Celtic Trickster Gods

By: Victoria Forrest

Overview

Trickster figures are important characters in mythology and folklore. They are found across a wide range of cultures. The trickster character is usually a male who has extreme appetites and is often a thief. However the trickster is also very clever. Often he can change his shape (3). Celtic mythology seems to have few trickster figures. However, we know very little about the Celtic myths because the tribes did not write down their stories. The stories about Celtic gods were written down much later by the Romans and early Irish Christian writers (1). These writers often mixed up the stories with their own religions (3). Although tales of Celtic trickster figures seem scarce, a few gods do stand out. They are Gwydion, Aengus and Gilfaethwy.

Gwydion

Gwydion was a Celtic trickster god who was very talented and skilled in the arts, magic and battle. King Pryderi accepted Gwydion into the role of the trickster gods. After this Gwydion attracted kind Pryderi with his poetry and then requested his prized pigs in return for payment. The king said no to Gwydion's request. Then Gwydion attracted the king with another offer. The offer was the pigs for twelve beautiful horses and twelve purebred hounds. The king accepted his offer. He tricked the king by making the horses and purebred hounds disappear the same way they appeared, by magic. The king caught up with Gwydion for the tricks that he did to him therefore Gwydion killed the king. Gwydion was punished by being turned into a variety of different animals that lasted for three years. Then when Gwydion was released from punishment he tricked his friend Math into believing that Gwydion's sister was a virgin. Gwydion's sister Arianrhod failed the virgin test though by that time it was to late, she was pregent and about to give birth to two twin sons, Dylan and Llew. When Math found out that she was not a virgin he got very angry and threw Dylan into the sea where he then became a water god. Gwydion was able to save Llew. Therefore Gwydion tricked his sister into naming her son Llew Llaw Gyffes (Llew of the skillful hand). Gwydion then raised Llew Llaw Gyffes as his own child. As a result to this April Fools Day originated from the tricks that Gwydion played (2).


Gilfaethwy

Gilfaethwy was Gwydion's brother who also played tricks. He and Gwydion tricked Math into giving him the virgin Goewin who had served as Math's footstool. Math was so angry that he turned the brothers into deer (1).

Aengus

Aengus was the god of love, but he also was capable of playing tricks. He fooled his father, the Dagda, into giving him his home. The Dagda had shared out his land among his children but had forgotten Aengus. Aengus asked the Dagda if he could live in his home for a day and a night. The Dagda agreed. But in the Irish language a day and night means the same as "day and night" which stands for all the time. So Aengus took over the Dagda's home for himself. Also Aengus went to a lake where he found 150 girls chained up in pairs and with that he found his dream girl named Caer Ibormeith. However in November she and all the other girls would turn into swans for one year. Aengus was told if he identfied Caer as one of the swans then he would be able to marry her. He was able to identify her. As a result of this Aengus turned himself into a swan and then he and his wife flew away together singing music that put the listeners asleep for three days and nights. The legends of Aengus say that this Celtic trickster was able to return life and repair the broken bodies of humans if Aengus felt like it (4).



What do these Myths demonstrate about Celtic society?

These myths demonstrate that possessions were very important to Celtic tricksters. Aengus feels justified in cheating his father out of his home because the Dagda did not include him when he divided up his lands among his children. Gwydion is willing to trick King Pryderi (and even kill him) in order to have his livestock. Violence and feuding among family members was common in Celtic myths, perhaps because such events were common in Celtic society. Tricksters broke social taboos and laws in order to get what they wanted. However, they were also often punished for their transgressions. Gwydion, for example, was punished for the murder of King Pryderi by being turned into various animals.

James Conroy has suggested that the trickster figure was a symbol of resistance and power in Celtic society(3). When Ireland was conquered by the English, the native Irish had no power in their own country. Trickster stories in which a Celtic god fools the master or the king may have been a way for the Irish to feel better about themselves. These myths make heroes out of characters who break the law and go against their rulers in order to get what they want or feel that they deserve. The myths demonstrate ways in which a clever trickster could "beat the system." Although the Celts do not seem to have many trickster gods, the character of the trickster does seem to have been of value to them. Objects of wealth also had a major significance in Celtic culture that helped the tricksters in their society manipulate others into their tricks.




swans.jpg

This image represents the Celtic god of love; Aengus
who was boud to the women he loved by becoming a swan

Celtic_Art.jpg
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Celtic Art inspired by poetry and mythology
external image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQs6y52w0WKUxbxMmmrWui12XmvXp-8TZcfREGK_n0P2e6idO8&t=1&usg=__dyu8o5MrQESe05f1t-3mOHB_-uU=
Celtic symbol represents: Tree of Life

Links to Trickster Myths

1. http://www.angelfire.com/fl4/celtomania/celticmyths-1.htm
2. http://www.terrapsych.com/gods.html
3. http://books.google.com/books?id=RANlKSykYM0C&pg=PA140&lpg=PA140&dq=history+of+gwydion+celtic&source=bl&ots=aKyi2DqeWD&sig=BD-UPKhwrh5jfrrA013dV1J0HPQ&hl=en&ei=o8DKTIzfDY7tnQfF2dTXDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CDAQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=history%20of%20gwydion%20celtic&f=false


Bibliography

1. Leeming, David. "Celtic Mythology." The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 65-67.

2. Turner, Patricia and Coulter, Charles Russell. Dictionary of Ancient Deities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

3. Conroy,James. "Transgression,Transformation and Enlightenment: The Trickster as Poet and Teacher." n.d. 29 Oct. 2010. <http://203.10.46.30/ren/scholars/Trickster.html>.

4. "Aengus." 25 Oct. 2010. 29 Oct. 2010. <http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Aengus>.