Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

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The Celts of To-day

In view of the undeniably mixed character of the populations called “Celtic” at the present day, it is often urged that this designation has no real relation to any ethnological fact. The Celts who fought with Caesar in Gaul and with the English in Ireland are, it is said, no more—they have perished on a thousand battlefields from Alesia to the Boyne, and an older racial stratum has come to the surface in their place. The true Celts, according to this view, are only to be found in the tall, ruddy Highlanders of Perthshire and North-west Scotland, and in a few families of the old ruling race still surviving in Ireland and in Wales. In all this I think it must be admitted that there is a large measure of truth. Yet it must not be forgotten that the descendants of the Megalithic People at the present day are, on the physical side, deeply impregnated with Celtic blood, and on the spiritual with Celtic traditions and ideals. Nor, again, in discussing these questions of race-character and its origin, must it ever be assumed that the character of a people can be analysed as one analyses a chemical compound, fixing once for all its constituent parts and determining its future behaviour and destiny. Race-character, potent and enduring though it be, is not a dead thing, cast in an iron mould, and thereafter incapable of change and growth. It is part of the living forces of the world; it is plastic and vital; it has hidden potencies which a variety of causes, such as a felicitous cross with a different, but not too different, stock, or—in another sphere—the adoption of a new religious or social ideal, may at any time unlock and bring into action.

Of one thing I personally feel convinced—that the problem of the ethical, social, and intellectual development of the people constituting what is called the [pg 92] “Celtic Fringe” in Europe ought to be worked for on Celtic lines; by the maintenance of the Celtic tradition, Celtic literature, Celtic speech—the encouragement, in short, of all those Celtic affinities of which this mixed race is now the sole conscious inheritor and guardian. To these it will respond, by these it can be deeply moved; nor has the harvest ever failed those who with courage and faith have driven their plough into this rich field. On the other hand, if this work is to be done with success it must be done in no pedantic, narrow, intolerant spirit; there must be no clinging to the outward forms of the past simply because the Celtic spirit once found utterance in them. Let it be remembered that in the early Middle Ages Celts from Ireland were the most notable explorers, the most notable pioneers of religion, science, and speculative thought in Europe.73 Modern investigators have traced their footprints of light over half the heathen continent, and the schools of Ireland were thronged with foreign pupils who could get learning nowhere else. The Celtic spirit was then playing its true part in the world-drama, and a greater it has never played. The legacy of these men should be cherished indeed, but not as a museum curiosity; nothing could be more opposed to their free, bold, adventurous spirit than to let that legacy petrify in the hands of those who claim the heirship or their name and fame.

The Mythical Literature

After the sketch contained in this and the foregoing chapter of the early history of the Celts, and of the forces [pg 93] which have moulded it, we shall now turn to give an account of the mythical and legendary literature in which their spirit most truly lives and shines. We shall not here concern ourselves with any literature which is not Celtic. With all that other peoples have made—as in the Arthurian legends—of myths and tales originally Celtic, we have here nothing to do. No one can now tell how much is Celtic in them and how much is not. And in matters of this kind it is generally the final recasting that is of real importance and value. Whatever we give, then, we give without addition or reshaping. Stories, of course, have often to be summarised, but there shall be nothing in them that did not come direct from the Celtic mind, and that does not exist to-day in some variety, Gaelic or Cymric, of the Celtic tongue.

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The Celtic Cosmogony

Among those secret doctrines about the “nature of things” which, as Cæsar tells us, the Druids never would commit to writing, was there anything in the nature of a cosmogony, any account of the origin of the world and of man? There surely was. It would be strange indeed if, alone among the races of the world, the Celts had no world-myth. The spectacle of the universe with all its vast and mysterious phenomena in heaven and on earth has aroused, first the imagination, afterwards the speculative reason, in every people which is capable of either. The Celts had both in abundance, yet, except for that one phrase about the “indestructibility” of the world handed down to us by Strabo, we know nothing of their early imaginings or their reasonings on this subject. Ireland possesses a copious legendary literature. All of this, no doubt, assumed its present form in Christian times; yet so much essential paganism has been allowed to remain in it that it would be strange if Christian influences had led to the excision of everything in these ancient texts that pointed to a non-Christian conception of the origin of things—if Christian editors and transmitters had never given us even the least glimmer of the existence of such a conception. Yet the fact is that they do not give it; there is nothing in the most ancient legendary literature of the Irish Gaels, which is the oldest Celtic literature in existence, corresponding to the Babylonian conquest of Chaos, or the wild Norse myth of the making of Midgard out of the corpse of Ymir, or the Egyptian creation of the universe out of the primeval Water by Thoth, the Word of God, or even to the primitive folklore [pg 95] conceptions found in almost every savage tribe. That the Druids had some doctrine on this subject it is impossible to doubt. But, by resolutely confining it to the initiated and forbidding all lay speculation on the subject, they seem to have completely stifled the mythmaking instinct in regard to questions of cosmogony among the people at large, and ensured that when their own order perished, their teaching, whatever it was, should die with them.