Celtic myths Celtic Legends

RJ. Stewont



First published 1996 by Blandford a Cassell imprint

Wellington House 125 Strand London WC2R OBB

Previously published in hardback 1994

Reprinted 1995

Text copyright © R.J. Stewart 1994 and 1996 Colour illustrations copyright © Courtney Davis Line drawings copyright © Sarah Lever

The moral rights of the author have been asserted

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the copyright holder and Publisher.

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British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 0-7137-2621-0

Typeset by Litho Link Ltd., Welshpool, Powys, Wales Printed and bound in Spain by Bookpnnt S.L. Barcelona





1 BRAN AND BRANWEN (Wales) Page 15

2 THE WOOING OF ETAIN (Ireland) Page 25

3 THE CURSE OF MACHA (Ireland) Page 3 7

4 lI DONT KNOW: THE TALE OF N'OUN-DOARE (Brittany) Page 43




8 MERLIN, OLD AND YOUNG (Wales) Page 107

9 TAM LIN, OR THE GAME OF CHESS (Scotland) Page 123 10 THE WOOING OF EMER (Ireland) Page 135



INDEX Page 159

Celtic Scabbard

the CoYoun \llustnat\ons

1 The Sacrifice of Llew The Flower Maiden, Bloduedd, contrives the ritual death of Llew Llaw Gyffes.

2 Brigit The goddess Brigit, who represents the power of fire, light and transformation.

3 Branwen Branwen, imprisoned in Ireland, sends a starling with a message for her brother Bran.

4 Bran The giant Bran wades with his fleet to attack Ireland to avenge his sister Branwen.

5 Etain The fairy woman Etain steps from the Otherworld into the realm of mortals, to be greeted by Eochaid, the king of Erin.

6 Macha Races Against the Horses Macha runs her race unwillingly, and gives birth to twins as a result.

7 The Golden Ram Castle The King of the Underworld guards the entrance to the castle of the Golden Ram Princess.

8 The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn The hero Cuchulainn is scourged with whips by fairy women.

9 Old Merlin The aged Merlin waits deep in a rock for the right time to return.

10 Young Merlin The boy Merlin, with his mother, confronts the usurper Vortigern.

11 Tam Lin Tam Lin undergoes a series of shape-changes as his lover Janet liberates him from the power of the Queen of Fairy.


'The Game of Chess' in Chapter 9 is reprinted (with some changes) from my Magical Tales, first published in 1990 by Aquarian Press. All the other stories are based on sources given in the Bibliography, where they are listed under the relevant chapters.

I would like to acknowledge the advice and generous help of John and Caitlin Matthews and the prodigious typing of Sian Barrie and Julie Timbrell. Inspiration and support came from Robert and Lorraine Henry in Ulster, with visits to ancient sites and sources of Celtic tradition and literature.

The line illustrations were specially drawn for this book by Sarah Lever.


This is not a strictly academic set of translations but a wide-ranging collection of themes from Celtic myths and legends. Some of the tales are translated directly from Irish, Breton or Welsh, and some from Latin or medieval French. Others are written anew from ideas or older tales that embody Celtic myths.

The individual items range historically from extracts of early sagas that seem to come from the time of bronze weapons (though not written down by Irish monks until the eighth century) to my own twentieth-century versions of classic Celtic tales. Between these elder and younger voices is a wealth of material from folklore, manuscript, and various books and collections that use Celtic myths in either an academic or an imaginative way. Some of the source texts and academic commentaries are listed in the Bibliography, as are suggestions for further reading into the imaginative power and potential of Celtic tradition.

In Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses I described some of the major and minor Celtic deities, their attributes, ceremonies and worship, powers and traditions, and the ways in which they might have an inspirational poetic or visionary value for us today. In Celtic Myths, Celtic Legends I have gathered tales that seem to carry the Celtic tradition through time, offering something of the beauty and savagery, the spirituality and sensuousness, of the Celtic ancestors and their modern descendants.

There is a tendency in modern revivals of Celtic lore and legend towards prettiness - a falsely romantic approach that conveniently ignores the harsh and often violent nature of Celtic tradition. While I have not hesitated to include some of the more romantic themes, at the same time I have not tried to omit the battles, the vengeance, the cruelty. Without these hard edges, beauty and inspiration can become insipid, and lose its value.

The main sources of material in this collection are as follows:

1 Celtic literature from historically defined collections and manuscripts. These are quoted from various translations, and have been edited or sometimes completely rewritten for this book.

2 Interpretations and reworkings of Celtic myths and legends through the centuries by various writers, also quoted and occasionally rewritten.

3 Folklore, traditional ballads and traditional tales. This third category is an important and often ignored source of Celtic myths and legends, even in the present century.

The book is not, however, arranged in these three categories or sections; rather, the stories are gathered together in an order designed either to contrast or to link with one another, regardless of their varied sources.

Two particular themes emerge from this net of myths and legends. One is the presence or re-emergence of the Great Goddess, known by many names in Celtic tradition, from the blood-drenched Morrighu (Morrigan) to the shining Brigit and the mysterious Queen of Elfland. The other is the paradoxical role of the hero, at once warrior, buffoon and willing sacrifice for all. A third theme, woven in between the other two, is that of love triumphing, sometimes mercilessly, over all opposition.

Celtic tradition and culture, essentially pagan, seem to have provided fertile ground for early Christianity in northern Europe, long before — dogmatism and suppression crept in. Many Celtic legends have The St Andrews Christian and pagan themes interlaced: perhaps the most important of

Sarcophagus, Scotland. these are the Grail texts, and the massive body of Arthurian literature.

Some of this fusion is found in a few of the stories in here, particularly with the idea of the old religion as foster-mother or spiritual parent to the new. This fostering is often repugnant to political religion, but contains a deep insight into the Celtic psyche, which is inclusive and protean rather than dogmatic and rigid.

So, here are some of the adventures of the Celtic gods and goddesses, the queens and powerful women, the heroes, the saints and madmen, the fools and lovers.

Author's Note to the Reader

The spelling and language found in each story

The myths and legends offered here in translation come from a variety of languages and include several variant spellings in any one language; this is particularly true of the Irish sources. I have not attempted to standardize the spellings throughout and nor have I sought one 'pure* spelling in preference to any others. Readers should simply enjoy the legend, taking the names at face value as they are found in each story.

There is a tendency in some of the older translations of Celtic texts to use a medieval 'courtly1 tone, including phrases and words that were not in the originals, as such English-language conventions had not developed at the time of the tales1 transformations from oral Celtic languages into written Latin, Irish, Gaelic, Breton, French and so forth. In some cases I have simplified and edited this genteel or antiquarian approach and modernized the text; in others I have let it remain. The reader, though, needs to be aware that the medieval courtly ambience of certain stories is purely an invention of the original translator. In some sources, however (such as The Mabinogion), there is a rich mixture of true medieval with ancient Welsh and Irish poetic or bardic conventions, themes and phrases, as these tales were first written down in the medieval period, even though they were drawn from a much older stratum of story-telling.

The blac\ and white illustrations

The drawings located throughout the book show a variety of sites and artefacts connected with Celtic tradition, and many are specifically Celtic, ranging from Bronze Age items through to the art of the Celtic early Christian Church. Some are of megalithic sites and objects, predating the Celts by many years but playing a strong role in Celtic myths and legends through the centuries.

Gaelic Myths Legends
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  • tranquillina
    Why are there so many celtic myths and legends?
    8 years ago

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