What is the Real Celtic Creation Myth?
A bard travels through the streets, gathering an audience as he goes, and then starts to recall the adventures of heroes and the tales of the gods. In the ancient world, word of mouth was one of the ways for information to travel. Within the annals of history, nothing gives us a clearer window into the ancient world than mythology. By understanding what the ancients believed, we can start to understand their thinking. According to psychiatrist Carl Jung, “Myth is a necessary aspect of the human psyche which needs to find meaning and order in the world.”
According to the Oxford dictionary, the literal translation of “myth” is “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.”
Our ancestors created mythology to explain all the things that happened around them. Unlike today, when we have science to help make sense of the world around us, they explained natural phenomenon as acts of divine power. For us they may be simple myths, but for the ancients it was their reality. It was the same for the Celtic people who saw no borders between the natural and supernatural. Thus, like most ancient societies, everything in nature had a religious significance.
An artistic rendering of the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill. ( The Commons )
Who were the Celts?
When one thinks about the Celtic people, one imagines painted warriors and mysterious Druids. They were a nomadic, war-like people, whose origins can be traced back to the second millennium BC and to the city of Hallstatt, from where archaeologists believe the Celts emerged. It wasn’t until the start of the first millennium BC that the Celts began their expansion across Europe.
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In lands where the Celts came as conquerors, it is no surprise that they may have had a significant impact upon not just languages and traditions, but also upon mythology. As history teaches us, whenever people are conquered, they adopt, whether by coercion or free-will, the religious beliefs of the conqueror.
But the versions of religion that emerge are often adapted to fit the mythology and beliefs of the invaded people. Just as the Romans had incorporated Isis, the Egyptian goddess, into their pantheon, so too the people of Europe would have adopted some of the Celtic gods, but kept their own religious beliefs, thus creating a mix.
Unfortunately, the ancient Celts left virtually no written records of their own existence, much of what we know comes from archaeological evidence. Writings from Greece and Rome shed some light into the life of the Celtic people, however, we must be careful about believing what is written. The authors are providing us with a second-hand account of what they believe the Celts were like and there may be biases.
1st century statue of a Celtic goddess, probably Brigantia (Brigitte). ( CC0)
In the book The Mythology of All Races (Volume 3) , author John Arnot writes about how the Roman influence may have done immense harm to Celtic beliefs. He writes:
“The influences of Roman civilization and religion were fatal to the oral mythology taught by Druids, who were ruthlessly extirpated, while the old religion was assimilated to that of Rome. The gods were equated with Roman gods, who tended to take their place; the people became Romanized and forgot their old beliefs.”
The Druids that are mentioned in the passage were among the learned class, acting as priests, teachers, healers and judges, among other things. They were the ones who held the primary role of passing down knowledge to the next generation, to ensure that their religion continued. Unfortunately, they passed that knowledge down through oral tradition, and so the existence of Druids is known to us primarily thanks to Julius Caesar. Although there were earlier records documenting the existence of this religious order, it wasn’t until Caesar’s account that the most complete information about the Druids was provided. In early Celtic literature, the Druids have been represented as prophets and magicians.
John Arnot also writes:
“The myths of the Continental Celts were probably never committed to writing. They were contained in the sacred verses taught by the Druids, but it was not lawful to write them down; they were tabu, and doubtless their value would have vanished if they had been set forth in script.”
Druids inciting the Britons to oppose the landing of the Romans – from Cassell's ‘History of England,’ Vol. I. ( Public Domain )
It was not just the Celts, but all civilizations had their respective creation myths, like the Greeks, who believed that the Earth was created by Gaia. A being that emerged from chaos, Gaia created the various gods and creatures. From there the mythology of the Greeks expanded and helped people explain how everything happened around them.
Similarly, in Chinese mythology, the god Pangu, also born from chaos, created heaven and the earth. Egyptian history has several creation myths, and so despite all the information that we have uncovered through archaeological evidence, there are still things that we need to learn about ancient myths. Because of the lack of written data about the Celts, it is impossible to be sure of their true creation myth; but people still speculate. Some of the known myths will be addressed.
The Story of Donn and Danu
Myths as we know them, seldom existed as the Celtic people knew them. Instead, many of them have been altered in numerous ways, due to pseudo-history, romance, and even the influence of Christianity. Hence, there are many versions of the Celtic creation myth.
One version is told in “A tale of Great love: A reconstructed Gaelic Creation Myth” that was written by Iain MacAnTsaoir. Within the story, Donn and Danu are the first two gods and it is from them that creation stems. As the story goes:
“Long, long ago the great void produced a god and goddess, named Donn and Danu. When they looked at each other a sacred flame burned in their hearts. They locked into a loving embrace from which they could not be separated.”
After a while like most couples within mythology, the couple had children, who were caught between their interlocked parents. Within Greek mythology, Cronos ate his children, in order to prevent them from overthrowing him. Even though there is no such thing mentioned within the Celtic myth, the trapped children needed to free themselves. Thus, one of the sons, Briain, convinced his mother to let go of her embrace. Danu’s love for her children won, and she allowed her son to slay her husband.
A Gaul mother goddess – a.k.a. a Matrona. National Archaeology Museum, England. ( Public Domain )
“Briain’s fury was so great that he cut his father into nine parts. Danu was horrified by what she had seen and started to cry. Her tears swelled into a great flood that swept away all her children to earth. This is how Danu became known as the “Water of Heaven.” The waters also washed away the nine parts of Donn. His head became the skies, his brain the clouds, his face the sun, his mind the moon, his bones the stones and his breath the wind. Donn’s blood mixed with Danu’s tears and became the seas.”
The Tree of Life Version
Another Celtic creation myth is the ‘Tree of Life’, which is a re-construction by a team assembled at the Gerry Tobin Language school, New York, in 2002. They tried to re-construct the origin tale using surviving information regarding the Celts. It is as follows:
“Once upon a time, when there was no time, no gods or humans walked the surface of the land. But there was the sea, and where the sea met the land, a mare was born, white and made of seafoam. And her name was Eiocha.
Not far from where the land met the sea, a tree grew, a strong and sturdy oak. On the oak grew a plant whose seeds were formed of the foam tears of the sea. To sustain her, Eiocha ate the seeds, these white berries, and they were transformed within her.
Eiocha grew heavy with child and gave birth to the god, Cernunnos. So great was her pain in childbirth that she ripped bark from the one tree and hurled it into the sea. The bark was transformed by the sea and became the giants of the deep.
Cernunnos was lonely and he saw the giants of the deep who were numerous, so he coupled with Eiocha and of their union came the gods, Maponos, Tauranis, and Teutates, and the goddess, Epona.
From then onwards the oak tree was used by the gods to create the first man and woman, as well as all the animals of the world. The gods used the tree to create thunder and lighting, a harp which was the creation of music.
“The giants of the deep sea became jealous of the gods on land and all the things they were creating so they set out to flood the land with sea and take the land completely under water. The gods of the land were prepared for the attack of the giants of the deep and they took refuge in the big oak tree, using it all, all they had created with it to protect themselves and the creatures of the land. The giants of the deep were slayed and returned to the sea and were then bound there by the gods.”
Epona. ( THIERRY /Adobe Stock)
Giants and Tuatha De Danann
There is another Celtic myth that involves giants as the original gods who created the earth. It goes:
“The tale is related that in the first winter, an enormous powerful giant was created from “hoarfrost.”
Fire came and then melted the giant. The remnants of his body formed the various parts of our universe. The giant’s body formed the world. His blood flowed freely creating the seas and oceans.
The mountains were created from his bones. The forests and trees sprung from his hair and his skull became the sky.
At the core or heart of the earth within, the gods were thought to live on mountainous hills, and below in the valleys the Underworld boiled with secrets and was the home of the dead.”
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Lastly, is the Irish creation myth of the Tuatha De Danann, who were a god-like race that travelled to Ireland. Their name literally translated means “the people of the god whose mother is Dana.” According to records, they travelled to Erin from the northern islands of Greece around 2000 BC. In the story, they possessed gifts of magic and druidism, which gave them the power to rule the country undefeated. That is until they were defeated by the Milesians, ancestors of the Irish.
John Duncan's "Riders of the Sidhe" (1911) Tuatha de Dannan. ( Public Domain )
Is there No True Celtic Creation Myth?
According to Kris Hughes, there is no such thing as a Celtic creation myth. She has been extensively studying Celtic mythology, and although there may be many myths that are available through the internet, they are mostly re-constructions. She claims there is nothing from Celtic Gaul, Ireland, or Wales, that can be called a creation myth.
The Celts may have had an ancient creation myth, passed from one generation to the next by verbal communication, taught by the Druids. When the Romans invaded and fought the Celts, the Druids and others who had a firm grasp of the ancient knowledge may have perished, and with them the full creation account. Thus, we are likely left with fragments and whispers of the original.
Even though we may have lost the original Celtic creation myth, it does not dim the effect that Celtic mythology has had on the world. They have inspired the imagination of writers and poets, who have provided us with many retellings in an attempt to fill in the spaces left to us.
Top image: Mystical shamanic ritual. Photo By: Andrey Kiselev / Adobe Stock
By Khadija Tauseef
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