Women in Celtic Society

It is a stereotype that women in the Dark Ages (and the Middle Ages for that matter) had two career options: mother or holy woman, with prostitute or chattel filling in the gaps between those two. Unfortunately, for the most part this stereotype is accurate. The status and role of women in any era prior to the modern one revolves around these categories. This is one reason that when fiction is set in this time, it is difficult to write a self-actualized female character who has any kind of autonomy or authority over her own life. Thus, it is common practice to make fictional characters either healers of some sort (thus opening up a whole array of narrative possibilities for travel and interaction with interesting people) or to focus on high status women, who may or may not have had Read more…

The Norman Conquest of Ireland (part 1)

The Normans were conquerors. Even more, they conquered. It was what they did. It was only natural, then, that eventually one of them would set his sights on Ireland.  That someone, in this case, was Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow. Now, Strongbow wasn’t entirely at fault for what came next. In fact, in 1169 he was invited into Ireland by the ousted king of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada. Murchada had been removed from power by the High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, and, naturally, he wanted his lands back. He knew about Norman military prowess and looked to south Wales, where Clare was the Earl of Pembroke, for assistance. And what did Clare get out of it? Murchada had no male heir, so he promised Clare his daughter and the kingship of Leinster if they succeeded. For Clare, that Read more…

How did the potato get to Ireland?

One of those anachronisms that can trip up an author of medieval fiction is the nature of medieval food. In particular, the potato, a ubiquitous British food these days, comes from the “New World” and didn’t arrive in Britain until after the Spanish conquest. “The potato was carried on to Italy and England about 1585, to Belgium and Germany by 1587, to Austria about 1588, and to France around 1600. Wherever the potato was introduced, it was considered weird, poisonous, and downright evil. In France and elsewhere, the potato was accused of causing not only leprosy, but also syphilis, narcosis, scronfula, early death, sterillity, and rampant sexuality, and of destroying the soil where it grew. There was so much opposition to the potato that an edict was made in the town of Besancon, France stating: “In view of the fact Read more…

The Irish in Wales

The Irish, Welsh, and Scots all have a Celtic ancestry, but they settled their respective regions before the Roman conquest of Britain.  There is an amazing amount of debate as to the origin of the Celts:  were they Phoenician?  stocky and dark?  tall and blonde?  as culturally cohesive as the label suggests?   The standard theory is that the Celts were an Indo-European group that gradually migrated across Europe and Asia, with an identifiable, distinct culture by 750 BC.  As a group, they were well-known to the Greeks and Romans. http://archaeology.suite101.com/article.cfm/archaeology_and_the_celts The Celts had arrived in Britain and Ireland by 400 BC, super-imposing upon whatever native peoples were already there.  The Celts in these regions, then, were on the fringes of Celtic culture, not their heart, which was centered in Northern Europe, particularly in what is now Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Read more…

Demons of the Ancient World

The Dark Age Celts had their share of supernatural creatures within the various mythologies (Welsh/Brittany/Ireland/Scotland), in addition to the pantheon of actual gods and goddess (for Wales, see Children of Don; Children of Llyr:  http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/the-sidhe/). Here are some notable demons from Celtic mythology: Cwn Annwn (Welsh hellhounds):  Yes, they really do exist outside of the TV show, Supernatural (great show, by the way.  Watch it at Netflix).  The Cwn Annwn are the hunting dogs of Arawn, Lord of the Otherworld and are associated with the Welsh form of the Wild Hunt.  “The Cwn Annwn resemble small wolves. The pack leader, Fflyddmyr, is black while the other three hounds are white with red-tipped ears. Their abilities include super-speed and super-strength.”  http://otherworldseries.wikia.com/wiki/C%C5%B5n_Annwn The Fomori:  “In Celtic mythology, the Fomori are demons that live in the impenetrable darkness of the sea’s depths and in lakes and Read more…

Bards and Poets

In Welsh society before the conquest–in all Celtic societies in fact–the bard/poet played a very important role in the life of society. “The three principal endeavors of a Bard: One is to learn and collect sciences. The second is to teach. And the third is to make peace And to put an end to all injury; For to do contrary to these things Is not usual or becoming to a Bard.” ~THE TRIADS OF BRITAIN http://www.joellessacredgrove.com/Celtic/history.html “In the Celtic cultures, the Bard/Filidh/Ollave was inviolate. He could travel anywhere, say anything, and perform when and where he pleased. The reason for this was, of course, that he was the bearer of news and the carrier of messages, and, if he was harmed, then nobody found out what was happening over the next hill. In addition, he carried the Custom of the Read more…

Danish Bones Found in Oxford

There’s a new article in The Oxford Student which describes a recent find of bones, determined to have belonged to Danes and the result of a massacre ordered by King Ethelbert in 1003 AD.  It sheds some light on an early period in British history and points to something that is easy to forget as you work your way through the Early Middle Ages:  that the “Saxons” from literature and mythology were not monolithic, but comprised of different ethnic groups and nationalities.  What this find reveals is that the Saxons, who now controlled most of England, murdered their Danish neighbors.  From a Welsh perspective, these groups might seem one and the same, but they weren’t. In the Oxford article, it states:  “Vikings’ skeletons found underneath one of St John’s quads are the remains of a violent “ethnic cleansing” over 1,000 years ago. Read more…

Women in Celtic Myth

Women in Celtic societies had more freedom and autonomy than women in feudal Europe.  It is not surprising, then, that women play an important role in Celtic myth, beyond the wives, lovers, and mothers of male gods. Within Celtic myth, warrior goddesses such as Babd, Aoifa, and Scathach have a significant role; Don (Danu in Ireland) was the mother goddess, giving birth to male and female goddesses such as Gwydion and Arianrhod.   The Irish word, Tuatha de Dannan means “Children of Danu”, the equivalent of the Welsh “Sons of Don” as popularized in Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three series.  Note that their children are not referred to as “Sons of Beli” or “Bile”, who was her husband and the god of death. Also among the Welsh is Cerridwen, keeper of the cauldron of knowledge.  Within Irish mythology, the Morrigan, Read more…