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Prior to Roman or Christian influence the Celts preferred to pass on their sacred teachings and myths orally. After the coming of Christianity in the fifth century onwards, the monks recorded the myths, and it is thanks to them that so many survive today.

One might expect Christian monks to have qualms about recording pagan tales, but this does not seem to have been the case. St Patrick, who brought Christianity to Ireland in 432, had his doubts about the old stories until he received a vision in which he was told to respect and record them.

Deities

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

The god Lugh

We can see this ‘euhemerization’ clearly in the case of the god Lugh, who gives his name to the Irish summer festival of Lughnasadh. In the earliest Irish myths he is clearly a deity. As such, he offers himself as the saviour of the Tuatha dé Danann, the predecessors of the Milesians or Gaels. Seeking entry at the palace of King Nuada of the Silver Hand, at Tara, he announces each of his skills in turn – ‘Blacksmith, warrior, musician, poet, scholar …’. Each time he is refused 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 myths, Lugh has become the much more human Lleu Llaw Gyfes, nephew (and possibly son) of the magician Gwydion. He is skilled, and protected by charms, but he is 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 myths of the Tuatha dé Danann. Like Lugh, he is powerful and omnicompetent. Yet he is often represented as a rather comic figure whose short tunic fails to cover his buttocks, and whose huge club has to be carried on wheels. He has great magical powers, and he possesses a harp which comes to him when he calls, and a cauldron of abundance which restores dead warriors to life (but without powers of speech, perhaps in case they say too much about the afterlife).

Battersea shield
Above: the Battersea shield, found in the Thames

Celtic cross

Early Celtic cross at Dysert O'Dea, Co. Claire. Christian monks wrote down the pagan myths.

Pillarstone on the Hill of Tara

View across the Hill of Tara, showing a pillarstone said to be the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, on which Kings of Ireland were crowned. It was said to roar if a rightful king stood on it.
To the left is a burial mound, or sidhe, regarded by the Celts as a gateway to the Otherworld inhabited by the Tuatha dé Danann.

Point at image for view in opposite direction

Cerne Abbas Giant
Right: the Cerne Abbas Giant: a club-wielding fertility god associated with the Dagda

Goddesses

Powerful though these gods were, the Celtic goddesses were perhaps even more so. They were closely associated with the land, and in this identification they sometimes seem to be aspects of a single all-embracing Goddess. Their link to the seasonal cycles, to fertility and death, may partly account for the fact that a single goddess often takes three forms, or aspects – usually maiden, mother and crone.

Celtic goddesses could be life-giving and sustaining, but were also, in their dark aspect, associated with sex and death, which in Celtic terms are part of the round of life. The most powerful Irish example is the red-haired shape-shifting Morrigan, said to have coupled with the Dagda.

Sources of the myths

The surviving Celtic myths come from Scotland and Ireland, which were at one time closely related, from Wales (though many of these originated orally further east), and from Brittany. No myths survive from Romanized areas, such as Gaul on the Continent. They do not appear to have been written down in Latin.

The greatest body of myth comes from Ireland, which was untouched by the Romans, although much of its mythic material was destroyed by Viking marauders. An Irish myth, ‘The Harp of the Dagda’ is given below.

Cover image

The Harp of the Dagda

This story concerns the most ancient Irish Celtic gods, the first generation of the Tuatha dé Danaan who had to fight off the giant races of the Firbolgs and the Formorians. Their history 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.

The Dagda himself was known as the Good God and he was chief of the gods at this time. Besides his cauldron, he had a harp which was battle-scarred and made of oak. It was covered in rich decorations including a double-headed fish which ran up and down the curved pillar and had jewels for its eyes. Although he had a harper, Uaithne, he could also play it himself.

The Dagda had this harp with him always 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, together with his harper, had been captured by the Formorians and taken with them in their flight. Angered beyond measure, he set out with his son Aengus Og to reclaim it.

Stealthily they approached the Formorian camp. Soon they could hear the sounds of the feasting hall in which Bres, the Formorian king, was dining. Approaching the doorway, they could just make out through the smoke and candle-flame the outline of the old harp hanging on the wall. Then the Dagda entered boldly and summoned his harp with this chant:

Come Daurdabla, apple-sweet murmurer
Come, Coir-cethair-chuir, four-angled frame of harmony,
Come summer, come winter,
Out of the mouths of harps and bags and pipes!

Immediately the old harp flew to his hand across the hall, killing nine men as it came. A shocked hush fell on the company. In the silence the Dagda laid his hands on the strings and unleashed the Three Noble Strains of Ireland that he had bound into his harp. First he played the goltrai, or strain of weeping, so that all present began to mourn and lament their defeat. Then he played the geantrai, the strain of merriment, so that the company turned to laughter and drunken foolery. Lastly he played the suantrai, or sleep-strain, whereupon the warriors fell into a profound slumber. After this the Dagda and Aengus Og left the camp as quietly as they had come, taking Uaithne and the harp with them.

Commentary

The Tuatha de Danann

The Tuatha dé Danann were the children of the great goddess Dana. They are depicted as magical fairy people who were later overrun by the Milesians who allowed them to reside underground in the sidhe, or fairy mounds. They were traditionally believed to have arrived like a mist, but this is a poetic reflection of the fact that they ritually burned their boats on landing in Ireland so that they could never leave.

The Dagda

The Dagda was the chief of the Tuatha but, because he is much coarser than their other gods, he might be a remnant of a much older deity. His antiquity is demonstrated by the fact that he carried a great club. At the same time, like Lugh, he claimed to be multi-skilled. This is indicated by his name, the Good God: to the Celts, ‘good’ meant skilled, and the Dagda is depicted as being a master of music along with a range of other magical and warrior attributes.

He also had a prodigious appetite and earlier in the Battle of Moyturah was forced by the Formorians to eat a huge amount of porridge which had been prepared in his own cauldron. Undaunted, he ate the lot, after which his stomach was so distended that his tunic no longer covered it.

The Dagda can be seen as an ancient father-god who was symbolically linked to the great mother goddess through his great cauldron of regeneration. (The Dagda’s cauldron became a forerunner of the Arthurian Holy Grail.) Being multi-skilled, he also demonstrates the Celtic understanding that gods were not limited to a single skill or attribute.

The Three Noble Strains

These relate to the three sons that Uaithne, the Dagda’s harper, fathered on the Goddess Boann. She gave birth to the oldest, Goltraiges, in great pain, to the second, Gentraiges, in joy, while, after the third one, Suantres, she became heavy with fatigue. All three were harpers and became representative of the three main effects, or strains, of music.

The power of music

Music was of great importance to the Celts because they believed it had the power to enchant. The names of the Three Noble Strains end in trai, which means enchanter. Music could therefore magically summon or control emotion. It could also take the hearer into a place of dream and vision or bring the soothing of forgetfulness. It was an integral part of the Otherworld.

The sound of beautiful music greeted the entry of every hero into this realm, often being produced by magical birds. Magical birds also attended the silver-stringed harp of Aengus Og who used it, like Apollo, to charm them. For the harp was considered particularly magical. It was often owned and played by gods. It was the favoured accompaniment for telling the old tales, being able to conjure all the different moods as well as to accompany the vocal declamations of poetry. Thus every bard was expected to be skilled on it. Later, broken-stringed, the harp came to symbolize the sorrows of Ireland. Its magical music also retreated, along with the Tuatha, into the sidhe. Some evocative Irish music today is said to have come from tunes overheard in fairy revels.

Adapted from Teach Yourself Celtic Myths

River Boyne

The River Boyne, where the Dagda is said to have coupled with the Morrigan. Nearby is the burial mound of Newgrange; its swirling artwork (below) may have been influenced by the swirling of the Boyne.

Newgrange entrance patterns

Brian Boru harp

The 'Brian Boru' harp, Trinity College, Dublin

Gundestrup cauldron

The Gundestrup cauldron

Gundestrup cauldron detail

The Dagda (?), appears to plunge a warrior into a cauldron, perhaps restoring him to life. (Gundestrup cauldron)