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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Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate by Jack David Eller

Introducing Anthropology of Religion is a book (or a textbook depending on how you see it) about the anthropology of religion.  The book studies religions from all over the world, both known and unknown, using six themes.  The themes are: diversity between religion, diversity within religion, integrating religions with its surrounding culture, the fact that religion is not a single, monolithic “thing” but a composite of many elements all of which have their nonreligious ritual, relativity of language and local and practiced nature of religion.  The author discusses topics like belief, rituals, myths, morality, world religions, violence, secularization, fundamentalism, and American religion.

The first chapter takes the phrase “Studying Religion Anthropologically” and breaks it down starting with “anthropologically” and ending with “studying”.  Anthropology of religion is the scientific investigation of the diversity of human religions.  The most important concept in this method is culture.  Anthropology adopts a position of holism, and in culture we have four areas of function: economics, kinship, politics, and religion.  Anthropology upholds the principle of cultural relativism, which means that each culture has its own standards of understanding and judging as well as language.  The author then goes on to define religion.  This of course is no easy thing to do, but he gives us this.  Religion is the discourse, the language and practice, or the means by which human society and culture is extended to include the nonhuman.  He also lists the six functions of religion before moving on to the “studying” part of the phrase.  In Anthropology “studying” religion means to “explain” it.  It means to construct a model of it, to identify processes or mechanism at work in it, and /or to give reasons for it.  Then he goes on to discuss the theories of religion put forward by theorists.

Chapter two is a discussion of belief, religious entities like spiritual beings, human spirits, non-human spirits and spiritual forces.  It also contains a discussion of cosmology and cosmogony, theodicy (explaining evil), human conception, birth, and death and end of time.  It is a very interesting chapter that I had to read twice to make sure I got everything the author was saying.

The next chapter, chapter three, looks at very interesting questions like is religion symbolic and what are symbols for?  It talks about sacred spaces, icons and idols, charms, masks, the human body, ritual objects and religious texts.  The chapter also talks about the different persons associated with religion like shamans, priests, prophets, witches and so on.

Chapter four is very interesting to me because it talks about myths.  The author discusses the myths as religious language, the types and themes of myths, the structural study of myths, myths as oral literature, as performance, and the power of words.

Ritual is the subject of chapter five.  It discusses all types of rituals and rites of passage.  Next comes morality and social order, then religious change and new movements, and a look at world religions and religious violence, fundamentalism, and religion in the USA.

The book is a must read for everyone who wants to study religion, and understand the importance of myths and rituals to it.

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Myth and Legend by Caitlin and John Matthews

I read this book in 2005 and then just put it away, not because it wasn’t any good but because at the time I wasn’t really looking at the myths and legends as anything more than entertaining stories. When I decided to write about the Celtic myths and legends critically I got out all the books I thought I would read and this one was among these books.

The aim of the book is to bring together the most famous of the mythic traditions from their source materials, without retelling but with new translations mostly from respected Celtic scholars like Whitley Stokes, Myles Dillon, Kuno Meyers, and Mary Dobbs. The Matthews decided that they wanted to use myths as opposed to folklore. Most of the myths come from Ireland because they have a huge corpus of myths. Wales has an abundant poetic corpus but not many myths, and Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany have many folk traditions but again no texts of deep myths. The authors, decided to divide the book into sections using not chronological order but topics the same way that the old poets and story tellers used to divide their material. The divisions of the book are as follows: invasions, conceptions and births, cattle raids, voyages, hero tales, dreams and visions, battles, wisdom and lore, sieges, burnings, and curses, love and longing, wooings, adventures, feasts and visitations, exiles, and deaths.

The book makes for a great read of course, the stories are very understandable and the chosen translations are among the best I have read. However, the main treasure of this book is the introduction that the authors have before each story. They give you the name of the story of course, then they tell you whether there are many versions of it, how old is the oldest version as well as the age range of all the versions, and they also tell you where these versions are housed currently. Let me give an example. The Book of the Takings of Ireland (Lebor Gabála Erenn), they are using a version that comes from the five volumes edited by R.A.S. Macallister between 1938 and 1956, the main manuscript sources are contained in the collections of the Royal Irish Academy and Trinity College, Dublin. They date from the 12th – 15th century. This is the kind of information that makes reading the myths so much fun (at least for me). Another thing that I loved about the book is the Appendix which has a story list of all the stories that go under the classifications of the book and that they could not include because of the limited space. This way if I wanted to read more I at least have a list to look up from. The glossary at the end of the book is a great help. It includes a list of the more important terms used in the text and the names of the most important people mentions with a pronunciation key and definitions of what the term is or who the person is. The bibliography is a beauty too, and makes it easy to look at where they got their sources as well as further readings should the need arise. A very impressive book and one that definitely should be read by anyone interested in Celtic Myths and Legends.

Celtic Myths and Legends By Michael Foss

Celtic Myths and Legends was first published in 1995 and it is a book of myths from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.  The book is divided into six sections each one dealing with a subject matter.  The first section is about who the Celtic are, the second is about the physical world, the Otherworld and the fate of mankind, the third section is about fables and talking beasts, the fourth is about Cuchulain, the fifth is about love, and the last section is about Finn Mac Cool and the Fenians.

So what do I like about the book?  The ease with which the stories are told, and the retelling of sometimes confusing myths in a way that us human beings can understand.  The fact that the stories are grouped in a way where subject and not origin that matters, and the fact that in the table of contents the stories have the places from which they originate clearly marked.

What don’t I like about the book?  There is no background story to the myths presented.  I don’t know which books they come from, how old these stories are if they are pieced together from different versions or if they all come from one single version.  I don’t know if I am asking too much here.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read great stories to themselves and their children.  I really enjoyed the retelling by Michael Foss, the way he grouped his stories to give a sense of continuity to the text as a whole and I loved knowing whether a story was Irish, Scottish or Welsh, but I also wished for…well more…