Saturday, 13 October 2012

Book review: Celtic Curses

Back at the start of summer I got a good haul from the library that I planned on working my way through for reading or research purposes, and of the ones I decided to read all the way through, I got an lot of good stuff from them, which is always yay-making. I didn't manage to read two of them before I had to take the haul back so I decided to renew them and I've been making a concerted effort to get through them as fast as I can, and now I'm one down with half of the other to go.

Like the other books I've reviewed from the haul so far, these two are relatively recent publications, so they're more up to date than a lot of the recommended reading on Celtic Reconstructionist reading lists and I think they'll make good additions to any wish list. The one I'll be reviewing just now is from 2009 and of the two I think it has a wider appeal. Gaulish and, to a lesser extent, Brythonic or Welsh Polytheists will benefit from this book as well, I reckon.

Celtic Curses
Bernard Mees

Going by the title alone it's the sort of thing that could go one of two ways, being either the kind of book that would be more at home amongst the likes of your common or garden variety ye ancient Irish potato goddess fluff, or else one that lurks on my wishlist for many a birthday until I can justify splurging on it. Or, y'know. Get a job. Considering it's the latter, the title seems a little provocative and I think to a certain extent it is. But I'll get to that.

Just like the title suggests, we're dealing mainly with the subject matter of cursing in Celtic contexts. The "Celtic" in question is primarily Gaulish to start with, before moving to Brythonic areas (particularly the evidence from Bath), and then Irish evidence. Some Scottish and Welsh gets a look in, but that's mainly incidental, to be honest. Other kinds of magical practices are considered too - ones that might also share some sort of similarities with cursing that might indicate common origins in practice, or perhaps even direct influences. In these cases we're especially looking at Irish evidence like gessi and lorica prayers, and things like the Song of Lugh and the Morrígan's (or Badb's) prophecy from Cath Maige Tuired. Gessi and loricae get chapters to themselves, but things like the prophecy and the Song of Lugh get a few pages or so in the penultimate chapter "Incantations."

The first part of the book primarily deals with the Gaulish evidence while the latter half concentrates more on the Irish and (to a lesser extent) the Welsh evidence, although there are frequent cross-overs. As far as the Gaulish evidence goes we're primarily looking at defixiones, and Mees argues that while the practice certainly owes a lot to Classical influence, Gaulish defixiones also bear the hallmarks of "indigenous" beliefs at play as well. This is mainly borne out by the fact that Gaulish defixiones are often metrical, where as they aren't in Classical practice. Mees also points to the fact that the Irish word for charm or incantation, bricht, also refers to poetic metre of eight syllables, implying the metre itself was originally an integral part of magical charms, and the Gaulish word brixt which is clearly related to the Irish bricht suggests that the metrical element is ultimately a Celtic feature of magic in general. 

This is where the slightly provocative part comes in; from the beginning Mees makes it clear that he views the evidence as a continuum between the earlier and later evidence - i.e from the early evidence in Gaul to the later evidence in Ireland. In supporting this theory, Mees sets out to show coincidences and possible continuity in the evidence (like with brixt --> bricht) in order to argue that such practices bear underlying "Celtic" features. I'm sure there will be strong critics of Mees' idea, and I think it's safe to say that some points are more convincing than others. One of the quibbles I had is that in some places there is very little discussion of the kinds of issues affecting the sources we're looking at, and it seems assumed that because it is written, it must be authentic and representative of actual practice. Given the amount of issues that affect Irish myth in particular, this could have done with being addressed in a bit more detail than it was.

All in all it's a fascinating read and the author gives plenty of examples of curses in discussing the kind of forms they took, the context they were found in, and the features that could be considered to be specifically "Celtic" or specific to a particular Celtic culture and why that might be. In most cases the original language is given alongside with a translation, which is extremely useful, and considering the fact that the language can often be very obscure or difficult there's good discussion of how the translation was arrived at, and the kinds of symbolism and meaning might lurk beneath the techncial terms used. You also get the delights of the kinds of phrasing that people chose to use - one Gaulish example invoking a curse on various things belonging to their intended victim, including their lunch box.

For the most part we just look at what the curses say and what that tells us about cursing and concepts like fate or destiny that must be manipulated in order to effect the curse. This is extremely useful in itself, but I couldn't help but feel that it would have been more useful with some discussion of the religious context they were performed in - not just how the curses were made, who did them, and so on, but also the underlying cosmological and religious concepts they drew on. There is some discussion, but more would have been better. I was also slightly disappointed about the fact that bullauns don't get a look in - or really any kinds of more modern "pishrogues" and folk practices. Cursing wells get a brief mention as the final chapter, but that's about it.

There really isn't much else like this out there that's so readily accessible, so in many respects the few negatives are forgivable because it's very much a beginning in looking at this sort of subject, and there is only so much you can fit in to one book. As far as things Gaelic go, the chapter on "Breastplates and Clamours" has a lot to offer, and so do the chapters on ''Geasa and Binding" and "Incantations" (in spite of my aforementioned reservations about how the myths are approached). In a lot of the Gaulish curses there are deities that are called upon that results in good discussion that I think will be of interest - for Ogmios in particular.

If you're at all interested in how magical practices might look in a reconstructionist context then I'd highly recommend it. I've not seen it going for very cheap but if you can get your hands on a copy then I don't think you'll regret it.


nefaeria said...

Thank you for the review Seren! This book is now definitely on my shortlist {although it will still be ages til I can afford to get it, along with the other titles on said wishlist}. I need to win the lottery or something.

Seren said...

*Sighs* I know that feeling! If I could afford all of the books I wanted I'd have to buy a new house just so I could fit them all in, too...