The Celts, one of the most influential tribes to have dominated the European landscape, left behind an array of folk tales as their legacy. They originated as a group of tribes from Central Europe and soon migrated to other parts, spreading their traditions and customs.
The Celts were not a unified nation but were actually numerous tribal groups scattered across Europe. Nevertheless, their ancient cultures birthed mythological stories of heroism, mystery, magic, and romance.
Unfortunately, our knowledge of the Celtic gods is limited. The first oral traditions helped keep the accounts of Celtic mythological gods alive. And it was only in medieval times did Irish and Welsh monks create written records of the stories. But until then, some myths got lost in the sands of time.
What sets Celtic mythology apart from other known mythologies of the world is that most of their deities were linked to places instead of specific roles. The tribes had designated divinities who kept them safe and secure.
Where Did the Celts Originate?
In the 4th century B.C., a swarm of ancient Indo-European tribes crossed Eurasia. Not long after, the decline of the mighty Celts followed.
With the Roman empire presiding over the Western world, Celtic freedom in Gaul suffered greatly. Although, in Britain and Ireland, there was a more gradual deterioration of the cultures because of political suppression.
Primary sources of Celtic mythology come from architecture and literature. But many existing monuments were from the Roman period and carried influences from Roman culture. This led to problems in discerning Celtic and Roman motifs.
Moreover, the lack of literary texts from the inception of mythology made the Roman texts unreliable, mainly because they were adulterated with influences of Christianity in Ireland and Wales.
Major Celtic Mythology Gods
From the little information available, it is evident that the Celtic gods were omnipotent entities who appeared in many adventure-filled tales. In addition, each tribe had its god and goddess with roles within the mythology.
Here is a quick introduction to some of the significant Celtic mythology gods:
He was the crowned ruler of Annwn or the Celtic afterlife. Initially, this Welsh Underworld belonging to the Mabinogi was portrayed as an island, a kingdom sprawled in the depths of the sea, and literally an underground kingdom.
Arawn was known for his skills in sorcery and magic, especially shapeshifting. Moreover, he is associated with Pwyll, the Lord of Dyfed, whose ferocious dogs killed one of the Otherworld’s stags.
The etymological meaning of Arawn is believed to have links with the Hebrew name Aaron, meaning ‘exalted. And an alternative theory explains Arawn as a version of the Celtic god Arubianus. This is because it’s akin to each other’s names.
As soon as the influence of Christianity spread to these regions, it transformed the deities into evil characters. For example, Arawn was given titles like Lord of the Damned, emphasizing his negative traits.
The Celtic god was hailed as the keeper of the blessed Underworld. Thus, the realm has been associated with Arthurian Avalon or Isle of the Blessed.
Arawn was a fair and benevolent ruler who ruled the land and the hearts of his people too. What’s more, he was also known for being a talented magician who successfully switched places with Pwyll without anyone noticing. Not even his Queen!
In a terrifying battle with Gwydion, a master of magic and poetry, Arawn called upon the hounds of the Underworld and magically enhanced their abilities to fight. Though he lost the war, this particular instance is a testament to his powerful yielder of magic skills.
But the hounds were actually his companions for hunting expeditions. So our multi-talented Celtic god was an expert hunter, known to hunt game almost every day!
Arawn is related to the fall season marked by the baying hounds and cackling geese making their journey to the south for wintertime. Interestingly, fall heralded the end of the year with Samhain or modern-day Halloween. On this day, spirits would descend on earth and celebrate their ruler Arawn’s reign as the Lord of the Underworld.
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His family life is mostly unknown except for the mention of an unnamed wife who loved Arawn dearly.
Badb, or the “Battle Crow,” was one of the three sisters who were together called Morrigan. She was a war goddess responsible for inciting terror and confusion on the battlefield. Badb was often famed for taking the shape of an old woman who brought death and destruction in Irish Mythology.
In modern Gaelic, Badb is defined as a crow. She has also been called the “battle crow” owing to her Morrigan origins as a war goddess.
Moreover, the name battle crow sounds similar to the Proto-Celtic word bodwa or ancient Germanic languages. It’s more or less like the Old Norse who have words like bodvar, meaning war.
Therefore, it is construed that Badb represents a feasting crown on a bloody battlefield.
Badb was a Celtic manifestation of fear, death, and panic on a battlefield. Due to her appearance as an old crone in most sources, it is believed that she was the oldest of the Morrigan sisters.
Even though most of her attributes have hints of terror, Badb is not associated with evil all the time. She is known to give positive prophecies as well.
Her pet animals were ravens and crows. Simultaneously, she corresponded to bean sidhe or a banshee mean fairy woman. And do not forget that banshee’s cries are an indicator of a significant death.
As mentioned, Badb was a third of the triple goddess Morrigan listed as Eriu, Banba, and Fodla. Her mother was the goddess of agriculture by the name of Ernmas. Some versions of her story include a father called Caitlin, a druid.
Some instances showed Badba as the wife of Formorian king, Tethra. But as the triple goddess, she was married to Dagda.
Brigid, or “The Exalted One,” was the Celtic mythology goddess of spring, life, and fertility. Poetry, invention, and passion were her domains. She was favored by all poets, often making her the muse of their poetic adventures.
Additionally, she was also known for her healing abilities. The first of February was celebrated as Imbolc to honor the goddess of spring.
Many wells and waterways of Ireland are dedicated to her as well.
Read More: Ireland is brimming with myths of gods, heroes, and supernatural creatures just as intriguing as Brigid. Explore some of the untold myths and legends of Ireland.
The old Irish word, Brid, was anglicized to form Brigid. Brigid is also the origin of the name Bridget, rooted in the Proto-Celtic word Briganti or “The Exalted One.”
While her name might signify a link to sunlight and fire, it may be inspired by other dawn goddesses of Indo-European origin.
Further, she is also known as the Goddess of Wells. Many of Ireland’s waterways and wells are dedicated to the goddess.
Brigid’s powers are fraught with contradictions from healing and fertility to passionate fires and peaceful waters. Her influence ran through mothers and poets alike. In Ireland, shreds of evidence of her worship have been found in abundance.
A triple goddess, Brigid appears in different forms ranging from a mother to a beautiful maiden. Mostly, she dons a sunbeam cloak that highlights her fiery red hair.
Since Brigid served as a water goddess, her realm extended to rivers and wells. Brigid’s wells in Kildare and County Clare testaments her power and influence. The Kildare well is said to heal any ailments suffered by the mortal body. All in all, the flame of Ireland burns in devotion for this goddess.
On the other hand, the well in County Clare was built underneath a cemetery at a church.
Furthermore, the goddess’ main symbol is called Brigid’s Cross. The geometrically shaped cross is made of rush and grass, and you may find it hung on doors of houses across Ireland.
Brigid was the daughter of the Dagda, chief of Tuatha Dé Danann, and titled as the Great God. She also had several siblings from her father, including Aengus and Midir.
Although, the identity of her mother is often disputed. According to some texts, her mother was a significant river goddess called Danu. Danu was also associated as the mother-goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Her marriage to Bres, the High King of Tuatha Dé Danann, was no ordinary affair and resulted in having a son called Ruadán.
In other versions, she was the wife of Tuireann and gave birth to three sons. Later, the sons were responsible for defeating Cian, father of Lugh of the Long-Arm, and transforming Lugh into a pig.
5. Legends of Brigid
Celtic myths often showcased Brigid as a revered deity, elaborating on her many skills and powers. In these myths, strangers from far and wide would approach her and ask for blessings.
In addition, those with a pure heart were granted freedom from all their ailments and miseries. But those lacking such qualities were taught special lessons to live a better life.
“The Veiled One” was an enigmatic goddess who reigned over the winds and winter. She was portrayed as an old woman with a veiled face.
Cailleach’s character was interesting because of the multiple facets it took on. Her nature was both a creator and destroyer and was not limited to the generic evil or good. This duality made her a crowd favorite for different poets and authors.
Also known as the Queen of Winter, the intensity and duration of the winter season depended on her will.
In addition, she was a patron goddess of wolves.
Her domain stretched across Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.
Cailleach is a commonly used word in Scottish and Irish Gaelic, alluding to an “old hag.” The colloquial word was derived from an Old Gaelic term, Caillech, meaning “veiled one.”
She has been attributed with different names by various poets: Digdi, Milucra, Biróg (the one who saved Lugh of the Long-Arm when he was an infant), Buí, and Burach. Even so, her most notable name is Cailleach Bhéara, distinguishing her as the lady of winter.
2. Cailleach’s Myths and Legends
The myth about Cailleach collecting firewood in different forms has survived the test of time, remaining as one of the last myths related to the goddess. Apparently, Cailleach runs out of firewood for winter on the first of February.
The Manx tradition shows her transforming into a giant bird to collect firewood for the rest of winter. In Scotland and Ireland, she collects firewood as an old woman, true to her original appearance.
If the day is bright and sunny, the winters will last longer than when the day is stormy, which means she overslept.
The United States has its own version of this tradition known as Groundhog Day. However, they do not recognize Cailleach as a part of the ritual.
Not to forget, she has similarities with deities outside the Gaelic mythological realm. For instance, being the creator goddess, she resembles the Greek creator deity, Gaia, also known as the Earth Mother.
In Slavic mythology, Baba Yaga is an old woman leaping between mountains to cause hindrance to travelers. She is often related to Cailleach as well.
Other Important Deities in Celtic Mythology
The pantheon of gods in Celtic mythology does not end here.
#1. The Dagda
He was the leader of Tuatha Dé Danann, a group of supernatural entities who could converse with the mortal realm. The Dagda was considered the leader of the Celtic pantheon.
One of the last to be added to the Celtic mythology gods, Lugh was a youthful king and a brave warrior. He was the epitome of a multi-talented deity, donning a sling stone and a magical spear as his weapons.
She was the Queen of all Celtic deities, sitting at the fore of the slew of gods within the mythology. However, not much has been recorded of the goddess; her name alone is evidence of her importance.
Our knowledge of Celtic mythology is limited. Even so, the efforts of many scholars to excavate legends hidden deep within other mythologies are commendable. Recently, pop culture has appropriated many myths to further elevate its favor amongst the youth.
Read More: Another European mythology filled with mighty gods and their extraordinary tales of heroism, love, betrayal is Norse mythology.