Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Book Review: Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth

As I mentioned in my last post, I was lucky enough to be offered a review copy of Mark Williams' new book. This is a first for me – usually my reviews come from books I've either bought or borrowed from the university library (including Mark Williams' previous book, Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700-1700). Another first here is the fact that my website, Tairis, gets a footnote mention in the penultimate chapter (of an actual book!).

I'm honoured to have been offered a review copy, and I think it's only right and proper to be up-front about these things lest I be accused of having something to hide or undue bias. With that out of the way, let's get to the review...

Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth
Mark Williams

So we'll start with a quick overview of what this book is about... On the face of it, the aim is simple: To trace the evolution of the gods of Ireland throughout history, from the very earliest evidence through to the modern day.

As you might imagine, if you want to achieve this in any kind of thorough way, you're not going to do it in a few pages: More like 570+ (which for the price, is a bargain, really). Given the huge scope of the book it's split into two parts, with both of them having a very different focus from the other. The first part concentrates on the very earliest evidence through to the Middle Ages, and the context of their portrayal during a time of conversion and then, later, established Christianity. The second part has a more contemporary focus in looking at the way the gods were (essentially) rediscovered by the early Celtic scholars at the very dawn of Celtic Studies (as an academic discipline), and how they were then adopted by the movers and shakers of the nineteenth century Celtic Revival, and into the present day.

If the former is more your area of interest then the latter may not muster much enthusiasm in you – and vice versa – but the result it actually quite fascinating, and it's just one of the many things that make me so enthusiastic about this book. One thing part two hammers home is how much the Celtic Revival, and those early academics, has influenced out modern perceptions of the gods, whether we're conscious of it or not. In general, it also helps that the writing isn't dry and dense; there's a dry humour, and it's easy to get swept up in the arguments put forth.

There are a lot of books out there that talk about the literature in the context of how they were produced; how the monks who recorded them may have changed things, left things out and whatnot. This has been done many many times, and of course it's an important part of the conversation when you're talking about this kind of thing. What those books don't tend to do is explicitly lay out how that treatment may have changed over time and link it to how the gods are portrayed as a result, in a straightforward, linear fashion, or discuss what that can tell us about them. You might find articles and case studies, but I'm hard pressed to think of something that compiles it all into one volume outright. This is exactly what Williams aims to do, using examples of particular myths to make his points. I think in doing so he raises a lot of important questions and implications that we – as Gaelic Polytheists – would benefit in thinking about and discussing (I'll get to some examples in a minute, though). The same goes for those more interested in the academics or the literature for literature's sake.

The first half of the book is packed full of things that will be of interest to Gaelic Polytheists, and I think it offers a lot of good food for thought. The first chapter (which you can preview here) gives an overview of the kind of evidence we can draw on in finding the gods, and gives a kind of case study of two different deities – one of whom survived into the manuscript tradition (Lug), while the other didn't: *Loigodeva, who lends her name to the Corcu Loígde of Munster. Straight away we're reminded that the evidence is, in many respects, rather arbitrary. We see what remains, but we don't know how much was lost. It also stresses the localised nature (or origins, more to the point) of the gods.

Further on it's suggested that the story of Dian Cécht's murder of his own son, Miach, in Cath Maige Tuired, is a later addition to the tale (and I think John Carey's comments in A Single Ray of the Sun, where he points out that the first recorded deaths of the gods only start appearing in the tenth century or so, a century later than the bulk of CMT was written). The discussion of the tale here is fascinating, picking up on points – like the way the tale mirrors so many elements in so many subtle ways – I'd never considered before.

Part one finishes with Williams pointing out that after the Middle Ages we enter into something of a wilderness, as it were, where the gods "fade" until we come to the nineteenth century. It's not that they're forgotten, as such, but by this point their divine nature isn't especially relevant. On the face of it he's not wrong, but I think it would've been useful to have some discussion of the Historical Cycle – which emphasises the role of the sovereignty goddess – and how that concept became so important in the aislinge poetry of this period, due to the political climate of the time. As the book itself shows, the popularity of certain deities ebbed and flowed over the centuries, and if anything I think the big thing about this period was that the Tuatha Dé Danann were sidelined by the desire of Ireland's greatest poets to assert their nation's sovereignty, drawing on their mythological heritage.

In part two we delve into the world of the early academics of "Celtology" (as Celtic Studies was then called), the Revivalists who followed, into more contemporary literature, music, art, and Celtic Paganism. What really stood out here was the discussion of how the Revivalists essentially "adopted" Óengus mac Ind Óc and turned him into the quintessential "love god" as he's so often called today. I've long wondered about how – and why – that happened, when it's not really reflected in the myths as a whole. Off on a tangent from this, as Yeats' wonky efforts at filling in the gaps that were left in the myth of The Wooing of Étaín shows, this section can be taken as a lesson in the limitations of "reconstruction" (in whichever sense of the word you want to consider – academic, literary, mythological, religious...), especially when we blind ourselves to anything other than our own biases. A complete version of the tale wasn't available until the 1930s, and so Yeats was working on limited information. As a result, he assumed that Étaín left Midir to be with Óengus because after all, we alllll know he's a love god, right? How wrong he was!

My biggest quibble with the book comes with Chapter 9, which turns its attention to Scotland, and how figures such as William Sharp (better known as "Fiona Macleod") followed in Macpherson's footsteps and adopted the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann as their own. There's also some discussion of the more influential folklore collectors of the day – including, of course, Alexander Carmichael. The "pagan nature" of Shony and Bride can be found here as well, and it's this part in particular that I felt was dealt without as much nuance as elsewhere; excellent points are made, but I would have liked to have seen a more rounded, balanced discussion when there wasn't really much room to manoeuvre at all. There are other times I felt the same, but not to such a degree as here.

As we get to the present, Williams touches on Celtic Paganism, amongst other things (including some wonderfully bad poetry that includes the lines, "Leaning on sword-hilts, their great paps dark as warts/Within the gleam of breast, their scrota bulged in shadow.") It's refreshing to see something like Celtic Paganism – and Celtic Reconstructionism, for once – tackled in a book like this, not just at all, but without condescension or being patronising to boot. Once again we see the vogue for certain gods change as attitudes and influences do; whereas Óengus was arguably the most important and popular in the imagination of the Revivalists and beyond, even up until the late twentieth century, at the turn of the century we start to see goddesses taking over – the Morrígan, Brigid, and the Cailleach are now far more significant than any others today. It would have been nice to see this expanded on within the chapter – why is this the case? How did this come about? Perhaps this is fodder for another book.

It has to be said, this book is not a simple introduction of the gods in the Irish pantheon (if you can even argue such exists...) – the nuts and bolts of who they are, what they do, who they're related to, etc. If that's what you're looking then I recommend you look elsewhere. This is very much a literary, not literal, overview of how the gods were (and are) perceived. And while this book is definitely aimed at a more general audience than academics alone, I think at least a basic level of knowledge about Irish mythology and literature would benefit the reader. For the most part the book succeeds in introducing need-to-know academic concepts, movements, or jargon in a way that won't overwhelm the non-expert, and there's a handy pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book that will certainly be useful for a lot of readers, but the sheer size and scope of the book might be a little daunting for a total beginner.

Given the monumental aims and scope of the book, it's inevitable that some things didn't make the cut, and to be fair, Williams himself is well aware of this. While there may be room for so much more to be said, what you get here is a good start, and – to compare it with his first book, while I think that one deals with a more niche subject and fills a much-needed hole there, this one made me realise that there was a hole I never really knew existed in the first place until I was showed it. There's so much to talk about here, and it's only the beginning. I think Ireland's Immortals would do well to grace your bookshelves.

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