Ireland’s Immortals

Full Title: Ireland’s Immortals – A History of the Gods of Irish Myths

Author: Mark Williams

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Published: 2016

ISBN: 9780691157313

Pages: 578 including index, works cited, and a list of medieval materials used in the book.

29452496

Synopsis:

Ireland’s Immortals tells the story of one of the world’s great mythologies. The first account of the gods of Irish myth to take in the whole sweep of Irish literature in both the nation’s languages, the book describes how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era–and how they were recast again during the Celtic Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A lively narrative of supernatural beings and their fascinating and sometimes bizarre stories, Mark Williams’s comprehensive history traces how these gods–known as the Tuatha De Danann–have shifted shape across the centuries, from Iron Age cult to medieval saga to today’s young-adult fiction.

We meet the heroic Lug; the Morrigan, crow goddess of battle; the fire goddess Brigit, who moonlights as a Christian saint; the mist-cloaked sea god Manannan mac Lir; and the ageless fairies who inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves. Medieval clerics speculated that the Irish divinities might be devils, angels, or enchanters. W. B. Yeats invoked them to reimagine the national condition, while his friend George Russell beheld them in visions and understood them to be local versions of Hindu deities. The book also tells how the Scots repackaged Ireland’s divine beings as the gods of the Gael on both sides of the sea–and how Irish mythology continues to influence popular culture far beyond Ireland.

An unmatched chronicle of the Irish gods, Ireland’s Immortals illuminates why these mythical beings have loomed so large in the world’s imagination for so long.

Review:

I have to say up front that if you are expecting a retelling of the myths or a book that gives you a fact sheet about the Gods then don’t buy this book. However, if you are looking for a book that will make you think, will give you an analysis of the myths and the Gods, will make you angry at times but smiling at others then this is the book for you. But have an open mind because this book will challenge the idea that the myths were lore that was disguised as Christian and then written down by monks. The author seems to be saying that actually the Christian monks may have made a lot of it up or changed the lore so much that it was no longer what it was…at least this is what I got out of reading the book.

There is a lot of information to digest from this text. Intended audience, comparative mythology, divination or lack thereof…so many things to even try and list. It is a text that will put you into the mind of the people writing these myths and what might have been running around in their minds while writing. You will also get a glimpse of the later poets/bards who also contributed to this literature.

I won’t lie and say that this book was easy to read, not because the concepts were hard but because it was challenging a lot of ideas I had in my head. This is the sort of book that you need to read more than once to really appreciate and maybe read it in chunks. I also recommend that you know a little about the Irish myths and their history before you read it.

I think this is a “must have book” in any Celticist’s library especially if they are interested in myths. And whether you agree with his analysis or not it is still a valid point of view that you need to read and understand.

Advertisements

Early Irish Literature

Author: Myles Dillon
Publisher: Four Courts Press
Published: 1948 (University of Chicago Press), 1994, 1997
ISBN – 13: 1851821775 pbk

Synopsis: Great classic of Celtic studies. Survival of pre-Christain Druid beleifs in Medieval Christian manuscript texts.

Review: The author started his Preface with why he decided to write the book and what he provided the reader with when he wrote it. He wrote the book because at the time (1948) books about Irish literature were either out of print or about a later time period than the one he discusses here. Dillon decided that this book would present “the imaginative literature of Ireland in a coherent order, choosing only the best that has survived,”. (p.V) He is not providing a history of literature not is he providing a critic of it.

The Preface is certainly a good place to start if you are looking for books on the analysis of Early Irish literature. Dillon lists an interesting group of books to look through though most of them are old, but still very useful.

The Introduction has a short discussion of how the Celts came to Ireland, what the irish society looked like and how the land was divided. It also has a short discussion of the manuscripts that the stories came from and the places they can be found.

Chapters One through Eight discuss the Ulster, Fenian, Mythological and Historical cycles, Adventures, Voyages, Visions and Irish Poetry. All the chapters are a simple retelling of some of the sagas and poetry in the irish Literature tradition with a little introduction at the beginning of each chapter. The whole book makes for a good introduction to Early Irish literature that is not complicated or very academic though still very scholarly. A good book to have in one’s library for sure.

An Introduction to Early Irish Literature

Author: Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin
Publisher: Four Court Press
Published: 2009
ISBN 13: 9781846821769 hbk

Synopsis: This book discusses the rich written heritage of the Old and Middle Irish period, 600-1200, and is suitable for students of medieval Ireland as well as the general reader who wants to learn about the stories, poetry and themes of early Irish literature. Early chapters deal with the poets, druids, monks, the beginnings of writing, manuscripts as well as an introduction to each of the saga cycles. These sagas contain the stories of heroes such as Cu Chulainn and Finn mac Cumaill as well as kings, such as Cormac mac Airt. Further chapters focus on the poets and their poetry, the heroes visiting the Otherworld, the births and deaths of famous heroes as well as stories about kings, kingship and sovereignty goddesses. Included also is a bibliography and a comprehensive index including personal and place names.

Review: The book starts out with an introduction where the author gives us the aim of the book, a general look at what to expect and a time frame for the manuscripts discussed. The aim of the book is to give an overview of the literature of early Ireland between the period of 600 CE to 1200 CE. The texts written from 600 CE to 900 CE are written in Old Irish and the texts written from 900 CE to 1200 CE are written in Middle Irish. Most of the literature, the author tells us, have general features. These features include the fact that they all talk about one of the provinces of Munster, Leinster, Ulster or Connacht. They might talk about one of the four fire festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, or Lugnasad. Noblemen and kings play chess while women embroider, and the stories might feature music and musicians, especially harpers. At the end of the Introduction the author provides a further reading list on history and literature that includes some great books (though some of them are a bit old).

Chapter One Background: This chapter was certainly an eye opener in more ways than one. While I knew most of the information in it, it still made me stop and think more than once. The whys and hows of the information is just as interesting as the information itself. We know that the Irish Monks wrote done the stories of the oral traditions but I certainly didn’t know that there are even stories of how and why that began. The comparison with other cultures is certainly also very interesting.

The texts are written in both prose and poetry with prose being the main vehicle for the stories and poetry inserted at certain intervals. Each story has a place, person, time and cause of invention for it to be complete. Sagas can be seen in genealogy and the stories can be used to give a political, historical or even a legal message. It is interesting to me that the writing started out in Latin but quickly it changed to Latin and Irish then Irish. They didn’t forget Latin though and translated many Latin texts into Irish.

The chapter also has a discussion about the difference between Druids, Bards, Ovates and Filids, how they were portrayed in the texts and why. The only thing that was a bit weird to read was the author saying that there is no evidence that the Irish, and the Gauls were related in anyway. Uh, how about the language?

Branches of literature, oral traditions and written literature and Ogam, writing and manuscripts are discussed at the end of the chapter. The final part of the chapter gives the reader an example of of the Irish language around 1000 CE.

Chapter Two The Mythological Cycle: The author tells us that the Mythological cycle talks about the Gods and Goddesses and takes place in the Time of the Gods, she also tells us that the Irish myths always describe the shape of the land or place that the myths take place in. This gives us the criteria for the sagas; time, place, and person. Each story gives its own conflict.

This chapter was an interesting (though not always accurate) discussion of some of the “major” Irish Gods, the fire festivals, the myths included in the Mythological cycle and theories of myth in general.

Chapter Three The Heroic Cycle: The Heroic Cycle is also known as the Ulster cycle and it talks about the conflict between Connacht and Ulster. It is one of the largest corpus of material in all the cycles and it contains around 75 stories.

This chapter is a discussion of the major stories in the cycle.

Chapter Four The Fenian Cycle: The Fenian cycle concentrates on Leinster and Munster and Finn mac Cumaill and his band of warriors. The stories of the Fianna are considered the closest to Paganism, which maybe why they didn’t receive as much attention as the other cycles.

This chapter as with the others discusses the stories in the cycle but it also offers a short discussion on what is an outlaw, as well as the imageries of wolf, dog and deer and what they mean for this cycle.

Chapter Five The Cycles of the Kings: The Cycles of the Kings contains 100 stories about the prehistoric and historic kings of Ireland. Another name for this cycle is the “Historic Cycle” even though the historical content of these tales is really questionable. The stories center around the relationship between the Ué Néills, the men of Leinster and Tara. The chapter goes on to discuss some of the stories in this cycle.

Chapter Six The Otherworld: The Otherworld is associated with four different types of stories in Irish mythology. Some of these stories were written in Latin as well as Irish; these stories are Adventures (Echtraí), Voyages (Immrama), Visions (Físi) and frenzy (baile).

The chapter on the Otherworld discusses its location, nature, visits, Heroic biographies and some of the actual tales as well as comments on them from different literature scholars like J. Carney, and Myles Dillon.

Chapter Seven Kings, Goddesses and Sovereignty: A short chapter on kingship, what it takes to be a king (physical attributes as well as the virtues of the king) and the Sovereignty Goddesses that facilitated that. It talked about the relationship between these Sovereignty Goddesses and the king, the manifestations of these Goddesses and a short note at the end of the chapter on madness in Early Irish literature.

Chapter Eight The Hero and Heroic Biography: This is one of the most interesting chapters of this book. It talks about the Hero and the journey he takes from conception to death. It discusses each stage of the Hero’s life and what it means in Irish literature.

Chapter Nine Poets and Poetry: Another interesting chapter that discusses the role and status of the Poet, and I learned that the combination of prose and poetry that is used in Irish mythology is called prosimetrum. It also talks about some of the poets known and their poetry as well as Early Irish lyrics.

I LOVED this book. It is simple and strata froward, nothing too complicated, certainly AN INTRODUCTION and nothing more. If you know NOTHING about Irish mythology then you should read this book, if you know a bit about Irish mythology but want to refresh what you know and maybe learn a little more then read this book. I highly recommend it.

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Myth and Legend by Caitlin and John Matthews

I read this book in 2005 and then just put it away, not because it wasn’t any good but because at the time I wasn’t really looking at the myths and legends as anything more than entertaining stories. When I decided to write about the Celtic myths and legends critically I got out all the books I thought I would read and this one was among these books.

The aim of the book is to bring together the most famous of the mythic traditions from their source materials, without retelling but with new translations mostly from respected Celtic scholars like Whitley Stokes, Myles Dillon, Kuno Meyers, and Mary Dobbs. The Matthews decided that they wanted to use myths as opposed to folklore. Most of the myths come from Ireland because they have a huge corpus of myths. Wales has an abundant poetic corpus but not many myths, and Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany have many folk traditions but again no texts of deep myths. The authors, decided to divide the book into sections using not chronological order but topics the same way that the old poets and story tellers used to divide their material. The divisions of the book are as follows: invasions, conceptions and births, cattle raids, voyages, hero tales, dreams and visions, battles, wisdom and lore, sieges, burnings, and curses, love and longing, wooings, adventures, feasts and visitations, exiles, and deaths.

The book makes for a great read of course, the stories are very understandable and the chosen translations are among the best I have read. However, the main treasure of this book is the introduction that the authors have before each story. They give you the name of the story of course, then they tell you whether there are many versions of it, how old is the oldest version as well as the age range of all the versions, and they also tell you where these versions are housed currently. Let me give an example. The Book of the Takings of Ireland (Lebor Gabála Erenn), they are using a version that comes from the five volumes edited by R.A.S. Macallister between 1938 and 1956, the main manuscript sources are contained in the collections of the Royal Irish Academy and Trinity College, Dublin. They date from the 12th – 15th century. This is the kind of information that makes reading the myths so much fun (at least for me). Another thing that I loved about the book is the Appendix which has a story list of all the stories that go under the classifications of the book and that they could not include because of the limited space. This way if I wanted to read more I at least have a list to look up from. The glossary at the end of the book is a great help. It includes a list of the more important terms used in the text and the names of the most important people mentions with a pronunciation key and definitions of what the term is or who the person is. The bibliography is a beauty too, and makes it easy to look at where they got their sources as well as further readings should the need arise. A very impressive book and one that definitely should be read by anyone interested in Celtic Myths and Legends.

The Salmon in the Spring: The Ecology of Celtic Spirituality by Jason Kirkey

I read this book while I had two streams of thoughts on my mind. The first was the project I am working in which is a study of the theories of mythology and the second was the Copenhagen Climate Change conference and this book was a lovely and fitting companion for both streams. I went into this book knowing the ideas of the author having seen his work before, and read some of the same books he has read, all of that didn’t prepare me for the depth of this book or the simple yet complex ideas in it. Once I started reading I just could not stop. I kept telling myself that I’ll stop after this chapter but I never did until I finished the whole book.

Jason Kirkey’s book is about ecology seen through the lens of Celtic Spirituality. He uses Celtic (Irish) myths to illustrate his ideas. This was especially interesting to me because of my study of the theories of mythology. Through this book I was able to see a practical application of one of the theories of myths in a setting that is very meaningful to me. This theory says that a myth is a story that gives a society the guidelines of how to act towards self, nature and others; that without myth we will have chaos in society. It is a theory that is found in the writings of Joseph Campbell, Robert Segal and Alan Dundes.

At the very beginning of the book Jason answers a question that I have been asking myself and I am sure every other person who follows a spirituality not of the land he/she is living in now has asked: How can I practice Celtic spirituality when I am in a non-Celtic land? The question is fully covered in his first chapter in a section called “The Ecology of Exile”. I recommend this section at least to everyone who struggles with where he/she lives versus what he/she is practicing.

Kirkey uses the myth of the Second Battle of Maigh Tuireadh, the Settling of the Manor at Tara and other myths and stories to explore the human-nature relationship, and many other ecological and psychological concepts. For those who aren’t very up to date on the ecological and ecopsychological writings and ideas, he provides synopsis of the ideas he discusses so you are never left wondering what he is talking about but at the same time it wets your appetite enough to send you searching for more.

There is a practical side to this book in that in some of the chapters there are exercises to perform, which are based on Buddhist practice, but are something that all practitioners of Gaelic paganism or paganism as a whole have no problem doing. Also as I read through the book I kept thinking that this was a road map into myself, into nature and into a spiritual pathway that blends the two together.  I say pathway because this is by no means a tradition on its own, nor does the writer want you to think so.

The Salmon in the Spring is not a book that you read only once, and I know that I shall be going back to it a lot. I think that the thing that I liked most about the book is that the author doesn’t talk down to the reader. He also states clearly where an idea is his own conclusion and thought and where it is a part of the traditions of Ireland or its history, and to me as a Reconstructionist that is VERY important.