Celtic Creatures - A Bestiary of Ancient Ireland

Article excerpt

The Book of Kells, an illuminated eighth-century copy of the Gospels, is one of Ireland's greatest treasures. Its knotwork interlace contains an entanglement of birds, beasts, and serpents that peer out of filigreed carpet pages or lie draped around lavishly stylized initials. Many of these animal forms are readily identifiable with saints: a lion represents Saint Mark, a bull Saint Luke, and an eagle Saint John. But what place do dogs, cats, mice, and otters have in a Christian text? Or, indeed, fish-bodied creatures with human faces?

Known as zoomorphics, these wonderful embellishments were possibly the blueprint for later medieval bestiaries that introduced the fabulous unicorn and ant lion. However, like the Book of Durrow and other manuscripts of the so-called Dark Ages, the Book of Kells suggests that Celtic Catholicism embraced some symbolic aspects of an older religion. Its animal iconography is a kind of illustrative monument to Ireland's pagan past--a time when the raven's shriek was a prophetic warning, salmon bore the gift of rebirth and knowledge, and dark magic turned children into swans.


With its stories of heroic deeds and supernatural forces, the Celtic age continues to cast a mesmeric shadow across Ireland's landscape. Although the warrior Celts have become practically synonymous with this island country, their realms once covered much of Iron Age northern Europe. Migrating westward, Celtic tribes probably reached Ireland in significant numbers around 300 b.c. A people who measured their wealth in cattle, they brought with them a new language, a tremendous appetite for feasting and drinking, and an ability to fashion gold into decorative jewelry and weapons. Their bloodthirsty earth gods became part of an existing (and very overcrowded) pantheon of Irish deities who inhabited the mysterious otherworld.

The idea of a hidden otherworld realm--a kind of parallel reality--was an integral part of Celtic culture. Although invisible to most mortals, the otherworld's portals occasionally yawned open. Likely thresholds included caves, earth barrows, lakes, and the remote islands of the western ocean. Animals and birds were often perceived as intermediaries, connecting humans to the spiritual dimension. There are huge gaps in what we know, but archaeology and the ancient stories collected by the early church suggest much about how Celtic Ireland regarded the creatures that shared the land.

Committing nothing to paper, the Celts passed on their stories through the vernacular tradition. One often hears differing versions of the same tale, and some legendary characters have multiple personalities, existing as both gods and humans. Ireland's Celtic mythologies weren't actually compiled until medieval times, when eleventh- and twelfth- century scribes preserved them in annals such as the Book of Leinster, the Yellow Book of Lecan, and Lebor na h'Uidre (Book of the Dun Cow), the last written at Clonmacnoise monastery. No doubt there were older annals, but much was lost during the Viking raids of the eighth and ninth centuries.

The oldest stories can be divided into three basic categories: a mythological cycle of voyages, invasions, and pre-Celtic divinities; the Ulster cycle, recounting the exploits of the Red Branch warriors; and the Fenian cycle, which relates tales of Fionn MacCumhaill and the Fianna warriors. The Celts were avid hunters, and the Fenian cycle seems especially designed to evoke the thrill of the chase. Ireland was once almost entirely blanketed in densely tangled forests, the wildwood home of creatures that might belong to this world or another. Man pursued beast, beast pursued man. Sometimes the quarry fled into the otherworld, crossing through the fragile veil that conceals gods from humans.

Occasionally appearing in furred or feathered guises, the Tuatha de Danaan (People of the goddess Danu) were the defeated deities of Neolithic Ireland, driven by the Celts' own gods into the hollow hills. …