Kay (Kai, Cai, Cei, Sir Kay) To Kyteler, Alice (Celtic mythology and folklore)

Kay (Kai, Cai, Cei, Sir Kay)

Arthurian hero. The kindly and sometimes buffoonish Kay appears in a number of Arthurian stories as arthur’s companion, foster brother, and seneschal (steward). He may have originally been a Welsh god of war, for the Welsh tale of kulhwch and olwen describes Kay as being able to go without sleep for nine days and stand underwater for the same length of time, to stretch himself as tall as the tallest tree, and to warm his comrades in cold weather simply with the heat of his body—all more than mortal powers. If Kay put a pack on his back, it became invisible; if he went into battle, no fewer than a hundred warriors would fall to his sword.

One of the most significant stories in which Kay appears is that of the kidnapping of queen guinevere by the king named meleagant. With Lancelot, Kay trailed Meleagant to his castle, where Kay was injured in an attempt to free the queen. Lancelot sneaked into the room where the injured Kay was sleeping; Guinevere was in the same room, and Lancelot went to her bed, leaving bloodstains on the sheets. The next day, Kay was accused of taking advantage of the queen, but Lancelot did battle to reclaim his friend’s honor.

Some scholars believe that Kay was a god of Celtic peoples who were traditional enemies of Arthur’s tribes; thus the connection of the two heroes in legend is interpreted as a folk memory of political links forged in reality.


Irish ritual. In Ireland ritual mourning for the dead was apparently a pre-Christian rite that survived into historical times despite clerical opposition. Keening was invented, legend has it, by the goddess brigit after her son ruadan was killed in battle. It was a women’s ritual, for they were the ones who screamed and clapped their hands over the body. Usually keen-ers were women of the village who were skilled in creating the woeful melodies, but wives and daughters could also join in the keening (from Irish caoin).


Scottish spirit. In Scotland storms at sea were believed caused by these mischievous, sometimes destructive, beings. Usually they appeared as blue men, although they could also assume the fearsome shape of a water horse. The blue men of the minch made waters constantly turbulent, discouraging all navigation; other kelpies stirred the waters only when they wished to cause trouble, so that even a smooth river or pond could turn treacherous once a traveler stepped into it. Kelpies were said to be able to leap up onto a horse passing over a ford, driving it mad with fear and endangering the rider. Boats could fall into the hands of malevolent kelpies—unless the skipper could complete rhyming couplets and force the kelpie away from the vessel. Kelpies have been described as a Scottish version of the Breton kor-rigan, but the latter is more typically a lustful maiden, while the kelpie is not so highly sexed.

Kenneth of the Prophecies (Brahan Seer, Kenneth MacKenzie, Cainnech, Coinneach Odhar Fiosaiche)

Scottish hero. This folkloric figure can be described as the Scottish Nostradamus, a man with supernatural powers to predict the future. An echo of the Celtic bard as prophet and diviner, Kenneth MacKenzie is alleged to be historical, but his story is filled with mythological motifs. His mother, napping near an ancient sacred site, dreamed of ghosts who described to her a powerful blue stone. She found it and gave it to her son, who saw the future whenever he held it. Some tales say that Kenneth foresaw the tragedy of the Highland Clearances, when people were moved off the land to make more profit for landlords; others that he foresaw the destruction of the ancient clan system. An unfulfilled prophecy says that the entire Isle of Lewis and Harris will be destroyed in battle. Kenneth’s magic blue stone is said to lie since his death beneath the waves of Lough Ussie, rather like the similar drowned blue power-object of a parallel Irish figure, biddy early.

Kerhanagh (Kiraqhna)

Irish monster. In the Irish western province of connacht, a mythical beast of this name—which means "fire-spit-ter"—was said to have been driven by st. patrick from the sacred mountain called croagh patrick. The demon then traveled across the land, poisoning holy wells with its fetid breath, as Patrick followed in hot pursuit, nearly losing the trail in Sligo. When the saint struck his staff on a rock near the hill of Tullaghan, sweet water poured forth, permitting Patrick to quench his thirst and reenter his battle with the monster, from which he emerged victorious. Such stories of Patrick and his battles with monsters have been variously interpreted as indicating Christian extirpation of earlier pagan, possibly Celtic, cults, or as showing Patrick stepping in for an earlier mythological hero who drove away threatening spirits. The Kerhanagh may be the same figure as corra and/or cao-ranach, although the legends differ. She is sometimes called by the English name, the devil’s mother.


Irish mythological site. A cave near this small Irish town in the western province of connacht was said to be the dwelling-place of three frightening hags. Reputedly, the caves of Keshcorran were connected by an underground passage to the most mythically important natural cave in Ireland, oweynagat (Cave of the Cats) where the phantom queen m6rr^gan lived. There is, however, no actual connection between the caves, despite stories that a woman was led between them by a calf, to whose tail she was clinging. To explain the discrepancy between fact and fable, local people say that the devil stopped up the passage.

The cave appears in the story Buidhean Cheise Corainn or the Fight of Keshcorran; the great hero fionn mac cumhaill was held captive there by powerful hags or goddesses, described as members of the tuatha de danann, the ancient divinities of the land. Fionn is associated with the cave in other tales of the fianna that call it his original home, while other stories claim that it was the abode of a magical smith. The goddess aine was also said to live there, disguised as a hag, unusual behavior for this divinely radiant figure. Although the stories are confusing and confused, they offer evidence that Keshcorran had deep mythological significance.


Celtic symbol. Several goddesses including the horse goddess epona and the mother goddesses called the deae matres were depicted holding keys, usually interpreted as indicating a happy passage from this life to the otherworld of death.


Irish mythological site. Its name derives from words for "church" and "oak," and this important town and district, in the eastern province of leinster, draws together important symbols of Celtic and Christian spirituality. It is especially associated with the figure of brigit, a Christian saint presumed to have derived from a Celtic goddess, whose central sanctuary was there. The most significant day in the region is February 1, the old Celtic feast of imbolc, still celebrated as La Feile Bhnde, the day of Brigit.


Irish sacred place. Across Ireland, "children’s burial grounds" or killeens are found, carefully marked on maps and preserved against destruction. These small bits of field or grove were used for the burial of fetuses that were miscarried as well as babies who were born prematurely or who otherwise died without Christian baptism. As such, the babes were forbidden burial in Christian cemeteries, so the bereaved parents put them to rest in places held sacred before Christianity came to Ireland. Few of the original divinities to which these sacred grounds were dedicated are known.

King of Ireland’s Son (Mac Righ Eireann)

Irish hero. In one of the richest of Ireland’s orally transmitted tales, the eponymous hero shot a raven in winter. Seeing its red blood and black feathers against the stark white snow, the King of Ireland’s Son was inspired to seek out a woman with the same coloring (the same motif appears in the more literary story of deirdre). Thus he embarked upon a long series of adventures, including taking care of the estate of a poor man whose debts would have denied him burial if the king’s son had not worked to pay them. In doing so, the king’s son won the gratitude of the dying man, which was later to be helpful in his quest.

As he searched for his beloved, the king’s son found helpful servants. One was a green man who desired a kiss from the intended bride; another, a man whose ears were so acute he could hear grass growing. Other servants appeared: a man who kept one finger always to a nostril so that his strong breath would not blow down houses; a speedy runner who kept one foot tied down; and a strong man. All were helpful in the tests set by the giant who held the king’s son’s beloved in enchanted bondage. When the princess was duly won, the little Green Man demanded his fee of the first kiss and further demanded to be locked alone with the princess when he collected it. His demands were met, and raging serpents appeared that would have killed the king’s son had he been alone with his bride, but the Green Man killed them. The sturdy Green Man was revealed as the grateful dead man whose debts the king’s son had paid, and all lived happily ever after. The numerous folkloric motifs that appear in this story make it a favorite among those who categorize and analyze such tales.


Sacred role. Although our current image of a king is that of a man with absolute power, to the Celts kingship was an office of responsibility and limitation. Upon inauguration, the king entered a sacred marriage with the goddess of sovereignty, possibly embodied in the queen as representative of the goddess of the land. So long as the king lived righteously, the land was fertile, the crops plentiful, the people well fed. As one text puts it, in the reign of a righteous king, "It was not possible to travel (Ireland’s) forests easily on account of her fruit; it was not easy to travel her plains on account of the amount of her honey." But should the king fail to satisfy the goddess with his rectitude, the crops would fail and famine threaten.

Some scholars have interpreted the Celtic king’s role as sacral (see sacral kingship). Such scholars contend that the king was less a leader than a priest, pointing to duties (buada) and taboos (see geis) that had little do with politics or military might, being instead symbolic actions that showed the people that the king lived with what was called in Ireland "the prince’s truth," firinne flatho. According to a seventh-century c.e. text, the king was never to oppress anyone by force of arms and was never to listen to unwise supporters.

Righteous behavior included hospitality, for it was part of the king’s role to provide food and shelter for all who needed or desired it. In addition, the king was hedged around with sacred vows that varied from region to region; the king of tara, for instance, was never to remain abed when the sun was up, while the king of connacht was forbidden to ride a gray-speckled horse to cruachan while wearing a gray-speckled robe. In Wales the mythological king math could never let his feet touch the ground but had to always have them in the lap of a virgin. Peculiar as such rules may seem, they parallel the taboos imposed upon royalty in other lands and seem intended to continually remind the king that he was not free to live as other humans are but must be always aware of the responsibility of his office. Several myths tell of the resulting chaos when kings broke their geasa or failed to satisfy the demands of hospitality. Thus the beautiful bres was forced from Tara’s throne when he fed a poet meager scraps; the king conaire died horribly in the hostel of da derga when he unwittingly broke the sacred vows of his office.

The rigors of Irish kingship have led some to hypothesize a Celtic vision of the king as a sacrificial priest whose life might be ended should his behavior bring on famine and disease. Sources for the responsibilities of the Celtic kings outside Ireland are relatively rare. Similarly, it is difficult to discern what the specific duties of the various levels of kingship were and how they related to each other. Irish law describes kings of a tribe (ri tuaithe), kings of several tribes (ri ruiri), provincial kings (n mcid), and finally the high king (ard ri). In early times the apparently "higher" offices of provincial and high king seem to figure more prominently in myth than in history; only after the Middle Ages does the high king’s role seem to become political and strategic.


Scottish folkloric being. In Forfarshire in Scotland the klippe was a brown-skinned dwarfish fairy who haunted the moors and the roads.

Knight of the Glen (O’Donohue of the Glen)

Irish folkloric figure. The fairy king of the upper lake of Killarney in the southwestern Irish province of munster was the Knight of the Glen, Daniel O’Donohue. One of several stories told of this supernatural figure was that he stole away a local man, John Connors, bewitching a log to look like the man’s body while he kept the man himself asleep in the otherworld. The enchanted log was duly waked and buried, with great mourning and ceremony, while the real John slept on in fairyland. When John finally roused and returned home, he frightened family and friends out of their wits and could barely convince them he was not a ghost.


Folkloric motif. The creation of fabric by twisting yarn together using two needles was an important craft in Celtic lands, especially Ireland and Scotland. It is believed to have been invented in the eastern Mediterranean, making its way over trade routes to the islands off Europe, where it was quickly adopted as a way of creating strong garments from sheep’s wool. Specific designs and combinations of patterns evolved— the Jersey, the Guernsey, the Aran, the Shetland, the Fair Isle—that are still in use today, although no longer specific to village and regions. The common sight of a woman knitting soon gained archetypal or symbolic importance; the goddess aine or her substitute, the fairy housekeeper known as toice bhrean, was said to sit beneath the waves of magical lough gur knitting, and other folktales similarly show the knitting woman as having magical or prophetic powers.

Knockainy (Cnoc Aine)

Irish mythological site. Near the enchanted waters of lough gur in Co. Limerick is this low mountain topped with a single stone cairn, the home or s^dhe of the fairy queen named aine. She may have originally been the regional goddess anu or danu, whose children were the gods called the tuatha de danann. Some interpret Aine as a sun goddess, for a sun-well near Knockainy bears her name. Knockainy was especially important as a festival site at midsummer or at the harvest feast of lughnasa on August 1,when processions of people bearing clars or straw torches drove their herds up the slopes of the hill with prayers for Aine’s protection. The hill was once called Collkilla or "hazel-wood"; as the hazel marked sacred spots where wisdom could be gained, this ancient name may further point to the significance of Aine’s hill.

Knockaulin (Cnoc Ailinne, Knockawlin)

Irish mythological site. The kings of the eastern province of leinster once called Knockaulin (originally known as dun Ailinne) their royal seat, equivalent to tara in the magical central province of mide and emain macha in ulster. Recent excavations have revealed Celtic earthworks on the hill, supporting local legend about the hill’s significance. Located near Kilcullen in Co. Kildare, the low hill is often confused with the nearby Hill of Allen (see almu), seat of the great hero fionn mac cumhaill.

Knocker (knacker)

Cornish folkloric figures. In Cornwall strange knockings were sometimes heard on mineshaft walls. Nobody appeared after the unearthly rapping, for the invisible knockers were the ghosts of long-dead miners (possibly Jews, who indeed worked in the Cornish mines, but more likely fairies), still hard about their work.

The knockers were not dangerous but helpful, their knocking growing louder when miners came near a rich vein of ore. They did not bother with mined-out tunnels; they only haunted rich mines, preferably those where a fortune could be made extracting tin. Hearing a knocker was a sign of good luck, but if one said rude things about them, these spirits could turn vindictive. Knockers did not like crosses, so miners traditionally were careful not to wear them or to leave tools crossing each other when leaving work at night. They also did not like whistling, although singing in mines was acceptable.

Occasionally knockers haunted wells and caves, as other fairies might, but they tended to specialize in mines and related most strongly to miners. They were private creatures who did not appreciate being spied upon. One man who did so, by the name of Barker, managed to learn their fairy language sufficiently to hear them express their annoyance at his presence, and their plan to leave their fairy tools on his knee. Thereafter, the man suffered immense pain and stiffness in his knees, hence the Cornish proverb, "stiff as Barker’s knee."

Knockfierna (Cnoc Firinne, Knockfeerina)

Irish mythological site. The "hill of truth" forms a twin to Knockainy, the sacred hill only seven miles away; it offered an opening to the other-world and was the traditional site of lughnasa gatherings. Near several other important hills in Co. Limerick connected with the fairies, Knockfierna was said to be the residence of an important fairy king, donn firinne, whom some connect with the king of the Otherworld, also named donn.


Irish mythological site. On this mountain, in the Glen of Aherlow at the base of the Galtee Mountains, a hunchback overheard fairies singing a monotonous song that went, "monday, tuesday." His quickwitted ability to extend the fairy song thrilled them, and they cured his deformity. The story is a common one in Celtic lands.

Knockgraney (Cnoc Greine)

Irish mythological site. A hill near knockainy, not far from the small town of Pallas Green, is dedicated to the sister, twin, or double of aine named grian, "sun."

Knockma (Cnoc Meadha, Cnoc Mheadha)

Irish mythological site. A hill near Tuam in Co. Galway, Knockma bears the name of medb but is better known as the mound of finnbheara, fairy king of the western province of connacht, who lived there with his fairy bride una (also called nuala). The site is now called Castle Hackett.

Knocknarea (Cnoc na Ria)

Irish mythological site. Above the small northwestern town of Sligo rises a high mountain that was topped, some 6,000 years ago, with a mound and a rock cairn. According to legend, the cairn (Miosgan Meabha, or "Mebh’s lump") covers the grave of the most famous of Ireland’s queens, medb of cruachan. But medieval texts say the cairn was erected by Eogan Bel, Connacht’s last pre-Christian king, and Medb is said to have been killed many miles away, on the shores of Lough Ree on the River Shannon. Local tradition in Sligo holds that those ascending the mountain should carry with them a small stone or pebble to add to the cairn; conversely, it is very bad luck to take any stones away.

Knockshegowna (Cnoc Sidhe Una)

Irish mythological site. Over the rolling countryside of north Co. Tipperary, in an area replete with stories of magical fairy mounds, rises this impressive hill, said to be the sidhe or palace of una, an Irish fairy queen. She was said to have appeared there in the form of a calf one evening when a piper, Laurence Hoolahan, would not stop annoying her with his ceaseless drunken tweetings. When she spoke to him in human language, he was most surprised and was easily convinced to mount on her back. Within a second, the pair was at the River Shannon, 10 miles away, having flown through the air to get there. Una was surprised that the piper was not terrified, but perhaps he was too intoxicated to show it. Because of his apparent courage, she leaped back and agreed to let him continue playing on the hillside as long as he wished. The story may be a fanciful one deriving from the misunderstanding of the hill’s name as Fairy Calf Hill.


Irish mythological site. Near the better-known ancient site of Newgrange are two other mounds, Knowth and Dowth, all on hills overlooking a bend in the River Boyne and together called the bru na boinne, the palaces of boand, the river goddess. The great mound of Knowth and its companions were built some 6,000 years ago by an unknown people of great engineering skill and astronomical sophistication; the huge cairn of Knowth was oriented toward the point of sunrise on the spring and fall equinoxes, the times when day and night are equal. Knowth, which was under excavation for almost three decades, was opened to the public in early 2002, so it is now possible to view the impressive rock carvings, considered to be the most beautiful and expressive of all megalithic art in Europe.

korrigan (corrigan, ozeganned)

Breton folk-loric figures. In Brittany the sea, rivers, and springs were said to be inhabited by lovely lustful golden-haired women who tried to lure men into their beds—and to a watery death. Such water sirens are common folkloric figures, found in almost every land. What distinguishes the Breton version is their association, in oral folklore, with ancient worshipers of earth goddesses or with women druids, from whom the korrigans are said to be descended. The persecution of earlier faiths by Christianity resulted in a fierce folk-loric enmity between the korrigans and celibate priests, who were subject to endless lascivious temptation by the spirits. The korrigans play an important part in the story of the pagan princess dahut, for they built her beautiful city of ys.

Korrigans were small fairies, less than two feet tall, and had translucent wasp-like wings. Lovely woodland grottoes with running streams (in French, grotte aux fees, or in Breton, feunteun ar corrigan) were especially attractive to korrigans, who made their homes in such places. If contacted there, they could sometimes tell the future. Seeking them out could bring danger, however,for korrigans like other fairies were immoral and might as readily steal a person or child as tell a fortune. Some Breton legends speak of the korri-gans as doomed human souls, unhappily trapped through tragic death to wander the earth, but more typically they are seen as nonhuman. In Breton folklore the term korrigan is often used as a synonym for the entire fairy race.

Korrigans are said to be less visible in even-numbered than odd-numbered centuries (the 2000s will see rather less activity than the 1900s, for instance). They are more likely to be seen at twilight than in the daytime, as is typical of such liminal beings. Some korrigans spent their time guarding buried treasure, while others made mischief for humans, tickling horses and causing nightmares. They derived most pleasure from circle dances within or near the pre-Celtic stone circles and megalithic shrines still found in Brittany, singing "monday, tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday" (Di Lun, Di Merh, Di Merhier…) but never mentioning the days of the weekend, for to do so caused magical deformation such as a lump on the back.

Kulhwch (Culhwch, Kilhwch)

Welsh hero. The hero of an important literary tale from Wales, Kulhwch was a cousin of the legendary king arthur and may have descended from an ancient Welsh divinity.

Kulhwch and Olwen

Arthurian tale. The late 12th-century Welsh tale Kulhwch and Olwen reaches back into Celtic myth and forward into the legends of the quasi-mythological king of Britain, arthur. The hero Kulhwch was born of a princely man, cilydd, whose wife goleud-dydd went mad after becoming pregnant. While passing a pig shed, she went into labor, whence the child was named Kulhwch or "pig-run." When Goleuddydd died, the boy’s ambitious father gained a new wife through murder, killing the king of a neighboring land and carrying off the queen to become stepmother to the orphaned Kulhwch. The new queen hoped that Kulhwch would marry her own daughter, but when he failed to show interest, she cursed her stepson: that he would never marry until he won the daughter of the fearsome giant yspad-daden penkawr. Other versions say that the mother, Gilydd, survived her trauma and, remarried to a new husband, encouraged her son to seek the woman of his dreams, olwen.

When he grew up, Kulhwch hoped to win Olwen, the giant’s daughter, and sought the help of his cousin Arthur to win her hand. He entered the court of camelot and recited his distinguished heritage right back to the goddess don and thus won Arthur’s aid. They set out with a team of warriors and traveled until they met Kulhwch’s aunt, sister of his long-dead mother, who warned them that no one ever left the giant’s castle alive. Undeterred, Kulhwch and Arthur approached the castle. There Kulhwch met Olwen, and the two fell instantly in love. The maiden refused to leave without her father’s blessing. That blessing could only be won if the hero performed 40 impossible tasks, one of which involved the capture of a scissors, razor, and comb from a terrifying pig named twrch trwyth. Kulhwch completed the tasks—the tale grows very lengthy at this point—and thus won his beloved Olwen.

The text has been interesting to Celtic scholars because it occupies a middle ground between myth and legend, being composed of mythological motifs familiar from other Celtic lands as well as heroic names and personalities. Many magical and otherworld characters and objects are woven into the tale.

Kyteler, Alice

Irish heroine. Unlike Europe, including England and Scotland, Ireland did not experience a witch-burning hysteria. Only one woman was ever executed for witchcraft, and that was Petronilla, maid to the wealthy merchant Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny. Accused, together with 11 friends and members of her family, of witchcraft and heresy in 1324 by Bishop Richard Ledrede of Ossory, Alice escaped to England, where she lived out her life without history making note of her again. The accusations against her represented the first time that witchcraft was described as a heresy based in non-Christian beliefs.

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