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While researching the Irish god of love for a recent post, I confess that I took the highly unscholarly step of checking Wikipedia (gasp!). My intentions were good, I swear it.
I was looking for a bit more information on the love-god’s appearance, and lo and behold, there was a beautiful, detailed description, covering his hair color, eye color, and complete wardrobe. What’s more, there was a footnote linking to the source of said description.
It sounded too good to be true…and it was.
Upon checking the source, I discovered the description came not from translations or interpretations of the earliest written recordings of Irish myth (as scribed by medieval Irish monks), but from a collection of much, much more recent folk tales—still interesting and culturally significant, but closer to fantasy than mythology.
When seeking to learn about the mythology of the ancient Celts and Irish, to understand their culture and religion as they understood them all those centuries and millennia ago, having a scholarly, authoritative reference book to lean on can be a godsend (pun 100% intended). And that’s exactly why I put together this list of Irish and Celtic mythology dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other works of reference.
(Pssst. Prefer audiobooks to traditional books? You can snag 3 months of Audible Premium Plus for free using this link.)
The Top 10 Irish and Celtic Mythology Reference Books
1. A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (Oxford Reference)
by Peter Berresford Ellis
Per the publisher: “Between the covers of this book we meet some of the most celebrated of Irish heroes and heroines, such as Fionn Mac Cumhail (Finn MacCool in English) and the beautiful and tragic Deirdre of the Sorrows. We visit Fec’s Pool (where dwelt the Salmon of Knowledge), witness the Battle of Tailltinn, feel the awesome power of the ocean-god Lir, and find ourselves lost in a wonderful world of fairies, dragons, magical weapons, and mystical charms.” Learn more…
2. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford Reference)
by Peter Berresford Ellis
Per the publisher: “Predated only by Greek and Latin by virtue of the fact that the Celtic languages were not written until the early Christian era, Celtic mythology is a development from a far earlier oral tradition containing voices from the dawn of European civilization. The peoples of these Celtic cultures survive today on the western seaboard of Europe—the Irish, Manx, and Scots, who make up the Goidelic- (or Gaelic) speaking branch of Celts, and the Welsh, Cornish, and Bretons, who represent the Brythonic-speaking branch.” Learn more…
3. The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance
by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
Per the publisher: “A standard reference book combining the related subjects of Irish folklore, myth, legend and romance is long overdue. There are 350 substantial entries, in alphabetical order from Abán, a 6th-century saint, to Weather, all with full references to sources, a synopsis of relevant stories, and discussion of their origin, nature and development. These are complimented by a genre-list of material under various headings, such as Mythical Lore, Fianna Cycle, Ulster Cycle, King Cycles, Peoples and Traditions, Religious Lore, and Folk Custom and Belief.” Learn more…
4. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford)
by James MacKillop
Per the publisher: “It covers the persons, themes, concepts, places, and creatures of Celtic mythology, in all its ancient and modern traditions, in 4000 entries ranging from brief definitions to extended essays on major tale cycles. An invaluable pronunciation guide for the major Celtic languages, a topic index of entries, thorough cross-references within Celtic mythology and to other mythologies, such as Classical and Norse, enables the reader to see the relationship between Celtic mythology, later Irish literature, and other literary and mythological traditions. ” Learn more…
5. A Guide to Irish Mythology
by Daragh Smyth
Per the publisher: “This guide, structured alphabetically with a helpful cross-reference system, allows the reader to delve into the ornate world of Irish mythology and its four cycles of tales: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian or Ossianic Cycle, and the Historical Cycle or Cycle of Kings. The characters associated with each of these cycles are vividly brought to life – heroes such as Cúchulainn, Ossian, Cormac mac Airt, Conchobar mac Nessa, Finn and the Fianna.” Learn more…
6. Celtic Gods and Heroes
by Marie-Louise Sjoestedt
Per the publisher: “Noted French scholar and linguist discusses the gods of the continental Celts, the beginnings of mythology in Ireland, heroes, and the two main categories of Irish deities: mother-goddesses — local, rural spirits of fertility or of war — and chieftain-gods: national deities who are magicians, nurturers, craftsmen, and protectors of the people.” Learn more…
7. Pocket Dictionary of Irish Myth and Legend (Appletree Pocket Guides)
by Ronan Coghlan
Per the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science: “A good, concise reference source, and one which is very handy to use while reading due to its size and brevity. It has many entries, some have more detail than others, but each gives at least the most important point of a character or object from Irish mythology. Also contains a bibliography and easy-to-use quick pronunciation guide.” Learn more…
8. Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief, with Newly Translated Prayers, Poems and Songs
by Sharon Paice MacLeod
Per the publisher: “A comprehensive overview of Celtic mythology and religion, encompassing numerous aspects of ritual and belief. Topics include the presence of the Celtic Otherworld and its inhabitants, cosmology and sacred cycles, wisdom texts, mythological symbolism, folklore and legends, and an appreciation of the natural world. Evidence is drawn from the archaeology of sacred sites, ethnographic accounts of the ancient Celts and their beliefs, medieval manuscripts, poetic and visionary literature, and early modern accounts of folk healers and seers.” Learn more…
9. Gods and Goddesses of Ireland: A Guide to Irish Deities (Pagan Portals)
by Morgan Daimler
Per the publisher: “A concise guide to the gods and goddesses of pagan Ireland, their history, mythology, and symbols. Rooted in the past but still active in the world today, the gods and goddesses of Ireland have always been powerful forces that can bless or challenge, but often the most difficult thing is to simply find information about them. This short introductory text looks at a variety of different Irish deities, common and more obscure, from their ancient roots to the modern practices associated with honoring them in, an encyclopedia-style book with entries in easy-to-use sections.” Learn more…
10. Celtic Mythology: A Complete Guide to Celtic Mythology, Celtic Gods, and Celtic Folklore
by Andrew Walsh
Per the publisher: “If you’re looking for a beginner’s guide on Celtic culture, look no further. While this book focuses on mythology, it will also highlight other essential information about Celtic culture both in the past and present. Throughout this book, we will discuss Celtic people and the gods, goddesses, creatures, and lore that are most associated with Celtic culture. This book will also tell you about the diverse culture of Celts, where Celtic people originally came from, what makes a person Celtic, and about the Celtic religion beyond just the deities that were so important to the religion.” Learn more…
*11. Bonus Book: Irish Myths in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 1)
The perfect pocket-sized primer for grasping the basics of Irish mythology, including how it differs from Celtic mythology; its main heroes, gods, and monsters; and the many magical weapons wielded on its battlefields. Inside Irish Myths in Your Pocket you’ll find 40+ images, hundreds of fascinating facts about Irish mythology, and one Otherworld-shattering showdown between Ireland’s two greatest heroes, Cú Chulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill. What more could a mythology enthusiast ask for? What’s that? A convenient and slightly whimsical 4-inch-by-6-inch paperback format? Consider it done. Learn more…
Thanks for reading!
Let me know if there are any other Irish and Celtic mythology reference books that you think should be on this list.
Want to learn about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…
Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)
Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…
Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy
“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…
More the listenin’ type?
I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.