Reviews: Celtic

Books reviewed on this page:

Celtic Cosmology: Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland – Edited by Jacqueline Borsje, Ann Dooley, Séamus mac Mathúna, and Gregory Toner
Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry – Kenneth Jackson
The Celtic Heroic Age – John Koch and John Carey
The Cult of the Sacred Centre: Essays on Celtic Ideology – Proinsias Mac Cana
The Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland and Britain – Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts
Celtic Curses – Bernard Mees
The Good People: New Fairylore Essays – Peter Narváez (Ed.)
Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past – Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm (Eds.)
Fiery Shapes: Celesetial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales 700-1700 – Mark Williams

Celtic Cosmology: Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland
Edited by Jacqueline Borsje, Ann Dooley, Séamus mac Mathúna, and Gregory Toner

Celtic Cosmology by Jacqueline Borsje et alBased on the papers submitted to a colloquium held back in 2008, “Celtic Cosmology and the Power of Words,” this is a book I’d been looking forward to for quite a while. When it came out I was a little disappointed in the price – just under £60, I think – but it didn’t exactly come as a surprise given the price of most academic texts these days. Given the cost of producing them, it’s a necessary evil, I suppose. Still, this was a luxury splurge and I could only hope it was damn well worth it.

The contributors are all names that are well-known in Celtic Studies today, and each article deals with a different topic (or focus on a topic). Some of these topics are familiar territory – the three realms, the Otherworld, and so on – while others offer something less than usual. At the time of the colloquium itself there was a website that gave an idea of the kinds of papers that were being read there and I was particularly interested in the stuff on the three realms. As it turned out, this was the first article in the book but it’s little more than an amalgam of articles the author’s already published (and which I’ve already read) so it doesn’t offer much more of a perspective on things. I was hoping for something new there, but as disappointments for this book go, this is about the only major complaint I really have. If I were reading the article without having read the ones it’s referencing then I think I’d get a good idea of the major points that are being made, but I’d probably want to read those articles anyway.

As a minor complaint, I’d kind of hoped for more on creation myths and so forth, which ended up being pretty lacking, sadly. With that said, for what is in the book, most of it is pretty interesting, and it’s well written and edited. It can be dry and dense – some articles more than others – but this isn’t unexpected.

There are too many articles for me to go into in any detail individually, and some of them just weren’t as interesting to me as others, so I’ll just give the ones I enjoyed the most a mention. First off there’s Grigory Bondarenko’s ‘Roads and Knowledge in Togail Bruidne Da Derga,’ which makes some truly interesting points about the way the tale uses roads and the (possible) ritual significance of them in pre-Christian belief. Edel Bhreathnach’s ‘Tara and Cashel: Manifestations of the Centre of the Cosmos in the North and South’ precedes Bondarenko’s article and fits in nicely with it in taking a look at the ritual implications of the layout of Tara and Cashel, and the way they’re described and used in literature. These two stood out for me in offering a lot of good food for thought, and they’re ones I might chew on in some notes at some point. The same goes for Séamus mac Mathúna’s ‘The Relationship of the Chthonic World in Early Ireland to Chaos and Cosmos,’ which gives a good discussion on the cosmological relationship between sacred landscapes and water. There are frequent comparisons with Vedic examples and so forth here, and I’m not much of a one for that kind of approach but I can appreciate the different perspective. If you’re interested in the stories of Boann or Macha then it’s definitely worth a read, and it gives some discussion of the relationship between fire, water and kingship, as well.

Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart takes a look at the celebrations of Michaelmas, and offers a huge amount of good stuff here. First of all he looks at the sources we have that deal with Michaelmas – in particular, Alexander Carmichael’s highly detailed description, which, Stiùbhart points out, is an amalgamation of various notes Carmichael collected, and which is also highly idealised presentation of the festival. Then he explores the decline of the festival and the reasons for it (which is to say: bassically religious and economic reasons). The article goes over more than just the usual territory here and offers something that most discussions of this subject don’t, which is always good to see.

The final article in the book, Gregory Toner’s ‘Landscape and Cosmology in the Dinschenchas‘ takes a look at the way places are shaped and named, and the underlying cosmology of that, bringing in some comparative evidence from episodes in the Táin and the like, which I also really enjoyed but felt was frustratingly too short.

Over all, this isn’t a book that’s going to be a light read, but it’s definitely a read that’s worth having. It’s not something I’d recommend to the beginner, or to anyone who would find the lack of populist appeal off-putting, but I’d say this is certainly a subject area that’s vitally important to understand and there isn’t much else that’s recent that I can think of to recommend (articles yes, but books not so much). I do think the cost is going to be prohibitive for a lot of people but if you’re a compulsive collector like I am then you probably just have to accept that you’re going to buy it sooner or later…

If you’re looking to try before you buy then you can read one of the articles (another one with some interesting stuff in it) online – John Waddell’s ‘The Cave of Crúachain and the Otherworld.’

Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry
Kenneth Jackson

Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry by Kenneth JacksonKenneth Jackson was one of the big names in Celtic Studies from the 1930s up until the mid-twentieth century, and he was a linguist as much as a historian. He studied and translated early Irish poetry and mythology (along with works in other languages), and gave a hugely influential and inspirational lecture in the 1960s that declared the Ulster Cycle “a window on the Iron Age.” The lecture was so well-received at that time that it was then published as a small book. This isn’t that particular book, but I think it’s an important point to mention, because it shows where he’s coming from. Jackson was one of the great Nativists, as they’re called these days, and he viewed the myths that survived in medieval manuscripts as evidence of a conservative and thriving oral tradition. Academics have since challenged his views on this and other things, but his work remains an important contribution to the field.

This is a book that was first published in the 30s, so it’s difficult to consider it without accounting for its age or context. It’s something that I’ve never really had the chance to sit down and read from cover to cover before now, though I was familiar with its contents, but I’m glad I had the chance. In spite of its age, and the fact that yes, he’s calling it “Celtic” when he’s really only talking about Irish and Welsh poetry, there’s some genuinely good stuff here. Some of it may be outdated now, but it’s worth a read regardless.

The book is split into two parts (kind of), with the poetry given first, followed by a number of essays that discuss the various themes that crop up in them. As the title suggests, we’re dealing with poetry that focuses on nature in particular, and the poems are split into Irish and then Welsh translations. It’s a shame the original Irish or Welsh isn’t given as well, but in theory, if you know where to look you can find a good portion of it online at (the Irish, anyway. I really couldn’t say about the Welsh). It seems that this book isn’t out of copyright itself yet, but much of the source material is.

Jackson gives his own translations of the poems and there are some notes that explain where and why he’s chosen to translate something differently to other versions that are available (by authors like Kuno Meyer or Whitley Stokes, for example). This helps give some clarity to the way he’s rendered some verses, and over all he seems to have a good feel for poetry so he does a good job of giving the intended (or apparent) meanings while making the translations readable. That helps the beautiful imagery and turns of phrases to shine through, and while I don’t have a head for poetry myself, I can appreciate those who do. I do think you lose something without being able to see the verses in the original language, but still. It’s better than nothing and this is the way it was often done back then, in books intended for a more general audience if not in articles you find in journals.

In some cases I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the translations Jackson has given are still the most up to date and widely available versions, but I couldn’t say that for sure. The poems are grouped together so examples that are of a similar age or focus can be found easily and that allows for quick reference and comparison, especially if you want to look back over the poems as you read the commentary given in later chapters. Some of the Irish poems are very obviously hermit poetry – poems written by Christian hermits who chose to take themselves out of society, to live alone in solitary spiritual devotion – and as such the poems talk about the surrounding the hermits could see as they sat in their hut. In their isolation, the birds and animals become their companions, and in the absence of the monastery kitchens they talk about the rich pickings they might forage for in the forests around them. Some of them are more obviously secular, and these are the ones that raise some of the most interesting questions for me.

Jackson’s theory, in one of the chapters that follow the poems themselves, is that these secular poems that announce and seem to rejoice in and celebrate the arrival of the seasons, are evidence of the kind of hymns or carols that may have been sung in a pre-Christian setting. It’s certainly tempting to want to believe that, in spite of the lack of hard evidence, but Jackson’s fervour on the subject makes me easily convinced. Plus there’s no real reason to think they wouldn’t have songs like that, when it tends to be such a universal thing, and so far it’s not something that’s really been discussed much. In that respect, I think the poems are going to be of interest to Gaelic Polytheists because it raises questions on how we ourselves might greet the seasons, and how we can incorporate the poems or liturgy into that. Or, for those of us who have the head for it, compose our own poems or songs. I’ll leave that endeavour to people who won’t butcher the good name of poetry and poets everywhere, don’t worry.

But I think this book is a good one to have on the shelf, even if some of it needs careful consideration as a product of its time. It’s not a hefty tome, and it’s a fairly easy and engaging read as more academically focused books go. Although I can’t really comment much on the Welsh side of things, even if it’s not my focus or real area of interest there’s no denying that there are some beautiful examples there, too. Although Jackson himself doesn’t really go into it, one of the big things in Celtic Studies at the moment is looking at just how much influence and feedback between Ireland and Wales there really was at the time, so that’s something to consider too.

I think this would be of interest to anyone, whether a beginner or someone more advanced, who may be looking for insights into the kind of attitudes there may have been towards the immediate environment, the turning of the seasons, and for possible inspiration when it comes to devotional pieces or liturgy. This one’s definitely a keeper for me, and one I’ll get good use out of in future.

The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales
John Koch (ed.) in collaboration with John Carey

The Celtic Heroic Age by John Koch and John CareyFor once, here is a book that uses the word ‘Celtic’ in its proper context. That’s not exactly surprising, considering who’s put it together, but after all those books that don’t…well. It’s refreshing, to say the least.

While there are plenty of places online where you can find all kinds of myths and literature, sometimes it’s good to have them in book format; especially considering the fact that the translations on offer are generally more up to date (though this isn’t always the case. Elizabeth Gray’s translation of Cath Maige Tuired is the most recent version, and freely available online, although the online version doesn’t have the notes that the hardcopy format does). This book certainly has a lot to offer in terms of all kinds of myths and literature that are collated within this volume, though I have to say that the soft-cover version I have isn’t the most sturdy. Some of the pages are threatening to come loose.

Inside, you’ll find a veritable smorgasbord of goodies on offer. First up is a selection of Gaulish inscriptions, excerpts from Classical sources referencing the continental Celts, as well as bits and pieces relating to the Britons (e.g. Boudicca). Then we have Irish and Hiberno-Latin sources (i.e. Irish sources written in Latin), which forms the main chunk of the book, followed by Brittonic and Brittonic Latin sources. The latter part is comprised mostly of Welsh poetry, but there is also a little bit of Breton legend, as well as excerpts from the Historia Brittonum.

The Gaulish inscriptions are really interesting, but all too few, while as far as the Classical sources are concerned there’s not much that I hadn’t already seen before; it’s certainly handy for reference, at least, but admittedly this material isn’t really my area of primary interest. The usual suspects are to be found in the Welsh poetry – Taliesin, Y Gododdin, Preideu Annwn, etc. – so it’s all good if you’re wanting to get a broad overview of different kinds of Celtic literature. On the other hand, however, if you’re wanting to study any of these things in more depth I would recommend books that are more dedicated to the subject.

The same can be said of the Irish section as well – you’ll find the important stuff, such as Recension I of the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Audacht Morainn, Echtra Nera, Tochmarc Étaíne, The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, and so on, all neatly packaged and presented. There is a lot here that you can already find online these days (which wasn’t the case at the time of this book’s publication), although the down side with that is you have to look for it, and know what you’re looking for. If you’re familiar with the myths then you’ve probably read most of them before, at least. If not then at least you won’t have to look too far to find the good stuff – some of the most important tales have been cherry-picked for you (although obviously it doesn’t include the epics).

One of the best things about this book is that there are also some bits and pieces that the average reader is less likely to be familiar with. For the Irish section, the early Dynastic poetry is very useful in particular (lots of pre-Christian hints there), and so are the excerpts from Giraldus Cambrensis (including the section on the sacred flame of Kildare). Most of all, though, the value of this book – aside from the decent translations on offer (as opposed to the “retellings” and cleaned up versions that Lady Gregory or Charles Squire offer, say) – is in the fact that there is so much packed in to one handy volume. For the reconstructionist the decent translations are a definite draw, and just one reason that I’d recommend the book. I can’t help but feel that it would have been better if the book had more thorough annotations, but then again I think the primary purpose of it is as a primary sourcebook, not a running commentary. The notes that are given are usually brief but often give good pointers to further reading in places. Still, more would have been better.

This is a book I would definitely recommend, though I can see that it will probably be a low priority for most folks who have a limited budget. It’s definitely worth it, though, and you should be able to find it cheaply enough.

The Cult of the Sacred Centre: Essays on Celtic Ideology
Proinsias Mac Cana

I think it’s safe to say that Mac Cana contributed a huge amount to Celtic Studies during his lifetime, and this book (a collection of some otherwise unpublished articles that have been put together posthumously) carries on that legacy. Mac Cana had been in the process of finalising the collation of these articles into a book just as he died in 2004, but nonetheless it took some time for the volume to be completed by former colleagues and family members so it only came out last year in 2011.

There are a lot of articles here covering a wide variety of subjects, but over all the book comes together and deals with the same themes: the idea of political, geographical and cultural unity amongst the various Celtic peoples. This might be enough to make your eyes glaze over at the mere thought of that kind of thing, but trust me on this. Stick with it.

Most of the Celtic focus is on the Irish side of things but there are some essays that concentrate on Brythonic and Gaulish evidence. However, a large portion of the book (part two of four sections) deals with comparative evidence – “The Sacred Centre in Comparative Traditions.” I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed in that at first because this section held a lot of the chapters that I was most interested in to start with (e.g. ‘Ritual Circumambulation’, ‘The Centre and the Four Quarters’ to name but a few), and many of them seemed to deal with hardly anything “Celtic” at all at first glance. I was hoping for something a little more focused and rooted, but once I got through each chapter I was able to appreciate what Mac Cana was aiming for a little more. The comparative approach does help to put a lot of things in context, although I still have reservations about it (and mild disappointment at the lack of Celtic evidence given in some parts. Compared to what I’d hoped for, at least).

The comparisons can sometimes take a very broad approach as well, referring tangentially to many different cultures beyond the Indo-European family. It’s this kind of thing that gives me the greatest pause, because while the Indo-European cultures do share some commonalities, beyond that I can’t help but feel the scope becomes a little too broad. It would have been nice to see a more critical view of the advantages and disadvantages of comparative methodology as well, throughout the section. And while I’m not particularly expert in what’s considered PC or not in terms of anthropological issues these days, I’m fairly sure the use of labels like “pygmies” is becoming questionable in some quarters, at least. While things like this might seem like a minor detail, it became more than a little distracting.

My reservations aside, there’s a lot of good stuff to be found here as well. Although veering a little too deeply into comparative territory for my tastes at times I certainly did learn a lot about the kind of theoretics and symbolism behind much of what we can see of Celtic ritual practices as a whole – circumambulation, the omphalos, the ritualised expression of Celtic ideas of cultural or political unity, how it all ties in with the land and the people, and so on. I would say those kinds of things alone are invaluable, and there are also some good essays on the (Irish) literary tradition, the concept of ‘unity’ and nationality in Irish history and literature, sacral kingship (one of the subjects that Mac Cana is well known for), as well as the laws and placenames of Ireland. You might know a lot of it already (especially if you’ve read the Rees brothers’ Celtic Heritage), but the essays do bring together each subject quite neatly. There’s plenty of good stuff for those who are more interested in things Gaulish, as well, but while there are chapters on England and Wales, as well as Brittany, these definitely aren’t as much of a major concern. Ireland and Gaul are the main focus, with a definite emphasis on Ireland.

It’s all very dense and perhaps a little too in-depth and academic (i.e. dry…) for some, and I have to say that some of Teh Big Wurdz left me having to look them up to see what they meant. It can make for some sentences that take some time to unravel and I’m not sure it’s really necessary, but it’s a minor annoyance at best. I did notice, however, that while the book is well-referenced, there isn’t much in the way of particularly recent references given; obviously given the fact that Mac Cana died some years ago and began working on the articles some years before that (1996 onwards), that’s perhaps not surprising, but it does make me wonder if there’s work out there that is more up to date. Not that the past decade or two is so out of date that it makes the book irrelevant (especially considering how old most of the books we work with are), I hasten to add, but it’s maybe something to bear in mind. Mac Cana’s book will surely have the advantage of being more comprehensive than any articles that might be lurking in journals, for sure.

All in all it’s not something that will appeal to a lot of folks, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to beginners, but given the perspectives the book allows you to chew over – whether you agree with them or not – I’d say the book is well worth splurging on. A major downside if you just want this book for research purposes, to pick through rather than to read, is that there’s no index. You should be able to find what you want just by the chapter titles alone in most cases, but there are some hidden gems that might be missed unless you give the book a thorough going over. Otherwise, this is one I’d certainly like to have for the bookshelf someday.

The Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland and Britain
Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts

There are a fair few books available that deal with Sheela-na-Gigs and they all have varying price tags and reviews. The best one looks like The Witch on the Wall, which seems to be the most sought after treatment of the subject, and is invariably going for between £100-350, or else there’s Jerman and Weir’s Images of Lust, which seems to be a more populist choice that comes with a more reasonable price tag of about £18. Alas, even that’s a little much for me at the moment, so I went for this one instead. I picked it up for a whopping 9p, and as things go I think it’s a pretty good bargain.

It’s not without its problems – and I’ll get to those in a minute – but over all it’s a really good read. It’s well written and engaging, and the authors present all the various theories surrounding the origins, influences and purpose of the Sheelas in a fairly balanced manner before giving a catalogue of all the documented Sheelas in Ireland and Britain, and discussing some figures that are related (such as male versions, or Seán-na-Gigs). It’s pretty clear which theory the authors favour, but they go into the pros and cons of each theory in a fairly objective manner so you’re free to agree or disagree. Each theory is dealt with in a chapter to itself, so it’s well laid-out and straight-forward too.

In terms of origins, it’s clear that most of the Sheelas are medieval and therefore Christian in date, but the authors also point out that there is iconography from across pre-Christian Celtic Europe that is similar to the poses the Sheelas are depicted in, so there could be pre-Christian influences. One theory (that Hutton argues strongly for in The Pagan Religions of the British Isles) suggests that the Sheelas are continental in origin, coming from a twelfth century fashion for “acrobatic grotesques” that show all kinds of lewd scenes that warn against sin. This book argues against that (though doesn’t discount it from being a flavour that came to be added into the mix), pointing to the pre-Christian figures, the non-erotic nature of the Sheelas (their genitals are exposed but that doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be erotic), and the various features found on Sheelas that mark them out as being decidedly non-continental – they are often asymmetrical, with distinctively and disproportionately large heads, and they generally aren’t “acrobatic” in form; their legs are usually drawn up to display their genitals, rather than being shown mid-tumble, or in compromising positions with other figures. The authors also favour the theory that the Sheelas were primarily carved for protective purposes, as opposed to trying to discourage sin, or simply representing fertility.

I learned a lot about Sheelas from this book, and of particular interest was the fact that authors noted the similarities between the Sheela and the “hag goddesses” like the Cailleach, which is something I’ve pondered on since I stumbled across Sheelah’s Day. But there are some problems with the book, and while they’re not necessarily major, I’d say they’re pretty significant to my mind. When dealing with the subject of Sheelas specifically the book is well-referenced and seems pretty solid, but when the authors step outside of that, things get a little shaky. Unfortunately, it mostly relates to the bits where they talk about pre-Christian religion:

“The hag is a goddess of sovereignty – the Earth goddess responsible for the fortunes, fertility and prosperity of her territory. Her association with life, fertility and death was symbolised by her ability to move between three aspects: a young beautiful maiden, a powerful sexual woman and a hag or crone.” (Emphasis mine).

I’m highlighting this bit in particular because I think it’s pretty indicative of where the problem is. When pre-Christian religion is mentioned you’ll find references to Marija Gimbutas and The Great Goddess and things like that, and in general I just can’t get on board with it. The maiden, mother, crone concept just isn’t a thing, historically, in Ireland or Britain, and the authors could have looked to far more reliable sources than Gimbutas. There are frequent references to Cernunnos as well, and while the point that the poses the Sheelas take and the way Cernunnos is depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron is interesting (also some evidence to suggest some Sheelas may have been antlered – like Cernunnos), the authors keep referring to him as in Irish deity.

All in all it’s disappointing but I don’t think it’s something that’s necessarily unforgivable. I wasn’t reading the book to read about all that, and if you ignore those bits (it’s mostly confined to chapter 6) and stick to the bits that are more reliably referenced, then it’s still a good read. Looking to another review from someone who’s more knowledgeable on Sheelas in particular, there are some other issues of accuracy to be aware of, namely the inclusion of a couple of figures who aren’t really accepted as Sheelas by other experts, and some proofing issues that have resulted in one Sheela being wrongly labelled. I noticed some general proofing errors, but not the labelling error and I think most readers wouldn’t have spotted that kind of mistake unless they’re already well familiar with the subject.

Aside from that, while the chapter on symbolism was really interesting – pointing out the consistency in things like asymmetry, instances where one eye appears closed (in keeping with the kind of pose commonly referenced in Irish myths to indicate magic being performed), and so on – the discussion of where the name comes from and what it means felt a little fudged; the different theories were considered but no real opinion or critique offered either way. I agree with this article that the popular idea that it comes from “Sighle na gCíoch,” or “Sheela of the breasts” is unconvincing considering that breasts aren’t a universal feature of them in general, and while the authors seem to agree, they repeat the meaning later in the book if they accept it.

This is a pretty slim volume so it packs a lot in. In spite of the criticisms I have for it, I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it for anyone who mighas t be interested in the subject. While other books on Sheelas might be more academic and higher up on most book lists, I think this is a fairly solid introduction to the subject and will give you a pretty good overview, especially if you’re on a budget (although this site is good, and conveniently free!) and only have a relatively casual interest that will be sated by something short and sweet. What it lacks in terms of accuracy in places, it makes up for in pointing you in the right direction and being more balanced in consideration of the various theories and issues surrounding the Sheelas than someone like Ronald Hutton managed in his treatment of it in The Pagan Religions of the British Isles (which made some good points but was extremely one-sided). All in all: Highly recommended, with caveats.

Celtic Curses
Bernard Mees

Celtic Curses by Bernard MeesGoing by the title alone it’s the sort of thing that could go one of two ways, being either the kind of book that would be more at home amongst the likes of your common or garden variety ye ancient Irish potato goddess fluff, or else one that lurks on my wishlist for many a birthday until I can justify splurging on it. Or, y’know. Get a job. Considering it’s the latter, the title seems a little provocative and I think to a certain extent it is. But I’ll get to that.

Just like the title suggests, we’re dealing mainly with the subject matter of cursing in Celtic contexts. The “Celtic” in question is primarily Gaulish to start with, before moving to Brythonic areas (particularly the evidence from Bath), and then Irish evidence. Some Scottish and Welsh gets a look in, but that’s mainly incidental, to be honest. Other kinds of magical practices are considered too – ones that might also share some sort of similarities with cursing that might indicate common origins in practice, or perhaps even direct influences. In these cases we’re especially looking at Irish evidence like gessi and lorica prayers, and things like the Song of Lugh and the Morrígan’s (or Badb’s) prophecy from Cath Maige Tuired. Gessi and loricae get chapters to themselves, but things like the prophecy and the Song of Lugh get a few pages or so in the penultimate chapter “Incantations.”

The first part of the book primarily deals with the Gaulish evidence while the latter half concentrates more on the Irish and (to a lesser extent) the Welsh evidence, although there are frequent cross-overs. As far as the Gaulish evidence goes we’re primarily looking at defixiones, and Mees argues that while the practice certainly owes a lot to Classical influence, Gaulish defixiones also bear the hallmarks of “indigenous” beliefs at play as well. This is mainly borne out by the fact that Gaulish defixiones are often metrical, where as they aren’t in Classical practice. Mees also points to the fact that the Irish word for charm or incantation, bricht, also refers to poetic metre of eight syllables, implying the metre itself was originally an integral part of magical charms, and the Gaulish word brixt which is clearly related to the Irish bricht suggests that the metrical element is ultimately a Celtic feature of magic in general.

This is where the slightly provocative part comes in; from the beginning Mees makes it clear that he views the evidence as a continuum between the earlier and later evidence – i.e from the early evidence in Gaul to the later evidence in Ireland. In supporting this theory, Mees sets out to show coincidences and possible continuity in the evidence (like with brixt –> bricht) in order to argue that such practices bear underlying “Celtic” features. I’m sure there will be strong critics of Mees’ idea, and I think it’s safe to say that some points are more convincing than others. One of the quibbles I had is that in some places there is very little discussion of the kinds of issues affecting the sources we’re looking at, and it seems assumed that because it is written, it must be authentic and representative of actual practice. Given the amount of issues that affect Irish myth in particular, this could have done with being addressed in a bit more detail than it was.

All in all it’s a fascinating read and the author gives plenty of examples of curses in discussing the kind of forms they took, the context they were found in, and the features that could be considered to be specifically “Celtic” or specific to a particular Celtic culture and why that might be. In most cases the original language is given alongside with a translation, which is extremely useful, and considering the fact that the language can often be very obscure or difficult there’s good discussion of how the translation was arrived at, and the kinds of symbolism and meaning might lurk beneath the technical terms used. You also get the delights of the kinds of phrasing that people chose to use – one Gaulish example invoking a curse on various things belonging to their intended victim, including their lunch box.

A bullaun stone, Inis Cealtra, by Lindy Buckley

A bullaun stone, Inis Cealtra, by Lindy Buckley

For the most part we just look at what the curses say and what that tells us about cursing and concepts like fate or destiny that must be manipulated in order to effect the curse. This is extremely useful in itself, but I couldn’t help but feel that it would have been more useful with some discussion of the religious context they were performed in – not just how the curses were made, who did them, and so on, but also the underlying cosmological and religious concepts they drew on. There is some discussion, but more would have been better. I was also slightly disappointed about the fact that bullauns don’t get a look in – or really any kinds of more modern “pishrogues” and folk practices. Cursing wells get a brief mention as the final chapter, but that’s about it.

There really isn’t much else like this out there that’s so readily accessible, so in many respects the few negatives are forgivable because it’s very much a beginning in looking at this sort of subject, and there is only so much you can fit in to one book. As far as things Gaelic go, the chapter on “Breastplates and Clamours” has a lot to offer, and so do the chapters on ”Geasa and Binding” and “Incantations” (in spite of my aforementioned reservations about how the myths are approached). In a lot of the Gaulish curses there are deities that are called upon that results in good discussion that I think will be of interest – for Ogmios in particular.

If you’re at all interested in how magical practices might look in a reconstructionist context then I’d highly recommend it. I’ve not seen it going for very cheap but if you can get your hands on a copy then I don’t think you’ll regret it.

The Good People: New Fairylore Essays
Peter Narváez (Ed.)

The Good People edited by Peter NaváezThe short version: This is a really good book and I’d recommend it to anyone. Be prepared for a dense read, though, but bear in mind that since this is a collection of essays you can dip in and out of it as you like. It’s a much better read if you have a good grounding in the basics, so it’s the sort of book that’s good for when you want to go beyond the basics.

The long version: I think there’s something for everyone here, and right off the bat I would say that I’ve found this to be an incredibly useful book during my researches for various different articles. Three or four of the essays have been particularly useful, while a few more have been a very interesting read in general. Not all of the essays are in my areas of interest, but some of them had a lot more to offer than I anticipated and they’re well worth taking the time to read even if the subject matter doesn’t immediately grab you.

There’s a good spread of essays and different subject areas tackled, and one of the most interesting areas for me was examples of folklore survivals in Newfoundland; the diaspora is not something I know too much about, so that was particularly illuminating, and I think it can be safely said that anyone who tells you that the daoine sìth don’t travel are full of the proverbial…There are a good selection of essays on Ireland and Scotland as well, and as far as looking for evidence on pre-Christian survivals in Ireland, Ó Giolláin’s ‘The Fairy Belief and Official Religion’ is especially good reading. Margaret Bennett has some good offerings as usual, and there is also an article on the differences between witchcraft and the charms of the wise-women and wise-men who act against witches, which is extremely useful.

More recent permutations of fairy and folk belief are dealt with as well – the essay on the Cottingley Fairies fraud was interesting, looking at the claims and the reality surrounding the famous case, and the implications as far as survivals in fairy belief are concerned, etc. While it isn’t particularly relevant to my own interests it’s a subject I kind of grew up with, so that was a good read. All in all, though, this section was the part of the book I’m left feeling not especially enthused about – aside from the fact that my son’s just lost his first tooth and the essay on the Tooth Fairy was topical, it’s not the kind of thing I’m particularly interested in studying. The articles are good if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for, but I have to admit that things like UFOs have never been topics I’ve found fascinating, really. I’m not sure I can do that section justice in review.

What really sells the book for me is everything but the latter part of the book, to be honest. Being a thoroughly academic tome some of the articles are surely a bit too dry for a spot of light reading, but I wouldn’t say that this is a book that really needs to be read from cover to cover. I don’t think you’d regret it, but certainly you’d still get your money’s worth from it if you bought it just for the value of having it for research purposes, to dip into. Using the Google Books copy to search for whatever you’re looking for is especially handy.

Being academic, there isn’t much in the way of romanticism about the daoine sìth or anything like that. The contributors almost all approach their subject from a very detached view (Margaret Bennett is always an exception, though, I think), so of course you’re going to be reading very objective and analytical essays that rationalise the beliefs. I can imagine that some people might find this rather unsympathetic, but I think I’m used to that kind of thing (and it’s not that the authors don’t have a point really – from an objective point of view, stories about the daoine sìth really can be seen as tools as much as tales of real or imagined experiences).

You should be able to find this book at a reasonable enough price, and it’s definitely one I’d recommend unreservedly for the bookshelf; no, it won’t answer every question you have, and it’s not the sort of book that makes a good, basic introduction to the subject, but it’s great for when you want to go beyond those basics. It’s not a book I’d necessarily recommend for beginners, then, unless you really have a thing for academic articles (whatever floats your boat, m’kay?), but it’s certainly one you’ll want to get hold of at some point.

Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past
Edited by Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm

Understanding Celtic Religion by Katja Ritari and Alexandra BergholmI think I’ve mentioned wanting this book a couple of times before here on the blog, but thanks to the price tag – £95 (and not much less second-hand) – this is not a book that I’m ever going to be able to afford. I expect the same goes for a lot of people, which is a real shame because it’s a seriously good read.

I really do understand that books are expensive to produce and a profit is difficult to come by on volumes like this, but I do wish there was some sort of happy medium to be found. The price tag unfortunately means it’s really only ever going to be something you’ll find in an academic library, unless second-hand prices come down. Seeing as the book was only published last year I was surprised and pleased to find it available at my university library, so damn skippy I’m borrowing it.

So with the whinging out the way I’ll get onto what the book actually is: It’s a collection of articles that were originally presented in 2008 at a colloquium in Helsinki, and (as the title suggests) they’re all looking at various aspects of what we might call “Celtic Religion.” There’s a very critical approach throughout the volume, and the topics include a focus on how approaches to “Celtic” religion have changed and evolved over the years (i.e. is there a Celtic religion?), what the material we have available can actually tell us about religious belief, and the way historical approaches to those beliefs evolved as well.

All in all this is a pretty slim volume with only seven articles, so it’s a fairly quick read and not as much of a hard slog as most books like this tend to be. There are obviously some articles that grabbed my interest more than others, but one in particular that seemed rather incongruous when grouped together with the rest; this one dealt with purely Biblical material, and while it was a good read in itself it seemed rather out of place with the rest.

The first article, from Alexandra Bergholm and Katja Ritari, asks “‘Celtic Religion’: Is this a Valid Concept?” (Short answer being no, not really) and it does a fantastic job of introducing the rest of the book in general, but also giving a very brief and critical overview of the issues involved in undertaking such studies. This is the kind of important stuff you want to have a good idea of if you’re going to make your own study of the field.

Next up is Jacqueline Borsje’s “Celtic Spells and Counterspells,” which focuses mostly on Irish material but with some other examples brought in for comparison. Not only is her analyses of these “spells and counterspells” fascinating, but she uses them as a frame for discussing how we can use the historical sources to learn what we can about pre-Christian beliefs – what they can and can’t tell us, what we can even if it’s not stated explicitly, and so on. Again, this is really good, important stuff even though some of it may already seem pretty obvious to you.

John Carey’s “The Old Gods of Ireland in the Later Middle Ages” is also a solid contribution, and it kind of picks up on some elements Carey covered in his first chapter of A Spear of the Sun and then expands on them, namely how the scribes of the Middle Ages dealt with the gods and grappled with their identity and place in a Biblical scheme. In some ways this may be a topic that’s been well-covered already, but I found some bits and pieces here that added to my understanding of the subject and were of genuine interest. Along with Borsje’s article, I’d highly recommend a read.

The next few articles were interesting to me but I didn’t feel they added as much as the previous ones in terms of religion or myth specifically. Even so, Robin Chapman Stacey’s article on “Ancient Irish Law Revisited” had some good stuff with applying the same sort of critical approach to the law tracts as Borsje did with her chapter, so if that’s your thing I’d recommend adding it to your list of things to read.

The final chapter, however, is one of the chunkier articles in the volume, and I thought it offered a lot of good food for thought. This one is Jane Webster’s “A Dirty Window on the Iron Age? Recent Developments in the Archaeology of Pre-Roman Celtic Religion,” and it begins with a (fairly provocative, perhaps) quote from John Collis that states, “I am sceptical that there is anything we can label as ‘Celtic religion.'” The chapter is a nice bookend to the introduction from Bergholm and Ritari, and Webster contributes a critical look at what archaeology, specifically, can offer us, as well as what it has offered us in the past. She begins with a broad overview of recent archaeological developments in the field, detailing the various approaches and interpretations that have been taken to the material, using some of the bigger names in archaeology as examples for critiquing and explaining further. We then move on to look at the limitations of archaeology in terms of how it can’t give us much certainty or specifics about druids, or issues around sacrifice, and so on.

As the first volume in a new series (titled “New Approaches to Celtic Religion and Mythology”) I think it’s a really good start and I look forward to seeing the rest of the series come out and exploring other areas in more detail. To be clear, this is not a book that’s going to give you a detailed description of what “Celtic Religion” looked like, which I’m sure is going to be frustrating to some if you go by the title alone. The book doesn’t really offer much in the way of certainties at all, but it does offer something that’s all too often lacking in “Celtic Pagan” spheres, and that’s an emphasis on critical thinking and approaching the material on its own terms. It’s a real shame that the cost of the book is so prohibitive because for that alone I really would recommend you read it if you can get hold of a copy. If you have access to a library that can get hold of it for you then I think it’s definitely worth a try.

Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales 700-1700
Mark Williams

Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales 700-1700 by Mark WilliamsI don’t usually pick up books that deal mainly with Wales, but having seen a preview of some of it online and then finding it at the library, why not? The Irish stuff certainly whet my appetite.

This is a book that fills a much-needed hole, covering not just astrology, but the way in which magic and certain forms of divination are shown in literature, and the kind of writers or places that may have influenced such portrayals. A little bit of eschatology gets thrown in too, looking at the end of the world or the apocalypse, so it’s all good as far as I’m concerned. These aren’t things you see being dealt with very often.

The Irish chapters, which concentrate mostly on divination and eschatology as well as the evidence for an ‘Irish astrology’, inevitably deals with druids as well and while they aren’t the main focus of the book, what you’ll find here is good stuff, and I’d say a must-read. Every now and then I see questions about the use of the word ‘magi’ as an equivalent to druids crop up, and this book deals with the evidence showing that it really does relate to the druids, and that the connotations and connections between the two are significant. I suspect some folks might be disappointed by the conclusions that are drawn here, though: the main thrust of the argument is that a lot of how the druids are portrayed in Irish literature has been influenced by the works of non-native sources, especially Isidore of Seville, who was very influential in the way attitudes about magic and such evolved in early Christian Ireland. The arguments presented here offer some good food for thought, even if it might not be quite the taste you were hoping for. It’s kind of inevitable when dealing with this stuff.

For the most part I’ve got no real quibbles – my old tutor gets a mention so some of what’s presented here is already familiar to me, especially in relation to the story of the Death of Conchobar (brings back good memories…), and some old favourites like In Tenga Bithnua (‘The Evernew Tongue’), part of the Irish apocrypha, get a mention too. As far as astrology and the kind of bonkers and out there stuff that The Evernew Tongue deals with in particular, I do wonder if there was more fodder to look at in this area; it would have been good to see a bit more background and discussion on this kind of thing but I suppose there are only so many things you can fit in without going off on long tangents. There are some good references I’d like to hunt up, so I’m sure I’ll be more than entertained when I get round to it.

My only real disagreement in the Irish chapters is in the discussion on the Morrígan’s prophecy. The author comments that the Morrígan is “the divinity of carrion and carnage” and that “she is a strange figure have deliver the first, positive, prophecy” (p30) in Cath Maige Tuired. I think when you consider that the first, positive, prophecy gives the view of a land in peace, plenty and harmony (which in Irish mythological terms would be the result of a good king ruling over the land), while the second prophecy gives an extreme view of the opposite – a bad ruler – it underlines the tale in general; the suffering caused by Bres, a stingy and inhospitable king, as a result of the Tuatha Dé Danann having to remove their ‘good’ king Nuadu. The removal of Bres and the ultimate healing of Nuadu restores good order, but the spectre of an unjust ruler is never far off. The Morrígan, as a shadowy and unpredictable figure in the tale (until the Dagda secures her help for the Tuatha Dé Danann) could easily be seen as representing the land and its changing state, according to who is ruling over it. An idyllic land of peace and plenty, or an apocalyptic one are pretty much two sides of the same coin.

Otherwise, my only other lament is that there are frequent references to the story Forbius Droma Damhgaire (‘The Siege of Knocklong’) without any decent English translation pointed to or offered. I’m sure this isn’t the author’s fault – there must be a reason he only references Marie-Louise Sjoestedt’s French translation! But it’s frustrating to see references to a tale you can’t really read in its entirety, and if there was a chance of providing a translation that would’ve been most welcome (there’s a translation by Seán Ó Duinn that I’m aware of but aside from being extortionate, I’m not sure if the translation is reliable enough for academic use…).

Skipping backwards a little, one thing that set me in a particularly good mood was a short overview of Why Robert Graves Is Wrong in the preface; it isn’t just critical of Robert Graves’ “idiosyncratic treatise” (a good way to describe The White Goddess, I think), but it also points out the shortcomings of Peter Beresford-Ellis’ own critique of the subject, ‘The Fabrication of Celtic Astrology.’ This is invaluable.

After the first two chapters that deal with the Irish material (‘Celestial portents and apocalypticism in medieval Ireland’ and ‘Druids, cloud-divination, and the portents of the Antichrist’) comes a change in focus and a switch to Wales. Here we find Taliesin and Geoffrey of Monmouth, Morgan Llwyd and a little bit of John Dee amongst other things. These chapters would probably be of interest to anyone with an interest in the Welsh side of reconstructionism, for sure, and I particularly found the chapter on Taliesin and Geoffrey of Monmouth to be good food for thought as far as how ‘authentically pagan’ some of what we see here might be. There are lots of references to poetry, with excerpts and translations included here, so there isn’t the same niggle about references to things that aren’t otherwise easily accessible as I had with the Irish chapters.

All in all, this is a book that would certainly come in useful if any of the subjects dealt with are your kind of thing. I wouldn’t say this book is for the beginner but I’d definitely recommend it for someone who really wants to get stuck into the nitty gritty. It’s a shame the book is so expensive because it’s something I’d otherwise want for the bookshelf, but such is the way of things in academia these days, I suppose.