Celtic Mythology

II ODAY PEOPLE OF CELTIC DESCENT IN Europe are concentrated on its • western shores. They live chiefly in Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Ireland. At one time, however, the Celts were spread over a large part of the Continent, and in 278 BC one roving band even penetrated as far east as Asia Minor, where they gave their name to Galatia. Until the rise of Roman power, the Celts were a force to be reckoned with. Rome itself had been sacked by them in 385 BC, a historical fact not forgotten by the legionaries who gave Julius Caesar victory between 59 and 49 BC over the Celtic tribes living in Gaul, present-day France. Although largely incorporated into the Roman Empire, the Celts continued to worship their own gods and goddesses right up to the time of the official adoption by the Romans of the Christian faith. Then their religion and mythology waned in importance, except where people remembered tales about the Celtic gods and heroes of the past. Even in distant Ireland, an island that was never under Roman control, the influence of Christianity was soon felt. But here conversion did not mean the wholesale destruction of the Celtic heritage, for monks took great care from the fifth century onwards to write down the ancient sagas.

To this remarkable effort of preservation we owe almost our entire knowledge of Celtic mythology. For except in Wales, where a small group of stories was recorded, nothing else was ever committed to writing. The Celts always distrusted script and preferred to rely on speech and properly trained memories.

In Ireland the poet was held in particular esteem. Possibly because there was a clear distinction there between druid and poet in pre-Christian times. The newly-founded monasteries could therefore undertake the work of recording the ancient texts without any fear I

of paganism. It seems that poets went on reciting the sagas long after St Patrick converted the Irish and cleared the country of snakes, because these tales were seen as entertainment. Irish folklore insists, however, that they kept something of their magic, since the Devil could never enter a house where the exploits of the heroes were being sung.

Branwen was a classic Celtic heroine who remained calm and dignified under pressure. A falsely slandered wife, she was forced to suffer unjustly, until rescued by her brother, Bran the Blessed. (Branwen byGSherringham, canvas, c. ¡920.)

Branwen was a classic Celtic heroine who remained calm and dignified under pressure. A falsely slandered wife, she was forced to suffer unjustly, until rescued by her brother, Bran the Blessed. (Branwen byGSherringham, canvas, c. ¡920.)

Branwen Celtic

Irish myths nearly always include fighting, though the combat is undertaken more often by heroes than by gods. The fearless warrior Cuchulainn, the lone defender of Ulster during the invasion of forces raised by Queen Medb of Connacht, is very much the ideal. He was chosen as the Irish champion after a beheading contest with the water giant Uath. No other man had courage enough to receive the giant's return blow. Yet Cuchalainn, "the Hound of Culann", enjoyed but a brief life; his refusal to return the affections of Morrigan, the goddess of slaughter, sealed his fate. Not even the intervention of his father Lugh, the sun god, could save him.

The apparently endless conflict appears less terrible when it is recalled how the Celts believed in reincarnation. Their otherworld, unlike the Greek or Roman underworld, was not a dismal abode of the dead. Rather it was a paradise in which souls rested prior to their rebirth in the world. The warrior-poet Oisin, son of the Fenian leader Finn MacCool, spent three hundred years there before returning to Ireland. Oisin was warned that he would never be able to go back to the underworld if he dismounted from a magic steed. When the saddle slipped and he fell to the ground, Oisin was immediately changed from a handsome youth into a blind, grey-haired, withered old man. Only St Patrick is said to have bothered to listen to his fantastic story as it was being written down.

The interest of St Patrick in the adventures of Oisin and, indeed in the exploits of many other heroes of old, is obviously a later embellishment, but it does indicate a degree of tolerance not readily found elsewhere in Christian Europe. Yet saints in Ireland could curse as well as anyone else when the occasion demanded. For instance, the troublesome King Suibhne Geilt was cursed by St Ronan for his violence towards the faith, and

Irish Boar

Heroic combat was c feature of Celtic culture and myth. Champms, sucfc as Cvckulamn, fought to the imth, often defending their ckn dm. The warriors here wear hdmets with boar and raven motifs; symbol of ferocity and death.

(cvndesthup cauldron. gilded silver, c. 100 BC )

Heroic combat was c feature of Celtic culture and myth. Champms, sucfc as Cvckulamn, fought to the imth, often defending their ckn dm. The warriors here wear hdmets with boar and raven motifs; symbol of ferocity and death.

(cvndesthup cauldron. gilded silver, c. 100 BC )

spent the rest of his life with the characteristics of a bud, leaping from tree to tree and eadag at nights nothing but watercress.

In lite Celtic mythology, especially the Arthurian myths, Christianity has become a central element. The quest for die Grail is the most obvious example. Although similar to a Celtic magic cauldron, this holy vessel, was the cup used at the Last Supper and, at the Crucifixion, the one that received the blood which flowed from the spear thrust in Christ's side. It was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, but was later lost and its quest: preoccupied King Arthur's knights. Only Sir Galahad was pure enough to be granted, a foil vision of the Grail, which he took as- "Our Lord's body between his hands".

Whether or not Arthur was a historical

Atlantic Ocean

Images Religious Ocean Celtics
Black Sea

Atlantic Ocean

Famous Celtic Mythology

Merlin and Nimue represent opposite poles of the Celtic otherworld. Merlin, in the tradition of Celtic druids, guided his king, Arthur, with wisdom and foresight; while Nimue, his enchantress, symbolized the threatening powers of the otherworld. (The Beguiling of Merlin by E Burne Jones, canvas, c. 1870-74.)

Arthur and his Christian Fellowship of Knights probably derived from the earlier Welsh warlord Arthur, who journeyed to the otherworld with his warband in search of a wondrous cauldron. Here, the Knights of the Round Table experience the Grail vision for the first time, amid divine light and splendour. (Manuscript illustration, c. 1470.)

Merlin and Nimue represent opposite poles of the Celtic otherworld. Merlin, in the tradition of Celtic druids, guided his king, Arthur, with wisdom and foresight; while Nimue, his enchantress, symbolized the threatening powers of the otherworld. (The Beguiling of Merlin by E Burne Jones, canvas, c. 1870-74.)

figure is still uncertain. It is quite likely that he may have been a successful warlord in the confused and violent period following the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain around 410 AD, That his myth blames the ultimate victory won by the Anglo-Saxon invaders on civil strife perhaps reflects a kernel of truth. The Celtic peoples were notorious for only rarely combining against an external, common foe, so deep-rooted were their own bitter quarrels. Thus British chivalry came to an end with King Arthur's disastrous battle against his nephew Modred near Salisbury. Hardly a knight survived and the King himself was badly wounded. His departure to Avalon, accompanied by three mysterious ladies, gave rise to the idea of his undeath. In an otherworld, it was believed, King Arthur lingered, awaiting reincarnation as a national saviour.

Arthur and his Christian Fellowship of Knights probably derived from the earlier Welsh warlord Arthur, who journeyed to the otherworld with his warband in search of a wondrous cauldron. Here, the Knights of the Round Table experience the Grail vision for the first time, amid divine light and splendour. (Manuscript illustration, c. 1470.)

Celtic Irish Mythology

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Irish Mythology

Abarta, which probably means "doer of deeds", was, in Irish mythology, a mischievous god. He was one of the TUATHA DE DAN ANN, who ruled Ireland until they were-overcome by the Milesians, war-like invaders from Spain. Driven underground, Abarta and his kin appear in the Irish sagas more like heroic mortals than gods, although in the tale of his trick on the Fenian warriors there remains a strong trace of his original divinity.

Abarta offered himself as a servant to FINN MACCOOL, one of the foremost Irish heroes, and hereditary leader of the F1ANNA. Abarta tried to serve Finn MacCool shortly after the hero had succeeded his father as leader of the band. As a gesture of goodwill, tricky Abarta presented the Fianna with a wild, grey horse. Only after great effort did the warriors manage to get a bridle on the animal, and then it refused to move even one hoof when mounted. It was not until fourteen warriors had climbed on its powerful back that it would stir at all. Once Abarta had mounted behind them, it broke immediately into a gallop, even pulling along a fifteenth warrior who was unable to let go of the horse's tail, Abarta took them to the otherworld, for that was the reason for his appearance on earth. This wonderful land was thought by the Celts to be the home of the gods and goddesses, and the place where souls briefly rested before rebirth. The rest of the Fianna, or Fenians, acquired a magic ship to give chase to Abarta's steed. The best tracker among them was Finn MacCool's assistant Foltor. He succeeded in navigating a course to the otherworld for the rescue expedition. There Abarta was compelled to release the prisoners as well as to run back to Ireland himself holding on to the horse's tail. Honour being satisfied, the Fenians agreed to a peace with Abarta.

Ailill, who was the brother of Eochaidh, a High King of Ireland,

AINE, Irish goddess of love and fertility, was worshipped on Midsummer Eve by the local people who lit up her hill with torches. When some girls stayed late one night, Aine appeared among them and revealed the hill to be alive with fairies, which were only visible through her magic ring. (Illustration by Nick Beale. 1995.)

fell in love with his brother's wife, ETAIN, who was actually a goddess, one of the TUATHA DE DAN ANN. Etain had been the second wife of the proud and handsome god MIDIR, who lived under a mound in the middle of Ireland. She had been reborn as a human as punishment for her great jealousy of Midir's first wife, Fuamnach. When High King Eochaidh was looking for a bride himself, he heard reports that described Etain as the fairest maiden in Ireland. So he brought the beautiful former goddess back to his palace at Tara, the capital. There Eochaidh and Etain enjoyed a happy married life. Ailill, however, gradually succumbed to a terrible wasting disease because of his unrequited passion for the new queen.

Etain was steadfast in her love for Eochaidh, but she also

AMAETHON, though the fruitful rustic god of agriculture, was not always helpful. It was Amaethon that robbed Arawn, thereby provoking the Battle of Trees, and who refused to help hard-pressed Culhwch to plough, sow and reap a hill in a day-a task in his quest to win Olwen. (Illustration by Nick Beale, 1995.)

felt sorry for ailing Ailill and eventually promised to satisfy his desire as the only means of saving his life. It was arranged that they should meet secretly in a house outside Tara. However, Ailill never came because he fell into an enchanted sleep.

Ailill Mac Maia, according to some versions of the myth, was the king of Connacht and husband of the warrior-queen MEDB. He is generally portrayed as a rather weak character who was entirely under the influence of Medb. It was due to her taunting that he agreed to go to war with Ulster over the Brown Bull of Cuailgne. Ailill finally met his death at the hands of CONALL, who killed him in revenge for the death of FERGUS MAC ROTH.

Aine was the Irish goddess of love and fertility. She was the daughter of Eogabail, who was the foster son of the Manx sea god MAN ANN AN MAC LIR. Her main responsibilty was to encourage human love, although one mortal lover of hers, King Aillil Olom of Munster, paid for his passionate audacity with his life. When he

Celtic Hero Amairgen

AMAIRGEN (above) was one of the first druids in Ireland. He possessed both spiritual and political authority, and pronounced the first judgement in the land, deciding who would be the first king. An inspired shaman and seer, he is credited with a mystical poem in the Book of Invasions, (illustrationAnon.)

brothers plunged the country once again into dreadful strife. The fighting came to an end only with the death of Eber. Amairgen then installed Eremon as High King of Ireland at Tara. Even then conflicts still occurred because of the ceaseless rivalries between lesser rulers.

amfortas see PELLES.

annwn was a Welsh other-world that was an idyllic land of peace and plenty. In Annwn there was a fountain of sweet wine and a cauldron of rebirth, which, it would seem, was the basis of the medieval Grail myth. In one Welsh tradition, arthur lost most of his warriors in a disastrous attempt to seize this magic cauldron.

The lord of Annwn was the grey-clad ARAWN, with whom the Dyfed chieftain PWYLL agreed to exchange shapes and responsibilities for a year. Arawn had a pack of hounds, the Celtic "hounds of hell", which were believed to fly at night in pursuit of human souls. (See also CELTIC OTHERWORLDS; WONDROUS CAULDRONS)

attempted to force himself upon Aine and rape her, she slew him with her magic.

Aine's worship was always associated in Ireland with agriculture, because, as a goddess of fertility, she had command over crops and animals. Even as late as the last century, celebrations were still held in her honour on Midsummer Eve at Knockainy, or "Aine's hill", in County Kerry.

amaethon (whose name means "labourer" or "ploughman") was the god of agriculture and the son of the Welsh goddess DON. Amaethon was said to have stolen from ARAWN, the lord of the otherworld ANNWN, a hound, a deer and a bird, and as a result caused the Cad Goddeu or Battle of Trees. It was in this battle that Amaethon's brother, GWYDION, magically transformed trees into warriors to fight in the battle.

amairgen, sometimes known as Amergin, was one of the first Irish druids, the ancient priests in Celtic lands. He came to Ireland with the Milesians. These children of MILESIUS, or Mil, who was a leader of the Celts who lived in Spain, were believed to be the ancestors of the present-day Irish. Having defeated the divine rulers of Ireland, the TUATHA DE DAN ANN, the Milesians could not agree on which of their leaders should be king. Two sons of Mil, Eremon and EBER, contested the throne and for the sake of peace the island was divided into two kingdoms, one in the north, the other in the south. However, peace was not to survive for long, and renewed fighting between the followers of the two

AMAIRGEN (above) was one of the first druids in Ireland. He possessed both spiritual and political authority, and pronounced the first judgement in the land, deciding who would be the first king. An inspired shaman and seer, he is credited with a mystical poem in the Book of Invasions, (illustrationAnon.)

ANNWN (below), a Welsh otherworld, was a land offruitfulness and rest, filled with the song of birds. Annwn's magical cauldron, guarded by nine maidens, healed the sick and restored the dead to life. A recurrent motif in Celtic myth, magic cauldrons feature in the tales of Bran and Dagda. (illustration by Nick Beale, 1995.)

Nick Beale Annwn

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Welsh Mythilogical Heroes

ANU, a great earth goddess and mother of all the heroes, was known as the "lasting one" and also as Dana, mother of the Tuatha De Danann. In Munster there are two hills known as the Paps of Anu because they symbolized her breasts. (Illustration by Glenn Steward, 1995.)

Celtic God Bran

arawn, king of Annwn, strides through his enchanted forest accompanied by his flying hounds, the Celtic "hounds of hell", one of whose duties was to escort souls on their journey to the otherworld. Like some other fairy creatures, they appear white with red ears, a token of the otherworld. (Illustration by James Alexander, 1995.)

ANU, a great earth goddess and mother of all the heroes, was known as the "lasting one" and also as Dana, mother of the Tuatha De Danann. In Munster there are two hills known as the Paps of Anu because they symbolized her breasts. (Illustration by Glenn Steward, 1995.)

anu, sometimes called Danu or Dana, was the mother goddess of Irish mythology. The TUATHA DE DANANN ("the people of the goddess Dana") were her divine children and the gods and goddesses who ruled Ireland prior to the arrival of the Milesians. It is quite possible that the monks who wrote down the Irish sagas from the fifth century onwards underplayed the original role of goddesses in their compilations. Certainly, the stories they recorded show us a man's world, a place where warriors seem most at home. The cult of Anu was especially associated with Munster, and two hills in County Kerry are still known as Da Chich Anann ("The Paps of Anu").

Aoifa, sometimes known as Aoife, was the daughter of Ard-Greimne and an Irish warrior-princess in the Land of Shadows, an otherworld kingdom. Her sister SCATHACH instructed the Ulster hero CUCHULAINN in the arts of war. But when the sisters went to war Scathach was frightened to take the hero with her into battle in case Aoifa killed him. Undeterred by Aoifa's reputation as a fighter, Cuchulainn challenged her to single combat. Before the fight took place, Cuchulainn asked Scathach what Aoifa loved best and Scathach told him that above all else she treasured her chariot. At first the combat went as expected in Aoifa's favour, but Cuchulainn distracted her attention at a critical moment by calling out that her chariot horse was in trouble. Afterwards, Aoifa became Cuchulainn's lover and bore him a son named CONIAI. It was, however, the boy's fate to be killed by his own father.

aonghus was the Irish love god. His father was DAGDA, the father of the gods and the protector of druids, and his mother was the water goddess BO ANN. Rather like Zeus, Dagda deceived Boann's husband and lay with her. The monks who wrote down the Irish sagas tried to legitimize the birth by making Boann the wife of Dagda, but it is obvious that Aonghus was a divine love-child.

Aonghus was handsome and four birds always hovered above his head which were said to represent kisses. Birds also feature in his courtship of CAER, a girl of divine descent who came from Connacht and lived as a swan. Her father, Ethal, was one of the TUATHA DE DANANN. He seems to have been reluctant about the marriage until Aonghus' father, Dagda, made Ethal his prisoner. It was finally agreed that Aonghus could marry Caer provided he could identify her and she was willing to be his bride. On the feast of Samhain, Aonghus found Caer swimming on a lake with a hundred and fifty other swans. He instantly recognized her and she agreed to marry him.

An interesting tale that has attached itself to Aonghus concerns his foster-son DIARMU1D UA DUIBHNE, or "Diarmuid of the Love Spot". This attractive young man received a magic love spot on his forehead from a mysterious girl one arawn, king of Annwn, strides through his enchanted forest accompanied by his flying hounds, the Celtic "hounds of hell", one of whose duties was to escort souls on their journey to the otherworld. Like some other fairy creatures, they appear white with red ears, a token of the otherworld. (Illustration by James Alexander, 1995.)

night during a hunt. From then on, no woman could ever see Diarmuid without loving him. This included GRAINNE, the princess who had been promised by the High King of Ireland to his Fenian commander FINN MACCOOL. Aonghus saved the lovers from the great warrior's wrath, but he could not protect Diarmuid from the fate given to him at birth by the gods, that he should be killed by a magic boar. Nevertheless, Aonghus brought Diarmuid's body back to his own palace at New Grange, on the banks of the River Boyne, where he breathed a new soul into it so that he could talk to his foster-son.

Arawn was the ruler of the Welsh otherworld ANNWN, which was a paradise of peace and plenty. The Dyfed chieftain PWYLL became friends with Arawn and was allowed to claim in his title some authority over the otherworld. The two rulers met by chance. While out hunting, Pwyll encountered a strange pack of hounds chasing a stag, so he drove them off and set

AOIFA, a warrior-princess from the Land of Shadows, spars with her young son, Conlai, instructing him in the martial arts. The tradition of warrior-women was strong in Celtic society, where women bore arms as late as AD 700, and where the fiercest gods were often women. (Illustration by James Alexander, 1995.)

Chulainn James AlexanderAonghus Mythologie

AONGHUS (left), an engaging god of love and courtesy, a Celtic equivalent of Eros, appears in this fanciful portrayal as a charming, if somewhat whimsical character, who calms the foamy sea with his fairy magic, (aonghus, God of love and Courtesy, Putting a Spell of Summer Calm on the Sea by John Duncan, canvas, detail, 2908.)

his own hounds on to the prey. Just as the stag was about to fall, a grey-clad figure appeared and rebuked Pwyll for this discourtesy in the field. It was Arawn. In order to placate Arawn and to gain his friendship, Pwyll accepted a proposal that he should exchange forms with him for a year and then slay Arawn's enemy, Havgan. It was also agreed that Pwyll would share the bed of Arawn's queen for the same period of time, but without making love to her.

Arawn warned Pwyll that he must kill Havgan by a single blow, for if struck a second time he instantly revived. When Pwyll and Havgan fought, the Welsh chieftain dealt him a fatal blow and ignored Havgan's plea to finish him off with another strike. As a result of this service, Arawn and Pwyll became close allies and Dyfed prospered.

ar1anrhod was the daughter of the Welsh goddess DON and niece of MATH, king of Gwynedd. Math could sleep only if his feet were held in a virgin's lap, and when Goewin, the virgin who usually acted this part for him was raped by his nephew Gilvaethwy, it was suggested that Arianrhod should take her place. To test her purity Arianrhod had to step over Math's wand. No sooner had she done so

AONGHUS (left), an engaging god of love and courtesy, a Celtic equivalent of Eros, appears in this fanciful portrayal as a charming, if somewhat whimsical character, who calms the foamy sea with his fairy magic, (aonghus, God of love and Courtesy, Putting a Spell of Summer Calm on the Sea by John Duncan, canvas, detail, 2908.)

John Duncan Celt

art (above) confronts an army of savage and venomous giant toads on his perilous journey through the Land of Wonder, in search of Delbchaem. A taboo laid on the young hero by the jealous goddess Becuma, forced him to find and win the lovely girl imprisoned by her wicked parents. (Illustration by Arthur Rackham, c. 1900.)

art (above) confronts an army of savage and venomous giant toads on his perilous journey through the Land of Wonder, in search of Delbchaem. A taboo laid on the young hero by the jealous goddess Becuma, forced him to find and win the lovely girl imprisoned by her wicked parents. (Illustration by Arthur Rackham, c. 1900.)

than she gave birth to DYLAN and LLEU. GWYDION, Arianrhod's brother, immediately took charge of Lieu and brought him up, but this did not prevent Arianrhod placing a series of taboos upon him, including the stricture that he was to have no wife in the human race.

Art, in Irish mythology, was the son of Conn of the Hundred Battles. In one myth, Conn's jealous mistress, the goddess Becuma Cneisgel, contrived to send Art off on a perilous journey through the Land of Wonder in search of Delbchaem ("Fair Shape"). After facing untold dangers, he managed to find and rescue Delbchaem Art's son by another woman was CORMAC MAC ART. Art was killed by the rebel Lugaide Mac Con in the battle of Moy Muchruinne.

Lugaid Mac Con

ARTHUR, a child of destiny, was guarded and guided by spiritual forces from birth. Smuggled out of Tintagel Castle by Merlin, the mage, he was fostered in safety and secrecy, unaware of his destiny until his rightful time to draw the sword from the stone, thus proving his birthright, (merlin and Arthur by W Hatherell. canvas, c. 1910.)

Sword The Stone Celtic

Arthur is undoubtedly the best known of the Celtic heroes. He was most popular during the Middle Ages, when the exploits of his followers, the Knights of the Round Table, impressed the greater part of western Europe. It was with some misgivings that the Church permitted a Christianized version of these Celtic myths to occupy such an important place in the medieval imagination. It was never quite at ease with the story of the Grail, or SANGREAL, which JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA was believed to have brought to Britain, since its miraculous properties were clearly derived from the Celtic cauldron, a vessel of plenty as well as of rebirth. The strength of popular feeling for the Arthurian myth can be appreciated by a riot that occurred in 1113 at the town of Bodmin in Cornwall because the French servants of visiting nobility denied Arthur's undeath.

Although some of the earliest stories concerning Arthur are found in Welsh poems of the seventh century, there can be little doubt that the warlike king belongs to the heroic traditions of both Ireland and Wales. He appears in several

ARTHUR, prompted by Merlin, asks the Lady of the Lake for the sword, Excalibur. The young king marvelled at the shining sword but Merlin insisted that the scabbard was worth ten of the swords because it prevented loss of blood in battle. (Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, c. 1870.)

ARTHUR, a child of destiny, was guarded and guided by spiritual forces from birth. Smuggled out of Tintagel Castle by Merlin, the mage, he was fostered in safety and secrecy, unaware of his destiny until his rightful time to draw the sword from the stone, thus proving his birthright, (merlin and Arthur by W Hatherell. canvas, c. 1910.)

Irish sagas, one of which describes how he stole the hounds of the Fenian leader FINN MACCOOL on one of his daring raids. Indeed, as a warrior, hunter of magic boars, killer of giants, witches and monsters, and as leader of a band of heroes whose adventures led them into untold mysteries and marvels, Arthur had much in common with Finn MacCool. But according to the ninth-century monk Nennius, Arthur was a historical leader who rallied the people of Britain against Anglo-Saxon invaders after the Roman legions had gone. Nennius credits Arthur with twelve victories, but does not mention the account of his death recorded slightly later in a history of Wales, which states that Arthur and his sworn enemy MODRED both fell in 537 at the battle ofCamluan.

Arthur was the son of the British king UTHER PENDRAGON and Igraine, wife of the Cornish duke Gorlois. He was conceived out of wedlock and brought up away from his parents by the wizard MERLIN. The resourceful Merlin had already designed for Uther Pendragon a wonderful stronghold and placed in it the famous Round Table, at which one hundred and fifty knights could be seated. This unusual piece of furniture may

After a number of years Arthur journeyed to London to watch his first tournament. A knight who had been appointed by Merlin to act as the boy's guardian was taking part, but finding he was without a sword, he sent Arthur to get one. Without realizing the significance of the sword in the stone, Arthur pulled it out and gave it to the amazed knight. Thus was the heir of Uther Pendragon revealed.

Even then, there were knights who would not accept Arthur as

ARTHUR, at rest in an enchanted forest, gazes in wonder at the amazing Questing Beast at the well. It was aferlie or bewitching otherworldly wonder, which defied capture. Sir Pellinore and later Sir Palomides spent years in futile pursuit of the tantalizing chimaera. (Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, c. 1870.)

have a connection with Joseph of Arimathea, not least because it had a special place reserved for the Grail. While Joseph of Arimathea was imprisoned in Palestine, the Grail is said to have kept him alive. Later he brought it to Britain, where it disappeared due to people's sinfulness. Thus the recovery of the Grail became the great quest of Arthur's knights.

When Uther Pendragon died, the Knights of the Round Table were at a loss to know who should be the next king. They decided that Merlin should guide them. The wizard told them that they would know who Uther's successor was when he drew a magic sword from a stone, which had mysteriously appeared in London. Many knights tried to pull the sword from the stone, but none could move it.

Knights Pulling The Sword From The Stone

ARTHUR'S Round Table served many purposes: it prevented quarrels over precedence; symbolized wholeness; and commemorated the Table of the Last Supper, with the Grail at the centre. (king Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table Summoned to the Quest by a Strange Damsel by E Burne-Jones, tapestry, 1898-99.)

Burne Jones Apparition

ARTHUR'S Round Table served many purposes: it prevented quarrels over precedence; symbolized wholeness; and commemorated the Table of the Last Supper, with the Grail at the centre. (king Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table Summoned to the Quest by a Strange Damsel by E Burne-Jones, tapestry, 1898-99.)

king. Only with Merlin's aid was the young ruler able to defeat his opponents and bring peace to Britain. How much he depended on magic became obvious to Arthur early in his reign. Having drawn his own sword without cause against one of his knights, Arthur was dismayed to see the blade shatter. Merlin saved him by putting the knight to sleep, for Arthur was otherwise unarmed. In despair the king wandered along the shore of a lake when, to his amazement, he saw a hand and arm rise out of the water, holding another magic sword. This was the famous Excalibur, his sure support, according to the Lady of the Lake, who handed it to him.

Rearmed and reassured, Arthur went on to be a great king. He defeated the Anglo-Saxons, aided King Leodegraunce of Scotland in his wars against the Irish and even campaigned as far away from his kingdom as Rome. In return for the aid given to Leodegraunce, Arthur was betrothed to his daughter

GUINEVERE. At first Merlin objected to the match, since he knew of Guinevere's love for Sir LANCELOT, the most handsome of the Knights of the Round Table. But he later blessed the married couple and, according to one version of the myth, gave Arthur the Round Table as a wedding gift. Nevertheless, the queen and Lancelot were soon lovers, and when Arthur found out about his wife's unfaithfulness Lancelot fled to Brittany,

Arthur pursued Sir Lancelot and besieged him in his Breton stronghold. The siege had to be lifted, however, because news reached the king that his nephew Sir Modred had seized Camelot and even forced Guinevere to consent to marriage, after spreading stories of the king's death on campaign. Returning to Britain, Arthur summoned his knights to do battle with the rebels. Prior to the conflict, it was agreed that the king and his nephew would meet between the two armies to discuss the possibility of peace. Because neither one trusted the other, each ordered his forces to attack if they saw anyone draw a sword. When a knight unsheathed his weapon to kill a snake, a terrible battle was fought, in which the flower of British chivalry fell.

Only two of Arthur's knights were left alive on a battlefield that was covered by the dead and dying. Although he had won, King Arthur had to be carried away by these knights, such was the severity of his wound. Knowing his own end was near, he had Excalibur thrown into a lake, where a hand swiftly seized it. Then Arthur boarded a magic boat and disappeared. His last words were that he was going to AVALON to be cured of his wounds so that he might return one day to lead his people once more.

The inscription on Arthur's tomb at Glastonbury picks up this Celtic idea of reincarnation. It reads: "Here lies Arthur, king that was, king that shall be." Such an undeath was not enough to save his weakened kingdom from the Anglo-Saxons, however. The whole of the Arthurian myth turns on the disintegration of the chivalric unity that was established by the Round Table, but which was finally destroyed by the implacable hatred between Arthur and Modred. (See also MAGIC AND ENCHANTMENT; HEROIC QUESTS)

ARTHUR rests in peace in Avalon, guarded by four fairy queens. Morgan le Fay, cowled in black, consults her book of magic crafts, to heal the wounds of the "undead" king. The winged apparition carrying the Grail symbolizes the hope and future promise of Arthur's reign, (la mort D'Arthur by James Archer, canvas, I860.)

Avalon Arthur

AVALON, Arthur's last resting place, was an otherworldly retreat of wonder, mystery and peace. Its nine guardian queens recall an actual, historical order of nine nuns who lived off the coast of Roman Brittany, as well as the nine mythical maidens guarding Annwn's magic cauldron, (king Arthur in Avalon by E Burne-Jones, canvas, 1894.)

avalon was another name for the Welsh otherworld, ANNWN, and its name suggests that it was an island of apples. The mortally wounded ARTHUR was ferried there by three mysterious women in a black boat, following the terrible battle against Sir MODRED's army. The undead king was expected to return from Avalon and lead the oppressed Celtic population of Britain to victory over their AngloSaxon and, later, Norman conquerors. According to one version of the myth, Excalibur was forged there. Traditionally, Avalon has been identified with Glastonbury, the supposed site of Arthur's tomb. (See also CELTIC OTHERWORLDS)

badb (meaning "crow") was an Irish goddess of batde. She was one of a group of war deities who could influence the outcome of conflict by inspiring the combatants with fear or courage. The others were known as MORRIGAN, NEMAIN and MACHA. Myth connects Badb with the historical battle of Clontarf in 1014, when the High King Brian defeated the Viking invaders and Badb was said to have appeared over the warriors' heads.

BALOR, a formidable one-eyed god of death, led the misshapen Fomorii against the younger Tuatha De Danann. Here his grandson, Lugh, casts a fatal stone into Balor's deadly eye, forcing it back through his head where its lethal gaze destroys his warriors marching behind him. (illustration bv Miranda Gray, 1995.)

Balor The One Eyed God Death

balor was the Irish Cyclops. This one-eyed god of death was the most formidable of the FOMORII, the violent and monstrous sea gods who ruled Ireland before the arrival of the TUATHA DE DANANN. So dreadful was his one eye that he destroyed whoever he looked upon and his eyelid had to be levered up by four servants. It was prophesied that he would be slain by his own grandson. To avoid this fate he locked his only daughter ETHLINN in a crystal tower on Tory Island, off the north-west coast of Ireland. Even so, Balor was killed in battle with a sling-shot by the sun god LUGH, Ethlinn's son and the champion of the Tuatha De Danann.

Lugh's father was Cian, a lesser member of the Tuatha De Danann. With the assistance of a female druid, Cian had entered the crystal tower and slept with Ethlinn. When Balor learned that his daughter had given birth to three sons, he ordered that they be drowned in a whirlpool near Tory Island. Balor's servants duly rolled them up in a sheet, but on the way to the whirlpool one of the boys fell out unnoticed. Either the druid then handed the fortunate baby to the smith god GOIBHNIU, or alternatively MAN ANN AN MAC LIR, the god of the sea, decided to foster him. In either event, Lugh was saved and set on the road to his destiny as the slayer of Balor.

The fateful meeting between Lugh and Balor occurred at the second battle of Magh Tuireadh, a fierce contest between the Fomorii and the Tuatha De Danann. Nobody could stand Balor's lethal gaze, not even the Tuatha De Danann leader NUADA, the owner of a sword which previously none could escape. The battle was just turning into a Tuatha De Danann rout, when Lugh noticed that the

BANSHEE, or bean sidhe, women of the fairies, lived underground in sparkling sidhe -fairy heavens hidden beneath grassy mounds on Irish hillsides. Legend has it that a banshee attaches itself to a family and warns of impending death with an eerie wail, (illustration by h j ford, 1902.)

AVALON, Arthur's last resting place, was an otherworldly retreat of wonder, mystery and peace. Its nine guardian queens recall an actual, historical order of nine nuns who lived off the coast of Roman Brittany, as well as the nine mythical maidens guarding Annwn's magic cauldron, (king Arthur in Avalon by E Burne-Jones, canvas, 1894.)

single eyelid of Balor was slowly closing through weariness. Lugh crept near to him with a magic sling-shot in hand. The moment the eyelid opened again, he hurled the stone so hard that it forced the eyeball backward through Balor's head, with the result that it was the Fomorii who now suffered from the destructive effect of its paralysing stare. The Tuatha De Danann were able to defeat the Fomorii, who were driven from Ireland for ever. (See also CELTIC OTHERWORLDS)

Banshee is the modern name for the bean sidhe ("woman of the fairies"), the traditional fairy of the Irish countryside. After the arrival of the Milesians from what is now Spain (the ancestors of the present-day Irish) the gods and goddesses known as the TUATHA DE DANANN disappeared underground and dwelt in mounds, and over the centuries they were slowly transformed in the popular imagination into fairies. It was believed that the wailing of a banshee foretold the approach of a human death.

Ailill Olom

BELENUS, a Celtic sun god, was honoured on the eve of Beltaine when Celts lit bonfires, the "fires of Bel", symbolizing the rays of the sun and the promise of summer fruitfulness. Here, the fairies, once Celtic gods, ride out from their hollow hills to celebrate Beltaine. (the Riders of the sidhe by John Duncan, canvas, 2912.)

bedivere see bedwyr bedwyr, according to Welsh mythology, was a one-handed warrior who, together with his friend and companion kai, played an important part in helping culhwch to procure the prizes he required to win the hand of olwen. They were both members of King arthur's court. In later Arthurian romance Bedwyr became Sir Bedivere, the faithful knight who remained with King Arthur after he was mortally wounded, threw the sword Excalibur into the lake on the king's instructions and bore his body to the boat which carried him to avalon.

Bel see belenus belenus, also known as Bel, was a Celtic sun god known to the Romans. Julius Caesar compared Belenus to Apollo, the god of prophecy. He appears in various forms across the Celtic world, as Beli to the Welsh, Bile to the Irish I and Belenus to the Gauls. Beltaine, one of the important festivals of the Celtic calendar, was celebrated on the first of May in his honour, and his name survives in a number of place names such as Billingsgate, "Bile's gate" (formerly a fish market in London). Although his worship was clearly widespread, little else is known about him.

ben dlgeidfran see BRAN THE BLESSED

bile see BELENUS

blathnat was the wife of King CUROI of Munster. She fell in love with CUCHULAINN, the great Ulster hero and enemy of Cu Roi, and betrayed her husband's people by showing the hero how he could enter her husband's apparently impregnable fortress. A stream flowed through the fort and when Blathnat poured milk into the

BELENUS, a Celtic sun god, was honoured on the eve of Beltaine when Celts lit bonfires, the "fires of Bel", symbolizing the rays of the sun and the promise of summer fruitfulness. Here, the fairies, once Celtic gods, ride out from their hollow hills to celebrate Beltaine. (the Riders of the sidhe by John Duncan, canvas, 2912.)

water, Cuchulainn was able to follow its course. In the fierce battle that followed Cu Roi was killed and Cuchulainn was able to ride off with Blathnat. He also took with him Cu Roi's bard, Fer Cherdne. When the party halted on a cliff top, however, Fer Cherdne took the opportunity to avenge his former master's death by grabbing hold of Blathnat and jumping over the edge with her in his arms.

bedwyr guarded Arthur at the end of his life, as they waited by a lake for the ship that would ferry the king to Avalon. This evocative scene blends photographic realism with a ghostly backdrop to create an effective and convincing representation of an otherworldly realm, (mort d arthur by I John Garrick, canvas, ¡862.)

John Garrick Mort Arthur Mitolog Celta
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Responses

  • August Hunt
    Hello, Can you please supply me with more information on the painting 'King Arthur in Avalon by E Burne-Jones, canvas, 1894'? For instance, what collection has the piece? I would like to try and find a better resolution image of the work. Thank you and best wishes, August
    8 years ago
  • RETU
    What is the celtic islandthat is discussed in mythology?
    8 years ago
  • daniela
    What is tara and avalon in celtic mythology?
    7 years ago
  • SAM
    Who recorded the Irish sagas and why?
    7 years ago
  • reiss clark
    What is the conflicts of the sword and the stone?
    7 years ago

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