In his collection of nineteenth century Irish folklore, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, William Butler Yeats wrote that “even a newspaper man, if you entice him into a cemetery at midnight, will believe in phantoms, for every one is a visionary, if you scratch him deep enough. But the Celt is a visionary without trying.”
Generalization it may be, there is at least a hint of truth to the statement. The mythology of the region proves to us what brilliant storytellers the Celts must have been. Sharing in the tradition of the Greeks, their tales were passed down orally, through stories told anywhere from the comfort of the fireside to the tumult of the sea.
However, Celtic folklore stands on its own in its focus on the otherworldly. Greek tales of heroes, monsters, and divine intervention often focused on finding rational explanations for events that must have seemed illogical at the time. Thunderstorms happened when someone angered Zeus. Persephone’s marriage to Hades created the seasons. In essence, the Greeks told stories to make sense of the chaotic world around them, and to find comfort in their own humanity.
Celtic mythology, on the other hand, spurns the rational in favor of the metaphorical. All things (from monsters to heroes to mother’s blessings) come in threes. Horses and cattle crawl from the sea. And, of course, fairies live beneath yon hill.
Celtic folklore doesn’t make sense, at least not in a concrete way. But that doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless–to the contrary, in fact.
Why Study Folklore?
Instead of telling tales of the body, the Celts tell us tales of the heart. In their own roundabout way, they reveal to us their hopes, dreams, desires, and anxieties. And despite the age of the stories, it’s often possible to see ourselves in them as well.
It is certainly a more introspective form of mythology. Instead of using the otherworldly to ground us in the material world, they set us off to drift, with nothing but a humble currach* and the stars to navigate by. But if we can find our way back to land, we return with a better understanding of our ancestors, our societies, and ourselves.
As Yeats wrote,
[Their] folktales are full of simplicity and musical occurrences, for they are the literature of a class for whom every incident in the old rut of birth, love, pain, and death has cropped up unchanged for centuries: who have steeped everything in the heart: to whom everything is a symbol… They can turn over the events of a long life as they sit by the fire.
* A currach is a type of traditional Irish boat. They are usually very small and made of animal hides or canvas stretched over a wood frame.