Review: Celtic Myth and Religion

Some of you who follow me on tumblr are aware that I’ve been posting my reactions to material in this book a lot recently. Well, I’ve finally finished it so here’s my review.

I’ve never really been interested in mythology from Celtic countries (yes, I’m aware it’s better to refer to Irish or Scottish myths instead of a catch-all like “Celtic” but I use it for clarity and brevity’s sake). I sort of poked around in Celtic stuff due to my exposure to eclectic Wicca (where it seemed like everyone was constantly referring to Celtic–particularly Irish and Welsh–things) but I never really felt a connection to any of these traditions despite my adoptive family’s Irish heritage.

However, more recently I’ve become interested in comparing Norse and Celtic traditions, in part inspired by a Facebook group that used to do the same but was abruptly closed. I guess you could call it a bit of self-directed study. Hence, this book, Celtic Myth and Religion by Sharon Paice MacLeod.

The book is exactly what it says in the subtitle: “A study of traditional belief, with newly translated prayers, poems, and songs” the author has taught Celtic literature and mythology, presented papers at the University of Edinburgh, University College Cork, and the Harvard Celtic Colloquium. She is also a faculty member of the Celtic Institute of North America, so she sounds like someone who really knows what she’s talking about.

The book is divided into three parts: Celtic myth and religion, Celtic shamanism and wisdom traditions, and Celtic legends and folklore. (I should note here that the material in this book is mostly concerned with Irish, Scottish, and Welsh sources, lore of Cornwall, Brittany, and the Isle of Man is barely present, and the author encourages interested readers to do further reading if interested). Part one gives a general overview of Celtic religious traditions, including sections on deities, the role of druids and seers, and the ritual year. Part two looks at various “shamanic” techniques and examines similar techniques in Celtic countries, as well as cosmology, the lore of plants and animals (including a discussion of ogham) and wisdom traditions. The third and final part looks at legends and folklore, including the Mabinogi, Arthurian traditions, fairy lore, and folklore associated with the seasons. Appendices look at the role of women (specifically as outlined in legal texts), the tradition of folksongs, and a recommended reading list for further study. The book also includes endnotes, which are mostly full of citations with little additional information. There’s also a robust bibliography (although most of her scholarly sources aren’t that current) and an index.

The author states that this book is meant to be a sort of introduction for students who, in the past, have had to wade through many academic texts, especially since much of the material isn’t available in English, and in this regard, I feel like it’s done its job. It definitely has the feel of a more introductory text. There’s a lot of information in this book, but at the same time, the book only gives you a fleeting glimpse of the richness of these traditions, the tiniest sip at the Well of Wisdom, leaving you wanting more. This book is a starting point, where you go with it is up to you. If you don’t mind that sort of thing, you’ll be quite comfortable with this book.

My overall impression is that it’s a good introduction to the material, but this is coming from someone who isn’t very familiar with the subject matter, and can’t translate the bits of Old Irish that the author quotes to know if it’s translated accurately. Those of you who are probably more familiar with the subject probably wouldn’t be as interested in this, in fact, most of the material is probably nothing you haven’t seen before. As I said, this book was written for students and it definitely feels like the sort of book you would use in a 101 type course in university. Here’s a fun activity: go find a Llewellyn book on “Celtic” Paganism and compare it to what this book says about the ritual year. (Hint: Beltane is not about the heterosex, marriages were actually arranged at Lugnasad.) One thing I did appreciate was in the chapter on plants and animals, where the author states that the use of ogham for divination is in question, but provides meanings for each tree based on traditional sources in case you want to use them in that way. I thought that was a cool thing to do, not completely dismiss it, but not wholeheartedly endorse it either, instead, offer it to readers if it’s something they’d like to try.

In terms of things that I found annoying about this book. I know the title says “Celtic” but the book really only talks about Irish, Scottish, and Welsh material. Another annoying thing is the way the author lumps many different practices together under the label of “shamanism” which is very annoying but not uncommon in academic circles, sadly.  The author could have simply called it “Magico-Religious Practices” but I guess that doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Celtic Shamanism”.

Overall, I would give this book a tentative recommendation, it seems like a solid book on the subject and a good resource for people who aren’t that familiar with Irish, Scottish, and Welsh traditions apart from what they read by Llewellyn and other “popular” publishers, and it isn’t written in a dry academic style. But, as I said, I’m not an expert on the subject matter, so tread carefully.

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