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Sunday, July 23, 2023

7 Things About Irish Mythology

 Today I thought it would be good to cover some points about Irish mythology that are important for people interested in the subject to know. These include common confusions as well as helpful tips and I hope people will find it all interesting. Of course for some readers this won't be new information but for others it may be the first time they're seeing these ideas, so I'm trying to cover a range of things from common to more obscure.

  1. Irish Mythology Doesn't Equal Celtic Mythology - mislabeling of Irish mythology as 'Celtic' is a pretty common problem. Its true that Irish falls under the umbrella of Celtic culture but Irish myths are very specific to Ireland and when we do find pan-Celtic deities in different Celtic cultures their stories will be different. In other words the Irish Lugh may be a cognate of the Welsh Llew but Irish myths about Lugh are very different from Welsh stories of Llew. Calling it all Celtic and lumping it together can give people the idea that it was all much more homogeneous than it actually is. This also contributes in my opinion to the common misconception that Irish and Celtic are synonymous, rather than an understanding that Celtic is descriptive of a group of related but distinct languages and cultures. 
  2. Older Versions of Myths Aren't Identical to Modern Retellings - This isn't to say that one is better or worse or more genuine or whatever, but its important to note that there is a difference between a modern retelling of a myth which often takes liberties with the story and adds or subtracts details and the myths as they are found in manuscript sources. This is important because if someone says something is 'known in Irish mythology' then quotes a retelling from the 1980s that varies wildly from actual recorded mythology it gives readers a false impression of both antiquity and cultural validity. This has also often led to people outside Irish culture rewriting Irish mythology in ways that make it appear they are presenting older material accurately when they are not (looking at Peter Berresford Ellis here). We just need to be honest about sources. 
  3. There Isn't Any Single Source for Irish Myths - the older mythology we have which was recorded*, generally, from the 9th through 18th centuries (I'm being a bit generous with the end date) do not represent a single cohesive body of myth but rather a wide array of variations based on region, time period, and cultural influences. This gives us in many cases a variety of stories which exist in different versions which may have significantly different details - for example in one version of the Táin Bó Cuailigne it is Badb who warns the Donn Cuailigne, contests with Cu Chulainn and so on while in others it is the Morrigan who does these things. For another example the famous encounter between the Morrigan and Cu Chulainn where she appears in disguise as a princess is found in only a single version of the Táin Bó Cuailigne; in all others that episode isn't present. 
  4. Cultural Context is Important - I don't mean a vague 'Irish Culture' here but rather the culture of the time and place the story was written or told. For example its generally understood that the Oidheadh Chlainn Tuireann likely reflected the human political landscape of the time, an influence which shaped the story away from the Cath Maige Tuired (both describe the battle with eth Fomorians) and reflected the 200 years that likely existed between the composing of the Cath Maige Tuired and the Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann. In the same way to understand several stories it would be helpful, even vital, to understand the importance of cows within the contemporary culture. 
  5. Translations and Translators Matter - this is a hobby horse of mine but it is true. There are versions of stories where the translator added their own material and versions where entire passages were edited out or not translated, and it is vital to realize this. We should not treat a translation of an Irish myth as a written in stone, word of the Gods version because the hand of the translator can profoundly effect the text we read. A great example of this is Whitley Stokes choice to omit the entire encounter between the Dagda and the Fomorian princess in the Cath Maige Tuired because he found it unfit for Victorian sensibilities or his decision to call the Morrigan a lamia in a different passage although the original text never uses that term or describes her with anything similar. Treating Stokes version as literally accurate will give a reader misconceptions about the material that will change how they understand the subject. 
  6. Not Everything Labelled Irish Mythology Actually Is - Misinformation is a problem, especially because of the popularity of Irish myth. Now its possible for something new to be absorbed into folk belief but often we find ideas outside Irish culture that are labeled as both Irish and historic and that causes problems. The Bean tighe fairy for example was created outside Ireland in the early 21st century, and the 'Irish' goddess Cana Cludhmor or Canola was invented by an American author also in the 21st century. Both of these can be found online presented as genuinely older Irish myth or belief. So its important to have some discernment before believing things you may run across. 
  7. Irish Mythology Is Still Evolving - we tend to think of mythology as historic material, and the bulk of what we have is older. But these are still living beliefs and they continue to evolve across the older myths and into modern living folk belief. We see this in the way the Lugh of mythology became the Lugh of folk belief, or the way Áine went from one of the Tuatha De Danann to a fairy queen to a human woman but all while retaining a place in folk belief. Irish culture is alive, Irish story telling is alive, and so the stories themselves are fluid and adaptable. We can (and should in my opinion) be clear about what is or isn't older belief or recorded myth but we also have to be aware of modern concepts and ideas within the living culture that include mythic concepts and beings. 

*we do not necessarily have manuscripts which have survived from the earlier dating periods but we have later copies of those manuscripts which can be dated to those periods based on the language and style used.