Thursday, 17 August 2017

Book Review: Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration

Back in June last year, my father-in-law died very suddenly. I posted about it a while ago, and as anyone who's lost a parent or significant figure in their life will know, it's not something that's always easy to deal with. It's a terrible loss, whether it's imminently anticipated or not.

My father-in-law was unfailingly generous and accepting of others into his family, and he was kind enough to leave something for his children and their spouses with the stipulation that we should use at least some of it to buy ourselves something "selfish," instead of doing something boring and sensible with it. Naturally I immediately trawled Amazon and bought a shit ton of books.

In his honour, I ended up getting:

  • Ireland in the Medieval World, AD400-1000: Landscape, Kingship and Religion – Edel Bhreathnach
  • Introduction to Early Irish Literature – Muireann Ni Bhrolchain
  • The Kingship and Landscape of Tara – Edel Bhreathnach
  • Classical Literature and Learning in Medieval Irish Narrative (Studies in Celtic History) – Ralph O'Connor
  • Early Christian Ireland – T. M. Charles-Edwards
  • Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland (Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic) – Andrew Sneddon
  • Approaches to Religion and Mythology in Celtic Studies – Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm
  • The Scottish Witch-Hunt in Context (Studies in Early Modern European History) – Julian Goodare
  • Celtic Curses – Bernard Mees
  • Celtic Christianity and Nature: The Early Irish and Hebridean Traditions – Mary Low
  • In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature – J.P. Mallory

Some of these I've already read but had to return them to the library and I really wanted a copy of my own. One of them I swear I already bought but couldn't find it, so decided to replace it.

I'm slowly working through the pile (I won't necessarily read them all, but I intend to get through most of them) and without further ado, here comes the next review:

Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration
John Waddell

I've not read any of John Waddell's books before, but I did enjoy his article on 'The Cave of Crúachain and the Otherworld' in the Celtic Cosmology book. He's also got some fascinating lectures you can watch on Youtube, which he credits as being the "motivation" behind ultimately producing the book I'm reviewing here. For the most part, though, I ordered this one after my interest was piqued in seeing it referenced more than a few times in another book I'd been reading and thought it might be worth a look.

As the title suggests, we're looking at the points where archaeology and myth collide here, so in some respects it covers a similar sort of ground as Mallory's In Search of the Irish Dreamtime (that I've just reviewed) in discussing the two. On the whole, though, Waddell's interest isn't in looking at whether or not the archaeology can support the myth, or vice versa (as Mallory does), but instead he tries to combine the two strands to paint a more comprehensive picture of a whole, focusing on various aspects of pre-Christian belief and practice. In this respect, I think they make a nice complement to one another, but would also say that this particular book is probably going to provide more immediately satisfying material to Gaelic Polytheists who want to focus more on exploring concepts surrounding religious belief and practice.

I think it's safe to say that Waddell comes from a very different school of thought than Mallory does, being far more invested in solar mythology/deities and, in places, a keen interest in bringing in comparative examples from other Celtic cultures or Indo-European evidence. Shades of Miranda Green surface with the solar stuff and it's really not something I can ever get on board with, but I found it wasn't too difficult to read around those bits. As much as I might disagree, it's always good to read views that oppose or challenge your own, sometimes.

The book brings together everything in a fascinating way and I think it's definitely going to be a good read for Gaelic Polytheists. Waddell focuses especially on the mythology and archaeology relating to some of the best-known ritual sites in Ireland (Newgrange, Rathcroghan, Emain Macha, and Tara) and tackles matters surrounding sacral kingship, sovereignty goddesses, cosmology, and the Otherworld (his chapter, 'In Pursuit of the Otherworld,' nicely complementing the article from the Celtic Cosmology book I linked to above, and covering similar areas). His descriptions of the sites – what the archaeologists found in their excavations, and how those findings have been interpreted – are easy to understand, even if you don't have a background in archaeology.

There's some genuinely interesting stuff here and I particularly enjoyed the second chapter, 'The Otherworld hall on the Boyne,' where Waddell focuses on Newgrange and its related monuments in the area, as well as its association with Bóand, the Dagda, and their son, Óengus mac Ind Óc, and its possible cosmological significance. The later chapters that cover various aspects of sovereignty (goddesses, sacral kingship, ritual sites involved in inauguration, etc) are also good, and I especially appreciated the discussions on the "horse cult" as it relates to Irish kingship. I'm not entirely sure that "cult" is the right word, to be honest, but it is something that lurks in the background of kingship, and it's not isolated to Ireland alone – it seems to be a genuinely "Celtic" concept, and it often gets overlooked so it's refreshing to see the subject being discussed in more detail than it usually is in books like this, which tend to focus more on sacred marriages and sovereignty goddesses and not much else. That, too, is focused on, though.

The last chapter focuses on sacral kingship and draws heavily on Gaulish examples of "princely" burials in discussing some key themes of pre-Christian belief and the concept of "decommissioning" a king, which are demonstrated in the elaborate burials we find in Gaul, but only really hinted at in Ireland. Waddell is careful to make it clear that the "princely" label isn't exactly helpful (just because the burials are rich and elaborate, it doesn't mean they're royal, and the label is unnecessarily distracting and potentially misleading...), which is important. Normally I'm not so keen on such a heavy reliance on bringing in comparative material, but aside from the fact that I found it all genuinely interesting, I think the chapter did a really good job in providing some food for thought on the subject, and in linking it all back to Ireland. Sometimes it's refreshing to step outside of your own comfort zone and look at things a little differently.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book, in spite of my strong disagreement with the reliance on solar mythology and symbolism. Although it's pretty short it provides some good food for thought and it's one I'll certainly be coming back to when I'm doing research on various subjects. It's a good one for the bookshelf, and it definitely isn't one that requires an academic level of knowledge or an in-depth background in Celtic Studies – it's aimed squarely at the academic and non-academic, and welcomes a broad audience. Nonetheless, I think you'll get more out of it when you have some background reading under your belt so you can take your own critical view of the ideas and concepts that are outlined here.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Book Review: In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature

In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature
J.P. Mallory

I've previously reviewed another book by the same author – The Origins of the Irish – and I really really liked it (for its witty and engaging tone as much as the content in general). So in some respects it's hard not to compare the two, perhaps especially so when this particular book has been written as something of a companion piece to the first one.

Back in the 1960s Kenneth Jackson came out with the idea that early Irish literature provided us with a "window on the Iron Age," since (he argued) the tales preserved pre-Christian beliefs and concepts that had been passed on by an oral tradition that valued consistency and integrity of the content it conveyed. While Christian elements had been added, strip them away and you could get something close to the pre-Christian original...

It's an idea that's been much-debated in academia since, and Mallory himself has weighed in on the subject previously, in an article in Ulidia ("Windows on the Iron Age: 1964–1994"), as well as his Aspects of The Táin (as the editor and a contributor), for example. Dreamtime, then, is essentially an expansion of his previous work, taking a critical look at what the literature tells us about material culture (and to a lesser extent, beliefs), and whether or not the archaeology supports what the tales tell us. For example, tales that take place at well-known sites such as Emain Macha or Tara give the impression that these places were occupied as (essentially) royal centres in the Iron Age. They also mention things like weaponry that we might assume are indeed Iron Age in origin, if we can actually assume that the tales were composed in that time frame and were never changed to any significant degree.

I'll try not to give too many spoilers here, but the results that Mallory outlines may or may not shock you, depending on what your opinions are on the matter... Regardless, it's pretty thorough and convincing.

For the non-expert, the book does a good job of giving an introduction to the major elements that you need to know in order to form your own opinions (if that's your thing) and keep up with what's going on – the history of the manuscript tradition itself, an overview of the stories, and the context in which they were written. Then we focus on the major areas where archaeology and mythology collide, so we can explore how the two may or may not match up. This includes material culture in general (clothing, dyes, jewellery, games, etc.), warfare and weaponry, transport, the landscape and environment, and matters surrounding death and burial, based on what we see as archaeologists, and what the literature tells us.

It's an interesting idea for a book and over all it does a good job of proving its point. The first few chapters, with the introductory material, really runs the risk of being overdone and boring but Mallory's wit and engaging style really helps to put a fresh spin on things. Like his The Origins of the Irish, we're introduced to a character who helps take the reader on the book's journey. In Origins, it was Niall of the Nine Hostages, our quintessential Irishman, while here we have various incarnations of Katu-butos, Cattubuttas, or (ultimately) Cathbad – a theoretical fili, or professional poet and tradition-bearer, who would have been responsible for telling the stories we're dealing with. The different names relate to the different linguistic periods we're dealing with – Proto-Irish through to medieval Irish, based on the evidence we have to hand (linguistic, literary, archaeological, though primarily the latter two), and thus the audiences the storyteller is targeting specifically.

Over all, I found some parts of the book more interesting to read than others. It got off to a great start, and it takes an unusual approach in looking at the Lebor Gabála (for example) and emphasising its supposed historical context for each of the invasions the story outlines, based on the Irish annals. Creating an explicit timeline for that is pretty interesting when you compare it to what was actually happening at the time as far as we know from the archaeological record, and it helps set the tone for what we find in later chapters. It's all very thorough, but in doing so I felt that some of the later chapters got bogged down in details I wasn't particularly interested in, and it began to drag a little. To an extent that may be because the subject matter was something I wasn't overly keen on, but then again the writing did sometimes veer into simply listing facts, rather than commenting much on them. Even so, that didn't last for long, and even where I felt things got bogged down I can definitely see that if anyone's interested in the finer points of life in the Iron Age or early medieval period, this is absolutely invaluable – or if you're a fiction author looking to write an authentic period novel, or a re-enactor of some sort, say, then it has almost everything you need to know about where people lived, what they wore, and what they ate, and so forth. And of course, it appeals to the geeks and nerds like me.

Considering the scope of the book, it more than fulfils its stated aims, and it really does offer a lot to the reader. It's also rather unique in its focus and the information it gives, and I can certainly appreciate that. Books like this – presenting reliable, factual information that's easily accessible and (mostly) engaging to the non-expert as much as the expert – are few and far between.

Whereas Origins offers a far broader scope, Dreamtime narrows in on a more specific area and offers a lot more detail. The title of this particular volume, as you might gather, takes inspiration from the Australian aboriginal peoples, "who recognized a sacred time in which both the natural world and human culture and traditions originated and that these beginnings still resonate in the spiritual life of people today." Mallory sees a similarity between these aboriginal stories (their purpose and aims) and this concept, and the myths of the Irish that survive into modern times. I see his point even though I wonder about the value in bothering to use the term in the first place. He recognises that appropriating (or mis-appropriating) the term may not be the best way to frame the Irish traditions we're dealing with here, and he apologises for that, but nonetheless ultimately can't resist the concept. I do wonder why he bothered, given the fact that he acknowledges the potentially problematic nature of it, but I'm not Australian or Aboriginal and I don't really feel qualified to condone or condemn on that front. Still, I can't help but feel that choosing such a title both detracts and distracts from the contents of the book as whole.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy it, and I think it will be one of those books that I'll come back to time and time again. It's not always easy for an archaeologist to really delve into literature and give a decent, critical overview of it, as well as the issues surrounding it (Miranda Green...) so Mallory deserves recognition for that. But more than that, it's just a good read.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Book Review: Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth

As I mentioned in my last post, I was lucky enough to be offered a review copy of Mark Williams' new book. This is a first for me – usually my reviews come from books I've either bought or borrowed from the university library (including Mark Williams' previous book, Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700-1700). Another first here is the fact that my website, Tairis, gets a footnote mention in the penultimate chapter (of an actual book!).

I'm honoured to have been offered a review copy, and I think it's only right and proper to be up-front about these things lest I be accused of having something to hide or undue bias. With that out of the way, let's get to the review...

Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth
Mark Williams

So we'll start with a quick overview of what this book is about... On the face of it, the aim is simple: To trace the evolution of the gods of Ireland throughout history, from the very earliest evidence through to the modern day.

As you might imagine, if you want to achieve this in any kind of thorough way, you're not going to do it in a few pages: More like 570+ (which for the price, is a bargain, really). Given the huge scope of the book it's split into two parts, with both of them having a very different focus from the other. The first part concentrates on the very earliest evidence through to the Middle Ages, and the context of their portrayal during a time of conversion and then, later, established Christianity. The second part has a more contemporary focus in looking at the way the gods were (essentially) rediscovered by the early Celtic scholars at the very dawn of Celtic Studies (as an academic discipline), and how they were then adopted by the movers and shakers of the nineteenth century Celtic Revival, and into the present day.

If the former is more your area of interest then the latter may not muster much enthusiasm in you – and vice versa – but the result it actually quite fascinating, and it's just one of the many things that make me so enthusiastic about this book. One thing part two hammers home is how much the Celtic Revival, and those early academics, has influenced out modern perceptions of the gods, whether we're conscious of it or not. In general, it also helps that the writing isn't dry and dense; there's a dry humour, and it's easy to get swept up in the arguments put forth.

There are a lot of books out there that talk about the literature in the context of how they were produced; how the monks who recorded them may have changed things, left things out and whatnot. This has been done many many times, and of course it's an important part of the conversation when you're talking about this kind of thing. What those books don't tend to do is explicitly lay out how that treatment may have changed over time and link it to how the gods are portrayed as a result, in a straightforward, linear fashion, or discuss what that can tell us about them. You might find articles and case studies, but I'm hard pressed to think of something that compiles it all into one volume outright. This is exactly what Williams aims to do, using examples of particular myths to make his points. I think in doing so he raises a lot of important questions and implications that we – as Gaelic Polytheists – would benefit in thinking about and discussing (I'll get to some examples in a minute, though). The same goes for those more interested in the academics or the literature for literature's sake.

The first half of the book is packed full of things that will be of interest to Gaelic Polytheists, and I think it offers a lot of good food for thought. The first chapter (which you can preview here) gives an overview of the kind of evidence we can draw on in finding the gods, and gives a kind of case study of two different deities – one of whom survived into the manuscript tradition (Lug), while the other didn't: *Loigodeva, who lends her name to the Corcu Loígde of Munster. Straight away we're reminded that the evidence is, in many respects, rather arbitrary. We see what remains, but we don't know how much was lost. It also stresses the localised nature (or origins, more to the point) of the gods.

Further on it's suggested that the story of Dian Cécht's murder of his own son, Miach, in Cath Maige Tuired, is a later addition to the tale (and I think John Carey's comments in A Single Ray of the Sun, where he points out that the first recorded deaths of the gods only start appearing in the tenth century or so, a century later than the bulk of CMT was written). The discussion of the tale here is fascinating, picking up on points – like the way the tale mirrors so many elements in so many subtle ways – I'd never considered before.

Part one finishes with Williams pointing out that after the Middle Ages we enter into something of a wilderness, as it were, where the gods "fade" until we come to the nineteenth century. It's not that they're forgotten, as such, but by this point their divine nature isn't especially relevant. On the face of it he's not wrong, but I think it would've been useful to have some discussion of the Historical Cycle – which emphasises the role of the sovereignty goddess – and how that concept became so important in the aislinge poetry of this period, due to the political climate of the time. As the book itself shows, the popularity of certain deities ebbed and flowed over the centuries, and if anything I think the big thing about this period was that the Tuatha Dé Danann were sidelined by the desire of Ireland's greatest poets to assert their nation's sovereignty, drawing on their mythological heritage.

In part two we delve into the world of the early academics of "Celtology" (as Celtic Studies was then called), the Revivalists who followed, into more contemporary literature, music, art, and Celtic Paganism. What really stood out here was the discussion of how the Revivalists essentially "adopted" Óengus mac Ind Óc and turned him into the quintessential "love god" as he's so often called today. I've long wondered about how – and why – that happened, when it's not really reflected in the myths as a whole. Off on a tangent from this, as Yeats' wonky efforts at filling in the gaps that were left in the myth of The Wooing of Étaín shows, this section can be taken as a lesson in the limitations of "reconstruction" (in whichever sense of the word you want to consider – academic, literary, mythological, religious...), especially when we blind ourselves to anything other than our own biases. A complete version of the tale wasn't available until the 1930s, and so Yeats was working on limited information. As a result, he assumed that Étaín left Midir to be with Óengus because after all, we alllll know he's a love god, right? How wrong he was!

My biggest quibble with the book comes with Chapter 9, which turns its attention to Scotland, and how figures such as William Sharp (better known as "Fiona Macleod") followed in Macpherson's footsteps and adopted the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann as their own. There's also some discussion of the more influential folklore collectors of the day – including, of course, Alexander Carmichael. The "pagan nature" of Shony and Bride can be found here as well, and it's this part in particular that I felt was dealt without as much nuance as elsewhere; excellent points are made, but I would have liked to have seen a more rounded, balanced discussion when there wasn't really much room to manoeuvre at all. There are other times I felt the same, but not to such a degree as here.

As we get to the present, Williams touches on Celtic Paganism, amongst other things (including some wonderfully bad poetry that includes the lines, "Leaning on sword-hilts, their great paps dark as warts/Within the gleam of breast, their scrota bulged in shadow.") It's refreshing to see something like Celtic Paganism – and Celtic Reconstructionism, for once – tackled in a book like this, not just at all, but without condescension or being patronising to boot. Once again we see the vogue for certain gods change as attitudes and influences do; whereas Óengus was arguably the most important and popular in the imagination of the Revivalists and beyond, even up until the late twentieth century, at the turn of the century we start to see goddesses taking over – the Morrígan, Brigid, and the Cailleach are now far more significant than any others today. It would have been nice to see this expanded on within the chapter – why is this the case? How did this come about? Perhaps this is fodder for another book.

It has to be said, this book is not a simple introduction of the gods in the Irish pantheon (if you can even argue such exists...) – the nuts and bolts of who they are, what they do, who they're related to, etc. If that's what you're looking then I recommend you look elsewhere. This is very much a literary, not literal, overview of how the gods were (and are) perceived. And while this book is definitely aimed at a more general audience than academics alone, I think at least a basic level of knowledge about Irish mythology and literature would benefit the reader. For the most part the book succeeds in introducing need-to-know academic concepts, movements, or jargon in a way that won't overwhelm the non-expert, and there's a handy pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book that will certainly be useful for a lot of readers, but the sheer size and scope of the book might be a little daunting for a total beginner.

Given the monumental aims and scope of the book, it's inevitable that some things didn't make the cut, and to be fair, Williams himself is well aware of this. While there may be room for so much more to be said, what you get here is a good start, and – to compare it with his first book, while I think that one deals with a more niche subject and fills a much-needed hole there, this one made me realise that there was a hole I never really knew existed in the first place until I was showed it. There's so much to talk about here, and it's only the beginning. I think Ireland's Immortals would do well to grace your bookshelves.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Tairis update: New page

It's been almost a year since I overhauled and updated the Tairis site, which was much-needed and very belated after a catastrophic outage that pretty much broke everything (while I was on holiday, no less...).

So last year, when I was updating and re-coding every single damn footnote by hand (never have I regretted my attempts at being thorough in my research more!), I decided that there was one page that wasn't really serving much purpose anymore – the "Article Downloads" page. I decided not to bother including it.

When I first made the page, there was no such this as and JSTOR didn't offer public access, so finding decent articles freely available to read was something of a rarity. As such, I figured it would be useful to make a list of articles I'd found that might be of interest to my fellow Gaelic Polytheists. By the time I got to updating the site last year, I figured there was so much more that was available now, it was too much of a big job to try and maintain that page.

Since then, I've had a change of heart – not least because I've been reading some new publications that I've been really enjoying. In particular, I've been lucky enough to get a review copy of Mark Williams's new book Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth (and I'll be reviewing it in due course), which has resulted in my spending a small fortune on even more books for my already over-stuffed bookshelves, alongside some furious googling to see if I can find some of the articles that are referenced in the footnotes (I've sadly not been as successful as I'd hoped to be...). At a certain point, it became clear that a new list of articles was going to be useful to me, so I figured might as well make a new one for the website.

So here it is: Articles.

I can't exactly call it "Article Downloads" anymore because the nature of JSTOR's open access is that you can view, but you can't keep, the articles that are made available to you. It's still an amazing resource, though, and signing up for a free account is easy enough (or it was when I did it...).

There are plenty of articles that I would recommend and list on the page, but I'm unable to. Unfortunately, not everything is freely available to read online if you don't have access via an academic institution; journals like Celtica, Peritia, Studia Celtica, Éigse, and Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie frustratingly don't offer much, if anything, to the great unwashed like me and most of you... For the remainder that is available, I've been pretty selective in my listing. I try to make sure that what's there is reliable and useful, and there's a lot more out there that isn't so reliable. If there's something you think is missing then I'd love to hear from you!  

Friday, 11 November 2016

[Link] A Gaelic response in support to Water is life. Water is sacred.

Many – even most – of you have probably heard about what's happening at Standing Rock, if you haven't been actively following it. The campaign by water protectors, trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, is ongoing. The consequences and impact of the pipeline actually being installed is going to be devastating, not just environmentally; the consequences and impact of the struggles so far are more than enough. Sacred sites have already been destroyed and desecrated by the pipeline, and that's only going to get worse. The peaceful water protectors and ceremonial elders, journalists and medics have been attacked by militarised police, and set upon by private security guards illegally using dogs. Meanwhile, efforts have been made to clear camps, resulting in sacred, ceremonial items simply being dumped by the police and private security firms.

Now, with Donald Trump (who has financial ties to the company in charge of DAPL) elected to serve as president come January 20, 2017, he's pledged to overturn the "roadblocks" standing in the way of "vital energy infrastructure projects, like the Keystone Pipeline..." and "lift the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion dollars' worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal."

It seems like the struggle is going to continue for a long time to come.

If you haven't seen it already, I urge you to head on over to the (amazing and wonderful) Cailleach's Herbarium and read their article:
The travesties that are happening around ours and others countries right now are many. We have fracking underway in England. We have the Dakota Access Pipeline company attempting to cut its way across the major, central rivers and aquifers of North America, including unceded Native American territory, sacred sites and burial grounds. We have displaced people from a war torn country homeless and in danger in Calais. All because of one thing. Oil. Democracy and human rights are being overturned in the wake of this monster. It has me thinking. What do our tales, as Gaels and Celtic descendants, tell us of the actions that are happening right now? What would our ancestors say? What would they do?

What would our ancestors say? It's a good question.

As Gaelic Polytheists the land, to us, is sacred, and so are the waters and the skies. The three realms are a fundamental part of our worldview. If we say the land and the waters are sacred but don't do anything to try to protect them in the face of environmental (social, cultural, spiritual...) disasters like Keystone or the DAPL, those words surely become meaningless.  

There are some good links at the bottom of the Cailleach's Herbarium article there if you're interested in offering support to those causes (and are able to, of course). Those ones, as far as I'm aware, are legit. Unfortunately, now that more and more people are paying attention to the situation at Standing Rock, there are a lot of "fundraisers" and "official t-shirts" out there on offer that are little more than fraudulent cash grabs; be careful who you give your money to, and make sure you do your research.