Understanding Celtic Religion

Full Title: Understanding Celtic Religion – Revisiting The Pagan Past

Series: New Approaches to Celtic Religion and Mythology

Editors: Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm

Publishers: University of Wales Press

Published: 2015

ISBN: 978-1-78316-792-0

Pages: 181 including Index, Bibliography, and notes after each paper.

Synopsis: (From back of the book) Although it has long been acknowledged that the early Irish literary corpus preserves both pre-Christian and Christian elements, the challenges involved in the understanding of these different strata have not been subjected to critical examination. This volume. Draws attention to the importance of reconsidering the relationship between religion and mythology, as well as the concept of “Celtic Religion” itself. When scholars are attempting to construct the so called “Celtic” belief belief system, what counts as “religion”? Or, when labeling labeling something as a “religion” as opposed to “mythology”, what do these entities entail? This volume is the first interdisciplinary collection of articles which critically reevaluates the methodological challenges of the study of “Celtic religion”, the authors are eminent scholars in the field of Celtic Studies representing the disciplines of theology, literary studies, history, law and archaeology, and the book is a significant contribution to the present scholarly debate concerning the pre-Christian elements in early medieval source materials.

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Review:

This book began as a two day colloquium in 2008. It is made up of an Introduction and seven essays, each one dealing with a different aspect of the Celtic religion.

Introduction: The editors in the Introduction try to put into perspective what this text is trying to present and that is the answer to the following questions: When scholars attempt to construct the belief system of the Celts, what counts as “religion”? Or, when something is labeled as “religion” as opposed to “mythology”, what do these entities entail? To what extent is it possible to attain the pre-Christian stratum through the extant textual sources which themselves present us with a mediated understanding of the religious traditions of the past? And what theoretical viewpoints or analytical tools could help towards a better understanding of the essence of the different strata usually labeled as “pre-Christian”, “Christian”, or “Celtic”? (p. 3) The Introduction then goes on to discuss the contents of the essays and what to expect from from the book.

There are seven essays in this book, each one is written by a scholar in the field they wrote about.

Celtic Spells and Counterspells by Jacqueline Borsje: The author of this essay begins by defining the term “Celtic Religion” from the point of view of Celtic Studies, and outside Celtic Studies. Then she gives her definition of the term and tells us that she will be focusing on the Irish forms of “Celtic Religion”. The author also explains how she is looking at the Celtic religion. Her field of study is religious phenomena in medieval Irish texts and the lens she is looking through is the methodologies and analytical tools she learned during her training as a theologian interpreting biblical texts.

I think the importance of this essay is not just with the uncovered content ( for example, Fír Fer, charms, and aspects of the Lorica) but how that content was uncovered and the methods used. The author gives us three methods and gives examples on each one. Another thing that is important about this essay is that it shows that you can’t just stop at one source to learn about the Celtic religion. You need to look not only to mythology for knowledge but also to Christian texts (like the lives of the Saints for example) as well as anthropology and other cultures that are relevant.

The Old Gods of Ireland in the Later Middle Ages by John Carey: The author of this essay talks about how the Irish Christians compromised to include pagan elements into their writings. He gives three example from three different texts as to how this happen. Carey discussed, using the three examples, the way Irish Christians dealt with the old Gods. The first was that they were humans with magical skills and that made them seem supernatural. The second was that people of the síde may have been “half-fallen Angels”. Those were the Angels that sided with Lucifer but didn’t fight God. And finally, they may have been an unfallen branch of humanity.

To me the importance of this essay is in the fact that the Irish Christians seem to want to include the old Gods into their traditions, and not just simply demonized them (though that also happened). It shows that the conversion from Pagan to Christian really did happen slowly and bloodlessly with elements of Paganism clinging till the Later Middle Ages at least.

Staging the Otherworld in Medieval Irish Tradition by Joseph Falaky Nagy: This essay is really about two things; the whole nativist/anti-nativist debate and performance in the Otherworld. Nagy used the first half of the essay to discuss the nativist and anti-nativist views of Irish and Welsh literary traditions. His idea is that we really can’t (and shouldn’t) dismiss either view, even thought he is obviously a nativist. He explained what each view can contribute to the study of the literature and how important it all is to the over all picture.

The second half was about music and poetry and how it was portrayed in the literature, and how it seems that the traditions seem to be saying that they come from the Otherworld.

I have to admit that the second half of this essay was just a tad confusing to me and I had to read it a couple of times to understand what exactly the author was getting at and I’m still not sure if I got it right entirely.

The Biblical Dimension of Early Medieval Latin Texts by Thomas O’Loughlin: In this essay the author argues that the biblical texts of the Early Medieval period should not just be studied only by theologians and historians of biblical exegesis, instead they should be studied by different disciplines and details teased out of them.

I agree with O’Loughlin that these texts need to be studied not just by the theologians and biblical historians but also by people in other disciplines. However, I’m sorry to say that that was pretty much all I got out of this essay. Either I just was not ready to read about this yet (which can and has happened before) or the essay was a bit above my pay grade.

Ancient Irish Law Revisited: Rereading the Laws of Status and Franchise by Robin Chapman Stacey: Stacey in this essay studies three Irish status tracts, Críth Gablach, Uraicecht Becc, and Míadshlechtae. She examines issues of gender, political space and symbolic landscapes.

This is a good study of how things were perceived compared to how they really were.

A Dirty Window on the Iron Age? Recent Developments in the Archaeology of Pre-Roman Celtic Religion by Jane Webster: In this essay Webster looks at the study of the Celtic religion through the lens of archaeology, and Irish and Welsh literature. She discusses how this approach needs to be modified with all the new archaeological finds of today and the finds from the Romano-Celtic period.

I think this would have to be my favourite essay of the whole book. It looks at things like archaeology and literature and new methodologies that can be employed to the study of Celtic Religion.

Over all this book is really interesting, and gives a lot of food for thought. This was my first read through of the book and I see a few more in my future. It was also in parts not an easy read, but well worth soldiering through.

The Kingship and Landscape of Tara

**This review was first published in Air n-Aithesc Volume II, Issue II.

Editor: Edel Bhreathnach

Publisher: Four Court Press for The Discovery Programme

Published: 2005

ISBN: 9781851829545

Synopsis: (From the Four Courts Press Website)

This volume is the culmination of an inter-disciplinary project undertaken as part of the Discovery Programme involving archaeologists, historians, linguists and place-name experts. It includes prosopographies of the kings and queens of Tara from mythology to the eighth century; a re-assessment of the nature of the kingship of Tara; legal aspects of the kingship of Tara; the origin and extent of the place name Temair; Tara and the supernatural; the archaeology and topography of the kingdom of Brega; editions of two of the earliest texts relating to the kingship of Tara.

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Review:

This book is one of the projects in The Discovery Programme called Tara Research Project. The project was made up of two parts: a non-invasive archaeological survey; and an inter-disciplinary approach that included anthropology, archaeology, history, linguistics, literary criticism, and onomastics. The aim of this project was to deal with the complex issue of Tara.

The volume is made up of two parts: kingship and landscape. The two parts together are made up of fourteen essays, which examine Tara from late prehistory to the eighth century BCE. The book ends with five indexes and an extensive bibliography. It also has pictures and maps from pages 383 to 409.

The fourteen essays in this book discuss these main themes: Baile Chuinn Chétchathaig and the Airgialle charter poem; prosopography1 of the kings and queens associated with them mentioned in the above two texts; a discussion of the landscape of Tara and Brega; and the special status of Tara.

The essays are all really interesting though sometimes they were hard to take in one sitting so maybe read as much or as little as your brain can take. I know I’ve had to split some of these essays into small chunks to be able to get through them and soak up all the information presented. In some cases, I felt like more citations were needed, or more information on where to read more should one feel interested. On the whole though the essays were solid.

There was one essay that really caught my attention and that was “PROSOPOGRAPHY II: A Prosopography of the Early Queens of Tara”. It is the longest essay in the book and it only discusses the women associated with the persons mentioned in the Baile Chuinn Chétchathaig and the Airgialle charter poem, but at least they were discussed. There isn’t a lot written on women in the Celtic world so that was a good essay to read.

Another essay that I really liked was John Carey’s essay called “Tara and the Supernatural”. In this essay Carey discusses how Tara was not linked to the síd, like Emain Macha for example, but its kingship is still the focus of supernatural threat in some stories because it was identified with the Kingship of Ireland.

I think this book is a very important but I also think that people should read other hypotheses and interpretations about the kingship of Tara. This is but ONE interpretation among many.