Lugodoc's Guide to Celtic Mythology

Through a monstrous perversion of the Bard's art, Lugodoc has reduced the entire canon of Celtic myth into bite-sized chunks, easily digested by today's 3-minute attention spanned video game-addicted goldfish-minded web-surfing generation.

This is not a telling of Celtic myth, only a map. Chronological sense is maintained except where this would ruin the flow of the Celtic knot of interweaving stories. Try too hard to put these in proper order and you will go mad. Myth is not history. Some stories appear under their traditional titles, some I have had to make up. Some things in it are devilish lies, and some poetical figments; some seem possible and others not; some are for the enjoyment of idiots.

There are two main cannons of myth, Irish and Welsh

Irish Mythology

The oldest of these stories were composed in the pagan Celtic iron age of Ireland, possibly as early as 300 BC, and passed on in the druidic oral tradition until the coming of Christianity and the decay of the druidic priesthood in the 5th century AD. The stories were then passed on by wandering bards, added to and bits lost, until the first scraps were first written down in a highly confused order with odd legal and historical notes on cow-hides by early Irish Christian monks in the 7th century. The oral tradition continued to grow and mutate, monks kept writing them down, and manuscripts were copied and then lost.

These myths are scattered about in several still extant ancient Irish manuscripts written by Christian monks between the 12th and 14th centuries AD, such as The Book of the Dun Cow (LU), The Book of Leinster (LL) and The Yellow Book of Lecan (YBL). Some were written as late as the 18th century. The original pagan myths therefore suffer from varying degrees of Christian contamination.

They were first translated into English at the beginning of the twentieth century by Lady Gregory and Miss Eleanor Hull, and their texts have been re-written ever since, until Thomas Kinsella's splendid new translation in 1969.

The numerous myths are collected into four cycles:

The Mythological Cycle (or Book of Invasions or Aliens) deals with the battles for Ireland by six different races, and includes the retreat of the Danaans (gods) to Tir Na Nog beneath the hollow hills, the victory of the Milesians (mortals) and the death of Conary Mor, High King of all Ireland at Tara. Almost entirely pagan. This is the nearest thing to a Celtic creation myth.

The Ulster Cycle (or Ultonian or Connorian) deals with The Curse of Ulster (The Pangs), the reign of Conchobor Mac Nesa, King of Ulster at Emain Macha, his battles with the other three Irish provinces (Connacht, Leinster and Munster), his champion Cuchulainn and his fellow warriors of the Red Branch warband, and The Tain (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). This is by far the best bit in my opinion, and entirely pagan. It probably originated in the late La Tene period, the 3rd to 1st centuries BC.

The Fenian Cycle (or Ossianic) deals with Finn mac Cumhal, leader of the Fianna warband which roamed Ireland during the reign of Cormac mac Art, the High King of all Ireland who ruled from Tara. Considerable Christian contamination. Generally accepted to have originated in around the 3rd century AD.

The Historical Cycle (or Cycle of the Kings) is a mishmash of heavily Christianised stories, including adventures, voyages and visions. It stretches from Labraid Loingsech, King of Leinster in the 3rd century BC, up to Brian Boramha, High King of all Ireland AD 1001 to 1014.

Several stories beginning in any of the first three cycles end somewhere in the historical cycle in Christian times, suggesting monkish contamination. The more ridiculous of these (such as St Patrick sending Cuchulainn to hell) I have omitted as irrelevent Christian fantasy.

Welsh Mythology, or

The Mabinogian

This collection of Welsh Myths has a similar history to the Irish myths, but is less ancient. The earliest stories were probably composed and passed on by druids in a complete and sensible fashion in the pagan iron age until the Roman conquest of Britain, after which the stories were passed on, lost and embellished by wandering story-tellers and old grannies until Christian monks wrote down what was left of them in the 13th-14th century, in documents such as the Peniarth manuscripts (written down about 1200), the White Book of Rhydderch (written down about 1300-1325) and the slightly later Red Book of Hergest (written down about 1375-1425). They were then re-written and transcribed several times, gathering dust in monastery attics (whilst simultaneously continuing to grow and mutate in the oral tradition amongst the illiterate medieval Welsh peasants) until being collected together at the end of the nineteenth century and published in English for the first time by Lady Charlotte Guest.

There are eleven stories.

The first four form a continuous narrative relating stories of British kings, warriors and wizards (meaning Welsh: England was not Britain then) and visitors from The Otherworld (the Welsh equivalent of the Irish Tir Nan Og or fairyland, sometimes called Annwn). These are the oldest of the tales, probably originating in the late iron age, and are often referred to as the proper mabinigion (plural of mabinogi, a dodgy translation of "fairy story"). Completely pagan. They are:

The second four are unrelated folk-tales, two featuring Arthur, and probably the last shreds of a much larger body of early Celtic Arthurian myth that was the inspiration for Mallory. The general feel is very pagan, and chivalry is not mentioned. They are:

The last three are later Arthurian romances, probably mostly Norman-French and reminiscent of Mallory, at best faint echoes of early pagan Celtic myth. They are the only ones to actually mention knights and a chivalric code, and each tale follows the adventures of one knight. They are:

One of these is clearly out of order. Arthur appears alive in books 7, 9, 10 and 11, but is dead and in the Otherworld after Camlan in book 8. In spite of this I have maintained the traditional order as defined by Lady Charlotte Guest at the end of the nineteenth century.

Arthur is never described as being a king. He is clearly a great nobleman with an impressive court and a huge warband, but only one tale defines his status; In "The Lady of the Fountain" he is introduced as emperor.

Further Reading

"The Tain" by Thomas Kinsella (Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-281090-1)

"Lady Gregory's Complete Irish Mythology" (including "Gods and Fighting Men" and "Cuchulain of Muirthmne") by Lady Gregory (Smithmark, ISBN 0-7651-9824-X)

"Early Irish Literature" by Myles Dillon (Four Courts Press, ISBN 1-85182-177-5)

"The Mabinogion" by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (Everyman's Library, ISBN 0-460-11097-7)

"Celtic Myths and Legends" by T. W. Rolleston (Senate, ISBN 1-85958-006-8)

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