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.

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