The Celtic Evil Eye and Related Mythological Motifs in Medieval Ireland

Author: Jacqueline Borsje with a contribution from Fergus Kelly (Studies in the History and Anthropology of Religion #2)

Publisher: Peeters

Published: 2012

ISBN: 978-90-429-2641-7

Pages: 387 including 3 Appendices, bibliography and index.

Synopsis: If looks could kill… They can, according to medieval Irish texts – our richest literary inheritance in a Celtic language. The belief in evel, angry or envious eyes casting harmful glances that destroy their target is widespread. This is the first comprehensive study of ‘the evil eye’ in medieval Ireland. We follow the trail from Balor the fearsome one-eyed giant and other evil-eyed kings to saints casting the evil eye, and many others. This study surveys a fascinating body of Irish literature and also examines the evidence for belief in the evil eye in the daily life of medieval Ireland, where people tried to protect themselves against this purported harm by legislation, rituals, verbal precautions and remedies. Related mythological imagery is tracked down and a lost tale about a doomed king who follows a sinister-eyed woman into the Otherworld is reconstructed on the basis of surviving fragments. The edition and translation of a medieval Irish legal text by Fergus Kelly and two sagas in English translation conclude the volume.

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Review: The aim of this book is to explain the medieval Irish beliefs on the notion of the evil eye. It is made up of six very enjoyable essays. The first essay is an explanation of what the evil eye is, its types, examples of each type from Irish literature and comparisons from other cultures when applicable, and how to ward it off. Essays three to five look at related mythological imagery. They analyze the meaning and function of the evil eye. They discuss the term túathcháech and its symbolism and they draw conclusions from all the motifs discussed. The final essay weaves all the previous essays together to give you the author’s final thoughts on the subject.

Although I enjoyed all the essays my favorite would have to be the first. It sets up the book perfectly giving the reader the background needed to read the rest of the book. The examples given were perfect to back up her divisions of the evil eye and they make understanding it easy.

The Celts

Author: Wolfgang Meid
Publisher: Innsbruck
Copyright: 2010
ISBN:9783851242287

Synopsis: “The Celts” – who were they? Did they really exist, or are they as some archaeologists seem to believe, a mere scientific construct, a fictitious entity? The basis of this misapprehension is the fact that it is not possible to diagnose Celticity by archaeological means alone. “Celtic” is, in the first instance, a linguistic concept, and disregarding this linguistic foundation must lead to an impasse. It is the proven relationship of the so-called “Celtic” languages and their derivation from a common ancestor which justifies this scientific concept.

“Celts”, on the other hand, is an ethnic term attested for population groups in western Continental Europe, but which has been extended to include also population groups in the British Isles for which this name is not attested. The basis of this terminological extension has been the discovery of the genetic relationship of the languages spoken by all these groups, which consequently have been termed “Celtic” languages, going back to a common prehistoric ancestor language termed “Proto-Celtic”, a distinct branch of the Indo-European language family. Since a language presupposes speakers, those could be called “Celts”. From a linguistic point of view these “Celts” were real people; today their descendants would be rather called by other names, like Irish or Welsh.

Review: This is another introduction to the Celts, however, this is written from the point of view of a linguist and philologist as opposed to an archaeologist.  The author says “It is the author’s opinion that material culture, by itself, is insufficient to define Celticity (which explains the Celto-scepticism virulent among archaeologists); it needs to be combined with, and backed up by, the linguistic evidence which is the primary indicator.” (Page 5) Since I completely agree with the author I was very excited to read what he had to say.

The book is divided into seven chapters: origins and early evidence of the Celts, Celtic archaeology, expansion of the Celts and the quest for new homelands, the Celts in the British Isles, society and culture, religion and the insular Celtic literary tradition.  The focus of the book is varied and it encompasses a little bit of everything from archaeology to history to literary (and linguistic) records.  It is a small book (only 182 pages including the selected bibliography) so I was not expecting a real indepth study in linguistics and philology.

I really loved the fact that the author started with a discussion of what the Celts used to name themselves, what others have called them, and what it means when modern scholars talk about “Celts” or “Celtic”. It leaves no question as to what the author himself means when he uses these names. In chapter 2, the author does an amazing job at explaining the confusion about the Hallstatt and La Tene cultures being Celtic or not. He also makes a good job of explaining where that confusion came from. The chapters on society, culture and religion are very interesting as well. They give a good overview of the subject matter. And the final chapter on the literature of the Celts is a very good introduction on mythology.

Now there are a few times when I thought [huh??] in the religion and society chapters but that is to be expected no book is perfect after all, and the book could have used a few more maps really but otherwise nothing major to detract from it. I would say it is a very good book if you want to revise somethings and clear up a few others, and it is a good book to start with if you want an introduction to the Celts.

I hope this author translates more of his books or writings from German to English because he certainly has a good point of view to counter a lot that is out there.

Myth (The New Critical Idiom Series) by Laurence Coupe

This book is part of the series The New Critical Idiom edited by John Drakakis. It is written by Laurence Coupe who is a Senior Lecturer in English at Manchester Metropolitan University. Myth was written with the students of literature in mind. It gives them a comprehensive overview of the development of myth, showing how mythic themes, structures and symbols persist in literature and entertainment today. This book shows the relation between myth, culture and literature, it explores uses made of the term “myth” within the fields of literary criticism, anthropology, cultural studies, feminism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis, it discusses the association between modernism, post-modernism, myth and history, it familiarizes the student with themes such as the dying god, the quest of the Grail, the relation between chaos and cosmos, and the vision of the end of time. And finally demonstrates the growing importance of the green dimension of myth.
The introduction of the book is trying to establish a definition of myth that will take us forward into the book. The author starts by giving simple examples of how the myth is seen from different angles by different people. In literary and cultural studies myth is usually used as a synonym of ideology for example when we say “the myth of progress” or “the myth of the free individual”. In the entertainment world it is used as a synonym for fantasy. In either case the meaning is illusion. Then the author gives us four stories that define different types of myths, fertility myths, creation myths, deliverance myths, and hero myths. These are not the only types but they are the most seen in mythology. The author believes that mythology is an important element of literature and that literature is a means to extend mythology. The author decided to use the approach outlined by the theologian Don Cupitt to define myth. Don Cupitt considers that there are so many conflicting definitions of myth because each theorists takes one sort of myth and makes it the center of his studies that it is better to list a number of “typical features” and then act on the assumption that a narrative is mythic if it has most but not necessarily all of these features.
Part one is about reading myths.The author uses as his vehicle the film by Coppola Apocalypse Now. Through it we discuss the work of Frazer, T.S. Eliot and his “mythical Method”, Edgell Rickword’s mythopoeic program and Mircea Eliade’s work. Chapter one focuses on the fertility myth and Frazer’s work on it. Chapter two focuses on the creation myth and Mircea Eliade’s work on the subject and in chapter three the myth of deliverance is discussed and through out all three chapters the hero myth is discussed in relation to the material. All this is done with an eye on the literary and cultural texts and contexts.
Mythic reading is the subject of part two. Chapter four talks about two kinds of mythic reading: allegory, which is identified as realist; and typology, which is identified as non-realist. Chapter five and the subsequent chapters talk about the theories of the past and present. The people whose works are discussed are Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Claude Lévi-Strauss in Chapter five; Ronald Barthes, Northrop Frye, Fredric Jameson and Marina Warner in Chapter six; Gary Snyder, James Lovelock, Theodore Roszak and Michel Serres in Chapter seven.
I really loved this book and enjoyed the examination of three types of myths in relation to the movie Apocalypse Now. I also very much enjoyed the easy explanation of the theories of myth in part two of the book. I think what makes it really good is the fact that it uses examples from works we have all read or seen at some point or another in our lives. It keeps the book fresh and makes the thought process very easy on the student (or in my case reader). It also brings about the conclusion that with the loss of myth we lose our environment, and that if the natural world is not alive (as is portrayed in myths) then it is a “wasteland”. Another idea that came across loud and clear was how to read myths and how to be a mythic reader. It is all in how your “see” the myth and from what point of view. A wonderful book indeed!

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.

Celtic Language Celtic Culture Edited by A.T.E. Matonis and Daniel F. Melia

“Celtic” applies to a group of related languages in the Indo-European language group and the cultures that developed in the communities that speak these languages. Many people in the scholastic communities consider that Celtic identity is not based on genetics or “blood” but on being part of this linguistic and cultural grouping.

In the preface of the book the editors tell us that the book was compiled in honor of the achievements of Eric P. Hamp, and that the book can be considered to be a labor of love.  The book is a collection of essays written by Eric P. Hamp’s students, and people who were affected by his achievements.  The book is divided into five parts; the first is concerned with the Continental Celts and the Indo-Europeans, the second with the Irish, the third with the Scottish Gaelic, the fourth with the Welsh and the fifth part with the Bretons.

Part one consists of six essays, two of which are in German (I believe).  In order to understand fully the first essay in the book you have to have a working knowledge of Irish, when it comes to sentence structure.  This first essay is trying to prove or disprove the relation of proleptic object pronouns to the development of the placement of verbs in Insular Irish.  How is this related to the Continental Celts?  The author uses two Gaulic inscriptions to show the relation (and advancement) of the sentence structure between the Hispano-Celtic (Subject/Object/Verb) to Gaulish (Subject/Verb/Object) then to Insular Celtic (Verb/Subject/Object).  In the end the author concluded that there may be some relation but not to the extent portrayed by other authors.  The next essay is a short note on the Celtibri.  Basically the note poses the question, what is in a name?  Are the Celtibrians, two different peoples living mixed together (the Celts and the Inberians) or are they inhabitants of Spain (Iberians) that are Celts?  The author of the note makes a good point in that the name comes to us from the Greeks and we really don’t know what they meant exactly by it.  The next two essays are in German and unfortunately I do not have the linguistic skills to read them.  The fifth essay is a look at whether the similarities in some phrases between Indo-European peoples are ultimately genetic in character.  The author offers two cases, the first is an oath “I swear by the gods that my people swear by” and he shows how you can find it in Old Irish, Greek and Russian in the same form.  So he postulates that it could be an Indo-European way of oath forming.  The second case is the phrase “pillar of x” as in pillar of the community or pillar of Troy.  Here the author gives us the examples of the same formation of the phrase one in Irish and one in Greek, and one in old English.  Again he postulates that its origin is from an Indo-European formation of “Hero”.  Seeing patterns even when they are not so obvious is interesting and can help relate the languages to each other and to the Indo-Europeans.  The final essay in this section is entitled “Some Celtic Otherworld Terms” and just by reading the title I was hooked.  This happens to be the longest essay of the section and the author begins it with a discussion of whether it is advisable to see the Celtic peoples as one culture with a singular tradition when the two “majorly” Celtic cultures (i.e. Wales and Ireland) do not exhibit similar traditions.  In fact the author tells us, when you look at the Irish history you can barely see much evidence of what was considered Celtic (i.e. the Hallstatt and the La Tene cultures) and the same can be said of Wales.  All of which is true.  What we can say is that these two nations can be called Celtic because they all come from the Pro-Celtic branch of the Indo-European family of languages.  The author tells us that his specialty is Irish vernacular records and their influence on Welsh vernacular records, and he tells us that the conclusion he reached through a philological comparison is that most of the names in the Irish and Welsh mythologies are similar enough to have been ascribed to a common origin.  He gives the Otherworld as an example.  The author notes an interesting theory, that the translation of the Otherworld is actually a Christianized idea of this world that we live in and the other world.  In Welsh mythology Annw(f)n seems to be one kingdom which has sub-kingdoms that are fighting with each other over the title of The King of Annw(f)n while the Sìd of the Irish was a conglomerate of mounds that have their different kings and seem to be living in peace together.  The author thinks that they seem to be reflecting the state of each nation at the time these mythologies were written.  He goes into the possible origins of each name and how it was viewed in mythology, as well as possible locations, citing such authors as Carey, Koch, O Rahilly and O Cathsaigh who have written on the subject. A must read essay for all interested in the Otherworld and derivations of it.

Nine essays make up the Irish part of this book.  The first four essays of this section deal mostly with notes on the uses of certain vowels, consonants and combinations of them as well as searching through the etymology of words in Modern Irish.  They are interesting in that you can see the progress of the words or suffixes through the language and where they had come from.  I love the Irish language and reading about why certain words are written this way was fascinating for me.  The fifth essay in the section is very interesting.  It talks about a word “audacht” and its impact on stories from the Cath Maige Tuired and the story of Socht’s sword.  The word itself was thought to be of Latin origin but was proven to be of Indo-European origin by Eric Hamp.  The author then takes us through the two stories that prove the real meaning of the word.  What is even more interesting is that this relatively small word cares with it a huge meaning.  The wide range of semantics and meanings incorporated in the word “Noínden” is explained in the sixth essay of the Irish section.  The author tries to explain how one word could mean the many things it does.  It is the sickness that over takes the Ulstermen in the Táin and it is also a huge gathering of a great host, as well as a heroic deed.  The author along the way explains the illness of the Ulstermen, which the word is used to describe most often.  Then he explains the meaning in which it is the ritual of fertility and group initiation, and then he describes how it could be a heroic adventure.  This essay is a good example of how one word can incorporate so much in the Irish language.  In the seventh essay of the section the author explores the semantic fields of terms for ravens, crows, blackbirds, and other species of black birds in early Irish to underscore the mythological and religious dimensions of the linguistic usage.  It’s very interesting for people who are into the mythical and religious meanings of birds.  The last two essays of this section deal with poets and poetry, harpers and women in early Irish literature.  There is a wealth of stories and poetry in these two essays as well as explanations of the parts they played in the Irish society of the time.

The third part is made up of only three essays.  The essays were very interesting in that rather then talking about poetry or mythology they covered the language itself.  The first essay was about the historiography of the Scottish Gaelic dialect studies and how the combine Celtic studies with descriptive linguistics.  The second essay is about a construction in Scottish Gaelic that is used in poetry and prose, that is the use of the word (a) bhith to give an action an impersonal meaning.  The author gives a lot of examples from poetry because it is there that it is very clear.  The third essay is about a person who writes Scottish Gaelic without actually reading it.  Its interesting how she was able to do that and the author explains how it was done.

The Welsh part of the book is made up of eight essays.  The first essay discusses the positive declarative sentence in the White book version of Kulhwch ac Olwen in great detail.  I must say that some of it went over my head but it was still an interesting read.  The second essay in this section is by a name well known in the Celtic Mythology world and that is Mac Cana.  In this essay he discusses the sentence word order in Old Irish and compares it to Middle Welsh giving examples from myths.  To me it was a fascinating read.  The third essay takes the reader on a journey to discover where the Waterfall of Derwennydd is.  The author is trying to perhaps date a cradlesong that can be found in the Book of Aneirin.  Essay four is an interesting investigation of two verbs in the Canu I Gadfan, a Welsh poem dating from the second or third quarter of the twelfth century and preserved in the fourteenth century Hendregadredd manuscript.  The following essay is an interesting examenation of the problems relating to the composition of the Welsh Bardic grammars.  This is a must read essay for anyone interested in the subject or indeed interested in Welsh literature and vernacular texts.  For anyone who has read the early Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen essay six is important.  It talks about the hero of the tale and makes some interesting observations about him.  Essay seven is about a phrase in the story of Branwen that might actually be an Anglo-Saxon pun.  It’s amazing how this one word could cause so much trouble.  The final essay in the section is about Dylan Thomas’s “A Grief Ago” and how it ties into Irish Folklore.

The final part is made up of two essays.  These two essays are about linguistics in the first degree.  The first essay compares a Welsh adverb to a Breton one and the second gives us the simple tenses of a Breton verb.

The bibliography of Eric Hamp is added after the final section (Breton), it shows the extensive amount of wok that Eric Hamp has done in the field of Celtic culture.  It certainly is a fitting tribute!

As can be seen from the simple summaries provided above the two parts that had the most essays were the Irish and the Welsh.  This is probably because (and I could be wrong) of the fact that with these two the language is still spoken somewhat widely and there are much in the way of literary material to deal with.  Ireland and Wales have a tradition of vernacular material that is very impressive compared to any other Celtic nation.

The book is interesting in that it shows you that you can not really separate linguistics from mythology and poetry, which naturally leads to not being able to separate language from culture.  I would also venture out and say that to understand people you need to know their archeology, history, and culture.  Having said that I should also warn people that the book takes the language part of the title literally, if you are not interested in linguistics then many of the essays in this book if not all of them will be boring to you.  On the other hand you will also miss out on the mythological aspect of the essays, which the authors use the meaning of a word or name to explain.