Creation & Apocalypse Myth in Celtic Mythology & Folklore

Celtic creation myth

No complete Celtic myth has survived describing the creation of the world, however through cross referencing multiple existing myths and stories from Roman historians, it’s possible to piece together how the Celts viewed the creation of the world.

In the Senchus Mór, a set of Celtic Irish religious laws, we learn that the Druids, as Celtic masters of magic and spells over the elements, claimed to have made the sun, moon, earth, and sea. This is a boast in keeping with their supposed powers over the elements.

Creation Myth in Irish Celtic Mythology & Folklore
The Irish Celtic druids creating the Sun and illuminating the world

Certain folk-beliefs, regarding the origin of different parts of nature, bear a close resemblance to primitive cosmogonic myths, and they may be taken as a scattered fragment of similar myths held by the Celts and perhaps taught by the Druids.

Thus sea, rivers, or springs arose either from the urination of a giant or fairy, or from their sweat or blood.

Islands are rocks cast by giants, and mountains are the material thrown up by them as they were working on the earth.

Wells sprang up from the blood of a martyr or from the touch of a saint’s or a fairy’s staff.

In other variations, lakes are formed from the tears of a god, usually Manannan, whose tears at the death of his son formed three lochs in Ireland.

The sea originated from a magic cask given by God to a woman.

The magical cask, when opened, could not be closed again, and the cask never ceased running until the waters covered the earth.

In all these cases, giant, saint, or fairy has doubtless taken the place of a god, since the stories have a very primitive form.

The giant is frequently Gargantua, probably himself once a divinity.

Other references in Irish Celtic texts point to the common cosmogonic myth of the earth having gradually assumed its present form.

Creation of man in Celtic mythology

In Celtic belief men were not so much created by gods as descended from them.

According to Caesar:

“All the Gauls assert that they are descended from Dispater (main Celtic Gaulish divinity) , and this, they say, has been handed down to them by the Druids”

Dispater was a Celtic underworld god of fertility, and the statement implies the existence of a forgotten myth telling how men once lived underground and from there came to the surface of the earth.

However, it also points to their descent from the god of the underworld. As such, the Celtic dead returned to him who was ancestor of the living as well as lord of the dead.

On the other hand, if the earth had originally been thought of as a female, then she as Earth-mother would be ancestress of men.

In other cases, clans, families, or individuals often traced their descent to gods or divine animals or plants. Classical writers occasionally speak of the origin of branches of the Celtic race from famous divine founders.

Celtic apocalypse myth

Just as with the Celtic creation myths, no complete stories have survived that describe the Celtic end of the world, in a way that is similar to the Norse Scandinavian Ragnarok.

However, scattered hints and clues do exist as to how the Celts thought the world would end.

The historian Strabo says that the Druids taught that fire and water must one day prevail over existence, which is an evident belief in some final cataclysm.

This is also hinted at in the words spoken by certain Gauls to Alexander, telling him that what they feared most of all was the fall of the heavens upon their heads.

Apocalypse Myth in Celtic Mythology & Folklore
The Ancient Celts feared the sky would collapse and fall upon the Earth, destroying everything

In other words, they feared what would be the signal of the end of all things.

Other Irish celtic stories describe how the the world will end when the heavens fall, the earth bursts open and the sea engulphed all things.


References:

  • Celtic Myths and Legends by Charles Squire
  • A Treasury of Irish myth, legend, and folklore by William Butler Yeats and Claire Booss
  • The Age of Fable by Thomas Bulfinch
  • Tales of the Celtic Otherworld by John Matthews
  • Celtic myth & legend : an A-Z of people and places by Mike Dixon-Kennedy
  • A brief guide to Celtic myths & legends by Martyn J. Whittock
  • Myths & legends of the Celtic race by Thomas Williams Rolleston
  • The Celtic twilight. Men and women by William Butler Yeats
  • The handbook of Celtic astrology by Helena Paterson
  • Celtic myth and legend : poetry & romance by Charles Squire
  • Mythology of All Races – Celtic & Slavic by Louis Herbert Gray and John Arnott MacCulloch
  • The religion of the ancient Celts by John Arnott MacCulloch
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