Friday, 9 May 2008

Archive: The British Celts and their Gods Under Rome - Graham Webster

The British Celts and their Gods Under Rome
Graham Webster

I'd been meaning to read this book for a while, hoping to see if there was anything useful about evidence of gods in Scotland, so I was pleased I finally remembered to look it up at the library.

I had a quick flick through while I was in the library and raised an eyebrow at a chapter called 'The Celtic Shangri-La', but decided it was worth investigating. I have to admit, though, there was a bit more eyebrow raising once I got stuck into it at home, and I was very disappointed with this book to the point where I almost gave up on it.

My main problem was in Webster's treatment of 'Celtic religion', where he mashed together Classical sources referring to Gaul along with evidence of Irish festivals and applied it to Britain in fairly unequivocal terms. This sort of approach was fine for scholars like Anne Ross, but things have come a long way these days and it's no longer considered 'the done thing' to approach things in such a pan-Celtic way. What applies to Ireland or Gaul (from different time periods, to boot) doesn't mean it automatically applies to Britain as a whole, just because they all happen to come under the Celtic umbrella.

To be fair, the book's over 20 years old so it predates the most recent revival of interest in Celtic Studies, and therefore the change in academic approach to the subject, but seeing as he was dealing with the Romano-British archaeological evidence I was kind of expecting more reliance on analysing what all this evidence means than there actually was. And I'm getting seriously bored with this obsession with 'the megalithic Great Mother' that scholars

I'm glad I did stick with it though, because once I got passed the introductory stuff and the book started to get into the real meat of the subject, there were enough interesting things to make it worth wading through. It's clear that Webster's an archaeologist and not a historian (I presume, anyway), and he seems to be good at what he does. There are fairly in depth analyses of some of the more common deities, and particular focus is given to the evidence of northern Britain. I'd hoped for some mention of archaeological evidence for religious practice in pre- or post-Roman Scotland (the parts affected, anyway), but I was disappointed, though not surprised, on this front. The overview of evidence of religious practice from pottery was interesting and different, though (or relatively interesting, because the archaeological analysis of pottery is rarely ever a scintillating subject)...

Generally, the book would be of interest to anyone wanting to learn more about British and Gaulish practices (it really should have included Gaul in the title), bearing in mind the problems with it. It's also in need of updating, because certain bits are very out of date (like the mention of there being only one inscription to Cernunnos, for example), but in spite of its problems it's still worth picking up. Just don't expect to be dazzled.

Archive: Folk Lore Or Superstitious Beliefs - James Napier

Folk Lore Or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within This Century
James Napier

This was first published in 1879 so it's no surprise that a lot of this book is out of date for one reason or another, but like MacKenzie's Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Life I really enjoyed it.

It's useful for a number of reasons: first, there are a few tidbits that I haven't seen anywhere else, so it's not just a rehashing of the same old stuff that tends to be trotted out elsewhere. The author draws from a lot of sources that I haven't seen used in more modern books, and adds in plenty of his own anecdotes and examples of folk-practice that he's seen himself, or even been involved in. Secondly, he's one of the sources that F Marian McNeill used in her Silver Bough series, so it's always good to go direct to the source and see for yourself.

Some of the more interesting things that caught my eye was the mention of the sunwise turn being performed before the start of anything important, like weddings, funerals and festive occasions. McNeill makes a vague mention of this in The Silver Bough (Volume 1) but doesn't give a source, so I assume this is where she got it from. There wasn't much in the way of festivals being covered (that you wouldn't find elsewhere), and there was no mention of Lùnasdal at all, but there were a few interesting things about how Hogmanay was celebrated when Napier was a child, for instance, that helped to offer something different.

Overall, Napier covers the usual areas like birth, death, marriage and childhood, but he also has a good look at types of charms and counter-charms, divination and witchcraft, and that was the stuff that interested me most. While The Gaelic Otherworld does a good job of covering pretty much anything and everything in that area, Napier comes up with plenty of extra stuff to supplement Campbell's works, but one thing to be said is that the details Napier provides aren't as useful in terms of practical application for a reconstructionist as Campbell is (or Ronald Black's editorial notes). Essentially, I suppose Napier's book help flesh things out a bit more, and the anecdotes help to give a better insight into the minds and culture of the people who observed the traditions than Campbell alone does.

The downside is that the book is very much a product of the time it was written in. The disapproval towards 'Romish' Christianity is amusing, as is his hasty attempt to assure the reader that superstitions are silly and evidence of a backward, primitive (and predominantly Catholic...) people, and that he views such things with a skeptical and professional eye, not a gullible one. This detachment is contradicted at times by his attitude towards some practices that make such things seem perfectly reasonable and not at all heathenish or 'superstitious', like when he talks about how a 'skilly' removed the evil eye from him as a child. It makes for an odd mix, and it's hard to tell whether the disclaimer is perfunctory and considered necessary by the publisher rather than author, or whether he really meant it and perhaps the things he experienced himself were familiar and therefore acceptable, whereas other things weren't so much...

Like MacKenzie (a good fifty years or so later), Napier attributes Celtic and especially druidical origins to the Phoenicians and Egyptians (presumably to give them a Biblical link, or something?). While it's easily read around, it might prove confusing for someone who's relatively new to the subject and hasn't yet got their head around a more up to date history of the Celts and knows for sure that Baal has nothing to do with Bealltuinn.

And one final thing: I laughed out loud, and then so did Mr Seren, when I read, "In Paisley, considered to be the most intelligent town in Scotland..." Oh, how times change. But for me this one is definitely a keeper.