Book Review: Celtic Heritage

Here’s another bit of my DP work to mull over. I’m rereading A History of Pagan Europe right now and will probably write my review of it soon. Honestly, I hated it, which is why I didn’t review it immediately after reading it the first time. I’m finding a bit more to appreciate on the second read, though I still have plenty to argue about. For now, though, here’s my review of Celtic Heritage, which I adored. Next week? The virtues!

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Celtic Heritage seeks to outline the well-known, “traditional” myths of Celtic Lands (specifically, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland), and highlight the patterns of those myths within a larger cultural context. Further, the book demonstrates the power of the myths—and the storyteller—to blur the lines between realities: between the Otherworld and real world in the myths themselves, between life and death, and between the world of myth and the world of reality. According to Rees and Rees, “Under the spell of the storyteller’s art, the range of what is possible is transcended: the world of magic becomes a present reality, and the world of every day is deprived of its uniqueness and reality… When the spell is over, the hearer ‘comes back to earth’, but the earth is not quite so solid as it was before, the cadence of its time is less oppressive and its laws have only a relative validity” (342).

Indeed, the book had that effect on. From the opening chapters, which outline the myths and place them within a cultural context, I was captivated by this book. The chapter, “Branches of the Tradition,” summarizes the common myths of the Irish and Welsh traditions, introducing the primary characters and “invasions,” a format which works well for presenting myths often written in the driest, hard-to-follow prose one can find outside of a mathematics textbook. After my attempts to read the fragments collected in The Celtic Iron Age, I appreciated the summaries presented in Celtic Heritage. This chapter also provides a groundwork for the analytical chapters that follow. “Darkness and Light” was perhaps my favorite chapter, because it discussed myths and folklore simultaneously, putting folk traditions into a mythological context and offering a snapshot of traditional life. The following chapters also attempt to break other aspects of daily life, like the provinces of Ireland and the notion of a sacred center, into thematic, mythologically-explained elements, but without the detailed interest of living folk traditions.

The second half of the book looks at the myths in sections, divided by periods of the hero’s journey, from birth to death, a fitting and ancient organization “from which the storyteller could easily select his stories to fit the different occasions as they arose” (211) . CúChulainn, Finn, Lugh, and even Taliesin are compared and analyzed side by side, and the authors work to draw parallels between the mythical life of each hero. Ultimately, the authors argue the heroes’ lives blurred the distinction between reality and “other,” thus embodying the power of the stories to change our understanding of reality. The heroes’ deeds are not to be emulated by mortal men; rather, “as events in ordinary life, they are, as often as not, fantastic, anti-social, immoral, and catastrophic.” However, the authors argue that we mortals derive meaning from symbols (211) and the power of stories is to transform the unreal into the real. Thus, when the authors say of two mythological realms, “Far from being mutually exclusive entities, the natural and supernatural worlds thus intrude upon one another in a variety of ways. They can help and they can harm one another; they can rob and they can enrich one another,” (308), they might be speaking of our realm of reality and the realm of myth. If Cormac can learn about his real world in the Other World (312), we can learn about our own world in the world of myth.

That’s my academic way of saying these stories can teach us as much as they can harm us if we emulate their violent, incestuous ways. I want to quote extensively from the book here—please forgive me—as I believe the following sentences describes not only the hero’s initiation into adulthood and hero-status, but also the Neo-Pagan reader’s initiation through myth into the world of the Divine:

“The discovery that the truth of myth belongs to the realm of drama rather than to ordinary life should not, however, be dismissed as a disillusionment in the modern sense of the word. While it brings a liberation from childish fears, it also exalts the noviciate. As an initiate into the mysteries he can now identify himself with supernatural beings and personify them in the rites” (258).

While that quote speaks specifically of personifying, I believe that “the truth of myth” will help us to relate to the deities, call them, and praise them in an informed manner. If we can relate to the deities, we can worship them more appropriately.

In short, this book fascinated me, and I will return to its summary of the Celtic myths and analysis of the stories frequently as I continue to practice an Irish hearth culture. While my personal favorite aspect of the book was its inclusion of folklore traditions alongside the myths, such as the practice of a mock-battle to “win” a bride as in the stories (286), I also appreciated the authors’ inclusion of other Indo-European customs and stories with the Celtic tales. The authors include Dumezil’s analysis of castes, and draw in stories from Europe, India, Africa, and China to place the Celtic stories within a larger cultural context and show the worldwide “heritage” of many common myths. These pre-made connections will help me as I go on to study additional Indo-European traditions.

Book Review: Drawing Down the Moon

In an effort to get back on track, I’m going to post some of my work up here for the world to see! Yipes. I sat down today and realized just how far behind I am on the DP work… it’s time to start fixing that.

Book Review: Modern Paganism — Drawing Down the Moon

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

I absolutely could not put this book down. It was a revelation, the first book about modern Paganism I read that approached the subject from a journalistic, even academic viewpoint, and it absolutely captivated me. Margot Adler’s seminal volume Drawing Down the Moon is unquestionably the high-water mark of Neopagan practices in twentieth-century America. Adler covers the development of the many Neopagans practiced today from their roots in Wicca without falling prey to the romantic trap of describing religions descended from a mythical, peaceful society of Goddess- and nature-worshipers.

Adler opens the book with a general description of Neopaganism and some basic definitions necessary for understanding the assorted religions and engaging in a dialog with their beliefs, including those definition-resistant, ‘hot-button’ terms like “magic” and “pagan.” Because this book was my first taste of this world, I devoured these definitions, and one of her descriptions of how paganism looks at the world struck a chord with me:

…Neo Paganism returns to the ancient idea that there is no distinction between spiritual and material, sacred and secular. We generally think of spiritual concerns as apart from mundane concerns. This idea is entirely opposed to the Pagan perception. A group of women in a feminist Witchcraft coven once told me that, to them, spiritual meant, “the power within oneself to create artistically and change one’s life.” These women saw no contradiction between their concern for political and social change and their concern for “things of the spirit,” which they equated with a need for beauty or with that spark that creates a poem or dance. Mirth and reverence coexist as they do in many indigenous cultures (11).

To me, this quote sums up both the most beautiful aspect of Paganism (the integration of the spiritual into the mundane) and the troublesome blending of politics and social issues with an individual’s spirituality. The book—now more than thirty years old—remains descriptive of the twentieth century. Despite Adler’s revisions of the book in 1986 and most recently in 2006, the interviews included and the sentiments portrayed in the book continue to reflect a 1970s, reactionary Neopagan movement, without tempering that portrayal with a modern, more balanced and varied portrait of contemporary nature-based religions. Many of the descriptions of religions and interviews with figures such as Z Budapest create a focus on feminism and sexuality that many “new guard” pagan religions—including, arguably, ADF—do not center upon.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself, though. From Adler’s “Background” in Part I, she moves on to a history of Neopaganism told through the development of the various “sects,” from contemporary Paganism’s origins in Gardnerian Witchcraft into the newer religions, including several forms of Druidry. I particularly appreciated Adler’s thorough debunking of “the myth of Wicca”, the idea of a prehistoric, universal religion that worshipped “the god of the hunt and the goddess of fertility” (43). Adler tracks not only the development of the myth itself, but also the subsequent controversy over its dismissal (64-65). Adler manages to walk the journalistic line of neutrality perfectly, giving equal weight to the debunkers as she does to those who believe in an historical, hereditary witchcraft, and, by doing so, I think she gives one of the most thorough histories of modern Paganism available today.

After establishing a history of Wiccan/Witchcraft religions, Adler discusses the rise of other, varied Neopagan religions, offering a “survey” course in Neo-Paganism. While the scope of the work makes this book a perfect introduction to modern Paganism, I believe Adler’s treatment of the various religions is not as balanced as her earlier discussion of Wicca. She covers in one short 20-page breath, “Religions of Paradox and Play,” including RDNA, ADF—which she does describe as part of a “stunning renewal” of “contemporary Druidism (341)—and Erisians, and does not seem to give enough weight to the latest incarnations of those groups, who take their religions with (almost) complete seriousness. Many of her distinctions seem far too subjective, including the designation of ADF as a religion of play and observations that Pagan Way or New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn rituals are among the most poetic and beautiful performed.

That said, the subjective tone of the book is part of what makes it special. Adler shares her own introduction to Paganism and actually attended many of the rituals she describes: she is not just a neutral observer, but an active participant in Neopagan practices. Her analysis is more subtle, thoughtful, and nuanced because she is aware of what matters to actual practicing Neopagans. To that end, Adler discusses in the section called, “Living on the Earth,” the practices of the groups she discusses and provides some topical analysis of how Neopagans live in the world, such as how they regard technology, politics, persecution, and how they approach clergy, gatherings, and education in their own tradition.

In spite of my complaints, I think this is a great book, and one perfectly suited to serve as an introduction to modern Paganism. It surveys many traditions, discusses practical issues like politics as well as nebulous ones like magic, and provides a detailed snapshot of life as Neopagan.

Wow, that looks a lot longer here in WordPress, but it’s within the recommended word counts, I swear.