Celtic Myths: Celtic History? Simon Young Reveals the Limitations of Oral Legends as Historical Sources. (Cross Current)

By Young, Simon | History Today, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Celtic Myths: Celtic History? Simon Young Reveals the Limitations of Oral Legends as Historical Sources. (Cross Current)


Young, Simon, History Today


`IF', GOES A QUESTION given to first-year geology students, `geological history could be reduced to a single day, the Earth coming into existence at 00.01 am, at what time would the first humans appear?' The answer -- the last chimes of midnight -- has a lot to say about humanity's importance in the cosmos. But a similar question can be posed for history students that is, in its own way, just as striking. `If man's existence on Earth were reduced to a single day how late in that day does history -- i.e. written records -- begin?' The answer in this case is at a quarter to midnight. From 400,000 BC, and the appearance of the first Homo sapiens, to the first writing in approximately 4000 BC there is no `history'. And in many parts of the world `history' -- written accounts -- begin only at one or two minutes to midnight.

Until the last few years there has only been one way to break through to these lost centuries -- archaeology. But recent research on early Celtic culture suggests that legends might be able to offer us a privileged glimpse into prehistory as well. For example, the eminent Celticist John Carey claims that medieval Irish legends about Newgrange recall some of the religious values of those who built the monument four thousand years before. Similarly, another scholar, John Koch, suggests that a twelfth-century Welsh tale contains details of a Celtic attack on Greece in the third century BC, implying that oral lore preserved history for a more modest fifteen hundred years.

Of course, the Celts are not alone in having tales about their own pre-history. Oral stories from elsewhere in the world are also supposed to carry echoes from the past. Some Amerindian legends are, for example, said to include memories of the crossing of the Bering Strait, an event usually dated to between 10,000 and 20,000 BC. Other Amerindian legends may recall encounters with Vikings a thousand years ago. However, Celtic legends provide some leverage on the problem that most other European, American and Asian legends just do not have. Non-Celtic `oral history' was invariably collected by modern anthropologists or by their eighteenth-and nineteenth-century predecessors. And often, what we are, in fact, seeing, is not a distant tribal memory, but wishful thinking on behalf of these collectors. For example, the most famous `oral' evidence for the crossing of the Bering Strait from Siberia into Alaska comes from the Walum Olum, a text written out by Constantine S. Rafinesque, a nineteenth-century researcher and based on the combined testimony of a Delaware Indian and some peculiar painted Indian sticks. The vast majority of modern scholars believe that the paintings were falsified by Rafinesque. And even if we take a more charitable view of the man's integrity, Rafinesque still had to interpret the Delaware's words into his own English. The crossing of the Bering Strait may, for example, have been a vague coupling of words `over a great water' on the part of the Indian that was then given a more forthright rendering by Rafinesque.

Ancient Celtic legends win out over oral traditions like these for two reasons. First, the Celts wrote down their legends in the Middle Ages. As a result the ability of modern scholars to manipulate the texts is greatly reduced: there is a concrete corpus that we can only alter minutely with textual emendations. The second reason is a geographical and chronological accident. Unlike the Amerindians or many Asian peoples, the pre-literate Celts had literate neighbours. Indeed, the thesis of most modern scholars interested in interpreting Celtic myth in the light of history is that we can trace the events described in these legends in sober histories written by their contemporaries in the Mediterranean basin: usually the Greeks and Romans. For example, the narrative of the Celtic attack on Delphi in Greece in the third century BC is said to survive in a Welsh story of the twelfth century, Branwen Daughter of Llyr. …

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