Sacred Texts  Legends/Sagas  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

p. 8



We may begin by asserting with confidence that Mr. Elton has touched upon a part only of the material on which we may draw, to reconstruct the ancient British mythology. Luckily, we are not wholly dependent upon the difficult tasks of resolving the fabled deeds of apocryphal Irish and British kings who reigned earlier than St. Patrick or before Julius Caesar into their original form of Celtic myths, of sifting the attributes and miracles of doubtfully historical saints, or of separating the primitive pagan elements in the legends of Arthur and his Knights from the embellishments added by the romance-writers. We have, in addition to these--which we may for the present put upon one side as secondary--sources, a mass of genuine early writings which, though post-Christian in the form in which they now exist, none the less descend from the pre-ceding pagan age. These are contained in vellum and parchment manuscripts long preserved from destruction in mansions and monasteries in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and only during the last century brought to light, copied, and translated by the patient labours of scholars who have grappled with

p. 9

the long-obsolete dialects in which they were transcribed.

Many of these volumes are curious miscellanies. Usually the one book of a great house or monastic community, everything was copied into it that the scholar of the family or brotherhood thought to be best worth preserving. Hence they contain matter of the most diverse kind. There are translations of portions of the Bible and of the classics, and of such then popular books as Geoffrey of Monmouth's and Nennius’ Histories of Britain; lives of famous saints, together with works attributed to them; poems and romances of which, under a thin disguise, the old Gaelic and British gods are the heroes; together with treatises on all the subjects then studied--grammar, prosody, law, history, geography, chronology, and the genealogies of important chiefs.

The majority of these documents were put together during a period which, roughly speaking, lasted from the beginning of the twelfth century to the end of the sixteenth. In Ireland, in Wales, and, apparently, also in Scotland, it was a time of literary revival after the turmoils of the previous epoch. In Ireland, the Norsemen, after long ravaging, had settled peacefully down, while in Wales, the Norman Conquest had rendered the country for the first time comparatively quiet. The scattered remains of history, lay and ecclesiastical, of science, and of legend were gathered together.

Of the Irish manuscripts, the earliest, and, for our purposes, the most important, on account of the great store of ancient Gaelic mythology which, in

p. 10

spite of its dilapidated condition, it still contains, is in the possession of the Royal Irish Academy. Unluckily, it is reduced to a fragment of one hundred and thirty-eight pages, but this remnant preserves a large number of romances relating to the old gods and heroes of Ireland. Among other things, it contains a complete account of the epical saga called the Táin Bó Chuailgné, the "Raiding of the Cattle of Cooley", in which the hero, Cuchulainn, performed his greatest feats. This manuscript is called the Book of the Dun Cow, from the tradition that it was copied from an earlier book written upon the skin of a favourite animal belonging to Saint Ciaran, who lived in the seventh century. An entry upon one of its pages reveals the name of its scribe, one Maelmuiri, whom we know to have been killed by robbers in the church of Clonmacnois in the year 1106.

Far more voluminous, and but little less ancient, is the Book of Leinster, said to have been compiled in the early part of the twelfth century by Finn mac Gorman, Bishop of Kildare. This also contains an account of Cuchulainn's mighty deeds which supplements the older version in the Book of the Dun Cow. Of somewhat less importance from the point of view of the student of Gaelic mythology come the Book of Ballymote and the Yellow Book of Lecan, belonging to the end of the fourteenth century, and the Books of Lecan and of Lismore, both attributed to the fifteenth. Besides these six great collections, there survive many other manuscripts which also contain ancient mythical lore. In one of these, dating from the fifteenth century, is to be found the

p. 11

story of the Battle of Moytura, fought between the gods of Ireland and their enemies, the Fomors, or demons of the deep sea.

The Scottish manuscripts, preserved in the Advocates’ Library at Edinburgh, date back in some cases as far as the fourteenth century, though the majority of them belong to the fifteenth and sixteenth. They corroborate the Irish documents, add to the Cuchulainn saga, and make a more special subject of the other heroic cycle, that which relates the not less wonderful deeds of Finn, Ossian, and the Fenians, They also contain stories of other characters, who, more ancient than either Finn or Cuchulainn, are the Tuatha Dé Danann, the god-tribe of the ancient Gaels.

The Welsh documents cover about the same period as the Irish and the Scottish. Four of these stand out from the rest, as most important. The oldest is the Black Book of Caermarthen, which dates from the third quarter of the twelfth century; the Book of Aneurin, which was written late in the thirteenth; the Book of Taliesin, assigned to the fourteenth; and the Red Book of Hergest, compiled by various persons during that century and the one following it. The first three of these "Four Ancient Books of Wales" are small in size, and contain poems attributed to the great traditional bards of the sixth century, Myrddin, Taliesin, and Aneurin. The last--the Red Book of Hergest--is far larger. In it are to be found Welsh translations of the British Chronicles; the oft-mentioned Triads, verses celebrating famous traditionary persons or things;

p. 12

ancient poems attributed to Llywarch Hên; and, of priceless value to any study of our subject, the so-called Mabinogion, stories in which large portions of the old British mythology are worked up into romantic form.

The whole bulk, therefore, of the native literature bearing upon the mythology of the British Islands may be attributed to a period which lasted from the beginning of the twelfth century to the end of the sixteenth. But even the commencement of this era will no doubt seem far too late a day to allow authenticity to matter which ought to have vastly preceded it. The date, however, merely marks the final redaction of the contents of the manuscripts into the form in which they now exist, without bearing at all upon the time of their authorship. Avowedly copies of ancient poems and tales from much older manuscripts, the present books no more fix the period of the original composition of their contents than the presence of a portion of the Canterbury Tales in a modern anthology of English poetry would assign Chaucer to the present year of grace.

This may be proved both directly and inferentially. 1 In some instances--as in that of an elegy upon Saint Columba in the Book of the Dun Cow--the dates of authorship are actually given. In others, we may depend upon evidence which, if not quite so absolute, is nearly as convincing. Even where the writer does not state that he is copying from older manuscripts,

p. 13

it is obvious that this must have been the case, from the glosses in his version. The scribes of the earlier Gaelic manuscripts very often found, in the documents from which they themselves were copying, words so archaic as to be unintelligible to the readers of their own period. To render them comprehensible, they were obliged to insert marginal notes which explained these obsolete words by reference to other manuscripts more ancient still. Often the mediæval copyists have ignorantly moved these notes from the margin into the text, where they remain, like philological fossils, to give evidence of previous forms of life. The documents from which they were taken have perished, leaving the mediæval copies as their sole record. In the Welsh Mabinogion the same process is apparent. Peculiarities in the existing manuscripts show plainly enough that they must have been copied from some more archaic text. Besides this, they are, as they at present stand, obviously made up of earlier tales pieced together. Almost as clearly as the Gaelic manuscripts, the Welsh point us back to older and more primitive forms.

The ancient legends of the Gael and the Briton are thus shown to have been no mere inventions of scholarly monks in the Middle Ages. We have now to trace, if possible, the date, not necessarily of their first appearance on men's lips, but of their first redaction into writing in approximately the form in which we have them now.

Circumstantial evidence can he adduced to prove that the most important portions both of Gaelic

p. 14

and British early literature can be safely relegated to a period of several centuries prior to their now-existing record. Our earliest version of the episode of the Táin Bó Chuailgné, which is the nucleus and centre of the ancient Gaelic heroic cycle of which Cuchulainn, fortissimus heros Scotorum, is the principal figure, is found in the twelfth-century Book of the Dun Cow. But legend tells us that at the beginning of the seventh century the Saga had not only been composed, but had actually become so obsolete as to have been forgotten by the bards. Their leader, one Senchan Torpeist, a historical character, and chief bard of Ireland at that time, obtained permission from the Saints to call Fergus, Cuchulainn's contemporary, and a chief actor in the "Raid", from the dead, and received from the resurrected hero a true and full version. This tradition, dealing with a real personage, surely shows that the story of the Táin was known before the time of Senchan, and probably preserves the fact, either that his version of Cuchulainn's famous deeds became the accepted one, or that he was the first to reduce it to writing. An equally suggestive consideration approximately fixes for us the earliest redaction of the Welsh mythological prose tales called the "Mabinogion", or, more correctly speaking, the "Four Branches of the Mabinogi". 1 In none of these is there the slightest mention, or apparently the least knowledge, of Arthur, around whom and whose supposed contemporaries centres the mass of British legend as it was transmitted by

p. 15

the Welsh to the Normans. These mysterious mythological records must in all probability, there-fore, antedate the Arthurian cycle of myth, which was already being put into form in the sixth century. On the other hand, the characters of the "Four Branches" are mentioned without comment--as though they were personages with whom no one could fail to be familiar--in the supposed sixth-century poems contained in those "Four Ancient Books of Wales" in which are found the first meagre references to the British hero.

Such considerations as these throw back, with reasonable certainty, the existence of the Irish and Welsh poems and prose tales, in something like their present shape, to a period antedating the seventh century.

But this, again, means only that the myths, traditions, and legends were current at that to us early, but to them, in their actual substance, late date, in literary form. A mythology must always be far older than the oldest verses and stories that celebrate it. Elaborate poems and sagas are not made in a day, or in a year. The legends of the Gaelic and British gods and heroes could not have sprung, like Athena from the head of Zeus, full-born out of some poet's brain. The bard who first put them into artistic shape was setting down the primitive traditions of his race. We may therefore venture to describe them as not of the twelfth century or of the seventh, but as of a prehistoric and immemorial antiquity.

Internal evidence bears this out. An examination

p. 16

of both the Gaelic and British legendary romances shows, under embellishing details added by later hands, an inner core of primeval thought which brings them into line with the similar ideas of other races in the earliest stage of culture. Their "local colour" may be that of their last "editor", but their "plots" are pre-mediæval, pre-Christian, pre-historic. The characters of early Gaelic legend belong to the same stamp of imagination that created Olympian and Titan, Æsir and Jötun. We must go far to the back of civilized thought to find parallels to such a story as that in which the British sun-god, struck by a rival in love with a poisoned spear, is turned into an eagle, from whose wound great pieces of carrion are continually falling. 1

This aspect of the Celtic literary records was clearly seen, and eloquently expressed, by Matthew Arnold in his Study of Celtic Literature2 He was referring to the Welsh side, but his image holds good equally for the Gaelic. "The first thing that strikes one", he says, "in reading the Mabinogion is how evidently the mediæval story-teller is pillaging an antiquity of which he does not fully possess the secret: he is like a peasant building his hut on the site of Halicarnassus or Ephesus; he builds, but what he builds is full of materials of which he knows not the history, or knows by a glimmering tradition merely: stones 'not of this building', but of an older architecture, greater, cunninger, more majestical." His heroes "are no mediæval personages: they belong to an older, pagan, mythological world". So,

p. 17

too, with the figures, however euhemerized, of the three great Gaelic cycles: that of the Tuatha Dé Danann, of the Heroes of Ulster, of Finn and the Fenians. Their divinity outshines their humanity; through their masks may be seen the faces of gods.

Yet, gods as they are, they had taken on the semblance of mortality by the time their histories were fixed in the form in which we have them now. Their earliest records, if those could be restored to us, would doubtless show them eternal and undying, changing their shapes at will, but not passing away. But the post-Christian copyists, whether Irish or Welsh, would not countenance this. Hence we have the singular paradox of the deaths of Immortals. There is hardly one of the figures of either the Gaelic or the British Pantheon whose demise is not somewhere recorded. Usually they fell in the unceasing battles between the divinities of darkness and of light. Their deaths in earlier cycles of myth, however, do not preclude their appearance in later ones. Only, indeed, with the closing of the lips of the last mortal who preserved his tradition can the life of a god be truly said to end.


12:1 Satisfactory summaries of the evidence for the dates of both the Gaelic and Welsh legendary material will be found in pamphlets No. 8 and 11 of Mr. Nutt's Popular Studies in Mythology, Romance, and Folklore.

14:1 Rhys: Studies in the Arthurian Legend, chap. 1.

16:1 See chap. XVI of this book--"The Gods of the Britons".

16:2 Lecture II.

Next: Chapter III. Who Were the ''Ancient Britons''?