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  Some of the information in the book is of course out of date but that in no way detracts from the book or its importance in looking at the Irish and Welsh traditions.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.


2 thoughts on “Celtic Heritage: Ancient tradition in Ireland and Wales by Alwyn and Brinley Rees

  1. Poochie O Shaugnhessay says:

    This is an excellent review from a knowledgeable reader. Please keep the celtic torch burning!

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