Angwish (Anwisance) To Away (Celtic mythology and folklore)

Angwish (Anwisance)

Arthurian hero. A king of Ireland and father of the fair iseult around whom one of the greatest Arthurian romances centers, Angwish was the enemy of king arthur but later became his ally. His brother, the fierce morholt, caused the battle that brought the fated lover tristan to Angwish’s court, where he first laid infatuated eyes on Iseult.


In both Continental and insular Celtic mythology, divinities are pictured or described as accompanied by animals and birds: nehalennia and cuchulainn with the dog, sequana with the duck, cernunnos with the stag, moccus with the pig, and epona with the horse. Such animals are often interpreted as the servants of the divinity, but it is more appropriate to describe them as the god or goddess in shape-shifted form. In some cases, as with the cailleach, who is said to appear in the form of a hare, or oisin, whose mother gave birth to him while in the shape of a deer, such shape-shifting is part of the figure’s mythology; more often, as in Gaul, where Romanization left names and figures but no myths, we lack narrative descriptions of the relationship between animal and divinity.

It was not only gods who could shape-shift into animals; poets were thought to have the ability, as were witches. Several legendary poets, including amairgin and tuan mac cair-ill, describe themselves as having lived many times in different forms, including those of animals; this can be viewed as evidence either of shape-shifting or of transmigration of souls. This connection of magical transformation with the art of poetry is typical of insular Celtic society and may have extended as well to the Continent.

The folkloric belief in witches’ ability to take on animal form, however, is not clearly Celtic and may as well derive from pre- or post-Celtic beliefs. Like the haggish Cailleach, human witches were thought to disguise themselves as hares in order to be about their nefarious deeds; if a suspected witch were found with a bad wound in her thigh the morning after a night-roving hare was shot in its back leg, it was clear to all that the hare had been the shape-shifted witch.

According to classical writers, animals were offered as sacrifice in early Celtic rituals. The most famous description of such sacrifice comes from Julius Caesar, who claimed that annually the Celts of Gaul burned animals caged with human captives alive; there is, however, substantial doubt that Caesar—who was in the business of conquering the Celts abroad and may have yielded to the temptation to paint them as savages at home— was correct in this description. However, there is evidence of the sacrifice of the bull, a sacred animal; such sacrificed animals were doubtless eaten, so the distinction between a sacrifice and a feast is sometimes difficult to discern.

The eating of some animals was generally forbidden. Caesar said that the Britons would not kill nor eat hare, hen, or goose. Yet such taboo beasts could, upon certain occasions, be sacrificed; there is evidence that the Briton queen boudicca sacrificed a hare to divine her people’s future. Often taboos were linked to imagined descent from divine beasts, as is made clear in the story of the Irish king conaire who, because his mother was a bird, was forbidden to hunt or eat them. Irish folk belief that such families as the O’Flahertys and the Coneelys were descended from seals points to such an ancient tradition, as was the idea that such families would be drowned or otherwise killed should they attempt to hunt their erstwhile kin. Ancient Celtic tribal names often incorporate an animal reference, as the Bribroci (beavers) of Britain, who may have pictured themselves as descended from an ancestral beaver goddess. Scots clan names, too, incorporate references to animals, as in the Cinel Gabran, "clan of the little goat," or Cinel Loarn, "clan of the fox." Some Irish names are similarly suggestive of ancestral connection to animals, the McMurrows from otters and the McMahons from bears, for instance. Such divine ancestors tended to be wild rather than domesticated animals.


Religious concept. The Celts, like many other ancient peoples, seem to have imbued the world in which they lived with animating spirit. This did not take, as in some cultures, the form of a single abstracted divinity of nature but rather was radically place-based and polytheistic. A startling outcropping of rocks, for instance, might be animated by a goddess, or a huge ancient tree by a god. Often these divinities were known only in the immediate locality; the spirits of various wells, for instance, did not move freely about the landscape making the acquaintance of distant tribes but remained within their own sacred waters. Many writers have argued that this animism, which may have originated with pre-Celtic peoples, in turn became part of the Celtic Christian tradition.


Irish hero. One of the sons of the early invader nemed, Anind is connected with an important feature of the Irish landscape, Lough Ennell in Co. Westmeath. That part of Ireland had no surface water until Anind’s grave was dug, whereupon the lake suddenly flooded forth. Such tales of landscape formation often indicate the presence of an ancient divinity with creative powers.


Arthurian heroine. This obscure figure is named as the sister of king arthur in some texts.

Annals of Ireland (Annals of the Four Masters)

Irish text. One of the textual sources for the mythological history of Ireland, this topic (in Irish, Annala Rioghachta Eireann) was compiled between 1632 and 1636 c.e. by Micheal O Cleirigh of Donegal and three other unnamed "masters," probably Franciscan friars or lay brothers. While the later entries in the Annals are roughly historical, early entries date to "forty days after the Flood" and include much myth and legend. Irish monks are credited with the preservation of most of Ireland’s most important Celtic legends, for despite their differing theology, the monks recognized the narrative treasures of the ancient tales. Such texts must be read with suspicion, however, and with alertness for the insertion of Christian beliefs and motifs.

Annaugh (Anna)

Irish goddess. This obscure Irish goddess was known in only one place, Collins Wood in Connemara, where she was the genius loci.


Arthurian heroine. This witch or sorceress (possibly the double of morgan) conceived a lust for the great king arthur and lured him to her forest, but she was not to have her way with him. When he rejected her, she held him captive and sent knights to challenge him in single combat, hoping he would be killed. Arthur was able to hold them off, so she sent the challengers after him in pairs, and they overpowered him. But with the assistance of nimue, the knight tristan was able to free the king, after which Arthur killed Annowre.

Annwn (Annwyn, Annwfn)

Welsh mythological site. Like the Irish who proposed multiple sites for the otherworld, the Welsh saw Annwn ("abyss") in various ways: as a seagirt castle (Caer Siddi); as a court of intoxication (Caer Feddwid); as a palace of glass (Caer Wydyr). Like tir na nog, the Irish island of the blessed, Annwn was a place of sweetness and charm, whose residents did not age nor suffer, eating their fill from a magic cauldron and quenching their thirst at an ever-flowing well. Two kings ruled in Annwn, arawn and hafgan, who were perpetually at war; Arawn figures more prominently in legend.


British god. A temple dedicated to Antenociticus was excavated at Benwell in Condercum; like many other Celtic gods, he is known only in a single site and may have been the genius loci or spirit of the place.


Symbolic image. Celtic divinities often appeared in animal form, suggesting a connection to shamanic transformation (see celtic shamanism). At other times, deities would be seen in human form but with animal characteristics; most commonly, this meant either horns or antlers, the latter representing prosperity and worn by both gods and goddesses. See cernunnos.

Anu (Ana, Danu)

Irish goddess. In southwestern Ireland, two identical rounded hills are capped with prehistoric cairns, stone nipples on the great breasts of the mother goddess. The hills are called Da Chich Danann, conventionally and rather prudishly translated paps of danu. Alternatively, the hills are called after the presumed goddess Anu, of which little is known.

No narratives describe this supposed goddess of abundance, who is listed by the early glossarist Cormac as "mother of the gods of Ireland." She is considered by many identical to danu, purported ancestor of the tuatha de danann. Others argue that she is a separate goddess of Ireland’s abundance; still others connect her with aine of Limerick or with black annis of Britain. In Christian times, she became conflated with St. Anne, grandmother of Jesus, to whom many holy wells are dedicated, most impressively that of Llanmihangel in Glamorgan, South Wales, where St. Anne is depicted in a fountain, with water gushing from her nipples. Welsh mythology has a shadow figure named Ana or Anu, connected by Rhys and others with the Irish mother goddess Anu.


Irish mythological beast. The enchanted steed of the Irish sea god manan-nan mac lir, whose name ("froth") suggests the seafoam.


Irish mythological site. One of the many magical islands of the Irish otherworld, Aoncos was distinguished by the silver pillar that held it aloft above the ocean waves.

Aonghus (Angus, Aengus, Oengus)

Irish and Scottish hero or god. Several mythological and heroic figures of Ireland and Scotland bear this name, which means "strength" or "vigor."

• Aonghus Og, who also goes by the name Aonghus mac Og or "Angus son of youth": he was god of beauty and poetry among the tuatha de danann and corresponds to the Welsh god mabon. His conception was miraculous, even for a god: His father the dagda "borrowed" his mother Eithne from her husband elcmar, then caused the sun to remain overhead for nine months so that the goddess could gestate the child without Elcmar’s realizing that more than a day had passed; upon his birth Aonghus Og was immediately given to the god midir to foster. In another version, the cuckolded husband was nechtan, the mother was boand, and the foster father Elcmar. In either case, the young son took after his father, gaining by trickery the great carved-stone palace called the bru na boinne, where trees held out tempting fruit and two pigs took turns being cooked and eaten, only to spring to life again. Several commentators connect these legends with other traditions in which a son defeats or replaces his father, as in the Greek myth of Saturn and Uranus, or Zeus and Saturn. The place-poems called the dindshenchas call him "Aonghus of the many exploits" and "mighty Mac in Oc."

Four white swans flew about Aonghus Og’s head when he traveled. When he fell in love, it was with a woman he had seen only in a dream, as recorded in the Aislinge Oenguso, the Dream of Aonghus. His lover visited him in dreams for a year, until he sickened with desire to be with her in the flesh. With the help of the magician bodb derg, Aonghus found his beloved, caer, and flew away with her in the shape of white swans whose song was so lovely that it enchanted people to sleep for three days and three nights. It was this legend that inspired William Butler Yeats’s poem, "The Song of Wandering Aengus," while an earthier version of the god appears in James Stephens’s comic novel, The Crock of Gold.

• Aonghus, brother of FAND and li ban, a fairy who lured the hero cuchulainn to the oth-erworld to meet his lustful sisters.

• Aonghus of the FIR BOLG, after whom the great stone fort on the Aran Islands, dun Aonghusa, was named.


Romano-Celtic god. The Roman legions were under orders to bring conquered lands into the Roman empire. One way to do that was through the interpretatio romana, in which local divinities were given Latin names. But when the Romans began to conquer the territories of their longtime rivals, the Celts, their hierarchical pantheon met a polytheism so extreme that the generic Celtic oath was "I swear by the gods my people swear by." Nonetheless they set about renaming divinities, in some cases keeping the original Celtic name as an appendage, while in other cases tossing it into the dustbin of history.

Oversimplifying Celtic religion grandly, the legions affixed to dozens of gods the name Apollo—ironically enough, not originally a Roman god’s name but one adopted from conquered Greeks, for whom Apollo was a sun deity; these Celtic Apollos may have had little or nothing to do with the Roman, much less the Greek, original. In turn, the Celts adopted Apollo into their ever-flexible pantheon, providing him with a consort that the classical Apollo lacked but who was necessary in the Celtic worldview. As the Roman Apollo was both a god of healing and of light, divinities of hot springs, used by the Celts (as they are today) as healing spas, were often retitled with his name. Some Celtic Apollos are:

• Apollo Amarcolitanus, "of the distant gaze," found on the Continent.

• Apollo Anextiomarus (Anextlomarus), Continental god of healing or protection.

• Apollo Atepomarus, god of horses and the sun, often linked to cernunnos, but also to belenus.

• Apollo Canumagus (Cunomaglus), a British god connected with dogs.

• Apollo Grannus (Grannos), god of healing springs across Europe and Scotland, consort of sirona; his name seems to derive from the same source as the Irish sun goddess grian; around Auvergne, in France, he was honored in a ritual in which sheafs of grain were set on fire and people sang, "Granno, my friend; Granno, my father; Granno, my mother," which suggests that the god may have been seen as of dual or ambiguous gender.

• Apollo Moritasgus, healing god of France, consort of damona.

• Apollo Vindonnus, healer of eye diseases.


Symbolic fruit. The most magical of fruits to the Celts, the apple appears in many myths and legends. It hides in the word for the Arthurian otherworld, avalon; it is the fruit on which the hero connla of the Golden Hair was fed by his fairy lover; the soul of king cu ro^ rested in an apple within the stomach of a salmon; it was one of the goals of the fated sons of tuireann. Its significance continues into folkloric uses such as that in the British Cotswolds, where an apple tree blooming out of season meant coming death. Symbolizing harmony and immortality, abundance and love, the apple was considered a talisman of good fortune and prosperity. Some have connected the word to apollo, whose name may have originally been Apellon, a word derived from the same source as our word "apple."


Sulis British goddess. Roman name for the shrine and hot springs at bath in England, dedicated to the sun goddess sul.


Welsh god. The lord of annwn, the Welsh otherworld, Arawn owned a magical cauldron, which suggests a parallel with the Irish father god, the dagda. Arawn had magical pigs (another motif associated with the Dagda) that he presented as a gift to the mortal king pryderi; when the bard gwydion stole them, he was apprehended and imprisoned in Annwn. Three magical animals belonging to Arawn were stolen by the obscure divinity amaethon; the motif seems to point to a belief that domesticated animals originally belonged to the gods and had to be brought by force or trickery to this world. In one tale, Arawn was said to have exchanged identities for a year with the mortal king pwyll, who during his stay in the Otherworld killed Arawn’s enemy and rival for power in Annwn, hafgan. Arawn’s world is a typical Celtic Otherworld, beautiful and unchanging, not entirely unlike our world but without any pain, death, disfigurement, or disease; its residents spend their time in merrymaking and games.


Welsh mythological site. This name is given in Welsh mythological texts to a magical fairy mound in the kingdom of pwyll, where people see visions. It is sometimes associated with the town of Narberth in the region of southwestern Wales called Dyfed.


Eireann Irish mythological site. The mountains in central Ireland called Slieve Bloom include a peak called by this name, which means "height of Ireland," although it is not the highest geographical point in the land; the summit was mythically the birthplace of the island of Ireland.


Irish hero. This otherwise obscure figure was the father of the great warrior women of the Isle of skye, scathach and her sister/rival aife.

Arduinna (Ardwinna, Arduenna, Arduanna)

Continental Celtic goddess. Sometimes conflated with the Roman diana or the Greek artemis, Arduinna rode, mounted on a wild boar, through the Gaulish forest that bore her name, the Ardennes. Hunters were welcome in her forests only if they left money as payment for the animals they killed. Her name may incorporate ard, the syllable for "height" or "highland."


British heroine or goddess. Queen of the otherworld island of avalon, she has been variously described as a form of arianrhod and of morgan Le Fay. It was to Argante that king arthur was taken to be cured of his mortal wounds; from her realm he has not yet returned.

Arianrhod (Arianrod, Aranrhod)

Welsh heroine or goddess. In the fourth branch of the Welsh mabinogion we find the tale of this heroine, who may be a diminished form of an earlier goddess. The story begins with the rape of goewin, who served a strange office for king math: As his life depended upon his feet resting in the lap of a virgin, Goewin sat endlessly on the floor beneath his throne serving as footholder. gwydion and gilfaethwy, Math’s nephews, were responsible for the violation, in recompense for which Math married Goewin and cast a spell on the rapists.

To preserve the king’s life, Gwydion nominated his sister Arianrhod, daughter of the mother goddess don, to serve as footholder. Asked if she were a virgin, the beautiful Arianrhod said that, as far as she knew, she was. Math asked her to step over his wand to prove her purity, but when she did so, she gave birth to two children she had conceived unawares: dylan and lleu llaw gyffes. The first, child of the sea, immediately escaped into that watery realm; the second was rejected by Arianrhod but claimed by Gwydion, whose son he may have been, and raised in a magical chest. But when Lleu was grown, Arianrhod refused to give him either a name or weapons—two prerogatives of a Welsh mother—and once again Gwydion tricked her so that Lleu could attain his manhood.

The story is a confusing one, especially in its lack of clarity about whether Arianrhod’s children were conceived parthenogenetically (as would befit a goddess) or without her knowledge (as befits deceitful Gwydion); she seems as surprised as anyone at the children issuing from her womb, so it does not seem likely that she was lying. Her name means "silver wheel," and many have seen in Arianrhod the remnants or reflection of an ancient moon goddess; conversely, she may be a mother goddess of the land, since such goddesses were often described as virgin mothers; yet again, she has been called a dawn goddess because she is mother of both light (Lleu) and darkness (Dylan). She was said to live surrounded by her maidens in her castle on the coastal island of caer arianrhod, which is also an idiomatic Welsh name for the constellation called Corona Borealis. In that seagirt (or starry) realm, she lived wantonly, which suggests a parallel to the Breton figure of dahut. She has also been compared to the ancestral goddess bran-wen, for the Welsh triads name her as one of the "three fair maidens" or "white ladies" of the isle of Britain.


British goddess. This name of this British goddess is related to the word nemeton and means "in front of the sacred grove." The Romans called her shrine—today’s Buxton Spa in Derbyshire—Aquae Arnementiae, "waters of Arnemetia," for two mineral springs that rose in close proximity. After Christianization, Arnemetia became St. Anne.

Art mac Cuinn (Art Son of Conn)

Irish hero. He was the best known of the Irish heroes and champions given the name Art, which means bear. His father, conn of the Hundred Battles, ruled at tara with a woman named be chuma,who both lusted after Art and sent him into exile. When he returned, she sent him on a quest to gain the affections of a woman of the other-world, delbchaem. After many feats of arms, he won Delbchem and brought her back to Tara, where she forced the sly Be Chuma to depart. In other texts, Art is the consort of medb Lethderg, a form of the goddess of sovereignty. Art was was mythically important as father to the great hero cormac mac airt, who was conceived by the magical heroine achtan immediately before Art’s death at the battle of Mag Mucrama.


Greek goddess. The paradoxical Greek goddess of fertility and chastity found several parallels in Celtic lands; the name is linked with figures as diverse as the hag named the cailleach of Scotland and Ireland and the unnamed dog goddess of Galatia to whom coins were offered annually as payment for every animal killed in the hunt. This tendency to associate Celtic divinities with those of the classical Mediterranean began early, with the assimilation of Celtic deities to Roman ones in areas subdued by the legions, who called Artemis-like goddesses by the Roman name of diana. These goddesses were associated with wild lands, which they were imagined as occupying with a company of untamed maidens.


British hero. The tale of the great king of camelot was first recorded in sixth-century Wales and was popularized by the 12th-century British writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose History of the Kings of Britain (ca. 1136) mingled romance, history, and mythology and inspired poets and storytellers in both England and France. The verse romances of the 12th-century French poet Chretien de Troyes were another important contribution to the Arthurian cycle, introducing the grail theme into Arthurian legend. From Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) and through Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859-85) and T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958), the Arthurian cycle has inspired both literary and popular treatments in English and French; related tales of percival and tristan, including the related fisher king and Grail cycles, expand the corpus of Arthurian renderings into thousands of works. The story of king Arthur continues to inspire poets and authors today; the popular musical Camelot, the movie Excalibur, and the bestselling novel The Mists of Avalon are among the most recent of hundreds of works of art inspired by the theme of the noble but flawed (and betrayed) king.

The cycle of Arthurian tales, often called the matter of britain, has roots in Celtic myth but has been altered and amplified through literary transmission. While it is possible to glimpse Celtic and even pre-Celtic mythological motifs behind the characters and plot twists of the story as we know it, especially given the parallel Celtic love-triangles of mark-Tristan-iseult from Brittany and fionn-diarmait-grainne from Ireland, such interpretation is necessarily speculative. For much of the past thousand years, Arthur has been viewed in the popular imagination as an historical king of sixth-century c.e. Britain, his court at Camelot offering a true picture of the possibility of nobleness as well as a tragic depiction of betrayal. The reality of an early Celtic king named Arthur now seems assured, but the power of his story is mythical rather than merely historical.

Although there are many variants of Arthur’s legend—which began to be recorded even as Celtic influence in Britain and France, the lands most connected with the legends, began to wane—the story usually follows roughly similar outlines. Arthur was born of royal blood after his father, uther pendragon, slept with his mother igraine through deceit, using the great merlin’s magic to appear in the form of her husband, the duke of Cornwall, gorlois. Arthur was snatched away at birth by the omnipresent Merlin and fostered away from the royal seat. Despite his royal blood, Arthur was only accepted as ruler when he performed a feat no one else had managed: to extract a magical sword (often confused with, but actually distinct from, excalibur, the magical sword later given to Arthur by the lady of the lake) from a stone that it pierced. Assuming his rightful place as king, Arthur established an idealistic and idealized court of noble knights (among whom were percival, lancelot, kay, and others) who met around a great round table at Camelot. He married the rapturously beautiful guinevere, and all of Britain was at peace under their reign.

Arthur in these legends appears as the epitome of manhood and kingship. He is strong, an excellent warrior and strategist who drives opposing forces from his land; he is also an inspiring leader who draws to himself the noblest knights and wins their affection and loyalty. He is a trickster figure in some legends, as when he steals the cauldron of plenty from the otherworld. He is even a bard, fluent in poetry and song.

Despite the king’s gifts and good nature, all was not to be well in Camelot. The beautiful Lancelot and queen Guinevere fell in love, and Lancelot exiled himself rather than betray his king. Finally their love grew too strong to resist. Although they kept it secret, the land knew the truth; the crops failed for seven years while Arthur attempted to discover the cause. At the same time, his estranged son mordred—born of a secret liaison with his own sister morgause—began to war against Arthur. In the chaos of battle, Arthur was mortally wounded. He did not die, however; casting Excalibur into a lake, he was borne across its waters to avalon by mysterious women, thus becoming the "once and future king."

Among the mythological motifs that point to a Celtic origin for the tale is the emphasis on the rectitude of the king, upon which the land itself depends. Yet Camelot falls not through the king’s ungenerosity—the usual downfall of Celtic kings—but because of his unwillingness to doubt his wife and apparently loyal knight. This divergence from the Celtic norm has suggested to some a pre-Celtic basis for the tales, with Guinevere standing in for an early goddess who chose and discarded kings, a motif employed by Marion Zimmer Bradley in her popular novel, The Mists of Avalon. Whether Arthur was originally a British or Welsh god, as suggested by his name’s connection to the divine bear (in Welsh, arth), is arguable; some scholars find in the figure evidence of a Celtic (probably Brythonic) divinity, while others consider him a culture hero, perhaps based on an historical king.

Artio (Dea Artio, Andarta)

British and continental Celtic goddess. In Britain and Gaul, the goddess of wilderness and wildlife was worshiped in the form of a bear (the meaning of Artio’s name), while the name andarta is found in inscriptions in Switzerland (especially in Berne, "bear city") and France for a similar goddess, the second syllable of her name suggesting a bear connection. Not only in name but in function, Artio is similar to the Greek goddess artemis, also envisioned as a bear. A bear god, Artaios or Artaius, is also found in some regions.


Continental Celtic god. This obscure Celtic god of healing was equated with apollo by the invading Romans. As that name was often applied to divinities of thermal springs, Arvalus may have once ruled such a shrine.

Arvernorix (Arvernus)

Continental Celtic god. This obscure god, known from only a few inscriptions, may have been the tribal divinity of the Arverni. It is also unclear whether the two spellings represent different gods or the same one.

Asenora (Senara, Senora)

Cornish heroine. A legend in Cornwall tells of a princess of Brittany, Asenora, who was thrown into the sea in a barrel while pregnant. Despite its origin in a historically Celtic land, the motif may derive from non-Celtic sources, for it is found in the Greek story of Danae, mother of the hero Perseus. Asenora’s barrel drifted to Ireland, where she was rescued. She tried to return to Brittany but only made it as far as Zenor, where she founded a church and where she is honored as St. Senara. In that church is found a famous 600-year-old carving of a mermaid, believed to be originally a sea goddess of the region. Interestingly, unlike the Greek version, Asenora herself is the focus of the Cornish tale; legend tells nothing of the offspring with whom she was pregnant when cast adrift.


Symbolic tree. Despite being a common tree in many climates, the ash (genus Fraxinus) plays a significant role in Scandinavian and Germanic as well as Celtic mythologies. It is a large but graceful tree whose sweeping, upturned branches make a dramatic pattern against the winter sky and whose feathery compound leaves create a dappled shade in summer. Together with the oak and the thorn, the ash is one of the magical trees of Celtic tradition. Because it is connected with the fairies, it was also believed to ward them off; for this reason Scots Highland mothers burned a green ash branch until it oozed sap, which was fed to a newborn as its first food. In the Cotswolds the ash was believed to be protective against witchcraft if crafted into a whip handle. It cured earthly as well as Otherworldly diseases: as a protection against rickets, children were passed through young ash branches slashed in two, after which the branches were sutured up and left to heal; should such healing not occur, which in the hardy ash was uncommon, the child was thought doomed to be as twisted as the tree. Ashwood was believed to be a general charm against evil.

The ash tree is especially associated with beltane, the spring festival celebrated on May 1. In Ireland the most important site for that festival was the hill of uisneach, so ash trees on that site were considered especially potent. One great ash on Uisneach’s summit was said to have fallen in prehistory, its tip reaching across the country to near the town of Longford; such an impossibly tall tree (over 30 miles high) suggests a world-axis that may originally have been envisioned to ascend from Uisneach. Another famous Irish ash was the holy tree of Clenore, where the spirit or saint Creeva was thought to live. So important was the ash in Ireland that three of the five most significant mythological trees were ash.

The ash family has many branches, including the square-twigged blue ash and the common green ash; it is distinct from the rowan or mountain ash, which is a different genus. Ash trees love water, which is why many are found at holy wells; such a combination of ash and water source was held to be especially powerful. Miracles were said to be possible when ash trees "bled" or leaked sap into the well, and people would gather the liquid to use as an elixir.


Symbolic material. Remnant ash from peat fires was part of many Irish folk traditions. Some derived from Christian tradition regarding Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent; ashes were thrown at unmarried people then, which gave rise to the saying "You’ll have the ash-bag thrown at you," meaning that a person was unmarriageable. Older, probably pre-Christian traditions use ashes as a midsummer fertility symbol (from which the Lenten rite may have evolved); ashes from the lughnasa bonfires were used to bless cattle, fields, and people.


Irish mythological site. The waterfall Assaroe on the River erne in Co. Sligo, famous in legend, was flooded when a hydroelectric dam was erected nearby in the mid-20th century. It was there, according to some stories, that fionn mac cumhaill accidentally ate the salmon of wisdom (named goll Essa Ruaid), which the druid finneces had been awaiting for seven years. It was there that the father of the warrior woman macha Mong Rua, aed ruad (Aed the red), died, giving his name to the falls, which in Irish are Eas Ruadh, "the red waterfall." A variant holds that the falls are named for a goddess, ruad, who drowned there after being lured to her death by the singing of mermaids. Sailing in the ship of the poet abcan, she traveled from the otherworld in order to pursue a human lover (see fairy lover) but drowned before reaching him. The drowning of a goddess in a river is common in Irish mythology and typically represents the dissolving of her divine power into the water, which then gives life to the land.


Scottish hero. This Scottish Cin-derfella is found in many folktales and resembles the Irish amadan. Unlike Cinderella, typically a girl of good birth cast down to servitude, Assipattle was born poor and looked to stay that way, being lazy and unambitious. Finally stirred to action by some crisis (a threatening dragon does nicely), Assipattle performs heroically.


The Celts, like other tribal peoples whose way of life required them to be outdoors much of the time, knew the stars well. They may have elaborated this knowledge into an arcane science in which the changing patterns of the planets had impact on earthly life; Julius Caesar claimed that the druids were master astrologers. There is evidence that in Ireland the starting date of the Christian St. Columba’s education was determined by starry aspects, and legend holds that the druid cathbad cast a horoscope to see the future of the child who would grow up to become deirdre of the Sorrows.

A Celtic astrology would not be surprising, as the druids were skilled at divination of various sorts, but only the faintest hints remain of this supposed system, including the Irish word neladoir, used of someone who divines from the sky (although it has also been translated "cloud-diviner"). The Celts conveyed such sensitive and powerful material orally, and thus it is unlikely that any Celtic astrological text will ever be found.

Atesmerta, Atesmerius Continental Celtic goddess and god. Divinities of these names are attested from several inscriptions from Gaul, but nothing more than their names is known of them.


Scottish monster. A monstrous creature that haunted the Scottish Highlands, killing passersby and throwing them into gorges or down rocky hills. Athachs included the female luideag of Skye and the male dfreach of Glen Etive, who had one hand growing out of his chest and one eye in his forehead.

Autumn equinox

Astronomical feast. The equinoxes and solstices were not celebrated by the Celts, who instead celebrated the solar year’s fixed points (imbolc, beltane, lughnasa, samhain). But in Ireland, after the coming of the Normans and of Christianity, an equinoctial feast was celebrated on or about September 29. This feast of St. Michael the Archangel or Michaelmas was, in many regions, defined as the date on which rents and loans were repaid and contracts settled. Elected officials took and left office on Michaelmas, which was often celebrated with harvest fairs. Michaelmas marked the Fomhar na nGean, the goose harvest, when butchering began; farmers were expected to be generous at that season and to give meat to the poor. In England the fall equinox period was devoted to harvest fairs marked by mummers’ parades in which mythological characters like robin hood and Maid Marion danced with animal archetypes like the hobbyhorse.

Avalon (Afallon)

British mythological site. When arthur, ruler of camelot, was ready to pass from this world, mysterious women carried him in a boat to Avalon, the Island of Apples, a typical Celtic otherworld. Avalon was a beautiful place of mild weather and eternal spring, where flowers and fruit were found simultaneously on the trees and where no storms ever raged. A queen ruled there, sometimes named as argante; she and her maiden attendants were great healers. There may have also been a king of Avalon, for a shadowy figure named Avalloc appears in some legends. Although today Glastonbury in southwest England is often linked with Avalon, this seems to be a post-Celtic association, perhaps deriving from the town’s ancient name Ynys-witrin, "glass island." To the Celts, Avalon was clearly one of those western isles of the Otherworld where the dead and the divine mingle.


British mythological site. The great stone circles at Avebury have been associated with the druids for centuries, although they in fact date from thousands of years before the Celts arrived in Britain. When the Celts arrived in what is now north Wiltshire, they found a huge ditch-encircled site with four openings, one at each of the cardinal directions, with great stones standing upright within that circle, as well as a double parade of stones standing like sentinels along a pathway toward a nearby hill. Although there is some evidence that the Celts may have adapted the site to their own ritual purposes, as appears to have been the case with the similar monument of stonehenge, Avebury was not built by the Celts but by the mysterious pre-Celtic people of the megalithic civilization. The site is so large that an entire village has sprung up within its boundaries.


Arthurian heroine. This ambitious and vital young British woman, dissatisfied with her options at home, dressed herself up as a young man, renamed herself Grisandole, and headed for adventure. She soon found a job in Rome, as seneschal or steward to the emperor himself. As one of his nearest confidants, Avenable heard him complain about a haunting dream in which a pig was crowned with jewels. The dream told him that only a wild man could interpret it. Avenable found the wild man—none other than the great magician merlin, living in the woods during his period of madness—who indeed interpreted the dream. Rome’s empress was in fact a pig who had engaged in shape-shifting, and her offspring were not really knights but piglets. In horror, the emperor had her killed and, once she had revealed her true gender, married Avenable.


Continental Celtic goddess. The goddess of the healing spring of Trier in Germany was depicted as a nursing mother, suggesting that she may have been a tribal ancestor; she is also shown with baskets of fruit, suggestive of a control over fertility, as well as with dogs, linked by the Celts to otherworld or afterlife powers.


Fairies were said to lust or yearn for humans—babies, lovely maidens, hearty young men, fiddlers, and midwives were at particular risk—whom they stole away from ordinary life into the beauteous but sterile fairyland. Such people were said to be "away" or to have been "taken." When stolen people returned, they were usually unaware of how much time had passed, for a night in fairyland might be hundreds of years in our world. Sometimes a stolen person was replaced by a replica; sometimes they just disappeared. Children were especially at risk of being "taken," for fairy children were often weak or wizened while human babies are plump and happy; putting a piece of iron in the cradle was said to protect the child from being replaced by a changeling. In Ireland the stolen person was thought to be able to escape by removing the vision of fairyland by wiping the eyes with an ointment made of four-leafed clovers or shamrocks. The belief in changelings occasioned several murders, most notably the death by burning of the seamstress Bridget Cleary in 1895. On the Isle of Man, belief in fairy kidnapping survived into recent times as well.

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