The Three Cauldrons: Celtic Myth and Spiritual Wisdom

Academic and historically based study and exploration of authentic Celtic religion, mythology, druidism, folklore, literature, languages, wisdom texts, archaeology, ethnography, ritual, poetry and visionary practices, as well as the anthropologically supported identification of shamanic elements in Celtic contexts.

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Following the Mythic Threads in Medieval Tapestries

Blessings of the New Moon to all!  I wanted to share with you some thoughts and information pertaining to an excellent discussion topic that arose on the private Túatha Imbais group.

One member suggested that we explore “The changes myth and oral literature would have undergone in literary redaction, and what and how we can learn about early pagan worldview from literary redactions."

Here is Part One of the response to this two-fold topic, which is very important for those interested in historically based practice:


This is really important topic, and a really huge topic as well; one in which I feel reasonably competent to make some remarks about, and also to recommend some additional sources of reading, because it is a detailed and complex process and subject. 

Definitely when we use the word mythology in regards to early Irish or Welsh literature, we are using that word to refer to aspects of pre-Christian belief or symbolism that have made it into manuscript form, in some fashion. 

There are some academics who are fairly resistant to exploring this topic, while others are very interested and have written intelligently about it. 

There was a period during which there were some pretty heated discussions and publications about nativist versus non-nativist positions regarding how much pagan belief is in the literature. 

Some good things came out of that dialogue, but luckily things have sort of settled out to a middle ground. In that space, we approach each early text separately and on its own merits. 

What that means is for each story that you might read, there is important commentary by academics discussing how the story might include or be modeled in some way on biblical, classical, or other medieval sources, as well as what looks like pagan Celtic materials (or may be reflective of wider Indo European themes). So things like anthropology and comparative religion come into play too.

So what does this mean for a busy modern pagan who wants to be learning from these texts and understanding pre-Christian beliefs and practices?

I guess what I would say is that it takes some work to approach each story with open eyes and open mind, as well as an open heart. To not be upset when we learn that something isn’t reflective of native view it as an exploration, at the end of which we won’t be experiencing anxiety but clarity. To be flexible and adaptable in our evolution of understanding.

One book that many pagans have found helpful in interpreting some aspects of the literature is Celtic Heritage by Rees. Lots of great information in that book, and one that you can refer to time and time again as your practice develops.

It can sometimes be challenging to find, or find time to find, reliable academic articles that help us understand what we are looking at. But sometimes if you google the name of the story you are interested in (and do so in both English and the original language - in two separate searches) you may well find links to articles on academia dot edu, JSTOR, or even on the faculty page of a Celticist working at a university.

It is actually a source of some stress to Celticists to keep up with this kind of literature. We often have to ask colleagues if they are aware of new articles on a particular text. So if it’s challenging for us, it is challenging for others. I think that’s why there’s so much confusion, and on some Facebook groups, lots of arguing and posturing and lack of clarity.

After reading Celtic Heritage, then, it might be a good idea to consider the following options / suggestions:

The first is to read books that provide a scholarly overview of the literature in a fairly easy to read form. For example, there’s the book ‘The Irish Literary Tradition’ by Caerwyn Williams and Ford. Or, ‘A Guide to Welsh Literature, Vol. 1’ by Jarman and Hughes.

If you read those two books you will learn a great deal. And if you have time, become a bibliography reader. Some of the footnotes will guide you towards an academic article if you want to know more. 

My books also contain very full bibliographies for that exact purpose. To learn about the scholars, their articles etc. for additional study. 

We have to keep in mind that even though we can find some earlier articles posted online, in many cases even if these were foundational papers at the time, there will often be newer articles that would be very important to read. So older is not always better; that’s a misconception in pagan circles. 

My own take on this is that each text needs to be explored with open eyes and open mind to see what it can teach us, both about native pagan belief that may well be included, as well as what clerics, monks, scribes and poets in the medieval era might have found interesting or influential in their own time and lives. Some stories are very mixed, others are mostly non-native, and others are mostly native belief. So do not lose heart, there are native materials in this literature!

I have learned a great deal from the literature, as well as from collections of stories taken from oral tradition. Some of what we know from the literature I have summarized and written about in ‘Celtic Myth and Religion.’ And all of this is footnoted so you can begin to learn where it all comes from.

And in ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld’ I show how very specific topics can be viewed in depth from a variety of sources. So you can begin to get an idea of how much material is out there, and how we need to bring it together and interpret it properly.

I am always amazed when pagans make the claim that ‘we don’t really know anything.’ That could not be more untrue. If anything, we have a surfeit of information that we are all working to try and collate and interpret! It’s exciting but also kind of stressful because in the digital age there is more and more information available, which is both good and tiring!

I think we need to weigh all of what we see, and compare it with other sources of knowledge, including archaeology and classical accounts. Eventually, the threads that were woven into each tale become more clear - and then we can begin the interpretation of native material and a discussion of how to live and embody that… Which I think will be a separate discussion for sure! (Perhaps even group study or an online course). 

Here are some other good books that you might consider reading after Celtic Heritage and the two important books mentioned above:

Indo-European Poetry and Myth by West 

The Arthur of the Welsh - ed. Bromwich, Jarman, and Roberts

Celtic Language, Celtic Culture ed. Matonis and Melia 

The Mabinogi by Ford (excellent introduction and notes) 

The Early Finn Cycle - Murray

The Celtic Heroic Age ed. Koch and Carey 

If you get through all of that definitely let me know when I can help guide you towards additional books.

And remember to read the bibliographies! They can help lead you deeper into the traditions!

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Born on the eve of Lugnasad, your guide and ban-fili/ban-druí is a published author, teacher, and Celtic singer and musician. She trained in Celtic Studies through Harvard University, and has taught Celtic mythology and folklore at the university level. Her research in Celtic myth and religion has been presented at the University of Edinburgh, University College Cork, the International Celtic Congress, the Harvard Graduate Study Group for Ancient Magic and Religion, and the Ford Foundation Lecture Series.

She has served as Faculty at the Celtic Institute of North America and the Omega Institute, and her books include: ‘Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief' (McFarland), ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’ (McFarland), 'The Divine Feminine in Ancient Europe' (McFarland), ‘'Queen of the Night' (Weiser), ‘Early Celtic Poetry and Wisdom Texts: The Three Cauldrons, The Songs of Amairgen, and other Cultural Studies’ (forthcoming) and a chapter in the academic collection ‘Celtic Mythology in the 21st Century’ (University of Wales Press).

Currently she is Director of the Eolas ar Senchais research project, which received international grant funding to research and restore authentic ancient Celtic instrumental music and vocal art forms, and historically attested Celtic ritual in socio-religious context.

She sings in many of the modern and medieval Celtic languages and is a multi-instrumentalist. Her previous musical group, The Moors, has cult status in the pagan world. She leads workshops and distance training programs, with new books, CD's and research on the way.


  • Kris Hughes
    Kris Hughes Sunday, 12 August 2018

    This is great information! The endlessly growing bibliography is a useful tool to help us filter, to some extent, what our ancestors may or may not have believed, and which people contributed what to the mythological texts we have. Somewhere within that we also need to leave room for the gods to speak to us directly through the myths.

    When we do ritual we invite congress with the gods, and I think reading, telling and listening to their stories may have a similar effect - especially if we are already working with them in other ways. Scholarly knowledge, combined with developed intuition, helps us filter whatever gnosis we receive.

  • Síthearan NicLeòid
    Síthearan NicLeòid Monday, 13 August 2018

    Thank you, Kris! Every tool that can help us filter, that can help guide us, brings us that much closer to connection, understanding and wisdom. A foundation for our spiritual practice, for connection with the Gods through a balance of learning and personal experience!

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