So what winds whisper from the elf mounds; what wind breathes from beneath the hollow hills where fairies dwell and myths were born? In other words, how many of us today still feel inspired by the tales of ancient Celtic warriors and wise folk? Which parts of our lives do these stories creep into the most? What do our ancestors still truly have a hand in? What is the meat of modern Celtic influence?
Well a quick “Google” search on the word “Celt” will find you brewing techniques that are based on Celtic history; BBC Wales has a site dedicated to the history of the Iron Age Celts and the word CELT is used as an acronym by organisations in fields ranging from teaching to audio compression! Let’s take a look at the images section now: maps of the Celtic migration across Europe; knot work; helmets; warriors fighting in great battles; beards, shields and swords; jewellery, sandals and musical instruments. Take a look around when you’re out and about and see how many tattoos you see that incorporate Celtic knot work, and how many sterling silver Celtic crosses you can see in the windows of jewellers.
When the paths were resurfaced outside a new housing estate near where I live, there were some elder trees, ancient and gnarled, that were untouched even though they were growing right out of the pavement that otherwise was completely dug out and overhauled. If the trees were left untouched for superstitious reasons (oh how I wish I could talk to the people who did that stretch of road!) those superstitions almost certainly stem from the Celtic reverence for certain trees. This seems to be carried into the names of local establishments. Without travelling more than a couple of miles in any direction, I can visit Copper Beech Nursery; Hollybush Children’s Centre; Holly Bush Farm Conservation Centre; Beech Medical Centre. My own doctor is housed within the Hawthorn Medical Centre! These names show how the importance we still place upon trees, which almost certainly stems from our Celtic ancestors.
The druidic reverence for certain trees led Robert Graves to create the Celtic Tree Calendar which, somewhat unfortunately, has become used as an actual “Celtic Calendar” for some people; it has no real basis in Celtic timekeeping or astrology, but it does, again, show how deeply we are influenced by accounts of Celtic society and how much we want to recreate aspects of that in our modern lives.
The late Sir Terry Pratchett, an incredibly popular British author, created the “Lords and Ladies”, elves that while being beautiful are fierce, ruthless and inhuman. There are similarities here of course to the Fae, who are often described as incredibly beautiful and powerful, yet they too are not quite human. They also can possess great cruelty, as in the story of the death of Cían, Lugh’s father, who is stoned to death in hatred by a rival family until all that is left is a “poor miserable, broken heap”. Terry also created the Nac Mac Feegle, who actually live inside the burial mounds of kings, harking back to the tales that the fairies will take you under the hollow hills to their home. In these tales, often the protagonist finds what they believe is their heart’s desire but returns a hundred years later, to find everyone they love is dead and gone. In one of Terry Pratchett’s stories, this would probably be because the Nac Mac Feegle had drunk them under a tiny table! Pratchett himself implies in his introduction to “The Folklore of Discworld” that tales and superstitions should not be forgotten as they are part of the history of who we are and how we got here. Any homage to these ancient tales is a great example of the way Celtic culture still inspires modern artists and writers. Through their modern art, they will inspire others to go seek out these ancient tales for themselves. We see the same stories being used over and over in a thousand different ways, keeping them alive to pass down to our children and future descendants.
Currently on television [at time of publishing] we have True Blood which is based on Charlaine Harris’ very popular “Southern Vampire Mysteries”. There are a variety of supernatural creatures here but the fairies are very interesting: human in appearance yet inhuman within; old, powerful and able to change their appearance; they also have (in the books) very Gaelic sounding names which hark back again to the tales of the Tuatha Dé Danann. I asked Charlaine if she had intentionally based her fairy creations on the Celtic myths and legends and she agreed she had, but very loosely. The evidence of this is shown in some of the names she chooses for the Fairy characters: Niall Brigant, Breandan and Neave, for example. Breandan is Gaelic for Prince; Niall means Champion and Brigant is possibly derived from the Celtic goddess Brigantia and generally means high, lofty, elevated or divine. Neave is an anglicised version of Niamh which is Gaelic for Radiant. Again, these are tiny droplets of Celtic culture seeping into something that is modern, vibrant, and extremely popular.
When I was very young I had only heard a few tales of the Tuatha Dé Danann- the tales of Tír na nÓg from my father, and a few others. The catalyst for my inspiration to seek more knowledge was a very modern creation; a band called Horslips and their album “The Táin”, of course based on Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid… Not only was the music fascinating- a mix of traditional folk and rock- but the stories held within the words absolutely mesmerized me. After listening to The Táin over and over, I got my hands on another of their albums, “The Book of Invasions”, a name you will recognise already if you’ve been reading the chapters of this book in order [apologies to those only with this excerpt!] The album is split into three sections, based on the idea of a Celtic symphony: Geantrai, Goltrai and Suantrai which mean joyful, sorrowful and lullaby. Horslips themselves describe the three as the three principal categories of old Irish song; the joyful strain, the lamenting strain and the sleep strain. I spent hours with my mandolin and flageolet copying and playing these songs, and imagining the scenes of the stories as the music wound its way around me. The incredible depth of the love stories:
Let me ask you this one question
Is it really such a sin?
To love too much, to be closer than touch when there was no way we could win…
The violence of Cú Chulainn’s conquests:
Two heads are better than none
A hundred heads are so much better than one!
And the betrayal of kings and queens and lovers:
You can fool them all right; but can you fool the beast?
Horslips are a prime example of how these fantastic stories of an amazing people have inspired yet another and marvellously unique retelling of these tales. The band’s use of traditional tunes and songs keep another aspect of Irish culture alive and thriving, making this mythology accessible to those not only interested in tales and legends, but in music and revelry. The commercial success of Horslips in the 1970s meant a whole new generation were introduced to the tales of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and received a unique glimpse into this ancient and, to most people, almost alien culture. Horslips have complemented their music with a website detailing the stories of their albums and the history of some of the traditional music incorporated into the songs. For anyone unfamiliar with the Celtic legends, these albums are a comprehensive and very entertaining introduction. The band recently reformed after 24 years, and are still incredibly popular, showing how interest in Irish culture in particular, and Celtic culture in general have not waned during the decades since they originally disbanded.
This is an excerpt from A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors by Mabh Savage, available here and from all good book stores.