Saturday, 28 June 2008

Archive: Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs - James M MacInlay

Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
James M MacInlay

I'd had my eye on this one for a while, and seeing as it isn't available from the library, I eventually managed to convince myself that that was justification enough to buy it. Because, y'know...I might be missing out on something...It wasn't too expensive, either, so if it ended up being a pile of crap then I wouldn't have wasted too much money. (But of course, now you can just read it online...).

Thankfully, it didn't disappoint. Too much. The copy I got was a facsimile reprint of the original version from 1893 and considering its age, it's no surprise that it has all the usual problems of a book from this time period - the often somewhat self-conscious comments about how it's all a pile of silly superstition anyway, to point out that the author in no way believes in this sort of thing; the noble savage/primitives view of the Celts when referring to pre-Christian beliefs; an occasional smattering of Aryan ideology creeping in and frequent comparison with Egyptian, Syrian and Persian cultures, and so on. Unlike some books of this time, none of these elements are emphasised too heavily and MacInlay tends to use them to support his arguments of the Scottish evidence he presents, rather than the other way round.

I was hoping to find some good information about folklore and practices at wells in particular, especially the types of offerings that were left, and their associations with trees as well. I know. The things my brain ponders are just fascinating...But there are lengthy chapters on both of these, as well as chapters on charm-stones, water spirits, healing and their association with saints. Some chapters were more interesting and more relevant to my interests than others, and one minor annoyance I found as I got stuck into it was that times, much of the evidence provided wasn't about Scotland at all and came from England, Ireland or Wales, and refreshingly, occasionally, the Isle of Man, too. On the one hand this was interesting and helped to provide a wider context for the evidence of practices from Scotland, but on the other hand sometimes it was apparent that such evidence was being given because MacInlay didn't have anything to say about Scottish practices on the subject. One of the worst chapters for this was the chapter on Weather and Wells, which aside from the practice of sailors 'buying' a favourable wind was almost completely focused on lore from England. It was interesting to read, but not exactly relevant to the title of the book and I couldn't help but feel that it was being used to pad out the chapter, rather than inform.

In spite of this, there were some genuinely interesting bits and pieces to be found in the book, and MacInlay gave a lot of information about wells from urban centres as well as the more rural ones that modern books on folklore tend to focus on, as well as more general lore on lochs and other bodies of water. MacInlay also offers references to much older historical sources, as far back as the fourteenth century, which is invaluable considering the more modern books on subjects like this tend to refer to books like MacInlays, rather than the older sources, so he offers something different from a variety of angles.

I was particularly intrigued by the mention of a well in the city centre of Glasgow, where it's recorded that up until around the end of the eighteenth century it was common for small offerings made of tin-iron, shaped to look like various limbs or parts of the body, to be nailed to the tree that overshadowed the well (dedicated to St Thenew), presumably in thanks for its curative powers relating to those parts of the body. It struck me as being very reminiscent of the finds from the Gaulish shrine to Sequana. The chapter on charm-stones also offered some good stuff on serpent stones (which he describes as being usually made of brightly-coloured glass) and their use in curing cattle of disease and so forth, and he also offered a few bits on festival practices that I hadn't seen before (especially the practice of building gigantic towers at Lammas).

No references are given in the book, except when direct quotes are given (which isn't unusual for books this old), so sometimes there were certain things that MacInlay wrote that would have been good to follow up (like the description of the Lammas towers, for one). Unusually, however, he does provide a fairly comprehensive bibliography of the works he's referred to in the course of writing the book, which is invaluable, and he also offers some personal observations from his own fieldwork.

This is a very comprehensive work on the subject, and in spite of its problems it's certainly one I'm glad to have bought for future reference. Given its fairly narrow scope it's probably of most interest for someone who's got a good grasp of the basics and wants to get stuck into more of the specifics of certain areas of lore.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Archive: Iron Age Britain - Barry Cunliffe

Iron Age Britain
Barry Cunliffe

Always looking for some good books on the archaeology of Britain, and always hoping that at some point somebody will write one of these books that gives equal weighting to all parts of Britain rather than concentrating on southern England, I took a punt on this one and decided to give it a go.

I really should have been patient and got it out from the library...It's not bad, or awful. It's just not all that great either, and my credit card could have been happily sponked on something far better. As I said, it's not too bad - not to the point of being only good for kindling - but I do think it's bordering on cluttering up my crowded bookshelf, rather than gracing it.

Cunliffe does offer something different here, compared to other books on the subject, and to a certain extent this is useful. He starts off well, giving a good overview of the state of Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Britain and points out that while the start of the Iron Age generally heralds the start of the Celtic period proper, there are a number of social factors and changes that can be seen in the archaeological record that started in the Late Bronze Age that also had their hand in shaping what we see of the Iron Age and the start of the Celtic period (such as the change in settlements and farming, etc), making the boundaries between Celtic and pre-Celtic much more fluid than they might sound.

After introducing a little background, Cunliffe goes on to look at the people, how they lived, how they farmed and the politic and social evidence that can be interpreted from the archaeology of the period...This is all good stuff. He even takes care to emphasise the regional differences that can be seen, stressing local factors that seem to have shaped the way people lived and evolved in the various parts of Britain, and takes a look at each area separately. This is also good stuff, and quite a refreshing approach, but this is also where the book starts to fall down.

It's partly not Cunliffe's fault; there isn't a good amount of evidence to draw from to treat all areas with equal detail, so like other authors (Miranda Green, Simon James, say), there's an inevitable bias towards the south and places like Danebury that have been more fully excavated (by Cunliffe himself, as it happens).

The main problem comes after the first few chapters that deal exclusively with the archaeology, when Cunliffe tries to give context to it with heavy use of Classical sources - in most cases drawing from the usual suspects like Caesar, Tacitus, Diodorus Siculus and so on - without much analysis or even consideration of the inherent problems in using them. Did they have an agenda in what they wrote? Were they writing from direct observation or conforming to established 'facts' and stereotypes that previous authors had popularised (as was common)? And so on...He uses a healthy smattering of Gaulish references from the Classical sources to help provide context for the British evidence, but without any useful discussion or background surrounding the sources he uses, it all ends up being not too helpful, and it raised more concerns for me than it helped to provide a fuller picture as was obviously intended.

My biggest bugbear with the book is his treatment of religion and beliefs, though. Taking a passage from Caesar, where he says that above all gods they worship Mercury, Cunliffe goes on to point out that Mercury was considered to be 'inventor of all arts' and points out that the Dagda fulfilled a similar role in Irish myth, and then goes on to talk about the Irish gods as if they were British as well. It seems to me that it would have been better to take a look at the post-Roman evidence that shows the variety of localised, along with the more widespread deities that could be found across Britain instead, rather than being fairly dismissive and conflationist.

His analysis of burial practice is better, though he largely goes into any great detail in terms of burials providing evidence for warriors in society, rather than focusing on what the practices implies about ritual and beliefs. But his treatment of evidence for the ritual year is woeful. Here he applies the typical Samhain/Imbolc/Beltane/Lughnasadh divisions and cites evidence of Imbolc and Lughnasadh being celebrated in Gaul as well, from the Coligny calendar, but offers no consideration of any possible evidence to support such a division in Britain itself in this period and so gives the idea that these are well established facts. There isn't much in the way of conclusive contemporary evidence for the ritual calendar in Britain, but some mention of the analysis of bones supporting the idea of spring/autumn feasting (based on the age of the animals slaughtered) would have been a good idea, I think.

All these problems can be found in Cunliffe's The Ancient Celts, but this book has by far more redeeming qualities that can forgive such poor scholarship. Cunliffe is an archaeologist, not a Celticist, so like Miranda Green his writing suffers when he focuses on subjects outside of this. The Ancient Celts offers a better understanding of how archaeologists interpret the material they find, and gives a good grounding in understanding how the antiquarian/academic study of the Celts has evolved over time...Iron Age Britain doesn't offer this and focuses more on giving the facts rather than interpretation. It's unfortunate that Cunliffe doesn't offer any references or even a bibliography in the book, so it's difficult to look up whether things like the mention of the Coligny calendar are sound (and why no mention of 'the three nights of Samonios' (and whether that might be linked to Beltane/Samhain) that can also be found on it?), though to be fair this might be more to do with the publisher than Cunliffe himself. could do a lot worse, but if you have some hard earned cash to spend on something genuinely helpful in terms of CR, then I'd prioritise your spending elsewhere.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Archive: Animals in Celtic Life and Myth - Miranda Green

Animals in Celtic Life and Myth
Miranda Green

I'd heard good things about this one, and after a few quick flicks through, I was sure I wouldn't be disappointed. After reading all the way through, though, I have kind of mixed feelings about it but to be fair I think it's largely to do with the fact that I read it from start to finish - if not in one go, then in one week (or so...).

A friend described the style of writing as "...meaty even though it's dry---sort of like a very thick sandwich on whole-grain bread with no mayo at-tall." I can't disagree with this or come up with anything better to describe it, so there you have it (and I like the imagery). For me it's not so much of a problem, but I can imagine that someone who isn't so used to academic writing might find this book more than a little dry. While I wouldn't say it's a good beginners book, I'd say it's a good intermediate book rather than something for those who are looking a little more advanced. The subject matter isn't particularly esoteric and in spite of the academic style Green's very good at keeping teh big wurdz to a minimum.

There's certainly a lot of meat to the book, but for me the biggest negative is that it's repetitive; I would guess that this is because it's intended towards the sort of audience that's more likely to dip into it than read it from start to finish (so they can write an essay, say), and so from that perspective the repetitiveness helps because it makes having to get through whole chapters or portions of the book less important to read. But after four or five chapters, it really began to grate for me.

With that said, I really liked the content of the book. Green covered quite a few things that I'd been wondering about, particularly a tantalising* comment I read in Barry Cunliffe's The Ancient Celts about the apparent significance of dogs and horses in ritual context. First and foremost Green takes an archaeological look at the evidence available, but she also looks at the literary evidence as well as art in later chapters. This approach keeps things nice and separate, and for the most part allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about the possible significance of any similarities that can be found in art and archaeology compared to the (usually later) literature. Then again, it also helps to contribute to some of the repetition.

The first five chapters deal mainly with the archaeological evidence, separating animals in the context of farming practice, hunting, war and ritual; these divisions, since many of the animals that are dealt with were used in a variety of contexts also contribute to the repetition, but it does make sense when you want to use the book for quick reference. For me, the chapter on ritual usage was most interesting in some respects, but also the most repetitive because of its layout - first addressing the ritual contexts animals are found in (pits, graves enclosures, for example), and then addressing the types of animals found in such contexts (and I realise I'm becoming repetitious with the mentions of the repetition and could try and make out that I'm being clever and ironic, but I'm not, it genuinely became an issue for me...), but it was good to have an idea of the general context of how animals were used and perceived before I got to that chapter.

One thing that was becoming increasingly apparent by this point in the book was Green's reliance on a few specific sites from Britain and Gaul - Danebury, Gournay-sur-Aronde and so on. This isn't Green's fault - there are relatively few sites that have been excavated to any great extent from this period so it's no surprise really - but there wasn't much analysis of how this might affect our view of Celtic society and culture. It's evident that both of these sites, for example, show an unusual concentration of animal bone but the significance of this apparent uniqueness wasn't really delved into much. Neither was the fact that the evidence Green was looking at came from a very wide area (primarily England and Gaul) over quite a significant period of time, and the effect of any evolution in usage or portrayal of such animals might had in our interpretation of the evidence. In later chapters there was very little effort made in trying to reconcile the apparent disconnect between the geography of the archaeology (primarily England and Gaul), and the later literary evidence from Wales and Ireland as well.

The chapters on art, myth and religion gave a welcome change in subject and re-ignited my interest, but while they gave a good overview of the myths and motifs relating to animals found in early Irish and Welsh literature, they were very superficial. Not such a bad thing as far as an introduction goes, perhaps, but in parts there were elements of interpretation I would have mentioned even if I didn't agree with them; the motif of the 'heroes portion' (typically seen as pagan) found in The Tale of Mac Datho's Pig, for example, could equally be interpreted as an Irish rendering or conflation of the idea of the Biblical theme of potluck found in the Bible. I'm no expert on the Bible, but if memory serves Kim McCone explores the idea in more detail. In terms of interpreting such tales it's an important counter-weight argument that should have been considered (if such material was available to Green at the time of writing, that is). Ignoring such a view implies a specific agenda on the author's behalf that tends to undermine some confidence if it was available at the time, or else it makes the material a little dated.

There were a few small points that also dated the book a little, and for me this was most obvious on the chapter concerning Cernunnos, where Green states there's only one inscription to the god known in Gaul. This is what I learned at uni, but a Gaulish expert I know pointed me to three further inscriptions and surely that means a lot more could have been said on the subject had the evidence been available.

All in all you could do a lot worse than reading this book. It's well referenced and well written, and while it does have its problems, I'd still say it's a good book for anyone wanting to go beyond the basics. One final point however - Green's insistence on the idea of there being 'sky gods' and 'solar gods' and so forth requires some reading around. While it was very popular for classically educated scholars to lump gods of any culture under these headings, I consider it misleading and unnecessary to say the least. Gods are much more than labels and to continue with such an approach grates for me. It's a minor point, though, so not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it's something that's found in pretty much all of Green's work.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Archive: A Woman's Words - Joanne Findon

A Woman's Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle
Joanne Findon

Straight off the bat I'd have to say that this is another one of those books that will only be of interest to a fairly limited audience. While I realise that not every book written for a feminist audience will interest those who are interested in the subject, this is one of those books that automatically gets lumped into that category - you have to read it because it's about women...

But actually, it's quite a refreshing take on the subject. Anyone who's interested in feminism or women's studies in general will probably find a lot to like about this book, and even those like me who have more of a passing interest than a passion, might enjoy it too. For a start, it's one of the few books (from an admittedly very few number of books that I've read on this subject within the specific context of 'Celtic Studies') that focuses on the subject from a feminist point of view that doesn't go on about Teh Evel pay-tree-arky, or indeed Teh Grayt May-tree-arky.

If you've ever read The Book of the Cailleach you'll probably know what I mean, and if I were to compare the two, I'd say this one is a lot more balanced in terms of approach, and over all, is a lot more readable too, though still appealing to a much narrower audience in terms of CR. It's well written, and by and large it's well edited. A lot of the time, academic books like this are written by academics who have the credentials to talk about the subject, but not necessarily the talent to write about it in an engaging way. Here, Findon manages to write in an engaging and knowledgeable style, without feeling the need to resort to using too many unnecessarily big words and clunky sentences to get the point across that yes, the author's brain is in fact the size of New Mexico. Much like my arse (but that's a little off topic).

In addition to the focus on women's studies, the book also takes a literary approach to the material. Findon argues that all too often the myths - including the Ulster Cycle - are analysed in terms of their mythological context; that many of the women found in the tales are evidence of, or representations of (at some remove), pre-Christian goddesses and are analysed only in terms of their mythological, religious/pseudo-religious role. Medb is held as an example here - that once she was considered nothing more than a wanton whore by those who studied the myths, but once her actions were considered in terms of her role (or possible role) as a sovereignty goddess, her actions were justified as being a symptom of her role as facilitator of male sovereignty. This, Findon argues, detracts from the fact that mythological characters are also literary constructs, and as characters within literature, it's becoming increasingly apparent within academic circles that contemporary women (either specific women of the time, or attitudes to women in general) had a large role to play in the portrayal of these women, and specific characters, in the myths in general. I think Findon has a good point here - although she's perhaps a tad optimistic - and as someone who tends to focus on such mythological interpretations of the literature, the book offered a fairly refreshing perspective to me.

At this point, I should probably give an idea of what the book's actually about...

As the title suggests, Findon focuses on the role of Emer within the Ulster Cycle, and to a lesser extent, select women as a whole within the cycle. Findon demonstrates the remarkable coherence of the portrayal of Emer within the cycle, throughout the many tales in which she appears that were no doubt composed and then written and re-written over several centuries. Of all the women in the Ulster Cycle, including Medb (for whom I have a great soft spot), none have a more prominent role than Emer. No other woman speaks as she does, and certainly not as much as she does.

In a nutshell, Findon focuses on what Emer says in the tales, and how she says it, which is less simple and obvious than it might sound. The tales that are focused on are The Wooing of Emer, Bricriu's Feast, The Death of Aife's Only Son, and The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn and all in all it helps to be familiar with the tales that are discussed (and that of the Táin, the main set of stories within the Ulster Cycle) - if only for the fact that you're unlikely to be so interested in a whole book about the finer details of them if you don't really know what they're about.*

One of the book's stronger points is that it helps to give a variety of literary perspectives on what happens in each tale, and thus a better idea of what early medieval Irish society was really like - and how literature like this could have operated in that society when it was told by the skilled storytellers; the points - sometimes satirical, even - that might have been put across.

Findon clearly outlines specific contexts to each tale, like the legal subtext that can be found in many of the tales, as well as the romantic motifs that can be found in others and so on. While on the one hand some of these points are put across in a fairly repetitive manner, which makes for a mild annoyance if you're reading the book from start to finish, it makes it somewhat easier to dip into the book when looking up certain points of interest, or else pick up and put the book down over time.

Over all I'd say it's better to read the book pretty much from start to finish because there's a lot to take in, and that's best done in a fairly continuous take, but if you're very familiar with the material then it's perhaps not so much a must. And while Findon raises many good and even important points, I still feel that getting a broader idea of the tales, from a variety of perspectives, is a must. While Findon doesn't dispute that, it can become a point that's easily lost in the thrust of her arguments, especially since she argues so eloquently. And given that point, I wouldn't say, particularly for those interested in dipping into CR a little deeper, that this book is really the best place to start - look at Celtic Heritage (Rees and Rees) first, and Proinsias MacCana along with the tales themselves and so on, which have a much broader scope.

As I said, this isn't something that's likely to have a broad appeal. I wouldn't count it as one of those 'must have' CR books, but certainly it's one I'd recommend for anyone wanting to broaden their horizons and gain a deeper understanding of Irish mythology and women's roles therein - the Ulster Cycle in particular, of course. Many of the points that Findon makes can surely apply to other women and even goddesses in the literature, but again, they're only pertinent if you're interested in that sort of thing.

Finally, and also in its favour, it has a positive minefield of good books to look up in the bibliography. For me, this is an extra bonus, but again most of them are probably only of limited appeal and are probably best found through a university library. Findon's book itself was easily obtainable through the usual online sources for me, but some of the books she recommends are considerably more expensive.

*Easily found in Thomas Kinsella's The Táin and Jeffrey Gantz's Early Irish Myths and Sagas, in hard copy for example.