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Celtic Mythology and Religion

Alexander Macbain


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Considered one of the greatest of the Scottish Celtic scholars, Macbain really delves into the beliefs of the Celts. A short but informative book. Chapters include: Celtic Mythology; Character Of Myth; Cause Of Myth; Spread Of Myth; The Aryan Nation; Aryan Myths; Results Of The General Principles; Sources Of Information; The Celts; Welsh And Gaels; Celtic Characteristics; The Gaulish Religion; Druidism; Celtic Religion In Britain And Ireland; British Religion; The Gaelic Gods In History; Gods Of The Gaels; The Celtic Elysium; Welsh And Gaelic Elysium; Celtic Worship And Rites; Celtic Burial Rites; and, The Heroic Tales Of The Celts.

This book has 120 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1885.

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Excerpt from 'Celtic Mythology and Religion'

Such is a good specimen of the folk-tale, and the folk-tales are merely the modern representatives of the old Mythology— merely the detritus, as it were, of the old myths which dealt with the gods and the heroes of the race. In the above tale we are in quite a different world from the practical and scientific views of the 19th century; we have birds speaking and acting as rational beings, and yet exciting no wonder to the human beings they come in contact with ; supernatural spells whereby men may be turned into animals; a marriage with a bird, which partially breaks these spells, and the bird becomes a man for part of the day; supernatural kidnapping, ending in the disappearance of the man-bird ; and pursuit of him by the wife through fairy regions of charms and spells and untold hardships—a pursuit which ends successfully. It looks all a wild maze of childish nonsense, unworthy of a moment’s serious consideration; it would certainly appear to be a hopeless subject for scientific research ; for what could science, whose object is truth, have to do with a tissue of absurdities and falsehoods ? But this view is a superficial one, though it is the one commonly held. On looking more deeply into the matter, we shall find that after all there is a method in the madness of Mythology, and that the incongruous mass of tales and broken-down myths that make up a nation’s folk-lore is susceptible of scientific treatment. Science first attacks the problem by the method of comparison; it compares the myths and tales of one nation with those of another, with the view of discovering similarities. The outlines, for example, of the tale already given, exist not merely in one or two inure tales in our own folk-lore, but can also be traced over all the continent of Europe, as well as in many parts of Asia. The outline of the tale is this—The youngest and best of three daughters is married or given up to some unsightly being or monster, who in reality is a most beautiful youth, but who is under certain spells to remain in a low form of life until some maiden is found to marry him. He then regains his natural form, though, as a rule, only partially; and the newly-married pair have to work out his complete redemption from the spells. But, just as he is about to be free from the spells, the curiosity or disobedience of the wife ruins everything ; he disappears, and then follows for the wife the dark period of wandering and toil, which can be brought to an end only by the achievement of tasks, generally three in number, each hopelessly beyond human powers. The husband, who meanwhile has forgotten, owing to the nature of the spells upon him, all about his wife, is on the eve of marrying another, when the last task of all is accomplished by the persevering courage of the wife. The spells then leave him for ever, and happiness reigns in the household ever after.

There are in our Highland folk-lore one or two versions of this same tale. The story of the “Daughter of the Skies,” in Mr Campbell’s book, is one variation. Here the hoodie crow is replaced by a little doggie, and the wife’s disobedience is clearly brought out, while the supernatural machinery — the magical scissors and needle, for example—is much more elaborate. The tale also is found in Norway; in the Norse tale, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” the hero appears at first as a white bear, who, on his marriage with the heroine, becomes a man by night. She must not, however, see him, for light must not fall on his body or else he at once disappears. But the wife, instigated by her mother, steals a sight of him by lamp-light, with the consequence that he awakes and vanishes. Then follow her trials, pursuit, and recovery of him. The beautiful Greek tale of Psyche and Cupid is but a variation of the same myth. Psyche, the youngest of three royal daughters, incurs the wrath of Venus, who sends Cupid to inspire her with love for something contemptible; as Titania, in Shakespeare, is made to fall in love with the transformed weaver, Bottom. But Cupid, captivated by her beauty, falls in love with her himself, conveys her to a secret cave, and visits her only at night, under strict charge of her not attempting to see him by any light. Her jealous sisters persuade her that she is married to some ugly monster, and she accordingly determines to disobey his injunctions, and inspect him by lamp-light. In so doing, she allows in her admiration of his beauty, a drop of hot oil to fall on his shoulder, and he awakes, and escapes. She suffers woes untold in her pursuit of him, being finally a slave in the household of Venus, who treats her very cruelly. But, of course, she recovers her lost lover at long last. And, again, in India, in the old religious books of the Brahmins, is a somewhat-similar tale—the story of Urvasi and Pururavas, the main features of which are the same as the Gaelic and Greek tales already given. To the English reader, the well-known tale of “ Beauty and the Beast” will at once occur as an exact parallel to all these. And, if we take the myths where the heroine is the loathly monster, we shall find an equally wide distribution. We have the Hindu tale, where the Princess is disguised as a withered old woman; the Loathly Lady of Teutonic Mythology; and the Celtic story of Diarmad’s love for the daughter of the king of the Land under the Waves, who appears first as a hideous monster, and becomes, on approaching Diarmad, the most beautiful woman ever seen.

Thus, then, we have traced the same myth among nations so widely apart as the Celts and Hindus, while, intermediate between these, we found it among the Greeks and Teutons. And some myths are even more widely distributed than that; the tale of the imprisoned maiden and the hero who rescues her from the dragon or monster appears among all the nations of Europe as well as among many of the nations of Asia. Hence, from India in the East, to Ireland in the West, we may find a great mass of mythical tales common to the various nations. And this being the case, it may plainly become a matter of scientific enquiry, first, What the cause of these peculiar myths and tales can be? and, secondly, What the significance is of their wide distribution?

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