Celtic Myths (The Legendary Past) by Miranda Jane Green

Celtic Myths is a tiny book (only 80 pages including index) but it makes for an interesting and informative read if you are just beginning to read Celtic mythology.  Much of the information in the book deals with Irish and Welsh mythology.  The thing that I appreciate the most about this book is the Further Reading page at the end of the book just before the Index.

As with everything dealing with the Celts the author starts by telling us how we know about Celtic myths.  She starts out with a definition of mythology and myths and then moves on to discuss the time period that the Celtic Myths is discussing mainly from 600 BCE – 400 CE.  She also discusses the sources for the myths, which is always important.

The topics discussed in the book are the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Ulster Myths, some early Welsh myths, fertility, land, water, druids, sacrifice ritual, death, rebirth and the otherworld.  Then the book also discusses groupings of myths like the divine lovers, the sun and sky myths, as well as animals in cult and myths.

This book is not meant as the be all and end all of books on the Celtic myths, but rather a beginning.  It can be used by people who just want a glancing look at the Celtic myths, as well as people who are just starting out in reading the Celtic myths and want easy and understandable background on the subject.  So if you are interested in Celtic mythology (especially Irish) and want to know some of the main players in these myths this is a great place to start.

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Pagan Celtic Britain by Anne Ross

Everyone who studies Celtic beliefs knows that many aspects of pre-Roman and pre-Christian beliefs remain shrouded in mystery.  Ann Ross in this comprehensive book is trying to convince us, the readers, that neither the Roman invasion of Britain nor the coming of Christianity eliminated pagan religious practice.

Dr. Anne Ross speaks Gaelic and Welsh and writes from wide experience of living in Celtic-speaking communities.  She has studied and traced vernacular tradition, and she was formerly Research Fellow in Archaeology at the University of Southampton.  She is still researching different aspects of Celtic culture.  As can be seen from her credentials she is very capable of writing this book, however, this book was first written in 1967 and then re-published after review in 1996, so some information might be out of date.

In Pagan Celtic Britain, Anne Ross begins by telling us the scope of her study, her sources and the limitations of her study.  The major limitation of the study is the fact that the Celts did not leave any written records for us to find.  The sources that the author uses are archaeology, iconography, classical records and vernacular records.  From the onset she tells us the limitations of each of these sources.  Archaeology is limited by the way it is interpreted, one artifact cane mean one thing to one archaeologist and something totally different to another.  Iconography is limited in Britain by not being as comprehensive as the ones on the continent.  Two things limit classical records, the first is that enemies of the Celts write these records and the second limitation is that they did not REALLY discuss the religion and beliefs of the Celts in detail.  Finally, the vernacular records of the Welsh and the Irish are written hundreds of years after the fact AND they were written in Christian times so they have an agenda of their own.  The scope of the study is Pagan, pre-Roman, pre-Christian Britain.  The author tells us that she will combine all these sources to help give us a picture of what that time was like when it comes to the beliefs of the Celts.

In the introduction the author also gives us a definition of Celt and Celtic by explaining that it could mean different things to different people.  Then she gives us an outline of the history of the Celts on the continent, in Britain and in Ireland.  She also briefly discusses what she means when she says vernacular records of the Irish and the Welsh.

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the study of sanctuaries, temples and cult sites.  The author talks about all the different places that seem to be dedicated to goddesses and gods, from wells, springs, rivers, to groves, trees and even grave sites.  No discussion of these things is complete without a look at the people who officiated these sites and the rituals associated with them.  The druids or Celtic priests were mentioned in the classic writings and in the vernacular records of the Celtic nations but little is really known about them.  Most of what we have today come from the romantic writings of the 17th and 18th century.  Most is based on Masonic like and ceremonial magic groups.

The Celts venerated the head as a symbol of divinity and the powers of the otherworld, and regarded it as the most important body part, and the place where the soul resides.  The cult of the head is the subject of chapter two of the book.  The author tells us about the cult in both continental Europe and in the insular Celtic lands.  She talks about the different materials used to depict the head as well as the many different ways it was depicted.

Next in chapter three, the author talks about the Horned God in Britain.  It is said to be second in importance to the head cult in both the Continental Celts and the insular Celts.  Again the author tells us about the different depiction of the horned god and also other symbols of it like serpents and horned animals for example.

The tribal god of the Celts must at one time or another take up his weapons and adopt the role of the warrior and the warrior god is the subject of chapter four.  Through looking at iconography and epigraphy the author gives us different examples of tribal warrior gods in Britain and in which areas they can be found.

The next chapter deals with the goddesses of Britain.  It deals with them as a whole category, which inevitably will reflect to some extent the functions of the Celtic women in the society.  She deals with goddesses that have consorts and others with out.  The goddesses also reflect the economic situation of the people that worship them.

Chapter six deals with sacred and magic birds.  The author talks about the swan, the raven, prognostic birds, malevolent otherworldly birds, magic otherworld birds, the goose, the owl, the eagle, the crane and other long legged marsh birds.  She gives examples of gods associated with them, and she tells you where they are mentioned in the mythology and vernacular records.  A very interesting chapter to read.

Continuing along the same lines, chapter seven is about divine animals.  She begins by talking about gods that have animal parts, the cat, the divine bull, cows, boars, pigs, horses, stags, dogs, wolves, rams, snakes, dragons, bears, hares, and fish.  Again she deals with iconography, and mythology.  The aspects of all these animals and what they represent is very important.

The final chapter of the book discusses aspects of the cults native to north Britain.  In this chapter the author discusses the cults in Northern Britain before and after the Romans came.  She takes a specific look at certain deities like, Maponus, Belatucadros, Cocidius, and Vitiris.  It is a very interesting look for people interested in cults from that part of the country.

I suppose it was inevitable for the author to discuss the Roman counter-parts for the deities in Britain.  It did grate on my nerves a little though.  I do understand why she was doing it, I mean for people not familiar with the “Celtic Pantheon” it is probably easier to associate them with similar functioning gods in the Roman pantheon, not to mention the importing of Roman deities in to Britain after the Roman invasion.

The book is a great reference when it comes to what evidence we have of the Celtic religion, and a good starting point for more research.  The kind of book that you can refer to from time to time to find evidence of sacred animals and what kind of cults can be found in Britain.  A good reference book to have.

Celtic Heritage: Ancient tradition in Ireland and Wales by Alwyn and Brinley Rees

This is a book that I have read a couple of times before and a book that teaches me something new every time that I read it.  Some of the information in the book is of course out of date but that in no way detracts from the book or its importance in looking at the Irish and Welsh traditions.  The book is divided into three parts.

Part one is an introduction of the two traditions.  The introduction of the book focuses on one of the traditions in both the Welsh and the Irish nations, which is storytelling.  The authors discuss the importance of these storytellers in preserving folklore and stories that otherwise would have been lost to us in this day and age.  The authors also discuss the people who decided to write these stories down and why they decided to do it.

The second chapter of the book is divided into eight sections.  In the case of the Irish tradition it’s the traditional Irish tales that are grouped into four distinct cycles, and in the Welsh tradition it is the four branches of the Mabinogi, in the poems and stories of the Arthurian Cycle, in miscellaneous stories, and in poems.  The sections are a quick look at what constitutes the bulk of the Welsh and Irish Traditions, with an explanation (again a very quick one) of the major works that make up the mythology of the traditions and a comparison between the two traditions.  The authors find some parallels between the Irish and the Welsh traditions that are not readily obvious unless you are looking for them.  The authors describe the five successive groups of invaders that occupied Ireland before the ancestors of the Gaels came and tell us that the rest of the mythological cycle is about the last group which are the Tuatha Dé Danann.  Then they give us the parallel in the Welsh tradition, which is the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.  They then jump back into the Irish Tradition with the Ulster Cycle about a group of warriors and the main story in that cycle is the Táin Bó Cuailnge.  The next cycle to be discussed is the Fenian cycle, which is equated on the Welsh side with the Arthurian tales.  And finally the Historical cycle which is about kings and kingship.

Part two is made up of seven chapters and these chapters discuss the make up of the two Celtic nations from the standpoint of mythology.  It starts with Ireland and moves on to Wales.

Time and how it is measured is very important and for the Celts it seems it had other significance too.  This was the subject of chapter three.  The authors explained the concept of light and dark and how it played into the Celtic world-view.  Chapter three is a brief discussion of the Coligny Calendar and the division of the year in Celtic lands.  The Celts divided the year into dark and light and started their day from the night before.  The Celtic year is based on the agricultural calendar and their rituals were tied to it.  The authors also give a brief explanation of the four festivals that the Celts celebrate but also say that it is obvious from the Coligny Calendar the the solstices may have also been celebrated.  Boundaries were also important to the Celts be they property boundaries or natural man made ones.

The Celtic Traditions left us no preserved story of creation.  Yet in the Irish Tradition we have the Book of Invasions, which mixes biblical references with native teachings to try and explain the beginning of Ireland.  The authors recount in chapter four the arrival of the Sons of Míl to Ireland and how they met and dealt with the Tuatha Dé Danann.  They also tell us of Amairgen and his poems that embody the primeval unity of all things, giving himself the power of bringing new life into being and recreating the attributes of Ireland.  Through the judgment of Amairgen and the greed of one brother we have the story of how Ireland was divided into the Northern half and the Southern half and what each have symbolized.  It is interesting how these divisions persisted through out the Irish history.  The chapter also offers the characteristics of the five peoples that came before the Gaels and how Ireland gained its familiar features.  It seems to me from reading about the characteristics that they were setting the stage for the political and social standards and divisions that were to persist in Ireland until at least medieval times.  In this chapter as with others in this book the authors compare much of the Irish Traditions to those of the Indian Traditions with good reason.  Much of the two traditions can be compared to each other with success.

The following chapter talks about the Provinces of Ireland, how they were divided, and the functions associated with each Province.  It also talks about the attributes associated with them and where in the texts they could be found. It’s an interesting chapter because it gives you a sense of cosmology that could be used in ritual.  What was really interesting in this chapter is the discussion of where the fifth province really lies.  Is it in Meath or is it the second Munster?  Munster as a province is a law unto its own and incorporates all the functions of the other divisions.  A really interesting chapter also because of more comparisons with the Indian traditions, I’m always struck by the similarities between the two.

In the sixth chapter of the book the authors tell us that just because there appears to be divisions among known lines in the functions corresponding to the different directions it does not mean that the people in that direction are all in the same function but rather in each direction all the functions are represented.  Also within each function we have a hierarchy.  The same can also be found among the TDD.  Another thing that has to be taken into consideration is that everything in the Otherworld is inverted so our day is their night and our left is their right and so on.

The next chapter in the book discusses the center and its importance to kingship.  As well as how the feasts were celebrated and how the seating arrangements were made for the kings and their warriors.  It also shows us how certain kings were associated with the calendar.  The comparisons made to the Indian and Chinese cultures were really interesting and were a good way to explain how certain divisions in the center were made.

Chapter eight is concerned with the division of Wales.  The authors show a parallel between the people who settled Britain and the five invasions in Ireland.  We are also told that the first division of Wales was into North and South just like in Ireland.  Then again like in Ireland into five provinces or in some cases only three.  Each one of the provinces is also associated with attributes just like Ireland.  I’m not very familiar with Welsh poems or traditions but I’m guessing the similarities come from the fact that perhaps the origins for them is in Indo-European culture.

The final chapter in part two of the book is called numbers.  The chapter goes on to tell us of the re-occurring numbers in Celtic mythology, numbers like five, nine, twelve, seventeen and twenty three.  Each of these numbers is found in mythology either in the number around a king or person or even the invasions that happened in Ireland and so on.

Part three is made up of eight chapters and these chapters all tell us about the meaning of the stories we encounter in mythology.  Each chapter talks about a certain type of story in mythology.

The first chapter in part three takes us back to the first chapter of the book and to the storyteller.  This chapter talks about the way the storyteller memorizes his stories, in what groupings and why.  The authors tell us that there were many groupings and stories missing from these lists and that we shall spend the next chapters discussing the groupings and the stories in them.  The groupings are as follows: births, youthful exploits, wooing, elopements, adventures, voyages, and deaths.

Reading through the last chapters of the book is very interesting and if you are studying Celtic mythology then you must read that portion of the book.  That portion as I said before groups together stories that are similar to each other and talks about the attributes of each group.

The book as a whole is a good introduction to Irish and Welsh mythology.  If you just wanted a book that would give you a good idea of the importance of mythology in these cultures and their traditions then this is the book to read.  Again keep in mind that this book was written in the 1960s so some of the information might be a little out of date, but it still a good choice.

Celtic Language Celtic Culture Edited by A.T.E. Matonis and Daniel F. Melia

“Celtic” applies to a group of related languages in the Indo-European language group and the cultures that developed in the communities that speak these languages. Many people in the scholastic communities consider that Celtic identity is not based on genetics or “blood” but on being part of this linguistic and cultural grouping.

In the preface of the book the editors tell us that the book was compiled in honor of the achievements of Eric P. Hamp, and that the book can be considered to be a labor of love.  The book is a collection of essays written by Eric P. Hamp’s students, and people who were affected by his achievements.  The book is divided into five parts; the first is concerned with the Continental Celts and the Indo-Europeans, the second with the Irish, the third with the Scottish Gaelic, the fourth with the Welsh and the fifth part with the Bretons.

Part one consists of six essays, two of which are in German (I believe).  In order to understand fully the first essay in the book you have to have a working knowledge of Irish, when it comes to sentence structure.  This first essay is trying to prove or disprove the relation of proleptic object pronouns to the development of the placement of verbs in Insular Irish.  How is this related to the Continental Celts?  The author uses two Gaulic inscriptions to show the relation (and advancement) of the sentence structure between the Hispano-Celtic (Subject/Object/Verb) to Gaulish (Subject/Verb/Object) then to Insular Celtic (Verb/Subject/Object).  In the end the author concluded that there may be some relation but not to the extent portrayed by other authors.  The next essay is a short note on the Celtibri.  Basically the note poses the question, what is in a name?  Are the Celtibrians, two different peoples living mixed together (the Celts and the Inberians) or are they inhabitants of Spain (Iberians) that are Celts?  The author of the note makes a good point in that the name comes to us from the Greeks and we really don’t know what they meant exactly by it.  The next two essays are in German and unfortunately I do not have the linguistic skills to read them.  The fifth essay is a look at whether the similarities in some phrases between Indo-European peoples are ultimately genetic in character.  The author offers two cases, the first is an oath “I swear by the gods that my people swear by” and he shows how you can find it in Old Irish, Greek and Russian in the same form.  So he postulates that it could be an Indo-European way of oath forming.  The second case is the phrase “pillar of x” as in pillar of the community or pillar of Troy.  Here the author gives us the examples of the same formation of the phrase one in Irish and one in Greek, and one in old English.  Again he postulates that its origin is from an Indo-European formation of “Hero”.  Seeing patterns even when they are not so obvious is interesting and can help relate the languages to each other and to the Indo-Europeans.  The final essay in this section is entitled “Some Celtic Otherworld Terms” and just by reading the title I was hooked.  This happens to be the longest essay of the section and the author begins it with a discussion of whether it is advisable to see the Celtic peoples as one culture with a singular tradition when the two “majorly” Celtic cultures (i.e. Wales and Ireland) do not exhibit similar traditions.  In fact the author tells us, when you look at the Irish history you can barely see much evidence of what was considered Celtic (i.e. the Hallstatt and the La Tene cultures) and the same can be said of Wales.  All of which is true.  What we can say is that these two nations can be called Celtic because they all come from the Pro-Celtic branch of the Indo-European family of languages.  The author tells us that his specialty is Irish vernacular records and their influence on Welsh vernacular records, and he tells us that the conclusion he reached through a philological comparison is that most of the names in the Irish and Welsh mythologies are similar enough to have been ascribed to a common origin.  He gives the Otherworld as an example.  The author notes an interesting theory, that the translation of the Otherworld is actually a Christianized idea of this world that we live in and the other world.  In Welsh mythology Annw(f)n seems to be one kingdom which has sub-kingdoms that are fighting with each other over the title of The King of Annw(f)n while the Sìd of the Irish was a conglomerate of mounds that have their different kings and seem to be living in peace together.  The author thinks that they seem to be reflecting the state of each nation at the time these mythologies were written.  He goes into the possible origins of each name and how it was viewed in mythology, as well as possible locations, citing such authors as Carey, Koch, O Rahilly and O Cathsaigh who have written on the subject. A must read essay for all interested in the Otherworld and derivations of it.

Nine essays make up the Irish part of this book.  The first four essays of this section deal mostly with notes on the uses of certain vowels, consonants and combinations of them as well as searching through the etymology of words in Modern Irish.  They are interesting in that you can see the progress of the words or suffixes through the language and where they had come from.  I love the Irish language and reading about why certain words are written this way was fascinating for me.  The fifth essay in the section is very interesting.  It talks about a word “audacht” and its impact on stories from the Cath Maige Tuired and the story of Socht’s sword.  The word itself was thought to be of Latin origin but was proven to be of Indo-European origin by Eric Hamp.  The author then takes us through the two stories that prove the real meaning of the word.  What is even more interesting is that this relatively small word cares with it a huge meaning.  The wide range of semantics and meanings incorporated in the word “Noínden” is explained in the sixth essay of the Irish section.  The author tries to explain how one word could mean the many things it does.  It is the sickness that over takes the Ulstermen in the Táin and it is also a huge gathering of a great host, as well as a heroic deed.  The author along the way explains the illness of the Ulstermen, which the word is used to describe most often.  Then he explains the meaning in which it is the ritual of fertility and group initiation, and then he describes how it could be a heroic adventure.  This essay is a good example of how one word can incorporate so much in the Irish language.  In the seventh essay of the section the author explores the semantic fields of terms for ravens, crows, blackbirds, and other species of black birds in early Irish to underscore the mythological and religious dimensions of the linguistic usage.  It’s very interesting for people who are into the mythical and religious meanings of birds.  The last two essays of this section deal with poets and poetry, harpers and women in early Irish literature.  There is a wealth of stories and poetry in these two essays as well as explanations of the parts they played in the Irish society of the time.

The third part is made up of only three essays.  The essays were very interesting in that rather then talking about poetry or mythology they covered the language itself.  The first essay was about the historiography of the Scottish Gaelic dialect studies and how the combine Celtic studies with descriptive linguistics.  The second essay is about a construction in Scottish Gaelic that is used in poetry and prose, that is the use of the word (a) bhith to give an action an impersonal meaning.  The author gives a lot of examples from poetry because it is there that it is very clear.  The third essay is about a person who writes Scottish Gaelic without actually reading it.  Its interesting how she was able to do that and the author explains how it was done.

The Welsh part of the book is made up of eight essays.  The first essay discusses the positive declarative sentence in the White book version of Kulhwch ac Olwen in great detail.  I must say that some of it went over my head but it was still an interesting read.  The second essay in this section is by a name well known in the Celtic Mythology world and that is Mac Cana.  In this essay he discusses the sentence word order in Old Irish and compares it to Middle Welsh giving examples from myths.  To me it was a fascinating read.  The third essay takes the reader on a journey to discover where the Waterfall of Derwennydd is.  The author is trying to perhaps date a cradlesong that can be found in the Book of Aneirin.  Essay four is an interesting investigation of two verbs in the Canu I Gadfan, a Welsh poem dating from the second or third quarter of the twelfth century and preserved in the fourteenth century Hendregadredd manuscript.  The following essay is an interesting examenation of the problems relating to the composition of the Welsh Bardic grammars.  This is a must read essay for anyone interested in the subject or indeed interested in Welsh literature and vernacular texts.  For anyone who has read the early Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen essay six is important.  It talks about the hero of the tale and makes some interesting observations about him.  Essay seven is about a phrase in the story of Branwen that might actually be an Anglo-Saxon pun.  It’s amazing how this one word could cause so much trouble.  The final essay in the section is about Dylan Thomas’s “A Grief Ago” and how it ties into Irish Folklore.

The final part is made up of two essays.  These two essays are about linguistics in the first degree.  The first essay compares a Welsh adverb to a Breton one and the second gives us the simple tenses of a Breton verb.

The bibliography of Eric Hamp is added after the final section (Breton), it shows the extensive amount of wok that Eric Hamp has done in the field of Celtic culture.  It certainly is a fitting tribute!

As can be seen from the simple summaries provided above the two parts that had the most essays were the Irish and the Welsh.  This is probably because (and I could be wrong) of the fact that with these two the language is still spoken somewhat widely and there are much in the way of literary material to deal with.  Ireland and Wales have a tradition of vernacular material that is very impressive compared to any other Celtic nation.

The book is interesting in that it shows you that you can not really separate linguistics from mythology and poetry, which naturally leads to not being able to separate language from culture.  I would also venture out and say that to understand people you need to know their archeology, history, and culture.  Having said that I should also warn people that the book takes the language part of the title literally, if you are not interested in linguistics then many of the essays in this book if not all of them will be boring to you.  On the other hand you will also miss out on the mythological aspect of the essays, which the authors use the meaning of a word or name to explain.

Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland by Lisa M. Bitel

In the preface of the book the author tells us the time period she will be covering, which is early medieval Ireland, and the goal of the book, which is to sketch the gender system of the early medieval Irish Society. For her sources the author uses hard data about the land, then looks at poems, mythology, law tracts, and folklore.

The author looks at the size and distribution of Ireland’s population in the early medieval period and the general situation of women described in material terms and in the traditional historical terms of their legal situation. Then she describes the men who wrote the women’s stories and the nature of their texts. Only then does she start to look at the documents in which the women of Ireland are buried.

In the first chapter of the book Bitel builds a picture from archeology and legal tracts that is not favorable to women. Then she tells us that she is going to show us more to prove that this picture is not as accurate as it seems, just as the picture of Irish women as goddesses and queens is not entirely accurate either. She also describes how the literati of the Irish wrote about the women of the time and how conflicted these writings are. She describes some of the problems she faced while looking at her sources.

In the second chapter of the book the author discusses three genres of early Irish texts that discuss women. The first is laws of status, the second is wisdom texts and the third is secular narratives about otherworldly women. These genres were written by a group of educated men of Ireland and in it the nature and behavior of women are discussed. These texts were organized around topics or questions that these writers had and they were written around the same time from 700 -900 CE. These writings show that the women were considered to be other and otherworldly. They were different than men physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. They were both like and unlike men. It became obvious to me while reading the chapter that the literati did not put women in high status, but that these women were also able to fight these ideas with the help of men. They saw themselves as worthy but also separate.

The third chapter of the book tells us about coupling. It’s looked at from the legal point of view as well as the effects of it on the women and how that changes her status. The author looks at poems, myths, and legal tracts. It was interesting to look at the rules of coupling, the limitations of coupling and the effects of coupling. I think I would have liked to see a discussion on the different types of marriages available at the time.

The next chapter complements the previous one because it is about procreation. Bitel tells us how the literati viewed sex, how they thought of it and how they classified it. Good sex brought with it babies that enhanced the family unit and was welcomed by both sides of the family any other kind brings with it evil. Again she uses legal tracts and mythology to drive her points through.

Reading through chapter five it was hard not to feel the horror that the women of Ireland must have felt while they give birth. Everything about the child is controlled by law, and the women seem to give birth only to give the child away. It seems that a law tract by Saint Adomnán created motherhood for the women, which means that he gave them the legal right to raise their own children.

Chapter six talks about the other purpose of a union between a man and a woman and that is economy. The two would bring in land or wealth or even just labor to each other. They would pool their resources to make a household, and each one went about their gender specific work. The women might take care of the children, house, and farmyard, while the man went about his field work or if they were wealthy, he would take care of the land and laborers while she took care of the female work force. They were an economy onto themselves and that includes their children as well.

Chapter seven entitled Land of Women talks about the women as a group and how their reacted to each other as well as to the men around them. It describes the network of the men, and how the women relate to them, and then it describes what the women do when they are together. It’s an interesting look at the inside workings of women without their men around.

A lot was written about female saints, nuns, and priests’ wives, which is a surprise. Chapter eight discusses the religious women and how they were every bit as successful as their male counterparts. They did everything their male counterparts did and ran their abbeys very well. One of them, Brigit, was even made a bishop even though we are told that that was by mistake.

The final chapter is an attempt to put into perspective, the use of women in the mythological texts as queens and goddesses. It also explained the violence done against women in these texts. The chapter also talks about the Sheelanagigs and how they were turned into guardians of churches and why.

This book is, in my opinion, to be taken as the first step in a subject that so far has not been explored fully. It talks about a specific period, Early Medieval Ireland, and it does so in a very general but flowing manor. I would like to see further study on the matter, and hopefully a more expanded one. Lisa Bitel is an Associate Professor of History and Women’s Studies in the University of Kansas; so she knows the period she is talking about. It’s good to read that not all clerics in Ireland hated women and that not all men were complicit in putting the women down. I think the author has provided enough information to challenge the concepts put forward by modern medieval historians and also challenge the medieval Irish male ideas of female behavior. A must read book if you are interested in the lives of Early Irish Medieval women.

Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin

Nature and the Human Soul discuss the stages of development of humans viewed from the perspective of eco-soulcentric society.  The author tries to present how someone can move from an egocentric standpoint to a soulcentric one, or how to bring up a child to become soulcentric.  He uses his studies of the subject, and experiences of people he knows, as well as incorporating from the different eastern aboriginal cultures.  The author presents his developmental wheel in the hopes of cultivating wholeness and community in a world that seems to be moving away from that.  In my opinion the author failed miserably.

The first chapter of the book was deceiving in that it gave the reader the idea that this book was down to earth.  The author started his chapter with the usual idea that the earth was in jeopardy and that what we do to it as humans is the root cause.  Unlike other writers in the field he does not think that it has to do with science or industrialism but rather that people are not mature and are stuck in an egocentric adolescence.  In this chapter the author lays out his ideas on how to get a more mature earth population and the process by which he developed his wheel of development.  And the premises he is building his theories on.

The author in the second chapter is giving us HIS definitions of the terms he will be using and how he is going to use them.  This was a good idea to stop people from interpreting things from their own definitions and stance and so not getting what he is talking about.

Chapter three is an overview of the developmental wheel.  The chapter includes a brief overview of the four stages of the wheel; it identifies the transition stages and the stages that a mature human should go through.   And this is where the good points of this book stops.

The chapters that follow describe each stage to maturation, and for each stage you are given the tasks that need to be completed, the quadrant that the stage falls in and what is associated with these quadrants, the hemisphere of the circle that the stage falls in, the archetype of the stage, and the quadrant archetype, the gift associated with the stage, the center of gravity for this stage and finally how to move from this stage to the next.

I’ve decided not to recount what each stage is all about instead I want to talk about the problems that I faced with these chapters, and my impressions.  I have five major problems with this book, and to me they are fundamental ones.  The first is that the author is presenting a belief system disguised as a developmental wheel.  The second is that he is drawing on Eastern cultures to form this belief system.  The third is that he seems quite removed from the real world and talking mostly about a Utopia. The fourth is that he is assuming that everyone has a soul gift or soul destiny that has to be reached for them to be mature and that the Universe would not exist if there were no humans to acknowledge the Universe’s existence.  The fifth is that contrary to how he started out the book he ended it by saying that the root cause of all the earth’s problems are the industrial world and the scientific method.

Starting with the first problem, the author keeps referring to the Mystery that will be responsible for deciding when we transition from one stage to another.  To me that sounds a lot like a God that decides when we can do what; being a polytheist that goes against everything that I believe in.  A Mystery does not decide when I have matured or completed a task that allows me to transfer to the next stage I DO.

The second problem that I have is that the author keeps referring to cultures that are not western/European to give us examples of how close these cultures were to nature and how every rite they did was correct.  Every culture has its good side and bad side yet the author seems to be saying that the eastern cultures are the ones that had everything right while the western/European cultures had nothing to offer.  Surely he could have found some ancient culture in Europe or the west that offered a soulcentric example?  He talks about how the African tribes have rites of passage to adulthood, and he conveniently forgets that these tribes also circumcise young girls to signify their passage into adulthood.  These women have to suffer for the rest of their lives because of that.  Are we supposed to think that this is an example of a soulcentric society?  Another example he gives is that the Tawariq tribe in Africa the women when they are nearing their delivery date go out into the wilderness to look for a place to give birth on their own, without the support of their husband or other people, and when they give birth the child is not given to the father but kept with the women until a certain age, is that supposed to signify a soulcentric society?  Where is the father’s right to bond with his child?  And this child, how is it going to be a balanced human if he/she is only allowed to interact with one parent as it is forming its personality??  I believe the author has tunnel vision where the grass on the other side of the fence is greener.  Does our Western/European culture currently have its flaws of course, does that mean at it always had its flaws no.  If the author had taken the time to research he might have found a few examples to base his “developmental” wheel on (I’m sure he would have found a few examples).

Through out most of the book I had to resist the urge to through the book out the window.  There are many ideas in the book that are not very feasible for people who live in the real world to do.  For example, not every one has the choice to go out and live in an rural setting, most people have to work 2 sometimes 3 jobs just to put a roof over their heads, does that mean they are any less capable of being soulcentric, or that they don’t want their children to be so?  Most people won’t even let their children out of the house for fear of them being abducted or killed; does that mean they don’t want their children to be mature and soulcentric? He never once gave an alternative for these people.  What are they supposed to do?  How can they achieve the same goals without having to move to a rural setting?

The author assumes that everyone has a soul gift or destiny.  My question is why? I can understand wanting peace of mind but why would I want to box myself in an image of what I think my soul destiny or gift is?  Isn’t the whole point of being soulcentric is to be free to interact with the universe around you, to shape and be shaped by it?  I see my self as water or sand, taking the shape of the container I am in and interacting with it, and when that container changes so will my shape and form of interaction.  This is what I see being soulcentric is all about.  Then of course there is the author’s idea that the Universe would not exist if the humans did not perceive it.  How arrogant is that?  The Universe was there long before we were, and it will probably be there after we are gone (if we don’t destroy it with our arrogance first.)

The book just had to end with the idea that science and the scientific method has taken away all our awe of the Universe and hence our connection to it.  I happen to strongly disagree with that.  Science and the scientific method is a way to see just how awe inspiring the Universe is.  When you see how something works it makes you understand just how complex this Universe and everything in it is.  It humbles and inspires you.  Of course I won’t deny that we have become removed from nature and are no longer really connected with it, and I will lay SOME of the blame on the industrialization going on, but the real responsibility lays within us.  A murderer, kills using a knife, does that mean we blame the knife, or the person holding it and using it to kill?

The author did have a lot of good ideas, unfortunately as soon as he gave one he negated its effect with all the drivel he said after it.  I was looking at this book for implementation with Celtic spirituality.  Unfortunately for me I found nothing there that would help.   As I read the book, I asked myself where on his developmental wheel did I fall, in the end I had to come to the conclusion that I was no where, I do not agree with the original theories that gave birth to this wheel, and so I can not see myself anywhere in it.

Blood and Mistletoe: The History of Druids in Britain by Ronald Hutton

Ronald Hutton is presenting the outcome of his research into the subject of Druidry, which took place between 2000 and 2007. Unlike his previous book The Druids, this book is in depth, and its format is chronological, which gives the reader time to fully integrate and compare each time period to the one preceding it. It talks about the druids from the time they were first mentioned until the modern day. In the last statement of the introduction to the book, Ronald Hutton tells us what this book is really about from his point of view.

“In the last analysis, however, this book is about neither archeology nor Druidry, but about the British, and the way they have seen themselves, their island, their species and their world.” (Hutton, p. XV)

The first chapter of the book is a very interesting one as it discusses the sources that Hutton uses to discuss the Iron Age Druids. What makes this chapter different is that it doesn’t just tell you what sources he uses, but also puts them into the context of the works they were taken from. This makes it easier to assess whether they are a good source to use or a bad one. Consider here that all sources related to the ancient druids have problems; the trick is how to strip away the untruths or exaggerations to get at the truths. The sources include the classical texts, archeology, vernacular records from the Welsh and the Irish, and Ogham. At the end of the chapter you wonder if there was ever a group called druids in the Iron Age.

The second chapter is a recounting of the druids and what the people thought of them in medieval times. It was interesting to read how it was the Germans who first adopted the druids followed by the French and then the Scots. Ireland and Britain were a bit tough on the druids and alternated between revering them to dismissing them until the eighteenth century when they finally gained some traction in Britain and Ireland. This could be because in the Irish texts the druids were opponents of the Catholic saints and in England of the authors who first wrote about them the first confused them with other pagan priests, the second was an Italian who dismissed them and the third went mad before he could publish his manuscript and it remained unpublished for two centuries. It was not until the Oxford philologists decided to write about them and make them the center of learning, and then John Aubery associated them with Stonehenge and other stone monuments, that they started to take off.

In the third chapter of the book the author tells us that by the early eighteenth century all the circumstances existed to turn the druids into major figures in the national imagination, but they needed someone strong enough to make it happen and that person was William Stukeley. Stukeley credited Britain’s megalithic monuments to the ancient druids and because of his obsession with them he was a laughing stock in his old age. Stukeley in his early academic life in the 1710s and 1720s was considered an early forerunner of the discipline of archeology, but in the 1720s he became ordained in the Church of England and tried to fit his evidence from his digs with the church doctrines. To Stukeley the druids were supreme masters of the skill of designing temples that represented the true nature of the “World Soul” of ancient Platonic traditions. Stukeley published two works one on Stonehenge and another on Abury. These two works influenced greatly two other people who left their marks on their fields of expertise. The first is John Wood, who was an architect, he was the one most responsible for turning Bath into one of the most celebrated Georgian cities and the other was William Borlase, who was the father of the study of Cornish prehistory and natural history. By 1746 druids began in poetic verses, as nature priests or bards; Welsh poets to instill an idea of pride in the Gaelic culture used this haziness. I’d like to quote Ronald Hutton here because it says it all.

“In 1740 druids had been marginal figures in the imagination of the English and the Welsh; within fifty years they and their presumed monuments were virtually everywhere. They loomed out of books, strutted in plays, and peered through shrubbery.”

In the pervious two chapters we learned of the roles of three central players that successfully and cumulatively created the conditions for the druids to reappear; they are Aubrey, Toland and Stukeley. Ross Nichols in his history of the beginning of his Druid Order tells us that Toland began it on the instructions of Aubery and yet when we look at their private correspondences we see no evidence of that. It seems that the story Ross Nichols gave of he beginning of the circle of the Universal Bond in 1717 is a splicing of two different events. The first was in 1717 when a number of local groups met in London to form a common organization with a chief and ruling council, these groups were Freemasons. The second event was in 1792 when the Gorsedd of the Bards of Britain met on Primrose Hill at an autumn equinox. The British loved their clubs though, so it was inevitable that some would spring up around the druids. As it happened only 3 appeared, the first on October 15, 1772, when 18 of the most important inhabitants of the island of Anglesey founded an association to improve it socially and economically. It was a generous order that helped the people of the island and ended the way it began, with generosity. In 1779 a Society of the Druids of Cardigan was formed. It was designed to encourage the writing of poetry, and it lasted for only a couple of years. On November 29, 1781 the Ancient Order of Druids came into being, its first leader was Hurle and it was set up the same way as the Freemasons. It spread quickly and it was dedicated to music. In 1831, it had grown considerably and it changed its purpose to increasing the present and future welfare of mankind and to gain and spread knowledge. In 1833 a splinter group came away from the AOD and was named United Ancient Order of Druids both of which continued to thrive and became poised to become major contributors to Victorian culture. It should be noted that all the “Druid” orders of the time were pretty vague on being “druid’. They were more Freemason then anything.

Chapter five is one of the very interesting chapters of this book as it talks about one of the most controversial personalities that influenced “Revival Druidry”, Iolo Morganwg. He forged a lot of the manuscripts that Revival Druids use as guidance and he was the first in Wales to make up a full order around the Druids. He described the divisions of “ancient druid orders” and the rites preformed in them. He openly held rites and initiated people as bards. Iolo’s views were taken up and altered by Edward Davies, and due to some friction between the two Davies went on to denounce Iolo as a fraud, supported by people like John Bryant. The chapter was very interesting in that it showed just how Iolo manipulated people who trusted him as an authority to get them to publish his ideas. In the end though Iolo’s work was also his trap since he could not retaliate against the people who called him a fraud.

The next chapter, chapter six, talks more about the images of the Druids in Georgian England and especially about two men who have influenced it the most, William Blake and William Wordsworth. It seems that in the eighteenth century writers who tended to naturally favor religious ritual and a powerful clergy were inclined to admire the druids and present them in a good light, while those who preferred a religion based more on scripture and on evangelical preaching or resented pretentions of established churchmen tended to be hostile to the druids. William Blake in his poems followed this formula very well. He was hostile to the druids in his writings, at the same time making up a “new” history for Christianity making it seem like it started in England. Wordsworth on the other hand never offered a real opinion on whether the druids were good or bad, he presented the two sides of the story, the philosopher-priests and the priesthood that sacrificed humans with equal enthusiasm.

During the period between 1800-1870, the druids were portrayed in two roles, the first as patriots and prophets of British glory and the second as nature priests. The formations of clubs and societies bearing the name Druids continued from the Georgian era to the Victorian era, with one society for women springing up as well. Since the druids seemed to have dominated the scene in that period, it is only natural that they were portrayed in a variety of attitudes in literary treatments, like poems and books. It is noticeable however, that the most common way that the druids were regarded with was hostility.

During the nineteenth century Druidry and Wales became two faces of the same coin. This was thanks to Iolo’s influence that came through in two different ways, the first was through the literature that was inspired by his take on Druidry and the second was the use of his famous eisteddfodau. The ideas presented in the literature of the times were either inspired by Iolo or shared by him. The five main strands were as follows; the ancient druids were wise and high-minded people who believed in the one true god and in salvation, the detestation of the Romans who misrepresented the druids, that Christianity had blended with Druidry to give us the early British Church, the hatred of Roman Catholicism, and finally that medieval Welsh literature had preserved druidic teachings. There were some voices of criticism of the ideas put forward by Iolo and his many followers but they were not many, and Iolo was even defended by the established Church. It was also during this time that Myfyr Morganwg developed his concept of Druidry based on Iolo’s work, which was more pagan and he was able to worship out in the open. Myfyr had a successor in Owen Morgan who was a journalist but after Morgan died there were no successors and the order died, but not before he influenced some one else who did not consider himself a successor to Morgan but to Myfyr. This was William Price. Of all the people from the nineteenth century the only one that is well known for his flamboyant ways and his impact on social issues was William Price. The rest were only known among scholars or became footnotes in books.

The chapter entitled “The Downfall of the Druids” talks about how after being a dominant presence in British history for a hundred years, the situation changed suddenly from the 1860s onwards. There were always some voices that did not think that the druids were a major part of British history most of them were from Scotland and that didn’t change after the 1860s. What caused the big downfall was something that was inevitable in my opinion. The Danes discovered the three ages of Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, Darwin wrote his book “The Origin of Species” and archeology was being developed. Writers of the 1850s onwards knew that the druids could not have built the megaliths and archeology took care of the rest. Of course there were still misconceptions, after all archeology was still developing and so were theories of what is history and pre-history. A new view of British pre-history was being written with the druids being marginalized.

The next chapter in the book discusses the individuals and groups that still worked with the images of the druids, as they were when they were still popular. These individuals and groups still impacted their contemporary societies. The image of the druids as nature-priests underwent some development between the middle of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century. The places attributed to them (both man-made and natural) were given a sense of real sanctity and their religion was recognized as both genuinely pagan and having enduring appeal. This prepared Druidry for being a fully formed modern pagan religion at the end of the twentieth century. This was an interesting chapter because in it you could see the elements of what makes the Druidry of today.
Chapter eleven is called the Universal Bond and it talks about a druid order of the same name. Hutton traces the spiritual journey of its colorful leader and the role this order played in the history of Stonehenge from 1912 to 1931. The founder of the order, Reid, was a very pompous and greedy man who wanted more and more privileges from the people who owned or took care of Stonehenge. In the end his outrageous claims to history for his order and his attitude sabotaged his own order. In 1932 he stopped identifying himself as a druid and even changed his order’s name to reflect that change. This chapter is a good example of how one larger than life character can make history; the Universal Bond may have been a small order in numbers but its leader made sure it made a lot of noise. Its association with Stonehenge certainly made sure it was on the “druid historical records” of Britain.

After the death of Reid the Universal Bond was continuing to get the public’s attention more so than before. As Reid had abandoned the Druids of his group these druids split and formed a new group, which after the death of Reid re-took the name of the Universal Bond. The order caused a national controversy. It achieved an adversarial relationship with archeologists in a way, which reveals the nature of both. This relationship was not the same as before though because the druids, the archeologists and the parent society and culture had all changed in nature. This chapter was interesting as it explains the origin of one of the most famous of the “modern” druid orders the OBOD. It had an interesting look at the history of British archeology and the role they played in the fight for Stonehenge. It also gave us a small but illuminating look at Stuart Piggott and the reason he wrote his book “The Druids”.

The final chapter of the book was the conclusions that the author had come too, which were already incorporated within the previous chapters. I think anyone reading this book will come to the conclusion that not everything is as it seems. People from the modern druid orders might not like what they read in this book because it shows just how much REAL evidence we have for ancient druid orders and how the “modern” druid orders came about. The origins of some of the orders will certainly surprise the members who are in them now. This is an illuminating book that is a must read for anyone who is interested in Druidry and druids. As for the goal of the book which is a look at the British and how they saw themselves and their island I think that Hutton has done an amazing job of fulfilling that goal. I don’t think I will look at the British, the druids or the druid orders in quite the same way ever again.