Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer

Religion Explained uses cognitive psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and evolutionary biology to explain to us the evolutionary origins of religious thought.

The interesting approach used by the author is unique.  He describes how the brain receives and organizes information to explain to us how religious thoughts came to be.  He believes that the explanation for religious beliefs and behaviors is to be found in the way all human minds work, not just the minds of religious people.  The author tells us that we have a brain that is prepared to acquire religion and transmit it.  That doesn’t mean that we have to have religion, just like having a respiratory system prepares us to have a cold but we don’t have to have it.  I thought this was a very interesting point that he made.  Boyer also makes the point that when trying to give a definition of religion we should make sure that it is general enough to apply to outside our own understanding of what religion is.  His chapters seek to answer questions like what is the origin, what supernatural concepts are like, what kind of mind does it take to see this, why gods and spirits, why do gods and spirits matter, why religion is about death, why rituals, why belief, and why doctrines, exclusions and violence.

The chapters are extremely informative in an easy layman manner.  It encourages slow reading because as simple as the concepts and ideas are they are also very complex.  They challenge the reader to think outside of their comfort zone.

This is a book that might anger a lot of people who believe and if you are brave enough to read it then please keep an open mind at all times.  The author asks a question and answers it in a manner that you may have answered the same question (sometimes his answers were verbatim what I answered) and then he goes on to tell you why these answers though comfortable are wrong.  He does not ridicule anyone nor is this the object of the book, but some people might view it as such.  This book is a challenge that will change the way you think about religion.  I know that I have a lot to think about now.

Beyond the Mist by Peter O’Connor

Beyond the Mist is a book that intrigued me from the moment I read a synopsis of it on Amazon.  It is a book that is written by a psychologist called Peter O’Connor.  I really wanted to see what psychologist had to say about Irish Mythology.

In the preface of the book the author tells us that he is approaching the subject as a student of mythology who happens to be a psychologist rather than an expert on both mythology and psychology.  His hope is that the world of Irish mythology will re-orientate our thoughts to the imaginal and re-establish a sense of awe, uncertainty and mystery concerning the human psyche.

Chapters one and two set the stage for the rest of the book.  Chapter one gives us a little background on how mythology and psychology are connected and some of the theories from the famous names in psychology like Freud and Jung.  The author delivers the best explanation of mythos and logos that I have ever read.  His definition of myth is one that I absolutely love and agree with.  He also laments the fact that people have elevated logos above mythos.  Chapter two is a little bit of history and everyday social circumstances of the Celts to get a background on the people we are going to “analyze” through their myths.

The next ten chapters look at the cycles of Irish mythology, and at the main characters and events in it through the eyes of the psychoanalyst that is Peter O’Connor.  The chapters are interesting with interesting points of view on what these myths could mean for us today.

In the final chapter, the author tells us why he doesn’t talk about the Historical cycle of Irish mythology and concludes the ideas he put forth in the ten chapters before.

I absolutely enjoyed reading this book for two reasons.  First I was able to see the application of theories of mythology (psychology theories) on Irish myths, which is very rare (at least I’ve never seen it before).  And second because the myths were shown for what they could mean to us today, and what we could learn from them as modern people. 

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Irish Folktales (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library) Edited by Henry Glassie

Irish Folktales is a book edited by Henry Glassie, who is a college Professor of Folklore at Indiana University.  The book has 122 tales divided into categories.  The categories themselves sometimes have sub-categories.

The categories are:
1. Faith with the sub-categories of saints, and the priest and his people.
2. Wit with the sub-categories of the wise and the foolish, wits and poets, tall tales and outwitting the devil.
3. Mystery with the sub-categories of death and tokens, ghosts, away, encounters with Fairies, Fairy traits and treasures, enchanted nature, illness and witchcraft and strange sounds and visions of war.
4. History with the sub-categories of ancient days, war, rapparees, and later days.
5. Fireside tales with the sub-categories of Fenian tales, maturity and wit and faith.

The book itself though starts with an introduction.  The introduction talks about how the editor got interested in the tales he is bringing to us in the book and he gives us a look into a little bit of how the study of folklore came about which was very interesting to read.  Through it he establishes the rules behind recording these tales and how to go about doing it.

The tales are very enjoyable and can be used as stories for the kids (as I found out from experience).  The fact that there are 122 tales, was interesting cause I found myself going through them very fast and in the end thought, huh, there is no way they were 122, they had to be much less.  I loved the book, and I loved the style of the writing as well as the divisions of the book.  A great addition anyone’s library.

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Early Irish History and Mythology by T. F. O’Rahilly

Early Irish History and Mythology was published in 1946.  It was a time when not a lot of work was done on Celtic mythology or religion.  It is an out dated work that inspired many scholars to follow suit and start the boom in the study of mythology.  This is a book that has to be read if you want to follow the progress of theories about the Celts, and also because at the time this book was written nothing could match it in terms of scholastic effort or content.

O’Rahilly is concerned mainly with the early history of Ireland in this book.  The book confines itself to the history of Ireland before the official introduction of Christianity in 431 CE.  The author’s main source for writing this book is the native Irish tradition, supplemented by the writings of the classical writers and linguistic evidence.

The book is impressive given the time it was written in and the information available to the author at the time.  Most of his theories are discarded now but how he arrived at these theories is just as interesting as the theories themselves.  This is not a book for beginners though because you’d need to recognize the discarded theories from the ones that are still viable.  A word of warning, this book is a bit of a dry read, but it is a valuable one to have nonetheless.

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Celtic Mythology by John Arnott MacCulloch

This book is a reproduction of the Celtic section of The Mythology of All Races, volume three of thirteen called Celtic and Slavic, which was edited by Louis Herbert Gray and published in 1918.  This section of the volume was then published as its own book in 2004.

The introduction of the book gives us a bit of the history behind the myths, and what the classical writers were saying about them.  He also tells us where he is taking his material from for the book and that is mainly from Welsh and Irish sources.

The book is divided a little differently then most Celtic Mythology books.  The chapters are divided into subjects rather than by countries and there are fifteen chapters in this book.  The chapters deal with the gods, and how they behave in different situations; they deal with myths of the “British Celts”, with the divine land, with mythical animals and beings, with myths of origin, with heroic myths, and finally with paganism and Christianity.

The book is a little out of date yet it is a good way to see the progress of the research into the myths of the Celts.  It is also a handy reference to have around because of the way the chapters are divided.  The reference section at the back of the book is impressive also.  The book however, is a dry read, probably because it was originally part of a larger piece of work.  Also, the last chapter about paganism versus Christianity bothered me a little.  I came out of the chapter with the thought that the author was biased against the spiritual relevance of the material he was discussing.

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Myths and Legends of the Celts by James Mackillop

Mackillop began his book with a very comprehensive Introduction.  It was so jam packed with wonderful information that it kept me wondering what the rest of the book was going to be like.  He started out the introduction by talking about the history of the Celts, and the controversy of whether or not they really existed as a people.  He explained in his easy way how that controversy started (without being petty about it and you don’t really get the sense that he thought it was a controversy, most people who don’t know about it wouldn’t guess he was talking about it), and why and then he explained how we should see the Celts and what defines them as a peoples.  The next part of his introduction is about the sources of our knowledge of the Celts, from the classical writers, to archeology to the vernacular records he explains it all in such easy terms for the beginner and the advanced reader will get a great refresher too!  He also explains the term Celtic mythology, and what is encompassed in this term, he also discusses something that is not usually discussed in books of this type.  He tells us the names and dates of the manuscripts that have survived of the Celtic myths and from which branch of the Celtic people it came.  Keep in mind all this is still just the introduction AND HE IS NOT DONE YET!  The final part of the introduction talks about the interpretation and reinterpretation of the Celtic myths, the theories surrounding them and he even gives us a taste of a little bit of theories of mythology in general to help explain the theories on Celtic mythology.

After the introduction the book is divided into three parts.  The first part is called Contexts and it has six chapters.  This first part gives you the background information you need to read the mythology.  It talks about Celtic deities, the Celtic religion and what we know about it today, sacred kingship in early Ireland, Goddesses, warrior queens, saints, Celtic feasts and Otherworlds.  Part two discusses the Irish myths and it too has six chapters.  It begins with the Lebor Gabála Érenn, then goes on to the Irish mythological cycle, continues to the Ulster cycle (devoting two chapters to it) and the last two chapters discuss the Fenian cycle and the cycle of the Kings.  The final part of the book is about the Welsh and oral myths and it has two chapters.  The first chapter is about the roots of the Welsh tradition and the second is about the survival in the oral tradition of the Celtic lands.

The end of the book has a beautiful selected bibliography but even more beautiful than that is the list of leading names and terms in Celtic mythology.  It gives short explanations of the names and terms, sort of like a glossary.

This can be easily called the best book I’ve read so far on Celtic mythology.  The author’s attention to not just the myths themselves, but the background behind them makes it an interesting and fact filled read.  You are not just reading a story you are also seeing the people behind them.

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Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions By Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson

In her introduction Davidson gives a short history of the three peoples she intends to talk about and compare, the Celts, the Germans, and the Scandinavians. The aim of the book is to look at these three peoples and use archeology, iconography, literature and folklore to explore their religious beliefs and practices. And bring this knowledge back to what it means to us today.

Through out her chapters she gives examples of how the three peoples are similar and in some cases the same when it comes to certain things in their religion like holy places, feasting, sacrifice, rites of battle, land spirits, ancestors, foreknowledge, destiny, the Otherworld, and the ruling powers. She also offers a conclusion at the end of the book to summarize all the chapters that came before. The list of references in the book are also VERY impressive. I do love a good reference list.

The book is a scholarly read. It is a bit dry but the information included in it is fresh, well presented, and well researched. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in any of the three peoples, because it talks about things together that not a lot of other books mention when talking about one of the peoples alone. It is a reference that you will go back to time and again.

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