Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Book Review: Kindling the Celtic Spirit

One more review for now.

Kindling the Celtic Spirit
Mara Freeman

This is a book I bought early on in my first few tentative steps towards Celtic Reconstructionism, and at the time it was one of those fantastically inspiring books that got me very excited. This is the book that helped me see what a non-Wiccan/Wiccanesque style of practice might actually look like, and helped me see that Celtic Reconstructionist practice was actually workable; at the time I found it difficult to wrap my head around what to do because at the time - before the CR FAQ, before even the CR Essay, I think - there really wasn't much out there and I myself had been floundering after leaving Wicca behind and exploring various other paths like ceremonial magic and various forms of Druidry that all have fairly similar ritual approaches.

So I have a soft spot for this book, I really do. Let me be clear though: This is not a Celtic Reconstructionist book, or even written with such an audience in mind. It is written for what you might call a neo-Druid audience in mind, one that's looking for a more historically-minded approach without the Druid Revivalist trappings of Iolo Morganwg and Ross Nichols' dodgy history. It's also geared more towards the solitary practitioner than group practice, and the ritual outlines draw reference from traditional sources rather than neo-pagan ones, but here and there you will certainly find what might be seen as a neo-pagan approach, that don't necessarily agree with a CR approach - invocations to deities, Robert Graves, advocating developing a working relationship with the Good Folk...that sort of thing.

The book is laid out month-by-month, after a few introductory bits and pieces, and each month accommodates a particular focus relevant to the month, season, and related theme of the chapter. Tales and bits of folklore, animal lore, and spotlights on different deities are given in each chapter, and there are meditations to work on (there's also a CD that accompanies the book, with these meditations on it; you have to buy it separately, though, and I didn't so I can't comment on that). The festivals are dealt with as well - the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year, but with a focus on customs and lore from historical sources - and there are some practical ideas and recipes for things to do for each of them - making a May Bough at Bealltainn, carving turnips at Samhainn, that sort of thing. There are also plenty of prayers, charms, poems, blessings and so on, many of which are adapted from the Carmina Gadelica or early medieval Irish manuscripts.

There is a very hearthy, domestic focus to the book which is something that really appealed to me, and I found the inclusion of practical, creative things to do for the festivals a nice touch as well. The adaptations and prayers are mostly well done, and while the guided meditations aren't really something that appeal to me personally, they're well written and I can see that they might work well for others.

Where it falls down, I think - and it's a problem that I find with most books like this - is that while the focus is mostly on an Irish or a more generally Gaelic practice, Welsh, Brythonic and Gaulish elements are also brought in here and there; an examination of the meaning of 'awen', the stories of Taliesin and Ceridwen, a section on Cernunnos, and so on. There is also the suggestion of a wassail bowl, which couldn't even be considered to be Celtic. All of this smooshing makes it a very hodge podge affair. To me, these are very different and diverse cultures - different languages, different histories - and while they might have the same Celtic roots, they've evolved in very different ways and deserve to be looked at and appreciated on their own terms.

It seems odd to have such a regard for historical practices, detailing folklore and customs from the various cultures, to then completely disregard their context and then mix them all up in a completely ahistorical way. This is rather disappointing, but at least Freeman is (usually) clear where everything comes from, and she's also quite good at referencing her sources. It would be easy to pick bits out that are relevant to one's own focus, but ultimately there's nothing here that comes from particularly esoteric sources and it would be just as easy to go to the source yourself.

It's a well-written, beautifully presented book. Ultimately, though, as inspirational as this book was for me, I'm not sure it's something I would recommend to a CR audience these days. Aside from being potentially confusing for the beginner, there are better sources out there to look to now, far more so than ten or even five years ago, so I think that looking to them instead would be more helpful - do your own research, or look to CR websites or groups that are out there.


V.V.F. said...

"advocating developing a working relationship with the Good Folk...that sort of thing."

I'm sure the reason for this is very nuanced and complex, but I've noticed that most people who practice CR aren't typically (if ever) invested in maintaining a relationship with the Daoine Maithe. It seems to me that there are plenty of reasons for and against the practice, culturally and historically. But most CRs seem to default on "against." Is there a reason for that? Being on American soil, maybe?

Seren said...

I don't think being on American soil has much to do with it (I'm in Scotland, for one :p ) - it's well documented that the daoine sìth have been recorded in the Diaspora, wherever the Gaels ended up. It's also believed that they have a penchant for going off on jaunts to exotic places just for the hell of it. So really than can be found in all kinds of places.

I think it's more a case that in referring to the lore, CRs will tend to follow the general attitudes and approaches towards the daoine sìth as we find is traditional. The general attitude is a default 'leave well alone.' Therefore, it's not considered advisable to actively seek them out, invite them into your home, or try to 'work with them', that sort of thing. As the lore has it, so CRs will tend to follow it. A lot of the ritual rhythm of the day was about keeping your house in order to ensure that the daoine sìth couldn't come in to your house at night and cause trouble (and as such, many CRs will follow suit); the charms and saining at festivals also serve the same purpose. Here in Scotland people still often plant a rowan in the garden to 'keep the witches and fairies away'; housing developers will often plant rowans in new housing schemes (they're also hardy and grow fast, of course, so they're a good choice in that sense too). It's one of those things that nobody will really admit to believing, but they'll do it because it's traditional, or their granny did etc.

There are exceptions, of course, but in most cases it's not considered a good idea to involve yourself. Healers and charm workers might be seen as drawing their power from the Good Folk, but it's not something those people have sought out, it's generally something that the daoine sìth have bestowed on them for their own reasons.

We do tend to propitiate them because we acknowledge that we share the same land, and so we give them their 'due', as is traditional. At the least we'd hope they'd leave us alone, or maybe look favourably on us and look out for us, but it's not something we actively seek out and ask for, it's up to them. They may choose to involve themselves in our lives, but if that happens then it's not the done thing to acknowledge it, really, it's best to just let them get on with it (although of course, we'll keep on making our offerings). For example, I maintain what you might call a 'hobhouse' on my altar, but other than making it for the brownie to occupy it, I don't have much else to do with it. Giving thanks will often cause offence.

ditzydruid said...

Great review. Freeman's book was also one of the first I purchased on the subject of Irish culture. As time went on, I made the same observations as you in regards to random practices from other nations/groups of people. I also don't use the meditations but find the domestic traditions very useful. I still love the book and get a great deal out of it, but it's not the best for research or a strict CR practice. Spot on review!

V.V.F. said...

That all makes sense. I guess it can be easy for me to forget, as someone who engages in some of the more "taboo" magical practices, that such contact isn't necessarily desirable for most people.

On the other hand, it seems to me that, in the sagas and medieval literature, people were often just as wary/fearful of the TDD as they were of other entities, so I have trouble seeing where the line is.

In any case, thank you for your response(s). :)