Celtic Mythology: Origin, Gods, Symbology, Myths +18 Legends

The Celtic mythology and culture is a set of beliefs, legends and stories of the ancient Celtic peoples who inhabited Europe.

This mythological world includes gods, heroes, mythical creatures, as well as explanations about the origin of the world and nature. Celtic mythology is rich and varied, and differs in some respects in the various regions and eras in which it developed. Although many of these stories were lost over time, some have been preserved through oral tradition and writing.

celtic mythology
Celtic Mythology

Celtic mythology and culture

The ancient Celts had a vibrant mythology composed of hundreds of wondrous tales and myths. However, they did not record their myths in writing, but passed them on orally. Our knowledge of the gods, heroes and villains of Celtic mythology comes from other, mainly Roman, sources.

However, the Romans sometimes referred to the Celtic gods by Roman names, so their accounts were not always reliable. In addition, because the Romans and Celts were enemies on the battlefield, Roman descriptions of Celtic beliefs were often unfavorable.

Celtic peoples who maintained political or linguistic identities (such as the Gaels in Ireland and Scotland, the Welsh in Wales, and the Celtic Britons of southern Britain and Britain) left traces of their ancestral mythologies that were put into written form during the Middle Ages.

Origin of Celtic mythology

The “Celts” are often a name given to people who lived in Britain and Ireland in ancient times, and also in northwestern France and northwestern Spain. We know of their existence because historians from the time of the Roman Empire wrote about them, their culture and their characteristics.

They were a pagan people, who did not believe in written language. However, far from being illiterate, the Celticpeople had a rich tradition of oral stories full of gods and monsters, heroes and beautiful women.

The myths of the Celts were recorded in the medieval period. For example, early Christian monks in Ireland wrote down the mythological cycles of stories that were recited in the courts of kings as a form of collective history.

Celtic Myths
Celtic Myths

In England it was the Norman invaders who became interested in the local legends of a magical king named Arthur. Arthurian romances are some of the most famous stories of the Celtic world. They tell of a time before church and state when individuals and tribes had to make a life for themselves as best they could in a world beset by inexplicable forces.

Celtic mythology is rich in symbolism of life, death and rebirth, replete with the magic of nature and the ancient world. Some of the most famous stories of Celtic mythology are in Celtic Ireland and Britain.

Stages of Celtic Culture

The Celts were a group of people who began to spread throughout Europe in the 2000s BC. At the height of their power, they inhabited an area stretching from the British Isles in the west to what is now Turkey in the east. They conquered northern Italy and Macedonia, sacking both Rome and Delphi in the process. They had a reputation as fierce and brave warriors and were viewed with respect by the Romans.

Celtic expansion reached its limit around 225 B . C, when the Celts suffered the first of a series of defeats by the armies of the Roman Empire. Gradually, the Romans subdued the Celts, and by 84 A.D., most of Britain was under Roman rule. At the same time, the Germanic peoples conquered the Celts living in central Europe.

Only a few areas, particularly Ireland and northern Britain, managed to remain free and to continue and pass on Celtic traditions. Six groups of Celts have survived into modern times: the peoples of Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.

Celtic expansion
Celtic culture map – Source Wikipedia

Celtic diversity

The ancient Celts were neither a race nor a nation. They were a diverse people, united by language, customs and religion, rather than by a centralized government. They lived off the land, farming and ranching. There were no cities apart from the impressive hill fortresses. However, by about 100 B . C, large groups of Celts had begun to gather in certain settlements to trade with each other.

Celtic society had a clearly defined structure. The highest in rank was the king, who ruled a particular tribe or group of people. Each tribe was divided into three classes: the noble knights and warriors, the druids (religious leaders), and the peasants and commoners.

The druids, who came from noble families, were respected and influential figures. They served not only as priests but also as judges, teachers and counselors. In addition, druids were widely believed to have magical powers.

Gods or deities of Celtic mythology.

When it comes to the ancient Celts, the scope is not really about a singular group of people who dominated some specific region or kingdom. Instead, it is about a vast and varied culture that made its presence felt from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and Ireland to the borders of Liguria in Italy and the Upper Danube.

Suffice it to say that their mythology rather reflected this multifaceted scope, with various tribes, chiefdoms and even later kingdoms having their own set of folklore and pantheons.

Essentially, what we know as Celtic mythology (and who we know as Celtic gods and goddesses) is borrowed from a patchwork of oral traditions and local tales that were conceived in pre-Christian Gaul (France), Iberia, Britain and Ireland.

In addition, these regional Celtic gods had their cognates and associated deities in other Celtic cultures, with the apt example being Lugus – as he was known in Gaul, and Lugh; as he was known in Ireland. Below we name the ancient Celtic gods and goddesses of Ireland and Gaul, and the former have their own mythical narrative preserved in part by medieval Irish literature.

Aine Celtic Goddess
Ana Celtic Goddess

Ana or Danu/Dana

Mother goddess. Also known as Anu, Dana, Danu, Aine and Annan, one of the oldest Celtic gods of Ireland, she possibly embodied the primordial reach, and her epithets describe her as a mother goddess. She was associated with nature and the spiritual essence of nature, while also representing aspects of prosperity, wisdom, death and regeneration.

Dagda

God of the fertility, agriculture, climate and strength. Since we delved into the Gaelic pantheon in the first entry, the most important deity of the father figure in the realm of the Irish Celtic gods belonged to the Dagda (An Dagda – ‘the Good God’).

Revered as the leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann tribe of gods, he was often associated with fertility, agriculture, weather and male strength, while embodying aspects of magic, wisdom, knowledge and druidry.

Aengus (Angus) /Aonghus

The god of love. The son of the goddess Dagda and the river Bionn, Aengus (or Aonghus), meaning “true vigor,” was the Celtic deity of love, youth and even poetic inspiration.

Lugus / Lugh

Sun god. Often revered as the resplendent sun god, Lugus or Lugh was also perceived as a handsome warrior.

Mórrígan or Morrigan

Deity of war. Also known as Morrígu; she was perceived as a mysterious and rather ominous female deity among the Irish Celtic gods and goddesses, associated with both war and fate. In modern Irish, her name Mór-Ríoghain roughly translates as the “ghost queen”.

Brigid Celtic

Goddess of healing. In the mythical narrative, she is a daughter of the Dagda and therefore a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Interestingly, it is mentioned that she had quite a few domestic animals, from oxen, the king of boars, to sheep; and these creatures used to cry out as a warning to the goddess.

Belenus

The sun god. One of the most ancient and venerated Celtic gods in continental Europe, Great Britain and Ireland, Belenos (also known as Belenos, Beli and Beli Mawr) was the sun god par excellence in Celtic mythology.

Toutatis

God of the People. In essence, he was possibly perceived as a crucial guardian entity who assumed the role of protector of the tribe, he has been found on quite a few ancient artifacts in both British Rome and Gaul.

Camulos

God of war. Rather than being counted among the central Celtic gods, Camulos was possibly more of a Roman-Celtic deity, often associated with Mars (or Greek Ares), and was therefore perceived as a god of war. However, his origins go back to the tribal god of the Remi, a Belgic tribe that dominated northeastern Gaul (consisting of present-day Belgium and parts of the Netherlands and Germany).

Cernunnos

God of animals, forests, fertility, and even wealth. Possibly the most visually impressive and rather portentous of the ancient Celtic gods, Cernunnos is actually the conventional name given to the deity `Cornish’. He is often associated with animals, forests, fertility, and even wealth.

Ogmios / Ogma

God of eloquence. In most ancient mythical narratives, we rarely encounter divine entities that are associated solely with language. Well, Ogmios, as one of the ancient Celtic gods, goes against this “trend”, as he was considered simply as the god of eloquence.

Epona

Protector deity of horses, donkeys and mules. Beyond syncretism, there were also unique Celtic gods worshipped in the pantheon of the ancient Gallo-Roman religion and even Rome itself. Epona belonged to the second rare category. Considered as the female deity and protector of horses, donkeys and mules.

Animals of Celtic Mythology

Animals are an important part of the Celtic culture, they are often related to the mystical life and daily relationships in this culture.

Celtic horse
Celtic horse

1. Bat (Ialtag): Associated with the Underworld; as the bat’s radar helps it avoid obstacles and barriers, so it can teach it to do the same.

2. Bear (Arth): Although the bear was native to the Isles, it is now extinct there. Evidence that it is a totem animal is found in many Celtic designs, although it is not mentioned in the legends. It can help you find balance and harmony in your life, and the strength to do what is necessary.

3. Bees (Bee ): The bee is often mentioned in connection with honey and mead, which was made from honey. The bee is industrious, resolute in performing a task and courageous in defending her home.

4. Cat (Caoit, Cat): Many of the Celtic legends imagined the cat as a fierce and evil creature, but that may be because the cats of the time were untamed. The cat is a strong protector, especially when faced with a confrontational situation.

5. Stag (Fiadh) or (Sailetheach, Damh): His white stag form, he was a messenger and guide to the other worlds.

6. Dog (Abach, Madadh) or Hound (Cù): Devoted hounds are often mentioned in Celtic myths, such as Bran and Sceolan, who belonged to Finn mac Cumhail. They represented tracking skills, scenting a path and companionship.

7. Eagle (Iolair, Fireun): It was known for its wisdom and long life in Celtic stories. The eagle represents swiftness, strength, keen eyesight and knowledge of magic.

8. Horse: Symbolizes endurance and fidelity.

Literature of Celtic mythology

The Gaelic language and literature of Ireland was established in the west of Scotland between the 4th and 6th centuries. Until the development of Scottish Gaelic literature with an identity of its own, there was a shared literary standard between Gaelic Ireland and Scotland, sometimes known as Classical Gaelic.

The 6th century Hiberno-Scottish mission spread Christianity and established monasteries and writing centers. Gaelic literature in Scotland includes a celebration, attributed to the Irish monk Adomnán, of the victory of the British King Bridei (671-93) over the Northmen at the Battle of Dun Nechtain (685).

Pictish, the now extinct Brythonic language spoken in Scotland, has left no record of poetry, but poetry composed in Gaelic for the kings of Scotland is known. In the 9th century, the Gaelic people controlled the Pictish territory and Gaelic was spoken throughout Scotland and used as a literary language.

However, there was a great deal of cultural exchange between Scotland and Ireland, with Irish poets composing for Scottish or Pictish patrons, and Scottish poets composing for Irish patrons. The Book of Deer, a 10th-century Latin Gospel book with early 12th-century additions in Latin, Old Irish, and Scottish Gaelic, is notable for containing the oldest surviving Gaelic script from Scotland.

Symbols and Symbology of Celtic Mythology

It is important to remember that in the Druid faith, putting sacred material in writing was forbidden. The Celts preferred to verbally transmit their beliefs and symbolism from generation to generation. Here are some meanings of several important Celtic symbols.

Celtic Cross

The b is a Christian symbol although it is rooted in pagan beliefs. Legend has it that St. Patrick combined the Christian Cross with the pagan sun to show the newly converted followers of the religion (including the Celts) the importance of the cross.

It symbolizes the life-giving properties of the sun; but since the cross is above the circle, it signifies the superiority of Christ over the sun.

Celtic Cross
Celtic Cross

Celtic Spirals

Spirals are among the oldest decorations created by humans, and are very evident in Celtic art and architecture. Experts believe that the spiral is the oldest symbol in Celtic culture and is representative of the sun or ethereal radiation energy.

Other scholars suggest that spirals are symbols of the balance between inner and outer consciousness or are representative of the journey from materialism and outer consciousness to the blissful state of enlightenment and cosmic consciousness.

Celtic Spirals
Celtic Spirals

Triplism

The number 3 was a significant and powerful number to the Celts and a multitude of other ancient civilizations. The number was considered sacred, so anything appearing in three parts was a representation of great religious value.

A number of Celtic deities appear in threes, such as the three-horned bull in Celtic Britain or the Welsh mother goddesses. It is also likely that triplism was simply a way of increasing the power of a god.

Celtic Triplism
Celtic Triplism

The awe of the three rays of Light

This neo-Druid symbol with three rays of light, which is a popular design for tattoos, jewelry and artwork, is said to have been invented by Lolo Morgannwg, an 18th century Welsh poet. However, studies suggest that the symbol may be older than initially thought.

The word “Awen” means inspiration or essence in the Celtic language and first appeared in the 9th century book “Historia Brittonum”. It was said to represent the harmony of opposites in the universe.

For example, the two outer rays represent male and female energy, while the middle ray represents the balance between them. There are multiple meanings for the Celtic symbol of Awen.

One interpretation is that the main outer lines symbolize both male and female, while the inner line represents balance.

Three rays of Light
Three rays of Light

Snakes

Celtic symbolism does not represent a snake as an animal; it represents it as a multi-faceted symbol. For example, its ability to shed its skin is a symbol of rebirth.

The shape of a snake is similar to that of the male organ or umbilical cord. Since snakes are capable of creating large numbers of young, they are also a useful way of representing fertility. The Celts also apparently used the snake as a symbol of secret knowledge.

Celtic Snakes
Celtic Snakes

Horses

The Celts regarded horses as a prized possession and a status symbol. According to Sabine Heinz in ‘Celtic Symbols’, the horse first arrived in Central Europe in the 8th century BC. As early Celtic civilization sought to expand, the horse was a crucial element of any military campaign.

In the early days of Celtic expansion, around the 6th century BC, charioteers and horsemen enjoyed the respect of their people.

Celtic Horses
Celtic Horses

Trees were sacred

The Celts used the word “nemeton” to describe the presence of a sacred grove. One example is the sacred oak grove in an area of Asia Minor called Galatia, which the Celts called “Drunemeton.”

The ancient Roman historian Cassius Dio states that there were sacred groves in southern Gaul used for human sacrifice.

As for actual symbols, trees and plants are depicted on Celtic coinage and trees often accompany other images such as deities.

The Celts had a special reverence for oak trees and the Druids had a particularly close bond with oaks. This is not surprising since the word ‘druid’ comes from the Celtic word for oak.

While trees had a link to fertility, they were inextricably connected to the link between the upper and lower worlds. Trees have their roots deep in the earth, and their trunks grow skyward.

There is a suggestion that the Celts believed that the upper branches of a tree brushed the sky. It is likely that on occasion, Celtic warriors carried the Tree of Life with them into battle for good luck and as a means of reaching the next world.

Celtic Three
Celtic Three

Bulls

Bulls may signify strength, ferocity and virility or these symbols may relate to the importance of oxen in agriculture. There is iconography of bulls found in Europe long before the arrival of the Celts.

One example is the site of Mont Bego, near the Italian-French border. Bulls appear on Celtic coins, and there is celestial imagery associated with this particular animal. There are coins found in the East that depict bulls with moon signs between their horns. In fact, by themselves, these horns look like a crescent moon.

Ultimately, however, the most obvious symbolism associated with the bull is that of virility (men), fertility (women) and aggressiveness. Apparently, placing the bull symbol in the bedchamber improved the mental state and resulted in better performance.

It is also possible that the bull was associated with wealth and abundance. Keep in mind that the bull was an excellent and reliable source of food for the Celts.

Celtic Bull
Celtic Bull

Myths and Legends of Celtic Mythology

In the early centuries, Celtic gods survived as a largely oral tradition, significantly influenced by the geography of its lands. Sagas and legends were passed down from generation to generation through storytelling; it was only after the Roman conquest that some of these myths were recorded in writing.

Even so, this was often done by Christian monks closer to the 11th century, who recorded the stories themselves, but removed the original beliefs and earlier religious overtones.

Some of the myths have been Christianized, especially those recorded in Wales. However, a particular feature of the Celtic myths may have prevented this from happening more often: namely, the way in which the deities have been anthropomorphized (given human form), so that, unlike the Greek myths, they are not obviously religious in nature.

This feature may have made them seem less threatening to the new belief of Christianity.

The god Lugh

We can clearly see this anthropomorphization with the god Lugh, who gives his name to the Irish summer festival of Lughnasadh. In early Irish myths he is clearly a deity. As such, he offers himself as the savior of the Tuatha dé Danann, the predecessors of the Milesians or Gaels.

Lugh God
Lugh Celtic God

Seeking entry into the palace of King Nuada of the Silver Hand, in Tara, he advertises each of his skills in turn; “Blacksmith, warrior, musician, poet, scholar…”. Each time he is denied entry, until he points out that no one else combines all these skills in one person, as he does.

In the Mabinogion, the main source of British myth, Lugh has become the much more human Lleu Llaw Gyfes, nephew (and possibly son) of the wizard Gwydion. He is skilled, and protected by charms, but not obviously a god: in fact, at one point he appears to be mortal.

The Dagda, father of the gods.

Lugh shares some characteristics with the Dagda, a larger-than-life figure prominent in the myths of the Tuatha dé Danann. Like Lugh, he is powerful and omnicompetent. However, he is often depicted as a rather comical figure whose short robe does not cover his buttocks, and whose huge stick has to be carried on wheels.

Dagda God
Dagda Celtic God

The Dagda has great magical powers, and possesses a harp that comes to him when he calls, and a cauldron of plenty that brings dead warriors back to life (but no power of speech, perhaps in case they say too much about the afterlife).

The harp of the Dagda

This story concerns the oldest Irish Celtic gods, the first generation of the Tuatha dé Danaan who had to fight against the giant races of the Firbolgs and the Formorians. Their story is found in the Lebor Gabála, `The Book of Invasions’.

When the fairy race of the Tuatha dé Danann arrived in Ireland, they came like a mist across the waters, bringing with them magical gifts. These were the lia fail; the coronation stone, the spear of Lugh, the sword of Nuada, and the great cauldron of the Dagda, which was said to be able to restore life.

Celtic Arp
Celtic Arp

Dagda himself was known as the Good God and was the chief of the gods at the time. In addition to his cauldron, he had a battle-scarred harp made of oak. It was covered with rich ornaments, including a double-headed fish that went up and down the curved pillar and had jewels for eyes. Although he had a harpist, Uaithne, he could also play it himself.

The Dagda always had this harp with him; he even took it into battle. So it was that after the second Battle of Mag Tuiread, or Moytura, the Dagda discovered that his harp, along with his harp, had been captured by the Formorians and taken with them on their flight. Angry beyond measure, he set out with his son Aengus Og to reclaim it.

Dagda Summon his arp

They crept closer to the Formorian camp. Soon they could hear the sounds of the feasting hall where Bres, the Formorian king, was eating. As they approached the door, they could make out through the smoke and candle flame the silhouette of the old harp hanging on the wall. Then the Dagda boldly entered and summoned his harp with this song:

Immediately the old harp flew to his hand across the hall, killing nine men as it came. The company was struck with an uproar.

In the silence, the Dagda laid his hands on the strings and untied the Three Nobles of Ireland which he had tied to his harp. First he played the goltrai, or weeping strain, so that all present began to weep and mourn their defeat.

Then he played the geantrai, the strain of joy, so that the company broke into laughter and drunken nonsense. Finally, he played the suantrai, or strain of sleep, after which the warriors fell into a deep sleep. After this, the Dagda and Aengus Og left the camp as silently as they had come, taking with them Uaithne and the harp.

Celtic Mythology Traditions

Little is known about the religious beliefs of the Celts of Gaul. They believed in an afterlife, for they buried food, weapons and ornaments with the dead. The Druids, the early Celtic priesthood, taught the doctrine of the transmigration of souls and discussed the nature and power of the gods.

The Irish believed in another world, sometimes imagined as subway and sometimes as islands in the sea. The other world was called “the Land of the Living”, “The Delicious Plain” and “The Land of the Young”, and was believed to be a land where there was no sickness, old age or death, where happiness lasted forever, and where a hundred years was as a day.

It was similar to the Elysium of the Greeks and may have belonged to the ancient Indo-European tradition. In Celtic eschatology, as seen in the Irish vision or travel tales, a beautiful girl approaches the hero and sings to him of this happy land.

Celt Fairy
Celtic Fairy

He follows her, and they go away in a glass boat and he is seen no more; or else he returns after a short time to find that all his companions are dead, for he has in reality been away for hundreds of years.

The Hero Figure

Sometimes the hero sets out on a quest, and a magic mist descends upon him. He finds himself before a palace and enters to find a warrior and a beautiful girl who welcome him. The warrior may be Manannán, or Lugh himself may be the one who receives him, and after strange adventures the hero returns successfully.

These Irish tales, some of which date from the eighth century, are infused with the magical quality found 400 years later in the Arthurian romances. Something of this quality is also preserved in the Welsh story of Branwen, daughter of Llŷr, which ends with the survivors of the great battle feasting in the presence of the severed head of Bran the Blessed, having forgotten all their suffering and sorrow.

But this “delicious plain” was not accessible to all. Donn, god of the dead and ancestor of all the Irish, reigned over Tech Duinn, which was imaged to be on or under Bull Island on the Beare Peninsula, and to it all men returned except the happy few.

Rituals on Celtic Mythology

According to Poseidonius and later classical authors, Welsh religion and culture were the concern of three professional classes: the druids, the bards, and among them an order closely associated with the druids that seems to have been best known by the Gallic term vates, cognate with the Latin vates “seers.”

This triple hierarchy was mirrored among the two main branches of the Celts in Ireland and Wales, but is best represented in the early Irish tradition with its druids, filidh (singular fili) and bards; the filidh evidently correspond to the Welsh bards.

Celt Druids
Celtic Druids

The name druid means “to know the oak” and may derive from a druidic ritual, which seems to have been performed in early times in the forest. Caesar stated that the Druids avoided manual labor and paid no taxes, so many were attracted by these privileges to join the order.

They learned a large number of verses by heart, and some studied for 20 years; they thought it was a mistake to devote their learning to writing, but used the Greek alphabet for other purposes.

As far as is known, the Celts had no temples before Gallo-Roman times; their ceremonies took place in forest shrines. In the Gallo-Roman period temples were erected, many of which have been discovered by archaeologists in both Britain and Gaul.

In Gaul human sacrifice was practiced: Cicero, Caesar, Suetonius and Lucan refer to it, and Pliny the Elder says it also occurred in Britain. It was forbidden under Tiberius and Claudius. There is some evidence that human sacrifice was known in Ireland and was banned by St. Patrick.

Festivals

Insular sources provide important information about Celtic religious festivals. In Ireland the year was divided into two six-month periods by the festivals of Beltine (May 1) and Samhain (Samain; Nov. 01), and each of these periods was divided equally by the feasts of Imbolc (Feb. 01) and Lughnasadh (Aug. 1).

Samhain seems to have originally meant “summer,” but by the early Irish period it had come to mark the end of summer. Beltine is also called Cetṡamain “First Samhain.”

Imbolc has been compared by French scholar Joseph Vendryes to Roman illustrations and was apparently a purification festival for farmers.

It was sometimes called oímelc “sheep’s milk” in reference to the lambing season. Beltine “Beltine fire” was the summer festival, and there is a tradition that on that day the Druids led the cattle between two fires as protection against disease. Lughnasadh was the feast of the god Lugh.

Sacred places of Celtic mythology

The Hill of Uisneach

Found in the legendary center of the Irish island, Uisneach Hill is a place of legend, magic and mystery of old, steeped in old-world alchemy, potent symbolism and the living threads of the ways of the Elders, and thus, it is also a place of storytelling.

Uisneach hill
Uisneach hill

It is a reminder that the history of our land is not just a faint echo in which the faithful kick their ears to listen, but a strong chorus of constant presence and importance, a well worn and warmed sacrality that has not only withstood the test of time, but has been very much a weaver of it.

Corcomroe Abbey

Corcomroe Abbey, dating from the 12th century, is called “Sancta Maria de Petra Fertilis”, or Mary of the Fertile Rock which describes its position in a green and fertile valley of the Burren, derived from the Irish, “Boireann”, meaning a stony place, surrounded by grey limestone mountains.

Further evidence is found in the carved flowers on the stone capitals, unique in Europe and thought to represent bluebells, or more likely in the deserted churches of Oughtmana, suggesting a long history of church life in this once remote valley.

Corcomroe Abbey
Corcomroe Abbey

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