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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