How to be a mythologist: Immerse yourself in Irish folklore and legends this Halloween

Gemma Tipton offers a beginner’s guide to taking up a new cultural pursuit

With Samhain upon us, it’s time to slide the mind into the fabled and fabulous. Mythologist Anthony Murphy is our guide.

Mythologist? Is that an actual thing?

It is indeed. “A mythologist is someone who studies mythology and is considered an expert on the subject,” Murphy says, although he adds that, while he doesn’t claim to be an expert, he has spent almost a quarter of a century immersed in reading Irish myths, legends and folklore, has written many books about our rich heritage, and runs the website Mythical Ireland.

Sounds like an expert to me

Agreed. If you do want more formal schooling, University College Cork has a part-time certificate in mythology and an MA course in Irish mythology and folklore, both delivered online; University College Dublin has a BA in Irish folklore; and, if you study classics at Trinity College Dublin, you’ll get a module in Greek and Roman mythology. Mythology also features as an option on some English-literature degree courses.

I prefer the more informal approach

And why not? “Anyone can do it,” says Murphy. His own background is in journalism; he got into mythology when his friend the artist Richard Moore inspired him with stories from the Boyne Valley. He says his career as a mythologist is driven by his “great love for our most ancient stories”.


Count me in. But can I make a living at it?

Murphy describes his work as “a full-time vocation”; his days are spent as an author, tour guide and broadcaster. He is also brought in to work on projects such as creating an audio element for Drogheda’s Urban Art Trail, DRAWDA, which includes seven murals celebrating our mythological past. “It’s wonderful to follow your bliss and do the work that brings you much fulfilment,” says Murphy. So while it’s probably not a route to making millions, don’t forget that people seeking pots of gold in myths and folktales don’t usually come out of things too well.

I’ll settle for fulfilment so

Very wise. The best thing about it is “the vastness of the material, the enormous breadth of it. You will never be bored with Irish mythology. Another wonderful facet of myth is that it can be subject to fresh interpretation, and at least some of it is eternally relevant. It never loses its deeper meaning.” Lady Gregory’s Irish Myths and Legends, originally published in 1904 as Gods and Fighting Men, is a very good place to start, as of course are Murphy’s own books.

Wait a minute. What’s the difference between myths and history?

Myth is a pure form of history,” says Murphy. “There is a truth in myth. It is not all fable and entertainment.” He describes the way myths can carry information from prehistory and are often narratives that make sense of what we can observe, such as the changing of the seasons and solstices. It helps, he says, if you have a grasp of the political and religious background of the era in which they were written. “It is a matter of some irony that a lot of what might be described as ‘pagan’ mythology was written down in Irish monasteries by ecclesiastical scribes. I would love to see a resurgence of interest in Irish myth.”

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture