Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Book Review: Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth

As I mentioned in my last post, I was lucky enough to be offered a review copy of Mark Williams' new book. This is a first for me – usually my reviews come from books I've either bought or borrowed from the university library (including Mark Williams' previous book, Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700-1700). Another first here is the fact that my website, Tairis, gets a footnote mention in the penultimate chapter (of an actual book!).

I'm honoured to have been offered a review copy, and I think it's only right and proper to be up-front about these things lest I be accused of having something to hide or undue bias. With that out of the way, let's get to the review...

Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth
Mark Williams

So we'll start with a quick overview of what this book is about... On the face of it, the aim is simple: To trace the evolution of the gods of Ireland throughout history, from the very earliest evidence through to the modern day.

As you might imagine, if you want to achieve this in any kind of thorough way, you're not going to do it in a few pages: More like 570+ (which for the price, is a bargain, really). Given the huge scope of the book it's split into two parts, with both of them having a very different focus from the other. The first part concentrates on the very earliest evidence through to the Middle Ages, and the context of their portrayal during a time of conversion and then, later, established Christianity. The second part has a more contemporary focus in looking at the way the gods were (essentially) rediscovered by the early Celtic scholars at the very dawn of Celtic Studies (as an academic discipline), and how they were then adopted by the movers and shakers of the nineteenth century Celtic Revival, and into the present day.

If the former is more your area of interest then the latter may not muster much enthusiasm in you – and vice versa – but the result it actually quite fascinating, and it's just one of the many things that make me so enthusiastic about this book. One thing part two hammers home is how much the Celtic Revival, and those early academics, has influenced out modern perceptions of the gods, whether we're conscious of it or not. In general, it also helps that the writing isn't dry and dense; there's a dry humour, and it's easy to get swept up in the arguments put forth.

There are a lot of books out there that talk about the literature in the context of how they were produced; how the monks who recorded them may have changed things, left things out and whatnot. This has been done many many times, and of course it's an important part of the conversation when you're talking about this kind of thing. What those books don't tend to do is explicitly lay out how that treatment may have changed over time and link it to how the gods are portrayed as a result, in a straightforward, linear fashion, or discuss what that can tell us about them. You might find articles and case studies, but I'm hard pressed to think of something that compiles it all into one volume outright. This is exactly what Williams aims to do, using examples of particular myths to make his points. I think in doing so he raises a lot of important questions and implications that we – as Gaelic Polytheists – would benefit in thinking about and discussing (I'll get to some examples in a minute, though). The same goes for those more interested in the academics or the literature for literature's sake.

The first half of the book is packed full of things that will be of interest to Gaelic Polytheists, and I think it offers a lot of good food for thought. The first chapter (which you can preview here) gives an overview of the kind of evidence we can draw on in finding the gods, and gives a kind of case study of two different deities – one of whom survived into the manuscript tradition (Lug), while the other didn't: *Loigodeva, who lends her name to the Corcu Loígde of Munster. Straight away we're reminded that the evidence is, in many respects, rather arbitrary. We see what remains, but we don't know how much was lost. It also stresses the localised nature (or origins, more to the point) of the gods.

Further on it's suggested that the story of Dian Cécht's murder of his own son, Miach, in Cath Maige Tuired, is a later addition to the tale (and I think John Carey's comments in A Single Ray of the Sun, where he points out that the first recorded deaths of the gods only start appearing in the tenth century or so, a century later than the bulk of CMT was written). The discussion of the tale here is fascinating, picking up on points – like the way the tale mirrors so many elements in so many subtle ways – I'd never considered before.

Part one finishes with Williams pointing out that after the Middle Ages we enter into something of a wilderness, as it were, where the gods "fade" until we come to the nineteenth century. It's not that they're forgotten, as such, but by this point their divine nature isn't especially relevant. On the face of it he's not wrong, but I think it would've been useful to have some discussion of the Historical Cycle – which emphasises the role of the sovereignty goddess – and how that concept became so important in the aislinge poetry of this period, due to the political climate of the time. As the book itself shows, the popularity of certain deities ebbed and flowed over the centuries, and if anything I think the big thing about this period was that the Tuatha Dé Danann were sidelined by the desire of Ireland's greatest poets to assert their nation's sovereignty, drawing on their mythological heritage.

In part two we delve into the world of the early academics of "Celtology" (as Celtic Studies was then called), the Revivalists who followed, into more contemporary literature, music, art, and Celtic Paganism. What really stood out here was the discussion of how the Revivalists essentially "adopted" Óengus mac Ind Óc and turned him into the quintessential "love god" as he's so often called today. I've long wondered about how – and why – that happened, when it's not really reflected in the myths as a whole. Off on a tangent from this, as Yeats' wonky efforts at filling in the gaps that were left in the myth of The Wooing of Étaín shows, this section can be taken as a lesson in the limitations of "reconstruction" (in whichever sense of the word you want to consider – academic, literary, mythological, religious...), especially when we blind ourselves to anything other than our own biases. A complete version of the tale wasn't available until the 1930s, and so Yeats was working on limited information. As a result, he assumed that Étaín left Midir to be with Óengus because after all, we alllll know he's a love god, right? How wrong he was!

My biggest quibble with the book comes with Chapter 9, which turns its attention to Scotland, and how figures such as William Sharp (better known as "Fiona Macleod") followed in Macpherson's footsteps and adopted the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann as their own. There's also some discussion of the more influential folklore collectors of the day – including, of course, Alexander Carmichael. The "pagan nature" of Shony and Bride can be found here as well, and it's this part in particular that I felt was dealt without as much nuance as elsewhere; excellent points are made, but I would have liked to have seen a more rounded, balanced discussion when there wasn't really much room to manoeuvre at all. There are other times I felt the same, but not to such a degree as here.

As we get to the present, Williams touches on Celtic Paganism, amongst other things (including some wonderfully bad poetry that includes the lines, "Leaning on sword-hilts, their great paps dark as warts/Within the gleam of breast, their scrota bulged in shadow.") It's refreshing to see something like Celtic Paganism – and Celtic Reconstructionism, for once – tackled in a book like this, not just at all, but without condescension or being patronising to boot. Once again we see the vogue for certain gods change as attitudes and influences do; whereas Óengus was arguably the most important and popular in the imagination of the Revivalists and beyond, even up until the late twentieth century, at the turn of the century we start to see goddesses taking over – the Morrígan, Brigid, and the Cailleach are now far more significant than any others today. It would have been nice to see this expanded on within the chapter – why is this the case? How did this come about? Perhaps this is fodder for another book.

It has to be said, this book is not a simple introduction of the gods in the Irish pantheon (if you can even argue such exists...) – the nuts and bolts of who they are, what they do, who they're related to, etc. If that's what you're looking then I recommend you look elsewhere. This is very much a literary, not literal, overview of how the gods were (and are) perceived. And while this book is definitely aimed at a more general audience than academics alone, I think at least a basic level of knowledge about Irish mythology and literature would benefit the reader. For the most part the book succeeds in introducing need-to-know academic concepts, movements, or jargon in a way that won't overwhelm the non-expert, and there's a handy pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book that will certainly be useful for a lot of readers, but the sheer size and scope of the book might be a little daunting for a total beginner.

Given the monumental aims and scope of the book, it's inevitable that some things didn't make the cut, and to be fair, Williams himself is well aware of this. While there may be room for so much more to be said, what you get here is a good start, and – to compare it with his first book, while I think that one deals with a more niche subject and fills a much-needed hole there, this one made me realise that there was a hole I never really knew existed in the first place until I was showed it. There's so much to talk about here, and it's only the beginning. I think Ireland's Immortals would do well to grace your bookshelves.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Tairis update: New page

It's been almost a year since I overhauled and updated the Tairis site, which was much-needed and very belated after a catastrophic outage that pretty much broke everything (while I was on holiday, no less...).

So last year, when I was updating and re-coding every single damn footnote by hand (never have I regretted my attempts at being thorough in my research more!), I decided that there was one page that wasn't really serving much purpose anymore – the "Article Downloads" page. I decided not to bother including it.

When I first made the page, there was no such this as academia.edu and JSTOR didn't offer public access, so finding decent articles freely available to read was something of a rarity. As such, I figured it would be useful to make a list of articles I'd found that might be of interest to my fellow Gaelic Polytheists. By the time I got to updating the site last year, I figured there was so much more that was available now, it was too much of a big job to try and maintain that page.

Since then, I've had a change of heart – not least because I've been reading some new publications that I've been really enjoying. In particular, I've been lucky enough to get a review copy of Mark Williams's new book Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth (and I'll be reviewing it in due course), which has resulted in my spending a small fortune on even more books for my already over-stuffed bookshelves, alongside some furious googling to see if I can find some of the articles that are referenced in the footnotes (I've sadly not been as successful as I'd hoped to be...). At a certain point, it became clear that a new list of articles was going to be useful to me, so I figured might as well make a new one for the website.

So here it is: Articles.

I can't exactly call it "Article Downloads" anymore because the nature of JSTOR's open access is that you can view, but you can't keep, the articles that are made available to you. It's still an amazing resource, though, and signing up for a free account is easy enough (or it was when I did it...).

There are plenty of articles that I would recommend and list on the page, but I'm unable to. Unfortunately, not everything is freely available to read online if you don't have access via an academic institution; journals like Celtica, Peritia, Studia Celtica, Éigse, and Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie frustratingly don't offer much, if anything, to the great unwashed like me and most of you... For the remainder that is available, I've been pretty selective in my listing. I try to make sure that what's there is reliable and useful, and there's a lot more out there that isn't so reliable. If there's something you think is missing then I'd love to hear from you!  

Friday, 11 November 2016

[Link] A Gaelic response in support to Water is life. Water is sacred.

Many – even most – of you have probably heard about what's happening at Standing Rock, if you haven't been actively following it. The campaign by water protectors, trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, is ongoing. The consequences and impact of the pipeline actually being installed is going to be devastating, not just environmentally; the consequences and impact of the struggles so far are more than enough. Sacred sites have already been destroyed and desecrated by the pipeline, and that's only going to get worse. The peaceful water protectors and ceremonial elders, journalists and medics have been attacked by militarised police, and set upon by private security guards illegally using dogs. Meanwhile, efforts have been made to clear camps, resulting in sacred, ceremonial items simply being dumped by the police and private security firms.

Now, with Donald Trump (who has financial ties to the company in charge of DAPL) elected to serve as president come January 20, 2017, he's pledged to overturn the "roadblocks" standing in the way of "vital energy infrastructure projects, like the Keystone Pipeline..." and "lift the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion dollars' worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal."

It seems like the struggle is going to continue for a long time to come.

If you haven't seen it already, I urge you to head on over to the (amazing and wonderful) Cailleach's Herbarium and read their article:
The travesties that are happening around ours and others countries right now are many. We have fracking underway in England. We have the Dakota Access Pipeline company attempting to cut its way across the major, central rivers and aquifers of North America, including unceded Native American territory, sacred sites and burial grounds. We have displaced people from a war torn country homeless and in danger in Calais. All because of one thing. Oil. Democracy and human rights are being overturned in the wake of this monster. It has me thinking. What do our tales, as Gaels and Celtic descendants, tell us of the actions that are happening right now? What would our ancestors say? What would they do?

What would our ancestors say? It's a good question.

As Gaelic Polytheists the land, to us, is sacred, and so are the waters and the skies. The three realms are a fundamental part of our worldview. If we say the land and the waters are sacred but don't do anything to try to protect them in the face of environmental (social, cultural, spiritual...) disasters like Keystone or the DAPL, those words surely become meaningless.  

There are some good links at the bottom of the Cailleach's Herbarium article there if you're interested in offering support to those causes (and are able to, of course). Those ones, as far as I'm aware, are legit. Unfortunately, now that more and more people are paying attention to the situation at Standing Rock, there are a lot of "fundraisers" and "official t-shirts" out there on offer that are little more than fraudulent cash grabs; be careful who you give your money to, and make sure you do your research.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Links and things for Samhainn

Seeing as I didn't get around to doing one of these this time last year, I figured I'd make up for it now...

Before we get into the links, I thought maybe it would be good to clear up a few things. Samain is the Old Irish spelling; Samhain is modern Irish or Gaelic (Gàidhlig/Scottish Gaelic). In Gaelic, you might also see the spelling Samhainn or Samhuinn, the latter being the "old" way of spelling it (Gaelic orthography was overhauled and modernised in the 70s, so spellings became more consistent).

Samhain can refer to the month of November – mi na Samhna or Samhain in Irish, or an t-Samhain in modern Gaelic, for example (click on the links for audio files; note that the pronunciation differs according to dialect). You might see claims that it's incorrect to refer to the festival as "Samhain" because that's the name for the month, not the festival itself, and instead, more specific names should be used – Oíche Shamhna ("Samhain Eve" – the eve of October 31st) and Lá Samhna (the day itself, November 1st) in Irish, or Oidhche Shamhna and Là Samhna in Gaelic. This is true; these are the specific terms that refer to the specific eve/day that's celebrated today as Hallowe'en and you should probably use them if that's what you're talking about specifically. But... As we see in the myths, "Samhain" is used to refer to the festival (in a pre-Christian context), and that's an entirely valid way of referring to the festival in that sense. The reason it's used this way in the myths is probably because the festival was originally celebrated over several days – some sources say three days and nights, others suggest the festival was up to a week long, so it's not just referring to a particular day or night. In context, it's clear that the festival is being referred to, not the month in general, so it's fine to use "Samhain" as a shorthand for the festival. It is good to bear in mind who you might be speaking to and what you're specifically talking about, though. Sometimes, in the context of a conversation, you might want to use the modern terminology rather than the shorthand.

Clear as mud?


So now we've got the terms out the way, let's look at what Samhainn is all about and what you can do to celebrate it.

As usual let's start with a video! This is Gaol Naofa's most watched video on our Youtube channel, which just goes to show how popular the festival is. Here you'll find just about everything you need to know to get started:

If you'd prefer a little light reading, then how about starting with some articles from Tairis?

You've probably heard that Samhain is "the Celtic New Year," but is it really? Where does that idea come from, exactly? Very probably it comes from the nineteenth century antiquarian John Rhys (with a little help from some friends), and I've outlined the evidence I've found so far about that in The New Year. Your interpretation may vary...

Feasting is a huge part of the celebrations, and of course it's a time for divination, games, and giving out treats to guisers. Some of the divination "games" that are played (or performed, if you prefer) involve the use of traditional dishes, including:

  • Cranachan – a Scottish dessert of whipped cream flavoured with toasted oatmeal, honey, and whisky, usually served with raspberries. At Samhainn, charms can be mixed in as a way of telling the recipients future
  • Treacle bannocks – used in a very messy game where they're covered in treacle and hung above the head so the players can try to catch their "prize" using only their teeth
  • Bairín breac – an Irish tea loaf which is traditionally baked with charms mixed into it (measurements given in cups)
  • Colcannon – buttery mashed potatoes with cabbage (and often onions); another medium for the charm game

Though if you prefer a basic sponge cake works well for the charms, too.

Protective rites are an important part of the proceedings at Samhainn and the Irish Parshell cross is traditionally made and hung over the threshold to protect the occupants of the house. If you keep livestock, you can make one for the barn or stables, too. A Scottish tradition sees a special bannock being baked and then thrown, piece by piece, over the shoulder as an offering to dangerous or evil spirits as a means of keeping them at bay.

Guising, mummers plays and strawboys are also an important part of Samhainn traditions, and also have a protective tone. You can find out more about them in Ireland here. Typically guising (kids going around in disguise collecting treats from neighbours) – which can be seen as the precursor of modern-day trick-or-treating – involves the performance of a piece of entertainment to "earn" a treat. The trick, if necessary, is traditionally done later, in secret. There are lots of traditional songs or rhymes that are associated with guising, but jokes are acceptable, too.

If you'd like your kids to get into the spirit of things and learn some traditional songs, here's one example, called Oíche Shamhna, Oíche Shamhna – sung to the tune of "Frère Jacques" (video included at the link).

Finally! Here's a link not directly relevant to Samhain celebrations per se, but it's a wonderful write-up of a trip to Tigh na Cailliche (a place very dear to my heart!), from Scott at Cailleach's Herbarium. According to tradition, the stones at the shrine (which are said to represent the Cailleach and her family) are brought out from the shrine every Bealltainn and put away inside for the winter, at Samhainn, so now's the perfect time to read all about it!

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The roll call of the dead

For only the second time since I became a Gaelic Polytheist I have a family member to add to the list of ancestors I'll be honouring at Samhain. The first was my granddad, who got to meet his first great-grandchild (my son) before he died only three months later on New Years' Day, 2006.

Now I get to add my father-in-law, who died earlier this year. It was very sudden – and tragic and awful – and it's left us all in an aftermath of differing proportions. My mother-in-law lost her husband of nearly 50 years, my husband lost his father, my kids lost their Papa. To me, he was more a father than my own ever was.

This was clearly Rosie's idea

The best we can tell, he fell head-first down the stairs. He didn't try to stop his fall or cry out, so it seems likely that he lost consciousness and it was only when his head met the floor that his fall came to a very sudden stop. He lost a lot of blood and sustained a massive head injury, but the way he landed also meant that his chin was pressed into his chest and he was unable to breathe. He was without oxygen for at least 20 minutes, as far as we can tell, probably closer to 30 minutes. By the time the paramedics/EMTs arrived his heart had stopped, but they managed to revive him – somehow. He never regained consciousness, however. A small mercy, I think. After it was confirmed he was braindead, and his immediate family had managed to come to his side and say their goodbyes, life-support was switched off. He died at 11.55pm on June 15th, 2016, after only a matter of minutes.

It's been a difficult time since then, in some ways. We've all had to navigate our own grief while accommodating each others', trying to be understanding and sensitive to everyone else's needs as we reach different stages of grief ahead of, or behind, other people. The first night he was in hospital, while Mr Seren was by his side and they were still hoping that there was some hope left, I went outside and prayed (throughout the whole ordeal I stayed home with the kids; we felt it was better for them to remember him as he was, and the days were just too long for them to handle anyway). I prayed and I felt a presence at my shoulder, a brush against my hand, and then a stillness and a peace. I knew then that he was gone. He wasn't coming back from this.

Acceptance was the easy part for the adults. My father-in-law was a complicated man and he was hard to know in some ways. He was a man of many passions but life had worn him down. Towards the end he was an unhappy man – a little lost after his retirement, depressed and lacking in purpose, angry, in pain from his bad knees, and unable to play the music he so loved. He'd given up in many ways. He was struggling and didn't go out much. In that respect his death has come as a relief and a release. As tragic as it was, he was ready, and in some ways that's a comfort. At his funeral, it was standing room only. Over 150 people came to pay their respects. That was comforting, too. Flawed as he was, he touched a lot of people's lives.

None of that's offered much comfort to the kids, though. My son, in particular, is having a hard time parsing the loss of his Papa. He's found it difficult to go to his grandparent's house knowing that he won't see his Papa there, even though all of this things are still there. The ghost of his memory hangs heavy in Tom's mind, and he found the funeral a little overwhelming, not knowing what to expect, not knowing how to deal with his emotions. We talked and tried to walk the kids through everything that was going to happen, but I suppose for a child hearing it and living it are very different things. It was a humanist service and the stories that were told were not stories of the Papa the kids knew, really. The Papa who went to seminary but left, the Papa who cycled the Highlands every weekend, and who met Nana at an archaeological dig. The Papa who left the house and did stuff. The Papa who was young once. That wasn't the Papa they knew.

When I broke the news of their Papa's death to the kids – the morning after, when they were supposed to be getting ready for school – they were shocked. We'd prepared them as best we could and had told them that it was going to happen, but again, hearing it is different to living it. Aside from asking how and why, Tom's only comment was, "But I didn't really know him yet. It's not fair!" The funeral only compounded that.

The family is planning to go over to Derry at some point – where my father-in-law's mother came from – so we can spread his ashes in the place his mother was born, per his wishes. Hopefully it will help Tom come to terms with it all and find some closure, but in the meantime, with Samhainn approaching, I'm trying to think of things to do to help him (and Rosie) keep processing. He finds it hard to talk about his emotions at the best of times so it's a fine line between helping him open up and picking at an open wound.

This is the first time we've had someone to add to our ancestor altar, as a family, so I'm going to try and involve the kids in what we'll be doing – finally getting some photos printed so we can set up a small altar to our ancestors, sharing stories (including old favourites like The Time Papa Got Stuck in the Bath, Twice, And Only The First Time Was Really Accidental, followed by The Time Papa Decided To Remove A Wasp's Nest, Drunk, And Surprisingly Fell Off A Ladder), and each of us adding a stone to the cairn out in the garden. We've been working on some decorations (Rosie's crafted a clay headstone with "RIP Papa" on it), and we will have our usual feast (Rosie has requested stovies, a speciality of Papa's), and leave a space for our ancestors to join us. I'm also planning on taking the kids to the beach so we can each pick a stone to bring back and place on our cairn. Knowing Rosie, she'll probably want to decorate it first.

So as always at this time of year, the ancestors hang heavy in the air. But this year, one more face joins the crowd, and now the kids have something more tangible to frame what, exactly, "the ancestors" really means to them. One more face joins the crowd. Goodbye Papa.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

(Useful link): Celtic Spells and Counterspells

A while back I reviewed a fairly newish book (published last year) titled Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past, which I highly recommend. In the review I mentioned a particular article by Jacqueline Borsje titled "Celtic Spells and Counterspells," which is well worth a read.

I've just discovered that you can actually read the whole chapter online, so for those who're interested, have at it!

If that direct link doesn't work, try here. Just click on the pdf icon next to "Download" near the bottom of the page.

The article is mainly focused on Irish evidence, but it does bring in some comparative commentary, too, and the focus is on examining various examples of charms to try and untangle possible strands of pagan belief and practice. We begin (sort of, ish) with a discussion of the sugere mammellas or "nipple-sucking" episode that Patrick described in his Confessio, a rite of apparently pagan origin which he therefore refused to take part in. Evidence of possible pagan rites as described by Columba then follow, which leads into a discussion of the lorica ("breastplate") type prayers of protection.

Also included in the article is a discussion of a "spell" or charm attributed to St Brigit, which was meant to help a husband keep his wife (who didn't love him), the instructions for which include sprinkling of water over the marriage bed (which to me is suggestive of a saining ceremony of sorts). There's also a spell for impotence (with a translation given), which is rather ambiguous in nature – is it for causing or curing the problem? This in itself is pretty fascinating stuff, but it then leads into a discussion on the use of "words of power" – the use of seemingly gibberish or extremely obscure words or phrases to give an air of mysticalness etc. All in all you'll find a lot of food for thought here, both in terms of the kind of forms these charms could take, as well as what it can tell us about pre-Christian belief.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

A stink in the air

So it's been a wee while since I last posted here – the summer has been an extremely busy and exhausting time – but the whole stink that's arisen thanks to the AFA coming out with their recent "statement" seems as good a time as any to dust this old thing off.

The AFA have always been utterly racist and bigoted as an organisation. A change in leadership was never going to change that, so it's no huge surprise that they'd come right out and say something that's racist and bigoted (only surprising in that the previous leadership learned to keep more quiet about it and skirt around it, I suppose). And to be fair, the AFA aren't the only racist heathen organisation out there, they're just one of the more prominent ones. So really, it's just the same shit, different day.

The more disturbing thing that people are up in arms about was a comment from an individual claiming to be CR, saying that CR "embrace the same values" as the AFA espoused in their statement, which, if you haven't seen it, said:

I understand that after something of an outcry in a certain Facebook group, the commenter backtracked and deleted their comment (I'm not a member of the group so I haven't seen what was said), so if you hunt up the post on the AFA page on Facebook, you won't see it there now. 

On the one hand, it's kind of mind-boggling that somebody would come out with a comment like that when Celtic Reconstructionism was founded on firmly anti-racist, pro-queer principles. So is Gaelic Polytheism. This isn't news. And for every group or individual who's spoken out against what was said – including Gaol Naofa – they've all said as much. It's written plain as day in The CR FAQ, which was written by community consensus a good ten years ago now. But then again, there are always going to be people who want to pick and choose the bits they agree with. There are always going to be people who want a folkish and bigoted form of CR, where men are manly and women are womanly (whatever that means), and the women dutifully pop out beautiful, straight, white, cisgender babies in between doing the dishes and making their manly man a bacon (natch) sammich. Swoon. What a wonderful community! (So long as you conform, right?)

I suppose it's easy to ignore or dismiss a particular stance a community has taken when people like this tend to hand-wave things they don't like as being "just modern politics" or whatever. That's usually what I've seen being claimed, and again, it's nothing new. Dismissing something as "modern politics I disagree with, therefore not relevant to me" is one thing, though. I'm not quite sure how these people reconcile their beliefs with the history and the mythology their religious outlook is founded on, because Irish myth (the lone commenter who decided to speak on behalf of CR also claims to be a Gaelic Polytheist) is fundamentally rooted in an origin story where the people of Ireland came from somewhere else – Spain, Scythia, Greece, Egypt, you name it.

And while the myths in question have been very much messed about with to frame them in a more Christian context, the general idea of "we came from somewhere else" is thought to be an original, pre-Christian part of the tale that's very much in keeping with what we know of Goidelic cosmology and so forth. The point is, though, either way the Irish believed themselves to be immigrants, and some of them proudly traced themselves back to very non-white origins (whether that's true or not is immaterial, really; they didn't have a problem with it and that's what counts here), and that also found it's way into Scottish genealogy and origin stories, too. And let's not forget that the Gaels, and Celts in general, also have a long history of emigration and colonisation elsewhere (sometimes by choice, sometimes not so much), so they've never exactly been averse to mixing their genes in with the locals, either.

It's only recently, in relative terms, that this idea of having an "undiluted" ancestry (unsullied by non-white genes, that is – mixing with other white people is just fine and dandy, regardless of culture) has become a thing. In that respect, then, I'd argue that it's the folkish types who're forcing their own modern views onto things, while ignoring some pretty fundamental elements of their own religion that contradict them. The same goes for the stuff about "our feminine ladies, our masculine gentlemen" (who, it was confirmed in the comments I included above, must be totally straight and gender-conforming). We don't see much about non-heterosexual relationships or gender non-conforming individuals in the historical sources, and these are areas of study are only just beginning to take off in academic circles, but we can certainly see that it was Christian influence that introduced an outright condemnation of this kind of thing.

Aaaaanyway. This isn't a lone commenter, out there in the dark fringes. For anyone who's been kicking around the CR scene for any length of time it's just one more example of an undercurrent that's always tried to push its way in. It's a problem that's not going to go away, and all anyone can do is keep speaking out against it and joining in with all the other voices who are saying the same. The groups and individuals who keep quiet about it... Maybe that speaks volumes in itself.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Book Review: Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past

Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past
Edited by Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm

I think I've mentioned wanting this book a couple of times before here on the blog, but thanks to the price tag – £95 (and not much less second-hand) – this is not a book that I'm ever going to be able to afford. I expect the same goes for a lot of people, which is a real shame because it's a seriously good read.

I really do understand that books are expensive to produce and a profit is difficult to come by on volumes like this, but I do wish there was some sort of happy medium to be found. The price tag unfortunately means it's really only ever going to be something you'll find in an academic library, unless second-hand prices come down. Seeing as the book was only published last year I was surprised and pleased to find it available at my university library, so damn skippy I'm borrowing it.

So with the whinging out the way I'll get onto what the book actually is: It's a collection of articles that were originally presented in 2008 at a colloquium in Helsinki, and (as the title suggests) they're all looking at various aspects of what we might call "Celtic Religion." There's a very critical approach throughout the volume, and the topics include a focus on how approaches to "Celtic" religion have changed and evolved over the years (i.e. is there a Celtic religion?), what the material we have available can actually tell us about religious belief, and the way historical approaches to those beliefs evolved as well.

All in all this is a pretty slim volume with only seven articles, so it's a fairly quick read and not as much of a hard slog as most books like this tend to be. There are obviously some articles that grabbed my interest more than others, but one in particular that seemed rather incongruous when grouped together with the rest; this one dealt with purely Biblical material, and while it was a good read in itself it seemed rather out of place with the rest.

The first article, from Alexandra Bergholm and Katja Ritari, asks "'Celtic Religion': Is this a Valid Concept?" (Short answer being no, not really) and it does a fantastic job of introducing the rest of the book in general, but also giving a very brief and critical overview of the issues involved in undertaking such studies. This is the kind of important stuff you want to have a good idea of if you're going to make your own study of the field.

Next up is Jacqueline Borsje's "Celtic Spells and Counterspells," which focuses mostly on Irish material but with some other examples brought in for comparison. Not only is her analyses of these "spells and counterspells" fascinating, but she uses them as a frame for discussing how we can use the historical sources to learn what we can about pre-Christian beliefs – what they can and can't tell us, what we can even if it's not stated explicitly, and so on. Again, this is really good, important stuff even though some of it may already seem pretty obvious to you.

John Carey's "The Old Gods of Ireland in the Later Middle Ages" is also a solid contribution, and it kind of picks up on some elements Carey covered in his first chapter of A Spear of the Sun and then expands on them, namely how the scribes of the Middle Ages dealt with the gods and grappled with their identity and place in a Biblical scheme. In some ways this may be a topic that's been well-covered already, but I found some bits and pieces here that added to my understanding of the subject and were of genuine interest. Along with Borsje's article, I'd highly recommend a read.

The next few articles were interesting to me but I didn't feel they added as much as the previous ones in terms of religion or myth specifically. Even so, Robin Chapman Stacey's article on "Ancient Irish Law Revisited" had some good stuff with applying the same sort of critical approach to the law tracts as Borsje did with her chapter, so if that's your thing I'd recommend adding it to your list of things to read.

The final chapter, however, is one of the chunkier articles in the volume, and I thought it offered a lot of good food for thought. This one is Jane Webster's "A Dirty Window on the Iron Age? Recent Developments in the Archaeology of Pre-Roman Celtic Religion," and it begins with a (fairly provocative, perhaps) quote from John Collis that states, "I am sceptical that there is anything we can label as 'Celtic religion.'" The chapter is a nice bookend to the introduction from Bergholm and Ritari, and Webster contributes a critical look at what archaeology, specifically, can offer us, as well as what it has offered us in the past. She begins with a broad overview of recent archaeological developments in the field, detailing the various approaches and interpretations that have been taken to the material, using some of the bigger names in archaeology as examples for critiquing and explaining further. We then move on to look at the limitations of archaeology in terms of how it can't give us much certainty or specifics about druids, or issues around sacrifice, and so on.

As the first volume in a new series (titled "New Approaches to Celtic Religion and Mythology") I think it's a really good start and I look forward to seeing the rest of the series come out and exploring other areas in more detail. To be clear, this is not a book that's going to give you a detailed description of what "Celtic Religion" looked like, which I'm sure is going to be frustrating to some if you go by the title alone. The book doesn't really offer much in the way of certainties at all, but it does offer something that's all too often lacking in "Celtic Pagan" spheres, and that's an emphasis on critical thinking and approaching the material on its own terms. It's a real shame that the cost of the book is so prohibitive because for that alone I really would recommend you read it if you can get hold of a copy. If you have access to a library that can get hold of it for you then I think it's definitely worth a try.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Behold the shiny things (with a surprising amount of penis)... Part two

Some more pics from the National Museum over in Edinburgh, though this time with fewer shiny things per se... We'll start with a statement piece, though:

There were quite a few of these in the museum, though unfortunately I didn't spot any of the ones with Pictish symbols engraved on one end. As you might guess, the chains are typically thought to be Pictish in origin, probably dating to around the 5th to 9th centuries CE, and they're more than likely to have been worn by those of high status – not just the aristocracy, but royalty, the information board reckons. Just like the penanular brooches the Gaels wore (like the Tara brooch, for example), they were probably worn as an indication of rank. They were worn around the neck and fastened together with a "terminal link" – the bits that have the Pictish symbols engraved on them, which were originally highlighted with red enamel. Each link is made of solid silver (probably recycled Roman silver), and given the weight of them – up to 2.9 kilos (6.4 lbs) each – it seems unlikely that they were worn as regular, everyday pieces of jewellery. Instead it's thought that they were probably worn "during important ceremonies."

From a slightly earlier period – late Bronze Age – we have the Ballachulish idol:

Which is surprisingly huge – I didn't know it was actually life-size... The figure was discovered in a peat bog with the remains of some kind of wickerwork structure covering it. The site is situated overlooking a sea loch, so it's thought that the figure was meant to represent a goddess of some sort, "probably associated with fertility" – she's holding a "phallic object over her abdomen" so yeah, OK. I think equally the situation of it, overlooking the sea loch, could imply a protective purpose as well?

If you get up close then you can see the quartz pebbles that have been used for her eyes:

Given the long association of white quartz with the dead, could their use be significant? Or were they just convenient?

Speaking of phallic object, the museum has a surprising number of them. You can blame the Romans for this one:

It's described as "an undressed stone with carved phallus, Birrens," on the information plate, and dates to the first century CE.

You can blame the Romans for these ones, too:

These are pretty small, and were used as amulets to ward against the evil eye, or perhaps as fertility charms.

Here we have some "mysterious stones" from Neolithic Skara Brae, one of which looks pretty penile at the least:

We don't know what these stones were for – maybe "ritual," perhaps simply decorative – but number 13 here is one of the better known examples:

I couldn't get a good close up, unfortunately, but the detailing is spectacular.

Finally, here we have an unusual carved stone, known as the Bullion Stone (taking its name from where it was found, Bullion, in Angus), which dates to around the tenth century CE:

It's unusual because it's not often that you find stones that have a comical or unflattering tone to them like this one does, and by this point in time carved stones were almost exclusively Christian in its symbolism. Clearly whoever this guy is, he's a little worse for wear and the bird's head on the end of his over-sized drinking horn is looking a little judgemental there. The man appears to be a warrior, with his shield, but he's old and bald – not a flattering look when baldness wasn't considered to be a desirable trait. His horse looks tired and is maybe a little past it, too, as it plods up the steep hill. The drinking horn is maybe intended to indicate a Norseman here, since they introduced them to Scotland, hence the unflattering imagery?

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Behold the shiny things! (Part One)

Last October, if you might remember, I took a trip with the kids down to visit my mother in Suffolk. It's not my favourite place on earth, but on the upside I managed to convince my mother to make a day of it in London so we could make a visit to the Celts exhibition at the British Museum.

Over all I was a little disappointed with the exhibition, but I was interested in seeing it again once it got to Edinburgh in the new year, just to see if it was much different. It's a bit of a trek from here to get to Edinburgh, so I wasn't sure when we'd be able to manage it, but it turned out that our plans to go visit my family and friends down south weren't going to work out – schools in Scotland finished for the Spring break just as schools in England were returning from theirs and the timings just weren't going to align. So instead, seeing as Mr Seren had already booked time off from work, we decided to have a few days out, and Edinburgh was one of them.

We got there a little late in the day thanks to a slight detour (which meant we got to see the new Forth road bridge that's being built at the moment, and that was pretty cool), so by the time we'd parked up and got into the city centre it was well past lunchtime. It was nearly 3pm by the time we got to the museum, which didn't give us long to look around. Tom wasn't so keen to come and look at the Celts exhibition again, seeing as there was also a Lego "build it" thing on in the museum, so he and Mr Seren decided to do a bit of that before going off to look at the natural history stuff. Rosie decided to come with me so she could look at the shiny stuff again. She likes the artwork.

In London the exhibition cost £16.50 to get into, but in Edinburgh they're charging £10 for entrance (kids go free). The actual price is £9 but they've added on a pound extra for a "donation" to the museum, and while they do tell you that and ask if you want to make the donation, it's a bit cheeky to do that. Again, there's no photography in the exhibition which still pisses me off. I didn't bother trying to sneak pictures this time because there were way more members of staff around; it just wasn't going to happen.

Once we got in to the exhibition it was already very noticeably different. In London there was a three-minute slideshow as soon as you walked in, and while that would have been very informative, it clogged everything up from the get go. In Edinburgh we walked straight into a section with a few pieces on display that I think were intended to set the tone for the rest of the exhibition. They were a different selection from the ones chosen in London, in throughout the rest of the exhibition there were some pieces that were very noticeably missing – the bucket and flesh-hook I managed to snag pictures of in London, for one, along with a very impressive Gaulish statue of some dude with a big headdress. Those were the more obvious pieces I noticed missing and I'm sure there were others too. I noticed a few pieces I didn't think I'd seen before but I suspect that all in all there were some major artefacts that didn't make it to Edinburgh from the London exhibit.

That aside, I think the layout and flow of the Edinburgh exhibit is much better. The Gundestrup cauldron is on display in a room all by itself, and it's been set at a more sensible height so you can see all around it. The lighting is a little better, too, so it really becomes a feature all of its own rather than just one more shiny thing in a sea of shiny things.

There's a chariot (or replica of what the chariot would have looked like when it was fully intact) and goods on display that were recovered from a burial, and Rosie commented that she wasn't sure the people would be too happy to find all their stuff on display in a museum instead of in the ground where they left it. Wouldn't they want it to be left alone? she wondered. That's a perennial question in archaeology, I said. A lot of the time these things are dug up because they're going to be destroyed otherwise, so is it better to destroy them or try and recover them and preserve them so we can learn about the past? Rosie decided that perhaps the best thing would be to stop building stuff on top of important places like other people's graveyards and put the buildings somewhere else. I couldn't really argue with that, to be honest. But still, she loved looking at all the metalwork and jewellery, and we spent quite a bit of time looking for all the hidden faces and anthropomorphic features. When we got to the statue of Brigantia she was pretty excited and wondered if she was related to Brigid.

After we came out of the exhibition we met back up with Tom and Mr Seren and I decided I wanted to look at the "Early Settlers" section where all the early Scottish stuff is. We only had an hour left before closing by this point and I really didn't have time to look at everything I wanted to, but even so the place is amazing. One thing I noticed is that where the more well-known items had been taken for the Celts exhibit, they often replaced them with replicas, unlike in London. I thought that was a nice touch.  

There were plenty of shiny things like the Pictish "plaques" from the Norrie's Law hoard (one of which was in the Celts exhibition):

In pictures you might think they'd make a nice pair of earrings, but they're way too big for that. Silver hoards are pretty common in this period of Scotland's history because there wasn't much raw material available, so they had to rely on recycling silver instead. In some cases the hoards consist of Roman silver, which were presumably given to the local Picts, Britons or Gaels as bribes.

But it's not all about the shiny stuff, and that's one of the reasons I really wanted to go to the museum in the first place, because I wanted to see this – an almost perfectly preserved woollen Pictish hood:

Which was found in St Andrews parish (I presume that means the St Andrews in Fife, east coast of Scotland) and dates to some time between the 3rd-6th centuries CE.

There's also a hat, woven from hair moss, that dates a little earlier than the hood, around the first century CE. It was found at Newsteads, near the Scottish border:

And this is what the hair moss thread or twine looks like close up:

Things like this are what interest me most because it brings home the fact that we're not just dealing with something so nebulous as "a culture," but actual people.

I mentioned in my post from the London museum that there were the "divination spoons" on display in the Celts exhibition, and they were on display again in Edinburgh with a note to say they may have been used for magical or "healing" purposes. Nobody really knows what they were used for, but I found a set on display in the main part of the museum that had been recovered from the east coast of Scotland:

There seems to be some deep politics surrounding these things, because while there's the pet theory that Miranda Green pushes about their being "divination spoons," which is reflected in how they're described down in London, Edinburgh chooses to simply describe them as "a pair of sacred spoons, possibly buried with a holy man:"

These ones are bronze, as you can probably tell, and they were recovered with a bronze dagger, too. They aren't as well preserved as the ones in the Celts exhibition, but if you look closely they have the same kind of markings – one spoon being quartered, and the other with a hole in it. People seem to get weirdly invested in the idea of their being used for divinatory purposes, but there really could be any number of other explanations. I can see why divination has been suggested, but it bugs me that the idea gets treated as absolute truth by some.

Anyway. One last shiny thing before I finish off:

These are very late Bronze Age, and while the swords are set next to some moulds, I don't think they're the actual moulds that were used to cast them.

There's very little evidence for Bronze Age metal-working in Scotland, but a few sites have been found relatively recently that's changing what we know of the practice. I went to a lecture about one such place (just down the road from me, in fact, situated right on the coast) a few months ago and it was mentioned that the layout and orientation of the site had clear suggestions of ritual or religious purposes. The site, which is thought to have been very late Bronze Age in date, was surrounded by a number of palisades and the entrance was oriented to the south-east (very common for this period and into the Iron Age) with what appears to have been some sort of processional way leading into the main enclosure. One of the most interesting things that they found from the site is that the moulds were often transported across the Firth of Clyde so that they could be deposited at the foot of a major hillfort that dominated the area. This practice continued into the Iron Age, and it's thought that the burial of the moulds is possibly ritual in nature – perhaps an offering of some sort? It's no surprise that there seem to have been religious overtones to the production of metalwork, but it's fascinating to me, nonetheless.

Anyway, I think that's enough for now; I'll continue in another post with some more bits and pieces that piqued my interest another time.

Friday, 22 April 2016

New video! New(ish) article! Daily Rites in Gaelic Polytheism

So as we announced over on the Gaol Naofa site last week (yes I'm way behind on things...), we've got a new video out:

And also a new (or at least improved) Daily Rites article to accompany it, which now has a number of prayers offered in both Gaelic and English translation. To be honest, there was no particular rhyme or reason in choosing to do this particular subject right now, aside from the fact that it seemed like a good idea to continue the more practical theme like our last video on Offerings in Gaelic Polytheism had.

I'm really not sure when the original Daily Rites article was written (I'm pretty sure it was before my time as a member of the GN council), but for the sake of those who prefer the original prayers given there, we've archived that version of the article on the site, and it's cross-referenced to the new version, too. Kathryn took charge of the article's overhaul of the piece, and I think the contrast between the prayers given in the original version, and the ones that Kathryn chose to adapt from the Carmina Gadelica in the new version, gives a good contrast and illustration of how different people have different styles.

When I was first starting to explore CR and then Gaelic Polytheism specifically, the idea of daily prayers seemed kind of restrictive and off-putting. Coming from a completely secular background it was a concept that was alien to me, and it seemed kind of dull... Wouldn't it get boring and become rote? But I kept coming back to the idea for reasons I've never really fully understood, aside from the undeniable urge that I should, and eventually I started looking at the kinds of prayers that were out there, that maybe I could adapt or work with in coming up with some of my own. After a bit of fiddling around I found a routine that felt like it was a good fit, and since I started I've not stopped, really. It was a gradual process as I figured things out, but now I say the same prayers every day (or night...) – at the very least I will pray each night, just as I've got into bed and I'm lying down, since that's most comfortable for me – and it's become an integral part of my bedtime routine now. Even when I'm absolutely exhausted I find it hard to get to sleep until I've said them now.

I think it's important that the prayers we say as part of our practice have meaning to us, and they flow from the heart. My preference is for the more traditional, like the ones we've given in the new article, and the ones I have over on Tairis, but I also tend to add in prayers of my own making, too – off the cuff prayers that aren't poetic, perhaps, but they're no less heartfelt or meaningful. But the traditional types of prayers – the same words I say over and over again from year to year – form the barebones of my daily routine.

I'm sure the idea of a daily routine of prayer doesn't appeal to some people and I don't think it's the only way things should or can be done. For one, there are simple traditions and customs that can become a part of your day, too... It doesn't make anyone lesser, or greater, just because of what they do or don't do, though. Religion isn't a competition or a pissing contest, you know? Or it shouldn't be. I'm sure a lot of people do maintain a daily routine of some sort, even if it doesn't follow a particular outline or isn't even a conscious thing. Maybe somedays or most days the sum total is little more than a mental "hey."

What matters is that it works for the individual, and that – at its core – it helps maintain that connection with An Trì Naomh. It's about being mindful of who you are, who you honour. I've seen some people say they try to keep up a daily routine of some sort but somedays, for whatever reason, it just doesn't happen and then there's a sense of guilt or failure, and it becomes hard to get back into the routine because the sense of whatever starts to snowball... But we're only human, after all. We all have our limits and if it happens, it's OK. If it keeps happening, maybe it's better to scale things back a bit and go easier; don't bite off more than you can chew. At the end of the day... Just do you.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Catching up

We're well past Là Fhèill Brìghde and Là na Caillich but neither went unnoticed for us here. Although given the weather it seems the Cailleach didn't go to her rest without a fight this year...

Since near the end of last year I've been struggling a lot more with chronic pain issues and I'm awaiting the results of another MRI to see if scar tissue from my previous surgery is the problem, or if the disc has just gone caput again (or maybe something else is up...) and will be attending a group physio session, that's intended to help me live within my limitations a little better, in the coming weeks.  All of this – and being busy with other work and some ongoing projects – means I haven't been up to much here on the blog, and celebrations have been scaled back to just about the bare bones lately. As I've written about before, when it comes to being somewhat challenged in the mobility area, it generally means that my devotions are dictated by how much I can handle at the time. I do, but I only do if I can, and as much as I can. And I'm OK with that.

So Là Fhèill Brìghde was pretty low key, although Rosie joined in with enthusiasm and gusto because this is her favourite time of year. I bought a new doll-making kit for us to make our dealbh Brìde with, and invited the kids to join in. Tom wasn't so keen – he's less interested in crafting than Rosie is – so it was just me and Rosie this year. As usual we made a few dollies and picked the one we thought worked best, and this is what we ended up with:

We feasted and sained, and lit some candles for Brìde to put in the window. I offered the honours to the kids, if one of them wanted to the lighting, but they both wanted to do it so we ended up deciding they should do a candle each; they lit, and I said the prayer, then went to invite Brìde in. Rosie was very excited to put our dealbh Brìde to bed, and Tom joined in by arranging a cow next to her.

Then we picked out a few pieces to put out for Brìde to bless on her nighttime rounds – this is serious business for Rosie, because she's taken the idea to heart. Ever since we left her favourite blanket out for Brìde to bless, she's insisted on having it on her bed every night so "Brìde will keep the bad dreams away." The blanket must go under the duvet so it's touching her directly; this is important. So important, in fact, that she didn't want to let go of the blanket for even one night, and even though I told her it's traditional so Brìde can bless it again. In the end we left out a different blanket instead.

The weather was pretty nasty so I put them in the shed, which I left propped open a little, so they'd stay put, but as it happened Mr Seren's plaid ended up on the opposite side of the garden by morning. It was only thanks to the fence post that it didn't get blown away entirely, and Mr Seren was pretty bemused to find his plaid flapping around. I guess it was a good job it wasn't his underwear...

A little later on in the month we went on a big long walk up to the forest I took a walk to last year at Là Fhèill Brìghde. This time I took the kids as well as the dogs and we got there right at the golden hour:

It's been a pretty mild winter but spring seems to have got off to a slow start in spite of the fact that a lot of trees started blossoming even before Hogmanay. Nature seems a little confused lately, and we didn't see many signs of spring on our walk. Plenty of mud, though:

For Là na Caillich we had a pretty vicious storm so we had to hold off on our usual a visit to the beach for the few days, but we got there in the end and made our offerings to the Cailleach and the Cailleachan. Now I'm just waiting for a bit of a dry spell so I can get out in the garden and start tidying things up (though I might have to get a gardener in this year, just to keep on top of the lawn). It's been such a wet winter that the lawn is more bog than anything at the moment and it's going to need resowing in places. Some of the plants I put in around the new pond are going to have to be replaced, too, because they just weren't able to cope with all the rain – I was worried that might happen. I have a gooseberry bush to put in, though, which I'm pretty pleased about (we'll hopefully be able to pick them for Lùnastal, as is traditional, though I'm not anticipating a crop for a while yet), but so far that's it. I haven't thought about what else I'm going to put in but I'm thinking about expanding the containers – bigger ones so I can maybe put a small fruit tree in, too.

So spring is officially here and a quarter of the year is gone already. Hopefully next week I'll be going to Edinburgh to see the Celts exhibition (again).

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Book Review: The Origins of the Irish

The Origins of the Irish
J. P. Mallory

Given the recent announcement that proof of an Irish Paleolithic has finally been discovered, this review is both timely and a perfect example of how quickly things can change and our whole idea of history (or prehistory, in this case) can be rewritten thanks to something so small and seemingly insignificant as a few scratches on a bear bone...

So all in all, in spite of the fact that this book was only released in 2013 it's already out of date in some respects. Such is the way of things in this field, no?

Up until recently I'd heard of this book but didn't know much about it. More than that, I have to admit the title kind of put me off wanting to know more because it struck me as one of those books that was going to be little more than guff and wind that failed to hide a sad and slightly racist agenda behind some dodgy attempts at science. If I hadn't picked it up in a bookshop I would probably still be thinking that.

I'm glad to say I was wrong in my assumption, and that I did, in fact, really enjoy this book. In searching for the origins of the Irish  where, exactly, the people of Ireland came from, including how they got there  Mallory takes a look at the archaeology, the early historical evidence, linguistics, and (still fairly fledgling area of) genetics. Before we get to all of that, though, we begin right at the beginning, with a whistlestop tour of the Big Bang and how the Earth changed over the first few billions of years until we reach the general layout of continents we have today. We are, ultimately, star dust, after all.

The book is pretty ambitious in its scope, in trying to weave all of these various strands together to give a coherent answer to the initial question. The answer we end up with isn't conclusive, by any means, but it would hardly be reasonable to expect one given the kind of evidence we're dealing with here. It's inevitable that a book like this is going to raise more questions than it answers, and there's a risk that the reader will be left confused or dissatisfied rather than illuminated. My feeling, by the end of it all, is that there may be uncertainty, unknowns, and unknowables, but it's a great ride. This is an extremely well-written book  engaging, witty, clearly and logically structured with the minimum of jargon thrown at the reader. It's not glossy or colourful, perhaps, but it doesn't need to be.

Right at the beginning we're introduced to Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish king who Mallory suggests is our ideal "Irishman"  an identifiably historical figure who lived right at the cusp of Ireland's early historical period when, it's suggested, Irish people had a definite sense of being "Irish." This is, of course, open to debate, but for the sake of argument let's just go with it. Throughout the book we return to Niall as we wonder about all the things that had to happen throughout the pre-history of Ireland for such a person, in such a time and such a place, to come about  someone who, as Mallory points out, had a non-Irish mother. It's not ethnicity we're looking for here; it's about identity. With all the various peoples and influences that have had a bearing on Ireland, the real point of this book is how do we define an "Irish" person anyway?

A good chunk of the book is taken up with the archaeology as we stroll through the Mesolithic period, the Neolithic, the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age (bearing in mind, of course, that there was no discernible Paleolithic period in Ireland at the time of writing). Mallory does a good job of laying out the evidence for what life was like for people of each of these periods  how they lived, what they might have believed, how society and technology changed and evolved, and why these things happened. Of course, we can only deal with theories and speculation for the most part here, and Mallory deftly outlines old theories and new, and discusses the pros and cons for each of them. It's clear which theories Mallory himself favours as we go along but he allows room for the reader to draw their own conclusions, too.

Once we've dealt with the archaeology, there's a chapter on the literary evidence  looking at the origin story of Lebor Gabála Érenn especially  followed by chapters on genetics and linguistics. I have to admit that I instinctively balk when genetics tend to come up, because it's so often used as thinly veiled attempts at arguing about genetic purity and crap like that, but I think Mallory deals with the subject sensitively and evenly here. I'm no linguist but the content here is solid and brings up some nifty points, too. Finally, the last chapter brings everything together to make the final conclusions,

A book like this could easily be dry and dense, but that's really not the case here. It packs in a lot of detail, and I think perhaps it would be of benefit if you have at least a vague idea of archaeology and the basics of the field; the jargon is kept to a minimum but for the total noob it might be a bit overwhelming or distracting; not a major problem, but something some might appreciate knowing going in. Each chapter finishes with a very simplified summary of the major points raised, which is a definite plus.

I can't say I agreed wholeheartedly with everything in the book. In particular I quibbled with a few details in the chapter on the literature, but any disagreements I had were minor and there's nothing that I'd say was just plain wrong. Over all this is a fantastic overview of the subject and it's something I've been looking for for a long time. This is a book I'd highly recommend to anyone.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Book Review: The Celtic Evil Eye and Related Mythological Motifs in Medieval Ireland

The Celtic Evil Eye and Related Mythological Motifs in Medieval Ireland
Jacqueline Borsje

Not the pithiest of titles, but it tells you just about everything you need to know here; what you see is what you get.

I'd had my eye on this book for a good while now, but given the price tag – not actually that bad, for an academic book, but more than I usually spend on myself – I'd been hoping it would turn up at the university library sooner rather than later. I'm often hesitant to buy books without a good preview because you never know what you're going to get – there's a book, The Seer in Celtic and Other Traditions by Hilda Ellis-Davidson that I was intrigued by for a long while, and it costs just a wee bit more than this one. When I found a copy at the library, though, it turned out there was only one or two essays in it that I was interested in (the book mostly deals with "Other Traditions"). If I'd bought it myself I would've been disappointed.

This time, though, Borsje's book didn't seem like it was going to be available via the library any time soon so I eventually broke down and decided to splurge; as much as I may be cautious, I'm also kind of impatient... I figured that given everything I've ever read by Jacqueline Borsje, I wasn't likely to be disappointed here – I'm a big fan of her work. And lucky for me I wasn't disappointed at all – this one is well worth the price tag (would that I could afford this one, though. That's definitely going to be a "wait for the university library").

So here's a quick idea of what this book is all about – it's a collection of articles written by Borsje over the years, all of them dealing with various aspects or elements about the concept of the evil eye, or drochshúil, in Irish mythology. Each article forms a chapter, and you might already be familiar with some of them since some of the articles are available elsewhere (though I'm not sure most of them are published in English?). Chapter One, for instance, is 'The Evil Eye' in early Irish literature and law, co-written with Fergus Kelly, though here Kelly's contributions (on the law texts that deal with the subject of the evil eye) have been updated and are split off into an appendix. The other articles have been adapted a little as well, so that they make a more coherent volume all together. The final chapter is specially written for the book, and while Borsje notes that the book can be read in any order – each chapter is self-contained – the over all layout has a logic and flow to it that works well.

really enjoyed this book and found so much here that's useful to my interests or just plain interesting. I started off using little post-its to tag bits I knew I'd want to come back to and ended up giving up trying to colour code things with some semblance of order because I ran out of post-its in the requisite colour. Given the nature of the evil eye the book touches on folk practice (and how it relates to, or reflects, the beliefs articulated in the myths) as well as the mythology itself, and it also deals with certain areas of magical practice – corrgúinecht and the power of words in particular. The ritual nature of this practice, and the bestowing of the evil eye (in certain instances) is also dealt with. As much as it might be tempting to thing of the evil eye as little more than a literary motif, it's clear from the early Irish laws as much as folk practice that the concept is very real. Even today it's still a very relevant part of everyday life (as I've experienced myself – when the kids were babies people were always very keen to bless them and show their goodwill by giving them a silver coin).

As far as the mythology goes, there's a lot of focus on The Second Battle of Mag Tured (CMT) and The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel (TBDD) because of the characters found there – Balor of the Evil Eye in CMT, and Nár Túathcháech in TBDD, for example – and the instances of corrgúinecht that are mentioned (or implied), which may involve the casting of the evil eye. There are plenty of other tales referenced as well, like the Death of Cú Chulainn, but given the importance of the first two, Borsje includes translations of both tales in the appendices. These are primarily based on the translations given by Whitley Stokes (partly because they're out of copyright now), with some updates and additional bits (mainly the more obscure rosc parts, though not all of them, unfortunately) based on the work of academics like Kim McCone and Ralph O'Connor (who's book on Da Derga's Hostel is referenced in glowing terms). The translation of TBDD includes a note, from O'Connor's book, on the meaning of the stream of names given by the hag (Cailb, though identified as Badb, or the Morrígan), which is something I've been looking for for a while; O'Connor's book is definitely bumped up my reading list now. Really, the translations and notes that accompany them are almost worth buying Borsje's book for that alone.

Because the chapters were originally published as individual articles there's a bit of repetition in places, especially (I noticed) when it comes to the discussion of the meaning and nuances of the term "túathcháech." It's not so repetitive that I minded it, though, and there's some genuinely meaty stuff to get stuck into. In particular, I'd wondered about the relation between the Tuatha Dé Danann being said to have come from the "north" and the traditionally negative connotations of that direction for a while now, and this is something that Borsje touches on (chapter 4, 'Encounters with One-Eyed Beings'). There's also a good discussion on why it's the eyes, or specifically an eye, that's so intricately associated with ill-wishing or cursing.

The last chapter, which is titled 'The Power of Words: The Intricacy of the Motif of the Evil Eye' (though it covers somewhat similar ground as in Druids, Deer, and Words of Power) was an especially good read, though it's hard for me to pick just one stand-out chapter. It gives a good overview of who might cast the evil eye the methods used to protect against the evil eye, in the form of prayer like St Patrick's Lorica (otherwise known as The Deer's Cry, or Faíd Fiada), amongst others. A common element of these prayers is protecting against the evil eye by surrounding oneself in spiritual armour – binding blessings to yourself in every direction, and every part of the body. This "surrounding" is also founds in other means of protection, like the crios Bríde ('girdle of Bríde') and the practice of leaving things like ribbons out for the saint's blessing – something that has intriguing implications about how old these practices might be. It brought up a lot of comparisons with the caimeachadh prayers in the Carmina Gadelica for me, which I think may be an avenue to explore.

One thing I would've liked to have seen is more of a discussion on the way Boann loses an eye (and a leg and an arm) in the Dindshenchas tale about the Boyne, and the similarities between that and the stance taken during the performance of córrguinecht and the prophecy performed by Cailb in TBDD. It's something I've wondered about for a while, and it was something that came to the fore again when Borsje delved into the symbolism of "one-eyedness" and its association with knowledge (just one possible meaning, and depending on context). An index would have been nice too...

This is a very dense read – engaging but certainly not the kind of thing you're likely to devour in one sitting – and I think it's only going to appeal to people who have a real interest in the subject. If you do have any interest in this kind of thing, though, then I think it's an essential book to add to your shelf. It's certainly a book I'm going to be referring back to a lot.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Vreeshey, Vreeshey, tar gys my thie...

A little bit of a late start to this year's blogging but better late than never, eh?

While I have a wee rest and – finally – a bit of a sit down before I go and welcome Brigid in, I just wanted to share this video (which I saw posted over on The Ever-Living Ones). It's beautifully sung, and timely too:

The lyrics are a traditional invitation to Brigid, which is sung (or recited) on the eve of Laa'l Breeshey (Imbolc) so that she might visit and bless the house and household at night. The original Manx, with translation are:
Vreeshey, Vreeshey, tar gys my thie, 
Tar gys y thie aym noght.  
Vreeshey, Vreeshey, tar, o tar,
Gys y thie aym noght.  
O foshil jee y dorrys da Vreeshey,
Lhig da Vreeshey çheet stiagh. 
Vreeshey, Vreeshey, tar oo
Gys y thie aym noght.
Bridget, Bridget, come to my house,
come to my house tonight. 
Bridget, Bridget, come, oh come,
To my house this night. 
Open the door to Bridget,
and let Bridget come in. 
Bridget, Bridget, come to my house,
come to my house tonight.
As Manx As the Hills posted a version of this a couple of days ago, and included the sheet music and a sound file to help with pronunciation if you'd like to learn it yourself.

Whatever you're doing, and whenever you're celebrating, I hope you have a good one!