Title: Celtic Mythology – Tales of the Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes
Author: Philip Freeman
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 272 including Notes, Bibliography and Index
Synopsis: Most people have heard of the Celts–the elusive, ancient tribal people who resided in present-day England, Ireland, Scotland and France. Paradoxically characterised as both barbaric and innocent, the Celts appeal to the modern world as a symbol of a bygone era, a world destroyed by the ambition of empire and the spread of Christianity throughout Western Europe. Despite the pervasive cultural and literary influence of the Celts, shockingly little is known of their way of life and beliefs, because very few records of their stories exist. In this book, for the first time, Philip Freeman brings together the best stories of Celtic mythology.
Everyone today knows about the gods and heroes of the ancient Greeks, such as Zeus, Hera, and Hercules, but how many people have heard of the Gaulish god Lugus or the magical Welsh queen Rhiannon or the great Irish warrior Cu Chulainn? We still thrill to the story of the Trojan War, but the epic battles of the Irish Tain Bo Cuailgne are known only to a few. And yet those who have read the stories of Celtic myth and legend – among them writers like J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis – have been deeply moved and influenced by these amazing tales, for there is nothing in the world quite like them. In these stories a mysterious and invisible realm of gods and spirits exists alongside and sometimes crosses over into our own human world; fierce women warriors battle with kings and heroes, and even the rules of time and space can be suspended. Captured in vivid prose these shadowy figures-gods, goddesses, and heroes – come to life for the modern reader.
Review: I was really excited to get this book. I know Philip Freeman’s work and it usually very scholarly. This book…tried. I’m not going to discuss the simplification of the myths through retelling them. I knew this book will include the retelling of the myths, but I also expected a little about the history of the books the myths were found in or at least an introduction of how and why these books came into being. There was none of that. Even the little bit of history that he included about the Celts seemed to be a bit one-sided in that he mostly quoted Caesar.
This book, however, is a good place for people who want to read the myths in a simplified and easy form. They can be a good way to understand the myths before reading them in their longer forms…and that is about it.
Author: R. A. S. Macalister
Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Pages: 208 including notes, index and bibliography.
This book is made up of six chapter. Chapter one is a detailed study of the site of Tara. Macalister draws a picture using the Dindshenchas, mythology and archaeology. It was really fascinating the way the author weaves the information he has to make us understand what is meant when we say Tara. There is a map of Tara in the beginning of the book. I photocopied it and kept it in front of me while I read the description.
Chapter two was all about who built Tara. Macalister used the Dindshenchas again as his jump off point. I think the make take away from this chapter though is this sentence: “In other words, it was less a political than a religious centre: the king was a priest-king, nay, a god upon the earth. Tara was a temple before it became a palace.” (p.87)
Chapters three and four discuss the Gods and the kings of Tara, respectively. These two chapters complement each other even if one doesn’t agree with them 100%.
The reason for me buying this book was chapter five. The chapter discusses an assembly at Carman during Lunasadh. The author uses the Dindshenchas and Keating’s writings to give us a look at what these assemblies would have looked like and then extrapolating that to the assemblies at Tara.
The final chapter of the book was about the last years of Tara, from Cormac to the last battle that was fought there…I felt a bit sad reading this chapter. It was called The Ending of Tara.
I’m glad I found this book. I’m glad I came across another book that put me on to it. I’m glad I read it, and even after 84 years it is still very much relevant.
Author: Daragh Smyth
Publisher: Irish Academic Press
Published: First published in 1988, this edition 1996
Pages: 200 including source material list and index
Synopsis: This guide, structured alphabetically with a helpful cross-reference system, allows the reader to delve into the ornate world of Irish mythology and its four cycles of tales: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian or Ossianic Cycle, and the Historical Cycle or Cycle of Kings. The characters associated with each of these cycles are vividly brought to life — heroes such as Cuchulainn, Oisin, Cormac Mac Airt, Conchobar Mac Nessa, Finn and the Fianna.
Review: I really wanted to like this book, but in the end I could not get past a few things. The author starts the book with a Preface in which he quotes Robert Graves…that was strike one. In the Introduction he talks about “scholars” saying this or that and my reaction was always WHICH scholars. Then there is all the incorrect information or out of date information in many of the entires. The truth is I knew this book was old so I was expecting some out of date information but what I found was even worse than I thought. And finally, SOLAR DEITIES EVERYWHERE!
Here is what I did like about it, the author wanted this book to be a cross-reference system for the person reading the Irish myths, in that he has succeeded. I can look up a name and get their story, honestly though; there are many books out there which do a better job and are more up-to-date than this one.
I’m filing this one under lessons learned…moving on.
Author: Niall Mac Coitir
Watercolours: Grania Langrishe
Publisher: The Collins Press
Copyright: 2003, Reprinted 2006, 2008, 2012
Pages: 231 including watercolours, references, and bibliography.
Synopsis: In ancient Ireland, mythology and folklore were part of the general knowledge about each tree. This book gathers the myths, legends and folklore associated with the native trees.
Review: Where to start? I liked the watercolors and the black and white pictures in the book. They helped me visualise the trees that were being talked about and associate them with what is being written. There were some good footnotes, and great books in the bibliography, and it was obvious to me that the author had done his research and had read A LOT of great sources. I also liked that it was very much pagan friendly. There was some great folklore and mythology associations shown for each tree. But…
In some places I kept thinking…WHAT? You read McManus on Ogams and you still think THAT? Or dear Gods you thought Robert Graves was right about THAT? (Just to be clear the author knows that Robert Graves took a lot of poetic licence in his book White Goddess but he still thought he was not wrong in some aspects). In some other places there were good and interesting tidbits but I kept thinking citation!! (Again there were footnotes in this book but in some places they didn’t materialise).
I would recommend the book just for the information about the trees and the myths, legends and folklore associated with them….the rest though? I’d take that with a sign that says…caution, and please cross-reference with other books, as well as please discard in some cases. So basically, a mixed bag of good, sort of good, and UH?
Author: John Waddell
Publisher: Four Courts Press
Pages: 203 including index and bibliography.
Synopsis: In this book, author John Waddell contends that elements of pre-Christian Celtic myth preserved in medieval Irish literature shed light on older traditions and beliefs not just in Ireland but elsewhere in Europe as well. Waddell mainly focuses on aspects of the mythology associated with four well-known Irish archaeological landscapes: Newgrange and the Boyne Valley, the royal sites of Rathcroghan in County Roscommon, Navan in County Armagh, and Tara in County Meath. Their mythological associations permit the pursuit of the archaeological implications of several mythic themes, namely sacral kingship, a sovereignty goddess, solar cosmology, and the perception of an Otherworld.
I bought this book a while back, and kept it near my bed so that I could read it, but kept reading other books that I got after it. So finally I decided to read it.
The book is made up of a Preface, seven chapters and an Epilogue. It also has some beautiful illustrations both black and white and colored. This book is a study of the elements of pre-Christian Celtic myth preserved in medieval Irish literature, which sheds a light on older traditions in both Ireland and Europe. This study focuses on the myths associated with four archeological sites: Newgrange and the Boyne Valley, and the royal sites of Rathcroghan in Co. Roscommon, Navan in Co. Armagh, and Tara in Co. Meath.
I’m a little conflicted about this book. I liked a lot of things in it but I also hated a few things in it. I liked that the myths were being tied to archaeology and many of them were very convincing but some weren’t and I felt like it was a bit forced or not tied in correctly when it comes to linguistics. The writing style as usual was a bit dry but that is John Waddell for you. The pictures were beautiful. Also, the bibliography is a treasure trove.
I did like the book, but I would be very careful with the associations that the author makes. He is an archaeologist, not a linguist or a mythologist.
Author: J.P. Mallory
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
About eighty million people today can trace their descent back to the occupants of Ireland. But where did the occupants of the island themselves come from and what do we even mean by “Irish” in the first place? This is the first major attempt to deal with the core issues of how the Irish came into being. J. P. Mallory emphasizes that the Irish did not have a single origin, but are a product of multiple influences that can only be tracked by employing the disciplines of archaeology, genetics, geology, linguistics, and mythology. Beginning with the collision that fused the two halves of Ireland together, the book traces Ireland’s long journey through space and time to become an island. The origins of its first farmers and their monumental impact on the island is followed by an exploration of how metallurgists in copper, bronze, and iron brought Ireland into increasingly wider orbits of European culture. Assessments of traditional explanations of Irish origins are combined with the very latest genetic research into the biological origins of the Irish.
Table of Contents [with my notes]:
Introduction [Mallory here tells us WHY he uses origins (plural) instead of origin (singular) in the title and defines what he takes origins to mean(physical composition, culture, language and genes) and also defines what he means when he says Irish (the Irishman of the 5th century CE)]
Chapter One: The Origins of Ireland [There seems to be…err…humour in this chapter or at the very least an attempt at it. The chapter discusses how Ireland as an island came into being starting with the big bang and ending with the last Ice Age. If you aren’t into geology I would suggest reading the conclusion points at the end of the chapter. And yes the first two points, which may seem weird, were explained at the beginning of the chapter.]
Chapter Two: First Colonists [This chapter was about the first inhabitants of Ireland, which the author calls “Irelanders”. He looks are when they arrived, what their toolkits were like, what their diet was like, and how many of them there were. He does devote the majority of the chapter though to the origins of these first inhabitants, putting forward several theories as to where the first “Irelanders” came from.]
Chapter Three: First Farmers [The neolithic package arrives in Ireland. Ireland being Ireland, not much is known for sure about this period but we do know these things: a) The neolithic package brought with it a major change in every aspect of Ireland’s culture. b) There is very little evidence that there for acculturation. c) The Mesolithic population did not seem to contribute much to the Neolithic culture. d) The Neolithic package spread very rapidly. e) There does seem to be evidence that Britain and Ireland shared the same origins where the Neolithic culture is concerned.]
Chapter Four: Beakers and Metals [As the name of the chapter suggests, the beaker culture has arrived. The author I think gave us the best description of the beakers in Ireland I have ever read.]
Chapter Five: The Rise of the Warriors [The chapter talks about the Bronze Age in Ireland and what is similar and different to Britain and the continent, and though the title talks about the rise of the warriors you hardly see any talk of them specifically.]
Chapter Six: The Iron Age [This chapter was certainly an interesting read. A description of the phases of the Irish Iron Age, the evidence for Hallstatt and La Téne material, and what it means and the evidence for foreign settlements like the Romano-British in Ireland are just some of the topics discussed in this chapter. What was even more interesting was the absence of the words Celtic or Celts in this chapter (except on one map), speaks volumes…]
Chapter Seven: The Native Version [The chapter was short but very interesting, it talks about the origins myth of the Irish, and who wrote it. Nice analysis.]
Chapter Eight: Skulls, Blood and Genes [This chapter was very interesting, it chronicled the different ways people had tried to trace the origins of the Irish starting with skulls and ending with DNA. At the end of the chapter Mallory gives you two different conclusions to what you read in the chapter which is really telling.]
Chapter Nine: The Evidence of Language [This was a very interesting though very linguistically packed chapter. The author seems to think that the Irish Celtic language may have “arrived” in Ireland between 1000 BCE and the first century BCE.]
Chapter Ten: The Origins of the Irish [This final chapter didn’t have a conclusion in bullet points, and I think that is telling. It means the issue of the origins of the Irish is still very much open.]
This book is really hard to rate, in some places I loved it, in others it was okay and on occasion I found myself thinking hmmmm. The beginning of the book was a bit jarring because of the bit of humour that Mallory tried to infuse in it and once I got passed that and the fact that he no longer sounds like the dry Mallory of old I really got into the book. Mallory does a great job in this book of explaining a few things that have always baffled me like the absence (or not) of La Téne or Hallstatt material, the Irish Iron Age and what we really know about it and so on. The book was a good mix of history, science, language and archaeology. It was not boring to read about the pieces of archeological discoveries he discussed because he puts them in their historical context rather than just telling you from when they date and what they looked like.
I liked how he began each chapter with his ideal “Irishman” Niall of the Nine Hostages and how that beginning always gave you an insight into what the chapter was going to be all about. The conclusions at the end of each chapter were a great way to get the main ideas of the chapters incase you needed to go back and look something up but you weren’t sure exactly where it might be.
Have I learned the origins of the Irish, well no, but I have learned all the different theories and way used to look into the subject. I think this is a book that deserves more than one reading to really get everything that Mallory is trying to say, I see a few specific readings of different chapters with lots of supplementary research in my future.