Let's Read GURPS Celtic Myth

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Séadna

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Just to tie in with the thread I thought this video has some interesting aspects:

It's short and fairly standard as Fae stories go, but it's more the process of translation and what the cartoon implies about his story.

First of all the subtitles use the term "Fairy" throughout, despite the speaker using two different terms. The cartoon shows little people with wings despite this not really being accurate to the story (he explicitly says they were playing football which always in these stories means they had full sized bodies).

It translates "whirlwind" when the speaker actually says something closer to "storm". So this creates a very different impression of what it is like when the Fae arrive.

However when he is taken away they say "he was hovering over the ground like the swallows" with the cartoon showing little dudes lifting him. In fact what the speaker says in Irish more conveys he was being telekinetically pulled through the air in a erratic manner. So rather than the "Fairies carrying him off" he was telekinetically ripped away from his friends by the Fae nobility following a storm they created.

Just thought it was an interesting example of how the story is being altered into something more standard/modern at literally the first stage of transmission.
 
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Séadna

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Campaign:
Okay so we start into the last chapter which concerns running a campaign.

Realistic vs Mythic:
So there's a little sidebar on running the game with GURPS full rules or using the Cinematic Rules together with the Basic Combat system.

The basic point being made is that the full GURPS rules are not only more lethal, but also more realistic and closer to "proper physics" which they emphasise with a nice little phrase:
GURPS Celtic Myth p.114 said:
GURPS was written with the laws of physics in mind – the ancient Celts hadn’t heard of the laws of physics, and would have thought them dull if they had.

Now as the book basically points out Celtic Myth itself divides into "gritty realistic slaughter fests with low magic" and "ethereal and heroic". Thus depending on what Celtic myths you are trying to capture either would work.

For those not familiar with GURPS cinematic mode consists of:
  1. Giving the characters a lump of points to spend on advantages and skills (double the equivalent realistic character)
  2. You can instantly heal back to full health after a fight by spending a character point. In game this means all wound were just flesh wounds
  3. Characters get twice the number of parries.
The Basic Combat rules are somewhere around BRP style combat complexity, I would say midcrunch. They lack the full Combat system details of location HP, detailed maneuvering rules, facing and a more complex array of situational modifiers and weapon stats (and much more).

I think Irish myth skews to the brutal more than Welsh myth on average due to a mix of their dates of composition and Roman influence, but there's plenty of both styles in each mythos.

Starting:
There's a short section detailing how to begin a campaign. It suggests avoiding both the Celtic motif of playing through the childhood and adolescence of the heroes and the common RPG motif of "So you meet in a tavern".

Rather it suggests the PCs being under Geasa with common endpoints or focuses or that they are all from the same kingdom facing some common external threat. Another option given are foster siblings sworn together on some quest to right some wrong or to see the world.

Tralee museum showing a reconstruction of a town leading up to an old Gaelic tavern:
museum.jpg

Types:
The basic types of campaign suggest are either playing as the kings champions or being questers who adventure to see the weird and wonderful.

The former campaign type is focused in a local area and has a small cast of NPCs. Essentially the major movers and shakers of that kingdom and probably comes to end when the characters face overwhelming opposition from a force from outside the kingdom. It also suggests a bit of generational play given the local focus.

For the latter type of campaign it suggests some of the roaming warrior bands like the Irish Fianna. There's also similar groups that likely existed in Welsh myth but you'd have to get into a bit of educated guess work to reconstruct them. However I'll give the brief version in that they are like the Fianna in how they operate (detailed in earlier posts) and properly dressed in a stark blood red. Often in the tales the Fianna band end up at each other's throats due to the demands of familial loyalty, so this is suggested as a possible end point.

As a side note Fionn MacCumhaill himself is most likely a complex gestalt figure. There was a group of hunting bands in pre-Christian Ireland that made blood oaths to each other secured under a local god of the hunt. One such god was called Fionn. Originally only hunters in the east of the island swore to Fionn, but it seems he spread over the island to become a universal hunting god. During this process he absorbed the myths of other local hunt gods in a process similar to the Polynesian Māui who similarly is the end result of one hero absorbing the stories of others.

Separately to this the Bards had a god of wisdom and poetry also called Fionn. In the historical period the two were fused and made into a mortal hunter-poet hero.


A few myths are given as examples to follow, like the Sons of Tuireann for the Questing style campaign.

Themes and Prophecies:
We're then given a little section on the major themes of Celtic myth, as well as prophecies you could use to kick off a campaign. Namely:

Revenge
Atonement
Betrayal
Fast Horses
Ath Liag Finn
Omens

The Ath Liag Finn was a stone owned by Fionn MacCumhaill fated to be discovered on a Sunday seven years before the end of the world. That's the canonical/most common version, there are hundreds of local variations on this.

Fast horses I think people are familiar with, a rider who is always one pace ahead of the PCs and if they manage to catch up suddenly accelrates to supernatural speeds to escape. Common effects that went with this were the hooves of the horse going so fast as to sound like thunder, rip up the soil and set fire to grass.

Cross-Genre:
There's a cool little section at the end suggesting how to mix the Celtic genre with genres from other GURPS supplements.

GURPS Rome: Fairly clear meshing as the Romans actually fought against the Celts. You could easily have a party of Romans who get pulled into the other world on an expedition into Celtic lands.

GURPS Vikings: Again a group that fought with the Celts historically. The suggestion is for Vikings who have offended the Fae and thus must learn Celtic ways and customs in order to learn how to pay off their offense. It suggests dealing with conflicting ideas of kingship and other cultural differences.


GURPS Camelot: It suggests to have the Arthurian mythos is presented as a sequel to the Celtic mythic period. Some of the Celtic fantastical elements live scattered throughout Arthur's kingdom, although it does warn that the French/Romantic influence makes Arthurian myth tonally dissimilar to Celtic myth.

Merging Celtic and Arthurian mythic cycles was actually a major past time of the medieval Bards in both Britain and Ireland, since Arthurian myths became incredibly popular in the courts of local kings. Many funny little stories result from this like Lancelot adventuring with Fionn MacCumhaill to learn about hunting before he heads back to serve King Arthur.

One of my prized books is a rare edited Gaelic version of the Grail cycle.

GURPS Horror: Here the suggestion is to play up the horrific aspect of the Fae and bring them closer to their depiction in folklore.

GURPS Supers: Suggested if one wants to play one of the actual Tuatha Dé Dannan

GURPS Space: Essentially a SciFi campaign where revivalists settle on Earth like worlds and attempt to return to historical Celtic life. I think if one were to do this a good concept to use would be that terraforming and technology allowed the reconstruction of the fantastic as well including the gods and monsters. Similar to Zelazny's Lord of Light and the planet Fenris in 40K, homeworld of the Space Wolves Legion of Space Marines.

I myself have always wanted to do some mix of Japanese and Celtic myth since there are many common themes, but that would be a good bit of work. Some recent art from a school book of my son's, it's a Gaelic translation of Japanese myth. The artist often does drawings of local myth so this was a first go at Japanese stuff:
20200822_220444.jpg
20200822_220508.jpg
20200822_220533.jpg

The book closes out with a timeline of Celtic Myth mainly borrowed from the Lebor Gabála that I've mentioned before.

The End of the Book:
Well that's the end of the book, but I'll still be updating this thread as I recieve material from friends in Welsh folklore departments and folks in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd. They've been slowed by COVID but I've started getting more over the past two weeks.

Níl sa tsaol so ach ceo is ní bheimíd beo ach seal beag geárr
- There's nothing in this life but mist and we're only in it a very short while. Meaning who knows what's really going on.

Castar na daoine ar a chéile, ach ní chastar na cnoic ná na sléibhte
- People are made to encounter each other, but the hills and mountains are not so made. Meaning though immortal the hills and mountains only see each other and never get to experience the warmth of each other's company as we do.

20200822_220930.jpg
 
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Séadna

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And since you can't end a thread about Celtic Myth without some violence and romance, a song about a red head who fancies a man who prefers raven-haired women. Lyrics include how she'd love to break the limbs of the other woman!

Lyrics are in the video description.

 

AsenRG

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And since you can't end a thread about Celtic Myth without some violence and romance, a song about a red head who fancies a man who prefers raven-haired women. Lyrics include how she'd love to break the limbs of the other woman!

Lyrics are in the video description.

She made the wish to break the other chick's legs sound quite jovial:thumbsup:!
You sure she's not a PC?
 

Séadna

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So got through a good bit of the Scots Gaelic stuff. This took a good while as not only is there insane dialectal variation, many placenames as said by native speakers are not those supplied by the Scottish government as the actual placename. For example "Ladhar Bheinn" a mountain in Cnòideart/Knoydart is really "Beinn Ladhrach". Stuff like this or worse occurred in >80% of place names or mythological names which made tracking down places and monsters harder. There were also cases with semantic drift (my dialect's word for statue was their word for freehand drawing).

To little surprise it's all very similar to the Irish stuff I've mentioned above. The Fae being the pagan dead, living in underground palaces, etc.

However (and this is often remarked upon) Scottish ghosts tend to fade away less quickly and are more notable than ghosts in Irish folklore. They might actually haunt a place and have a specific character, e.g. the smith of X castle, where as the recent dead in Irish stories tend to be short lived wisps.

More importantly however are the Uilebheist or "Great worm". Gigantic serpents, these are higher demons that when cast from heaven collided with a body of water and thus failed to fall to Hell. Demons either remain in our world as vague spirits, or if they are more powerful they can have a physical form that is often a monstrous version of a real animal. These lake serpents were often war mounts for Fae kings. These pop up in Irish myth but are special cases where as every lake in Scotland practically has one.

TristramEvans TristramEvans the lakes in Cnòideart housed a massive one. Now no story teller I have access to explicitly says "the Cnòideart serpent was an X" but usually these larger serpents were generals of the fallen angels. Their legions fell with them and surround the lake. Cnòideart has stories of demons of the air around its various lakes and just off the shore, the connection I think is fairly obvious though again nobody explicitly says "It was a general and the air spirits in our other tales are its legion".

More to come...
 
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Bill Reich

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That gives me an idea, that fantasy elves... being stereotypically arrogant and self-satisfied, should be generally ignorant of anything having to do with areas outside of elfland. It's not about elves, so they really don't care... and are prone to ignorant questions and assumptions.

The elves of the dwarf kingdom of Glon' generally ignore the kingdom they are in. Resident elves (as opposed to the rare citizen elves) don't participate in the money economy, are not taxable, generally don't commit felonies because they don't feel like it, not because of the law, and call the land Lonnum, because Glon' is inelegant.
 

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I've seen a film featuring scenes set while Merkin troops were staged in Wellington for the Pacific campaign that used it for scenery there. Wildly inaccurate comes to mind. I can't remember what the film was called but it might have actually had John Wayne in it.

"Battle Cry," John Wayne wasn't in it. I can't think of any other that it could be.
 

Bill Reich

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I'm not joking when I say was asked if we have cars in Wales. I said they only came a few years ago and I didn't have electricity in my county. Which was taken at face value.

Funny, at the bar in Connecticut where I watched the Six Nations for years almost everyone pulled for Wales. We all knew where it was.
 

TristramEvans

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I'm really tired so I read the thread title and GURPS Celtic Mecha. It seemed like something SJG would possibly produce.

I'm picturing Mecha with woad markings.

giphy.gif
 

Bill Reich

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And technically, we're still Six Nations champions. Since it got cancelled before England could steal the tournament.

My late bridge partner and occasional gaming buddy Brian played for London Welsh and would have loved to have been good enough to play for Wales.
 

Séadna

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Bit of a side post but since Halloween is coming up I thought I'd have a post about it. Funnily there's nothing incredible here.

If you read sources from any of the Celtic countries it's a night that wasn't particularly associated with the Fae but rather the souls of the recently dead and being an end of the harvest and summer feast. Virtually all the major elements of the Celtic festival are preserved in the modern global Halloween, e.g. trick or treating, bobbing for apples, carving a pumpkin and so on.

The only thing left out in popular Halloween is certain foods or drinks associated with the night. Wines in part of Wales, Tea breads in Ireland and Scotland, specific biscuits in Brittany. These often have items baked into them that are gifts or jokes, like a nice ring or an old rag etc. However these customs were not universal even in the Celtic regions.

The Welsh and Breton names mean "Festival of the first day of Winter" (Welsh people correct me if that is off) and the Irish and Scottish names mean "November's Night". Samhain is a fairly familiar name to most. Today it just means November and originally just meant "Summer's end". The "Sam" part is cognate with "Summer" in English as they both come from the same Indo-European word (impossible to pronounce like most Indo-European words).



The following is an interview with a storyteller recorded in 1943 when he was 71. I've translated it just to see a primary source about Halloween because it's probably the area with the most distortions in popular material. He was considered the greatest storyteller of the 19th century in Ireland since his repertoire ran to about 20 times the length of the Iliad.

November night is what the older generation used to call this night. I never heard any other name. "Snap apple night" they used to say in English. I never heard any discussion about Old November.
....
Nobody put any additional interest in the Fae on this night more than any other night of the year.

The people used to say that the dead or the souls (if it is just for me to say) used to be up high between the walls and the roof waiting for a prayer from those in the house on November Night. There used to be inordinate haste to give them [the dead] the opportunity to come inside. The people used to believe they [the dead] went to their own family houses on this particular night. No special preparation was made for the dead beyond what was done every night.

To keep things clear All Hallow's Eve is the purely Christian religious day and Halloween is the popular festival. This distinction important below.

The Germanic and Celtic peoples both had a day of the dead at the end of Summer which was the reason for the Church moving All Hallow's Eve to October 31st so that these Days of the Dead could be Christianised more easily. It was originally held on May 13th in order to merge with the Roman Day of the Dead
Lemuria. All Hallow's Eve originally was celebrated with St. Martin's day but when the Gregorian calender reform happened St. Martin's day got moved forward to the 11th Novemeber. Whether Halloween stayed with All Hallow's Eve on the 31st of October or moved with St. Martin's day to 11th November varied by region. In Germany it is often celebrated on 11th November. Different areas of Ireland and Scotland chose differently, celebrating it on the 11th November being called "Old November".

When he says "the dead or the souls" in English you might read corpses or souls, since he means sometimes the dead came in their corpses reanimated or as ghosts. The "if it is just for me to say" just refers to how morbid it is, i.e. "if it's not rude to say". And yes some people thought literal animated corpses would crawl into the rafters and not leave until you gave them a prayer.

There is a tradition about the Fae on this night but it's not what you often hear. This was the night of the year they were not allowed go near mortals since it was for the Christian modern dead. Instead they tended to organise massive sports matches between each other on major hill sites that would have been associated with pagan rites. There's actually a folk tale I have where they tell a man to basically fuck off since they're having a game and they can't abduct him. So it's actually literally the least Fae night of the whole year.
 
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TristramEvans

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Hey Séadna Séadna , have you ever come across any info on The Mórrígan's 3 sons?

In English sources, I've only seen their names mentioned - Glon, Gaim, and Coscar.
 

Séadna

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Hey Séadna Séadna , have you ever come across any info on The Mórrígan's 3 sons?

In English sources, I've only seen their names mentioned - Glon, Gaim, and Coscar.
I hope you don't mind me saying a bit about the Mórrígan in general and other stuff. I've just decided to throw out everything since I think most of it will be of interest and it's required to ultimately explain these dudes.

Basics:
First of all she's one of the minority of Tuath Dé Dannan who actually were pagan gods and not literary characters created in the Middle Ages.

Her name as we have it today essentially means "Great Queen" or "Great Princess". However this is sort of folk etymology in all likelihood. The medieval bards not knowing the meaning any more of the "Mor" part of her name took it to be "Mór" meaning "big/great". Most likely in the actual pagan period her name meant "Phantom Queen", the "Mor" part being cognate with the "Mare" in English "Nightmare". It's actually folk etymology in English itself that the "mare" in "Nightmare" is a horse. It's from an Old English word "Maere" which meant an evil female phantom creature. This myth was common to the all the Germanic languages and is still present in the Swedish folktale myth of the "Mara" who terrorizes cows and can shape shift into common household objects to hide. Fria Ligan have her in their Vaesen RPG. It's considered quite likely that this also what Grendel and his mother are in Beowulf*.

In the Middle Ages "Mórrígan" was also often used to translate the names of various screeching female night terrors from other languages. Such as Latin Strix or the Lamia from Greek myth.

So basically there were female phantom monsters and she seems to have been their Queen. There was also another sort of female carrion bird monster called a Badb. The Mórrígan is then referred to as a "Badb of battle" since she could turn into one of these. Sometimes she's just called Badb. She seems to have been a war goddess related to battles concerning sovereign kingship worshipped primarily in the North though known elsewhere.

The popularity of her stories testing and pushing Cú Chulainn into violence and alternating between being his friend and enemy are the main reason she still survives to this day, unlike the many other war gods we know were present. These stories were often inserted into other unrelated myths to spice them up. The relationship between her and Cú Chulainn is pretty much the only case we have of a complete character arc in Irish myth where he refuses to become her agent or avatar until his death which she ultimately respects him for and never appears again.

Her "Sons" and her son:
In the high Middle Ages she's mentioned as part of a "triplet" of sovereign war goddesses: Mórrígan, Badb and Macha. This triplet reflects nothing in the original pagan myths since the other two are just titles for the Mórrígan referring to a shape shifting form and a place of worship respectively. Different bards in different parts of the country even get different triplets by using different titles. We suspect Bards had begun to forget these were just alternates for the Mórrígan.

There was another triplet Banba, Fódla, Eríu. These are simply names for the island, but where reworked as actual members of the Tuath Dé Dannan. They aren't in anyway gods of the actual pagan period. They're basically just like American Columbia or French Marianne and made up in the Middle Ages.

To round it out Bards used a third triplet (triplet of triplets) of Glon, Gaim and Coscar. Their names are just contemporary poetic phrases for victory or great deeds, so again this is a medieval invention. Glon(n) and Coscar are still words today.

Medieval authors then created a mother Ernmas for these nine siblings, her name is "Iron Death" a phrase meaning a violent sudden death.

So this is simply a family of sovereign war concepts. There's only one actual pre-Christian figure here: the Mórrígan.

Later authors not knowing any of this go into full fan fiction mode and make new stories to explain the relationship between these nine people. Some forget Ernmas and make Glon, Gaim and Coscar the Mórrígan's sons. Others make Banba, Fódla, Eríu mortal women who brought the worship of Mórrígan, Badb and Macha to Ireland. This explanation was what appears in my grandfather's school textbooks (as actual history).

However in original Celtic myth the Mórrígan did have an actual son: Méiche. Born with three enormously powerful dragons/serpents in his heart, war gods in themselves that would lay waste to the world if released. The common motif of a child who exaggerates their divine parent's sphere to world threatening levels. He is ultimately killed during a medical operation to remove his heart and destroy the snakes.
The one who operated on his heart is the pre-Christian god of healing Dían Cécht and Méiche is later reworked into a son of Dían Cécht himself to give a more "Father-Son" drama feel to the story and given a pun based name Míach (a type of apothecary herb since Dían Cécht is a healer).

*Maera in Old English could mean "Phantom" or "Notorious" depending on how the vowels were pronounced. The spelling in the Beowulf manuscript doesn't indicate which. Older translations went for Notorious, but in light of comparison with other Indo-European mythologies were Grendel's mother is like the Mórrígan or Hecate we now consider the first more likely. Of course it's academia so there are people who would burn each other alive over this :grin:
 
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TristramEvans

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There's an obscure bit of Irish lore I came across a while back - there was apparently a belief that madness would cause a person to become somewhat weightless and bouncy and there was some valley or some such where mad people would travel to or congregate in? Does this ring any bells?
 

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There's an obscure bit of Irish lore I came across a while back - there was apparently a belief that madness would cause a person to become somewhat weightless and bouncy and there was some valley or some such where mad people would travel to or congregate in? Does this ring any bells?
Yeah definitely. I'll say in advance that Irish myth and folklore doesn't treat all types of mental conditions equally. Some are considered to be supernaturally caused and others are considered to be purely physical ailments. The categories of mental illness don't in anyway reflect modern classifications, so it's not possible to say "modern condition X was treated this way", for this reason I'll be vague and say "certain conditions" and stuff like that.

The floating has two sources:

Firstly people who had certain conditions were considered to be possessed by the neutral angels who sided with neither God nor Lucifer. Since these angels had been banished from heaven to inhabit the Earth and Sky they had some power over the air and thus people so possessed might be able to fly.

Secondly people who were mentally detached in certain ways (this was often associated with mental detachment brought on by a singular event, e.g. extreme guilt, sorrow or rage) were considered to abandon the world of humans and become one mentally with the birds. Birds are commonly in Celtic, but especially Gaelic, folklore associated with God and a more elevated state of affairs. This lead to these people being called a "person with God" or "away with the birds". In some stories this is so extreme the person literally becomes able to fly. There are many folk tales about this, but the most famous is certain versions of Buile Shuibhne, the tale of Mad Sweeney. Sweeney goes into a rage during a battle, becoming a bird in mind and literally takes off in the middle of a melee. The battle Suibhne was in did occur historically and was probably the bloodiest in the island's history and most towns around the area have names like "Field of Slaughter" and so on to the present day. So it's certainly an allegory for that.

As for the valley. Indeed this is "Gleann na nGealt": Valley of the Lunatics.

9121763_f1024.jpg

There's a well here said to contain water that can cure certain mental conditions. Suibhne lands here after he took off from the battle in 637 seeking the water. The Valley is said to naturally draw those who need the water's aid to it in a sort of siren call. People kept drinking from the well in large enough numbers into the 1980s. It's a bit underwhelming looking today where the well isn't clearly visible. You have to reach into a pile of bushes and pull out the water on a saucer:

ezgif-4-ec54ee279bb5.jpg

There's also meant to be a portal to Heaven somewhere in the Valley that local Fae seek.

Suibhne is just one example of a Celtic wild man who roams seeking sacred water to clear him of his rage/sorrow etc brought on by a battle. Pre-Arthurian Merlin, Breton Lalocant and the Scottish Lailoken have very similar stories even meeting people with etymologically related names. Lailoken is even stated to have been "sometime called Merlin" and Suibhne meets Lailoken on his travels.

I won't go into the full details but basically what's going on is that Irish Bards copied Merlin to created Suibhne/Sweeney. Welsh bards themselves copied the epic tales of Lailoken to create Merlin. However Lailoken was himself made on the basis of a Scottish borrowing of an even older Welsh* hero Llallogan. Lailoken and Suibhne remained confined to this wandering wild man tale, but Merlin obviously got developed over time.

*Llallogan exists at such an early stage that Welsh hadn't seperated yet fully from Cornish or Breton and other now extinct Brythonic languages like Cumbric. So "older Brythonic hero" might be more apt. The original Llallogan tales were probably from the Cumbric area
 
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Séadna

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I'll have a post on Bards for this thread shortly. They've come up tangentially a few times, but seeing as how they're a major fixture of games it might be worth discussing them properly on their own.

After that I've spoken with a few academics and gathered a good bit of material on King Arthur and his whole mythos.
However this grew beyond the Celtic languages into Spanish, French and German material so I'll probably put it in its own thread on Arthurian resources.
 

TristramEvans

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There can't be much in the way of Celtic sources on Arthur beyond The Mabinogian's distorted collection of older folk tales
 

Séadna

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Exactly. For that reason most of it is really how the Anglo-French myth cycle was altered when adapted into the Celtic languages in the Middle Ages seeing as each country sort of gave its own twist on the canon. For the Celtic languages what I was going to cover was:

  1. The early Welsh material (Myrddin poems, Culhwch ac Olwen...)
  2. The later medieval Welsh changes to the standard canon
  3. Attempts by Welsh writers to merge Anglo-Norman stuff with the older material (i.e. plug plot holes)
  4. Current developments in modern day Welsh language writing
  5. Early Breton stories of Arthur (these are inspired by the Anglo-Norman canon)
  6. Arthur in modern Breton folktales
  7. The small Cornish Arthurian material
  8. The Irish alterations and small expansion stories
  9. Scottish material putting Arthurian heroes in new settings
All have "funny stuff" that could be interesting for games.
 

Séadna

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The Poets:

So the mother of all Celtic institutions. The hereditary professional poets known as the Poets. Often in English called "the Bards". Membership of this social class made one a member of the upper nobility along with the local king and the large land owners or "Lords" as both Celtic languages called them. I'll stick to the saying "Poet" for now and go into the other names later. This is very much a deep dive, but I think some surprising stuff here might interest others.

Basic Function:

In both Wales and Ireland these hereditary poets were charged with being able to compose praise poems to enhance the glory of their local king and also to compose "defense poems" to ward off magical attacks. The most common case of the latter was composing a poem to counter the king being publicly rebuked or mocked as it was thought that this could lead to actual physical damage if left undefended for too long. This damage took the form of boils on the face or chronic illnesses developing.

The biggest threat a poet had to defend his king from were the satires of poets from other kingdoms or even worse the satires of unqualified black magic minstrels who lived in woods and forests away from civilization. The latter composed satirical poetry for a high fee or sometimes just for their own amusement and were a form of "poetic assassin". They were known as "Rindile" in Irish. They existed in Wales as well but we never get their name. If they were women it was considered even worse as a woman's mockery cut deeper in the Celtic worldview. A female unqualified satirist was often listed as the lowest member of the human race, one Irish manuscropt saying she was equalled only by "the female werewolf".

In addition to this a poet was expected to know a large repository of lore. Both local lore concerning heroes and myths of his own kingdom, but also national lore concerning the great deeds of the heroes of Ireland or Wales and many Greco-Roman tales. These were intended for recitation at the king's courts attended by all free peoples of the kingdom. Note poets from both countries knew a good deal of the other nation's stories.

Finally the poet had to know local history and the genealogies of the local nobility both to compose praise poems drawing on them, but also so nobles could consult them on hereditary matters.

So an evening's entertainment at court might have the poet recite part of the Iliad, a story about Arthur, one about Cú Chulainn and finally a poem praising the king's excellence and justice and rebuking recent rumours and insults against him. Some nobles might then speak with the poet while the party was in full swing as to whose grandfather killed the Norseman on the beach twenty years ago and what was the Norseman's name.

Those who were not kings could still enlist a poet to write a poem for them. Often to increase their personal or familial prestige or for a special occasion such as a child's wedding. The fee however was quite steep and so people often turned to local songsters and "common poets" instead. Below I mention their training but a newly qualified poet could command a fee of a calf and a well made cauldron for a single poem (standard payment mentioned in a few sources). A Poet who had received further qualifications could in fact demand a chariot or a personal guard of two elite fighters as payment. For this reason only the nobility ever employed a poet and if the poet's rank went beyond middle grade only really a king could afford them.

For reasons detailed below a typical poem they composed became increasingly incomprehensible to the average person. This had a part to play in their downfall.

Contemporary image of a Poet with a harpist providing a tune:

derrick-1581-plate-3.png

Training and Rank:

Several years of study were required before becoming a qualified poet. In Ireland this was seven years and nine in Wales.

Firstly this involved obtaining deep familiarity with the Bible, a good knowledge of reading and writing Latin and learning the major classical poets like Virgil and Cattalus, as well as prose writers such as Cicero. This secular education occurred in churches or scriptoria often facilitated by a younger brother or similar who had become a monk or bishop. Such classical-biblical material was either used in storytelling or weaved into poems.

This was paralleled with training in native lore and meters carried out in walled gardens that contained pitch dark cloister rooms. These rooms were intended to promote the deep thinking necessary to compose a poem. The final exam often involved being kept in one of these rooms for a few hours with a stone on your chest over night and then being asked to compose a poem in a given meter on a specific topic.

If one's family was prestigious enough or one was talented enough to have proven your worth in the eyes of other bards one could go for further training until one had mastery of the highest and most complex meters, knowledge of the more detailed native myth cycles and the reading and writing of Greek. Such training and nationally recognised standards were possible in both Ireland and Wales because poets were one of the few groups allowed to travel between kingdoms and retain their full rights. A poet who had completed all possible higher training knew about 350 epics by heart.

Note: Not even a king retained all rights when travelling to other kingdoms. For example he was subordinate to the local king when in their territory, which often led to meeting on neutral ground.

Not only did the poets often move within their own countries, but in fact we know the Welsh and Irish poets often consulted with each other. The Irish borrowing Arthurian myth and various other stories and the Welsh Bards adopting aspects of Irish poetic theory for teaching new poets and construction of poems.

It should be noted that although a poet often worked for a king, the king was not his social superior by a wide margin. A poet who had mastered all possible meters was in fact equal to a king. Should a king insult such a poet or give them a poor payment then the poet was well within his rights to compose a poem to curse the king. The most extreme rebuke being the creation of a "Glám Dícenn" meaning "Improvised Scream" (we know these existed in Wales but the specific term only survives in Irish). This involved crafting a small statue of the victim in clay, sticking thorns into it and composing a satirical poem and reciting it to the statue. It was commonly thought to bring death to the victim.

Regarding their names. The Welsh tended to use Bardd and the Irish Fili. For some reason in Ireland "Bard" came to mean a commoner who made money on the side from poems and not a proper professional hereditary poet.

Remains of one of the dark composition cloisters in Southern Ireland:

ezgif-7-5845cfa901a8.jpg

Poetry, Homoeroticism and Women:

So what was the actual content of a typical poem. Basically due to the use of complicated, archaic or made up words most poems were barely comprehensible by the average person. The nobility in general saw it as a mark of their education that they could understand the poems, but we know as time wore on and the poems became more metrically complex and artificial even they began to have a hard time grasping them.

The poems were often set to music played by a harpist in the poet's employ. The poets who had reached the highest ranks often employed somebody called a "speaker" to recite the poems for them, considering doing so themselves to be beneath them.

Most poems compared the King and his family to great heroes and their struggles to epic wars, or described the King like unstoppable geographic features like mighty mountains or charging river. In a given poem you might have something like the King labouring like Hercules, fighting like Cú Chulainn and being as just as Solomon and his will being like the unstoppable flow of the Severn or the Shannon.

However there was also the very common device of saying the King's natural allure as a ruler and the dominating force of his might left the poet feeling like a young maiden who had to yield to his lustful advances. In general poets wrote to kings in the role of a lover. Signing letters with "Your loving bedfellow" or "How I long for your red lips and delicate curls". A few letters to kings even remind them that "it is not a sin against your wife to lie with my kind [i.e. a poet]". So there was an element of ritualised homoerotic imagery, often in the form of taking on the role of a virginal young woman. Since poet's are often mentioned as the king's closest friends and confidants, the general acceptance of bisexuality at the time and a few letters indicating a king and a poet's sexual relationships this was probably a common enough relationship at the time.

As for women we know it was possible for them to become a poet as we have mentions of female poets in a few manuscripts. In fact the head poet of all of Ireland in the early 10th century was a woman. However we think that like most crafts at the time this was only the case when she had no brothers or possessed obvious exceptional talent at a young age and was the eldest child.

Monument to the Welsh poet Taliesin:
20739276028_088d4d67ac_b.jpg

Changing Times:

The history of the poets is quite confused in many sources as popular theories from the late 19th Century are often given. What follows is the core of the modern account.

First of all the Poets and Druids had always been separate professions of equal status, even in the Pre-Christian period.

Originally the Poet's function would have concentrated mostly on prophecy, simple praising poems for kings and a vast repository of ancient lore in the form of stories and local histories. Prophecy however was dropped as an official function early in the Christian period, we even have accounts of the court cases held with bishops where it was formally decided this aspect was too pagan to be allowed to continue.

For anybody who doesn't know Syllabic poetry constructs lines by counting syllables only, i.e. first line has seven, second has five, then back to seven. There's a often additional demands with this like the line has to end with a word with two syllables for example.

Accentual poetry is only concerned with Stress. For example the syllables might go "Stressed-Unstressed-Stressed" in a line but it doesn't matter how many syllables there are.

Traditional English poetry is often accentual-syllabic in that both are employed. A fixed pattern of stress and a specific count of syllables like in iambic (accentual) pentameter (syllabic).

Celtic poetry started Accentual and then switched to Syllabic.

Certain languages are more suited to one type over another and we have many examples from across the world of a language attempting to work with the style that doesn't fit it requiring the development of complex techniques to compensate

Originally there was very little difference in style between a poem and a story when told by a Poet. Both were set to music and relied on accentual and alliterative verse.

However to stay in vogue with the continent Poets began to adopt syllabic poetry like in France and since the Celtic languages aren't suited to syllabic verse this required the invention of increasingly complex rhymes and meters in order to make it sound good. These meters eventually became so complex you couldn't get normal vocabulary to fit them. And so the Poets had to start reusing ancient near extinct words and weird invented compound words. In both countries there is material from an "old guard" resisting the rise of continental poems and the resulting complexities but they lost the fight by the 9th Century in both cases.

This reached its zenith in the late 12th century when both countries had to encode a formalised "conlang" version of their languages solely to assist creating poems. This lead to the creation of massive textbooks that taught this conlang, followed by the poetic theory necessary for crafting poetry and an early form of phonetic theory.

This point in history also marked the coming of the Normans who were more interested in praise poems than anything else and saw history as an academic pursuit and storytelling being for commoners.

Thus in both countries a poet essentially chose to either specialise in praise poems themselves or in history after a certain point in their training. Storytelling was dropped around this point as a job for a poet and left to commoners.

You could say around the 12th century they transitioned to being basically professors of poetry or history. However keep in mind this went hand in hand with being increasingly remote from the average person. No storytelling in public halls, only reciting massively complex poems nobody understood for a massive fee for nobles. Or being a historian patronised to write massive tomes nobody read but only to sit in some noble's library. Add to this that they spoke to each other in their private conlang and you have a pretentious upper class on a scale unimaginable today.

Here's a poet's textbook from Ireland:
1526551590_Book of Ogam 2 RS.jpg

And from Wales:
Pump_Llyfr_Cerddwriaeth,_Page_1_(4834734).jpg

Downfall and Modern Day:

In both countries when their noble classes collapsed, the support for the poets went with it. Different solutions were found in the two countries.

Welsh poets quickly became lawyers or professors in other subjects and switched to speaking normal Welsh. The various complex meters and poetic forms continued to be taught within specific families down to the present day and one still had to complete the old training before being considered a poet. This led to a large body of people retaining full knowledge of how to construct the poems until the present day when festivals for adjudicating ones knowledge and talent such as the national Eisteddfod were started. Most poetry today is composed in the older Bardic style.

Across the sea Irish poets made a very bad choice in sticking to their guns. Continuing to speak the conlang and now starting to charge commoners for poems at reduced rates, though still exorbitant ones. They even engaged in a trivial cross country academic debate among themselves "The Dispute of the Bards" while the rest of the country was at war. By the time of Cromwell the average Irish peasant was more than happy to see the poets removed since they were seen as expensive classist layabouts.

There is the famous case of one of the last fully qualified poets having his lands confiscated on Cromwell's orders. Cromwell gave it to a local man who had aided his armies. The poet Tadhg mac Dáire Mac Bruaideadha was in his 80s and had fled upon seeing the local commoner arrive to claim his manor. The new owner and his men hunted him down and caught him near the nearby cliffs and hurled him off saying "Say your rhymes now little man".

Here are the cliffs:

loc30.jpg

This meant that actual knowledge of the poetic meters was only partially retained in individual families until the 20th century when a bardic school was reopened in 1925. Today nobody composes in the old meters. The bardic school teaches modern poetry.

Current head Bard of Wales. Really cool name I think Myrddin ap Dafydd:

Myrddin ap Dafydd 01.jpg

Betsy Ní Shuibhne. Head Bard of Ireland until 2019 when she died. No successor yet due to COVID:
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TristramEvans

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The extreme role of Ego in Celtic cultures has always fascinated me. In modern culture, that ability to laugh at oneself and brush off insults is seen as a sign of maturity, and we empathize with self-deprecation, but in Celtic myth it seems that taking oneself so seriously that a satire or insult can be seen as potentially lethal, in a real sense, creates and supports this strange social dynamic that is at once understandably human yet still functionally alien.
 

Séadna

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The extreme role of Ego in Celtic cultures has always fascinated me. In modern culture, that ability to laugh at oneself and brush off insults is seen as a sign of maturity, and we empathize with self-deprecation, but in Celtic myth it seems that taking oneself so seriously that a satire or insult can be seen as potentially lethal, in a real sense, creates and supports this strange social dynamic that is at once understandably human yet still functionally alien.
It continued here until about my great-grandfather's day. He and his brother's would often quit work early on a Friday to listen to a performance from the local poet at risk of being satirised by him. I find it hard to get into the mindset of it.
 

Lofgeornost

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Very cool information about poets. The physical part of the "Glám Dícenn" ritual sounds a lot like the practice known in Latin as 'invultuacio.' But of course many different cultures have roughly similar image-magic traditions.
 

Séadna

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The problem there is, not having a clue bout Gaelic pronunciation renders most of this into gibberish :sad:
Some people have been on to me about pronunciation, particularly after the Celtic Cyclopedia.

What I'm going to do, since I think it might help, is do out a table with two parallel columns of recordings.

The first column is what I would say when speaking English and reflects common pronunciation here in Ireland or for things that rarely come up in normal conversation it's the academic pronunciation. The second column will be the "true" pronunciation, i.e. the word as it actually is in Gaelic.

I went back and forth on a pronunciation guide, but in the end the complexities of conveying the sounds is too much since English itself has too many dialects.
 
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