Celts The History and Legacy of One of the Oldest Cultures in Europe

Author: Martin J. Dougherty
Publisher: Amber Books
Published: 2015
ISBN: 978-1-78274-166-4 (Hardcover)
Pages: 224 including bibliography, index, maps, and pictures (black and white and coloured)

Synopsis:

“They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses… They embalm the heads… [and]… display them with pride to strangers.” – Diodorus Siculus.

Before the Vikings, before the Anglo-Saxons, before the Roman Empire, the Celts dominated central and western Europe. Today we might think of the Celts only inhabiting parts of the far west of Europe – Ireland, Great Britain, France and Spain – but these were the extremities in which their culture lasted longest. In fact, they had originated in Central Europe and settled as far afield as present day Turkey, Poland and Italy. From their emergence as an Iron Age people around 800 BC to the early centuries AD, Celts reveals the truth behind the stories of naked warriors, ritual beheadings, druids, magic and accusations of human sacrifice. The book examines the different tribes, the Hallstatt and La Tène periods, as well as Celtic survival in western Europe, the Gallic Wars, military life, spiritual life, slavery, sexuality and Celtic art. Illustrated with more than 180 colour and black-and-white photographs, maps and artworks, Celts is an expertly written account of a people who have long captured the popular imagination.

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Review: If you’ve ever read Simon James’ book The World of the Celts, or Miranda Green’s The World of the Druids, then you know the kind of book this is. Basically, it is an introductory book. It has a little bit of everything in it. The history of the Celts (snapshot of it anyway), Celtic literature, Celtic Gods and Goddesses (well, some of them) and so on. Hardly ever a page goes by without an illustration, a picture or a map. This would be the kind of book I would recommend to someone who knows nothing about the Celts, and are not really sure they are interested in reading in depth about them.

I do have to say that because of the expertise of the author (he is a professional writer specialising in military history), the military bits are very interesting. I liked the book. Of course I read it in one sitting because there wasn’t anything new in it but it was still good. Of course, it wasn’t perfect either and I sometimes felt like the author was putting together a booklet for a Dungeons and Dragons game (he, the author is also a game designer so maybe that also came through in the writing?). I would recommend this book as a fun introduction to the Celts, but don’t look for anything in depth here.

The Celtic World Edited by Miranda J. Green

Synopsis: The ancient Celts, in their heyday, inhabited much of Europe north of the Alps. This new and exhaustive study examines this fascinating people from the first evidence of Celts in the archaeological and historical record to the early post Roman period. The Celtic World is one of the most comprehensive studies of the Celts in recent years, with new research material from leading Celtic scholars from Europe, Britain and America. The book includes chapters on archaeology, language, literature, warfare, rural life, towns, art, religion and myth, trade and industry, political organization, society and technology. It also looks at the Celts in Italy, Spain, France, Eastern Europe, the Rhineland, England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and concludes with a survey of modern Celts and how they view their Celtic identity. The Celtic World will be invaluable for students and academics of Celtic studies, and of interest to anyone fascinated by the Celts.

Review: This book was a surprise for me.  It was recommended to my by a friend and based on this recommendation as soon as I found it I just snapped it up.  When it arrived I just couldn’t figure out why it was so heavy!  So you can imagine my surprise when I opened the package.  I also thought that Miranda J. Green wrote this book but the truth is Miranda J. Green EDITED it.

This book is based on a good historical and archaeological research and it makes for a good reference book for Celtic studies. It covers many different and important topics and is very well written and edited. The book is a collection of essays centered on different topics and written by such names as Daphne Nash Briggs, Jeffery L. Davis, D. Ellis Evans, Proinsias Mac Cana, Ruth and Vincent Megaw, Stuart Piggott, Barry Raftery, David Rankin, Ann Ross, Miranda Green and many others.

This book is copyrighted to 1995 and 1996 so it is a little out of date but not by much I would say.  The information in it was a delight to read, the essays are well thought out and easy to get into.  The information is very interesting and encompasses every aspect of the Celtic culture and life and it looks at all the Celts that lived in Europe. I consider this book a little Encyclopedia (not so little with 839 pages).

Lúgh Lamhfhada: Master of All Crafts

I gathered a lot of information on Lúgh when I decided to ask him formally to be my patron and then I decided to write this essay for others who might be thinking about him too.  It is ironic that I wanted to do this because apparently (something I learned after my research) he is associated with sworn contracts!

Lúgh is the easiest god to talk about and he is also the hardest.  There is a lot of information on him but most of it is fragmented, however, it does give a good picture of who Lúgh Lamhfhada is.  Our information comes from iconography from the Pre-Roman period, place-names, iconography and epigraphy from the period of the Roman occupation, testimony of the Greek and Roman writers and literary traditions of the insular Celts.  Possibly the earliest mention of Lúgh is in the Leinster cycle of poems, specifically “Lugh sceith”–“Lugh’s shield”, a poem in praise of the legendary Labraid. Other major texts that mention Lúgh are the Lebor Gabála Érenn, which briefly mentions Lúgh and the battle with the Fomorians, the Cath Maige Tuireadh in which Lúgh comes to the Tuatha De Danann and battles the Fomorians, the Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann is a side-story to Cath Maige Tuireadh, the Sons of Turenn kill Lúgh’s father Cian, and Lúgh extracts an eric that results in their death, the Compert Con Culainn tells of Lúgh’s siring Cuchulain on Dechtire, the Táin Bó Cuailnge where Lúgh appears to Cuchulain and tells him he is his father, the Baile in Scáil where Conn Ceadcathach is taken to Lúgh’s house and is told of the future high kings of Ireland by Lúgh and the goddess of sovereignty and “Ar an doirseoir ris an deaghlaoch” a late poem, this has Lúgh raised on Emhain Abhlach.

I’d like to start with his name as he has many; some are famous while others are not.  He is called Lúgh Lamhfhada, Lúgh Samhildánach, Lúgh Lonnbeimnech, Lugaid Lága and Lugaid Láigne.  Lamhfhada means “of the long arm” and this refers to his ability with the spear rather than having a long arm.  Samhildánach means “the one who possesses equal knowledge of all the arts”, Lonnbeimnech means “fierce striker” and both Lága and Láigne mean spear.  Looking at the proper name though gives a few confusing definitions for him.  Lúgh name is thought to mean “shinning one” or “light” and because of that he was thought to be a solar god, but that is not true.  His name is more associated with storms and rain as he is the beginner of the harvest.  So if his name means “light” it is likely that it is more like lightning flash as in thunder.  His name is also linked to the Old Celtic stem word lugi, which means “to swear, or oath”, which makes him associated with sworn contracts.  There also seems to be a little pun on his name because Lú also means little, in the sense that he is overlooked until his power is shown.

Now let us talk about Lúgh.  Lúgh is the son of Cian and Eithne.  Cian is the son of Dian Cécht, the physician of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  Eithne is the daughter of Balar, the champion of the Fomorians.  So in a patrilineal society that means that his allegiance is to his father’s family as opposed to his mother’s.  He is a part of a set of triplets, two of which were killed and he is the only survivor.  He was fostered to Tailltiu, who is a Fir Bolg Queen associated with clearing a large field for agriculture, he is also said to have been fostered to Manannán mac Lír.  He is youthful, athletic and handsome.  He is the divine prototype of human kingship.

Lúgh is associated with Lughnasadh, some link him to ravens though the evidence for that is circumspect.  During the la Téne period there was a god who was widespread and he was shown on the La Téne art of the period with birds, horses, Tree of Life, dogs or wolves, twin serpents and mistletoe.  We don’t have a name for him but because of the place names that are associated with where these artifacts were found we can guess that this god might be Lúgh.  During the Roman occupation the name Lúgh was not used a lot however, this could be due to the Roman habit of giving the local deities Roman counterpart.  From the evidence we have Lúgh is linked to Mercury and there were over 400 dedications to Mercury found.

So let us talk about Lúgh’s domain.  He is a warrior, a sorcerer, a smith, a harpist, a champion, a poet, a historian, a physician, a cupbearer, a skilled god of commerce and a brazier.  He is associated with heights, he has multiple forms, and he is a sovereign protector with warrior attributes.  He is a master of all crafts and arts.  He chants spells to encourage the army of the Tuatha Dé Danann, he is a warrior that succeeded by the skill of his magic as well as brute force.  He uses a spear, and a sling in combat.  He shows his skill as a physician when he uses herbs to cure Cú Chulainn (whom he is associated with as father or foster father depending on the story read) in the Ulster cycle (not surprising considering who his grandfather is).

Some conclusions on my part:

–       Originally he might have been a god of sworn contracts.

–       Through his connection to the Fomorians (who were originally thought to be land gods or spirits that granted agriculture or withheld it) and to Tailltiu we can say that he is a god of harvest, as he got the secrets of the agricultural cycle from the Fomorians (Bres) and he was fostered by Tailltiu who cleared the largest plain for agricultural use.

–       He seems similar to An Mórrígan in that he encourages his army by chanting spells, he seems to be associated with Ravens (for An Mórrígan it was the crows) and it is not a clear association.  They both have a strange relationship with Cú Chulainn.  They are both warriors that use magic as well as might to fight.  Both are associated with sovereignty.  It is said that magic cows are created by the advice of the god Lúgh in order to defy the oppressive demands of Bres, which in the end might have brought conflict and we know that An Mórrígan is associated with cows mainly stealing them to instigate wars.

Bibliography:

Green, Miranda J.  Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend.  Thames and Hudson, New York. 1997

Ross, Anne.  Pagan Celtic Britain. Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago. 1967.

MacCana, Proinsias.  Celtic Mythology. The Hamlyn Publishing Group, London. 1970.

Mackillop, James.  Myths and Legends of the Celts. Penguin Books, New York.  2005

O’Rahilly, Thomas F.  Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin Institute For Advanced Studies, Ireland. 1999.

Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí.  The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopedia of Myth, Legend and Romance.  The Boydell Press, Woodbridge. 2006

The Isles Of The Many Gods by David Rankin and Sorita D’Este

An A-Z of the Pagan Gods and Goddesses worshipped in Ancient Britain (there is more to the title but this is enough to get the idea) is a reference book, as you have probably guessed from the name.

I usually approach books like this with trepidation.  I’m never sure what I’ll find in them.  This book doesn’t just reference the Celtic Deities but rather all the deities worshipped in Ancient Britain.

At the very beginning of the book the authors explain why they chose these specific deities and what sources they used as their evidence.  They give a short history and a timeline for the literary sources, which appears accurate.

Then comes the pages and pages of gods and goddesses.  I’m not an expert on any of the gods but the information provided on the gods in the book can easily be checked by a little research.

I chose two gods that I do know a bit about to check the validity of their information.  On the page about The Morrígan, they make a few connections that I have not seen anywhere else but on the whole I’d say 85% of what is on that page was good information.  On the page about Lugh, I’d say 95% of the information provided is correct.

My prognosis: It is a good reference book to have with the caveat that you verify the information provided against other sources.

The Gods of the Celts, Revised Edition by Miranda Aldhouse-Green

Miranda Aldhouse-Green who is a professor of archeology at Cardiff University wrote the Gods of the Celts.  She has done so much research in this field that certainly her books are always read by people who want to learn about the Celts.

This is one of my favorite books on the Celtic Gods so far.  I’ve read it more than three times.  And even though one of her theories on the cults of sun and sky have been discarded by other scholars after more archeological finds the rest of the book is certainly very much up to date.  The book was first written in 1986 and then revised in 2004.

She introduces you to the Celts by putting them in their historical context and then she tells you about the available evidence to what she is writing in her book and she tells you the problem with each of these sources (which is something you will see in every respectable book on the Celts).  Then she goes on to discuss all the different gods and goddesses of the Celts.  She also talks about animals and animism, and symbols and imagery.

It is a well researched scholarly work, but one that is not boring.  It has pictures and the bibliography at the end is a treasure trove for anyone interested in further reading on the subject.