Monday, 9 February 2015

Book review: Celtic Cosmology: Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland

Celtic Cosmology: Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland
Edited by Jacqueline Borsje, Ann Dooley, Séamus mac Mathúna, and Gregory Toner

Based on the papers submitted to a colloquium held back in 2008, "Celtic Cosmology and the Power of Words," this is a book I'd been looking forward to for quite a while. When it came out I was a little disappointed in the price -- just under £60, I think -- but it didn't exactly come as a surprise given the price of most academic texts these days. Given the cost of producing them, it's a necessary evil, I suppose. Still, this was a luxury splurge and I could only hope it was damn well worth it.

The contributors are all names that are well-known in Celtic Studies today, and each article deals with a different topic (or focus on a topic). Some of these topics are familiar territory -- the three realms, the Othererworld, and so on -- while others offer something less than usual. At the time of the colloquium itself there was a website that gave an idea of the kinds of papers that were being read there and I was particularly interested in the stuff on the three realms. As it turned out, this was the first article in the book but it's little more than an amalgam of articles the author's already published (and which I've already read) so it doesn't offer much more of a perspective on things. I was hoping for something new there, but as disappointments for this book go, this is about the only major complaint I really have. If I were reading the article without having read the ones it's referencing then I think I'd get a good idea of the major points that are being made, but I'd probably want to read those articles anyway.

As a minor compaint, I'd kind of hoped for more on creation myths and so forth, which ended up being pretty lacking, sadly. With that said, for what is in the book, most of it is pretty interesting, and it's well written and edited. It can be dry and dense -- some articles more than others -- but this isn't unexpected.

There are too many articles for me to go into in any detail individually, and some of them just weren't as interesting to me as others, so I'll just give the ones I enjoyed the most a mention. First off there's Grigory Bondarenko's 'Roads and Knowledge in Togail Bruidne Da Derga,' which makes some truly interesting points about the way the tale uses roads and the (possible) ritual significance of them in pre-Christian belief. Edel Bhreathnach's' Tara and Cashel: Manifestations of the Centre of the Cosmos in the North and South' precedes Bondarenko's article and fits in nicely with it in taking a look at the ritual implications of the layout of Tara and Cashel, and the way they're described and used in literature. These two stood out for me in offering a lot of good food for thought, and they're ones I might chew on in some notes at some point. The same goes for Séamus mac Mathúna's 'The Relationship of the Chthonic World in Early Ireland to Chaos and Cosmos,' which gives a good discussion on the cosmological relationship between sacred landscapes and water. There are frequent comparisons with Vedic examples and so forth here, and I'm not much of a one for that kind of approach but I can appreciate the different perspective. If you're interested in the stories of Boann or Macha then it's definitely worth a read, and it gives some discussion of the relationship between fire, water and kingship, as well.

Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart takes a look at the celebrations of Michaelmas, and offers a huge amount of good stuff here. First of all he looks at the sources we have that deal with Michaelmas -- in particular, Alexander Carmichael's highly detailed description, which, Stiùbhart points out, is an amalgamation of various notes Carmichael collected, and which is also highly idealised presentation of the festival. Then he explores the decline of the festival and the reasons for it (which is to say: bassically religious and economic reasons). The article goes over more than just the usual territory here and offers something that most discussions of this subject don't, which is always good to see.

The final article in the book, Gregory Toner's 'Landscape and Cosmology in the Dinschenchas' takes a look at the way places are shaped and named, and the underlying cosmology of that, bringing in some comparative evidence from episodes in the Táin and the like, which I also really enjoyed but felt was frustratingly too short.

Over all, this isn't a book that's going to be a light read, but it's definitely a read that's worth having. It's not something I'd recommend to the beginner, or to anyone who would find the lack of populist appeal off-putting, but I'd say this is certainly a subject area that's vitally important to understand and there isn't much else that's recent that I can think of to recommend (articles yes, but books not so much). I do think the cost is going to be prohibitive for a lot of people but if you're a compulsive collector like I am then you probably just have to accept that you're going to buy it sooner or later...

If you're looking to try before you buy then you can read one of the articles (another one with some interesting stuff in it) online -- John Waddell's 'The Cave of Crúachain and the Otherworld.'