Habetrot (Habitrot, Gyre-Carling, Gy-Carlin) To Hywel Dda (Howel Dda) (Celtic mythology and folklore)

Habetrot (Habitrot, Gyre-Carling, Gy-Carlin)

British folkloric figure. A spinner goddess diminished after Christianization to a fairy spirit, Habetrot was a healing spirit. Those who could induce her to weave them a garment never suffered from illness. She appeared in some areas of Britain as a fairy queen (Gyre-Carling or Gy-Carlin) who stole any flax left unspun at the end of a year.

On the Scottish border the tale is told of a lazy girl who, instructed by her mother to finish spinning seven hanks of yarn, hurt her fingers. Wandering in search of a stream in which to soothe her hands, the girl encountered an old spinning woman who gave her seven lovely soft hanks spun by ghostly women with twisted mouths. The silky thread attracted a handsome lord who married the girl for her spinning skills. The girl brought her husband to Habetrot, who showed him the deformed spinners and predicted that his new lady would soon look that way. Shocked, the lord forbade his wife to spin—permitting her to live the idle happy life she preferred.

Habondia (Abundia, Abunditia)

Germanic or Celtic goddess. The name of this obscure goddess became the word abundance, suggesting an earth or harvest divinity. Habondia was found in Celtic lands but may be Germanic; she was noted by medieval witch-hunters as the particular divinity of their prey.

Hafgan (Havgan)

Welsh mythological figure. In Welsh mythology Hafgan ("summer song") was one of two rival kings of the other-world who battled constantly. His opponent was the better-known king arawn of annwn. Hafgan was magically endowed with the ability to recover from any blow once he had received a second; thus his opponents had but one chance to lay him low. In the collection of Welsh myths called the MABINOGION, Arawn asked the human prince pwyll to be his substitute for a year and to battle Hafgan for him. Magically switching their appearances, Arawn went forth to rule Pwyll’s land for a year, while Pwyll descended to Annwn to take Arawn’s throne for the same time; at the end of the year, Pwyll defeated Hafgan in single combat.


Irish and Scottish folkloric figure. Old, blind or one-eyed, humpbacked, with rheumy eyes and hairy chin, the hag of Irish and Scottish legend was not beautiful at first look. But kiss her, and she became a gorgeous maiden in full bloom of youth. This unlikely reversal is found in many stories of the great goddess of sovereignty, of war goddesses like the m6rr^gan and macha, and the pre-Celtic creator goddess, the cailleach. In Arthurian legend the hag appears as the loathy lady, who spurs on the quest for the grail, and as ragnell, who leads her husband to understand what women really want.

Hag’s Glen (Coom Callee)

Irish sacred site. In the southwestern province of munster, traditionally associated with the powerful figure of the hag named the cailleach, the scenic valley of Coom Callee (Hag’s Glen) forms part of MacGuillycuddy’s Reeks, Ireland’s highest mountains. Local legend has it that a hag in that glen cared for a small child and that a rock was imprinted with their footprints. In the mid-19th century an old woman living alone in the Glen was given the name of the Cailleach, furthering the identification of the valley with the mythological hag.


Symbolic object. Hair was an important ritual and spiritual symbol to the ancient Celts. Warriors wore their hair long and their mustaches untrimmed when they went into battle, sometimes treating them with lime to create a fearfully wild appearance. Women’s hair was long as well, often braided or otherwise dressed;hair was considered a mark of their sexual power. druids wore a special tonsure or haircut that distinguished them from others in the tribe.

Folklore records many superstitions that emphasize the continuing importance of hair as a symbol. People were careful never to throw cut or combed hair into fire, for fear that they would come down with fever; this is typical of magical part-equals-whole thinking. red hair was considered especially significant, for it showed that fairy blood ran in the person’s veins. mermaids lured sailors by combing their hair, and according to the principle of sympathetic magic it was dangerous for girls to comb their hair when their brothers were at sea. Animal hair also had power, especially that of horses, which could come alive if put in water. Should a person, especially a child, be bitten by a dog, the wound had to be bound with hair from the animal to ensure healing.

Hairy Jack

British folkloric spirit. A black dog from the Lincolnshire region, he haunted wild places in the region and turned himself into a little lame man in order to pass unnoticed among the neighbors.


Archaeological site. At this important site, near Saltzburg in Austria, a great treasure of ancient Celtic artifacts was found. Dated from approximately 700-600 b.c.e. (after the urnfield period but before the la tene), the artifacts included weapons and tools of bronze and iron, as well as some ritual objects. Buried with their presumed owners, the design of the objects suggests a cultural change from earlier times, when less decorated objects had been the norm. A parallel change from cremation, only a few generations earlier, to earth entombment suggests a change in the worldview of these very ancient Celts, for how people treat their dead tells a great deal about what life (if any) was presumed to lie ahead.

These Hallstatt-era bodies were laid out on four-wheeled wagons and encased in a tomb of oak that was then covered with earth. Bronze vessels, iron spears, and traces of meat and poultry were found buried with them, presumably indicating the beginnings of Celtic belief that the otherworld of death required sufficient grave goods (weapons, tools, ornaments) for the soul’s happiness.

The fact that a great salt-mining region is located near Hallstatt gives rise to the theory that the early Celtic wealth was derived from mining and trading in salt, an extremely valuable commodity in the days before refrigeration. Salt was used to preserve meats, and as the Celts were a cattle-raising people, such a preservative had great value in keeping people fed through the long winters. Buried saline deposits were mined and the salt pulverized for transportation and use.


Celtic symbol. The "god with the hammer" was a common image of divinity among the continental Celts; variously called taranis, dis pater, silvanus, and sucellus, he was depicted as strong, mature, and bearded. As a symbol of the force and energy of such gods, the hammer is sometimes interpreted as representing storm and thunder, although there is no definite indication of such a meteorological meaning. Indeed, other interpretations connect this god to the earth’s fertility rather than to the sky; the fact that the god often carries a cup, common symbol of earthly energy, supports this interpretation. Finally, some commentators see the hammer as representative of the blighting force of winter, although that remains a minority view. The club or mallet carried by the dagda may be an Irish form of the hammer.

Handsel Monday (Di-luian an t-sainnseil)

Scottish festival. The first Monday after hog-many (New Year’s Day) was a day for divination or forecasting futures through games of chance and trial; on the Isle of Skye this day was the first in a sequence of 12 days whose weather predicted that of the following 12 months. The holiday’s name is anglicized from the Scottish sainnseal, the gift offered to every visitor on this day.


Symbolic animal. The hare, in Ireland, was believed to be a witch in disguise, perhaps because the animal was mythically connected to that witch-like being, the cailleach. When a hare was injured, a witch in the neighborhood would sport an identical injury. The same belief is found on the Isle of Man, where a wounded hare would always get away unless shot with a silver bullet; the transformed witch would thereafter be found, either alive or dead, with an identical wound.

In Scotland it was believed that witches took the form of hares in order to steal milk—a common target of magical theft. Disguising herself as a hare, the witch would sneak into a barn and suckle the milk from a cow’s udder. If caught, the hare would instantly turn back into human form. Hares seen in unusual places, including in regions where they were not typically found, were similarly believed to be disguised witches. If pursued, such hares would run into houses, revealing the witch’s habitation. If one found a group of hares together, it was clearly a gathering of a witches’ coven.

The fierce temperament of hares was sometimes assigned to the fairy Rabbit, a bold being that tried to drown people at sea; if the potential victims were carrying earth from their home, or from legendary Tory Island, they could survive even the onslaught of this malicious spirit.

Such folklore may be a late recollection of an earlier religious meaning for the hare. Caesar recorded that eating the flesh of the hare was taboo to continental Celts, which suggests that the animal was seen as sacred or ancestral; Dio Cassius mentioned a divination using hares that was employed by the Celtic warrior queen boudicca before she entered battle. Such fragments of ancient lore suggest that the shape-shifting character given to hares in folklore may be a vestige of ancient religious imagery.


Symbolic object. The stringed instrument that today symbolizes Ireland was associated in ancient times with the beneficent god dagda, at whose call it would fly across the land, killing anyone that stood in its way. The Dagda harp had only three melodies: sleep, grief, and laughter. A similar legendary harp can be found in the Welsh tale of KULHWCH AND OLWEN.

Harvest dollies

Celtic folkloric figures. Until the relatively recent past, the harvest celebration in Celtic lands was replete with mythological and folkloric significance. On the Isle of Man we find straw images called mheillea ("harvest") or baban ny mheillea ("doll of the harvest"), which were decorated with ribbons to form dresses and referred to as "maidens," feminine figures probably derived from an ancient goddess of the abundant harvest. Approximately four inches tall, these figures were often crafted from the final sheaf harvested. Such harvest dollies were kept near the hearth until replaced by a similar doll after the next year’s harvest. In Scotland a similar "harvest maiden" was thought to protect farms against fairy mischief if suspended somewhere within the house.

Haxey Hood Games

British folkloric festival. In the small town of Haxey in Humberside, a traditional midwinter game takes place on Twelfth Night, the last day of the old Christmas holidays. In medieval times, legend says, the scarlet hood of a local noblewoman, Lady de Mowbray, was blown off her head as she rode to church, and a dozen men sprang forward to save it for her. Delighted, she granted the village a plot of land—the Hoodland—whose produce provided a hood for a contest among 12 villagers, still held each year under the guidance of the red-dressed gobbans (boggins, boggans). A fool begins the ceremony in the wee hours of the morning by giving an oration in the town square. As he finishes with the words "House against house, town against town, if you meet a man knock him down, but don’t hurt him," a fire is lit at his feet; this is called "smoking the fool."

When the fool’s part has finished, the games proper begin. The King Gobban throws 12 hoods into the air, and everyone scrambles for one. Anyone who manages to get away with a hood to the safety of a village inn gets free drinks. Some have argued that the origins of this rite are far more ancient than the medieval period and have seen in it the memory of a ritual of human sacrifice.


Celtic sacred tree. One of the most revered trees among the Celts, the hazel (genus Corylus) was thought to produce nuts of wisdom when it grew at the sources of great rivers; the nuts made the flesh of fish (especially salmon) speckled, with one spot appearing for each nut eaten. Thus the most speckled fish brought the most wisdom to the eater. Stories of both the Boyne and the Shannon rivers include descriptions of the magical hazel groves that fed the fish that swam at the river’s source. Uneaten nuts turned into bubbles of inspiration, readily seen in the Shannon’s source in Co. Cavan, which bubbles from underground springs feeding the pool. Hazel trees were said to shade connla’s well somewhere in Co. Tipperary; anyone eating their nuts would become a brilliant bard and scholar.

The connection of hazelnuts with wisdom is also found in Celtic mythology that requires bards to carve their staffs from hazel wood and in the taboo against burning the wood of the hazel tree. Hazel twigs are still said to guide water-witches to underground streams. In the Americas the unrelated witch-hazel tree (genus Hamamelis) is thought to have the same power. Hazel, like thorn, is one of the traditional trees believed to be inhabited by fairies. In Ireland Tara was once described as a hazel grove; in Scotland the word Carlton (from the ancient Celtic word Calltuinn) designates an area where a sacred hazel grove once thrived.


Celtic symbol. Sculptural and literary references to the head appear throughout the ancient Celtic world, so much so that early scholars used to speak of the "cult of the head," although that phrase is currently out of academic fashion. Sculptured heads without torsos—thus interpreted as severed from the body—have been found in many sites, dating as far back as the earliest proto-Celtic culture of the urnfield period. At times, such disembodied heads are inhuman, having three faces; occasionally a sculpture combined the head with the phallus to produce a double image of potency. Religious sculptures of the head of a sacred animal have also been found; thus the sacredness of the head was not necessarily limited to the human. The sacred head was used over the entire Celtic area for many centuries, making it the single most important and common Celtic religious symbol.

Myths as well as ritual objects emphasize the importance of the head: The head of Welsh hero bran the blessed (whose name has been connected to pen, the Welsh syllable meaning "head") continued speaking for years after his death, as did the Irish mac datho and conaire Mor, although the Irish heads’ capacity for posthumous speech did not last as long. After the young musician and warrior donn bo was killed in battle, his head was brought to a feast where, asked to sing, it produced such a piercing melody that the music reduced everyone to tears. The speaking (or singing) severed head, neither entirely of this world nor fully in the other-world, was believed to have oracular powers and could be consulted to learn the future.

In folklore this ancient mythological vision survived in stories of giants with the power to replace their severed heads on their bodies and go on as before; thus it was imperative for their opponents to keep head and body far apart until both were blue with cold and the danger of recapitation was past. Similar magical powers were granted to the decapitated head in tales that it could, of its own volition, become a weapon and attack the warrior who severed it from its body.

Such stories recall ancient Celtic traditions. Warriors traditionally cut off and displayed the heads of defeated enemies, for the head was seen as the place where personality or essence was most condensed or pure, rather like the contemporary American image of the heart. The Roman author Livy described the Celtic Boii warriors placing the severed head of an enemy chieftain in a temple, while lesser warriors’ heads were strung from the bridles of those who defeated them, presenting a fearsome appearance to enemies. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus similarly described warriors beheading those they killed in battle and strapping their heads to horses’ bridles or nailing them upon houses. Poseidonius speaks of being sickened by the sight of so many heads on display around a Celtic chieftain’s home, but he adds that familiarity dulled his horror. Distinguished enemies’ heads were embalmed in cedar and kept in a special box, to be proudly displayed when talk turned to exploits of war.

These historical records are reflected in Irish myth that tells of the hero cuchulainn returning from battle carrying nine heads in one hand, 10 in the other, and of his wife emer’s acceptance of the heads of his own 10 slayers upon the hero’s death. The heads of defeated enemies were called "the masts of macha," a poetic phrase that otherwise referred to acorns on which plgs feasted. Other Irish sources speak of warriors taking out the brains of their defeated victims and mixing them with lime to form a "brain ball" that could be used as a weapon or displayed as a trophy; it was the brain ball of the hero Meisceadhra that was hurled at Meisceadhra’s killer, king concobar mac nessa, lodging in Concobar’s head and eventually causing his death.

There is evidence that the Celts connected their reverence for the head with that for water, since skulls and metal replicas of heads have been found in sacred springs and wells. The reverence offered the "heads" of rivers—their sources— such as that which holds sacred the round pool at the source of the Shannon River, may combine these two symbolic meanings into one.


Traditional healing took several forms, including herbal remedies, spells, and rituals. The efficacy of some ancient herbal remedies has been upheld by contemporary biochemistry, while other remedies are untested or have been proven ineffective. Many of our common modern drugs derive from plant sources, like aspirin (salicylic acid) from willow (plants of the genus Salix), which is known in many lands as an effective remedy against pain. In Scotland, St. John’s Wort (Hypericum pulchrum) was known as an herb useful for keeping away fairies who might steal people from their beds; this suggests that what we now call depression was earlier described as fairy kidnapping.

Other forms of healing required magical rituals, as when trailing pearlwort (Sagina procum-bens) was attached to the skins of animals and people to protect them against the evil eye. Even such rituals may have resulted in healing; modern medicine knows the so-called placebo effect, whereby people given sugar pills show improvements similar to those in patients given real medicines. Scientists continue to explore the connection of body, mind, and spirit.

In Ireland water from holy wells was sprinkled on or fed to sick animals and people; in Scotland chanted spells assisted in the healing of minor injuries and ailments like sprains and boils. Various regions also had specific healing rituals; often these involved visiting places held sacred by pre-Celtic people, such as springs and stone circles. Some of these places may have induced healing by purely physical means, as with thermal springs that may have relieved the pains of arthritis, but more commonly the location has no detectable biological effect. The gathering of herbs sometimes required specific rituals (cut with material other than iron, gathered at specific times of day, rewarded with drinks of wine) of apparently magical intent and import.

Many healing techniques were widely known and used by ordinary people. In some cases, however, local herbalists or witches might be called upon; these were often older women who earned a modest living from consulting with their neighbors in times of need, but such power could backfire if such a person were suspected of using her powers for ill and was accused of witchcraft.

Healing stones

Celtic ritual object. Boulders and pebbles with holes in them were honored in many Celtic lands as healing stones; the tradition, often associated with stone monuments of the megalithic civilization, may reach back into pre-Celtic times. In Brittany newborns were passed through the hole in the healing stone at Fouvent-le-Haut to protect them from the ailments of infancy and from the spells of malevolent witches; in Amance money was tossed through a holed stone as a substitute for the child to be protected. In Cornwall the round rock at men-an-tol, near Madron, was thought to prevent and cure rheumatic ailments if one crawled naked through the stone or was pushed through by others while repeating a spell a magical number of times (usually three or nine).

In England similar rites have been recorded. The Long Stone of Gloucestershire was said to cure children with measles, whooping cough, and other contagious diseases, while those who could safely drop through a large holed stone in Dartmoor, called the Tolmen, into the North Teign River below would be cured of arthritis. In Ireland children suffering from the limb-twisting vitamin deficiency called rickets were passed through the Cloch-a-Phoill in Co. Carlow in hopes of a cure. Another huge (10 x 9-foot) stone, located at a triple crossroads in Co. Sligo and called either Clochbhreach (Speckled Stone) or Clochlia (Gray Stone), has an apparently natural small (2 x 3-foot) perforation through which children with measles were passed. Holed stones from Ireland were revered through England and Scotland as being especially efficacious healers. Indeed, one Irish rock in Northumberland was never permitted to touch English soil, to preserve its healing powers; it was held to work best if applied by a person of Irish blood or ancestry.

In Scotland stitch-stones relieved skin ailments and other chronic complaints; they were kept by the healed individual until called for by someone else, whereupon the most recently affected delivered the stones for use. The Stones of Stenness on Orkney were considered curative of many ailments if one walked around them three times deosil (in the direction of the sun, or clockwise).


Symbolic site. The Celts connected the center of home with the otherworld. The hearth, where the cooking fire blazed—a fire that, in most cases, provided heat for the home as well—was a significant spiritual symbol. Early archaeological sites show an emphasis on the hearth, which was found decorated with divine symbols like those on the ram’s-head andirons found in Gaul.

It is believed that sacrifices to the family’s ancestors were made at each home’s hearth. It was a liminal space, not entirely of this world but opening out to that of the spirits. fairies and ghosts were attracted to the hearth, especially at pivotal days such as samhain, the beginning of winter on November 1; on that night, ghosts of the deceased would sometimes be seen warming themselves by the hearth-fire or sitting in their accustomed place, calmly smoking or knitting.


Symbolic plant. Common in Ireland and Britain, the low-growing heath or heather is a tough bog plant that blooms with charming pink or purplish flowers that carpet wild areas in summer. bees love heather and make from it a honey that is a favorite food in parts of Scotland. In Ireland heather was classed as a "peasant" tree, but it nonetheless is included in the tree alphabet.


British archaeological site. Now the name of an airport near London, Heathrow was originally a pre-Roman Celtic settlement from the fourth century b.c.e., which included an impressive square earthworks originally topped by a timber temple and surrounded by a colonnade of posts. Such a square-within-a-square design has also been noted in temple buildings in other Romano-Celtic regions, suggesting that the design has roots in Celtic religious views.


Cosmological concept. The Celts generally did not imagine heaven and earth as opposed to each other; nor did they describe them as a complementary pair. There is, for example, no myth of the marriage of heaven and earth, nor of their forced separation, as occurs in some other cultures. Instead, fragmentary myths suggest that the Celtic worldview was similar to that found in shamanic cultures (see celtic shamanism). While in Judeo-Christian cosmology heaven is usually seen as the abode of the dead and of the divine forces, the Celts located both in the otherworld, which could be found out to sea, under a hill, or in an invisible universe parallel to ours, but never in the sky.


British folkloric figure. This spirit of the small spring in the Peaklands that bears her name (Hedess Spring) may derive from an ancient water goddess.

Hefydd Hen (Hefaidd Hen, Heveidd Henn)

Welsh hero or god. Hefydd the Ancient or Old Hefydd was the father of rhiannon, the mythological horsewoman who appears to be a diminished goddess. Thus Hefydd himself may have been an ancestral Welsh divinity, although no recorded story explains his mythical function.

Heilyn Minor

Welsh hero. When bran the blessed waged his fierce war on Ireland in the Welsh epic MABINOGION, only a few warriors survived the battles. Heilyn was one; he opened the magic door through which the survivors escaped.


Arthurian heroine. A sorceress, Hellawes attempted unsuccessfully to seduce the great knight lancelot.


Arthurian hero. This minor figure in Arthurian legend was an ancestor of the round table knight lancelot.

Hengroen (Llamrei)

Arthurian figure. This name is given in the Welsh triads to king arthur’s horse in the final battle at camlan.


Scottish folkloric figure. In the islands off Scotland, Orkney and the Shetlands, fairy people could be detected because they limped ("henked") when they danced, although the reason for this handicap is not explained in folklore. Thus Henky was a common name for a fairy person in that region.


British goddess of abundance. In British mythology this magical sow-goddess ("old white one") came forth early in creation to give life to the world. As she roamed the hilly countryside, she gave birth to litter after litter. Instead of piglets, however, Henwen produced a grain of wheat and a bee; a grain of barley and a bee; a wolf cub, an eaglet, and a kitten, each strange litter in a different part of the country.

Hen Wife (Cailleach nan Cearac)

Scottish folkloric character. On farms in the Scottish Highlands, a woman who kept chickens was believed to have magical powers and thus to be associated with witchcraft. The same was not true of a man who operated the same business. The character of the Hen Wife appears in a number of folktales and may be connected with the cailleach as goddess of animals, or it may simply derive from the perceived power of women who earned their own living through the sale of eggs and meat.


Romano-Celtic god. Celtic artists did not typically depict gods in human form; with the arrival of the invading Romans around 200 b.c.e., however, they adapted their style to reflect classical figure modeling. In addition, the interpretatio romana—the renaming of Celtic gods and goddesses with the names of Roman divinities—encouraged artists to carve deities with classical as well as Celtic attributes and to label them with Roman names. Thus the Greco-Roman hero Hercules appears frequently in Celtic art, particularly on the Continent, as an altered version of Celtic gods, some of whose names are known, while others are lost. segomo, borvo, and smertrius are all shown as brawny, powerful gods bearing Herculean clubs, but what these gods meant to their people is not entirely clear; Borvo’s connection with the healing springs at Aix-les-Bains suggests that he may have fought disease rather than other gods. According to the second century c.e. Greek writer Lucian, the god of eloquence, ogmios, was depicted as Hercules because verbal talent was a kind of strength among the Celtic people.


British folkloric or mythological being. In Herefordshire it was believed that a king of ancient times, Herla, still haunted the land in the form of a tiny half-animal man astride a large goat. Trapped in the otherworld centuries ago, Herla was doomed to lead the wild hunt, called Herla’s Rade, on moonlit nights— although some sources say that he transferred this duty to the English king and thereafter rested in the Otherworld.


British folkloric figure. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare speaks of Herne as a hunter who hanged himself from an oak tree and was thereafter forced to haunt the woods where he died. Herne the Hunter appears in various legends as a horned spirit, suggesting that he may have originated as a woodland deity like cernunnos. One tale from Windsor Forest describes Herne in language typical of fairies, for he was said to shoot his victims with invisible darts if they intruded upon magical places. (See gwynn ap nudd.)


Symbolic animal. Several bird species had specific symbolic value in Celtic tradition. One of these was the heron, which as a waterbird existed in several elements (air, land, water), thus becoming an emblem of otherworld power. Herons appear in contexts similar to that of cranes, typically representing the feminine force. An exception is the story of the bitter satirist aithirne who sought to steal the herons of the fairy mound of bri leith. These herons represented the sinful quality of inhospitality.


Arthurian heroine. This princess of Wales did not want to marry just anyone; she demanded a man who was truly heroic. And so she let it be known that whoever won a tournament would win her hand as well. After years of adventuring in the east, the warrior gahmuret arrived on the scene just in time to claim the prize. Gahmuret was rather footloose and, after impregnating his bride, left for the east once again, where his luck ran out and he was slain. Heartbroken, Herzeloyde moved to a small woodland cottage, where she gave birth to her son, percival, whom she intended to keep from all knowledge of his heritage. His heroic blood found its way out when Percival was old enough to join king arthur at camelot.


Celtic land. This ancient name, which meant "winter country," was used by Greek and Roman writers to refer to both Ireland and, occasionally, Britain. To Mediterranean peoples, the rainy chill of Ireland apparently seemed a perpetual winter.

High king (ard ri, ard ri, ard righe)

Irish social role. The question of what power the king of tara had over other Irish kings is far from settled. Because a king’s power came from the tuath (his people and their land) and from his union with the goddess of the land, there seems little likelihood that Tara’s king held centralized political authority. While it is easy today to imagine a group of lesser kings who reported to the high king, that was not the case. The high king held a ceremonial and religious office rather than a political one. He could not demand that other kings follow his orders, but he had the responsibility of keeping Ireland fertile and blooming by following his buada and geasa (see geis), his sacred vows and taboos. Many high kings figure prominently in mythology, including niall of the Nine Hostages, conn of the Hundred Battles, and conaire.

Hillfort (rath, rath, dun, dun, lis, cashel)

Celtic archaeological site. Across Ireland, and to some extent in Britain as well, remains of Celtic settlements still stand, their various names all describing a high wall of earth, usually atop a hill, and usually circular. Some archaeological evidence suggests that over these permanent foundation walls, buildings of wood were erected; some archaeological evidence has been found supporting that theory. Built from approximately 700 b.c.e. through the early Middle Ages, the hillforts are connected to Celtic settlement and seem to have been locations for trade, government, and ceremony.

That Ireland was a populous land in the first century of the common era is suggested by more than 30,000 surviving hillforts, each of which would have housed from several dozen to several score residents. Many towns today still carry the name of the hillfort of the area: Rathangan, Lisdoonvarna, Lisadell, Dunmore. Cashels are somewhat larger than other hillforts and, like the town that bears that name in Tipperary, were usually built on high, easily defensible ground. In all cases, the earthen walls of the hillforts appear to have been constructed to simplify defense of the site. Some hillforts important in myth include grianan aileach, emain macha, tara, and cruachan.

Historical Cycle (Cycle of the Kings)

Irish mythological texts. Several sequences of Irish myths appear in ancient manuscripts, generally divided, in roughly chronological order of the supposed occurrences, into the mythological cycle, the ulster cycle, the fenian cycle, and the Historical Cycle. The last includes stories whose events would have occurred between late Celtic and early Christian times (third to 11th century c.e.). Many tales appear based in historical reality, but they have been embellished with mythological motifs and descriptions of supernatural happenings. The stories often revolve around the important ritual and political center at tara and concern the Celtic concept of sovereignty or right rulership. Among the kings who appear in the Historical Cycle are conn of the Hundred Battles, cormac mac airt, mongan, and guaire.


Archaeological site. Celtic hoards, found in bogs and similar hiding places, include gold torcs, embellished cauldrons, and lunae or moon-collars. Scholars believe that the treasures were deposited in the bogs to protect them against theft by invaders, perhaps Vikings. Hoards were also intended as sacrifice, perhaps in cases of epidemics or other disasters, either threatened or actual.

Hob (Hobtrust, hobtrush, hobgoblin)

British and Scottish folkloric figure. The syllable hob, frequently found in words related to fairies, is believed to be a diminutive for Robert, a name given to English brownies or helpful household spirits; the flattering name robin goodfellow comes from the same stem. In northern Britain the hob was a kindly spirit, helpful to local people when they needed healing or farm work. As with similar beings, it was important never to reward the hob in any way, for that would scare him off (see laying the fairies).

Less kindly hobs were also known in folklore, such as Hob Headless, a scary being who haunted a road near the River Kent. Confined under a rock for 99 years, Hob Headless trapped passersby who rested upon his rock, gluing them down so that they could not rise and escape. Hob Headless is typical of the hobgoblin, a generic name for malicious spirits. In Scotland hobgoblins caused distress and mischief just for their own sake. They took on ominous forms to terrify people walking at night; even a haystack could become a threatening apparition, coming alive in the night and frightening the traveler into an exhausting run or a useless fight against the invisible foe. Variant legends say that to encounter such an apparition indicated coming death.


British folkloric figure. Many folkloric events are believed to be remnants of early religious ceremonies, degraded by the passage of years. One of these is the hobbyhorse, a puppet of a horse worn by a man in parades at British festivals. As the syllable hob usually indicates a connection with the otherworld, the hobbyhorse is thought to derive from Celtic practice, perhaps related to the horse goddess epona.

Hogmany (Hagmany)

Scottish festival. The last day of the year in Scotland (sometimes called "the night of the candles" or "the night of the pelting") was celebrated with many traditional activities, some of which have roots in the Celtic worldview. Candles were kept lit all night. Houses were decorated with holly, branches of which were used to whip boys for their own protection, with each drop of blood drawn assuring them of a year of good health.

A man dressed in a cowhide bellowed through the streets, followed by men and boys throwing snowballs and striking him with a switch to create a loud boom. This rowdy procession followed the sun’s course (see directions) three times around the village, striking each house for good luck, demanding treats or money or both, and repeating a nonsense rhyme. Upon being admitted to a home, the Hogmany party offered the caisein-uchd—a sheep’s breastbone on a stick—to the household, to be placed in the fire and held to the noses. Such peculiar traditions have their roots in protective rituals intended to keep the participants healthy through the new year and may earlier have been used for divination.

Holed stones

Symbolic object. In addition to their uses for healing (see healing stones), large rocks with holes in them were used in all the Celtic lands to seal marriage vows. Loving couples clasped hands through the natural holes while pledging their troth. In some regions a church wedding was not considered valid unless vows were also spoken at the holed stone. In Britain the term dobie Stone is applied to these natural formations, connecting them with the fairies of that name.

Hollow hill

Irish folkloric site. The idea that some hills are hollow, the better to accommodate the fairy palaces within them, is typical of Irish images of the otherworld as a region close to our world yet not part of it.


Symbolic plant. Its red berries and shiny evergreen leaves made the common holly (genus Ilex), a small tree or shrub, especially visible in snowy woodlands, and thus it became associated with the Christian midwinter feast of Christmas. The name comes from Middle English and is associated with the word holy. Before Christianization, however, the tree had been sacred to the Celts as the emblem of the ruler of winter, the Holly King, whose opponent was the oak King; a vestige of this seasonal combat may be found in the Welsh myth of combat between the kings hafgan and arawn. The holly is symbolically paired with the ivy, the first representing the masculine force, the second symbolizing the feminine; the connection remains familiar through the holiday song, "The Holly and the Ivy," whose melody and lyrics date to the medieval period.

Hooper (hooter)

Cornish folkloric figure. A helpful but sometimes vindictive Cornish weather spirit like the Scottish gray man, the hooper was a dense fog that blocked out all vision, or a cloudy curtain from which a central light shone. Anyone who saw the hooper stayed ashore, for its appearance was invariably followed by fierce storms. One legend tells of a sailor who jeered at the hooper and took out his crew despite the warning; his boat passed into the gloom and was never seen again.

Horn (antlers, horned god, horned goddess)

Symbolic object. One of the primary symbols of the god of male potency, horns or antlers are frequently found on Celtic divinities. Two major forms of the horned god have been cataloged. The first wears the antlers of a stag and sits cross-legged, staring forward. This Gaulish god is usually dubbed cernunnos, "the horned one," after an inscription found on a sculpture of this type in Paris; he is thought to represent a force of prosperity. Occasionally this figure is depicted as having three heads, although it is possible that such sculptures indicate the connection of Cernunnos with other gods. Gaulish mercury and cocidius are also occasionally shown wearing horns, although the symbol is not always associated with these divinities of wealth.

The second type of horned god showed horns of domestic animals, usually those of bulls, attached to the heads of male deities. Although many such divinities have been found, they have no distinctive symbols save the horns to tell us what they represent. As horned helmets have been found, presumably originally worn by warriors or leaders, the horns may represent leadership and power.

Goddesses are also found with horns, although less often than gods. Usually the goddess wears antlers, which are found on the heads of some female deer, although occasionally bulls’ or goats’ horns crown a goddess’s head. Such goddesses are believed to indicate a force of animal nature and a link between female fecundity and the animal world.

A peculiarly Celtic religious symbol was the ram-headed snake, which was translated in Christian times to an image of evil rather than of power. The Christian devil with its ram’s horns is a direct descendant of this powerful Celtic divinity.

Some folkloric celebrations seem to encode ancient rituals of the horned god; see abbots bromley.


Symbolic animal. One of the most important animals to the Celts was the horse, not only for religious and symbolic reasons but also for practical ones. The Celts were known throughout ancient Europe for their horsemanship, especially in warfare. Horses were central to the Celtic way of life as a means of transportation and as an indication of nobility. Celtic nobles rode in chariots instead of on horse back, while less honored warriors formed the mounted cavalry. Nobles were often buried with their horses and gear, indicating a connection in life that was not ended by death.

The funerary use of horses in Celtic lands may derive from their association with the solar power; the sun is seen in many cultures as bearing the dead away at sunset and into rebirth at dawn. Celtic coins with solar and equine emblems suggest a connection between horses and the sun, the spoked wheel, a double image of sun and horse-drawn chariot, was especially linked to the goddess epona, champion of the Celtic cavalry under Roman occupation, whose cult spread into Rome itself. Some have found in the nursery rhyme "Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross, to see a fine lady upon a white horse" a faint folkloric echo of Epona; similar connections have been drawn to the quasi-historical figure of Lady godiva, who rode naked on horseback to protest her husband’s oppressive taxation policies.

On the Continent the widespread cult of the goddess Epona (whose name means "horse" or, because it is feminine in gender, "mare"), passed from the Celts to the Roman legionnaires, for whom she became the cavalry goddess. Many Romano-Celtic sculptures and reliefs show Epona seated on a horse, surrounded by horses or foals, or offering feed to horses. Because of the reverence due the horse and to Epona, the Celts did not eat horseflesh, a taboo that has passed into contemporary European cuisine. The taboo was lifted on sacramental occasions when horses were sacrificed, as at the midsummer festival.

In Ireland the horse was connected with the goddess of sovereignty through the banais righe, the sacred marriage of king and land goddess that the early geographer Geraldus Cambrensis claims included the sacramental mating of the king with a white mare; the mare was then killed and cooked into a broth that the king drank. This curious ritual, recorded in no other text, has corollaries in other parts of the Indo-European world, most notably in India, but there is scholarly debate over whether the horse sacrifice was indeed part of Irish royal inauguration.

An Irish corollary to Epona is found in macha, who proved herself faster than the king’s team in a horse race that ended in her death. Also in Ireland, connection between horses and humans appears in the post-Christian folktale that Noah brought animals two by two into the ark, except for the horse; he accidentally brought only a mare, which was impregnated by one of Noah’s sons, so that all horses today have a distant human ancestor. This peculiar tale seems to dimly reflect the same alleged kingship ritual mentioned above.

Irish folklore credited horses with second sight, especially with the ability to see ghosts of the dead—possibly a connection to the animal’s ancient funerary symbolism. According to legend, a rider who looked between the ears of a mount shared the horse’s ability to see ghosts. Horses were sometimes stolen and ridden by fairies; in the early morning the animals were lathered with sweat as though they had spent the night galloping despite being confined to their stalls. Only one horse could not be stolen by the fairies, and that was the fiorlair or true mare, the seventh consecutive filly born of a mare. Where the true mare was born, a four-leafed clover called Mary’s Clover sprang up, imbued with curative powers. Such a rare horse protected her rider from any harm, of this world or another, and could never be beaten in a race. Other superstitions also emphasized the protective power of horses; burying a horse’s head in a building’s foundation kept its occupants safe.

In Wales the horse is associated with the figure of rhiannon, a goddess who appears in the first branch of the mabinogion riding an impressively speedy white horse and surrounded by endlessly singing birds. After she married king pwyll, Rhiannon gave birth to a son who was kidnapped under mysterious circumstances; she bore the blame, and until her name was cleared, she had to carry all visitors to the palace on her back, thus reinforcing her connection to the horse.

In England horse figures are found carved into the turf of chalky lands such as Berkshire and Wiltshire. Eleven white horses are cut into the sides of hills, dated according to their style to the late 18th or early 19th century and interpreted as regimental emblems. However, some of these horses may have been carved over earlier, possibly Celtic, horse figures. Apparently unchanged for many centuries is the renowned white horse of uffington, whose slender, graceful body stylistically resembles horses from Celtic coins. Archaeologists are hesitant to provide a date for the Uffington horse, although excavations measuring the rate of slippage down the hillside have calculated its age as consistent with Celtic occupation of the region.

"Scouring" the horses—removing the turf that would have grown over them if not regularly weeded—was a community affair that often coincided with a fair or market; the seven-year cycle of scouring the Uffington horse continued into recent centuries, with more than 30,000 people recorded as having attended the ceremonies and festival in 1780.

Horse sacrifice

Irish ritual. The early traveler to Ireland, Giraldus Cambrensis, wrote an account in the early sixth century c.e. of a ritual horse sacrifice that many scholars have accepted as accurate, despite the absence of any similar accounts. According to Giraldus, the inauguration of the Irish high king at tara, the banais righe, required that the candidate have intercourse with a white mare, who was then killed, cooked up into broth, and devoured by the king. Often described as a "barbaric" rite, this unusual ritual might be disregarded as unlikely, save that it echoes another Indo-European inauguration, in which the queen was to wear the hide of a newly slaughtered mare for ritual coition with the king.


Symbolic ritual. In Celtic Ireland the king’s duty included the redistribution of wealth through endless feasting and open-door hospitality. Should a king fail to provide for guests, he could lose the throne, as happened when the beautiful half-formorian king bres fed a bard poorly and was forced from power as a result.

Hospitality was not only required of kings. Other members of society were expected to open their doors to the needy and to travelers. Those who set up households at crossroads thereby showed their willingness to feed and house the passerby. Largesse was equal to the person’s means; thus an impoverished person could offer meager food, while a wealthy one was expected to spread an impressive table. Cuts of meat and other foods were offered according to the caller’s social rank; only a few visitors could expect honey wherever they went. Thus Celtic expectations of hospitality were a form of resource reallocation.

Hot water

Irish folkloric motif. Irish lore warned against throwing hot water outside at night, for fear that it might strike and harm the fairy folk who lingered in the farmyards after hours. In the days before drains were installed in cottage kitchens, the housewife threw the cooking and cleaning water onto the stones of the haggard or courtyard, thus cleaning the yard with the used water. Cries warning the fairies against the coming boiling splash ("Towards ye! Towards ye!") would also have been useful in keeping any unobserved humans safe from inconvenient drenching.

Hu (Hu Gadarn, Hu the Mighty)

Neo-pagan god. The prime deity of some cults of contemporary neo-pagans who claim to be practicing druids, this agricultural divinity appears to date to the Middle Ages, although he may be a vestige of an earlier god.

Hulac Warren (Hector Warren)

British folk-loric site. A great rock called the Warren Stone near Buxton was once a giant of this name. When he tried to rape the maiden hedessa, she turned into a spring, while he was petrified into stone. The story, which recalls tales of the Greek Apollo’s attempts on innumerable nymphs, may be a combination of classical and indigenous stories.

Human sacrifice

Celtic ritual. According to Roman sources, both the continental and the insular Celts practiced human sacrifice. Julius Caesar described a ritual in which victims were trapped, together with scores of animals, in a gigantic human form made from wicker, then burned alive; Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and Tacitus agree that the Celts sacrificed human beings to their gods. The latter claimed that the Celtic priesthood of druids "deemed it a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails." The murderous assault on the Celtic sanctuary at anglesey was explained as necessary to exterminate a priestly class that Tacitus said worshiped at altars "soaked with human blood."

Later writers, friendlier to the Celts, argued that the Romans slandered their most powerful European enemies. Contemporary evidence suggests that human sacrifice may indeed have been practiced, although probably not regularly, by the druids. Such sacrifices may have been an ancient form of capital punishment, reserved for criminals and other prisoners. Because the Celts are thought to have believed in reincarnation, the taking of a human life would have had a different meaning for them than for those who believed in a single lifetime.

Sacrificed humans may not have suffered a tortuous death in Caesar’s wicker man. Bodies found in bogs in circumstances that suggest sacrifice of people with fine nails and skin and full stomachs, perhaps individuals of a high, perhaps even royal, class who were well treated before death. Some, such as the lindow man, appear to have suffered the threefold death of strangling, cutting, and drowning. Some myths, such as that of the high king conaire, who was burned to death in the hostel of da derga, support the idea of human sacrifice as a Celtic practice.

Hungry grass

Irish folkloric site. Folklore is never static; significant historical moments find their way into folktales. This was the case with the Irish Famine, called in Irish An Gorta Mor, The Great Hunger. English occupation of the island denied Irish farmers the right to own land, so most lived as impoverished tenants of often absent landlords. What made this possible was an agricultural import from South America: the potato, which thrived in the rainy Irish climate. A small patch of land, even one measuring less than an acre, when planted with potatoes could provide enough sustenance to support a farming family.

Combined with limited access to other food, such monoculture provides the conditions for famine when disease or poor weather strike. Such was the case in 1848-50, when an airborne fungus caused the potatoes to turn into black slime immediately after harvesting. There was still ample food available, in the form of cattle being readied for market, but most livestock belonged to the landlords, and so millions of tenant farmers starved. That Ireland continued to export food throughout the Famine years led to continuing bitterness and political strife.

Although the blight passed within the decade, the effects of the Famine were felt for years thereafter; Ireland’s population today is still only half what it was before the Famine struck. Actual morbidity figures are unknown, especially given the poor records kept during the disaster, but it is generally agreed that between one and one-and-a-half million people died from starvation and disease, while approximately the same number were forced to emigrate.

From this tragic sequence of events came the legend of the hungry grass, patches of soil that are so infected with memories of the Great Famine that anyone who steps on them is instantly stricken with insatiable hunger, and soon dies even though well fed. Sometimes it is said that hungry grass grows over the unmarked graves of Famine victims, other times that it springs up wherever people died—by the roadside or in hovels—of hunger. Animals are less affected by hungry grass than humans, although there are stories of cattle that died mysteriously after eating it.

Hungry man (fear gortach, far gorta)

Irish folkloric figure. A variant of the legends of the hungry grass that causes insatiable hunger in anyone who treads upon it, the hungry man is an insistent vision of a starving beggar who stands by the roadside with his hand silently out for alms; giving the hungry man food brings good luck. Like the hungry grass, this figure is assumed to have arisen after the Famine of the 1840s, although it may have tapped into earlier folkloric traditions.

Hy-Brazil (Hy-Brazil, Hy-breasal, Hy-brasil, I Breasil)

Irish mythological site. Somewhere in the ocean, the Celts believed, was a magical island of peace and plenty ruled over by a king, bres, or a fairy queen, niamh of the Golden Hair, or occasionally manannan mac lir, the sea god. The island appeared every seven years, usually in a different place, always in the west. Several islands off the west coast of Ireland laid claim to be Hy-Brazil, including Inisbofin off the Galway coast. In 1908 many people claimed they had spotted Hy-Brazil in the Atlantic off the west coast of Ireland, floating in an area of the ocean where no island had previously been seen.

Belief in the existence of Hy-Brazil was strong and long-lasting; the land appears on medieval European maps as a real island, usually located off Ireland. When European sailors reached South America, they believed the rich lands there to be the mythological land of plenty; thus one of that continent’s major countries still bears the name of the Celtic magical island.

Hy-Brazil is sometimes confounded or conflated with Otherworldly sites like tir na nog ("the land of youth") and mag mell ("the plain of delights"), but each has its own distinctive qualities.


Celtic people. The ancient Greeks recorded the existence of a people they called the Hyperboreans, a name meaning "beyond the north wind," a semi-mythological people with magical powers. These peaceful vegetarians worshiped apollo, it was said, in a huge stone circular temple associated by some with stonehenge, although most ancient geographers placed the Hyperborean homeland in Europe rather than on the island of Britain. By the fourth century b.c.e., Greek authors were saying that the alleged Hyperborean homeland was populated by the people they called Celts, adopting one of the names the Celts themselves used, which meant "the lofty ones" or "the warriors."

Hywel Dda (Howel Dda)

Welsh hero. In the southwestern Welsh kingdom of dyfed in the 10th century (ca. 910 to 950 c.e.), king Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) created an impressive body of law codified in the late 12th (some sources say 13 th) century as Cyfraith Hywell or the Laws of Hywel, the first unified body of law in the land. This legal code is often described as the Welsh parallel to the Irish brehon laws.

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