Celtic Mythology by Proinsias MacCana


For a book written in 1970 it is still very much relevant today.  I’m not sure what that says about our study of Celtic mythology.  The book talks about all three branches of Celtic mythology, which are Gaulic, Irish and Welsh.

The introduction of the book starts out with a recounting of the history of the Celts, the conservation of their traditions, the sources used to make the study and the diversity of Celtic mythology.  The problems we encounter in studying Celtic mythology are pretty much the same as the ones that we encounter while studying the Celts themselves.  The Celts are not a one unified block, but they do share language, and cultural similarities, so the similarities in the mythology is also there even though on the surface they don’t seem to be similar.

The first chapter of the book discusses the gods as noted by Caesar.  The most important information of this chapter is in the analysis given by the author when he says “Caesar’s account has been impugned on two main grounds: first, that it implies, erroneously, the existence of a pantheon of gods worshipped more or less universally throughout Gaul, and, secondly, that it enunciates a clear differentiation of divine functions for which there is no evidence in Celtic tradition.” And those two points are the most important points of the chapter because they can be applied to the gods in Ireland, and Britain as well.

The next chapter is about the Tuatha De Danaan, and the stories around them like the Book of Invasions and the Second Battle of Magh Tuired.  What was interesting about this chapter was the author’s presentation of the Dumezil’s three-function theory and superimposing it on the Second Battle of Magh Tuired.

Chapter three is about the British gods or the gods of Wales and the stories surrounding them.  Chapter four discusses the goddesses of the insular Celts, and chapter five discusses the heroic tradition of the Ulster cycle and the stories associated with it.  In Chapter six sacral kingships is discussed, mainly when it comes to Ireland.  The chapter on the Otherworld discusses the feast of Samhain and the land of the dead when it comes to references in Ireland and Wales.  The final chapter of the book rounds up the topics discussed in the book and asks the question of how relevant that is today.

This book is a good starting point to learn about the important topics in Celtic mythology and some of the main stories and characters in them.  It is however, only a starting point.  I was a little disappointed as I thought this book would contain a little more when it comes to the Mythology of the Celts.  I thought a little more would be said about the cycles in the Irish mythology and more about the stories in the Welsh mythology.  I thought it was too brief for the subject matter and the author could have said much much more.

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