Ialonus To Jupiter (Iupiter, Jupiter, Jove) (Celtic mythology and folklore)


Continental Celtic god. This obscure divinity who ruled cultivated fields was identified by the Romans with mars, now conventionally described as a war god but originally a divinity of fertility.


Irish hero. In the legendary history of Ireland, the book of invasions, the hero nemed was the father of Iarbanel, who was in turn ancestor of the gods known as the tuatha de danann, or tribe of the goddess danu; from Iarbanel’s brother Starn descended the Tuatha De’s enemies, the fir bolg. It is not clear if Iarbanel was the consort of Danu, as this genealogy implies, for she is not linked with any god.

Ibath, Ibcan Minor

Irish heroes. Descendants of the hero iarbanel, they were called nemedians after Iarbanel’s father, their grandfather nemed.


Celtic location. The peninsula today called Spain and Portugal was, in ancient times, a Celtic stronghold. Myth connects Iberia with Ireland, for one group of mythological migrants described in the book of invasions were the milesians, or the Sons of Mil; its alternative name, Hibernia, derives from this word. The name of Mil Despaine, mythological forebear of these migrants, translates into "Spanish soldier."


Continental Celtic goddess. To the Celts, both continental and insular, rivers were invariably goddesses who ruled both the waters and the lands of the watershed. Icauna was the tutelary goddess of the Yonne River in northern France.


Continental Celtic goddess. Inscriptions to Icovellauna have been found at Metz and Trier in Germany, but little is known about her meaning or cult. As the first syllable (Ico-) of her name means "water," she is presumably a water divinity, probably the healing goddess whose octagonal shrine was excavated at the spring of Sablon.

Igraine (Egraine, Yguerne, Igrayne, Ygerna, Igerna, dgerne, Eigr, Ingraine)

Welsh and Arthurian heroine. When the beautiful Igraine caught the eye of heroic uther pendragon, he was overcome with desire to have her as his consort although, already partnered with gorlois,Duke of Cornwall, Igraine had no desire for Uther. Conspiring with the magician merlin, Uther changed his appearance so that Igraine believed herself to be sleeping with her husband although her companion was in fact the bewitched Uther. From their mating the future king arthur was conceived; after news of Gorlois’s death reached Igraine, she married Uther, who had resumed his original appearance.

Igraine had several other children by Gorlois. Two have similar names and may derive from the same original: morgause and morgan are frequently confused in legend. The other was elaine of Garlot.


Irish god. When the god of fertility, the dagda, decided to relinquish his leadership of his people, the ancient Irish gods called the tuatha de danann, Ilberg was a contender for the post. Son of the sea god manannan mac lir, Ilberg did not get the nod and thereafter retired to his palace at the magical waterfall of assaroe.


Irish mythological site. When the otherworld was envisioned as a floating island, it sometimes bore this name, which means "many-colored land," in reference to its gorgeous and unearthly hues.

Ile (Eila, Yula)

Scottish goddess. One of the largest of the Hebrides, a string of islands off Scotland’s west coast, the isle of Islay was named for this goddess. Sometimes she is described as a queen or princess named Yula of Denmark. Although Ile, even in diminished form, is an obscure figure, the island that bears her name is less so, for it was the inaugural site for the Lords of the Isles, who in a typical Celtic inauguration rite stepped on a stone impressed with footprints to receive their office. See inauguration stones.


Cosmological concept. Celtic artists traditionally employed a decorative and ornate abstraction for ritual objects whose spiritual or religious meaning can only be guessed at. Most engravings, sculptures, or other images of continental Celtic gods and goddesses date to the Roman era, with the exception of severed heads that date to as early as the eighth century b.c.e. and occasional rough-hewn wooden planks with graven heads and flat bodies.

After the Roman invasion, Celtic artists on the Continent and in Britain began to produce (sometimes mass-produce) human-formed divinities that show skill in modeling and follow classical patterns; clearly it was not lack of ability that discouraged representation of gods in human form. The fact that the most popular divinities sculpted were those that would appeal to wealthy members of society suggests that these Romanized Celtic divinities were made either for Roman residents of the provinces or for well-off Celts wishing to emulate their new masters. The connection of such images to Roman influence is made clear not only in the classical draperies that shroud them but in the fact that they are not found in Ireland, where the Roman legions never invaded.

Why the Celts originally declined to show their divinities as men and women is not well understood, for in myth the gods and goddesses move about, fall in love, engage in battle, and do other things that seem to require bodies. Celtic art, rather than being representational, tended to be decorative and abstract, even art that had spiritual meaning. In some cultures, such as Islam, it is forbidden to depict the divine as human, but we have no documented evidence for such a philosophy among the Celts, who in any case turned to such depictions with great ease after Roman contact. See interpretatio romana.

Imbas forosnai (imbus forosna, himbas forosnai)

Divination system. Among the Irish druids, this form of divination was used to discover the location of hidden or stolen objects or to learn secrets kept from public knowledge. The term, "illumination between the hands," refers to the second stage of the ritual. First the bard or seer chewed on raw meat, which was then offered to the powers of the otherworld. The answer to the query was supposed to come into the seer’s mind by the next day, but if that did not happen, the second stage began: After speaking incantations into his or her hands, the seer slept with palms on cheeks and dreamed the answer to the queries.

Imbolc (Imbolg, Oilmelc, Oimelg, Olmec, Candlemas)

Celtic holiday. The Celtic year was broken into four parts, and the points between the equinoxes and solstices were celebrated as major festivals. Imbolc, on February 1, was the day on which winter ended and spring began. Its name means "in the belly," presumably because cattle and sheep were pregnant with spring’s young at this time; it has also been connected with a word meaning "to wash," presumably referring to ritual purification. The alternative name of Oilmelc refers to the lactation of ewes that also occurs around this time.

Yet although it was described as spring’s awakening, the weather at this time was generally more wintry than not. Thus weather magic and divination were common to the day. The Manx said the "Old Woman of the Spells," a form of the cailleach, tried to find dry sticks on Imbolc in order to build a fire, thus making herself comfortable enough to prolong winter; such traditions may form the basis of the American Groundhog Day. In Ireland the day was dedicated to St. brigit, the Christianized version of the Celtic goddess of the same name, whose feast day this became; many folkways celebrate her, including plaiting swastika-like crosses fashioned of reed and rush to invite Brigit into the home.

On the Isle of Man, the day is called Laa’l Breeshey, the day of Brigit. Manx customs included leaving the front door open so that Brigit (or in some cases, the fairies) might feel welcomed and enter, or sweeping out the barn and leaving a lit candle to burn there beside a table on which ale and bread (the "Brigit supper") was offered to the visiting spirits, whether saintly or fey. As in other Celtic lands, the Isle of Man saw weather divination practiced on this day. One tradition said that as far as the sunbeam reaches on Imbolc, that far will the snow come before beltane on May 1; thus, as in other places, a bright Imbolc was thought to promise a lengthened winter. A similar belief had it that when Imbolc was sunny, a wet or snowy spring was in the offing. A rainy or snowy Imbolc, by contrast, would force the Cailleach, the weather-controlling hag, to stay indoors rather than gathering more wood for her fire. Without laying in an additional stock of fuel, she would be forced to end winter early.

In Britain seasonal symbolism outweighed weather divination. As in other Celtic lands, Imbolc was associated in the Cotswold hill-country with candles that represented the increasing strength of the sun being lit throughout the house to celebrate the day. Tea was traditionally to be served without any artificial light, for on Imbolc the sun’s light was supposed to be strong enough to illuminate the table spread with the feast.

In Scotland rush or reed figures of Brigit were constructed and dressed in bits of cloth, with a shell called "the guiding star" placed on the chest. This poppet was carried from house to house, usually by young women, or put to bed with lullabies. Ashes strewn on the doorstep would be checked in the morning to see if Brigit had honored the household with a visitation, which was thought to bring good luck for the year. Sometimes a piece of peat was put inside a sock, then hit upon a step while a verse was recited asking that serpents not come forth.

Ireland’s various regions had different traditions for this day. The day was generally a holiday when rural work stopped, although farmers might plow a ceremonial furrow in the spring fields or put a spade into the earth as a ritual invocation for good harvest. Strips of cloth or ribbons were placed outdoors, to catch the first light of the sun on Imbolc or the dew of the dawn; called a Brat Bride or Brigit’s cloak, the cloths were used for healing throughout the year. The faithful visited (and still visit) holy wells dedicated in Brigit’s name. In kildare a rush swastika cross was plaited; hung over the door, it protected against fire until the next Imbolc, when the dried cross would be stored in the rafters while another green one took its place. In western Connemara a straw rope plaited from rye straw cut by hand was formed into a circle (the crios bridghe or Brigit cross) and carried from door to door so that people could leap through it while praying for health and good fortune. In southwestern Co. Kerry mummers dressed in white imitated Brigit begging from door to door. Both of these latter customs have been revived in recent years, most significantly at Kildare, a town traditionally associated with the figure of Brigit transmogrified into the Christian saint; there the celebration of Imbolc has become an important local festival.


Cosmological concept. Although some writers describe the Celtic gods as immortal, tales such as that of battles of mag tuired describe the deaths of many of them. Gods and goddesses are occasionally victims of treacherous murder, as when medb was struck down while bathing. Thus it is not clear that the idea of immortality—in the sense of never suffering death—was part of the Celtic vision of divinity. Some Irish legends speak of a food that, when eaten by the gods, kept them young and hale: the pigs of the sea god manannan mac lir, the contents of the ever-full cauldron of the smith goibniu, and apples from the otherworld. The myths suggest that, without such magical food, divinities might age and die just like mortals, but existing texts and oral tales do not describe any deaths from old age among the gods.

Some ancient sources refer to a Celtic belief in the immortality of the human soul, which passed through various bodies; this is more properly termed reincarnation or metempsychosis. Some argue that rebirth in different bodies was not a Celtic vision of the afterlife but a classical misinterpretation, and that the Celts instead believed in the soul’s reawakening in an Otherworld that resembled this one point for point, except for being timeless. Death, in either case, was a change in form instead of an ending; such a belief may explain the fearlessness that ancient writers ascribed to Celtic warriors.

Immovability (automatic return)

Folkloric motif. The great stone monuments of the pre-Celtic people must have impressed the new settlers, for many superstitions accrued to the sites, which preserved them against desecration even millennia after the builders had passed away. One of these beliefs—recorded as far back as the early British historian Nennius—was that such stones would, if moved from their sacred location, return the next day of their own power. Sometimes the thief would be hurt or killed in the stone’s return.


British folkloric figure. An old word for a cutting from a tree is imp or ymp, and the term came to be applied during Puritan times to fairy people as offshoots of the devil. The concept is entirely a Christian one; pre-Christian residents of Celtic lands did not believe in a specific force of evil, much less that the people of the other-world were the evil one’s children.


Celtic ritual. Although little is known of inauguration rituals among the continental Celts or those in Britain, there is significant evidence of the ritual’s form in Celtic Ireland. The king was not an all-powerful person whose word was law, but rather a man chosen— often by inspired poets using complex divination methods, although possibly through feats of arms—to be married to the goddess of the land. The banais righe, the feast of inauguration, celebrated the marriage of the goddess of sovereignty with her chosen king. The site of the ritual was a sacred hill such as tara or a holy well; as there were hundreds of kings in ancient Ireland, their inauguration presumably was held at the most sacred place in their territory.

What exactly happened at this ritual is unclear. Giraldus Cambrensis relates a complex ritual involving the king’s mating with a mare; the mare was then killed and cooked, and the king was given its broth to drink (see horse sacrifice). Although that ritual finds echoes in other Indo-European lands, there is no further evidence that it occurred in Ireland.

More commonly, it is believed that the ritual included two main elements: the offering of a drink (possibly water from the sacred well, although red ale is also mentioned) and intercourse with the goddess, or a woman representing the goddess. Again, it is not known how widespread such practices were or whether the coition was symbolic or actual.

After inauguration it was the king’s duty to follow many ritual requirements (see buada). If he did so, the goddess offered the reward of abundant food and fine weather, while a king’s failure to please the goddess would result in famine and disease and eventual removal from office. To assure that the king did his utmost to provide for his people, his life was bounded by sacred taboos and promises called geasa (see gels). See also medb, kingship.

Inauguration stones

Celtic sacred object. Both literary and historical evidence support the idea that Celtic kings were invested with their office while standing upon a sacred stone. The most famous such stone was the lia fail, reputed to have been brought from the other-world to stand upon the Irish hill of tara. (Some legends say that the stone visible there in ancient times was not the real Lia Fail; the real stone remained forever in the Otherworld while a replica was sent to this world.) The stone, that stands today at the same site, often described as resembling a phallus, is not the original.

According to one legend, the original Lia Fail, also called the Stone of Destiny, was moved to Scotland in ancient times and used as an inaugural stone for 34 kings of Scotland. In 1296 this stone (now called the Stone of Scone) was removed from Scotland by order of Edward I and installed beneath the English coronation chair in Westminster Abbey in London; there it witnessed the inauguration of every British monarch, including today’s Elizabeth II, with the single exception of Mary I. The Stone of Scone was, however, returned to Scotland in 1996, leaving open the question of whether the next British monarch will travel there to be crowned upon the sacred stone.

Evidence that the Stone of Scone is not the original Lia Fail can be sought in traditions that the Lia Fail screamed when the true king touched it. There is no historical evidence for the Stone of Destiny screaming upon the coronation of either Scottish or English monarchs.

The Stone of Scone is not the only inaugural stone known in Celtic lands. The stone upon which seven 10th century Saxon kings were crowned can still be seen beside the Guildhall in Kingston-upon-Thames. The Black Stone of Iona stood in the cathedral at Strathclyde until 1830, when it was lost; prior to that, it was used by highland chiefs as a witness in contracts and oaths. Finally, the Stone of the Footmarks on the Scottish island of Islay was recorded as the site for inauguration of the chiefs of the Clan Donald; the incoming ruler stood barefoot, feet in the footprints graven in the stone, to take his oath of office. That inaugural stone, however, was deliberately destroyed in the 17 th century.

Ireland, too, had inaugural stones other than the mythological Lia Fail. Near Belfast, the O’Neills were inaugurated while sitting in a stone chair that was last heard of in 1750, when purchased for use as a garden ornament; it has since disappeared. Another stone chair, called the Hag’s Chair, can be seen on the heights of the cairn-studded hill of loughcrew, but its legendary connection with inauguration is slight.


Mythic theme. Tales that involve incest, especially that between brother and sister, have been interpreted as representing creation myths, because at the beginning of time the only way to populate the world would have been through incest. Implications of sexual congress between brother and sister appear in several Celtic myths, most prominently that of ari-anhrod, who bore two sons when asked to magically prove her virginity; sources imply that the father of these children was her brother Gwidion. King arthur, too, had a child with his sister, the magical morgause. Such incestuous unions are often used to argue the original divinity of figures that have been diminished or euhe-merized into human form.


Irish mythological site. Near the small town of Corofin on the Burren, a wild rocky area of west Co. Clare, the tiny gray lake of Inchiquin is said to have a magical past. Three beautiful women lived there in underground caves, coming forth each night near a sweetwa-ter spring. The lord of the area heard of them and, spying upon them, found one to his liking. He stole her from her sisters and took her to his fortress. She did not object, becoming his wife and bearing him several children. But she forbade him to ever invite company home—fairy women who agree to marry humans typically exact some such promise—and he pledged to her that he would not. Intoxicated while out with friends one night, he broke his promise, but when he arrived home with the company, he found his wife and children departing for the spring from which she had come. The errant lord could never recapture her, for the spring’s waters rose until it became today’s lake, forever hiding the entry to the fairy realm.


Irish god. In the great Irish tale of the second battle of mag tuired, this fomorian hero wounded the god ogma of the opposing army, the tribe of the goddess danu called the tuatha de danann. Indech was the son of Domnu, a goddess of fertility who has been described as a version of Danu herself. The ancestry of Irish mythological figures is often quite tangled in this way. Some scholars argue that the various "tribes" of divinities represent the many waves of immigrants to the island; intermarriage among these immigrants led to interconnections among their divinities.

Inghean Bhuidhe

Irish goddess. One of three related goddesses known in the southwestern province of munster, "the yellow-haired girl" was the sister of latiaran, apparently an ancient fire goddess, and the mysterious crobh dearg or "red claw," perhaps another fire deity; the third sister is sometimes said to be lasair. Christianized into a saint, Inghean Bhuidhe was honored on May 6 with rituals around a sacred well. She is an obscure figure, known and honored within a small geographical region but with little legend to describe her powers.

Inis Glora

Irish mythological site. The last of three places to which the enchanted children of lir were condemned, Inis Glora (now Inish Glora) is a small island off the west coast of Co. Mayo.


Continental Celtic god. An obscure god, the meaning of whose name cannot be determined, Intarabus is known from several inscriptions from Germany and Belgium. The Romans identified him with their own warrior god mars, suggesting a connection with war or defense of land.

Interpretatio Romana ("Roman interpretation")

Cosmological concept. When the invading Roman legions arrived in Celtic lands, they confronted a complex group of divinities that only faintly resembled those they had left behind in Italy. Most disturbingly, there was no tightly organized pantheon with a hierarchical organization (see celtic pantheon). Nor did the Celts assign divine duties—ruler of the birth chamber, for instance, or god of the field bound-aries—to specific gods as did the Romans. Instead, there was a clutter of gods and goddesses, some of whom seemed to be honored in only the smallest of regions, for Celtic divinities tended to be linked to specific places rather than to abstract meaning.

So the Romans set to work making order out of perceived chaos. Where there was a healing goddess, she was renamed minerva, or a healing god, apollo; where there was a powerful god, he became mars. Gods of commerce or prosperity became mercury. Sometimes the old Celtic names were joined to the new name, so that sul becomes Sulis Minerva (Minerva of the sun) in the town of healing springs now called bath, and Mars Lucetius (Mars of light) in the same place. In other places, however, the old name was stripped away, so that we have dozens of inscriptions and sculptures to the Roman god jupiter, shown dressed in Celtic garb and sometimes even wearing a neck ring called a torc. What such gods’ original names were is lost to history.

The Celts did not traditionally depict their divinities in human form, nor did they worship indoors. Thus the building of temples, for instance, to the horse goddess epona and the creation of temple sculptures of her riding a mare were an innovation in Celtic lands, brought by the Roman soldiers but ultimately embraced by the conquered Celts. Both temples and sculptures were inspired by classical originals, although retaining some native features. Continental Celtic peoples provide most of the inscriptions, temple ruins, and sculptures, while the island of Britain also offers a significant number; Ireland, however, because it was never invaded by the Romans, has no tradition whatsoever of interpreting native divinities as Roman ones.

The reinterpretation of indigenous divinities continued under the Rome-based Christian church, which learned from the legions that people resist having their ancestral divinities stripped from them. Instead of interpreting Celtic gods and goddesses as aspects of the trinitarian god, Christian evangelists took Pope Clement’s advice to leave undisturbed the ancient holy places and to adopt old gods into the new religion as saints. Thus many Celtic saints, notably brigit, have pagan origins.


Mythic theme. Ancient Greek and Roman writers refer frequently—and dis-paragingly—to the Celtic love of intoxication. Although some of these accounts were simply derision of another culture, there is also evidence that the Celts, both continental and insular, took to drinking with the same gusto they showed in other aspects of life. Celtic leaders often offered their warriors liquor before battle, in order to free them from fear of injury and death. The sight of blue-painted warriors, wild with drink, charging across a battlefield is described as terrifying by more than one ancient writer. Drink also figured in Irish inauguration rituals, which involved the new king’s drinking the ale of the goddess of the land. Whether the king drank enough to become tipsy is not known, nor is it established what the drink symbolized, whether the potential intoxication of power or the absorbing of some spiritual essence.

Irish literary sources invariably describe drunken behavior as occurring around the fall feast of samhain; the doors to the otherworld were said to open that night, and strong drink may have either protected against or enhanced the likelihood of seeing into it. Archaeologists have found huge Celtic brewing vats but few storage vessels, suggesting that extra grain was used for brewing, which supplied binge drinking; once the cauldrons were empty, such excessive drinking would come to a halt until the next Samhain.

Intoxication of the Ulstermen (Mesca Ulad)

Irish literary text. In the tale of this title from the great ulster cycle, king concobar mac nessa convinced his foster sons, the heroes cuchu-lainn and fintan, to let him rule their lands for a year. At the end of that time, the king went off to celebrate restoration of their lands to their original rulers, intending to spend the first part of the evening with Fintan in the west, the second part in the eastern part of the territory with Cuchulainn. Halfway through the night the warriors were so intoxicated that they could not find Cuchulainn’s fortress, winding up instead at that of their enemy, cu ro^ who attempted to trap them in an iron house that he set on fire. Cuchulainn, realizing that his expected guests were missing in transit, found and freed them, after which the Ulstermen destroyed Cu Rofs palace. Like other texts involving drunkenness, the Intoxication of the Ulstermen is described as occurring at samhain, the winter feast on November 1.


Scottish mythological site. Best known now as the center of Celtic Christianity founded by St. Columcille, this tiny island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides is thought to have been the site of a Celtic shrine to a goddess, ioua, whose name the island originally bore and who has been interpreted as a divinity of the moon. Others connect the island’s name to a word for yew, a tree associated with sacred places and with death. The island’s holy well was said to have risen directly from the magic cauldron of the tuatha de danann, the mythological tribe of the goddess danu; its name, Tobar na h’oige or "fountain of youth," suggests that it conveyed the cauldron’s powers of immortality to the surface world. Those looking into the well at dusk or dawn, or on the night of the full moon, would see visions and receive healing. Although as a Celtic site it was open to both men and women, under Christianity women (except for nuns) were barred from residing on Iona; nonetheless one of the island’s churches is home to a pregnant, self-exposing female figure called a sheela na gig.

Iorasglach (iorsglach-urlair)

Scottish folkloric character. A beggarly woman in threadbare clothing appears as a seer in some Highland folktales, typically striking the ground where she sits before uttering her prophecies to the lord and the court. This strange figure may be a faint folk memory of a Celtic or pre-Celtic ritual of divination.


Scottish goddess. Ancient Scottish moon goddess who gave her name to the famous sacred island of iona.


Continental Celtic god. The name of this god has been translated as "the one who loves the young," suggesting a god of children or adolescents. The Romans interpreted him as both the warrior god mars and the god of commerce and eloquence, mercury.


Irish heroine. The goddess conaran of the tuatha de danann had three daughters, all skilled in the magical arts. Sent to capture some members of the heroic band of warriors called the fianna, they spun a magical web that held the men fast until the hero goll mac morna appeared to do battle with them. He killed Irnan’s two sisters, but the web held until he threatened Irnan too with death. She agreed to break the spell but instead turned into a monster and demanded that the three Fianna warriors fight her, in the traditional Celtic fashion of single combat. Fearful of her power, the heroes— oisin, oscar, and Celta—all refused, leaving their leader fionn mac cumhaill himself to do battle. Goll stepped in instead, killing Irnan. The story is a curious one, not tied to any of the major myth cycles, but it reflects a common theme of heroes killing hag-monsters that may hide an ancient creation tale in which a goddess is killed in order to make the earth. See garravogue.


Folkloric motif. fairy folk dreaded iron more than any other substance, so it was considered wise to carry nails in one’s pocket if one was passing a fairy rath, to put nails in the bottom of milk pails to keep fairies from stealing milk, and to hide a nail in the bed where a mother was giving birth to assure the child would not become a changeling. Iron crosses were believed effective as fairy repellents, and iron scissors could serve the purpose if held open to form a cross.

The source of these traditions, found across the Celtic lands, is unclear. The Celts were among the earliest Europeans to successfully work iron; their metalwork was justly renowned and provided wealth through trade with their neighbors. Indeed, the very word iron comes from a Celtic word, iarn, which was adopted into Latin and thereby spread through Europe. If, as some contend, the fairy people were originally the gods of pre-Celtic peoples, their reputed fear of iron might reflect a historical conflict.

Iseult (Isolt, Isolde, Essyllt, Essellt)

Cornish or Breton heroine. The great romance that pairs Iseult with her lover tristan, in opposition to her husband King mark, parallels the even more famous British love triangle of guinevere, lancelot, and arthur. Mark, king of Cornwall (occasionally, Cornuaille in Brittany), found a single strand of golden hair so gorgeous that he immediately fell in love with the woman from whose head it came, and he dispatched his handsome young nephew Tristan to Ireland to find Iseult. On the return voyage, becalmed at sea and thirsty, Iseult offered Tristan a drink that her mother had brewed for the wedding night. Fearful that her daughter would live in a loveless if politically expedient marriage, the mother had used arcane herbal knowledge to make a potion that caused intense and boundless love. Meaning to assure her daughter’s happiness, she instead destroyed it, for Iseult was hopelessly bound to Tristan from the moment they shared the magical drink.

Despite her feelings, Iseult did not yield herself physically and continued her journey, becoming the bride of Tristan’s uncle and king. Her maid brangien, taking pity upon Iseult and feeling guilty for having served the magic potion, took her mistress’s place in bed with Mark on their honeymoon, but eventually Iseult had to do her wifely duties. She tried to remain faithful to her wedding vows but began to meet Tristan in secret. Her suspicious husband subjected Iseult to a magical test of her purity; she was to cross a stream that, were she impure in any way, would drown her. Just as the test was to begin, Tristan arrived disguised as a beggar and helped Iseult cross the stream. The queen was thus able to honestly say that no man had touched her save her husband and the helpful beggar. Ultimately, however, the pain of their deceit caused the lovers to separate, although they lived miserably without each other’s loved and loving presence. Tristan married a woman with Iseult’s name (see iseult of the white hands), but he died of a broken heart upon hearing a false report that the first Iseult was dead or would not come to him, and Iseult lived in sorrow until she too died.

Many commentators detect in this tale of doomed love a typically Celtic motif: the selection of the king by the goddess of sovereignty, without whose approval no man can hope to rule. In addition to the tale’s Arthurian echo, its love triangle is found in Ireland in the story of fionn mac cumhaill and his bride grainne, who eloped at their wedding with the handsome diarmait; but in the Irish tale the heroine is far less a victim of circumstance and male lust, and much more an active party to the romance.

Iseult of the White Hands

Cornish or Breton heroine. After tristan had finally been separated from his fated lover iseult, he married another woman of the same name, called Iseult of the White Hands. Her happiness was short-lived, however, as Tristan, hearing of the original Iseult’s death, pined away and died. The duplication of Iseult’s name in the story suggests a hidden meaning connected to the role of the original Iseult as a goddess of sovereignty: that Tristan replaced mark in the favor of the goddess, suggesting that the older man was no longer fit to rule as king.


Mythological site. The Celts considered islands to be liminal places, neither quite here nor quite in the otherworld, and thus useful as gateways for passing between worlds (see liminality). Islands share this marginality with natural sites such as bogs, stone circles, hills, and springs, and human-constructed sites such as hillforts and hearths as well.

There are many mythological islands in Celtic tradition, including avalon, the Isle of Apples, to which king arthur was guided by the lady of the lake; the Isle of Women, an island or islands in the western ocean ruled by a beautiful queen and inaccessible except by her will (see tir na mban); and hy-brazil, a magical island that was visible only once every seven years. There are also actual islands around which tales and myths accrue; one of these is the small Isle of the Living in Ireland’s southwestern province of munster, near Roscrea, where no person had ever died or ever would die; another is Inisbofin off the Connemara coast, where the mythological white cow appears every seven years. In Scotland the Hebrides are called the Isles of the Blessed; they are described as lands where budding and harvest occur simultaneously, which though not factually correct does correspond to descriptions of fairy islands.

Island of Pigs

Irish mythological site. This name was given to Ireland by the invading milesians, because the magical residents called the tuatha de danann had cast a cloud of enchantment over the land, causing it to seem like a small pig-shaped island rather than the generous green island it truly is.

fte (Ita, Ita, Mo-Ide, Mide)

Irish saint. A Christian woman of whom legends are told that are studded with pagan motifs, the historical Ite lived in the sixth century c.e. and founded a convent called Cill (church of) Ite, now Killeedy, Co. Limerick. Like the kildare nun brigit, Ite seems almost mythological, possibly because her name was that of a goddess with whom she was conflated. Ite’s chamber shone as though on fire, she cured a man by removing his horse’s ears, and most important, she owned the mythological cow of abundance, the glas ghaibhleann. Her miracles involved controlling the weather and the flight of birds, thus connecting her to earth goddesses of the munster region where she lived.

fth Irish hero. This minor character makes an appearance in the book of invasions, where he is the first of his tribe, the milesians, to spot the green island of Ireland on the horizon. He led a group of his people there but was quickly killed by the residents, the magical tuatha de danann. His nephew Mil Despaine avenged his murder by leading the Milesians in a successful invasion of Ireland.

Iubdan (Iubdan)

Irish hero. In the early Irish adventure tale Eachtra Fhergus Mac Leide, we meet Iubdan, the tiny boastful king of a people called the Faylinn, and his tiny queenly wife bebo. His poet, eisirt, tried to contain Iubdan’s excessive bragging by telling him that nearby ulster was populated by giants—and proved it by traveling to Ulster and inviting back the poet Aeda who was in fact a dwarf. Then Eisirt put a geis, an unshakable demand, on Iubdan that he must taste the porridge of fergus mac Leti, the king of Ulster, before the next dawn. Taking his wife Bebo along, Iubdan set off to satisfy the geis—but the couple fell into the porridge and would have been drowned had they not been rescued and fished out. The tiny queen caught the fancy of king Fergus, who kept her as his mistress for a year and a day, after which Iubdan bought their freedom with a pair of flying shoes. The adventure tale of Iubdan has been cited as a source for the famous Lilliput section of Jonathan Swift’s satirical commentary on humanity, Gulliver’s Travels.

Iuchair (Iuchar)

Irish divinity. He was one of the three sons of the primal goddess danu, who were known as the sons of tuireann and who were given a series of impossibly difficult tasks after killing their father’s enemy cian. Iuchar may have been an ancestral divinity, and like his brothers brian and iucharba, he is sometimes said to have been the father of ecne, a divinity of wisdom and inspiration. Because the brothers are so confused in the tales, some scholars have seen them as a triplication of one figure; others identify them with the three important tuatha de danann kings called mac cuill, mac cecht, and mac greine.


Irish divinity. This minor god was one of the sons of tuireann and had little role separate from his brothers.


Symbolic plant. The ivy (genus Parthenocissus), a vining plant that grows quickly, almost rampantly, symbolized summer to the Celts; the Ivy King was described as opposing the Holly King in the endless flux of the seasons. At other times, the ivy was described as a feminine plant, opposed to the masculine holly.


Welsh heroine. In some sources, Iweriadd is given as the name for the mother of the heroes bran the blessed and manawydan; in other texts, the heroes’ mother is penard-dun, otherwise given as the name of the mother of their sister branwen.


British folkloric figure. In the northern English region of Yorkshire, travelers at night sometimes heard the sound of clanking chains and saw a strange looming figure called Jack-in-Irons. Jack said nothing, threatening or otherwise, but his presence was nonetheless said to be quite frightening.


British folkloric figure. In some rural British communities where spring festivals descending from the Celtic spring feast of beltane continued until recent times, a masked young man dressed in a costume of leaves danced through the streets. He is thought to be connected with Celtic tree-cults or with the mysterious figure called the green man found in some architectural contexts in Britain.


Continental Celtic goddess. A figure of a goddess by this name is known from a single healing shrine in Burgundy, in southwestern France. She is shown playing a pipe, which has been interpreted as indicating that music was used in her healing rituals.


Roman god. Rome had a god, Janus, who had two faces that looked in different directions; his name comes down to us in "January," the month that looks both forward to the new year and back to the old. In Celtic lands the Romans encountered occasional two-faced statues of unnamed gods and called them after their familiar god; scholars sometimes call these figures Janiform, "having the same form as Janus." The original Celtic meaning of the figures is lost, although they have been connected both with the reverence for the head as symbol of essence and power and with the assignment of special power to twins.

Jeannie of Biggersdale

British spirit. In the North Riding of Yorkshire, this dreadful spirit was said to live in Musgrave Woods where, like other bogies or boggarts, she threatened passing travelers. One farmer who attempted to drive her out of the region lost his horse when Jeannie cut it in two; the man was lucky to escape with his life.

Jenny Greenteeth

British water spirit. A boggart or threatening sprite known until the 19th century, Jenny was said to haunt the streams of Lancashire, seeking to drown passersby. Such spirits may descend from early water divinities and may encode a faint folk memory of human sacrifice. Some scholars theorize that Jenny was only a nursery tale told to quiet unruly youngsters; the threat of a green-toothed monster hiding in pools would have kept adventurous children away from potential danger.

Joan d’Arc (Jeanne-d’Arc)

French heroine. There have been consistent attempts, both fictional and otherwise, to associate the historical figure ofJoan d’Arc with residual Celtic beliefs in the French countryside from which she came. Joan was born ca. 1412 c.e. in the northern region of Lorraine, in a rural area where ancient beliefs remained as superstitions despite Christianity.

Early in her life Joan began to hear voices— two female, one male—that she understood to be saints revealing her destiny. At the age of about 15, dressed in male garb, she traveled to meet the Dauphin, the embattled heir to the French throne, and announced herself as his general. Aware of the propaganda value of the girl’s oddly charismatic quest, the Dauphin and his advisers agreed and were surprised by Joan’s quick and accurate grasp of military strategy. At the head of her soldiers, Joan fought the English at Orleans, driving through their ranks to lift the city’s siege and earning the title "Maid of Orleans."

Within a year, she had won the throne for the Dauphin, crowned as Charles VII with Joan at his side. Despite her prowess, Joan was captured by French allies of the British, who sold her to the enemy. A trial for witchcraft followed in which Joan refused to deny her "voices," the sources of her inspiration. She was burned at the stake in 1431, apparently before she had turned 20. Only 25 years later she was granted a posthumous "trial" and declared innocent; in 1920 she was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

In addition to coming from an historically Celtic part of France, Joan responded to Otherworldly powers and embodied an ancient Celtic image of the woman as warrior that had been submerged for centuries. Several contemporary novelists, notably Anne Chamberlin (The Merlin of St. Giles Well, The Merlin of the Oak Wood), draw inspiration from the Celtic motifs in the historical story of Joan. That this interpretation has deep historical roots is suggested by the fact that her inquisitors asked Joan what knowledge she had of the fairy faith or those who practiced it. Joan herself had no doubts that her inspiration was Christian; she answered, in all cases, that she was responding to the voices of saints, not those of fairies.

Joseph of Arimathea

Arthurian hero. Although he figures but slightly in the Christian Bible, the merchant Joseph of Arimathea has a significant role in the story of the grail. It was at his house that, on the night before his death, the savior Jesus had his Last Supper, in which the Grail was used as part of the dinner service. Whether it was a chalice or a platter, the object was sanctified with the miracle of transubstanti-ation, when bread and wine are turned into the body and blood of the Christian god’s son.

Joseph was the only one of Jesus’ disciples (and possibly, his uncle) with enough money to bury his master after the crucifixion on Mount Golgotha, the mountain of the skull. In return for his services, Pontius Pilate—the Roman provincial official who had sent Jesus to his death—gave him the Grail. (The story is self-contradictory at this point, because Joseph should not have needed to be rewarded with his own cup or platter.) He then set off on a prolonged journey around the Mediterranean, bearing the Grail and converting people to the new religion of Jesus. Finally he came to rest in Britain, where he had once traveled with Jesus when the savior was a boy. Joseph had many occasions to travel to the rich tin mines of Cornwall, but he passed up that region to settle in glastonbury. There he thrust his staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill, and it burst into bloom despite the wintry weather. Assured by this miracle that he was to remain, Joseph built the first Christian church in Britain there.

Jowan Chy an Hor (John of Chyanhor)

Cornish folkloric figure. The Celtic language of Cornwall in the far southwest of the island of Britain has little written literature; indeed, the only known folktale in the language is that centered on this heroic peasant and his exploits, which parallel those of similar folkloric heroes who adventure about the countryside showing their shrewdness and resiliency.

Jupiter (Iupiter, Jupiter, Jove)

This Roman name was applied to various Celtic gods, including the relatively obscure Brixianus, Ladicus, Latobius, and Poeniunus. Under the interpre-tatio romana, Celtic divinities were identified with similar (or presumed similar) Roman gods. In the process, the original names of some gods were preserved as a surname to Jupiter’s; other gods, however, were obliterated by this Roman habit, their individual significance disappearing into the mighty figure of the sky-lord.

Despite Caesar’s contention that the Celtic Jupiter ruled the heavens, it is impossible to know whether the Celtic god was connected to the sky, as was the Roman original. The fact that many images carry a wheel, often a solar symbol, has led some to call the Celtic Jupiter a sun god, although he is more convincingly described as a god of abundance and fertility. Sculptures and reliefs show a mature, bearded man with curly mustache and beard; usually he is naked, showing him to be well-muscled and strong. He can be depicted carrying a thunderbolt, in which case the Celtic Jupiter is often called taranis, after the name of the thunder god of the continental Celts.

In addition to the images just described, we also find the Celtic Jupiter depicted as a mounted horseman fighting a monstrous serpent; the Roman Jupiter was never depicted astride a horse. The god was also honored with the so-called Jupiter columns, tall four-sided (or eight-sided) pillars found on the Continent. These pillars were carved in the form of a tree, and their attachment to Jupiter suggests he may have been connected with the Gaulish tree god esus.

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