Thursday, 21 July 2011

Book Review: Highland Heathenry

Update: Please note that this book is no longer available.
Highland Heathenry: Ritual Formula for Gaelic Heathens
Ikindé Skréja Ominnsaer

Finally, another offering for a Celtic Reconstructionist's bookshelf; like the last one I reviewed that was aimed at such an audience, I bought it through Lulu, so it's a self-published work. And like the previous book, a large part of this one focuses on material from the Carmina Gadelica. Where they differ is that while Morgan Daimler's book perhaps offers more scope in the amount of charms offered, Highland Heathenry offers more detail on ritual outlines as a whole, as well as both English and Gàidhlig versions of the charms that have been chosen for the book, and reworked and 'de-constructed' for a CR audience.

The book is aimed primarily at the beginner, or anyone looking for an introduction to ritual within CR - specifically Scottish (Gàidhlig) practice. It's very short, which should be a good thing for anyone looking for something that isn't too overwhelming; the content presented here is clear and to the point, beginning with clear definitions for certain words and terms that the author uses throughout, and the reader is encouraged to go and do their own research as well.

The layout is clear and the use of some of the illustrations from the Carmina Gadelica gives a nice touch to the overall look and feel of the book. It's a little smaller than A4 in size, and considering the fact that many of the charms and rituals offered throughout the book cover more than one page, the size helps if you want to sit down and study what's going on here without having to constantly flick through.

Where the book falls down, I think, is in some of the details. Some are minor and probably more a matter of taste - I would quibble that for a CR book, 'heathenry' isn't the most appropriate term to use because (as far as I'm aware) most associate it with a specifically Norse practice. It would also have been nice to see more thorough and consistent referencing throughout (though there is some).

It has to be said that there are some fairly fundamental problems to be found here as well, that go beyond quibbles. I think this is truly unfortunate; what the book aims to deliver is good, it's just the problems all add up to having to question whether or not the book as a whole is workable without at least some major revision. Some of the information offered is just inaccurate - for example, the bile is a sacred tree that stands at the heart of a tuath's territory, not "a pile of stones with a flat table-topper slate." I think what's being referred to here is actually a dolmen, and these are common to Ireland (and neolithic), but not Scotland, and nor is there any evidence that they were used as altars by the Celts. There is also reference to the arms of the triskele representing the Dagda, Lugh, and Ogma, and also the cycle of life from childhood, adulthood, to old age, which is based on a questionable resource; the meaning of the triskele is by no means known for certain, although there are many modern interpretations. As UPG these are not something I can debate, but here they are apparently presented as fact, and that's where the problem lies.

The inclusion of Rhiannon and 'Toranis' as deities in a book that encourages specifically Gaelic practice, and also their assignations as deities of particular elements (albeit in a Gaelic elemental context, not Classical) is completely out of place to me, as is the use of the Welsh names for the solstices and equinoxes - Alban Arthuan, Alban Eiler, Alban Heruin, and Alban Elved. I suspect these names may have origins in modern druidic practice as well, which puts them doubly out of place.

A fair few of the charms will be ones that most recons will already be familiar with and are likely to have adapted for use themselves, so it's good to see Gàidhlig versions of these readily on offer and available for a reconstructionist audience. There are some that I find problematic, though, and at least one of them appears in a completely different context than it was originally meant; for the Bealltainn celebrations, Carmichael's Red Water Charm has been used as a 'Bealltainn exorcism' in the morning. As far as I'm aware, exorcisms are not a pre-Christian concept, and the charm itself is originally meant to be a healing charm for kidney stones. The use of the charm and the idea in general just seem thoroughly out of place, even inappropriate here.

At times, the Gàidhlig that's offered is also a little problemmatic. Spelling is a recurring problem - mixing both old and modern orthography, as well as a lot of spelling mistakes, and some errors are downright unfortunate (the Diesel Turn, instead of the the Deiseil Turn), but not something that couldn't be corrected in further editions with thorough proofing. As it is, though, while these will be easily spotted by anyone who knows what they're looking for, it will make the job of reading through and correctly pronouncing certain parts for others, who may be less advanced or confident in their understanding of Gàidhlig, more difficult.

However, while I can't claim to be advanced in my studies of Gàidhlig, I suspect that the problem may go deeper than spelling and orthography, with some parts of the Gàidhlig itself. For one, I have reservations with the use of the word 'deathachan' as the Gàidhlig for 'gods'; as far as I'm aware, the accepted plural is 'diathan,' and as far as I can tell the only source for 'deathachan' having this meaning is Alexander Carmichael himself. While it's possible this is an archaism, I suspect given the context of Carmichael's use of the word that it's more likely to be his own extrapolation, and so the accuracy of it seems questionable. Over all, it gives cause for concern about the reliability of the transliterations here.

Books that are aimed at a purely Celtic Reconstructionist audience are still very thin on the ground, and like the last one I reviewed this one is self-published; given the fact that the CR community is probably still very small, and self-publishing allows greater editorial control over the content without having to compromise with a publishing house, I think this is the way that most CR books in future will go. The main downside to this is that proofreading is often an issue, and it puts the author at a disadvantage in terms of advertising their work compared to an established publishing house, and many must also rely solely on online sales rather than those from a bookshop; maybe most people buy their books online nowadays anyway, but there are certainly those who would still prefer to be able to look at something before they buy it (edit for clarity: though in this instance there is a preview option for the introduction and blurb).

As such, reviews like this are certainly going to be one way that any self-published author will hope to garner at least a few sales. I do regret that I can't give this book a better review, but when all is said and done, I've tried to be honest and objective in what I find just as with any other book I review here. Ultimately, I find that the problems with the book are a severe detriment to what it's trying to achieve. Although over all it's aims are good; I'm just not sure it's quite there.


Ancestral Celt said...

A pity it was so flawed, as it held so much promise from what I had read of it, after you mentioned it on your blog.

At least my "wishlist has gone down by one - well, until the author acquires a good editor and publisher.

Saigh said...

I absolutely agree, "Heathen" really only fits if Norse traditions are involved; if for no other reason than they have laid claim to it and it's just more polite that way. My household uses "Gaelic Heathen" purposely to indicate that we are a Gaelic cultural path influenced by Norse traditions; the name is used to note that combination. We began using it when I met my husband who "is owned by" a Norse God about the same time one started to get my attention. We feel that it fits within the realm of "reconstructionism" as these cultures intermingled at least in early Christian times, and likely prior to that. It's a historical syncretism, as opposed to combining never related cultures. My Clan's (that is my actual blood Clan, not as in some grouping I've created) history is based on the idea of Scandinavian and Irish people mixing it up in the Highlands and Hebrides.

Aside from that personal path name issue, it sounds like a sadly typical self-published book. I do wonder why anyone, with all the social networking available, would self-publish a book like this without getting feedback before publication. In professional publishing, books go through countless editing; through reviews by not only copy editors of the publishing house, but galleys are typically sent out, after initial editing to folks somewhat related to the field or genre to give feedback. This, of course, is also where those "blurbs" come from. If I were stuck having to self-publish (and I hope that's not what happens, but I might have to decide to) I will make sure to get a lot of eyes on my stuff first. I don't know why more people don't do that.

I also wonder how long this person has been practicing. I've seen her blog and I got the impression she was very new. Mind you, I've been around for a bit and I'm just now feeling ready to write an actual book, which I've been doing for nearly two years now pretty steady. It takes a long time to establish material (really this is something I've worked on gather material for for over 20 years now), I'm still trying to get my hands on sources that I don't feel I can go ahead with. I think that the self-publishing phenomenon has also created an atmosphere where people jump into writing books too soon, because they can. I don't think that this is particularly good thing. That there are really no "CR" or what ever (I don't use the term any longer as it's defined so variously as to be meaningless to me) books that are not self-published isn't all that odd given how young the concept is and how most of us are sticklers for research. There just hasn't been THAT much time yet. It'll come.

nefaeria said...

Thanks for the review. I am going to have to agree with Saigh, specifically on the getting feed back before publishing.

I too have been working on a book off and on for a bit {not CR or Pagan}, and if and when I do ever publish it, I will keep reviews like this in mind. I do have a bit of a leg up though since the hubby worked for an editor of a journal for a time {a good thing too because my grammar is pretty bad as a rule! ;)}, so he combs through the parts I have written.

Treasa said...

Heathen as a synonym of pagan? What are we, Christians lol?

'Tis a pity that this couldn't have even attempted to be a better book. It appears completely rushed and with the author more worried about having it out there rather than producing a quality book (but that's the problem with self-pub, isn't it?). The errors far outweigh anything else about it.

I can completely see CR books (and let me state that I do NOT view this book as CR) remaining self-pub (at least for the team being) since we are such a niche market, so I hold nothing against it being produced through Lulu, however, there was no reason the author could not have had peers review it prior to publishing. That could have helped saved it. Instead, she ran with some completely insane information.

I commend you on taking one for the team and reading this book, my dear.

Ciannait said...

Saigh already said everything I wanted to say. To be honest the moment I read the book title I decided to look elsewhere. Thanks for the detailed review. I was already leaning towards not getting it and now I'm sure I won't.

Seren said...

Thanks for your comments everyone.

I should make a bit of a correction to my penultimate paragraph and point out that there is a preview option available at Lulu that covers the beginning of the book up to the introduction, and then the blurb at the back; while it doesn't give any examples of the Gàidhlig offered, it does give a taster for what's in store.

You can view it by clicking on the Preview link below the cover artwork.

Blackbird said...

Treasa - With my run-ins with this "author" she knew she couldn't pass this out into the CR world. She had done so much name dropping in groups that when she was called on it she went running. This book was meant to "revolutionize CR" basically from backyard conversations with her "friend."

I agree, self-publishing may be our catch all, but I do hope that their are some obscure pagan publishers that could give CR material a real shot (avoiding the pandering from Llewelyn) - Weiser would be the first to come to mind first. Even witchvox has a short list. One day perhaps. I know most of us have had our ideas - perhaps we all just need to go "we're writing a book" and stick to it. Unfortunately I get great ideas and forget to write them down. Or I know others who are working on similar ideas and respect them way too much for that. :)