The Rise of Irish and Celtic Mythology in Popular Culture

photo of Skellig Michael off the Irish coast

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After facing near extinction at the hands of the British on account of 17th- and 18th-century Penal Laws, which saw many of the myth-preserving manuscripts and books scribed by medieval Irish monks destroyed, Irish mythology has rebounded in a big way.

Indeed in recent years, Irish mythology—the most well-preserved form of Celtic mythology—has been experiencing something of a renaissance. And this rekindled interest in the old Irish gods and heroes, and their associated legends and folktales, has led to a pop culture revival. To quote historian Peter Berresford Ellis:

“Irish mythology has been undergoing a new wave of popularity in modern fantasy writing with numerous retellings and fantasy novels based loosely on the Irish sagas.”

(A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, 1987)

Of course, for children of Ireland, who, for centuries—millennia even—have grown up hearing folktales about the Celtic Otherworld (Tír na nÓg), and legends about Irish heroes like Fionn mac Cumhaill (anglicized as Finn MacCool) and Cú Chulainn (a.k.a. The Hound of Ulster), and myths about Irish gods and goddesses, such as Lir (god of the sea) and Brigid (goddess of fertility and poetry), the stories of Irish mythology are nothing new.

Indeed, these stories, which have been passed down from their ancient Celtic ancestors, are part and parcel to Irish culture and Irish identity. They’ve inspired Irish art, Irish music, Irish literature, and Irish poetry—perhaps most notably The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), an epic, three-part poem by Irish poet William Butler Yeats, which imagines a conversation between St. Patrick and the warrior poet Oisín, son of Fionn mac Cumhaill. Here’s the opening of Book I:

You who are bent, and bald, and blind,

With a heavy heart and a wandering mind,

Have known three centuries, poets sing,

Of dalliance with a demon thing.

Flash forward to 1932, and we find that Irish mythology has successfully crossed the pond and permeated the minds of American writers. That was the year Conan the Barbarian—a literary descendant of Conán mac Morna, a.k.a. Conán Maol (“the bald”)—made his first appearance in Weird Tales magazine. While the character was the brainchild of American pulp fantasy author Robert E. Howard, it was, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger who made Conan the Barbarian a household name with his portrayal of him in the eponymous 1982 film and its 1984 sequel, Conan the Destroyer

Image source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Of course, we can’t talk about Conan without talking about comic books, as everyone’s favorite Cimmerian was a Marvel Comics mainstay in the 1970s. Arguably, it was the first issue of Savage Tales (featuring Conan the Barbarian) that introduced Celtic and Irish mythology, and its associated pantheon, to the world of comic books in 1971. That being said, no Marvel character has done more for the proliferation of Celtic gods in comic book culture than that magical hammer-wielding god of thunder from Norse mythology, Thor.

In 1987, The Mighty Thor issue #386 introduced the Celtic gods (a.k.a. the Tuatha de Danaan) into Marvel’s main continuity as a fighting force to be reckoned with. Granted, the writers didn’t get all the details right. Case in point: When battling Thor, the Celtic god Lir (often spelled “Leir” in the comics) is referred to as the “Lord of the Lightning,” when in actual mythology he is a god of the sea. Regardless, the Thor comic run succeeds in introducing readers to the Celtic/Irish pantheon. In The Mighty Thor issue #398, we find the eponymous hero joining forces with the Dagda (a.k.a Eochaidh Ollathair, the father of the gods in Irish mythology) and Caber (a.k.a. Cairbre, a bard and son of the Irish god of eloquence, Ogma) to defeat a common foe.

Pssst. Marvel Comics fan? Check out my post on how the Celtic gods might show up in the MCU.

More recently, we find the fingerprints of Irish mythology, and, more broadly, Celtic mythology, all over Guillermo del Toro’s 2008 film, Hellboy II: The Golden Army (a big-screen interpretation of the popular Hellboy comic book series). The character of Prince Nuada, for example, is based on Nuada of the Silver Hand, who, according to Ellis, was “the supreme leader of the gods with a sword from which none could escape.” After losing his hand in battle, Nuada had to give up his kingship, and was given a silver hand in the interim. 

One could also draw a direct mythological line from the Nuada of Irish mythology to the Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire character Jaime Lannister. Created by American fantasy author George R. R. Martin, Jaime, a skilled-swordsman, also loses his hand in battle, only he receives a golden hand as a replacement instead of a silver one (since the Lannisters are famously fond of gold).

Image source: Inverse

Game of Thrones also gives us the character of Bran Stark, who—spoiler alert—eventually transforms into the mystical Three-Eyed Raven. In Celtic mythology, the name Bran signifies a raven. What’s more, just as there are several important Brans (e.g. Bran the Builder) who appear throughout the history of Westeros in Game of Thrones, there are several important Brans who appear throughout Celtic mythology, including one who was the son of the ocean-god Lir, another who conquered Rome in 390 BCE, and another, the son of Febal, who is the hero of the most famous voyage tale in Irish mythology: Immram Brain (the Voyage of Bran).

The latest example of Irish mythology breaking through into popular culture can be found in the Oscar-nominated animated feature WolfWalkers. Produced by the Kilkenny, Ireland-based animation studio Cartoon Saloon, WolfWalkers (2020) is the final installment in co-director Tomm Moore’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy,” following his previous Celtic fantasy adventure films Song of the Sea (2014) and The Secret of Kells (2009)—both of which (like WolfWalkers) earned Oscar noms for Best Animated Feature. The film, which follows a young girl’s encounters with a mysterious shapeshifter, is based on the Irish folktale, the man-wolves of Ossory.

Pssst. Want to learn more about the history of werewolves in Irish mythology? Check out my post on the lycanthropic lore behind WolfWalkers.

It is encouraging to see Irish and Celtic mythology appearing more and more in popular culture, taking its rightful place among the more well-known Greek, Roman, and Norse mythological traditions. Heritage aside, one of the reasons why I am so interested in Irish mythology—and preserving Irish myths, legends, and folktales—is because the characters and stories are so rich and compelling and, perhaps above all else, humorous.

While of course there is plenty of death and evil to be found in these ancient stories (just as there is in the real world), there is also an unrelenting optimism—a dedication to seeking out light in the darkness and to finding joy in the mundane.

To quote historian Kenneth Jackson:

“[Irish myths] are inclined to desert the natural and possible for the impossible and supernatural, chiefly in the form of fantastic exaggeration. One should not misunderstand this, however; it was not done in all seriousness, but for its own sake, for the fun of the thing.”

 (A Celtic Miscellany, 1951)

Further Reading

The Wanderings Of Oisin

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian Barbarian: The Complete Weird Tales Omnibus

Guillermo del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions

Gods of Thrones: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Religions of Ice and Fire

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.

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