Cabyll-Ushtey To Charm (Celtic mythology and folklore)


Manx mythological creature. On the Isle of Man, this variety of the water horse was a monster that stole cattle (and sometimes people) from the safety of land and drowned them in lakes or in the sea.


Breton mythological figure. A sea god or sea monster of Brittany, he came to force the beautiful pagan princess dahut to live with him forever beneath the ocean waves. In the ensuing tumult, Dahut’s magnificent city of ys was destroyed. Some versions of the tale call Dahut’s companion the devil. Cado also appears in the story of the princess blondine as a forgetful suitor who betrays his intended bride after freeing her from her magician father’s captivity.

Cael (Caol)

Irish hero. One of the great romances of Ireland is that of Cael, a slender hero of the fianna who won the heart of the maiden cred by reciting praise-poetry to her. She had challenged the bards of Ireland to create a poem about her palace, into which no man had ever stepped, with the prize being her own hand. Using the telepathic abilities that resulted from his poetic training, Cael crafted the winning verse. But he was soon killed in battle, and Cred, overcome with grief, climbed into the grave to lie beside him one last time, then died there of grief.

Caer (Caer Ibormeith)

Irish heroine or goddess. A moving Irish romance tells of this woman, beloved of the sweet god of poetry, aonghus Og. After dreaming repeatedly of a woman he had never met, Aonghus grew so lovesick that he set out wandering through the world, searching for his mysterious beloved. Finally, on the Lake of Dragon’s Mouths, Aonghus found Caer, swimming in the form of a swan decked in 130 golden chains. Immediately he, too, became a swan, and the two flew away, singing so sweetly that any who heard the melody slept soundly for three days and three nights. One of W. B. Yeats’s most famous poems, "The Song of Wandering Aengus," is based upon this tale.

Caer Arianrhod (Caer Aranrhod)

Welsh mythological site. The great mythic castle of arianrhod, goddess or heroine of the mabino-gion, was said to have been destroyed, like the Breton city of ys, by an inundation brought on by the sinfulness of its inhabitants; this is probably a post-pagan belief reflecting a Christian judgment on the wanton, free-spirited behavior of the goddess, who was said to have had affairs with mermen. A rock off the coast of North Wales, nearly a mile out to sea, is said to be the wreckage of Arianrhod’s great castle, while other sources say it was moved to the heavens.

Caer Idris

Welsh mythological site. At the top of a mountain in Merionethshire, there is a formation of rock reputed to have magical powers. Anyone who spent the night sitting in the stone chair would greet the dawn either insane or inspired with poetry.

Caer Nefenhir

Welsh mythological site. The mysterious "castle of high heaven" was an oth-erworld location that appears in several ancient texts, including the story of kulhwch and olwen.

Caer Wydyr

Welsh mythological site. The "glass fortress" was another Welsh term for annwyn, the mythic and magical otherworld.


Irish hero. The first brehon or judge in Ireland was the otherwise obscure Cai, a member of the race of milesians. He had studied in Egypt, where he learned the law of Moses and arranged the marriage of Mil to scota, daughter of the Pharaoh. When the great biblical flood occurred, Cai fled with Moses, with whom he endured the desert sojourn, but finally he joined his own people in central Europe. From there he sailed for Ireland, serving as brehon to the invaders. The Arthurian hero kay is also called by this name.

Cailitin (Calatin, Calatin)

Irish hero. There were 28 parts to this druid warrior: one man and his 27 identical sons, each of whom was missing his left hand and right foot. After serving an apprenticeship in sorcery in Scotland, the multiple Cailitin enlisted in the service of the great queen medb, who set him/them against the great hero cuchulainn, who killed the entire Cailitin contingent. But the druid’s wife promptly gave birth to two posthumous sets of horrific triplets, one each of daughters and sons; the former included the battle-crow badb, whom Medb trained in wizardry that ultimately was used to bring about Cuchulainn’s death. The one-eyed daughters, in league with Cuchulainn’s enemy lugaidh mac Con Ro, brought about the hero’s death.


(Callech, Caillech, Cailliach, Cailleach Bheirre, Birrn, Bearra, Bhear, Beare, Birra in Ireland; Sentainne Berri on the Isle of Man, Caillagh ny Groamagh in Ulster, Cally Berry; in Scotland, Cailleach Bheur, Cailliche, and Carlin). Scottish and Irish folkloric figure or goddess. This important figure probably descends from a pre-Celtic divinity; she is not found among the continental Celts but is widespread in place-name and legend in Ireland and Scotland. Her name, meaning "veiled one" or "hooded one," is not of Celtic origin but is still used in modern Irish and Scots Gaelic as a name for an old woman or hag. Her antiquity is suggested by the names born by the largest mountains in those lands (Slieve na Cailleach, Knockycallanan) and by legends that she created the landscape by dropping rocks from her apron or throwing them angrily at an enemy; creation legends often are attached to the oldest divinities of a land, and settlement in Ireland preceded the Celts by some 7,000 years. The Cailleach was said to have formed the islands off munster, in Ireland’s southwest, by towing land around with a straw rope, that broke, leaving the islands of Scariff and Deenish stranded in the sea. Another tale tells how she struck an escaping bull with a rod as he swam away from her, turning him into an island of rock.

The Cailleach was described as an ancient woman with a blue-gray face and uncannily sharp eyesight, so sharp that she could see 20 miles as clearly as her hand before her—this despite having but a single eye. In spite of her advanced age, the Cailleach was said to have inordinate strength, so much so that she could best the fastest reaper in the land in a one-on-one contest. Although she was described as unappealing and even fearsome, legend does not show her acting in a threatening fashion toward humans. To the contrary, one of her primary activities was the bestowal of sovereignty on the chosen king, who typically had to kiss or have intercourse with the Cailleach in her hag form before she revealed herself as a splendid young woman—a motif often interpreted as a poetic image of the land blossoming under the rule of a just king. Such tales may derive from a pre-Celtic cosmic tale in which the winter sun’s daughter is born as an old woman and grows younger through the winter, ending as a lovely maid, which was adopted by the arriving Celts and melded to their own myth of kingly inauguration.

In Ireland the Cailleach was especially associated with Munster, where she was called the Hag of Beare after a prominent peninsula there; sometimes she has the name of Beara, while at other times she is called BoL Her divinity was emphasized by triplication, with identical sisters said to live on the nearby Dingle and Iveraugh peninsulas. These areas were associated with the otherworld, in this case especially as a location of the cauldron of plenty, for the Cailleach in that region was considered a goddess of abundance, as her personal name Bo^ (cow, symbol of plenty) suggests.

The Cailleach was preeminently the goddess of harvest, whose name was given to the last sheaf cut in each field; dressed in women’s clothes and honored during the harvest festivities, the Cailleach sheaf was kept safe until the next year’s harvest. The hag goddess was sometimes said to appear as a hare or other small creature; a shout went up from harvesters as they approached the end of a field to "drive the Cailleach" into the next field. Some argue that this harvest Cailleach was a separate goddess from the Hag of Beare, although others see both as aspects of a creative and protective goddess of the land.

In Scotland Carlin was the name given to the spirit of samhain, the end of the harvest; the sheaf representing her was exhibited in the home to discourage Otherworldly visitors. The Scottish Cailleach was, however, less connected with agriculture than with the wildwood, for she was seen as a herder of deer, whose milk she drank. Probably because fine weather was so important during harvest time, the Cailleach was seen as a weather spirit, sometimes called "the old gloomy woman" or envisioned as a crane with sticks in her beak which forecast storms. Winter storms were sometimes greeted by the descriptive phrase, "The Cailleach is trampling the blankets tonight." She was the "sharp old wife," the Cailleach Bhuer, the latter word ("cutting") probably referring to wintry winds; she was also called the "daughter of the little sun," presumably that of winter. Mumming dances drove her away in spring, when she was replaced by the figure of Bride, a maiden figure possibly related to brigit, who married a hero once the winter-witch was frozen into stone; the day of her defeat was March 29.

On the Isle of Man, the Caillagh ny Groamagh ("gloomy old woman") was a witch who, around imbolc, the beginning of spring, went out to gather twigs for her fire; if it was fine and bright, she gathered enough wood to extend the winter, but if weather kept her indoors, she ran through her previously gathered woodpile, and spring came earlier.

A hag-like figure appears in many legends from the insular Celtic lands; she was guardian of the wildwood and its animal life, an artemislike figure who may ultimately derive from a separate aged goddess conflated with the weather-witch Cailleach. This figure, called the Hag of the Hair or the Hag of the Long Teeth, was said to punish hunters who killed pregnant animals, choking them to death with her hair; she was often accompanied by a monstrous cat. In a story told in Scotland, the Cailleach befriended a hunter, permitting him to see which deer she struck in her herd and thus marking it as prey.

The Cailleach appeared in Arthurian legend as the loathy lady who begged a kiss of a kingly contender. She appeared as a hag to per-cival, mocking him because he failed to answer the questions of the mysterious fisher king and thus lost the sacred grail that would have healed the land. She also appeared under the name of ragnell in a famous Arthurian story, in which she assumed the alternative forms of hag and maiden.

One of the most famous Irish medieval poems, written ca. 900 c.e., depicts the Cailleach as a woman mourning her beauty and forced to take the veil in her old age; apparently the Christian author understood the veiled woman as a nun rather than as the earlier crone goddess. However much the author of the "Lament of the Hag of Beare" attempted to bring the Cailleach to heel, he could not entirely subdue her earlier nature, for she slipped in a boast about renewing her virginity like the self-renewing Cailleach of old. In addition to her appearances in Gaelic-language literatures, the Cailleach appeared as Milton’s "blew, meager hag" and as the foul "olde wyf" in Chaucer’s "The wife of Bath’s Tale." The 20th-century Irish poet Austin Clarke updated the Cailleach’s image in his poem. "The Young Woman of Beare."

Caflte (Cailte, Caoilte)

Irish hero. A nephew of fionn mac cumhaill and hunter for the fair grainne, this fianna hero was a poet who entertained after the evening meal with recitations and song. He was also an athlete renowned for his fleetness of foot. How fast was Caflte? So fast that he could herd rabbits by racing around them. So fast that he was able to pick up a fistful of sand from every beach in Ireland every morning, so that if any enemy had stepped upon the land, he could smell the intruder.

In several texts Caflte was described as running the entire length and breadth of Ireland in a single day. In others, he raced with the hag goddess cailleach at cruachan, cutting off her head as he ran; in other stories about the Cailleach, this motif of decapitation resulted in a rebirth missing from this version, unless it can be found in what appears to be a separate story of Caflte racing with a young and beautiful woman; because hag and maiden together comprise the goddess of sovereignty, it is possible that the two tales are mirror images or part of the same original.

Caflte was not fast enough to outrun change. In a famous passage in the colloquy of the elders, Caflte argued pagan values against st. patrick, who preached for Christianity, the worldview that eventually won out against that of the Fianna.

Camtigern Irish goddess or heroine. This minor figure in Irish mythology was the mother of the magical king mongan, whose father was the Irish sea god, manannan mac lir.

Cairbre (Carbry, Carpre, Cairpre, Corpre)

This common male name was borne by several Irish legendary heroes:

• Cairbre mac Eadaoine (Corpre mac Etaine), a poet who bore the matronymic or personal name of his mother the poet etan; his father was ogma, god of eloquence. Cairbre expected to be treated with the hospitality due a bard, but when he visited the royal residence at tara, he was shut into a stinking hut and fed nothing but stale bread. His satire on the stingy ruler bres mac Elatha raised sores on the king’s face; as a blemished king could not reign, Bres was forced to step down. Cairbre employed his magical poetic power next in the second battle of mag tuired, assisting the tuatha de danann toward victory. When he died, his mother’s heart broke and she died with him.

• Cairbre Cinn-Chait (Catcheann), a usurper who ruled over the milesians. His name, "cat-head," was given to him because he had the head of a feline. He seized the throne of tara by ambushing and killing the heirs. But as the Irish land would not bear fruit under an unjust king, this Cairbre’s short reign was followed by the resumption of the kingship by its rightful kings.

• Cairbre Lifechair (of the Coffey) This high king’s outrage at being taxed for his daughter’s wedding led to his waging war upon the wandering heroes of the fianna, which in turn led to the destruction of that legendary fighting force—but at the cost of Cairbre’s life, at the renowned battle of gabhair.

• Cairbre Nia Fer, a king of tara who opposed cuchulainn and was killed by him; he was renowned for his 12 handsome daughters.


Irish heroine. The consort of eochaid Mugmedon and mother of niall of the Nine Hostages, Cairenn was said to have been a British princess who was captured and enslaved in Ireland despite her regal status; thus the great king of tara, ancestor of the O’Neill family, would have been half-British. Eochaid’s first wife, mongfhinn, was jealous of her husband, and thus Cairenn stole away from Tara’s court to give birth near a sacred well. As with many early Irish kings, Niall’s birth and later life are described in mythological terms.


Mythological site. On the tops of mountains and at other significant places throughout the Celtic lands, mounds of rock are found, left by the unknown pre-Celtic people of the mega-lithic civilization. Some of these have interior chambers, while others apparently do not. Many cairns were adapted by the Celts to their own mythological uses and became sites of legend and, possibly, ritual as well (see court tombs).

Cait sith

Scottish mythological animal. In the Scottish Highlands, this black spectral creature of ambiguous species (probably feline) was so large that it was sometimes mistaken for a black dog. Although its name ("fairy cat") suggests that it was of the fairy race, it was also reported to be a shape-shifting witch or her familiar.

Ccake (struan, strone)

Symbolic object. At certain feasts, cake (sometimes called bannock) was served, not only as a festive food but as part of a ritual. In some sites, the cake was displayed to all in attendance, then won by the best dancer or athlete, who was then charged with breaking and distributing the cake. One piece of the cake was sometimes blackened, and the person who drew that piece was said to be "devoted," a custom that may suggest an ancient rite of human sacrifice.


Irish mythological object. The sword of the great warrior fergus mac Roich may have been associated with king arthur’s magical excalibur, for its name reflects the Welsh name for the latter. Caladbolg caused rainbows whenever Fergus used it, as when he lopped off the tops of the midlands mountains, creating the flattened hills we see today.

Calamity meat

Irish folkloric motif. This term was used of animals that died accidentally, falling over a cliff or crushed by a boulder or in another unusual fashion. The bodies of such animals were supposed to be buried whole, with not a bite taken of them nor a steak cut off their flanks, for they were thought bewitched by the fairies—or, even worse, to be the disguised body of an aged dead fairy, left behind when the living animal was stolen away. It was best as well to puncture the animal’s hide with an iron nail before burying it, to protect the land in which it was buried from further fairy influence. Until recent times, rural people in Scotland and Ireland refused to eat calamity meat for fear of devouring a fairy cadaver.


Celtic land. Now used poetically to mean Scotland, Caledonia was originally a tribal territory in northern Britain. When the Romans occupied the island, they encountered a people called the Cadedonii, who later united with other Celtic tribes including the Lugi, Taezali, Decantae, and Smeretae to form the Caledonian confederacy, which fiercely opposed Roman occupation. The Caledonian language, still not completely understood, has been claimed as an ancestor to or relative of Welsh. The ancient tribal name still hides in the name Dunkeld, the "fort of the Caledonians," in Scotland.


Cosmological concept. Unlike most ancient people, the Celts did not divide the seasons at solstices (the year’s longest and shortest days) and equinoxes (when day and night are equal). Rather, they began and ended seasons at the central points between the solar pivots. Thus winter began on samhain, November 1, midway between the autumnal equinox on September 21 and the winter solstice on December 21. Similarly, spring began on imbolc, February 1; summer on beltane, May 1; and fall on lugh-nasa, August 1. Some scholars have argued that this annual division was not Celtic but Irish, since such a calendar is not found among the continental Celts and since it more clearly reflects the seasonal cycle in Ireland than in France. Such great stone monuments as stonehenge and Newgrange (see bru na boinne) are pre-Celtic, designed to mark points of the solar year rather than the midpoints celebrated by the Celts; nonetheless the Celts adapted them to their own use and wove myth and legend around them.

The Celts saw darkness as preceding light, both in the diurnal and the annual cycle. Thus a day began at sundown; Samhain began on the evening of October 31, which we now call Hallowe’en or the "hallowed evening." Similarly Samhain marked the beginning of the new year and the end of the old. This precedence of night over day has given rise alternatively to theories of a dualistic struggle between light and dark on the one hand, and a matrifocal society that honored women’s cycles on the other; neither interpretation has been proved or disproved.

A break in this pattern came in the organization of the lunar months, which began with the full moon, perhaps because it was more readily visible than the dark new moon. The coligny Calendar of the continental Celtic people shows the months as follows: Samonious (October/ November), Dumannios (November/December), Ruaros (December/January), Anagantios (January/February), Ogronios (February/March), Cutios (March/April), Giamonios (April/May), Simivisonios (May/June), Equos (June/July), Elembiuos (July/August), Edrinios (August/

September), and Cantlos (September/October). A 13 th month, Mid Samonious, was added every 30 months to adapt the lunar year to the longer solar year.

Caliburn (Carliburnus, Caladfwlch, Caedvwlch)

British mythological object. Alternative name for excalibur, the magical sword of arthur.

Callanish (Callernish)

Scottish mythological site. This stone circle on the isle of Lewis and Harris, part of the Outer Hebrides off Scotland, is widely renowned. Every 18 years, the full moon, as seen from Callanish, rises from the feet of a woman-shaped hill and travels across her body until it sets behind her head. Celtic peoples probably converted such monuments, built by the megalithic civilization some 4,000 years prior to their arrival in the land, to their own ritual purposes. Local tradition has it that the stones of Callanish, like many other stone circles, were originally giants who were turned to stone, in this case for refusing the opportunity to convert to Christianity.


British god. Equated by the Romans with the woodland god silvanus, Callirius was honored at a temple near Colchester; he may have been the genius loci of the region.


Welsh and British mythological site. Several places in England and Wales lay claim to having been the site of the legendary court of King arthur, where noble knights gathered around the round table to determine their next adventurous quest; a favorite contender is Cadbury Camp in Somerset. The great palace was said to have been erected overnight by the magician merlin. The name Camelot has come to mean an ideal kingdom, despite the downfall of its heroic king Arthur. Camelot should be distinguished from avalon, the otherworld realm of the lady of the lake and other powerful beings; Camelot was entirely of this world, though affected by influences from beyond.

Camlan (Camlaun, Camlann)

Welsh mythological site. This unknown spot was said by early writers to be the site of the final battle of king arthur’s reign, at which he was defeated by his son/nephew mordred and from which he was taken to the otherworld by the mysterious lady of the lake.

Camulos (Camulus)

British god. Little is left to identify the significance of this god whose name was incorporated in the important town of Camulodunum, "fort of Camulos," now Colchester. The invading Romans identified him with their war god mars. It has been theorized that he may be a parallel to the Irish ancestral father cumhall, father of the hero fionn mac cumhaill.

Canach (catkin, cloimh-chat)

Scottish folkloric motif. The fluffy white wool of the cattail, a reed that grows in marshes, was once thought to be shape-shifted witches, riding to their secret gatherings on the winds. The same was said to be true of snowflakes, in which witches could hide as they traveled. The fibers of catkins or cat-wool, which carry the seeds of such trees as the birch and the poplar, could be twisted into little white cords that were reputed to keep away witchcraft and other evil.


Irish heroine. The harp, one of today’s emblems of Ireland, was invented by this legendary woman. After arguing with a lover, Canola left his side to wander the night. At the seashore, she heard sweet music and, under its influence, fell asleep under the stars. Upon awakening, she discovered that the music had been made by sinews, still attached to the rib-bones of a whale, through which the wind was singing. This discovery inspired her to build the first harp.

Cano mac

Gartnain Irish hero. This character is closely parallel to cael, for both were warrior bards beloved of cred, the princess of con-nacht, daughter of the legendary king guaire. Cano fled to Ireland after his father’s murder, and although Cred was already married to a king, she and Cano fell hopelessly and instantly in love. Although he refused to consummate their affair until he had regained his kingdom, Cano gave his external soul to Cred in the form of a stone. Their attempt to meet for a tryst was thwarted by Cred’s stepson, child of her rejected husband, and in despair the queen killed herself—crushing Cano’s soul-stone in the process and thus killing him as well.

Caoimhe (Keeva, Keeva of the White Skin)

Irish heroine. The daughter of the great hero fionn mac cumhaill, she does not figure significantly in legend, except as the wife of Fionn’s great enemy, goll mac morna.

Caointeach (Caoineag)

Scottish mythological being. Highland names ("wailer" and "weeper" respectively) for the banshee, who called out when death was imminent. She sat by a waterfall and wailed before any death, but made a particular commotion when disaster loomed; the Caointeach of the Macdonalds mourned for days in advance of the horrific massacre at Glencoe.

The Caointeach was sometimes seen to wash the clothing of the doomed at night, like the washer at the ford. She was not an unfriendly spirit, despite the woe her presence predicted, and she found human grief to be desperately affecting, causing her to weep even more copiously. Like other fairies, these beings were carefully ignored; it was especially important not to reward them for doing their jobs, which caused them to disappear leaving the family without a designated death-warner.

The Welsh version of this creature was called the Cyhyreath; her cries were said to imitate the sighs and groans of the dying.


Irish heroine or goddess. This name is given to a female figure associated with a healing well in Co. Roscommon, where Caolainn was said to have healed herself of a self-inflicted wound. When a man spoke admiringly of her beautiful eyes, Caolainn gouged them out and flung them at him, then groped her way to the well, tore rushes from its perimeter, and wiped her bloody sockets, whereupon her eyes grew back. The same story was told of brigit, the Christian saint, who was also associated with wells that offer healing for eye complaints.

Caoranach (Keeronagh, Caorthannach)

Irish mythological being. This monstrous serpent lived in the waters of lough derg in Donegal, in Ireland’s northern province of ulster. Near the Christian pilgrimage site of Station Island, a stone is still pointed out as the skeleton of this creature. Now called the Altar of Confession, the indented stone resembles a bullaun, an ancient pitted stone whose use and significance is unclear. The serpent Caoranach—like the sky demon corra (the devil’s mother), who may have been the same mythic creature—was killed by st. patrick, who fought Caoranach for two nights and two days while both were submerged in the waters of her lake. Many legends say that Patrick did not succeed in killing Caoranach, who is allegedly still alive in the lake and appears during stormy weather. Like a water horse, she could suck men and cattle into her voracious mouth; she was also a portent of doom, for anyone who saw a light inside her cave would die within the year.

Earlier legends link

Caoranach to mythological heroes like fionn mac cumhaill and his son, conan. When the shinbones of Fionn’s mother were thrown into Lough Derg, they immediately came alive as Caoranach. The serpent swam instantly to shore and swallowed Conan, but the hero fought his way out from her belly, killing the serpent in the process. When Conan emerged, he was both skinless and hairless, thus earning the name Conan Muil, "bald Conan." The blood of the dying serpent stained the lake red, hence its name ("Dark Lake"). In a Christian version of this story, Patrick himself was swallowed by Caoranach, cutting his way out with his crosier.

Captive fairies

Irish mythological theme. Although not easy to do, it was possible to ensnare some kinds of fairies under certain circumstances. leprechauns could be captured by grabbing the little fellows by their teeny shoulders; they employed all kinds of trickery to escape, and so rarely did their stash of hoarded gold pass into human hands. Fairy women who swam about earthly lakes disguised as swans could be captured if one stole the swanskin robe that lay in the reeds by the side of the lake (see swan-maiden). The robe, however, had to be kept from the maiden’s sight thereafter, for no matter how many children an apparently contented fairy wife might bear to her human husband, should she reclaim her swanskin she would disappear into the nearest lake. The same was true of seal-wives or silkies, whose skin robes had to be similarly concealed; several famous families of Ireland, including the Coneellys and the Flahertys, are said to have descended from such captured seal-wives.

Caradawg (Carradoc, Caradog)

Welsh hero. In the Welsh mythological texts called the mabinogion, Caradawg appeared as the son of the heroic king bran the blessed. Although still a youth, Caradawg was left behind as ruler of Wales when his father traveled to Ireland to wage war against the king who was holding Caradawg’s aunt branwen in an abusive marriage. But Caradawg was unable to hold his father’s throne against a usurper, caswallawn, who killed all the royal retainers but Caradawg; his failure to protect the throne caused Caradawg to die of heartbreak. Another Caradawg, who bears the name of Freichfras ("of the strong arm") or Briefbras ("short-armed"), is named in literature as an adviser to king arthur.


Scottish heroine or goddess. In Scotland, this was a name for the cailleach as a harvest divinity.


Irish goddess or heroine. This powerful figure in Irish legend was said to have been one of the earliest rulers of Ireland, a mighty but destructive sorceress whose three sons were equally distressing: darkness (Dub), wickedness (Dothur), and violence (Dian). Together they maliciously blighted Ireland’s corn until the people of the goddess danu, the tuatha de danann, mustered sufficient magic to drive Carman’s sons from the land.

Carman herself was a greater challenge. First the Tuatha De sent a bard against her, but he failed to stop her destructive energy; then a satirist came, but he too failed; finally the sorceress be chuille cast a spell sufficient to undo Carman’s. Upon hearing that her sons had been killed, Carman died of grief. Despite the enmity between the Tuatha De and Carman, a great festival was staged in her honor, called the oenach Carman, whose site has been variously located on the Curragh in Co. Kildare and on the plains of the River Barrow in the same county, suggesting that she was a force to be propitiated. Similar festivals were also staged in honor of the goddesses tailtiu and tlachtga, suggesting an ancient connection of such goddesses to the harvest season.


Continental Celtic symbol. In many parts of the continental Celtic world, archaeologists have found models of a feminine figure— assumed to be a goddess—being borne on a cart or wagon, some of them from the earliest Celtic era (ca. 800 b.c.e.). The bronze Strettweg cart shows this figure; the arguably Celtic or Celtic-inspired gundestrup cauldron shows small men riding alongside a cart on which a larger female figure is carried.

There is little textual evidence of a ritual involving a cart, except the description by the Roman historian Tacitus of a Germanic rite in which a goddess was carried in an ox-drawn wagon around the land in the spring. A similar rite was known in Celtic Gaul, where the goddess was called berecynthia, a name not otherwise known. In some areas, the annual conveyance of the goddess through the greening spring survived Christianization, for we have early medieval records of the goddess riding her cart through the fields to protect the crops.

Casan Buidhe (Yellow Legs, Weaver of the Yellow Legs)

Scottish folkloric figure. This famous wizard preyed upon travelers as they attempted to cross rivers. He shape-shifted into a large stag and terrified those in the middle of the ford so that they dropped their treasures to run for safety, or drowned in fright, whereupon he helped himself to their wealth. Finally, a smith (always a magical being) confronted the wizard and destroyed him.

Caswallawn (Casswallon, Caswallan, Caswallan fab Beli Mawr)

Welsh hero. In the Welsh stories compiled as the mabinogion, this warrior wore a cloak of invisibility that gave him great advantage in battle. He used it to wage war against his own cousins, taking the throne of bran the blessed from his son caradawg while Bran was in Ireland fighting to free his hostage sister, branwen. Caswallawn contended with the Roman emperor Julius Caesar for the love of the fair fflur, possibly a form of the goddess of sovereignty whose approval permitted a man to rule.


Folkloric animal. In ancient Ireland, wild cats resembling the cougar or mountain lion ranged the land; the pre-Celtic people of the megalithic civilization may have honored them, if the burial of a cat at the great chamber of fourknocks is evidence of a religious rite. Although the big cats have long since become extinct in all the ancient Celtic lands, they live on in myth and legend, and the smaller Scottish wild cat is still found in the woods and moors of northern Scotland.

Prowling the night with glowing eyes, showing extraordinary physical flexibility and agility, cats were believed to seek the companionship of old women who practiced magic as witches. On the Isle of Man, all cats were believed unlucky, while in Ireland only black ones were to be avoided—unless their blood was needed for healing rituals. In Scotland black cats were believed to be shape-shifting witches, a belief that may explain some common American Hallowe’en decorations. The contemporary fear of black cats, like their association with witches and Hallowe’en, may be Celtic in origin, although some have traced the connection to the Greek goddess of witchcraft, Hecate, who was also associated with cats.

The connection of cats and witchcraft includes fortune-telling rituals; divination by killing cats was used in Scotland. Both witches and cats were believed to have the power to control or predict the weather. When a cat washed its face, rain was supposed to follow; if it walked away from the fire, a storm was brewing. Caution and even discomfort was the typical reaction to cats, hence the common Irish greeting, "God bless all here except the cat."

Several important mythological sites are named for cats, although there is little mythology left to explain the names. A cave in Ireland’s Co. Roscommon, believed to open into the otherworld, is called oweynagat, the Cave of the Cats. It is not known whether Oweynagat is the cave recorded as the site of a divination rite involving a spectral cat. In Scotland’s Black Wood of Chesthill in magical glen lyon, a tall megalith called Clach Taghairm nan Cat, "the stone of the devil cat," was said to be where cats gathered to celebrate Hallowe’en.

Cats are found in myth as well as folklore. Black cats, like black dogs, were often found at Otherworldly sites and events. Cats appear in a number of Celtic tales, usually in circumstances that suggest a connection to the Otherworld. In the Voyage of maelduin, the hero came upon a magical island on which a majestic palace stood, all hung with gorgeous draperies. There a single cat lived in splendor. When one of the hero’s companions attempted to steal some of the island’s treasures, the cat shape-shifted into an arrow and brought the thief down.

The most famous extant legend regarding supernatural cats came from Ireland, where it was said that the land’s chief bard, Seanchan Toirpeist, was disgusted once when mice walked upon the banquet table and stuck their whiskers in the egg he was about to eat. This inspired him to compose a satire in which he derided the Irish cats—including their high king—for failing to keep the island free of mice. Across the land, in his palace at the bru na boinne, the king of cats Irusan magically overheard the satire and swelled up to twice his normal size in fury at the insult. He leapt across the land and grabbed the poet, fully intending to eat him, but when the grappling pair reached the abbey of Clonmacnoise, where the saints Kieran and Dunstan were doing some metalwork (see smith), the plot was foiled. The saints threw metal rods like javelins at the cat, which dropped the terrified poet and disappeared.

Cathafr Mor (Cathaoir Mor)

Irish hero. Before the great conn of the Hundred Battles became king of tara, this king—whose name means "great battle-lord"—reigned over the land. Although little was recorded of the king himself except his replacement by and death at the hands of Conn, Cathafr was the father of several significant women: eithne Thaebfhota, wife of the hero and king cormac mac airt and mother of his son cairbre Lifechair; and cochrann, mother of the romantic hero diar-mait Ua Duibne. One text describes a dream of Cathafr’s, in which a woman was pregnant an unduly long time, finally giving birth to a son near a fragrant, singing fruit tree. His druid explained to Cathafr that the lady was the River Slaney that ran near Tara, her child the harbor at its mouth, and the singing tree the king himself.

Cathbad (Cathbhadh)

Irish hero. A powerful druid of the court of king concobar mac nessa, Cathbad was an important figure in the ulster cycle. Lusting after the studious maiden Assa ("gentle"), Cathbad had her tutors killed to gain access to her; this violent destruction of her peaceful life turned the girl into a warrior who went by the name of nessa ("ungentle"). Cathbad was undeterred, however, by his intended victim’s fierce strength. Surprising Nessa at her bath—the only time she was without her weapons—he raped her and thereafter kept her hostage as his concubine.

But Nessa outwitted Cathbad. Skilled in reading omens, she realized that a worm that she found floating in a glass of wine would impregnate her with a hero, whereupon she swallowed it, conceiving the king concobar mac nessa. Cathbad later became the teacher of Concobar’s hero, cuchulainn, and father of the heroine findchoem, who employed the same method of insemination as had Nessa. Cathbad made an appearance in the romantic tale of deirdre, before whose birth he predicted she would bring sorrow to Ulster.

Cathleen ni Houlihan (Caitlm Ni hUallachain)

Irish goddess. This name for the sovereignty goddess was made popular by W. B. Yeats in his play of the same title, in which the resplendent actress and activist Maud Gonne appeared as Cathleen, a poor old woman who turned into a queen, echoing the tales of the cailleach.

Cath Paluc

Welsh mythological figure. "Paluc’s Cat" was a Welsh monster in feline form who ate 180 men at every meal. The presence of such figures in Celtic mythology has led some to argue for an ancient cult of the cat, of which Cath Paluc is believed to be a vestige.

Cathubodua (Cauth Bova, Badb Catha)

Continental Celtic goddess. Gaulish goddess whose name means "Battle Raven." See badb.

Cat Sith

Scottish folkloric figure. In the Highlands, this huge dark creature was believed to be either a fairy or a witch in disguise.


Symbolic animal. Cattle were an important economic resource to the Celts, who were predominantly a herding people. Thus cattle not only represented wealth symbolically but defined it in fact. In consequence, many Celtic divinities, rituals, and myths were connected with cattle. The white cow goddess bo find represented the abundance of stable, healthy herds, while the morrigan was the otherworld aspect of cattle, driving her herds through the narrow opening of the cave at oweynagat and away from the surface world. divination was performed by sleeping in the hide of a recently slaughtered bull (see bull-sleep); cattle were driven between signal fires on beltane, the beginning of the summer grazing season, to magically assure their health and well-being.

Cattle raid

Irish ritual and mythological text. Stealing cattle from neighboring kingdoms represented an ongoing and dangerous sport for young men, who gained acclaim and power through their prowess in the cattle raid. Because cattle represented wealth and power, there may have been a ritual aspect to these cattle raids; certainly they appear in numerous myths.

The cattle raid (Tain) was also an Irish literary form, the most famous of which described the epic raid by connacht’s queen medb against the province of ulster, in order to steal a great bull who could match her husband’s legendary white bull finnbennach; the story is told in the epic tain bo cuailnge. Another famous cattle raid involved fraech, husband of Medb’s daughter finnabair.


Continental Celtic god. Inscriptions to this obscure god, whose name seems to mean "king of battle," have been found in central European regions; the occupying Romans identified Caturix with their warrior god mars.


Folkloric motif. Infants are sometimes born with a veil of skin, called a caul, over their faces. In most cultures, this was believed to set the child apart from others in some way; such was the case in Celtic lands, where the caul typically signified access to otherworld knowledge. On the seagirt Isle of Man, children born with a caul were believed to be blessed, as they could never drown; they grew up to become sought-after fishing mates. The caul was usually preserved and worn or carried as a charm against the sea’s fury. In Ireland the caul was called the "cap of happiness" and was preserved as a good-luck charm.

Cauld Lad

British folkloric figure. This form of the brownie was occasionally found in Britain, where he shivered nakedly but helped around the house until the householder, worried about his condition, gave him a cloak, thus laying the fairy and causing his disappearance.


Celtic symbolic object. The cauldron was both a domestic object, used in the home for brewing and stewing, and a sacred one, the secret place where new life was brewed and stewed. As such, it was a symbol of great power to the Celts. The Roman author Strabo described a sacramental cauldron sent by the Cimbri to Caesar Augustus; Strabo claimed that the Celts ritually cut the throats of prisoners over such cauldrons. A ritual of that sort may have been the reason for the creation of the gundestrup cauldron. This great silver vessel was found in Denmark, not commonly considered Celtic territory, but the mythic figures on the cauldron (including cernunnos and an unidentified gigantic goddess), as well as interlacing abstract decorations, mark it as a likely Celtic product. Other, smaller cauldrons have been found deposited in bogs and lakes, apparently as offerings to the otherworld powers.

The cauldron’s basic meaning was fullness and abundance; Ireland’s "good god," called the dagda, had a cauldron forever filled with good things, while the Welsh goddess ceridwen used hers for cooking up a broth that endowed drinkers with unfathomable wisdom (see tal-iesin). Yet even abundance and plenty could be mismanaged. In the Welsh mabinogion, we find a cauldron of rebirth—Irish in origin—wherein soldiers’ bodies were thrown so that they might come back, alive yet soulless, to fight again.


Symbolic site. Openings to the other-world held a special place in the Celtic imagination. These were to be found in such liminal zones as bogs and swamps; in land surrounded by water, such as seagirt islands; and in places that join different levels of the world, such as caves and mountains. The parallelism of cave and mountain was reinforced when raths or hillforts were built near natural caves. In Ireland the most mythologically significant cave was oweynagat, the Cave of the Cats, a natural underground gallery beneath medb’s rath at cruachan in Co. Roscommon. Down its tiny entry, the great queen morrigan drove her Otherworldly cattle; within it, the great cauldron of abundance, once kept at Tara but later returned to the Otherworld, was stored. The cave, like other passages to the Otherworld, was considered especially powerful on samhain, when spirits rushed around it. Many of the epics set at Cruachan begin on Samhain, including the Adventure of nera and the famous tain bo cuailnge.


Scottish mythological being. Sea captains were often born from the mating of this Highland mermaid—half woman, half salmon— who was also known as the maighdean na tuinne or "maiden of the wave." Like other captured fairies, she was said to grant wishes to her captor. But like any other seagoing siren, she was also capable of capturing humans, who usually lost their lives upon entering her watery domain.

Ceibhfhionn (Cabfin)

Irish goddess. This Irish goddess of inspiration stood beside the well of wisdom, filling a vessel with its water, which she then spilled on the ground rather than letting humans drink it. She may be a human form of the magical fish that lived within the pool, an elusive being that kept wisdom for itself by eating the nuts that fell from enchanted hazel trees into the well’s water.

Celidon (Cellydon)

Arthurian site. Like the legendary forest broceliande in Brittany, the dense woods of Celidon in Britain appear in several legends, although their actual location is not known. An important battle that led to a victory for king arthur’s knights took place at Celidon; the magician merlin wandered there during his period of madness.


Irish hero. Rapist son of the good king cormac mac airt, he played little role in myth except to cause the end of his father’s reign; when Cormac fought the vengeful father of Cellach’s victim, his eye was put out, thus forcing him to step down from the throne of tara because a blemished king could not reign.


Irish hero. The laws of hospitality were taken very seriously by the Celts, and when the warrior Celtchair offended against this tradition by spilling blood on the fidchell board on which his king, concobar mac nessa, was contending with the hero cuchulainn, Celtchair was forced to take on three impossible tasks to repair the damage to his reputation. He managed two of them, but then was killed when a spectral dog, scourge of the land, splattered its blood upon him as he killed it. The poisonous blood ended Celtchair’s life, but he died with his honor intact.

Celtic pantheon

Celtic religion was fundamentally pantheistic, based on a belief in many rather than one god. Fiercely tribal and extraordinarily local, the Celtic religious world was also radically different from the structured, hierarchical mythologies of Greece and Rome. Few Celtic gods or goddesses are known from more than one carved inscription or a single mention in a text; the majority appear to have been divinities of a small region, a tiny unit of population, or both (see tuath). This extreme polytheism gave rise to the oath used by Celts in Roman times, "I swear by the gods my people swear by." Any vision of an organized Celtic pantheon, with one divinity at the top and descending ranks beneath, cannot be supported by literature or archaeology.

The invading Romans dealt with the overwhelming number of Celtic divinities by interpreting them all as versions of Roman gods; thus we have dozens of titles for mercury or minerva. But how closely Celtic deities actually corresponded to Roman ones is impossible to know. The apollo of one place may have been a healing god, while the Apollo of another place downriver was a divinity of song and magic. Thus Roman renaming of regional divinities both preserved them in vestigial form and cloaked their true identities.

Celtic religion

The differences between religion, mysticism, superstition, ritual, and myth have been carefully articulated by scholars, but there is often unacknowledged bias in the use of one or the other word to describe the practices and beliefs of people in Celtic lands. Religion is technically the practice of ritual based in a socially supported sequence of narratives; mysticism is a personal engagement with nature that results in a feeling of timeless unity; superstition is a baseless belief or ritualized behavior that often represents a degraded form of an earlier religion. Mythology and ritual are connected, the first being a narrative or narrative sequence, the second being actions or behaviors that evoke or reflect that myth.

Certain problems arise in defining and describing Celtic religion. The Celtic peoples did not employ writing, believing that religious secrets were better shared orally. Thus there is little textual evidence for what the Celts believed; what we have was written down after literacy arrived, along with Christianity, in Celtic lands. We also have some texts written by those who were at war with the Celts, including the Roman general (later emperor) Caesar and the army geographer Tacitus; whether they accurately recorded what their enemies believed is unclear, even doubtful. Thus the mythic basis of Celtic ritual may not be accurately known.

The same is true of Celtic ritual. The druids left no prayer books or other evidence of how they enlivened mythological narrative through ritual. We have only descriptions of Celtic rituals written by foreigners and enemies. Even when accuracy was their goal—and propaganda-conscious leaders writing to convince an audience to continue a war may have not made accuracy a prime intention—a writer might misapprehend the meaning of ritual, making a false analogy to a known ritual or failing to see references that the typical member of Celtic society would immediately recognize.

Besides written texts, Celtic religion can be studied through analysis of objects found by archaeologists. Here too, however, we face difficulties of interpretation. Whether an object was intended for ritual, was merely decorative, or was made for nonreligious use is not necessarily clear from examining it. Similarly, its connection to mythological narrative may not be known, either because the myth has been altered in transmission or because it has been completely lost. In addition, Celtic artists began to follow classical models after the Romanization of Celtic lands, so it becomes extremely difficult to tease out the solely Celtic part of Romano-Celtic finds.

Despite these difficulties, some aspects of Celtic religion are generally accepted. It was polytheistic, meaning that there were many gods (see polytheism). There were, in fact, so many gods and goddesses that some seem only to have been known in a very small area or among a small group. In addition, the Celts left no grand temples, leading scholars to picture a ritual life celebrated in nature. Together, these two facts lead to a description of Celtic religion as based in the natural aspects of the land, which varied greatly from place to place and therefore may have been quite differently celebrated.

Celtic revival

Contemporary movement. In the last quarter-century, many people have been drawn to Celtic spirituality and mythology, seeking a spiritual vision rooted in heritage that meets contemporary needs. Ecological concerns draw those who find in the Celts a pre-capitalis-tic view of land that supports a post-capitalist utopian vision; to such seekers, the Celtic view of nature as permeated with spiritual meaning is significant and satisfying. Others cast a wom-anist or feminist eye on Celtic literature in which strong, active women play a major role. Still others are drawn by personal heritage and the search for deep roots in an imagined pagan past. Many of these people simply read books about Celtic matters and listen to spiritually inspired Celtic music; others take self-described pilgrimages to Celtic lands, while yet others form groups that practice rites allegedly derived from Celtic sources. Such seekers may call themselves druids, pagans (see paganism), neo-pagans, wiccans (see wicca), or witches.

Such attempts are not new; the British order of Druids, established almost a hundred years ago, grew from an earlier revival of interest in personal applications of real or imagined Celtic lore, while the great burst of Irish creativity called the celtic twilight was both ritual and artistic. Celtic revivalism has grown impressively in recent years, leading some scholars to object to—even to deride—its varied movements. From a scholarly point of view, many participants are indeed deficient; they do not read the original languages or even, in some cases, seek out competent translations of significant texts. Some of the material they believe traditional is of relatively recent origin; some of their rituals derive from Masonic rather than Celtic sources; some of their hopeful social attitudes are not yet supported by archaeology. Yet Celtic revivalism seems unlikely to wane in the near future. Should scholars become less resistant to the spiritual quest, they could find a ready audience for their work among practitioners, who in turn could root their reinvented religious practices more firmly in history.

Celtic shamanism

Although found throughout the world, shamanism is often described as an arctic religion; the word shaman derives from the Tungus language of southern Siberia. Some scholars argue that aspects of Celtic religion suggest a connection with shamanic traditions, which may or may not mean a historical connection with the peoples of the arctic. Primary links between Celtic religion and shamanism are the role of the poet as shape-shifting seer (see bard) and the vision of another world separate but linked to ours (see otherworld). According to this interpretation, the poet’s ability to become "a wave of the sea, a tear of the sun"—as the famous "Song of amairgin" has it—is similar to the transformation of a shaman into a bear or other animal while in a trance induced by drumming and dancing;similarly, the role of the poet in maintaining social balance through satire can be seen as similar to the healing function of the traditional arctic shaman. Further, the Celtic Otherworld has been compared to the Dreamtime of the Australian aboriginals, a culture defined as shamanic.

Other aspects of traditional shamanism are arguably absent from Celtic life; it is not known, for instance, whether ingestion of psychotropic plants was known among the Celts, although there is strong evidence of alcohol use for that purpose (see ale). Similarly, there is no indication of a Celtic version of the so-called arctic hysteria, a mental disorder that usually precedes shamanic initiation. Yet such acknowledged shamanic practitioners as the Okinawan nuru and the south Korean mudang are trained for many years and rarely suffer mental collapse, so the lack of "arctic hysteria" among the Celts does not in itself mean their religious culture cannot be called shamanic. The lack of scholarly agreement on this topic has not inhibited groups and individuals from promoting themselves or their organization as representatives of Celtic shamanism.

Some scholars object to the construction of Celtic religion as shamanic, arguing that the word is properly used to describe Asian religions and that there is little evidence of religious influence from that area on the Celts. Some academics evince discomfort with any reconstruction of historical religion, and, indeed, the more egre-giously commercial versions of Celtic shamanism have little theoretical or spiritual basis. Serious scholars disagree, in some cases profoundly, on whether to consider Celtic religion as shamanic.


Twilight artistic movement This term describes an early 20th-century Irish movement, predominantly literary but also involving artists, politicians, and other visionaries who saw themselves living in a long dim evening after a glorious ancient "day" of Celtic heroism and romance. Such poets as William Butler Yeats, inspired by such ideas, wrote poems using the personae of ancient divinities or telling their myths; dramatists like Lady Augusta Gregory set their works in a (sometimes too imaginatively) reconstructed Celtic Ireland.

Some of the artworks of the period seem self-conscious, even contrived, especially when compared to early modernist art produced at the same time. Yet the ideals of the Celtic Twilight resulted in the recording of a significant amount of folklore and oral literature that might otherwise have been lost. In addition, part of the movement was the attention to the then-dying Irish language; Celtic Twilight ideals were in part responsible for the promotion of Irish as the national language of the new Republic and the insistence on teaching Irish in the new nation’s schools, which led to the maintenance of the language during a critical time.


Irish god. A name given to the dagda, perhaps signifying "creator," occasionally used in texts or place-names.


Irish heroine. This obscure figure is named in the book of invasions as one of the five wives of the hero partholon, the others being Aifi, Elgnad or dealgnaid, Cichban, and Nerbgen. She is otherwise unknown.


Celtic ritual. Consistent with the decentralization of Celtic religion, there seem to have been no ceremonies shared by all Celts. Even the major holidays (see calendar) conventionally associated with the Celtic year may have been only Irish; thus the presumption that beltane fires were lit throughout the Celtic world, for instance, or rush crosses were plaited everywhere at imbolc, cannot be upheld. In the same way, we find no evidence of rites of passage shared across Celtic Europe, no formulae for marriage or initiation; even death customs vary, with cremation and exhumation both being found, sometimes even within one tribe. There is significant evidence that the kingly inauguration ritual—in which a woman representing the earth goddess offered a drink (and possibly, other refreshments as well) to the new king— was practiced throughout Ireland. Yet the ritual is not found in other European Celtic lands, leading some to argue that it originated among pre-Celtic people, while others claim similar rituals in India suggest an Indo-European origin.

What defines Celtic religion, therefore, is not shared ritual but shared cosmology or worldview. The Celts saw nature as sacred, therefore honoring the elements in outdoor festivals rather than by building temples or shrines. They were not dualistic in their worldview; paired divinities were complementary rather than in opposition. Many scholars perceive a threefold division of society (king, nobles, commoners) reflected in aspects of their religion. No evidence, however, has been found of a pan-Celtic ritual or ceremony.

Ceridwen (Caridwen, Cerridwen, Cariadwen, Keridwen)

Welsh goddess. On an island in the middle of Lake Bala (Llyn Tegid) in north Wales this fearsome goddess (sometimes called a witch or sorceress) lived with her mate, tegid voel ("the bald"), and their two children, the beautiful Creirwy ("light") and the ugliest little boy in the world, afagddu ("dark"). To compensate for his unfortunate appearance, Ceridwen planned to make her son a great seer, and to this end she brewed a powerful secret mixture of herbs. Into her cauldron she piled the herbs to simmer for a year and a day—a magical length of time appropriate to such a concoction.

The brew had to be stirred regularly, and Ceridwen was not always on hand to keep the brew mixed. So she set a little boy named gwion to stir the cauldron, warning him that he must on no account taste it. Three tiny drops splattered from the cooking pot onto Gwion’s thumb, which he popped in his mouth to ease the burn. Immediately, all the wisdom and inspiration Ceridwen had intended for Afagddu was Gwion’s.

When she discovered the boy’s unwitting theft, Ceridwen was furious. But with his new insight, Gwion had foreseen her reaction and fled. Ceridwen started after him. Gwion transformed himself into a hare; Ceridwen matched him, turning into a greyhound. He became a fish, she an otter; he became a bird, she a hawk; finally he turned into a grain of wheat, she became a hen, and she ate him up.

In Celtic legends, eating is often a form of intercourse that leads to pregnancy; many heroines and goddesses become pregnant after drinking an insect in a glass of water. And so it was with Ceridwen, who was impregnated by the transformed Gwion; nine months later, she bore a boy child. Still angry at the thieving little boy but touched by his reborn beauty, Ceridwen set him adrift on the sea, from which he was rescued by a nobleman; he grew up to be the great poet taliesin.

Ceridwen, although clearly a mother in this tale, is described in terms more common to the cailleach or hag goddess. She was a magician or witch who possessed enviable occult knowledge, including that of shape-shifting. That she may have originally been a cosmic goddess of time and the seasons is suggested by the names of her two children. Some have interpreted the story of Ceridwen and Gwion’s many transformations as a tale of initiation and rebirth.

The cauldron that is one of the primary emblems of Ceridwen appears in other Celtic myths as a symbol of abundance; in Ireland it is the otherworld vessel from which the fertility god dagda distributes wealth and plenty. Thus Ceridwen, despite her fierce appearance, may have originally been a goddess of the land whose fertility provided abundant food.

Cerne Abbas Giant

British mythological site and folkloric figure. On a hill near the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England, the green turf has been removed down to the chalky white soil, outlining the shape of a man more than 200 feet tall. The figure bears no name, nor is it known who carved it in the turf. Another turf-cut figure, the white horse of uffington, has been recently dated to the Iron Age, when Celtic people lived in Britain, but it is not known whether the Cerne Abbas giant derives from the same period. Most scholars theorize that the Giant was already graven into the hillside by the time the Celtic tribe called the Durotriges arrived in the area.

Others argue, however, that aspects of the Giant connect him to other Celtic mythologies. Most noticeable about the figure is his enormous erection (30 feet long), which has led to an assumed connection with fertility; a local belief of long standing was that the Giant helped women become pregnant, for which reason outdoor assignations on or near the figure were common. The Giant also carries a huge club, like the Irish dagda, held aloft to emphasize its phallic symbolism; a similar mallet-endowed god was known among the continental Celts as sucellus.


Celtic god. Cernunnos was one of the greatest and most ancient Celtic gods, his name and image found among both continental and insular peoples as far back as the fourth century b.c.e. His name, which appears in only one inscription from France, has been translated as "the horned one," although that is controversial and derives from iconographic rather than linguistic sources. For the image, if not the name, of a horned god is found elsewhere, including on the important gundestrup cauldron.

The horns Cernunnos wears are never those of domesticated animals, but rather those of a stag, suggesting a connection with the powers of the wildwood. A link has also been suggested to the seasonal cycle, since deer sprout antlers in the spring and shed them in the fall. Animals, both wild and domesticated, accompany him in virtually all known images; he is thus sometimes called the Master of Animals.

Often Cernunnos wears or bears a torc, symbol of high status and holiness. He may have represented a force of abundance and prosperity, for he is often portrayed accompanied by symbols of plenty like the cornucopia and the moneybag. No myths are known of him, but he remains a common image today, for the horned devil image apparently was derived from him.

Cesair (Cessair, Cesara, Kesair, Heriu, Berba)

Irish goddess or heroine. According to the book of invasions, this was the name of Ireland’s first settler. The text was not written until after Ireland became Christian, and the scribes were monks with an interest in depicting Ireland as a holy land. So its authors combined Ireland’s mythological history with biblical stories.

Thus Cesair was described as the granddaughter of the biblical Noah who escaped the great Flood by sailing away from the Holy Land. Whereas Noah had a boat full of animals, Cesair specialized in people, loading her ship with 50 women and three men. Four days before the waters raged, before Noah even boarded the ark, Cesair and her followers arrived in the safety of Ireland—which was never affected by the otherwise worldwide flood. Her route was far from direct, for after leaving from Meroe on a Tuesday, she sailed down the Nile and traveled to the Caspian and Cimmerian seas, then sailed over the drowned Alps, from which it took her nine days to sail to Spain and another nine to reach Ireland.

Arriving on the southwest coast, at Bantry Bay in Co. Cork, Cesair and her crew disembarked and divided the land among the crew. There being only three men, Cesair constituted three groups, each with more than a dozen women but only one man. But the demands of the women soon proved too much for Cesair’s father, bith, and brother, ladra, who died from excessive sexual exertion, while the last man, fintan mac Bochra, fled the eager women.

The names of the women who accompanied Cesair appear by their names to represent the world’s ancestral mothers, for they included German (Germans), Espa (Spanish), Alba (British), Traige (Thracian), and Gothiam (Goth). Thus their arrival can be read as creating a microcosm of the entire world’s population in Ireland. Several other companions, including banba and buanann, echo the names of ancient Irish goddesses.

It has been theorized that Cesair was a goddess of the land, for she is sometimes thought to be the daughter of the earth goddess Banba, While at other times she is herself called Berba (the goddess of the River Barrow), or Heriu, a name similar to that of the primary land-goddess, eriu. Thus Cesair may have been a form of, or assimilated to, those important divinities. The fact that three men divided the women among them, each taking a primary bride (Fintan with Cesair, Bith with Bairrind, and Ladra with Banba), makes Cesair and her companions a parallel grouping to the better-known trio Banba, fodla, and Eriu.

Cet (Cet mac Magach)

Irish hero. A great ulster warrior, Cet was said to have been eloquent as well as brave, especially in boasting about his prowess in battle. In some legends Cet named the boy who grew to be the greatest warrior of his people, cuchulainn.

Cethern mac

Fintain Irish hero. This warrior is described as the tutor to the great hero fionn mac cumhaill, who gained all the world’s wisdom by eating part of a salmon named fintan. As Cethern’s name shows that he is the son of Fintan, his presence in the stories may serve to intensify the connection between Fionn and Fintan.

Cethlion (Cethlenn, Ceithlenn, Cethlionn, Caitlm, Kethlenda of the Crooked Teeth)

Irish heroine or goddess. Buck-toothed queen of the ancient Irish race called the fomorians and wife of their leader balor, Cethlion was a prophet who foresaw her people’s defeat at the hands of the invading tuatha de danann at the second battle of mag tuired. This foreknowledge did not stop her from waging a fierce battle in which she wounded or killed one of the chiefs of her enemies, the dagda.


Irish ritual. This form of divination was practiced by bards, who chanted through their hands in order to locate stolen property, especially cattle. A special chant, addressed to the otherwise unknown seven Daughters of the Sea, was used to discover how long someone would live.

Champion’s portion

Irish mythological theme. Several Irish epics center on this traditional Celtic practice, whereby the most prominent warrior at a feast was given the curad-mk, or choicest portion, of the meat served, often interpreted as the thigh. Should two or more warriors claim the prize, a fight was immediately waged, sometimes with deadly results. This tradition, recorded as far back as the first century b.c.e., gave the sharp-tongued briccriu an opportunity for troublemaking when he set several champions against each other.


Irish, Scottish, occasionally Breton folkloric figure. fairy babies were withered little raisinettes, ugly to look at, more like wizened old people than darling newborns. As a result, fairy parents were tempted to steal away chubby, cheery human babies, leaving enchanted fairy offspring in their place. Thus a strong tradition exists of protective rituals, including having nicknames for children so that the fairies cannot know their true names and thus gain power over the souls of the children.

A speedy baptism was important, because that Christian ritual made a child unattractive to fairies; burning old leather shoes in the birthing chamber was a good substitute. Should parents find a child changed—a bad-tempered, angry, and squalling brat where once there had been a sweet, placid babe—there was little recourse except a trip to fairyland to reclaim the stolen child. Sometimes the fairy enchantment (see glamour) was so strong that even the parents believed the changeling child to be human. But fairy behavior finally revealed itself, and if not, a test could be administered to the suspected fairy offspring. The suspicious parent must do something out of the ordinary, like beating an egg in its own shell rather than in a bowl or announcing an intent to brew beer from eggs. This caused no end of puzzlement to the changeling, which finally dropped its cover and demanded to know the purpose of the action. Having thus revealed itself, the fairy would nonetheless remain until the stolen child was located in the otherworld.

Sometimes human parents attempted to force the return of their children by exposing the changeling to the elements. There is tragic evidence that such beliefs were occasionally used to excuse the abuse and even murder of children who may have been unwanted or handicapped. In Wales, alleged changelings were driven away by being exposed to the elements, starved, or drowned, in the belief that the fairies would come rescue their lost kin.

Fairy changelings did not need to be infants; sometimes older humans were stolen away because the fairies needed their special gifts. mid-wives and musicians were especially at risk, as were beautiful people of either sex. Sometimes these stolen ones were replaced by an enchanted stock of wood. As with child changelings, there is evidence that people suffered torture and death at the hands of relatives who believed them to have been taken away. In the 19th century, a young woman named Bridget Cleary was apparently burned to death by her family after taking unaccountably ill, showing that the belief was still strong at that point—or that it was used to do away with an ambitious and therefore troublesome woman of the community.


Celtic symbolic object. The Celts were among the first European peoples to domesticate the horse. They did not ride upon the animals’ backs but instead hitched them to speedy chariots, used for travel and, especially, for battle. Both gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, are described or depicted as charioteers; in addition, parts of chariots—bridle, wheel—appear in the iconography of divinities, such as epona.


The opposite of a curse—a formula designed to bring bad luck—is a charm (in Irish, eolas), a spell or incantation to attract good fortune; sometimes the word is used to mean both attracting good and repelling bad, as in, for instance, a "charm against the evil eye" used in Scotland, where a few words were spoken while gathering water from beneath a bridge that was later sprinkled protectively on the household. The Celtic lands provide many examples of charms, which entailed certain ritual gestures, specified offerings, the gathering of specific herbs, and/or incantatory words. Charms were sung to hasten the butter, when the monotonous action of churning milk began to tire the milkmaid. Similarly there were waulking charms, to ease the labor of making linen. A milking charm collected in Scotland is typical: With each flow of milk a new verse was sung, calling on a different saint, for many ancient charms were Christianized and continued in use even until recent years. In Ireland, charms included stealing a dead hand from a corpse and the liver of a black cat, the first being effective in churning butter, the second dried into a foolproof love potion. In Cornwall charms were written out on bits of paper and kept in pockets and purses; one was simply the untranslatable word nalgah above a picture of a four-winged bird.

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