Druids: A Short Introduction by Professor Barry Cunliffe

Synopsis from Goodreads.com: The Druids have been  known and discussed for at least 2400 years, first by Greek writers and  later by the Romans, who came in contact with them in Gaul and Britain.   According to these sources, they were a learned caste who officiated in  religious ceremonies, taught the ancient wisdoms, and were revered as  philosophers. But few figures flit so elusively through history, and the  Druids remain enigmatic and puzzling to this day. In this Very Short  Introduction, one of the leading authorities on British archaeology,  Barry Cunliffe, takes the reader on a fast-paced look at the  ever-fascinating story of the Druids, as seen in the context of the  times and places in which they practiced. Sifting through the evidence,  Cunliffe offers an expert’s best guess as to what can be said and what  can’t be said about the Druids, discussing the origins of the Druids and  the evidence for their beliefs and practices, why the nature of the  druid caste changed quite dramatically over time, and how successive  generations have seen them in very different ways.  

Review: This is one of these books that give you the minimum of information on a subject that may be interesting to you but you are not sure if you want to go into depth about it.  It would make a great book for people who want to put together a starter kit for someone who is looking into subjects to study but are not sure yet if this is the thing they want to pursue. 

The book is interesting in that the author tried to differentiate between the literary and archeological evidence and present each one separately.  He also showed the context in which these literary sources were written.  He also showed how the Druid caste changed from the years between 400 BCE and 400 CE and how the society of which they were a part also changed. 

There might be something in this book that might come as a surprise to people who have been studying the Celts.  The author has been putting forward the theory that the Celts had actually originated in Atlantic Europe as opposed to the theory that they spread from Central Europe.  This has been put forward as a theory by Cunliffe in 2001 and then seems to have gained some momentum with the finds by John T. Koch in his book Tartessian: Celtic in the South-west at the Dawn of History (Celtic Studies Publications).   In this book Professor Cunliffe is making the assumption that the Celts originated in Atlanitc Europe and presents his findings with that in mind. 

I really enjoyed this book as I have enjoyed everything that Professor Barry Cunliffe wrote.  The further reading part of the book is amazing in that it breaks down the most important books you can read on the Celts, the Druids, and the Celtic Religion.  Even though this is the minimum you can know about the Druids it gives a very good basis for which you can launch your own research if you like or say that you know about the Druids and leave at that if that is your wish.   

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The Festival of Lughnasa by Máire MacNeill

Synopsis From Liriocht.com: Garland Sunday and Domhnach Chrom Dubh are two of the many names of a  festival celebrated by Irish country people at the end of July or the  beginning of August.  It marked the end of summer and the beginning of  harvest season, and on that day the first meal of the year’s new food  crop was eaten.

The chief custom was the resorting by the rural  communities to certain heights or water-sides to spend the day in  festivity, sports, and bilberry-picking.  The custom existed also in the  Isle of Man, Wales and in the north of England.  Formerly it must have  been general in all Celtic lands for there is no doubt that it is a  survival of Lughnasa (Lugnasad), the Celtic festival held on the first  of August.

In the description of the celebration much emerges of  the old life of the countryside, and so the study is, in part, a  contribution to social history.  Moreover, as the people preserved  legends of the origin of the festival and of the assembly sites, it has  been possible to show a correspondence with ancient mythology, as  expressed in Irish Literature and in the cult-figures of Roman Gaul.

The dominant myth of the festival is brought to light.

Review: This is one of these books that everyone interested in the Irish year and who can afford it should get it.  I couldn’t believe my luck when they had a new edition printed in 2008 and once I could get a copy of it I snapped it up.  The book was first written in 1962 and it is a study the festival of Lughnasa as it was celebrated in Ireland in the last two hundred years (before 1962). The sources for the book came from questionnaires done by people in Ireland as well as a look at Irish folklore and customs.  The author also used journals and travel books associated with Irish culture and customs. However, these aren’t the only sources.

This book describes the festival as it was celebrated before, as the popular celebration and high point of the agricultural year.  It gives evidence of the past history of the assemblies where possible and it seeks to discover the ancient myths concealed in the stories and the religious concepts which informed the customs.  It is interesting to note that the celebrations were of the harvest of the main crop in the country, in the beginning that was corn but later on it became potatoes.  This is interesting because it shows that it is not something static but changes as the society needs change.

The book is amazing and a great wealth of information.  I wish the same had been done for all of the other festivals in the Irish year, be it Christian or Pagan.  I highly doubt there is a more in depth study done on the Irish year with the same kind of information.