To many of us the term myth may not go beyond the notion of fairy or folk tales. Yet I have found an amazing body of serious academic research which seeks to translate, define, understand and interpret many ancient cultural myths. Within this scientific anthropological academia there exists extensive discussion, argument and theory regarding the roles and purposes of myths. My study in this subject begins inevitably with the standard textbook definition of a myth, here taken from the Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia, which is:
“a myth is a sacred story concerning the origins of the world or how the world and the creatures in it came to have their present form. The active beings in myths are generally gods and heroes. Myths take place before time, before history begins. In saying that a myth is a sacred narrative, what is meant is that a myth is believed to be true by people who attach religious or spiritual significance to it. Use of the term by scholars does not imply that the narrative is either true or false”.
This gives an indication that myths lie outside our common notions of time, space, fact or fiction. Myths are an inherent ingredient of common culture with similar traits, such as archetypical individuals (the mother, the saviour, the hero, the trickster ect), they take place within a sacred space or are typically spiritual or religious in nature. As Miranda Green (1993) further states:
“A useful definition involves the perception of a myth as a symbolic story, similar to a parable, a means by which human imagination can express a concept whose meaning is too complex and profound to be conveyed by simple verbal messages.”
The myth also involves aspects of the human imagination. A deeper sub-consciousness enters into the narrative which allows the communication of possibly untranslatable concepts. Green’s definition of myth is in part one aspect of a broader field of research into the subject. She indicates that myths transcend the physical senses and regular human perception of the world. Through symbolism they hold information, concepts, and language beyond the realms and limits of everyday experience. Within more specialized scholarly research there are six main ‘monolithic’ theories or strands of studies followed in defining various myths:
1) The Phenomenic, translated means of describing origins. This includes the creation myths, battles between light and darkness, truth and falsehood.
2) The aetiological, which is proto-scientific and seeks through myths to explain natural occurences and events, examples such as fires, floods, catastophic events.
3) The charters, are myths which define customs, institutions and beliefs.
4) Structural theory, as defined by the anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss in his publications Elemental Structures of Kinship, Structural Anthropology, and The Savage Mind.
5) The Pyschological theories of myth, established by Sigmund Freud, and Carl Gustav Jung.
6) The Ritual theory of myths, which is the connection between myths and formalized rites and their narrative. This theory is expounded most by Walter Burkett in his publications Homo Necans, Savage Energies, Greek Religions, and Ancient Mystery Cults.
One of the most popular strands of research into myth in modern times has been in the field of psychology. Carl Gustav Jung states (in The Structure of The Psyche):
“The whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconcious.”
Jung defined three categories of the Psyche: (1) Consciousness, (2) The Personal Consciousness, and (3) The Collective Consciousness. In his assessment, the latter of this triad of human awareness represents the ancient inherited symbols, meanings and understandings of the physical environment and our place in it. The collective unconsciousness is not individualistic but comon to all, and the basis on which the individual psyche is constructed. As a psychologist, Jung concluded that imbalanced mental states could be studied could be studied and corrected through the collective unconscious of an individual. In other words, it was the belief of Jung that the way an individual see’s is dependent on primordial traits inherited from previous generations, and that these perceptions could be analysed through mythological motifs.
Using Jung’s model of the psyche and definition of mythology it could be said that myth, in terms of the Celtic people is relevent and important in the sense that it provides a definitive connection between the ancestors of the past, both in the written mythological cycles, and those notions of the world which are inherited through a collective ‘genetic’ process. The integral possession of myths and perceptions at all levels of consciousness allow a passageway to meditation and reflection on the human state in the environment, universe and greater cosmos. This provides the opportunity of understanding past mistakes, failures, successes, and strengths, allowing a possible range of choices to ultimately define and mold the path of life. To harmonize, maintain balance, preserve acceptable notions of truth within the land and community.
The concluding importance of myths, pointed out by Joseph Campbell is that they allow a greater perspective on life, they permit the ability to compare, provide pieces of information that have supported generations of human life, created systems and civilizations, interpreted great mysteries and rites of passage. Myths are the paths and guidelines which enable choices, and conect us with our predeccesors. Without the value of these myths we become alienated, dislocated, arrogant, and dysfunctional. Ultimately with the loss of an essential community (of which myths provide the ‘glue’) comes a wandering disorganization, criminal activity, lack of mutual respect, and relationships.
For the modern Celtic-Druidic movement myths are a potentially powerful tool for reviving and revitalizing their community. It has the capacity to build connections, partnerships and mutual benefits, with the collective ancient myths used as a bond of strength, instruction and comparison. The benefits are increased sense of spirituality, physical and mental well-being, deeper ecological, environmental and universal understanding.
The literal interpretation of myths as concrete forms becomes a barrier to a greater transcendental experience, the ultimate experience of primal energies and eternal truth’s, albeit in symbolic and/or metaphorical terms. Carl Jung said:
“Religion is a defense against the experience of God”.
Where religion is composed of a set of dogmatic laws or rules extracted from the primary mythic sources and designed to be followed on pain of some equally rigid punishment. The experience of God represents the active, conscious participation in a divine stream of illumination, or unseen source of knowledge. The anthropromorphization of myths is an attempt to fix them in terms of time, space, and truth regardless of the infinite, eternal narrative which allows for inspiration and open dialog.
Mythic forms should be interpreted in a more abstract form (with the text providing the substance or meat of the experience), elemental, the powers of (human) nature, primal energies of earth and creative forces. Taken literally myths can present an extreme and distorted view of the world – since no myth can in fact be validated by scientific analysis they exist essentially outside of the normal perceptions of time and space, they are the complex inner narratives of human existence exposed for their beauty and significance. Literal interpretation may be likened to building a strong wall around something unsubstantial or without a bodily form, the enclosure becomes inpenetrable and self-decieving, an accepted belief or notion which an individual or community must continously struggle to defend against all reason and/or logic. Christian theologists developed a special science called Apologetics to defend their literal interpretation of mythic events in the Bible and their cosmology and worldview. This process of aggressive defense is in reality an entrenched fundamentalist isolationism fuelled by fractured perceptions. The movement to defend the literal belief in the creation of the world by a particular God (or Creationism) presents an endless, argumentative duality without any possible resolution when opposed by the rationality of evolutionary science which seeks to disprove the belief. Some Christian scholars and theologists have attempted to find a ‘third-way’ to this dilemma, and with some success, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin whose unique blend of science, theology, history, religious-mysticism and myth are inspiring:
“Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God……… The man who is wholly talen up with the demands of everyday living or whose sole interest is in the outward appearences of things seldom gains more than a glimpse, at best, of this second phase in our sense perceptions………a very dim awareness of that aureole, thrilling and inundating……..disclosed to us at every point of contact the unique essence of the universe.”
The anthropologist Mircea Eliade has also defined and investigated the third-way-path of myth and spirituality amongst traditional tribal communities. In his book Myth and Reality he concluded his studies with several important observations and definitions, that many myths are concerned with the genesis or creation of the world and things in it, and that myth represents the ‘truest’ of all stories. The structure of myths serve as models for human behaviour in traditional societies, and periodically re-enacted in the form of sacred rituals of confirmation – connecting the participants to the individuals to the community to nature to divine forces, and ancestors in a total, complex but dynamic gesture.
The Nature and Sources of Celtic Myths.
Although there are three main sources of Celtic mythology and cultural information (the classical, vernacular, and archeological), within that scope there exists a further three branches of tradition, being the Goidelic (composed of Irish, Scottish, and the Isle of Man), the Insular Brythonic (composed of the Welsh and Cornish), and the Continental Brythonic (composed of the Gaulish-French and Brittanic). The latter classification points to the fact that the Celtics were not a homogenous people with a centralized governing structure but a loose confederation of tribes which collectively inhabited regions stretching out from eastern Europe across the west to Ireland. Similarities occur, but also differences in terms of language (the so called ‘P and Q Celtic), cultural and cosmological beliefs, rituals, regional Gods and Goddesses and varied creation myths.
The study of Celtic mythology may also be made more complex by the various phases and influences that Celtic culture has been through. Beliefs and rituals may have developed and changed as the basic culture expanded through the Paleolithic, to the neolithic and Iron-age cultures of La Tene and Hallstat, thereafter splitting up into differing strands of traditions with Celtic tribal expansion. Changes in the mythologies occurred with their transcription by monks in the transitionery phase of the Christian era, revision and redaction were primary concerns of the scribes who whilst concerned with preserving the rich Celtic traditions and myths also attempted to ‘temper’ the tales in line with a monotheistic faith. In the modern age there is an added dilemma of actually translating older technical terms and meanings of a substantially older form of the gaelic language, which significantly points to the fact that just as a culture develops and changes so does it’s language, myths and perceptions of the world.
The one primary obstacle in researching and reading Celtic myths and religion in a Pagan, pre-Christian format is the fact that ostensibly Celtic society was literate only in an oral based tradition. For the most part Pagan Celts and Druids were disinclined to write down their myths, traditions and beliefs. In essence all written evidence is regarded as secondary information and indirect, much based on the observations of outsiders. The main classical sources of information on the Celts and their myths are of Roman origin and dated between 50 BCE to 300 CE with Ceasar (mid 1st BCE), Strabo (late 1st BCE to early 1st CE), Diodorus Siculus (60-30 CE), Lucan (1st CE), and Dio Cassius (late 2nd to early 3rd CE). These sources provide information on varied rituals, the Druids role and practise in Celto-Gallic society, beliefs, divination, human sacrifice, the preservation of human heads, death, and the ‘other-world.’
The vernacular sources, the transcription of oral legends and myths in colloquial and local languages (other than Latin or Greek) began in the 5th to the 6th Centuries CE by Christian scholar monks, particularly in Ireland. Most of the surviving manuscripts date from the 12th CE, representing copies of earlier pieces, although many scholars believe that the material recorded depicts a much earlier phase of Celtic society, at least pre 5th CE. In the Irish vernacular tradition there are four main collections of prose tales taken to be of special interest and importance in Celtic studies:
The ‘Leabhar Gabhala Erren’ or Book of Invasions. The charted history of Ireland and its inhabitants, with general geneologies, tribes, origins, battles and invasions. From this book many Celtic scholars have derived a primal Irish-Gaelic creation myth.
The ‘Dinnshenchus’ or History of Places. This manuscript descibes the notions, origins and meanings of many Irish place-names and their associated mythologies, it is an indispensable aid to the study of Celtic-Irish mythology.
The ‘Leabhar na h’Uidre’ or Book of the Dun Cow. Composed by 3 monks at Clanmacnois in County Offaly in 1106, it is also known as ‘The Ulster Cycle.’ This manuscript contains the epic ‘Tain bo Culaigne’ or Cattle Raid of Cooley, an epic quest for the possession of two mystical bulls.
The Fionn Cycle. This book charts the character, life, exploits and adventures of the Irish Celtic hero Fion mac Cumhail and his war band, called the Fianna.
The Welsh mythological tradition is more sparsely documented when compared to the Irish. The principle text for study is the Pedair Ceinc y Mabinogi or the Four Branches if the Mabinogi. This collection of stories is preserved in two medieval manuscripts; The White Book of Rhydderch 1300, and The Red Book of Hergest of the late 1400’s. The tales are rich in Celtic symbolism and mythology; a pagan ‘underworld’ ruled by Prince Annwn, a cauldron with the magical capacity to bring dead warriors back to life, metamorphosis and shape-changing, and the living head of the decapitated Bran buried at Tower Hill in London. Within the continental Gaelic tradition there is the Barzaz Briez or ‘The Plaints of Brittany’ which is a collected volume of ancient folk tales, legends and songs of Brittany by Theodore Hersart de la Villemarque in 1839. This contains the story of the mystical city of Ys, which was consumed by the sea.
The most recent method of investigating the nature and origins of Celtic myth use the science of archeology. This can provide valuable evidence and insight into the material culture of the Celts, ritual behaviour, sanctuaries and sacred places used for votive offerings to deities. One recent and interesting archeological project has been the Das Grab des Kelten-Fursten or ‘The Celtic Cheiftains Grave’ at Eberdingin-Hochdorf in Germany. A full scale and extensive excavation of the site has revealed a great deal of information on a Celtic Prince circa 580 BCE.
Myth and Poetry in Celtic Society
In Irish Gaelic society myth and the telling of tales was the sole responsibility of a special category of Druid, offically called the ‘Filidh’ and the ‘Baird.’ These individuals commanded great respect and were entitled to immense privelages. The Filidh underwent an extended and detailed course of learning over a period of 12 years, learning all rules of grammer, texts and the memorisation of a considerable corpus of texts; at least 250 prime tales, and 100 secondary stories. The Bard was lesser in status to the filidh, and an Irish text comments; “Bard dano; fer gin dliged foglama acht inntlicht fadesin.” Or “A bard is a person without a proper education, but one who possesses intellect.”
An Irish text called the Auricept na N’Eces or ‘The Scholars Primer’ gives valuable information regarding the grade structure of the Filidh. There were seven grades: Ollamh, Anruth, Cli, Cano, Dos, Macfuirmid, and Fochloc. There were also three sub-grades of Taman, Drisiuc, and Oblaire. The highest rank, that of Ollamh, could be equated with the modern equivelant of Professor or Doctor (of Poetry). The memorisation of texts included a wide range of mythological categories: Togla or Destructions, Ta-Na or Cattle-Raids, Tochmarca or Courtships, Catha or Battles, Fessa or Feasts, Echtrai or Adventures, Athid or Elopements, Airgne or Slaughters, Tomadma or Erruptions, Fi-Si or Visions, Serca or Loves, Sluigid or Expeditions, and Tochomlada or Invasions.
Within these categories there exist several myhtic archetypes which are universally held by most cultures, and these include; sun, sky and moon, healing and fertility, fire, thunder and mountains, land and water, animals and zoomorphism, festivals, sacrifice and ritual, death, rebirth and otherworlds. Being a principally polytheistic culture the predominant and over-riding belief was in the numinous spiritual properties of all things, gods, goddesses, spirits, ancestors and spiritual energy was an inherent aspect of the Celtic cosmos and world. On a simpler level, the Celtic myths reflected the triadic nature of their cosmological beliefs, that is, of the earth, sea and sky: of actions and adventures, of history, geneology and ancestors, and of the Gods, Goddesses and magic.
Myths work for us only when we accept them on their symbolic value, and use them to enlighten aspects of our deeper sub-conscious. Taken literally they enslave us into the belief that we must conform to a pre-designed set of morals and ethics. Religion is the grave-stone of myth, and the deepest appreciation that we can hold for the ancient tale is simply the enjoyment of the lyrical flight of words as poetry, like a butterfly that shimmers before us, giving a brief glimpse of something more profound.
'I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience.And to forge in the smithy of my soul,the uncreated conscience of my race.'—James Joyce
Myth: Problems of Definition:
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Myth:
Claude Levi Strauss: The Structural Study of Myth:
A Review of Walter Burkert’s Homo Necans (The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth):
Das Grab des KeltenFursten (The Celtic Chieftains Grave at Hochdorf):