What Are the Major Elements of Celtic Mythology?

Alan Rankin

Celtic mythology refers to the rituals, religious beliefs, and folklore of the ancient Celtic tribes of mainland Europe and the British Isles. A major aspect was polytheism, or the worship of many gods, some of whom differed by region or tribe. Other beliefs included reverence for the human head, for the number three, and for sacred places and other aspects of nature. Celtic mythology also includes many distinctive and fantastic creatures of folklore. This folklore and mythology has had a strong influence on popular culture, religion, and literature throughout history to the present day.

Julius Caesar left historical accounts about early Celtic mythology.
Julius Caesar left historical accounts about early Celtic mythology.

The Celts were the tribal people who populated central Europe beginning around 800 BC. At their greatest extent, Celtic tribes lived in modern-day Germany, France, and England and as far east as Turkey and the Balkans. Most Celtic territory was eventually conquered by the Roman Empire during its heyday. What is now known of early Celtic mythology is the result of speculation and later historical manuscripts, including one written by the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. Druids, the religious caste of Celtic society, sometimes had laws against writing down Celtic religious rites; other records may have been destroyed by Roman conquerors or Christian missionaries.

Some Celtic stories involve the spirits of deceased warriors.
Some Celtic stories involve the spirits of deceased warriors.

It is known that the Celts revered plants such as mistletoe and regarded some sites as sacred locations. These included the places where land met water, such as lakes, riverbanks, and bogs, which were apparently seen as boundaries where gods and mythical creatures could cross into the physical world. Celtic mythology includes numerous gods, some of whom were known only to a particular tribe or family, and others that enjoyed widespread worship. Widely known deities included the warrior god Lugus, or Lugh, and the horse goddess Epona. Many of these beings were said to have triple aspects, such as three faces; the number three was highly significant in Celtic culture, art, and mythology.

Celtic mythology regarded the human head as the dwelling place of the spirit. Heads of enemies were prized war trophies, and many legends refer to saints and heroes reclaiming their heads after death. Myths and folklore of the Celtic people were preserved in medieval documents such as the Mabinogion. Legends of heroic figures such as Beowulf and King Arthur also had their origins in Celtic myths. Celtic folklore includes monsters and ghosts quite unlike the creatures found in mythologies of other lands, such as the black shuck, a dog that appeared at crossroads to foretell disaster, and the pooka, a mischievous guardian spirit.

By the end of the Roman Empire, Celtic culture and language were limited to the British Isles, where they managed to survive in regions such as Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a revival of interest in Celtic culture and art. This included the neopagan spiritual movement that influenced the modern-day Wicca religion and New Age beliefs. Celtic mythology, meanwhile, has influenced a wide range of literature and film, ranging from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to the Jimmy Stewart comedy Harvey. Role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons also borrow liberally from the creatures of Celtic folklore.

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