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What is Celtic Folklore?

By Antonia Čirjak February 02 2020

Fantasy magic Isle of the blessed, Avalon: based on Celtic mythology.
Fantasy magic Isle of the blessed, Avalon: based on Celtic mythology.

Celtic folklore, or Celtic mythology, is the mythology of the Iron Age Celts. The Celts cultivated polytheistic mythology, meaning they believed in the existence of multiple gods. The word Celt is not easy to define since it is used to signify multiple cultures and groups. Although people often imagine the Celts as a single, centralized culture, this is a mistake.

Celts never used that name to refer to themselves; they used tribal names such as Cantii, Brigantes, Arverni, or Belgae. Each of those had its own cultural and behavioral patterns, and they were connected only by the same language - the Celtic language. Once we cross that connection, there is a lot of disagreements about the Celts and their Folklore among scholars.  

An Overview Of Celtic Folklore

The Celtic world spanned across the majority of western and central Europe, but it was never unified under a single banner or name. The people living there didn’t have one cultural identity, and that’s why the religious beliefs and practices greatly varied. A lot of gods had their counterparts in Roman religion, and they were mostly worshipped as tribal gods. However, with closer examination, there are certain similarities between different beliefs, that aren’t as obvious at first.

Celtic folklore can be divided into multiple subgroups that correspond to different branches of the Celtic language in most cases. By examining archaeological sources, we have discovered the existence of what we refer to as the Ancient Celtic Religion.

A different branch is a mythology in Goidelic languages, which can be further divided into Irish and Scottish Gaelic mythology. Irish mythology is known to be divided into four great cycles, the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle, and finally, the Cycles of the Kings. Another branch of Celtic folklore is the mythology in Brittonic languages, with its three subgroups - the Welsh, Cornish, and Breton mythology.

Irish And Welsh Folklore

Irish folklore is the oldest collection of myths found from the early medieval period. The material that survived the passing of time deals, mostly, with the mythical battle of Mag Tuireadh and some historical texts. One of the critical figures of Irish folklore is Dagda, who is the leader of the gods. All human males and other gods were based on him. He embodied the ideal traits of a human, according to the Irish. Dagda was powerful, although he was often depicted as cracking jokes, some even at his own expense. Another important figure is the Morrigan, which is often depicted as a trio of sisters that function as a single deity.

Some other important gods featured in Irish folklore are Lugh, Brigid, Abell, and Macha, just to name a few. Welsh (or British) mythology is not as well known as that of Ireland. A significant body of work is a collection of stories called the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Several important characters appear there by name, such as Teyrnon, Rhiannon, and Bran the Blessed. A lot of the characters in these stories are considered to be derived from other mythologies, such as the Indo-European.

It is tough to construct a meaningful narrative since we don’t have the necessary knowledge about the Welsh folklore. What we do know is that the bits and pieces that we’ve been able to salvage have been used in various literary works that ended up being important for giving a detailed view of life and culture in Wales during the Middle Ages.     

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