Germanic Cultures Essay, Research Paper
Most of our knowledge of early Celtic culture comes from Latin historians and from an extensive body of early Irish texts composed between 700 and 1000 AD. These include native law texts as well as heroic prose narratives and intricately crafted rhymed verse in hundreds of different meters. There are a few early texts from Celtic Wales as well, but paradoxically most of the surviving Welsh stories about the legendary Celtic king Arthur are translations from earlier French or English stories based on lost Celtic originals. Marie de France, founder of the Romance tradition in England, based her poetic narratives on folklore from Brittany, a Celtic region of France, but none of her Celtic originals survive.
The earliest stories about Arthur were probably much like the Irish stories about the kingdoms of Ulster and Connacht, which feature kings Conchobor and Ailill and Queen Medb (whose name is Anglicized to Maeve or Mab). The boy superhero CuChulainn plays a prominent role in these stories, and many other characters seem to have godlike powers, leading some researchers to speculate that they were survivors from pre-Christian Celtic mythology whose humanized representations were inoffensive to the Church. Modern readers used to male-gendered heroes may be surprised to discover that Maeve was as redoubtable a warrior as her husband and that CuChulainns martial arts instructor was a British woman named Scathach (the Shadow). A woman warrior well documented in the historical record is the British Celt Boudicca, who led a devastating attack on Roman colonial troops.
In addition to marvelous heroic tales, early Irish literature boasts poems of remarkable sophistication by well-educated intellectuals. There are a number of secular love poems, some dealing with romantic involvements between ordinary mortals and men or women from fairyland, a remote parallel world inhabited by undying humanoids about as tall as human beings or perhaps a bit taller (not the tiny winged creatures of Shakespeare). Many early Irish lyrics are written from the viewpoint of the monastic Christian hermits who took up solitary residence in isolated forest huts or set out at random on the ocean in small boats that drifted to remote island retreats. A prominent feature of Irish monastic poems is a love of nature that would be hard to duplicate in English verse before the Romantic period. One hermit bard claims that the natural flora and fauna around his humble dwelling equal the glory of any royal court, using his descriptive powers to prove it.
A few passages of Irish heroic poetry that survive from the prehistoric period employ an alliterative line very much like the one used by Old English poets. Some researchers attribute this similarity to early cultural sharing between the Celtic and Germanic peoples; others think that alliterative meter dated from a period before Celtic and Germanic had differentiated from each other. Alliterative meter also seems to predominate in the very earliest texts from the third western branch of Indo-European, Italic. We tend to associate Latin verse with the meter of Virgils Aeneid (dactylic hexameter), but this is a Greek meter, and was not used by the Romans until their military conquest of Greece brought them into contact with the poetry of Homer and Sappho. The Latin alliterative charm for fruitful land quoted in an agricultural treatise by Cato looks more like Beowulf than like the Aeneid.