Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Archive: Symbol and Image/The Gods of the Celts - Miranda Green

Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art and The Gods of the Celts
Miranda Green

It's difficult not to lump these two books together in one way or another because in many ways they're pretty much the same book, just done in a slightly different way.

Of the two, The Gods of the Celts is the older and - I found - slightly less readable of the two. Partly it's a difference in formatting that makes Symbol and Image a better read; but mostly I think it's to do with the fact that Symbol and Image is more up to date in terms of information, and as a (only slightly, admittedly) more recent work Green seems to have developed her writing style which makes for a more engaging read overall. It has to be said that the illustrations in Symbol and Image also help to put what she's saying into a better context. What can I say? I like the pretty pictures...

For the most part Green covers Gaulish examples, and to a lesser extent she then covers the British and Gaelic evidence. This is usual - Green's area of expertise certainly lies in Gaul so that creates a natural bias, I suppose. When she covers things outside of this area she often relies on the work of Anne Ross, which is some cause for concern and caution. Much of Ross' work is valuable but now dated and Green doesn't make as much effort to balance out Ross' opinions with work from different authors who approach the subject from a different academic viewpoint as she does when she's more confident in her subject. First and foremost, though, Green is an archaeologist and not a Celticist as such, and it's important to remember this as you read.

Another problem with Green's work (in general) is her insistence on pigeon-holing deities into specific roles - sky-gods, sun-gods, chthonic deities and so on. This is a very Classical interpretation, which isn't necessarily appropriate in a Celtic context and it's a shame she doesn't really make much effort to consider or explore a more native view. The insistence on sun-gods is something that grates - what makes them sun-gods? Why the disparity between her interpretation and the distinct lack of any overt connections with the sun, or a solar role, in the surviving myths? Some exploration of this would have been nice, because otherwise it seems she's just regurgitating a commonly held view with little thought to whether it's actually correct or not. Neither does she really explain why she sees wheel-shaped iconography associated with some gods as being 'sun-wheels', except (as far as I could see) to reference an article written by herself. A little exploration of this would have been nice, to show some balance at least.

Having said all that, the books are actually quite good. One of Green's advantages is that she's able to write simply and clearly without losing her audience, and she does a good job of giving a good overview of the subject whilst also raising some points to ponder. Sometimes she delves a little too deeply into using jargon and technical terms without really explaining them (or maybe she just assumes the reader has a larger vocabulary than publishers tend to these days), but this was more of a problem with The Gods of the Celts than it was with Symbol and Image. To be fair, it's nothing a dictionary or a quick google can help to solve, though it could be annoying.

Symbol and Image focuses more on the deities and what their associated iconography and symbolism implies about their roles (so it kinda does what it says on the tin...). Each chapter focuses on a particular subject - the female image, the male image, triplism, the divine marriage, symbolism in the natural world, and what the style of the iconography itself implies. Within each chapter Green focuses on particular subheadings that are relevant - horned gods, iconography of birds, warrior cults and so on, as well as particular deities and divine couples.

The Gods of the Celts covers a lot of the same stuff, laid out in a different way. Chapters cover water gods and healing, war, death and the underworld, animals and animism, 'cults of sun and sky' and so on. The last example involves some gritting of teeth in particular, but in general these bits are easily read around if you find yourself disagreeing with it like I did. While there's a big overlap with Symbol and Image, The Gods of the Celts does a better job of giving a more rounded idea of Celtic religion and expression as a whole. Green goes into more detail about how the gods were worshipped and so it's a better read in that respect, because it probably caters more to what any budding Recon wants to know.

Because they're so similar, sometimes it seemed like Symbol and Image is a reworking of the first book but with a few more bits and pieces to add to the discussion. Each book has something unique to offer though, and they're both worth a read - they're not the be all and end all of the subject, but they're a good overview and Green gives good references and bibliographies to help you delve a little deeper if you want to. Since I found Symbol and Image to be a more engaging read, and better formatted, I'd suggest starting with that one if you're looking for a good book about the gods. The Gods of the Celts will do the job as well, and if you're looking to get a more rounded view as a beginner (or a refresher, or wider context, as a more advance type) - an idea of the religion and the gods - then start with The Gods of the Celts.

They're both good books to expand your general knowledge about Celtic religion, but bear in mind the continental and Romano-Celtic (encompassing Roman Britain as well, then) bias. You'll probably be disappointed if you're looking for a good indepth study of the Irish gods, for example, but even so they're worth a read if you want to get an idea of the different nuances in religious belief and expression across the various Celtic cultures.

Archive: Highland Heritage - Barbara Fairweather

Highland Heritage
Barbara Fairweather

This is not so much a book in its own right as a collection of booklets that were produced by the Glencoe and North Lorn Folk Museum in the 1970s, many of which are available to buy on their own. If you can find a copy of Highland Heritage going cheap then it's probably a good idea to invest in this, rather than buy them individually, but it seems Highland Heritage is hard to come by and I lucked out.

Subjects covered include the social calendar and customs, plantlore, farming, livestock, the Ballachulish slate quarry, the folklore of Glencoe, and a brief history of the area, along with selected excerpts from a wide variety of sources on Highland life and travels. Some chapters are more interesting than others, and more relevant to a CR context than others - these are:

The folklore of Glencoe and North Lorn
The Highland calendar and social life
Highland livestock and its uses
Highland wildlife
Highland plant lore

Which are both the chapter titles and the titles of the booklets if you want to look them up separately.

Of these, the chapters on folklore and the calendar don't offer anything you won't find anywhere else, but they do give a good idea of the lore that's specific to the area (which is often presented in a more general way in other books) so it's good if you want to concentrate on that because of ancestral heritage or something. The chapters on wildlife and plant lore offer a good overview of the subjects, and not being particularly au fait with herbalism, there was a lot that I hadn't seen before and was genuinely interesting to me. I can't say they offer anything very different from other books on plant lore, really, but it was different to me, at any rate.

The chapters towards the end of the book are almost entirely made up of excerpts which are mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but some are even older. On the plus side, there are some obscure and useful sources used - the sort of anecdotal evidence that help to lend some support to some of those folklore books written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that aren't so well referenced. I found a few references to bannocks that I thought were interesting, for one thing. For the student of Scottish history - particularly interested in everyday, domestic life - these chapters make a great resource. But to be fair, I couldn't say they make for the most thrilling of reads...

On the whole though, since each chapter was originally written as a booklet, they're all very general and lacking in any real depth, and as a book it feels a bit piecemeal and not very coherent. This makes it the sort of book you can pick through, rather than go through in one sitting - it's more suited to mine little tidbits from, when you want to get into the details details details, not so much when you want to look at the bigger picture. It's unfortunate, in that respect, that there's no indexing to help find those little gems more easily. Have some post-its or a pen and paper handy.

Taken on their own, as booklets, the more relevant chapters offer a good introduction to the subjects they cover (but not in a very analytical way, to be fair - it's all about the facts, not how to interpret those facts). In that sense they might appeal to a beginner lookng for a quick and easy read, but to be fair you're better off working through McNeill's The Silver Bough or Black's The Gaelic Otherworld in the long run. As a collection in Highland Heritage, though, it's probably going to appeal more to someone who wants to get beyond the usual suspects that tend to be high on the reading list. I wouldn't say it's a must have, but it's a good compliment.

Archive: Scots Gaelic - George McLennan

Scots Gaelic: An Introduction to the Basics
George McLennan

Since I've started my lessons I'm all enthused about learning, so I've had the books out to help get the words stuck in my head (does that make me a bit of a swot? Very likely...). My main concern about learning a new language is that I have very little understanding of how it all works in a technical sense - vocative, genitive, nominative, irregular verbs...Just the thought of all that brings back nightmares of Latin language lessons and me just not getting it. So I thought I'd get a good head start in the hope that I don't get completely lost when the time comes to get all technical. This book fits the bill nicely.

It's not the sort of book that will help you start having simple conversations in Gaelic - rather it aims to give an idea of the basics of all the technical aspects, so instead of learning how to introduce yourself and ask where the nearest toilet might be, McLennan covers lenition and aspiration, the basics of pronunciation, spelling, dialects, inflection, and so on (you will learn some vocabulary as you go, but that's not the primary focus). Each subject has a short chapter devoted to it, and everything is written in a clear and simple manner and the tone is engaging, which is always a help in my book.

The book itself is quite short and some might criticise it for being too simplistic in certain areas, but for me, less was definitely more. Anymore detail would have been overwhelming, I think, and now I'm a little more confident of facing the prospect of tackling different tenses, irregular verbs and so on, even if I know I don't have all of the basics down just yet.

The great advantage of this book is the way McLennan gives comparisons in the English language, which really helped me understand the points he was making - they allow the reader to put the Gaelic into a more familiar context, as it were. He gives examples of English cognates and sticks to words that will likely to be learned early on, rather than giving more obscure examples of vocabulary, which makes things simpler and more familiar. He also does a good job of showing some similarities between English and Gaelic grammar, which helps make the Gaelic seem less alien.

My only bugbear with the book is that while the basic rules of pronunciation are covered, phonetic pronunciations are rarely given along with the Gaelic. The last chapter gives a list of common words that can be used to get the general point across in pidgin Gaelic if you happen to find yourself stranded in the wilds of the Gàidhealtachd where nobody speaks a word of English (well not really...), but without phonetic prompts I don't imagine anyone would feel confident enough to try actually saying most of the words to a Gaelic speaker without the expectation of being laughed at. But really, the lack of phonetics is a distraction, more than anything else - it does kind of spoil the flow the first time round.

On the plus side, then - it's short and sweet, and very straightforward. Some things might need reading more than once to absorb it properly, but you probably won't get completely lost. McLennan also does a good job to accommodate all kinds of readers - not just Scots wanting to learn Gaelic, but readers from further afield as well. There's something for everyone in here, and the fact that dialects are mentioned is a big plus. That might be why phonetic pronunciations aren't usually given, though, because McLennan is presumably trying to accommodate people who might actually live in Gaelic speaking areas, who might learn different pronunciations. It is a bit distracting, though, and limits the usefulness of the final chapter.