The students entering Professor Morgan’s classroom are used to any sort of strange sight as they enter the class, but nothing has prepared them for today’s spectacle. Several cauldrons of various sizes are whipping around the room, almost colliding with each other, and then zipping away again.
Noticing that the students do not seem overly eager to take their seats underneath heavy pieces of flying metal, Professor Morgan slows the cauldrons with her wand, and gently guides them down into a pile in the corner, largest to smallest. She blows a bit of hair off of her face, then faces the class with a giddy, yet slightly winded look in her eyes.
I have always been fond of charms. Professor Flitwick was kind enough to teach me that spell before he retired, although I do believe he most famously charmed a large number of keys with it instead of cauldrons!
I am sure that all of you are wondering what on Earth a bunch of old cauldrons have to do with our topic today, but rest assured, cauldrons feature quite prominently in Celtic mythology.
Indeed, it is Celtic mythology that we will be studying during this class and the next, which is far too little time to cover so many great stories and characters, but we shall persevere, nonetheless. Fair warning however, there are two very distinct eras of Celtic mythology: pre-Christian, and post-Christian influence. In this class we will be discussing only the stories from pre-Christian influence, which means there will be no discussion on King Arthur, the Grail, or any other associated characters and incidents. Do not look so disappointed! There will be other opportunities to study these stories, but they are not exactly myths, so they simply do not fit into this class.
Pantheons and Great Families
All of the mythologies we have covered in this class have had a very distinct pantheon. Some of the names may have changed or been adapted to fit local history, but they have remained more or less the same. This pattern changes with the Celtic people.
One very important thing to remember when discussing Celtic myths is that the Celtic people migrated significantly during their time, and therefore there are three distinct areas - often with distinct stories and pantheons as well. These areas are Ireland, Wales, and the mainland - now parts of modern-day France. The two most prevalent pantheons are the descendants of Dagda, also known as Daghda (Ireland) and The Children of Don (or Donn - Welsh), which are depicted below.
Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology
Some of you may be pondering why these charts seem shallow as compared to some of the other civilizations we have covered in this class. The truth is, they are much more complicated. Throughout many stories the genealogy of the gods is discussed, and these stories quite frequently contradict each other. There is so much contradiction, in fact, that scholars simply cannot agree on one interpretation over another. As such, there is not a genealogical chart that I can show you that will work for all of the stories we will discuss. You will simply need to understand each story on its own, disconnected with the others we will encounter.
Another factor that differs from other mythologies I have covered in previous lessons is that Celtic myths focus much more on the heroes than the gods. Certainly, the gods may be involved now and again, but it is the men and women of the great families that make up the vast majority of the myths. The three most notable of these families are those of Ulster, Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn Maccool), and the Children of Llyr (Lir)
There are numerous other characters and genealogies that can be found when closely looking at Celtic mythology, however the ones above are more than sufficient for our brief foray into the topic.
The Celtic Otherworlds
Featuring prominently in Celtic mythology are references to the Otherworld, or Otherworlds. Similar to Norse mythology where Midgard, Niflheim, and the other worlds existed alongside each other, Celtic mythology also features several other parallel worlds to our own. Some scholars believe that these Otherworlds are simply different areas of a singular parallel world, but most believe that they are all separate, as journeys between Otherworlds do not occur in the myths.
The Otherworlds are the realms of the gods, spirits, fairies, elves, and giants. They are said to be the source of magical creatures, items, and practitioners, however their environments varied greatly. You could find yourself in an utopian paradise, or just as likely in hell. The landscape could be wooded or sterile, warm or cold - one could never tell before crossing over. Many characters in the myths travelled to one of these worlds, whether on purpose or by fateful accident, however, within these Otherworlds, time passed at a different rate. You could find yourself spending an hour in one, only to find that a decade or longer had passed in your own world.
Norse mythology featured a physical bridge connecting worlds, however Celtic mythology speaks more of a veil between worlds, a barrier that was thinner or thicker, depending on magical concentration and use, interference of the gods, and the time of year. It was universally acknowledged by the Celts that the veil between worlds was thinnest at Samhain.
One of the most famous Otherworlds was known as Annwn. This Welsh Otherworld was full of lush gardens, places to rest, and soothing bird songs. It was also home to a magical cauldron guarded by nine maidens. This cauldron was said to heal the sick and restore the dead to life. However, even the most beautiful and appealing Otherworld had its dangers. In this case, Arawn, Lord of Annwn, and his pack of hell hounds flew throughout the realm at night in pursuit of human souls. Best not to be out in magical forests after dark, wouldn’t you say?
Another well known Otherworld, this time of the Irish tradition, is Tír na nÓg, sometimes called Tír na hÓige. It is in this Otherworld where the majority of the Irish gods, called the Tuatha dé Danann, dwelled. The gods chose to live in this Otherworld after the arrival of the humans on their shores as it was the realm of everlasting youth, beauty, health, joy, and abundance. Humans were often lured to Tír na nÓg either by its eternalness or by the beauty of one of the gods.
The most famous story involving a human crossing to Tír na nÓg is that of Oisín and Niamh (or Niam). Oisín was a mortal man, son to Fionn mac Cumhaill, who fell in love with Niamh, who was from the Otherworld. Loving him as well, Niamh begged him to come to Tír na nÓg where they could live together, seemingly forever. Aiding Oisín in their journey was a horse that was capable of travelling over water, and together they crossed the veil.
After about three years, Oisín grew terribly homesick and begged Niamh to let him return home to visit. She reluctantly gave him leave, but bade him to stay on the magical horse who would bring him back after his visit. Oisín agreed, and crossed the veil once more.
Upon Oisín’s arrival home, Oisín discovered that 300 years had passed on Earth during his absence. He was so shocked at this realization that he fell off of the magical horse. Alas, once his connection with the magic was broken, his connection to the Earth was renewed and he immediately aged as the missed years caught up to him. He passed away quite quickly.
Keep this in mind, students, whether a spell is mythical or real, always follow the directions. Failure to do so can be dire.
There are numerous Otherworlds in Celtic mythology, however I will leave their discovery to you in the form of one of today’s assignments.
Another common feature in Celtic mythology is the practice of divination, specifically by Druidic seers. As mentioned in Year Four of Ancient Studies, Druids kept no records of any kind. Therefore as we examine the myths involving seers, it is important to note that we are uncertain to this day if these myths are fact, fiction, or, in the most likely scenario, a combination of both. Three of the most famous of these seers are Amairgen (Amergin), Taliesin, and Cathbad.
Amairgen was a very early Druid - one of the first of the Irish Druids. He was also the first High King of Ireland. He is most famous for a historic and lengthy battle, during which he negotiated - through sword and word and most definitely magic - permission to settle Ireland. During the largest sea battle of this conflict, Amairgen worked an incantation to call a great storm. His divinatory abilities made him aware that the casualties on both sides would be extensive, however he was running out of options. The incantation in the myth is more of a poem, and has been translated as follows by the Muggle Lady Gregory Augusta:
"I am the wind on the sea;
I am the wave of the sea;
I am the bull of seven battles;
I am the eagle on the rock
I am a flash from the sun;
I am the most beautiful of plants;
I am a strong wild boar;
I am a salmon in the water;
I am a lake in the plain;
I am the word of knowledge;
I am the head of the spear in battle;
I am the god that puts fire in the head;
Who spreads light in the gathering on the hills?
Who can tell the ages of the moon?
Who can tell the place where the sun rests?
Now I am certain that these words are not really part of the spell. As far as magihistorians can tell, there are no specific incantations in this passage, however if this myth were true, Amairgen would have been using a rune-inscribed staff and the words he said would have been superfluous to the spell - perhaps said even before he actually cast it. Regardless, this is one of the earliest myths to feature a druid.
Perhaps you have heard of our second druidic seer, Taliesin. On occasion you may see Taliesin as another name for Merlin, or as a companion of Merlin and King Arthur, however this is not accurate. They are indeed two different people living in two different times. Taliesin was known to Muggles as the greatest bard. In fact, one of his nicknames was Father of the Bards, for he could spin a great tale. Of course the ability to use charms to enhance those stories went a long way to bolstering his reputation!
It is, though, the lesser known abilities that make Taliesin stand out from the others. It was he who foretold and tried to warn the people about the arrival of the Saxons on their shores. He also warned of the resulting oppression his people would face, as well as his own death. The myths indicate that deep meditation gave him the visions of the future, and that he also journeyed to the Otherworld. It was also thought that he was an animagus who could turn into an eagle.
I’m sure most of you have noticed that Taliesin’s story sounds more historical than mythical. These stories are some of the most difficult for magihistorians to examine and sort into one category or another. I will leave you to decide for yourselves what you wish to believe. Regardless of your choice, you will become part of a debate that has lasted for centuries!
Our final druidic seer of renown is Cathbad, the seer and adviser to King Conchobar mac Nessa of Ulster. A fully trained druid, Cathbad eagerly supported and guided the King, who he believed to be kind and good. In his service, Cathbad foretold the coming of Cuchulainn, one of the greatest heroes of Cetlic mythology (and rather coincidentally Cathbad’s own grandson). Unfortunately, King Conchobar became cruel near the end of his reign. Saddened by the fall of his friend, Cathbad cursed both the King and his stronghold at Emain Macha, seeing that only the coming of Cuchulainn would set the kingdom right again, a story we will examine in much more detail during our next lesson.
One of my favourite Celtic myths has to do with an enchanted pair of shoes. Yes, shoes. Ask any of my colleagues and they will quickly assure you that I have a quite extensive shoe collection, of which a number are enchanted. I have shoes that fly, cause socks to slowly dissolve throughout the day, cause excessive laughter… well, you get the idea.
The shoes in this particular myth allowed the wearer to travel and explore underwater. They belonged to Fergus mac Leda (or Fergus mac Léti), a high king of Ulster. He enjoyed their use greatly, and never tired of his journeys through the rivers and lochs. Alas, during his travels, Fergus had an unfortunate encounter with what is described as a fierce water-horse. In my mind, a kelpie would be a reasonable guess as to the creature described in the myth.
While Fergus survived the encounter, the sight of this creature so terrified him that his face became permanently distorted with fear. Not only was his expression rather unbecoming of a king, but it was also mandatory for the king’s face to be unblemished. Knowing his rule as king was therefore forfeit, Fergus returned to the loch and killed the monster. His face became serene again, however the damage was done. Fergus removed his shoes, and drowned beside the body of his foe. Both heroic and sad, I know. Celtic heroes are human with all the failings and frailties, and their stories ring true because of them.
Don’t look so sad my dears - let’s move on to something a bit less grim before we end the day. Do you remember those cauldrons I was enchanting at the beginning of class? Indeed, how could you forget! Celtic mythology is filled with references to magic cauldrons. In fact, I don’t believe there is another culture on this planet now or in the past who have been so enthralled with a simple cooking instrument.
Cauldrons in Celtic myths varied greatly in terms of sizes, construction, and abilities. A great number of them were made for specific tasks by giants, while some seemed to be regular pots with an enchantment placed on them. Some of the finest cauldrons had jewels encrusted around them while others were plain and black. Some of them were small enough to tuck in your pocket, while others required a giant to carry them. Regardless, all were quite powerful.
Most of the cauldrons were enchanted with abilities to aid those in need. Some had healing powers, such as the cauldron of Annwn that we discussed earlier, while others were overflowing with food or even bestowed great knowledge upon the user. Others helped in a way that may not be interpreted as “good” with our current ethical, moral, and legal values, such as the cauldron that could create armies. It was not really the armies that were the problem - it was that the armies were comprised of mindless warriors brought back from the dead. Necromancy is most certainly frowned upon. Pay close attention to the myths we examine during our next class for you will certainly spot a cauldron or two within them!
Indeed it is time for our class to end. Today’s assignments are threefold: a quiz on the material covered in class, a short research essay on Celtic Otherworlds, and a creative assignment on cauldrons. Until we meet again.
Cotterell, Arthur & Storm, Rachel. 1999. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. Hermes House Anness Publishing Ltd. New York.
Kerrigan, Michael. 2016. Celtic Legends: Heroes and Warriors, Myths and Monsters. Amber Books Ltd. London.