A Passion For Justice: Social Ethics in the Celtic Tradition

A Passion For Justice is a book that I picked up because I wanted to study ethics from the point of view of Celtic tradition. The author is a doctor at the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity College, Dublin. And the forward was written by president McAleese of Ireland.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is the context for the discussion the author intends to have and it contains 2 chapters. The second is on Saints and social ethics and that contains 6 chapters. And the final part is on Celtic social ethics and it contains 8 chapters. The book has an extensive bibliography that I was delighted with and the glossary provided was a great resource for the book. I do think that this book as intended as a text book because at the end of each chapter a list of the main points was provided as well as test questions.

The first chapter contains two important points, that the author expounds on. The first is how he defines the word “Celtic” and the second is the political and social structure of Ireland from mythical times to just before the Norman invasion of Ireland. The author attacks the romanticized ideas of the 19th century on what it means to be Celtic. My hackles rose a bit because it has now become all the rage to deny that there was ever anything called Celts. However, when I read his explanation I realized that he and I were on the same page. He sees the Celts as a cultural, spiritual and linguistic marker rather than a marker of ethnicity or race, and this is how I see it to, based on the latest archeological evidence that says that there were no large scale migrations to Ireland or Britain but rather some small scale ones before the second century BCE. The author then goes on to his second point of the chapter and that is to describe the political and social structure of Ireland in a simple and concise manner. He talks about the stratification of the Irish society and about the laws that governed them, as well as how the coming of Christianity effected these laws.

The second and last chapter in part one is an eye opener. Not just from the religious point of view but also from the political one. The author was not gushing over Saint Patrick as usually writers do when discussing Christian Ireland, in fact he barely mentioned him and only to say that he was not the first to bring Christianity to Ireland and his influence was only in Northern Ireland and no where else. His system of Christianity which was based on the Roman church was over taken by the monastic system with in a century. The main point of this chapter was when the Irish church changed its system from the monastic to the Roman system and coupling that with the Anglo- Norman invasion they lost their independence and became a colony of Britain and King Henry II. This was because by the time Henry came along with a letter from Pope Adrian IV that “donated” Ireland to him, the Irish Church was already under the influence of Canterbury and the Roman church and so the Bishops were very excepting of this transfer. In the old days, the church or before that the Druids would have been able to get the people to at least fight and continue fighting. The battle was already have won with the Romanization of the Irish church.

Part two of the book starts with four (3-6) chapters about four different saints, Patrick, Brigit of Kildare, Columba, and Columbanus. These chapters talk about these saints’ lives, and how their social ethics played a part in it. What I enjoyed the most was that the author was not romanticizing these saints at all. He was giving you their stories and how they affected people with out being biased for or against them which I liked. Chapter seven is certainly another interesting chapter. It is all about three female saints and their influence on church politics, and on other male saints. The chapter shows just how much females we needed when it comes to the early church and much they were later ignored. Anyone interested in early feminism in the church of Ireland should read this chapter. The final chapter of part two discusses holiness. It was an interesting discussion because it related holiness to socio-political aspects. There are two different ways of seeing holiness, one as separateness and the other is righteousness. Separateness is concerned with social purity and is essential for community identity and purpose while righteousness has to do do with right relations based on justice that is socio-political and economic.

Part three is all about actual Celtic ethics like hospitality, forgiveness, compassion, environmental care, justice and peace building. Each chapter talks about one ethic and then relates it to Ireland today and Celtic tradition. The final chapter talks about Celtic Spirituality in ethical practice.

I enjoyed every page of this book because the author is not biased towards Celtic Christianity even though he is talking about it. You can see the echo of paganism in what he is saying and he is not afraid to say when something could have been from that time. It is a good book to have in your library.

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Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses by Carl McColman and Kathryn Hinds

This is not the first time I’ve read this book. There is a lot of thought that went into the organization of the book. I’m going to start from the back then go to the front and then to the middle.

The book has three appendices. The first recommends books on the retelling of Celtic myth and lore, translations of tales and poems, interpretations of the traditions, and reference titles. Appendix B is recommended listening and Appendix C is all about the Celtic Fire festivals; the information there is to the point and 99% accurate. The bibliography of the book is an extensive and very impressive one. All the books there are well known for their scholarship. And the index is very good.

Now back to the beginning. I found the first chapter to be pleasant if a little flowery. They talk about their sources and how they used them to write the book. I also liked the fact that they say that this is THEIR practice, but that it is based on scholarship in other words UPG. They caution the reader about any book that claims to have all the answer and they answer the question of why anyone should bother studying, let alone honoring or venerating, the old gods and goddesses of the Celtic Tradition. The second chapter starts by defining what the authors mean when they say Celtic, which is always important as the term could mean different things to different people. Then they discuss the exact sources they will be using and why. They also end the chapter with general principles of Celtic mythology, which in my opinion is very helpful and very much true. Chapter three sets out their goals for the book, they have three and they also tell you what this book is NOT. The main one that I think is very commendable of them to mention is that this book is not an “academic” approach to deity. They do promise (and deliver in my opinion) to give just enough “academic” information on each deity to help you to get to know them but also they ask that you do your own search too. Two people after my own heart. This is something that I feel is not stressed enough in books, whether academic or UPG. The chapter ends with deity and the question of belief. They explain the different approaches to deity. The ones they mention are; the Transpersonal approach, the Euhemerist approach, the Monistic approach, the Henotheistic approach, and the Polytheistic approach.

The middle portion of the book I’m going to divide into two parts. The first part is about the different gods and goddesses that the authors have chosen to talk about. They chose the most famous of the Irish, Welsh, and Gaulish deities. This information in the chapters is 97% accurate as far as I can see (bear in mind I’m not an expert), but what I loved the most is the ideas on how to honor these gods and goddesses at the end of each chapter. Simple things that anyone can do . The second part of the middle portion, which consists of the last three chapters, discusses a deeper Celtic spirituality. These chapters discuss mysticism, virtue, what the gods expect from you and how to put everything into practice with meditation, devotion, prayer, ritual, study and virtue. The final chapter discusses the importance of reading myths, and how to do it in a way that gives you the maximum benefit on your path.

I totally enjoyed this book the first times I read it and I have enjoyed it now that I have read it again. It is what UPG should be all about. The foundation is made out of fact and the rest is based on an educated guess. It has the practical side of spirituality explained in a way that even people who are sticklers for detail will love. It does not tell you what to do but makes informative suggestions. This is a book that I plan to return to over and over again.

Celtic Mythology by Proinsias MacCana

For a book written in 1970 it is still very much relevant today.  I’m not sure what that says about our study of Celtic mythology.  The book talks about all three branches of Celtic mythology, which are Gaulic, Irish and Welsh.

The introduction of the book starts out with a recounting of the history of the Celts, the conservation of their traditions, the sources used to make the study and the diversity of Celtic mythology.  The problems we encounter in studying Celtic mythology are pretty much the same as the ones that we encounter while studying the Celts themselves.  The Celts are not a one unified block, but they do share language, and cultural similarities, so the similarities in the mythology is also there even though on the surface they don’t seem to be similar.

The first chapter of the book discusses the gods as noted by Caesar.  The most important information of this chapter is in the analysis given by the author when he says “Caesar’s account has been impugned on two main grounds: first, that it implies, erroneously, the existence of a pantheon of gods worshipped more or less universally throughout Gaul, and, secondly, that it enunciates a clear differentiation of divine functions for which there is no evidence in Celtic tradition.” And those two points are the most important points of the chapter because they can be applied to the gods in Ireland, and Britain as well.

The next chapter is about the Tuatha De Danaan, and the stories around them like the Book of Invasions and the Second Battle of Magh Tuired.  What was interesting about this chapter was the author’s presentation of the Dumezil’s three-function theory and superimposing it on the Second Battle of Magh Tuired.

Chapter three is about the British gods or the gods of Wales and the stories surrounding them.  Chapter four discusses the goddesses of the insular Celts, and chapter five discusses the heroic tradition of the Ulster cycle and the stories associated with it.  In Chapter six sacral kingships is discussed, mainly when it comes to Ireland.  The chapter on the Otherworld discusses the feast of Samhain and the land of the dead when it comes to references in Ireland and Wales.  The final chapter of the book rounds up the topics discussed in the book and asks the question of how relevant that is today.

This book is a good starting point to learn about the important topics in Celtic mythology and some of the main stories and characters in them.  It is however, only a starting point.  I was a little disappointed as I thought this book would contain a little more when it comes to the Mythology of the Celts.  I thought a little more would be said about the cycles in the Irish mythology and more about the stories in the Welsh mythology.  I thought it was too brief for the subject matter and the author could have said much much more.

Pagan Celtic Britain by Anne Ross

Everyone who studies Celtic beliefs knows that many aspects of pre-Roman and pre-Christian beliefs remain shrouded in mystery.  Ann Ross in this comprehensive book is trying to convince us, the readers, that neither the Roman invasion of Britain nor the coming of Christianity eliminated pagan religious practice.

Dr. Anne Ross speaks Gaelic and Welsh and writes from wide experience of living in Celtic-speaking communities.  She has studied and traced vernacular tradition, and she was formerly Research Fellow in Archaeology at the University of Southampton.  She is still researching different aspects of Celtic culture.  As can be seen from her credentials she is very capable of writing this book, however, this book was first written in 1967 and then re-published after review in 1996, so some information might be out of date.

In Pagan Celtic Britain, Anne Ross begins by telling us the scope of her study, her sources and the limitations of her study.  The major limitation of the study is the fact that the Celts did not leave any written records for us to find.  The sources that the author uses are archaeology, iconography, classical records and vernacular records.  From the onset she tells us the limitations of each of these sources.  Archaeology is limited by the way it is interpreted, one artifact cane mean one thing to one archaeologist and something totally different to another.  Iconography is limited in Britain by not being as comprehensive as the ones on the continent.  Two things limit classical records, the first is that enemies of the Celts write these records and the second limitation is that they did not REALLY discuss the religion and beliefs of the Celts in detail.  Finally, the vernacular records of the Welsh and the Irish are written hundreds of years after the fact AND they were written in Christian times so they have an agenda of their own.  The scope of the study is Pagan, pre-Roman, pre-Christian Britain.  The author tells us that she will combine all these sources to help give us a picture of what that time was like when it comes to the beliefs of the Celts.

In the introduction the author also gives us a definition of Celt and Celtic by explaining that it could mean different things to different people.  Then she gives us an outline of the history of the Celts on the continent, in Britain and in Ireland.  She also briefly discusses what she means when she says vernacular records of the Irish and the Welsh.

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the study of sanctuaries, temples and cult sites.  The author talks about all the different places that seem to be dedicated to goddesses and gods, from wells, springs, rivers, to groves, trees and even grave sites.  No discussion of these things is complete without a look at the people who officiated these sites and the rituals associated with them.  The druids or Celtic priests were mentioned in the classic writings and in the vernacular records of the Celtic nations but little is really known about them.  Most of what we have today come from the romantic writings of the 17th and 18th century.  Most is based on Masonic like and ceremonial magic groups.

The Celts venerated the head as a symbol of divinity and the powers of the otherworld, and regarded it as the most important body part, and the place where the soul resides.  The cult of the head is the subject of chapter two of the book.  The author tells us about the cult in both continental Europe and in the insular Celtic lands.  She talks about the different materials used to depict the head as well as the many different ways it was depicted.

Next in chapter three, the author talks about the Horned God in Britain.  It is said to be second in importance to the head cult in both the Continental Celts and the insular Celts.  Again the author tells us about the different depiction of the horned god and also other symbols of it like serpents and horned animals for example.

The tribal god of the Celts must at one time or another take up his weapons and adopt the role of the warrior and the warrior god is the subject of chapter four.  Through looking at iconography and epigraphy the author gives us different examples of tribal warrior gods in Britain and in which areas they can be found.

The next chapter deals with the goddesses of Britain.  It deals with them as a whole category, which inevitably will reflect to some extent the functions of the Celtic women in the society.  She deals with goddesses that have consorts and others with out.  The goddesses also reflect the economic situation of the people that worship them.

Chapter six deals with sacred and magic birds.  The author talks about the swan, the raven, prognostic birds, malevolent otherworldly birds, magic otherworld birds, the goose, the owl, the eagle, the crane and other long legged marsh birds.  She gives examples of gods associated with them, and she tells you where they are mentioned in the mythology and vernacular records.  A very interesting chapter to read.

Continuing along the same lines, chapter seven is about divine animals.  She begins by talking about gods that have animal parts, the cat, the divine bull, cows, boars, pigs, horses, stags, dogs, wolves, rams, snakes, dragons, bears, hares, and fish.  Again she deals with iconography, and mythology.  The aspects of all these animals and what they represent is very important.

The final chapter of the book discusses aspects of the cults native to north Britain.  In this chapter the author discusses the cults in Northern Britain before and after the Romans came.  She takes a specific look at certain deities like, Maponus, Belatucadros, Cocidius, and Vitiris.  It is a very interesting look for people interested in cults from that part of the country.

I suppose it was inevitable for the author to discuss the Roman counter-parts for the deities in Britain.  It did grate on my nerves a little though.  I do understand why she was doing it, I mean for people not familiar with the “Celtic Pantheon” it is probably easier to associate them with similar functioning gods in the Roman pantheon, not to mention the importing of Roman deities in to Britain after the Roman invasion.

The book is a great reference when it comes to what evidence we have of the Celtic religion, and a good starting point for more research.  The kind of book that you can refer to from time to time to find evidence of sacred animals and what kind of cults can be found in Britain.  A good reference book to have.

Celtic Heritage: Ancient tradition in Ireland and Wales by Alwyn and Brinley Rees

This is a book that I have read a couple of times before and a book that teaches me something new every time that I read it.  Some of the information in the book is of course out of date but that in no way detracts from the book or its importance in looking at the Irish and Welsh traditions.  The book is divided into three parts.

Part one is an introduction of the two traditions.  The introduction of the book focuses on one of the traditions in both the Welsh and the Irish nations, which is storytelling.  The authors discuss the importance of these storytellers in preserving folklore and stories that otherwise would have been lost to us in this day and age.  The authors also discuss the people who decided to write these stories down and why they decided to do it.

The second chapter of the book is divided into eight sections.  In the case of the Irish tradition it’s the traditional Irish tales that are grouped into four distinct cycles, and in the Welsh tradition it is the four branches of the Mabinogi, in the poems and stories of the Arthurian Cycle, in miscellaneous stories, and in poems.  The sections are a quick look at what constitutes the bulk of the Welsh and Irish Traditions, with an explanation (again a very quick one) of the major works that make up the mythology of the traditions and a comparison between the two traditions.  The authors find some parallels between the Irish and the Welsh traditions that are not readily obvious unless you are looking for them.  The authors describe the five successive groups of invaders that occupied Ireland before the ancestors of the Gaels came and tell us that the rest of the mythological cycle is about the last group which are the Tuatha Dé Danann.  Then they give us the parallel in the Welsh tradition, which is the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.  They then jump back into the Irish Tradition with the Ulster Cycle about a group of warriors and the main story in that cycle is the Táin Bó Cuailnge.  The next cycle to be discussed is the Fenian cycle, which is equated on the Welsh side with the Arthurian tales.  And finally the Historical cycle which is about kings and kingship.

Part two is made up of seven chapters and these chapters discuss the make up of the two Celtic nations from the standpoint of mythology.  It starts with Ireland and moves on to Wales.

Time and how it is measured is very important and for the Celts it seems it had other significance too.  This was the subject of chapter three.  The authors explained the concept of light and dark and how it played into the Celtic world-view.  Chapter three is a brief discussion of the Coligny Calendar and the division of the year in Celtic lands.  The Celts divided the year into dark and light and started their day from the night before.  The Celtic year is based on the agricultural calendar and their rituals were tied to it.  The authors also give a brief explanation of the four festivals that the Celts celebrate but also say that it is obvious from the Coligny Calendar the the solstices may have also been celebrated.  Boundaries were also important to the Celts be they property boundaries or natural man made ones.

The Celtic Traditions left us no preserved story of creation.  Yet in the Irish Tradition we have the Book of Invasions, which mixes biblical references with native teachings to try and explain the beginning of Ireland.  The authors recount in chapter four the arrival of the Sons of Míl to Ireland and how they met and dealt with the Tuatha Dé Danann.  They also tell us of Amairgen and his poems that embody the primeval unity of all things, giving himself the power of bringing new life into being and recreating the attributes of Ireland.  Through the judgment of Amairgen and the greed of one brother we have the story of how Ireland was divided into the Northern half and the Southern half and what each have symbolized.  It is interesting how these divisions persisted through out the Irish history.  The chapter also offers the characteristics of the five peoples that came before the Gaels and how Ireland gained its familiar features.  It seems to me from reading about the characteristics that they were setting the stage for the political and social standards and divisions that were to persist in Ireland until at least medieval times.  In this chapter as with others in this book the authors compare much of the Irish Traditions to those of the Indian Traditions with good reason.  Much of the two traditions can be compared to each other with success.

The following chapter talks about the Provinces of Ireland, how they were divided, and the functions associated with each Province.  It also talks about the attributes associated with them and where in the texts they could be found. It’s an interesting chapter because it gives you a sense of cosmology that could be used in ritual.  What was really interesting in this chapter is the discussion of where the fifth province really lies.  Is it in Meath or is it the second Munster?  Munster as a province is a law unto its own and incorporates all the functions of the other divisions.  A really interesting chapter also because of more comparisons with the Indian traditions, I’m always struck by the similarities between the two.

In the sixth chapter of the book the authors tell us that just because there appears to be divisions among known lines in the functions corresponding to the different directions it does not mean that the people in that direction are all in the same function but rather in each direction all the functions are represented.  Also within each function we have a hierarchy.  The same can also be found among the TDD.  Another thing that has to be taken into consideration is that everything in the Otherworld is inverted so our day is their night and our left is their right and so on.

The next chapter in the book discusses the center and its importance to kingship.  As well as how the feasts were celebrated and how the seating arrangements were made for the kings and their warriors.  It also shows us how certain kings were associated with the calendar.  The comparisons made to the Indian and Chinese cultures were really interesting and were a good way to explain how certain divisions in the center were made.

Chapter eight is concerned with the division of Wales.  The authors show a parallel between the people who settled Britain and the five invasions in Ireland.  We are also told that the first division of Wales was into North and South just like in Ireland.  Then again like in Ireland into five provinces or in some cases only three.  Each one of the provinces is also associated with attributes just like Ireland.  I’m not very familiar with Welsh poems or traditions but I’m guessing the similarities come from the fact that perhaps the origins for them is in Indo-European culture.

The final chapter in part two of the book is called numbers.  The chapter goes on to tell us of the re-occurring numbers in Celtic mythology, numbers like five, nine, twelve, seventeen and twenty three.  Each of these numbers is found in mythology either in the number around a king or person or even the invasions that happened in Ireland and so on.

Part three is made up of eight chapters and these chapters all tell us about the meaning of the stories we encounter in mythology.  Each chapter talks about a certain type of story in mythology.

The first chapter in part three takes us back to the first chapter of the book and to the storyteller.  This chapter talks about the way the storyteller memorizes his stories, in what groupings and why.  The authors tell us that there were many groupings and stories missing from these lists and that we shall spend the next chapters discussing the groupings and the stories in them.  The groupings are as follows: births, youthful exploits, wooing, elopements, adventures, voyages, and deaths.

Reading through the last chapters of the book is very interesting and if you are studying Celtic mythology then you must read that portion of the book.  That portion as I said before groups together stories that are similar to each other and talks about the attributes of each group.

The book as a whole is a good introduction to Irish and Welsh mythology.  If you just wanted a book that would give you a good idea of the importance of mythology in these cultures and their traditions then this is the book to read.  Again keep in mind that this book was written in the 1960s so some of the information might be a little out of date, but it still a good choice.