Thursday, 17 August 2017

Book Review: Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration

Back in June last year, my father-in-law died very suddenly. I posted about it a while ago, and as anyone who's lost a parent or significant figure in their life will know, it's not something that's always easy to deal with. It's a terrible loss, whether it's imminently anticipated or not.

My father-in-law was unfailingly generous and accepting of others into his family, and he was kind enough to leave something for his children and their spouses with the stipulation that we should use at least some of it to buy ourselves something "selfish," instead of doing something boring and sensible with it. Naturally I immediately trawled Amazon and bought a shit ton of books.

In his honour, I ended up getting:

  • Ireland in the Medieval World, AD400-1000: Landscape, Kingship and Religion – Edel Bhreathnach
  • Introduction to Early Irish Literature – Muireann Ni Bhrolchain
  • The Kingship and Landscape of Tara – Edel Bhreathnach
  • Classical Literature and Learning in Medieval Irish Narrative (Studies in Celtic History) – Ralph O'Connor
  • Early Christian Ireland – T. M. Charles-Edwards
  • Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland (Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic) – Andrew Sneddon
  • Approaches to Religion and Mythology in Celtic Studies – Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm
  • The Scottish Witch-Hunt in Context (Studies in Early Modern European History) – Julian Goodare
  • Celtic Curses – Bernard Mees
  • Celtic Christianity and Nature: The Early Irish and Hebridean Traditions – Mary Low
  • In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature – J.P. Mallory

Some of these I've already read but had to return them to the library and I really wanted a copy of my own. One of them I swear I already bought but couldn't find it, so decided to replace it.

I'm slowly working through the pile (I won't necessarily read them all, but I intend to get through most of them) and without further ado, here comes the next review:

Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration
John Waddell

I've not read any of John Waddell's books before, but I did enjoy his article on 'The Cave of Crúachain and the Otherworld' in the Celtic Cosmology book. He's also got some fascinating lectures you can watch on Youtube, which he credits as being the "motivation" behind ultimately producing the book I'm reviewing here. For the most part, though, I ordered this one after my interest was piqued in seeing it referenced more than a few times in another book I'd been reading and thought it might be worth a look.

As the title suggests, we're looking at the points where archaeology and myth collide here, so in some respects it covers a similar sort of ground as Mallory's In Search of the Irish Dreamtime (that I've just reviewed) in discussing the two. On the whole, though, Waddell's interest isn't in looking at whether or not the archaeology can support the myth, or vice versa (as Mallory does), but instead he tries to combine the two strands to paint a more comprehensive picture of a whole, focusing on various aspects of pre-Christian belief and practice. In this respect, I think they make a nice complement to one another, but would also say that this particular book is probably going to provide more immediately satisfying material to Gaelic Polytheists who want to focus more on exploring concepts surrounding religious belief and practice.

I think it's safe to say that Waddell comes from a very different school of thought than Mallory does, being far more invested in solar mythology/deities and, in places, a keen interest in bringing in comparative examples from other Celtic cultures or Indo-European evidence. Shades of Miranda Green surface with the solar stuff and it's really not something I can ever get on board with, but I found it wasn't too difficult to read around those bits. As much as I might disagree, it's always good to read views that oppose or challenge your own, sometimes.

The book brings together everything in a fascinating way and I think it's definitely going to be a good read for Gaelic Polytheists. Waddell focuses especially on the mythology and archaeology relating to some of the best-known ritual sites in Ireland (Newgrange, Rathcroghan, Emain Macha, and Tara) and tackles matters surrounding sacral kingship, sovereignty goddesses, cosmology, and the Otherworld (his chapter, 'In Pursuit of the Otherworld,' nicely complementing the article from the Celtic Cosmology book I linked to above, and covering similar areas). His descriptions of the sites – what the archaeologists found in their excavations, and how those findings have been interpreted – are easy to understand, even if you don't have a background in archaeology.

There's some genuinely interesting stuff here and I particularly enjoyed the second chapter, 'The Otherworld hall on the Boyne,' where Waddell focuses on Newgrange and its related monuments in the area, as well as its association with Bóand, the Dagda, and their son, Óengus mac Ind Óc, and its possible cosmological significance. The later chapters that cover various aspects of sovereignty (goddesses, sacral kingship, ritual sites involved in inauguration, etc) are also good, and I especially appreciated the discussions on the "horse cult" as it relates to Irish kingship. I'm not entirely sure that "cult" is the right word, to be honest, but it is something that lurks in the background of kingship, and it's not isolated to Ireland alone – it seems to be a genuinely "Celtic" concept, and it often gets overlooked so it's refreshing to see the subject being discussed in more detail than it usually is in books like this, which tend to focus more on sacred marriages and sovereignty goddesses and not much else. That, too, is focused on, though.

The last chapter focuses on sacral kingship and draws heavily on Gaulish examples of "princely" burials in discussing some key themes of pre-Christian belief and the concept of "decommissioning" a king, which are demonstrated in the elaborate burials we find in Gaul, but only really hinted at in Ireland. Waddell is careful to make it clear that the "princely" label isn't exactly helpful (just because the burials are rich and elaborate, it doesn't mean they're royal, and the label is unnecessarily distracting and potentially misleading...), which is important. Normally I'm not so keen on such a heavy reliance on bringing in comparative material, but aside from the fact that I found it all genuinely interesting, I think the chapter did a really good job in providing some food for thought on the subject, and in linking it all back to Ireland. Sometimes it's refreshing to step outside of your own comfort zone and look at things a little differently.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book, in spite of my strong disagreement with the reliance on solar mythology and symbolism. Although it's pretty short it provides some good food for thought and it's one I'll certainly be coming back to when I'm doing research on various subjects. It's a good one for the bookshelf, and it definitely isn't one that requires an academic level of knowledge or an in-depth background in Celtic Studies – it's aimed squarely at the academic and non-academic, and welcomes a broad audience. Nonetheless, I think you'll get more out of it when you have some background reading under your belt so you can take your own critical view of the ideas and concepts that are outlined here.