Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Archive: Mythic Ireland - Michael Dames

Mythic Ireland
Michael Dames

It's a good job I'm not one to judge a book by a cover, because frankly, when I opened the envelope and took this book out, my first impression was, "Has somebody vomited over it and then tried drawing a pretty picture of the space-time continuum with the leftovers, during an acid trip? Hmmm?"

Apparently though, according to the dust jacket inside, it's supposed to be a "drawing of the carved stone mace-head from Knowth, Co. Meath".


I'm a little conflicted about this book...I think I can see where Dames is coming from, but I'm not sure if it's worked - for me, anyway. I was expecting to read something along the lines of Alwyn and Brinley Rees' Celtic Heritage (but more up to date), so perhaps I've been a little blindsided by my expectations. I want to really love this book, but ultimately, deep down, I have a lot of reservations about it.

The book is split into five main parts, along with the obligatory introductions and conclusions and so on, and each section deals with a particular province and the relevant mythic sites and figures in that area. In this sense it offers something much different to Celtic Heritage because it deals far more with local myths and the Dindshenchas (Placename Folklore) than it does the kinds of myths from the cycles that are normally dealt with. Neither does it make any real effort to analyse how such tales might have evolved over time - instead, it takes them at face value, offers some explanation and analysis as to how they relate to Ireland and its sacred places, and then it's time to move on. The fifth section, focusing on Mide, attempts to synthesise the mythical threads of the four provinces into a whole, a coherent body of lore that represents all of Ireland, radiating from the sacred centre of Uisnech.

That, for me, is one of the major problems I had with the book right there...Viewed from a more scholarly perspective, it's little more than an attempt to crowbar the mythological landscape into a fairly romanticised view of how it all might have been, taking no account of how the sites may have sprung up over time or changed in function and so on.

It's a seductive approach in a way, though, because it takes the subject outside of the stuffy academic sensibilities that often make reading about this sort of thing so dull and boring. Instead of talking in terms of what was, Dames makes it clear that this is a living breathing mythology and mythological landscape. These are not Ye Olde Godes who've scampered under a hill or two (as per their agreement with the Milesians), that he's writing about, but the gods that were and still are a part of Ireland today.

This is both refreshing and a little unfortunate, because while on the one hand it gives a sense of the gods as living beings in a modern landscape - not simply 'characters' in myth and legend, who are to be studied and analysed in an intellectual and fairly two dimensional manner - it also feeds the romanticism that Dames sometimes indulges in. Romanticism isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I think it skews how Dames presents what he writes, allowing him to explore what might have been rather than what's likely to have been (if I put my archaeologist's hat on, as Dames is also an archaeologist, I'd say he takes more of a post-processual approach at times, though I'm not sure he'd agree, and there's a definite processual thing going on as well, if that's even possible to mix the two...)...If anything I guess it serves as a reminder that everyone views the gods a little differently, and that how we approach them can (and should) be a very personal thing.

With a healthy smattering of Mircea Eliade and Gimbutas thrown in for good measure, along with the fact that gods are pretty much all presented within a solar-deity framework, I have a lot of quibbles with the way he presents some of the material and the sorts of sweeping statements he makes - replete with a lack of any real referencing except, usually, when he quotes from someone directly. An example of this would be Aine, who he equates with Anu, and promptly pronounces her a solar goddess outright without really providing any referenced material as to why or how this is so, or why others may not see her that way (but then again, after reading the chapter I did end up thinking he might have a point, and it would be good to see an argument of the fors and againsts in the solar god argument as far as Celtic/Irish gods are concerned...I digress).

In amongst all of the more problemmatical bits I found some genuinely interesting stuff in there, including an example of an Irish smooring prayer - but it wasn't referenced so I can't follow it up. This is annoying. However, in spite of all the downers I have about the book I also found it kind of inspirational. It challenged my more stuffy academic outlook on the subject and presented a lot of folk tales and bits of lore that I wasn't familiar with. While I didn't agree with a lot of what he had to say, or more often, looked askance at it because it wasn't clear quite where he got certain things from, the book certainly helped give a sense of the sacredness of the landscape.

All in all, I don't think I'd recommend every CR person I came across to go and buy the book now now now. But it's an interesting tome, and so far as my reading's gone thus far, it's certainly fairly unique. I can see why I never came across this book in an academic context, and I can see how its often outdated references and ideas might prove problemmatic for a reconstructionist approach as well, but taken with an open mind and a healthy pinch of salt, I think a lot can be taken away from the book that's useful for developing a spirituality in a CR setting.