Sunday, 12 December 2010

Book Review: Land of Women

Land of Women: tales of sex and gender from early Ireland
Lisa Bitel

No book is perfect, and I often find myself split 50/50 on my opinion of what I think of a particular work. I think this book is a fine example of that problem - I see good and bad, and find myself conflicted about it overall. The bibliography and references are great, and give me plenty to go on. I find some of it useful in my research...but there's this lurking sense of disappointment, too.

I think I can overcome the flaws this time, unlike, say, Dames' Mythic Ireland. I really wanted to like that book too, but all things considered the interpretations were just a bit too bonkers for me to really recommend it confidently to anyone, other than for curiosity...

This book isn't bonkers, at all, really. But my problems with it still leave a bittersweet taste...I think the problems fall into two camps: One is the lack of balance to the arguments and evidence presented overall, and the other is the author's bias in some of her interpretations that I find disagreeable and distracting.

The way the chapters are laid out give a repetitiveness and skewed view to everything discussed that becomes difficult to overcome when read from start to finish. The arguments and evidence are laid out clearly and confidently, but each chapter tends to end up falling on the negative, rather than a balanced view, and on reflection, I think that has a lot to do with the fact that many of those points were oft repeated. No bad thing for referencing and dipping into, to be fair, but I felt that overall it wasn't such a good thing for readability. Yes, I get the point, now can we move on....No? Oh...

Each chapter follows a basic premise - looking at certain aspects of women's life in early Ireland - and I suppose given the evidence to deal with it's inevitable that the picture is going to be very negative, all things considered. What I mean is, we can look to the laws and penitentials and so on, to see what life was really like, but that's all skewed to an ideal that was never really a reality, and it's all skewed against the favour of women. But in practice, the lines were not so clearly drawn, all of the time, necessarily. And while this is all very definitely acknowledged and discussed, my reading of it seemed like this comment was an afterthought, and often contradictory to the overall tone. I'm aware, however, that it's a trap that's easily fallen into, and one that I may have unintentionally fallen into myself with the latest load of articles I've done covering marriage. So maybe I'm not one to talk there.

A hard dose of reality for the romanticists? Definitely not a bad thing. I just think in the end I would've preferred the points to be hammered home somewhat closer to the middle ground. But another problem I have with this book - a problem of perspective more than anything - is the treatment of the likes of Medb, Badb, and the Morrigan as purely literary creations and imaginings. No sense that while the author herself may see them only as that - creations - those writing about them at the time may have thought otherwise, or understood that those before them saw things differently, at least. That kind of grated, and the bias towards this interpretation really skewed things in a light that I didn't agree with.

As I said, though, there's a lot going for the book as well. My disappointment is probably proportionate to my high hopes for it (having dipped into it on Google books and thinking it was good). As a resource, it's useful and gives plenty of food for thought, and since it's well-referenced, any arguments you may have with it can go on endlessly with yourself if you really want to. Like any book it has it's flaws, and I suppose I just really wish they weren't as disagreeable as they seem. On this one, I'd definitely recommend reading before judging.

6 comments:

Tlachtga said...

Part of the problem is with Bitel--she seems to be of the "there is no Irish paganism" camp, i.e., she's spent quite a lot of time trying to prove that there was not goddess Brigit, that it was only St. Brigit, and that all we think we know about Irish paganism was written by Christians, and so there is no Irish paganism. She can be a great scholar sometimes, but she's very dismissive of anything non-Christian.

Tairis said...

Ah thanks, I did notice that in an article I read that was written by her - barely a mention of anything other than a Christian context, and dismissive at best.

Saigh said...

Hmm...see,I don't think the bits about "these things were likely a complete reality" were after thoughts at all. I think it's the basis tone of her work, given that the reality is something we have no true evidence of. So there are hints that these laws were worked around, but no more than hints.

And, yeah, in all truth, there is little to say that Medb, Badb and The Morrígan as we know them are not literary constructs. I mean, I've been looking for more. Medb of Connaught's name reflects a likely Goddess in another county, but little evidence that she was a Goddess exists. There are many reasons to see her as a literary construct, but how she was meant to be used as such, well there are points that can be argued....I think Diana Veronica Dominguez makes some excellent arguments regarding a more complete reading of Medb in "Historical Residues in the Old Irish Legends of Queen Medb: An Expanded Interpretation of the Ulster Cycle."

As for Badb and The Morrígan, well, I'm working on a case for Them as possibly being Pre-Christian Goddesses, but we know nothing about Them at the time they were. It's a long frustrating journey I've been on, so I perhaps relate greatly to Bitel, because I think she was looking for more evidence of women's power, perhaps a different one than I am, and was as stricken by the lack of evidence as I am.

When focused solely on the original sources, it's so devastating, compared to the fantasies that, as Bitel points out, even some of our most respected scholars have promoted to some extent. And which the NeoPagan community has promoted now for decades.

Mind you Bitel is strictly a student of Early Christian Ireland, she has no real reason to be looking for any hints of Paganism to begin with, so I think it's unfair to say this is a flaw. I didn't find her "dismissive" in the book or the above mentioned article, as much as she shows where the evidence points. There is no "Window to the Iron Age" in those texts, as much as we may wish it. An Morrígan MAY have been a territorial war Goddess OR She MAY be a complete invention of some clerics. We really do not know and cannot know, although we can look at the material we have, what archaeology tells us, our own UPGs (if writing as Pagans and not trying to be academic..this thing I'm working on would be quite different if I had to pass it off for a class). (Badb stands a slightly better chance, due to the Gaulish (C)ATHUBODVÆ inscription, but that's not really proof either, just becomes another piece to say "maybe" with.)

I tried so hard to keep believing there was such a "window," but having stopped listening to others who keep trying, focusing primarily on primary sources, although using secondary like Bitel and others, I'm forced to face that there isn't.

I think her work is an important reality check from which we can then figure out what it all means for us. It's a struggle, but one I'm in the middle of now.

Tairis said...

"Hmm...see,I don't think the bits about "these things were likely a complete reality" were after thoughts at all. I think it's the basis tone of her work, given that the reality is something we have no true evidence of. So there are hints that these laws were worked around, but no more than hints."

Ah, I think I've maybe not articulated myself as well as I could've. My reading was that the laws as they are recorded were never likely so strictly adhered to in practice, and that there were inevitably workarounds. She says this, clearly, and gives some details here, but I think what she gave was limited. Admittedly, it might be that there's not much on the subject to go on - speculation isn't fashionable these days.

"And, yeah, in all truth, there is little to say that Medb, Badb and The Morrígan as we know them are not literary constructs."

I waver on this one. Sometimes I err on the literary side, but mostly I go with the actual deity side. By which I mean, at one point they were, but what we see in the remaining evidence is not whole, and can't be taken at face value. It's complicated and messy. I suppose academically we can hide behind theory. Spiritually, we can dip a toe in that, and all the rest in UPG. OK, I suppose a lot of academics do that too.

I do think Bitel provides a good alternative view to this side of the argument, like McCone does, and both are valuable. I can't stress the value, in that respect, because I like to read stuff that pokes and prods at my brain. But ultimately I find it too dismissive when the premise is taken to the extreme - that we can't know anything, really, because it's not contemporary, not reliably witnessed. No, we can't know anything concretely, but we can make educated guesses, as unsatisfactory as that inevitably is. I'm not saying that either author necessarily goes to that extreme, but that's how some people might interpret the approach. I'd prefer a middle ground, if that's even possible.

One thing I think is vitally important is to try and get inside of the heads of the people who wrote this stuff. They may not have understood pre-Christian beliefs as a whole, but certainly they were closer to them than we are, and closer to the milieu in which those gods were originally perceived. We have nothing on how they were really worshipped, if they were at all, but we see that they were clearly 'enumerated' as one of the scribes put it (in a manuscript I can't remember)...

Tairis said...

My problem with the last chapter in particular was that Bitel seemed to make very little effort to approach the material on its own terms, in terms of the time it was written and what people thought of the things they were writing, not to mention how things actually were before they were written down. She seemed to see the gods and write about the myths as if she was talking about fiction, whereas we know from the glosses that those who wrote this stuff down were aware of contradictory traditions and were cautious about seeming to be too pagan in what they were writing, or even not respectful enough. But we also know that these things were presented to us in such a way for a reason - consciously or not. I think ultimately the picture came across as a little too cut and dried in some respects - not completely, because she does try to balance things a little - but the cut of her jib seemed quite clear and left the attempts at balance a little weaker than they could have been at times.

It's thought-provoking and challenging, which is always good, but ultimately left me unsatisfied in some areas, which left me a little more disappointed than I anticipated. And I suppose that's a good thing, because it made me think and I didn't necessarily agree with it, but I know why. And I don't disagree with your points, I just think I have a problem of wanting to chew them from both ends at times. It depends on my mood and the hat I'm wearing at the time. Or both.

Sorry for the ramble, I hope it makes sense. It's been a looong day.

Saigh said...

If I could find actual evidence to convince me, beyond UPG and SPG, I'd die of happiness. I suppose that's when I might find out. Until then, I find the whole thing quite annoying and frustrating. Because, you know, I totally believe it to be true, but I want to see evidence too. But I'm stuck without. So I do understand, from my own readings of the material, why someone with no experiences with Them would question or even dismiss it. If I had no belief, I certainly would not believe there was any evidence in the text that They were the pre-Christian Gods. The Classic and Norse influences alone are stupendous, or are those "cross-cultural continuances?" See we can't know, because we know the clerics were educated about these things.

And I just don't agree that she didn't give enough of the "go arounds" on the laws and customs regarding women. I felt it was a major part of her point and she gave a lot, it's again not something that's really recorded and for good reason. I think she PRECISELY tried to take it on the terms of those who wrote it and the culture it was from. She goes into that in great detail right from the start. She notes that there were agendas, although she also notes there wasn't ONE agenda...which I think is a very important point. There were different takes, different opinions and I thought she presented them well.

I understand the "wanting to chew them on both ends." There are certainly things I don't like about what she said and things I will argue, but most are tiny points that really aren't worth bringing up in cold context...I've picked those bits about as I needed to for things I'm working on.

Certainly, I would have liked to see her, or anyone academic, really explore the possibilities of working around the violence and warrior thing. Something I think may have happened...and totally and utterly far more unprovable than sneaking around giving daughters property they shouldn't have is. But like most academics that have no real world experience in anything, probably never even played sports, accepting that women are just never warriors is pretty standard and I know that. It annoys me, but at least she's not as bad as Enright and his crazy, unsubstantiated rant about women's physical incapabilities. She's not where I go looking for that. Dominguez is an exception and begins a journey there, but doesn't go really where I'm looking.

It's a long road, but I think it's important to have Bitel's work to balance out all the Gods forsaken pseudo-feminist fantasy out there. We need to deal with what evidence there is and keep exploring what is hidden, without making it up.

Mind you, I rant and rave on this because of how extremely naive I was at one time and how much I tried to maintain certain fantasies. And how much I kept hedging. Now that I'm taking responsibility for sharing information, it's been a hell of a year + for me trying to sort through what to build from. So, in a way, I defend Bitel because I so very much want her book to be bullshit, but...I'm finding the same thing as I trace some of the same material. I differ with her almost totally on my experience as a Polytheist who practices warrior ways, because I know that the Gods were Gods and I know women can fight...I just can't prove one and the other I can't prove in that place and time. And struggle as I might, I just can't prove those things.

And I want to. Because, it would be so much easier. I'd have a whole bunch of marketable books written in this time. Instead by the time I'm 80 I might have one very unmarketable one. Because everyone will hate it.

So, sorry for my rambles, but it's been a long strange trip since I decided to finally do this and Bitel's, and several others, works have been kicking the crap out of me the whole way. ~:/