Friday, 3 June 2016

Book Review: Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past

Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past
Edited by Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm

I think I've mentioned wanting this book a couple of times before here on the blog, but thanks to the price tag – £95 (and not much less second-hand) – this is not a book that I'm ever going to be able to afford. I expect the same goes for a lot of people, which is a real shame because it's a seriously good read.

I really do understand that books are expensive to produce and a profit is difficult to come by on volumes like this, but I do wish there was some sort of happy medium to be found. The price tag unfortunately means it's really only ever going to be something you'll find in an academic library, unless second-hand prices come down. Seeing as the book was only published last year I was surprised and pleased to find it available at my university library, so damn skippy I'm borrowing it.

So with the whinging out the way I'll get onto what the book actually is: It's a collection of articles that were originally presented in 2008 at a colloquium in Helsinki, and (as the title suggests) they're all looking at various aspects of what we might call "Celtic Religion." There's a very critical approach throughout the volume, and the topics include a focus on how approaches to "Celtic" religion have changed and evolved over the years (i.e. is there a Celtic religion?), what the material we have available can actually tell us about religious belief, and the way historical approaches to those beliefs evolved as well.

All in all this is a pretty slim volume with only seven articles, so it's a fairly quick read and not as much of a hard slog as most books like this tend to be. There are obviously some articles that grabbed my interest more than others, but one in particular that seemed rather incongruous when grouped together with the rest; this one dealt with purely Biblical material, and while it was a good read in itself it seemed rather out of place with the rest.

The first article, from Alexandra Bergholm and Katja Ritari, asks "'Celtic Religion': Is this a Valid Concept?" (Short answer being no, not really) and it does a fantastic job of introducing the rest of the book in general, but also giving a very brief and critical overview of the issues involved in undertaking such studies. This is the kind of important stuff you want to have a good idea of if you're going to make your own study of the field.

Next up is Jacqueline Borsje's "Celtic Spells and Counterspells," which focuses mostly on Irish material but with some other examples brought in for comparison. Not only is her analyses of these "spells and counterspells" fascinating, but she uses them as a frame for discussing how we can use the historical sources to learn what we can about pre-Christian beliefs – what they can and can't tell us, what we can even if it's not stated explicitly, and so on. Again, this is really good, important stuff even though some of it may already seem pretty obvious to you.

John Carey's "The Old Gods of Ireland in the Later Middle Ages" is also a solid contribution, and it kind of picks up on some elements Carey covered in his first chapter of A Spear of the Sun and then expands on them, namely how the scribes of the Middle Ages dealt with the gods and grappled with their identity and place in a Biblical scheme. In some ways this may be a topic that's been well-covered already, but I found some bits and pieces here that added to my understanding of the subject and were of genuine interest. Along with Borsje's article, I'd highly recommend a read.

The next few articles were interesting to me but I didn't feel they added as much as the previous ones in terms of religion or myth specifically. Even so, Robin Chapman Stacey's article on "Ancient Irish Law Revisited" had some good stuff with applying the same sort of critical approach to the law tracts as Borsje did with her chapter, so if that's your thing I'd recommend adding it to your list of things to read.

The final chapter, however, is one of the chunkier articles in the volume, and I thought it offered a lot of good food for thought. This one is Jane Webster's "A Dirty Window on the Iron Age? Recent Developments in the Archaeology of Pre-Roman Celtic Religion," and it begins with a (fairly provocative, perhaps) quote from John Collis that states, "I am sceptical that there is anything we can label as 'Celtic religion.'" The chapter is a nice bookend to the introduction from Bergholm and Ritari, and Webster contributes a critical look at what archaeology, specifically, can offer us, as well as what it has offered us in the past. She begins with a broad overview of recent archaeological developments in the field, detailing the various approaches and interpretations that have been taken to the material, using some of the bigger names in archaeology as examples for critiquing and explaining further. We then move on to look at the limitations of archaeology in terms of how it can't give us much certainty or specifics about druids, or issues around sacrifice, and so on.

As the first volume in a new series (titled "New Approaches to Celtic Religion and Mythology") I think it's a really good start and I look forward to seeing the rest of the series come out and exploring other areas in more detail. To be clear, this is not a book that's going to give you a detailed description of what "Celtic Religion" looked like, which I'm sure is going to be frustrating to some if you go by the title alone. The book doesn't really offer much in the way of certainties at all, but it does offer something that's all too often lacking in "Celtic Pagan" spheres, and that's an emphasis on critical thinking and approaching the material on its own terms. It's a real shame that the cost of the book is so prohibitive because for that alone I really would recommend you read it if you can get hold of a copy. If you have access to a library that can get hold of it for you then I think it's definitely worth a try.





Monday, 25 April 2016

Behold the shiny things (with a surprising amount of penis)... Part two

Some more pics from the National Museum over in Edinburgh, though this time with fewer shiny things per se... We'll start with a statement piece, though:


There were quite a few of these in the museum, though unfortunately I didn't spot any of the ones with Pictish symbols engraved on one end. As you might guess, the chains are typically thought to be Pictish in origin, probably dating to around the 5th to 9th centuries CE, and they're more than likely to have been worn by those of high status – not just the aristocracy, but royalty, the information board reckons. Just like the penanular brooches the Gaels wore (like the Tara brooch, for example), they were probably worn as an indication of rank. They were worn around the neck and fastened together with a "terminal link" – the bits that have the Pictish symbols engraved on them, which were originally highlighted with red enamel. Each link is made of solid silver (probably recycled Roman silver), and given the weight of them – up to 2.9 kilos (6.4 lbs) each – it seems unlikely that they were worn as regular, everyday pieces of jewellery. Instead it's thought that they were probably worn "during important ceremonies."

From a slightly earlier period – late Bronze Age – we have the Ballachulish idol:


Which is surprisingly huge – I didn't know it was actually life-size... The figure was discovered in a peat bog with the remains of some kind of wickerwork structure covering it. The site is situated overlooking a sea loch, so it's thought that the figure was meant to represent a goddess of some sort, "probably associated with fertility" – she's holding a "phallic object over her abdomen" so yeah, OK. I think equally the situation of it, overlooking the sea loch, could imply a protective purpose as well?

If you get up close then you can see the quartz pebbles that have been used for her eyes:


Given the long association of white quartz with the dead, could their use be significant? Or were they just convenient?

Speaking of phallic object, the museum has a surprising number of them. You can blame the Romans for this one:


It's described as "an undressed stone with carved phallus, Birrens," on the information plate, and dates to the first century CE.

You can blame the Romans for these ones, too:


These are pretty small, and were used as amulets to ward against the evil eye, or perhaps as fertility charms.

Here we have some "mysterious stones" from Neolithic Skara Brae, one of which looks pretty penile at the least:



We don't know what these stones were for – maybe "ritual," perhaps simply decorative – but number 13 here is one of the better known examples:


I couldn't get a good close up, unfortunately, but the detailing is spectacular.

Finally, here we have an unusual carved stone, known as the Bullion Stone (taking its name from where it was found, Bullion, in Angus), which dates to around the tenth century CE:



It's unusual because it's not often that you find stones that have a comical or unflattering tone to them like this one does, and by this point in time carved stones were almost exclusively Christian in its symbolism. Clearly whoever this guy is, he's a little worse for wear and the bird's head on the end of his over-sized drinking horn is looking a little judgemental there. The man appears to be a warrior, with his shield, but he's old and bald – not a flattering look when baldness wasn't considered to be a desirable trait. His horse looks tired and is maybe a little past it, too, as it plods up the steep hill. The drinking horn is maybe intended to indicate a Norseman here, since they introduced them to Scotland, hence the unflattering imagery?


Sunday, 24 April 2016

Behold the shiny things! (Part One)

Last October, if you might remember, I took a trip with the kids down to visit my mother in Suffolk. It's not my favourite place on earth, but on the upside I managed to convince my mother to make a day of it in London so we could make a visit to the Celts exhibition at the British Museum.

Over all I was a little disappointed with the exhibition, but I was interested in seeing it again once it got to Edinburgh in the new year, just to see if it was much different. It's a bit of a trek from here to get to Edinburgh, so I wasn't sure when we'd be able to manage it, but it turned out that our plans to go visit my family and friends down south weren't going to work out – schools in Scotland finished for the Spring break just as schools in England were returning from theirs and the timings just weren't going to align. So instead, seeing as Mr Seren had already booked time off from work, we decided to have a few days out, and Edinburgh was one of them.

We got there a little late in the day thanks to a slight detour (which meant we got to see the new Forth road bridge that's being built at the moment, and that was pretty cool), so by the time we'd parked up and got into the city centre it was well past lunchtime. It was nearly 3pm by the time we got to the museum, which didn't give us long to look around. Tom wasn't so keen to come and look at the Celts exhibition again, seeing as there was also a Lego "build it" thing on in the museum, so he and Mr Seren decided to do a bit of that before going off to look at the natural history stuff. Rosie decided to come with me so she could look at the shiny stuff again. She likes the artwork.

In London the exhibition cost £16.50 to get into, but in Edinburgh they're charging £10 for entrance (kids go free). The actual price is £9 but they've added on a pound extra for a "donation" to the museum, and while they do tell you that and ask if you want to make the donation, it's a bit cheeky to do that. Again, there's no photography in the exhibition which still pisses me off. I didn't bother trying to sneak pictures this time because there were way more members of staff around; it just wasn't going to happen.

Once we got in to the exhibition it was already very noticeably different. In London there was a three-minute slideshow as soon as you walked in, and while that would have been very informative, it clogged everything up from the get go. In Edinburgh we walked straight into a section with a few pieces on display that I think were intended to set the tone for the rest of the exhibition. They were a different selection from the ones chosen in London, in throughout the rest of the exhibition there were some pieces that were very noticeably missing – the bucket and flesh-hook I managed to snag pictures of in London, for one, along with a very impressive Gaulish statue of some dude with a big headdress. Those were the more obvious pieces I noticed missing and I'm sure there were others too. I noticed a few pieces I didn't think I'd seen before but I suspect that all in all there were some major artefacts that didn't make it to Edinburgh from the London exhibit.

That aside, I think the layout and flow of the Edinburgh exhibit is much better. The Gundestrup cauldron is on display in a room all by itself, and it's been set at a more sensible height so you can see all around it. The lighting is a little better, too, so it really becomes a feature all of its own rather than just one more shiny thing in a sea of shiny things.

There's a chariot (or replica of what the chariot would have looked like when it was fully intact) and goods on display that were recovered from a burial, and Rosie commented that she wasn't sure the people would be too happy to find all their stuff on display in a museum instead of in the ground where they left it. Wouldn't they want it to be left alone? she wondered. That's a perennial question in archaeology, I said. A lot of the time these things are dug up because they're going to be destroyed otherwise, so is it better to destroy them or try and recover them and preserve them so we can learn about the past? Rosie decided that perhaps the best thing would be to stop building stuff on top of important places like other people's graveyards and put the buildings somewhere else. I couldn't really argue with that, to be honest. But still, she loved looking at all the metalwork and jewellery, and we spent quite a bit of time looking for all the hidden faces and anthropomorphic features. When we got to the statue of Brigantia she was pretty excited and wondered if she was related to Brigid.

After we came out of the exhibition we met back up with Tom and Mr Seren and I decided I wanted to look at the "Early Settlers" section where all the early Scottish stuff is. We only had an hour left before closing by this point and I really didn't have time to look at everything I wanted to, but even so the place is amazing. One thing I noticed is that where the more well-known items had been taken for the Celts exhibit, they often replaced them with replicas, unlike in London. I thought that was a nice touch.  

There were plenty of shiny things like the Pictish "plaques" from the Norrie's Law hoard (one of which was in the Celts exhibition):


In pictures you might think they'd make a nice pair of earrings, but they're way too big for that. Silver hoards are pretty common in this period of Scotland's history because there wasn't much raw material available, so they had to rely on recycling silver instead. In some cases the hoards consist of Roman silver, which were presumably given to the local Picts, Britons or Gaels as bribes.

But it's not all about the shiny stuff, and that's one of the reasons I really wanted to go to the museum in the first place, because I wanted to see this – an almost perfectly preserved woollen Pictish hood:



Which was found in St Andrews parish (I presume that means the St Andrews in Fife, east coast of Scotland) and dates to some time between the 3rd-6th centuries CE.

There's also a hat, woven from hair moss, that dates a little earlier than the hood, around the first century CE. It was found at Newsteads, near the Scottish border:


And this is what the hair moss thread or twine looks like close up:


Things like this are what interest me most because it brings home the fact that we're not just dealing with something so nebulous as "a culture," but actual people.

I mentioned in my post from the London museum that there were the "divination spoons" on display in the Celts exhibition, and they were on display again in Edinburgh with a note to say they may have been used for magical or "healing" purposes. Nobody really knows what they were used for, but I found a set on display in the main part of the museum that had been recovered from the east coast of Scotland:


There seems to be some deep politics surrounding these things, because while there's the pet theory that Miranda Green pushes about their being "divination spoons," which is reflected in how they're described down in London, Edinburgh chooses to simply describe them as "a pair of sacred spoons, possibly buried with a holy man:"


These ones are bronze, as you can probably tell, and they were recovered with a bronze dagger, too. They aren't as well preserved as the ones in the Celts exhibition, but if you look closely they have the same kind of markings – one spoon being quartered, and the other with a hole in it. People seem to get weirdly invested in the idea of their being used for divinatory purposes, but there really could be any number of other explanations. I can see why divination has been suggested, but it bugs me that the idea gets treated as absolute truth by some.

Anyway. One last shiny thing before I finish off:


These are very late Bronze Age, and while the swords are set next to some moulds, I don't think they're the actual moulds that were used to cast them.

There's very little evidence for Bronze Age metal-working in Scotland, but a few sites have been found relatively recently that's changing what we know of the practice. I went to a lecture about one such place (just down the road from me, in fact, situated right on the coast) a few months ago and it was mentioned that the layout and orientation of the site had clear suggestions of ritual or religious purposes. The site, which is thought to have been very late Bronze Age in date, was surrounded by a number of palisades and the entrance was oriented to the south-east (very common for this period and into the Iron Age) with what appears to have been some sort of processional way leading into the main enclosure. One of the most interesting things that they found from the site is that the moulds were often transported across the Firth of Clyde so that they could be deposited at the foot of a major hillfort that dominated the area. This practice continued into the Iron Age, and it's thought that the burial of the moulds is possibly ritual in nature – perhaps an offering of some sort? It's no surprise that there seem to have been religious overtones to the production of metalwork, but it's fascinating to me, nonetheless.

Anyway, I think that's enough for now; I'll continue in another post with some more bits and pieces that piqued my interest another time.

Friday, 22 April 2016

New video! New(ish) article! Daily Rites in Gaelic Polytheism

So as we announced over on the Gaol Naofa site last week (yes I'm way behind on things...), we've got a new video out:



And also a new (or at least improved) Daily Rites article to accompany it, which now has a number of prayers offered in both Gaelic and English translation. To be honest, there was no particular rhyme or reason in choosing to do this particular subject right now, aside from the fact that it seemed like a good idea to continue the more practical theme like our last video on Offerings in Gaelic Polytheism had.

I'm really not sure when the original Daily Rites article was written (I'm pretty sure it was before my time as a member of the GN council), but for the sake of those who prefer the original prayers given there, we've archived that version of the article on the site, and it's cross-referenced to the new version, too. Kathryn took charge of the article's overhaul of the piece, and I think the contrast between the prayers given in the original version, and the ones that Kathryn chose to adapt from the Carmina Gadelica in the new version, gives a good contrast and illustration of how different people have different styles.

When I was first starting to explore CR and then Gaelic Polytheism specifically, the idea of daily prayers seemed kind of restrictive and off-putting. Coming from a completely secular background it was a concept that was alien to me, and it seemed kind of dull... Wouldn't it get boring and become rote? But I kept coming back to the idea for reasons I've never really fully understood, aside from the undeniable urge that I should, and eventually I started looking at the kinds of prayers that were out there, that maybe I could adapt or work with in coming up with some of my own. After a bit of fiddling around I found a routine that felt like it was a good fit, and since I started I've not stopped, really. It was a gradual process as I figured things out, but now I say the same prayers every day (or night...) – at the very least I will pray each night, just as I've got into bed and I'm lying down, since that's most comfortable for me – and it's become an integral part of my bedtime routine now. Even when I'm absolutely exhausted I find it hard to get to sleep until I've said them now.

I think it's important that the prayers we say as part of our practice have meaning to us, and they flow from the heart. My preference is for the more traditional, like the ones we've given in the new article, and the ones I have over on Tairis, but I also tend to add in prayers of my own making, too – off the cuff prayers that aren't poetic, perhaps, but they're no less heartfelt or meaningful. But the traditional types of prayers – the same words I say over and over again from year to year – form the barebones of my daily routine.

I'm sure the idea of a daily routine of prayer doesn't appeal to some people and I don't think it's the only way things should or can be done. For one, there are simple traditions and customs that can become a part of your day, too... It doesn't make anyone lesser, or greater, just because of what they do or don't do, though. Religion isn't a competition or a pissing contest, you know? Or it shouldn't be. I'm sure a lot of people do maintain a daily routine of some sort, even if it doesn't follow a particular outline or isn't even a conscious thing. Maybe somedays or most days the sum total is little more than a mental "hey."

What matters is that it works for the individual, and that – at its core – it helps maintain that connection with An Trì Naomh. It's about being mindful of who you are, who you honour. I've seen some people say they try to keep up a daily routine of some sort but somedays, for whatever reason, it just doesn't happen and then there's a sense of guilt or failure, and it becomes hard to get back into the routine because the sense of whatever starts to snowball... But we're only human, after all. We all have our limits and if it happens, it's OK. If it keeps happening, maybe it's better to scale things back a bit and go easier; don't bite off more than you can chew. At the end of the day... Just do you.




Saturday, 9 April 2016

Catching up

We're well past Là Fhèill Brìghde and Là na Caillich but neither went unnoticed for us here. Although given the weather it seems the Cailleach didn't go to her rest without a fight this year...

Since near the end of last year I've been struggling a lot more with chronic pain issues and I'm awaiting the results of another MRI to see if scar tissue from my previous surgery is the problem, or if the disc has just gone caput again (or maybe something else is up...) and will be attending a group physio session, that's intended to help me live within my limitations a little better, in the coming weeks.  All of this – and being busy with other work and some ongoing projects – means I haven't been up to much here on the blog, and celebrations have been scaled back to just about the bare bones lately. As I've written about before, when it comes to being somewhat challenged in the mobility area, it generally means that my devotions are dictated by how much I can handle at the time. I do, but I only do if I can, and as much as I can. And I'm OK with that.

So Là Fhèill Brìghde was pretty low key, although Rosie joined in with enthusiasm and gusto because this is her favourite time of year. I bought a new doll-making kit for us to make our dealbh Brìde with, and invited the kids to join in. Tom wasn't so keen – he's less interested in crafting than Rosie is – so it was just me and Rosie this year. As usual we made a few dollies and picked the one we thought worked best, and this is what we ended up with:


We feasted and sained, and lit some candles for Brìde to put in the window. I offered the honours to the kids, if one of them wanted to the lighting, but they both wanted to do it so we ended up deciding they should do a candle each; they lit, and I said the prayer, then went to invite Brìde in. Rosie was very excited to put our dealbh Brìde to bed, and Tom joined in by arranging a cow next to her.

Then we picked out a few pieces to put out for Brìde to bless on her nighttime rounds – this is serious business for Rosie, because she's taken the idea to heart. Ever since we left her favourite blanket out for Brìde to bless, she's insisted on having it on her bed every night so "Brìde will keep the bad dreams away." The blanket must go under the duvet so it's touching her directly; this is important. So important, in fact, that she didn't want to let go of the blanket for even one night, and even though I told her it's traditional so Brìde can bless it again. In the end we left out a different blanket instead.

The weather was pretty nasty so I put them in the shed, which I left propped open a little, so they'd stay put, but as it happened Mr Seren's plaid ended up on the opposite side of the garden by morning. It was only thanks to the fence post that it didn't get blown away entirely, and Mr Seren was pretty bemused to find his plaid flapping around. I guess it was a good job it wasn't his underwear...

A little later on in the month we went on a big long walk up to the forest I took a walk to last year at Là Fhèill Brìghde. This time I took the kids as well as the dogs and we got there right at the golden hour:


It's been a pretty mild winter but spring seems to have got off to a slow start in spite of the fact that a lot of trees started blossoming even before Hogmanay. Nature seems a little confused lately, and we didn't see many signs of spring on our walk. Plenty of mud, though:


For Là na Caillich we had a pretty vicious storm so we had to hold off on our usual a visit to the beach for the few days, but we got there in the end and made our offerings to the Cailleach and the Cailleachan. Now I'm just waiting for a bit of a dry spell so I can get out in the garden and start tidying things up (though I might have to get a gardener in this year, just to keep on top of the lawn). It's been such a wet winter that the lawn is more bog than anything at the moment and it's going to need resowing in places. Some of the plants I put in around the new pond are going to have to be replaced, too, because they just weren't able to cope with all the rain – I was worried that might happen. I have a gooseberry bush to put in, though, which I'm pretty pleased about (we'll hopefully be able to pick them for Lùnastal, as is traditional, though I'm not anticipating a crop for a while yet), but so far that's it. I haven't thought about what else I'm going to put in but I'm thinking about expanding the containers – bigger ones so I can maybe put a small fruit tree in, too.

So spring is officially here and a quarter of the year is gone already. Hopefully next week I'll be going to Edinburgh to see the Celts exhibition (again).