Celtic Folklore

July 11, 2009

Celtic Mythology | top
Alina Tarkhanian
September 2005

Background Information

Until the rise of the Roman Empire, the Celts were a strong force. Rome had been sacked by them in 385 BC. Although the Celts were incorporated into the Roman Empire, they continued to worship their own gods and goddesses. Even though they adopted the Christian faith, the Celtic heritage was not forgotten. What was preserved in terms of myths, is in large part due to the work of the monks from the 5th century onwards.

Since there are so many myths, I have decided to pick a few mythological characters, that I found of personal interest, and discuss them.

Fionn MacCumal, or Finn Mac Cumhaill in Ireland, was a great warrior poet and magician. He was the commander-in-chief of the Fianna, a band of warriors responsible for the safety of the High King of Ireland. I have a little story about how he became such a gifted warrior.

Before he became the leader of the Fianna, Fionn trained with Finegas, a druid. They lived by the River Boinne (now Boyne) where the magical Salmon of Knowledge was said to swim. Finegas hoped to catch it and become supremely wise. One day, Fionn caught it and Finegas sent him to cook it, warning him not to eat the flesh. While Fionn was cooking the fish and turning it on the pan he burnt his thumb and immediately put it in his mouth to cool the pain. When he brought the fish to Finegas he was asked ‘Did you eat of the flesh?’ Then, Fionn remembered how he had burnt his thumb and had to explain this to Finegas. Finegas offered the whole fish to Fionn to eat which he did gaining the knowledge he was destined to receive. From then on, he had only to put his thumb in his mouth to know whatever he wished and he became known for his wisdom throughout Ireland and Scotland.

Thomas the Rhymer was a famous Scottish poet, and later, a prophet. There can be no doubt that he was a real person living in the 13th century, as documents exist signed by him as Thomas Rymour de Ercieldoune. It is difficult to find any more evidence about his life, but the traditions that have built up around him must have some root in real events. Thomas received his gift of prophecy through a meeting with the Fairy Queen of Elfland. He traveled with her for 40 days and 40 nights into the otherworld, and served her for seven years. The otherworld in Celtic mythology is an invisible realm which gods, goddesses and fairies dwell. He then returned to the upper-world, endowed with the gift of a tongue that can not lie. He usually made his prophecies in rhyme or poetry. One of his most famous prophecies was the crowning of King James the VI of Scotland (or the I of England), when the two crowns united. He said that when the Tweed flooded into Merlin’s grave, Scotland and England would have one king. This happened at Merlin’s grave in Drumelzier when James was crowned. Thomas the Rhymer could easily slip in and out of the otherworld, where he would draw inspiration for his poetry.

Moving on to the female figures

The banshee, modern name for bean sidhe (woman of the fairies), are fairies of ancestral spirits appointed to forewarn people of their death. The banshee chiefly appears in one of three guises: a young woman, a stately matron or a raddled old hag. These represent the triple aspects of the Celtic goddess of war and death, namely Badhbh, Macha and Mor-Rioghain.

She may appear as a washer-woman, and is seen apparently washing the blood-stained clothes of those who are about to die. In this guise she is known as the bean-nighe (washing woman) and is usually dressed in green and has webbed feet.

Although not always visible, her mourning wails can be heard, usually at night when someone is about to die. In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. This is an example of the banshee in human form. There are records of several human banshees or prophetesses attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings.

One character I find particularly interesting, and perhaps gruesome, is the baobhan sith. The Baobhan Sith is an evil and dangerous vampire-like female from the highlands of Scotland. They prey mercilessly on unsuspecting travelers in the glens and mountains. The name suggests a form of Banshee.

A common tale is told of 4 young friends who set off on a hunting trip in the glens. Exhausted, the men take refuge in an abandoned Shieldig (small cottage).

Darkness falls quickly and the men build a fire and set about entertaining themselves for the night. One of them is a talented singer and sings as his companions begin to dance around the room.

One of the men wishes that they had the company of women. Seconds after he utters these words, four women appear at the door and begin dancing with the three men. Suddenly, the atmosphere changes and the women become frenzied with supernatural strength. They proceed to tear apart the dancers and blood begins to spill around the room.

Terrified the young man musician and singer is able to escape. He lunges out the door with one of the creatures at his heels. He takes refuge between the horses and this seems to create a barrier over which the creature can not cross. He spends a long and cold night between the horses, with the Boabhan Sith circling around waiting for an opportunity to pounce on him. At last dawn breaks and the creature disappears.

When he returns to the shielding, a ghastly sight greets him. All his companions are dead, sprawled around the floor in agonizing positions, completely drained of blood.

Traditionally supernatural creatures are afraid of iron, and taking refuge in the wild horses may have saved him because of the horse’s iron shoes.

There are tons more stories like these and if you are interested, I have a few web sites you can check out.

* www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk and follow the link to the folklore section.
* www.rampantscotland.com and go to the mythology section.
* www.pantheon.org is an excellent guide to Celtic mythology.

I also have a fantastic book, The Encyclopedia of Mythology, by Arthur Cotterell, published by Lorenz Books.

Heather Ale
One hundred years after Robert Louis Stephenson’s death his words tell of a Pictish legend about Heather Ale.

From the bonny bells of heather,
They brewed a drink long-syne.
Was sweeter far than honey,
was stronger far than wine
They brewed it and they drank it,
And lay in blessed swound
For days and days together,
In their dwelling underground.

There rose a King in Scotland,
A fell man to his foe,
He smote the Picts in battles.
He hunted them like roes.
Summer came in the country.
Red was the heather bell:
But the manner of the brewing.
Was none alive to tell.

The King rode and was angry.
Black was his brow and pale
To rule in a land of heather,
and lack the heather ale.
Down by the shore he had them.
And there on the giddy brink –
“I will give you life, ye vermin,
for the secret of the drink.”

Life is dear to the aged,
and honour a little thing
I would gladly sell the secret,
Quoth the Pict to the King
For life is a little matter.
And death is naught to the young

And I dare not sell my honor,
Under the eye of my son.

They took the son and bound him.
And flung him far and strong
And the sea swallowed his body,
like that of a child of ten
And them on the cliff stood the father,
Last of the dwarfish men

True was the word I told you.
Only my son I feared
For I doubt the sapling courage,
That goes without a beard
But now in vain is the torture,
Fire shall never avail
Here dies in my bosom,
The secret of the heather ale…

by Robert Louis Stephenson

Nessie | top

High priest of the British Coven of White Witches, Kevin Carlyon, first became involved with Nessie two years ago when he cast a spell during a ritual on the shores of the Highland loch. The self-proclaimed “white witch” believes that ‘Nessie’ is a ghost.

He cast a spell to protect Nessie when a Swedish monster hunter announced plans to net the giant creature. As part of his incantations, Mr Carylon also tossed a chunk of iron with runic symbols carved on it, into the loch.

Kevin Carlyon made another visit to the loch side on Friday 13 (2004) to “summon up the spirit” of the legendary creature.

Second Sight | top

In the mid seventeenth century there was and old woman who lived near Pitcaple Castle who was believed to have second sight. One day this old woman met with Sir John Leslie, Laird of Pitcaple castle and his wife Agnes Ramsay of Balmayne. the old lady said to her:

If a robin redbreast in your home appear,
It is a warning you should heed and fear,
He brings you tidings that a loved one of your ain,
Will journey forth and ne’er come back again.

Years later the Lady Ramsay found a robin on her pillow. She immediately released it but remembered the rhyme the old lady had chanted. She soon received news that Jamie Graham, marquis, Statesman, and General had been taken to the scaffold in Edinburgh. It was still the same at Pitcaple with the robins appearing inside the house to warn of sad news until 1978. The last time a robin appeared inside the house was December 1978. Shortly afterward news came that a cousin had died.

The Sea | top

There was always much superstition surrounding the Sea. A child born on the ebbing tide was considered to be unlucky, and would probably grow up weak and sickly .Certain places and things must not be given their correct name at sea for fear of offending the ‘Good People’. A stranger must not walk over ores or ropes because this would bring bad luck. Certain birds are either good or bad omens if they are seen at sea. When rowing a boat you must start from the right side.

Water | top

Wells, streams, and pools are known to have life preserving properties and healing power. Springs are particularly good as they carry water from the heart of the earth. There were over 600 wells across Scotland that were considered shrines of local water deities at one time. One must circle the well three times and place a silver coin in the water before drinking water from the well.

Deiseil (sun wise) | top

It is a common practice to circle three times diesel, or sun wise, of a place or thing such as a house to bring good fortune and luck. It is to draw down the power of the sun bringing blessings and good health. The sick circle three times around a holy well for health. Fire is carried three times around an infant; Boats are rowed three times jeiseil before a journey toensure good heath and safety.

Moon Phases | top

Everyone carried a lucky penny which they turned over three times in their pocket at the first sight of the new crescent moon. On the waning moon wood was not cut to build boats; willow or hazel were not cut for basket weaving. The wanning moon was however, considered a good time for cutting peat, reaping and plowing the fields. Sowing and planting were done at the waxing of the moon.

Animals | top

In Scotland the serpent signifies wisdom and the Earth spirit. Bulls are linked to fertility

Leprechauns | top

Near a misty stream in Ireland in the hollow of a tree live mystical, magical leprechauns who are clever as can be. With pointed ears, turned up toes and little coats of green, The leprechauns make their shoes, trying hard to ne’er be seen. Only those who really believe have seen these little elves. If you believe and look with your heart, you can see them yourselves.

The Stone of Destiny | top

The 154 kg slab of yellow sandstone with a single Latin cross carved on it sat beneath the throne of Westminster Abby for seven centuries. The stone, known outside Scotland as the “Stone of Scone” on which Scottish Kings had been crowned since time immemorial was brought back to Scotland 700 years after the army of King Edward 1 of England carried it of to England. Now safely ensconced in Edinburgh Castle it is closely guarded.

Samhain | top

The ancient Celtic fall harvest celebration, Samhain, was celebrated in Scotland on November 1st. to mark the beginning of a new cycle of life and the beginning of the Celtic New Year.

Celts and their priests the Druids, members of pagan orders in Britain, Ireland, and Gaul celebrated “Samhain” believing that during the time of “Samhain” the veil separating life from death was at its thinnest. They believed on October 31st, evil spirits and souls of the dearly departed, passed through the veil and visited the world of the living. Celts lit huge bonfires in belief that they would light the way for spirits to find their way into the world of the living. Food was left out to appease the spirits. They believed if food was not left out the spirits would play “evil” tricks on the living in the house. Celts believed they could talk with the spirits of their dead loved ones and that they could see the future.

Druids performed their rituals by offering sacrifices, usually of animals, to placate the gods. They thought the rituals would assure the return of the sun and frighten away evil spirits.

All bonfires except those of the Druids were extinguished on Samhain and households were charged a fee to relight their fires from the holy fire. The Druids fire would burn all through the winter on which sacrifices to the gods would be offered.

Sahman was introduced into Canada and the USA by immigrants from Scotland and Ireland and has evolved into the celebration we now call Halloween. (called mummery in Newfoundland)

Ghouls and goblins and witches on brooms,
Owls and bats all shadowed by doom,
An ancient day of souls, a modern day of fright,
Come and join me this Halloween night!

How Tea Was Discovered | top

According to legend, in 2737 BC the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was boiling water over an open fire when a few leaves from a Camellia (Sin-en-sis) plant fell into the pot of water. The emperor drank the mixture and found it gave him ‘vigor of body, contentment of mind, and determination of purpose’.

Tea Cup Reading | top

The handle represents the client.
The left hand side of the cup represents the past.
The right hand side of the cup represents the future.
The bottom of the cup represents ill fortune at any time.
The top of the cup indicates events that will happen in the near future.
The bottom of the cup represents events distant in time.
Proportion indicates importance. – It indicates if good overcomes evil & vi ca verca.
The message lies in the combination of all the symbols.

YOUR WISH: a flower indicates the wish will be granted.

Saint Patrick | top

Maewyn Succat

It is said that Saint Patrick called (Maewyn Succat at birth) gave a sermon from a hilltop that drove all the snakes from Ireland. Of course, snakes were never native to Ireland. Some say this is a metaphor for the conversion of pagans.

Others claim Patrick raised people from the dead. If this is true or not I do not know.

The Glencoe Folk Proverb | top


In the Scottish highlands there was an ancient custom called”Christmas Begging” passed down through the ages. This custom was especially practiced by the people from Glencoe.

On December 19th the poor would go among their relatives on what was called a Christmas Begging. This is the story of what happened one year on a Christmas Begging when eighteen young men set out in the early morning and met on a pretty grassy hillock called “Lochan Rubha na Coinneimh” (Pond of the Meeting Place) From there they divided up into three groups of six men each departing in different directions with the intention of meeting again in three days time at Lochan Rubha na Coinneimh.

On the third day they met again exchanging stories of their adventures. The eighteen young men deposited all their food and began dividing it up equally. All went well until there was only one cheese rind left. One man suggested it be divided one way …Another man suggested something else a third man gave yet another suggestion. This continued until finally a bloody, deadly fight ensued.

At home the families worried when the young men did not return. Early next morning a search party found the young men. As the search party drew near Lochan Rubha Na Coinneimh they saw people reclining on the banks of the stream. As they drew still nearer they realized the men were not sleeping. The searchers found only one man alive. They carried him home and nursed him night & day but to no avail. The young man died. However, before he died he told the terrible story.

From that day on the place called Lochan Rubha Na Coinneimh, Pond of the Meeting Place Point was called Lochan Na fala, Pond of Blood.


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