Sunday, 1 July 2012

Book review: The Cult of the Sacred Centre: Essays on Celtic Ideology

A book review now. This is one of the library books I got a while back, and it's been recalled by another user so it has to go back tomorrow. It means I've not been able to go over it as thoroughly as I'd normally like, but enough for a fairly basic review, I think.

The Cult of the Sacred Centre: Essays on Celtic Ideology 
Proinsias Mac Cana

I think it's safe to say that Mac Cana contributed a huge amount to Celtic Studies during his lifetime, and this book (a collection of some otherwise unpublished articles that have been put together posthumously) carries on that legacy. Mac Cana had been in the process of finalising the collation of these articles into a book just as he died in 2004, but nonetheless it took some time for the volume to be completed by former colleagues and family members so it only came out last year in 2011.

There are a lot of articles here covering a wide variety of subjects, but over all the book comes together and deals with the same themes: the idea of political, geographical and cultural unity amongst the various Celtic peoples. This might be enough to make your eyes glaze over at the mere thought of that kind of thing, but trust me on this. Stick with it.

Most of the Celtic focus is on the Irish side of things but there are some essays that concentrate on Brythonic and Gaulish evidence. However, a large portion of the book (part two of four sections) deals with comparative evidence - "The Sacred Centre in Comparative Traditions." I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed in that at first because this section held a lot of the chapters that I was most interested in to start with (e.g. 'Ritual Circumambulation', 'The Centre and the Four Quarters' to name but a few), and many of them seemed to deal with hardly anything "Celtic" at all at first glance. I was hoping for something a little more focused and rooted, but once I got through each chapter I was able to appreciate what Mac Cana was aiming for a little more. The comparative approach does help to put a lot of things in context, although I still have reservations about it (and mild disappointment at the lack of Celtic evidence given in some parts. Compared to what I'd hoped for, at least).

The comparisons can sometimes take a very broad approach as well, referring tangentially to many different cultures beyond the Indo-European family. It's this kind of thing that gives me the greatest pause, because while the Indo-European cultures do share some commonalities, beyond that I can't help but feel the scope becomes a little too broad. It would have been nice to see a more critical view of the advantages and disadvantages of comparative methodology as well, throughout the section. And while I'm not particularly expert in what's considered PC or not in terms of anthropological issues these days, I'm fairly sure the use of labels like "pygmies" is becoming questionable in some quarters, at least. While things like this might seem like a minor detail, it became more than a little distracting.

My reservations aside, there's a lot of good stuff to be found here as well. Although veering a little too deeply into comparative territory for my tastes at times I certainly did learn a lot about the kind of theoretics and symbolism behind much of what we can see of Celtic ritual practices as a whole - circumambulation, the omphalos, the ritualised expression of Celtic ideas of cultural or political unity, how it all ties in with the land and the people, and so on. I would say those kinds of things alone are invaluable, and there are also some good essays on the (Irish) literary tradition, the concept of 'unity' and nationality in Irish history and literature, sacral kingship (one of the subjects that Mac Cana is well known for), as well as the laws and placenames of Ireland. You might know a lot of it already (especially if you've read the Rees brothers' Celtic Heritage), but the essays do bring together each subject quite neatly. There's plenty of good stuff for those who are more interested in things Gaulish, as well, but while there are chapters on England and Wales, as well as Brittany, these definitely aren't as much of a major concern. Ireland and Gaul are the main focus, with a definite emphasis on Ireland.

It's all very dense and perhaps a little too in-depth and academic (i.e. dry...) for some, and I have to say that some of Teh Big Wurdz left me having to look them up to see what they meant. It can make for some sentences that take some time to unravel and I'm not sure it's really necessary, but it's a minor annoyance at best. I did notice, however, that while the book is well-referenced, there isn't much in the way of particularly recent references given; obviously given the fact that Mac Cana died some years ago and began working on the articles some years before that (1996 onwards), that's perhaps not surprising, but it does make me wonder if there's work out there that is more up to date. Not that the past decade or two is so out of date that it makes the book irrelevant (especially considering how old most of the books we work with are), I hasten to add, but it's maybe something to bear in mind. Mac Cana's book will surely have the advantage of being more comprehensive than any articles that might be lurking in journals, for sure.

All in all it's not something that will appeal to a lot of folks, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to beginners, but given the perspectives the book allows you to chew over - whether you agree with them or not - I'd say the book is well worth splurging on. A major downside if you just want this book for research purposes, to pick through rather than to read, is that there's no index. You should be able to find what you want just by the chapter titles alone in most cases, but there are some hidden gems that might be missed unless you give the book a thorough going over. Otherwise, this is one I'd certainly like to have for the bookshelf someday.