Celtic Deities and Arthurian Legend
An in-depth exploration of the connection between Celtic gods and Arthurian characters
Hi, friends! So sorry for the huge gap in between posts. A lot’s been going on in my life but we’re finally getting back to a semi-normal schedule! Which means it’s time to get back to researching and writing more Arthurian legend! ❤
So, let’s talk mythology. It’s no secret that Arthurian legend stems from ancient Celtic roots. The legend, itself, is set in 6th century Britain, when the land was split up into several different kingdoms inhabited by the Celtic Britons. Some Celts were Christian, as we know Arthur to be. But many were pagan and believed in their respective gods and goddesses.
Christianity plays an enormous part in the legend; we know this. The values of the Knights of the Round Table were based entirely in Christian virtues. Without that (not to mention the Holy Grail, the Siege Perilous and other legendary Christian components), we wouldn’t have the iconic legend that we do today. But so many people tend to forget the legend’s roots.
The stories of King Arthur were an oral tradition (and much more pagan-based) looong before they were first penned to paper in the 12th century by Christians. These stories may have been different from the ones we know today…but they included characters we do know, like a mystical and all-powerful wizard. They included an undefeated warrior who knew a certain Green Knight. They included a beautiful flower queen who was the envy of all women. There were tales of a wild Welsh knight who had a tragic past with his mother, tales of a dark and powerful enchantress, and tales of a “head dragon”– or Pendragon – who was chosen by the Goddess, herself, to rule over all. These stories were told around campfires and hearths; in cottages and in great halls. The legend had already been a huge crowd favorite for centuries before it was written into books in monasteries. It’s because of this that I think remembering and acknowledging the legend’s pagan past is so important. And these first spinners of our tales had to have had something to inspire them.
Looking closer at the Arthurian characters, it’s easy to see major similarities between them and the gods and goddesses that the Celtic people believed in. While we don’t have a lot of info on how the Celts worshipped these deities (the way we do the Greeks, Romans or Scandinavians), we do know they revered these godly figures as idols. They were thought to be responsible for everything in nature, and were to be respected through daily interaction with the earth. So why wouldn’t the Celts’ stories feature characters that resembled these great gods?
1. These are connections that I, personally, have made. I’m not saying it’s absolute fact that the Celts based the Arthurian characters off of these figures; it’s just a theory that I’m excited to share. I’m also positive I’m not the only person with these ideas.
2. I’m nowhere near an expert on Celtic mythology. Just excited to share what I’ve discovered in my own self-education!
3. There is more than one race of Celtic mythological figures. This topic features a combination of both Gaelic deities from the Tuatha Dé Danann and Welsh deities, mostly mentioned in the Mabinogion.
Either way, they’re all Celtic mythological figures that seem to have a strong influence on the characters of our favorite legend! ❤ So grab a cup of tea and get comfy…we’ve got a handful of crazy, wonderful characters to explore!
Lugh ~ Gawain
Perhaps one of the most obvious is the connection between Lugh and Gawain. Lugh, Irish sun god of the Tuatha Dé Danann, is one of the greatest warriors of all time. And one of the most popular Celtic gods. (Lleu is his Welsh counterpart.) The warmth and strength of late summer sun is the work of Lugh, hence where the name of the Irish sun festival every August, Lughnasadh, comes from. He is (usually) kind to all and has a very “host”-like personality. His spirit is bright and warm as the sun, and from what I know, he has no problem being the center of attention.
Sounds a bit like someone we know. Gawain is first noted in Chrétien de Troyes’ romances as being the “The Knight of the Sun”. Several authors afterwards began giving him that same title. In some stories, Gawain is given a special gift. He is given the gift of the sun’s strength during the day. In other words, while the sun is out, he has an almost superhuman strength; he fights the way Lugh would in combat. And likewise, when the sun sets, his power is reduced. In fact, in Gillian Bradshaw’s Hawk of May, Gawain is given this gift by Lugh, himself! (Warning: Spoilers!!) Gawain falls asleep and has a “dream” that he feasted in Lugh’s Hall, where the mighty Lugh gave him this gift to help him in the fight against the darkness that’s ever at his heels. Our homeboy wakes up to find that years have passed while he was asleep, and he now has the sun’s strength and spirit coursing through his veins. This connection makes even more sense knowing that Gawain was raised in the Orkney Isles of Scotland, where the Tuatha Dé Danann would have been common household names. Lugh could easily have been a god that Gawain would have actually worshipped or paid homage to through rituals or offerings.
Other parallels include the fact that Lugh fights with a giant, mighty sword and Gawain fights with the magical sword, Galatine. Lugh is also thought to have flame-red hair and Gawain, in many versions, has the same.
There’s also a story where Lugh is stabbed with a spear, but instead of dying, he turns into a falcon. This bird imagery is represented in Gawain’s very name, seeing as his name in Welsh is Gwalchmei, meaning “May hawk”, or “spring falcon”. In more modern Gawain stories, which are growing more and more reverent to those early pagan roots, Gawain’s bird and sun imagery is more prominent. It seems modern authors are trying to convey more of a connection between Gawain and the Celtic sun god– as well as another god we’ll get into soon!
Mâth ~ Merlin
A slightly lesser known Celtic god is Mâth, or Math, pronounced the way you think. Math ap Mathonwy is from the Welsh tradition; a mysterious, extremely powerful sorcerer that lives in the wilderness of north Wales. He’s the lord of Gwynedd and unless away at war, he must rest his legs in the lap of a virgin woman at all times or he’ll die. Why that is, we don’t know. There’s likely more about this in the fourth book of the Mabinogi, which centers around Math and his tale. Math interacts with a lot of the other deities in the Welsh tradition, just as Merlin interacts with so many other major Arthurian characters. Math is tricked by family, he tricks other people that aren’t family…and his character can often be considered questionable.
While Merlin is certainly on the good side of things in our legend, he does have questionable characteristics. For someone with so much power and wisdom, he makes mistakes and makes other people sacrifice a lot for the sake of Camelot. Math makes others sacrifice a lot, too. For instance, when Math runs out of virgin women on whose lap he can rest his feet, he offers the virgin position to the goddess, Arianrhod, who is pregnant. Obviously not a virgin. He knows she’s pregnant, and that she won’t fulfill the needed requirements for his “condition” but commands that she try to take the position anyway. (TW: Miscarriage) And as soon as she agrees and steps over Math’s magic rod/staff that he keeps on the ground, to accept, her baby literally falls from out of her onto the floor. It’s described as “a lump of flesh” that she suddenly realizes is her dead baby on the ground.
While Merlin doesn’t kill babies, he has certainly taken things from women for the sake of Camelot. When Igraine gives birth to Arthur, he not only tells her it was never her husband, Gorlois, she conceived with…but also takes away baby Arthur on the night of his birth and basically says, “Sorry, you don’t get to raise him. It’s for the good of Camelot, though, so relax. He’ll be a great king one day and he’ll be good to you, so it’s fine.” And then she either dies, or dies shortly after Arthur becomes king. Or she goes mad and is sent to a convent to “repent for her sins” (for cheating on her husband with Uther, who was disguised as her husband, so HOW could she have known?? Don’t get me started on poor Igraine.) Anyway. Merlin does some shady stuff like that, too. In other versions, Merlin does similar things with Nimue and/or with Morgan. Merlin and Math both have a history of tricking women to get what they want– even if it’s not for personal gain, and it really is for the sake of Britain.
On a more positive note, we can also see the old Welsh sorcerer similarity between the two. Merlin is said to have grown up in the town of Carmarthen, in southwest Wales, while Math rules over Gwynedd, in north Wales. Both could be considered products of their environment, having both been raised in what was then a wild land, full of faeries, dragons and magic. This upbringing centered their gifts and both men grew to be extremely powerful sorcerers, with a wisdom of the world matched only by few.
In some cases, Merlin, himself, is considered one of the Welsh gods. His name in Welsh, Mryddin Emrys, is the name of a god of magic and the supernatural. He’s the same figure who is said to have moved mountains, to have carved out the shape of Mount Snowdon and created Snowdonia. He’s also the same figure to have moved Stonehenge from Scotland to England, placing the stones where they align perfectly with the sun on the winter and summer solstices.
It’s in the earlier texts that Britain’s greatest sorcerer is referred to as Myrddin or Math, and only later that his name was changed over time to Merlin. But very recently, modern authors are starting to use the old names in new stories. While Math ap Mathonwy may be cast aside more so than other Celtic gods, more Arthurian authors are beginning to honor the mysterious Celtic god of sorcery and magic.
Rhiannon ~ Igraine & Herzeloyde
Rhiannon is the Welsh goddess of horses and the moon. (Often associated with the Celtic goddess, Epona.) Her story is quite a tragic one, which correlates strongly with Igraine, mother of Arthur. Rhiannon has quite an extensive love story, which we don’t really need to get into. Long story, short: she marries a prince named Pwyll, whom she met when she rode on horseback every day in a gown of gold, past a stone he always sat on. Eventually, they fell in love and got married and lived happily ever after. Or so she thought. She had a child with Pwyll named Pryderi and that’s when things get rough.
On the night of his birth, baby Pryderi went missing. When Rhiannon woke up the next morning, her servants made up a terrible lie and “informed” her– and all the kingdom– that she ate her son. They even covered her in blood while she slept. So when she rose from her bed and caught herself in the looking glass, she almost believed it, herself.
But she knew that was preposterous and insisted to everyone that it was a lie. She insisted that the servants had framed her because someone else stole the baby on the servants’ watch, and they didn’t want to ‘fess up. But everyone believed the servants. Even her husband, Pwyll. So Pwyll punished Rhiannon for seven years by making her sit on a stone outside the kingdom gate, just as he used to when they met. And every day, when anyone entered the gate, she had to tell them the tale of what she “did” and offer to give them a ride into the castle on her back. Like a horse. For she was no longer fit to ride her precious horse, but to be one.
While Igraine was never humiliated on that level, the parallel is definitely there of having her only son taken from her on the night of his birth. And because of that, and the way he was conceived (without her knowing the truth until after), she was forced to repent her sins for the rest of her life, in a convent. And King Uther just let it happen. Not to mention, the gossip and whispers and stares she had to endure the rest of her time at Camelot until she was banished. Just like the kingdom’s gossip about Rhiannon. In some versions, Igraine is banished by her own daughter, Morgan, who blames her for cheating on her husband– Morgan’s father– Gorlois.
Luckily, Rhiannon at least gets a happy ending! Her son, Pryderi, grew up into his teens (in seven years! He grows abnormally fast because he’s the son of a goddess.) He was raised by a couple who rescued him from the arms of a monster as a baby. (A clue, perhaps?) As he got older unnaturally fast, they noticed how much he resembled their king, Pwyll, and how much he seemed to have an affinity with horses. Meanwhile, several other children and domestic animals went missing, and the whole kingdom turned to Pwyll for help. Suspicions start to arise that maybe Rhiannon didn’t eat her newborn son. Shortly after, the couple that raised Pryderi take him to the castle, asking if he’s the royals’ son. Of course, Rhiannon and Pwyll are overjoyed, and take young Pryderi back into their home to stay forevermore. The couple says that they rescued him from the arms of a monster, who must have stolen him from the castle. So Pwyll sends out a search party and, lo and behold, they find the monster and all the stolen babies and animals. The knights kill the monster and return all the lost children and animals to their rightful families. And Pryderi is home.
From what I know, Pwyll sort of apologizes to Rhiannon, and so do the servants of the castle. But they were never punished. So there’s that. Anyway, Pryderi, who had only ever known his commoner, forest-boy life, realizes he’s a half-god prince. And they all live happily together after that.
There could also be considered a correlation between Rhiannon and Lady Herzeloyde, Percival’s mother. When Pryderi finally returns, Rhi is understandably quite protective of him. There’s even a passage where everyone in the entire kingdom magically disappears and instead of trying to fix the problem, Rhi and Pryderi realize they like the time alone together. Pwyll agrees to forego searching for everyone for a bit, and for a good while, Rhi has her son (and Pwyll) all to herself. Eventually, Rhiannon is encouraged to bring everyone back, and so she does. But she treasured that time alone, when Pryderi belonged to no one but her, safe in her care. But mothers can’t protect their children forever. Percival’s mother learns that when her son finally decides to leave against her wishes; to escape the forest that she had secluded him in for fifteen years, safe from the world, and venture off to become a knight.
So (for those familiar with the stages of the triple goddess), Rhiannon could be considered a parallel of Igraine in the beginning of her tale, when she’s a maiden goddess, and a parallel of Herzeloyde towards the end of her tale, when she’s a mother goddess. Nowadays, she’s a deity associated with horses, the moon, rebirth and self-worth. She’s a reminder to know your worth and know your truth. You are a not a horse to be ridden around. ❤ How wonderful it would be if we could reach into the books and remind Igraine of that.
Pryderi ~ Percival
Because Rhiannon has a correlation with Percival’s mother, it only makes sense for her son to have a parallel with Percival. The two have very similar upbringings and personalities. While Pryderi did have both both parents (even the adoptive ones), both young men did grow up in isolation from the rest of the world. From what I know, the couple that saved Pryderi as a baby lived out in Welsh woods, away from Pwyll’s kingdom. So he grew up knowing nothing but simple cottage life. And likewise, Percival was raised in a forest in Wales by his mother, with only birds and trees for company.
Because of this, both figures are a little “slow” to the understanding of the outside world. But they’re also both quick learners. They both use a javelin, or spear, as their signature weapon, and use it well. Pryderi even becomes king, just as his father was, and in many stories Percival does the same. When he achieves the Holy Grail, he becomes king of Corbenic, or Munschalve, or whatever name you prefer for the Fisher King’s land.
The last and perhaps most obvious correlation is their names. I don’t know how the name “Percival” came about but Percival’s original name in Welsh is Peredur, meaning “hard spear”, which could easily be mistaken by ear for “Pryderi”. The actual meaning of pryderi, however, is literally “worry” or “anxiety”. It could be that he was named so in the tale because his loss would bring great worry to Rhiannon until she found him again. (How befitting it is that Percival’s running away to Camelot would cause his own mother so much worry that she literally dies of a broken heart! That’s a correlation that could be examined, in itself.)
Pryderi is now a half-god associated with music and healing– just as Percival is the Pure-Hearted knight, associated with light, healing and peace. (And as far as music goes, he does do a fair amount of singing in just about any tale of his.) There’s no doubt that the Welsh god with a sharp spear and gentle heart influenced the naïve but sweet, spear-wielding Sir Percival.
The Morrígan ~ Morgan/Morgause
This one’s pretty hard to beat. Even their names are almost identical. The Morrígan is one of the oldest known Irish gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann; the goddess of war, fate and death. She is associated with the ‘triple goddess’ figure and her name literally translates to “Phantom Queen”. The shadows of nightfall, the electricity before war, the calm before death is all the work of the Morrígan.
On the Arthurian side, we know Morgan as the dark enchantress. Originally, though, she was a healer and had no ill-will towards Arthur or anyone at all. If anyone wished for war, it was her sister, Morgause. Morgause had a dark, churning energy surrounding her and always longed for power. In Zimmer-Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which is based on earlier myths, Morgause was the one who not only cursed Guinevere with barrenness, but almost left baby Mordred out in the cold to die and stole everything from her sister, Morgan, that might have made her happy. She also wanted the Old Ways to remain in the ever-growing tidal wave of Christianity. So she– and Vivenne– did terrible things to see that through.
An aside: This said, Morgause could also have been inspired by the Celtic queen and sorceress, Medb. Sometimes pronounced “Maeve”, Medb was a dark warrior goddess, known as the villain of the Ulster Cycle. She was known to be cruel and demanding but very sensual, sexual and aware of her worth. In fact, her name translates to “she who intoxicates”. In the 1988 mini-series, Merlin, Medb is even the evil witch who teaches Merlin how to hone his craft and use his powers to his full potential! However, the Morrígan has more similarities to Morgause and even Morgan.
Over time, the figure of the dark enchantress switched over to Morgan, who became the iconic villain of the Legend we know today. It made the stories juicer, since Morgan was Arthur’s half-sister and wanted him dead so she could rule in his place. Eventually, she became associated with the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur and Mordred meet their death. And so, the connection between Morgan and the Morrígan strengthened. Even Morgause is associated with the arts of war. Whether the story stars Morgan or Morgause as the wife of the evil King Lot, she aids her husband in battle strategies and uses dark magic to bring death to her enemies. The Celts would have prayed to the Morrígan for victory in battle. And they would have expected to see her when death was near. Just as Camelot soldiers would have Morgan le Fey.
A physical parallel is their similar features. Morgan and Morgause usually have either black or red hair, and the Morrígan has the same. Both the Morrígan and Morgan are also known to be shape-shifters, able to change their physical appearance to anything they desire. And their iconology is very similar. The Morrígan is associated with the raven or the crow; a bird of prey that would soar over the battlefield, which are both also associated with wisdom. In many Arthurian stories, Morgan has the same imagery. In my upcoming novel, Percival, Morgaine (Morgan) has a flock of crows that follow her where she goes. They are her eyes beyond the valley where she dwells, and her most trusted companions– far more so than any humans. (Whether that’s taken as a nod to the Morrígan, or a nod to Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent, is up to the reader!)
As Morgan grows more and more in touch with darkness over time, over the course of countless new stories, the Morrígan truly begins to live in her. It makes me wonder if Netflix’s fey-heavy Arthurian series, Cursed (which already made a connection between Morgan and the Cailleach) will make that connection any time soon!
Cernunnos ~ Gawain
Yes, Gawain can be associated with another of the Tuatha Dé Danann; one of older and darker Celtic deities, Cernunnos. This deity has many names– Herne the Hunter (as mentioned in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor), Pan (in the Greek pantheon), The Green Man, or the Horned One, for instance. He’s associated with the stag, or the deer, and is usually pictured as a young (often quite attractive) being with antlers on his head. I say he’s sometimes a “darker” deity because he often represents the more wild, less tame parts of nature. Over time, Christians took his antlers and turned his image into their image of Satan. Sculptures and drawings of Cernunnos were soon called satanic and any offerings to him were thought to have been forms of devil worship. What’s funny is that he’s the opposite of demonic and evil.
Cernunnos is the god of virility; he represents all that is the forest. He’s very much a teacher figure, or even a father-like figure, walking with and guiding the animals of the forest. In association with the forest, he also represents the forest floor, or the earth itself. As he is a god of fertility, he’s usually celebrated during the rites of the spring festival, Beltane. He’s also the image of healthy masculinity. I think we can connect each one of these dots with Gawain.
Gawain is the “teacher” figure, in that he aids many new knights in their quests and their journeys towards greater knighthood. He’s very in tune with the earth, having grown up in wild Scotland, in a household of the Old Ways. He’s also more commonly known as “the Maiden’s Knight”. I think we all know what that’s means. Let’s just say he’s not Lancelot, with googley eyes for only one woman. That’s NOT to say he doesn’t respect women with utmost grace, chivalry and kindness. But he does like to spread his “earthly roots” in the bedchamber, often with more than one maiden, if you catch my drift. He can definitely be considered the human parallel of a fertility god. And he’s also often the “ideal picture” of masculinity out of all the men in our legend, besides Lancelot.
But the biggest connection with this Celtic god is arguably tied to his other name of “The Green Man”, with leaves of ivy and mistletoe all around his face. Remind you of Christmas? You guessed it. The Green Knight is heavily based off Cernunnos. I could write a whole essay about it but so many collegiate thesis papers have already done so, so I’ll spare you more rambling. The Green Knight goes back to tales of The Green Man, who is not only tied with the spring but with the winter. On the winter solstice, it was thought that the Green Man would travel to great halls and seek worthy warriors to play his “game”. Contrary to popular belief (looking at you, those who read SparkNotes for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in high school English class), the Green Knight never intended to kill Gawain. He only wanted to test him. He knew that Gawain would grow to be a great and legendary knight one day, and he wanted to make sure Gawain would be worthy of that honor. So he taught him a lesson. The same way the Green Man would go from hall to hall, seeking out the best new warriors and testing their mettle.
Out of all the Celtic gods out there, I can definitely say Cernunnos is my favorite. I love his playfulness in the spring and his quiet wisdom in the winter. Perhaps that’s why Gawain is one of my favorite Arthurian characters…the two are practically one and the same!
Blodeuwedd ~ Guinevere
Blodeuwedd (pronounced “bluh-DIE-weth) is the Welsh goddess of flowers. Her story starts with Lleu (Lugh, or Llew. Since we’re talking about Welsh tradition, we’ll stick with Welsh spelling.) Lleu was cursed by his mother (unfairly, many might say) with the inability to ever marry a human woman. The sorcerer, Math, decided to help him out. He decided to create a woman out of flowers for Lleu to marry. Technically not a human wife, right? So Math took meadowsweet, broom and oak and blended them together with his magic to make Blodeuwedd, a beautiful flower bride. Her name, Blodeuwedd, even directly translates to “flower face”. Neither of these men thought that maybe Blodeuwedd would develop a mind of her own…she was made of flowers, right? Literally designed for a man’s lust as her only purpose. But long story short, while Lleu was out one day, Blodeuwedd met a hunter named Gronw. The two fell madly in love and realized they couldn’t live without each other. So they plotted a way to kill Lleu and live happily ever after. And they did kill him. But just when Blodeuwedd thought she’d finally be able to start living for herself, she was turned into an owl forevermore, as punishment for her unfaithfulness.
We can definitely see where this translates to Guinevere. Before even mentioning the unfaithfulness aspect, there is a big correlation between Guinevere and flowers. She is known in the Legend as the flower queen; she is seen as a “flower maiden” figure, very much connected to springtime, especially in May. Then, of course, there’s the love triangle. But while I used to have such a hard time feeling sympathy for Guinevere after cheating on Arthur (who only ever loved her as hard as he could), Blodeuwedd has opened my mind a lot more. Blodeuwedd is unfaithful not because she has any hatred for Lleu, or because she’s selfish– but because she was never given a choice to do anything that makes her happy. She was literally created to please Lleu, without ever being asked if she gave her consent. Gronw also makes her feel loved; he makes her feel seen and heard. She’s literally made of flowers and his love for her feels like sunlight, which flowers need to survive. In the Arthurian world, Lancelot gives Guin what Arthur simply cannot; a riveting, passionate love that’s electric and powerful and limitless. While Arthur loves her dearly, he will always put his people before all else. He might never have truly been able to be her “sunlight”.
Then there’s the death. While Guin and Lance would never plot to kill Arthur…they metaphorically did so with their affair, alone. Especially since Lance is one of Arthur’s closest friends.
As far as iconology goes, the owl imagery is strong with Blodeuwedd in many depictions of her. Since the owl represents wisdom, I feel like this corresponds with Guinevere, too, after the affair. The whole affair matured her, in a sense, and forced to see things from a new perspective. It seems fitting that her character would be so wisened after it all– just as Blodeuwedd is “wisened” by turning into an owl. However, she was only trying to do something for herself, for once, and this gives her a strong female agency, as she’s known for today. Guinevere is seen as the same sort of figure nowadays. Where she was once a damsel in distress (in all the old Christian stories written by men), she is now a fierce, strong ruler in all the new stories, especially written my female authors. I have no doubt that our Camelot Flower Queen was inspired by the Welsh flower goddess who did what it took to make herself happy.
Olwen ~ Blanchefleur
Those of you who are familiar with the tale of Culhwch and Olwen will probably be able to attest to this fairly well. Olwen is the beautiful woman that Culhwch faced many seemingly impossible tests for, to have her hand in marriage. She is a Welsh mythological figure, now a flower and sun goddess, that’s even seen in Arthurian tales. She is associated with the arts, creativity, the sun and– similarly to Blodeuwedd– flowers. It is said that Olwen was so beautiful, kind and pure-hearted, that wherever she walked, white flowers grew in her footsteps. The last part of her name, wen, even means “white”, or “pure”.
Lady Blanchefleur, Percival’s love interest, is known to represent the same things. Her name, Blanchefleur, is French for “white flower” or “white lily”. She’s an Arthurian figure symbolizing purity and sometimes the sun, especially when depicted as the “Grail Maiden.” In many versions, she’s the only maiden capable and pure enough to hold and guard the Holy Grail, until Percival (or Galahad, depending on the version) comes to take it out of her hands and save the land of Corbenic.
White flowers are definitely part of Blanchefleur’s iconology, thanks to her name, directly corresponding with Olwen’s. While the character of Blanchefleur is said to have been created by Chrétien de Troyes, she was undoubtedly inspired by the Welsh flower goddess, seeing as Chrétien took much of his inspiration for Arthurian stories from older Celtic tales. In my WIP, Percival, Blanchefleur is even given the nickname, “Lily”– partly due to her albino features, which Percival says remind him of a spring lily and because her name translates to it in French, but also partly as a nod to Olwen. How befitting it is, too, that the lily is a flower representing purity; one of Olwen’s main virtues! (It’s why lilies are the flowers of Easter.) Olwen is also associated with red and gold, and wears red in many of her depictions. In Percival, as a small nod to Olwen, I’ve included a banquet scene in which Blanchefleur wears a lavish, velvet red gown; a bold color for someone of her reserved personality to wear, especially for her first time at a party, but also a symbol of confidence. Just as the red dress is still known for with women today. Perhaps the Welsh goddess, Blodeuwedd, wore red for that reason, as well. ❤
Aengus ~ Lancelot
We can’t talk about romance without mentioning Lancelot. His Irish deity counterpart is the god of love and poetry, Aengus Óg. Son of the Dagda and the river goddess, Boann (who could definitely be a Nimue figure, especially since the Lady of the Lake is Lancelot’s mother in many versions), Aengus was known for loving a woman so passionately, it almost killed him.
First of all, Aengus was born within a single day instead of nine months. So in that regard, he represents youthfulness, just as Lancelot tends to. Secondly, Aengus falls in love with a girl he met in his dreams! Every night for a year, he dreams about her and they have this romance that grows into a full-fledged relationship over time, as he dreams about her more and more each night. And he tells no one, out of shame. He spends all day long thinking about her and waiting anxiously to fall back asleep, so he can see her again. And while he waits during the day, his head is circled by four little birds at all times. (Ever see that in cartoons? When a character hits their head, or is so love-struck that little birdies circle their head? It comes from this! Except that, in this case, Aengus’s birds were once literal kisses that he used his shapeshifting gifts to turn into birds.) Over time, Aengus becomes so sad without his dream girl there with him in real life that he literally grows sick. It gets so bad, to the point where he might not last past the spring, that Aengus finally admits his spritely love affair that takes place in his dreams to his parents. His mother, Boann, and the Dagda decide that something needs to be done.
There’s a huge search for this girl in the real world and it goes on forever. So, long story short: they eventually find the girl. But a curse has been laid upon her that has turned her into a swan. Only Aengus knows what she really looks like, as a human. But of course, no one will allow anything to happen between them. How can it? She’s literally a swan. But Aengus loves her so deeply, that eventually, he uses his shapeshifting abilities to transform himself into a swan permanently. When that happens, no one knows what to do…but Aengus and his dream girl do. They fall in love as swans and run away together into the night; the wind beneath each others’ wings. ❤
The obvious parallel is his love for her versus Lancelot’s love for Guinevere, yes, but also in the fact that it’s forbidden. Lancelot and Guinevere keep their love for each other a secret for as long as possible, just as Aengus keeps the dreams about his girl secret.
As the son of the Dagda, Aengus was blessed with quite the amount of charm and extremely handsome features. He was said to be able to woo any maiden at the drop of a hat, with little to no effort. Sounds exactly like someone we know! However, just like Lancelot, Aengus only ever had eyes for one woman, for whom he forgot all others.
Iconology-wise, Aengus is associated with birds (especially the ones that were once kisses) and weapons; two swords and two spears. Both of these are symbols his youthfulness. The kiss-birds represent his youthful love and creativity, while the swords and spears represent his great skill in combat. Lancelot is certainly an embodiment of both of these things. Most paintings of Lancelot depict him either in combat, with sword in hand, or surrounded by flowers and birds, rescuing Guinevere. Also, the fact that both Aengus and his lover turn into swans in the end are representative of Lance and Guin’s love, too. Swans are graceful, beautiful creatures, but are paddling their little feet hard and fast underneath the water, where no one can see it. Both Lance and Guin are also beautiful and graceful on the surface, but underneath, are secretly working so hard to keep their love a secret and to keep the fire of their love tamed and kindled.
There are many more stories involving Aengus but this one seemed to scream “Lancelot” more than all the others. While Lancelot is a Christian knight created by Chrétien de Troyes, I’ve no doubt that he based at least some of his attributes on those of the Irish love god. ❤
The Dagda ~ Arthur
And last but not least, we come to our King. The Dagda remains one of the more popular Irish gods of the Tuatha Dé Dunann. While the Dagda is usually depicted as a more robust, hearty man (think Hagrid from Harry Potter), he is sometimes portrayed as an older, slimmer man beside a fire, playing his harp. The Dagda is the Chief of the Tuatha Dé Dunann, and considered the “Good God”. He is full of good spirits, a kind heart from top to bottom, with a father-like personality, and a very skilled warrior. A military leader, just like Arthur, he is charming and has an enormous presence.
All of these qualities can be found in Arthur, especially considering his origins; a Romano-British military leader that grew his presence so widely and so fast that men from all over Britain and the Continent came to serve him. If Arthur really did exist (Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Romano-British war hero certainly did), such a thing would have been mind-blowing. There’s no doubt the Celts would have compared him to the “Good God”.
Despite his huge physical stature and military skills, the Dagda was also very passive and gentle in behavior, among friends and his people. He was very Druidic in nature; he played the harp and kept a “cauldron of plenty” at all times. We know Arthur has this quality. He may not have a harp but he is kind, gentle-natured, fatherly, humble and very respectful towards the Druidic peoples of his land.
Iconolgy-wise, there are three parallels between the great Irish god and our beloved High King, all deriving from Dagda’s three sacred treasures. One is the Dagda’s signature club; a weapon that was known by all in his race. Like Excalibur, right? Two is the Dagda’s cauldron. In it, he kept a blend of delicious food at all times, which never ran dry. Many believe the Celts to have used this as the inspiration for the Holy Grail, which also never ran dry. I, personally, also see the Cauldron as an inspiration for the Round Table. In the Dagda’s cauldron was a blend of food for all, which served the purpose of keeping everyone full and satisfied for all time. Arthur had that same hope for his Round Table; a group of men from a blend of different backgrounds, all united to serve the purpose of keeping the people of Camelot safe and satisfied. The third treasure is the Dagda’s harp, which was known to control men (as needed), as well as the seasons. He also used his harp to make people happy. One could make a parallel between the harp and Arthur’s crown, metaphorically speaking. He used his crown and status to influence and inspire men until he became High King of Britain; to create peace throughout Britain. ❤
Another (less pleasant) parallel is that his lover was the Morrígan, whom we compare to Morgan, Arthur’s sister. And, of course, Arthur and Morgan were unfortunately lovers, too, in many versions. (Even if Arthur wasn’t aware of it until after the fact.)
But overall, the Dagda was a great leader and chief of his race of gods. It’s not impossible to believe that the Celts took great inspiration from him in the creation and embellishing of the great King Arthur.
And that about sums it up! So hopefully, we can see from this (extensive, sorry! :P) discussion how likely it is that the Celts were inspired enough by their gods to humanize them into characters that walked the earth and lived human lives. Now when we look at our favorite characters from the Legend, we can see their even deeper origins.
If you know of any other deity connections, please feel free to talk about it in the comments below! I’d love to hear what other fellow Arthurianists think! I love that so many of you have already discussed some of these connections with me on Instagram. What fun conversations! Thankfully, while modern storytellers still honor Christianity in the Legend, we are also continuing to honor the early mythological roots that birthed such timeless characters. ❤
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