When you think of the Celts, you think of epic legends, y0u think of mysticism and lore, and, of course, you think of all those amazing stories.
Celtic tales are known as long, twisting sagas of heroes and heroines, of feats of strength and battles of wit.
*Fun fact: Many of the surviving tales have remarkable resemblances to themes, stories and even names in the tales of the Indian Vedas, written in Sanskrit at the start of the first millennium BC*
The Celts held the word so sacred that it was forbidden in their culture to write anything down; therefore, their stories were memorized and passed from person to person, generation to generation through oral storytelling. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Christian monks that the Celts’ stories were finally penned.
Their stories, however, were censored by the monks to the point some scholars argue what we know of the myths and legends of the Celts today is highly fragmentary. Other historians argue just as vehemently that it is possible to discern the true Celtic mythology behind the Christianized tales regardless of any censorship.
There are many, many well-known Celtic stories. One popular tale is that of King Arthur. Everyone knows this one. But what you may not know is that the real Arthur was a sixth-century warlord who fought against the Anglo-Saxons for his people’s freedom. The Celts would tell their stories of his bravery, even after his eventual defeat. Throughout the centuries, the historical details of Arthur became lost, and were soon replaced by the bards’ creative imaginings. And so, King Arthur was born.
Another popular story is of the time-honored romance of Tristan and Iseult. This is centered on the traditional Celtic elopement tale and features Iseult, the King of Cornwall’s new wife, running away with her lover Tristan, the King’s nephew. Hmm…this does sound familiar, doesn’t it? There are literally thousands of tales loosely based on this original theme. Hollywood has given us many examples of elopement tales, one being the obvious, “Tristan + Isolde,” of course, but another is the movie, “Troy,” in which Helen, the Queen of Sparta, runs away from her husband, the king, to be with Paris, one of the princes of Troy.
Finally, one of the most popular Celtic heroes was Finn, or Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Legends have it that he was the leader of the Fianna Eireann, and is described as being tall, fair-haired, and handsome. In typical hero fashion he is credited with such traits as strength, courage and visionary wisdom. As is true for the Arthurian Sagas, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of tales of Finn and his Fianna, their battles and their romances.
“Celtic mythology, the legends and oral storytelling tradition, constitute one of the brightest gems of European culture. It is both unique and dynamic. It is a mythology and folklore which should be as well-known and valued as its sister Indo-European cultures of Greece and Rome. Perhaps it should be prized that much more because it gives us a direct path back to the dim origins of civilisation in this part of the world.” – Peter Berresford Ellis
So, talk to me. What is your favorite Arthurian tale? Do you know of any Finn Mac Cumhaill stories? Which Celtic myths or legends are your favorites?