A guest post by Annie Cosby
Celtic mythology is full of magical, strange, and delightfully creepy creatures. There are the ones you’ve heard of, like the banshee, and the ones that may be unfamiliar, like the merrow. I first started to realize the depths to Celtic mythology — you know, beyond rainbows and leprechauns — in my teen years, when I first saw The Secret of Roan Inish, an American/Irish movie about the selkie myth (more on that below).
Generally, I concentrate on Irish-based stories, because that’s where my ancestry is concentrated, and I lived there for several years, but many of the myths are broader than that, with roots in Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and even Brittany, France.
It’s easy to get lost in Celtic myth. It’s vast and tangled and the myths themselves contain contradictions, due to the nature of oral histories. Some sources say the Celtic pantheon contained more than 400 gods and goddesses, and I’m constantly learning about new fantastical animals the Celts recognized! The breadth of it all is part of what makes this mythology so fun to explore, and it’s why I love incorporating Celtic legends into my books.
Without further ado, here are 5 creepy creatures from Celtic myth that you really need to know!
- The Banshee
We’ve all heard someone “shriek like a banshee,” but what does that really mean? The banshee, or bean sí (which means “fairy woman” in Irish), is a spirit that foretells the death of a family member by shrieking or keening into the night.
Though our modern sensibilities find the idea of this shrieking creepy, keening (a loud, wailing lament) is actually a traditional form of mourning in Ireland. Sometimes families even hired a professional keening woman for funerals. Even so, nobody wants to hear it outside the window in the middle of the night — especially if you’ve been taught that the sound heralds death.
One interesting note is that each prominent family in Ireland was thought to have its own banshee, but only those families of old Irish stock.
A selkie is a shifter that can transform from seal to human form by shedding its seal skin. Of course, that skin is the key to transforming back, so it becomes the focal point of many a tragic love story. This tragedy, and the selkie myth, is at the center of my Hearts Out of Water series. The trilogy follows a girl who goes to the beach for the summer, only to get tangled up with a handsome local boy, a tale about an Irishman lost at sea, and a neighbor who thinks monsters are real.
- The Merrow
The merrow is the Celtic take on the mermaid, though much less well known — unless you’re a W.B. Yeats fan. Many different words for similar legends were used over the course of Celtic history, with “merrow” likely coming from the Irish word murúch, which means “siren.”
The merrow is like your typical mermaid, though with green hair, and their music is said to be heard beneath the water. Each merrow has a red cap that is required for moving between land and sea. Sound familiar? (The selkie’s sealskin is more mysterious, in my opinion.) But the parallel makes sense when you consider that the Celtic people lived predominantly on islands, so the ocean was never far and tragedy at sea was common. It’s no wonder then that their culture had so many legends about people disappearing in the sea — and eventually coming back.
The kelpie is a spirit that presents itself as a gorgeous human on land … in order to lure a victim into the water, where its natural form is a horse. The kelpie myth originated in Scotland, though similar creatures are found in the folklore of countries all around the world. What I like about the kelpie myth is that, in contrast to the selkie and the merrow, the kelpie isn’t a sea creature. Once you realize that, every river, loch, and stream is suddenly a threat.
P.S. There are two 100-foot-high kelpie statues in Falkirk, Scotland, and I will not rest until I’ve seen them.
- The Morrigan
Now, the Morrigan isn’t so much a creature as a goddess. However, she’s closely associated with different animals. The Morrigan is an Irish triplicate war goddess, sometimes identified as three sisters, said to be able to control the fate of entire battles and the sovereignty of Ireland.
There are a lot of contradictions in the many depictions of the Morrigan throughout recorded Celtic mythology, but some common interpretations are that she appeared at various times in the form of a crow, a wolf, a cow, and an eel, of all things, in order to influence certain situations and people. In fact, she appears in many stories opposite the famous Irish legend Cúchulainn. Both feature in my latest novel, The Daughters of Morrigan, which follows three sisters who live in a rundown castle on the west coast of Ireland.
What’s your favorite Celtic myth? Did it make the list?
About the Author
Annie Cosby is the author of the USA Today-recommended Hearts Out of Water series and countless other YA tales seeped in Celtic lore. A short, dog-obsessed, ketchup-loving romantic from the middle of America, Annie spent three years living in Galway, Ireland, which gave her mono, set her soul on fire, and introduced her to her husband. She now lives and writes in her native St. Louis, Missouri, where there are far fewer faerie rings, but far more sandwich shops. Learn more about Annie at her website.