Sunday, 26 August 2012

Book review: Fiery Shapes

I'm slacking in the post-department this month. This is not to say I'm slacking in general, just that I'm being relatively anti-social. No offence...

Anyway, as the deadline for the first batch of books I got from the library some months ago draws to a close I'm starting to make a concerted effort to really go through all the books I like the look of so I don't have to renew too many - if any. Term will be starting soon and I don't want to hog any books that might come in handy for actual y'know, students, and while I did bring home rather a lot of books over my previous few trips, I never intended to read them all. But I do have a bare minimum I'd like to get through, and getting distracted by the first four volumes of Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire didn't help with that. What can I say. I don't get out much these days.

I have to say, though, the bunch I picked out from the library (not including the birthday splurge I indulged in earlier this year) this time round are really inspiring and - for the most part - quality. This next book I'm going to review comes from the library pile:

Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700-1700
Mark Williams

I don't usually pick up books that deal mainly with Wales, but having seen a preview of some of it online and then finding it at the library, why not? The Irish stuff certainly whet my appetite.

This is a book that fills a much-needed hole, covering not just astrology, but the way in which magic and certain forms of divination are shown in literature, and the kind of writers or places that may have influenced such portrayals. A little bit of eschatology gets thrown in too, looking at the end of the world or the apocalypse, so it's all good as far as I'm concerned. These aren't things you see being dealt with very often.

The Irish chapters, which concentrate mostly on divination and eschatology as well as the evidence for an 'Irish astrology', inevitably deals with druids as well and while they aren't the main focus of the book, what you'll find here is good stuff, and I'd say a must-read. Every now and then I see questions about the use of the word 'magi' as an equivalent to druids crop up, and this book deals with the evidence showing that it really does relate to the druids, and that the connotations and connections between the two are significant. I suspect some folks might be disappointed by the conclusions that are drawn here, though: the main thrust of the argument is that a lot of how the druids are portrayed in Irish literature has been influenced by the works of non-native sources, especially Isidore of Seville, who was very influential in the way attitudes about magic and such evolved in early Christian Ireland. The arguments presented here offer some good food for thought, even if it might not be quite the taste you were hoping for. It's kind of inevitable when dealing with this stuff.

For the most part I've got no real quibbles - my old tutor gets a mention so some of what's presented here is already familiar to me, especially in relation to the story of the Death of Conchobar (brings back good memories...), and some old favourites like In Tenga Bithnua ('The Evernew Tongue'), part of the Irish apocrypha, get a mention too. As far as astrology and the kind of bonkers and out there stuff that The Evernew Tongue deals with in particular, I do wonder if there was more fodder to look at in this area; it would have been good to see a bit more background and discussion on this kind of thing but I suppose there are only so many things you can fit in without going off on long tangents. There are some good references I'd like to hunt up, so I'm sure I'll be more than entertained when I get round to it.

My only real disagreement in the Irish chapters is in the discussion on the Morrígan's prophecy. The author comments that the Morrígan is "the divinity of carrion and carnage" and that "she is a strange figure have deliver the first, positive, prophecy" (p30) in Cath Maige Tuired. I think when you consider that the first, positive, prophecy gives the view of a land in peace, plenty and harmony (which in Irish mythological terms would be the result of a good king ruling over the land), while the second prophecy gives an extreme view of the opposite - a bad ruler - it underlines the tale in general; the suffering caused by Bres, a stingy and inhospitable king, as a result of the Tuatha Dé Danann having to remove their 'good' king Nuadu. The removal of Bres and the ultimate healing of Nuadu restores good order, but the spectre of an unjust ruler is never far off. The Morrígan, as a shadowy and unpredictable figure in the tale (until the Dagda secures her help for the Tuatha Dé Danann) could easily be seen as representing the land and its changing state, according to who is ruling over it. An idyllic land of peace and plenty, or an apocalyptic one are pretty much two sides of the same coin.

Otherwise, my only other lament is that there are frequent references to the story Forbius Droma Damhgaire ('The Siege of Knocklong') without any decent English translation pointed to or offered. I'm sure this isn't the author's fault - there must be a reason he only references Marie-Louise Sjoestedt's French translation! But it's frustrating to see references to a tale you can't really read in its entirety, and if there was a chance of providing a translation that would've been most welcome (there's a translation by Seán Ó Duinn that I'm aware of but aside from being extortionate, I'm not sure if the translation is reliable enough for academic use...).

Skipping backwards a little, one thing that set me in a particularly good mood was a short overview of Why Robert Graves Is Wrong in the preface; it isn't just critical of Robert Graves' "idiosyncratic treatise" (a good way to describe The White Goddess, I think), but it also points out the shortcomings of Peter Beresford-Ellis' own critique of the subject, 'The Fabrication of Celtic Astrology.' This is invaluable.

After the first two chapters that deal with the Irish material ('Celestial portents and apocalypticism in medieval Ireland' and 'Druids, cloud-divination, and the portents of the Antichrist') comes a change in focus and a switch to Wales. Here we find Taliesin and Geoffrey of Monmouth, Morgan Llwyd and a little bit of John Dee amongst other things. These chapters would probably be of interest to anyone with an interest in the Welsh side of reconstructionism, for sure, and I particularly found the chapter on Taliesin and Geoffrey of Monmouth to be good food for thought as far as how 'authentically pagan' some of what we see here might be. There are lots of references to poetry, with excerpts and translations included here, so there isn't the same niggle about references to things that aren't otherwise easily accessible as I had with the Irish chapters.

All in all, this is a book that would certainly come in useful if any of the subjects dealt with are your kind of thing. I wouldn't say this book is for the beginner but I'd definitely recommend it for someone who really wants to get stuck into the nitty gritty. It's a shame the book is so expensive because it's something I'd otherwise want for the bookshelf, but such is the way of things in academia these days, I suppose.  

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Irish-language toy company branches out

Now this looks interesting! A toy manufacturer that specialises in Irish-language toys is branching out:

Bábógbaby has announced that it will be available in English, Scots Gaelic and Welsh in October in Ireland and UK toy stores after its launch in the UK in September.

Based in Galway, Bábógbaby specialises in Irish speaking toys and is now branching out into other languages.

The article also mentions the launch of a Scots Gaelic app next month, which is something I'd be especially keen on. I've not really used any apps before now but something to help with building on my beginners knowledge of the language would be really good, and if it gets the kids interested then all the better. I won't be able to go back to classes until I'm recovered (if I recover!) so this is the next best thing; something to help with pronunciation would be extremely helpful.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Book review: The Sacred Tree

The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations
Carole M. Cusack

My only previous experience with this author is from an article on Brigid that's available available online, which I only mention because it might be of interest...

But anyway. You can find a good preview of the book online and it was certainly enough to pique my interest; the subject of the bile is one that I've long been keen on so it was only a matter of time before I gave in and bought the book, really. To be clear, though, the book doesn't just cover the Irish evidence of the bile as a sacred tree. Just as the title says it covers both ancient and medieval manifestations of it, and for the book that means chapters that cover Classical representations in Roman and Greek belief, as well as Germanic, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian sources.

It's a small book - hardly 200 pages all told - but it covers everything in a chronological order and certainly tries to cover a lot. It begins, sensibly enough, with giving some context by covering Indo-European (and at times, beyond) evidence and symbology, with a discussion of what the sacred tree expresses in very basic, fundamental terms - the tree as axis mundi or imago mundi, or both. In that sense, we take a look at how the sacred tree can represents a hub or axis of the world (the axis mundi), and as such acts as a sacred centre, a place of communication between people and the gods. Sometimes, however, it can be in itself a representation of the world, an important idea and element of creation. And so on. There are some familiar names in the references here (for anyone familiar with this kind of thing, anyway!) - Bruce Lincoln, Mircea Eliade and J. P. Mallory, to name a few - and a good amount of critical discussion of some of the theory involved, which I particularly appreciated.

The first chapter covers a good amount of Indo-European theory and - I found - explains a lot of concepts that I've come across before in just the right amount of detail. It gives just enough to explain what we're looking for, and what it all means, but doesn't go too far in insisting on "it's all the same in the end, regardless of the culture" as can sometimes can happen.

The second chapter deals with the Classical evidence. It's been a long while since I've dealt with Classical religion but as far as I can tell it was all good and interesting, though I'll leave any criticisms to the experts for those particular cultures. One thing that struck me here is that the writing can be a little rambly, and the digressions are not always relevant or obviously relevant at the time. It's interesting enough all the same but if there were a more brutal editor I think this book would have been a lot shorter.

Following on from the Greeks and Romans comes the chapter on the Celtic sources. What's covered here is primarily Irish evidence once we get passed talking about druids, which is fair enough, I think. I have to say I'm disappointed that Gaul wasn't covered in more detail because I was looking forward to some meaty discussion of the pillars or Jupiter columns common to Romano-Gaulish belief in particular, but there wasn't as much to be found as I was hoping for. The rest is dealing with the bile, and what you'll find here is solid enough and a good run down of the subject.

My only concern here is that once we get into the main discussion the author relies heavily on a limited number of authors in their references - primarily Mary Low's Celtic Christianity and Nature and Alden Watson's article 'The King, the Poet and the Sacred Tree' - plus a slightly dodgy and disappointing reference to Caitlin and John Matthews' The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: The Celtic Shaman's Sourcebook. The latter is used to reference a description of ogam being used in a possibly magical ritual and I don't see why Cusack didn't go straight to the source. What's quoted appears to be a translation and if it's Matthew's own then it's a little worrisome because they're notoriously selective and liberal in their translations or interpretations. Nigel Pennick's name comes up as well and the author is very sensitive towards modern paganism so perhaps a little too sensitive at times? They are certainly not the kind of sources I'd use in making an academic argument about historical practices, personally, anyway.

It's a mark against an otherwise decent rundown of what the bile is all about, although to be honest, I've got Low's book out from the library and reading the chapter that's primarily been referenced here isn't much different. In short, there isn't much that's new or different on offer in this particular chapter compared to what you can already find out there, so if you're just looking for an in-depth view of the bile, and that's all, then you may be disappointed. It's the context that makes this book a good read - providing both comparison with other cultures, and a run down of the kind of theories that give such trees meaning.

So all in all, the usefulness of the first chapter tempers the mild disappointment I felt about the third chapter. The rest of the book is taken up by Germanic, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian evidence and Cusack certainly seems to be more confident with the material she's dealing with here. As she notes in the preface, this book grew out from her doctoral research into the Christian conversion of the Germanic peoples so that's hardly a surprise, but it really does show because this is where the tangents I mentioned earlier are the most noticeable. There is a lot of discussion of the conversion process and to some extent it's relevant because it's certainly something that affects the sources we have to hand. I did feel at times that perhaps there was a little more detail than absolutely necessary at times, though. By the time it got back onto discussing trees I was sometimes a little lost as to why we hadn't got here sooner.

Having only a vague idea about things like Yggdrasil, I did learn a lot in these chapters, in general but also in terms of thinking about the potential similarities between Germanic/Scandinavian evidence and Irish evidence (or lack thereof). Considering my comments about the Celtic chapter not offering much new, and my lack of familiarity with the subjects covered in these latter chapters, I couldn't really say if they suffer in the same way.

In the end, in spite of some mild reservations I do think this is a useful book, and considering the cost for it's size I should bloody hope so! If anything, it provides a good introduction to the subject, and as far as a reconstructionist audience goes it does offer some good food for thought in terms of how the concept filters down into everyday practice - and, for the heathens amongst us, how the sacred trees might relate to particular gods.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

And then it was Lùnastal

We've not had much of a summer this year. While a large part of England has alternated between drought and flooding, the west coast of Scotland has enjoyed a goodly amount of rain and cloud interspersed with a rare sunny day here and there, although it's been really warm at least. But summer has been very Scottish even by Scottish standards this year. This last week has been about as good as it's got, and there's a definite feel that this is summer's last gasp.

Seeing as it's (still!) the school holidays we've been making the most of the weather as much as we can. Although I'm none too mobile we can still pile into the car and get ferried down to the beach as soon as the sun threatens to come out, in amongst trips to the park, so we've had some great afternoons rock-pooling, paddling, sand-castling and beach combing. Just as I mentioned the possibility that adder stones (or serpent stones) might have been spindle-whorls when I posted about the hag stone/mare stone I found the other week, our next trip to the local beach turned up this:

I've absolutely no idea if it's really a spindle-whorl or just a bead with the enamel or paint rubbed off (there does seem to be a bluish tinge to it), or something else entirely, but the timing is a nice coincidence. Whatever it is, it's a good weight for its size but I don't think it's especially old.

I hadn't initially planned to celebrate so early - on time, for once - but considering the fact that leaves on trees are starting to turn, the rowan berries are bright and reddening (although I notice one tree on our road is simultaneously blossoming again), the moon is hanging large and low, the wind and the rains are getting a little bite to them - perhaps those three days the Cailleach borrowed and swapped with February - and the sun is setting the skies on fire as it dips below the horizon (here's one I photographed earlier):

It seemed silly to wait for the blueberries in the garden to ripen like I usually do; it seemed that all indications were that we should celebrate sooner rather than later. The promise of autumn is more than promising round these here parts. The past few years I've usually celebrated mid-August at the earliest, and in some ways that's been more in keeping with the festival because it's also when the summer holidays finish and the kids go back to school, and there's as much a change in the pace of our lives as there is in the weather. But this year, aside from the seasons seeming to shift much earlier than usual (or maybe I'm just noticing it more), I'm hoping that pretty soon I'll be having surgery, or at least seeing the surgeon this month and having the promise of surgery. Either way I wanted my energies focused on the festival, rather what the NHS might have in store for me (gods bless 'em). I can only hope that my days of hobbling are numbered now.

My mother was supposed to have been visiting over Lùnastal itself but due to unforeseen circumstances (apparently even cats that exist on nothing but the fiery hate and fury that demonic beings such as my mother's beloved mog thrive on run out of it eventually...) she wasn't able to visit. I'd originally planned to put things off until after she'd gone home, so being able to celebrate on time was somewhat unexpected. As a result I hadn't really had much of a chance to think about what I was going to do, all in all, but I think things all came together in the end; by and large I have things down by now and while I didn't get everything done in one day I wasn't expecting to anyway.

So my celebrations began with saining the house and making some offerings and devotions on the eve. There was music and song, prayers and blessings, and a little poetry too. Most of it was in Gàidhlig and I don't think I butchered things too badly there, and it's a nice coincidence that celebrations began on a Tuesday this year, as is traditional to begin the reaping. So The Second Battle of Mag Tuired tells, us, as does a blessing in the Carmina Gadelica.

We'd spent the day at the beach (where my son rescued a boy from drowning and I'm insufferably proud of him for being so brave) and I didn't have much left in me to cook, so we indulged in a rare takeaway from the chippy for the Lùnastal eve. I had a chicken that needed roasting, though, so we had that the following day on Lùnastal proper, served with garlic roasted potatoes and homegrown onions, cabbage, and homegrown peas, followed by homemade apple flory:

It's a kind of apple pie, flavoured with a little cinnamon and a lot of marmalade (this was the second time I'd made it, and this time I left the apple mix to infuse a bit longer before baking the pie. It was much better). I'd a go at making some marmalade a while ago, so used my own (I felt very domesticated). The apples and preserves seem like a good autumnal combination, so that's what decided that.

As usual, we've done a seasonal picture, and this time our efforts are almost entirely the work of Tom and Rosie. They asked me to help fill in the sky and help with the branches on the trees (we used straws dipped in the paint and then pressed onto the paper, which was a bit fiddly):

One of Tom's art project's from school deciding the general form. Rosie's tree is on the right and Tom's is on the left and I think they reflect their personalities well - Rosie's big and bold, impulsive splodges compared with Tom's more thoughtful and deliberate efforts. And seeing as I had some leftover fondant icing from doing a birthday cake for my husband, I decided to waste not, want not, and make a themed cake too. Ever since I took it upon myself to sculpt a Bumblebee cake for my son one year (the Transformer Bumblebee, that is) it's become kind of a hobby and some of my friends got me some shaped cutters for my birthday this year that I've not had much of an excuse to use as yet. So with lots of fondant that needed using, and an excuse to give the cutters a spin, I had the perfect opportunity:

The kids helped me make a honey cake (we've been doing a lot of baking together over the summer) and I decided to go with sunflowers and autumnal leaves for decoration. It's one of my better efforts, I think, even though I'm not sure if it's supposed to be sunflowers and leaves (because the sunflowers aren't out here just yet) or sunflowers being blown away by autumn leaves (because I'd typically associate sunflowers as a summery sort of flower).

These things are just trappings, really; not the meat per se, but they're important to me nonetheless. Ritual is meaningful and important to me, whether it might be simple or elaborate, but traditions that I can involve the family in are just as meaningful and important to me. The "trappings" give me not just a visual focus, a meditation of sorts as I make them, but something to do with the kids - all of us as a family - and seeing it is something we can all relate to. But more than that, I like to try and make the festivals festive. Something special. Feasting has always been an important part of festive occasions, so special foods make a special day even more so, and the lines between trappings, tradition and ritual become blurred...

Things like games are good too, and at a time like Lùnastal all kinds of games are good to play. There had been a chance that we could've taken the kids horse-riding on the beach around this time, but because my mother was supposed to be visiting I didn't ask Mr Seren to arrange anything and then it was too short notice; a shame, because horse-riding and maybe a little racing on the beach would've been amazing, but we made do. Seeing as the weather sucked there wasn't much we could do outside so we played snap and dominos instead (and at least I could join in too, then), and had a grand old time including a picnic in the front room. As Gorm noted, the games played at festivals bleed into those found at wakes so it seemed in keeping, and after all these are supposed to be funeral games of a sort. As a kid I remember playing dominos and snap with my grandparents so it felt like a way to honour them too. It's partly why I do a lot of baking with the kids as well, because these are not just traditions but family traditions, too.

For part of my devotions I made offerings to the land spirits, the ones who are right out there in my garden, and who I frequently make offerings to as I work on their land. I also made offerings to the Cailleach and the Storm Hags, who've spared the garden in spite of the bad weather they've brought our way this past year. The Cailleach won't be resuming her efforts until Samhainn, I expect, but she's still here even if she's resting. And after all, her name is associated with Buí, who is said to be Lugh's wife, and is also said to be the ancestor of the people from the particular part of Ireland that some of my Irish ancestors come from...So it's only right that she's honoured at this time too.

As I did my ritual, I took some time to think about the successes and the failures I've had in the garden this year - the onions have been a great success, as have the peas, and the leeks are thriving though not yet ready. The carrots have been a disaster, though, and I'm lucky that I don't have to rely on my garden for food because that would have been a calamity. The ones that have grown have already gone to seed and the carrots are piddly and pathetic-looking, not worth using. They've had plenty of rain so that hasn't been the problem. It's been warm enough for things to thrive and grow, even if not particularly sunny. I put in new compost this year, so perhaps it wasn't the right kind or it wasn't enough. I suspect the seeds were a little too old too. Next year I'll have to change out the soil completely and get new seeds (I did buy some more, an over-wintering variety, but I put them somewhere safe. So safe I've yet to find them again).

All in all, I think this year's celebration have been a success, but I don't feel quite finished yet. I've given thanks for the first fruits, and we've held our games, but I've yet to manage a trip to the high point in the village where I like to make offerings to Lug at this time of year. I might wait until the blueberries ripen so I can harvest some before I make my way there; hopefully then I'll be able to walk that far.