Welsh folkloric figure. In Ireland the great goddess medb was diminished over time into a quasi-historical queen of the same name. In Wales the same process resulted in this fairy queen who offers only a hint of earlier divinity. Queen Mab is best known from the reference in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where she appears as the "fairies’ midwife," a role traditionally played by a human victim of fairy kidnapping. Queen Mab’s other duty, according to Shakespeare, was to bring nightmares—once again, a role rarely ascribed to Medb but common among mischievous fairies; her playfulness has led some scholars to derive her name from the Welsh term for child, mab, which also appears in the collection of myths called the mabinogion. Shakespeare borrowed British and Welsh fairy lore at will; although vivid, his portraits of mythological beings are not necessarily accurate.
Welsh mythological texts. Much of what we know today about Welsh mythology comes from tales compiled as the four branches of the Mabinogion; another eight tales are sometimes counted as part of the collection. The stories are found in two sources: The White Book of Rhydderch (1300-1325) and The Red Book of Hergest (1375-1425). Although written after Christianization, the narratives are apparently based on the earlier oral literature of Wales and thus offer us a window into the Celtic past. The first English translation of the Mabinogion was not made available until 1838-49, when the work of Lady Charlotte Guest was brought to print.
The word Mabinogion was applied to the tales translated by Lady Guest; it is the plural form of the Middle Welsh word mabinogi, the term preferred by specialists today. The name of the collection has been derived from the obscure boy god mabon or maponus, "son of the mother," and from the term for a young poet, mabinog; the latter suggests that the stories were a training manual for bards-to-be.
The Mabinogion’s tales concern the Children of Don, the descendants of an ancient and little-known goddess, don; the Children of Don are parallel to the Irish divinities known as the tuatha de danann, the people of the goddess danu, a name cognate to Don. Don’s children’s father is not mentioned, which has led some to assume that the Mabinogion dates from a period in which matriliny, the charting of descent through the mother rather than the father, was common. This interpretation gave rise to the imaginative retellings of the tales by Evangeline Walton in the mid-20th century.
The first branch of the Mabinogion centers on the prince of dyfed, pwyll, who was convinced to exchange realms with the king of the otherworld, arawn. His kingdom, annwn, was under siege by the mighty hafgan, who could only be killed if his opponent felled him with a single stroke. Pwyll agreed to the exchange of kingdoms as well as to the battle with Hafgan, whom he killed with a single thrust, freeing the kingdom and winning the everlasting gratitude of Arawn.
Soon after, Pwyll met the fair princess rhi-annon, whose speedy horse and Otherworldly beauty make her divine origin clear; after a struggle with gwawl, a rival for her hand, Pwyll wed Rhiannon. Their wedded life was far from blissful. The disappearance of their newborn son on beltane night, plus traces of blood around the queen’s mouth, led to accusations that Rhiannon had murdered and devoured the infant. Although her life was spared, Rhiannon was condemned to carry visitors to the palace on her back as though she were a horse. Fortunately, the infant prince was not dead but safe, having been carried off by a spectral creature who dropped the boy on a distant farm, where he was tenderly raised. When the young prince, pryderi, learned of his heritage and returned to the palace, his mother’s innocence was revealed, and the land rejoiced.
The second branch of the Mabinogion describes the heroic journey to Ireland by the hero bran the blessed and his warriors, who set out to rescue the imprisoned princess branwen. Bran and Branwen were children of llyr, as were the hero manawydan and two half brothers, the kindly nisien and his evil twin, efnisien. Bran and Manawydan, having accepted the proposal of the Irish warlord matholwch, sent Branwen off for what they hoped would be a happy and productive married life in Ireland. At the wedding, Efnisien performed a macabre surgery on Matholwch’s horses, cutting off their tails, lips, and ears. This destroyed any hope of marital harmony for Branwen, who despite producing an heir to the realm, gwern, was subjected to constant abuse. Finally she sent a starling back to Wales, to alert her brothers to her suffering; they mounted a war to free Branwen, succeeding only in losing many lives. Branwen, freed and bound for home, died of a broken heart when she looked back and saw the island that had been her prison and that was her saviors’ tomb.
The third branch of the Mabinogion concerns Branwen’s brother, Manawydan, and the son of Pwyll and Rhiannon, Pryderi. At a double wedding ceremony, Manawydan wed the widowed Rhiannon, while Pryderi took as his wife the faithful heroine cigfa. Not long after this happy day, the two couples found their land utterly barren and covered by a strange white mist. Nothing grew in the fields; the people were destitute. Their rulers eked out a living for awhile by hunting, finally giving up to become shoemakers in eastern Britain. Their work was so exquisite that other craftsmen became infuriated and threatened the group, whereupon they returned to Wales.
Worse was in store for them, for Pryderi and Rhiannon fell under an enchantment and vanished. After further hardships Manawydan and Cigfa learned that the curse was leveled by friends of Gwawl, the suitor for Rhiannon’s hand who had been humiliated by Pryderi’s father. Once peace had been made among the families, all the couples were reunited in happiness.
Finally, the fourth branch tells of the rape of goewin, ceremonial foot-holder to king math, and the complications regarding her successor. Math’s designated successor was his nephew gwydion—another indication of matrilineal social organization—so it was natural that Gwydion’s own sister arianrhod would wish to serve as foot-holder. Before she could take the office, she had to prove her virginity. Math set up a magical test: If she could step over his magician’s staff, her purity would be proven.
The test was a trick, and Arianrhod found herself giving hasty birth to two children of whose conception she had been unaware—dylan, son of the sea, and an unnamed bundle of unformed flesh that Gwydion took to himself. Angered at having been deceived, Arianhrod swore she would give that son neither a name nor arms—two prerogatives of the mother. Gwydion again tricked her into naming and arming her son, lleu llaw gyffes. In fury, Arianhrod cursed the boy, declaring that he would never have a wife from this earth. Yet again Gwydion and Math found a way around her, creating a bride for Lleu from a pile of flowers. The flower-maiden blodeuwedd proved treacherous and had her husband killed by her lover gronw pebyr.
In addition to these four branches, several other important Welsh mythological stories are often considered part of the full Mabinogion. These include the Dream of maxen, the romantic story of kulhwch and olwen, the adventure of owein in winning the mysterious lady of the fountain, and the story of the reincarnated bard named taliesin.
Mabon (Mabon vab Modron, Mabon fab Modron)
Welsh hero. A relatively obscure figure, Mabon appears as a divine youth in the early Arthurian story of kulhwch and olwen as Mabon vab modron, "Son, son of Mother"; no father is mentioned, although whether that is to stress his matrilineal descent or because the father is insignificant is unclear. Another figure of the same name is known as Mabon vab Mellt; he may be the same Mabon bearing the patronym of his father mellts or a different god altogether.
Mabon’s presumed earlier significance is alluded to in an early text that calls him "one of the Three Exalted Captives of the Island of Britain." That phrase refers to a story from the Welsh mabinogion in which Mabon was rescued by the hero kulhwch from the otherworld, where he had been held captive after being stolen from his mother in his infancy. So many years had passed that Mabon was the oldest living human. After his rescue, Mabon helped Kulhwch gain the hand of his chosen mate olwen. Two similarly named characters take minor roles in Arthurian literature—Mabonagrain and Mabunz—both of whom are held captive, suggesting that the motif of captivity was basic to Mabon’s myth.
Some have derived the name of the great collection of Welsh myths, the Mabinogion, from Mabon’s name. Others connect him with the obscure god maponus. Although presumed to have once been a significant figure, he is now a baffling puzzle.
Mabunz (Mabuz, Mabuz)
Arthurian hero. In some texts, this name is given for the magician son of morgan, the sorceress sister of king arthur. It may be a form of the name of the divine boy, mabon, whose mother is normally called modron, leading some scholars to connect these Arthurian figures with Welsh mythology. Mabunz is also described as the son of the lady of the lake or of another Arthurian heroine, clarine.
Mac Cecht (Mac Cecht)
Irish god. This minor Irish divinity was a farmer and the husband of one of the goddesses of the land, fodla, a member of the magical race called the tuatha de danann. Fodla’s name means "divided" or "plowed" land, while Mac Cecht’s parallel name means "plowman" or "son of the plow," suggesting that both were deities of agriculture. He may also have been a god of healing, for when the king of the Tuatha De lay dying, Mac Cecht walked across the parched land looking for water to revive him and was led by a wild duck to a spring; water was typically envisioned as a source of healing by the Celts. Mac Cecht was the son of ogma, god of eloquent speech, and lost his life in combat with one of the invading milesians. He and his brothers mac cuill and mac greine, husbands of the three land goddesses made up a trio of parallel gods. Another Mac Cecht was a hero who championed the doomed king conaire at da derga’s hostel, where he killed the man who decapitated Conaire and then offered the king’s head its last drink.
Mac Conglinne (Anera meic Conglinne)
Irish hero. Not actually a mythological character but a figure from satire, Mac Conglinne experienced a vision in an Irish aisling poem of the 12th century. A poor bard from Co. Roscommon, Mac Conglinne went on a poet’s circuit of the province of munster, where he heard that poets were well treated—but where the king was suffering from the disease of uncontrollable gluttony. When Mac Conglinne arrived in Cork, however, he received no poet’s welcome but was put up in a dingy hovel where he was eaten alive by fleas and lice. Furious, Mac Conglinne composed a satire so scathing that the abbot condemned him to be crucified. The night before the execution, he was tied to a stone like the great hero cuchulainn.
In the cold and dark, Mac Conglinne was attended by an angel who recited a long poem describing a land composed entirely of food—a vision that he knew was the missing secret to restore the ailing but gluttonous king to health. When day broke, the accused satirist demanded to be brought to the king, where he recited a luridly specific vision of the land of milk and honey of which the angel spoke, while cooking haunches of meat before a manacled king. The suffering king finally vomited a demon from his mouth, who grabbed some of the food and disappeared. The satire combines references to ancient Celtic beliefs in the ancient requirement of hospitality and the prestige of the poet, as well as folkloric motifs of monstrous beings who can possess human bodies.
Irish god. The husband of the land goddess banba, the name of this minor divinity meant "son of holly," a plant associated with winter, suggesting that he may have been connected with that season. With his brothers mac cecht and mac greine, each of them the consort of one of the three important land goddesses, he belonged to a trio of parallel gods.
Mac Datho (Mac Datho, Mes Roeda)
Irish hero. Hero of the ulster cycle tale Scela mucce Meic Datho, Mac Datho was a warrior whose prize hunting hound ailbe was coveted by two kings, concobar mac nessa of ulster and ailill mac Mata of connacht. Unable to refuse either of the powerful rulers, he invited them and their warriors to a feast where he served an immense roasted pig. As the finest champion was always given the best part of a feast (see champion’s portion), an argument ensued as to who would be so honored. In the melee that followed, the hound Ailbe was killed, providing Mac Datho a solution to his problem.
Mac Greine (Mac Grene)
Irish god. Mac Greine was the husband of the important earth goddess who gave her name to Ireland, eriu. With his brothers mac cecht and mac cuill he belonged to a trio of three parallel gods whose wives were land goddesses. His name means "son of the sun," and although this is often cited as proof of an ancient Irish solar god, it may be a matrilineal name or title, the word for sun being feminine in Irish. It is clear that Mac Greine does not bear his father’s name, for he was, like his two brothers, son of the god of eloquence, ogma. Mac Greine lost his life to the warrior poet amairgin of the milesians.
Irish goddess. The great capital of ancient ulster, the northernmost of the ancient provinces of Ireland, was named emain macha, "twins of Macha," after this goddess. She appeared from nowhere—or from the other-world—at the door of the human farmer crunniuc and made herself at home, helping him create bounty from the land and, ultimately, becoming pregnant by him. As with other fairy lovers, Macha placed a requirement on her husband: that he not brag about her. He could not keep silent when, at the Assembly of Ulster,he saw the king’s horses and knew his supernatural wife could beat them in a race. Boasting of Macha’s prowess, Crunniuc drew the attention of the king, who demanded that he prove his claim. Macha was dragged to the Assembly, where she pointed to her advanced pregnancy and begged not to be forced to race. The king, sure he would win because of Macha’s perceived handicap, said that the race must go on.
Macha raced, handily beating the king’s swift team but going into labor at the finish line. The effort killed her, and she died giving birth to her twins, a girl named fial and a boy named Fall. As she died, Macha cursed the men of the province (see debility of the ulstermen), declaring that every time an enemy threatened, the warriors would become weak as women— some interpret this as ghost labor pains—for five days and four nights, for nine generations.
This is the most famous goddess named Macha, but there were two others, who may or may not have originally been the same. The first Macha was an obscure figure who was said to have been the wife of nemed, one of the first settlers of Ireland. It was in her honor that the first plains of Ireland were cleared of thick forests. Macha, looking into the future and seeing the bloodshed that would afflict the country during the great cattle raid of Cuailnge (tain bo cuailnge), died of heartbreak. Like her more famous namesake, this Macha does not appear to be a goddess of war; both deplored men’s war-making activities and, in the case of Macha wife of Crunniuc, brought difficulties to men who engaged in battle. The derivation of her name from words for "earth" or "field" also suggests a peaceful aspect to Macha.
Yet Macha is described by several ancient authors as a war goddess; the heads of fallen warriors were described as "the masts of Macha," a term that otherwise described the plentiful acorns on which half-wild pigs fed. Macha is said to have been one of the "three Morrigna" or three goddesses of war (see morrigan). Her association with horses may have given rise to this connection, for Irish warriors went to battle either in chariots or mounted on horseback.
Although the two Machas discussed above had little to do with war, the third Macha was a true warrior. Macha Mong Rua (Mongruad), Red-Haired Macha, is alternately described as a form of the goddess or as an actual historical figure bearing the goddess’s name. The Annals of Ireland describe a woman named Macha who was queen of the whole island in 377 b.c.e. Her father, aed ruad, made a compact with two other kings—dithorba and cimbaeth—to share rulership of the land, each of them reigning for seven years. Their prowess as rulers was to be judged in three ways: Acorns ("mast") had to be abundant, thus providing good fodder for pigs; fabrics had to take dyes well; and women had to survive childbirth safely. All went well for many years under this shared rulership. The land was fruitful, the people were happy, and children were well fed.
When Aed drowned in a waterfall and Macha attempted to take his place in the succession, her corulers objected. So Macha waged war upon them, killing Dfthorba and besting Cimbaeth before allying herself with him through marriage. When Dfthorba’s five sons escaped, she pursued them, disguised as an ancient hag whom they attempted to rape. She overcame them all and marched them back to Emain Macha, where her warriors attempted to execute them. Macha, however, thought a better punishment was to force them to dig the massive earthworks now known as Navan Fort. The site includes a large artificial mound, several sacred wells, a racecourse, and other ritual sites. A new museum at Emain Macha includes holographic projections of the presumed stages of Emain Macha’s ritual past.
Macha’s connection with Ulster and with the tales of the ulster cycle have led some scholars to a rgue that she was the goddess of the region’s sovereignty; she would thus have been the peer of such important divinities as eriu, after whom the island of Ireland was named, and medb, the goddess/queen of connacht. That interpretation of Macha’s significance is not, however, accepted without argument. Others interpret Macha as a pre-Celtic goddess who was assimilated into the social structure of the Celts.
Irish god. A minor divinity of the tuatha de danann, he was called "father of the gods" after the beneficent dagda gave up that title. Later he was called a fairy king, but he was unseated as the head of the Irish fairies by the more important Fionnbharr.
Irish hero. A minor hero of the tain bo cuailnge, the great epic of the cattle raid by queen medb of connacht upon the adjoining province of ulster, Mac Roth was the fleet messenger of Medb’s consort, king ailill mac Mata, and was said to have been able to cover all of Ireland’s roads between sunrise and sunset of a single day. Another man of the same name was the minor king of Ulster who owned the great brown bull, donn cuailnge, whom Medb wished to borrow for a year, to impregnate one of her cows and provide her with an offspring as good as one of Ailill’s bulls. Medb offered a fortune in gold and her own fine favors as rent for the bull, which was quite sufficient for Mac Roth. But when he overheard Medb’s warriors mocking him, saying that if he would not rent the bull, they would steal it, Mac Roth canceled the deal and the provinces went to war.
Madgy Figgy (Madge Figgy)
Cornish heroine. This renowned witch of Cornwall lived near Raftra, where she made her living scrounging debris from wrecked ships. Some believed she magically called up storms to cause such wrecks, sitting on a huge basalt rock off Land’s End that has a level space on its top where she could invoke the weather spirits. Once she and her crew of wreckers found the body of a Portuguese lady on the shore, drowned in one of the storms Madgy Figgy had raised. The witch claimed the jewels the woman wore and hid them in a chest in her house. Every night thereafter, a strange light would be seen traveling to Madgy’s cottage, until finally a stranger came to town and followed the exact path of the light. When he left, he had all the woman’s jewels, and Madgy had a fortune in ransom. "One witch knows another, living or dead," she said sagely.
Mythological theme. In Celtic mythology, we find a number of figures who go mad—a state that generally leads to development of a prophetic or other paranormal skill. Male figures tend to go mad because of the horrors of war, suffering what we might call post-traumatic stress disorder today but was called "soldier’s heart" in ancient Ireland, where the kings suib-hne and muircertach mac erc both went mad from battle fatigue and died before being fully healed. In Welsh mythology, the warrior Myrddin (who becomes the magician merlin in the Arthurian material) went mad from the horror of the battle of Arfderydd and retreated to Scotland, where he both healed himself and discovered his prophetic powers.
The connection of madness with battle is reinforced by the presence in Irish mythology of the war goddess nemain, "war-frenzy," whose name suggests that insanity was put to use in battle. Occasionally, female figures plagued with madness are found, most notably mess buachalla, whose insanity derived from her discovery that she had unwittingly committed incest with her father; and mis, who went mad after drinking her own father’s blood. Even in such cases, madness is typically a result of violence or bloodshed.
Maedoc (Mogue, Maodhog, Saint Maedoc)
Irish legendary figure. Some of the early Christian saints of Ireland have attributes or engage in activities that seem connected with the Celtic otherworld. Such is the case with Maedoc, associated with the eastern province of leinster. He was said to have been born after his mother, queen eithne (also the name of a goddess), saw the moon enter her husband’s mouth at the very moment he saw a star enter hers. In 598 c.e. Maedoc set out on the back of a sea monster from Wales, where he had given the last rites to the land’s patron saint, David. In Ireland he quickly converted the local chieftain and built a church, eventually becoming bishop of Ferns, then capital of the province.
Maelduin (Maeldun, Maelduin, Maol Duin, Mael Duin, Maeldune)
Irish hero. One of the most famous voyage poems of ancient Ireland, variously said to have been recorded in the ninth and the 11th centuries, concerns this young hero. Maelduin was born of violence after his father raped a nun, who then died giving birth to him. Maelduin’s aunt raised him and told him the story of his conception and birth. In an epic story sometimes called the "Irish Odyssey," Maelduin then set off for the land of the Vikings to avenge his father, who had been killed by these invaders. Sixty warriors attended upon the young man, and their adventures constitute the major part of the tale. They met with giant ants, monster cats, and other extraordinary beings before coming to an otherworld island where they all found fairy lovers. Such mistresses were, however, notoriously difficult to leave, and Maelduin’s group nearly remained their captives for eternity. In the end, however, they returned to the human world.
Irish heroine. This minor Irish heroine dabbled in the occult arts, bewitching nine nuts so that, when he ate them, the hero fionn mac cumhaill would come to her bed. Suspecting the curious gift, Fionn did not eat the nuts and thus thwarted Maer’s plot.
Continental Celtic archaeological site. A significant gravesite of the continental Celts was excavated in the early 1890s, and then again in the 1970s, at Villingen-Schwenningen in Germany, near the original source of Celtic culture. One of the largest burial mounds in the region, it covered more than a hundred graves, in which numerous ritual and personal artifacts were found.
Cosmological concept. Magic is classically defined as actions or words performed or spoken with the intention of effecting a change, usually in the external world. The distinction is further made that magic is typically an individual pursuit rather than a communal one; when the group performs a ritual or chants special words, that is usually defined as religion rather than magic. In the case of the Celtic druids, the boundary between individual and communal pursuits becomes somewhat slippery, as individual action might be taken for a communal good. For example, a satire might drive an ungenerous king from the throne; what seems an action of personal vengeance has at its base the social duty of the bard to assure that wealth is redistributed through the king, the satire proving a corrective measure that promotes social harmony.
Individual Celts, like all other ancient peoples, practiced magic, both propitiatory (intended to keep bad events away) and intercessory (intended to draw good things near). amulets were used from earliest times to ward off evil; apparent amulets have been found in the early Celtic archaeological sites of la tene and hallstatt. Verbal magic is also known to have been used, especially in the form of curses, of which there is much evidence in the mythological texts.
Some Celtic magical practices survive in degraded form into the present, as superstitions; for instance, shortened versions of personal names—nicknames—are still used, though no longer with the intent of keeping loved ones hidden from otherworld eyes and thus safe from fairy kidnapping. In addition, the ritual of leaving small rags at sacred wells or tied to trees survives to this day; the rags, called clooties, have variously been described as left-behind prayers or as purgative rituals that condense within themselves negative influences to be discarded.
Many Celtic divinities had magical powers. This is especially true of deities associated with druids or bards. In Wales we find the magician-bard gwydion, who was able with the help of his uncle math to turn flowers into a bride for his foster son lleu llaw gyffes; in Arthurian legend derived from Welsh sources, we find the great magician merlin, whose powers included shape-shifting. In Ireland many deities had the power to change their shapes, most notably the sea god manannan mac lir.
Mag Mell (Magh Meall)
Irish mythological site. The terms "plain of honey" and "plain of delights" appear in several Irish narratives as descriptions of the otherworld, where life is endlessly joyous and sweet, where trees bear blossoms and fruit at once, and where there is neither discomfort nor death. Although the name of this fairyland seems to imply that it is a level place on land, it is often described as a floating island, the domain of the sea god man-annan mac lir.
Mag Mor (Mag Mor, Magh Mhor)
Irish mythological site. The "great plain" was a place in the otherworld where the dead lived, walking incessantly over its level surface; it was seen as a kind of parallel dimension accessible from this world. Folklore suggests that the belief was found in Ireland as recently as 70 years ago.
Mag Mucramhan (Mag Mucrama)
Irish mythological site. A field near the castle town of Athenry in Co. Galway is the reputed site of a great battle between the ruler of the province of munster, ailill Olom, and his enemy and foster son, lugaidh mac Conn.
Irish mythological site. The great hero of ulster, cuchulainn, was sometimes said to live on the plain of Mag Muirthemne, south of contemporary Dundalk (dun Delgan in Irish), although that town is more commonly described as the site of his fortress.
Irish and British hero. The name of a famous Cornish giant appears as well in the mythological history of Ireland. In the book of invasions, Magog was said to have been the ancestor of partholon and nemed, two early invaders; he was the ancestor as well of the Scythians, reputed to have been ancient relatives of the Irish. It is not known whether there is any connection between this Irish figure and the Cornish giant gog.
Symbolic bird. In Ireland it was considered an ill omen to see a magpie when setting out on a journey, while seeing a speckled horse or "magpie pony" was almost as unlucky. Four magpies in a row indicated a death in the family.
Mag Tuired (Moyturra, Mag Tuirid, Magh Tuireadh, Moytirra)
Irish mythological site. Two great battles in Irish myth took place on the plain called Mag Tuired, both of which resulted in the victory of the tuatha de danann, the people of the goddess danu, over another race in the struggle to rule Ireland. In the first battle of Mag Tuired, Tuatha De warriors under the leadership of their king nuada wrested control of Ireland away from the earlier residents, the fir bolg, while in the second and more famous battle, the tribe of Danu drove out the fomorians.
There is considerable contention about what actual location is referred to in the ancient legends. Although it is agreed that Mag Tuired was in the western province of connacht, sites in Co. Mayo and in the adjoining Co. Sligo have been proposed. At the latter, megalithic remains are strewn about the area and could have given rise to the name, which means "plain of the pillars."
British mythological site. In Dorset, a great hillfort was built during the Iron Age, presumably by the Celts, atop an earlier structure used by pre-Celtic people. In their turn, the invading Romans in the fourth century capped the hill with a temple of their own, dedicating it to diana. The site has thus been held sacred for as much as 6,000 years and seems to have been devoted to a wildwood goddess, if the Roman designation follows that of earlier peoples.
Maine (Maine, Maim’, The Manes)
Irish heroes. These minor characters are the seven identically named sons of the great queen medb of connacht and king ailill mac Mata. One legend about the Maines says that Medb violently wished for the death of her enemy, king concobar mac nessa of ulster. A druid prophesied that her son Maine would kill him. Medb had no sons by that name, so she renamed them all.
One of the Maines, the one originally called Sin and later Maine Morghor, went off with a band of warriors to Ulster to court the maiden Fearbh, daughter of Gearg. They were all enjoying the hospitality of Gearg when a strange wind blew up, which Maine’s druid warned was a bad omen. Meanwhile a woman of the other-world appeared to Concobar and led him to Gearg’s home, where the host was slain as well as Maine Morghor. Medb had a vision of what was happening but arrived too late to save her son.
Another hero of the same name was a Norse prince who did king Concobar mac Nessa’s will when the errant hero noisiu returned to Ireland with the beautiful but doomed deirdre; Noism fell to Maine’s sword.
Irish heroine. A king of tara had two wives, one of whom, Mairenn, always wore a gorgeous headdress of gold. The other, mugain, was envious of her co-wife’s jewelry but suspected that Mairenn was hiding something. Indeed she was, for Mairenn was bald beneath the gold, as the whole court might have seen when a bribed woman jester yanked the headdress off Mairenn’s head. Mairenn cursed Mugain, but even as she did so, splendid golden locks covered her head so that no one saw her shame. As a result of her ill will, Mugain was forced to bear a lamb and a salmon before she could give birth to a human child.
Irish goddess. In the far west of Ireland is the scenic wonder called the Cliffs of Moher, known in Irish as Ceann na Caillghe, "the head of the hag." The hag in question was called Mal—the nearby resort town of Miltown Malbay is named after her—and she was said to have given her name to the land after she died pursuing a handsome man across the countryside, intent upon making him her lover.
Scottish folkloric figure. In Ross and Cromary in Scotland, this name was given to a cailleach or hag figure who tended a herd of wild pigs. The Cailleach in Scotland appears often in this form as a goddess of wild animals, especially deer; in other lands she is more typically a weather divinity or creator goddess. She may descend from a pre-Celtic deity, since the word cailleach is not derived from any of the Celtic languages, although it has been adopted into several as a word for an old woman.
Arthurian heroine. The name of this obscure character in Arthurian legend means "ill speech," and she derided a knight, bruno, until she fell in love with him, whereupon her speech became sugary and sweet.
British folkloric spirit. This fairy was said to haunt a castle in Suffolk after she was stolen away from her human family, who left her in the weeds while they worked in a nearby cornfield. Her story was recorded in the 13 th century by Ralph of Coggeshall, an early collector of such tales.
Symbolic object. Several Celtic gods, especially sucellus, carry a tool that resembles a hammer. Others lug about a much larger tool usually called a mallet, a kind of bat whose phallic symbolism is clear. The Irish god dagda was known for his enormous mallet, so big that he dragged it around on a wheeled cart.
Man (Isle of Man, Mannin, Ellan Vannin)
Insular Celtic site. The small island between Britain and Ireland was settled in the fourth or fifth century c.e. by Irish sailors, who named it after the sea god manannan mac lir. Although not geographically remote, the Isle of Man was meteorologically so; boat travel to the island was hindered by frequent storms, so the Manx language slowly divided itself from its parent Irish. The residents of the island were fierce sailors who, in ancient times, counted as part of their realm the islands far to the north, the Hebrides; these were lost to Scotland at the battle of Largs in 1263.
Many ancient customs continued into quite recent times on the island, including the longest-running parliament in Europe, the Tynwald; stories of mythological import long remained part of the oral tradition. The arrival of regular boat service in the 1830s, however, encouraged the decline of the Manx language against the favored English tongue; in 1974 the last native speaker of Manx died at the age of 74.
Folkloric figure. In Irish folklore this name is given to the pagan opponent of st. patrick. Transforming himself into a bird, a hare, and a fish, Manann was finally trapped when the saint prayed that, whatever he was, he would remain so until the end of time. As he was at that moment a fish, Manann never set fin outside water again.
Despite his confinement, Manann kept a great treasure with him in the pool, though no one could ever get it because of the magical prohibitions around it. When people tried to drain the pool, fairies appeared and began piping until the workers—and the pool water, too— began to dance, frightening the workers away and ending the project. Manann has been described as a folkloric survival of the great sea god, manannan mac lir.
Manannan mac Lir (Manandan, Monanaun, Mananan, Oirbsiu)
Irish god. An oceanic divinity, Manannan is described as the son of ("mac") lir, an even older although obscure god of the sea. He never lived on land but made his home somewhere in the ocean, on an island variously called mag mell ("plain of honey"), tir tairngiri ("land of promise"), and emain ablach ("island of apples"), the last of which has been occasionally connected with the Arthurian otherworld of avalon.
A master of shape-shifting, Manannan was like the Greek Proteus (from whom we get our word protean, many-formed). He could grant this power to those he cherished and who cherished him, which made him a popular deity among bards and those who practiced divination. Manannan’s magical powers were many. He traveled across the sea, faster than the wind could blow, in a magical self-propelling boat made of copper, drawn by a horse named Enbharr ("splendid mane" or "water-foam") whose hair was the froth of the waves. He could make a dozen men seem like an army; he could throw a handful of chips into the brine and make them look like an armada. He had a magic cloak that, when he shook it out, caused forgetfulness.
He was not originally one of the tuatha de danann, the most important deities of ancient Ireland, but by the 10th century he had been absorbed into their number. It was he, according to some tales, who gave the Tuatha De the idea of living under hills instead of leaving Ireland altogether, and for that he was accepted among them. In return he gave the tribe of danu three gifts: the druid’s fog or cloak of concealment; the feast of goibniu where old age was kept at bay; and finally his own magical pigs that could be killed each day, eaten each evening, and yet come alive again every morning.
Manannan sometimes appears in literature as a human figure, a sailor who never was lost at sea because of his uncanny celestial navigational skills; he is thus described in the works of the Irish scribe Cormac. In other stories from the oral tradition, he was a merchant mariner who, tired of Ireland, moved his base of operations to Scotland, where he appears in many folktales.
Manannan gives his name to the Isle of Man, where the sea’s presence is always felt and where his grave can still be seen. Oral traditions about Manannan were scanty in other Celtic regions, but the long survival of the Manx tongue meant that traditions about the sea god survived on Man into relatively recent times. Until the 1830s, when regular boat service began, there was little regular contact between the Isle of Man and other lands, nor did the residents generally speak English. But the Manx language, a branch of Gaelic that was related but not identical to the tongues of Ireland and Wales, did not long survive the intensified contact with other lands, declining rapidly in the 19th century; the last native speaker of Manx died in the latter part of the 20th century.
Manannan was, according to legend, the first king of the island named for him; he lived in a castle on the top of Mount Barrule, where he is buried, although other stories claim his burial mound can be seen on the seashore beneath Peel Castle. A vantage point looking out to sea was called Manannan’s Chair, from which he was said to keep watch. Manx fishermen claimed that, as they mended their nets, Manannan came to them, walking along the seashore followed by a curious being who seemed to have no head or torso but three legs—the symbol of the ever-moving sea and also the crest of the Isle of Man.
Manannan was associated with several goddesses and fairy women. Most prominent in literature was his daughter or wife fand (called Fairyland’s "pearl of beauty"), the only threat to the idealized marriage of the hero cuchulainn and his paragon of womanhood, emer. Manannan was also associated with the sun goddess aine, who left his watery bed to rise each morning; but other legends call her his daughter rather than his spouse. His children were the heroes Gaiar and mongan.
Manawydan (Manawyddan, Manawydan fab Llyr)
Welsh god. From his name, it appears that Manawydan should be cognate to the Irish god of the sea, manannan mac lir, but in Wales this divinity was more associated with famine than with sailing. He remained, however, associated with the otherworld, which to the Welsh was more typically below ground than out to sea, as it appeared to the Irish.
Manawydan appears in several branches of the mabinogion, the great collection of Welsh mythological tales that dates to the Middle Ages. In the second branch, Manawydan accompanied his brother, the gigantic hero bran the blessed, to Ireland to free their sister branwen from an abusive marriage to king matholwch. When they got there, the king had set many traps for the rescuers, who fought so fiercely that only a few Irishmen survived—leaving Ireland empty except for five pregnant women. Manawydan accompanied the miraculous head of his brother Bran back to Wales, as well as providing safe passage for their unfortunate sister Branwen, who died of sorrow at the bloodshed upon arriving safely home.
Manawydan went on to become the second husband of the miraculous queen (and probable goddess) rhiannon, in a double wedding with her son pryderi and his beloved cigfa. Shortly thereafter the land became strangely barren, all its people and animals disappearing into an Otherworldly mist. After attempting to eke out a living through hunting, Manawydan took the group east, where they worked as artisans.
Manawydan proved so talented as a shoemaker that other craft workers, fearing they would lose business, rose up and drove the group away. Back in Wales, things grew steadily worse, for Rhiannon and Pryderi fell under an enchantment and disappeared.
Living chastely with Cigfa, Manawydan ventured into the markets again, again to be driven back for his threatening excellence. He then turned to farming but constantly found his crops ravaged. Finally he caught several mice devouring his grain and made plans to ceremoniously execute them. As he prepared to do so, travelers arrived and bargained for the mice’s safety—for the vermin were the disguised friends of an old enemy of Pryderi’s father. Trading the rodents’ lives for the freedom of his own family, Manawydan was able to reunite the two couples, who settled down to a happy life thereafter.
Continental Celtic archaeological site. One of the largest and best-known Celtic settlements was excavated near the Bavarian town of Ingolstadt. A five-mile-long wall surrounded the many buildings of the settlement, and domestic and some ritual artifacts were found there; most of these are now housed in museums in Munich and Ingolstadt, although some remain at a small museum on the site.
Maoilin (Meeling, Miss Moylan)
Irish heroine. Near the town of Duhallow in Co. Cork, there is a rock on which a shape like a handprint was long visible. It was said to have been left there by Maoilin, a girl who escaped from marriage to a man she did not love by rising into the air, flying across the valley, and disappearing into the rock. Another version of the story says that she was stolen away from her human bride groom by a spectral one who took her to fairyland. The rock was long visited on the harvest festival of lughnasa, when it was decked with flowers. Some believe Maoilin to be the vestige of an ancient goddess of the land or a fairy protector of its prominent families.
Irish mythological figure. Like the great glas ghaibhleann, the cow who gave endless amounts of milk, the Maol Flidais was a symbol of abundance. Owned by the wild-wood goddess flidais, this beast may have originally been a goddess, for she is described as equal to her mistress. Not only did she give milk copiously, but her gentle lowing could be heard across the land.
Welsh hero or god. A minor Welsh and British divinity, his name has been translated as "son of the mother" or "divine youth"; he is connected with the goddess modron, "mother." Known from several sculptures that show him as a naked lad holding a lyre, he may be the same as the similarly named god mabon. The Romans equated Maponus with apollo, suggesting that he was connected with the arts.
Breton heroine. A traditional Breton folktale tells of the beautiful distant castle of the princess Marcassa, where a magical bird roosted who held the cure for the mysterious illness of the land’s ruler. The bumbling hero, prince Luduenn ("little cinders"), set off to find the bird and thus speed the king’s recovery, for his two strapping older brothers had gone forth and never returned. It did not take him long to find the brothers, who were living wildly and well in a distant city, where they stole his little money and turned him out. So Luduenn set off, poor but determined, to find princess Marcassa’s palace. And indeed he found the palace, and within it a bird caged in gold, but first he was tempted to steal some magical self-replenishing bread and a kiss from the princess herself.
The kiss impregnated the sleeping princess, and when her son was a year old, she went in search of the father. Encountering the evil brothers, she realized that she was on the right path and that they had stolen her bread from Luduenn. When she reached the palace, she found her magical bird had been so fretful without her that he had worked no healing for the king. Once again in her presence, the bird sang joyously, and the king was soon well. When Marcassa told him what she had discovered about Luduenn’s older brothers, the king had the dissolute boys killed and installed Marcassa and Luduenn as king and queen. This story has much in common with the Scottish folktale of Brian and der greine.
March (March fab Merchiawn)
Welsh hero. The Welsh corollary to king mark of the legend of tristan and iseult, March was called one of the "Three Seafarers of the Island of Britain," where he arrived on a boat from the land of the Norsemen to become his cousin king Arthur’s occasional adviser.
Mythological animal. Although horses in general had mythological significance to the Celts, special importance was given to the female horse. The continental horse goddess epona was pictured riding on a mare or surrounded by fillies; the Irish goddess macha raced horses while pregnant, as though she were a mare herself; the Welsh goddess rhiannon similarly rode on a magical mare. At uisenach, the central sacred hill of Ireland, a rampart and ditch have been interpreted as being a horse temple, because beneath the outer ring were found tunnels in the shape of a stallion pursuing a mare.
Myth often diminishes into folklore and superstition. Thus it was with the sacred horse, who lived on after Christianization in the folk belief in the "true mare," the seventh consecutive filly borne to a mare. This lucky animal could not be kidnapped by the fairies, and she could protect her owners from fairy kidnapping as well. Where a true mare was foaled, shamrocks grow in her honor.
Marie au Ble
French folkloric character. Into Christian times in Valenciennes, at the time of the ancient Celtic harvest feast of lughnasa, a girl dressed in white was led through the streets by dancing young men. "Mary of the Wheat" was accompanied by an attendant who carried a white cloth upon which were displayed the first grains of harvested wheat. The festival, now abandoned, appears a late continental survival of Lughnasa.
Mari Lwyd (Mari Llud)
Welsh folkloric figure. In the period between Christmas and January 6—the old New Year’s Day—an old hobbyhorse tradition was celebrated until relatively recent times in villages throughout South Wales. The head of a horse, said to be the mare Mari Lwyd and decorated with ribbons and other finery, was carried from house to house by a group that, demanding entry with obscure words, were answered with more verses from within. The horse and her carriers were finally admitted, whereupon celebrations followed. Such "trick-or-treating" typically descends from earlier prophylactic or warding rituals, so the Mari Lwyd may have been a ritual of safety and propitiation of cosmic powers for the year. The modern Welsh poet Dylan Thomas knew of this folklore, which inspired his "Ballad of the Mari Lwyd."
Cornish hero. The great romance of tristan and iseult tells of a love triangle between that couple and king Mark of Cornwall (occasionally, of Cornouille on the Breton coast). When he was presented with a single strand of hair of dazzling gold, Mark decided that the woman from whose head the hair came was the world’s most beautiful—and that he would have her for his bride. Discovering that the woman in question was the Irish princess Iseult, Mark sent his nephew Tristan to bring her to his court. On the journey home, the pair accidentally drank a potent liqueur that had the magical power to make people love until death. Thus bound, Tristan and Iseult could never be happy apart.
Nonetheless, Tristan dutifully brought his beloved to her new husband. When Iseult could not bear to spend her wedding night with Mark, she sent instead her handmaiden, brangien, who pretended to be the queen and was deflowered by Mark. The fated couple struggled against their love but finally left the court for several years to live together. When they returned, Mark took his wife back without complaint.
Mark is a relatively shadowy and passive figure compared to the active lovers. He is clearly parallel to two other Celtic heroes whose wives similarly left them for younger men: king arthur of Britain, whose queen guinevere preferred the young knight lancelot; and the aging Irish hero fionn mac cumhaill, whose forthright bride grainne ran off with his underling diarmait. This recurrent plot has recalled to many commentators the motif of a goddess of the land’s sovereignty choosing a more virile and younger ruler as an older one fades.
Ritual and cosmological concept. The current understanding of marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman who have pledged sexual fidelity and economic interdependence for life is relatively new and, even today, limited to only certain regions of the world. As the Celtic world encompassed many lands with differing customs, it is not possible to categorically describe a single rite or tradition of marriage shared by all. A contemporary interpretation of some Celtic traditions as representing greater rights for women within marriage has both adherents and opponents; some believe that where such freedom is found, it derives from the customs of earlier settlers like the picts.
Mythologically, marriage often was used as a way of representing the relationship between a king and the land. Joined in a symbolic union with the goddess of the land’s sovereignty, the king was expected to live righteously, not breaking any of his sacred vows (buada) or taboos (see geis). Such rectitude would result, it was believed, in the land’s being fruitful and the people, thus, well fed and happy.
Arthurian hero. A werewolf, Marrock could not assume human form unless he had human clothing. His wife, wishing to spend time with her lover, hid Marrock’s clothes, forcing him to live as a wolf in the hills. King arthur encountered him and, realizing he was under an enchantment, brought him home, where Marrock was so friendly to his wife that she relented and returned his clothes. Thereupon, he resumed his humanity and his marriage.
Celtic and British god. When the Roman legions subjugated various Celtic tribal lands, they practiced the interpre-tatio romana, calling local divinities by Roman names. Thus we have more than 60 versions of Mars, the Roman god of agriculture who, in later times, became a god of war—under the reasoning that Roman fields needed to be protected by warriors against invaders who might take them over. Whether the Celts saw their own Mars as similarly connecting war and agriculture is not clear, although some inscriptions and sculptures suggest as much, especially those in which Mars is depicted as wearing a warrior’s attire but holding a cornucopia filled with the fruits of the harvest.
Mars is in some cases described as a protector of the people, identified with the god teutates ("ruler of the people"), found in several sites. Other commentators suggest that the Celtic "Mars" may have been a god of the wildwood and/or of healing, the latter apparently arising from the image of a warrior fighting off disease.
Many inscriptions and altars to Mars are found through Celtic lands, suggesting that he was a popular divinity or that the divinities subsumed in the Roman god were so. Typical depictions of Mars show him in Celtic military garb, sometimes even wearing a twisted-metal torc around the neck—an interesting decision given that the Celtic warriors had been defeated by the occupying Romans. In some cases Mars is shown naked, carrying a weapon, a clear reference to the tradition of Celtic warriors going to war without clothing or armor. Another Celtic motif appears in the occasional multiplication of Mars into three gods. Mars was never known as a triple god in Rome, but the Celts often emphasized divine power in this symbolic manner.
Mars figures are especially found in Britain and, on the Continent, among the Belgai and the Remi. In some cases a surname is provided for the Mars figure, which has been interpreted as originating in the original Celtic name for the regional or tribal divinity. Some of these names include:
• Mars Alator.
• Mars Albiorix, "world-king," tribal god of the Albici of Gaul.
• Mars Beatucadrus, "bright one" or "comely in slaughter."
• Mars Braciaca, possibly a god of grain or ale.
• Mars Camulos, shown with an oak crown or with ram’s horns.
• Mars Caturix, "battle-king."
• Mars Lenus, a healing spring god of Trier in Germany.
• Mars Lucetius, "light."
• Mars Mediocius, found only in Colchester, England.
• Mars Mogetius, whose name appears on two inscriptions from Bourges and Seggau.
• Mars Mullo ("mule" or "wall"), a healer depicted with a horned serpent.
• Mars Nabelcus, known from several inscriptions in France.
• Mars Rigisamus, "king of kings."
• Mars Smertrius, whose name includes the same syllable for abundance as found in the goddess Rosmetra.
• Mars Vesontius.
Mary (Saint Mary)
Christian figure with Celtic resonances. When the Roman legions arrived in Celtic lands, they practiced the interpretatio romana, whereby indigenous divinities were renamed with Roman names while keeping their original iconography and legends. In the same way, the Roman church adopted and adapted itself to the multiple indigenous religions of Europe by absorbing some of their spiritual visions into its own. Very useful in this project was the figure of the mother of Jesus, the virgin Mary, who assumed the symbols and stories of a number of Celtic and other European mother goddesses.
In England a folk belief claims that the entire island was Mary’s bridal dowry, provided by her brother, the merchant joseph of arimathea, who brought the grail back to Britain after the death of Mary’s son Jesus. In some legends Mary herself lived out her life in Britain after the resurrection.
Mary Morgan (Morrigain)
Breton folkloric figure. This siren or mermaid was said to haunt the shores off Brittany, singing sweetly to bring sailors to her dangerous rocks. She was especially associated with the Bay of Douaranez, where the legendary princess dahut was said to have built her crystal city of ys. Sailors were warned to carry a crucifix or other amulet with them when sailing past Mary Morgan’s rocks.
Math (Math fab Mathonwy)
Welsh hero or god. The fourth branch of the Welsh mythological texts called the mabinogion bears the name of this mythological figure. In it we learn of king Math of Gwynnedd, whose ceremonial foot-holder goewin was raped. Much of the action of the story revolves around Math’s attempts to replace the girl with a qualified applicant, who had to be a virgin in order to keep Math magically safe. The apparently strange demand that Math never set foot on the ground was a common kind of kingly taboo or geis found in Celtic lands; in Ireland, for instance, the king of Tara was never to spend more than eight nights away from home.
Math’s character is a rather shady and even unpleasant one. He was not above conspiring with his nephew gwydion to reveal the secrets of Gwydion’s sister arianrhod; he also collaborated in the building of an artificial bride for Arianrhod’s son, lleu llaw gyffes, to thwart the curse that he would never find a wife. The fact that his heir was his nephew, rather than his son, gives support to the theory that matriliny, succession through the mother, predominated in ancient Welsh culture.
Irish god. A minor member of the tuatha de danann, the magical tribes of the goddess danu, Mathgen was a magician; he may be connected to the Welsh figure of the magician-king math.
Irish hero. In the second branch of the mabinogion, the great compilation of Welsh myths, we learn of an Irish king who tried to establish tighter bonds with the Celtic peoples across the Irish Sea in Wales, by marrying the beautiful young princess of the land, bran-wen. Once they were back in Ireland, he treated her poorly because her evil half-brother efnisien had attacked his horses. Despite Branwen’s giving birth to their son, gwern, Matholwch abused her physically and verbally, until her heroic brothers bran the blessed and manawydan brought an army to free her.
Matholwch set a trap, inviting the warriors from Wales to a banquet where warriors hid, disguised as sacks of grain, all about the dining hall. Efnisien intuited the danger, however, and killed the saboteurs. In the fighting that ensued, Bran and all but seven of the Welsh heroes were killed, though they took all the Irish warriors with them to the grave, including Matholwch. Arriving home in Wales, Branwen died of a broken heart at the carnage brought on by her unhappiness.
One of the most contentious areas of contemporary research into the Celts is that of gender relations. Were Celtic women freer than others in their time, or is that a projection by scholars imagining a culture without strict gender stereotyping? Those who envision the Celtic world as one in which women had more rights (presumably, more obligations as well as greater power) point out that many mythological heroes in Celtic lands bear their mother’s, not their father’s, names. In Ireland we find the king of ulster, concobar mac nessa, son of his mother nessa; the king of connacht, ailill mac Mata, son of the woman Mata; the romantic hero diarmait Ua Duibne, whose name translates as "Dermot, descendant of the ancestral mother Dubinn"; and finally an entire race, the tuatha de danann, "people of the goddess danu." In Wales we find mabon vab modron, "Son, son of Mother." In Wales we also find king math, whose throne was inherited by his sister’s son (gwydion,son of don), who was in turn succeeded by his sister’s son lleu llaw gyffes, all suggestive of a matrilineal inheritance.
The tracing of descent through the mother-line rather than patrilineal or father-line succession is not a clear argument for greater rights or powers for women, but it is suggestive of different gender relations during the periods in question. Because many of these figures date from an early mythological strata, it has been proposed that matriliny is a remnant of the cultural organization of the pre-Celtic people called the picts.
British and continental Celtic goddess. Her name means "mother," and she was mother of the obscure British god maponus, whose name seems to mean nothing more than "son of the mother." Matrona’s name survives in the name of the river Marne in France, which formed the border between the settlements of Gaul and those of the Belgae. Celtic river divinities were typically goddesses who embodied not only the life-giving force of the river’s water but the fertility of the land of the watershed. She may be the same goddess found in Wales as modron.
Matter of Britain (Matiere de Bretagne)
Literary term. This term describes the Arthurian legends that, growing from presumed Celtic roots, became part of the literary heritage of England and, to a lesser extent, France, where some Arthurian material is found in Celtic Brittany. The figures of lancelot and guinevere, the knights of the round table, the sorceress morgan and the magician merlin, and king arthur himself are part of this cycle of tales, as are the motifs of the grail quest and the love triangle that destroys a heroic court.
From medieval times, artists and authors have found inspiration in the Matter of Britain, but the Arthurian revival of the 19th century encouraged widespread use of the figures, narratives, and motifs of Camelot. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote numerous pieces on the subject, notably Idylls of the King, while in America the satirist Mark Twain used Merlin as a central figure in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The 20th century began with some relatively straightforward treatments of Arthur, including T. H. White’s The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone, while the American poet T. S. Eliot relied upon the related Grail figure of the Fisher King in "The Waste Land." Later, a women’s viewpoint was introduced in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s popular novel, The Mists of Avalon, and its many prequels. Films inspired by the Arthurian material include Excalibur by John Boorman, who named his production company after Merlin.
British divinity. This bear deity—possibly a god, possibly a goddess—was honored at Risingham, just north of the great wall that emperor Hadrian built to keep Britain safe from the aggressive tribes of the north. It is possible that Matus was Pictish rather than Celtic.
Maughold (St. Maughold, Machutus)
Manx legendary figure. Early Christian legend on the Isle of man tells of this man who, after being converted by st. patrick, was padlocked to a small boat and put out to sea; the key was thrown overboard, where a fish ate it. Maughold was rescued, but the lock could never be opened until, many years later, a fish was caught and served to him, and it proved to contain the long-lost key. Unlocked at last, he rose to become bishop of the island. Folkloric motifs in this story, as well as the celebration of Maughold’s feast at the old Celtic harvest holiday of lugh-nasa, suggest that a Christian legend absorbed an earlier pagan one.
Irish mythological site. In the southwestern province of munster, many mountains are named for goddesses (see aine, mis). In Co. Tipperary, in the center of a group of 12 mountains named for the otherwise obscure goddess ebhlinne, rises a hill called Mauher Slieve, the Mother Mountain, which was a traditional site of celebrations for the Celtic harvest feast of lughnasa. Some versions of the book of invasions say that the goddess of the Mother Mountain was fodla, one of Ireland’s three major earth goddesses.
Maxen (Macsen, Macsen Wledig)
Welsh hero. An historical king, Maxen was originally a Roman soldier from Spain (possibly of Celtic origin, although that is unclear) who married a Celtic woman named elen (Helen) Lwddog after he moved to Britain in ca. 383 c.e. A fine warrior and general, he was proclaimed emperor Magnus Maximus of Rome by his legions, whom he led in an assault on the continental Roman lands and finally upon Rome itself. The emperor Valentinian II left the city when the usurping western emperor arrived, but Theodosius, emperor of the eastern part of the vast Roman territory, met Maxen in battle and defeated him, having him put to death on July 28, 388 c.e. His widow Elen was permitted to return to Wales, where she became the ancestral mother of several dynasties. Maxen appears in Welsh literature in the visionary 12th-century poem, The Dream of Maxen.
Folkloric object and custom. A strong straight sapling, cut down and reerected near the festivals of beltane, was a reminder of the life burgeoning in the woods and fields each spring. Dancers wrapped ribbons around the trees and performed elaborate synchronized dancing beneath them (see morris dancing). The maypole has been seen as a degraded form of the cosmic world tree.
Symbolic drink. A wine made from honey, mead figures in a number of Celtic myths and legends as a drink favored by warriors. Its most consistent mythological association is with the goddess/queen whose name is the same as the drink, medb, and who represented the intoxication and danger of kingship.
Medb (Maeve, Medbh, Medhbh, Meave)
Irish goddess and heroine. From her royal seat at cruachan, the great capital of the western province of connacht, a queen named Medb reigned with great vigor and power. Behind her stands the figure of a goddess, perhaps the goddess of the land whose marriage to the king granted him sovereignty over her territory and hedged him about with sacred vows (see geis) at the same time. As a goddess, Medb is linked with the five fierce figures known collectively as badb or and sometimes including the morrigan.
At Medb’s capital, now Rathcrogan near Tulsk in Co. Roscommon, more than 70 ritual and royal sites of the Celtic Iron Age are still visible, including the nearly circular main hill-fort on which it is believed that the local kings went through the ceremony of inauguration. In a huge nearby cave with a tiny entrance called oweynagat, Medb was born of an otherwise obscure woman named crochan Crocderg ("the blood-red cup" or "red cream"). Although originally from the royal hill of tara, Crochan fled with her mistress, the reborn fairy queen etain, from the king eochaid, Etain’s human husband, who followed in hot pursuit. When they reached Oweynagat, the pregnant handmaiden so admired the fairy palace or sidhe there that Etain made a gift of it and named the area around it after Crochan.
A flight from danger also appears in the story of the princess or priestess erne, after whom an important lake and river are named. Medb gave Erne several important treasures, notably her own comb and casket (both feminine sexual symbols). Just then, a giant came from Oweynagat, terrifying Erne and her maidens, who fled as a group toward the mythological waterfall of assaroe. They drowned before they reached shelter, their bodies dissolving to become Lough Erne. The story is a common one, appearing near Cruachan in the story of the princess gile who became Lough Gill, as well as in the stories of river goddesses like boand, sinann, and garravogue.
Medb’s name means "mead" or "intoxication," which may refer to the cup she offers the king at his inauguration, and/or to the intoxication of battle (both figurative and literal, for mead was provided to Irish warriors before battle). In legend, Medb is fiery and self-willed, sleeping with whomever she chooses for her own pleasure or to gain political advantage through her "friendly thighs" (one of the most famous phrases in the tain bo cuailnge, the great epic of her cattle raid upon ulster). She was never without "one man in the shadow of another" (another famous phrase from the Tain), and although she kept ailill mac Mata as her consort, her favored lover was the massively endowed fergus mac Roich, whose appetite matched hers and whose name indicates his manliness.
Fergus played an important role in Medb’s cattle raid, which began with the so-called pillow-talk scene where Medb lay in bed with Ailill, praising herself and her possessions. Ailill claimed to have more than Medb—a claim that diminished Medb’s social status according to brehon law. When she found that Ailill did, indeed, have in his herd a splendid white bull she could not match, Medb set out to find its equal. The only such equal was in Ulster, however, where the brown donn cuailnge grazed on the lands of the minor king daire. (The two bulls were the reincarnations of bitter enemies, fated to cause trouble; see friuch and rucht.)
First Medb tried to coax Daire to loan her the great brown bull for a year, hoping that it would leave her cows pregnant with astonishing offspring. Daire overheard Medb’s warriors boasting that his cooperation was irrelevant, for they intended to take back the bull even if he refused to lend it. Insulted, Daire prepared for war. Medb marshaled her armies to march upon Ulster, taking advantage of the curse she knew would leave the men of the province unable to defend themselves (see debility of the ulstermen)—a curse leveled upon them by the goddess macha in retaliation for their abuse of her during her pregnancy. Knowing her opponents would be writhing with the pains of a woman in labor for four days and five nights as soon as she launched the campaign, Medb set out from Cruachan, marching north and east. She traveled in an open cart with four chariots surrounding her, dressed in all her royal finery.
However, Medb made her plans without figuring on the strength of the hero cuchulainn, who single-handedly defended Ulster against one great Connacht champion after another. While this combat was underway, Medb stole past and kidnapped the bull she needed. Soon the Ulstermen roused from their cursed state and began a massive battle against the forces of Connacht, who were finally driven off.
In perhaps the greatest anticlimax in ancient literature, the two bulls fell upon each other and fought—a fight of such magnitude that it extended across all the fields of Ireland. Although the brown Donn Cuailnge finally killed Ailill’s white finnbennach, he himself died not long after limping home to Ulster. Without the white bull, Ailill’s possessions then matched Medb’s, making her once again equal to her husband. Thus, from Medb’s standpoint, the ending is a happy one.
Medb met her own end on the island of Clothrann in Lough Ree in the River Shannon,a place that was apparently sacred to her. On the island was a well in which Medb bathed each morning, apparently thereby renewing her youth and strengthening her power. Her nephew furbaide ferbend could not forgive Medb for killing his mother, her sister clothra. Although the island was far from shore, he practiced hurling stones from a slingshot until he was sure of his aim, then flung a ball of dried brains across the water to bring down the great Medb.
Medb may have died on Lough Ree, but she is said to be buried far away, in the great mega-lithic tumulus of knocknarea above the town of Sligo. Despite these connections with Connacht, she is also associated with the central province, mide, most notably with the hill of TaARA, where Rath Medb may have been the site of ancient kingly inaugurations. Under the name of Medb Lethderg ("Maeve Red-Sides") she married one king of Tara after another, showing her to be the great goddess of Sovereignty so important in Irish myth.
Often described as a war goddess or warrior-queen, Medb indeed seems a strong battle leader, quite willing to put her champions in harm’s way to gain her will. Her connection to battle is intensified by the fact that she is shadowed, throughout the Tain, by the even more frightening figure of the black-winged Morrigan, a superhuman bird-woman who foretold the future of warriors as they began to fight. That Oweynagat, the Morrigan’s home, was at Cruachan suggests that the two figures were closely connected in the Irish mythological mind.
British god. Known from only one inscription in Colchester, Medocius may have been a local god of the land, a genius loci; he is associated with the Roman god mars, so he may have had a warrior aspect, possibly as protector of territory.
Continental Celtic god. This obscure god connected with cattle may be a Celtic version of the Persian hero-god mithras; the Persian god was popular among the Roman legionnaires, who brought him to Celtic lands.
Megalithic civilization (megalithic culture)
Pre-Celtic culture. Across all of the Celtic lands are found great structures made of rock, the work of a pre-Celtic people whose name and culture are obscured by the lack of written documentation. Called megaliths ("big rocks"), these structures give their name to the so-called megalithic civilization of approximately 5000 b.c.e. It is not known whether the monuments found in Ireland and Britain and in parts of the Continent (Brittany and, arguably, Malta) were built by waves of immigrants, possibly bringing new religious conceptions to the areas they invaded, or whether the style of architecture and its attendant religious conceptions spread among people of various cultures and languages.
Megalithic monuments range from a single upright standing stone, called a menhir from the Breton word for such objects, to groups of stones that form a passage grave, dolmen (from the Breton tol men, "table of stone"), or cromlech (from the apparently contradictory phrase "bent flat stone" in Welsh), to stone circles that may surround or incorporate dolmens or menhirs. The size of megalithic structures ranges from the intimate to the immense, with stonehenge in Britain and the bru na boinne in Ireland being the most famous if not the largest, an honor held by the great stone circle at lough gur.
Many of the monuments are decorated with symbols that have been variously interpreted as sunbursts and stars, water meanders, and other natural forms. Some archaeologists argue that these symbols form a consistent language that permits interpretation of the meanings of the structures—usually as goddess temples—but that theory is controversial.
Only two statements can be made of the megalith builders without argument. First, they were extraordinary engineers, creating the oldest remaining human structures out of worked and unworked rock. Second, they had an almost unsurpassed knowledge of the stars, for many of their monuments are precisely oriented to a specific constellation, moon or sun phase, or other such astronomical point. Thus the great tumulus at Newgrange admits the light of the winter solstice dawn through a stone transom that allows for the obliquity of the ecliptic, or the earth’s wobble; on the same day, the lines of stones (alinements) at Carnac in Brittany point to sunrise. By contrast, the great open circle at Stonehenge is oriented toward the summer solstice dawn, and the cairn at loughcrew opens to the dawn of both equinoxes.
The megalith builders were not Celts. Their monuments, apparently connected to their religious beliefs, were not designed by druids. Continuing misinformation about the sites’ builders has led to demands by revivalist druid societies for access to Stonehenge for midsummer ceremonies, ceremonies that may not actually represent those of the Celtic priesthood.
If the Celts did not build the great stone structures, it is likely—although by no means proven— that they used them for ceremonies. If the impressive size and moving architecture of the monuments inspires contemporary worshipers, there is no reason to believe ancient peoples did not respond the same way. What is clear is that these great ancient sites became embedded in folklore in Celtic lands, where they were described as haunted by fairies. Many folktales describe mystical events that happened within or around such monuments; it is impossible to tell whether such stories contain kernels of ancient lore from the time of the builders, actual historical experiences, or a fertile and poetic imagination.
The Celts, who honored deity out-of-doors and in multiple sites, would have found the megalithic monuments suitable for private or public rituals. That such religious behavior continued through Celtic times and into the period of Christianization is suggested by continued edicts of the church against such worship, together with traditionally Celtic rituals at wells and springs. The Councils of Arles (443-452), Tours (567), and Toledo (681 and 693) all decried worship of stones in ruined sanctuaries; as late as 1410, British archbishops were still calling for elimination of rituals at the sites.
At the same time, religious credit accrued to those who damaged or destroyed the ancient stones. Superstitious belief in the stones’ powers had kept them standing long after their builders had passed away—indeed, it does so today—but during the Middle Ages, priests and their followers attacked many stones. One of the most significant reminders of this period is the immense stone phallus called Longe Pierre or Long Peter in Brittany, which would have stood some three stories tall but now lies broken into several pieces on the ground. That so many stone circles and other vestiges of the megalithic civilization can still be seen in Celtic lands today testifies to the continuing power the stone monuments hold over the spiritual imagination.
Meg Mullach (Maug Moulach, Maggie Moloch)
Scottish folkloric figure. One of the many brownies who aided humans with their ceaseless work, Meg took care of the castle of Tullochgorm, which belonged to the Grant family. Although Meg looked like a small child, she had an impressive head of hair, whence she was sometimes called Hairy Meg. (Some versions of her story say that she had hairy hands and that she sometimes reached down chimneys to steal children.) Once she helped a stingy farmer who, realizing that she would do all the work of the farm for free, fired all his farmhands; Meg responded by asking for her wages too. As it was forbidden to offer recompense to a brownie (see laying the fairies), Meg was within her rights when she disappeared upon receiving her wages.
Meiche (Mechi, Merca)
Irish hero. The great war goddess morrigan had one son, Meiche, who had three hearts; coiled up within each of his hearts were three serpents that, if allowed to grow to maturity, would break forth from his body and devastate the land. mac cecht, a warrior of the tuatha de danann, averted the disaster by killing Meiche and throwing the burned remnants of his body into the Barrow River.
Irish hero. When Meilge killed a fawn that turned out to be the bewitched maiden aige, her brother faifne punished him by uttering a satire so fierce that boils popped out on Meilge’s face. Meilge replied in bloody fashion: He had the poet-satirist killed.
Meleagant (Melwas, Meleagraunce, Mellya-graunce)
Arthurian hero. In Arthurian legend, a king or giant named Meleagant kidnapped queen guinevere and held her against her will until the beloved knight lancelot came to her rescue (or, in some versions, until a saint named Gildas talked him into freeing her). In order to reach her, Lancelot had to cross a strange bridge that went either underwater by a long route or above the water on a knife-edge. Eager to be at his lover’s side, Lancelot took the upper track, wounding himself horribly in the process. In Guinevere’s chamber, he joined her in bed, leaving the sheets bloodied. He failed to consider that his friend kay, also wounded seriously, was asleep in the same room. Although Lancelot crept away before dawn, Meleagant found the blood and charged Kay with sexually assaulting the queen. Too weak to defend himself, Kay was defended by Lancelot, who then freed Guinevere. Meleagant is called the king of Somerset, the summer land, which makes it probable that he was originally either a god or a fairy king.
Welsh god. This obscure Welsh god appears to have been an ancestral divinity.
Melor (St. Melor)
British and continental Celtic hero. Many saints in Celtic lands are disguised versions of Celtic heroes and gods, for the migration of mythological motifs from earlier times to later figures is a constant in human culture. In Cornwall and Brittany we find stories of St. Melor, a supposed early medieval priest who was murdered and decapitated under the orders of his evil uncle.
As his assailant carried away the severed head, it began to speak. The murderer grew faint with fear as Melor instructed him to strike the ground with his staff. Pure water gushed out, while the staff took root and flowered into a lovely fragrant tree. As a result, healing wells in forests were dedicated to St. Melor; there are dozens of such shrines in Brittany as well as a famous one at Linkinhorne in Cornwall. Such tree-shaded wells were healing shrines; Melor appears to have stepped in for an earlier healing god or goddess, permitting pagan rituals to continue under Christian protection.
Continental Celtic folkloric figure. Melusine was the daughter of a beautiful water fairy named Pressina who, according to a French folktale, chose a human man for her mate. Common to such unions was a vow demanded by the wife—in this case, that the husband should never see her while she was delivering a child. As with other such reckless humans, Pressina’s husband grew too excited when he heard she had delivered triplets. Rushing into the birth chamber, he confronted an angry woman who reminded him of his promise, then disappeared with the children. (In some versions of the story, Pressina took the form of a huge serpent to give birth.)
The eldest of Pressina’s three daughters was Melusine; her sisters were Meliot and Palatina. All were reared on a magical island typical of the Celtic otherworld. Melusine grew up angry at her father for breaking his promise and therefore denying them the comforts of human life. When she grew old enough to take action, she orchestrated a raid on her father’s castle, confining him and all his attendants inside a magical mountain. When Melusine returned home, she did not find her mother happy at this vengeful action; instead, Pressina cursed her to become a snake for part of every Sunday.
Like her mother, Melusine finally found love with a human man, Raymond of Poitou. And like her mother, she put limitations on her husband: in this case, that he never enter her rooms on Sunday. Of course human husbands never keep such a vow, and when Raymond saw his part-snake wife one Sunday, she disappeared in fury at his betrayal and thereafter haunted his family as a kind of banshee.
Men-an-tol Cornish mythological site. Near the village of Lanyon in Cornwall, a megalithic monument was famous for curing childhood ailments as well as spinal deformities. The huge round boulder with a hole in its center was the site of a ritual in which the afflicted were pulled through the stone, naked, and then rolled on the grass three (or three times three) times. The stone can also be used by the hale and healthy for divination, for if one put two brass pins on the rock and asked a question, the dancing pins would tell the answer.
Mythological and folkloric site. Often called a standing stone, the menhir is a single, usually enormous, stone erected upright in the ground by the people of the mysterious mega-lithic civilization some 6,000 years ago. Sometimes the stones were "dressed" or worked into a specific shape, but usually they were erected without alteration. There is considerable speculation about how ancient people moved the stones from their original location, sometimes many miles from their eventual homes, and engineered them into place.