One of the ways we learn about our gods, goddesses and ancestors is through their stories. For those of us following a Celtic path this presents a difficulty. The Celts kept an oral tradition and none of their stories were written down until well into the Christian era. Few of the original texts and none of the complete documents are more than a thousand years old and much of the transcription was done by Christian monks – they are full of Biblical references.
Still, there is much we can learn from the stories we have, as we have them. I’ve read The Mabinogion (the 1977 translation by Patrick Ford), I’ve read several tales in the OBOD coursework and I’ve picked up a few other stories here and there. Lately, though, I’ve felt the urge to go back to the Celtic literature, read some of the stories I haven’t read, and see how they speak to me now.
At the East Coast Gathering I asked John Michael Greer for suggestions on which books to read. One of his recommendations was Celtic Heritage by Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, first published in 1961. As it turns out, I already had it. I had picked it up cheap in a used book store several years ago but had never gotten around to reading it. That’s happened to me several times and it’s one of the reasons I love used book stores and am moving to e-books very reluctantly.
Celtic Heritage is a scholarly analysis of the Celtic stories, not a translation of them, though it presents many of the major tales in a condensed form (I now have one of the translations – it’s next to be read). It discusses the various “branches” of the tales. It details how the stories reflect the structure of Celtic lands and society – the division of Ireland into five parts and the different social classes and functional roles. And it gives examples of the types of stories: births, youthful exploits, wooings, adventures, voyages and deaths.
One of the things that spoke to me were the tales dealing with a geis – a prohibition placed on a hero, usually at his birth. Many of them seem obsure, but inevitably they bring about the hero’s downfall. Sometimes this reads like a morality play: Conaire had nine geasa placed on him. He broke one of them out of convenience – he spared his foster brothers who broke the prohibition on plundering but executed the others who plundered with them. After that, he was placed in situations where he seemed to have no choice. He quickly broke the others, and in a fierce battle killed twelve hundred attackers but was finally was beheaded.
The great hero CúChulainn had a geis to never eat dog meat but also a geis to never refuse any food offered to him by a woman. When an old woman offered him the dog she was cooking, he was trapped. He died in his next battle.
As modern liberal Westerners, we scream “that’s not fair!” The ancient Celts would respond “life’s not fair – now what are you going to do about it?” We want to make the world fair: call the ACLU, organize a protest march, hold a benefit concert. Working for justice is part of our religion, and that’s a good thing.
But even in 21st century America, there are times when you cannot win. Then what do you do? For our Celtic ancestors, the answer was to live heroically – to go bravely into the battle you must fight but cannot win.
For in the end, all of us great and small face a battle we will not win – a battle with death. Our mainstream culture likes to pretend death doesn’t exist. Cosmetic surgery, botox, viagra – all attempts to stave off the body’s inevitable decline. On average we live much longer than our ancient Celtic ancestors and we are much less likely to die violently. But a society where death was always present can teach us a lot about how to approach the crossing we all must make.
As Pagans, we are quick to point out that our myths are not scripture. They are not divinely inspired, they are not authoritative, and they are certainly not inerrant. But they can be sacred, if we read them so as to hear “the truth within a tale.”