Mythology Course Comparitive Essay on Celtic and Germanic Cultures


Course Comparitive Essay on Celtic and Germanic Cultures

Most of our knowledge of early Celtic culture
comes from Latin historians and from an extensive body of early Irish texts
composed between 700 and 1000 AD. These include native law texts as well
as heroic prose narratives and intricately crafted rhymed verse in hundreds
of different meters. There are a few early texts from Celtic Wales as well,
but paradoxically most of the surviving Welsh stories about the legendary

Celtic king Arthur are translations from earlier French or English stories
based on lost Celtic originals. Marie de France, founder of the Romance
tradition in England, based her poetic narratives on folklore from Brittany,
a Celtic region of France, but none of her Celtic originals survive.

The earliest stories about Arthur were
probably much like the Irish stories about the kingdoms of Ulster and Connacht,
which feature kings Conchobor and Ailill and Queen Medb (whose name is

Anglicized to Maeve or Mab). The boy superhero CuChulainn plays a prominent
role in these stories, and many other characters seem to have godlike powers,
leading some researchers to speculate that they were survivors from pre-Christian

Celtic mythology whose humanized representations were inoffensive to the

Church. Modern readers used to male-gendered heroes may be surprised to
discover that Maeve was as redoubtable a warrior as her husband and that

CuChulainns martial arts instructor was a British woman named Scathach
(the Shadow). A woman warrior well documented in the historical record
is the British Celt Boudicca, who led a devastating attack on Roman colonial

In addition to marvelous heroic tales,
early Irish literature boasts poems of remarkable sophistication by well-educated
intellectuals. There are a number of secular love poems, some dealing with
romantic involvements between ordinary mortals and men or women from fairyland,
a remote parallel world inhabited by undying humanoids about as tall as
human beings or perhaps a bit taller (not the tiny winged creatures of

Shakespeare). Many early Irish lyrics are written from the viewpoint of
the monastic Christian hermits who took up solitary residence in isolated
forest huts or set out at random on the ocean in small boats that drifted
to remote island retreats. A prominent feature of Irish monastic poems
is a love of nature that would be hard to duplicate in English verse before
the Romantic period. One hermit bard claims that the natural flora and
fauna around his humble dwelling equal the glory of any royal court, using
his descriptive powers to prove it.

A few passages of Irish heroic poetry
that survive from the prehistoric period employ an alliterative line very
much like the one used by Old English poets. Some researchers attribute
this similarity to early cultural sharing between the Celtic and Germanic
peoples; others think that alliterative meter dated from a period before

Celtic and Germanic had differentiated from each other. Alliterative meter
also seems to predominate in the very earliest texts from the third western
branch of Indo-European, Italic. We tend to associate Latin verse with
the meter of Virgils Aeneid (dactylic hexameter), but this is a Greek meter,
and was not used by the Romans until their military conquest of Greece
brought them into contact with the poetry of Homer and Sappho. The Latin
alliterative charm for fruitful land quoted in an agricultural treatise
by Cato looks more like Beowulf than like the Aeneid.