Friday, 11 March 2011

Book Review: Cauldron of the Gods: A Manual of Celtic Magick

This book came up on the Nemeton list, and it piqued my interest as well as a few others. Having never heard of it before it was mentioned (and recommended) on the list, I decided to give it a go and see what it was about, and promised to share my thoughts about it once I was done.

I suppose I should admit my bias upfront: I find very little relevance in anything to do with the neopagan literary field these days. Those books that I've read in the more recent past don't tend to agree with my approach or viewpoint, and tend to be full of historical holes that I find difficult to get around. Granted, my reading of such books has mainly been because I know they're so bad...*looks at Witta*

But generally, neopagan books still tend to cater to a particular audience that I'm not a part of anymore. So with that in mind, and take that how you will, this is what I thought of the book:

Cauldron of the Gods: A Manual of Celtic Magick
Jan Fries

As a reconstructionist, it's hard to find decent books that cater to such an audience, especially the beginner or seeker if they want to look further than the CR FAQ. Academic books can be dry and off-putting, and rarely offer anything in terms of ideas for how to actually start doing anything in a ready-to-go form. Aside from being off-putting, then, they can be frustrating too, as a starting point.

In lieu of a lack of specifically CR 101 type books, some recons try looking elsewhere in the neopagan marketplace for something that might offer a sort of middle ground in the meantime. So as far as books are concerned, something that can offer good, solid information about the Celts, whilst dispelling any myths about potato goddesses, are always a plus. Some might feel that this book fits the bill, with a good dose of selective reading here and there, perhaps. I'm not sure I do, really, but I think I can see where they're coming from.

I can kind of see why this book was recommended, especially for the refreshingly analytical tone of assessing previous notions about the Celts in general. I can also see that for someone who's more interested in druidry, or bardery, or filidecht than I am, then this book might offer more in the way of inspiration that it did for me. In that respect, I can't say if there are any other books out there that might be better suited to the beginner, but certainly I can say from an Irish perspective in particular (IMHO), better sources could have been used.

Looking at the book on its own terms, as much as I can, I think that it's not, ultimately, about the Celts; the book is about self-transformation, and coming from an author who's described as a 'German occultist and freestyle shaman' on his Wikipedia page, that's not surprising, I don't think. It took me a while to realise this, though, but with hindsight the clue is in the title - the use of the word 'magick' - plus the fact that Crowley and his definition of 'magick' is mentioned on the first page...What can I say? Sometimes I'm just really slow...

I suppose you could say the Celtic packaging of the book is simply a hook to reel you in, and give you the message that (it seems) the author really want to get across, about aligning oneself with your True Will. But then again, that makes the Celtic stuff in the book sound superficial, and I'm not sure I can really say that it is - there are over 500 pages here, and you do get quite a lot of information on the Celts. And unlike say, McCoy or DJ Conway, Fries actually bothers to do some research. Arguably, though, the 'Celtic stuff' is treated as a means to an end, a part of the journey to reach the desired result.

For the beginner, who doesn't know much about the Celts at all, you'll learn a lot, and for the first few chapters it's all good stuff (with some quibbles here and there). As I began reading, I found it quite refreshing - a book! Aimed at neopagans! With actual research! Yes. There were a lot of exclamation marks to start with. But as I got further into it, I began to have more reservations about the way things are presented, and some of the interpretations the author gives.

Once we get passed the first few chapters and the druids, there's a heavy emphasis on poetry, particularly that of Taliesin (or, as Fries points out, the probably several Taliesins that there really were). The book eases us into all of this, though - first we learn about Celts and Celts throughout history; then we go into things a bit deeper - learning about druids, the bards of Wales, the filid of Ireland, songs, charms and story-telling, and so on.

As we go through the chapters we're given exercises to do - imagine this, imagine that, what do you think it was like? How does it measure up to the following information...There's a focus on knocking down pre-conceived ideas; historical fallacies, notions of druids prancing around in white robes; changes in academic approaches - from noble savages and builders of Stonehenge, to princely burials and the acceptance of the word 'Celtic' as a linguistic umbrella term, not a word that is meant to imply that all Celts are the same.

Much of this is solid, and presented in a conversational and engaging tone, with a good smattering of irreverant humour here and there, along with some illustrations by the author himself that helps to break things up a little. I learnt a few bits about the lesser known Celtic cultures, and agreed with a lot of what the first few chapters had to say. It all started off so well...I started to get a bit excited.

Deeper into the book, I started to have more and more problems with the approach and the content. It's not really clear where things are going, for one thing, even after the first couple of hundred pages. A few references to shamanism get thrown in (and I should say that I'm one of those who see it as a very culturally specific term, and not relevant to Celtic practice at all) until ultimately the reader is encouraged, if they so wish, to employ a few of the techniques we find in Siberian shaman initiation along our own journeys of self-realisation...This may be enough to put a fair few people off so much as touching the book with a bargepole, others may simply feel they can ignore it. I can say this made me feel deeply disappointed.

But my problems go beyond just a few mentions of shamanism, or even the addition of theories mooted about gods-as-aliens and Iolo Morganwg into the mix (to be fair, Fries is clear that Iolo is a fraud; he argues that the work is inspirational and worth looking at, whereas personally I'd instinctively avoid it. Another bargepole moment). One of my biggest problems with the books' general approach is the way the Celts are ultimately presented - yes, 'Celtic' is an umbrella term - hurrah for this being recognised for once! But personally I see the various Celtic cultures as being more distinct than Fries presents them - the divides for him by and large seem to be Continental vs Insular (or 'Island,' as he puts it), so Ireland, Wales and Scotland often get lumped together. It's not something I can get on board with, to be honest, although if you wanted to pick and choose bits that are relevant to your cultural interests, you could. The main focus is Welsh, though, and there was very little for me - in terms of Irish or Scottish content - that was either new or interesting.

But I'm getting ahead of myself...I mentioned there were exercises here and there. As we get deeper into the book, the exercises change. While the first exercises - meditations, really - focus on knocking down our own misconceptions about the Celts, the exercises begin to focus on the self, analysing ourselves and who we are. The exercises seek to impart betterment, fulfilling your potential, and various forms of hypnosis throughout its history are explored; neuro-linguistic programming is mentioned. At this point, having waded through approximately 375 pages, wondering where all this is going with very little clue, it occurs to me that the previous exercises, knocking down those fallacies about the Celts is really (it seems to me) just a subtle way of making the reader more receptive to analysing fallacies about themselves. As the book initially seeks to plunge us into the world of the Celts, giving us a clearer view, the table is turned onto ourselves.

I don't have a problem with this in itself, really, except the exercises themselves couldn't really be described as 'Celtic,' or 'Celtic Magick,' I don't think, and as such I'm not sure it lives up to being a 'manual' of such. As the book goes on, it becomes less about anything Celtic, and more about the author's own vision, with bits from Norse, Germanic and Siberian practices are drawn into it more and more, along with further reference to Crowley and mention of Qabala, none of which seems to be particularly relevant to the purported cultural focus of the book. References are increasingly made to previous books by the author, especially Seidways. If you're interested in the basic premise of the book and want to pursue it - do the exercises, and so on - then it seems that this is not a standalone book. I'd find that a little annoying, if I'd bought the book for that purpose, because it's not made clear on the blurb. Otherwise, I can't help but feel you might as well crack open a good book on Celtic cultures, like Bernhard Maier's The Celts...Maier's is shorter than this one, for a start.

Ultimately, while I'm given a good history lesson (although it's generally weaker on the Irish stuff than the Gaulish or Welsh - or what I know of the Welsh material involved here), I'm not really given much in the way of what practical applications might be as far as an actual Celtic religious practice might be. This isn't what the book promises, to be fair, but there's an awful lot of talk about it to start with - nemetons, burial practices, offerings, some reference to gods...But while it raises some hopes, it doesn't seem to lead anywhere.

Really, I think the book needed a heavy-handed editor (and a proofreader - it really really needed a proofreader). The promise of the first few chapters didn't deliver as far as the rest of the book was concerned, and bore very little relevance to it aside from giving a good historical grounding in who the Celts are, or were. We're talking several hundred pages about the Gauls, to suddenly switch to the Welsh, a smattering about the Irish, a dollop of the Carmina Gadelica, and then suddenly Bob's apparently your Siberian Shaman uncle...

I'd say it's certainly an interesting and unique book. Perhaps, for me, interesting because of its uniqueness than anything I really got from it.