Tadg (Tighe, Tadc) To Tylwyth teg (fair family) (Celtic mythology and folklore)

Tadg (Tighe, Tadc)

Irish hero. This name is common in Irish history and mythology. The most prominent bearer was Tadg mac Nuadat, grandfather of the hero fionn mac cumhaill; Tadg has been interpreted as a form of the god nuada, although his name implies that he was Nuada’s son. A more obscure Tadg was foster father of the great king of tara, cormac mac airt. When Cormac was a boy, he killed some badgers and brought them home for dinner. His foster father, revolted by their bloody appearance, refused to eat them. It was well that he did, for they were his shape-shifting cousins. Another Tadg was the son of the canny hero ciabhan who traveled to the otherworld to meet the beautiful fairy queen clidna.


Scottish ritual. A peculiar magical ritual is known from Scottish texts, which describe how conjurers roasted live cats over coals until a giant cat named Big-Ears appeared; he may be a folkloric descendant of the ancient king of the cats, known in Ireland as Irusan. The rite of taghairm was known down through the 17th century, but it was strongly discouraged by the clergy, who proclaimed that anyone who performed it was instantly condemned to hell.

Tailtiu (Taillte, Tailtu)

Irish goddess. The mythological history of Ireland parallels what archaeologists believe is its historical reality: waves of invaders landing, sometimes doing battle with their predecessors, sometimes intermarrying with them, sometimes both. The goddess Tailtiu stands at the boundary of two of these groups, the fir bolg and the tuatha de danann. She may have been a member of the Fir Bolg, although she is also said to have been a Spanish princess; in either case, she has been described by modern scholars as a goddess diminished into human form.

Tailtiu was married to eochaid mac Eirc, the last Fir Bolg king, an ideal ruler during whose reign only truth was spoken in the land, which bore abundant crops under fair skies. Eochaid was killed at the first battle of mag tuired, when the Fir Bolg battled the magical invaders, the Tuatha De Danann. Thereupon Tailtiu married eochaid Garbh, who despite the similarity of name to her first husband, was a member of the victorious Tuatha De.

Tailtiu traveled to the center of the island, where even today the land is the richest in Ireland, and began to clear fields for planting, but the effort of felling the dense Irish forest killed her. As she died, she asked that her funeral go on forever, with horse racing and games and festivities. And so her foster son, the god lugh, established the August festival that, strangely, bears his name (lughnasa) rather than hers.

On Lughnasa each year at teltown, on the River Blackwater in Co. Meath, a great oenach or assembly of the tribes was held, devoted to trading, match making, and celebration as well as to ritual athletic contests appropriate to the season. Horse-racing may have been part of the festivities, for there are legends that teams swam across the nearby river as dawn broke. The Great Games at Teltown, also called the Tailtian Games in Tailtiu’s honor, took place through medieval times; a smaller-scale festival was held at the same site through the 19th century.

The Oenach

Tailten was the most important of the ancient Irish festivals, because it was held closest to the seat of political power, the hill of tara, whose kings sponsored the event. Other Lughnasa festivals (see carman, tlachtga) were dedicated to goddesses who died; as earth goddesses, they may have represented the dying vegetation that fed humanity.

Tain bo Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley)

Irish epic. The greatest extant piece of Irish mythological literature tells of a great cattle raid upon a region now known as the Cooley peninsula; hence the piece is sometimes anglicized as the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Part of the ulster cycle of myths, the story was recorded in the Middle Ages by Christian monks at the important central monastery of Conmacnoise, but its material dates to earlier times. Presumably the tale had been conveyed orally, as was the tradition among Celtic bards, for centuries before being transcribed.

Besides the tale itself, there are a number of remscela or fore-tales that described the reasons for the cattle raid. These include some of the most famous stories in Irish literature: how the maiden nessa was raped by the druid cathbad and gave birth to a king who bore her name, concobar mac nessa, and how she then conspired to put her son on the throne of ulster by stealing it from fergus mac Roich; how the goddess or fairy woman macha came to earth to live with the human farmer crunniuc, who wagered that she was faster than the king’s horses and thus brought about her death, screaming the curse that caused the debility of the ulstermen whenever they were attacked; how the lustful king Concobar hid away the resplendent maiden deirdre, who nonetheless escaped captivity with her beloved no^siu and his brothers, the sons of uisneach, who were later traitorously killed by the king; how the great hero cuchulainn was begotten, grew to manhood, wooed the fair emer, and unwittingly killed his only son; and how two angry pigkeepers were reincarnated time after time, always arguing with each other, until they found themselves in the bodies of two powerful bulls, the great white finnbennach and the brown donn cuailnge.

All these stories set the stage for the Tain itself. medb, queen of the western province of connacht, was lying abed one morning with her husband ailill, comparing their net worth. Medb contended that she owned as much as or more than Ailill, while Ailill believed she did not. And so they called for their wealth to be counted, and indeed, Ailill was proven to be right: He had one bull more in his herds than Medb did. To make matters worse, the great White Bull had been born in Medb’s herds but had migrated to Ailill’s. Since under brehon law Medb’s status as a wife was contingent upon her comparative wealth, she set about bringing her possessions up to par with her husband’s.

Discovering that the equal of the White Bull was in the province of Ulster, on the Cuailnge peninsula, Medb sent word to the lord of that region, daire mac Fiachna, promising a fortune in gold and her own willing thighs as well, in return for the loan of the bull for a year. She hoped that a powerful bull-calf would be sired on one of her own cows by the great brown donn. Daire was perfectly willing to make the loan, but when his men heard Medb’s warriors bragging that they would take the bull whether his owner agreed or not, a furious Daire withdrew his consent. So, just as her men had said, Medb set out to steal what she could not rent.

Medb had an advantage in her raid. Because of the curse of Macha, the warriors of Ulster suffered a debility whenever they were attacked, falling down in an agony that resembled labor pains. This went on for four days and five nights—plenty of time for Medb’s army to be into Daire’s fields and off with the bull. And so she assembled a great army at her capital city of cruachan and prepared her raid on Ulster.

While all of Ireland’s great warriors assembled to do her bidding, Medb encountered a woman bard or druid named fedelm. She was a magnificent figure mounted on a chariot, dressed in gold and red embroidery, staring with unseeing eyes at the chaos around her. When Medb asked whether she had the mbas forosnai, the ability to see the future, Fedelm said she had. So Medb asked her to predict the outcome of her quest. "I see crimson, I see red," Fedelm warned. Medb decided to ignore this clear warning, however, so as not to be deterred from her plan. The seeress, she announced, had seen only the wrath and rage of warriors. And so the die was cast.

The armies set out from Cruachan right after samhain. As cattle-raiding was typically a summer activity, they were marching off-season, at a time they would not be expected. Ailill himself went along to support Medb’s raid, as did her lover Fergus mac Roich, who was still angry at Concobar for cheating him out of the throne of Ulster and for manipulating him into causing the deaths of the sons of Uisneach. They foresaw a pleasant march through an unmanned land, with only victory ahead as they walked past the suffering Ulstermen.

They did not foresee that Cuchulainn would oppose them. The great hero was not an Ulsterman, so he did not suffer from the provincial debility; indeed, he was ready to fight against any invader. On a tree, Cuchulainn posted a warning, written in ogham letters, challenging any single warrior to combat.

And so they came, one after another, to fight against Cuchulainn. One after another they died: the handsome fraech, Medb’s sons maine and orlam, even Cuchulainn’s boyhood friend ferdiad. The great winged goddess m6rr^gan came to help Medb, but even she could not stop the slaughter. Yet while Cuchulainn was fending off warriors, Medb sneaked past and stole the brown Donn. As she was escaping across the land with her prize, the men of Ulster recovered from their curse and leapt into action. Although they won the battle, they lost the bull, which Medb brought back to Connacht with her retreating army. There the two reincarnated swineherds, the white bull Finnbennach and the great brown Donn Cuailnge, did as they had always done. They fell to fighting, with the brown fatally wounding the white and then, himself, dying of the exertion.

This was the ending of the story of the Tain, although there was a late tale added: of how the epic was partially lost, then restored by the son of Ireland’s chief bard, seanchan toirpeist, who called up the ghost of the great warrior Fergus at his grave. As Fergus had been a party to the raid, he was an excellent source for the missing material. The poet who performed the invocation, frightened by the apparition of Fergus’s ghost in the king’s court where he was reciting the lost tale, fell over dead upon its conclusion.


Irish heroine. This minor figure of legend became one of the wives of the hero fionn mac cumhaill in order to free her father, abarta, from imprisonment by the fianna.

Taliesin (Taliesin Pen Beirdd, Telgesinus)

Welsh hero. Like other great Celtic bards, the poet Taliesin, whose work has been dated to the sixth century c.e., was said to be the reincarnation of an earlier mythic figure. Originally he was the boy gwion, servant to the great goddess ceridwen. Because Ceridwen’s son afagddu was born ugly, his mother decided to give him the gift of inspiration and poetry to make up for it. And so she brewed, in her magical cauldron, a potent mixture of herbs that needed to be stirred constantly as they cooked for a year and a day. Whenever she was busy about other things, Ceridwen assigned Gwion the duty of stirring. It happened that he was at the pot when the mixture bubbled over, burning Gwion’s finger. Stung by the pain, the boy popped his finger into his mouth, thereby absorbing all of the magical power Ceridwen had intended for her son.

The first gift his new vision endowed was an image of how furious Ceridwen would be when she found out what he had done. So Gwion ran away. Ceridwen, when she found her potion destroyed, ran after him. With the new power of shape-shifting that he had gained from the brew, Gwion transformed himself into a hare, but Ceridwen became a greyhound in hot pursuit. Every time he changed, she changed as well: fish and otter, bird and hawk, with Ceridwen always a hair’s breadth away from capturing the errant servant boy. Then, when Gwion turned himself into a grain of wheat, Ceridwen became a hen and ate him up.

In Celtic myths eating often leads to pregnancy, and so it was with Ceridwen, who gave birth to Gwion and set him adrift on the sea. A nobleman, elphin, found the baby floating near shore and took him home, raising him tenderly as his own child, calling him Taliesin, "radiant brow." Taliesin grew to be the most eloquent poet in the land, one who could see through the veil to the otherworld. Like the Irish poets amairgin and tuan mac cairill, Taliesin spoke of many incarnations, both human and animal. He is said to be buried in a stone grave in Dyfed, called Bedd Taliesin; anyone who sleeps there wakes up either a poet or insane. The work that comes down to us as Taliesin’s may have been indeed composed by a poet of that name, but the famous name may have attracted to itself poems from the oral literature; the line between fact and myth is easily blurred in Taliesin’s case.


Symbolic object. The distinction between a talisman and an amulet is not invariably maintained, as the words are sometimes used as synonyms. While both words indicate magical objects, a talisman draws good luck or the blessing of gods to the owner, while an amulet wards off evil spirits and bad luck.


Cornish and British folkloric figure. The nymph of the river Tamar, which forms the boundary between Cornwall and Devon, was originally a maiden who wandered the land freely, despite the annoyance this brought to her parents, two earth-dwelling gnomes. Two giants, Torridge and tavy, fought over her, and the argument caused all three of the lovers to dissolve into the rivers that bear their names. Although the legend itself was first transcribed in the 17 th century, it is likely that it elaborates on an earlier tale, for the ancient geographer Ptolemy named the Tamar as a major river of the region. While the story of Tamara is similar to that of other Celtic river goddesses like boand and s^nann, this story is unusual in having male divine figures dissolving to form rivers.

Tam Lin (Tamlane, Tam-a-Lin)

British folkloric hero. One of the most famous fairies of the British border country was Tam Lin, a lascivious young man who haunted Caterhaugh Wood and lured maidens away from their families in order to ruin them. He had once been human, but the queen of fairyland tricked him into passing over its borders, thus trapping him forever. A young girl named Janet fell deeply in love with Tam Lin and tried to bring him back to this world. Following Tam Lin’s instructions, Janet went out on samhain night to watch the wild hunt pass on the road. When a milk-white steed appeared, she knew Tam Lin would be riding it, so she grasped him as he rode by and, just as he had predicted, found herself holding an eel, a bear, a lion, even a spike of fire. In spite of these tricks, she did not let go and so finally freed him from his enchantment.


Scottish folkloric figure. This strange being occasionally appeared around water, both fresh and salt, on the Orkney islands. Sometimes he looked like a human being, at other times like a fierce water horse. The tangie’s name seems to derive from the local word for seaweed, tang.

Tanist (tanaiste)

Celtic social role. According to many ancient and medieval authors, Celtic leaders had an elected assistant called a tanist. The English poet Edmund Spenser, who spent most of his life in Ireland, noted that even in the 17th century the Irish still elected their kings and, at the same time, a tanist who assumed the leadership role upon the king’s death. Just as the king was not necessarily the eldest of a royal family, so the tanist was chosen for his talent and strength rather than for family prestige or position. Some theorists believe that the tanist was a religious as well as a political role, possibly deriving from the Celtic belief in the power of twins.

Tara (Temair, Temuir)

Irish mythological site. Perhaps the most famous ancient site in Ireland,Tara is a small hill in Co. Meath that has been renowned at least since Celtic times—perhaps even before, as there are stone monuments on the hilltop from the pre-Celtic period. Ireland’s mythic history, the book of invasions, tells how the early invaders, the fir bolg, erected the first structures on the hill, although the Stone Heap of the One Man, their supposed work, is not known at Tara today. The place-poetry of Ireland, the dindshenchas, says that the name of the hill under the Fir Bolg had been Druim Cain; the earlier people of nemed had called it Druim Leith, after liath who had cleared its slopes so that there would be enough sun for crops to grow; even before that it had been called Forduim, a hill on which magical hazel trees grew.

It was at Tara that the Fir Bolg king received news of the arrival of yet another wave of invaders—this time the magical tuatha de danann—and at Tara that he mustered his hosts for the first battle of mag tuired. In that monumental event, the Fir Bolg were defeated and forced to cede Tara to the newcomers. The Tuatha De changed the name of the hill to Cathair Crofhind and installed four treasures that they had carried from the mysterious cities of their origin, including the lia fail or Stone of Destiny, a great pillar ("a stone penis" according to some texts) that screamed when a true king touched it. Whether the stone that stands on Tara today is the same stone is unknown; some sources contend that the Scottish Stone of Scone (see inauguration stones) that rested for centuries in Westminster Abbey and upon which the English royals were crowned, is the real Lia Fail.

There were also two great flagstones called Blocc and Bluigne, which fit tightly together except when a true king arrived, when they would open up so that he might pass between them. These stones, if they ever existed outside myth, are no longer to be seen on the hill. There was also a great Banquet Hall, the vestiges of which can be seen as earthen embankments on the hill. Legend has it that the Hall had nine separate areas for the various levels of society that would meet there, but no such divisions are visible today.

Despite their victory over the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha De Danann were not the wisest rulers. Soon they were at war again, this time against the combined forces of the Fir Bolg and the monstrous fomorians. Under the leadership of lugh, the Tuatha De once again won over their foes at the second battle of Mag Tuired, from which they returned to Tara rejoicing.

They were not to remain forever as Tara’s rulers, for a new and even stronger race arrived in Ireland several hundred years later. Against the milesians, even the Tuatha De could not prevail. They were forced to accept banishment to the otherworld while the Milesians settled upon the green and fertile surface of Ireland. A doorway to that Otherworld was thought to exist on Tara, for it was described in a medieval poem as "the secret place on the road of life," but its location is lost, or secret.

It was to Tara that the Milesian leader eremon carried the body of his beloved wife, tea, who had asked that she be buried on the most beautiful hill in Ireland. This motif is found on other sacred mountains as well: tlachtga, for example, is said to have been buried beneath the mountain that bears her name, and the island’s eponymous goddess eriu rests on the slopes of the sacred central mountain, uisneach. Nothing is known of Tea except her dying wish.

Tea is not the only divine figure connected with Tara, for its goddess of sovereignty was variously said to be etain and medb. Etain was said to have been the reincarnated lover of the fairy king midir, who in her human form married king eochaid of Tara, from whom Midir won her by gambling. Medb, although more typically associated with the great capital of the province of connacht called cruachan, is also said to have married nine kings of Tara, one after the other; a hillfort on the site bears her name. Finally, the heroine or sun goddess Grainne is associated in myth with Tara, for she was to have been married at the palace there before she eloped with one of her husband’s retainers.

Another mythic being, the cow goddess of abundance, is also found on Tara’s heights, for there is an earthworks called the Mound of the Cow (now lost) and two wells, one dedicated to the White Cow, the other to her calf. Some texts provide the name Glas Teamhrach for the mound, apparently referring to the magical cow glas ghaibhleann, which gave milk endlessly to anyone who needed it.

The great oenach or assembly of Tara was held on samhain, the day when the veils between this world and the Otherworld were lifted; it was not held at Tara itself but at the nearby hill of Tlachtga (now called the Hill of Ward), from which the seasonal fires blazed. It is recorded that Samhain was the time of the feis Temrach, the inauguration feast when Tara’s king ritually married the goddess of the land. Some evidence suggests that the assembly was held every three years rather than annually. The association of Tara with the beginning of winter makes it parallel to its twin mountain, Uisneach, where the opposite feast of beltane was celebrated with great double fires.

Among the many ancient structures and earthworks on the hills is the so-called Rath of the Synods, a pre-Celtic site from the mega-lithic civilization that later became important to the Christian Irish, who believed incorrectly that it had been the site of bishops’ councils in the early days of the Church. The site is now partially destroyed because in the 19th century a group of British believers tore through the earth in search of the biblical Ark of the Covenant, which they thought had been buried within it by the daughters of the last king of Israel. Although they never found the Ark, they destroyed much of this ancient structure in their attempt.

Visitors to Tara today enter the site through the yard of a church once dedicated to st. patrick but now converted to an educational center. Almost directly ahead the ruined Rath of the Synods is visible. To the right, the long earthworks called the Banqueting Hall stretch in two parallel lines; the name is probably incorrect, but it is not known for what reason the structure was designed. Down the hill beyond the Banqueting Hall is a small rath named for grainne, errant wife of the hero fionn mac cumhaill, who may have originally been a goddess of Sovereignty. The larger rath, dedicated to Medb, is separated from the main monuments by distance, lying almost two kilometers away; the rath was once part of the ancestral estate of the Anglo-Irish author Lord Dunsany, commonly regarded as the inventor of the literary genre of fantasy fiction.

A cut on the north side of Rath Medb’s bank, presumably the entrance, is aligned with the oldest site at Tara, the Mound of the Hostages. A pre-Celtic passage grave, long covered by rubble, was excavated in the 1950s so that the chamber is now visible. Remains buried beneath the mound have been dated to some 3,500 years ago, suggesting that the tales of Tara’s antiquity as a sacred site convey some truth. The name of the mound suggests that it was used as a prison, but it refers rather to the famous king of Tara, niall of the Nine Hostages. He took on nine foster sons from various parts of the land; their relationship to the king of Tara is questionably translated with the word "hostage."

Near the Mound of the Hostages, two smaller mounds rise from the green hilltop. One is the Forradh, also called the King’s Seat or Place of Judgment; in the Dindshenchas, this monument is called the Mound of Tea and is said to be her grave. Atop this mound stands the upright Lia Fail, approximately one-half of it visible above the ground. Nearby rises a mound nearly identical in size to the Forradh; called Cormac’s House, it is as yet unexcavated and is associated in myth with the great king cormac mac airt.

Other monuments at the site include Rath Loegaire, dedicated to Tara’s king at the time of St. Patrick’s arrival; the Sloping Trenches, site of a mythical massacre of more than 3,000 maidens who are thought to have belonged to a college of priestesses; several holy wells; and minor structures and earthworks. Together, these monuments make Tara as important a site today, although for different reasons, as it was in its storied past.


Welsh god. This obscure god is mentioned once in the compilation of Welsh mythology, the mabinogion; he is assumed to be similar to the continental Celtic thunder god, taranis.

Taranis (Taranos, Taranoos, Taranucnos)

Continental Celtic god. This god was associated both with lightning strikes and with the fire that often follows. His name derives from a Celtic word for "thunder" and is thought refer to the god depicted with a hammer, although that god is also identified as sucellus. The Romans, who believed Taranis to be the chief Celtic divinity, typically associated him with their own chief god jupiter, although there is no evidence that Taranis stood at the head of a pantheon. The Roman poet Lucan claimed that Taranis, the "master of war," was honored with human sacrifices that required the victims be burned alive.


Scottish folkloric figure. Spirits of unbaptized infants were called by this name in Scotland. They were encountered in wild places, weeping over their inability to reach heaven. The belief appears to combine Celtic and Christian views of the afterlife, mixing up the otherworld with the Christian Limbo where unsoiled but unsanctified souls spend eternity.


Manx folkloric figure. The water bull of the Isle of Man was not as dangerous as such creatures normally are. Whereas in other lands, such water monsters devoured people and cattle outright, the tarroo-ushtey merely blighted the crops. As with other fairy creatures, this one could be warded off with a wand of rowan.

Tarvostrigaranus (Tarvos Trigaranus)

Continental Celtic god. This obscure god is known from two stone sculptures at Paris and Trier, where he was depicted as a bull with three cranes or other waterbirds perched upon him. He may be similar to or identical with the god esus.

Tatter-foal (shag-foal)

British folkloric figure. A kind of bogey or bogle, the tatter-foal was a shape-shifter (see shape-shifting) who appeared in many forms, including that of a monkey, but most commonly a shaggy baby horse.


Celtic ritual. Although the word itself comes from the South Pacific, there is some evidence that the Celts decorated their bodies with permanent markings. The tribal name of the Scoti has been translated (perhaps fancifully) as "the scarred ones," while the name of the picts may mean "the pictured ones" or the "engraved ones." Roman writers describe Celtic warriors as painted with the blue dye-plant woad, while coins from the imperial era show faces with what seem to be tattoos. Whether the apparent tattoos were marks of status, totemic markers, or religious symbols is unknown.


Cornish folkloric figure. The river spirit Tavy warred with another giant, Torridge, over the hand of the beautiful maiden tamara. He won her, but only after all three dissolved into rivers, for only the Tavy joins the Tamar, while the Torridge flows elsewhere. The name Tavy has also been suggested as the origin of the sea spirit davy jones.

Tea (Tea)

Irish goddess or heroine. This obscure figure gave her name to the great royal site of tara in the center of Ireland. Little else is known of her, except that its first earthen walls were built at her request and that she died at Tara, giving her power to the hill.

Tech Duinn (House of Donn)

Irish mythological site. A small rocky island off the beare peninsula in west Co. Cork was believed to be the home of donn, a shadowy early god who ruled the otherworld of death. Unlike later visions of the Otherworld as a magnificently beautiful land, Tech Duinn was a frightening place of darkness and dread. Its relationship to the more typical Otherworld is unclear.

Tegau Eurfron

Welsh heroine. One of the three splendid women of camelot, Tegau Eurfron rescued her husband from a venomous snake. She herself was bitten and lost one breast as a result. It was replaced with a breast made of gold, which matched her golden hair.


Welsh mythological site. What is now called Lake Bala in northern Wales—the largest lake in that land—appears in mythology as Llyn Tegid, home of the great goddess ceridwen. It was there that she brewed her magical potion in a cauldron, which she left the young boy gwion to watch while she did other chores.

When he accidentally swallowed some of the brew, thereby gaining both wisdom and poetic talent, Gwion fled the scene. The omniscient Ceridwen knew what had happened and pursued him. Despite his newfound shape-shifting ability, Gwion was at last eaten by the goddess, who gave birth to him again as the great bard, taliesin. The lake’s mystical character remained in local folklore, for it was believed that Lake Bala’s depth could never be measured; anyone who tried would be greeted by a booming voice demanding that the measurement cease. dragons were reputed to live in the lake’s bottomless lower regions.

Tegid Voel (Tegid Foel, Tegyd Foel)

Welsh god. This obscure god or giant was the consort of the great hag goddess, ceridwen; little else is known of him, although the lake where the pair made their home (now Lake Bala) bore his name.

Teinm laeda (tienm Mdo)

Irish ritual. The ancient Irish form of divination called teinm laeda seems to have been what is today called psychometry—finding information from objects by touching or holding them. A verse or incantation may have first been recited, and the druid employing this technique may have touched the object in question with a wand of hazel or other magical tree.

Legend suggests that direct transmission of information was also possible: Holding a bone, the bard Moen mac Etnae was able to discover not only that it was the skull of a dog, but also the name of the deceased pet. Sometimes this form of divination is associated with chewing the thumb, as the hero fionn mac cumhaill did in order to prophesy. The teinm laeda was prohibited by st. patrick, as was the better-known trance method called imbas forosnai, apparently because both required a sacrifice or prayer to a pagan god or goddess.


Welsh hero. In one Welsh text, this name is given for the great bard, taliesin, who instructed the magician merlin in the secret ways of the universe.


Continental Celtic goddess. This name, found on inscriptions to the healing spirit of the spring at Toulon in the French region of the Dordogne, is believed to name a goddess, although Telo may have been a god.


Irish mythological site. On a farm in Co. Meath, near the River Blackwater, a large, long hillfort rises from a pasture. Nondescript as it may be today, it was in ancient times one of the most renowned sites in the land, for it was there that the king of royal tara presided over the annual games in honor of the goddess tailtiu, who gave her name to the hillfort and, even today, to the townland that surrounds it. The games were part of the harvest assembly called the Oenach Tailten, held on the Celtic feast of lughnasa, the feast was named for Tailtiu’s foster son, the god lugh, who established the games and the assembly in her honor when Tailtiu died of exhaustion after clearing Ireland’s central pasturelands.

Teltown was not only a site of games and trading; it was also the location for the so-called Teltown marriages, trial marriages contracted at a mound across the road from the main center of activity. At this spot, long known as the Crockans, stood a wooden door pierced by a hole through which young couples held hands while plighting their troth. If the match did not prove successful within a year and a day, the pair could return to the Crockans and undo the union.

Games at Teltown continued through medieval times, and the assembly, was held until the 19th century. Such continuity may have an even longer history, for one of the earthworks at Teltown, the so-called Rath Dubh ("black rath") may be built above a passage grave; the site may have been selected because it was already sacred to the pre-Celtic people.


Ritual structure. The Celts did not erect buildings for worship as did their conquerors, the Romans. They preferred to gather outdoors in nemetons or sacred woods, where sacrifices and offerings were made; on hilltops like uisneach and tara, where great fires were lit on festival days; and at holy wells where such ceremonies as inauguration might be performed.

There is, however, some archaeological evidence of buildings that are variously called temples or castles, which may have been used for assemblies that included religious ritual. At the first century b.c.e. British site called maiden castle in Dorset, evidence of a circular building has been found; since the circle had cosmological significance to the Celts, this round building is interpreted as having a religious purpose. Similarly, the remains of circular buildings have been found in Ireland at emain macha and dun Ailinne. At Emain Macha there are indications of a central post which may have represented the central tree in a grove. Despite such occasional finds, there is no clear evidence that Celtic people were generally in the habit of protecting themselves from the powers of nature as they worshiped.


Irish heroine. This obscure figure appears in the place-poetry called the dindshen-chas as one of the early builders of the ramparts at the royal hill of tara. She was an Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter, a fierce warrior who was carried away by Camson, an otherwise unknown champion. At Tara, Tephi used her staff and her brooch to trace the outlines of the great earthen walls that were called, after her, the Rampart of Tephi. She died in Ireland and was buried elsewhere, possibly in Spain. The story may be a reflection of the building of the capital of ulster by macha, who similarly traced out its raths with the pin of her brooch; alternatively, the story of Tephi may have inspired that of Macha.


Irish goddess or heroine. This little-known goddess was said to have given her secret name to the lands she most loved, now parts of Co. Westmeath in the Irish midlands. Such stories are typically told of the goddess of the land’s sovereignty, the consort of the king.


Irish hero. This obscure divinity is called the fairy king of the otherworld. Nothing is known of him except that he was a member of the magical race called the tuatha de danann, who were banished from the surface world by the conquering milesians after losing the second battle of mag tuired.

Teutates (Toutatis, Totatis, Teutate)

Continental Celtic god. This god’s name appears to mean "ruler of the people," from the Celtic word for "tribe," which suggests an ancestral god. Dedications to Teutates are most commonly found in Gaul, occasionally in Britain, never in Ireland; he is sometimes connected to, or considered an alternative form of, the god cocidius, while the Romans believed he was similar to their warrior god mars and to their god of commerce, mercury. The Roman author Lucan said that Teutates was honored by human sacrifice, with the victims offered to him being drowned on samhain, the feast of winter’s start on November 1.


Welsh hero. In the story of rhiannon and her son pryderi, this is the name of Pryderi’s foster father, who unwittingly saved the boy from being devoured by a monster. Seeing a huge claw descend from the heavens on beltane night, aiming at a newborn foal, he rushed to its defense. Slashing at the claw, Teyrnon caused it to drop its burden: the stolen child, which Teyrnon and his wife brought up as their own.


Cosmological concept. The Celts believed that reality was not all the same everywhere. While common reality was opaque and solid, there were also "thin places" where the otherworld was near. These included fairy trees that grew alone in the center of a rocky field; bogs where people could be lost and drowned; and islands that appear remote or close according to atmospheric conditions. There were also "thin times" in the year, turning points at which Otherworld forces could penetrate to our world, or dwellers here could happen into that world. Although each day had a thin time at twilight, there were two days every year when time grew so thin that the two worlds collided: the two Celtic feasts of beltane on May 1 and samhain on November 1. The idea of thinness in time and place may be connected to the belief in shape-shifting, the ability to transform one’s body into that of an animal, a plant, or even a fog.


Treasures of Britain British folkloric motif. Just as Ireland had four great treasures brought from the otherworld and signifying the sovereignty of the land, so British lore names 13 objects of Otherworldly origin that reside in this world to betoken the rightful ruler. The great king arthur brought them back from the Otherworld kingdom of annwn. The treasures are: the sword of rhyd-derech, which would burst into flame when born by a rightful king; the bottomless hamper of Gwyddno; the mead-dispensing horn of bran the blessed; an impressively speedy chariot; a horse-attracting halter; a knife that replenished the food it carved; a cauldron that would not boil food for cowards; a whetstone that sharpened only the weapons of the brave; a coat that only fit the noblest warriors; a crock and a dish that served whatever the hungry desired; a self-playing chessboard; and the mantle of invisibility.


Symbolic plant. This prickly plant with a soft purple blossom symbolizes Scotland; it was believed to show the location of buried treasure and of forgotten graveyards.

Thomas the Rhymer (Thomas Rymour, Thomas of Ercildoune, True Thomas)

British hero. The most renowned visitor to fairyland was the historical 13th-century poet, Thomas Learmont, of Ercildoune on the Scottish-English border. He attracted the attentions of a lustful fairy lover, who stole him away (see fairy kidnapping) and held him a happy captive for seven years. When it appeared he might be taken away by the devil to pay off an old debt of his mistress’s, however, the fairy queen relinquished Thomas to the human world. She gave him an ambiguous gift: prophecy, without the ability to lie, which caused Thomas no end of trouble when he returned to earth. Some versions of his story say that, at the end of his life, he returned to fairyland, where he is seen by other visitors, attentively at the side of his happy mistress.


Symbolic plant. One of the most powerful and magical plants known in Celtic lands is the thorn tree (variably species Prunus and Crageaeus). The blackthorn (Prunus) blooms each spring near the beltane festival on May 1; beside its sweet white flowers are sharp, pin-like thorns that can easily puncture flesh. The thorns limit the usefulness of this tree, except as a cattle hedge, but its magical use is significant, for the tree protected humans against the fairy people. It was hedged about with precautions to keep it from losing that power; it was especially important not to cut the trees on May 11 or November 11, for the trees would take vengeance against the woodsman. The related whitethorn was similarly a protective plant, but its wood had to be kept out of doors, for fairies had extrasensory awareness of its presence indoors and would haunt the house where it was kept.

Hawthorns too bloom in spring, when their pink blossoms are among the season’s most extravagant. Bathing in the dew from hawthorn blossoms on Beltane assured the seeker of perpetual beauty. The tree was angry if cut, and sometimes frightening animals emerged from an injured hawthorn, chasing or injuring the woodcutter. Those who cut down thorns were especially prone to fairy stroke, the paralysis that struck when a fairy touched one’s flesh, however gently. When the thorn appeared in a group of three with an ash and an oak tree, that was taken as a certain sign of fairy activity in the area.


Cosmological concept. The Celts, both continental and insular, saw three as a significant and powerful number; only five appears more often in mythological or ritual contexts. The number itself was considered sacred, and anything that appeared in three parts (see shamrock) represented this religious value. In Wales a series of short poems called the triads encodes much mythological material; in Ireland we find stories showing kings and heroes suffering the threefold death.

Many Celtic divinities appear in triplicate, as do the deae matres or mother goddesses of Gaul and the supernatural triple-horned bull of Britain. Triplicity seems, in many cases, a way of intensifying the power of a figure. Although goddesses are most often tripled (see morrigan, macha, brigit), gods are occasionally elevated into a trinity; the continental god lugos appears to be a tripled form of the god lugh, and three-headed figures have been found, although they are not clearly male or female. In addition to emphasizing a figure’s importance, the number three has been described as indicating a complete cycle: past, present, and future; mother, father, and child.

The sanctity of the number three may have represented, or been represented by, a threefold division of social functions: the sacred, the warlike, and the fertile. Each person in society had a place according to the function he or she performed; thus bards and druids may have been granted more power than warriors and kings; goddesses of sovereignty would presumably have symbolized the third function, as well as farmers and others who created the abundance that society enjoyed. Support for such an argument is found in tales such as that of cesair, who arrived in Ireland with only three men to serve her 50 women—a story that incorporates the other most significant number, five, in expanded form.

Threefold death

Celtic ritual. Although the question of whether the Celts practiced human sacrifice is not settled, there are evidences in Irish myth of a kind of sacrificial death with three parts—often stabbing, burning, and drowning. (Another version of the threefold death probably involved strangling, cutting, and drowning.) At times, the various forms of execution were parceled out among the gods; thus among the continental Celts, those sacrificed to the thunder god taranis were burnt, those offered to the ancestral god teutates were drowned, while those who went to the tree god esus were hanged.

In Ireland several texts refer to the threefold death: muircertach mac erc was wounded, then as he tried to escape his burning house, he fell and drowned in a vat of wine; the failed king conaire similarly was wounded, stricken with an unquenchable thirst, then burned alive. A body found in Britain’s Lindow bog (see lindow man) showed that the victim, who had a noose around his neck, had his throat slashed before being drowned in the bogwater. If, as some argue, the Celts believed in reincarnation, the ritual offering of a human life to attain a community good, such as relief from plague or famine, might have been seen as a noble way to die.

Three Sorrows of Ireland

Irish mythological tales. The three stories known by this name are among the most poignant in Irish mythology. They include the tale of deirdre of the Sorrows and her lover no^siu, as well as his brothers, the sons of uisneach; the slaughtered sons of tuireann; and the heroic girl fionnuala and her brothers, the children of lir.

Three Splendid Women

Welsh heroines. Three women of king arthur’s court were known in the Welsh triads as the Three Splendid Women. They were the faithful and challenging enid, the model wife; the helpful tegau eurfron; and the obscure but beautiful dyfr.


Mun British folkloric figure. Those who made their living from the now-drained fens of England had a complex folklore that is now regrettably mostly lost. Among the spirits they believed lived in the watery fens was Tiddy Mun (apparently, "tidy man"), a gentle white-haired soul who protected those who cared for the land. When the fen waters rose in stormy weather, the fen people would pray for his intervention: "Tiddy Mun! Tiddy Mun! you without a name, walking lame, harm none, Tiddy Mun, harm none, harm none." With the draining of the fens to expand agricultural land, Tiddy Mun’s special habitat was lost, and he has not been recently seen.

Tigernmas (Tiernmas)

Irish hero. A quasi-historical king of tara, Tigernmas was a devotee of the cruel god crom cruach; he also brought gold-smelting to Ireland, thus establishing one of its most important ancient industries.


Cosmological concept. The concept of time is not standard throughout the world; each culture’s calendar reveals its values and philosophy. To the Celts, each day began at sundown of what we would consider the previous day, and just as night preceded day, so winter preceded spring, with the beginning of the year marked at the feast of samhain on November 1. The year appears to have been divided, not into four seasons, but into the two seasons of summer and winter; each of those seasons, however, was further divided into two, a beginning and an ending. A similar division has been found in some ancient sources that suggests that each month was divided into two equal parts.

The year’s 12 lunar months alternated between 29 and 30 days. To reconcile this 354-day calendar with that of the sun, a 13 th month was added every 21/2 years; at the end of two such cycles—that is, every five years—the 13 th month was an occasion of celebration and sacrifice. Six such five-year units, or 30 years, composed something that Pliny calls an "age," which may have meant a generation. Time was linked to history, which was important to the Celts, who invested effort in memorizing long genealogies, but there was also the otherworld, where time and space were radically different from those in our world and where the gods and fairies lived.

Tine Ghealain (Jack-o-Lantern, Jack of the Lantern)

Irish folkloric figure. What is called in other lands the will-o’-the-wisp, a light seen over bogs at night, was said in Ireland to be a lantern carried by a dead gambler doomed to wander forever because, although his soul was too stained to enter heaven, he had won his way out of hell by beating the devil at cards. His name was applied to the hollowed-out turnips (in the New World, pumpkins) used at samhain, when the veils between the worlds were thin.


Cornish mythological site. A Norman castle on a steep headland overlooking the Irish Sea, Tintagal is often described as the site of king arthur’s conception by his father, uther pendragon, upon his mother igraine, although there are other contenders to places that contact for the same identification. The castle dates to the 12th century, but there is evidence of occupation at the site some seven centuries earlier; even earlier, the territory was known in the ancient world for its exports of tin.

Near the castle itself is what appears to be an inauguration stone: a small depression in the rock called King Arthur’s Footprint.

Tir fo Thuinn (Tir-fa-Tonn, Land Under Wave)

Irish mythological site. One of the many names given to the otherworld or fairyland, Land Under Wave refers to the tradition that lakes and the ocean hide the route between this world and the other. Stories of cities beneath lakes or on the ocean bed, and of mermaids and mermen who live there, are common in all coastal Celtic lands.

Tir na mBan (Tir na Ban)

Irish mythological site. The Land of Women, one of many names given to the Irish otherworld, seems to have applied specifically to mysterious floating islands where fairy queens like niamh of the Golden Hair reign. Such islands were famous, or notorious, for the fairy kidnappings that were launched from their shores.

Tir na nOg (Tir Na n-og)

Irish mythological site The Land of Youth was one of the many names given to the otherworld, often confused or conflated with fairyland, because the ancient gods called the tuatha de danann were banished from this world and turned into fairies. The name derives from the fact that no one ever grows old in the Otherworld; instead its inhabitants lead a charmed life, dancing and loving, eating from the endlessly fruiting trees and never having to face death. Local legend around the enchanted lough gur claims that the entrance to Tir na nOg is beneath the lake’s waters.

Tir Tairngiri

Irish mythic location. The Land of Promise was the domain of the beautiful niamh, a fairy queen who chose her lovers from the human sphere and employed fairy kidnapping as a means of courtship. As daughter of the ocean god manannan mac lir, Niamh lived on a magical island that, like other areas in fairyland, was ideal in all ways: perfect weather, endlessly fruiting trees, beautiful people.


British folkloric figure. In Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, this name is given to the fairy queen. While the name itself is not Celtic, deriving from a title of the Roman goddess diana, the conception of fairyland as ruled by such a regent is typical of British folklore.


Irish mythological site and goddess or heroine. Less known than the nearby hill of tara, Tlachtga nonetheless has deep mythological significance as the site of the great oenach or assembly of samhain, the festival of winter’s arrival on November 1. Now known as the Hill of Ward and located near Athboy in Co. Meath, Tlachtga is the site of impressive earthworks from the Celtic period. Its significance lasted into historical times, for in 1168, the high king Rory O’Connor called together an island-wide assembly there.

Tlachtga rises near the western edge of Ireland’s central plain, called brega in early texts, now covering most of Co. Meath. Like other significant mountains in the midlands, Tlachtga is not tall or striking, but its summit offers a vista of almost half of Ireland. The mythic hills of Tara, slane, and loughcreware visible on a clear day. A large series of earthworks forming a circular hillfort were likely topped with wooden palisades to form a protective wall. Four large banks fan out from the circle, forming a shape similar to the Rath of the Synods on Tara. Nearby are several wells, one of which has the unusual name of druid’s Well; it may be the source of the water known from an ancient poem as one of the appropriate offerings to the king at Tara.

Although not much attention has been paid to Tlachtga by scholars and archaeologists, it held considerable significance in ancient times. Its curious name includes the word for "earth" in modern Irish, tlacht, from which some have proposed a lost goddess of that name; the second syllable appears to mean "ray" or "spear" (see gae bulga). Some ancient texts claim that the hill got its name from a witch, daughter of the magician mog ruith. In a confusing tale, she is said to have traveled to Italy to study with the great magician Simon Magus, from whom she learned to make a flying wheel or roth ramach, with which she was able to sail back to Ireland. Somehow, the three sons of Simon Magus tracked her there and raped her on the hill that bears her name. There too she died, in labor with the three sons of the three brothers, and there she is buried. Like the parallel figure of tailtiu, Tlachtga was honored with a festival organized in her memory by the god lugh.

Toice Bhrean Irish folkloric figure. In some legends from near the enchanted lough gur, this is the name given to the fairy housekeeper who sits at the lake’s bottom, knitting endlessly. The name means "slattern" or "lazybones" and refers to the story that the lake was formed (like lough neagh) when the assigned guardian left the lid off a sacred well, which overflowed to form the lake. For her lack of attention, Toice

Bhrean was condemned to spend eternity at the lake’s bottom, beneath a magical tree that grew there. Only once every seven years did she see daylight, when the lake’s waters evaporated for a few moments.


Welsh folkloric figure. Sometimes at night, a funeral seemed to pass through a village. All the villagers were visible, passing slowly and mournfully behind a casket, headed toward the cemetery, but all those villagers were really tucked safe in their homes, for the spectral procession was the toili or ghostly funeral. Those with second sight could sometimes see them passing in the daytime as well. The appearance of the toili was invariably a premonition that someone’s death was imminent. It was important to turn aside if one saw the toili pass, for anyone swept up in its parade would die.

Tommy Rawhead (Rawhead-and-Bloody-Bones, Old Bloody Bones)

British folkloric figure. Informants in the last century differed as to where this frightening bogie lived, some contending that he was a water demon who haunted bogs and other somber places, while others believed he lived under stairs and in unused cupboards. The creature was ugly beyond words, seated on top of a pile of bones with blood dripping out of his mouth.

Tom Thumb

British folkloric figure. Although the tale of a man the size of a man’s thumb only dates to medieval times, the motif of tiny people is consistent with Celtic fairy lore. Tom’s adventures took him to the court of king arthur at camelot, where he arrived in the belly of a salmon which was intended for the king’s supper.

Toot mounds

British mythological site. Many round hills that can be found in the English countryside go by the common name of "toot mounds," presumably related to an Indo-European real word meaning "to stick out" which evolved into such words as "tit" and "teat." Because of their breast shape, some of the hills were topped by pre-Celtic people with cairns to form nipples, reinforcing the idea that the earth was seen as a womanly, probably maternal, body. The most famous such hills are in Ireland and are known as the paps of danu.


British mythological site. Near the small town of glastonbury in southwestern England, a strange pyramidal hill rises. Called the Tor, it was renowned as an entrance to the other-world and as the home of the king of fairyland, called in Welsh gwynn ap nudd. The Celtic saint Collen met the fairies and their king on the hilltop, where he saw a beautiful palace filled with dancing figures. When asked how he liked it, Collen threw holy water at the palace, whereupon everything disappeared.


Tor is connected with many Arthurian legends, for some contend that Glastonbury was none other than avalon itself, the Isle of Apples where the great lady of the lake conducted arthur. On the hilltop stands a tower dedicated to st. michael, who although a Christian figure may have been absorbed into an earlier god or hero; upon the tower is carved brigit milking a cow, an image that is also found in other Glastonbury sites. The tower stands near an Iron Age settlement, showing that there has been continuous habitation in the area for more than 2,000 years.

Beneath the hill are two wells. One, the famous Chalice Well or Blood Spring, has waters stained with iron so that they appear red as blood. The other, the White Spring, has no such coloring. The presence of twin wells with waters of different colors would doubtless have drawn the attention of ancient people to this powerful site.

A figure of this name appears in Arthurian legend as a common-born man who desired to become a knight of the round table and who, after succeeding in that goal, was revealed to be the illegitimate son of king pellinore.

Torc (torque)

Celtic religious object. Throughout the ancient Celtic lands, archaeologists have found spirals of coiled metal, often of gold and often elaborately decorated. These torcs can be massive or slender, and their use is made clear from sculptures and bas-reliefs. They were worn about the neck, with the opening facing to the rear. However beautiful the workmanship, the torcs do not seem to have been simply ornamental, for they are found around the necks of gods and goddesses, as though indicating a divine stature. Worn by humans, they may have had a similar meaning—of religious dedication—or may have been indications of high social rank. The bodies of bog people are often found wearing torcs, suggesting that they may have been human sacrifices rather than criminal executions.

Torc Triath

Irish mythological figure. The king of boars, this figure is parallel to the Welsh twrch trwyth; some texts say it was one of the magical possessions of the goddess brigit.


Irish hero. A minor character in the story of the great king of tara, niall of the Nine Hostages, Torna was a bard who prophesied a great future for the baby Niall and offered assistance to his mother cairenn.


Cosmological concept. This word is used by scholars to refer to an animal (occasionally, plant) believed to have been the ancestor or ancestral mother of a tribe. Because of this ancient connection, the members of that tribe were forbidden to kill or eat the flesh of their onetime relative. Vestiges of such a belief system are suggested by certain folk beliefs, such as the supposed descent by some coastal Irish families from seal women, and by mythological tales such as that of the king conaire, who was forbidden to kill birds because his mother was descended from them.


Continental Celtic god. Known only from a single inscription, this god seems to have been an ancestral god or personification of the tribe, similar to teutates. The Romans identified Toutiorix with their healing god of the sun, apollo.

Transmigration of souls (metempsychosis)

Cosmological concept. Scholars do not agree on whether the ancient Celts believed in reincarnation, although there are some texts from Roman times that appear to refer to such a belief. Among those who do accept the idea, most agree that humans were not necessarily reborn as humans but rather experienced what is called transmigration of souls, moving into the bodies of various animals, birds, and even insects. Irish mythology is filled with references to such events, as when the fair etain was changed into a fly and impregnated her own mother so that she could be reborn as a human; the warring swineherds friuch and rucht, who were reborn as ravens and stags and bulls; and the great bard tuan mac cairill, who lived as an eagle and a salmon.

Trash (guytrash)

British folkloric figure. A form of the skriker, this evil being appeared just before death as a shaggy dog (trash) or a cow (guytrash).


Cosmological concept. Trees were not, to the Celts, merely large woody plants. They were also religious symbols of the highest order. The tree occupies many levels of reality, with its roots hidden in the dark underground and its branches reaching for the sky. For this reason, the tree represented wisdom: In both Irish and Welsh, the words for tree (fid and gwydd) and wisdom or wise one (fios and gywddon) are related.

This sense of the sanctity of trees is recorded by the earliest writers, for Tacitus describes the dark groves of anglesey, where the druid orders made their last failed stand against the invading Romans, while other classical writers claimed that the Celtic nemetons or sacred groves were horrific places where the trees were stained with the blood of human sacrifice. Whether this is true or represents anti-Celtic propaganda, several sixth century b.c.e. sites in Germany (at Goloring and Goldberg) seem to indicate that shrines were built around a huge central post, believed to represent a sacred tree. The same building style was found in Ireland, at the great capital of ulster called emain macha. In addition, in some regions of Roman Gaul have been found the tree-shaped jupiter columns, carved of stone but perhaps originally made of wood.

Many tribal names on the Continent suggest that people saw themselves as descended from trees: Eburones from yews, Lemovices from elms. Individual names, too, referred to trees, as with Guidgen ("son of wood") and Guerngen ("son of alder"). In Irish mythology we find figures bearing tree names, like Mac Cuilen ("son of holly") and Mac Ibar ("son of yew"). All these names suggest that the tree’s upright form was seen as parallel to that of humans, so much so that trees could establish human families.

Individual trees were honored into historical times in Ireland. There, legend says that five great trees were especially magical: the Tree of Ross, a yew that grew from a seed of a tree in the biblical paradise, bore fruit without ceasing; the Tree of Mugna, an oak, produced 900 bushels of acorns every year, as well as the same amount of apples and nuts; the Tree of Tortu, an ash, was so huge that when it fell, it reached across the island; the Tree of Dathi, named for a poet that it killed as it fell; and the many-branched tree of uisneach, which grew on the sacred mountain in the center of the island. The trees were planted by an otherwise unknown mythological figure named Trefuilngig Tre-eochair, who carried a branch from the land of the setting sun. As he passed over Ireland, berries fell from the branch, from which the five great trees all grew.

Medieval Irish law, called the brehon laws after the druidical judges who originally articulated them, treated trees like people by dividing them into classes. There were seven noble trees, for which fines or erics had to be paid if they were cut down or injured; these were the oak, holly, hazel, apple, birch, alder, and willow. Other trees had lesser value in the legal system. These were the peasant trees (elm, hawthorn, aspen, quicken), the shrubs (blackthorn, elder, spindle, test-tree, honeysuckle, bird-cherry, and white hazel), and the herbs (gorse, heather, broom, bog-myrtle, and rushes).

The most sacred tree was undoubtedly the oak, which was honored by the druids, who also believed in the magical potency of the mistletoe that grows parasitically on that species. That the Celts hung on to their sense of the sacredness of trees long into Christian times can be detected through the many and continued warnings by Christian clerics and rulers against tree worship. In the seventh century, the archbishop of Canterbury pronounced that "no one shall go to trees, or wells, or stones, or enclosures, or anywhere else except to God’s church, and there make vows or release himself from them." Were people not using trees, along with holy wells and ancient stones, as sites of prayer and petition, there would have been no reason to inveigh against the practice. Three hundred years later, King Edgar felt compelled to "enjoin that every priest to zealously promote Christianity and totally extinguish every heathenism; and forbid well-worshiping and necromancies, and divinations, and worship with various trees and stones." In Ireland, coins are still offered to sacred trees (see bile) at holy wells; the practice is discour-aged—because metal pounded into the bark has killed more than one sacred tree—but survives nonetheless.

Tree alphabet (Beth-Luis-Nuin)

Cosmolog-ical concept. The Celts arranged the most familiar and valuable trees of their lands into a series that had mystical meaning and could be used for divination. These formed the ogham alphabet, each letter of which was named for a tree. The ogham letters were drawn using a system of horizontal and diagonal lines; the letters and sounds these symbols stood for are represented below, along with the tree that each letter was linked with. The sound of each letter is the same as the initial sound of the tree’s Irish name.


Birch (beith)


Rowan (luis)


Alder (fearn)


Willow (saille)


Ash (nuin)


Hawthorn (huathe)


Oak (duir)


Holly (tinne)


Hazel (coll)


Apple (quert)


Vine (muinn)


Ivy (gort)


Broom/fern (ngetal)


Blackthorn (straif)


Elder (ruis)


Fir/pine (ailm)


Gorse (onn)


Heather (ur)


Aspen (edhadh)


Yew (ido)


Aspen (ebhadh)


Spindle (oir)


Honeysuckle (uileand)


Gooseberry (iphin)


Beech (phagos)

This alphabet has been the source of some controversy, with some scholars dismissing its importance, while others stress it. It was not used as our alphabet is, as a means of transcribing literary works and other compositions for later reading, but rather as a divinatory tool and as a means of memorizing.

Tree of Tortu (Irish mythic object, Ash of Tortu, Tree of Dath-i)

One of the five great trees of Ireland, it was an ash, one of the most sacred trees to the Celts. The tree of Tortu was so huge that when it was felled it stretched across Ireland.

Tree soul

Scottish folkloric symbol. Just as a human soul could lodge in a rock or an animal, the external soul could also reside in a tree. This belief may derive from the widespread Celtic belief in the sanctity of trees.

Tregeagle (John Tregeagle, Jan Tregeagle)

Cornish folkloric figure. Once in Cornwall, legend says, lived an evil man who pledged his soul to the devil after killing his wife. He outwitted his fate, however, because he was so selfish that he would not leave earth after his death but remained to interfere with neighbors who wished to use his land. Finally a local clergyman, intent on saving even lost souls, gave him the task of emptying a pool with a seashell, which he did until he wearied. At the moment he stopped to rest, the devil appeared and dragged him away, "roaring like Tregeagle," as the Cornish saying goes.


Cornish folkloric site. At this region near the town of Zennor, witches were said to meet for their midsummer festival, lighting fires on Burn Downs and dancing around, casting spells and otherwise concocting magic and mischief. The festival was centered on a strange rock formation called Witches’ Rock, which local superstition holds is certain protection against bad luck, if one touches it nine times at the stroke of midnight.


Welsh and Irish literary form. Because of the mystic importance of the number three and to facilitate memorization by providing a standard formula, poets and other bards composed many short poems that listed three examples of qualities, people, and places. Triads list the three splendid women of king arthur’s court, the three sorrows of ireland, and many other groups. Scholars examine the triads for the mythological material they encode.


British goddess. In a story similar to one told of Ireland’s brigit, this minor British goddess is said to have pulled her eyes out of her head to avoid an unwanted suitor. As Brigit was a triple goddess, and Triduana’s name includes the syllable for "three," it is possible this was a local title of the goddess.


Cornish hero. The story of Tristan and his fated love, iseult, is one of the great romances of the Celtic world. He was a young warrior, strong and vigorous; he was talented in the arts, being a fine musician and storyteller. And he was handsome as well, easy on the eyes of the many maidens who swooned after him, but Tristan was fated to love and be loved by the wife of his king.

When that king—Tristan’s uncle, mark of Cornwall (sometimes, Cornouille in Brittany)— discovered a hair of the most glorious gold, he determined to marry the woman to whom it belonged. That woman was Iseult, and Tristan traveled to Ireland to escort her to her wedding. On the way, Iseult’s handmaid brangien gave the two a potion to relieve their thirst. It was no ordinary drink, however, but a magic brew from Iseult’s mother, who to assure her daughter’s happiness had concocted a potion for her wedding night. As she was meant to do with her king, Iseult fell in love with the handsome knight Tristan.

The couple tried to be true to their vows to king Mark, and the wedding went forward but eventually Tristan and Iseult consummated their love. Despite their happiness, Iseult finally returned to her husband. Heartbroken, Tristan married a woman with the same name, but he could not bring himself to sleep with her, and when he heard the false news that his beloved Iseult was dead, he died himself.

The story, long viewed as only a romantic tale, has its basis in the myth of the goddess of sovereignty who chooses as her mate the strongest and most virile lover. The same story appears in variations throughout the Celtic lands: in the story of king arthur, his queen guinevere, and her knight lancelot in Britain; and in the Irish myth of the aging hero fionn mac cumhaill, the glorious grainne, and the handsome diarmait.

Trooping fairies

Folkloric motif. fairies came in two varieties: solitary fairies like the leprechaun kept their own company and avoided others of their kind, and the more common trooping fairies who lived together in great palaces where they danced and sang the day away. (Some writers add a third category of fairy being: the domestic fairy like the brownie who, although living without other fairy kin, was nonetheless sociable to humans.) Generally these fairies caused little trouble to humans who left them alone, although sometimes they rode forth on the wild hunt to steal babies and brides away to fairyland.


Scottish folkloric figure. On the Shetland and Orkney Islands, these figures represent the most common kind of fairy. Like the Scandinavian trolls, from whom their name probably derives, the trows did not like sunlight and so were nocturnal creatures. Unlike trolls, trows were not typically turned to stone by sunlight but were merely paralyzed, to return to life at nightfall.

Trows were found in two varieties. The sea trow lived beneath the waves, like a mermaid or seal, while the land trows could be giants or human-sized gray-coated fairies. If you met one on the road, he walked backward rather than toward you. Seeing one was unlucky, but overhearing them talking to each other brought good luck.


Arthurian heroine. In the poetry of Marie de France, this fairy lover traded wealth for sex with the knight launfal but, like any such woman, made one demand: that he never boast about her. He was unable to fulfill his promise, as is common in such cases, but Tryamour was less punitive than others of her race and permitted Launfal to join her in the otherworld.

Trystan (Drystan, Drystan fab Tallwch)

Welsh hero. In a Welsh-language version of the familiar tale of tristan and iseult, the hero and heroine are named Trystan and esyllt, and she is the wife of king March ap Meirchion. The couple eloped to a forest, where they were besieged by March’s three armies. The battle was bloody and brutal, and when it appeared that Trystan might win, king arthur was called in to negotiate a truce. That wise king told them to share the woman’s favors, with one having her in the summer, the other in the winter. March chose first: he wanted winter, when nights were longest, but Trystan tricked him, claiming that because yew trees are green year-round, he would keep Esyllt forever. Trystan may have derived from the lore of the picts, a mysterious northern British people whose cultural background is unknown.


Irish heroine. At the age of 15, this lovely girl caught the eye of the god of the sea, manan-nan mac lir, although she had been reared on the royal hill of tara by the high king conaire himself. To ensure that she was kept safe, Conaire decreed that no man should approach Tuag’s home. Many nobles and kings came to court to seek her hand, but Manannan was determined to wed her, so he sent his bard, the dwarf fer ^ as his emissary. Fer I disguised himself a woman and crept into her chambers, where he sang a lullaby so potent that she fell into a dreamless sleep. Continuing to sing to the girl, Fer I hoisted her onto his shoulders and carried her away. Later, exhausted from carrying her strong body on his small shoulders, he set her down while he rested. Unfortunately, he chose his resting place poorly, for the waters of the Bann River rose and carried Tuag away, drowning her.

Similar stories are told of many river goddesses, such as boand and s^nann, so Tuag may be the goddess of the Bann River. Its estuary, Tuag Inber, bears her name. Three great waves were said to dash against Ireland’s coasts: the wave of the fairy queen cledna, the Wave of Rudraige, and the wave that strikes the shores at Tuag Inber.

Tuairisgeal (t-Urraisgeal)

Scottish folkloric figure. When the king of Ireland was out riding in Scotland one day, he met this strange man who lured him into gambling. Tuairisgeal seemed an easy mark: First he lost his wife, then his horse. The third time, Tuairisgeal won, earning the right to ask anything of the king. He wanted only one thing: the answer to an unlikely question. How had his father died? The king did not know, so he set off to find out. Riding Tuairisgeal’s horse and helped by Tuairisgeal’s wife, the Irish king finally found himself in the court of Greece, where he learned that Tuairisgeal’s father had been a monster who had turned children into wolves. The king of Greece lost several children to the monster, and at last when his daughter was threatened by a monstrous claw, she was protected by angry wolves—her transformed brothers and sisters. One bit off the monster’s hand, after which the king of Greece tracked the creature to his home and killed it. The wolfish children were immediately restored to their human forms, and the king of Ireland had to bring bad news back to the mysterious gambling stranger.

Tuan mac Cairill (Tuan Mac Carell)

Irish hero. The brother of the early Irish invader partholon, Tuan survived the plague that killed off his people and lived on in a series of forms, including a stag, a boar and an eagle. After many such reincarnations, Tuan became a salmon that was eaten by a woman who became pregnant (see pregnancy through drinking, eating). Reborn as a human, Tuan remembered all his lives, which made him a great and eloquent bard. A similar story in Wales told of the boy gwion who, eaten by the goddess ceridwen while shape-shifting, was reborn as the bard taliesin.

It was Tuan who narrated the mythological history of Ireland called the book of invasions. He did so as an expert witness, having lived through almost all of Irish history. Some texts claim that Tuan was the same as the salmon of wisdom, otherwise known as fintan.


Irish concept. This word, often translated as "tribe," had a more complex meaning in ancient Irish than merely a group of people, for it also referred to the land upon which that group lived. Each tuath chose its own king. Ireland had approximately 150 tuaths, hence the large number of kings in Irish mythology and history. Some scholars assert that the usual number of members of a tuath was approximately 3,000, leading to a proposed total population for the island of nearly a half-million people. A similar word appeared in continental Celtic languages, where it became the basis for the name of an apparent tribal god, teutates.

One ancient legal text says that not only does each tuath need a king, but other offices must be filled as well: bard, churchman, and scholar. Kings were paid taxes (usually in food) by the tuath and could call upon the able-bodied men to assist in protecting the land and its people. Most people stayed within the physical territory of their tuath virtually all their lives, seeing their friends and relations (and their enemies as well) at regular festivals and assemblies called oenach. While most legal rights were confined to the territory of the tuath, the bard or poet had the right to travel beyond the tuath’s boundaries and to be treated according to the expected standard.

Tuatha De Danann (Tuatha De, De Danaan, de Danaan, Fir Dea)

Irish mythological race. According to the mythological history of Ireland, the book of invasions, the penultimate invaders were a magical race, distant descendants of the earlier children of nemed. They fought against the monstrous fomorians and the tough fir bolg, defeating both to earn the right to rule the land. They kept control of Ireland for nearly 3,000 years, until the final migratory wave struck the island shores. The milesians fought bitterly against the Tuatha De, who refused to give way. Finally a treaty was proposed, whereby the land would be divided. The Milesians took the surface world, while the Tuatha De took the rest: the misty islands out to sea, the bottoms of lakes, and the fairy mounds. And so they departed, yet never left, Ireland. They became the fairy people, immortal presences that still interacted with their human neighbors, especially at times when the veils between the worlds lifted, like the magical festivals of beltane on May 1 and samhain on November 1.

The Tuatha De Danann get their name from danu, the goddess from whom they were descended; for this reason they are also called Fir Dea, "men of the goddess." They include many of the greatest divinities of Ireland: brigit, goddess of healing, smithcraft and poetry; eriu, after whom the island is named; boand, the white cow goddess of rivers; the three war goddess, badb, macha, and the morrigan; the good god dagda; manannan mac lir, god of the sea; the envious physician dian cecht; the many-gifted lugh; and many others. When they were driven from the surface world, they each established a s^dhe or palace, some of which were especially famous, such as knockshegowna, where una lived, and bri leith, home of the loyal midir. There they lived immortal, pleasant lives surrounded by beauty and song, only venturing to this world to engage in fairy kidnapping and similarly amoral activities.

Tuireann (Turrean)

Irish hero. Like a parallel figure, uisneach, Tuireann receives little attention in Irish mythology, although the story of his three sons’ deaths is one of the three sorrows of ireland. The young warriors set out after cian, a hero with whom their father was at war. When he realized he was surrounded, Cian turned into a boar and attacked, but the shape-shifting warriors turned into dogs and brought him down. They permitted Cian to resume his human shape just before he died. For this murder, the sons of tuireann had to perform a series of exhausting tasks, from which they died. Their father, who was the consort of the great goddess danu (sometimes called donand in this tale), himself died of sorrow at hearing the news.


Scottish folkloric site. This word is used in Scotland to describe the palace inside a fairy mound.

Turning the jacket

Irish folkloric symbol. Like carrying iron or salt, turning one’s clothing backward or inside out is supposed to be a sure protection against fairies, who otherwise might kidnap a traveler away.

Turoe Stone

Irish mythological site. In a field outside the small town of Loughrea near Galway City, a human-sized boulder stands upright, its top swirling with ornate bas-reliefs. It originally stood near a rath called Feerwore but was moved in historical times to the current site. The ornamented stone appears to be in the la tene style, suggesting that it is Celtic in origin. What purpose it was intended to serve is unknown, but four other pillar stones are known in other parts of Ireland: at Castle Strange in Co. Roscommon, Killycluggin in Co. Cavan, Mullaghmas in Co. Kildare, and Derrykeighan in Co. Antrim. Such stones may have been symbolic central points, like the stone of divisions on the hill of uisneach, which is said to be Ireland’s exact center. A replica of the Turoe Stone can be seen in the National Museum in Dublin.


Scottish folkloric figure. This minor water spirit was the child of a water demon who lived in the Tweed River.


Cosmological concept. Although three was the most significant number to the Celts, there is also evidence that they saw symbolic value in the number two. Celtic mythology frequently pictured goddesses who gave birth to twins. Typically one twin was light and the other dark or, as in the case of the Welsh nisien and efnisien, one good and the other evil. The Romans associated such twin gods with their own Dioscures, Castor and Pollux.

Twrch Trwyth (Twrch Trwyd)

Welsh monster. In the tale of kulhwch and olwen, the human hero Kulhwch sought the hand of the fair Olwen, but her father yspaddaden penkawr refused to permit the wedding until the groom had performed 40 impossible tasks. The most difficult was the capture of a comb, razor, and scissors from the horrifying Twrch Trwyth, who appeared to be a monstrous boar but was in reality a bewitched king trapped in animal form for his misdeeds. With the help of mabon, freed from bewitchment to help with the quest, the great boar was found and captured. Given that Kulhwch’s name means "pig-run," the connection between hunter and prey appears close.

Tylwyth teg (fair family)

Welsh folkloric figure. This name is often used as a name for the fairies in Wales; there as in other Celtic lands, it was believed impolite or unlucky to refer the fairies by their real names. The king of this fair family was gwynn ap nudd. Small, childlike beings, the tylwyth teg wore homespun clothes of blue, unlike most fairies who wore green or red. Petroleum was their butter and toadstools, their bread.

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