O fair Lady! Will you come with me
To a wonderful country which is mine,
Where the people's hair is of golden hue,
And their bodies the colour of virgin snow?"
--Mider's song to the queen, Etain
Samhain has arrived, bringing with it the Celtic winter. For our ancestors, the great gods and heroes of Celtic mythology were summoned most often by the storyteller during the dark season beginning at Samhain at ending at Beltaine on May 1.
With a peat fire at the hearth, family and friends sitting or perched thereabout, the storyteller pressed an ember to his tobacco pipe and, fixing the assemblage with a knowing look, began a story which might take an hour or six to relate. Traditional tales, rhymes, songs, riddles and local and geneological history were all part of the storytellers craft.
The memorization of tales and familial histories was an ancient art practiced by both the peasant and the aristocrat. Passed from generation to generation, this body of knowledge of hero and wonder tales is the legacy of those we describe as "Celtic."
Much of this ancient lore and wisdom was lost during the Great Irish Famine of the mid-1800's when so many Gaelic speakers perished or fled abroad to an uncertain fate.
Scholars of Celtic mythology also rely on a collection of texts which purport to contain the tales and traditions of the pagan era. These texts, though written and copied in the Christian era, are believed to fairly faithfully report Celtic myth and legend. Contained in parchment and vellum manuscripts, the writings were preserved in the monastaries and great houses of Ireland.
The most reliable of these texts are the Lebor na hUidre (or Book of the Dun Cow) and the Lebor Laignech (also known as the Book of Leinster) which contains the Dinshenchas (a collection of Old Irish legends and tales which explain and give meaning to Irish place names). Other texts include the Yellow Book of Lecan, the Book of Ballymote, the Books of Lecan and Lismore and the doubtable Lebor Gabala Erenn (or Book of Invasions).
The tales found in these medieval manuscripts comprise four groups or "cycles" which are generally referred to as the Mythological, Ulster, Fenian and Historial Cycles.
The Mythological Cycle deals primarily with the Tuatha de Dannan, a godlike race said to have peopled Ireland before the Sons of Mil, the distant ancestors of the island's current population. The possible Welsh parallel to this Cycle is the medieval manuscript known as "Four Branches of Mabinogi," which includes the magical stories or "branches" of the Welsh characters of Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math.
The Ulster Cycle weaves the tales of the hero CuChulainn and the warriors of King Conchobar of Ulster. The Fenian Cycle (sometimes known as the Ossianic cycle) describes the exploits of the demi-god Finn mac Cumaill and his band, the Fiana. The lives and adventures of the High and provincial Kings of Ireland are the topic of the Historical Cycle.
O lady, should you come to my brave land,
It is golden hair that will be on your head;
Fresh pork, beer, new milk, and ale,
You there with me shall have, O fair lady!"
The stage is set for a long winters tale, the flickering firelight welcomes. Join me in this space in coming months when we will once again evoke the spirits of the great goddesses, gods and heroes of Celtic mythology.