Saturday, 14 June 2008

Archive: Animals in Celtic Life and Myth - Miranda Green

Animals in Celtic Life and Myth
Miranda Green

I'd heard good things about this one, and after a few quick flicks through, I was sure I wouldn't be disappointed. After reading all the way through, though, I have kind of mixed feelings about it but to be fair I think it's largely to do with the fact that I read it from start to finish - if not in one go, then in one week (or so...).

A friend described the style of writing as "...meaty even though it's dry---sort of like a very thick sandwich on whole-grain bread with no mayo at-tall." I can't disagree with this or come up with anything better to describe it, so there you have it (and I like the imagery). For me it's not so much of a problem, but I can imagine that someone who isn't so used to academic writing might find this book more than a little dry. While I wouldn't say it's a good beginners book, I'd say it's a good intermediate book rather than something for those who are looking a little more advanced. The subject matter isn't particularly esoteric and in spite of the academic style Green's very good at keeping teh big wurdz to a minimum.

There's certainly a lot of meat to the book, but for me the biggest negative is that it's repetitive; I would guess that this is because it's intended towards the sort of audience that's more likely to dip into it than read it from start to finish (so they can write an essay, say), and so from that perspective the repetitiveness helps because it makes having to get through whole chapters or portions of the book less important to read. But after four or five chapters, it really began to grate for me.

With that said, I really liked the content of the book. Green covered quite a few things that I'd been wondering about, particularly a tantalising* comment I read in Barry Cunliffe's The Ancient Celts about the apparent significance of dogs and horses in ritual context. First and foremost Green takes an archaeological look at the evidence available, but she also looks at the literary evidence as well as art in later chapters. This approach keeps things nice and separate, and for the most part allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about the possible significance of any similarities that can be found in art and archaeology compared to the (usually later) literature. Then again, it also helps to contribute to some of the repetition.

The first five chapters deal mainly with the archaeological evidence, separating animals in the context of farming practice, hunting, war and ritual; these divisions, since many of the animals that are dealt with were used in a variety of contexts also contribute to the repetition, but it does make sense when you want to use the book for quick reference. For me, the chapter on ritual usage was most interesting in some respects, but also the most repetitive because of its layout - first addressing the ritual contexts animals are found in (pits, graves enclosures, for example), and then addressing the types of animals found in such contexts (and I realise I'm becoming repetitious with the mentions of the repetition and could try and make out that I'm being clever and ironic, but I'm not, it genuinely became an issue for me...), but it was good to have an idea of the general context of how animals were used and perceived before I got to that chapter.

One thing that was becoming increasingly apparent by this point in the book was Green's reliance on a few specific sites from Britain and Gaul - Danebury, Gournay-sur-Aronde and so on. This isn't Green's fault - there are relatively few sites that have been excavated to any great extent from this period so it's no surprise really - but there wasn't much analysis of how this might affect our view of Celtic society and culture. It's evident that both of these sites, for example, show an unusual concentration of animal bone but the significance of this apparent uniqueness wasn't really delved into much. Neither was the fact that the evidence Green was looking at came from a very wide area (primarily England and Gaul) over quite a significant period of time, and the effect of any evolution in usage or portrayal of such animals might had in our interpretation of the evidence. In later chapters there was very little effort made in trying to reconcile the apparent disconnect between the geography of the archaeology (primarily England and Gaul), and the later literary evidence from Wales and Ireland as well.

The chapters on art, myth and religion gave a welcome change in subject and re-ignited my interest, but while they gave a good overview of the myths and motifs relating to animals found in early Irish and Welsh literature, they were very superficial. Not such a bad thing as far as an introduction goes, perhaps, but in parts there were elements of interpretation I would have mentioned even if I didn't agree with them; the motif of the 'heroes portion' (typically seen as pagan) found in The Tale of Mac Datho's Pig, for example, could equally be interpreted as an Irish rendering or conflation of the idea of the Biblical theme of potluck found in the Bible. I'm no expert on the Bible, but if memory serves Kim McCone explores the idea in more detail. In terms of interpreting such tales it's an important counter-weight argument that should have been considered (if such material was available to Green at the time of writing, that is). Ignoring such a view implies a specific agenda on the author's behalf that tends to undermine some confidence if it was available at the time, or else it makes the material a little dated.

There were a few small points that also dated the book a little, and for me this was most obvious on the chapter concerning Cernunnos, where Green states there's only one inscription to the god known in Gaul. This is what I learned at uni, but a Gaulish expert I know pointed me to three further inscriptions and surely that means a lot more could have been said on the subject had the evidence been available.

All in all you could do a lot worse than reading this book. It's well referenced and well written, and while it does have its problems, I'd still say it's a good book for anyone wanting to go beyond the basics. One final point however - Green's insistence on the idea of there being 'sky gods' and 'solar gods' and so forth requires some reading around. While it was very popular for classically educated scholars to lump gods of any culture under these headings, I consider it misleading and unnecessary to say the least. Gods are much more than labels and to continue with such an approach grates for me. It's a minor point, though, so not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it's something that's found in pretty much all of Green's work.