THE CELTS, THE ORAL TRADITION,
AND IRISH FOLKLORE
   
  by Morganlafey
The Seventh Planet of MorganLaFey
Posted with Permission



Once upon a time, I read a book that began, "the past may be forgotten, but it is never dead." This is a very striking statement but is it true? Just how much of the past has really been forgotten and how much of it has been sculpted into fantasy, folklore and fairytale.

Long before there was literacy there was genius. As with most ancient cultures such as the American Indian, the Euro-Indian, the Summerian, the Hebraic and the Classical World, there has been a tradition of saving the history of the tribe or group through story telling and memorized recounting with poetry or song to make the retelling easier. What has developed over time as folklore and fairy tale most probably began in older times as rudimentary metaphysics.

We owe much to the Celts. The Celts were made up of many tribes that lived in various parts of Europe including Spain, Germany, France, Italy and of course, the British Isles. They were a people characterized by their observers, who were often their enemies, as warlike, just, righteous, frightening, ferocious, proud, courageous, often drunken, and very combative. While they may have been these things they were certainly also pondering, superstitious, artistic, and spiritual.

To be precise, the Celts first made their entry into the world stage about 600 B.C.E., about one hundred years after the founding of Rome, following their crossing of the Rhine. One group settled in France and became the Gauls. Another tribe settled in the Iberian Peninsula and became "great sea traders." In approximately the third century B.C.E., the Celts invaded the Greek world finally settling in modern day Turkey. Here they were known as the Galatians (from the word Gaul or Gaulish) to whom Paul addressed them in a letter, which can be read in the Galatians of the New Testament. From Gaul, the Celts became the Britons and as early as 400 B.C.E., moved to the British Islands, where approximately nine centuries later, would be pushed by the Angles and Saxons into Cornwall, where they would become the Cornish, and Wales where they would become the Welsh, and then into Ireland, where they would be known as the Irish.

Despite the fact that the Celts lived throughout Europe, they were actually made up of many different "tribes," and were not, at any time, a "cohesive" nation. There was no real unity. They had different languages, lifestyles and traditions. One thing they did share however was a similar belief in the immanence of the spirit in this world and the immortality of the soul.

Ireland, the mountainous regions of Wales and the Highlands of Western Scotland, held a special historical position as the keepers of the Celtic Tradition. Because these areas were not invaded by the Romans, and were too difficult to be invaded by other tribes, the Celtic culture remained basically untouched by outside influences approximately 300 years longer than anywhere else, and thus the language, beliefs, and other features remained almost unaltered.

The Celts held close to their pantheon of "gods" and demi-gods. This assemblage included great leaders, warriors, ghosts, elementals, spirits and gods and goddesses in the classical sense. In fact, Roman commentators of the time reflected how pre-occupied the Celts were with their "religion" and its expression in their everyday life. But was it really just a strange kind of superstition or a deep strain of mysticism through which one could discover the mysteries of the divine universe. In order to reach the other world, one needed a key to unlock the door that held this side and that side apart. The key of course was found in the stories held onto by the keepers of the tales or the Druids and the lesser Druids, known as Bards and Poets.

The Celts were fascinated by the power of words. Every noble or high family maintained their own ancestral poets. Some households boasted to have as many as twenty or thirty "family poets." It is from these poets, who maintained an oral tradition, that we learn of a race of people that pre-dated the Celts. In one of the Celtic foundation myths called Tuatha De Danaan or the People of the Goddess Danu, we learn that Ireland was populated before the Celts "invaded," by a people who had built the great barrows and tumuli that dot the landscape to this day. These people, as described in the myth, are highly skilled in building and craftsmanship. They are described as being taller (than the Celts), otherworldly beings. These are the people who eventually evolved into being "the little people," the fairies and other enchanted beings who continually resurface and who haunt the tombs and fairy mounds they once built. Some note that calling these larger, more artful aborigines the little people was an attempt to disguise the Celts' fear and guilt of having exploited and displaced them.

The people who lived in the dark abyss of time before the People of Danu are said to have come to the land on the First of May or Beltaine , which was sacred to their God of Death, at a very remote time when Ireland was only one "treeless plain watered by three lakes and nine rivers." The people increased as time went on and the land stretched by some miracle and the labors of the people themselves. The Plain grew from one to four and the lakes numbered seven. The number of people grew from forty-eight to five thousand. The people prevailed against wars with the Fomors and the three powers of darkness: winter, evil and death. They were preeminent in their battle against a demon and enjoyed peace for hundreds of years. Then illness struck on Beltaine and they were all destroyed. Having a premonition of their death, they all gathered on the first plain so that those who lived might better be able to bury those who died. This plain is identified as Sen Mag , the Old Plain, and it is now marked by a mound near Dublin called Tallaght , formerly known as Tamlecht Muintre Partholain (The Plague Grave of the Partholain People). Following the Partholains , as legend recalls, came a tribe known as Nemed that carried on the traditions of their forerunners. In any event, those tribes that proceeded the Celts were considered to be odd and magical and were often referred to as Children or People of Darkness. Keep in mind then that they were considered to be the antithesis of the Celts who concerned themselves to be the People of the Light.

Druids, Bards and Poets lived in both in this world and in the world of Fairy. Fairy or Faery as it is now labeled, is the name generally applied to the Celtic unseen world. The cosmology of fairy is extensive. There are worlds upon worlds. There are beings upon beings. There are water nymphs, gnomes, goblins, Leprechauns, knockers, pixies, godmothers or good mothers, banshees, changelings, bogeymen, red caps, giants, dwarfs and more. Sometimes Faery crosses over into this world and touches the mundane briefly, thus changing the earth-born forever. It is the ideal. It is the supernatural. Once more when referring to Fairy one sees that there is a historical seed. The concept of an otherworldly race of beings has been closely associated with the peoples that were already occupying Ireland, Wales and Scotland when the Celts arrived.

It is worth mentioning that the idea of what a Fairy is today is somewhat different than the Celt faery folk. They were a real presence and their relationship to Celtic mysticism and belief was paramount. In the areas of Brittany, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and the Isle of Man, Fairies came in many shapes and designs. They are usually collectively referred to as the Wee Folk but their personality and intentions are not uniform or restricted. They are usually conceived as bringing very personal experiences to those with whom they have interaction. Beliefs about fairies include ideas that they are fallen angels, disembodied spirits, and elementals or nature spirits. There remains a strong belief that the dead dwell among the fairies. Throughout Celtic Fairy lore is a reoccurring idea that there is need for human contact on the part of the spirit entities. That these people of the Old Plain or Hollow Hills and Mounds have a need to contact us to share their secrets.

What is a fairytale? Often repeated by the Singer, Poet or Bard, it was more than a mere story concerning only the mundane. It was a story weaved with threads of metaphysical suppositions that not only entertained but taught. More often than not it brought lessons of morality, justice, hope, love, treachery and fulfillment. Faery is the embodiment of that which populates that other realm, which if one is lucky either good or bad, divine or brilliant might encounter. Along with Faery there were also vestiges of magic and objects associated with otherworldliness such as Sacred Groves of Oak Trees (from which we get the Oak Man), cauldrons, severed heads, shape shifting, music, maimed body parts such as a wounded foot or blind eye of a truly enchanted being, deep pools of water and sacred wells, stones of enchantment (such as Stonehenge), and mounds of faery or Hollow Hills. These ingredients are more often then not found within the lore and tales reflecting the Celtic cosmology.

In the Celtic "society" there were three branches of authority. There was the chieftain king, who was "One among many. He was usually the best fighter with the best horse and the most followers or men. He was not a king in the sense of an absolute monarch, rather he was a peer with the upmost respect among his own. The other chieftains so valued "him" that they pledged their support to him. The third group were the artisans. They were the crafters and the ones who made things, such as objects of warfare, swords and such. But between the king and the artisan, was the "priest." The knower. The Holder of Truth. The Druid. The Poet.

So important was the keeping of the stories, that the position of the story teller often eclipsed that of the king or military leader in the hearts and minds of the people. Was not the position of Merlin (or the Merlin, when it is referred to as being a position rather than a person) of the Tales of King Arthur, the king's adviser and wizard, more important than that of King Arthur himself? Some might say that King Arthur was clearly a player in a "drama" created by Merlin.

Copyright 1999 by Morganlafey, All rights in the above article are reserved.
No portion may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of the author.

E-mail: morgan@iswest.com



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