Monday, 11 August 2014

Book Review: A Single Ray of the Sun

Apparently it's been a whole year since my last book review...

I haven't had much of an excuse to splurge on books and fun stuff like that in quite a while, but this last week I decided it was time to treat myself. It was only going to be so long before I gave in and splurged on Celtic Cosmology: Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland, and if you think about it, waiting a whole month or so after its official publication is actually pretty restrained of me. Right?

I'm still waiting for that one to arrive, but the other two I ordered came pretty quickly. The first one I picked out is The Cailleach of Sligo, and I'm only two chapters in but finding it thoroughly disappointing. Oh well, you can't win every time, I guess; if I ever end up finishing it, I'll probably review it but I can see it's the sort of book I'll only ever be half-hearted about tackling. The second book I ordered is the one I'm reviewing just now, John Carey's A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland. It's a short and quick read, and I really enjoyed it. It was also only a fiver, so yay.

A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland
John Carey

I'd heard pretty good things about this book for a while now and I've always enjoyed John Carey's articles and the other books I've read by him. He tends to deal with areas that are especially useful for Gaelic Polytheists (for a start, I'd recommend getting your hands on his articles, 'The Name "Tuatha Dé Danann,"' and 'Notes on the Irish War-Goddess,' if you can), mostly dealing with the way Irish literature has evolved, and how it reflects pre-Christian ideas, and so on.

To be fair, this book focuses more on early Christian thought than anything pre-Christian, but there's still plenty of food for thought. The book is really a collection of three essays by Carey, collated here into one cohesive volume: The first essay (or chapter) is called 'The Baptism of the Gods,' and this is the most interesting and useful from a Gaelic Polytheist perspective. The second essay, 'The Ecology of Miracles,' has a few tidbits that would be of interest (a few references to druid teachings that will pique your interest if that's your thing), while the final essay, 'The Resurrection of the World,' doesn't have much to offer from the perspective of pre-Christian evidence, but it's one of those things that's good for background on some of the sources that deal with early Christian cosmology.

The first chapter is the most useful because it talks about the different ways the medieval writers, who recorded all of the myths in the manuscripts, dealt with the issue of the gods. There were obvious concerns about how the gods of their pre-Christian past could fit into a Christian framework, but the Irish seemed quite happy to embrace the gods and preserve their stories, tweaking them here and there to accommodate a Christian perspective. Carey talks about the two main ways the gods were dealt with - euhemerisation and demonisation. Euhemerisation was basically a way to argue that the gods of the pagan past were really human ancestors, who were elevated to divine status by the pagan Irish at some point because of their amazing deeds or achievements. That makes it easier to view the pre-Christian Irish as simply being mistaken, allowing the gods to be remembered for their merits while demoting them to human or Otherworldly status. In some ways it's a more forgiving way of reconciling them, because it allows for their being mistaken by virtue of the fact that the word of God hadn't got to Ireland yet. Demonisation is pretty self-explanatory - viewing them from the purely Christian perspective as demons who tricked and deceived the pre-Christian Irish into worshipping them as false gods. It's a less forgiving way of interpreting them, but although both viewpoints are articulated at various points in the myths, Carey argues that unlike elsewhere the Irish never really embraced either view wholeheartedly, which is why the gods persisted so stubbornly - in early Irish prayers, for one, but especially as the aes síde.

The whole subject is important to us in how we look at the myths and interpret the way the gods are portrayed. The gods are explicitly referred to as gods many times, in contradiction with Christian doctrine, so when we see them being reduced to nothing more than Otherworldly beings it raises questions. How do we reconcile all of this? How do we deal with it? We can't see them as less than divine, because they clearly are divine. But there are also hints (when we consider the idea of the Dé ocus an-Dé, for example) that there were always distinctions between divine and non-divine, but still Otherworldly, beings.

One of the things that really caught my eye is that Carey mentions that references to the mortality of the gods can only be dated to the end of tenth century, in a poem by Eochaid ua Flainn, and the concept then recurs in the Lebor Gabála Érenn a century later. So the implication is that this idea of their mortality is Christian in influence, not pre-Christian, and a product of euhemerisation. When we consider the references to their deaths, we can't take them literally, then.

The later chapters have their own merits but I don't think they're going to be of much interest for all but the seriously ie-hard Irish Studies fans. I enjoyed them, but I've studied this kind of thing, so it's probably fair to say that it's a pet subject of mine and I don't expect that most folks would find them as enthralling. But all in all, the book is a quick read and it's reasonably priced, so I think it's worth the splurge - at some point - even if it's not necessarily going to change your life significantly. If you're looking for something to help flesh things out beyond the basics and you have a keen interest in this area then this is a book I'd recommend adding to your wish list.