Friday, 9 May 2008

Archive: The British Celts and their Gods Under Rome - Graham Webster

The British Celts and their Gods Under Rome
Graham Webster

I'd been meaning to read this book for a while, hoping to see if there was anything useful about evidence of gods in Scotland, so I was pleased I finally remembered to look it up at the library.

I had a quick flick through while I was in the library and raised an eyebrow at a chapter called 'The Celtic Shangri-La', but decided it was worth investigating. I have to admit, though, there was a bit more eyebrow raising once I got stuck into it at home, and I was very disappointed with this book to the point where I almost gave up on it.

My main problem was in Webster's treatment of 'Celtic religion', where he mashed together Classical sources referring to Gaul along with evidence of Irish festivals and applied it to Britain in fairly unequivocal terms. This sort of approach was fine for scholars like Anne Ross, but things have come a long way these days and it's no longer considered 'the done thing' to approach things in such a pan-Celtic way. What applies to Ireland or Gaul (from different time periods, to boot) doesn't mean it automatically applies to Britain as a whole, just because they all happen to come under the Celtic umbrella.

To be fair, the book's over 20 years old so it predates the most recent revival of interest in Celtic Studies, and therefore the change in academic approach to the subject, but seeing as he was dealing with the Romano-British archaeological evidence I was kind of expecting more reliance on analysing what all this evidence means than there actually was. And I'm getting seriously bored with this obsession with 'the megalithic Great Mother' that scholars

I'm glad I did stick with it though, because once I got passed the introductory stuff and the book started to get into the real meat of the subject, there were enough interesting things to make it worth wading through. It's clear that Webster's an archaeologist and not a historian (I presume, anyway), and he seems to be good at what he does. There are fairly in depth analyses of some of the more common deities, and particular focus is given to the evidence of northern Britain. I'd hoped for some mention of archaeological evidence for religious practice in pre- or post-Roman Scotland (the parts affected, anyway), but I was disappointed, though not surprised, on this front. The overview of evidence of religious practice from pottery was interesting and different, though (or relatively interesting, because the archaeological analysis of pottery is rarely ever a scintillating subject)...

Generally, the book would be of interest to anyone wanting to learn more about British and Gaulish practices (it really should have included Gaul in the title), bearing in mind the problems with it. It's also in need of updating, because certain bits are very out of date (like the mention of there being only one inscription to Cernunnos, for example), but in spite of its problems it's still worth picking up. Just don't expect to be dazzled.

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