Celtic Flame: Insider’s Guide to Irish Pagan Tradition by Aedh Rua

This was a hard book to review, and after careful thought I decided to look at it on a chapter-by-chapter basis.  So this will be a VERY long review.  I had bought this book on the recommendation of a friend and because I had seen some of the author’s posts on one of the Celtic Pagan groups (who are very strict) I belong to and liked what he had to say.  Almost around the same time two other friends of mine whom I respect the opinions of in matters of Celtic books said that it was a horrible book, so I thought okay, the book either was full of wrong information or the author was touting something as authentic when it was pure UPG.  I postponed reading it for a whole year.  This month I decided to bite the bullet and read it.  So here are my thoughts on the book.

Reading the acknowledgements and introduction I learned a few things.  The author is not a Celtic Reconstructionist though he was influenced and had interacted and communicated with people who actually began the CR movement.  The book is about Irish Paganism as HE has been practicing it for the last 20 or so years.  So basically this was his UPG and if you choose to go on you (and I) should judge the book on the premise of it and how well he was able to defend his views.

Chapter One: A Living Tradition

This first chapter gives you the aim of the book: an introduction to Irish Paganism as the author has practiced it for the past 20 years or more.  Then he gives you his version of Irish Paganism in six points.  The only point I have a problem with is the one about the Fomoire (more will be said about this later).  He considers these six points the basics and adds other elements to them (another seven points), which have to do with the Gaelic culture and language.  All these elements I also consider important when studying Celtic Paganism of any kind.

Next in the chapter he discusses his sources for his version of Irish Paganism.  All the sources are ones that most people in the CR community cannot argue with.  He also gives the qualifiers for each of these sources.  Then he goes in to the Irish Paganism worldview.  I agree with most of what he said in that section except for what he says about the Fomoire again.  Also he is just a bit idealistic about Irish Paganism and I don’t really blame him for that everyone wants his or her path to be idealistic.

Here is my problem with this chapter, aside from the Fomoire issue, which will be discussed later.  I’m not sure if it is his choice of words that put up my hackles or just my own sensitiveness on the subject.  When he talks about his aim he also says that this interpretation of Irish Paganism is “authentic”, but authentic as compared to what exactly?  And should a word like authentic be used with interpretation.  The very use of the word “interpretation” means that it is his opinion and his vision of the lore and mythology.  So why use “authentic”?  Also when discussing the elements that complement his basic practice his uses the word “correctly” to say that the book correctly identifies these elements as the ONLY ones that are purely pagan and predominately religious.  Again I think this is open to interpretation and the use of the word “correctly” implies that perhaps someone else’s ideas are not.

These things might seem minor especially as they are only mentioned once so far but they rubbed me the wrong way.

Chapter Two: Gods and Spirits

Chapter two was an interesting and hard read for me.  His descriptions of the Tuatha De Danann correspond with some things I’ve read and were better than most people’s descriptions of them, but I just felt like there was something wrong there and up until the writing of this review, I can’t figure out what it is.

The information he provided on the Gods was okay.  In some instances I know he was wrong but they are mistakes made by many.  For the most part on this section I would say do your own searches.  Most times your search will correspond to what he wrote but not all the time.  His classifications of the Gods and the Daoine Sídhe I found a bit confusing and in some cases I completely disagree with him.  I guess though the classifications are a personal thing and which gods mean what to you are completely up to you after all (I don’t see the need for classifications myself).  One other thing that bothered me was that he seemed to be saying that the Spirits of the Land were not as important as the gods, and that they were on the same level as we are.  I’m not sure how to take that.  I’m not sure where he got his vulnerabilities of the ancestors when he talks although I’m assuming he has taken them from the ones he says the Daoine Sídhe have.

I did find the section on how to determine the gods or spirits of the land you currently reside in a very useful section.  It takes into account the folklore associated with the places and history as well as the person’s intuition.

All I can say about this chapter is that you should do your own research.  There are some bits in there, which are really good (the section on how to determine the gods or spirits of the land you currently reside in and some of the information on the gods).  I came out of the chapter with mixed feelings.  I wish he had explained a little more WHY he chose to classify the deities like that.

Chapter Three: Fírinne

I thought chapter three was a wonderful chapter on the ethics and morals of both the individual and society.  Some of it I recognize from Alexei Kondratiev’s article “Celtic Values” and the author does acknowledge that he based his ideas on that essay.  I think this is a very important chapter and one that is not seen often in this kind of detail.

Chapter Four: The Otherworld

Chapter four is about the Otherworld again a good chapter with a lot of good sound information though the author sometimes talks about something he concluded as if it was a fact.

Chapter Five: The Fomoire

Chapter five is one that I felt uncomfortable reading.  His comparison of the Fomoire to demons, in my opinion was not a good one.  He portrays them as enemies of the Gods and as demonic spirits of darkness.  I think here the author is forgetting the concept of balance.  For order you need chaos, and for light you need dark.  The Fomoire are just as needed as the Tuatha De Danann.

Chapter Six: Íobairt

Chapter six was a delight to read for someone like me who wants to learn some prayers in Irish.  Also his ritual outline is very good (though a bit elaborate).  I find that I could incorporate some of the elements of rituals he discusses into my own very well.

Chapter Seven: Death and the Dead

A very brief chapter and yet a very informative one.  The author discusses briefly the different ideas on life after death.

So what do I think of this book?

  • It is one practitioner’s interpretation of Irish polytheism and he freely admits that at the very beginning.
  • The author is not a Celtic Reconstructionist and should not be judged on that platform, however, he does show a high level of research in his book whether one agrees with his conclusions or not.
  • He tackles subjects that are hard and for the most part does them justice.
  • He puts a lot of effort in the specifics of what he sees as the Irish practice of polytheism.  Discusses the components of religion, which are belief, sacred writings and oral traditions, rituals and ceremonies, and ethics.
  • I very much enjoyed this book, warts and all (and by warts I mean his opinions about the Fomoire and a few other niggling things that I told you about).
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The Celtic Druids’ Year by John King

This is the second time I’ve read this book and I have to admit that the first time I read it I thought it was amazing.  This time around not so much.


The first chapter for example talks about the possible origins of some of the Druidic practices, and it really bugged me when he discussed the connection between the Druids and the Pythagorian Cult, which was thoroughly debunked a long time ago.  The rest of the chapter is okayish because the people he links the druidic practices too are all of Indo-European and Indo-Iranian decent and as such are linked to the Celts.  The exception is the Egyptians but the connection he made there was iffy at best.

I found the next five chapters on the early Celts, the early Celtic society, Druidic functions, the agricultural cycle and the annual ceremonies pretty well research with some inaccuracies which could be due to the old material he as working from.  One thing though that did ring false was the assertion by the author that the Celtic year started and ended with Mid-Summer but he is not the only one who holds this assertion as Professor Ronald Hutton pretty much also says the same thing.

I won’t comment on chapters seven and ten, as I know nothing about astronomy.

Chapters eight and nine need to be thrown out with the garbage.  The eight festivals idea is a Wiccan thing added in the 1950s by Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner.  The idea of the thirteen moons is based on Robert Graves’ thirteen-tree calendar, so hogwash.

This book is not for beginners and a lot of it is a mix of debunked ideas.  Though there are some redeeming chapters (chapters 2-6), though even with though please do a little corroborating research.  I’d read it after I know enough to recognize what is correct but needs more research and what is out and out wrong.

 

Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions by Catherine Bell

Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions was written by Catherine Bell who was a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Santa Clara and one of the world’s leading experts in the field of ritual studies. This book was copyrighted 1997 but it was re-issued with a new forward in 2009 after the death of Catherine Bell in 2008.

The aim of the book is to give a fairly comprehensive look at the history of theories about ritual and religion (this was the subject matter of part I in the book), the spectrum of both ritual and ritual like activities (the subject matter of part II of the book), and the fabric of social and cultural life that forms the context in which people turn to ritual practices and to ritual theories (the subject matter of part III of the book).

So what do I like about this book? Honestly, everything. The theories of ritual are explained in an easy manner. You can tell that she was a teacher. She makes everything sound logical. In her explanations of Islamic ritual you can tell that she knew exactly what she was talking about and while she was talking about the different religions there was no sense of disdain or ridiculing coming through like many other scholars I’ve read even if they don’t know they are doing it. The book is a bit dense but it is a great introduction to the subject of rituals.

Beginnings in Ritual Studies (Revised Edition) by Ronald L. Grimes

Beginnings in Ritual Studies is a book that is made up of fifteen essays.  These essays look into the various approaches to the study of ritual in order to find method and theory to define the field of ritual studies.  The essays are influenced strongly by symbolic anthropology, hermeneutics, and dramatic sociology.

The author out right tells you that he has not covered everything and that he is trying to invite criticism and conversation of the field.

Part one of the book is about the interpretation of ritual action.  There are four chapters in this section and each chapter presents basic assumptions and methods in ritual studies.  Pat two looks at different ritual process, from masking to sitting and eating to the ritual systems surrounding Zen.  Part three discusses theories of ritual.  The first chapter talks about the theories of Gotthard Booth, a psychiatrist and a physician and the second chapter is mainly about Theodor Gaster and Victory Turner.  Part four is all about understanding ritual by looking at theater.  They are distinct domains but share many of the same features.

I really enjoyed reading the book because of the case studies it provided they were all examples that I could relate too and understand.  Some parts of course were of special interest to me; especially the parts dealing with the components of ritual and a very interesting chapter on parashamanism (what we call Neo-Shamanism).

This is a great book to start the studies in to ritual mainly because it is a non-intimidating book that is easy to read.

Celtic Goddesses by Miranda Jane Aldhouse-Green

The author’s main aim for this book is to present a picture of a Celtic religion in which goddesses played a central role.  She uses both archeological and literary evidence to explore the role of divine females.

Anytime you have a presentation of data in which you only present one side of the story it is not a good idea.  While I agree that the Celtic goddesses were important to the Celtic religion they are by no means the only ones that are central to it.  I could make the same case for the Gods if I just spoke about them alone.

While I don’t agree with her interpretations of the data presented, the data itself is very interesting to read.  She talks about the roles of some of the more known Celtic goddesses and she does show that their roles are not limited to the “womanly” pursuits and that they were often very complex when it comes to role definition.

I do agree though with one of her conclusions in chapter one.  It is not a good idea to make a significant correlation between the prominence of Celtic goddesses and the status of women in Celtic society.  That is not to say though that there weren’t any high status women in the Celtic society when compared to their counterparts in the Mediterranean.

I did enjoy the information presented and the way it was presented in the book even if her conclusions and interpretations bothered me.  It was a good book to read just don’t take it as the gospel truth (the same goes for any book really).

 

The Concept of the Goddess edited by Sandra Billington and Miranda Jane Aldhouse-Green

The Concept of the Goddess is a book that houses a group of essays.  The subjects (Different Goddesses from different cultures) vary depending on the specialties of the authors of the essays.  Each author has his or her own approach to the subject matter and these approaches include anthropology, archeology, mythic literature, and folklore.  The whole book is a look at the place of the goddess in past and present belief systems and mythologies.  The goddesses discussed come from a variety of cultures like the Celtic, Norse, Roman, Caucasian, and Japanese.

The preface is a celebration of the life and works of Hilda Ellis Davidson.  I’ve read two of her books and was very interested in learning more about her, which I did.  Sandra Billington wrote the preface.

The introduction is a presentation of the volume.  In this introduction Miranda Green (the second of the two editors of this volume) gives us a summary of each of the essays in the book.  She also draws your attention to simple yet surprising conclusions (general though they are) she came too.  She talks about the approach of each writer takes in being non-biased towards or against the feminine and how we shouldn’t take a conclusion from one era and culture and apply it to another.

The essays themselves were a little dry but certainly enjoyable.  I liked learning about the other cultures and Goddesses and what the different approaches meant when writing these essays.  I think this is a book that I might returned to at a later date, I just don’t feel like I got out of it all that I should have.  It is not a problem with the book but rather with me I think.

Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses by Carl McColman and Kathryn Hinds

This is not the first time I’ve read this book. There is a lot of thought that went into the organization of the book. I’m going to start from the back then go to the front and then to the middle.

The book has three appendices. The first recommends books on the retelling of Celtic myth and lore, translations of tales and poems, interpretations of the traditions, and reference titles. Appendix B is recommended listening and Appendix C is all about the Celtic Fire festivals; the information there is to the point and 99% accurate. The bibliography of the book is an extensive and very impressive one. All the books there are well known for their scholarship. And the index is very good.

Now back to the beginning. I found the first chapter to be pleasant if a little flowery. They talk about their sources and how they used them to write the book. I also liked the fact that they say that this is THEIR practice, but that it is based on scholarship in other words UPG. They caution the reader about any book that claims to have all the answer and they answer the question of why anyone should bother studying, let alone honoring or venerating, the old gods and goddesses of the Celtic Tradition. The second chapter starts by defining what the authors mean when they say Celtic, which is always important as the term could mean different things to different people. Then they discuss the exact sources they will be using and why. They also end the chapter with general principles of Celtic mythology, which in my opinion is very helpful and very much true. Chapter three sets out their goals for the book, they have three and they also tell you what this book is NOT. The main one that I think is very commendable of them to mention is that this book is not an “academic” approach to deity. They do promise (and deliver in my opinion) to give just enough “academic” information on each deity to help you to get to know them but also they ask that you do your own search too. Two people after my own heart. This is something that I feel is not stressed enough in books, whether academic or UPG. The chapter ends with deity and the question of belief. They explain the different approaches to deity. The ones they mention are; the Transpersonal approach, the Euhemerist approach, the Monistic approach, the Henotheistic approach, and the Polytheistic approach.

The middle portion of the book I’m going to divide into two parts. The first part is about the different gods and goddesses that the authors have chosen to talk about. They chose the most famous of the Irish, Welsh, and Gaulish deities. This information in the chapters is 97% accurate as far as I can see (bear in mind I’m not an expert), but what I loved the most is the ideas on how to honor these gods and goddesses at the end of each chapter. Simple things that anyone can do . The second part of the middle portion, which consists of the last three chapters, discusses a deeper Celtic spirituality. These chapters discuss mysticism, virtue, what the gods expect from you and how to put everything into practice with meditation, devotion, prayer, ritual, study and virtue. The final chapter discusses the importance of reading myths, and how to do it in a way that gives you the maximum benefit on your path.

I totally enjoyed this book the first times I read it and I have enjoyed it now that I have read it again. It is what UPG should be all about. The foundation is made out of fact and the rest is based on an educated guess. It has the practical side of spirituality explained in a way that even people who are sticklers for detail will love. It does not tell you what to do but makes informative suggestions. This is a book that I plan to return to over and over again.