Our word myth comes from the Greek word μῦθος (mythos) meaning ‘word, thought, speech, story’ (Liddell and Scott, s.v. μῦθος). In modern times, myth has developed negative connotations as something which is not real or true and which must be proven to exist by factual means. However, in ancient times, myths are what people created and utilized to explain the world around them. This use of myth has been around since the beginning of time, first being represented as drawings on rock formations and then later put into words once language developed.
Some of the first questions humans asked themselves were: Where did we come from? What happens to us when we die? One of the earliest examples of a written down myth is the Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia dating to ca. 2500 BCE. After the death of his friend, Enkidu, Gilgamesh goes on a long journey to discover the secret of eternal life because he now feared death. In the end, Gilgamesh learns that death was the share apportioned to mankind while eternal life was given only to the Gods.
Humans also used myths as a means of explaining the origins of rituals. For example, the Eleusinian Mysteries were based on the myth of Demeter and Persephone. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (2), Persephone is taken to the Underworld by Hades to be his wife. During her daughter’s absence, the earth grows cold and does not produce food because of Demeter’s sadness. But when Persephone is reunited with her mother, the earth becomes bountiful again. This myth explained why the seasons change to the ancient Greeks. However, in the Eleusinian mysteries, the myth was also used as an example and promise of rebirth or even elevation to godhood (the exact purpose of the Eleusinian Mysteries are unknown because they were one of the mystery cults in the Greco-Roman world). Associated with this use of myth and rituals is also the long-standing question about whether the ritual or the myth came first, a chicken or the egg debate. Regardless, myth helps explain ritual and ritual is a manifestation of myth.
Humans not only used myths to explain the origins of the universe but also of their own social institutions and societies. These are often referred to as foundation myths. They involve an ancestor or hero of some sort who is the progenitor of a group of people or the founder of a city. Perhaps the most famous and widespread founding figure was the Greek Heracles (Roman Hercules). He was the semi-divine son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmena. Over the course of his Twelve Labors, which took him throughout the known world at the time, the Greeks said that Heracles had numerous sons who went on to be the founding figures of other peoples including the Scythians (Herodotus, Histories, Book IV.8-10) and Celts (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Book V.24; Parthenius, Erotica Pathemata, XXX) to name a couple. He also had more localized sons who became the founders of Greek dynasties. All ancient societies used myth for this purpose, giving themselves semi-divine or even sometimes divine origins not only for their groups of peoples but their families as well.
Even when humans began to form philosophical ideas, some philosophers still used myths as a means of explaining their abstract concepts. Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, used myth because stories are more appealing to people than abstract discussions. He used traditional myths, he modified myths, and he even created myths of his own (Partenie 2009). The purpose of Plato’s use and creation of myths was the same as it had been since the beginning of time: to answer questions about the origin of the universe and the fate of the soul. Plato’s ideas on these subjects differed from conventional thoughts but he still used myths to explain his philosophical ideas.
These uses of myth are what constitutes aetiological myths, myths which explain the origins of certain features in the natural world or social world. There are, of course, other types of myths and the exact number of types differs among scholars. However, when it comes to religion, aetiological myths are the main types of myths because they involve the Gods.
Within Gaulish society, the three main groups relating to religious matters mentioned by the Classical authors – the Druids (Gaulish singular drūið, plural drūides), the Vates (Gaulish singular uātis, plural uātīs), and the Bards (Gaulish singular bardos, plural bardoi) would all have created and utilized myths. The Bards would have been the ones to not only put the myths into a verse form (sometimes even creating the myths) but they would have also been the ones to tell the myths of Gods and men especially during festivals and feasts. The Vates would have used myths as sources for what plants or herbs to use as well as the processes involved for collecting them in healing. They would have also utilized myth for the process and means to use when taking omens. The Druids would have used myths when teaching their students, performing their religious functions, as well as pronouncing tribal judgments. Their philosophical thoughts about the universe would have been put into myths as well. Every aspect and function of the Druids, Vates, and Bards was intimately connected to the Gods and subsequently to myth as well.
Unfortunately for us as practitioners of Gaulish Polytheism and / or Gaulish Druidism, the myths of the ancient Gauls did not survive. There are several contributing factors for this. By the time of the Roman conquest of Gaul in 52 BCE, Gaulish culture was still an oral culture. They had knowledge of and sometimes utilized alphabets from other cultures (such as the Lugano or Greek alphabets), but they did not write down literature of their own as the Greeks and Romans did. Gaul was also still a tribal culture, consisting of rival tribes and tribes in different stages of development. For example, some tribes had moved away from kingship to an oligarchic rule by a small group or by an annually elected magistrate called a vergobret. There was also Caesar’s report of the prohibition of writing:
“Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters. That practice they seem to me to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people, nor those who learn, to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory, relying on writing; since it generally occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory.” (The Gallic Wars, Book VI.14)
Caesar’s statements especially concerning the Druids must, of course, be taken with a grain of salt. However, his reason for the Druids wanting their students to rely on memory rather than writing may have some truth to it.
So what are we to do as Gaulish Polytheists and Gaulish Druids who are trying to reconstruct an ancient religion for modern practice when we have none of their myths?
We can always base our perceptions of the Gods on scholarly research mixed with a little personal gnosis. This is exactly the process used by Gaulish Polytheists and Gaulish Druids. However, there is still an internal desire to hear stories about our Gods, Ancestors, and Land Spirits. There is also a desire for stories that explain things to us from the point of view of a God’s function or domain. By (re)creating the Gaulish myths, we are performing several purposes at once.
We are explaining in a narrative form how we view the Gods, their functions, and how they interact with us as well as one another. We are also adding meaning to what we believe, giving it life. We are also using myth as a means to explain concepts and ideas and why they are the way they are within our practice. We use myth to explain why we perform certain rituals and why we perform them the way that we do. We also use myth to celebrate the deeds of our Ancestors. Finally, and most importantly, the (re)creation of myths is a form of honoring the Gods, Ancestors, and Land Spirits by giving them an offering or gift.
However, one must never view the (re)creation of Gaulish myths as a blasphemous act or some sort of fan fiction. Gaulish myths originated from the minds and hearts of the Gauls. They were not given to them on some inscribed piece of stone up on a mountain. In the Classical sources, the Druids were often compared to Greek and Roman philosophers (Strabo, Geography, IV.4; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, V.31). While Greek and Roman philosophers contemplated abstract concepts, they still asked questions concerning why things are the way they are, just as the Druids did.
The idea of (re)creating Gaulish myths can be daunting for us due to modern conceptions of religion. Most of us are used to religious texts, which tell us the way it is rather than letting us think about the way it is. If a Christian created a story about Jesus, it would be viewed as heretical and possibly even evil.
But once one makes the brave decision to (re)create Gaulish myths, they are faced with the issue of how to do it. In order to explain the process, let us look at ancient Celtic terminology and concepts involved with poetry.
Specific to the creation and the relating of myth in ancient Gaulish culture was the role of the bardos. However, the (re)creation of Gaulish myth today doesn’t have to be composed in poetry; it can also be composed using prose. But whichever medium is chosen, it will be beneficial to look at the terms and metaphors used for Gaulish poetry so that one can understand the process involved in (re)creating Gaulish myth.
The ancient Celts considered the art of verse-making a “craft” (Stifter 2016, p. 41). This concept was expressed in the Old Irish word cerd and Welsh word cerdd, which both come from the Proto-Celtic *kerdā. These words express not only “craft” but were also applied “specifically to the trade or to the products of poets” (ibid). In Gaulish, there is the attested word *cerdo(n)- ‘artisan’ (Delamarre 2003, p. 114) and which probably referred to poets and poetry as well based on the Insular Celtic comparative evidence. Just like a craftsman, a poet creates a work of art by using raw materials, tools, and skill. Even the English word “compose,” which is often used in the phrase “compose a poem,” literally means ‘to put together’ and comes from the Latin words com ‘together’ and ponere ‘to put, place’.
But a poem or story can’t be built on craft or skill alone. Inspiration is also needed and there is a specific Celtic word which refers to this inspiration. There is the Old Irish word aí and the Welsh word awen. Both of these words come from the PIE root *we- ‘to blow’ and point back to a Proto-Celtic period. There is no similar word attested in Gaulish, but there is the reconstructed Gaulish word auenā. Because of the PIE root meaning and the semantics of the Insular Celtic words for “inspiration,” it “suggests that the notion of poetry being breathed, perhaps by a supernatural force, into gifted persons” (Stifter 2016, p. 41). This is indeed the idea behind the Welsh awen, which was said to have come from the cauldron of Ceridwen (“Tale of Taliesin” from The Mabinogion).
We can see, therefore, that when we (re)create Gaulish myth, we must rely on craft and inspiration. Craft refers to the technical side of the process, i.e. the type of writing we choose (prose or poetry) and any ornamental elements we choose to utilize. Like any other craft, one’s skill is built upon learning the technicalities and building upon that basic foundation through practice, which will improve one’s skill. The inspiration (auenā) comes from the Dēuoi and we must allow it to flow through us like a stream. The auenā may come from a patron Dēuos or Dēuā, a Dēuos or Dēuā specifically associated with poetry/prose (Brigantia, Ogmios, Maponos to name a few), or even the Dēuos or Dēuā one is (re)creating the myth about. Whoever the Dēuos or Dēuā is (and it doesn’t have to be just one), one should invoke them before beginning the writing process and give them some type of offering. This doesn’t have to be a formal ritual process. It could be as simple as lighting a candle and burning some incense. But the invocation and offering should be done because auenā comes from the Dēuoi and our relationship with them is one of reciprocity: I give so that you may give.
One last word regarding the process of (re)creating Gaulish myth: don’t expect initial perfection with your endeavor (especially doing the process for the first time) and don’t get frustrated with the lack of initial perfection. Any Gaulish myth that you (re)create will require time and polishing the finished product. This means that it could take multiple writing sessions before the myth is complete. Also remember that perfection is in the eyes of the beholder. If you are happy with it and it serves the purpose of (re)creating the myth in the first place, then perfection has been achieved.
Write-up provided by members of Drunemeton and Galatîs Litauiâs, Article was written by the Bardos Cunolugus Drugaisos.
Caesar, Julius. The Gallic Wars. Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn. Available online: http://classics.mit.edu/Caesar/gallic.html
Diodorus Siculus. The Library of History. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Available online: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/home.html
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Partenie, Catalin (2022). “Plato’s Myths.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available online: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-myths/
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In addition to the Tale of Taliesin which is cited, many earlier Welsh bards asserted that Awen came from the Cauldron of Ceridwen – both identified bards of the independent Welsh princes and those anonomously adopting the Taliesin persona to articulate their mythical heritage even when christianity had long been established. By the time of the ‘Tale of Taliesin’ this tradition had passed to folktale, but fragments of the earlier verse are embedded in the tale and attest the continuity of the tradition into the later middle ages. Myths don’t easily pass away, but by now we need – as you suggest – to continue to revitalize them.