Celtic Mythology

July 8, 2009

Scottish Voice- Celtic Mythology
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.

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