Friday, 3 June 2016

Book Review: Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past

Understanding Celtic Religion: Revisiting the Pagan Past
Edited by Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm

I think I've mentioned wanting this book a couple of times before here on the blog, but thanks to the price tag – £95 (and not much less second-hand) – this is not a book that I'm ever going to be able to afford. I expect the same goes for a lot of people, which is a real shame because it's a seriously good read.

I really do understand that books are expensive to produce and a profit is difficult to come by on volumes like this, but I do wish there was some sort of happy medium to be found. The price tag unfortunately means it's really only ever going to be something you'll find in an academic library, unless second-hand prices come down. Seeing as the book was only published last year I was surprised and pleased to find it available at my university library, so damn skippy I'm borrowing it.

So with the whinging out the way I'll get onto what the book actually is: It's a collection of articles that were originally presented in 2008 at a colloquium in Helsinki, and (as the title suggests) they're all looking at various aspects of what we might call "Celtic Religion." There's a very critical approach throughout the volume, and the topics include a focus on how approaches to "Celtic" religion have changed and evolved over the years (i.e. is there a Celtic religion?), what the material we have available can actually tell us about religious belief, and the way historical approaches to those beliefs evolved as well.

All in all this is a pretty slim volume with only seven articles, so it's a fairly quick read and not as much of a hard slog as most books like this tend to be. There are obviously some articles that grabbed my interest more than others, but one in particular that seemed rather incongruous when grouped together with the rest; this one dealt with purely Biblical material, and while it was a good read in itself it seemed rather out of place with the rest.

The first article, from Alexandra Bergholm and Katja Ritari, asks "'Celtic Religion': Is this a Valid Concept?" (Short answer being no, not really) and it does a fantastic job of introducing the rest of the book in general, but also giving a very brief and critical overview of the issues involved in undertaking such studies. This is the kind of important stuff you want to have a good idea of if you're going to make your own study of the field.

Next up is Jacqueline Borsje's "Celtic Spells and Counterspells," which focuses mostly on Irish material but with some other examples brought in for comparison. Not only is her analyses of these "spells and counterspells" fascinating, but she uses them as a frame for discussing how we can use the historical sources to learn what we can about pre-Christian beliefs – what they can and can't tell us, what we can even if it's not stated explicitly, and so on. Again, this is really good, important stuff even though some of it may already seem pretty obvious to you.

John Carey's "The Old Gods of Ireland in the Later Middle Ages" is also a solid contribution, and it kind of picks up on some elements Carey covered in his first chapter of A Spear of the Sun and then expands on them, namely how the scribes of the Middle Ages dealt with the gods and grappled with their identity and place in a Biblical scheme. In some ways this may be a topic that's been well-covered already, but I found some bits and pieces here that added to my understanding of the subject and were of genuine interest. Along with Borsje's article, I'd highly recommend a read.

The next few articles were interesting to me but I didn't feel they added as much as the previous ones in terms of religion or myth specifically. Even so, Robin Chapman Stacey's article on "Ancient Irish Law Revisited" had some good stuff with applying the same sort of critical approach to the law tracts as Borsje did with her chapter, so if that's your thing I'd recommend adding it to your list of things to read.

The final chapter, however, is one of the chunkier articles in the volume, and I thought it offered a lot of good food for thought. This one is Jane Webster's "A Dirty Window on the Iron Age? Recent Developments in the Archaeology of Pre-Roman Celtic Religion," and it begins with a (fairly provocative, perhaps) quote from John Collis that states, "I am sceptical that there is anything we can label as 'Celtic religion.'" The chapter is a nice bookend to the introduction from Bergholm and Ritari, and Webster contributes a critical look at what archaeology, specifically, can offer us, as well as what it has offered us in the past. She begins with a broad overview of recent archaeological developments in the field, detailing the various approaches and interpretations that have been taken to the material, using some of the bigger names in archaeology as examples for critiquing and explaining further. We then move on to look at the limitations of archaeology in terms of how it can't give us much certainty or specifics about druids, or issues around sacrifice, and so on.

As the first volume in a new series (titled "New Approaches to Celtic Religion and Mythology") I think it's a really good start and I look forward to seeing the rest of the series come out and exploring other areas in more detail. To be clear, this is not a book that's going to give you a detailed description of what "Celtic Religion" looked like, which I'm sure is going to be frustrating to some if you go by the title alone. The book doesn't really offer much in the way of certainties at all, but it does offer something that's all too often lacking in "Celtic Pagan" spheres, and that's an emphasis on critical thinking and approaching the material on its own terms. It's a real shame that the cost of the book is so prohibitive because for that alone I really would recommend you read it if you can get hold of a copy. If you have access to a library that can get hold of it for you then I think it's definitely worth a try.

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