Thursday, 21 July 2011

Book Review: Highland Heathenry

Update: Please note that this book is no longer available.
Highland Heathenry: Ritual Formula for Gaelic Heathens
Ikindé Skréja Ominnsaer

Finally, another offering for a Celtic Reconstructionist's bookshelf; like the last one I reviewed that was aimed at such an audience, I bought it through Lulu, so it's a self-published work. And like the previous book, a large part of this one focuses on material from the Carmina Gadelica. Where they differ is that while Morgan Daimler's book perhaps offers more scope in the amount of charms offered, Highland Heathenry offers more detail on ritual outlines as a whole, as well as both English and Gàidhlig versions of the charms that have been chosen for the book, and reworked and 'de-constructed' for a CR audience.

The book is aimed primarily at the beginner, or anyone looking for an introduction to ritual within CR - specifically Scottish (Gàidhlig) practice. It's very short, which should be a good thing for anyone looking for something that isn't too overwhelming; the content presented here is clear and to the point, beginning with clear definitions for certain words and terms that the author uses throughout, and the reader is encouraged to go and do their own research as well.

The layout is clear and the use of some of the illustrations from the Carmina Gadelica gives a nice touch to the overall look and feel of the book. It's a little smaller than A4 in size, and considering the fact that many of the charms and rituals offered throughout the book cover more than one page, the size helps if you want to sit down and study what's going on here without having to constantly flick through.

Where the book falls down, I think, is in some of the details. Some are minor and probably more a matter of taste - I would quibble that for a CR book, 'heathenry' isn't the most appropriate term to use because (as far as I'm aware) most associate it with a specifically Norse practice. It would also have been nice to see more thorough and consistent referencing throughout (though there is some).

It has to be said that there are some fairly fundamental problems to be found here as well, that go beyond quibbles. I think this is truly unfortunate; what the book aims to deliver is good, it's just the problems all add up to having to question whether or not the book as a whole is workable without at least some major revision. Some of the information offered is just inaccurate - for example, the bile is a sacred tree that stands at the heart of a tuath's territory, not "a pile of stones with a flat table-topper slate." I think what's being referred to here is actually a dolmen, and these are common to Ireland (and neolithic), but not Scotland, and nor is there any evidence that they were used as altars by the Celts. There is also reference to the arms of the triskele representing the Dagda, Lugh, and Ogma, and also the cycle of life from childhood, adulthood, to old age, which is based on a questionable resource; the meaning of the triskele is by no means known for certain, although there are many modern interpretations. As UPG these are not something I can debate, but here they are apparently presented as fact, and that's where the problem lies.

The inclusion of Rhiannon and 'Toranis' as deities in a book that encourages specifically Gaelic practice, and also their assignations as deities of particular elements (albeit in a Gaelic elemental context, not Classical) is completely out of place to me, as is the use of the Welsh names for the solstices and equinoxes - Alban Arthuan, Alban Eiler, Alban Heruin, and Alban Elved. I suspect these names may have origins in modern druidic practice as well, which puts them doubly out of place.

A fair few of the charms will be ones that most recons will already be familiar with and are likely to have adapted for use themselves, so it's good to see Gàidhlig versions of these readily on offer and available for a reconstructionist audience. There are some that I find problematic, though, and at least one of them appears in a completely different context than it was originally meant; for the Bealltainn celebrations, Carmichael's Red Water Charm has been used as a 'Bealltainn exorcism' in the morning. As far as I'm aware, exorcisms are not a pre-Christian concept, and the charm itself is originally meant to be a healing charm for kidney stones. The use of the charm and the idea in general just seem thoroughly out of place, even inappropriate here.

At times, the Gàidhlig that's offered is also a little problemmatic. Spelling is a recurring problem - mixing both old and modern orthography, as well as a lot of spelling mistakes, and some errors are downright unfortunate (the Diesel Turn, instead of the the Deiseil Turn), but not something that couldn't be corrected in further editions with thorough proofing. As it is, though, while these will be easily spotted by anyone who knows what they're looking for, it will make the job of reading through and correctly pronouncing certain parts for others, who may be less advanced or confident in their understanding of Gàidhlig, more difficult.

However, while I can't claim to be advanced in my studies of Gàidhlig, I suspect that the problem may go deeper than spelling and orthography, with some parts of the Gàidhlig itself. For one, I have reservations with the use of the word 'deathachan' as the Gàidhlig for 'gods'; as far as I'm aware, the accepted plural is 'diathan,' and as far as I can tell the only source for 'deathachan' having this meaning is Alexander Carmichael himself. While it's possible this is an archaism, I suspect given the context of Carmichael's use of the word that it's more likely to be his own extrapolation, and so the accuracy of it seems questionable. Over all, it gives cause for concern about the reliability of the transliterations here.

Books that are aimed at a purely Celtic Reconstructionist audience are still very thin on the ground, and like the last one I reviewed this one is self-published; given the fact that the CR community is probably still very small, and self-publishing allows greater editorial control over the content without having to compromise with a publishing house, I think this is the way that most CR books in future will go. The main downside to this is that proofreading is often an issue, and it puts the author at a disadvantage in terms of advertising their work compared to an established publishing house, and many must also rely solely on online sales rather than those from a bookshop; maybe most people buy their books online nowadays anyway, but there are certainly those who would still prefer to be able to look at something before they buy it (edit for clarity: though in this instance there is a preview option for the introduction and blurb).

As such, reviews like this are certainly going to be one way that any self-published author will hope to garner at least a few sales. I do regret that I can't give this book a better review, but when all is said and done, I've tried to be honest and objective in what I find just as with any other book I review here. Ultimately, I find that the problems with the book are a severe detriment to what it's trying to achieve. Although over all it's aims are good; I'm just not sure it's quite there.