Animals played an important part in the everyday life of the ancients Celts. In Celtic mythology the lives of animals, birds, humans and gods are interwoven to provide rich stories alluding to important matters in their society such as life and death, love and hate, jealousy and lust. Provided here is a brief review of some of those myths and legends.
The Dream of Aengus
Swans were much admired by the Irish Celts and had some special places in their mythology. One story from Irish mythology called the Dream of Aengus, tells how a young god named Aengus fell in love with a beautiful woman from his dreams. Her name was Caer Ibormeith and she was the goddess of sleep and dreams.
Aengus set out to find her and discovered that she was a real person who had been placed under a spell which transformed her into a swan. Every other Samain she was able to return to human form for one day beginning at sunset and then revert back to swan form for one year until the following Samhain when the transformation cycle would be repeated.
He finally found her at the Loch of the Dragon’s Mouth along with one hundred and fifty swans chained together in pairs. He was told he had to choose which one was the woman of his dreams and fortunately chose correctly. He transformed himself into a swan and the two flew away singing beautiful songs that put those who heard them to sleep for three days and nights.
The Cŵn Annwn
The Cŵn Annwn appear in Welsh mythology as a pack of spectral hounds whose masters were the Kings of Annwn. They had white coats and red ears, colouring that associated them with the Otherworld. Their earliest known master was Arawn, a King of Annwn. Later Gwyn ap Nudd appeared to take over the role. One of their hunting grounds was believed to be the Welsh mountain of Cadir Idris.
According to Welsh tradition when the Cŵn Annwn were hunting the noise they make in the chase was similar to the sound made by flocks of migrating geese which sound like packs of hunting dogs. It was believed to be a portent of death for anyone who heard their howling which seemed loudest from a distance but grew quieter as the hounds closed in. The Cŵn Annwn hunted human souls who were caught in silver net. Certain places such as crossroads, graveyards or stiles were good hunting places for the Cŵn Annwn because at these sites human souls were most vulnerable.
The Brown Bull of Cooley
Bulls were given great status in Irish mythology and one story tells of the battles around the Donn Cúailnge, or the Brown Bull of Cooley. The story begins with Queen Maeve and her husband Ailill who were comparing each other’s possessions to see who was the more powerful of the two. It became apparent that because Ailill had a great white bull named Finnbennach he held the greater status.
The only bull in Ireland that could match Finnbennach was the Donn Cúailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley. Maeve decided that she would have the brown bull and went to war to steal it. She cast a spell causing the defenders to fall asleep hoping to take the bull without a fight. The only warrior left awake was Cuchulainn who alone remained unaffected by the spell and invoked the Irish tradition of single combat stalling Maeve’s army. While these battles continue Maeve tracked down the brown bull but could not hold him and he escaped, causing carnage. Eventually she does manage to steal the brown bull who fought Finnbennach, killing him and giving Maeve the greater status.
The Twrch Trwyth
The Twrch Trwyth was a supernatural wild boar in Welsh mythology. Its bristles were venomous and it carried a comb, a pair of scissors and a razor on its head between its ears. In the story of Culwhych and Olwen, Culwhych had fallen in love with Olwen, the daughter of a dangerous giant named Ysbaddaden. To gain permission to marry her, he had to complete a set of impossible tasks given to him by Ysbaddaden. One of these tasks required him to cut the giant’s hair and beard with the implements carried by the Twrch Trwyth, but to obtain these Culwhwch needed to hunt down the magical boar.
The only hound capable of this was called Drudwyn, but the only one who could manage Drudwyn was Mabon son of Modrun. However, no one knew how or where to find him, and Culwhwch called upon his cousin King Arthur for help. Arthur agreed and —accompanied by a band of his followers — a series of adventures began. Eventually they find Mabon, and the hunting of the boar commences.
The shape-shifting Menw is sent ahead to find the magical boar to make sure the implements are still between its ears. He transforms into a bird and, finding the boar, swoops down and tries to steal one of the implements. Unfortunately, he only managed to grasp a silver bristle from the boar which wounds him. The boar kills several of its pursuers before the implements are finally won and Arthur drives it into the sea.
Rhiannon: First Branch of the Mabinogi
In Welsh mythology from the in the First Branch of the Mabinogi, Rhiannon is associated with horses and the Celtic horse goddess Epona. In one story she appears to Pwyll, King of Dyfed. She appeared riding a magical white horse and wearing a brocade of golden silk. Pwyll was enthralled by her and dispatched his fastest riders to bring her to him. Despite the unhurried gait of the white horse Rhiannon easily maintained her distance forcing them to give up.
Exactly the same happened the next day. On the third day Pwyll gave chase himself but the white horse of Rhiannon easily outpaced his own. In desperation he cried out for her to stop. Rhiannon obliged but rebuked him for not asking her before. She then explained that, although she is betrothed to Gwawl ap Clud, she doesn’t love him and asked Pwyll to marry her instead.
Pwyll agreed and at their wedding feast an unknown man appeared who asked him to grant a request. Foolishly, Pwyll agrees unaware that the man is Gwawl and is shocked when he requests Rhiannon in marriage. Pwyll is honour bound to fulfil the request but Rhiannon hatches a plot to foil it. The plot succeeds and Gwawl is forced to give up his claim to Rhiannon and forget all acts of vengeance against her and Pwyll. The two are married and eventually she gives birth to a son.
On the night of the birth the nurses tending the baby fall asleep and the baby disappears. Fearing they would be blamed and put to death, they kill a puppy and smear its blood on the face of Rhiannon as she sleeps. The next morning they go to Pwyll accusing Rhiannon of killing and eating the baby. Pwyll still loves his wife but makes her do penance. Every day she must sit before the castle gate by the stables and tell her tale to all travellers that pass by and offer to carry them on her back. Despite her alleged crime, Pwyll still keeps her as his wife and queen.
Meanwhile, Teyrnon, Lord of Gwent-Is-Coed and a breeder of horses has a fine mare that foals every year, but every year the foal goes missing. After standing vigil over the mare he discovers that the foals are being stolen by a giant claw that enters through a window. He strikes the claw with his sword as it tries to steal the newborn foal, and it lets go. Rushing outside, he finds the claw gone and a baby boy instead.
He and his wife adopt the boy who grows at a phenomenal rate. They name him Gwri of the Golden Hair and he grows to develop a great affinity with horses. Teyrnon once served Pwyll, and recognised the resemblance the boy bore to him. He takes him to him Pwyll who realised he is his lost son and lifts Rhiannon’s pennace and clears her of infanticide.
These five brief summaries of stories from Wales and Ireland are a small part of the myths and legends that tell of the history of the Celtic peoples. There are many more from across the Celtic world that make a rich pantheon of literature and knowledge worthy of further study and enjoyment. They take the reader to places that are strange, dangerous and magical and explore human nature and Celtic society in comparison with the natural world and the times those stories come from.
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