Ancient Ireland: Culture and Society

I’m going to do something different today. I’ve reviewed books and websites before but this is the first time I review a study course.

The course is on the website Udemy The course is called Ancient Ireland: Culture and Society by Kevin Flanagan. Kevin Flanagan owns the website The Brehon Law Academy. The course is self-paced so you can take it in your own time.

I’m going to start with what I didn’t like to get it out of the way. I was hoping for a further reading file on every lecture or a big one at the end but there wasn’t one. I was also hoping for a bibliography or a works cited file but there wasn’t one either. A lot of the time I wasn’t sure where his information was coming from but he was very good at telling us where his quotes were coming from and the precise page in the book it came from. Finally, and this might not be important to everyone, there wasn’t any homework or quizzes to help me check my understanding of the lectures.

I really liked the course despite what I said above. I didn’t agree with some of what he said especially about the Tuatha De Dannan turning into the sidhe (it is not that simple) but for the most part his information is pretty sound. The subjects that Flanagan discussed were logical and grouped very well. They gave a good understanding of the Irish society and culture. I loved that he uses the Irish word for what he is discussing whenever possible. 

His sources for the quotes were a bit on the old side but they were sound for the subjects he was discussing. He has resources on each lesson that sometimes included articles off site or YouTube lectures by well known professors of Celtic studies along side his slides and wave files of the lectures themselves. Almost all of it is downloadable. 

Some of the subjects discussed in this course were the structure of Irish society, kings, warriors, women (I was very impressed with this subject as he gets it right), divisions of the land and the sacred sites, pagan religion, and burial rites. 

All in all I would recommend this course to people who are interested in a solid introduction to the ancient Irish culture and society, but as with everything…cross-reference, cross-reference, cross-reference.

How to Read a Myth

Title: How to Read a Myth

Series: Phylosophy and Literary Theory

Author: William Marderness

Publisher: Humanity Books

Published: 2009

ISBN: 9781591026402

Pages: 152, including notes, bibliography and Index.

Synopsis

Roland Barthes and Mircea Eliade pioneered two contrasting yet equally influential theories of myth. Until now, no one has successfully integrated Barthes’ interpretation of myth as a system of signs and Eliade’s interpretation of myth as a sacred narrative. In this important contribution to the study of myth, philosopher William Marderness proposes a comprehensive theory that accounts for the diverse interpretations of Barthes and Eliade, among others. 

Marderness articulates four ways of understanding myth: mythical reading (myth as truth), cultural reading (myth as cultural convention), extra mythical reading (myth as enigma), and mythological reading (myth as artifice). Through this interpretive framework, Marderness explicates portions of the Bible, Virgil’s “Aeneid”, Anchee Min’s “Red Azalea”, and Julia Alvarez’s “In the Time of the Butterflies”. Marderness shows us through diverse contexts how his comprehensive theory enriches our understanding of myth as cultural expression.
  

Review:

For a while now I’ve wanted to work on my study of the myths. I decided to begin at the very beginning. This books seemed like the best place to start. The text is made up of four chapters, an Introduction and a conclusion. The aim of the book is to offer a way to read and understand myths that accounts for different varied interpretations.

The first chapter explains the hypothesis that the author is trying to prove in his book. I found the whole chapter confusing, until I got to the last section entitled “Four Readings”, then it all clicked for me. Basically, when reading a myth four things need to be kept in mind. Mythical reading believes that the narrative is what it claims to be. The cultural reading accepts the narrative as literature and the myths that support it as cultural and religious conventions. The meaning of the myths come under the heading extra-mythical reading. Finally, mythological reading looks at two similar myths and tries to determine what narrative of the two is the accurate one.

The rest of the chapters take four examples and apply the method above to them. It works for the examples he cited. I decided to see if it worked for the Irish myths in the same way. For the most part it did until I got to the last part which is the mythological reading. In Irish mythology we sometimes have different versions of the same myth, and trying to say which one is accurate is not possible and counter-productive. Both can be accurate if we took them as versions of the myth coming from different provinces. 

How to Read a Myth gave me a lot of food for thought and for the most part proved to be very helpful in giving me a way to look critically at the Irish myths. It is a short read and an informative one. I would recommend it to people interested in different hypotheses of how to read myths, but approach it with the mindset that it might not work on all the myths.

Bog Bodies Uncovered

Full Title: Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery

Author: Miranda Aldhouse-Green

Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Published: 2015

ISBN: 978-0-500-05182-5

Pages: 223 including appendices, index, notes, bibliography, and coloured plates as well as black and white ones.

  
Synopsis: Some 2,000 years ago, certain unfortunate individuals were violently killed and buried not in graves but in bogs. What was a tragedy for the victims has proved an archaeologist’s dream, for the peculiar and acidic properties of the bog have preserved the bodies so that their skin, hair, soft tissue, and internal organs―even their brains―survive. Most of these ancient swamp victims have been discovered in regions with large areas of raised bog: Ireland, northwest England, Denmark, the Netherlands, and northern Germany. They were almost certainly murder victims and, as such, their bodies and their burial places can be treated as crime scenes. The cases are cold, but this book explores the extraordinary information they reveal about our prehistoric past.

Bog Bodies Uncovered updates Professor P. V. Glob’s seminal publication The Bog People, published in 1969, in the light of vastly improved scientific techniques and newly found bodies. Approached in a radically different style akin to a criminal investigation, here the bog victims appear, uncannily well-preserved, in full-page images that let the reader get up close and personal with the ancient past. 78 illustrations, 15 in color.

Review

There was a program I used to watch on the History Channel where a team of archaeologists, doctors and scientists would look at mummies and try to find out who they were, how they have lived when they were alive and how they may have died. This is exactly what Miranda Ald-house did in this book. 

The author looks at how the bog bodies were found and where, the circumstances of their preservation (i.e. the bog where they were found), who they may have been and their lives before they died as well as how they died. In the final chapter of the book the author tries to tie in these bodies with the human sacrifice aspect.

I think this is a great book to read because it has some interesting explanations on why the bogs preserved the bodies, and how some of these bodies lived and how they died. It looks at the question of human sacrifice in a logical way and comes to great conclusions. Plus it is not very technical, or boring. The book is set up like a detective story where the cases are cold.

Brigid

Name of Series: Pagan Portals

Full Title: Brigid – Meeting the Celtic Goddess of Poetry, Forge, and Healing Well

Author: Morgan Daimler

Publisher: Moon Books

Published: 2016

ISBN: 978-1-78535-320-8

Pages: 90 pages including 2 appendices, bibliography and endnotes. Text only 74 pages.

 

Synopsis:

Pagan Portals – Brigid is a basic introduction to the Goddess Brigid focusing on her history and myth as well as her modern devotion and worship. Primarily looking at the Irish Goddess but including a discussion of her Pan-Celtic appearances, particularly in Scotland. Her different appearances in mythology are discussed along with the conflation of the pagan Goddess with Catholic saint. Modern methods for neopagans to connect to and honor this popular Goddess include offerings and meditation, and personal anecdotes from the author’s experiences are included as well. Who was Brigid to the pre-Christian pagans? Who is she today to neopagans? How do we re-weave the threads of the old pagan Goddess and the new? Learn about Brigid’s myths among the pagan Irish, the stories of Bride in Scotland, and the way that people today are finding and honoring this powerful and important deity to find the answer.

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Review:

Another winner from Morgan Daimler. Though my complaint with these kinds of books will always remain the same [I WANT LONGER BOOKS!!!] but with the same simplicity of the Pagan Portals books.

Apart from the Introduction, Conclusion and 2 Appendices the book is made up of six chapters.

Chapter One: Meeting Brigid – In this chapter the author discusses Brigid’s relationships (who her parents might be, her husband, her children), associations (the other Brigids from the different Celtic cultures), and the many Brigids (Is Brigid one deity, three deities, or six deities?).

Chapter Two: Brigid by Other Names – In this chapter we start getting into the nitty gritty of Brigid. Daimler takes a look at Brigid in Celtic cultures. She starts with Gaul, goes on to England, then Scotland, then Wales, and then she discusses the Pagan Goddess and Catholic Saint.

Chapter Three: Brigid in Mythology – In this chapter Morgan takes us on a tour of the sources. She talks about where we can find Brigid not just in Irish materials but also in Scottish, Welsh, and Manx materials. I especially liked this chapter because I found myself looking up the materials mentioned and everyone knows how much I love discovering new (to me) sources.

Chapter Four: Symbols, Animals and Holidays – As the title of the chapter tells us, it talks about symbols, animals and holidays associated with Brigid. I also like that the author added in a section on divination because I’m always on the lookout for information on that.

Chapter Five: The Goddess in Modern Times – Flame-tending, offerings, altars, modern myths and a guided meditation are all things you will find in this chapter.

Chapter Six: Prayers, Chants and Charms – Apart from chapters two and three, this is my favourite chapter. I’m always looking for new prayers to add to my daily routines and this chapter did not disappoint, there is something in there for everyone.

This is a well written and well researched book, but that is what I always know is going to happen when I see Morgan Daimler’s name on a book. The text is something that anyone can pick up and read without any background knowledge and come out of it with more than they bargained for. But it is not just a book for newbies, it is also a book that someone who has been worshipping Brigid for a long time can pick up and learn something from or just brush up on something they may have forgotten. As with all of Morgan’s books she adds a touch of herself by giving us an insight into her own practice when worshipping Brigid, and truth be told this is one of my absolute favourite things in Morgan’s books. She is certainly brave in sharing her UPG with the reader and opening herself to criticism from the people who don’t agree with her (or heck with the ones that do but don’t agree with one of her interpretations!).

This is a great resource for anyone interested in Brigid and wants to learn about Her or unpack all that they have read about Her in books and websites.

An Leabhar Urnai A Book Of Celtic Reconstructionist Friendly Prayers

An Leabhar Urnaí: A Book of Celtic Reconstructionist Friendly Prayers

By Air n-Aithesc (Our Message) in Air n-Aithesc Press Books

92 pages, published 3/1/2016

An Leabhar Urnaí: A Book of Celtic Reconstructionist Friendly Prayer, was inspired by Ceisiwr Serith’s book A book of Pagan Prayer. This book offers prayers and invocations in Old Irish, Gaulish, with their English translations; as well as prayers in English to Welsh, Irish and Gaulish Gods. The authors and editor also took the time to add a little information on the Gods they pray too and the reasons behind writing their prayers or…

Understanding Celtic Religion

Full Title: Understanding Celtic Religion – Revisiting The Pagan Past

Series: New Approaches to Celtic Religion and Mythology

Editors: Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm

Publishers: University of Wales Press

Published: 2015

ISBN: 978-1-78316-792-0

Pages: 181 including Index, Bibliography, and notes after each paper.

Synopsis: (From back of the book) Although it has long been acknowledged that the early Irish literary corpus preserves both pre-Christian and Christian elements, the challenges involved in the understanding of these different strata have not been subjected to critical examination. This volume. Draws attention to the importance of reconsidering the relationship between religion and mythology, as well as the concept of “Celtic Religion” itself. When scholars are attempting to construct the so called “Celtic” belief belief system, what counts as “religion”? Or, when labeling labeling something as a “religion” as opposed to “mythology”, what do these entities entail? This volume is the first interdisciplinary collection of articles which critically reevaluates the methodological challenges of the study of “Celtic religion”, the authors are eminent scholars in the field of Celtic Studies representing the disciplines of theology, literary studies, history, law and archaeology, and the book is a significant contribution to the present scholarly debate concerning the pre-Christian elements in early medieval source materials.

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Review:

This book began as a two day colloquium in 2008. It is made up of an Introduction and seven essays, each one dealing with a different aspect of the Celtic religion.

Introduction: The editors in the Introduction try to put into perspective what this text is trying to present and that is the answer to the following questions: When scholars attempt to construct the belief system of the Celts, what counts as “religion”? Or, when something is labeled as “religion” as opposed to “mythology”, what do these entities entail? To what extent is it possible to attain the pre-Christian stratum through the extant textual sources which themselves present us with a mediated understanding of the religious traditions of the past? And what theoretical viewpoints or analytical tools could help towards a better understanding of the essence of the different strata usually labeled as “pre-Christian”, “Christian”, or “Celtic”? (p. 3) The Introduction then goes on to discuss the contents of the essays and what to expect from from the book.

There are seven essays in this book, each one is written by a scholar in the field they wrote about.

Celtic Spells and Counterspells by Jacqueline Borsje: The author of this essay begins by defining the term “Celtic Religion” from the point of view of Celtic Studies, and outside Celtic Studies. Then she gives her definition of the term and tells us that she will be focusing on the Irish forms of “Celtic Religion”. The author also explains how she is looking at the Celtic religion. Her field of study is religious phenomena in medieval Irish texts and the lens she is looking through is the methodologies and analytical tools she learned during her training as a theologian interpreting biblical texts.

I think the importance of this essay is not just with the uncovered content ( for example, Fír Fer, charms, and aspects of the Lorica) but how that content was uncovered and the methods used. The author gives us three methods and gives examples on each one. Another thing that is important about this essay is that it shows that you can’t just stop at one source to learn about the Celtic religion. You need to look not only to mythology for knowledge but also to Christian texts (like the lives of the Saints for example) as well as anthropology and other cultures that are relevant.

The Old Gods of Ireland in the Later Middle Ages by John Carey: The author of this essay talks about how the Irish Christians compromised to include pagan elements into their writings. He gives three example from three different texts as to how this happen. Carey discussed, using the three examples, the way Irish Christians dealt with the old Gods. The first was that they were humans with magical skills and that made them seem supernatural. The second was that people of the síde may have been “half-fallen Angels”. Those were the Angels that sided with Lucifer but didn’t fight God. And finally, they may have been an unfallen branch of humanity.

To me the importance of this essay is in the fact that the Irish Christians seem to want to include the old Gods into their traditions, and not just simply demonized them (though that also happened). It shows that the conversion from Pagan to Christian really did happen slowly and bloodlessly with elements of Paganism clinging till the Later Middle Ages at least.

Staging the Otherworld in Medieval Irish Tradition by Joseph Falaky Nagy: This essay is really about two things; the whole nativist/anti-nativist debate and performance in the Otherworld. Nagy used the first half of the essay to discuss the nativist and anti-nativist views of Irish and Welsh literary traditions. His idea is that we really can’t (and shouldn’t) dismiss either view, even thought he is obviously a nativist. He explained what each view can contribute to the study of the literature and how important it all is to the over all picture.

The second half was about music and poetry and how it was portrayed in the literature, and how it seems that the traditions seem to be saying that they come from the Otherworld.

I have to admit that the second half of this essay was just a tad confusing to me and I had to read it a couple of times to understand what exactly the author was getting at and I’m still not sure if I got it right entirely.

The Biblical Dimension of Early Medieval Latin Texts by Thomas O’Loughlin: In this essay the author argues that the biblical texts of the Early Medieval period should not just be studied only by theologians and historians of biblical exegesis, instead they should be studied by different disciplines and details teased out of them.

I agree with O’Loughlin that these texts need to be studied not just by the theologians and biblical historians but also by people in other disciplines. However, I’m sorry to say that that was pretty much all I got out of this essay. Either I just was not ready to read about this yet (which can and has happened before) or the essay was a bit above my pay grade.

Ancient Irish Law Revisited: Rereading the Laws of Status and Franchise by Robin Chapman Stacey: Stacey in this essay studies three Irish status tracts, Críth Gablach, Uraicecht Becc, and Míadshlechtae. She examines issues of gender, political space and symbolic landscapes.

This is a good study of how things were perceived compared to how they really were.

A Dirty Window on the Iron Age? Recent Developments in the Archaeology of Pre-Roman Celtic Religion by Jane Webster: In this essay Webster looks at the study of the Celtic religion through the lens of archaeology, and Irish and Welsh literature. She discusses how this approach needs to be modified with all the new archaeological finds of today and the finds from the Romano-Celtic period.

I think this would have to be my favourite essay of the whole book. It looks at things like archaeology and literature and new methodologies that can be employed to the study of Celtic Religion.

Over all this book is really interesting, and gives a lot of food for thought. This was my first read through of the book and I see a few more in my future. It was also in parts not an easy read, but well worth soldiering through.