The Historical Atlas of the Celtic World by John Haywood

Synopsis: Through fifty-four color maps, covering almost 3,000 years and spanning the whole of Europe, this atlas of the Celts charts their dramatic history from Bronze Age origins to present-day diaspora. Each map is accompanied by an authoritative text and supporting illustrations.

“Continental Celts” maps the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures in Central Europe; the migrations into Italy, Iberia, Greece, and Anatolia; the fate of Celtic culture under Roman rule; and the fortunes of the Bretons from the Dark Ages to their absorption by France.

Beginning with Iron Age Britain and Ireland, “Atlantic Celts” covers the failure of the Romans to complete the conquest of the islands, the resurgence of Celtic civilization in the Dark Ages, the history of Gaelic Ireland, and the making of Scotland.

“Modern Celts” examines the revival of Celtic identity, from the Celtomania of the eighteenth century through the growth of nationalism and the current state of Celtic culture.

Review: This is one of the books that I feel most newbies to the history of the Celts should have. The book is full of illustrations and maps that help newbies and advanced readers alike to chart the history of the Celts.

I’ve read a lot of history books but what makes this one special to me is that it helps me keep things straight in my mind.  The way it is divided definitely makes it easier to find specific time periods and the maps help one keep the territories straight.  The fact that it is up to date also makes it great to have.


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.

Celtic Myths and Legends By Michael Foss

Celtic Myths and Legends was first published in 1995 and it is a book of myths from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.  The book is divided into six sections each one dealing with a subject matter.  The first section is about who the Celtic are, the second is about the physical world, the Otherworld and the fate of mankind, the third section is about fables and talking beasts, the fourth is about Cuchulain, the fifth is about love, and the last section is about Finn Mac Cool and the Fenians.

So what do I like about the book?  The ease with which the stories are told, and the retelling of sometimes confusing myths in a way that us human beings can understand.  The fact that the stories are grouped in a way where subject and not origin that matters, and the fact that in the table of contents the stories have the places from which they originate clearly marked.

What don’t I like about the book?  There is no background story to the myths presented.  I don’t know which books they come from, how old these stories are if they are pieced together from different versions or if they all come from one single version.  I don’t know if I am asking too much here.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read great stories to themselves and their children.  I really enjoyed the retelling by Michael Foss, the way he grouped his stories to give a sense of continuity to the text as a whole and I loved knowing whether a story was Irish, Scottish or Welsh, but I also wished for…well more…

Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis

Celtic Myths and Legends is a collection of Irish, Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Manx and Breton tales brought together by Peter Ellis in one volume.  Ellis, tells the tales in his own words, from manuscripts that he has read.  Now you can say what you will about Ellis’s loyalties but he is a great storyteller.  He may idolize the Celts, but the stories are worth telling and he certainly brings them to life.

He begins the book with an introduction to the Celts.  He gives a short abridged history both of the people and the language.  He compares them and their mythology to that of the Indians to show that they come from the same mother language, that of the Indo-Europeans.  He also gives an overview of the sources from which he got his stories (read myths), and how old those sources are, though he didn’t do a very good job of that because I ended up being confused about it all.  The first chapter after the Introduction was termed The Ever Living Ones and it is the myth of how the Tuatha De Danann had come to Ireland.  It is most likely from the Book of Invasions though the author never told us so.

What follows the introduction are the myths from Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany.  He prefaces each section of the myths with a little history and some of the works that he is getting the myths from.

The best point of this book is that the myths are recounted in a very easy way, which can be understood by anyone.  Peter Ellis is a great storyteller.  Here is where I think he went wrong, first I don’t know why he chose these specific myths (other than some sentimental reasons) and he didn’t tell us exactly where he got these myths from and a short history of these manuscripts would have been nice.

This is a good book to read if you want a good storytelling of some of the myths from each Celtic country.

The Celts by John Haywood

John Haywood in his introduction of the book tells us that in recent academic writing about the Celts the focus has been on whether or not the Celts really existed and on whether the modern Celts are real Celts.  His opinion on the matter (with some reservations which he will discuss in the book) is that both are real.  He feels that rather than focusing on Celtic history as a two-millennia-long decline, it should be seen as a real story of survival.  John Haywood in his book is trying to explain the reasons WHY the Celts have survived in one form or another until today.  He gives us two reasons.  The first is that the Celts were not united so in his opinion they were harder to conquer and even when defeated they were harder to subdue because there was always someone ready to rebel.  The other reason is the limitations of their enemies’ colonial systems, which could not easily assimilate the decentralized tribal societies even after they were defeated.  He uses for his resources the Classical writers, archeology, and vernacular records.  The book has a beautiful bibliography that could be used for references or further reading on a specific subject.

The first chapter of the books was a very brief history of the possible origins of the Celts.  The author talks about the Indo-Europeans, and their connection to the Celts both through possible blood and language.  The author also talks about the Hallstatt and the La Téne periods.  The chapter was very brief, but I think that has more to do with the fact that this was something that a lot of Celtic history books have hashed and re-hashed a thousand times.  A few ideas that the author presented in this chapter stuck with me though.  The first idea that came through loud and clear is that trying to define the Celts by their culture is not a viable option because there has been so many changes across time in culture, technology and social structure that the modern Celts would not be recognized by their ancient ancestors.  Also in some of the places that have been distinctly called Celtic the Celts had adopted so much of the cultures they lived in it was no longer considered Celtic culture.  The strongest way and the most widely accepted way to define Celts is through language.  Another idea is that the Celts never collectively called themselves that, this only came about in the 18th Century and because of that, modern historians and linguists argue that the idea of the Celts as a people is simply a modern fabrication.  We have no myths of origin by the Celts and yet that did not stop the Greeks and Romans from giving them myths of origins based on their gods and cultures, and the chapter lists a few of these myths, which was really interesting.  The author also believes that during the Hallstatt period when the Celtic World began to integrate itself with the Mediterranean economy and encourage the process of political centralization they made themselves more vulnerable to conquest and political as well as cultural assimilation by the Romans.  The author believes that the end of the Hallstatt period may have been due to changes in the trading routes and the rise of the new chieftains in the North (the La Téne Chieftains).  This new power was more militant than the Hallstatt chieftains and its appearance marked the beginning of a long period of instability in northern and central Europe.  This is very much in keeping with what other experts in these two periods had said, the most widely known of which is Barry Cunliffe who wrote “The Ancient Celts” and most recently “Europe Between the Oceans”.

Chapter two discussed the Celtic migrations that were known in recorded history and they were certainly widespread.  The author believes that most of the larger scale migrations were actually planned well in advance like the Helvetii migrations, which took two years to plan.  The reasons for these migrations were believed to be due to shortage of resources, and to social tensions caused by over-population.  This includes warriors who wanted to make a name for themselves and lead their own groups of people.  Looking at the people that the Celts succeeded against, they were believed to be at the same stage of development as the Celts and this made it easier for the Celts to assimilate them into Celtic culture and identity.

The third chapter of the book talks about the Celts of the La Téne World.  It begins by discussing its social structure and how it differs from the Atlantic fringe to Continental Europe, the economy, housing and living conditions, the Celtic religion and Celtic warfare and ends by telling us that the Continental Celts were open to conquest and assimilation not because they were barbarians but because they were actually civilized enough to be included into the Roman world.  The chapter also tells us how the Celts were viewed through the ages.  For example, in the classical times they were inferior barbarians, while in the 18th century they were seen as Noble Savages.  In the age of environmentalism and New Age beliefs the Celts became a symbol for spirituality and respect for nature.  The author also goes into greater detail about the social structure of the La Téne Celts.  He tells us that it depended on the environment and the resources available to them, which in my opinion makes great sense.  The main form of social structure was chiefdom and it depended on lineage and inheritance and it was mostly tribal based.  Chiefdoms survived in Ireland until the 16th century CE and in the Scottish Highlands until the 18th century CE, which is the reason they were hard to conquer and keep by the Romans.  In Celtic Europe however, they were already developing kingdoms and tribal republics by the last centuries BCE.  This the author attributes to the trade with the Mediterranean World, a rising population and increasing prosperity based on efficient agriculture.  Celtic Europe’s adoption of state formations led to the arrival of literacy using different borrowed scripts by the 6th century BCE.  Around the 2nd century BCE they also began to use and issue coinage.  The chapter includes great explanations of the economy and what it was based on, how the houses were built and the living conditions of people, the Celtic religion and how it was similar and yet different to the Roman and Greek ones, and the methods and instruments used in warfare by the Celts of the La Téne World.

The Celts and the Roman Republic is the next chapter in the book.  The author begins by telling us that the Romans wrote this part of the Celtic story and so it is offered with all the limitations that that entails (i.e. this is a one sided story and we don’t get to hear what the Celts had to say about the same events).  The Roman version of events is colored by their memories of the 390 BCE sack of Rome by the Gauls. The author makes good points in this chapter about the Romans and the Celts.  The Roman expansion in his opinion was no more planned than the Celtic expansion previously was.  It was driven by internal politics and the search for secure frontiers.  The Romans were not averse to the Celts even though they tended to see them as inferior.  They formed alliances with some of the Celtic tribes just like they did with other peoples.  The Celts saw this as an advantage against their enemies of other Celtic tribes or non-Celtic tribes.  Of course these alliances tended to make the Celts easier to assimilate by the Romans but that was not necessarily unwelcome by the Celts whose main concern was whether the Elites’ wealth and status was preserved and if it was then so be it.  Most modern and classical Roman historians (like Tacitus for example) saw the Celtic disunity as a weakness that led to their defeat, but if it was so, the author asks, would it have taken the Romans 400 years to conquer the Celts??  The author gives as an example the Roman conquest of the Celtic Iberians.  He says that in the time it took to subdue and conquer these Celts the Romans were able to conquer the entire eastern Mediterranean with its ancient and sophisticated civilizations like Greece and Egypt.  Could it be that the disunity or more precisely the decentralization of the Celts be the reason that the Celts held on so long?  After all, it took only one year for the Romans to put down the rebellion of Vercingetorix after he united all the Gauls under him…I think this is an interesting concept and idea.  The author goes on to describe how the conquest of Cisalpine Gaul, Spain, and Galatia took place.  He describes how these conquests started and why and the strategies used by both parties in the wars.  The chapter ends with the threat from the north or the German tribes and their alliance with Gaulish tribes and how the Romans dealt with them after they (the German and Gaulish tribes) gave them quite the scare.

Chapter five deals with Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and how that came about.  The last chapter ended with the northern threat to the Romans and even after putting that threat down Roman attitudes towards Gaul changed.  The Romans saw Transalpine Gaul as a safe land route to Spain and a necessary buffer zone against invasions from the Germanic tribes in the north.  This is why when it was threatened by the Helvetii in 58 BCE and the Aedui, who were Roman allies, asked for help against the Arverni and the Sequani it was easy for Caesar to get the Senate to agree to war to protect Transalpine Gaul and the trade the Romans had there.  After dealing with these threats Caesar decided to go further.  He defeated the Belgae in September 57 BCE.  He then went after the Armorican tribes because they controlled the most important trade routes between Gaul and Britain.  The author then goes on to expound on Caesar’s incursions into Britain.  In the end of these raids Romans had increased trade and diplomatic contact with southern Britain and nothing more, it was up to the next leaders of Rome to conquer Britain.  The chapter also discusses the troubles that Caesar had with rebellions in Gaul like the ones led by Ambiorix and Vercingetorix.  Even though some Celtic areas remained Roman free in Transalpine Gaul in the end they too decided to get under Roman rule, which they preferred to the German tribes.

Chapter six is dedicated to the Roman conquest of Britain.  The chapter contains a lot of details that are not really given in other history books on the Celts.  It describes the troubles that the Roman had to endure while trying to conquer Britain and all the rebellions they had to deal with from people like Caratacus, Togodumnus, Boudica, Venutius, and the people of the Highlands.  It is interesting that when the Britons used guerrilla tactics they could win but when they united they lost.  In the end the Romans could not go beyond Hadrian’s Wall nor could they conquer Ireland.

In chapter seven the author discusses the Celts in the Roman world.  The Romans were good at assimilating other cultures because they tolerated other religions, which made it easier for the people to accept them.  The Celts appeared to have controlled the pace at which they became Romanized as evidenced by their burial practices.  The chapter was interesting because it told you of how the assimilation happened and how it differed from one Celtic region to another.

The making of Wales is the subject of chapter eight.  The author begins by giving you the version of events that Gildas the monk made famous and then he tells you what really happened.  Chapter eight is a very interesting starting point for anyone interested in the history of Wales and how it came about.

Scotland or Alba is the subject matter of chapter nine.  Again the author gives a great introduction to the history of the people who live there, where they came from, their struggles and what led them to the union with England.

Chapter ten is about my favorite subject, the history of Ireland.  Like the previous two chapters it makes an interesting read, whether you just want an introduction to Irish history or if you want a refresher to Irish history.  The history starts with early Christian Ireland and extends to the end of the fifteenth century CE.

Brittany in north-western France is a Celtic speaking region that I don’t know much about so I was very interested in reading about it in chapter eleven.  The history starts from when the Bretons went over as immigrants and ends around the fourteenth century CE.

England’s Celtic ulcer is the title of chapter twelve.  I automatically thought it would be about Ireland and I was right.  The Chapter dealt with the English attempts to control Ireland up until the time of Cromwell.

Chapter thirteen discusses the end of the clan system and how it affected Scotland politically.  The author discusses how these clans worked in the Highlands and how they came to be, in a very simplistic manner.

The last three chapters of the book discuss the Celtic revival (how, why and where it took place), the Celtic Diaspora and the causes and effects of it and the modern Celts.  The last chapter especially discusses (though very briefly) the future of the Celts.

I really enjoyed the book because it filled in gaps in my knowledge in certain areas like Brittany and Wales and complemented what I already knew about Ireland and Scotland.  It presented the latest of the known facts on the Celts and that is what a lot of older books lack.  It is a great book for beginners or for people who want an up to date discussion of the history of the Celts.