Mythology and Folklore | What’s the Difference?
Updated: May 10, 2020
This was something which confused the hell out of me when I first got into Irish mythology; what’s the difference between mythology and folklore, does it matter, and who cares anyway? They’re just a bunch of old stories, right?
The Oxford Dictionary defines mythology as:
“A collection of myths, especially one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition. A set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution, or situation, especially when exaggerated or fictitious."
It describes folklore as:
“The traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth. A body of popular myths or beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”
Still confused? So much for the Oxford Dictionary. Clear as mud! I think the best way to do this is by giving you some examples.
But first, a bit of background; in Irish mythology, there are four collections of stories known as the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. These can be found in three 11th century and 12th century manuscripts called Lebor na hUidre, the Book of Leinster, and the rather un-romantically named Rawlinson B 502. There are also many other ancient texts, but these are considered the most important.
Despite their relatively late date, the content of these documents has been identified via linguistics studies to originate as far back as the eighth and even the sixth centuries. Christian monks assembled these stories from the oral tradition of the Irish storytellers they were listening to at the time, to try to provide a history for Ireland, and so the tales were finally committed to writing.
Whilst we should be very grateful for their efforts, we must also be mindful that in so doing, many of the stories were ‘Christianised’ in line with their own beliefs, as they tried to stamp out pagan culture.
The Dagda, warrior, chieftain, druid.
And so to my first example: the Dagda. According to mythology, he was a Druid and a High King of the Tuatha de Danann. He was the father of Bodb Dearg, Cermait, Midir, Áine, Óengus Óg, and Brigit. Bres and Ogma were his half-brothers, and his father was Elatha of the Fomori, his mother was Eithne of the Danann.
He had a staff called the lorg mór, a cauldron known as the coire ansic (one of the Four Treasures of Eirean), and a harp named uaithne. Of course, these were all magical items: the staff was said to be capable of killing nine men with one swing, whilst with the handle he could restore life to the dead; the cauldron was said to leave no one unsatisfied, and the harp possessed the power to rearrange the seasons, and control the order of battle.
In Irish, the Dagda means ‘the Good God’, because it was believed he protected the crops. He was also known as Eochaid Ollathair ‘All Father’, and Ruadh Rofhessa, ‘the Mighty Red One of Great Knowledge’. You can see from all this that he was considered powerful, wise and knowledgeable, and that he was looked up to, admired and revered.
In fact, according to a text known asCóir Anmann, or ‘the Fitness of Names’, translated by Mary Jones, the Dagda is described as:
“He was a beautiful god of the heathens, for the Tuatha Dé Danann worshipped him: for he was an earth-god to them because of the greatness of his (magical) power.”
And then we come across this story; in preparation for the Second Battle of Moytura with the Fomori, the Dagda is sent by King Nuada to parlay with them:
“He was not a pleasant sight to behold: A cape which hung only to the hollow of his elbows; a brown tunic around him which only went as far as the swelling of his rump; a ragged hole in that tunic; two shoes on him of horse-hide, with the hair turned outside, and his private parts dangling in the air.
“He saw a fine-looking woman and of good shape, with tresses of beautiful hair on her head. The Dagda lusted after her but he was impotent because of his heavy belly. The girl began to mock him and to tussle with him. She hurled him so hard that he sank to his rump in the mud.”
When I first read this, I did a bit of a double take. It just did not fit with any of the other things I had read about him. I realised that this piece could be a bit of ancient propaganda, designed to belittle and discredit the Dagda, and in fact all of the Danann.
But why? And by whom?
Well, the Christians were doing everything within their power to convert the masses to Christianity, and destroy the pagan Gods. This is a tale of greed, lust, slovenliness, weakness, certainly not a portrayal of a noble Danann god, and may have served some moral purpose, as well as mocking the Dagda.
Equally, it could have been an ancient folk tale. The Fomori were beaten in that battle by the Danann, and practically annihilated. The Dagda was High King at that time. Perhaps when the Fomori went home, it was a story they told themselves to feel better over their defeat… it would be quite a natural thing to do, to ridicule your hated enemy’s chieftain.
But of course, that’s speculation.
Let’s look at the Fenian Cycle; here we have a collection of tales concerning one of Ireland’s greatest mythological heroes, Fionn mac Cumhall. He was a mortal, a noble hunter-warrior, leader of the Fianna, and close friend of High King Cormac mac Art.
He was famous for catching the Salmon of Knowledge and cheating the Druid, Finegas, out of achieving all that knowledge and wisdom. As a boy, he single-handedly saved Tara from being burned by the fire-fairy Aillen mac Midhna, when no-one else could, and thus he was awarded his birth-right to lead the Fianna by Cormac.
There are many, many stories of his adventures with the Fianna, of his battles and heroic exploits.
Giant’s Causeway By Chmee2 – Own workThis file was uploaded with Commonist., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9103972
And then we have the story of Fionn as a giant; he creates the Isle of Man by throwing a clod of earth into the sea, and builds a pathway across the sea to Scotland, which we know as the Giant’s Causeway. He is married to a woman named Oonagh, and dresses up as a baby and hides in a cradle to avoid an even bigger giant named Benandonner, who charges over the newly made pathway from Scotland to fight him.
Hmmm… again, we have here a story which clearly does not fit with the mythology of the Fenian Cycle. Finn is portrayed as a coward who would rather masquerade as a baby than face up to his enemy, even though he is inflated to the size of a giant.
What’s interesting, though, is that this story is attached to a particular location, and can be seen as an attempt to explain something the people could not understand, the creation of local landmarks, ie the strange columns of the Giant’s Causeway, and the Isle of Man.
And this is a typical feature of Ireland’s folklore stories; that a famous character would be taken out of context in a localised community and used to explain the unexplained, an unusual landscape feature, for example, or to highlight desirable/ undesirable behaviours and traits in a society, perhaps as a way of teaching moral conduct to children, for example.
Autumn Equinox sun dawning over cairn T at Loughcrew
My final example concerns a location closer to home, for me: Loughcrew, also known in Irish as Sliabh na Caillaigh, meaning ‘the hag’s mountain’. At it’s highest point is the largest mound of the complex, known rather poetically (not!) as cairn T. At its base is a huge throne -shaped kerbstone called ‘the hag’s chair’, and it was from here that the ‘hag’ was said to have sat and surveyed her landscape.
Local folklore claims that the cairns of Loughcrew were formed when the hag, a giant witch, was carrying stones in her apron. As she leaped from one hilltop to another, she slipped and fell, the stones tumbling from her apron and scattering across the three hills to form the complex of monuments we can still see today.
Again, we see the same pattern repeated here; a community borrows a well known figure from mythology, in this case a Goddess of Winter, in an attempt to explain a prominent local feature in their landscape, and community. Note that she has also been elevated to the size of a giant, whilst at the same time, denigrated from Goddess to old hag.
So… crystal, or still mud?
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