Saturday, 30 August 2008

Archive: Lùnasdal 2008 (2)

Time to stop fannying about I suppose...

I've made an effort, honestly I have. I tried celebrating Lùnasdal on several occasions, honestly I did, but so far nothing. My efforts have been mediocre and unfocused at best, and while my more regular spiritual practices and offerings have been well-received, as far as I can tell, my festive celebrations have been decidedly flat and piecemeal so far. Partly because of circumstances and interruptions, I suppose you could say, and partly because of circumstance - not just my frame of mind, but a general feeling that things just aren't happening...In fact, a general feeling that as far as this locality is concerned, it's just not happy. Or not right.

Connecting with the land, the locality, is an important part of my spirituality. Coming to an understanding with the local spirits is a huge focus of my spiritualitiy, you could say, and until recently, I'd say I was quite successful in this respect. Since Mungo came along I've been dedicatedely taking the dogs for a walk late in the evening, before bedtime, in order to make sure Mungo's had plenty to knacker him out during the course of the day and ensure a good night's sleep for all of us. I've enjoyed this new routine because it gives me the opportunity to have some quiet time to myself and meditate and I've had a lot of things to chew on, including my thoughts and experiences with my feeling of being drawn to Badb. We rarely meet anyone on the street, and aside from the occasional car or Chelsea Tractor, there are few disturbances to interrupt these thoughts, which seems just perfect for me. Perfect for Mungo, on the other hand, to try and chase anything that moves, otherwise, though, but some calculated daytime walks in busy areas seem to be doing the trick in that respect.

Being a relatively large village on the coast, and also surrounded by dense woodland, there are a few options as far as walks are concerned, although I discount the woods as suitable walks in the evening for obvious personal safety reasons (it being dark and remote and all...and also very fae in feel). The walks to the coast, however, are tantalising for me, given my obsession with the sea, Manannán and the lighthouse that shines over on the mainland on the other side of the Clyde every night. I find the lighthouse, the coast and the sound of the sea comforting, even welcoming and feel drawn to it all, to get as close as possible to it. Parts of the walk there, however, are not so positive in feel.

To put it bluntly, sometimes it gives me the willies. I've been getting the same sort of vibes with my attempts at celebrating Lùnasdal throughout this month, albeit in a less focused sort of feel. My attempts at making bannocks were successful in the sense that none of them broke (supposed to be a bad sign), but they just didn't work like they did last time round - tasteless and unevenly cooked, and also they ended up too runny first time round, even though I followed the recipe as last time, so I had to try and compensate. My other devotions planned for that night were similarly disrupted and unfocused and so I tried spreading them across three nights...Those attempts just didn't have anything to them, either, and now I've come to the conclusion that it just wasn't the right time. Perhaps that will explain the vibes I've been picking up on over the past few weeks...In trying to force celebrations at the 'traditionally appropriate' time, according to records, perhaps what I really need to do is get in tune with when this place is ready. It would be in keeping with my feeling that I need to get in touch with my more mystical, experiential side, rather than my more logical, intellectual side, I guess. More than anything, though, I think maybe I need to stop trying to find the perfect time, logistically, and just get on with it, spiritually...

The blackberries are starting to ripen and I might just wait until next week, when there should be enough for me to pick, to try my celebrations again. I've also decided to try baking a Selkirk bannock instead of the more traditional savoury type, because it fits in more with my personal tastes as well as those of Mr Seren and the children, and while my spirituality is nothing but personal, I'd like to share something with the family. I'd been planning on doing one for Samhainn, but here I think it's time to take a hint and just do it.

So anyway. I was intending to tie this one in with my celebrations, but instead it's turned into a preamble...

The Festival of Lughnasa
Maire MacNeill

Finding a copy of this book has almost been like a quest for the Holy Grail for me. Every now and then it gets mentioned with an almost hushed reverence on some of the CR lists I'm on, so of course when I first heard of it I decided I had to read it...I found it easily enough at the university library, but this is the sort of book I have to own, rather than borrow, and copies don't come cheap. Before the reprint earlier this year, this was an extremely rare book, it seems, and I could only find copies with a £400-£500 (or $800-$1,000) price tag - far beyond my humble means, so when I found out it had been re-released I was a very happy geek. It was still not cheap (£50/$100), but far less damaging to my credit card and honestly well worth it - it's a hefty tome, to say the least, so you get your money's worth.

But maybe I should stop chuntering on about how smug I'm feeling for getting my hands on a copy and start talking about what I thought about it. I could've sworn I'd read it as soon as it arrived on my doorstep, but when I thought about writing a review in time for Lùnastal and started flicking through it, I realised that I hadn't read it all the way through. As I said, it's a hefty tome, packing in over 700 pages, so it's easy to get lost if you put it down for a bit.

MacNeill focuses primarily on the evidence in Ireland, drawing heavily from the Irish Folklore Commission archives, but she does give some attention to the evidence for it in Great Britain and France, though in far less detail. As someone who focuses on Scottish practice, I didn't really find anything new specifically relating to the more modern evidence found in Scotland, but as far as the historical evidence goes for Ireland there's a wealth of information to be found.

Given its size, it's no surprise that this is a fairly exhaustive work on the various different aspects of the festival of Lughnasa, and in this I suppose there are pros and cons. While on the one hand it makes for a handy volume with which to start and get a fairly in depth idea of what Lughnasa was really about, its very size can also be very off-putting. That said, Mac Neill does a good job of laying things out in a logical manner, from the more historical aspects of the festival, to surviving evidence of celebrations. These latter chapters are quite dense, in essence listing the evidence (or possible evidence, where MacNeill isn't certain) for survivals of celebrations in specific locations across Ireland. This isn't the easiest stuff to read all in one go unless you're that passionate about the subject, it being fairly repetitive in places, but if you're looking for a good amount of supporting evidence for this sort of thing you'll certainly find good leads here.

Following all that are chapters on the types of tales associated with the festival, as well as a summary of a 'typical' Irish celebration for the day, based on the more modern evidence available. It's this chapter that will be of most interest to anyone looking for quick answers about the surviving practises that you might want to incorporate into your own. There follows an extensive appendix of the tales themselves (including the original Irish and then translations, where applicable) and, in the copy I bought, the addendum from MacNeill's revision of the book in the 1982 reprint, where she discusses where she may have changed her mind on certain points, or where further evidence proved her wrong more conclusively or convincingly. These bits don't really change the overall message of the book too much, but they are useful to know and I'd say that these later editions/reprints are a better read in that respect than the first edition, providing more critical food for thought at least.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this book is that there aren't any comparable volumes that deal with the other festivals in such depth. It would make life so much easier in so many ways...So far as the book itself is concerned, though, it can't be denied that it's dated in some respects. MacNeill addresses some of these points in the later addendum, but this can only raise questions about a lot of other things that she says and the research methods she uses...Time will tell on these points, but it's wise to caution against taking things too literally, I think, and further, personal, research is always warranted no matter how good one particular book might be. Perhaps I'm being overly cautious and negative here, but I do find this book to be genuinely inspirational and useful, and it's often this type of book that I'm most cautious about. Question everything, especially books like this that are so highly regarded. But then again, don't forget they're highly regarded for a reason...

At the end of the day, if you want to gain a deeper understanding of Lughnasa or any of its (possibly/probably) culturally related variants, buy the book, or at least get your hands on a copy.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Archive: Mythic Ireland - Michael Dames

Mythic Ireland
Michael Dames

It's a good job I'm not one to judge a book by a cover, because frankly, when I opened the envelope and took this book out, my first impression was, "Has somebody vomited over it and then tried drawing a pretty picture of the space-time continuum with the leftovers, during an acid trip? Hmmm?"

Apparently though, according to the dust jacket inside, it's supposed to be a "drawing of the carved stone mace-head from Knowth, Co. Meath".


I'm a little conflicted about this book...I think I can see where Dames is coming from, but I'm not sure if it's worked - for me, anyway. I was expecting to read something along the lines of Alwyn and Brinley Rees' Celtic Heritage (but more up to date), so perhaps I've been a little blindsided by my expectations. I want to really love this book, but ultimately, deep down, I have a lot of reservations about it.

The book is split into five main parts, along with the obligatory introductions and conclusions and so on, and each section deals with a particular province and the relevant mythic sites and figures in that area. In this sense it offers something much different to Celtic Heritage because it deals far more with local myths and the Dindshenchas (Placename Folklore) than it does the kinds of myths from the cycles that are normally dealt with. Neither does it make any real effort to analyse how such tales might have evolved over time - instead, it takes them at face value, offers some explanation and analysis as to how they relate to Ireland and its sacred places, and then it's time to move on. The fifth section, focusing on Mide, attempts to synthesise the mythical threads of the four provinces into a whole, a coherent body of lore that represents all of Ireland, radiating from the sacred centre of Uisnech.

That, for me, is one of the major problems I had with the book right there...Viewed from a more scholarly perspective, it's little more than an attempt to crowbar the mythological landscape into a fairly romanticised view of how it all might have been, taking no account of how the sites may have sprung up over time or changed in function and so on.

It's a seductive approach in a way, though, because it takes the subject outside of the stuffy academic sensibilities that often make reading about this sort of thing so dull and boring. Instead of talking in terms of what was, Dames makes it clear that this is a living breathing mythology and mythological landscape. These are not Ye Olde Godes who've scampered under a hill or two (as per their agreement with the Milesians), that he's writing about, but the gods that were and still are a part of Ireland today.

This is both refreshing and a little unfortunate, because while on the one hand it gives a sense of the gods as living beings in a modern landscape - not simply 'characters' in myth and legend, who are to be studied and analysed in an intellectual and fairly two dimensional manner - it also feeds the romanticism that Dames sometimes indulges in. Romanticism isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I think it skews how Dames presents what he writes, allowing him to explore what might have been rather than what's likely to have been (if I put my archaeologist's hat on, as Dames is also an archaeologist, I'd say he takes more of a post-processual approach at times, though I'm not sure he'd agree, and there's a definite processual thing going on as well, if that's even possible to mix the two...)...If anything I guess it serves as a reminder that everyone views the gods a little differently, and that how we approach them can (and should) be a very personal thing.

With a healthy smattering of Mircea Eliade and Gimbutas thrown in for good measure, along with the fact that gods are pretty much all presented within a solar-deity framework, I have a lot of quibbles with the way he presents some of the material and the sorts of sweeping statements he makes - replete with a lack of any real referencing except, usually, when he quotes from someone directly. An example of this would be Aine, who he equates with Anu, and promptly pronounces her a solar goddess outright without really providing any referenced material as to why or how this is so, or why others may not see her that way (but then again, after reading the chapter I did end up thinking he might have a point, and it would be good to see an argument of the fors and againsts in the solar god argument as far as Celtic/Irish gods are concerned...I digress).

In amongst all of the more problemmatical bits I found some genuinely interesting stuff in there, including an example of an Irish smooring prayer - but it wasn't referenced so I can't follow it up. This is annoying. However, in spite of all the downers I have about the book I also found it kind of inspirational. It challenged my more stuffy academic outlook on the subject and presented a lot of folk tales and bits of lore that I wasn't familiar with. While I didn't agree with a lot of what he had to say, or more often, looked askance at it because it wasn't clear quite where he got certain things from, the book certainly helped give a sense of the sacredness of the landscape.

All in all, I don't think I'd recommend every CR person I came across to go and buy the book now now now. But it's an interesting tome, and so far as my reading's gone thus far, it's certainly fairly unique. I can see why I never came across this book in an academic context, and I can see how its often outdated references and ideas might prove problemmatic for a reconstructionist approach as well, but taken with an open mind and a healthy pinch of salt, I think a lot can be taken away from the book that's useful for developing a spirituality in a CR setting.