Ireland during the medieval or early modern periods. All these myths were recorded by Christians who often misunderstood the lore they were recording or knew only a corrupted version. Lisa Bitel writes of the people who recorded the Irish myths:
The intellectuals of early medieval Ireland were no more or less astute than modern academics. They recognized archaic linguistic forms and employed them for an antiquarian feel for their texts. They repeated old stories for sheer pleasure, not because they still revered the gods hidden in their plots. They rehearsed ancient laws in the same way that we preserved our legal precedents, modifying and changing rules where practice made necessary. Most important, they knew a pagan concept when they saw one and used it only when it suited them.
Since the Romans never dominated Ireland, scholars have debated whether Irish myths represent a fairly untouched source of Celtic mythology. However, we must keep in mind that the stories as we have them were recorded by Christian scribes several centuries after pagan religious practices had ceased to be actively passed on as such. Also, the scribes were not averse to using Christian images or motifs in the stories. Sometimes they adapted the Irish myths to include bits of story from the Christian scriptures. Breton stories and some Welsh tales, which were recorded even later than Irish ones, incorporate a great deal of influence from neighboring and conquering cultures. As time passed, the scribes acquired literary skills and the myths, especially those of the Welsh, were transmitted with a substantial literary veneer.
Joseph Falaky Nagy and others have analyzed the existing myths and hagiographies and have concluded that the scribes used the same literary techniques and motifs to describe both myth and hagiography. Once myths had been Christianized to an acceptable degree, many scribes valued them as much as their descriptions of saints' lives.
We should not think of the scribes as a monolithic group seeking to impose a single approach or set of ideas. The more we learn about early Irish monasteries and ecclesiastical operations, the more we realize how diverse a group the Irish scribes truly were. In Ireland, some scribes were, indeed, openly hostile to remnants of pre-Christian religion and stated this in notes on the manuscripts they composed or copied. But many were generally anxious to reconcile their own beliefs with the pre-Christian tradition and adapted the stories to incorporate Christian imagery, opinions, and values. For example, the god Lugh uses a sling rather than his usual spear to kill the giant Balor. Some scholars think the sling was substituted to make the story more like that of the Biblical tale of David and Goliath. On the other hand, scraps of charms invoking the gods Diancecht and Goibniu were preserved in monastic collections, suggesting that some scribes at least found such charms worth preserving and probably indicating that at least some were willing to resort to such invocations when they were in need of healing. One scribe called down a blessing on all who copied his version of the Táin without changes, indicating that many scribes were inclined to edit and "improve" the texts they copied.
Although most were, not all myths were written in religious institutions. Many of the Welsh myths were recorded by lay people. "The Tale of Gwion Bach," for example, was written down by Elis Gruffudd, a layman who was at one time a soldier.
The Surviving Celtic Myths
Irish and Welsh lists of tales refer to many stories that have never been found, suggesting that only a fraction of the stories known to the Pagan Celts has come down to us. An Irish manuscript dating to the tenth century tells us that "a Poet in Stories and in Deeds" was expected to know 250 "Prime Stories" and 100 "Secondary Stories." One or more Celtic creation stories may have existed in pagan times, but only hints of these have survived. For example, Triad 26 in Trioedd Ynys Prydein preserves a fragmentary tale about a great sow named Henwen. At one place in Wales she gave birth to "a grain of wheat and a bee; and therefore that place is the best for wheat and bees." At another place "she brought forth a grain of barley . . . and therefore the barley of Llonion is proverbial." Hints such as these suggest that at least some, if not most, Celtic stories were not recorded.
The stories were organized according to their type such as cattle-raids, battles, feasts, adventures, voyages, visions, wooings, abductions, births, and deaths. The evidence we have suggests that stories were categorized in this way at least partly because they were traditionally retold at corresponding events in the lives of the people.
We may surmise that a wedding-night, the 'warming' of a new house, the eve of battle, the bringing out of ale, feasts, and the taking over of an inheritance were some of the occasions when tales were traditionally told. They were also told before setting out on a voyage and before going to a court of law or to a hunt. Storytelling was a also feature of seasonal festivals, while it has been the custom at wakes for the dead, at christenings, and at weddings down to our own day. We suggest that originally there were tales appropriate to each occasion.
In Celtic communities, telling a story was, and still is, a ritual, even when the setting or the tale was not overtly religious. Traditional storytelling exhibited ritual-like characteristics such as invariance, formalism, dramatic technique, and deliberate, heightened use of language.
The Myths of Ireland
As noted above, the lore-keepers organized stories according to type, but nineteenth-century scholars organized the Irish myths into "cycles." Each cycle consisted of stories that shared a fairly distinct set of characters and themes. Modern scholars continue to use this method to present and discuss the Irish myths, so it's a good idea to become familiar with the names and characteristics of the cycles.
The Mythological Cycle
Primarily the Mythological Cycle contains stories about figures that most scholars believe were originally ancient Irish deities. As John Carey writes,
Usually thought of as dwelling beneath the earth or under water, they are portrayed as the guardians of territories and the ancestors of royal lineages, controlling the weather and the crops, presiding over the practice of the arts and the frenzy of battle. In other words, they appear as gods, and in fact they are sometimes called 'gods' outright....
However, the tales, as recorded, sometimes present these figures as demons, and sometimes simply as magically powerful humans. The stories concern two main groups of figures, the Túatha Dé Danann and the Fomoire. The Túatha Dé Danann are depicted as the wielders of magical skills and some seem to correspond to figures venerated by pagan Celts elsewhere. The Fomoire may be embodiments of the chaotic, fertile, and necessary forces of nature. Though depicted as two opposing groups, a look at genealogies connected with the characters suggests that the Túatha Dé Danann and Fomoire were thought to be related.
The "Book of Invasions" (Lebor Gabála Érenn) is part of the Mythological cycle. This long work tells how Ireland was supposedly settled or invaded by five successive groups. The tale appears to be a conflation of pre-Christian native tradition, continental Christian writings from writers such as Paulus Orosius, and biblical stories. The last group described as invading Ireland is called the Sons of Mil who are depicted as the ancestors of the Irish. Though clearly it was subjected to considerable Christianizing, the Book of Invasions continues to be an important source of early Irish tradition.
Another important tale, "The Second Battle of Mag Tuireadh" (Cath Maigh Tuiread), tells of the Túatha Dé Danann's second and decisive conflict with the Fomoire. Cath Maigh Tuiread is an editorial attempt to gather many stories and characters into one umbrella myth. Despite many contradictions and obvious Christianization, it remains a significant source of pre-Christian tradition about the deity figures.
The Ulster Cycle
The tales of the Ulster Cycle deal primarily with heroes, especially Cú Chulainn, associated with the northern province of Ireland. The centerpiece of the Ulster Cycle is the Táin Bó Cuailgne ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley"), a collection of many stories formed into a single epic. Many scholars consider the Táin to be the closest surviving Celtic equivalent to Greek or Indic epic. The Táin relates the contention between the Ulster warriors and those of Medb, queen of Connacht, over the ownership of a superb white bull. Despite the fact that the Táin is not considered part of the Mythological Cycle, its stories contain many mythological elements. For example, the hero Cú Chulainn has several encounters with gods and goddesses during the battles.
The Cycle of the Kings
These stories describe the lives and adventures of Ireland's early, mostly legendary, rulers. Many concern the right behavior of kings. We also see kings in their role of mediator between their people and the divine.
The Fionn Cycle
The Fenian stories concern the adventures and exploits of a group of hunter-warriors whose principal leader is Fionn, a figure with extraordinary access to Otherworldly knowledge and superior forestry skills. Fionn himself may have originally been a forest or solar deity, but his followers, the fénnidi, seem to be based on a historical institution that comprised bands of outlaws who lived in the forest and performed acts of legal distraint in cases beyond the reach of the law. They also engaged in free-lance banditry and their own rituals. Eventually, the fénnidi evolved into the personal bodyguards of kings, and we see this reflected in the later stories of Fionn and company. The earliest stories suggest that there were once many competing heroes in the Fionn cycle, but Fionn soon became the main figure.
Fionn and his followers frequently encounter Otherworldly forces or journey into the Otherworld. In Celtic mythology, the forest is a liminal place, a borderland between worlds, and, as inhabitants of such a place and experts on its secrets, Fionn and his followers are liminal characters themselves, mediators between worlds and forces. A number of scholars have suggested that Fionn's character incorporates practices that once may have been part of a shamanic role in early Celtic society.
Other Irish Stories and Lore
Mythological material is found in many other tales that do not fit into the nineteenth-century scholars' cycles. The Immrama or Voyages, for example, tell us much concerning Celtic beliefs about the Otherworld.
Another important source of mythological data is the various collections of placelore, dindsenchas. These tales, many quite brief in their recorded form, deal with the origins of placenames. Since many natural features and settlements took their names from divine beings or events involving such figures, the Dindsenchas is a valuable storehouse of mythological lore. Placelore incorporates a worldview in which the divine and the landscape were inextricably linked, one of the basics of ancient Celtic religious belief.
Also, there are lists of tales that sometimes include summaries along with the titles. The annals (semi-historical registers) sometimes include stories. Poems recounting incidents from myths sometimes appear in manuscripts, and hagiographies occasionally include traces of pre-Christian lore.
Welsh mythology generally represents a strain of tradition thought to derive from the earlier Brythonic-speaking peoples of the island of Britain. Important to bear in mind about so-called Welsh mythology is that much of this lore once belonged to the whole of Britain, not only that part known today as Wales. It has come down to us in the Welsh language (Cymraeg), which is descended from the language at one time spoken throughout the island. While many of the stories do take place in Wales, others are set in what are now Cornwall, southern Scotland, and parts of England. Anyone reading the existing Welsh mythology soon realizes that these surviving tales represent only a very small fraction of the ancient body of lore.
The most important body of Welsh mythology still in existence is the Mabinogi, a group of tales collected in a literary manner in an attempt to create a coherent cycle. The characters of the Mabinogi are presented, for the most part, as human kings, queens, poets, and so on. However, the encounters with Otherworldly forces that occur regularly in the stories suggest that these are indeed mythological tales.
The Mabinogi consists of four "branches." Each branch consists of several related adventures (cyfrangau) and lore. By the time the Mabinogi tales were written down, they had become somewhat garbled. For example, one character appears in the First Branch as an adult and as a child in the chronologically later Third Branch. Similar confusions and lapses can be found in much of the other Welsh material too.
The First Branch, "Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed," begins with the hero's adventure with the Otherworld lord Arawn. The branch's central episode tells of Pwyll's wooing and winning the mysterious horsewoman Rhiannon. The final section deals with the birth, disappearance, and recovery of Pwyll and Rhiannon's son, Pryderi.
"Branwen Daughter of Llyr" is the Second Branch, and it concerns the family of deities known as the Children of Llyr. Chief among these are Branwen herself and her brothers Bran and Manawydan. The central episode of this branch is a great war fought between the British and the Irish.
The Third Branch is "Manawydan Son of Llyr." After the war in Ireland, Manawydan accompanies the adult Pryderi home to Dyfed and marries the widowed Rhiannon. Pryderi and Rhiannon soon fall victim to an enchantment that also robs the land of its fertility; Manawydan is left to defeat the enchanter and put things right.
The Fourth Branch, "Math Son of Mathonwy," centers on the figures known as the Children of Dôn. This branch has convoluted plots that include a pig raid conducted by the wizard Gwydion, the birth, rearing, and death of the hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and the creation of Blodeuwedd, a women made from flowers. Gwydion's exploits are numerous, and we see him maturing into a great wizard under the guidance of his uncle, Math.
Other Welsh Mythological Tales
There are a few other mythological tales that do not form part of the Mabinogi. The most important of these is "Culhwch and Olwen," set in the time of King Arthur; it climaxes with the hunting of a magical boar.
The "Adventure of Llud and Lleuelys" is a tale that shares themes with parts of the Irish Mythological Cycle.
The Gododdin is a series of poetic elegies for North British warriors of the same name who fell at the disastrous battle of Catraeth, said to have occurred about 600 in Yorkshire. The oldest existing version in Welsh dates to the thirteenth century. Although the tale is sometimes called Scottish because it concerns people who once lived in what is now southern Scotland, the Gododdin were Brythonic speakers, unlike the Gaelic-speaking people who came from Ireland and were called, in Latin, the Scotti.
The "Tale of Gwion Bach" exists in a folktale version recorded in the 1500s, but it may preserve very old lore concerning a figure called Ceridwen, whose cauldron was the source of poetic inspiration. Gwion Bach is a boy who accidentally receives three drops of wisdom from Ceridwen's cauldron. After a long pursuit in which they both frequently shift shape, Ceridwen, in the shape of a hen, eats Gwion Bach who has become a grain of wheat. Later, Gwion Bach is reborn as the poet Taliesin.
A great deal of mythological material, especially poetry, has gathered around the figure of Taliesin, the archetypal bard. There was a historical poet named Taliesin, who flourished in north Britain during the sixth century. Exactly how the historical and mythological figures are related has long been a matter of debate. Nevertheless, Cad Goddeu (The Battle of the Trees) and Preiddeu Annwfn (The Spoils of Annwn), both poems said to be composed by Taliesin, are important additional sources of Welsh mythology.
Much of Welsh lore was forgotten, lost, confused, misunderstood, or left out for religious reasons. One indication of the extent of the ancient lore is a body of material popularly known as the Welsh Triads (Trioedd Ynys Prydein: "Triads of the Island of Britain"). Here, mythological as well as historical and biblical figures and events are grouped together in threes; this was perhaps a way of memorizing or "cataloguing" the lore for bards and storytellers. The following example shows that some of the triads contain references to known tales.
Three Golden Shoemakers of the Island of Britain:
Caswallawn son of Beli, when he went to Rome to seek Fflur;
and Manawydan son of Llyr, when the enchantment was on Dyfed; and Lleu Llaw Gyffes, when he and Gwydion were seeking a name and arms from his mother, Arianrhod.
Other triads hint at myths and legends that are probably forever lost to us. Nevertheless, they give us further glimpses into the beliefs and values of the pre-Christian Celts in Britain.
A late-thirteenth-century Welsh genealogy traces King Arthur's ancestry back to Bran and his father, Llyr, and the Arthurian stories themselves show a definite descent from Welsh mythology. Whether or not there was a historical King Arthur is debatable, but it is certain that Arthur had a mythic status among the early Welsh. In Culhwch and Olwen, which may date to the tenth century in its present form, Arthur is a semi-divine hero. His retinue includes men who have such abilities as understanding the speech of animals, casting the illusion of invisibility, and staying underwater for nine days at a time. In Culhwch and Olwen we already have many familiar figures: Cei (Kay), Bedwyr (Bedivere), Gwalchmai (Gawain), Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), Esyllt (Isolde), and others. There are also notable mythological figures at this Arthur's court, among them Manawydan and Taliesin. Arthur and Taliesin are again associated in the poem "Preiddeu Annwfn," in which Arthur and his men conduct a raid on the Otherworld.
This Arthurian material was almost purely native to Britain, although Culhwch and Olwen does have a few characters in common with Irish mythology. Further Welsh Arthurian tales contain mythological strands, but are heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman literary culture. This includes The Dream of Rhonabwy and especially the three romances: Peredur, Owain (or The Lady of the Fountain), and Geraint son of Erbin. The fame of King Arthur spread to the Continent by way of Brittany which had long-standing ties with western Britain. By the twelfth century, Breton minstrels and storytellers were reciting Arthurian tales at noble courts in France. The tales captured the imagination of courtly society and spread throughout Europe, even as far as Iceland. The literary fashion for "The Matter of Britain" produced masterpieces by Chretien de Troyes, Gottfried von Strassburg, and others. The popularity of Arthurian romances did something else, too: it preserved and transmitted a great many Celtic mythological motifs. Of course this was not the purpose of the Continental romances; they existed mainly to entertain readers with stories of love, chivalry, adventure, and magic. Yet for all the medieval, courtly overlay, the best of the romances point us toward something more than entertainment. When Arthur receives his sword from the Lady of the Lake, we hear an echo of the ancient Celtic king's relationship with Sovereignty. The Holy Grail is a descendant of the cauldrons of plenty, inspiration, and rebirth that occur throughout the Welsh and Irish myths. Today, many people enter into the rediscovery of Celtic mythology through the doorway of the lore surrounding King Arthur.
Irish and Welsh: Similarities and Differences
In some ways Irish and Welsh mythology may strike the reader as quite different. Many of the Welsh tales are much more literary in style and are generally set in an era that is Christian, at least in name. Irish myths usually seem to be set in a time period just before the Christian era. The names of the characters may look quite different, and the most important figures in Irish mythology-Cú Chulainn, Conchobhar, and Medbh-do not seem to have equivalents in Welsh stories.
On the other hand, if we look more carefully-and if we have some knowledge of Welsh and Irish languages-we begin to see similarities. For example, Lugh and Lleu are apparently derived from the same figure, a god known as Lugos on the Continent. Some of the Welsh Children of Dôn and the Irish Túatha Dé Danann have nearly identical names and functions.
If we look beyond the names and focus on the imagery associated with characters, we sometimes see that figures like Macha (Irish) and Rhiannon (Welsh) show distinct similarities because each is forced to act as a horse at some point. Connections between horses and sovereignty suggest that both of these figures may once have been goddesses of sovereignty.
Scholars are not entirely sure how to explain the similarities. Some appear to be due to both Welsh and Irish drawing on their common Celtic heritage. In other cases, the Welsh storytellers appear to be creating a Welsh version of an Irish tale. Perhaps the best way for us to approach the similarities and differences is to realize that each myth is a local expression of common cultural values. Honor, right relationship to the Otherworld, just kingship, fertility of the land, and changeability of form were key concepts in ancient Celtic society and religion. Both Irish and Welsh mythology deal extensively with these issues.
Peter Narvaez calls folklore "the traditional artistic communications that circulate informally in small groups." Folklore includes the tales that succeeded the myths as embodiments and expressions of belief and values.
It is difficult to study or generalize about folk tradition because it is a living, ever-changing body of custom and lore usually passed on orally. Also, the academic field of folklore studies is fairly young. Antiquarian collections such as Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica and Marie Trevelyan's Welsh collections were recorded in the nineteenth century by people with varying amounts of learning and varying degrees of bias. What they mainly had in common were the financial resources and time to spend traveling and listening, and a desire to record material, though their motives varied. Today, folklorists acknowledge that such collections almost always reflect the bias of the collector and must be treated with caution before using them as evidence of Celtic belief or practice. Scholars also realize that customs keep changing. Customs that were active in the nineteenth century may differ from those practiced earlier in a culture's history.
Most folklore scholars go into the field to interview those who are acknowledged tradition-bearers in communities where tradition is still valued. With tape-recorder, the folklorist collects stories and recollections from the tradition-bearers and questions them about their perceptions of their roles. Questionnaires, sometimes followed up by interviews, are another tool used to collect traditional lore. The folklorist then compares the new material against that found in libraries and folklore archives. Changes in patterns of behavior are tracked.
Scholars studying Irish tradition-bearers have identified two main streams or types of folklore:
· The teller of long, complicated hero and Fenian tales, often identifiably descended from myths recorded in the medieval period
· The specialist in short tales, family sagas or genealogies, social and historical tradition, prayers and songs, as well as short realistic stories dealing with fairies, ghosts, and other supernatural beings.
Most of the first type of tradition-bearer have been male and lived in Gaelic-speaking areas. The storytellers in the second category are more often women and may come from areas of Ireland where English is the language of choice. Both types are essential keepers and transmitters of tradition. Some scholars have concluded that the only "safe" approach to folklore today is to study only what is done now. Essentially, many such scholars have decided that we cannot possibly be sure about the details of customs from earlier times.
Such assumptions are belied by works like Máire Mac Neill's study of Lughnasa customs. While intensively examining the materials collected by the Irish Folklore Commission during several decades of the twentieth century, Mac Neill carefully studied earlier mythological and historical references to Lughnasa. Also, although her primary focus was on Ireland, she did some basic survey of and correlation with evidence from other Celtic areas-Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. By carefully considering all the materials, Mac Neill was able to draw some conclusions about Lughnasa, especially about those customs that appeared to be remnants of ancient tradition and those that seemed to be more modern adaptations or even innovations.
Such conclusions require massive studies. Unfortunately, few scholars have the skills, opportunity, and resources to perform the necessary studies. For example, even Mac Neill's study, though huge (over 700 pages) and requiring several decades to complete, has been criticized for not including enough comparison with Lughnasa-type festivals outside Ireland. Seamus Ó Catháin's admirable study of the festive customs of St. Bridget's day offers the reader many insights into the Irish and Scottish folk customs, both on their own and in comparison with similar practices in Scandinavia. Unfortunately, the study offers little reference to the medieval sources or comparison to the practices of other Celtic areas.
We must also keep in mind that at various times, Christian religious leaders and English and French political authorities tried hard to stop folk practices or changed them so much that their origins became difficult to recognize. Calvinist ministers in Scotland condemned practices such as swimming horses at Michaelmas and pressured government authorities to ban them. Irish bishops banned some practices in their dioceses and Irish priests changed pilgrimage customs to eliminate references to pre-Christian practices. Methodist leaders in Wales encouraged their followers not to practice folk customs. For example, one nineteenth-century parson described the Mari Lwyd custom in detail, not to support its use, but in hopes that his parishioners would stop the custom once they realized how "pagan" it was. At various periods, English and French laws banned the teaching and use of Celtic languages and related customs. The consequence of all this activity was to eliminate many folk practices and to increase the presence of Christian veneer in others. With these limitations in mind, let's look at what we can learn from folklore by examining the evidence for and evolution of one custom.
Three customs---May flowers, May bush and May bough---involving greenery are associated with the celebration of Bealtaine (1 May), in Ireland.
The custom of using yellow flowers and greenery to decorate the outside of the house, outbuildings, and wells was once common throughout Ireland except in the counties of Munster (southwest Ireland). The flowers must be gathered and used on May eve (the evening of the last day of April) and must never be brought into the house. Also, flowers must not be picked on any day in May. The May bush is a small tree or part of one, often a whitethorn, that is set up outside the house on May Eve. The bush is decorated with flowers, ribbons, bits of paper, and pieces of colored eggshell saved from Easter celebrations. Increasingly, decorating the May bush has become a children's activity. In the last few decades, its popularity has spread, gradually replacing the May flowers custom outside of Munster. All the greenery customs seem designed to encourage the forces of growth implicit in the season. The yellow flowers may be living symbols of the sun, the source of growth energy. The way the May bush has replaced the May flowers within a few decades points out that customs can readily change. Lysaght speculates that the May bush was able to replace the May flowers custom because it makes use of May flowers and, in a way, combined the two customs.
The May bush custom is rare in Munster, where the May bough, little known elsewhere, dominates. The custom consists of cutting a small bough early in the morning of 1 May and hanging it inside the house. Except in a few isolated areas, flowers are not combined with the bough. Even in those cases, the flowers are gathered on the morning of 1 May (unlike the flowers hung in other parts of Ireland or used with the May bush).
The way the May bough dominates Munster but is almost unknown elsewhere is an excellent example of how customs can vary from one region to another. Folk customs are based on a belief that there is a right way, time, place, and action for each occasion. The efficacy of a custom was thought to depend on its being done properly. The differences in timing and place demonstrate why customs should not be lumped together or used interchangeably if one wishes to be true to the tradition and its beliefs.
One of the more interesting aspects of folklore are the folk dramas, such as the Scottish Galoshins mumming, the Ulster Christmas mumming, the Welsh Mari Lwyd custom, and the Wren Boys' procession in Dingle, Co. Kerry. All of these customs involve a procession, dressed-up figures, and ritualized actions coordinated with recitation of poetic pieces. All seek to obtain gifts from those visited, and all seem to be based on a story whose details have become obscure and meaningless. Also, all the customs are now associated with Christmas, although Galoshins was almost certainly a Samhain ritual originally, and the Mari Lwyd and Wren Boys processions probably were first associated with pre-Christian festivals and later transferred. Such folk dramas may be remnants of rituals that re-enacted myths, but we should be very cautious about using the current custom to reconstruct the original story. As G. S. Kirk documents, in any culture there is often a wide gap between the original ritual or myth and the folktale or drama that later develops.
Folk tales are the stories told by traditional storytellers and passed on orally to those who assume such a role in the community. Such tales sometimes are the evolved versions of myths recorded in medieval times. By comparing the medieval and modern versions, we can get some idea about how values and culture changed. But folktales are living portions of Celtic tradition in their own right. In ancient cultures, storytelling was not simply an exercise of personal expression. It was intended to use personal skills and talents to pass on the tradition. Deeply a part of the storyteller's role was the responsibility to preserve the tradition. This doesn't mean there was no room for personal creativity, but there were limits. If you changed the details of the story too much, the story ceased to be recognizably part of the tradition and the storytellers failed their responsibility to the society. The story would also fail to receive approval from the audience, a crucial element in passing on tradition. Of course storytellers insert a good bit of themselves into the narratives, but the additions do not change the basic elements of the story. For example, a story-teller might add sounds, dialogue, or details to bring the story to life without changing the basic plot.
What kinds of limits are there? Let's look at a fairy tale familiar to most Westerners today. A number of versions of Cinderella exist today-German, French, Irish, Disney, and others. The versions certainly differ, but some elements must always be part of the story or it is not Cinderella. These include the heroine living as a servant to her vicious stepmother and pair of obnoxious stepsisters, an unmarried prince, a ball to marry off the prince, a magical being who favors the heroine (usually a "fairy godmother" but in one version it's her mother in heaven), transformation of ordinary objects into finery and transportation the heroine needs to get to the ball, a magical deadline, loss of a shoe, and the recognition of the true heroine because the shoe fits. These are the elements a storyteller could not omit without risking objections from the audience.
To use an Irish example, the lovers Deirdre and Noisiu always have to die at the end of the tale, but how they die changed over time, reflecting a growing sympathy for Deirdre and an increasing romantic sensibility in the audience. In the earliest recorded version, Deirdre kills herself over a year after trying to live without Noisiu and the author condemns her. In a modern version, Deirdre either dies of grief or kills herself as soon as she realizes Noisiu is dead and the Ulster warriors, representing the author's voice, chastise Conchobhar for refusing to allow her to be buried with Noisiu.
In the last few centuries, writers have begun to re-tell traditional stories for an audience of readers rather than listeners. Some re-tellings attempt to stick closely to the original story while others are more imaginative attempts that take the story in new directions prompted by the author's imagination. A good example of the latter is Lady Augusta Gregory, a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy who, during the late nineteenth century, valued the native culture and decided to record some of its stories. Before writing her own re-tellings, she spent a great deal of time with the Irish-speaking people who lived near her, learning their language to some extent, and their ways of telling stories. She also consulted scholars who were familiar with medieval versions of the same tales. Lady Gregory was nonetheless a product of her time and class, and in her re-tellings she softened elements that she considered coarse. In the process, she sometimes changed the tone of a story.
William Butler Yeats was one of the greatest poets Ireland ever produced. He was also committed passionately to Irish independence and the revival of Irish culture and language. Alongside his political and cultural activities, he was a serious practitioner of various esoteric rites and an initiate into occult orders like the Golden Dawn. For many years, he was deeply involved in an effort to create a religious group that he hoped would combine elements of pre-Christian Irish religion, hermeticism, and esoteric Christianity. His political, cultural, and spiritual activities complemented each other. He wanted to revive the culture and language of Ireland, and he wanted the country to become free of English rule and cultural domination. However, he also wanted to help initiate a new era of spiritual regeneration that would not be based on the Christianity of the past. His tellings of tales reflect all these concerns as well as his feelings and thoughts about the events of his life. In some ways, Yeats saw himself as a modern version of the ancient seers and poets, but he took liberties with the traditional tales and motifs in ways that probably would not have been acceptable to ancient lore-keepers. For example, he transformed Óengus, the young god of love, into Aengus, an ancient wanderer after truth and beauty. When he dramatized the story of Deirdre, he chose the folk version that suited his purposes best and even then developed the plot and characters in directions not found in the folktale.
Similarly, novelists and playwrights throughout the twentieth century have retold the stories of myths to reflect the author's concerns and interests. Many are wonderful stories but, in the process of novelization and dramatization, the stories usually cease to be myths that embody the tradition. Certainly, they cannot be considered part of the tradition of lore that has been passed down for centuries. When modern writers of fiction research the evidence and create a story, they may be drawing inspiration from the tradition, but they are not expressing the tradition in the same way as a storyteller who grew up in the culture and understood instinctively what could and could not be changed without negatively affecting the transmission of tradition. Such instinctive knowledge cannot be acquired solely through book learning. That understanding comes only through long apprenticeship in the culture.
Celtic Storytelling Today
Storytelling continues to play an important, if diminished, role in traditional Celtic communities. Stories are passed on informally at evening gatherings, when the younger people listen carefully to the older, experienced, lore keepers, gradually acquiring a repertoire. At some point they, too, begin to tell tales, learning from the response of their audience and the feedback of the elders. Increasingly, however, younger storytellers are more likely to learn their tales from printed collections.
Today, tales are as likely to be told in English as in Irish, Welsh, or other Celtic language. However, as Henry Glassie has observed, the storytellers use a heightened style of language that incorporates metrics and tricks surely imported from the original Celtic language. Stories told at modern gatherings may sometimes use themes found in medieval myths, but they almost always present them in a different form. Time changes stories as surely as it changes customs, language, and society. Nevertheless, in those stories we still glimpse the qualities of generosity, honor, humour, valor, and respect for the presence of the unseen always valued by the Celts.
Myths as Evidence of History
Today many of the most popular books on Celtic subjects inappropriately treat myths as sources of historically accurate information about the society and culture of the ancient Celts. Such attitudes reflect a misunderstanding of the function of myth that misleads readers. For example, many popular writers assume that because the myths depict some women as warriors and a few as ruling queens, women routinely functioned as warriors and rulers in ancient Celtic groups. However, all the other evidence-classical writers, archaeology, history, and law-shows that women rarely served in such roles. Such books also seem to overlook that Christian scribes recorded the myths and inserted Christianizing elements.
On the other hand, the myths do preserve some historical information that tells us a great deal about the most important values among the Celts. They also provide insight into what the medieval Celts believed about the world around them and the unseen powers who occasionally made themselves manifest. For example, Cú Chulainn's use of ogham sticks to set up a magical barrier and issue a warning against anyone daring to cross it are actions consistent with other evidence about the use of ogham. The scenes in which warriors feast, with the choicest portions awarded to the mightiest, are consistent with descriptions of Gaulish customs in the writings of classical authors. Those who carefully examine all the evidence find that the myths sometimes contain information that accurately depicts social conditions and behavior, but the evidence should always be weighed against what archaeology and other sources tell us.
The mythology of Ireland and Wales was recorded in the Christian period by scribes who treasured their native tradition but also valued their Christian beliefs. They recorded the tales from that ambivalent perspective and, sometimes, the tales reflect the times in which they were recorded as much as the pre-Christian era in which they originated. Nevertheless, mythology preserves a great deal of early tradition, practice and belief, and much of the early pagan heritage has been preserved into modern times via folklore, albeit in a Christian context. The tales continue to inspire modern listeners, and surviving folk customs help us to glimpse the pre-Christian past.