Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

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“Cæsar's Conquest of Gaul” may be taken as an admirable summary of the social physiognomy of that part of Celtica a little before the time of the Christian era, and it corresponds closely to all that is known of the native Irish civilisation:

The Gallic peoples had risen far above the condition of savages; and the Celticans of the interior, many of whom had already fallen under Roman influence, had attained a certain degree of civilisation, and even of luxury. Their trousers, from which the province took its name of Gallia Bracata, and their many-coloured tartan skirts and cloaks excited the astonishment of their conquerors. The chiefs wore rings and bracelets and necklaces of gold; and when these tall, fair-haired warriors rode forth to battle, with their helmets wrought in the shape of some fierce beast's head, and surmounted by nodding plumes, their chain armour, their long bucklers and their huge clanking swords, they made a splendid show. Walled towns or large villages, the strongholds of the various tribes, were conspicuous on numerous hills. The plains were dotted by scores of oper hamlets. The houses, built of timber and wickerwork, were large and well thatched. The fields in summer were yellow with corn. Roads ran from town to town. Rude bridges spanned the rivers; and barges laden with merchandise floated along them. Ships clumsy indeed [pg 44] but larger than any that were seen on the Mediterranean, braved the storms of the Bay of Biscay and carried cargoes between the ports of Brittany and the coast of Britain. Tolls were exacted on the goods which were transported on the great waterways; and it was from the farming of these dues that the nobles derived a large part of their wealth. Every tribe had its coinage; and the knowledge of writing in Greek and Roman characters was not confined to the priests. The Æduans were familiar with the plating of copper and of tin. The miners of Aquitaine, of Auvergne, and of the Berri were celebrated for their skill. Indeed, in all that belonged to outward prosperity the peoples of Gaul had made great strides since their kinsmen first came into contact with Rome.Dolmen at Proleek, Ireland
Dolmen at Proleek, Ireland

(After Borlase)

A dolmen, it may be here explained, is a kind of chamber composed of upright unhewn stones, and roofed generally with a single huge stone. They are usually wedge-shaped in plan, and traces of a porch or vestibule can often be noticed. The primary intention of the dolmen was to represent a house or dwelling-place for the dead. A cromlech (often confused in popular language with the dolmen) is properly a circular arrangement of standing stones, often with a dolmen in their midst. It is believed that most [pg 54] if not all of the now exposed dolmens were originally covered with a great mound of earth or of smaller stones. Sometimes, as in the illustration we give from Carnac, in Brittany, great avenues or alignments are formed of single upright stones, and these, no doubt, had some purpose connected with the ritual of worship carried on in the locality. The later megalithic monuments, as at Stonehenge, may be of dressed stone, but in all cases their rudeness of construction, the absence of any sculpturing (except for patterns or symbols incised on the surface), the evident aim at creating a powerful impression by the brute strength of huge monolithic masses, as well as certain subsidiary features in their design which shall be described later on, give these megalithic monuments a curious family likeness and mark them out from the chambered tombs of the early Greeks, of the Egyptians, and of other more advanced races. The dolmens proper gave place in the end to great chambered mounds or tumuli, as at New Grange, which we also reckon as belonging to the Megalithic People. They are a natural development of the dolmen. The early dolmen-builders were in the neolithic stage of culture, their weapons were of polished stone. But in the tumuli not only stone, but also bronze, and even iron, instruments are found—at first evidently importations, but afterwards of local manufacture.

Origin of the Megalithic People

Prehistoric Tumulus at New Grange
Prehistoric Tumulus at New Grange

Photograph by R. Welch, Belfast

The language originally spoken by this people can only be conjectured by the traces of it left in that of their conquerors, the Celts.Stone Alignments at Kermaris, Carnac

Stone Alignments at Kermaris, Carnac

Arthur G. Bell

There were three peoples, said Cæsar, inhabiting Gaul when his conquest began; “they differ from each other in language, in customs, and in laws.” These people he named respectively the Belgæ, the Celtæ, and the Aquitani. He locates them roughly, the Belgæ in the north and east, the Celtæ in the middle, and the Aquitani in the west and south. The Belgæ are the Galatæ of Bertrand, the Celtæ are the Celts, and the Aquitani are the Megalithic People. They had, of course, all been more or less brought under Celtic influences, and the differences of language which Cæsar noticed need not have been great; still it is noteworthy, and quite in accordance with Bertrand's views, that Strabo speaks of the Aquitani as differing markedly from the rest of the inhabitants, and as [pg 59] resembling the Iberians. The language of the other Gaulish peoples, he expressly adds, were merely dialects of the same tongue.

The Religion of Magic

This triple division is reflected more or less in all the Celtic countries, and must always be borne in mind when we speak of Celtic ideas and Celtic religion, and try to estimate the contribution of the Celtic peoples to European culture. The mythical literature and the art of the Celt have probably sprung mainly from the section represented by the Lowland Celts of Bertrand. But this literature of song and saga was produced by a bardic class for the pleasure and instruction of a proud, chivalrous, and warlike aristocracy, and would thus inevitably be moulded by the ideas of this aristocracy. But it would also have been coloured by the profound influence of the religious beliefs and observances entertained by the Megalithic People—beliefs which are only now fading slowly away in the spreading daylight of science. These beliefs may be summed up in the one term Magic. The nature of this religion of magic must now be briefly discussed, for it was a potent element in the formation of the body of myths and legends with which we have afterwards to deal. And, as Professor Bury remarked in his Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge, in 1903:

For the purpose of prosecuting that most difficult of all inquiries, the ethnical problem, the part played by race in the development of peoples and the effects of race-blendings, it must be remembered that the Celtic world commands one of the chief portals of ingress into that mysterious pre-Aryan foreworld, from which it may well be that we modern Europeans have inherited far more than we dream.
[pg 60]

The ultimate root of the word Magic is unknown, but proximately it is derived from the Magi, or priests of Chaldea and Media in pre-Aryan and pre-Semitic times, who were the great exponents of this system of thought, so strangely mingled of superstition, philosophy, and scientific observation. The fundamental conception of magic is that of the spiritual vitality of all nature. This spiritual vitality was not, as in polytheism, conceived as separated from nature in distinct divine personalities. It was implicit and immanent in nature; obscure, undefined, invested with all the awfulness of a power whose limits and nature are enveloped in impenetrable mystery. In its remote origin it was doubtless, as many facts appear to show, associated with the cult of the dead, for death was looked upon as the resumption into nature, and as the investment with vague and uncontrollable powers, of a spiritual force formerly embodied in the concrete, limited, manageable, and therefore less awful form of a living human personality. Yet these powers were not altogether uncontrollable. The desire for control, as well as the suggestion of the means for achieving it, probably arose from the first rude practices of the art of healing. Medicine of some sort was one of the earliest necessities of man. And the power of certain natural substances, mineral or vegetable, to produce bodily and mental effects often of a most startling character would naturally be taken as signal evidence of what we may call the “magical” conception of the universe.35 The first magicians were those who attained a special knowledge of healing or poisonous herbs; but “virtue” of some sort being attributed to every natural object and phenomenon, [pg 61] a kind of magical science, partly the child of true research, partly of poetic imagination, partly of priestcraft, would in time spring up, would be codified into rites and formulas, attached to special places and objects, and represented by symbols. The whole subject has been treated by Pliny in a remarkable passage which deserves quotation at length:

Pliny on the Religion of Magic

Magic is one of the few things which it is important to discuss at some length, were it only because, being the most delusive of all the arts, it has everywhere and at all times been most powerfully credited. Nor need it surprise us that it has obtained so vast an influence, for it has united in itself the three arts which have wielded the most powerful sway over the spirit of man. Springing in the first instance from Medicine—a fact which no one can doubt—and under cover of a solicitude for our health, it has glided into the mind, and taken the form of another medicine, more holy and more profound. In the second place, bearing the most seductive and flattering promises, it has enlisted the motive of Religion, the subject on which, even at this day, mankind is most in the dark. To crown all it has had recourse to the art of Astrology; and every man is eager to know the future and convinced that this knowledge is most certainly to be obtained from the heavens. Thus, holding the minds of men enchained in this triple bond, it has extended its sway over many nations, and the Kings of Kings obey it in the East.

“In the East, doubtless, it was invented—in Persia and by Zoroaster.Stones from Brittany sculptured with Footprints, Axes, “Finger-markings,” &c.

Stones from Brittany sculptured with Footprints, Axes, “Finger-markings,” &c.


Holed Stones

Dolmen at Trie, France
Dolmen at Trie, France

(After Gailhabaud)

Another singular and as yet unexplained feature which appears in many of these monuments, from Western Europe to India, is the presence of a small hole bored through one of the stones composing the chamber. Was it an aperture intended for the spirit of the dead? or for offerings to them? or the channel through which revelations from the spirit-world were supposed to come to a priest or magician? or did it partake of all these characters? Holed stones, not forming part of a dolmen, are, of course, among the commonest relics of the ancient cult, and are still venerated and used in practices connected [pg 66] with child-bearing, &c. Here we are doubtless to interpret the emblem as a symbol of sex.

Dolmens in the Deccan, India
Dolmens in the Deccan, India

(After Meadows-Taylor)


Besides the heavenly bodies, we find that rivers, trees, mountains, and stones were all objects of veneration among this primitive people. Stone-worship was particularly common, and is not so easily explained as the worship directed toward objects possessing movement and vitality. Possibly an explanation of the veneration attaching to great and isolated masses of unhewn stone may be found in their resemblance to the artificial dolmens and cromlechs.40 No superstition has proved more enduring. In A.D. 452 we find the Synod of Arles denouncing those who “venerate trees and wells and stones,” and the denunciation was repeated by Charlemagne, and by numerous Synods and Councils down to recent times. Yet a drawing, here reproduced, which was lately made on the spot by Mr. Arthur BellStone-worship at Locronan, Brittany

Cup-and-Ring Markings

Cup-and-ring Markings from Scotland
Cup-and-ring Markings from Scotland

(After Sir J. Simpson)

Another singular emblem, upon the meaning of which no light has yet been thrown, occurs frequently in connexion with megalithic monuments. The accompanying illustrations show examples of it. Cup-shaped hollows are made in the surface of the stone, these are often surrounded with concentric rings, and from the cup one or more radial lines are drawn to a point outside the circumference of the rings. Occasionally a system of cups are joined by these lines, but more frequently they end a little way outside the widest of the rings. These strange markings are found in Great Britain and Ireland, in Brittany, and at various places in [pg 68] India, where they are called mahadéos.42 I have also found a curious example—for such it appears to be—in Dupaix' “Monuments of New Spain.” It is reproduced in Lord Kingsborough's “Antiquities of Mexico,” vol. iv. On the circular top of a cylindrical stone, known as the “Triumphal Stone,” is carved a central cup, with nine concentric circles round it, and a duct or channel cut straight from the cup through all the circles to the rim. Except that the design here is richly decorated and accurately drawn, it closely resembles a typical European cup-and-ring marking. That these markings mean something, and that, wherever they are found, they mean the same thing, can hardly be doubted, but what that meaning is remains yet a puzzle to antiquarians. The guess may perhaps be hazarded that they are diagrams or plans of a megalithic sepulchre. The central hollow represents the actual burial-place. The circles are the standing stones, fosses, and ramparts which often surrounded it; and the line or duct drawn from the centre outwards represents the subterranean approach to the sepulchre. The apparent “avenue” intention of the duct is clearly brought out in the varieties given below, which I take from Simpson. As the sepulchre was also a holy place or shrine, the occurrence of a representation of it among other carvings of a sacred character is natural enough; it would seem symbolically to indicate that the place was holy ground. How far this suggestion might apply to the Mexican example I am unable to say.

Varieties of Cup-and-ring Markings
Varieties of Cup-and-ring Markings
[pg 69]

The Tumulus at New Grange

One of the most important and richly sculptured of European megalithic monuments is the great chambered tumulus of New Grange, on the northern bank of the Boyne, in Ireland. This tumulus, and the others which occur in its neighbourhood, appear in ancient Irish mythical literature in two different characters, the union of which is significant. They are regarded on the one hand as the dwelling-places of the Sidhe (pronounced Shee), or Fairy Folk, who represent, probably, the deities of the ancient Irish, and they are also, traditionally, the burial-places of the Celtic High Kings of pagan Ireland. The story of the burial of King Cormac, who was supposed to have heard of the Christian faith long before it was actually preached in Ireland by St. Patrick and who ordered that he should not be buried at the royal cemetery by the Boyne, on account of its pagan associations, points to the view that this place was the centre of a pagan cult involving more than merely the interment of royal personages in its precincts. Unfortunately these monuments are not intact; they were opened and plundered by the Danes in the ninth century,Entrance to Tumulus at New Grange

Entrance to Tumulus at New Grange

Photograph by R. Welch, Belfast

The Ship Symbol at New Grange

Another remarkable and, as far as Ireland goes, unusual figure is found sculptured in the west recess at New Grange. It has been interpreted by various critics as a mason's mark, a piece of Phoenician writing, a group of numerals, and finally (and no doubt correctly) by Mr. George Coffey as a rude representation of a ship with men on board and uplifted sail. It is noticeable that just above it is a small circle, forming, apparently, part of the design. Another example occurs at Dowth.

[pg 72]
Solar Ship (with Sail?) from New Grange, Ireland
Solar Ship (with Sail?) from New Grange, Ireland

The significance of this marking, as we shall see, is possibly very great. It has been discovered that on certain stones in the tumulus of Locmariaker, in Brittany,47 there occur a number of very similar figures, one of them showing the circle in much the same relative position as at New Grange. The axe, an Egyptian hieroglyph for godhead and a well-known magical emblem, is also represented on this stone. Again, in a brochure by Dr. Oscar Montelius on the rock-sculptures of Sweden<<<