December 15, 2009
The Red-Haired Girl in the Bog: the Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit by Patricia Monaghan
Fantastic! In Patricia Monaghan’s various pilgramages to Ireland, she explores the landscape with dindsheanchas, traditional stories associated with places, many of which I’d never heard of. The anecdotes she shared of her adventures and people she encounters were interesting. She also includes many insightful commentaries about history and modern issues facing both Ireland and the rest of the world- from ecology and economics, to the survival of language and culture. Her descriptions of the land make you feel like you’re there. I can’t wait to travel to Ireland!
One critique I do have to give though, is that Monaghan cites a variety of sources, many of which are good but the scholarship of some are questionable. However this is more of a fun, casual read than a scholarly book, but there is a wealth of information here.
I’d also love to see similar books about Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall as well as non-Celtic nations.
Read July 2009
July 10, 2007
Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tene to the Viking Age by Michael Enright Four Courts Press, 1996
Lady with a Mead Cup is an analysis of the social/religious significance of a ritual in which the wife/lady/queen of a warlord offers a cup of mead to the members of a warband in Germanic and continental Celtic (Gaulish) culture. Actually that kind of relates to the previous book in that it’s focussed on warbands and their connection with seership, though it doesn’t discuss the Fenians.
Much of it was rather dry and hard to get thru so I skipped parts (mainly the big chunk in the middle about archeology), but there was some good info in there, especially about the role of sibyls/prophetesses in warbands, and later on in the book, the cult of the “Gaulish Mercury”, Rosmerta, and the connection between Mercury, Lugh and Odin and how the cult of Odin evolved in relation to the rise of the warband.
Whew! Now I’m going to take a break from all this heavy nonfiction and finish up His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. 🙂
(This is an older post- I just hadn’t finished it)
May 29, 2007
Wisdom of the Outlaw: the Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition by Joseph Falak Nagy
This is a fascinating analysis of stories about the childhood of the great Irish (and Scottish) hero Fionn MacCumhail. Nagy relates the themes in the Boyhood Deeds to other Fenian tales, revealing their structure and symbolism. Finn is a complex figure- an outsider who lives on the edge of society, in the wilderness, as well as a poet and seer- positions that were highly regarded, even fairly central to ancient and medieval Irish culture. Nagy examines the role the fennidi- bands of outsider warriors play by serving as gatekeepers to the otherworld- they protect civilized society from human and supernatural invaders, as well as gaining knowledge from the Otherworld. Finn’s family and foster-parents have an interesting influence on the path he takes- Finn’s father was a fennid as well, and his mother was the daughter of a druid- these opposing identities coalesce to create Finn. His foster-parents raised him in the wilderness, and taught him how to fight and hunt.
I found Wisdom of the Outlaw to be quite readable & accessible to the layperson for a scholarly work. I learned a lot about Fenian cycle of Irish mythology and how it relates to the culture, mythos and ideology as a whole.
January 11, 2007
The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland by Daithi O hOgain
I thought this was a very good explanation of ancient Irish religion. It would serve as a good introduction to those who are new to this area of study, as well as add to the knowledge of more experienced readers. O hOgain discusses the evidence beginning with preCeltic cultures, and gives his own interpretations. One caveat to keep in mind however, is that he has a tendency to emphasize solar mythology, which is a rather outdated Victorian conceit that most Celtic scholars have since rejected. While the sun was undoubtedly important to the ancient Irish, it was not the be-all and end-all of their religious worldview. He also likes to make arguments that various mythological figures are the same being. These points aside, there are a lot of interesting insights on the deities to be found and intriguing interpretations of the myths. He devotes Chapters 3 & 4 to the druids, giving detailed information on the evidence we have of their practices and teachings as well as reading in between the lines with comparison to other cultures.
September 6, 2006
Cattle-Lords and Clansmen: the Social Structure of Early Ireland by Nerys Patterson was one of the Celtic books that was recommended to me by online scholarly types. Even though I’m pretty used to reading academic books, this one was rather difficult and tedious to get through. She starts by reviewing and critiquing previous scholarship on what ancient/medieval Irish society was like. She notes that earlier scholars used innacurate translations, and until recently modern scholars did not like to use ancient Irish law as a source for evidence of social structure. Patterson takes a multi-disciplinary approach- using evidence from law tracts, other texts, linguistics and archeology. If like me, you are not interested in the nitty-gritty of law and social rank, skip the first couple chapters to get to the good stuff.
Ch. 3 is about the economics and material culture, and there are some interesting tidbits on the cultural associations of various animals, as well as their uses and roles.Ch. 4 is about how the Irish divided up land , which has some cosmological implications.
Ch. 5 Seasonal Rhythyms of Social Life, was very interesting and informative- it discusses how the cycles of agricultural, military and courtship/marriage/family activity interrelated to the seasons and festivals. The festivals, it turns out, are less solar than they are agricultural and tribal in nature.
This is probably better to read after getting through more of the earlier scholarship. One book you should read first is Celtic Heritage by Rees, which she cites a lot. Though it’s a difficult read, it is useful for understanding how ancient Irish society worked, how they related to the land, how they saw the world they lived in.