Varia (Vaum) To Yvonne and Yvon (Celtic mythology and folklore)

Varia (Vaum)

Irish heroine. An Irish folktale tells of this nagging woman who was married to an unusually lazy man named donagha. When he was gifted by the fairy people with two wishes, he wasted one by asking that the load of wood he was carrying would grow feet so that it could walk by itself. When Varia cursed her husband for his foolishness, he wished that she was far, far away from him. Instantly he got his wish. She was lifted high in the air, touching down at at Teach na Vauria in Co. Kerry, while he was transported to Donaghadee, at the other end of the island in Co. Down.


Continental Celtic social role. This Latin word may have entered the language of Rome from an original source in a Celtic language. The word, which means "prophet," refers to a social caste of diviners who, like druids and bards, served the religious needs of the people.


Continental and British goddess. Throughout the Celtic lands occupied by the Roman legions, diminutive figures of clay have been found that represent an ample-breasted woman wearing a hooded cloak, or naked and clad only in the cloak of her long hair. Because the figures often emphasize the public triangle, they are interpreted as fertility figures and are called by the name of the Roman goddess of infatuation, Venus. The name or names that the Celts used for this goddess has been lost.

The name of Venus is also given to a famous statue in Brittany that represents a clearly nonlocal goddess, Isis of Egypt; but the current shape has been carved over an earlier one, creating an awkward though womanly form. Whether the Venus of Quimpilly represents a remnant of an earlier local goddess cult or an imported divinity is unknown.

Verbeia (Verbia)

British goddess. One of the many river goddesses of Celtic lands, Verbeia was the resident spirit of the River Warfe, known from inscriptions at a Roman fort in Yorkshire. The name, which may mean "winding river" or "she of the cattle," may not be original, but a Latinized form of a Celtic name. Local legend has it that the river goddess appeared on beltane morning, on May 1, in the form of a white horse; anyone seeing the apparition should be wary of drowning in the river’s spring flood. Such threatening tales have been interpreted as indicating a folk memory of human sacrifice (see peg powler). Horses are not typical familiars of the Celtic river goddess, who is more likely to appear as a cow, so the connection of the animal with Verbeia may indicate a confusion with the mare goddess epona.

A sculpture found at Ilkley in Yorkshire shows the goddess holding two long snakes in her hands, possibly representing the watery waves of her river. Some scholars have seen evidence of a solar cult in Verbeia’s iconography, which includes spirals and wheels.

Viereckschanzen (sing., Viereckschanze)

Continental Celtic site. Across the Celtic regions of Europe, archaeologists have found these ritual enclosures, surrounded by a square or rectangular ditch. Some show evidence of timber buildings, presumably shrines or temples, within them; burials too have been found on these sites, as well as the remains of what appear to have been animal offerings. Often there are indications of a well in the enclosure.

Vindonnus (Vindonus)

Continental Celtic god. The Romans equated this healing god with their own apollo; he was worshiped in what is today called Burgundy and may have had special power over eye diseases.


British god. This obscure god may have been connected with wine-making or grape-growing, for his name seems to include the syllable for "wine," vin-. A shrine dedicated to Vinotonus, found on the Yorkshire moors, points to his powers as a god of wild nature, as does his identification by the Roman legionnaires with their wildwood god silvanus. The two associations may be linked by the tendency toward wild behavior of wine-drinkers, or the connection with wine may be a false etymology.


Continental Celtic god. This obscure god was equated by the Romans with their twin god Pollux, an unusual identification that unfortunately does not much illuminate the god’s meaning. His name seems to suggest a connection with wind, as does the fact that Vintius was honored by Celtic sailors.


Continental Celtic goddess. This obscure goddess is known from several inscriptions in southwestern France; sometimes she is seen with a consort, Viscucius, whose name is the male form of her own. It is unclear what her character or powers were.

Vitiris (Vitris, Venus, Hvitiris)

British god. Many inscriptions to this popular god have been found in northern England, in contexts that suggest that he had nonnative as well as Celtic followers. However, nothing is known of what he represented, although he is sometimes depicted with a pig or a serpent.

Viviane (Vivienne, Nimue)

Arthurian heroine. The fairy lover of the great magician merlin, Viviane may be the same figure who appears in some legends under the name nimue, who may in turn be the mysterious lady of the lake, protector of king arthur. Viviane is usually credited with Merlin’s magical demise. Various reasons are given for her actions toward him: that she was angry when he refused to share his magical knowledge with her, that she was jealous of his wandering affections, or that she wished to save him from the pain of growing old. In any case, she encased the magician in a tree, where he still lives today. Or perhaps she just bewitched him so that he believed he was encased. The location of Merlin’s prison-tree is usually given as the legendary forest of broceliande in Brittany.


Continental Celtic god. Although like many other divinities of his region, Vosegus is known only from Roman-era inscriptions and sculptures, he is believed to have been the wild-wood god of the Vosges mountains in eastern France, which bear his name to this day.

Votive deposits

Celtic ritual. It was common practice among the Celts to make offerings at holy places. coins, pins, and other jewelry, swords and other weapons, clay sculptures of divinities or human forms—any could be offered to the divinity resident in a place, in hopes of gaining some boon or averting some danger. river sources, wells, lakes, and thermal springs were especially favored locations for making such offerings.

Vough (fuath, brollachan)

Scottish folkloric figure. This terrifying female bogie or kelpie was the most fearful apparition encountered in the Scottish Highlands. She could be captured but not held; one apparently successful hunter found, when his companions gathered around to admire his catch, just a smear of jellyfish into which the monster had dissolved. Her name means "hatred" or "aversion," which is how she was generally greeted.

Although usually female, the vough occasionally appeared as male. Both had webbed feet and noseless faces; they usually wore green, the fairy color. They disliked daylight but enjoyed intercourse, sexual as well as conversational, with humans; thus some families, like the Munroes, claimed to have vough blood in their veins (see also seal; swan maiden). The word brollachan appears to describe the vough in its immature or larval stage.

Voyage (Imram; pl., Imrama)

Irish literary text. One of several categories of literary text from which we derive our knowledge of Irish mythology (see also aisling, destruction, wooing), the voyage tales describe how a hero travels to the otherworld and what he encounters there. Some voyage tales have aspects of the aisling (dream-poem); a few have elements of satire. Some famous examples of this genre include the Voyage of bran, in which a human is lured by a fairy lover to leave his home; and the Voyage of maelduin, in which the hero encounters several frightening Otherworld women while at sea. A similar but distinct form, the adventure, also describes trips to the Otherworld but pays less attention to the actual journey, focussing instead on the destination.


British folkloric figure. In Yorkshire this name was applied to what is called elsewhere a co-walker, a spirit double that appeared just before someone’s death. Unlike what occurred in other traditions, however, death could be averted if one spoke sharply to the waff, which became frightened and departed, leaving the speaker a few more years of life.


Irish ritual. After a religious funeral, Irish people today typically gather to share food and drink, stories and music. The tradition is a long-standing one, with possible roots in the pagan past, when the deceased were believed to have gone over to an otherworld from which they could occasionally return, especially on samhain night when the veils between the worlds were thinnest. Similarly, the wake may have its roots in a belief that the beloved dead are most vulnerable to fairy kidnapping when newly deceased; the wake then served to protect against fairy influences. In contrast, the worldwide fear that the dead may drag the living into the Otherworld with them may have given rise to wake amusements as a means of protecting the living.

Until recent times, the non-Christian aspects of the wake were significant, so much so that priests attempted to discourage traditional games that may have descended from old rituals.

Gathering to "wake the dead" occurred before, rather than after, the funeral service. The body was laid out, face uncovered, often in the parlor or best room; thus the deceased was able to "attend" the wake. Loud keening—wailing or sobbing, usually by women—announced that the wake had begun. Although members of the family might keen, unrelated women of the community assisted, expressing grief through loud cries.

During the wake, it was traditional that someone always sit with the body, so that the deceased was never alone while there were people in the house. Visitors arrived over the next 12 to 24 hours, paying respects to the corpse and then finding their way to food and drink. Anyone was welcome, no matter how distantly they knew the family or the deceased; no one was turned away.

Despite the somberness of the occasion, visitors made quite merry, for it was considered ill fortune for a wake to be without laughter. Much of the merriment was verbal, for jokes and stories, puns and rhymes were part of the occasion. Jokes could become quite insulting, with ridicule and mockery formalized in games like "Making the Stack" (a gossip game) and "I Have a Question" (a self-revealing game). Then there were indoor athletic contests, including "lifting the corpse" (not in fact that of the deceased, but any corpulent visitor willing to stiffen his body), wrestling and arm wrestling, and piggyback riding (called "driving the pigs across the bridge")—all likely to cause some commotion in the narrow confines of an Irish cottage.

Some of the games hint at a belief in personal rebirth, as when mourners pretended to be dead and were awakened by their fellows. Others focused on the cyclical rebirth of life implied in sexuality, for kissing and courting games like Frumso Framso, in which ardent kisses were exchanged among virtually all at the wake, were common.


Cornish heroine or goddess. The patron saint of shipwrecked mariners, honored on the Isles of Scilly off Cornwall (see sillina), may have originally been the goddess of that region or its waters. History records a local habit of leaving offerings at Warna’s sacred well in an effort to attract the wealth of wrecked ships to the islands; this rather predatory prayer seems at odds with Warna’s alleged protective function.

Warrior women (bangaisgedaig)

Mythic motif. Throughout the ancient Celtic lands, we find goddesses whose speciality was war: British andraste, Irish badb, Gaulish cathubodua. We also find goddesses and heroines who were warriors: the Irish medb of connacht led her armies into battle against the province to the north, ulster; the great scathach of the Isle of Skye trained heroes like cuchulainn; Scathach’s daughter (or double) aife not only trained with heroes but bore children to them. Beyond such mythological material, we find historical evidence of women who led their tribes into battle, as did the British queens boudicca and Cartimandua, and of women who fought alongside their men to protect their lands and families.

Nonetheless there is general scholarly agreement that Celtic women were not typically warriors.

Washer at the ford (bean nigh, bean nighe, washer-wife, washing fairy)

Irish and Scottish folkloric figure. A form of the banshee or death prophet, this spectral woman appeared before a death, washing the clothes of the doomed in a river, stream, or small pool. A passerby heard a noise that sounded like water rippling; it was the sound of her slapping at the laundry in the cold water. She appeared as a small green-garbed woman with red webbed feet.

Occasionally the washer was said to be the ghost of a woman who, dying in childbirth, left laundry unfinished, but most agree that she was a member of the fairy race. Like others of her kind, the washer was generally prescient, able to see other things in the future besides imminent death; thus if you could catch a glimpse of her before she saw you, you could demand a prophecy, which was always accurate. Such fortune-telling was risky, however, because the washer could injure those caught spying on her, inflicting broken bones by waving her washing.

The washer appeared most often before battles, when she had a great pile of laundry to do; the more brutal the battle, the greater her workload. As a result, she was sometimes associated with the war goddess badb or with the phantom queen morrigan.


Mythological motif. Their myths suggest that the Celts believed that if a king were wounded in body or spirit, his land would cease to bear fruit and his people would starve. Many myths revolve around the question of the blemished king, but it is unclear how such beliefs affected the lives of actual rulers. The most significant literary use of the motif appears in works inspired by the grail legend, in which the fisher king was wounded in his genitals (or more discreetly, his thigh) and the land became barren. Exhausted and in pain, the king was unable to rule but only fished in the increasingly sterile lakes. In Irish legend a bard was to create a satire fierce enough to drive the failed king from the throne, but in Arthurian romance knights instead sought the sacred Grail to release the land from its endless winter.


Cosmological concept. The Celts saw fresh water as sacred, whether it ran in rivers and springs or was still in lakes and wells. This appreciation for a vital part of the ecosystem is appropriate to a people to whom nature was a source and residence of divinity. Water often appears as a dividing line between this world and the otherworld; thus fairies live in cities at the bottom of lakes or on islands in the middle of rivers. Water from holy wells, usually devoted to a saint or diminished deity, was held to be a healing medicine.

Water bull (tarbh uisge)

Scottish folkloric figure. Like the more common water horse, this creature from the realm of the fairy was unfriendly to humans; it often stood guard at the entranceway to fairy mounds or palaces.

Water horse (aughisky, agh-iski, eachuisge, each uisge)

Scottish and Irish folkloric figure. This horrible being rose from beneath the waves of lakes or from the ocean, looking like the strongest and most powerful horse ever seen. If you mounted it—unable to resist the temptation to ride as fast as the wind—you would soon regret your decision. The water horse galloped away, so fast that the rider suffocated from lack of breath;or the animal plunged back into the water, drowning the victim. Even worse were the water horses that grazed quietly by a riverside with no bridge; an unwary traveler who thought to keep clothing dry by riding the horse to the other side found that, once halfway across the river, the water horse dove down and tried to drown the rider.

For those who wanted to risk such a death, it was important to point the water horse’s head inland, for if he ever saw water, the rider’s fate would be sealed. The creatures, which came out most often in November, were wily enough to take on forms other than equine; sometimes they appeared as helpless maidens or handsome youths, but if you offered them a hand, they turned instantly into a ravening beast who tried to eat you alive. (For this reason it was deemed wise to check the smile of apparent humans you meet at watery places; any sign of green vegetable matter stuck between the teeth was a signal that the water horse had been grazing and shape-shifted when you appeared.) Humans were not their only diet; they also ate cattle, so it was dangerous to leave a herd unattended on a lakeshore. Sometimes they inexplicably left the organs of their victims in the grass, to be found by grieving relatives and frustrated herdsmen.

It was almost impossible to kill a water horse, although if you could snare it and hold it over a fire—difficult to do, given the monster’s size—it melted into a puddle of slime. Some legends say that all lakes were the residue of ancient water horses, melted away at their death.

Water-leaper (llamhigyn y dwr)

Welsh folk-loric figure. Like the water bull or the water horse, this monster (a kind of giant toad) hid in the water until a man or beast walked by, whereupon it leaped out, grabbed its prey, and dragged it underwater to eat it.

Waulking songs

Folkloric motif. The songs that were sung by groups of women as they "waulked" or shrank woolen fabrics to make them waterproof were filled with mythological and folkloric references. Because of the conservative force of such oral transmittal, the material in the songs is often ancient. With the invention of mechanical looms and machines to process woolens, the tradition of women’s singing has been in serious decline, although some contemporary artists like Scotland’s Capercaille have recorded and made available some of the age-old, heavily rhythmic, songs.

Wayland (Wieland)

British folkloric or mythological hero. Like the Irish goban saor, Wayland is a folkloric remnant of a mythological character. The smith was, to the Celts, a magical being with powers that exceeded those of normal humans; the Germans had similar beliefs, so it is difficult to know whether the smith whose name appears in British legend and folkloric sites derives from one or both cultures. The lameness attributed to Wayland was a likely import from the Mediterranean, where the smith god Vulcan was depicted as crippled. Wayland’s handicap was imposed upon him by a legendary king, Nithland (Nidud) of the Niars, who cut his hamstrings, the better to trap him at the forge. Wayland got revenge by killing the king’s son and raping his daughter. Among Wayland’s many gifts was the forging of supremely effective weapons, such as excalibur, the sword borne by king arthur.

Well (tober, tubber)

Mythological site. Hundreds of so-called holy wells are still in active use in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales; in Ireland approximately 3,000 have been recorded. Although usually dedicated to a saint, there is clear evidence that they were originally pagan sites, perhaps pre-Celtic but certainly honored in Celtic times. Because fresh water was not only a necessity for health and life but also a symbol of the magical otherworld, wells—where cool, clean water sprang up from near bedrock, more like a small stream than a deep pit—were especially revered. They were the sites for inauguration of regional kings, who would drink the water as a pledge of fidelity to the sovereignty goddess. They were also used, as they still are today, for healing rituals. Often the water was believed especially potent on specific days, including the Celtic holidays (imbolc, beltane, lughnasa, samhain). Later, holy wells were honored as Christian sites, often given saints’ names that echoed, like brigit, a Celtic divinity. Rituals at holy wells continue to this day in parts of Ireland and other Celtic lands, usually involving a solemn procession around the water, decoration of nearby trees with ribbons called clooties, and placement of stones, coins, or other offerings in or near the well’s water.

Wells were believed to have the power to move if offended by ill-considered behavior; taboos were especially strong against placing any kind of litter or garbage in the well. Tales abound of wells departing from one region in the middle of the night, accompanied by fairy lights; the next day the well would be found in its new home in a competing district. Such stories doubtless had the advantage of helping to keep a region’s water supply free of pollution.

Wells appear in many myths, usually guarded by a woman, who might be young and beautiful (see lady of the fountain) or haggard with age (see cailleach). Some narratives warn that women should not approach certain wells, especially those wherein the salmon of wisdom swam. Goddesses such as boand and s^nann ignored the advice and traveled to the well of segais or connlas well, only to be drowned when the well rose up and chased them across the land, forming rivers that bear the goddess’s names (the Boyne and the Shannon respectively). While usually cited as a warning against women’s ambition for learning, the connection of wells with women guardians suggests that the myths may have been altered or that they are in fact creation narratives, for by tempting the well out of its bounds, Boand and Smann create the fertile watersheds of Ireland.

Well dressing

Folkloric ritual. In some areas of rural England, notably in Derbyshire and the Peakland district, a springtime tradition is still practiced wherein flowers, seeds, and other natural objects are embedded in clay to form pictures, which are then displayed at holy wells. The tradition, which doubtless harks back to rituals of veneration addressed to the wells, continues as a source of civic and community pride. Some of the patterned flower creations are quite elaborate and artistic.


Cosmological concept. To the Irish, the direction of sunset was also the direction of the otherworld. fairy beings like niamh of the Golden Hair came from the west to lure humans to their lovely but sterile world. islands off the west coast, such as Inisbofin (the island of the magical white cow), were magical because of their location. Unlike some other cultures, the Irish did not necessarily see west as a symbol of death, except insofar as fairy kidnapping took humans away to another world.

Among Ireland’s provinces of Ireland, the westernmost is connacht, one of the most culturally traditional regions; thus in Ireland’s spiritual geography, west represents wisdom and tradition.


Symbolic object. As a horse-rearing people who traveled in chariots, the Celts learned how to made wheels early in their cultural history. Later the wheel became an image of divinities, especially those associated with the sun, which was imagined wheeling through the sky; rituals in honor of the sun often took the form of rolling wheels (sometimes set ablaze) down a hill. As a chariot wheel, the sun became connected with war, and it was often depicted with warrior gods.


Cosmological concept. Words translated as "white" are often found in names and titles of Celtic divinities. The word might be better translated as "shining" or "radiant," for it refers to a quality of light rather than the absence of color. Many deities and heroic figures bear names that suggest they were seen as emanating brilliant light: boand (or bo find), the Irish cow goddess, whose brightness may be the light reflecting off her river, the Boyne; fintan the salmon, who swam in the sacred well and whose flesh carried all the world’s wisdom; and the brilliant hero fionn mac cumhaill.

White Horse of Uffington

British mythological site. Near Oxford, at a high point of the Berkshire downs, a huge earth sculpture can be seen up to 20 miles away: the flowing, swirling lines of the White Horse of Uffington, created by digging shallowly in the ground. Because the earth is chalky at that spot, removing the grassy turf from the surface created a startling white line in the green grass.

While there are several such British sculptures of great antiquity (see cerne abbas giant),only one depicts the image of a horse; other chalk-outlined white horses exist, but they are much later in date and unconnected to Britain’s prehistory and Celtic era. Almost 400 feet long, the White Horse looks down on a valley called the Vale of the White Horse, where ceremonial horse-racing may have occurred; a nearby small mound called dragon Hill shows signs of wear on its top, as though spectators stood there watching events in the valley below. Folklore claims that the hill is flat because st. george buried a dragon there; such legends often indicate an important pre-Christian site that needed to be sained or sanctified in terms appropriate to the new religion. On the hilltop above the White Horse can be seen the remains of an ancient hillfort called Uffington Castle, its steep earthen sides high enough so that, within it, a visitor can see nothing but the sky above.

While it is not certain who carved the White Horse into the hillside, most scholars today believe it was of Celtic origin, perhaps built by the Dubunni who lived in the area. The flowing style recalls horse patterns found on Celtic coins of the Roman era; one such coin shows a horse almost identical to the one carved into the hillside. Even presuming a Celtic origin, however, archaeologists are not settled on whether the figure represents a divinity and if so, which. Among the Celts, the horse was the emblem of the goddess epona; there is no known horse god, nor is the White Horse anatomically a stallion. As the White Horse appears to be running from east to west, it may symbolize the sun traveling across the sky from dawn to sunset.

While the White Horse itself is an impressive earth sculpture it is even more impressive that it remains at all, for grass would soon obliterate the design were it not continually pulled out. Today the National Trust cares for the monument, but in the past it was "scoured" or cleared of encroaching grasses every seven years, when a huge local festival was held. For as much as 2,000 years, the people around Uffington kept the horse clearly outlined on its height, long after the reason for its creation and its meaning were lost.

White Lady

Folkloric figure. In both Britain and Ireland, this term is used of fairies and of the ghosts of human women. There is no parallel masculine term.


Modern religion. Although some self-identified Wiccans believe they practice an ancient religion, most contemporary scholars trace the development of the rituals and philosophy to mid-20th-century England. Celtic holidays are celebrated (as are the solar holidays of equinoxes and solstices), but contemporary Wicca is not a Celtic religion.

Wicker man

Celtic ritual. According to Julius Caesar, the Celts occasionally fashioned a huge human form from wicker, the bent branches of willow trees. Within this wicker prison, they confined animals and humans and then set fire to the vast structure. As Caesar had been fighting a military campaign against the Celts for years, it is not clear that this report is anything other than wartime propaganda. However, it inspired a celtic revival movie, "The Wicker Man," in 1973.

Wild Hunt (Wild Host, Fairy Rade)

Folkloric motif. The idea that the fairies regularly leave their otherworld residences and ride wildly about the surface world, snatching people from their homes and carrying them away, was found throughout the ancient Celtic lands. In Wales the leader of the Wild Hunt was gwynn ap nudd, king of the dead, who rode with the red-eared hounds called the cwyn annwn; he rode on storm clouds to collect the souls of the newly dead, to take them to the afterlife. In Scotland King arthur was said to ride on storm winds with the Wild Hunt, and the unforgiven human souls of the sluagh made their own wild night rides. At times, only dogs (see gabriel hounds) forayed across the sky, baying like hounds of hell. Gazing on the riders was dangerous, but those who put a sprig of protective rowan over their doors could watch the procession in safety. Some scholars believe that this folkloric motif grows from Germanic or Scandinavian roots.


Folkloric plant. The water-loving willow (genus Salix) comes in many forms, from the majestic weeping willow to the scrubby pussy willow that marks the spring. The folk reputation of the plant as a healer has been scientifically verified, because a chemical in its bark is the equivalent of aspirin (whose name, salicylic acid, includes the Latin name for willow).


Cosmological concept. To the Celts, wisdom was not an intellectual construct; wisdom did not arise from reasoned thought but arrived as a gift from the otherworld of gods, fairies, and the dead. In Irish mythology the god ecne (Wisdom) was the son of three gods of craftsmanship and knowledge, which suggests that wisdom was thought to arise through the body. Wisdom is also depicted as connected with the watery element, for it could be gained by eating the flesh of a magical salmon that swam in a secret well (see connlas; well segais); it was something earned through effort rather than bestowed like grace, yet the effort was more Otherworldly than mundane. Finally, wisdom was associated with the arts and especially with poetry, for druids and bards were often called by names that expressed their wisdom.


Folkloric motif. Folktales and legends are filled with stories of people—usually old women, although occasionally men—who have magical powers to enchant and bewitch. At times the powers attributed to these witches resemble those of the cailleach and other weather divinities, for they could raise storms with their curses. Witches traveled easily: They could fly across the land, and if they needed to cross the ocean, any vessel would serve, including sieves and eggshells. They were shape-shifters (see shape-shifting) who assumed animal form to work mischief in the area, often stealing the neighbors’ butter rather than making their own, taking milk from the udders of the cows, and bringing fish up onto shore so they could pick them up. They preferred to disguise themselves as hares or cats but could also be ravens or mice, gulls or sheep.


Cosmological concept.Margaret Murray proposed that the European pagan religion continued to be practiced after Christianization, and that reports gathered by priests of the Catholic Inquisition proved that groups still met in ancient rituals ("sabbats") despite the apparent conversion of the people. Further, she argued that some pockets of rural Europe had kept such traditions alive into the present. Many popular topics continue to claim that witchcraft is an ancient religion, practiced continually and without alteration; more serious practitioners recognize that the rituals of contemporary witchcraft (see wicca) arose in the mid-20th century in England and represent an attempted reconstruction of European paganism. In addition to this contemporary usage, there is a long-standing belief in Celtic lands that witches can cause distress and mischief, but such witches were seen as magically gifted individuals who did not need a coven to work their spells.


Contemporary religion. An invented neo-pagan religion that purports to be an ancient form of Irish paganism, Witta has no basis in any Celtic history or tradition; even the name is an invention.

Wodwose (woodwose, wild men)

British and Scottish folkloric figure. In the forests, it was long believed, lived great hairy wild men, shy beings who avoided human contact but did no harm to anyone. Some traditional British dances and mummers’ parades include cavorting imitations of the wodwose. The image of the wild man is also found in mythology; in Ireland mad king suibhne lived in a tree, while in legends of king arthur the great magician merlin similarly went insane and hid in the forest (see myrrinn wyllt).


Symbolic animal. Although now extinct in the ancient Celtic lands, the wolf once hunted through their forests. The wolf shares symbolic meaning with its relative, the tame canine dog, as a creature that could see into the other-world. In some ancient texts we find references to wolves as shape-shifting people. The Irish Leabhar Breathnach tells of people who, descended from wolves, could still change into that form to prey upon their neighbors’ cattle, while Giraldis Cambrensis describes a family who turned into wolves every seventh year because of a curse, retaining human language and having prophetic powers. On the Continent the god dis pater was sometimes clad in wolfskin; Julius Caesar reported that the Gauls believed themselves descended from wolves.

Wooing (tochmarc)

Irish mythological text. Among the various categories of Irish narratives are those that tell of the courtship of a woman or goddess. Although all Irish literary texts were written down by Christianized monks, the female characters in such texts are often more vigorous and self-willed than the category title might imply. etain, for instance, willingly goes along with an invitation to commit adultery; becfhola grew bored with king diarmait of tara and took a fairy lover.


Folkloric figure. Looking rather like a serpent but entirely fantastic, the worm is a dragon figure that derives from Scandinavian mythology, which arrived in Celtic lands with the invading Vikings. That connection may explain why worms are typically found in seaside areas, where Vikings might have landed.

The famous Lambton Worm was an eft, the immature adult form of a newt, which grew to enormous size after being thrown into a well by a man sacrilegiously fishing on Sunday. It was hard to conquer because its breath poisoned the air and, every time it was cut in two, it joined itself together and attacked again. In the same way, the Dragon of Loschy Hill would never have been destroyed if a dog had not carried away the hacked-off parts and buried them, so they could not reassemble themselves. The most famous worm today is surely the Loch Ness Monster, which might also be classified as a serpent from the alleged reptilian shape of its head.

Aside from the monstrous worm, there is the mythological creature that makes women pregnant through the mouth (see pregnancy through drinking, eating). This worm is tiny and apparently can breathe underwater, for most miraculous conceptions take place when a woman drinks a glass of water in which the worm is swimming. Many heroes are born from such worm insemination; cuchulainn, to make sure that his parentage was clear and that he was not the child of incest, emerged from the womb clutching a worm in each hand.


Symbolic animal. Many species of birds attract legends, but only the stately swan has more symbolic significance than the wren, a tiny, nondescript brown bird especially associated with the winter season. In ancient times the bird was considered a prophet, although its cries were notoriously hard to interpret; the glossarist Cormac refers to the wren as "the druid bird."

Killing a wren brought bad luck, even death; such ill fortune could extend itself to the herds, which were thought to give bloody milk after a wren’s murder. In Brittany, even to touch a wren or its nest would bring acne; worse, lightning could strike the home of such an invader, or the hand that touched the wren’s babies would wither and drop off.

One day each year, however, the taboo had to be broken: On a date near the winter solstice, the year’s longest night, boys killed a wren and brought it from house to house, begging for alms "to bury the wren." On the Isle of Man it was servants who hunted the wren, suggesting that the power to blight was not entirely removed, and families might wish to protect themselves by demanding that the hired help put themselves at risk. After capturing the wren, the hunting party fixed it to a long pole and walked around the village, chanting, "We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin, hunted the wren for Jack of the Corn; we hunted the wren for Robbin the Bobbin, we hunted the wren for everyone." The wren was then buried, with great ceremony, in the village churchyard, after which Christmas festivities began. Feathers from the buried wren were believed to protect the owner against death at sea.


Scottish folkloric creature. Half-human, half-wolf, the wulver lived like a wod-wose and generally left people alone, although at times he could be helpful to those in need, leaving wild food on their doorsteps.

Yallery Brown

British folkloric figure. This evil fairy was named for its yellow-brown hair, which made an odd frame around its withered and aged face. Yallery Brown worked mischief even to those who tried to help or befriend him; he was a fairy to be avoided. As he lived in the British Fens, which have long since been drained, he may be no longer a danger to anyone.

Yann-An-Ord (John of the Dunes)

Breton folkloric figure. Along the shorelines of Brittany, this unpleasant creature wandered, calling like a seabird; he was a form of the male siren called the yannig. He looked like a little old man in a raincoat, rowing in a boat just off shore. He especially created a din at sundown.


Breton folkloric figure. A dangerous fairy of Brittany, the yannig ate the unwary who did not hide when he called three times.


British folkloric figure. A member of the Tiddy Folk (see tiddy mun), the yarkins lived in the Fens, the great Lincolnshire wetlands that were drained in the 18 th century to expand agricultural land. The people of the Fens had a complex and elaborate folklore featuring many fantastic fairy creatures; like the Fens themselves, these tales are now virtually lost. Little is now known about the yarkins, except that they demanded offerings to keep the earth fertile.

Ychen Bannog

Welsh folkloric figures. These calves of the dun cow were long-horned and strong; they were also friendly to humans and lured the monstrous afanc out of its protective lake so that it could be killed.


Symbolic object. The yew (species Taxus) is a sturdy evergreen that can grow to an impressive girth and age. Perhaps for this reason, yews were associated with the otherworld, with death, and with immortality; they are commonly found in graveyards throughout Britain and Ireland. In mythology a yew betokens transformation, as when the Welsh hero lleu llaw gyffes turns into an eagle at his death and perches in a yew tree. Modern science is just learning of healing chemicals found within yew trees, such as taxol, used in fighting breast cancer; as with many ancient beliefs, the Celtic connection between yews and immortality may encode some scientific knowledge.

Yew of Ross

Symbolic object. In Irish tradition there were several trees of great legend, one of which was the Yew of Ross, which the dind-shenchas tells us was as broad as it was tall; it bore apples, acorns, and nuts, all at the same time.

Y mamau (bendith y mamau)

Welsh folkloric figures. "The Mothers" was a name given in some Welsh tales to the otherworld figures otherwise known as fairies. The meaning and significance of the term is unknown; it is unclear whether the fairy folk were believed to be ancestral figures, as the name suggests. Bendith y mamau, "the Mothers’ blessing," means good luck brought by the fairies.

Ynys Gutrin (Ynys Wydrin)

Welsh mythic site. A legendary place that cannot be seen with physical vision, "glass island" was a women’s domain, inhabited only by nine beautiful maidens.

Ynys Wair

Welsh mythic site. What is now known as Lundy Island, in the ocean waters off Bristol, was once known as Ynys Wair, the island of Gwair or gwydion, the magician-bard who figures so prominently in the mythological tales collected as the mabinogion.


Breton mythological site. Legend claims that the mouth of hell can be found in the region of Brittany’s known as Finistere ("earth’s end"), in the bog of Yeun. Because the Celts did not see the otherworld as infernal, this legend may be of Christian origin.

Yr Hen Wrach

Welsh folkloric figure. The great hag who lived in the bog near Aberystwyrth sneaked into town on cold misty evenings and breathed on the people there, after which they came down with fevers, chills, and coughing. She appears to have been a protective spirit of the bogs, for she has been inactive since people started burning coal and gas rather than peat. At seven feet tall, with yellow skin and black teeth, she was a frightening figure.

Ys (Is, Ker-Ys, City of Ys)

Breton mythological site. One of the great tales of Brittany is that of the pagan princess dahut, who spurned the new religion of Christianity despite her father’s gradlon’s devoutness. Instead, she gathered the korrigans, the fairies who lived in the sea, and had them build her this great crystalline city off the Breton peninsula, in an area so low that it had to be walled to keep the water out (the name means "low town"). It was located in the Baie de Trepasses, "Dead Men’s Bay," a treacherous part of the Atlantic that is rich not only in fish but in the wealth of wrecked ships.

Its great seawalls protected Ys from the storms that ravaged the coast. At certain times, the sea-gates were opened, so that the city’s wastes could be carried away through an elaborate sluice system. Dahut kept the key to the seawalls on a silver chain around her neck.

The people of Ys grew wealthy and contented. Dahut was content as well, living a life that was both sensual and rapacious, killing men after she had her way with them. As a result, the great city of Ys was doomed; the seawalls broke (or perhaps Gradlon or one of Dahut’s lovers opened them) and Ys sank beneath the waves. Some legends claim that you can still see it under the waves at Douarnenez on certain days when the sea is calm and the sunlight just right.


Welsh mythological figure. In the story of kulhwch and olwen, one of the tasks set for the hero was snaring a tusk from this otherworld boar.

Yspaddaden Penkawr (Yspaddaden Pencawr, Ysbaddaden Bencawar)

Welsh mythological figure. The "great giant" or "chief giant" of Welsh mythology appears in the romance of kul-hwch and olwen, in which the titular hero, condemned to marry no other woman than Olwen, asked the assistance of his cousin, king arthur. With Arthur’s knights, Kuhlwch located Olwen’s home after a year’s search. There he discovered that Yspaddaden Penkawr, who needed four men to lift his eyelids, had no intention of letting his daughter marry—because a prophecy had said that he would die on the day of her wedding. He attacked the company, but they defended themselves well, and finally Yspaddaden offered Olwen to Kuhlwch, provided he satisfy 13 difficult challenges and 26 minor ones. Ultimately the hero did so, and as prophesied, Yspaddaden was killed on Olwen’s wedding day. Many motifs in the story recall that of balor in Ireland.

Yvonne and Yvon

Breton heroine and hero. A folktale from Brittany, presumably of Celtic origin, tells of a young woman who attracted the eye of the sun with her beauty, diligence, and patience. He carried her off to his home in the sky one day, and a year later the family had heard nothing more of her. With his five brothers, Yvon started walking toward the western horizon, hoping to find the land of the sun. After many adventures, the brothers were discouraged—all but Yvon, who continued through trials and tribulations until he found his sister, happily at home in the sun’s house. When he returned home, Yvon discovered that ages had passed and that all memory of his family had disappeared from the land.

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