Whether you’re a Celtic Reconstructionist, Druid, or any other kind of Pagan, I hope you find this guide to teaching kids Celtic mythology helpful in some way. Though in traditional Irish culture, stories were told, not read, (and even then- only in the winter months), I have not adhered to that particular tradition. I am a visual learner, as are my children (I have an autistic son who is very visual-oriented and would not pay attention to a story without pictures), so I have only recommended books with lots of illustrations. Illustrated mythology books can go a long way in teaching children the lore and providing a sense of wonder and understanding.
In Irish mythology, there is the special problem of early Christianization; the stories, written down by monks, do not specifically name the characters in the stories as gods. (The mythology of other Celtic cultures have similar problems.) The Tuatha Dé Danann, “peoples of the goddess Danu”, were depicted as heroes, kings, and queens from long ago. However, many of the Tuatha Dé have parallels, cognates across the Celtic world, which reveal their divine status. Another difficulty is that the mythology doesn’t always describe each deity’s role or function. For example, there are no characters described as sun or moon deities. Sometimes when the deities are attributed a function in nature, our modern mythology books get it wrong… the most common example of this is the depiction or description of Lugh as a sun god (a notion that came about in Victorian times because one probable meaning of his name is “brightness”). However, he was most likely a lightning god (see my Children’s Lammas article for a little more info, or read Lugus: The Many-Gifted Lord by Alexei Kondratiev for a lot more info). Although not as apparent in children’s books, occasionally modern Pagans depict Brighid as a moon goddess, yet there is no evidence for it; historical lore depicts her as a fire and fertility goddess. And although many think of Danu as an earth goddess, she may rather be a river deity or simply an ancestral mother (see Danu and Bile: The Primordial Parents? by Alexei Kondratiev). It is best to have the true nature of the deities’ roles and functions straightened out in one’s mind, and in the learning materials, before teaching kids the lore.
Having said that, I have reviewed many illustrated books to come up with this guide. I have written reviews of the ones I have found useful and have put them in several categories; first, ones to check out from the library from time to time, then, one that is nice to have as supplemental (but may not be a good source for your main mythology book), some that are more specific to certain cultures under the Celtic umbrella, then two that I recommend the most so far (one for the younger set, the last for older kids)- as introduction to the myths.
Check these out at library occasionally for variety…
- Myths and Civilization of the Celts by Hazel Martell (ages 8 and up) is a very densely illustrated book that goes back and forth between describing the history, artifacts, and way of life of the Celts, with short summaries of some of the myths. This one may be nice to check out sometime for a bit of Celtic inspiration, but doesn’t contain enough stories to be worth buying.
- Irish Myths & Legends by Ita Daly is a very folksy retelling of the myths, set in a style of “told to the author by her mother”, passed down through the generations. The paintings that illustrate this book are reminiscent of folk art as well, only there should be more of them, to hold the attention of young listeners (although I didn’t much care for Lugh being drawn wearing a horned helmet). For the most part, I really like the way the stories are told, especially Daly’s version of Deidre of the Sorrows. However, it was while I was reading this book that I was reminded that there’s one myth from Irish mythology only serves to denounce Paganism; there has been a version of “The Children of Lir” in almost every children’s Celtic mythology book I’ve read. The name “Lir” means the sea, and the name implies that the character King Lir is actually Manannan or some relation to him. His children are turned into swans by an evil stepmother and their curse is never lifted until “the bells of the new religion ring out in Ireland”. So the story seems to symbolize Christianity putting an end to the evils of Pagan magic. In Daly’s version of the story, the children, who are now quite elderly, beg to baptized into Christianity before they die. So you might want to skip over “The Children of Lir”, at least this version of it. On the other hand, it may come in handy later as a teaching tool, to use as an example of Pagan defamation.
Nice to have as supplemental…
- Celtic Memories by Caitlin Matthews is a treasured collection of tales and poems from several Celtic cultures; Breton, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh. There are six stories in all, with notes on each in the back of the book. I especially recommend “The Cailleach of the Snows” to be read at Imbolc. Although the story is of Caitlin’s own devising, it has a feeling of timelessness and wonder. The folksy illustrations are lovely, colorful and abundant.
Get this, if it is your hearth culture…
- Tales from the Mabinogion by Gwyn Thomas & Kevin Crossley-Holland is the only illustrated children’s book I’ve found that retells stories from all four books of the Mabinogion. The illustrations are gorgeous. The stories themselves, though toned down quite a bit for children, still depict graphic subject matter, and so I cannot recommend it being read to young children. The stories are also set in the Medieval era, and like much other Celtic mythology, the characters are not referred to or acknowledged as deities. The style of the time was very Christian, which comes out often in characters saying such things as “for God’s sake” and references to sin. There is a glossary of Welsh names and pronunciations in the back of the book.
- The Names Upon the Harp, Irish Myth and Legend by Marie Heaney (ages 9 and up) contains two stories from the Mythological Cycle (Moytura, Children of Lir), three from the Ulster Cycle (The Birth of Cuchulainn, Bricriu’s Feast, Deirdre of the Sorrows), and three from the Fenian Cycle (Finn & the Salmon of Knowledge, The Enchanted Deer, Oisin in the Land of Youth). The beginning of each section has a short description of the cycle represented. The book is illustrated in sophisticated, beautiful, (and sometimes gruesome and frightening) watercolor paintings.
- Myths and Legends of Celts by Bernard Briais is a rather odd book that may actually be quite valuable to those of a Gaulish persuasion. I say it is odd, because the stories are more like historical descriptions and fragmented legends, than actual stories. The illustrations are abundant, but also kind of garish, though I do like the illustration of the goddess Sequana. This is the only illustrated children’s book I’ve found, so far, that is about Gaulish culture. (However it is hard to find, unless your library has it. The French edition is available here.)
- Celtic Tales and Legends by Nicola Baxter is the book to get for younger children who can not yet sit still for long stories. I am happy to have found such a beautifully illustrated book; there are brightly colored “Book of Kells”-inspired illustrations on every page, such a wonderful words to pictures ratio that is sure to keep younger (or more visual-oriented) kids interested. (Also, there’s a leprechaun hidden on each page.) A collection of Irish, Welsh, and British, the stories are: Cormac’s Golden Cup, Deidre of the Sorrows, The Land of Youth, Bran and Branwen, The Three Troubles, Elidore, The Fountain, The Two Pig-Keepers, The Field of Gold, and The Gift of Healing. In the first story, Cormac’s Golden Cup, King Cormac is visited (and tested) by the god Manannan MacLir, and is given a glimpse of the Otherworld. To me this story seems to be a great introduction to some important aspects of Irish cosmology; with mention of the the silver branch and the nine hazel Trees (both symbolic of the tree hallow in ADF Druidism), and the pool of knowledge (symbolic of the well hallow).
- Druids, Gods & Heroes from Celtic Mythology by Anne Ross is from the same World Mythology series that gave us Gods & Heroes from Viking Mythology by Brian Branston, and though it doesn’t have the same author or illustrator, there is a similar style, notably; story panels on the contents page, plentiful detailed illustrations, and a lack of anti-pagan bias. Whereas most Celtic mythology books for children rarely mention that certain characters in the stories were gods, this one does. Also, the version of “The Children of Lir” found therein downplays the Christian aspects of the story. This is no ordinary children’s mythology book. It also contains a short history of the Celts, a chapter on their deities, and a map of lands that the Celtic peoples inhabited. The stories found within are from Welsh, Irish, Scottish and British cultures. There are 18 color pictures, and 40 line drawings. In the back of the book you’ll find a guide to the symbols used in the illustrations, and a pronunciation guide. The story panels on the contents page can be used as flash cards, quiz cards, and conversation starters such as I described for Gods & Heroes from Viking Mythology in my article Norse Mythology for Kids. Disclaimer: in this book, Lugh is briefly described as a sun god; I simply replace “the sun” with “lightning” when reading aloud.
Unlike the fore mentioned Viking mythology book, Druids, Gods & Heroes doesn’t have a page illustrating all the deities lined up in a row with their names underneath. I’m sure that it’s because there are so many deities, and so many different cultures under the Celtic umbrella, that this would prove a very difficult task. As an early tool for teaching young children the names and visual attributes of Celtic deities, you could use the Celtic Gods and Heroes Dover Coloring Book, or make your own picture book of Celtic deities and their attributes. Coloring pages give kids the chance to personalize their own deity images for their altar. They will also learn about the deities by participating in family (or community) rituals in which the deities are invoked, praised, prayed to, and offering given. The mythologies of many deities may even be included in High Day celebrations through story-telling and drama.
As with the Norse mythology guide, I haven’t given any teen recommendations because by the time your child is a teenager, she or he will be picking out his or her own books. At any rate, by that time she or he may know the basic myths (or inspired to delve deeper), which is the goal.