|THE CELTS, THE ORAL TRADITION,
AND IRISH FOLKLORE
The Seventh Planet of MorganLaFey
Posted with Permission
|Once upon a time, I read a book that began, "the past may be forgotten, but it
never dead." This is a very striking statement but is it true? Just how much
the past has really been forgotten and how much of it has been sculpted into
fantasy, folklore and fairytale.
Long before there was literacy there was genius. As with most ancient cultures
such as the American Indian, the Euro-Indian, the Summerian, the Hebraic and the
Classical World, there has been a tradition of saving the history of the tribe
group through story telling and memorized recounting with poetry or song to
make the retelling easier. What has developed over time as folklore and fairy
tale most probably began in older times as rudimentary metaphysics.
We owe much to the Celts. The Celts were made up of many tribes that lived in
various parts of Europe including Spain, Germany, France, Italy and of course,
the British Isles. They were a people characterized by their observers, who
often their enemies, as warlike, just, righteous, frightening, ferocious, proud,
courageous, often drunken, and very combative. While they may have been
these things they were certainly also pondering, superstitious, artistic, and
To be precise, the Celts first made their entry into the world stage about 600
B.C.E., about one hundred years after the founding of Rome, following their
crossing of the Rhine. One group settled in France and became the Gauls.
Another tribe settled in the Iberian Peninsula and became "great sea traders."
approximately the third century B.C.E., the Celts invaded the Greek world
settling in modern day Turkey. Here they were known as the Galatians (from the
word Gaul or Gaulish) to whom Paul addressed them in a letter, which can be
read in the Galatians of the New Testament. From Gaul, the Celts became the
Britons and as early as 400 B.C.E., moved to the British Islands, where
approximately nine centuries later, would be pushed by the Angles and Saxons
into Cornwall, where they would become the Cornish, and Wales where they
would become the Welsh, and then into Ireland, where they would be known as
Despite the fact that the Celts lived throughout Europe, they were actually made
up of many different "tribes," and were not, at any time, a "cohesive" nation.
There was no real unity. They had different languages, lifestyles and
One thing they did share however was a similar belief in the immanence of the
spirit in this world and the immortality of the soul.
Ireland, the mountainous regions of Wales and the Highlands of Western
Scotland, held a special historical position as the keepers of the Celtic
Because these areas were not invaded by the Romans, and were too difficult to
be invaded by other tribes, the Celtic culture remained basically untouched by
outside influences approximately 300 years longer than anywhere else, and thus
the language, beliefs, and other features remained almost unaltered.
The Celts held close to their pantheon of "gods" and demi-gods. This
assemblage included great leaders, warriors, ghosts, elementals, spirits and
gods and goddesses in the classical sense. In fact, Roman commentators of the
time reflected how pre-occupied the Celts were with their "religion" and its
expression in their everyday life. But was it really just a strange kind of
superstition or a deep strain of mysticism through which one could discover the
mysteries of the divine universe. In order to reach the other world, one
key to unlock the door that held this side and that side apart. The key of
was found in the stories held onto by the keepers of the tales or the Druids and
the lesser Druids, known as Bards and Poets.
The Celts were fascinated by the power of words. Every noble or high family
maintained their own ancestral poets. Some households boasted to have as
many as twenty or thirty "family poets." It is from these poets, who
an oral tradition, that we learn of a race of people that pre-dated the Celts.
of the Celtic foundation myths called
Tuatha De Danaan
or the People of the
Goddess Danu, we learn that Ireland was populated before the Celts "invaded,"
by a people who had built the great barrows and tumuli that dot the landscape to
this day. These people, as described in the myth, are highly skilled in
and craftsmanship. They are described as being taller (than the Celts),
otherworldly beings. These are the people who eventually evolved into being
"the little people," the fairies and other enchanted beings who continually
resurface and who haunt the tombs and fairy mounds they once built. Some
note that calling these larger, more artful aborigines the little people was an
attempt to disguise the Celts' fear and guilt of having exploited and displaced
The people who lived in the dark abyss of time before the People of Danu are
said to have come to the land on the First of May or
, which was sacred
to their God of Death, at a very remote time when Ireland was only one "treeless
plain watered by three lakes and nine rivers." The people increased as time
on and the land stretched by some miracle and the labors of the people
themselves. The Plain grew from one to four and the lakes numbered seven.
The number of people grew from forty-eight to five thousand. The people
prevailed against wars with the Fomors and the three powers of darkness:
winter, evil and death. They were preeminent in their battle against a demon
enjoyed peace for hundreds of years. Then illness struck on Beltaine and they
were all destroyed. Having a premonition of their death, they all gathered on
first plain so that those who lived might better be able to bury those who died.
This plain is identified as
, the Old Plain, and it is now marked by a
mound near Dublin called
, formerly known as
(The Plague Grave of the Partholain People). Following the
, as legend recalls, came a tribe known as
that carried on the
traditions of their forerunners. In any event, those tribes that proceeded the
Celts were considered to be odd and magical and were often referred to as
Children or People of Darkness. Keep in mind then that they were considered to
be the antithesis of the Celts who concerned themselves to be the People of the
Druids, Bards and Poets lived in both in this world and in the world of Fairy.
Fairy or Faery as it is now labeled, is the name generally applied to the Celtic
unseen world. The cosmology of fairy is extensive. There are worlds upon
worlds. There are beings upon beings. There are water nymphs, gnomes,
goblins, Leprechauns, knockers, pixies, godmothers or good mothers, banshees,
changelings, bogeymen, red caps, giants, dwarfs and more. Sometimes Faery
crosses over into this world and touches the mundane briefly, thus changing the
earth-born forever. It is the ideal. It is the supernatural. Once more when
referring to Fairy one sees that there is a historical seed. The concept of an
otherworldly race of beings has been closely associated with the peoples that
were already occupying Ireland, Wales and Scotland when the Celts arrived.
It is worth mentioning that the idea of what a Fairy is today is somewhat
than the Celt faery folk. They were a real presence and their relationship to
mysticism and belief was paramount. In the areas of Brittany, Scotland, Wales,
Ireland, Cornwall and the Isle of Man, Fairies came in many shapes and designs.
They are usually collectively referred to as the Wee Folk but their personality
intentions are not uniform or restricted. They are usually conceived as
very personal experiences to those with whom they have interaction. Beliefs
about fairies include ideas that they are fallen angels, disembodied spirits,
elementals or nature spirits. There remains a strong belief that the dead dwell
among the fairies. Throughout Celtic Fairy lore is a reoccurring idea that
need for human contact on the part of the spirit entities. That these people
Old Plain or Hollow Hills and Mounds have a need to contact us to share their
What is a fairytale? Often repeated by the Singer, Poet or Bard, it was more
a mere story concerning only the mundane. It was a story weaved with threads
of metaphysical suppositions that not only entertained but taught. More often
than not it brought lessons of morality, justice, hope, love, treachery and
fulfillment. Faery is the embodiment of that which populates that other
which if one is lucky either good or bad, divine or brilliant might encounter.
Along with Faery there were also vestiges of magic and objects associated with
otherworldliness such as Sacred Groves of Oak Trees (from which we get the
Oak Man), cauldrons, severed heads, shape shifting, music, maimed body parts
such as a wounded foot or blind eye of a truly enchanted being, deep pools of
water and sacred wells, stones of enchantment (such as Stonehenge), and
mounds of faery or Hollow Hills. These ingredients are more often then not
within the lore and tales reflecting the Celtic cosmology.
In the Celtic "society" there were three branches of authority. There was the
chieftain king, who was "One among many. He was usually the best fighter with
the best horse and the most followers or men. He was not a king in the sense of
an absolute monarch, rather he was a peer with the upmost respect among his
own. The other chieftains so valued "him" that they pledged their support to
The third group were the artisans. They were the crafters and the ones who made
things, such as objects of warfare, swords and such. But between the king and
the artisan, was the "priest." The knower. The Holder of Truth. The Druid.
So important was the keeping of the stories, that the position of the story
often eclipsed that of the king or military leader in the hearts and minds of
people. Was not the position of Merlin (or the Merlin, when it is referred to
being a position rather than a person) of the Tales of King Arthur, the king's
adviser and wizard, more important than that of King Arthur himself? Some
might say that King Arthur was clearly a player in a "drama" created by Merlin.
© 1999 by Morganlafey, All rights in the above article are
No portion may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of the author.