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.

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The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of George Dumézil By C. Scott Littleton

This edition of the book was printed in 1982 so it is considerably older than most of the books I have read on the theories of myth. It is mainly concerned with George Dumézil’s theories and the author tells us that he is not an Indo-Europeanist and is looking at these theories from the point of view of a social anthropologist. The author defends his right to write about Dumézil’s theories by arguing that Dumézil’s comparative mythology is based upon sociological and anthropological assumptions heavily.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part is about the backgrounds of both the Proto-Indo-European culture and Comparative mythology. The second part is about the development of the tripartite system and the third part is about the people who supported the theory, the people who went against it and an anthropological assessment of it. The book also contains an Appendix, which is split into two parts. The first part is a survey of the recent (in 1982) contributions made by both Dumézil and others and part two is a reprint of a paper on the differences between Dumézil and Lévi-Strauss that originally appeared in the Journal of Asian Studies in 1974. The book also has a references cited section, which is huge and very interesting.

The introduction gave us two very important pieces of information that are the basis of Dumézil’s work and will help the reader move forward through the book. The first is the assumptions that are the basis of Dumézil’s comparative analysis of the varied social and mythological forms presented by the ancient Indo-European speaking world and the second is an overview of the tripartite system.

The first chapter in part one discusses the nature and location of the Proto-Indo-European culture. It starts with linguistics and moves on to archeology. It is short but gives the general idea of where Dumézil’s ideas on the Indo-Europeans started. Chapter two discusses comparative mythology, Frazerian anthropology, and Durkheimian sociology. Those two chapters form the background to the Dumézil system.

Part two is made up of three chapters and it talks about the development of the tripartite system and how it evolved.  Chapter three covers the years between 1924 and 1938.  During this period Dumézil was very enthusiastic about Indo-European matters and this enthusiasm caused him to develop many theories regarding the nature of the Indo-European myths and rituals, which he later was forced to discard.  Despite that though it was also during that period that he began to be aware of the functional relationship between social and supernatural phenomena, it was this awareness that allowed him to discover the tripartite system and see it as the keystone of a common Indo-European ideology.  The next chapter discusses the years between 1938 and 1949.  It was during these years that his system started to develop and his way of thinking changed.  He no longer subscribed to the Frazerian-Mannhardtian approach but turned to the social method.  Dumézil recognized that the tripartite system was not merely an Indo-Iranian phenomenon but was a unique and widespread I-E trait manifesting itself in social organization, myth and religion.  He was able to show that the tripartite system was present in ancient Iran, India, Rome, as well as the Germans and Celts.  He was also able to show common concepts and patterns that were present in the I-E cultures.  He was able to show that all these elements were part of a common I-E ideology.  Chapter five discusses the years between 1949 and 1966.  During these years Dumézil perfected his tripartite system and laid out the course of action that he and his colleagues will take to further their studies of cultures like the Celtic, Baltic and Slavic cultures.  The final chapter in part two deals with the years from 1966 to the present (the time the book was published of course).  During these years Dumézil continued on his research and wrote many articles and books.

The final part of this books looks at the disciples, and critics of Dumézil and gives us a glimpse of what they thought of him and his theories and why.  It also has an anthropological assessment of the system and theoretical implications of it.  There is also a chapter on recent contributions in the field.

The book was a pleasure to read.  I had read bits and pieces of George Dumézil’s tripartite system but the overview given in the beginning of the book really put things into perspective for me.  Also it was a good thing to see how the system developed and the assumptions it was based on.  Also some of the data he based the system on and the live examples that the book included.  I also liked the fact that the author included the people who followed him and their contributions in the field as well as the critics of the system and what their thoughts were on it.  The author’s own anthropological assessment was also something that I very much enjoyed reading and assimilating.  The book gives you the minimum you need to really get interested in George Dumézil and his tripartite system.  It is an excellent introduction to George Dumézil.

Myth – A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal

Myth: A Very Short Introduction is an overview of the major nineteenth and twentieth century theories of myth.  It is clear, very well organized and surprisingly comprehensive.  This is a book for people who want a helpful orientation to the field of mythological studies.  The author uses the myth of Adonis to illustrate the different theories he is discussing.  Robert A. Segal is a Professor of Theories of Religion at Lancaster University.

The author in his introduction tells us that the theories of myth may be as old as myths themselves and are at least as old as Presocratics but that it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that it became scientific in approach.  Scientific theorizing is based on accumulated information.

The author sees theories of myth as theories of some larger domain with myth as a mere subset of it.  Anthropological theories of myth are theories of culture applied to the case of myth, while psychological theories of myth are theories of the mind applied to myth and so on.  He feels that this is because we really don’t know exactly how to define myth.

The theories of myth are united by the questions asked in these theories: (1)origin: how and why a myth arises, (2)function: why and how myths persist and (3)the subject matter of the myth.  The theories of course differ in what they deal with and only a few deal with all of the three questions together.

Segal feels that the difference between the theorists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that in the nineteenth century myth was seen as the “primitive” counterpart to science and so myths were rejected.  In the twentieth century theorists saw myth as anything but the outdated counterpart to science so they weren’t obliged to abandon it in favor of science.

Segal also proposes his own definition of myth in the introduction.  He sees myth as a story.  For folklorists the story is about creation of the world.  For theorists in religious studies the story must be about gods or near gods.  But he doesn’t want to be too rigid in his definition so he defines myth as a story about something significant in the past or present that involves characters with personalities (human, god or animal).  It is a story that accomplishes something significant for the reader and it must express a conviction (true or false is not a criterion).

As mentioned above Segal uses the myth of Adonis to illustrate the differences between theories.  He chose this myth because there are different versions of it, and it was popular with theorists like J. G. Frazer, Levi-Straussian, Marcel Detienne, and C. G. Jung.

The first chapter discusses myth and science.  There has always been opposition to myth.  In Plato’s time it was an ethical opposition (he couldn’t believe that the gods were made out to behave so immorally) and in modern times the opposition comes in the form of science.  The author offers three ways in which myth and science are seen in modern times.  The first is that myth is true science, and this is a view held by such people as the creationists and in this view modern science must give way to myth, not vice versa.  The second view is myth as modern science and here any element that does not conform to the scientific view is removed.  The process is called demythologizing.  The third view is that myth is primitive science, and this is the most common of the three views. Myth is considered as the pre-scientific counterpart to science, which is assumed to be exclusively modern. Myth is here part of religion.  The author then goes on to give examples of people who supported each view.  The People he discusses are: E. B. Tylor, J. G. Frazer,Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Bronislaw Malinowski, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Robin Horton and Karl Popper.

In the second chapter the author discusses myth and philosophy.  He feels that there are seven different views on the relationship between.  The views are: (1) myth is part of philosophy, (2) myth is philosophy, (3) philosophy is myth, (4) myth grows out of philosophy, (5) philosophy grows out of myth, (6) myth and philosophy are independent of each other but serve the same function and (7) myth and philosophy are independent of each other and serve different functions.  The theorists discussed in this chapter are: Paul Radin, Ernst Cassirer, the Frankforts, Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas, and Albert Camus.

Myth and religion is the subject matter of chapter three.  The author starts by saying that to relate myth and religion myth needs to be under religion.  And this exposes myth to the challenge of science and so to reconcile myth and science you need to reconcile religion and science and there are two ways that the theorists have used to do that.  The first is to re-characterize the subject matter of religion and by association myth and the second is to elevate secular phenomena to religious ones.

In the first tactic religion is said to be not about the physical world and so it is safe from clashing with science.  Myth is this case is a traditional myth and is read symbolically rather than literally.  In the second tactic myth is not confined to religious ancient tales.  Stories about heroes, who are at face value humans, are raised so high that they are virtual gods.  Their actions are not superhuman and so are safe from science.  This way means that myths are read literally.  Theorists discussed in this chapter are: Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas, and Mircea Eliade.

Chapter four discusses myth and ritual.  The myth-ritualists say that myth does not stand-alone but is tied to ritual.  It is an action as well as a statement.  William Robertson Smith, E. B. Tylor, J.G. Frazer, Jane Harrison, S.H. Hooke, Rene Girard, and Walter Burkert are all discussed in this chapter.

The relationship between myth and literature is next.  Myths were thought to be used in literature, and literature derived from myths.  Also myth is considered a story, and you can see patterns in myths.  Theorists cited in this chapter are Lord Raglan, Frye, Burke, and Girard.

In myth and psychology two theorists dominated the field, the first is Sigmund Freud and the second is C.G. Jung.  Both of these psychologists parallel myths to dreams.  To Freud myth constitutes a compromise between the side of oneself that wants the desires satisfied outright and the side that does not even want to know they exist.  Myth to Freud functions through its meaning.  People who followed in Freud’s footsteps are Otto Rank, Bruno Bettelheim, and Alan Dundes.

With the advancements of psychoanalysis things changed and psychoanalysists like Jacob Arlow saw myth as contributing to normal development rather than perpetuating neurosis.  C. G. Jung pioneered the concept of archetypes and the collective unconscious.  Someone who followed in Jung’s footsteps is Joseph Campbell.

Cluade Levi-Strauss invented the structuralist approach to myth and he makes the claim that “myth is language”. Through approaching mythology as language, Levi-Strauss suggests that it can be approached the same way as language can be approached by the same structuralist methods used to address language. Levi-Strauss clarifies, “Myth is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at ‘taking off’ from the linguistic ground on which it keeps rolling.”  Levi-Strauss breaks down his argument into three main parts. Meaning is not isolated within the specific fundamental parts of the myth, but rather within the composition of these parts. Although myth and language are of similar categories, language functions differently in myth. Finally, language in myth exhibits more complex functions than in any other linguistic expression. From these suggestions, he draws the conclusion that myth can be broken down into constituent units, and these units are different from the constituents of language. Finally, unlike the constituents of language, the constituents of a myth, which he labels “mythemes,” function as “bundles of relations.”   A structural approach should account for all versions of a myth, as all versions are relevant to the function of the myth as a whole. This leads to what Levi-Strauss calls a spiral growth of the myth, which is continuous while the structure itself is not. The growth of the myth only ends when the “intellectual impulse which has produced it is exhausted.”  Theorists who have taken the same track are Vladimir Propp, George Dumézil and the Gernet School.

In myth and society we see that for Malinowski myths deal with social phenomena like marriage, taxes and ritual.  They help people to deal with what they have by taking it to the ancient past.  George Sorel sees myth as ideologies; they are eternal and serve to topple society instead of strengthen it.

The last chapter of the book deals with the future of the study of myth.  The author summarizes what the theorists of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century thought of myth and then offers his own view of how myth should be seen in the twenty-first century.

The book is a great introduction on the subject of theories of myth and should be supplemented by more in depth analysis and other theorist opinions as this is one man’s look on the subject from the point of view of the field he practices.

In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth by J.P. Mallory

This is the third time that I read this book since I bought it last year. Every time I read it I discover something new. Its an amazing book for anyone interested in the Indo-Europeans.

The book is written from the point of view of an archeologist who has knowledge of historical linguistic methods. For dating the author uses dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating. He tells the story of how the Indo-Europeans where discovered, and then takes you on a journey to find out who are they in Asia, and who are they in Europe. The book also discusses an overview of Proto-Indo-European culture and an overview of Indo-European religion. Then the author gives you the theories of the Indo-European homeland and the problems associated with each theory and gives HIS most like homeland based on his thoughts and discussions.

What makes this book different is that it is easy to read and the author assumes that you know nothing about the subject and explains things very well. He doesn’t only depend on the linguistics but also on the archeology and what is known of the history of Proto-Indo-European culture.

Another book that must be read to know about the Indo-Europeans!