Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Review: Studies in Irish Mythology

Before I get into the review of Grigory Bondarenko's book (AKA my new favourite book, ever), I'll just make a note of the new page I've created where all the book reviews I've done here on the blog are listed and linked to, arranged by subject matter.

Studies in Irish Mythology
Grigory Bondarenko

As I noted when I blogged about my trip to the library, where I picked this book up along with a bunch of others, this one is a compilation of sixteen articles and essays written by Bondarenko over the course of around ten years. You can find some of the articles compiled in this volume freely available online, so if you want a taster of what you'll be getting, here they are:
I'm going to assume that most people who find this review don't read Russian, but I'll link to the first chapter as well, and note that the version given in the book is most definitely in English, unlike that version online. And as a bonus, here's a preview of the book.

But don't let the availability of these articles put you off from investing in getting the book for your probably overcrowded shelves; it's well worth it, and I'll definitely be adding it to mine on a permanent basis. You'll have to buy directly from the publisher, from the looks of it, but it's reasonably priced compared to a lot of academic books these days.

Although focusing on Irish mythology, most of the chapters take a rather comparative approach, making comparisons with Slavic or Russian myth in some places, or drawing on Indo-European, Gaulish or Welsh evidence to help support an argument in others. It's something that's easy to over-do (see, for example, the Rees brothers' Celtic Heritage) but I think here, for the most part, the comparative approach genuinely complements what Bondarenko is trying to do, rather than detracts from it. Many of the chapters deal with various aspects of cosmology and attempt to dig out evidence of pre-Christian ritual or belief, so a comparative approach can be helpful in figuring out what we should be looking for, for one.

It's this cosmological and pre-Christian stuff that I'm most interested in (in case you hadn't guessed), and I found a number of the chapters to be extremely illuminating. There's an article on 'The migration of the soul in Early Irish tales,' (link above) which is especially good, and I think it will definitely be of interest to anyone looking for a rundown of the evidence and the different ways that the evidence has been approached and interpreted. There's also a bit of a tangent about the word carddes, which can be interpreted as being 'a friendly agreement,' and which is found in relation to the agreement of peace between the Milesians and the Tuatha Dé Danann mentioned in De Gabail in t-Sida. That's also touched on in an earlier chapter, which is also worth a read.

The final chapter, 'Fintan mac Bóchra: Irish synthetic history revisited,' makes a good companion piece to the article on the migration of souls, since it deals with Fintan and Tuán mac Cairell, both of whom are said to have transformed into different kinds of animals as a way of surviving many thousands of years, and who are often cited as examples for supporting evidence of the belief in metempsychosis (the transmigration of the soul, which can include and encompass reincarnation). Fintan is said to have been the only person to have survived the Flood, who then lived for thousands of years until he related the history of Ireland to an audience (and then died), and Bondarenko gives an overview of the possible meanings of his name and the various interpretations academics have made over the years in terms of who, or what, Fintan is – a god, an example of a "primordial man," and so on. All of this is especially interesting if you have a thing for cosmogony/creation myths, and if that's not enough there's also some meaty stuff on the concept of silence or "dumbness" in relation to revelation and obtaining hidden knowledge, and possible hints of its use in ritual.

Some of the earlier chapters deal with various aspects of the tale Airne Fíngein ('Fíngen's Vigil'), which relates the events surrounding the birth of Conn Cétchatach, one of Ireland's most reknowned legendary kings. Here again we have some good stuff to mull over – aspects of "ideal kingship" in Ireland, the possible meaning of Conn's name and his epithet "Cétchathach," usually interpreted as "Conn of the Hundred Battles," but, as Bondarenko notes, the epithet could mean "a hundred treaties," or perhaps even "first-warlike." Conn, meanwhile, can have connotations of "protuberance, boss, chief, head," or "sense, reason." At Conn's birth, Airne Fíngein mentions the spontaneous appearance of the five royal roads of Ireland, and the meaning and symbolism of these are explored in a chapter of their own, which also appears in the Celtic Cosmology book I reviewed not too long ago.

As the article on 'The Case of Five Directions' notes, fives are a common grouping in Irish myth – five royal roads, five directions, five sacred trees (bile), and so on. A couple of chapters look at various aspects relating to the sacred trees of Ireland, including one on 'The alliterative poem Eó Rossa from the Dindshenchas.' This is a poem that describes the tree (possibly a yew), and it includes some intriguing lines, including one that calls the tree "dor nime/door of heaven," which has been interpreted in some CR circles as being evidence that the bile spans the three realms. Bondarenko gives a detailed and fascinating analysis of many of the lines from the poem, including this one (noting the possible Biblical references it makes), and it makes for a thought-provoking read.

One of the later chapters, 'Goidelic Hydronyms in Ptolemy's Geography: Myth Behind the Name,' is an article that puts the comaparative approach that Bondarenko favours to particular good use. This one was of especial interest for the discussion of Boann and her relation to a river name Ptolemy notes that's likely to correspond with the Boyne river, and Bondarenko brings in the comparative evidence to explore the meaning of the name, mentioning Indo-European theories, Gaulish evidence of similar names, as well as the Dindshenchas stories relating to Boann (and similar tales, like that of Shannon/Sinann), in discussing the possibilities. Although Bondarenko makes his own views clear, he makes an effort to cover different angles and other approaches, so it's easy to make your own mind up or hunt up those other academics while you chew on it.

I'll finish off with mentioning one final article that stood out for me – another one on a Dindshenchas poem, but this time it's a translation of a rosc poem that hasn't been translated before. Both Edward Gwynn and Whitley Stokes, who translated the bulk of the Dindshenchas between them, left this one out, apparently because of the difficult and obscure nature of the language, and they didn't even mention it (except for a brief reference to it by Stokes in his own privately printed compilation of his translations). This fact in itself is interesting to me, and Bondarenko goes on to offer a translation and analysis of the poem, which centres around five heroes who must defend themselves from "phantoms, ancient armies" from the Otherworld, who come out to attack them during the Feast of Tara at Samhain. Again, it links in with a number of details described in Airne Fíngein, starting with mention of the five royal roads that appeared at the birth of Conn.  

There's so much more here besides the few tidbits I've covered so far, and it really does make for a good read. I can't say I don't have my disagreements, or questions, here or there, and I can't say every single chapter was of as much interest to me as the ones I've mentioned above, but there's nothing here that makes me want to throw the book at the nearest wall and then stomp on it (I do quibble and grumble over the questionable use of "shaman/shamanism" in the first few chapters, though). Even where I wasn't so interested in the subject being discussed, I can say that at least I learned something new.

This isn't a book that I'd recommend for a total noob; it's certainly a hefty and dense read that isn't aimed at a general, populist audience, and I think it would really benefit from being approached with an already decent foundation of knowledge with regards to Irish mythology and the study of it. As academic works go, the language used is fairly accessible – I don't think you'll be overwhelmed by jargon – but it's the nature of the beast that these things can be rather dry, especially if it's not your usual kind of bedtime reading.

If you feel like you've read all the 101 books you can stomach and you're looking for something with more depth to it, then I'd say definitely add this to your wish list. If you're interested in all things Irish cosmology then I'd suggest you have done with it and just order a copy now...  And if you take my advice then I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!