Britannia is a new “swords and sandals” fantasy series rich in blood, magic, political intrigue, warrior queens, and an eldritch and powerful group of wizards known as the Druids.
Britannia pulls no punches, riding the wave of the current demand for “grimdark” fantasy; all of the magic and adventure of fairy tales and legends, but without the black and white morality – a grounded story painted in shades of grey, where villains are complex, heroes have dark sides and right and wrong are not clearly defined. The series is a fresh, modern look at the rich folklore and myths of the British Isles.
The Druids of Britannia are more than just a plot device, a shadowy cabal of mystics ruling from the shadows with their ancient magicks. They were very real indeed. While their ability to bring the dead back to life or summon storms of flaming rain might be the stuff of legend, the druids themselves actually existed and were just as powerful politically, if not magically, as they are represented in the show.
In fact they were so influential that you are probably still participating in their traditions some two thousand years later without even knowing it. For instance, it was a druidic custom to cast something of value into a holy well, in order to ask a boon of the spirits of the land. If you’ve ever thrown a coin into a well to make a wish then you’re continuing this tradition.
And there’s more.
The most important festival of the druids was the “Samh’in” or “fire of peace”. This was held on the winter solstice, which was later given the fixed date of All Hallow’s Eve. Samh’in was said to be the time when the boundary between the real world and the spirit world was at its thinnest; when the Aos Sí, or fey spirits, could walk the earth for one night. On this night the druids would dress up as demons and spirits, demanding offerings from the people in return for their blessing and protection.
Thousands of years later this practice continues – the costumes of the spirits have gotten a lot more revealing and All Hallow’s Eve has been truncated to Halloween, but the tradition thrives.
These myths and legends live on without us even knowing it. With that in mind here are some of the best myths of ancient Britannia that you might not know (that aren’t King Arthur or Robin Hood).
Partholón and the Creation of the World
Partholón was a mythical king of the British Isles and one of their creator deities. It was said that when he arrived in Britannia there was nothing but empty fields. First he created the lakes and streams of the land. Then he created crops and fields, so that his people might have grain. But grain was bland and unappetising, so he created cattle so that his people might have meat. But he and his people still lacked for something, so Partholon next created magical cauldrons from which beer could be brewed endlessly.
The creation myth ends there actually, after the invention of beer. Curious.
Dagda the Good
Dagda the Good was the principal deity of Celtic mythology. Like most of their gods he was a war god (as Britannia shows, not only was clan feuding nearly constant, but the Romans were invading on the reg – it paid to have a lot of war gods) but also the god of fertility, agriculture, strength and the patron god of druids. He was known as Dagda the Good because he was good at everything, not because of his disposition. His weapon was a magic club that could kill nine men at a time, an oddly specific number, but he could also flip the club around and hit people back to life with it. He was a nice guy like that.
Dagda was also the god of parties – aside from his club, his other godly possessions included a magical cauldron that could feed every man as much bacon soup as he deserved (note the careful wording there), a magical ladle that was “large enough to hold two grown men or five whole pigs” and a pair of magical boars that could be spitted and roasted and yet returned to life every day so that Dagda could provide his guests with a never ending supply of bacon. The mythology of the British Isles is…surprisingly explicit on the topic of bacon.
Nuada Airgetlám, or Nuada of the Silver Arm, was another legendary god-king of the British Isles. He was a brilliant warrior and an ever better king, beloved by his people and respected by his enemies. However in one battle Nuada found himself facing terrible odds and though he was victorious, during the fight his right arm was cut off at the shoulder. Fortunately the druids of the time were able to fashion a replacement arm for him, one made of silver, that was even stronger than his original arm and functioned “as though it were flesh and blood”. However the rules of the people were clear – the king must be in perfect physical health to rule. No one maimed, not even with an awesome robot arm, could be a perfect example to the people and so Nuada was forced to abdicate his throne. While this myth itself might not be of much consequence you can’t help but feel that at some point the robots and cyborgs of the future are going to cite this as an example of deep-rooted human prejudice.
Fragarach aka The Answerer
Lugh of the Long Arms (named for his skills with projectile weapons) was a principle deity in Irish mythology. Whilst notable in his own right and also as the father of Cú Chulainn, the Irish version of Hercules and perennial inspiration of song titles for Irish rock bands, Lugh was also known for his magical sword – Fragarach the Answerer. This sword had many magical and fantastic abilities. Firstly it was said that when held at someone’s throat that person could not move or tell a lie – although it could be argued that moving or telling lies while someone holds a sword to your throat is not the best course of action anyway. Fragarach could cleave through shields and cut through stone walls. It was said to be able to inflict a mortal wound with even the slightest touch.
But most notably Fragarach, the sword itself, was a psychopath. It thirsted for blood and swung on its own. Its wielder did not fight with it so much as hold it while it did its thing. In fact the sword was so bloodthirsty that it couldn’t be left alone or even kept in a scabbard. It had to be kept sedated in “a pool made from the milk of the poppy”. Now that’s a powerful weapon.
Thor’s hammer may have been forged in the heart of a dying star so that it summons lightning and can only be lifted by one worthy of the power of Thor, but was it so powerful that it had to be kept doped up on opioids to stop it from going on a rampage? Exactly.