Inspiration from the Elf Mounds
*An Excerpt from A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors by Mabh Savage
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; jewelry, 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 jewelers. 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 traveling 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.
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” (Gregory, Lady Augusta. Gods and Fighting Men: The story of the Tuatha de Danaan and of the Fianna of Ireland, arranged and put into English. 1905).
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.
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About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.