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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Where’d That Come From: 7 Celtic Origin Stories

Updated: Feb 10


Benanndonner Crossing the Giant's Causeway.
Benanndonner Crossing the Giant's Causeway.

Celtic folklore overflows with stories explaining the origin of things—from how lakes, rivers, or mountains were formed to why sacred festivals are celebrated. Some of these stories are brief and straightforward. Others are more detailed and imaginative. For this week’s post, I wanted to share some of my favorites. Here they are.


Lughnasa and the Start of Farming in Ireland

    

Lugh is the Celtic sun god. He was popular and highly regarded. And why not? Lugh was young, handsome, and athletic. He was a poet too. In fact, he was multi-talented and good at just about everything. The fire festival of Lughnasa (August 1st) is named for him. The Irish even named the month of August (Lúnasa in the Irish language) after him. But, according to folklore, the celebration of Lughnasa was established by Lugh. So, was he that arrogant and self-adoring? No. He created Lughnasa in honor of his mother, Tailtiu, and she deserves the honor (as well as the unending thanks of Irish farmers). Like the other three fire festivalsImbolc, Beltane, and Samhain—Lughnasa marks the beginning of a season. It is the start of autumn. It is also a celebration of the harvest. Tailtiu, the story goes, cleared all the land on the island of Eire so that the Celts could farm it. Then, exhausted, she died.


On the Death of Gods and Goddesses

    

Think it strange that a goddess would die? I agree. Isn’t dying, like, a mortal thing? Yes, which may be the answer to why it shows up in the mythology of numerous cultures. In Celtic myths, the deity’s death often results in life-giving effects for humanity. So, Tailtiu dies but leaves a legacy (agriculture) that enables the island’s human inhabitants to live. Also, dead doesn’t always mean gone. Sometimes, it just means transformed. For example, the Irish goddess Boann decided to challenge the power of a magic well in the Otherworld. In response, the waters churned and rose up, sweeping her towards the sea. Along the way, she was violently ripped to pieces and died. But her death left Ireland with a great gift. Her journey created the Boyne River. For ages, the river and the goddess were considered to be one and the same.


The Creation of the Orkneys and the Shetland Islands

    

Stand with Ukraine
Stand with Ukraine

Long ago, according to Scottish folklore, the Stoor Worm demanded to be fed nine people regularly in return for not eating everyone. The people were chosen by lot and, one day, the lot fell to the king’s only daughter. Desperate to save her, he asked the Worm for a grace period. It was granted and the king sent out word that anyone who killed this dragon would be rewarded with a magical sword and the princess’ hand in marriage. Warriors came from all over to meet this challenge and become the king’s son-in-law but, as soon as they saw the ferocious Stoor Worm, they turned and ran without the slightest attempt to defeat it.

    

A young boy named Assipattle, however, stepped up to the challenge. He sailed his little boat into the dragon’s yawning mouth. Then he went on a great adventure! He sailed through miles and miles of twisting tunnels until finally he reached the beast’s belly. Assipattle located the worm’s liver, slit it open, and shoved a burning piece of peat into it.

    

The Stoor Worm vomited, and the boy rode the wave out of the beast’s mouth. Once safely on shore, he joined the rest of the citizens of the kingdom on the shore and watched the dragon, his mouth open in agony, writhing in pain. Teeth fell from his mouth, and they became the Shetland Islands and the Orkneys. Then the Stoor Worm curled up and died. His body became the land mass now known as Iceland.

    

That Hag’s Responsible for A Lot!


Celts in Scotland, Ireland, and on the Isle of Man worshipped a goddess known as the Cailleach. This is believed to be a title rather than a name. Some scholars say it is derived from an Old Gaelic word, caillech, which means “veiled one.” In Scotland, she also is called Beira. Although she is a shapeshifter, she is often depicted as a veiled old hag. The Cailleach is highly important in Celtic mythology as she is a creator goddess who is said to be the mother of all gods and goddesses as well as the maternal ancestor of all Irish men.

   

The Cailleach stares out to sea, awaiting her husband's return.
The Cailleach stares out to sea, awaiting her husband's return.

The list of things and places associated with the Cailleach is too long for today’s post, but here are a couple of notables. She is said to have created the Scottish mountains. Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland, is said to be her seat or throne.

    

According to Scottish folklore, Beira brings on the season of winter by throwing her Great Plaid into the Whirlpool of Corryvreacken to clean it. The garment comes out white and she spreads it across the land to dry. This blankets Scotland in snow. You can read more about Beira in my post here.

    

In Ireland, a large rock facing Coulagh Bay in County Cork is said to be the Cailleach’s face. According to the folklore, she was staring out to sea, waiting for her husband, sea god Manannan mac Lir, to return. Her wait was, they say, in vain, perhaps because of his other wives. Irish mythology names at least two other goddesses as his wives. So, the story goes, the Cailleach waited so long for Manannan, she turned to stone.


The Underwater Kingdom in Wales


     In Ynyslas, Wales, under Cardigan Bay, stumps of dead trees sticking up from the sand can be seen at low tide. Scientists say this is what remains of a forest that existed on a floodplain 5000 years ago. Welsh folklore says that this site, just off Borth Beach in the Dyfi National Nature Preserve is possibly the lost kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod. Gwyddno Garanhir, a historical man who lived in the mid-sixth to seventh centuries A.D. is said to have ruled the sixteen cities of Cantre’r Gwaelod until the kingdom was lost in a flood.

    

There are at least two versions of the story. One blames the tragedy on a priest who let a fairy well overflow. The other blames Cantre’r Gwaelod’s gatekeeper. The second one is the most commonly told version. Here it is.

 

Cantre’r Gwaelod is flooded as Seithennin sleeps.
Cantre’r Gwaelod is flooded as Seithennin sleeps.

Because Cantre’r Gwaelod was below sea level, a wall was built to protect it. This wall had gates that were opened at low tide then closed before high tide. But, in the spring of 600 A.D., the king had a celebration at the palace. Seithennin, the gatekeeper went to it and partied too hardy. When he returned that night to his post at the flood wall, he fell asleep before closing the gates. A storm came up (wouldn’t you just know it!) and the seawater rushed through the gates. Bells rang out the alarm and some people, including the king, managed to escape to the nearby hills, but the kingdom was lost forever.


The Banshee’s Gift: The Blarney Stone

    

You’ve of course heard of the Blarney Stone, but did you know it was a gift from a banshee? Yes. A banshee. I’ve harped on this before. Because of American television, movies, and video games, banshees have developed a bad reputation. And it’s quite undeserved. They can be considerably kind to the human families they look after.

    

Cliodhna was the queen of the West Munster banshees. I’m not talking about a group of old witch-like hags who kill people with their screams. Banshees are faerie women who adopt a human family to look after, then they wail in warning and grief whenever a family member is about to die.

    

In the 15th century, Irish chieftain Cormac MacCarthy (sometimes called Colum), found himself involved in a lawsuit. Since Cliodhna was known to look after the McCarthys, he called out to her, imploring her help. Appearing to him, she told MacCarthy that, on his way to court, he should kiss the first stone he came across. If he did so, she promised, he would receive the gift of eloquence.    

    

Cormac followed her instructions and, when he arrived in court, he spoke with such power and persuasion, he won the case.    

    

Cliodhna tells Cormac to kiss the stone on his way to court,
Cliodhna tells Cormac to kiss the stone on his way to court,

He then took the stone and built (rebuilt actually) Blarney Castle around it to honor the banshee who had helped him. Today, thousands of visitors come each year to kiss the stone in the hope of receiving the same gift of eloquence.


Fionn MacCumhaill and the Giant’s Causeway


Visitors travel each year to Northern Ireland to see the rock formation known as Giant’s Causeway. Located just off of the Antrim plateau is a promontory made up of 40,000 columns of basalt rock. Believed to have been formed over 50 million years ago, these stone pillars were created, according to scientists, by lava flows. Irish mythology has a different explanation of their origin. You see, located across the North Channel (a body of water that connects the Irish Sea to the Atlantic Ocean) is a similar rock formation just off the Scottish island of Staffa.

    

According to both Irish and Scottish mythology, Giant’s Causeway was built by Irish hero and giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill (aka Finn McCool). In its original form, the causeway went across the channel from Ireland to Scotland. Then either Fionn or the Scottish giant Benandonner destroyed the middle of the causeway. Why? Here’s one version of the story.

    

One day, Fionn saw Benandonner across the water and challenged him to a fight. Benandonner eagerly agreed and came running across the causeway. As the Scottish giant got closer, Fionn saw that he was a lot bigger than MacCumhaill had realized. The Irish hero turned and ran all the way home.

    

Once there, he locked the door and told his wife what had happened. She had Fionn hide in the baby’s cradle then she let Benanndonner in, saying her husband was out hunting but the Scottish giant was welcome to wait. Then Fionn’s wife proceeded to hint at how huge and strong her husband was, even encouraging him to look at the baby (Fionn hidden under a blanket). After seeing the size of Fionn’s "baby," the Scottish giant excused himself, saying he had to get across the Channel before high tide. Then Benanndonner hightailed it for the causeway.

    

Fionn chased him and Benanndonner, as he ran home, broke up the causeway behind him so MacCumhaill couldn't come after him. In an alternate version, Fionn breaks it up so Benanndonner can’t come back to the Irish side once he realizes he’s been duped.


Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this small peak into the mystical, magical place that is Ireland. Please LIKE and SHARE.  To SUBSCRIBE for FREE, just click on the “Sign Up” button in the upper right of the page.


Slán go fóill


     All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.



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