Thursday, 1 March 2012

Book review: The Apple Branch/Celtic Rituals

One from the vaults now, a book I read pretty much at the beginning of my involvement in Celtic Reconstructionism, and which at the time came highly recommended.

There has been quite a bit of time passed since the initial fanfare that heralded the book's re-release (when I got hold of a copy) and I think maybe it's time to revisit it. The copy I'm reviewing is the later edition that was released under the title of The Apple Branch, which - as I understand it - differs only slightly from the older edition, which was called Celtic Rituals. As far as I'm aware, the only differences are that the newer edition has an index and a few extra passages in the first chapter added in.(Or not...)

Addendum: As per Faoladh - The original title is The Apple Branch, published by Collins Press and later released in a new edition by a US publisher with the addition of the index and the text restored. Celtic Rituals is a 'grey market' edition.

The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual (alternative title: Celtic Rituals: An Authentic Guide to Ancient Celtic Spirituality)
Alexei Kondratiev

Aside from the CR FAQ this is the only other book that ever really comes up in conversation when people want to read something that's good for a Celtic Reconstructionist. It's understandable, given how much Alexei contributed to the CR community over the years, but it's also one I find problematic in many respects.

This is not a Celtic Reconstructionist book. For this reason alone I find it difficult to recommend it for anyone wanting a book on Celtic Reconstructionism, because it is not a book that fits the bill, plain and simple. This doesn't mean that it's a bad book, or a terrible book, just that it isn't one that can be considered to be particularly illuminating as far as CR is concerned. In that sense, it's a difficult book to review because on its own terms it surely has a lot of positives. It is thorough, and unlike many other books aimed at a neopagan audience, it doesn't shy away from getting into details. The research is good, and well-presented, and at the time it was first published it certainly offered something very different to anything else that was available at the time.

Even so, none of this means that it is a good book for a CR audience, although it does arguably make it an important one as far as its place in CR's history goes. After all this time, I think The Apple Branch has held such a special place in Celtic Reconstructionist circles for so long due to the fact that it is far more sympathetic to CR's emphasis on decent history (as opposed to ye anciente Irish potato goddesses and Celtic alternatives to patriarchal penises...), and when it first came out it was as close to a reconstructionist book as anyone was going to find. For me, though, that just isn't a reason to hold on to it.

So why isn't this book CR? Put simply, Alexei himself repeatedly pointed out that this book isn't CR, and was never intended to be. One of the biggest points that makes it "not CR" is that the rituals outlined are really no different to the myriad other Wiccanesque kinds of ritual on offer by other authors offering "Celtic traditions." This puts it in the dubious company of the McCoys and Bucklands of the world, and also perhaps proved influential in the work of Aedh Rua's Celtic Flame which is similarly Wiccanesque in ritual approach, and really this is not surprising since Alexei himself was Wiccan. There is talk of 'the God' and 'the Goddess', there is circle casting and invocations at each quarter, and so on, although there is definitely a slightly different spin put on all of it. Given Alexei's emphasis on language, invocations at each quarter are given in Celtic languages - Scots Gaelic in the north, Welsh in the east, Breton in the South and Irish in the west. It's not something I can really get on board with, personally; deep down, I can't help but feel that it's using languages for the sake of it, without regard for their own context, and it all seems rather pointless if you don't even speak those languages and understand what any of it means, or even honour the gods of those cultures anyway.

The over all approach is pan-Celtic, and while this might have been popular in academia in the 60s, we've come a long way since then. Celtic cultures do have their similarities, even their common origins, but that doesn't mean we can mix them all together and get something that is reflective of anything that would have ever been practiced. For me, it makes a hodge podge, and it's one of my biggest problems with neopagan books that fall under the 'Celtic' umbrella in general. It certainly makes something meaningful for a lot of folks - otherwise these books wouldn't be so popular - but to my mind, I don't see the point of looking to historical sources and then...ignoring history.

Ultimately, it seems that the pan-Celticism undermines a very important point that the book emphasises, and that's the importance of using Celtic languages to justify the use of the label Celtic in the first place. I wouldn't go so far to say that language is the only thing makes something Celtic (as Alexei basically seems to), but he does have a point that language is incredibly important. But in advocating for linguistic authenticity, framing it within a pan-Celtic approach just seems contradictory, and ignores the rich variety of Celtic cultures, and their differences.

With that said, one thing that Alexei does manage to do is give a decent historical overview of the Celts. The pan-Celtic approach gives a slightly misleading view, to my tastes, but it can't be denied that the research here is very good. It's perhaps a little coloured by politics that some might find distracting or distasteful, but you could do far worse. I do think it's a little dry, though, and very dense in places. Most people, when they're reading a book on a particular religion, are looking for what that religion is about, not so much a history lesson. If I wanted that, I'd read a history book. Here, I would anticipate that a fair few readers end up wondering what exactly the oppression of the eighteenth and nineteenth century really has to do with paganism...Of course, it is relevant in a round about way, and as history, people should know this. I just don't think starting off with this kind of stuff works in the book's favour.

I'm not sure it's Alexei's fault that the blurb states that it presents "the" Celtic traditions, but however it came about, it's more than a bit misleading. What the book describes is a way of doing things, to be sure, but it's a synthesis of many different things that are presented in a modern, Wiccanesque framework, not a traditional one. Ultimately, as much as the book is a part of CR history, it has no practical relevance, and I would only really recommend it if you're looking for a wee slice of history.


V.V.F. said...

"I would anticipate that a fair few readers end up wondering what exactly the oppression of the eighteenth and nineteenth century really has to do with paganism..."

At the risk of sounding extreme or making everyone uncomfortable, I think it has everything to do with it, especially if one approaches CR as a worldview. Many of the learned orders of Gaelic society were abolished as a result of English colonization, and with that went a wealth of cultural knowledge that plenty of modern pagans would love to have if they could. While we wax poetic about the Gods of Skill, I think it's worth being aware of the fact that craftsmen and skilled professionals were completely disenfranchised by 17th century penal codes, under which no Irish person could practice their trade or receive an education. It just seems like the mindful (and compassionate) thing to do. What does our religion mean if it has no relevance to human affairs?

V.V.F. said...

Great review in any case, I should say!

faoladh said...

Celtic Rituals was the title given to a "grey market" reprint of the original. The first edition was The Apple Branch, published by The Collins Press, Cork. The later edition, published in the US, had some changes in the opening chapter to restore the intended text after alterations demanded by the original publisher. If you don't want some of the more difficult politics, look for the Collins Press edition, which greatly tones that material down.

Seren said...

Oh, OK, thanks for letting me know, Faoladh. I was going by what folks had said on the email lists and various fora, who I assumed had it right. I will change that.

V.V.F. - I absolutely agree, and like I said I do think it's important (and I don't think you sound extreme). My comment there was more with the absolute beginner in mind, who might not be expecting that kind of subject to come up in a book like this. In that sense, I'm not sure I would've expected it to be something that would come up in a 101 sort of book. In a way, that's one thing I admired about Alexei - I didn't know him personally, but he always struck me as being a very passionate and principled man.

nefaeria said...

When I first started getting my toes wet in CR Paganism {prior to me even knowing which pantheon would eventually snag me as their own} I had someone recommend this book to me. I was having a hell of a time trying to figure out the whole ritual thing and she thought that it might be of some help. I really didn’t enjoy the whole ritual parts because it reminded too much of the neo-Pagan ceremonial magic that is a lot like Wicca. However, I ate up the history {and yes, the politics too!}. I really hadn’t seen a book quite like it outside of for scholarly reads, so for that reason I do have a soft spot for it. ;)

nefaeria said...

"of more scholarly reads", rather.