An Introduction to Celtic Tattoo Mythology page 3

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What we know about Celtic Mythology is largely gleaned from the books and manuscripts of medieval Ireland and Wales. These literary sources can be supplemented by the iconographic and archeological record from the pre-Christian Iron Age Celtic world itself, alongside external observations about the Celtic peoples and their druidic religion by contemporary witnesses such as Posidonious, Plutarch and Julius Caesar.

From these diverse sources we can develop a fascinating picture of a magico-religious system which in some ways parallels practices and beliefs evident from elsewhere in the Indo-European world in the last millenium before Christ. In other respects however, it is also possible to discern within this tradition an unusually sophisticated aesthetic and metaphysical conception which possibly owes something to the more indigenous elements of the prehistoric West - including the megalithic cultures of the Late Stone Age and Early Bronze Age background (3500 -1500 BC).

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The Celtic mythological universe is essentially animistic, in which the tutelary goddess, representing the life and fertility of the kingdom occupied a significant position. The male god is the consort of this numinous being, and was related more intimately to the human world of the tribe and its diverse ancestors. Animal symbolism, perhaps a legacy of totemistic religious forms, also plays an integral role in the Celtic articulation of the sacred. Finally, the Celtic mythological universe is permeated by a multitude of parallel realities, known collectively as the Otherworld - which sometimes intersects with the mundane world, creating a point of entry for the magical beings and wondrous phenomena which populate these ambiguous dimensions.

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Animism in the Celtic World

Early Celtic people were surrounded on all sides by the natural world. They were continually aware of its presence, and their utter dependence on its balance and fertility for their basic nurture and comfort. Even for the most powerful king a harsh winter or a blight on the soil was a serious and sometimes life-endangering issue. Animal life was also ever-present: cattle, dogs, sheep, geese and swine surrounded men and their homesteads; while wolves, bears and wild boar stalked the wilderness beyond. Animate and inanimate nature teemed throughout this all-encompassing rural landscape and loomed large throughout the mind of pre-industrial man, on all its levels. It would have shaped his days, filled his dreams: and underpinned almost every one of his hopes and fears.

The spiritual reflex to this state of affairs has produces a distinctive universal pattern of beliefs, known to anthropologists today under the name of 'animism'. Put simply, this is a recognition of the essential aliveness of nature, not just in a biological sense but as a community of sentient entities, of which the human world was an integral part. Hence, the behavior of the river, the thundercloud, the flock of birds or the solitary stag (for example) would all be explained in social, emotional or psychological terms. A vivid example of this is to be found in the early Irish law tracts. This summary of a myth in these sources describes the origin of the laws of satire, as practiced in Early Medieval Ireland:

A bard was fishing in a certain river one day long ago. Not having much success in this endeavour, he sang a poem, scathingly saterising the river for having failed to provide him with the feast to which he felt himself entitled. Enraged, the river rose up from its banks, towering over the poet and threatening to engulf the whole plain. The hapless bard turned tail and ran, while the furious river pursued him over land. Finally, once the bard had offered appropriate recompense, the river abated and returned to its banks.

This was held to have been the first ever satire, and the first ever compensation of this kind. Like many events in this mythical dreamtime it established a precedent: in this case for all future negotiations in cases of satire and reconciliation in the Gaelic world.

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In the British Celtic tradition, the most vivid example of animistic thinking is found in the Book of Taliesin in the form of a poem known as Cad Goddeu, or the 'Battle of the Trees'. Here, in a mythical battle at Caer Nefenhir, fought by the Sons of Don against the forces of the chthonic underworld, the mythical wizard Gwyddion was said to have transformed a forest of trees into a writhing, hostile army:

'...Alder, pre-eminant in lineage, attacked first
Willow and rowan were late to the army,
Thorny plum greedy for slaughter,
Powerful dogwood, resisting prince.....
..Swift and mighty oak, before him trembled heaven and earth..'

This development is also interpreted by the Christian as words of the 'Lord' who 'spoke through the land'. But in reality, behind these euhemeristic interpretations, we have a genuine recollection of an animistic vision - of the land as a mobile, sentient community - analogous to that of the human world.

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Totemism, Shapshifting and Magical Transmigration in Celtic Mythology

A certain mutability was the hallmark of the dreamtime, animistic universe. It was not only, as suggested above, the time when the land acquired its features, names and customs: it was also a time in which all things were less stable, yet to acquire solidity of external form. People were also more changeable: one might become mutated through anger or desire, or gain some feature or habit through a particular formative experience. But most characteristic, however, of dreamtime mythologies throughout the world as a whole, is the strange and somewhat inscrutable mystery relating to the instability of boundaries which existed between men and the rest of the natural world, the animal world in particular.     

We have already explained the world-view known as animism above, and in some ways the literal kinship which was felt to exist between groups of humans and a particular species of animal or plant can be understood in similar terms. Traces of a belief system known to anthropologists as totemism is all but universal amongst pre-industrial man, and can be seen to have played a role in the development of almost every culture throughout the human world. Celtic culture is no exception: and through the mythological lore of the bardic schools an interesting variant of this belief seems to have persisted well into the medieval period and beyond.

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Totemism is thought to have originated in the Paleolithic era, and seems to have persisted in hunter-gather cultures wherever small human bands are engaged in a subsistence existence in a primarily wilderness environment. Its traces can be found in every corner of the globe: from Australia to America, Africa to Scandinavia. With the introduction of the arable and pastoral agricultural practices, these beliefs would tend to be replaced by more seasonally-orientated, anthropomorphic beliefs. But such was the power and persistence of the totemistic system, that elements of its influence can be detected in a number of cultural contexts long after this time.

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The basic totemistic myth seems to have presupposed a distant foretime when the characteristics dividing the categories of nature had not yet become fully distinguished. It is thought that misshapen ancestors combining human and animal features populated this mysterious time of beginnings. Slowly, distinctive groups began to began to emerge from this chaos: notably particular clans of humans linked (by common decent from one of these primitive ancestors) to a given class of animals or (more rarely) natural features such as rocks and trees. Thus there might be bird-people, cattle-people, wolf-people, oak-people, river people. Each of these clans would feel a kinship with the animal or feature involved: and it was taboo for them to harm to harm these totem creatures in any way. The ancestral spirit protected the clan from disease, violence or hunger: and to harm any member of the clan or its kindred species would provoke the wrath of this daemonic spirit.

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As Freud, Lang, Frazer and others have established, exogamy was another feature of totemism: it is thought that the incest taboo and other features or human family life might have grown up alongside these zoomorphic beliefs. It seems to be through the totemistic period of development that homo sapiens became truly what we would think of as human. As other social forms began to replace the wandering hunter-gatherer band, totemistic beliefs became absorbed into other systems of spiritual and social reality. None the less, this animistic view of the zoological world continued to haunt the human imagination for many centuries to come. As suggested above, reflexes from this system of magical thinking can be discerned in cultures throughout the human world: stories of talking beasts, were-wolves, shapeshifting magicians and ancestral animal spirits proliferate globally in one form or another.

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The rationalisation of these zoomorphic fantasies would vary considerably, and each area might have its own tradition. In some places, for instance, it might be believed that those skilled in witchcraft could send their spirits forth in animal form. Elsewhere, people believed their ancestors lived on in the bodies of animals. Other cultures might contain a mixtures of these beliefs, and many more besides. All that we know is that the natural (i.e. pre-rational) perspective drew a much thinner line between the worlds of beast and man. Many anthropologists and prehistorians have argued that the earliest god-forms in every culture, at a certain stage in its development, were invariably of animal, rather than human form. Human gods such as those that typify the classical mythologies of Greece, Egypt or Rome were a relatively recent development.

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In the Medieval Celtic world such totemistic beliefs were integrated piecemeal into the composite mythical vision of the neo-druidic bardic schools. The motif of shape-shifting in something of a hallmark of Celtic mythology, as has been noted by a number of observers. It is far from uncommon for a deity to bear zoomrphic associations of at least one species of animal. The great Irish goddess Boanda, for example, is associated with her beautiful white-coated, red-eared cattle. The psychotic warrior-hero Cúchulainn exhibited strong signs of an affiliation to a canine totem: he had a taboo on the killing of dogs and his name literally meant 'The Hound of Culann (the smith)'. Conal Cernach, like the ancient Gaulish horned-god Cernnunos (Herne the Hunter of English mythology), was associated with both the snake and the stag. A horse-goddess cult plays an important role throughout the Celtic world, being exemplified in the Welsh tradition by the figure of Rhiannon. The name of the great hero Arthur literally means The Bear. Lleu is the ruler of birds. Culwch was 'the slender boar'. The iconography of the pagan British world of Iron Age and Roman Britain also indicates that this totemistic zoomorphism was very much a part of the divine iconography of the native, druidic mythology.

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The animal characteristics of these mythical figures were clearly so strongly part of the tradition involved that they never fully disappear, even long into the Medieval Christian period. Instead, as suggested above, they were rationalised in a number of ways. A dominant interpretation of these shape-shifting dreams in the Celtic world can be related to the famously druidic belief of reincarnation: or more specifically magical transmigration, evidence for which is frequently found in the medieval writings of Ireland and Wales. In Irish tales such as Tochmarc Étain ('The Wooing of Étain') and the some of the remscela or 'fore-tales' of the Tain Bó Cuailgne ('The Cattle-Raid of Cooley'), magical figures from the distant past play an active role within the action set in the narrative present. In Tochmarc Étain 'The Seduction of Étain', the heroine is first transformed by a jealous rival into a magical fly, and then buffeted from coast to coast by storms of druidic sorcery. Centuries later, she is swallowed by a noblewoman at the court of Conchobur in the Iron Age kingdom of the Ulaid, and reborn as a princess there. In her adult life she is pursued by Otherworld lovers from her previous existence amongst the Sídhe and the Tuatha dé Danaan. The action of the Tain Bó Cuailgne, on the other hand, hinges on the rivalry of two ancient bulls, whose conflict becomes inexorably projected onto the two tribal regions, Ulaid and Cruachu. One of the remscela of this epic traces the history of this rivalry back to two megalithic swine-herd druids, Ochall and Bodb whose magical conflict was pursued through a successsion of physical forms - including those of ravens, water-beasts and 'screeching spectres' - before they were eventually devoured in the form of grains of wheat by a herd of cattle, and reborn as the two great bulls Finn ('The Light One') and Dub ('The Dark') respectively.

In the Welsh tradition, we find the story of Gwion, the young cauldron-keeper of the legendary sorceress Ceridwen. The latter transgresses his mistress by accidentally tasting her magical elixir of omniscience: giving him instantaneous knowledge of all things past, present and future. He is immediately aware as a result that she is now his mortal enemy, he starts to flees her wrath, transforming himself into a hare. She pursues in the form of a greyhound. He then takes the form of a fish, and she continues to hound him, in the shape of an otter. This transmigratory sequence continues until the pursued finally transforms into a grain of corn, in which form he is finally devoured by Ceridwen in the shape of a hen. He is later reborn to her as a baby boy, before being eventually cast adrift and discovered in the court of the Dark Age British king Elfin, as the child-wonder and chief bard Taliesin. The experience of multiple incarnations is related at the beginning of the Cad Goddeu :

I was in many shapes before I was released:
I was a slender, enchanted sword - I believe that it was done,
I was a rain drop in air, I was a star's beam,
I was a word of letters, I was a book in origin,
I was lanterns of light for a year-and-half;
I was a bridge that stretched over sixty estuaries,
I was a path, I was an eagle, I was a coracle in the seas...


In all three of these anecdotes the device of shape-shifting sequences was used as a bridge between the distant mythological cycle of the pre-historic dreamtime and the proto-historic heroic cycles of the Irish and Welsh traditions, which lay closer to the horizons of living historical memory. Other interesting similarities also emerge: in all three stories the transmigrant shape-shifter is actually devoured; twice as grains of corn, and once as a tiny fly; before being reborn to their devourer in a later age. If Caesar and other classical observers are to be trusted on such issues, the druids of ancient Gaul believed that the 'souls of men would be reborn after a fixed period of time' (perhaps the period that was understood to elapse between one cycle and the next?). More specifically than this, a belief is also described in which the druids were said to hold that the human sacrifice of criminal prisoners would be said to result in a 'bounty of corn' for that year. Could it have been that corn grains or other small objects were the lowest end of the transmigratory journey: the bearest manifestation of the soul in its cyclic journey?

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Before moving on to the next stratum of the Celtic mythological thought-world, it is worth considering a few other aspects of the native animal mythos, which lie outside the confines of the dogma of druidic transmigration. First of all, shape-shifting might be take one of two basic forms. It might either be imposed involuntarily by an outside agency whose magical power was greater than that of the victim or occur at a disruptive momment (such as at the point of death), or the animal form might be assumed voluntarily by a magician (such as Gwion or Ochall) in possession of sufficient knowledge or druidic power to control their external appearance in this way.

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An example of a more voluntary change, used as an aggressive form of magic, can be seen in the Irish Ulster Cycle: wherin the hero Cúchulainn is harried by the dark goddess Morrigan, whose sexual advances he had rejected as he stood guard at the ford of Áth Tarteisc during the Cattle Riad of Cuailgne:

' eel flung three coils about Cúchulainn's feet and he fell back in the ford. Cúchulainn rose up...cattle stampeded madly through [surrounding] a she-wolf attacked Cúchulainn and drove back the cattle westwards upon him...she [then] came in the shape of a hornless red heifer and led the cattle dashing through the ford and the pools...'

Examples of involuntary change, imposed by an outside agency, can be found from both sides of the Irish Sea. From the Ulster cycle we find the aforemention myth of Étain, in which the eponymous heroine suffers at the hands of a jealous rival, endowed with the druidic power to transform her into the shape of a fly. From the British tradition, we have example of Gilfaethwy and Gwydion, in the Fourth Branch, who are transformed into a succession of animals and made to bear each other's young in punishment for the rape his virginal footbearer, Goewin daughter of Dol Pebin.

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The integration and preservation of both the animistic and totemistic perspectives with the Celtic mythological tradition contribute to its distinctively fantastical and magical atmosphere. The Celtic tradition is characterised by its ability to absorb and retain different elements from both its own past and the subsequent influences from neighbouring cultures. The end result of this process, however, was a melodic, integrated whole, despite its diverse cultural origins. The Celtic world-view was underpinned by a rhythmic sensibility and an eye for the teeming beauty of the natural world. They continued to respect and appreciate the clamorous ecstasy of birdsong at dawn, the wild fury of the charging boar, the blissful mirth of the sparkling stream and the silent grandeur of the looming mountain: even after the surrounding land and non-human life had been largely tamed and appropriated to their needs.

The Gods and Goddesses of the Celtic World

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As human life achieves greater ascendancy over its environment; domesticating cattle, cultivating cereals, clearing the ever-present forest or bush and consolidating their society into larger and larger population groups; the instinctive superstition of totemistic animism will tend to become replaced by a more seasonal, anthropomorphic form of spirituality, in which a specialised group of men or women will tend to preside over calendrical rites, and god-forms will show increasingly human characteristics. In Britain, this process probably began during the Megalithic era, and continued into the Iron Age, even up into medieval times and beyond, integrating and rationalizing the more archaic elements as it evolved.

Unlike some other Indo-European traditions, the Celtic mythological universe was not dominated by a fixed pantheon of named functional deities in the way that, for instance the Roman or Greek mythologies had universal gods and goddesses for specified areas of life (e.g, Mars the god of war, Venus the goddess of love, Hermes the god of magic and intelligence etc.). Instead, each tribe had its own ancestral heroes and deities - to whom a whole range of fabulous deeds were frequently attributed, whose (esoteric) names their descendants would repeatedly invoke for protection and support in all areas of their lives. These deities were as numerous as the stars in the sky, and for the vast majority we can glean very little in the way of the individual identities of each (beyond a distinctive feature on a carved stone head here, or the bombastic inflections of a folktale there).

Be this as it may, there are certain common associations which defy this regional diversity. There were certain forms which seem to have haunted the Celtic imagination - archetypal entities into which the identities of local heroes, heroines or ancestors would necessarily become subsumed.

Most clearly pronounced is the goddess - whose associations with the land and its fertility were pronounced throughout the Celtic world. The goddess might bear the name of a region or territory - such as Eriu for Ireland, Cailliech Beara for the Southwestern districts or the great Boanda, spirit of the River Boyne and goddess of the valley of that name. In other circumstances, this tutelary relation might be more figuratively implied - such as the motif wherein the ruling king of that land is always depicted as the consort of this sovereignty goddess.

In the embrace of a true king, the goddess would yield warmth and bounty; from a false king the elements would recoil - leaving impoverishment and misery for his subjects until a more fitting consort could be found. Under a good king, the harvests were plenteous, the weather was mild, people and animals gave birth fecundly. Under a bad king, the seasons were harsh and irregular, harvests were thin, and births were infrequent or deformed in the human and animal world.

There is clear evidence that such beliefs were held well into the medieval period and beyond: as can be seen by the entries in Medieval annalistic records such as Brut y Twysygion or Chronica Scottorum. Irish sources were especially explicit about this relationship, with one early treatise, Audact Morainn, being entirely concerned with the Fír Flathemon, 'the Rightful (practice of) Sovereignty'. This was an essentially Indo-European cult, in which the king or *rig-s ('the extender') was primarily a religious as well as a political/military function. The king, therefore, was a high-priest as well as a warlord and chief: the human embodiment of the divine on whom the well-being of the tribe was magically dependent.

Likewise, the fortunes of the goddess herself were a mirror of the fate of the land: she might become desolate, threadbare or withered if the land is neglected or abused: or she might blossom and regain her youth if the land is restored by a rightful king. She had both a light and a dark aspect: she could appear the demure and radiant damsel 'the treasure hard to obtain' when the youthful king was at the height of powers. As he aged, and his hour drew near, she might manifest as a hideous witch or dark priestess: ready to preside over his killing and replacement at the hands of a more suitable rival.

Many myths throughout the Celtic world would tell of how a prospective king was approached by a mysterious, otherworldly lady (typically while lost in a desolate wilderness), who turns out to be this tutelary goddess: the coupling with whom ensures the future ascendancy of this king and his heirs. Again, it is within Ireland that the most explicit revelations of this mystery are clearly delineated. Nonetheless Brythonic sources (including the Mabinogi), can also be seen to include this kind of otherworldly encounter, with a numinous lady in whom the powers of sovereignty seem to abide.

The Sacred Cauldron

Closely associated with the goddess archetype is the symbol of the cauldron, chalice or grail. The signification of this particular symbol seems closely related to that of the fountain or spring, at the heart of river-goddess cults of the Ancient Celtic world. Cauldrons of regeneration, cauldrons of inspiration and cauldrons of endless bounty all feature in the annals of Celtic mythological lore. But besides this, the cauldron also must have occupied a central role in mundane world of Celtic tribal life. It was the source of food, drink and nurture in the household, and perhaps the hub of that most consummate of Celtic social activities: the chieftain's feast. Traditionally, this would involve the slaughter of a pig and its boiling in the tribal cauldron. Warriors would then be given portions therefrom in strict order of heroic merit, followed perhaps by the cup of mead served by the queen. So strong was the feeling and depth of significance aroused by this ritual that it was not unknown for violence to break out in the Celtic feasting hall, over this contested 'hero's portion'.

The cauldron; while being a symbol of the reproductive, nutritive and inspirational qualities of the feminine; was often portrayed in pagan Celtic iconography in the hands of a the tribal god, a tutelary patriarch with pronounced chthonic characteristics. In the Irish tradition, the guardian of the cauldron is simply known as Ind Dagda, 'The Good God'. He is characterised by primitive, phallic attributes: his crude and violent copulations with the dark goddess Mórrigan being responsible in one story for shaping some of the plains, ridges and earthworks of Ireland... His belly and appetite were vast, and his garb was that of the stone-age peasant: a course brown tunic from which his buttocks protruded. In Gaulish iconography, we find a god known as Sucellos 'Good Striker' whose elemental hammer was undoubtedly associated with the virtues of thunder and lightening, while his bowl, carried in the other hand, signalled (like the cauldron of the Dagda) his mastery of the bounty of nature (i.e. his conjugal relation to the Great Goddess). The Penn Annwfn, with his cauldron and associations with the chthonic underworld appears to have been one significant bearer of this archetype in the British Celtic mythological universe of the Mabinogi. The Arthurian manifestation of this archetype is to be found in the Grail King, whose health and vitality is mysteriously linked to the state of the land; equally in the sinister axe-bearing 'Green Knight' encountered by Gawain in the poem of that name.

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The Hero and the God

There were numerous manifestations of these matriarchal goddesses and patriarchal gods in the Celtic world. Notable among the former we find Rhiannon 'The Great Queen' among the Welsh, who was almost certainly among the Three Matriarchs or Tri Rieni mentioned at the beginning of the Second Branch. Across the Irish Sea, the mythological cycle is dominated by the ever-present goddess of the Boyne valley, Boand(a) by name, queen of the faery-like tribes of the Sídhe. She is the lover of Ind Dagda and the mother of numerous otherworldly heroes. She is mysteriously associated with the River Boyne, a river which was known to medieval bardic traditions as The Roof of the Ocean.


The titanic figures of Bendigeidfran, Beli Mawr and Casnar Wledig from the Mabinogi alone show characteristics of this Patriarch/Chieftain archetype, just as do Ind Dagda, Manannan and later figures such as Finn MacCumhail and Diamairt MacCerbhall in the Irish tradition. Famous historical British kings Arthur, Coel Hen ('Old King Cole') and Rhydderch Hael developed similar characteristics as their legends grew. Often such figures were to be found at the very hub of a narrative cycle. Their generosity and kingly qualities were often seen as the axial force of a diverse retinue of warriors and heroes, many of whom would have had legendary exploits of their own.

The Kilduncan Stone the most important Pictish carved stones to be found in Scotland in the last 100 years.


Some degree of variance within these basic male and female archetypes certainly did occur within the Celtic mythological tradition. Most obvious is the dichotomy involving the archetypes of hero and chieftain, already alluded to above. The hero-youth archetype was essentially itinerant and perigrinatory, representing the unstable forces of evolution, development and change. He offered his skills and services at the court of an established chieftain-king: who represented the principle of mature mastery, continuity and proprietal responsibility, with his domestic and political status affirmed through his symbolic marriage to the goddess-figure.

However, despite the relatively junior position of the hero, it is the deeds and adventures of this younger figure, rather than those of the chthonic-god or chieftain-king archetype, which command the most narrative interest. Indeed, this is the pattern throughout the world, where the aspirant progress of the hero through difficult birth, childhood miracles, trials of youth, out of which the winning of the hand of the bride represents the final accession into the full adult status, is universally represented. The role of the chieftain-king in these stories is more often than not to provide a wider context - defining the era ('in the time of Arthur' etc.) or the place (e.g. 'at the court of Rhydderch Hael'), the political milieu involved. Click for

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An interesting feature of Celtic tradition is the phenomena of 'aging' of individual characters, which often sees them progress through the roles of hero, king and chthonic deity as their memory passes from history into legend, and from legend into the realm of mythology. An actual historical figure, the Belgic warlord Brennus appears to have assimilated a number of mythical motifs, finally ending up as Bran vab Llyr or Bendigeidfran in the British Celtic tradition of medieval Wales: where his role is somewhere on the threshold of the legendary patron-king, and the titanic deity of whose chthonic presence exercises a protective influence over the land of his people. As a general rule: the older and more established such figures grew, the more pronounced became these chthonic and tutelary characteristics. Like the Great Queen, the Great King eventually would become a larger-than-life mythological figure: typically abiding in a magical paradise under a giant tumulus surrounded by his retinue, perhaps in a mysterious state of suspended animation, but always ready to return to the world and fight back the enemy if the tribe was faced with irreversible dangers. The British king Arthur is another example. The tradition of Arthur began (it would seem) with an actual historical figure, a Romano-British general by the name of Artorius, in the sixth century AD. By the tenth century this figure had absorbed a cluster of hero legends, many of a fantastical, supernatural nature. By the eleventh century, he seems to have become a king, with his own retinue of heroes, each with their own body of legendary exploits. By the twelfth century, Arthur had become a tutelary figure, slumbering in suspended animation, surrounded by his retinue of knights, ready to rise from 'the hollow hills', to defend his people in their hour of need.

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Alongside the hero-chieftain dichotomy, there are numerous other subsets within the basic god-goddess duality outlined above. Some signs of the Indo-European influence on Celtic Mythology can be seen in the emergence of functional types. Existing deities acquired specific associations: with magic, with war or with farming, for example. The female figures too became more diversified: the pan-Celtic deity Brigit, Brigid or Bride having a particularly strong associations with (paradoxically) both purity and virginity on one hand and fertility and childbirth on the other. She was very much the daughter goddess - female equivalent of the equally widespread hero boy-gods Lugus or Oengus Mac Oc. Her counterpoint within the female pantheon might be seen as the strongly maternal figures such as Modron or Boanda; or the dark goddesses Badb and Morrígan, who stand for the principles of war and wanton destruction.

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As has already been noted, however, it was this archetypal role which tended to absorb the name or identity of a historical individual in the Celtic world. This is possibly due to a strongly cyclic view of reality: which may have been part of the Megalithic intellectual legacy to the culture of the British Isles. This histiographic perception is suggested in medieval Celtic literature by the habitual classification of stories, actions or persons into perennial, archetypal events or phenomena. Irish scribes catalogued their narrative tradition into such narrative archetypes, including Tana (Cattle-Raids), Coimperta (Conceptions and Births), Immrama (Voyages) etc. The Brythonic tradition includes numerous classificatory notiae known as 'The Triads of the Island Britain': groupings of recurring events such as 'The Three Quests', character types like 'The Three Enchanters' or other phenomena: 'The Three Bull-Spirits' 'The Three Lover's Horses' etc. On a psycho-linguistic level, the very grammar of Celtic languages accentuates a proclivity towards this timeless, perennial perception of events: with the verbal noun (e.g. 'an arriving' 'a promise' 'an increasing' etc.) often defining the nature of activity within a given narrative sentence structure, where a finite verb might usually be expected.

One should understand Celtic Mythology as a continual reworking of these basic archetypal characters and themes. Every tribe, every clan, possibly even every family or homestead had its own traditions relating to its (usually male) ancestors and their deeds and descent; as well as the local (usually female) figures representing the life and fertility of the river, valley or plain on which they lived. Out of this diversity there can nonetheless be found a series of universal archetypes and perennial themes. It is this stock of characters and story-forms - endlessly spun around a myriad of localised figures - which forms the very substance of the Celtic mythological tradition.

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The Celtic Otherworld

No discussion of Celtic mythology is complete without some reference to what is often referred to as 'The Otherworld'. A distinctive body of tradition has emerged from the Celtic world about this realm and its inhabitants which have infused, via the Arthurian lore and related traditions, into the narrative cultures of Western Europe as a whole. The familiar genre of the 'fairy tale' - found from Ireland to the forests of Russia, owes much to beliefs of this kind.

Commentators have tended to speak of the 'Otherworld' as unitary entity. In fact the Celtic cosmos was no less fragmented or hetrogenous than the tribal world consciously inhabited by the early Celtic peoples themselves. Even a neighbouring clan could, in the eyes of these people, exhibit degrees of 'otherness' - a quality which in itself served as a magnet for a whole variety of fantastical projections.

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Be this as it may, the Celtic Otherworlds often share a peculiar set of distinctive characteristics. Their inhabitants tend to be either beautiful in the extreme - or grossly misshapen and hideous of aspect. The Otherworld is a source fantastical animals and powerful magical objects. The seizure of such wondrous treasures is a frequent goal of Otherworld quests undertaken by heroes from the world of men: 'the traditional feat of greatness' as one commentator accurately described it. Sometimes, a mortal might even become the lover of a faerie mistress from 'The Land of the Ever Living', 'The Plain of Delights' or other such Otherworldly paradise locations. Likewise, it was also not unknown for an Otherworldy lover to abduct or seduce a mortal princess and spirit her away to 'The Land of Summer', or wherever his magical kingdom might be.

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Otherworld beings were neither divine, nor wholly 'mortal' (in the broadest sense of the word). They were magically powerful, yet also prone to strange weaknesses. Sometimes, a clever mortal hero would exploit such weaknesses, and obtain famous magical concessions from these Otherworld denizens. Their relation with the world of men could be friendly as well as hostile: marriages and other forms of alliance between the worlds were not unheard of in the Celtic world.

Mortals might abide in Otherworld locations, returning to find that generations have passed in their absence - or after what has seemed like decades in the Otherworld reality, little more than a few hours of mortal time have elapsed. Sometimes the Otherworld itself appears to be little more than another dimension of time - but one not normally perceptible to the mortal eye.

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Otherworld settings were often paradoxical in their location: typically situated in liminal settings such as tidal islands or fog-laden hill-tops, or in other more fantastical settings: glass towers, rotating rocks etc. Another tradition tells of a land which can only be seen while standing on a certain patch of turf, at a certain time. A popular tradition recalls a magical underworld, accessible via certain points on the megalithic landscape: i.e. tumuli, standing stones and other sacred earthworks. There are strong suggestions that this Chthonic Otherworld is ultimately rooted in ancestor cults and the calendrical rituals of Megalithic Britain.


As has been implied above, Otherworld characteristics were often projected on outsiders of one kind or another: aboriginals, foreigners, merchants: even those from different social backgrounds. However, the nature of the Otherworld was not confined to physical or cultural distance: it could exist within the blink of eye, the space of a dream, or the experience of any other form of altered consciousness. As seen through the druidic eye, the world was thronging with a multitude of invisable realities - all of which could exert any manner of influence over the world of men, and any of which could be entered: if the time, place and circumstances were correct.

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