Mercury To Mythology (Celtic mythology and folklore)


British and Continental Celtic god. With the arrival of the Roman legions, scores of Celtic gods who were radically localized—found only in one place or among one tribal group— were renamed after Roman gods. Whether the many gods renamed "Mercury" were originally similar, and what the god’s original powers were, is difficult to determine. Caesar claimed that Mercury was the god most worshiped among all those of the Celts and that he was the most often depicted in art. Under his Roman name he remained popular among the Celtic peoples of both the Continent and Britain.

Celtic Mercury was shown with a cock, ram, or goat, all symbols of virility and masculine prowess; he was never a warrior like the Celtic mars, but rather a god of commerce and prosperity. He carried a bag or purse of money, suggesting success at transactions. Although always shown in Roman dress, Mercury often wore a torc, the twisted neck-piece that indicated prestige and power. Occasionally the Celtic Mercury was imagined as a messenger or herald of the gods, although this typically Roman vision was rare in comparison to Mercury’s importance as a god of traders and commercial prosperity.

At times the winged double-snake caduceus, a classical emblem still used by doctors and pharmacists, was shown as one of Mercury’s attributes, suggesting powers of healing. The god was often connected with rosmerta, a healing water goddess who was never Romanized. The couple was especially worshiped in Braint, a healing shrine in Gaul.

Several gods have been argued as the original of the Romanized Mercury. teutates, the god of the tribe, and esus, the woodland god, are both described with the name Mercury by the poet Lucan. Some local names survive including:

• Mercury Artaios, "bear" or "ploughed land."

• Mercury Arvernorix, Avernus.

• Mercury Cimiacinus, a god of roads in Britain.

• Mercury Cissonius.

• Mercury Cultor, "the farmer."

• Mercury Dumaitis, Dumias, "hill" or "mound."

• Mercury Iovantucarus.

• Mercury Moccus, possibly "pig," known from one inscription in France.

• Mercury Visucius.

Merlin (Myrddin, Myrdinn, Merddyn, Merddin, Merlinus)

Arthurian hero. Aside from the triangulated lovers lancelot, guinevere, and king arthur, the great magician Merlin is the most renowned character in the Arthurian legends. He was the power behind the throne, creating and maintaining the fair realm of camelot. Even before Arthur’s citadel was built, Merlin was engaged in adding to Britain’s architectural heritage, for it was he who erected stonehenge on Salisbury plain, raising the stone circle from its original site in Ireland and flying it by magic across the sea to its present site.

Merlin’s gifts were recognized early. As a boy he was chosen to become a foundation sacrifice—a human sacrifice offered to stabilize the foundation of a new building and to protect it, through his death, from shifts in the earth that could damage the structure—but he saved himself by going into a visionary trance and uttering an extended prophecy about the land’s future rulers and challenges.

The vision was centered on a great dragon that the boy Merlin saw in the foundation’s pit. That dragon led him to envision the greatest king the land would ever know. Arthur would never have been conceived without Merlin’s assistance, for he transformed uthur pen-dragon into the semblance of count gorlois of Cornwall so that Arthur’s father could have his way with beautiful but loyal igraine, Gorlois’s wife. In one night of passion with the disguised Uther, Igraine conceived the future king; Uther then killed Gorlois and took Igraine as his wife.

When Arthur was old enough to claim his inheritance, Merlin led him to a sword in a huge stone; this unnamed weapon is not to be confused with excalibur, the magical gift of the mysterious lady of the lake that later kept Arthur safe from being wounded in battle. The sword in the stone could only be removed by the rightful king. Though many had tried, none had succeeded in removing it from its rocky prison, but with one tug, Arthur freed it and revealed his destiny, as Merlin knew he would.

Merlin served as Arthur’s confidante and adviser during the happy years at Camelot when the round table knights quested for glory. Despite his magic, Merlin either did not see or could not stop the erosion of Camelot’s power and prestige, nor Arthur’s eventual defeat. Merlin himself never died but lives on somewhere in an otherworld where he was trapped by his lover, the fairy queen or sorceress viviane (sometimes, morgan). Some tales say that Viviane feared he might be attracted to other women, others that she wished to ensure his immortality. Using the very enchantments he had taught her, Viviane trapped Merlin in a tower or encased him in a great tree in the magical forest of broceliande, where he continues to live, immobile and powerless.

Behind this figure of literature and legend is the ghost of an earlier, possibly divine, figure called Myrdinn, after whom the island of Britain was called Clas Myrdinn or "Myrdinn’s enclosure." In Welsh sources, Myrdinn was said to have been a warrior who, having gone mad (perhaps the basis for the related figure of myrdinn wyllt) from the horrors that he witnessed at the battle of Arfderydd, fled to Scotland, where he meditated until he attained the power of prophecy. Some argue that Myrdinn was the sun divinity worshiped at Stonehenge; that argument assumes the deity was male rather than female, an unproven assertion. Upon the arrival of Christianity, Myrdinn was said to have taken the treasures of the land and nine bards and gone into retirement in an island off Wales.

Mermaid (Merrow, Morrough, Moruach, Moruadh, Maighdean-mara, Ben-Varrey, Mary Morgan)

Continental and insular folkloric figure. Half-human, half-fish beings are found in the folklore of all Celtic lands, from the west of Ireland across Scotland and England to the coasts of France. These figures most often appeared as female, although male merfolk are occasionally known. They had much in common with other half-human beings such as swan maidens and seal people but had special powers as well.

A mermaid was a kind of sea fairy, an oth-erworld creature who swam in shallow coastal waters, often with the intention of drawing humans into the brine and to their deaths. In some tales, mermaids did so because they found human men irresistibly attractive; in these tales they are typical fairy lovers. Their sweet singing lulled people to sleep wherever water could lap over them so they drowned; these figures may be confused with the classical siren, a death-messenger who appears as a bird as well as a singing maiden.

Unlike the more common fairy mistresses, mermaids were not necessarily lovely. Some had green teeth or red noses or pig eyes. Their hair might be green and scraggly, made up of seaweed or kelp. Despite this, they seemed to attract enough men that sailors were warned to keep watch for them; if they spotted you before you noticed them, you were invariably captured. Mermaids were said to be fond of brandy; they worked in teams to wreck ships carrying it so that they might forage among the wreckage for unbroken bottles. (The red nose many mermen sport was attributed to excessive indulgence.)

Every mermaid wore a little cap called a cohuleen druith, which permitted her to safely swim below the waves and to live in reefs without danger. Should a human man wish to take a mermaid as his wife, it was important to steal the cap and keep it safely hidden. (Similarly, Swan Maidens’ feather cloaks and Seal Women’s fur coats had to be kept from their view.) If a mermaid found her cap, she put it on and escaped from land, leaving husband and children behind, without a thought or a second glance. As long as she remained ashore, however, the mermaid was a wonderful wife: industrious, loving, sensuous, making the risk of her loss worth taking and her abandonment devastating.

All the coastal Celtic lands had their own versions of the mermaid. In Cornwall the mermaid cloaks an ancient sea-goddess, pictured holding a mirror, possibly influenced by classical interpretations of the seaborne Aphrodite, Greek goddess of lust and love. The Mermaid of Zennor is Cornwall’s most famous manifestation; in a small coastal village in Penwith, a girl emerged from the ocean to lure the best singer from the church’s choir, Matthew Trenwalla, down to the depths to share her home and her love. Her image can still be seen in the town’s church. In Brittany the mermaid was apt to steal away young men and keep them imprisoned underwater, which invariably resulted in the boys’ death from drowning.

In England mermaids were associated with freshwater as well as the ocean; the lake maidens did not live in running water but only in pools and other still water. The first syllable in their name, which appears to mean "sea" (from the French, mer), in fact comes from the Anglo-Saxon meer for "lake" or "inland sea."

Manx mermaid tales emphasized their irresistible seductiveness. They lured potential lovers by holding out coral, pearls, and other sea riches—even jewels stolen from ships they wrecked. If a potential mate came to his senses before leaping to certain death and ran away from the alluring mermaid, she heaved stones at his departing figure. If she struck him, he was doomed: even though safely on dry land, he died shortly thereafter.

In Scotland the Maighdean-mara was a half-fish, half-woman who appeared on offshore rocks late at night or near dawn, combing her splendid long hair (see comb). From a distance she looked entirely human, but upon further acquaintance it was clear she had no legs, only a fish-tail. That tail could, if the mermaid desired, be shaken off, making her appearance entirely human. She could then be very helpful to humans, which was not generally the case with her kind.

The Scottish islands are rich in mermaid folklore. On the Isle of Skye fair-haired people were said to descend from mermaids; members of the Morrow, MacMorrow, MacCodrums, and MacMurray families were their living relatives. In Orkney, off the northern coast of Scotland, a mermaid was recorded to have appeared in the sea in the 1890s, her milk-white body, long arms, and unnaturally tiny head visible from shore. In the Hebrides the mermaid did not sport a magical cap as in other lands; instead she had a magical belt that had to be stolen to tame her. Her descendants were said to have the gift (or curse) of foreseeing who would die at sea. In the Shetlands many people believed themselves descended from mermaids, pointing to a small membrane between fingers and toes (actually a natural, although unusual, physiological mutation) as proof.

In Brittany the mermaid appeared as a siren, luring men to their deaths in treacherous waters. Their leader was the pagan princess dahut, who floated above her submerged city of ys and sang beautifully to passing sailors. Should a man venture toward her, however, he drowned in the wild ocean waves. Dahut, whose legend describes her murderous love for men, may have been a mermaid before being depicted as a princess, or the opposite may be true. In some parts of Brittany it was said that all mermaids are daughters of Dahut.

In Ireland the moruadh or moruach ("seamaid") was known from the earliest literature, for in the book of invasions mermaids played in the waves as the invading milesians approached the shore. The Annals of the Four Masters describes mermaids as giants: 195 feet long, with fingers seven feet long and hair measuring 18 feet. The moruadh was a typically sportive and seductive creature who regularly mated with humans; no members of the Lee family ever drowned, because they were descendants of mermaids.

Sir Walter Scott, in The Bride of Lammermoor, related the tradition that drinking from a mermaid’s well was fatal, in this case to those of the House of Ravenswood. The mermaid’s most famous literary appearance was in the somewhat sadistic story of "The Little Mermaid" by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, who described the pains a mermaid underwent to have her tail cut into legs; this was an invention of the author and never part of folklore, but it became well known as a result of the Disney film of the same name. A contemporary vision of the mermaid appears in the film Local Hero by Scottish director William Forsythe, in which an elusive mermaid appears as a goddess of sovereignty who protects her land.

Merman (Dinny-Mara, Dooinney Marrey, Dunya Mara)

Irish and Scottish folkloric figure. Although the half-fish fairy creatures of the sea were usually female, there are occasional descriptions of mermen in literature and folklore. Unlike the corresponding female, the merman was rarely attractive, having piggy eyes and a bright red nose from living on brandy salvaged from wrecked ships. Their breath was also unsavory because they enjoyed dining on raw fish. According to the early British historian Holinshed, a merman was captured alive during the reign of England’s King John; dubbed the Wild Man of Oxford, he did not live long in captivity.

Merry Maidens

British folkloric site. A number of stone circles in Britain bear this name. Typically, local legend says the stones were originally women who, dancing on a Sunday, were turned to stone for their blasphemy. In some cases the stones are called "nine maidens," which may refer not to their number but to "noon"— the ninth hour in the ecclesiastical day, whence ‘nones,’ the midday service—for the hour at which they were transformed.

At Stanton Drew a wedding dance was once so merry that all of Saturday night passed without anyone’s noticing. As Sunday morning drew near, a black-clad stranger appeared and took the fiddle from the chief musician. The music the stranger played was impossible to resist. Even the weary, and even those who could not dance, leapt to their feet. On and on the dancers circled, until at dawn they all turned to stone. The fiddler—who was of course the devil—promised to come back to play for them again, but, devils being devils, he did not, leaving them petrified to this day.

The story of dancers being turned to stone is found in many variations: stonehenge is sometimes called the giant’s dance, suggesting an ancient story in which the stones are transformed dancers; in Devon a man named Ragged Dick was turned to stone with his companions when they danced at an inappropriate time; and in the Shetland Islands trolls were turned to stone at Haltadans ("stop the dancing") together with their musician when the sun rose, a clear survival of Scandinavian mythology.

Although dancing was the usual activity punished by petrification, other actions could bring the same result: Doing witchcraft brought the stony paralysis on Long Meg and her Daughters in Cumbria, while doing farm chores (shearing sheep, digging turnips) on Sunday caused other people to be turned to stone.

Mesgedhera (Mesgeara)

Irish hero. This Irish warrior was better known after death than before, for it was a "brain ball" made from his scooped-out brains mixed with lime that severely injured the great king of ulster, con-cobar mac nessa, when hurled by an opponent. The brain ball lodged in Concobor’s head, and although the king survived the wound, it led to his death years later when the ball shook loose.

Mess Buachalla (Mes Buachalla)

Irish goddess. When the fairy queen or goddess etain eloped with her fated lover, the fairy king midir, her human husband eochaid Airem set off in hot pursuit of the pair. By the time he caught them at Midir’s stronghold of bri leith, Etain had given birth to a girl, a daughter conceived with Eochaid. When Eochaid demanded his wife back, Midir responded with a fairy trick: He sent out 50 identical women, one of whom was Etain while the rest were bewitched to look just like her.

True love sees even through fairy glamours, and a true lover would have been able to tell Etain from the others, but Eochaid was more interested in having a queen to assure him the throne of TaARA than in Etain herself. Thus he was unable to tell his real wife from the 49 enchanted versions of her. He picked a woman and took her back to Tara, where she reigned, looking exactly like the lost queen. She was in fact his own daughter, who eventually went mad with the knowledge of their incest. She raved about the countryside, living in the open, for which she gained the name of Mess Buachalla, "the herdswoman" or "The cow herd’s fosterling."

Another version of the story says that she was the daughter of Etain and cormac, king of ulster, who ordered her killed because he wanted a son as heir. But so sweet was the baby that the warriors ordered to carry out the deed left her instead with the herdsman of the high king, Eterscel, whence she got her name. She grew to a woman of great beauty and wed the high king, but not before mating with a bird god named nemglan, by whom she conceived the king conaire.


Irish god. Son of the physician god dian cecht and brother of the herbalist airmid, Miach was himself a brilliant doctor and magician who made skin grow around the silver hand of king nuada, who had been wounded in the great second battle of mag tuired and had thus lost his throne. Dian Cecht had crafted a cunning hand of silver, one that worked just like a real hand, but it was not sufficient to remove the taboo against a blemished king. Only Miach’s magical healing restored Nuada as king.

Alas for Miach, his brilliance brought him no glory, but death at the hands of his envious father. Because Dian Cecht had tried and failed to heal Nuada, he could not tolerate his son’s success. Miach’s healing powers did not cease with death, for the most powerful herbs in the world grew up on his grave. Airmid tended them until they were ready to harvest, then classified them according to the good they would bring to humanity. Dian Cecht again stepped in, however, scrambling the categories so that the healing knowledge was lost to humankind.


Irish hero. From the land of the Danes once came a warrior, Colga of the Hard Weapons, who was offended that Ireland was the only seagirt island not under his control. His invasion brought him against the heroic warriors called the fianna, who, despite being outnumbered, defeated Colga’s men. Colga himself fell beneath the weapons of oscar, one of the greatest of the Fianna.

Colga had brought his young son, Midac, with him to Ireland. The Fianna’s leader, fionn mac cumhaill, decided that rather than kill the boy as an enemy, he should be brought to almu and reared as an Irishman. And so he was, but he could not shake his fury at seeing his father killed, and he quietly plotted revenge.

Fionn’s men noticed that the boy was sullen and distant, and at length prevailed upon Fionn to send him away. Giving Midac rich lands in counties Limerick and Clare, Fionn also bestowed upon the young man cattle and servants so that he would want for nothing. Fionn sent him away and gave little more thought to the boy.

For 14 years, Midac lived peacefully enough near the bright waters of the Shannon. Then the Fianna came hunting on knockfierna, a fairy hill near Midac’s land. A noble warrior approached them, dressed like a Danish warrior, and demanded that Fionn answer some riddling poems. Fionn, who was as gifted with wit as with strength, quickly saw through the riddles, but he failed to notice the identity of the young man, whom other members of his band immediately knew to be Midac. His identity revealed, Midac invited the band back to his palace for a banquet.

That palace, surrounded by magical rowan trees, was a splendid sight—but it was silent and unoccupied. Still undeterred, Fionn entered the palace and made himself comfortable in the grand banquet hall. Midac entered, stared at them, and departed without a word. It was then that Fionn and his warriors realized that a trap had been set; they had been deceived by a glamour and were really being held hostage in a crude shack. One after another of the Fianna warriors came to their rescue, with diarmait finally lopping off Midac’s head.

Fionn was not free, however, for a curse had been placed on him that he could not leave Midac’s palace until the blood of three foreign kings was sprinkled on its soil. And so Diarmait went back, to do battle with three armies and their kings. He was so strong and valorous that, despite being vastly outnumbered, he was able to decapitate all three kings and drag their heads into Midac’s palace; as soon as the kings’ blood struck the floor, it turned back into a rude shack. The story of entrapment in a bewitched palace is a common one in folklore.

Mide (Meath)

Irish geographical division; Irish hero. Ancient Ireland was divided into the four provinces still recognized today: leinster in the east, munster in the southwest, con-nacht in the west, and ulster in the northeast. In addition, there was a fifth province, Mide or Meath, which was not of this world but was instead a mysterious and elusive center point. This corresponds with an Indo-European vision of the world as divided into four physical districts, with the invisible center as the fifth.

During the reign of the historical high king Tuathal Teachmhair (130-160 c.e.), a county near the center of the island was named Meath, and it is still called "royal Meath" because the island’s political center, the hill of tara, lay within it. The original Mide, however, was not a geographical concept but a spiritual one. The word Mide means "neck" as well as "middle" and so has been interpreted as the point at which the abstract idea of the land’s sovereignty (symbolically, the head) attaches to the physical land itself (symbolically, the body). That joining was said to have occurred on the hill of uisneach in the island’s center, and even more precisely at a great cracked boulder on the hill, the stone of divisions, in what is now Co. Westmeath.

According to the Dindshenchas, the place-poetry of Ireland, Mide was a person as well as a place. A druid and son of the otherwise unknown Brath, he was fostered by the goddess of the land, eriu, and lit the first fire on or near Uisneach. The fire blazed for seven years, fed by gifts from all of Ireland’s provinces. In the seventh year, other druids objected aloud to keeping Mide’s fire ablaze, so he gathered them together and cut out their tongues, which he buried in the hill. He then sat above their tongues, and his teacher, the woman druid gaine, named the place Uisneach, "over somewhat."


Irish fairy king or god. In one of the most romantic tales of ancient Ireland, the fairy king Midir fell in love with the beautiful etain. Unluckily, he was already married to the jealous druid fuamnach, who cast a spell on her rival. Etain immediately turned into a fly—a beautiful fly, but a fly nonetheless. In this form she flew about until she accidentally drowned in a glass of wine.

A princess drank the glass of wine and soon found herself pregnant (see pregnancy through drinking). Her child was the reborn Etain, who grew up to be just as beautiful as in her earlier incarnation. She had no memory of her earlier life as Midir’s beloved, and so she married the king of tara, eochaid Airem. Midir had never forgotten her, however, and set about gaining back his beloved.

He arrived at Tara and challenged the king to a game of fidchell, with the prize being a kiss from Etain. As he kissed her, memory flooded back to Etain, and she remembered her earlier life as Midir’s beloved. Together, they flew away through the skylight at Tara, joined by a golden chain.

In addition to this romantic tale, Midir also appears in the story of the movement of his people, the tuatha de danann, from the surface of Ireland to a parallel world underground. When the father of the gods, the dagda, decided to step down from his leadership of the tribe, his son bodb derg was selected to replace him. Only Midir—called "the proud"—refused to accept the will of the other gods and launched a war against them. Not only did he not win his goal, but the bloodshed caused the other gods to leave the surface world to hide in their fairy palaces or sidhes. Midir lived thereafter in his own sidhe, that of bri leith—Slieve Callory or Ardagh Hill, in western Co. Longford, where he survives in local folklore as Midas, a giant who steals children who walk past his hidden palace.

Midsummer (Midsummer eve)

Calendar festival. The Celts did not celebrate the solstices (longest and shortest day of the year) nor the equinoxes (days of equal light and darkness in spring and fall) but rather the days in the center of each season (see imbolc, beltane, lughnasa, samhain). Nonetheless, as the Celts encountered earlier peoples who used the solar pivot-points as calendar feasts, they adopted rituals to mark those days. In addition, the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar dislocated some of the old Celtic holidays from their original dates, so that some Lughnasa harvest rituals migrated to become midsummer festivals near the end of June.

The day called Midsummer is not technically the middle of summer at all, but actually the season’s beginning on June 21, the day when the sun is at the closest point to the northern hemisphere that it will be all year and when night is considerably less than day. In some Celtic lands, as in Scotland and Ireland, daylight lasts well into the evening hours on the summer solstice, with as little as five or six hours of darkness; dancing and feasting were common at that time.

In England, girls went out to stone circles and whispered the names of their favored young men to the stones, which were said to predict the future on that day. It was also useful to gather the seeds of ferns, to be used in potions of invisibility, and to sow hemp, to be used to see portents, on this day. In Cornwall, girls left their underwear turned inside out and watched, at midnight, for a ghostly form to appear and turn it right, thus finding out the identity of their future husbands. Alternatively, they could pluck a rose, tie it up in a bag, and save it until Christmas, at which time if it were worn to church, the faded rose would irresistibly attract the groom-to-be.


Folkloric motif. The midwife who stood at the door of birth—which was, in the past, often the door of death as well—was once a powerful figure. Usually a woman with knowledge of healing herbs and medicinal techniques, she was among the Celts also believed to have the power of prophecy, a power granted midwives in many other cultures as well, presumably because they saw patterns in the birth that continued throughout the child’s life.

Midwives also had a special sort of second sight that permitted them to discover when fairies were stealing human children. A midwife traveling to a late-night birth might encounter such fairies intent on kidnapping; arriving at the home of the laboring mother, she would discover that the child was dead, stolen by those she had encountered. Legend tells of midwives who traveled to the oth-erworld to steal back such infants.

Midwives were—with poets and musicians, babies and lovers—the people most likely to be victims of fairy kidnapping, for their specialized knowledge was useful to those of the Otherworld. Fairy children were often born weak and in need of intensive care in order to survive. Midwives, unlike others stolen by the fairies, were usually returned to this world unharmed and lived a healthy life thereafter.


Irish mythological race. In the Irish mythological history, the book of invasions, we read of the descendants of a hero named Mfl Despaine—probably a name invented by the mythological historians from the Latin term "miles Hispaniae" or "soldier of Spain." This mythological ancestor was of the line of the biblical Noah through his son Japheth, whose descendants wandered through scythia and Egypt before arriving in Spain. One ancestor, Fenius the Ancient, was a consultant on the Tower of Babel and the only person who understood all the cacophony of language spoken there, while his descendant goidel invented the Irish language by mixing them all together. The same Goidel was bitten by a snake in Egypt and was healed by Moses, who prophesied that his descendants would find a place to live without any such noxious serpents.

Leaving Egypt, the ancestors of the Irish returned to Scythia, where they found themselves at odds with those who had stayed behind. The wanderers thus set out again, on boats across the Caspian Sea. mermaids hindered their progress until they hit upon the idea of melting wax and using it to block their ears (a motif apparently adapted from Homer’s Odyssey). This permitted them to pass unharmed through to the Mediterranean and finally to the shores of Britain. There, climbing a high tower on a fine winter day, Mil’s uncle ith saw a misty island to the west and decided to take a group of settlers there.

When Mil heard that Ith had been killed in Ireland by the tuatha de danann, he set sail to exact revenge, but he died on the way. His wife scota reached the shores but was cut down in battle; their sons finished what MA and Scota had begun, finally winning control of the entire island.

His descendants, the Milesians or Sons of Mil, were the final waves of settlers on Irish shores, displacing the earlier gods and goddesses, children of the mother goddess danu. Most scholars today believe there is some historical truth, however degraded in transmission, in these Irish legends. In such interpretations, the Milesians were the ancestors of the historical Goidels. The legends of Egyptian and Scythian connections, as well as the Spanish link itself, are generally considered inventions of medieval writers who imagined connections between Scythae and Scoti, Iberians and Hibernians.


Folkloric motif. Celtic people relied on cattle for much of their food; for this reason, we find much folklore surrounding milk. A cow typically gives approximately a gallon to a gallon and a half of milk a day for nine months after calving; thus a cow with calf (called a milch cow) was a valued source of liquid nourishment and of butter and cheese that were made from milk. Milch cows, called in Irish cumhals, were so valuable that in ancient Ireland they were the basis of exchange and valuation of other goods and even of people’s social rankings (see eric).

Irish myth speaks of the abundant cow, the glas ghaibhleann, who did not even need to have a calf to produce milk; she filled to overflowing every vessel brought to her. When an evil person attempted to milk her into a sieve, however, the great cow disappeared from this earth. Attempts to thwart the natural abundance of cows formed part of much folklore. witches were believed to be able to steal milk right out of a cow’s udder, without needing a pail, just by passing a needle near the beast (dung-forks, chimney crooks, and other implements were also named as tools for milk theft). The witch could then pass the implement near her own poor cow, which would then give forth the milk of an entire neighborhood. While the witch enjoyed the real milk, the cows she bewitched gave only a thin fluid, which would not form butter or cheese. Milk could be protected by the recitation of milking charms.

Milking charms

Folkloric ritual. As herding people who relied upon cattle for much of their food, those in Celtic lands had many superstitions about protecting their food supply, in particular the milk that was drunk fresh as well as made into butter and cheese. Various rituals ensured that no one would make off with the milk from a cow: The first drops of milk would be allowed to splatter on the ground; the sign of the cross would be made over the cow’s udder; charms and prayers would be spoken.

There were also taboos. No one could step in spilled milk nor cross in front of a cow that had kicked over a milking pail. In Ireland on beltane, the feast of summer’s beginning on May 1, milking charms were especially necessary, as fairies and witches roved about, trying to steal all the milk out of the cows’ udders. Twigs of rowan were tied to cows’ tails; a Mary Candle was melted and the wax rubbed into cows’ hides.

In Scotland milking charms were connected with lughnasa, the harvest festival on August 1: Juniper was burned before the barn or stale urine sprinkled on its door; balls of hair were put into the milk pail to keep the milk from being bewitched away. A strong charm involved boiling cow dung into a paste, then adding several straight metal pins; any witch attempting to steal milk would suffer stabbing pains until she arrived at the farmhouse door with entreaties for mercy. Similarly, putting urine in a bottle and corking it would stop up the kidneys of any thieving witch. Finally, a certain way of keeping the milk flowing was to place the herb pearlwort on the bull before conception; any resulting heifers would be protected throughout their milking life.

Milucra (Miluchrach)

Irish goddess. The sister of the better-known goddess aine, Milucra became infatuated with the great hero fionn mac cumhaill—as did Aine, who was known for her lustful ways. Because her sister had sworn she would never sleep with a gray-haired man, Milucra enchanted a lake on slieve gullion in ulster so that it would dye the hair of any swimmer gray. The young virile Fionn, meeting a beautiful maiden on the lake’s shores who claimed her golden ring had dropped into the water, volunteered to swim out and retrieve it. He did find the ring, but when he reemerged he was not only gray-haired—therefore unappealing to the sensuous Aine—but also withered with age. The fianna captured Milucra and forced her to give their leader a drink that restored his youth, but his hair stayed silver.

Minerva (Minerva Medica)

Romanized Celtic goddess. In Rome this goddess of healing was absorbed into the powerful Greek warrior goddess Athena, but Minerva was no fighter at all,except against disease and pain. In Celtic lands the Romans found many similar goddesses whose healing powers were found in the headwaters of rivers, in hot springs, and in other water sources. One such goddess can be seen even today carved into the Roman quarries near the River Dee in Chester; she is depicted with owl and gorgon’s head, symbols of the Greek Athena. Julius Caesar said that the Celtic Minerva taught arts and crafts to humanity, but that is not clear from the remaining images.

Sometimes the Celtic goddess was completely renamed, her original name lost to history; in other cases the Celtic name remained. One Minerva was called Vitrix (apparently "victor" or "victorious"), found in many relief carvings of a helmet-crowned female head. Another is associated with belisama, the warrior goddess. The most famous Celtic Minerva was sul, the goddess of the thermal springs at bath in Britain.

Mis (Mish, Miss)

Irish heroine. The towering mountain range of Slieve Mish in Co. Kerry is named for this woman, who was given the mountain as her bride-price, according to the place-lore called the dindshenchas. Daughter of a warrior, she found her father’s bloodied body after a battle and, desperate with sorrow, drank his blood, which drove her mad. Mis went into the mountains and lived by killing animals with her bare hands, until a harper named Dubh Rois sang, and she drew near to listen to him. Speaking for the first time since her madness struck, Mis inquired about his musical instrument, which she remembered from her father’s house, and then about his sexual instrument, which she did not remember. Tenderly and carefully, he showed both to her.

When Dubh Rois made love to her, Mis lost her wildness and gradually grew to love her rescuer. Her recovery seems to have been complete, for when Dubh Rois was later killed in battle, she did not go mad again but became a bard to lament his loss. The parallel of this story with the familiar Irish tale of a goddess of sovereignty who appears as a hag until kissed, whereupon she becomes a beautiful girl, has been noted by scholars. The story is also similar, with a gender reversal, to the Sumerian myth of the taming of the wild man Enkidu by the temple woman Siduri.


Symbolic plant. An evergreen parasitic plant that grows on deciduous trees and shrubs, the mistletoe (Viscum album) retains some of its ancient symbolic power even today. The British tradition of placing a sprig of mistletoe in the home at the winter holidays, under which kissing rituals take place, is still common in England and America today. The associations of mistletoe with pre-Christian religion are still so strong that it is not used in church decorations, reflecting an ancient belief that it was sacrilegious to bring it into church.

The Roman author Pliny the Elder said mistletoe was the druids’ most sacred plant, especially when it grew on an oak—a tree sacred to the Celtic priesthood. He said the plant was harvested in ritual fashion on the sixth day after the new moon. After a ritual banquet, two white bulls with bound horns were led to the mistletoe-bearing tree and were slaughtered after the plant was cut down with a golden sickle. A mistletoe harvested under such circumstances— called "all-heal"—was believed to be powerful medicine against barrenness and impotence, as well as a remedy for poisons.


Persian deity. Although found in Celtic lands, especially in Britain around the region of Hadrian’s Wall, this deity of light was not Celtic but imported by the Roman legions, for there were many legionnaires who were especially devoted to Mithras. His temples, called Mithraea, were the site of the blood ritual called the Tauroboleum, in which a worshiper was drenched in the blood of a newly slaughtered bull as a kind of baptism. There is no evidence that the rite was used by the Celts, who had their own bull ritual called the bull-sleep.


Continental Celtic god. Known from only one inscription that includes his name, which may mean "pig," this god was identified by the Romans with their deity mercury.

Modron (Madrun)

Welsh goddess. In the Welsh mythological texts called the mabinogion, we find references to this obscure goddess whose name means "mother," making her parallel to the continental Celtic goddesses called deae matres, "the divine mothers" as well as to matrona, "mother." Little myth is attached to her, which has led some to envision her as an early, even pre-Celtic, divinity whose name survived while her narratives and rituals were lost. In Cornwall a saint called Madrun or Madron is found, possibly a Christianization of the earlier goddess; rituals at St. Madrun’s well include dropping pins into the water to foresee the future health of the petitioner.


Continental Celtic god. An obscure god mentioned in two inscriptions, Mogetius was identified by the Romans with their deity of war, mars.

Mogons (Mogounos)

Continental Celtic god. This obscure god may derive his name from a word meaning "to increase," suggesting a divinity of strength and fertility.

Mog Ruith (Mug Ruith)

Irish hero. Several medieval Irish sources mention this druid,whose name has been interpreted to mean "the wheel magician" under the assumption that he used a wheel as a tool for divination. His legend involves travels to the eastern Mediterranean, where he met Simon Magus, a great magician; there Mog Ruith followed king Herod’s command to cut off the head of the early follower of Christ, John the Baptist. For this ancient crime of Mog Ruith’s, the Irish have suffered famine and other tragedies.

Some texts give him as the father of the mysterious tlachtga, after whom a significant mythological site is named. He is described as munster’s chief druid, who saved their warriors in battle by miraculously drilling a well with an arrow or spear. Then he built a fire from the wood of magical rowan trees, over which he chanted incantations until he saw clearly enough to prophesy victory. Suited in a bird cloak, he flew into the air and did battle with the opposing druids, while the Munster warriors killed their foes beneath him.

Molling (St. Molling)

Irish legendary figure. A quasi-historical figure who lived in the seventh century c.e., Molling was absorbed into Celtic legends of fionn mac cumhaill, who is said to have been the saint’s foster brother. The magical smith, goban saor, built Molling’s church for him from sacred trees. It was at Molling’s church that king suibhne died after living as a madman. Such mythological motifs often were connected with historical figures in order to extend their sacred powers.


Manx folkloric figure. On the Isle of Man we find the tale of a giant who served an evil druid. In a story similar to the familiar European tale of Rumpelstiltskin, Mollyndroat held a woman captive and refused to set her free until she guessed his name. This folkloric figure may be connected with the evil giant meleagant, also known as Mellyagraunce, who in Arthurian legend kidnapped queen guinevere.


Continental Celtic god. His name shares its derivation with contemporary words referring to sheep (English mutton, French mouton) and has been interpreted to mean "ram." This god is known from only two inscriptions, and unlike many other Celtic gods, he was not identified by the Romans with one of their own divinities.

Monday, Tuesday Folkloric motif. A common tale told of the fairies is that, although they love dancing and singing, they had a limited musical repertoire. They sang, over and over, the words "Monday, Tuesday" (in Irish, Da Luan, Da Mart). A hunchback, irritated by their repetitive song, once added "and Wednesday" (Agus da Cadin) to their song, causing them great excitement and delight. In gratitude for their new melody, the fairies removed the man’s hunch, and he walked away straight as an arrow. Another hunchback in the vicinity, hearing the story, rushed to the same place and waited until the fairies arrived. The moment they started singing he interrupted them with "and Friday" (Agus da Hena), and the fairies, incensed at his rudeness, promptly gave him the first man’s hump on top of his own.

Mongan (Mongan)

Irish hero. An historical king of the seventh century c.e., Mongan nonetheless is partially mythological. Said to be the son of the sea god manannan mac lir, Mongan ("hairy fellow," a name reputedly given him when he was born with a full head of hair) inherited his father’s shape-shifting talent as well as his ability to move between this world and the otherworld.

Mongan was conceived when his divine father disguised himself as a human king, a motif that parallels the story of the conception of king arthur; Mongan is also described as the reincarnation of the Irish hero fionn mac cumhaill, whose fair wife grainne ran off with the hero diarmait in a story parallel to that of guinevere and lancelot. Thus Mongan, however historical his reign, seems also to reflect an ancient Celtic tale of the goddess of sovereignty.

Mongfhinn (Mongfhin, Mongfhionn)

Irish heroine. Her name was used as a charm to keep away evil spirits, but Mongfhinn herself was not especially pleasant. Stepmother or foster mother to niall of the Nine Hostages, she tried to poison him but instead killed herself on samhain night, the feast of winter’s beginning on November 1. In some areas of Ireland that holiday was called the Festival of Monghfinn. This obscure figure may have originally been an important goddess, for her name includes the divine syllable fionn, "light," and women once prayed to her on Samhain.


Folkloric figure. The monsters of one people were often the gods of an earlier people. In many Celtic lands, rather than becoming monstrously large and frightening, the old deities became smaller and rather appealing, like the leprechauns and fairies that are found in the folklore of Ireland and Scotland. giants are also found, especially in Britain, behind whose awful visages hide elder gods. Goddesses were often vilified by followers of male-centered monotheism, so that some monstrous female figures, like the cailleach, are derogatory descriptions of powerful early deities. Monstrosity of itself does not always indicate divinity, unless combined with shape-shifting or other magical powers.


Cosmological concept. The moon, with its changing phases and its connection with the tides, was a natural object of importance to the Celts as to most other cultures. The Celts originally divided the year according to moons, according to the Roman author Pliny, with the new moon beginning each month as the night began each day. Festivals were celebrated at moonrise; thus we have May Eve, the evening before beltane, and Hallowe’en, the evening before samhain.

Some scholars believe that the moon was especially significant to agriculturalists, because the moon’s waxing and waning was believed to influence the growth of plants, just as it does the movement of the tides. An indication of Celtic awareness of the lunar waxing/waning cycle is found in the belief that mistletoe and other magical plants should be harvested under a waning moon—the declining light of the luminary indicating that time was ripe for endings. In the Scottish Highlands, similarly, sowing was always done under a waxing moon, with the belief that as the moon swelled, so would the tiny plants within the seeds.

There is also evidence of ancient lunar rituals; the Roman author Strabo tells of night-long dancing among the Celts when the moon was full. Through the 18th century, such dances were held at stone circles in the Scottish Highlands. In the 19th century people in the insular Celtic lands still bowed and curtseyed to the new moon, while in Cornwall people merely nodded while reaching into their pockets to touch their money for good luck. In Ireland a full moon brought people to crossroads where they danced beneath its pearly light; the tradition was almost eliminated through priestly opposition but has been recently revived in the area around Ennis, Co. Clare, and other rural regions.

Mor (Mor, Mor Mumhan)

Irish goddess or heroine. This female figure, whose name means "big" or "great," has been described as the land goddess of the southwestern province of mun-ster; her full name means "the great one of Munster," and the term Mor was often used of territorial goddesses. Like many other ancient goddesses, she shrank into a figure of folktale.

Once, it was said, a woman named Mor arrived with her husband Lear (possibly lir, an early sea god) at the promontory in Co. Kerry that bears her name. They built a house not far from there, at the foot of Mount Eagle. Lear and Mor lived there comfortably, for the sea brought them anything they wished. (There is an echo in this tale of stories of mermaids who lived off the spoils of ships they had caused to be wrecked at sea.)

One day Mor climbed to the top of the mountain above her and, for the first time, saw how large was the land in which she dwelled. While there on the mountain she was, as they say in the Irish countryside, "taken short," and squatted to relieve herself—a mythological motif found in many stories of creation by goddesses. To this day, the ravines that cut through the mountains of Munster are said to have resulted from Mor’s gigantic streams of urine.

Mor’s happiness was destroyed when her sons, the pride of her life, were lured into trying their luck as seamen. As her happiness fled, so did her power, for she withered up in sadness. Her temper grew so bad that her husband left her, sailing north and finally settling far away from his desolate wife.

The vestiges of an ancient goddess can be found in local folklore, for the place where Mor came ashore—Dunmore Head, from Dun Mor, Mor’s hillfort—was also "Mary Geeran’s house," in Irish Ty-Vor-ney Gerane, possibly Tigh Mhorie ni Greine, "the home of Mor, child of the sun." Dunmore faces the setting sun, said locally to be "Mor on her throne," another suggestion of a sun goddess. Additionally, the story is told that Mor went mad and had to be tamed by the king of the Munster stronghold of Cashel—the same story told of mis, the goddess of the Slieve Mish mountains that bisect the peninsula on which Mor was said to live. The two may have originally been the same figure.

A similar giant woman of this name is found in the Highlands of Scotland, where she was said to have been the daughter of the otherwise unknown Smuid, who was washed away in a flood while carrying a group of travelers on her back.


Irish hero. According to several medieval sources, Morann was a wise brehon or judge, who wore a chain around his neck that, should he begin to speak false words or an unjust sentence, tightened until it strangled him. It was also said that if he placed this chain on the necks of the accused, it worked the same way, strangling them if they lied.


Welsh hero. This minor figure in Welsh mythology was an old man whose job was to tend the fire beneath the goddess ceridwen’s great cauldron. When the blind servant did not see gwion taste the magical brew and so take the wisdom from the cauldron, Ceridwen was furious and struck him so hard that one eye fell out.

Mordred (Modred, Modreuant, Medrawd, Medrawt)

Arthurian hero. The illegitimate son of king arthur, conceived with Arthur’s half sister morgause through the machinations of the magician merlin, Mordred was opposite to his father in all ways. Where Arthur was magnanimous, Mordred was stingy; where Arthur was brave, Mordred was cunning and cowardly, but it was Mordred who finally brought down the great dream of camelot and the round table.

The legends of king Arthur have a basis in Celtic myth, but they were elaborated by many generations of poets and imaginative writers, who used the outline of the tale to paint evocative human portraits. The character of Mordred as Arthur’s enemy was established in the 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Prior to that, as the Welsh hero Medrawd, he was a brave warrior who died in the battle of camlan. After having been absorbed into the Arthurian legend as the great king’s son and enemy, Mordred was listed in the Welsh triads as one of the "Three Dishonored Men of the Island of Britain."


Irish hero. The magical race called the tuatha de danann came to Ireland from another land with four magnificent capitals, each led by a master of wisdom rather than a king. One of these cities was falias, from which came the great inauguration stone called the lia fail. Morfessa, "great wisdom," was the wisdom-master of Falias, who gave the Tuatha De the stone when they sailed for Ireland.

Morfran (Morfran fab Tegid)

Welsh god or hero. The son of the great goddess ceridwen was an ugly child, and to make up for this disadvantage his mother determined that he would become the world’s wisest person. She began brewing a collection of herbs that would bring him that wisdom, setting her servant boy gwion to watch the cauldron. But Gwion accidentally drank some of the brew, absorbing with it the wisdom and bringing down upon himself Ceridwen’s wrath. Welsh myth says little more of Morfran, save that his ugliness finally proved useful when he escaped the battle of camlan because everyone mistook him for a devil. (See afagddu.)

Morfudd (Morfudd ferch Urien)

Welsh heroine. This obscure heroine was the daughter of king urien; her mother may have been the goddess modron.


(Morgen, Morgan Le Fay, Morgan la fee, Morgaine, Morgana, Orva, Orna, Oua,Orains, Ornais, Morgain, Moruein, Morganz) Arthurian heroine. King arthur had several half sisters, children of their mother igraine with her first husband, duke gorlois of Cornwall. Two are frequently confused because of their similar names and their questionable behavior: the sorceress Morgan and the ambitious queen morgause, who may have originally been the same figure.

Morgan learned magic while still a child in a convent boarding school; some legends say she furthered her study with the great magician merlin. She soon gained great powers of enchantment. When slighted by her lover guy-omard, Morgan created the perilous valley where any knight unfaithful to his lady would be trapped by his self-created illusions. She ultimately married a minor king, urien, and became the mother of owein, the knight who wed the mysterious lady of the fountain in a romantic Arthurian tale.

While her brother ascended to triumph at camelot, Morgan worked to bring disaster on Arthur and his court, stealing and ultimately destroying the magical scabbard of excalibur, which protected the king in battle. Yet it was to Morgan that Arthur was brought at the end of his earthly life, so that she could take him to the otherworld, to die or be healed there.

Behind the shadowy woman of legend stands a powerful being whose close connection with the Otherworld is made clear by her alternative name of Morgan Le Fay, Morgan "the fairy" or, even more powerfully, "the fate." Early texts describe her as the most beautiful of nine women who lived on a fortunate isle where everything was astonishingly fertile; her sisters were Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, and Thiten. Like many another fairy lover, she attempted to seduce men, fixing upon the fine knight lancelot as her prey—but without success.

Morgan may be connected with a similarly named goddess of Ireland, the morrigan, a divinity of death and battle. She may have descended from a sea goddess, for the name Morgan survives as a Breton name for sea fairies who kidnap human men, while in Wales lake spirits are called Morgans; and the Fata Morgana, a sea mirage of palaces and columns complete with its own watery reflection, was according to medieval legend created by Morgan.

Morgause (Morgawse)

Arthurian heroine. Morgause’s mother was igraine, the beautiful wife of the duke of Cornwall, gorlois. Knowing that only the heroic uther pendragon could conceive a king with Igraine, the magician merlin enchanted Uther into the likeness of her husband so that the wife would commit adultery without realizing it. Arthur was thus conceived, but Igraine already had several daughters by Gorlois, including morgan and Morgause, who became Arthur’s implacable enemies.

Yet Morgause also became his lover, unknown to the two of them, through Merlin’s meddling. When Arthur realized that he had slept with his half sister, who had conceived the child who would become his murderer, mor-dred, he attempted to have all the children born at that time killed. Morgause protected her child by retreating to far Orkney, where she married the king, lot. From Morgause, Mordred learned to hate his father/uncle, and with her he plotted the downfall of camelot.

Because of the similarity of their names, their dispositions, and their opposition to Arthur, Morgause and her sister Morgan are frequently confused or conflated; they may have originally been a single figure.

Morholt (Morhold)

Irish hero. This Irish giant was a warrior who annually came to the land of king mark of Cornwall, where he claimed a tribute or tax. The strong knight tristan killed him, almost dying from Morholt’s poisoned sword. Tristan later fell in love with Morholt’s niece, the fair iseult.

Moriath (Moriath Morca)

Irish heroine. "Sea-land" is the meaning of the name of this princess of ancient Ireland, daughter of the king of mun-ster in the far southwestern corner of the island. Her story began when the high king Cobthach killed his own brother labhraigh Lorc, after which he poisoned aillil Aine, the true king. Aillil’s son, Labhraigh Moen, was soon banished from the kingdom, but he allied himself with Cobthach’s enemy, Moriath’s father, Scoriath.

The moment Labhraigh set eyes on Moriath, he fell in love with her. Her father kept his daughter closely guarded, so Labhraigh enlisted the help of his illustrious harper, craiphtine, who played so sweetly that the entire court fell into blissful sleep, permitting the lovers to pledge their troth to each other. When Labhraigh had to fight Cobthach, his harper came again to the rescue, playing lulling melodies so that the enemy army all went to sleep while Labhraigh’s army, prepared with earplugs, stayed wide awake. Upon ascending to the throne of his own region, Labhraigh invited Cobthach to a dinner, trapped him in an iron house, and burned him to death.

Some versions of this famous story have Moriath as the wooer and her own harper as the miraculous musician, bearing love poems and messages to Labhraigh, who became king with her help.

Morrigan (Morrigan, the Morrigan, Morrfgna, Morrigu, Mor-Rioghain)

Irish goddess. One of the most important goddesses of ancient Ireland, she was one of the tuatha de danann, the tribe of the goddess danu; she was also associated with the fairy people, for she appears in some texts as a white cow with red ears, colors that elsewhere indicate an otherworld origin. The Morrigan appears in other forms as well: as a gigantic woman who foretells the future of those about to do battle (see washer at the ford), as a crow, as an eel, as a gray-red wolf. Such shape-shifting is commonly associated with divinities connected with druids and bards, both of whom were believed to have the power to change their outward appearance at will. The Morrfgan was herself a bard, singing her people to victory at the great second battle of mag tuired; she was also a magician, casting oracles and foretelling the future. Most often, however, she took the form of a bird to swoop over battlefields, devouring the bodies of the slain.

A war goddess, Morrfgan is associated with the other goddesses of battle: badb, the scald-crow; nemain, who spreads panic; and macha, the speedy horse of battle. Together they are sometimes called the "three Morrfgna," although in other texts Morrfgan herself appears on the list. Thus she is connected with triplicity, which to the Celts meant intensification of power (see three), even though the exact trinities vary.

Despite, or perhaps because of, her connection with war, Morrfgan is also depicted as having an immense sexual appetite. In one memorable myth, she had intercourse with the father god, the dagda, who came upon her while she was straddling a river and, overwhelmed by her massive charms, fell upon her lustfully. In another tale, she so desired the great hero cuchulainn that she ambushed him, but when he rejected her, she turned upon him in fury and was injured in their fight.

Her relationship to the hero was equally ambiguous in the tales of the ulster cycle, especially in the precursor tale to the Irish epic, the tain bo cuailnge, called the Tain bo Regamna. In that story the Morrfgan lusted after Cuchulainn but also protected him in an almost maternal fashion; she appeared to him in various guises as he single-handedly defended the province of Ulster against the invading warriors of connacht. When he went forth to his death, she attempted, but without success, to stop him.

In the Tain the Morrfgan shadows that epic’s major figure, queen medb, who herself was probably a diminished goddess. The Morrfgan may be an alternative or Otherworld form of Medb, for the cave from which the Morrfgan was said to emerge (see oweynagat) was Medb’s birthplace at Connacht’s capital of cruachan. Like Medb she was connected with tara, where she cooked on a spit that could hold three kinds of food at one time: raw meat, cooked meat, and butter, with the raw cooking perfectly, the cooked remaining unburnt, and the butter not melting away.

She had one son, meiche, in whose heart were three great serpents. The hero mac cecht killed him, because had he lived, the serpents would have split his heart open and devoured all of Ireland. Mac Cecht burned the heart to ashes, then threw the ashes into a river, which boiled to death every living creature within its waters.

The meaning of Morrfgan’s name is disputed, with some saying that it means "phantom queen" and others "death queen," while still others derive it from a presumed early Indo-European goddess Rigatona, "great queen." The derivation of her name from the word for "sea," common among early writers, is generally out of fashion. The word mare that survives in "nightmare" may be a related word; it refers not to a horse but to a phantom or terrifying ghost.

Yet others have described her as a version of the land goddess known as Flaith or sovereignty, for she was described as a hag who could transform herself into a young maiden. Additionally, she is identified with a pair of breast-shaped hills called da chich na Morrigna, "the paps of Morrfgan," near the bru na boinne in Co. Meath, which echo the similarly shaped hills devoted to the earth goddess of the province of Munster, danu.

Morris dancing

British ritual. In parts of rural Britain, springtime festivals were enlivened by the presence of men dressed in pleated white shirts and white trousers, wearing ribboned caps and bells. A fiddler played while the dancers stepped briskly about, led by a sword-carrying dancer upon whose weapon a cake was impaled. This traditional dance had its roots in a springtime ritual of renewal. The phallic symbolism of the sword intensified that of the maypole, near which the troupe often danced. The festival they celebrated, beltane, often ended in licentious behavior appropriate to the burgeoning season.

Mother goddess

Cosmological concept. As is the case in other cultures, not all goddesses among the Celts have maternal natures; there are goddesses of war and land and power as well as of motherhood. Yet the Celts clearly honored the role of the human mother by deifying the force of maternity in goddesses with simple names such as deae matres, "the mothers," or modron, "mother."

These divinities may harken back to a pre-Celtic period, for there are evidences of mother goddesses from as early as the neolithic period (ca. 4000 b.c.e.) in Gaul, where the Celts did not arrive until ca. 1500 b.c.e. The Celts may have brought their own maternal divinities with them, or they may have adopted the mother goddesses of the indigenous people. Because there are no written documents from pre-Roman Celtic lands, the genesis or evolution of the Celtic mother-goddess figures remains problematic, but it is certain that by the time of the arrival of the Roman legions in 400 b.c.e. the Celts had fully embraced the image of the divine mother.

The mother or group of mothers was the most frequently carved votive image in Romano-Celtic religion, and many of these images are small enough to suggest that they were used to adorn household rather than public altars. Others were substantial enough to be part of public ceremonials; some are believed to have been borne in procession, rather as the image of the Virgin mary was later carried by the Catholic devout on May 1, the feast of the "Queen of the May," which was originally the Celtic festival of beltane.

Such accommodation to the old Celtic cult of the mother was not, however, always the rule, for wholesale destruction of Celtic "idols" was demanded by such fierce opponents of paganism as St. Martin of Tours, who personally destroyed hundreds of images, many of them incontrovert-ibly feminine visions of the divine.

Mound of the Hostages Irish mythological site. On the hill of tara in central Ireland—some-times called "royal Tara" because of its associations with mythological and historical high kings of the land—there is a small tumulus or artificial mound of earth above a passage grave built of stone. Called the Mound of the Hostages, the site is associated with the great king niall of the Nine Hostages. The term hostages seems to imply people held against their will; the word fosterers would be better, as the nine young men in question went to Niall’s royal seat willingly in order to bind their families to his.


Cosmological symbol. Mountains were sacred to the Celts, but so was everything else in nature, which was the residence of the divine. Divine force did not spread itself thinly across the world but tended to condense in specific sacred places. wells and river sources were important foci of divine power, as were hills and mountains. Both were typically viewed as feminine powers. A figure connected with high hills in Scotland and Ireland was the hag named the cailleach, a figure that appears to descend from pre-Celtic times, which has led to suggestions that some mountain worship may precede the Celtic arrivals.

Mountains had additional significance in Ireland as places of royal or political power. Some of this significance may have originated in the simple fact that high hills provide a good view of the surrounding region, therefore assisting defenders in case of assault. The hill of tara, although not a dominating mountain in its rather rolling countryside, offers such an impressive view over the surrounding lands. Nearby, another small mountain, uisneach, became the mystical center of the island; from its summit one can see peaks in virtually all of Ireland.

Moving stones

Folkloric tradition. Celtic lands are dotted with vestiges of the unknown pre-Celtic people who built stone circles and other great undeciphered spiritual monuments. Many traditions and folktales surround such sites, although it is not possible to know the gen-esis—whether Celtic, pre-Celtic, or Christian— of this lore.

One such tradition holds that the stones were not firmly set in the soil, but were able to move around at will. Usually such movement occurred at midnight, although sometimes at dawn; this did not happen daily but on significant feast days, especially calendar points such as the midsummer solstice and the Celtic fall feast of samhain. The stones got up from their paralyzed position and traveled about the countryside, often going to a nearby lake or river to bathe and drink. Sometimes they turned into dancing stones (see merry maidens) or just rolled around on the grass. When their brief window of freedom eased shut, the stones once more resumed their usual positions and remained there until their next outing.

Mugain (Mughain)

Irish heroine. This sister of the great goddess-queen medb became the mother of a hero-king, Aed slane, but first Mugain had to learn to be kind to other women. She was co-wife, with mairenn, to the king of tara when she found herself consumed with envy over a beautiful golden headdress that Mairenn always wore. Suspecting Mairenn of hiding something, she bribed a member of the court to pull down the golden headdress and shame her rival. But it was Mugain who was shamed for her behavior, for golden hair instantly appeared on Mairenn’s head. Mugain was punished by being forced to give birth to a lamb and a salmon before she could bear a human child. Some have equated her with mor, goddess of munster.

Muilearach (Muileartach, Muir Larteach, Muilearteach)

Scottish and Irish goddess. A seafaring form of the great goddess figure called the cailleach, this sea hag was a formidable woman, a bald one-eyed being with a blue-gray face and sharp protruding teeth. She was known throughout the Scottish Highlands as well as in the island of Lewis and Harris and the southern Hebrides. An ancestral goddess, mother of the king of the mythological land of lochlann, Muilearach lived underwater. She had a healing aspect, for the pot of balm she carried could make the sick healthy and the weak strong. Nonetheless she was feared and was killed in a great battle with the hero band called the fianna.

Under the name Muireartach, she was an Irish goddess, a one-eyed hag named "eastern sea" who lived beneath the ocean waves with a magical smith. She loved merchants who caressed her waves with their boats, but she also loved the treasures they carried and might upend them just to gather them up into her "ill-streaming, bald-red, white-named" presence. The great hero fionn mac cumhaill killed her after one too many shipwrecks were blamed upon her.


Scottish folkloric figure. Her name means "stepmother" or "foster mother," or "wet nurse." She appears in Scottish folklore as an ambiguous figure, sometimes representing good luck, sometimes bringing the opposite. It was considered an extremely bad omen to meet this figure if you were far from home, but nearby she was a helpful sprite. The folkloric figure is believed to hide a memory of Celtic times, when the role of the foster mother was extremely important.

Muircertach mac Erc (Murtach mac Erc, Muirchertach meic Erca, Muircertach mac Erca)

Irish hero. A historical king to whom mythological motifs have been attached, Muircertach reigned as high king of Ireland in the sixth century c.e. His name is puzzling, in that he bears the name of his mother erc, a princess of Scotland, rather than that of his father Muireadhach, grandson of the famous king of tara, niall. Some scholars have suggested that Erc was originally a goddess rather than a human woman, although that does not fully explain why Muircertach would be named for her.

Muircertach figures in an important tale recorded in the Annals of Ulster, in which he wrested the high kingship from the earlier residents of Tara, leaving no survivors. Years later, he met a lovely woman, sin, who offered herself to him provided he would evict his own wife and children from Tara. He did so, but soon his kingdom was torn apart by fighting. The warriors who attacked Muircertach were sent by Sin. Fearsome warriors they were, too: blue men, men with the heads of goats, and similar monsters.

They were in reality only sticks and stones, enchanted by Sin—whose family Muircertach had killed when he conquered Tara. Muircertach went mad, raging through the rain and snow until he came home and fell into a dream in which he saw demons coming to punish him. Imagining the palace on fire, he leapt into a vat of wine, where he drowned. The fire was another of Sin’s illusions, a final revenge for his destruction of her family.


Irish mythological site. The great plain of Muirthemne was the site of the defeat of one of the mythological races of Ireland, the fir bolg, who lost control of the island to the people of the goddess danu, the tuatha de danann—who in turn lost Ireland to another group of invaders, the milesians.


Continental Celtic god. The name of this god, associated by the Romans with their war deity mars, may mean "mule" or "wall," although there is no agreement on which is more likely or what meaning the term would have. Mullo is shown in some images as bearing a ram-headed snake, and he may have been a divinity of healing, which that symbol often represents.


Irish heroine. In Irish folklore we find the story of this woman who grew weary of living with a boring man. Finding a Viking pirate more to her liking, she set off to sea with him after convincing her lover to kill her husband. Once back home in Norway, however, Munanna’s new husband grew worried that she might repeat the behavior. On an outing on a lake, he pushed her overboard to her death. She thereafter haunted him, flying about his boat in the form of a crane, a common bird transformation for wronged women.

Munster (Mumu, Muman)

Irish mythological site. Ireland was traditionally divided into four parts: leinster, the province of wealth in the east; connacht, the province of wisdom in the west; ulster, province of war in the north; and Munster in the southwest, province of music and song. A fifth province, mide or Meath, symbolized the center; it was not, however, a geographical but a mythological construct.

Munster, which today comprises the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford, is a province of varied landscapes. Its great fertile valleys are among the richest in Ireland. Its mountains are the island’s highest; each range and many individual mountains are connected with goddesses. Most impressive are the Paps of danu, two identical breast-shaped mountains in central Munster, capped with stone cairns that form nipples.

Although all Ireland was associated with the goddess, Munster was most closely identified with the feminine principle. Many important goddesses derive from the region, including the cailleach, the hag-like figure who is especially connected with the rocky beare peninsula in the south of the province and the similarly rocky Burren in its north; the sea goddess mor; and the fairy queen aine, whose mountain is visible near the island’s most haunted lake, lough gur. When fintan, the magical salmon of wisdom, was asked to define the provinces, he said that Munster meant song and celebration, festivals and poetry and the playing of games. Most significantly, Munster symbolizes fertility, for only with sufficient food can people enjoy the creative arts.

Munster is also the legendary landfall for invaders. Although archaeology shows that most early humans arrived in ulster, which is visible on clear days from Scotland and thus attracted early hunters and gatherers, mythology shows wave after wave of invaders arriving on Munster’s rocky shores. cesair landed at Dun na mBarc on the Dingle peninsula, where the milesians also landed. The currents from Europe that left the medieval Spanish Armada wrecked on the Munster coast may have similarly carried early migrants, so there may be some truth in the legends.


Irish mythological site. One of the four great cities of the magical tuatha de danann, Murias was the place from which the cauldron of abundance traveled to Ireland.

Murna (Murna of the White Neck, Murni, Murni Fair-Neck, Muirenn Munchaem, Fuinche, Torba)

Mother of the great hero fionn mac cumhaill, Murna was the descendant of eithne and thus of the fierce fomorian king balor of the Evil Eye. Her father was tadg mac Nuadat, who ruled at almu, from which the warrior cumhall kidnapped her after his bid for her hand had been refused by her father.

Bringing the matter to conn of the Hundred Battles, king of tara, Tadg was told that Cumhall was banished from Ireland for his deed. And so Tadg led the battle in which Cumhall was killed—only nine hours after begetting Fionn upon Murna. She returned home to Almu, to be greeted by a furious father who threatened her life, but Conn intervened and took the woman back to Tara, where she bore her child. When he had grown, Fionn demanded an honor-price (see eric) from Tadg for the killing of Cumhall, his father. Rather than fight his powerful grandson, Tadg gave him Almu, which became Fionn’s seat. Other versions of the story say that Cumhall was killed by the unconquerable warrior goll mac morna, whom Fionn killed in retaliation when he had grown to become Ireland’s greatest hero since cuchulainn.


Art and religious symbol. Music, so much a part of the heritage of Celtic lands today, plays a significant part in many myths. The actual music of the ancient Celts is unknown, for the Celts had no musical notation. Nor do we know the part music played in their daily and ritual lives. Instrumental music is attested by early writers who refer to trumpet-like wind instruments and stringed instruments that resembled lyres, but archaeology finds little support for such references, except occasional depictions on Celtic coins of the Roman era. The harp, now an icon of Ireland, was introduced there in medieval times, as was the bagpipe, which migrated to the insular Celtic lands from the Balkans. Both myth and literature refer to singing, still a much-valued art in Ireland and Wales.

In folklore, music plays an important part in fairy legends describing the otherworld melodies that lure mortals into enchanted places from which they find it difficult to escape (see fairy music). Musicians are among the humans most sought-after by fairies, who reward them for playing at fairy celebrations by giving them one of fairyland’s beautiful melodies to take back to earth; the famous "Derry Aire" (sometimes known as "Danny Boy") is the most famous song to come from the fairy world.

Myrdinn Wyllt

Welsh hero. According to the British historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, "Wild Merlin" was a king who, like the Irish king suibhne, went mad and fled to the woods, where he lived in a bird costume (or perhaps actually transformed himself into a bird). The name derives from a Welsh legendary figure who became famous as the magician merlin.

Mythological Cycle

Irish mythological texts. This term is used to describe a series of texts and stories that tell of the ancient divinities of Ireland. The central story describes a contest between mythological races, recorded in the book of invasions. After unimpressive early settlements by the followers of nemed and partholon, Ireland was occupied by the malevolent fomorians, who twice fought and twice were pushed out by the fir bolg. They, in turn, lost their place to the mysterious and powerful tuatha de danann, the people of the goddess danu, in the first battle of mag tuired. It was at this battle that the heroic king nuada lost his arm and thus, because a blemished king could not reign, lost the rulership of the land.

He was replaced by the half-Fomorian bres, who although amazingly beautiful was also stingy and mean. After Bres refused to provide sufficient rations for a poet, he was forced from the throne when cairbre spoke a satire so stinging that it raised boils on Bres’s face—thus making him too blemished to continue to rule. By this time, the miraculous team of the healing god dian cecht and his son miach had created a replacement hand for Nuada: Dian Cecht by crafting it from silver, Miach by casting enchantments that caused skin to grow over the artificial limb. Nuada returned to the rulership just in time, for he was needed to lead his people in another battle at the same place as the earlier one.

The second battle of Mag Tuired began on the sacred feast of samhain and pitted the Tuatha De against the again-powerful Fomorians, led by the frightening king balor of the Evil Eye, who looked through only one eye normally but in times of battle allowed warriors to lift the lid on his other eys so that it cast out murderous rays. His own half-breed grandson, the hero lugh, killed him with a spear, after which the

Tuatha De Danann ruled the land until, much later, they were replaced by the milesians, a story that is not considered part of the Mythological Cycle.


Typically scholars use this word to refer to the narrative cycles that underpin a culture’s religious rituals and folkways. In some cultures such narratives are codified into writing; divinities then typically become organized into a pantheon, their relationships articulated, and the confusions of identity ironed out.

Because the Celts did not write down their myths but instead recited them, there is no single source or scripture that defines Celtic mythology. In addition, sculptures and inscriptions date from the Roman invasion and were subject to the reinterpretation of Celtic deities according to the Roman pantheon; thus it is sometimes difficult to clearly distinguish what the Celts originally believed. Finally, many literary sources were transcribed by Christian monks, leaving open the possibility that the written myths themselves may be tainted with post-Celtic material.

Next post:

Previous post: