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While the Romans were the first to write about the existence of Celtic religiosity, equating, for example, the Celtic sun-god Lugh with Mercury, and the Celtic thunder-god Taranis with Jupiter, the actual sagas, legends, and epics of Celtic mythology did not enter the written record until many centuries later.
The Romanization of Gaul, Iberia, and other strongholds of Celtic culture forced Celtic mythology to the western fringes of Europe, where it continued, as before, as an oral tradition: Tales told around the bonfire. Poems and sagas recited by the ancient bards. And nowhere was this tradition stronger than in Ireland.
The Goidelic-speaking (Gaelic) Celts arrived in Ireland between 500 and 300 BCE. But it wouldn’t be until the arrival of Christian missionaries in Ireland (400 – 450 CE) that the island’s oral traditions would start to be put down on paper—or vellum, as it were.
For example, the Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of Invasions) and the Metrical Dindshenchas (Lore of Places), written between the 10th and 14th centuries, formed the basis of the first cycle in Irish mythology—the Mythological Cycle, while the two 12th-century texts the Leabhar n hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) and the Leabhar Laigeneach (Book of Leinster) formed the basis of the second—the Ulster Cycle. Meanwhile, you can read the unedited works that formed the third cycle—the Fenian Cycle—in the Celtic scholar Kuno Meyer’s Fianaigecht.
But here’s the thing about those original translations of Irish and Celtic myths: They’re not exactly page-turners. For a more approachable take on Irish and Celtic mythology (akin to what Neil Gaiman did for Norse Mythology), check out the books below.
The Top 7 Irish and Celtic Mythology Books
by Peter Berresford Ellis
Per the publisher: “Developed from an early oral storytelling tradition dating back to the dawn of European culture, this is one of the oldest and most vibrant of Europe’s mythologies. From all six Celtic cultures – Irish, Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Manx and Breton – Peter Berresford Ellis has included popular myths and legends, as well as bringing to light exciting new tales which have been lying in manuscript form, untranslated and unknown to the modern general reader.” Learn more…
by Jeffrey Gantz (translator)
Per the publisher: “First written down in the eighth century AD, these early Irish stories depict a far older world—part myth, part legend and part history. Rich with magic and achingly beautiful, they speak of a land of heroic battles, intense love and warrior ideals, in which the otherworld is explored and men mingle freely with the gods. From the vivid adventures of the great Celtic hero Cu Chulaind, to the stunning “Exile of the Sons of Uisliu”—a tale of treachery, honour and romance—these are masterpieces of passion and vitality, and form the foundation for the Irish literary tradition.” Learn more…
by Morgan Daimler
Per the publisher: “A collection of new translations of several Irish myths. Each story is first presented in the original Old Irish and then in English so that a reader can experience the story as it existed in the original before reading a new translation. Many of the existing translations are around a hundred years old, and often either exclude material or else skew the retelling to fit the mores of a more Victorian audience. The translated stories, including ‘Angus’s Dream‘ and ‘Taking of the Sidhe’, are an attempt to find a balance between a more literal translation that is still enjoyable to an English speaking audience. ” Learn more…
by T. W. Rolleston
Per the publisher: “This splendidly illustrated study by the distinguished Celticist T. W. Rolleston masterfully retells the great Celtic myths and illuminates the world that spawned them. Focusing principally on Irish myths, the book first takes up the history and religion of the Celts, the myths of the Irish invasion and the early Milesian kings. The magic of that world is further brought to life in more than 50 imaginative full-page illustrations by Stephen Reid, Arthur G. Bell, and the famed illustrator J. C. Leyendecker.” Learn more…
by Lady Gregory (preface by W. B. Yeats)
Per the publisher: “Lady Augusta Gregory’s retelling of the first and third cycles of the mythic history of Ireland: the Mythological and the Fenian. The book is split into two sections, covering the Irish Mythological Cycle of the Book of Invasions with the coming of the Tuatha De Danaan, whilst the second section details the later hero tales of Finn MacCumhail, the Fenian Cycle. Includes the original preface by poet William Butler Yeats and a pronunciation guide to Gaelic names and places.” Learn more…
by Thomas Kinsella (translator)
Per the publisher: “The Táin Bó Cuailnge, centre-piece of the eighth-century Ulster cycle of heroic tales, is Ireland’s greatest epic. It tells the story of a great cattle-raid, the invasion of Ulster by the armies of Medb and Ailill, queen and king of Connacht, and their allies, seeking to carry off the great Brown Bull of Cuailnge. The hero of the tale is Cuchulainn, the Hound of Ulster, who resists the invaders single-handed while Ulster’s warriors lie sick. Kinsella’s translation is based on the partial texts in two medieval manuscripts, with elements from other versions, and adds a group of related stories which prepare for the action of the Táin. Illustrated.” Learn more…
by Philip Freeman
Per the publisher: “Despite the pervasive cultural and literary influence of the Celts, shockingly little is known of their way of life and beliefs, because very few records of their stories exist. In this book, for the first time, Philip Freeman brings together the best stories of Celtic mythology. In these stories a mysterious and invisible realm of gods and spirits exists alongside and sometimes crosses over into our own human world; fierce women warriors battle with kings and heroes, and even the rules of time and space can be suspended.” Learn more…
Thanks for reading!
Let me know if there are any other retellings and/or translations of Irish and Celtic myths that I should add to this list.
P.S. Looking for some facts about particular gods and heroes of Irish mythology but don’t feel like reading through an entire saga to find them? Check out this list of the top 10 Irish and Celtic mythology reference books: