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CELTIC MYTH & LEGEND
By Charles Squire
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE INTEREST AND IMPORTANCE OF CELTIC MYTHOLOGY
It should hardly be necessary to remind the reader of what profound interest and value to every nation are its earliest legendary and poetical records. The beautiful myths of Greece form a sufficing example. In threefold manner, they have influenced the destiny of the people that created them, and of the country of which they were the imagined theatre. First, in the ages in which they were still fresh, belief and pride in them were powerful enough to bring scattered tribes into confederation. Secondly, they gave the inspiration to sculptor and poet of an art and literature unsurpassed, if not unequalled, by any other age or race. Lastly, when "the glory that was Greece" had faded, and her people had, by dint of successive invasions, perhaps even ceased to have any right to call themselves Hellenes, they have passed over into the literatures of the modern world, and so given to Greece herself a poetic interest that still makes a petty kingdom of greater account in the eyes of its compeers than many others far superior to it in extent and resources.
This permeating influence of the Greek poetical mythology, apparent in all civilized countries, has acted especially upon our own. From almost the very dawn of English literature, the Greek stories of gods and heroes have formed a large part of the stock-in-trade of English poets. The inhabitants of Olympus occupy, under their better-known Latin names, almost as great a space in English poetry as they did in that of the countries to which they were native. From Chaucer downwards, they have captivated the imagination alike of the poets and their hearers. The magic cauldron of classic myth fed, like the Celtic "Grail", all who came to it for sustenance.
At last, however, its potency became somewhat exhausted. Alien and exotic to English soil, it degenerated slowly into a convention. In the shallow hands of the poetasters of the eighteenth century, its figures became mere puppets. With every wood a "grove", and every rustic maid a "nymph", one could only expect to find Venus armed with patch and powder-puff, Mars shouldering a musket, and Apollo inspiring the versifier's own trivial strains. The affectation killed—and fortunately killed—a mode of expression which had become obsolete. Smothered by just ridicule, and abandoned to the commonplace vocabulary of the inferior hack-writer, classic myth became a subject which only the greatest poets could afford to handle.
But mythology is of such vital need to literature that, deprived of the store of legend native to southern Europe, imaginative writers looked for a fresh impulse. They turned their eyes to the North. Inspiration was sought, not from Olympus, but from Asgard. Moreover, it was believed that the fount of primeval poetry issuing from Scandinavian and Teutonic myth was truly our own, and that we were rightful heirs of it by reason of the Anglo-Saxon in our blood. And so, indeed, we are; but it is not our sole heritage. There must also run much Celtic —that is, truly British—blood in our veins. And Matthew Arnold was probably right in asserting that, while we owe to the Anglo-Saxon the more practical qualities that have built up the British Empire, we have inherited from the Celtic side that poetic vision which has made English literature the most brilliant since the Greek.
We have the right, therefore, to enter upon a new spiritual possession. And a splendid one it is! The Celtic mythology has little of the heavy crudeness that repels one in Teutonic and Scandinavian story. It is as beautiful and graceful as the Greek; and, unlike the Greek, which is the reflection of a clime and soil which few of us will ever see, it is our own. Divinities should, surely, seem the inevitable outgrowth of the land they move in! How strange Apollo would appear, naked among icebergs, or fur-clad Thor striding under groves of palms! But the Celtic gods and heroes are the natural inhabitants of a British landscape, not seeming foreign and out-of-place in a scene where there is no vine or olive, but "shading in with" our homely oak and bracken, gorse and heath.
Thus we gain an altogether fresh interest in the beautiful spots of our own islands, especially those of the wilder and more mountainous west, where the older inhabitants of the land lingered longest. Saxon conquest obliterated much in Eastern Britain, and changed more; but in the West of England, in Wales, in Scotland, and especially in legend-haunted Ireland, the hills and dales still keep memories of the ancient gods of the ancient race. Here and there in South Wales and the West of England are regions—once mysterious and still romantic—which the British Celts held to be the homes of gods or outposts of the Other World. In Ireland, not only is there scarcely a place that is not connected in some way with the traditionary exploits of the " Red Branch Champions", or of Finn and his mighty men, but the old deities are still remembered, dwarfed into fairies, but keeping the same attributes and the same names as of yore. Wordsworth's complaint that, while Pelion and Ossa, Olympus and Parnassus are "in immortal books enrolled", not one English mountain, "though round our sea-girt shore they rise in crowds", had been" by the Celestial Muses glorified" doubtless seemed true to his own generation. Thanks to the scholars who have unveiled the ancient Gaelic and British mythologies, it need not be so for ours. On Ludgate Hill, as well as on many less famous eminences, once stood the temple of the British Zeus. A mountain not far from Bettws-y-Coed was the British Olympus, the court and palace of our ancient gods.
It may well be doubted, however, whether Wordsworth's contemporaries would have welcomed the mythology which was their own by right of birth as a substitute for that of Greece and Rome. The inspiration of classic culture, which Wordsworth was one of the first to break with, was still powerful. How some of its professors would have held their sides and roared at the very notion of a British mythology! Yet, all the time, it had long been secretly leavening English ideas and ideals, none the less potently because disguised under forms which could be readily appreciated. Popular fancy had rehabilitated the old gods, long banned by the priests' bell, book, and candle, under various disguises. They still lived on in legend as kings of ancient Britain reigning in a fabulous past anterior to Julius Caesar—such were King Lud, founder of London; King Lear, whose legend was immortalized by Shakespeare; King Brennius, who conquered Rome; as well as many others who will be found filling parts in old drama. They still lived on as long-dead saints of the early churches of Ireland and Britain, whose wonderful attributes and adventures are, in many cases, only those of their original namesakes, the old gods, told afresh. And they still lived on in another, and a yet more potent, way. Myths of Arthur and his cycle of gods passed into the hands of the Norman story-tellers, to reappear as romances of King Arthur and his Knights of the Table Round. Thus spread over civilized Europe, their influence was immense. Their primal poetic impulse is still resonant in our literature; we need only instance Tennyson and Swinburne as minds that have come under its sway.
This diverse influence of Celtic mythology upon English poetry and romance has been eloquently set forth by Mr. Elton in his Origins of English History, "The religion of the British tribes", he writes, "has exercised an important influence upon literature. The mediaeval romances and the legends which stood for history are full of the 'fair humanities' and figures of its bright mythology. The elemental powers of earth and fire, and the spirits which haunted the waves and streams appear again as kings in the Irish Annals, or as saints and hermits in Wales. The Knights of the Round Table, Sir Kay and Tristrem and the bold Sir Bedivere, betray their mighty origin by the attributes they retained as heroes of romance. It was a goddess, 'Dea quaedam phantastica', who bore the wounded Arthur to the peaceful valley. 'There was little sunlight on its woods and streams, and the nights were dark and gloomy for want of the moon and stars.' This is the country of Oberon and of Sir Huon of Bordeaux. It is the dreamy forest of Arden. In an older mythology, it was the realm of a King of Shadows, the country of Gwyn ap Nudd, who rode as Sir Guyon in the 'Fairie Queene'—
'And knighthood took of good Sir Huon's hand, When with King Oberon he came to Fairyland'."
To trace Welsh and Irish kings and saints and hermits back to "the elemental powers of earth and fire, and the spirits that haunted the woods and streams" of Celtic imagination, and to disclose primitive pagan deities under the mediæval and Christian trappings of "King Arthur's Knights" will necessarily fall within the scope of this volume. But meanwhile the reader will probably be asking what evidence there is that apocryphal British kings like Lear and Lud, and questionable Irish saints like Bridget are really disguised Celtic divinities, or that the Morte D'Arthur, with its love of Launcelot and the queen, and its quest of the Holy Grail, was ever anything more than an invention of the Norman romance-writers. He will demand to know what facts we really possess about this supposed Celtic mythology alleged to have furnished their prototypes, and of what real antiquity and value are our authorities upon it.
The answer to his question will be found in the next chapter.CHAPTER 2
THE SOURCES OF OUR KNOWLEDGE OF THE CELTIC MYTHOLOGY
We may begin by asserting with confidence that Mr. Elton has touched upon a part only of the material on which we may draw, to reconstruct the ancient British mythology. Luckily, we are not wholly dependent upon the difficult tasks of resolving the fabled deeds of apocryphal Irish and British kings who reigned earlier than St. Patrick or before Julius Caesar into their original form of Celtic myths, of sifting the attributes and miracles of doubtfully historical saints, or of separating the primitive pagan elements in the legends of Arthur and his Knights from the embellishments added by the romance-writers. We have, in addition to these—which we may for the present put upon one side as secondary—sources, a mass of genuine early writings which, though post-Christian in the form in which they now exist, none the less descend from the preceding pagan age. These are contained in vellum and parchment manuscripts long preserved from destruction in mansions and monasteries in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and only during the last century brought to light, copied, and translated by the patient labours of scholars who have grappled with the long-obsolete dialects in which they were transscribed.
Many of these volumes are curious miscellanies. Usually the one book of a great house or monastic community, everything was copied into it that the scholar of the family or brotherhood thought to be best worth preserving. Hence they contain matter of the most diverse kind. There are translations of portions of the Bible and of the classics, and of such then popular books as Geoffrey of Monmouth's and Nennius' Histories of Britain; lives of famous saints, together with works attributed to them; poems and romances of which, under a thin disguise, the old Gaelic and British gods are the heroes; together with treatises on all the subjects then studied—grammar, prosody, law, history, geography, chronology, and the genealogies of important chiefs.
The majority of these documents were put together during a period which, roughly speaking, lasted from the beginning of the twelfth century to the end of the sixteenth. In Ireland, in Wales, and, apparently, also in Scotland, it was a time of literary revival after the turmoils of the previous epoch. In Ireland, the Norsemen, after long ravaging, had settled peacefully down, while in Wales, the Norman Conquest had rendered the country for the first time comparatively quiet. The scattered remains of history, lay and ecclesiastical, of science, and of legend were gathered together.
Of the Irish manuscripts, the earliest, and, for our purposes, the most important, on account of the great store of ancient Gaelic mythology which, in spite of its dilapidated condition, it still contains, is in the possession of the Royal Irish Academy. Unluckily, it is reduced to a fragment of one hundred and thirty-eight pages, but this remnant preserves a large number of romances relating to the old gods and heroes of Ireland. Among other things, it contains a complete account of the epical saga called the Táin B Chuailgné, the " Raiding of the Cattle of Cooley ", in which the hero, Cuchulainn, performed his greatest feats. This manuscript is called the Book of the Dun Cow, from the tradition that it was copied from an earlier book written upon the skin of a favourite animal belonging to Saint Ciaran, who lived in the seventh century. An entry upon one of its pages reveals the name of its scribe, one Maelmuiri, whom we know to have been killed by robbers in the church of Clonmacnois in the year 1106.
Far more voluminous, and but little less ancient, is the Book of Leinster, said to have been compiled in the early part of the twelfth century by Finn mac Gorman, Bishop of Kildare. This also contains an account of Cuchulainn's mighty deeds which supplements the older version in the Book of the Dun Cow. Of somewhat less importance from the point of view of the student of Gaelic mythology come the Book of Ballymote and the Yellow Book of Lecan, belonging to the end of the fourteenth century, and the Books of Lecan and of Lismore, both attributed to the fifteenth. Besides these six great collections, there survive many other manuscripts which also contain ancient mythical lore. In one of these, dating from the fifteenth century, is to be found the story of the Battle of Moytura, fought between the gods of Ireland and their enemies, the Fomors, or demons of the deep sea.
The Scottish manuscripts, preserved in the Advocates' Library at Edinburgh, date back in some cases as far as the fourteenth century, though the majority of them belong to the fifteenth and sixteenth. They corroborate the Irish documents, add to the Cuchulainn saga, and make a more special subject of the other heroic cycle, that which relates the not less wonderful deeds of Finn, Ossian, and the Fenians. They also contain stories of other characters, who, more ancient than either Finn or Cuchulainn, are the Tuatha Dé Danann, the god-tribe of the ancient Gaels.
The Welsh documents cover about the same period as the Irish and the Scottish. Four of these stand out from the rest, as most important. The oldest is the Black Book of Caermarthen, which dates from the third quarter of the twelfth century ; the Book of Aneurin, which was written late in the thirteenth; the Book of Taliesin, assigned to the fourteenth; and the Red Book of Hergest, compiled by various persons during that century and the one following it. The first three of these "Four Ancient Books of Wales" are small in size, and contain poems attributed to the great traditional bards of the sixth century, Myrddin, Taliesin, and Aneurin. The last—the Red Book of Hergest—is far larger. In it are to be found Welsh translations of the British Chronicles; the oft-mentioned Triads, verses celebrating famous traditionary persons or things; ancient poems attributed to Llywarch Hen; and, of priceless value to any study of our subject, the so-called Mabinogion, stories in which large portions of the old British mythology are worked up into romantic form.
The whole bulk, therefore, of the native literature bearing upon the mythology of the British Islands may be attributed to a period which lasted from the beginning of the twelfth century to the end of the sixteenth. But even the commencement of this era will no doubt seem far too late a day to allow authenticity to matter which ought to have vastly preceded it. The date, however, merely marks the final redaction of the contents of the manuscripts into the form in which they now exist, without bearing at all upon the time of their authorship. Avowedly copies of ancient poems and tales from much older manuscripts, the present books no more fix the period of the original composition of their contents than the presence of a portion of the Canterbury Tales in a modern anthology of English poetry would assign Chaucer to the present year of grace.
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