L I V I N G ... M Y T H S
Celtic myths in brief




Gundestrup cauldron

The Sorrows of Deirdre (Irish)

A strong, independent woman is doomed by her own beauty to win and lose the man of her choice, Naoise. Ordered to marry King Conchobor, she escapes with Naoise and his two brothers to Scotland. Conchobor tricks them into returning, then kills all three brothers. Deirdre chooses to kill herself rather than marry the King.

Explores fate, rebellion against social expectations, the role of women, and a woman's choice of a younger, more desirable suitor over an older, higher-status man. Deirdre can also be seen as representative of the Virgin archetype.

Diarmid and Grainne (Irish/Scottish)

Betrothed to Finn, the heroic but aged Captain of the Fianna - the great warrior band of Ireland, Grainne is overpowered by the supernatural love power of Diarmid, and forces him to elope with her by placing him under geis (a kind of magical obligation). Finn pursues them but they escape and raise a family. Eventually Finn's jealousy returns and he lures Diarmid to his fated death, gored by the legendary Boar of Ben Bulben. Oisin tells Finn to use his healing powers to restore Diarmid to life, but Finn can't quite bring himself to do it until the third attempt. Thus he succeeds only in healing the wounds of Diarmid's dead body. According to one account, after this, Grainne pragmatically settles for Finn.

Another tale of a strong woman who makes her own choices within the limits of fate. It explores romantic love, jealousy, betrayal, and the woman choosing the younger man. The ritual battle between rival suitors is here reversed. The boar represents fate and the destructive power of man's animal nature.

The Wife out of Flowers (Welsh)

Lleu, who is cursed by his mother, Arianrhod, never to have a name, arms or a wife. However, his uncle/father Gwydion magically outwits these prohibitions, finally combining with Math Mathonwy to make him a wife out of flowers, the beautiful Blodeuwedd. She betrays Lleu and gets him to tell her the complicated means by which he may die (his life has been charmed by Gwydion). Then she contrives to have her lover kill him. As a punishment she is turned into an owl.

Explores the maiden-mother-crone theme, the cycle of the seasons and ritual death of the old king. The story also explores Lleu's initiation into manhood and matriarchy's struggle with patriarchy. It could also be seen as a solar myth. Finally, it has links with the Christ myth, and with the Norse Odin hanging on the World Tree of Ygdrassil.

Finn and the Salmon of Wisdom (Irish/Scottish)

As a boy, Finn obtains Otherworldly knowledge and psychic powers through eating the sacred Salmon of Knowledge, which his mentor had intended for himself.

Explores the acquisition of Otherworldly perspectives. Finn's mentor represents the archetype of the wise old man.

The Birth of Taliesin (Welsh)

Ceridwen prepares a magical brew containing the powers of knowledge and prophecy for her son Afagddu to drink. Instead it is her servant Gwion Bach who drinks the magical three drops (the rest of the brew is poisononous). Furious, she pursues him through several shape-changes and eventually becomes a hen and eats him as a grain of corn. Later she gives birth to him as the inspired poet Taliesin.

Embodies the magical significance of the elements, the nature of inspiration, the symbolism of the cauldron, the power of the goddess and the shamanistic significance of shape-shifting.

Pwyll and Arawn (Welsh)

Prince Pwyll goes hunting in the forest and exchanges identities with Arawn, King of the Underworld. He sleeps with Arawn's queen for a year and a day but but resists sexual relations with her. During this time he fulfils his obligation to Arawn to fight a ritual combat with Arawn's enemy Hafgan.

A myth about fertility and psychic renewal. Pwyll's hunting trip represents a shamanic experience.

Oisin's Journey to the Otherworld (Irish)

Oisin, son of Finn, is lured to the Land of Youth by a beautiful Otherworldly woman, Niamh. After what seems like a mere three years of delights in the Otherworld, he becomes homsick and decides to revisit Ireland and is cautioned not to let his feet touch the ground. He fails to follow this advice, and immediately ages 300 years. In one version, now old and weak, he tells his story to St Patrick.

Explores the lure of the anima, the nature of time, and the effect of spiritual experience on consciousness.

The Voyage of Maelduin (Irish)

Maelduin sets out on a sea journey to find a group of raiders who murdered his father. His voyage is lengthened because he disobeys a druid's instructions. After visiting many islands he finally he finds the the murderers, and, advised by a hermit, pardons them.

Another Otherworld voyage, resembling that of Odysseus. The islands Maelduin visits are said to relate to the passage of the soul after death, as in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Explores personal growth. The pardon may be a late Christian interpolation.

The Heroic Deeds of Cuchulainn (Irish)

Focusing on the boyhood and last battle of the great Ulster hero, this myth relates how a superhuman warrior is initiated by a series of challenges, but is finally defeated, partly as a result of hubris. He breaks his sacred prohibitions and fails to respect the goddess - the Morrigan, when she invites him to enjoy her favours. He is finally killed by Erc and Lugaid.

In many ways Cuchulainn conforms to the classic hero mould: a humble birth, a mysterious divine father, overcoming of early challenges, and great feats. It could be said that it is his rejection of his own inner feminine which leads to his death. On another level, as an archetypal tragic hero, his role is to come up against impossible odds and die in the defence of his people.

The Drowned Island of Ys (Breton)

King Gradlon's daughter Dahut persuades him to grant her the city of Ys. She takes a new lover every night and subsequently has him killed. Finally a demonic lover outwits her and persuades her to obtain from her father the key to the dyke that has protected Ys from the sea. Her lover opens the gates and the city is drowned. Gradlon escapes, but only by following the instructions of St Guénolé and casting Dahut from his horse.

Explores the father—daughter relationship, sexual morality, and inundation of the ego by the power of the unconscious. The myth is influenced by Christianity, but it is hard to say how much. The lover may be the Devil, or a pre-Christian figure.