Celtic Myths and Legends

Celtic Myths and Legends

by Peter Berresford Ellis


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This is an enchantingly told collection of the stirring sagas of gods and goddesses, fabulous beasts, strange creatures, and such heroes as Cuchulain, Fingal, and King Arthur from the ancient Celtic world. Included are popular myths and legends from all six Celtic cultures of Western Europe-Irish, Scots, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. Here for the modern reader are the rediscovered tales of cattle raids, tribal invasions, druids, duels, and doomed love that have been incorporated into, and sometimes distorted by, European mythology and even Christian figures. For example, there is the story of Lugh of the Long Hand, one of the greatest gods in the Celtic pantheon, who was later transformed into the faerie craftsman Lugh-Chromain, and finally demoted to the lowly Leprechaun. Celtic Myths and Legends also retells the story of the classic tragic love story of Tristan and Iseult (probably of Cornish origin-there was a real King Mark and a real Tristan in Cornwall) and the original tale of King Arthur, a Welsh leader who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons. In the hands of Peter Berresford Ellis, the myths sung by long-dead Celtic bards come alive to enchant the modern reader. "The casual reader will be best entertained by ... the legends themselves ...colored with plenty of swordplay, ... quests, shape-shiftings, and druidic sorcery."-Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786711079
Publisher: Running Press Book Publishers
Publication date: 12/25/2002
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 135,361
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Peter Berresford Ellis is the author of such histories as The Celtic Empire and, under the pen name Peter Tremayne, of the Sister Fidelma mystery series. A Fellow of three royal societies, including the Royal Historical Society, he lives in England. Ellis is an authority on the Celts.

Read an Excerpt


By Peter Berresford Ellis


Copyright © 2002

Peter Berresford Ellis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7867-1107-8

Chapter One

The Ever-Living Ones

It was the time of primal chaos: a time when the Earth was
new and undefined. Arid deserts and black bubbling
volcanoes, covered by swirling clouds of gases, scarred
the grim visage of the newborn world. It was, as yet, the time
of the great void.

Then into that oblivion, from the dull, dark heavens, there
came a trickle of water. First one drop, then another and
another, until finally there gushed a mighty torrent down
upon the earth. The divine waters from heaven flooded
downwards and soaked into the arid dirt, cooled the volcanoes
which turned into grey, granite mountains, and life
began to spring forth across the Earth. The dark, reddened
skies grew light and blue.

From the darkened soil there grew a tree, tall and strong.
Danu, the divine waters from heaven, nurtured and cherished
this great tree which became the sacred oak named Bíle. Of
the conjugation of Danu and Bile, there dropped two giant
acorns. The first acorn was male. From it sprang The Dagda,
"The Good God". The second seed was female. From it there
emerged Brigantu, or Brigid, "The Exalted One". And The
Dagda and Brigid gazed upon one another in wonder, for it
was their task to wrest order from the primal chaos and to
people the Earth with the Children of Danu, the Mother
Goddess, whose divine waters had given them life.

So there, by the divine waters of Danu, from where those
waters rose and flooded through the now fertile green valleys
of the Earth, eastwards towards a distant sea, The Dagda and
Brigid settled. And they called the great course of eastward
rushing water after the Mother Goddess, which is Danuvius,
whose children still know it as the mighty Danube. And four
great bright cities they built there on its broad banks, in which
the Children of Danu would live and thrive.

The four cities were Falias, Gorias, Finias and Murias.

The Dagda became their father; thus humankind call him
"The Father of the Gods". And Brigid became the wise one,
exalted in learning and much did she imbibe from the mighty
Danu and from Bíle, the sacred oak. She was hailed as the
mother of healing, of craftsmanship and of poetry; indeed,
she excelled in all knowledge. She showed her children that
true wisdom was only to be garnered from the feet of Danu,
the Mother Goddess, and so only to be found at the water's

Those who gathered such knowledge also paid deference to
Bile, the sacred oak. Because they were not allowed to speak
his holy name, they called the oak draoi and those learned in
such knowledge were said to possess oak (dru) knowledge
(vid) and thus were known as Druids.

The knowledge of the Children of Danu grew and each of
their four great cities prospered. In Falias they held a sacred
stone called the Lia Fáil or Stone of Destiny, which, when a
righteous ruler set foot on it, would shout with joy; in Gorias,
where Urias of the Noble Nature dwelt, they held a mighty
sword called the "Retaliator", fashioned before the time of
the gods themselves, and which Urias presented to Lugh
Lámhfada, who became the greatest warrior among the gods;
in Finias, they held a magic spear, called "The Red Javelin",
which, once cast, would find its enemy no matter where he
hid; and in Murias they held the "Cauldron of Plenty", from
which The Dagda could feed entire nations and it still would
not be emptied.

For many aeons, the Children of Danu grew and prospered
in their beautiful cities.

Then one day, The Dagda, Father of the Gods, and Brigid,
the Exalted One, called their children to them.

"You have tarried here long enough. The Earth needs to be
peopled and needs your wisdom to advise and direct them, so
that they may live lives of virtue and merit. Our Mother,
Danu, has directed you to move towards the place where the
bright sun vanishes each evening."

"Why should we go there?" demanded Nuada, the favourite
son of The Dagda.

"Because it is your destiny," replied Brigid. "And you,
Nuada, shall lead your brothers and sisters, and their children,
and the land that you shall come to will be called
Inisfáil, the Island of Destiny. There shall you abide until your
destiny is fulfilled."

"If it is our destiny," said another of The Dagda's sons,
named Ogma, "then we shall accept it."

Ogma was the most handsome of the Children of Danu.
From his long curly hair, the rays of the sun shone and he
was called Ogma grian-aineacg, of the Sunny Countenance.
To him fell the gift of honeyed words, of poetry and of
languages, and he it was who devised how man could write
in a form of calligraphy, which was named after him as

Brigid smiled at her eager children. "I am allowed to give
you one word of warning. When you reach Inisfáil, you will
find another people who will claim the Island of Destiny as
their own. They are the Children of Domnu, who is the sister
of our mother Danu. But beware, for Domnu is not as Danu.
For each sister is the inverse of the other, as winter is to

"Then," Nuada said, "should we not take something to
defend ourselves with, lest the Children of Domnu fight us for
the possession of Inisfáil?"

The Dagda gazed at them kindly and replied, "You may
take the four great treasures of the cities of Falias, Gorias,
Finias and Murias."

And the Children of Danu took the treasures and they went
to the mountains overlooking the headwaters of the Danuvius,
the divine waters from heaven, and ascended in a great
cloud which bore them westward to Inisfáil, the Island of
Destiny. And among them were three beautiful young sisters,
who were the wives of the sons of Ogma. Their names were
Banba, Fótla and Éire and each sister nurtured an ambition
that this new land of Inisfáil would one day be named after

Night wrapped her darkened mantle over Magh Tuireadh,
which is called the Plain of Towers, which lay in the west of
the land of Inisfáil. On each side of the great plain, separated
by the River Unius, myriads Of small campfires glowed in the
gloom. Two armies had gathered for combat.

Seven years had passed since the Children of Danu had
landed in their cloud on the shores of the Island of Destiny.
They had fought initially with a strange race of people called
the Firbolg, who challenged their right to rule in the Island of
Destiny. These they had met at the Pass of Balgatan and the
conflict went on fob four days. And in that conflict there came
forth a champion of the Firbolg, named Sreng, who challenged
Nuada, the leader of the Children of Danu, to single
combat. So strong and mighty was Sreng that, with one sweep
of his great sword, he cut off Nuada's right hand.

But the Firbolg and their king, Eochaidh, were defeated
and dispersed.

Dian Cécht, the god of all physicians, came to Nuada after
the battle and fashioned him an artificial hand of silver, so
strong and supple that it was little different from the real
hand. Thus did Nuada receive his full name, Nuada
Argetlámh, of the Silver Hand. Because he was maimed,
the other children of Danu had to choose another of their
number to lead them, for they had been told by Brigid that no.
one with a blemish must rule them.

In choosing a new leader, they made a disastrous choice. As
an act of conciliation between themselves and the Children of
Domnu, they chose Bres, son of Elatha, king of the Children
of Domnu who were also known as the Fomorii, or those
who dwelt beneath the sea. And to further consolidate the
alliance, Dian Cécht married Ethne, the daughter of the
foremost Fomorii warrior, named Balor of the One Eye.
And the condition was that, if Bres did anything which
displeased the Children of Danu, then he would abdicate
and depart in peace.

Those years marked a period of strife. Bres, being a
Fomorii, refused to keep his word and began to lay heavy
burdens on the Children of Danu. For a while, Bres and the
Children of Domnu, the children of darkness and evil, dominated
the land, and the Children of Danu, the children of light
and goodness, were helpless and as slaves.

Then finally, Miach, the son of Dian Cécht, aided by his
sister, the beautiful Airmid, fashioned a new hand of flesh and
bone for Nuada. His hand replaced Dian Cécht's silver one
and now, without blemish, Nuada reclaimed the leadership of
the Children of Danu. So jealous was Dian Cécht of his son's
achievement that he slew Miach. But that is another story,

Nuada chased Bres back to the land of the Fomorii, where
Bres. demanded that Elatha, his father, provide him with an
army to punish the Children of Danu.

Thus, on the plain where ancient megaliths stood, thrusting
their dark granite skywards, Magh Tuireadh, the Plain of
Towers, on the evening of the Feast of Samhain (October 31),
the Children of Danu faced the Children of Domnu in battle.

At dawn, the battle commenced. Combats broke out all.
along the line as Nuada led his warriors, both male and
female, against the warriors of Bres and his Fomorii. Across
the battlefield, the Mórrígán, Great Queen of Battles, with
her sisters, Badh the Crow, Nemain the Venomous and Fea
the Hateful, rushed hither and thither with their wailing cries
which drove mortals to despair and death.

As time passed, Indech, a Fomorii warrior, approached
Bres, and pointed out that whenever the Children of Danu
were slain, or their weapons broken and destroyed, they
would be carried from the field and, shortly after, would
appear alive and well again with their weapons intact. Bres
summoned his son, Ruadan, to his side and ordered him to
discover the cause of the endless supply of weapons. And he
summoned the son of Indech, a warrior named Octriallach, to
discover how the Children of Danu, once slain, could come
alive again.

Disguising himself as one of the Children of Danu, Ruadan
went behind the lines of warriors and came across Goibhniu,
god of smiths, who had set up a forge to one side of-the Plain
of Towers. With Goibhniu were Luchtainé, god of carpenters,
and Credné, god of bronze workers. As each broken weapon
was handed to Goibhniu, the smith-god gave it three blows of
his hammer, which forged the head. Luchtainé gave the wood
three blows of his axe and the shaft was fashioned. Then
Credné fixed the shaft and head together with his bronze nails
so swiftly that they needed no hammering.

Ruadan went back to his father and told him what he had
seen. In a rage, Bres ordered his son to kill Goibhniu.

In the meantime, Octriallach had found a mystic spring on
the other side of the Plain of Towers at which stood Dian
Cécht, the god of medicine, with his daughter Airmid at his
side. Whenever one of the Children of Danu were slain, they
were brought to the spring and Dian Cécht and his daughter
plunged the body into the spring and they re-emerged alive
again. In a rage, Bres ordered Octriallach to destroy the
healing spring.

Ruadan returned to the forge and asked for a javelin from
Goibhniu, who gave it without suspicion, thinking Ruadan
was one of the Children of Danu. No sooner was the weapon
in his hand than Ruadan turned and cast it at Goibhniu. It
went clean through the smith-god's body. Mortally wounded
as he was, Goibhniu picked up the spear and threw it back,
wounding Ruadan, who crawled away back to his father and
died at his feet. The Fomorii set up a great caoine, or keening,
which was the first ever heard in the Island of Destiny.

Goibhniu also crawled away and came to the spring, where
Dian Cécht and Airmid plunged him in, and he emerged
healthy and healed.

That night, however, Octriallach, son of Indech, and
several of his companions, came to the spring and each took
a large stone from the bed of a nearby river and dropped it
into the spring until they had filled it. So the healing waters
were dispersed.

Bres, satisfied the Children of Danu were now mortal, and
angered by the death of his son, determined that a pitched
battle should be fought. The next morning, spears and lances
and swords smote against buckler and shield. The whistle of
darts and rattle of arrows and shouting of warriors made it
seem as if a great thunder was rolling over the Plain of
Towers. The River of Unius, which cut through the plain, was
stopped up, so filled was it with dead bodies. The plain was
red with blood, so cruel was the battle.

Indech of the Fomorii fell by the hand of Ogma. And
Indech was not the first nor last of the leaders of the Fomorii
to feel the steel of the Children of Danu.

Neither did the Children of Danu go away from the battle

To the field of slaughter came Balor of the Evil Eye, son of
Buarainench, the most formidable of the Fomorii champions.
He had one great eye, whose gaze was so malevolent that it
destroyed whosoever looked upon it. So large and awesome
was this eye that it took nine attendants, using hooks, to lift
the mighty lid to open it for Balor. It happened on that fateful
day of the battle that Balor came upon Nuada of the Silver
Hand, the leader of the Children of Danu, and hard and fierce
was the contest. Yet in the end, after shield was shattered,
after spear was bent and sword was broken into pieces, it was
the blood of Nuada that gushed in a never ending stream into
the earth of the Island of Destiny. And not content in this
slaughter, Balor turned upon one of Nuada's beautiful wives,
Macha the Personification of Battles, goddess of warriors,
and slew her also: Nor did Dian Cécht have the means to
restore life to them.

At the death of their leader, the Children of Danu wavered
and became fearful.

It was then that Lugh Lámhfada, Lugh of the Long Arm,
approached the battlefield. Now Lugh was the son of Cian,
which means "Enduring One", who was in turn son of
Cainte, the god of speech. Now the council of the Children
of Danu had forbidden him to come to the battle, for Lugh
was all-wise and all-knowledgeable and it was thought that
his life was too valuable to risk in battle, for his was the
wisdom needed to serve humankind.

Indeed, so wise was Lugh that Nuada had let him become
ruler of the Children of Dana for thirteen days, in order that
they might receive his wisdom. Therefore the Children of
Danu had him imprisoned, for his own safety, during the
battle, with nine warriors to guard him. But on hearing
Nuada was slain, Lugh escaped his prison and his guards and,
leaping into his chariot, he hurried to join his brothers and
sisters on the Plain of Towers.

Bres was standing triumphantly with his Fomorii warriors
when he saw a great light in the west.

"I wonder that the sun is rising in the west today," he
muttered, scratching his head.

One of the Fomorii shamans approached Bres, trembling.
"It is not the sun, mighty Bres. The light stems from the
countenance of Lugh Lámhfada! It is his radiance."

by Peter Berresford Ellis
Copyright © 2002
by Peter Berresford Ellis.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Celtic Myths and Legends 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book is an exellent book for the people who are interested in mythology. I am 17 and speak 4 languges and gaelic is among them, yet i knew nothing about these myths. this was the very first book I bought on celtic myths. I was so amazed about how many other stories were based on them.this book teaches many things about the culture and the belifes of the many great nations of the celts.