Navan Fort in County Armagh
Navan Fort in County Armagh

Archaeology and the Celtic Myth – An exploration

Pre-Christian Celtic Myth preserved in Medieval Irish Literature does shed light on older traditions, says new book

Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration
By John Waddell
Dublin, Four Courts Press 2014
ISBN: 9781846824944

Once upon a time scholars and historians believed they read the gospel truth in the ancient Irish – or for that matter – Norse – mythical literature. Later, in the 20th century a suspicious culture spread amongst the learned resulting in a sweeping disregard for the historical value of these texts. Minor results were the claim that Beowulf had been written very late in the first millennium, while the Icelandic Sagas and the Norse myths were considered late courtly inventions. Of course the same happened to the great Irish literature and myths.Waddell Archaeology and Celtic Myth cover

However, during the same period archaeologists started their scientific quest to uncover the materiality of life in the so-called Dark Ages. Today we are thus blessed with enormous amounts of knowledge about landscapes, settlements, rural lives, proto-urban central sites as well as technologies and crafts of remarkable sophistication.

At the same time archaeologists have also moved into the “post-processual times of transdisciplinary studies” meaning they have in earnest begun to consider the cosmologies and the worldviews of these people; and not least their relationship to the myths preserved in the old literature of ancient times.

And lo and behold: discovered that the oral myths preserved in this literature sometimes fits the archaeology like a glove a hand.

This correspondence is at the centre of a brand-new book written by John Waddell, the grand old man of Celtic Archaeology in Ireland. In the book he focus on aspects of the mythology as it is associated with four- well-known Irish archaeological landscapes: Newgrange and the Boyne Valley, the Royal sites of Rathcroghan in County Roscommon, Navan in County Armagh and Tara in County Meath.

The mythological associations of these celebrated complexes allows John Waddell to pursue the archaeological implications of a series of mythic themes in early Irish Literature, namely sacral kingship, a sovereignty goddess, solar cosmology and the perception of the Otherworld. The book aims to demonstrate that these concepts do shed some light on features of Irish and European prehistory, while at the same time archaeology illuminate some aspects of the same myths.

Today we are no longer in doubt that myths do provide us with perspectives on archaeological issues. Archaeologists from both Norway and Sweden have recently published magisterial studies. To this is now added a seminal overview by Waddell.

Read together these – and other publications – will surely open up for a less “suspicious” attitude amongst historians and literary scholars.

Time to sweep the floor and let in the fresh air!


John Waddell is Emeritus Professor of Archaeology in NUI Galway. His recent research has focused on the royal site of Rathcroghan, a complex of archaeological monuments that figures prominently in early Irish literature.


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