Saturday, 28 May 2011

In the garden, before another review

In spite of the gloriousness of April, May has been a total wash out. Earlier this week most of Scotland was battered by storms and heavy winds that got up to over 130mph. I'm not sure how strong they were round here, but it was enough to knock more than a few trees down around the village, and closed the coastal road even heading into Greenock - generally more sheltered than the road heading south into Largs.

This is the sort of weather we're more used to in late autumn or winter - it was so cold yesterday that we finally gave in and put the heating back on for a wee bit again. Suffice it to say, the cold, rain, and lack of sunshine means there's not much happening in the vegetable patch at the moment, and unless the weather improves dramatically then I'm not sure we'll have much to show for it come the autumn. Not that I've been able to do much in the garden anway.

One success is this:

The poppies are in full bloom at the moment, a bright antidote to the dismal grey sky. When I originally planted them I was under the impression that they were going to be proper red ones - these seem a little washed out and I presume that's just the variety, or maybe poor soil quality (or a bit of both).

I've sown some more to put out in the front garden, but these poppies are growing in the patch of flowerbed out the back that I set aside for a wee spiritual focal point. They're growing in between a small cairn I've built to comemmorate my ancestors, and a small pond I use as a focal point to put some offerings out when I'm gardening and weeding (sadly neglected this year, but Rosie is keen on tending things with offerings of daisies and buttercups when she thinks no one's looking).

The poppies themselves are dedicated to the memory of one of my grandads - Poppy, as I called him - who was a gardener. I'm glad they've come along so well since I planted them three years ago now. If only I could say the same for the vegetable patch...

But now, another review.

The Year in Ireland
Kevin Danaher

This is another one of those seminal books that should go on every aspiring reconstructionist's booklist if they happen to have an interest in Ireland. It's one of those books that I love so much that I'm hard-pressed to find much to say about it that's particularly negative.

Do you want chapters covering just about everything you want to know about the Irish festival calendar? Check. Do you want it illustrated? Check. A good read? Check check check. That's about all you need to know, really.

It's set within a very Catholic festival year so not everything will be relevant to a polytheistic context, but it does do a good job of giving a good idea of the cultural context in which you'll find the festivals. The book is laid out well, with each chapter dealing with a different festival, meaning that some of them are only a page long, if that. For the longer chapters there are various subheadings to help break everything up and make it easier to dip into for reference - definitely a good thing because I don't find the index at the back to be particularly detailed or helpful.

Danaher gives a good amount of detail for the more popular festivals, and covers a goodly amount of ground in terms of the scope of his research and the dissemination of it. For anyone wanting to get to grips with ideas for things to do for the festivals then this is really the first place you'll want to look, and it will give a lot of inspiration. I've mentioned other books that are a good supplement to this over the course of the reviews I've done, but this book will really be your go-to book, unless you want to start delving into journals and more specialised areas of research, or lengthier and more concentrated books like Máire MacNeill's The Festival of Lughnasa, or Sean O'Duinn's The Rites of Brigid.*

This is not a quick read by any means, I've found. It's not a massive tome but it does pack a lot of stuff into it, and there's a lot for the beginner to chew on. Had it been written by a not so accomplished author, it would probably be overwhelming in that respect, but Danaher is not only an excellent writer, he also seems to be genuinely passionate about his subject, and that shines through in his work and helps carry the reader along, I think. Plus, it's the sort of book that's good for dipping into every now and then - picking it up to read the relevant chapters as you go along through the year. For the beginner, I would recommend getting hold of a copy of this as soon as you possibly can.

* I thought I'd reviewed this already - and I'm still semi-convinced I did, but can't find it. This review here, from a promising new blogger, does a good job of pretty much mirroring my thoughts on it.

Another review, this time, four for the price of one...

This next review is long overdue - as some of the first books I ever bought for myself once I finally decided to take the plunge into Celtic Reconstructionism, they've been instrumental to my path and my research, and their value cannot be overstated.

The Silver Bough: Volume I-IV
F. Marian McNeill

Coming in at four volumes, the full set for the series may set you back a pretty penny if you indulge yourself in one go, but I can tell you straight away that these books are well worth it. I'd originally intended to review them all separately, on their own merits, but in the end I decided that was pointless seeing as I'm not sure they can be fully appreciated without reading each book, and many of their strengths and weakness are the same or very similar. I figured I'd probably just end up repeating myself.

First of all, I'll give an idea of what each volume covers:

The Silver Bough Volume I: Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Belief

Here we have an introduction to various aspects of folklore, from witchcraft and fairies, to different types of charms and folk practices. Of all the introductory tomes to the subject, I think this is the most accessible and strikes the right balance between hitting all the right bases without overloading the reader.

The Silver Bough Volume II: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals Candlemas to Harvest Home

Covering Candlemas, Easter, Bealltainn, Lúnastal and the harvest festivals including Michaelmas, this is probably the best place to start if you want to find out anything about these festivals. Again, it's accessible and detailed, but won't overload. For some subjects - like Bealltainn - various different aspects of it are covered in several chapters, but for the most part this is the sort of book you can dip into as and when you get to each particular time of year to get an understanding of what the festivals are about, and for ideas of what you can do.

The Silver Bough Volume III: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals Hallowe'en to Yule

Covering a slightly shorter period of the year, but with good reason because there's a lot to pack in. Chapters include covering Samhainn, Christmas, Yule, Hogmanay, and Handsel Monday. Much of what you'll find for Samhainn/Hallowe'en is also covered - with more additional details - in McNeill's standalone book, Hallowe'en: Its Origin Rites and Ceremonies in the Scottish Tradition.

The Silver Bough Volume IV: The Local Festivals of Scotland

Covering the different local festivals, grouped loosely by the time of year (although there's some need for a bit of backwards and forwards here). Of the four volumes, this one is probably of least immediate value and relevance to the beginner, but it gives good additional details for when you want to get stuck in a bit further, or are looking for customs that might relate to somewhere you have heritage from.

The value of these books - and the love I have for this author - cannot be overstated. Although I'd unreservedly recommend the whole set to anyone, however, that doesn't mean that they're not without their problems...

The first volume was published in 1957, with subsequent volumes coming out every couple of years thereafter. This means that not everything is necessarily as up to date as you might hope, and some of the interpretations given by McNeill aren't necessarily solid. I tend to be more forgiving of things like that in older books such as these, but they need commenting on all the same - McNeill's frequent mention of druids, and linking customs with 'ancient druid practices' need to be ignored, for example, because there's simply no evidence to support what she's saying there.

Likewise, because much of McNeill's research is based upon older books, it helps to know what you're dealing with there. She goes along with Fraser and his The Golden Bough sometimes, and for the Cailleach, for example, she draws upon MacKenzie's work. It has to be said that he's not necessarily the most reliable source for that kind of thing even if he is interesting. It helps to be a little circumspect there.

References are given throughout the volumes but in trying to follow up on some things, McNeill hasn't been as thorough as I would have liked. Having familiarised myself with a lot of the stuff she's drawn her research from I can see where bits have come from now, but it does cause a headache or two if you don't know to start with. What she does reference, however, is sound - she doesn't try to fudge anything with giving references that don't really follow what she's saying, so over all you'll find she's quite reliable.

Because of the cost involved in getting hold of all four volumes - not outrageous, but not necessarily within everyone's means - I've tried to find alternatives. The Scottish volumes of British Calendar Customs are a good substitute, but unless you can find them from the library you probably won't have much luck buying them and I would say they're probably not as readable as McNeill anyway. Sheila Livingstone's Scottish Customs, and Scottish Festivals, both draw heavily from McNeill, are cheaper and less detailed, and might do well for someone who's a little daunted by the prospect of getting stuck into four volumes right away. I reviewed those as well, and found them to be a little problemmatic, though, so my recommendation there comes with a bit of a qualifier.

The Silver Bough is by no means the only thing you'll ever need to read, but it does give a fantastic start, I think. Along with Ronald Black's The Gaelic Otherworld, I would recommend the first three volumes (at the least) as must-haves for the beginner.

Next up: Our Highland Folklore Heritage by Alexander Polson

Our Highland Folklore Heritage
Alexander Polson

A while ago I read and reviewed another of Polson's books, Scottish Witchcraft Lore, which - over all - I liked. It's one of those books I wish I could afford, so I could add it to my hoard. It was mainly for that reason that I picked this one up - to see if it was as good as the one I've already read, and to see if this book has anything to add to the subject.

For the most part, the answer to the latter point is: not really. In many respects, this book is like a precursor to Scottish Witchcraft Lore - Our Highland Folklore Heritage was published slightly earlier, and is slightly shorter in length, too, and in general there's quite an overlap in subject matter and content between them when dealing with witchcraft and related matter. This book has a broader scope at least, so it's not all the same sort of stuff by any means. For me, a downside is that what's missing here are most of the things that I enjoyed so much about Scottish Witchcraft Lore - mainly the interviews with witches and groundwork that Polson himself did for that book - so for me it's not really a cheaper substitute (this book is at least within my means if I want to buy it) in that respect. Then again, it would be pretty pointless writing two books that are basically identical, so looking at the book on its own merits, that's a big plus.

What this book does offer is a simple introduction to various aspects of Highland folklore - lore at sea, witches and witchcraft, fairy lore, second sight, ghosts, various kinds of spirits, and so on. Each chapter is quite short, but they hit all the right notes for giving a basic overview and there are plenty of stories, many of which Polson collected from his students during his time teaching in various places in the far north of Scotland. They probably aren't ones that you'll find published in too many different places, so that's a major plus too.

For the most part, each chapter covers things that you might already know if you've read other introductions to the subject, but Polson presents everything in a brisk but engaging style, at least (sometimes, it's more like he's just putting some notes down than attempting to write anything more flowery), and a lot of it is from the horse's mouth. Polson doesn't offer too much in the way of detailed analysis, rather he lets the material speak for itself and you can draw your own conclusions.

As a quick and straightforward read, and for anyone looking for a good introduction to the topic, or just something that adds a little more to the subject, I'd definitely recommend this one.

Bealltainn - part two

Mmmmmm. Cheese scones...

I finally got around to finishing off my Bealltainn celebrations just shy of two weeks after I started - there was ritual, there were offerings, there were bannocks, and scones, and stew,  and also skimming and saining, and making of charms, and cutting of rowan for the charm-making thereof...Things were a little muted, but I'm learning to adapt to a new life of not always being so mobile, and making the most of when I can.

There's nothing like living with constant pain - of varying degrees, at least - and the side effects of medications meant to help control the pain, to give someone a bit of a boot up the arse as far as spirituality and practice go. Or me, that is. And as far as life in general goes, really. At the moment I'm in a medical limbo between getting a diagnosis (the ins and outs of which are far too boring to go into) and getting the appropriate treatment for my particular problem, so I'm both waiting and doing what I can in terms of living and coping without too many drugs fogging up my brain, and adapting life to within means I'm actually capable of. Fun.

Inevitably, it seems, compromises will have to be made in future. From now on, if my back isn't up to it then the festive dinners may not always be slavishly cooked from scratch, the bread not freshly baked, or the butter freshly churned, as I'd prefer, but the intent remains the same. Likewise, ritual may have to become more internalised at times, rather than accompanied by ritualised actions and gestures, but until I ever reach the point where I can delegate these things, what will be will be. I do those things because I enjoy doing them, because it makes sense to me; not because I have to, not because it makes me more spiritual in some way.

One thing I can still do, though, is read. I haven't done as much reading as I'd like lately, really (medication and brain fog etc), but I have a small backlog accumulating, and over the next however many posts I'll be trying to clear it. First up is:

Celtic Flame: An Insider's Guide to Irish Pagan Tradition
Aedh Rua

As I understand it, this was originally written as a CR101 book, but never quite made it that far, for one reason or another. The author himself stresses that he no longer identifies as CR, although the influence of some of those who were involved in the early stages of the CR community (especially Alexei Kondratiev) is unmistakeable. The book also begins with a veritable who's who of movers and shakers as far as the founders of CR are concerned.

Perhaps because of all this - both the author's involvement, the influence, and the many names invoked here - I can't help but feel that the focus of the book gets a little confused at times. On the one hand, it's not a CR book, but one that describes the author's own path and beliefs. Fair enough. On the other, it seems that the audience the author is talking to is meant to be, or expected to be, CR, since this is the community most often referred to.

This might be indicative of the fact that the book and the author evolved in their path over the course of its writing, or else it could be that the author simply assumes that the CR community, or those interested in it, will indeed be his audience. If it's the latter, I don't think it really works too well; if it's the former, then it's probably symptomatic of the fact that this is a self-published title and, like so many under that heading, in need of some editing - and certainly elsewhere, in terms of layout, formatting and proofreading, it could use some work too. There's nothing major here, but the Bibliography alone causes a headache if you actually want to find something; the references don't always seem to match up to what's being talked about, and so on.

It's an odd sort of book. In terms of doing what it offers, I think it does well - you come away with a good idea what the author's path is all about, even if there is some confusion as I've mentioned. I would have to disagree that it's 'authentic Irish pagan tradition' as the author presents it; rather, it's one way of doing things, and I have to say I find language like that a little concerning and disconcerting. The chapter on values, however, genuinely offers something that I've not seen elsewhere - outside of Alexei Kondratiev's article on Celtic Values, which it draws heavily on - although it maybe ends up going on a little too long as far as how they relate to different levels of society is concerned.

The author also goes out of his way to include a good amount of Irish (and in the ritual chapter, Scottish Gaelic, too) - introducing Irish words for concepts he's explaining, explaining what they mean, and so on. That's a definite plus, but along the way all these different words gets hard to keep track of, and I didn't realise there was a handy glossary given at the back until I'd nearly finished the whole book (it's not listed in the contents page). The Irish in particular seems a bit confused to me, with - as far as I can tell - Old Irish and modern Irish mixed up at times, but always with modern pronunciations given (when they're given at all). This may be an issue of spelling/proofing more than anything else, but I would be leery of using any of it myself without checking it thoroughly first. In the ritual chapter, I have to give the author props for being upfront and honest that his Irish isn't up to adapting the Gàidhlig of the Carmina Gadelica, but I'm not sure that simply adapting the Gàidhlig with Irish deities is nothing more than something of a fudge - this is supposed to be Irish Paganism, it seems to detract a little from that.

The ritual format is not something I personally get along with - tools, casting a circle to make a sacred space, invocations to deities and so - but some of the poetry here is quite good and inspiring. With the Carmina Gadelica being a major source for inspiration here, it's maybe not something that will be unfamiliar, but I'm always interested in what other people do with it, and how they approach the material.

The section on gods also bears mentioning - the way the gods, spirits and ancestors are split up into the 'head' gods, 'specialist gods (of skill) tutelary spirits/gods, and so on - is genuinely nothing I've ever seen before and interesting for that alone, even if I don't entirely agree with the reasoning. One problem I have here is that the gods are listed in terms of attributes and symbols (including lunar/solar stuff for good measure), with a handy reference guide on what to call on them for - it comes across more like a menu for rent-a-god than anything with real depth, and certainly is one of the points where the author and most CRs would most definitely disagree.

His views on the Fomorians are a little too black and white - he has them as demons, eternally pitted against the Tuatha Dé Danann. At the very least, this seems to ignore the fact that after the Fomoire were defeated at the Second Battle of Mag Tured, they're never mentioned in an adversarial role again (as far as I can recall. The TDD themselves take on that role, against the Milesians, even). It also ignores later Irish folk tradition. Other types of spirits are included under the Fomorian title, though, including Scottish ones like the Fachan, which not only confuses the Irish focus in the book otherwise, but also doesn't address the point that although they might seem similar, but that doesn't mean they're the same...I think if you find this book of interest, this is a chapter best ignored.

All in all, this seems to be a book that came so close, and yet didn't go far enough in some areas. To a certain extent it feels unfinished in a way that I can't exactly put my finger on. Certain parts feel like they need fleshing out - a little spit and polish wouldn't go amiss in general - and over all I think it would've done better to stand on its own merits rather than in the shadow (even nominally) of CR.