Cover image for The chronicles of the Celts : new tellings of their myths and legends
The chronicles of the Celts : new tellings of their myths and legends
Ellis, Peter Berresford, 1943-
Publication Information:
New York : Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1999.
Physical Description:
536 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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BL900 .E448 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The stirring sagas of gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, enchanted weapons and fantastic beasts from all six Celtic cultures -- Irish, Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, and Breton -- are retold from ancient times in a major new collection for a modern readership.

Author Notes

Peter Berresford Ellis was born in Coventry, Warwickshire, England on March 10, 1943. Even though he received a BA and an MA in Celtic Studies, he decided to become a journalist and worked at numerous weekly newspapers throughout England and Ireland. In 1968, he published is first book, Wales: A Nation Again, about the Welsh struggle for political independence. He became a full-time writer in 1975 and has published over 90 books under his own name and the pseudonyms Peter Tremayne and Peter MacAlan. One of his best known works under his real name is The Cornish Language and its Literature, which is considered the definitive history of the language. In 1988, he received an Irish Post Award in recognition of his services to Irish historical studies. Under the pseudonym Peter Tremayne, he writes the Sister Fidelma Mystery series. He received the French Prix Historia for the best historical mystery novel of 2010 for Le Concile des Maudits (The Council of the Cursed).

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Compiling and retelling myths and legends from the six Celtic culturesÄIrish, Manx, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish and BretonÄis a task well suited to novelist and noted Celtic scholar Ellis (A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, etc.). Although, as Ellis explains, the Celts inhabited Britain long before the arrival of Christianity or the Anglo-Saxons, many tales came to incorporate Christian and Saxon themes: in one story here, Mac Cuil, a Celtic deity, converts to Christianity and becomes a saint. We owe to Celtic folklore the beginnings of both the classic love story of Tristan and Iseult, which is a "traditional Celtic elopement tale" (probably Cornish), and the legends of King Arthur, who was a "historical Celtic personality fighting for the independence of his people against the ravages of the Anglo-Saxons" (and who shows up mainly in the Welsh section here). Other stories tell of Lugh of the Long Hand, a preeminent Celtic god who was later demoted to a fairy craftsman called Lugh-Chromain, and finally relegated to the lowly leprechaun. The somewhat dry introduction and section prefaces examine several points of interestÄfor example, the notable similarities between Celtic and Vedic mythology. The casual reader will be best entertained by diving into the legends themselves, which are colored with plenty of swordplay, hero quests, shape-shiftings and druidic sorcery. Line drawings, an index and an extensive list of further reading round out this vivid collection. BOMC and History Book Club selections. (Apr.) FYI: Ellis, under the pen name Peter Tremayne, is the author of the Sister Fidelma mystery series, set in seventh-century Ireland. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



This volume is respectfully dedicated to the memory of my good friend, mentor and guide in matters Celtic -- Pádraig Ó Conchúir (1928-1997). I was a listener in the woods, I was a gazer at the stars, I was not blind where secrets were concerned, I was silent in a wilderness, I was talkative among many, I was mild in the mead-hall, I was stern in battle, I was gentle towards allies, I was a physician of the sick, I was weak towards the feeble, I was strong towards the powerful, I was not parsimonious lest I should be burdensome, I was not arrogant though I was wise, I was not given to vain promises though I was strong, I was not unsafe though I was swift, I did not deride the old though I was young, I was not boastful though I was a good fighter, I would not speak about any one in their absence, I would not reproach, but I would praise, I would not ask, but I would give. Cormac Mac Cuileannáin King and Poet of Cashel, AD 836--908 Chapter One The Ever-Living Ones It was the time of primal chaos: a time when the Earth was new and undefined. Arid deserts and black bubbling volcanoes, covered by swirling clouds of gases, scarred the grim visage of the newborn world. It was, as yet, the time of the great void.     Then into that oblivion, from the dull, dark heavens, there came a trickle of water. First one drop, then another and another, until finally there gushed a mighty torrent down upon the earth. The divine waters from heaven flooded downwards and soaked into the arid dirt, cooled the volcanoes which turned into grey, granite mountains, and life began to spring forth across the Earth. The dark, reddened skies grew light and blue.     From the darkened soil there grew a tree, tall and strong. Danu, the divine waters from heaven, nurtured and cherished this great tree which became the sacred oak named Bíle. Of the conjugation of Danu and Bíle, there dropped two giant acorns. The first acorn was male. From it sprang The Dagda, "The Good God". The second seed was female. From it there emerged Brigantu, or Brigid, "The Exalted One". And The Dagda and Brigid gazed upon one another in wonder, for it was their task to wrest order from the primal chaos and to people the Earth with the Children of Danu, the Mother Goddess, whose divine waters had given them life.     So there, by the divine waters of Danu, from where those waters rose and flooded through the now fertile green valleys of the Earth, eastwards towards a distant sea, The Dagda and Brigid settled. And they called the great course of eastward rushing water after the Mother Goddess, which is Danuvius, whose children still know it as the mighty Danube. And four great bright cities they built there on its broad banks, in which the Children of Danu would live and thrive.     The four cities were Falias, Gorias, Finias and Murias.     The Dagda became their father; thus humankind call him "The Father of the Gods". And Brigid became the wise one, exalted in learning and much did she imbibe from the mighty Danu and from Bíle, the sacred oak. She was hailed as the mother of healing, of craftsmanship and of poetry; indeed, she excelled in all knowledge. She showed her children that true wisdom was only to be garnered from the feet of Danu, the Mother Goddess, and so only to be found at the water's edge.     Those who gathered such knowledge also paid deference to Bíle, the sacred oak. Because they were not allowed to speak his holy name, they called the oak draoi and those learned in such knowledge were said to possess oak ( dru ) knowledge ( vid ) and thus were known as Druids.     The knowledge of the Children of Danu grew and each of their four great cities prospered. In Falias they held a sacred stone called the Lia Fáil or Stone of Destiny, which, when a righteous ruler set foot on it, would shout with joy; in Gorias, where Urias of the Noble Nature dwelt, they held a mighty sword called the "Retaliator", fashioned before the time of the gods themselves, and which Urias presented to Lugh Lámhfada, who became the greatest warrior among the gods; in Finias, they held a magic spear, called "The Red Javelin", which, once cast, would find its enemy no matter where he hid; and in Murias they held the "Cauldron of Plenty", from which The Dagda could feed entire nations and it still would not be emptied.     For many aeons, the Children of Danu grew and prospered in their beautiful cities.     Then one day, The Dagda, Father of the Gods, and Brigid, the Exalted One, called their children to them.     "You have tarried here long enough. The Earth needs to be peopled and needs your wisdom to advise and direct them, so that they may live lives of virtue and merit. Our Mother, Danu, has directed you to move towards the place where the bright sun vanishes each evening."     "Why should we go there?" demanded Nuada, the favourite son of The Dagda.     "Because it is your destiny," replied Brigid. "And you, Nuada, shall lead your brothers and sisters, and their children, and the land that you shall come to will be called Inisfáil, the Island of Destiny. There shall you abide until your destiny is fulfilled."     "If it is our destiny," said another of The Dagda's sons, named Ogma, "then we shall accept it."     Ogma was the most handsome of the Children of Danu. From his long curly hair, the rays of the sun shone and he was called Ogma grian-aineacg , of the Sunny Countenance. To him fell the gift of honeyed words, of poetry and of languages, and he it was who devised how man could write in a form of calligraphy, which was named after him as Ogham.     Brigid smiled at her eager children. "I am allowed to give you one word of warning. When you reach Inisfáil, you will find another people who will claim the Island of Destiny as their own. They are the Children of Domnu, who is the sister of our mother Danu. But beware, for Domnu is not as Danu. For each sister is the inverse of the other, as winter is to summer."     "Then," Nuada said, "should we not take something to defend ourselves with, lest the Children of Domnu fight us for the possession of Inisfáil?"     The Dagda gazed at them kindly and replied, "You may take the four great treasures of the cities of Falias, Gorias, Finias and Murias."     And the Children of Danu took the treasures and they went to the mountains overlooking the headwaters of the Danuvius, the divine waters from heaven, and ascended in a great cloud which bore them westward to Inisfáil, the Island of Destiny. And among them were three beautiful young sisters, who were the wives of the sons of Ogma. Their names were Banba, Fótla and Éire and each sister nurtured an ambition that this new land of Inisfáil would one day be named after her. Night wrapped her darkened mantle over Magh Tuireadh, which is called the Plain of Towers, which lay in the west of the land of Inisfáil. On each side of the great plain, separated by the River Unius, myriads of small campfires glowed in the gloom. Two armies had gathered for combat.     Seven years had passed since the Children of Danu had landed in their cloud on the shores of the Island of Destiny. They had fought initially with a strange race of people called the Firbolg, who challenged their right to rule in the Island of Destiny. These they had met at the Pass of Balgatan and the conflict went on for four days. And in that conflict there came forth a champion of the Firbolg, named Sreng, who challenged Nuada, the leader of the Children of Danu, to single combat. So strong and mighty was Sreng that, with one sweep of his great sword, he cut off Nuada's right hand.     But the Firbolg and their king, Eochaidh, were defeated and dispersed.     Dian Cécht, the god of all physicians, came to Nuada after the battle and fashioned him an artificial hand of silver, so strong and supple that it was little different from the real hand. Thus did Nuada receive his full name, Nuada Argetlámh, of the Silver Hand. Because he was maimed, the other children of Danu had to choose another of their number to lead them, for they had been told by Brigid that no one with a blemish must rule them.     In choosing a new leader, they made a disastrous choice. As an act of conciliation between themselves and the Children of Domnu, they chose Bres, son of Elatha, king of the Children of Domnu who were also known as the Fomorii, or those who dwelt beneath the sea. And to further consolidate the alliance, Dian Cécht married Ethne, the daughter of the foremost Fomorii warrior, named Balor of the One Eye. And the condition was that, if Bres did anything which displeased the Children of Danu, then he would abdicate and depart in peace.     Those years marked a period of strife. Bres, being a Fomorii, refused to keep his word and began to lay heavy burdens on the Children of Danu. For a while, Bres and the Children of Domnu, the children of darkness and evil, dominated the land, and the Children of Danu, the children of light and goodness, were helpless and as slaves.     Then finally, Miach, the son of Dian Cécht, aided by his sister, the beautiful Airmid, fashioned a new hand of flesh and bone for Nuada. His hand replaced Dian Cécht's silver one and now, without blemish, Nuada reclaimed the leadership of the Children of Danu. So jealous was Dian Cécht of his son's achievement that he slew Miach. But that is another story.     Nuada chased Bres back to the land of the Fomorii, where Bres demanded that Elatha, his father, provide him with an army to punish the Children of Danu.     Thus, on the plain where ancient megaliths stood, thrusting their dark granite skywards, Magh Tuireadh, the Plain of Towers, on the evening of the Feast of Samhain (October 31), the Children of Danu faced the Children of Domnu in battle.     At dawn, the battle commenced. Combats broke out all along the line as Nuada led his warriors, both male and female, against the warriors of Bres and his Fomorii. Across the battlefield, the Mórrígán, Great Queen of Battles, with her sisters, Badh the Crow, Nemain the Venomous and Fea the Hateful, rushed hither and thither with their wailing cries which drove mortals to despair and death.     As time passed, Indech, a Fomorii warrior, approached Bres, and pointed out that whenever the Children of Danu were slain, or their weapons broken and destroyed, they would be carried from the field and, shortly after, would appear alive and well again with their weapons intact. Bres summoned his son, Ruadan, to his side and ordered him to discover the cause of the endless supply of weapons. And he summoned the son of Indech, a warrior named Octriallach, to discover how the Children of Danu, once slain, could come alive again.     Disguising himself as one of the Children of Danu, Ruadan went behind the lines of warriors and came across Goibhniu, god of smiths, who had set up a forge to one side of the Plain of Towers. With Goibhniu were Luchtainé, god of carpenters, and Credné, god of bronze workers. As each broken weapon was handed to Goibhniu, the smith-god gave it three blows of his hammer, which forged the head. Luchtainé gave the wood three blows of his axe and the shaft was fashioned. Then Credné fixed the shaft and head together with his bronze nails so swiftly that they needed no hammering.     Ruadan went back to his father and told him what he had seen. In a rage, Bres ordered his son to kill Goibhniu.     In the meantime, Octriallach had found a mystic spring on the other side of the Plain of Towers at which stood Dian Cécht, the god of medicine, with his daughter Airmid at his side. Whenever one of the Children of Danu were slain, they were brought to the spring and Dian Cécht and his daughter plunged the body into the spring and they reemerged alive again. In a rage, Bres ordered Octriallach to destroy the healing spring.     Ruadan returned to the forge and asked for a javelin from Goibhniu, who gave it without suspicion, thinking Ruadan was one of the Children of Danu. No sooner was the weapon in his hand than Ruadan turned and cast it at Goibhniu. It went clean through the smith-god's body. Mortally wounded as he was, Goibhniu picked up the spear and threw it back, wounding Ruadan, who crawled away back to his father and died at his feet. The Fomorii set up a great caoine , or keening, which was the first ever heard in the Island of Destiny.     Goibhniu also crawled away and came to the spring, where Dian Cécht and Airmid plunged him in, and he emerged healthy and healed.     That night, however, Octriallach, son of Indech, and several of his companions, came to the spring and each took a large stone from the bed of a nearby river and dropped it into the spring until they had filled it. So the healing waters were dispersed.     Bres, satisfied the Children of Danu were now mortal, and angered by the death of his son, determined that a pitched battle should be fought. The next morning, spears and lances and swords smote against buckler and shield. The whistle of darts and rattle of arrows and shouting of warriors made it seem as if a great thunder was rolling over the Plain of Towers. The River of Unius, which cut through the plain, was stopped up, so filled was it with dead bodies. The plain was red with blood, so cruel was the battle.     Indech of the Fomorii fell by the hand of Ogma. And Indech was not the first nor last of the leaders of the Fomorii to feel the steel of the Children of Danu.     Neither did the Children of Danu go away from the battle unscathed.     To the field of slaughter came Balor of the Evil Eye, son of Buarainench, the most formidable of the Fomorii champions. He had one great eye, whose gaze was so malevolent that it destroyed whosoever looked upon it. So large and awesome was this eye that it took nine attendants, using hooks, to lift the mighty lid to open it for Balor. It happened on that fateful day of the battle that Balor came upon Nuada of the Silver Hand, the leader of the Children of Danu, and hard and fierce was the contest. Yet in the end, after shield was shattered, after spear was bent and sword was broken into pieces, it was the blood of Nuada that gushed in a never ending stream into the earth of the Island of Destiny. And not content in this slaughter, Balor turned upon one of Nuada's beautiful wives, Macha the Personification of Battles, goddess of warriors, and slew her also. Nor did Dian Cécht have the means to restore life to them.     At the death of their leader, the Children of Danu wavered and became fearful.     It was then that Lugh Lámhfada, Lugh of the Long Arm, approached the battlefield. Now Lugh was the son of Cian, which means "Enduring One", who was in turn son of Cainte, the god of speech. Now the council of the Children of Danu had forbidden him to come to the battle, for Lugh was all-wise and all-knowledgeable and it was thought that his life was too valuable to risk in battle, for his was the wisdom needed to serve humankind.     Indeed, so wise was Lugh that Nuada had let him become ruler of the Children of Danu for thirteen days, in order that they might receive his wisdom. Therefore the Children of Danu had him imprisoned, for his own safety, during the battle, with nine warriors to guard him. But on hearing Nuada was slain, Lugh escaped his prison and his guards and, leaping into his chariot, he hurried to join his brothers and sisters on the Plain of Towers.     Bres was standing triumphantly with his Fomorii warriors when he saw a great light in the west.     "I wonder that the sun is rising in the west today," he muttered, scratching his head.     One of the Fomorii shamans approached Bres, trembling. "It is not the sun, mighty Bres. The light stems from the countenance of Lugh Lámhfada! It is his radiance."     Lugh, with his weapons sheathed, drove his chariot out from the lines of the Children of Danu; straight he drove up to the tightly packed lines of Fomorii champions. "Where is Balor?" he cried. "Let him who thinks himself a great warrior come forward and be taught the truth!"     The lines of Fomorii parted and the great figure of Balor was seen, seated on a gigantic chair. His one mighty eye was closed.     Lugh's challenge rang out again.     This time Balor heard it and said to his attendants, "Lift up my eyelid, that I may gaze upon this prattling little man."     The attendants began to lift Balor's eye with a hook. They stood well out of range: for anyone on whom that eye fell upon would perish immediately.     Lugh was ready with a sling and in it set a tathlum , a slingshot made of blood mixed with the sand of the swift Armorian sea. As the lid was lifted, Lugh hurled his shot into the eye. It struck it, went through the brain and out the back of Balor's head. The great Fomorii champion's eye was knocked out and fell on the ground. In its dying glint, thrice nine companies of Fomorii warriors were destroyed, for they saw its malignant gaze.     Balor fell screaming to the ground in blindness.     A great anxiety fell on the Fomorii.     Lugh now raised his sword, and the Mórrígán set up a paean of victory, "Kings arise to the battle ...!" And so the Children of Danu took heart and, echoing the song, they began to move forward. Great was the slaughter now as they pressed back on the Children of Domnu. It is said that more Fomorii were killed on the Plain of Towers than there were stars in the sky or grains of sand on the seashore, or snowflakes in winter.     And Lugh came upon Bres, who was fleeing for his life from the battlefield.     "Spare my life, Lugh, great conqueror," cried the son of Elatha, sinking to his knees, for he no longer had the strength nor spirit to fight. "Spare it, and I will pay whatever ransom you require."     "What ransom?" demanded Lugh, his sword held at the throat of the Fomorii leader.     "I will guarantee that there will be no shortage of milk from the cows of this land," offered Bres.     Lugh then called the Children of Danu to him.     "What good is that if Bres cannot lengthen the lives of the cows?" they demanded.     Bres could not grant longer lives so he offered, "If my life is spared, every wheat harvest in Inisfáil will be a good one."     "We already have enough good harvests. We need no other guarantees."     Finally, Bres agreed to instruct the Children of Danu as to the best times to plough, sow and reap and for this knowledge, which they had not, they spared his life.     And when the battle was over, when the Fomorii were pursued back into their undersea fortresses, and they accepted the right of the Children of Danu to live in peace in the Island of Destiny and rule over it as gods and goddesses of goodness and light, the Mórrígán went to all the summits of the highest mountains of the island and on each summit she proclaimed the victory of the gods and goddesses of light and goodness. And she sang in triumph a paean to the Mother Goddess, Danu. Peace mounts to the heavens The divine waters descend to earth And fructifies our lives Earth lies under the heavens We are of the Earth now And everyone is strong ... And while Danu smiled on the victory of her children, her sister Domnu scowled from the depths of the earth and she chose the goddess Badh the Crow as her mouth to utter a prophecy to Danu and her children.     "All life is transitory. Even your children are not immortal, my sister. The time will come when they will be defeated. The time will come when no one will want gods and goddesses to nurture them, when they will be driven into the darkness, like my children have been this day.     "The time approaches when the summers of Inisfáil will be flowerless, when the cows shall be without milk, and the men will be weak and the women shall be shameless; the seas will be without fish, the trees without fruit and old men will give false judgments; the judges will make unjust laws and honour will count for little and warriors will betray each other and resort to thievery. There will come a time when there will be no more virtue left in this world." Indeed, there came that time when the Children of Míl flooded into the Island of Destiny and when the Children of Danu were driven underground into the hills, which were called sídhe , which is pronounced shee , and in those mounds they dwelt, the once mighty gods and goddesses, deserted by the very people who they had sought to nourish. The descendants of Mil, who live in the Island of Destiny to this day, called the Children of Danu the aes sídhe , the people of the hills, and when even the religion of Míl was forgotten, when the religion of the Cross replaced that of the Circle, the people simply called the aes sídhe by the name of fairies.     Of the greatest of the gods, the victor of the battle on the Plain of Towers, Lugh Lámhfada, god of all knowledge, patron of all arts and crafts, his name is still known today. But as memory of the mighty warrior, the invincible god, has faded, he is known only as Lugh-chromain , little stooping Lugh of the sídhe , relegated to the role of a fairy craftsman. And, as even the language in which he was venerated has disappeared, all that is left of the supreme god of the Children of Danu is the distorted form of that name Lugh-chromain ... leprechaun. Copyright © 1999 Peter Berresford Ellis. All rights reserved.