The Celts lived in England and northern Europe from pre-Christian times. Some scholars believe they migrated from India because of similarities between the ancient Celtic and Vedic languages. Their culture has always been characterized by a fascination with mystery, mysticism, and enchantment, and what I love about Celtic myth is the amount of imagination they put into it, how it seems to expand forever in all directions, constantly revealing new secrets to scare and surprise us.
The Sons of Tuirenn
For example, in this tragic story of a feud between two warrior clans, the mighty sons of Tuirenn are riding across a plain when they see Cian, son of Ciante, coming towards them. Alarmed, Cian turns himself into a pig, but his three opponents become hounds and kill him.
When Lugh Lumfada, Cian’s son, learns what has happened from the stones of the earth, he demands that the murderers pay him an unusual fine: three apples, the skin of a pig, a spear, two horses and a chariot, seven swine, a hound-pup, a cooking spit, and “three shouts to be delivered on a hill.”
Relieved to have gotten off so lightly, the sons of Turienn accept their punishment. But Lugh Lamfada has tricked them. The apples he has in mind are from the Garden of the Hesperides, golden in color and as big as a month-old child; the skin of the pig is the skin of a special pig that can turn water into wine; the spear belongs to a king of Persia and has to be kept in a special cauldron to prevent it from killing everyone around it, etc. This questing part of the story recalls the twelve labors of Hercules as well as the Quest for Olwen in later Arthurian legend.
But probably my favorite part of this story is the boys’ use of transportation. They’re able to cut across land by use of a fabulous horse named Aonbharr that can gallop anywhere in the world within seconds, and across water by use of the Wave Sweeper, a boat that instantly transports them wherever they want to go.
Following the death of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart.” The Irish are a tragic folk, and the sadness is reflected in much of their storytelling. Although the three brothers are triumphant in their quest, “The Sons of Tuirenn” ends with Eithne, the sister, singing a lament over a pile of bodies.
When the story of the Children of Lir begins, Lir the ocean god has just suffered a double defeat. The Bodb Dearg has been chosen as king of the gods instead of him, and his beloved wife is dead. Hoping to console him, Bodb Dearg arranges a marriage with Aobh, his youngest daughter.
So Lir is comforted after the death of his wife, and in time Aobh bears him two sets of twins: the first, a boy and a girl named Aodh and Fionnghuala; the second, two boys named Fiachra and Conn. But when Aobh dies in childbirth, Lir takes to wife Aiofe of the autumn tresses, who is intensely jealous of the love Lir had borne for her older sister, and devotes her time to learning the dark arts of the Druids.
In high rage, Aoife bewitches the four children of Lir and transforms them into swans. It is a spell that remains unbroken for 900 years. Yet the four swans retain the ability to make human speech, and the gift of sweet music which calms anyone who hears it.
Of all the stories that have been passed down to us by the Celts, this may be the saddest. The children are forced to flee far away from their home and father and live on the stormy and turbulent Sea of Moyle, the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland. There they are battered by wild, wailing winds and have to make their way alone up desolate and rocky outcrops. “There is no shelter, no rest for me,” laments Fionnghuala. “Gone are my loved ones in the bitter night; gone is everything but my grief.”
And after nine centuries of suffering, the swans return home—only to find that their father, and all the gods, have been driven away.
This story reflects some of the tensions that existed between pagans and the new Christian religion that was sweeping across Ireland in the early Middle Ages. In the process of time the once-mighty gods were all but forgotten. Legend relegated them to the hills, where they became the fairy folk of so many later stories. Lugh Lamfada, the sun god, the god of all arts and crafts, was transformed into the mischievous leprechaun.
Tomorrow we’ll look at two of the funniest and weirdest of all Celtic stories, “The Ben-Varrey” (“The Mermaid”) and “The Lossyr-ny-Keylley” (“The Land of the Goldfinch”), from the Isle of Man.