Thursday, 17 August 2017

Book Review: Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration

Back in June last year, my father-in-law died very suddenly. I posted about it a while ago, and as anyone who's lost a parent or significant figure in their life will know, it's not something that's always easy to deal with. It's a terrible loss, whether it's imminently anticipated or not.

My father-in-law was unfailingly generous and accepting of others into his family, and he was kind enough to leave something for his children and their spouses with the stipulation that we should use at least some of it to buy ourselves something "selfish," instead of doing something boring and sensible with it. Naturally I immediately trawled Amazon and bought a shit ton of books.

In his honour, I ended up getting:

  • Ireland in the Medieval World, AD400-1000: Landscape, Kingship and Religion – Edel Bhreathnach
  • Introduction to Early Irish Literature – Muireann Ni Bhrolchain
  • The Kingship and Landscape of Tara – Edel Bhreathnach
  • Classical Literature and Learning in Medieval Irish Narrative (Studies in Celtic History) – Ralph O'Connor
  • Early Christian Ireland – T. M. Charles-Edwards
  • Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland (Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic) – Andrew Sneddon
  • Approaches to Religion and Mythology in Celtic Studies – Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm
  • The Scottish Witch-Hunt in Context (Studies in Early Modern European History) – Julian Goodare
  • Celtic Curses – Bernard Mees
  • Celtic Christianity and Nature: The Early Irish and Hebridean Traditions – Mary Low
  • In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature – J.P. Mallory

Some of these I've already read but had to return them to the library and I really wanted a copy of my own. One of them I swear I already bought but couldn't find it, so decided to replace it.

I'm slowly working through the pile (I won't necessarily read them all, but I intend to get through most of them) and without further ado, here comes the next review:

Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration
John Waddell

I've not read any of John Waddell's books before, but I did enjoy his article on 'The Cave of Crúachain and the Otherworld' in the Celtic Cosmology book. He's also got some fascinating lectures you can watch on Youtube, which he credits as being the "motivation" behind ultimately producing the book I'm reviewing here. For the most part, though, I ordered this one after my interest was piqued in seeing it referenced more than a few times in another book I'd been reading and thought it might be worth a look.

As the title suggests, we're looking at the points where archaeology and myth collide here, so in some respects it covers a similar sort of ground as Mallory's In Search of the Irish Dreamtime (that I've just reviewed) in discussing the two. On the whole, though, Waddell's interest isn't in looking at whether or not the archaeology can support the myth, or vice versa (as Mallory does), but instead he tries to combine the two strands to paint a more comprehensive picture of a whole, focusing on various aspects of pre-Christian belief and practice. In this respect, I think they make a nice complement to one another, but would also say that this particular book is probably going to provide more immediately satisfying material to Gaelic Polytheists who want to focus more on exploring concepts surrounding religious belief and practice.

I think it's safe to say that Waddell comes from a very different school of thought than Mallory does, being far more invested in solar mythology/deities and, in places, a keen interest in bringing in comparative examples from other Celtic cultures or Indo-European evidence. Shades of Miranda Green surface with the solar stuff and it's really not something I can ever get on board with, but I found it wasn't too difficult to read around those bits. As much as I might disagree, it's always good to read views that oppose or challenge your own, sometimes.

The book brings together everything in a fascinating way and I think it's definitely going to be a good read for Gaelic Polytheists. Waddell focuses especially on the mythology and archaeology relating to some of the best-known ritual sites in Ireland (Newgrange, Rathcroghan, Emain Macha, and Tara) and tackles matters surrounding sacral kingship, sovereignty goddesses, cosmology, and the Otherworld (his chapter, 'In Pursuit of the Otherworld,' nicely complementing the article from the Celtic Cosmology book I linked to above, and covering similar areas). His descriptions of the sites – what the archaeologists found in their excavations, and how those findings have been interpreted – are easy to understand, even if you don't have a background in archaeology.

There's some genuinely interesting stuff here and I particularly enjoyed the second chapter, 'The Otherworld hall on the Boyne,' where Waddell focuses on Newgrange and its related monuments in the area, as well as its association with Bóand, the Dagda, and their son, Óengus mac Ind Óc, and its possible cosmological significance. The later chapters that cover various aspects of sovereignty (goddesses, sacral kingship, ritual sites involved in inauguration, etc) are also good, and I especially appreciated the discussions on the "horse cult" as it relates to Irish kingship. I'm not entirely sure that "cult" is the right word, to be honest, but it is something that lurks in the background of kingship, and it's not isolated to Ireland alone – it seems to be a genuinely "Celtic" concept, and it often gets overlooked so it's refreshing to see the subject being discussed in more detail than it usually is in books like this, which tend to focus more on sacred marriages and sovereignty goddesses and not much else. That, too, is focused on, though.

The last chapter focuses on sacral kingship and draws heavily on Gaulish examples of "princely" burials in discussing some key themes of pre-Christian belief and the concept of "decommissioning" a king, which are demonstrated in the elaborate burials we find in Gaul, but only really hinted at in Ireland. Waddell is careful to make it clear that the "princely" label isn't exactly helpful (just because the burials are rich and elaborate, it doesn't mean they're royal, and the label is unnecessarily distracting and potentially misleading...), which is important. Normally I'm not so keen on such a heavy reliance on bringing in comparative material, but aside from the fact that I found it all genuinely interesting, I think the chapter did a really good job in providing some food for thought on the subject, and in linking it all back to Ireland. Sometimes it's refreshing to step outside of your own comfort zone and look at things a little differently.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book, in spite of my strong disagreement with the reliance on solar mythology and symbolism. Although it's pretty short it provides some good food for thought and it's one I'll certainly be coming back to when I'm doing research on various subjects. It's a good one for the bookshelf, and it definitely isn't one that requires an academic level of knowledge or an in-depth background in Celtic Studies – it's aimed squarely at the academic and non-academic, and welcomes a broad audience. Nonetheless, I think you'll get more out of it when you have some background reading under your belt so you can take your own critical view of the ideas and concepts that are outlined here.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Book Review: In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature

In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature
J.P. Mallory

I've previously reviewed another book by the same author – The Origins of the Irish – and I really really liked it (for its witty and engaging tone as much as the content in general). So in some respects it's hard not to compare the two, perhaps especially so when this particular book has been written as something of a companion piece to the first one.

Back in the 1960s Kenneth Jackson came out with the idea that early Irish literature provided us with a "window on the Iron Age," since (he argued) the tales preserved pre-Christian beliefs and concepts that had been passed on by an oral tradition that valued consistency and integrity of the content it conveyed. While Christian elements had been added, strip them away and you could get something close to the pre-Christian original...

It's an idea that's been much-debated in academia since, and Mallory himself has weighed in on the subject previously, in an article in Ulidia ("Windows on the Iron Age: 1964–1994"), as well as his Aspects of The Táin (as the editor and a contributor), for example. Dreamtime, then, is essentially an expansion of his previous work, taking a critical look at what the literature tells us about material culture (and to a lesser extent, beliefs), and whether or not the archaeology supports what the tales tell us. For example, tales that take place at well-known sites such as Emain Macha or Tara give the impression that these places were occupied as (essentially) royal centres in the Iron Age. They also mention things like weaponry that we might assume are indeed Iron Age in origin, if we can actually assume that the tales were composed in that time frame and were never changed to any significant degree.

I'll try not to give too many spoilers here, but the results that Mallory outlines may or may not shock you, depending on what your opinions are on the matter... Regardless, it's pretty thorough and convincing.

For the non-expert, the book does a good job of giving an introduction to the major elements that you need to know in order to form your own opinions (if that's your thing) and keep up with what's going on – the history of the manuscript tradition itself, an overview of the stories, and the context in which they were written. Then we focus on the major areas where archaeology and mythology collide, so we can explore how the two may or may not match up. This includes material culture in general (clothing, dyes, jewellery, games, etc.), warfare and weaponry, transport, the landscape and environment, and matters surrounding death and burial, based on what we see as archaeologists, and what the literature tells us.

It's an interesting idea for a book and over all it does a good job of proving its point. The first few chapters, with the introductory material, really runs the risk of being overdone and boring but Mallory's wit and engaging style really helps to put a fresh spin on things. Like his The Origins of the Irish, we're introduced to a character who helps take the reader on the book's journey. In Origins, it was Niall of the Nine Hostages, our quintessential Irishman, while here we have various incarnations of Katu-butos, Cattubuttas, or (ultimately) Cathbad – a theoretical fili, or professional poet and tradition-bearer, who would have been responsible for telling the stories we're dealing with. The different names relate to the different linguistic periods we're dealing with – Proto-Irish through to medieval Irish, based on the evidence we have to hand (linguistic, literary, archaeological, though primarily the latter two), and thus the audiences the storyteller is targeting specifically.

Over all, I found some parts of the book more interesting to read than others. It got off to a great start, and it takes an unusual approach in looking at the Lebor Gabála (for example) and emphasising its supposed historical context for each of the invasions the story outlines, based on the Irish annals. Creating an explicit timeline for that is pretty interesting when you compare it to what was actually happening at the time as far as we know from the archaeological record, and it helps set the tone for what we find in later chapters. It's all very thorough, but in doing so I felt that some of the later chapters got bogged down in details I wasn't particularly interested in, and it began to drag a little. To an extent that may be because the subject matter was something I wasn't overly keen on, but then again the writing did sometimes veer into simply listing facts, rather than commenting much on them. Even so, that didn't last for long, and even where I felt things got bogged down I can definitely see that if anyone's interested in the finer points of life in the Iron Age or early medieval period, this is absolutely invaluable – or if you're a fiction author looking to write an authentic period novel, or a re-enactor of some sort, say, then it has almost everything you need to know about where people lived, what they wore, and what they ate, and so forth. And of course, it appeals to the geeks and nerds like me.

Considering the scope of the book, it more than fulfils its stated aims, and it really does offer a lot to the reader. It's also rather unique in its focus and the information it gives, and I can certainly appreciate that. Books like this – presenting reliable, factual information that's easily accessible and (mostly) engaging to the non-expert as much as the expert – are few and far between.

Whereas Origins offers a far broader scope, Dreamtime narrows in on a more specific area and offers a lot more detail. The title of this particular volume, as you might gather, takes inspiration from the Australian aboriginal peoples, "who recognized a sacred time in which both the natural world and human culture and traditions originated and that these beginnings still resonate in the spiritual life of people today." Mallory sees a similarity between these aboriginal stories (their purpose and aims) and this concept, and the myths of the Irish that survive into modern times. I see his point even though I wonder about the value in bothering to use the term in the first place. He recognises that appropriating (or mis-appropriating) the term may not be the best way to frame the Irish traditions we're dealing with here, and he apologises for that, but nonetheless ultimately can't resist the concept. I do wonder why he bothered, given the fact that he acknowledges the potentially problematic nature of it, but I'm not Australian or Aboriginal and I don't really feel qualified to condone or condemn on that front. Still, I can't help but feel that choosing such a title both detracts and distracts from the contents of the book as whole.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy it, and I think it will be one of those books that I'll come back to time and time again. It's not always easy for an archaeologist to really delve into literature and give a decent, critical overview of it, as well as the issues surrounding it (Miranda Green...) so Mallory deserves recognition for that. But more than that, it's just a good read.