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.

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The Shaping of the Celtic World by Patrick Lavin

Author: Patrick Lavin

Publisher: iUniverse

Copyright: 2011

Synopsis: The Shaping of the Celtic World traces the rise and decline of the great Celtic peoples. Ranging from prehistoric to modern times, it undertakes an examination of Celtic civilization, revealing a proud and independent society with its unique history, mythology, pantheon of gods, literature, and artistry. The romance of Celtic mythology is unsurpassed. It introduces us to many intriguing legends, of which the battles between the gods and giants are most alluring.Emerging in the 6th century BC, the Celts conquered and settled the greater part of Europe, laying the foundation for westerncivilization. Their contribution in shaping the modern world cannot be underestimated. As Europe languished in the barbarism of the Dark Ages, the great heritage of Western Europe was endangered of being entirely lost but for the Celtic monks of Ireland and Britain who scribed and illuminated Europes treasury of literature.The book is written for the millions who proudly identify with their Celtic rootsknown today by their ethnic identities as Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Mann, Breton, and Cornish. This concise yet user-friendly guide to ancient European history will be enjoyed by a variety of readers including students, travelers, history enthusiasts, and those interested in their Celtic origins.

Review: For the first time I am not sure how to write a review for a book I’ve read.  The material in the book is basically divided into three parts: history, religion and art.

The information in the historical part is basically correct but very much outdated.  The latest reference in the book is copyrighted to 2006 and that is a book that lists the classical writers’ quotes about the Celts.  His sources go all the way back to the early 1900s.  Good sources…just really OLD.  I do like that he went all the way to Christianity and beyond in terms of history since a lot of other books tend to stop just before Christianity comes to the Celts.

The part on the Celtic religion was very accurate considering he again was using old sources, but we really don’t have much of an update on that front even in new books, at least nothing that would change that information drastically.

In the arts part of the book the author talks about not just material art but also literature and it was actually very interesting in that he brings it all the way up to the 19th century, and not just to the Christian era.

I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t love it either.  So what is the problem?  I think what bothered me the most is that I didn’t see the author’s thoughts on the subject matter he was covering.  He isn’t a scholar but rather an enthusiast and I knew that so I was expecting to see that enthusiasm…which I didn’t. I felt like he had a bunch of points by other authors that he had to convey and he did…end of story.

The Celts: A Chronological History by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin

Author: Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
Publisher: The Collins Press
Copyright: 2002, reprinted 2006
ISBN: 9780851159232
Pages: 248

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Synopsis: The Celts were one of the most important population groups to spread across the ancient European continent. From 800BC to 1050AD their story is one of expanding power and influence followed by contraction and near extinction. Drawing on all possible sources of evidence, from archaeological remains of ancient Greece and Rome to surviving cultural influences,Dáithí Ó hÓgáin outlines the history of the people known as Celts. He follows the evolution of their culture as it gained strength on its two-thousand-year passage through Europe, from its earliest origins in the east through the upheaval of the early middle ages to its ‘twilight’ and decline in the west. The influence of the Celts is far more widespread than its fragmented survival in the outer fringes of western Europe indicates; this once important culture is still a vital component of European civilization and heritage, from east to west. In tracing the course of the history of the Celts, Dáithí Ó hÓgáin shows how far-reaching their influence has been. Dáithí Ó hÓgáin is Associate Professor of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin. A recognized authority on Celtic folklore and history, he has lectured widely and contributed to many radio and TV programs on Irish literature and cultural history. He is the author of The Sacred Isle#58; Pre-Christian Religion in Ireland.

Review: The book is a pretty short one (238 actual reading pages) and it has ten chapters.

I decided against writing a chapter by chapter summary because of the nature of the book. It is a survey of the Celts from the origins until the waning of their power and almost disappearance except of course from the Atlantic fringes.

This is a book aimed at someone who wants an abridged history of the Celts, told in a very simple manner. However, I really would not recommend it to someone who has not read other books on the subject. While most of the information in the book is accurate I could not help but get the sense that in many places the author was a Celtophile (not necessarily a bad thing just something to be aware of), it was a word here and there that kind of gave the game away. Also, he tends to use explanations that are not main stream for some things. I understand that interpretation of archeology really depends on the archeologist but somethings are considered standard.

This is a book that I would recommend to people who have already read history books on the Celts by authors like Barry Cunliffe and John Haywood, so that they can know which parts of what is written is correct and which part of it was the author’s own interpretation. For those wondering I’d say 85% of the book is correct information, 5% is dated and 10% needs to be cross referenced carefully with other history books.

Celts and the Classical World by David Rankin

Author: David Rankin

Publisher: Routledge (an imprint of Taylor & Francis Group)

Publishing History: First published in 1987 by Croom Helm Ltd, first published in paperback in 1996 by Routledge, the edition I am using for this review was published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003.

ISBN: 0-203-75022-5 (Adobe eReader Format)

Synopsis: To observe the Celts through the eyes of the Greeks and Romans is the first aim of this book.

Review: The book is divided into fifteen chapters plus an appendix which covers the Romans and Ireland. It also has an extensive bibliography.

As a whole this book is pretty hard to rate and review. To me it was a mix of the book Heroic Age and a generic Celtic history book, but in an abridged form. It does however, look at a section of knowledge about the Celts that most people who study them tend to ignore OR not take into account for varies reasons and that is the Latin and Greek texts. The author takes the time to put the quotations from the Classical authors in the context of time and place and of the peoples around the Celts at the time and how these quotations could have been feasible in light of their contact with these peoples. He also looks at these texts in light of available archeological, and vernacular data where available.

But to tell you the truth I was a little bored at the beginning with all the repeated historical information. It seemed that the author was repeating the same data over and over but taking it from different perspectives or “eyes” each time. It was not until chapter ten that I started to wake up and then chapter twelve when I started to REALLY get interested. These final chapters talked about the Celtic Women, the druids and the Celtic religion and the different Celts (Galatians, Gauls and so on).

Of course the appendix was great and the bibliography is amazing.

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).

Druids: Preachers of Immortalityby Anne Ross

Synopsis: Druidism was the religion of the Celts and the Druids themselves were all-powerful, taking precedence over the Celtic kings. Over and above the evidence of classical texts and of archeology, the richest source of information about the Druids is the vernacular material from Ireland and Wales. It is the author’s unparalleled familiarity with the Gaelic texts, and her ability to see Druidism through Celtic eyes, that marks out this study from earlier books and strips away modern myths about the Druids.

Review: This is not about “preachers” of any kind, and the ideas of immortality is barely mentioned in this book. It is, however, a great study of the Druids, using folklore, archeology, and classical and vernacular sources. The author is clearly deeply fascinated with the topic and offers a wide range of original insights into various Celtic topics. Some of her insights are deeply fascinating.

I did feel though that the author was trying to write this book for the layman and because of her extensive scholarly background in the subject she failed miserably. It was a hard read mainly because I wanted her to go back to her old style of writing. I was, however, very impressed with Dr. Ross’ research into the subject which is quite evident as the reader moves through the chapters.

I have yet to find a book that discusses the Druids in this sort of detail so the book is very much worth the read, if only for the sources she sites and some of the gems she has uncovered. The book of course is outdated in some aspects of its research but that is to be expected since it was first written in 1999.

Everyday Life of the Pagan Celts by Anne Ross

Anne Ross is a well-respected writer on the Celts most of her books are on the Celtic Reconstructionist lists and that tells you a lot because as a rule they are very picky.  This book is a part of a series called Everyday Life Of…The other two books in the series are The Everyday Life of the Vikings, and The Everyday Life of the Anglo-Saxons.

The book is copy righted to 1970 so right off you know it is an old book, with outdated information, though not much of it is.  People who are not new to the Celtic history will probably not find anything new in this book.  What impressed me though is the fact that she not only talks about the history of the Celts but their culture, society, and religion too.  She starts her survey when the Celts first burst onto the scene, and ends it at 500 CE.  Up front she tells you the limitations of the book and the aim she hopes to achieve with it.  The limitations are as follows: limitations in the evidence available (this of course has changed from the 1970s to now), and limitations of space.  The aim of the book is to find out something about the pagan Celtic world; about its origin; about the people who lived in it, what they did and how they conducted their day-to-day affairs.

Like all other writers on the subject of the Celts she starts her book with how we know about the Celts.  She discusses the sources, which ones are good, which are bad, and which are acceptable and how to combine them all to get a good picture of the Celts.

Then comes the substance.  She starts out with the structure of the society, how they looked, what they wore, their weapons and the way they conducted warfare, their roads, fortifications, houses, the games they played, their music and entertainment, their food and drink, their laws, their religion, and their artistic styles.

I loved all the details she provided for things that most scholars would have over looked like what they wore, and what they might have ate or drank.  It is a well-rounded book.  And it has it all. You learn exactly what the Celts have done in their everyday life, in war, and what they did for entertainment or for their worship.  You learn about their art and music, and it provides a vivid picture that you can carry of the people you want to study.

I highly recommend it.