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Thread: Celtic Myths: Celtic History?

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    Question Celtic Myths: Celtic History?

    Celtic myths : Celtic history?
    by Simon Young


    `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. However, the fact that we know about that attack in the first place is due to Greek and Roman historians, among them Pausanius and Diodorus Siculus, who recorded the event when, or shortly after, it happened. Celtic legends, then, are some of the very few in the world where we can seriously set about testing the accuracy of oral lore over more than a thousand years. Only in Celtic legends -- and perhaps some from the Indian sub-continent -- do we have the two requirements for research: reliable data (a corpus written by the tellers of the legends themselves) and a control (earlier writing from historically-minded neighbours) waiting in the background.

    How does the process of `decoding' these legends actually work? Branwen Daughter of Llyr, the twelfth-century Welsh story that is supposed to recall the Celtic attack on Delphi in the third century BC, is as good a place as any to begin. This tale, one of the Four Branches of the Mabinogion, tells of a war that arose between the British Celts and their Irish neighbours some time in the mythic past. The king of the British Celts is named Bran and he leads his army in a disastrous attack on Ireland from which only seven men return. Bran himself dies in that attack but, fatally wounded, he orders his men to take his head and bring it back to Britain with them. Superficially it would seem to have very little to do with an historic attack on Greece over a millennium before!

    The surprising connection was first suggested by the Celticist John Koch well-known for, among other works, his recent edition of the Welsh epic poem The Gododdin. Koch took the Welsh legend and noted a series of parallels between the invasion of Ireland and the invasion of Greece, using for the second Greek and Roman historians. Among these parallels are the following,
    i) The name of the leader is Bran in the Welsh story and Brennos in the Greek invasion: Brennos could have become Bran by plausible sound-changes,
    ii) In both accounts an unfordable river is crossed by Bran/Brennos and his army after the enemy has broken down a bridge,
    iii) During a climatic battle, Bran/Brennos is mortally wounded by an enemy missile,
    iv) A treasure used by the Greeks/Irish brings supernatural warriors out against the enemy,
    v) Bran's/Brennos' warriors return home forlorn.
    vi) His people use relics of Bran/Brennos as a defence against enemies,
    vii) These defences break down when a later general takes the relics away and brings disaster on Bran's/Brennos' people.

    Koch suggested that the descendants of the warriors who attacked Greece were among those Celts who slowly moved to the west in subsequent centuries. They eventually arrived in Britain with their legends and these legends survived in the folklore of Wales where Greece became Ireland.

    When Koch first published his article in 1990, Celticists were accustomed to looking with heavy scepticism on the idea of oral legends containing historical truths. However, even in this hostile environment, Koch's thesis prospered. Now twelve years later, the question of oral lore as a `carrier' is taken much more seriously and Koch's work is cited with approval. Koch has also argued that another Welsh story, Manawydan, again written in the twelfth century, recalls a Roman attack on Wales more than a thousand years before. And this similarly has aroused interest, not least among historians of Roman Britain.

    Koch's work is only possible because Greeks and Romans were writing offstage giving us the controlling data. And this, in effect, means that before these two peoples had a fully-functioning literate society -- before, say, the fifth century BC -- such investigations should be impossible. However, one of John Koch's colleagues, John Carey, has tried to get over their absence by using archaeology. Carey chose for his research medieval Irish stories about the Boyne Necropolis (Newgrange) that stands in what is today County Meath. According to these stories the prehistoric mound was won by a hero from an old Irish god, the Dagda, using a pun, a pun that plays on time and the sun.

    As Carey excitedly points out, Newgrange was originally built in the fourth millennium BC so that the sun shone into its innermost recesses on one day every year, though archaeologists only realised this in 1969 and the sun passage had been closed since circa 3000 BC. As a result, Carey suggests that the tales are a medieval Irish reminiscence of the now forgotten Neolithic beliefs that caused the complex to be built in the first place. If he is right then we have an oral memory that has survived almost four thousand years.

    From a historian's point of view, the big problem with both Koch and Carey's arguments is that even if real historical data has survived we can do nothing with it. There may, for example, be a connection between the Celtic invasions of Greece in the third century BC and the story of Branwen in the twelfth century AD. But though this is curious in itself and a testimony to continuity in human affairs, it does not actually tell us anything new about the attack. For example, the Welsh story claims that Bran made a treaty with Ireland. So does this mean that we have genuine historical data being transmitted over the centuries demonstrating that Brennos had first made a treaty with the Greeks? It is not impossible. However, it is far more likely to be some extraneous folkloric material. After all, if oral lore sometimes preserves genuine historical events there are other times when oral lore demonstrably distorts history.

    A fine example of this distorting tendency comes from medieval Welsh legend. In the sixth century a British-Celtic writer named Gildas described a hero of his people, Ambrosius Aurelianus, who had fought the English. Gildas tells us:

    "... the poor remnants of our nation [the British Celts] ... that they might, not be completely destroyed [by the Anglo-Saxons] took arms under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus. Ambrosius was a modest man, who alone of the Roman nation had been left alive in the confusion of this troubled period ... He provoked the cruel conquerors [the Anglo-Saxons] to battle, and by the goodness of our Lord got the victory."

    Gildas is the only near-contemporary writer who mentions Ambrosius -- he is, in fact, arguably the only writer from sixth-century Britain whose works survive. However, three hundred years later another British-Celtic text, the Historia Brittonum, offers more. The problem is that whereas Gildas was interested in history, the Historia -- don't be misled by its name -- is essentially legendary. At one point it tells of the British-Celtic king Vortigern, who probably ruled Britain early in the fifth century. Vortigern had problems building a tower, and so, on the advice of his magicians, found a boy who had been born without a father to be sacrificed where the tower would stand. However, brought to the site the boy instead discovers two dragons. What follows is an object lesson in how little we can trust later mythical sources:

    "`Watch carefully what they do,' said the boy. The serpents began to struggle with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into the middle of the cloth, and sometimes drove him to the edge of it; and this was repeated three times. At length the red one, apparently the weaker of the two, recovering his strength, expelled the white one from the mat; and the latter being pursued ... by the red one, disappeared. Then the boy ... said to the king, `I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the cloth that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons. The red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea the Anglo-Saxon] ...' `What is your name?' asked the king: `I am called Ambrosius,' replied the boy."


    This is the first recorded version of a legend that would prove of importance in the centuries to come -- it, in fact, marks the appearance of the red dragon that today proudly stands on the flag of Wales. But it is also a reminder that legend does not just preserve facts, it also twists them out of recognition. Ambrosius lived in the fifth century when he was a great general of his people. He appears briefly in Gildas in the sixth century where we are given what might be called the authorised biography. Then there is no mention of him for almost three hundred years until the Historia Brit tonum takes up the story again. However, in those three brief centuries -- brief anyway when you think of the four thousand years of the Boyne Necropolis -- poor Ambrosius has been put through the sausage-machine of Welsh legend. He is now a sacrificial boy born without a father, who shows a rare ability in prophecy!

    Ambrosius' treatment in the Historia leads us to an unwelcome question. Thanks to the work of Koch, Carey and others we know that oral legend can preserve history over long periods of time. But if we are faced with a legend and no controlling evidence in the background, how do we unpick it? If Gildas did not survive, for example, how would we discover that Ambrosius was really a British-Celtic general? The tragic answer is, of course, that we would not be able to.

    To see how futile it is to write history with legend we need only turn to King Arthur, the greatest British-Celtic hero of all. In the case of Arthur we have only the later legendary material and no early Gildas-figure to tell us reliably who Arthur was, when and where he lived and what he did. One glance at the `Arthurian shelf' in a nearby bookshop will show you what happens in those circumstances and the lunatic theories that spring up like weeds in the flower bed of history. And this is the public health warning that sadly has to be put on the last decade's work on Celtic legend and Celtic history. The research of scholars like Koch and Carey suggests that oral legend can, indeed, carry historical facts over hundreds and even thousands of years. But as these legends need very specific archaeological or textual controls to be read in a historical way, they are of only limited use in explaining what happened in the lost millennia -- up until a quarter to midnight -- when humanity lived without writing.

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