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.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Celtic Heritage

  1. I’m currently reading “Celtic Heritage.” I’m nearly through it and will refrain from reading more of this post until I’m done. I don’t want your review to color my own thoughts prior to finishing!

    As for “A History of Pagan Europe,” I read that book THREE TIMES before I actually got around to reviewing it for my DP. I bought it before I joined ADF but didn’t start reading until I started my studies. Then I put it aside (and my whole DP) for a year. I read it again, made notes…and didn’t do anything. Finally, I read it a third time just to make sure I got it all. I actually enjoyed it although, as always, I wish the end discussion on reviving Pagan traditions was a bit meatier. It’s been awhile, though, so I wonder what I’d think with a fourth reading…?

  2. Pingback: Celtic Heritage, by Alwyn and Brinley Rees « WiccanWeb

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