Celtic Gods and Heroes by Marie-Louise Sjoestedt


This is a classic work that everyone should read.  The version that I have is copyrighted 2000 but it was first published in 1949.  The book is a translation of the last work of Marie-Louise Sjoestedt.  Celtic Gods and Heroes was originally written in French and translated to English by Myles Dillon who was considered a Celtic scholar of his time.  It is a pretty short piece of work (around 100 pages long without the index and bibliography), but don’t let that fool you.  It packs quite a bit of important information.

The book has a preface by Myles Dillon and then an introduction by the author.  The first chapter talks about the mythological period, and the following three chapters talk about the gods of the Continental Celts and the Irish.  Chapter five is about Samhain and chapters sic and seven are about the hero of the tribe and the heroes outside the tribe.  The author then ends the book with her conclusions.

In the introduction of the book the author tells us why she wrote the book.  She wanted to briefly present some groups of facts that can be seen as characteristic of the Celtic attitude towards mythology.  She also was aiming to present them from the point of view of Celtic studies and perhaps even the Celts themselves.  She asks though that we do two things, the first is to leave behind any preconceptions we may have borrowed from outside (like the Greek and Roman Traditions) and second to ask the Celts themselves the key to their mythology.  Here she means by looking at the vernacular records left by the Celts, even though Christians wrote them.  She argues that they were only one or two generations removed from paganism and so they would not have lost much yet.  She also makes a very good point of differentiating between the kind of religious and mythological materials that we have for the Irish, Gaulish, Welsh and Breton.  And that the sharing of some things between them does not automatically mean that they shared the exact same belief but that there was a migration of ideas between people whether in peace or war (both are typical of the Celtic tribes).  The Celts she believes may not have shared a common religious origin but they had a common religious attitude.  A class of sacred men, namely the Druids, preserves this attitude.  She also explains that she will be talking about the Irish tradition mostly because it is the only one that stayed pagan long enough to be committed to writing. The book uses as its main source the Book of Invasion, which is a medieval piece of work, that is a pseudo-history of Ireland.

The chapters after the introduction take you through the Mythological cycle, the Ulster cycle, and the Fiana cycle as well as talk about the gods of the Continental Celts and what we really know of them and how to ferret it out.  Reading through the chapters I kept saying, “Wow, I never thought of it this way” or “Shoot that is so obvious, why didn’t I think of it?” or “Okay that is SO interesting”.  Her ideas are simple yet they hit you between the eyes.

I thought I would finish the book so fast because it was short but I read it so SLOWLY because of the thoughts and ideas it contained.  If you want to learn about the Gods as well as get a concentrated dose of Irish mythology and the Celtic year start with this book.  I’m sure I’ll be reading it over and over in my studies.

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