Books reviewed on this page:
- Scottish Witchcraft: The History and Magic of the Picts – Raymond Buckland
Guises of the Morrigan – Sorita D’Este and David Rankine
Kindling the Celtic Spirit – Mara Freeman
Cauldron of the Gods: A Manual of Celtic Magick – Jan Fries
A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism – John Michael Greer
Singing with Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk-Tradition – Stuart A. Harris-Logan
The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual (alternative title: Celtic Rituals: An Authentic Guide to Ancient Celtic Spirituality) – Alexei Kondratiev
Celtic Devotional: Daily Prayers and Blessings – Caitlín Matthews
Witta: An Irish Pagan Tradition – Edain McCoy
God Speaking – Judith O’Grady
Highland Heathenry: Ritual Formula for Gaelic Heathens – Ikindé Skréja Ominnsaer
Celtic Flame: An Insiders Guide to Irish Pagan Tradition – Aedh Rua
Here’s the premise: Wicca, an Olde and Anciente religion of witchcraft has existed through time and many cultures. There is but one religion of witchcraft, but many expressions of that religion can be found depending on the local flavour. Gardner’s flavour is the best known, of course (quintessentially English), and relies heavily on coven practice, as do most other traditions. Not so the Scots. They, of course, have to be different.
Oh yes, but it’s not the Scots. It’s the Picts. Although the book’s called Scottish Witchcraft and Magic… But the tradition is called PectiWita… And doesn’t really involve anything that’s recognisably Pictish at all… Hmm.
You might be surprised to find that I have a few quibbles with this book, and not just on the historical points. I’ve often seen it said that PectiWita is just ‘Wicca with bits of Scottish folklore thrown in.’ But I’d say while I agree it’s something with Scottish folklore thrown in, it’s not Wicca. It’s not even neoWicca, McWicca, or whatever else you might call it. It’s more a neopagan, Wiccanesque/Llewellyn-influenced idea of four quarters, classical elements… blah blah blah. And to be honest, it’s a smattering of lore thrown in at best.
That aside, one of my biggest quibbles is the whole Pictish issue. If you’re going to synthesise, create, reconstruct, introduce, pass on… whatever you call it… a tradition… and present it to an audience, decide on what culture you’re going to focus on. Don’t call it Pictish and then throw in Gaelic, Norse, “Gypsy” and neopagan influences without at least mentioning why this might be so. It’s confusing! And in places where history was dealt with, it was often just plain wrong – Pictish was not a Goidelic language as stated in the book, for a start.
There could have been a real opportunity to present something that was vaguely authentic or different at least: either a form of Wicca incorporating Pictish elements in practice, or an attempt at presenting a Scottish tradition of witchcraft from the lore available. It’s not like he didn’t have the resources to hand, because he references the majority of books from which it could be done – The Silver Bough, Carmina Gadelica, John Gregorson Campbell’s works. But while they’re referenced to (presumably) supply some air of authenticity in some parts, some important bits are conveniently and blithely ignored – so while yes, they are a wealth of information on lore and practice of magic as he says, no, they don’t say that all witches were regarded as being good as he also maintains. Far from it, in fact.
More importantly, in most cases the examples of lore he cites weren’t regarded as ‘witchcraft’ at all. On the whole the tradition he presents seems superficial and lacking in any depth whatsoever – little explanation is given as to why things are done in the way they are, and in places he seems to contradict himself – witches don’t set out to harm and stick to the Rede, but then again elsewhere he describes the belief that witches could and frequently did steal milk from their neighbours, and so on.
I could go on. And on. But to sum it all up, my overall feeling about this book would be: The mind boggles. It really does. In so many different ways.
The title gives a big hint at what the book deals with, so there’s probably no need to introduce what it’s all about and so forth, so instead I’ll head straight for my first thoughts and impressions about it.
On the one hand, in spite of the fact that I have some fairly fundamental disagreements with the book, it also gave me a lot of food for thought. On the other hand, while I can get past most of the bits I disagree with, the approach – that all the goddesses they list are just guises of one ‘great goddess’ – is a fairly fundamental problem I find with the book. For a soft polytheist I guess it’s a useful approach, but to my mind there should at least have been some discussion of how the pre-Christian Irish viewed (or may have viewed) divinity instead of blithely assuming, or perhaps inferring, that that’s how it was. Time and again, books like this vaunt the fact that they make an emphasis on history and research, but when the evidence is twisted to meet their own preconceived notions it ends up feeling a little pointless in the end.
To me there is a difference between motifs – elements of a deity or occurrences in tales that can be commonly found within a culture, like ‘sovereignty goddesses’ – and genuine relationships between two deities or characters that are likely to suggest that they were counterparts and so on. A lot of what they discussed – like the horse goddesses Macha, Epona and Rhiannon being a ‘guise’ of the Morrígan because Macha is linked with her in Irish literature is, to me, simply a motif found in Celtic belief that can be seen to be expressed in the three goddesses. This does not automatically mean they’re all guises of the Morrígan… Aside from the fact that she’s so popular in modern pagan paths, why choose the Morrígan? Why not single out another goddess that falls under this umbrella?
And I suppose that leads to another problem I had with the book: it seemed to deal with the material in a somewhat superficial and repetitive manner, with the individual entries on the various goddesses they look at being basically verbatim accounts of what the authors have already written in previous chapters. On the one hand that’s probably a good thing because most people don’t want to be going round in endless circles about the minutiae of detail, but I’m a minutiae kind of gal and I would have liked to have seen a little more expansion on the themes they dealt with.
I was also a little wary of the bits that said “sources say…” and so forth, because ’sources’ to me implies primary sources, yet a few of the references they gave were not primary sources at all, far from it (Peter Beresford Ellis being one example – not a source I’d trust or recommend). But still, the chapter on the Cailleach was interesting because it gave some good pointers in hunting up some tales mentioning her regenerative aspects from winter hag to summer maiden that I haven’t been able to find so far. The appendix also gave some good references I’d like to hunt up, so all in all in spite of my grievances it wasn’t a totally pointless read. But much of the content I wouldn’t associate with the Morrígan at all… Ultimately my quibbles on their opinions err on the side of outright disagreement…
Better than I expected (but only because I had such low expectations), but ultimately not to my taste, and from a Gaelic Polytheist point of view there are far better books out there than this one. Given the slightly iffy references (later edit: I followed some of them up and they didn’t even refer to anything relevant discussed in the book), and dodgy scholarship, I wouldn’t recommend it as a good resource at all.
This is a book I bought early on in my first few tentative steps towards Celtic Reconstructionism, and at the time it was one of those fantastically inspiring books that got me very excited. This is the book that helped me see what a non-Wiccan/Wiccanesque style of practice might actually look like, and helped me see that Celtic Reconstructionist practice was actually workable; at the time I found it difficult to wrap my head around what to do because at the time – before the CR FAQ, before even the CR Essay, I think – there really wasn’t much out there and I myself had been floundering after leaving Wicca behind and exploring various other paths like ceremonial magic and various forms of Druidry that all have fairly similar ritual approaches.
So I have a soft spot for this book, I really do. Let me be clear though: This is not a Celtic Reconstructionist book, or even written with such an audience in mind. It is written for what you might call a neo-Druid audience in mind, one that’s looking for a more historically-minded approach without the Druid Revivalist trappings of Iolo Morganwg and Ross Nichols’ dodgy history. It’s also geared more towards the solitary practitioner than group practice, and the ritual outlines draw reference from traditional sources rather than neo-pagan ones, but here and there you will certainly find what might be seen as a neo-pagan approach, that don’t necessarily agree with a CR approach – invocations to deities, Robert Graves, advocating developing a working relationship with the Good Folk… that sort of thing.
The book is laid out month-by-month, after a few introductory bits and pieces, and each month accommodates a particular focus relevant to the month, season, and related theme of the chapter. Tales and bits of folklore, animal lore, and spotlights on different deities are given in each chapter, and there are meditations to work on (there’s also a CD that accompanies the book, with these meditations on it; you have to buy it separately, though, and I didn’t so I can’t comment on that). The festivals are dealt with as well – the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year, but with a focus on customs and lore from historical sources – and there are some practical ideas and recipes for things to do for each of them – making a May Bough at Bealltainn, carving turnips at Samhainn, that sort of thing. There are also plenty of prayers, charms, poems, blessings and so on, many of which are adapted from the Carmina Gadelica or early medieval Irish manuscripts.
There is a very hearthy, domestic focus to the book which is something that really appealed to me, and I found the inclusion of practical, creative things to do for the festivals a nice touch as well. The adaptations and prayers are mostly well done, and while the guided meditations aren’t really something that appeal to me personally, they’re well written and I can see that they might work well for others.
Where it falls down, I think – and it’s a problem that I find with most books like this – is that while the focus is mostly on an Irish or a more generally Gaelic practice, Welsh, Brythonic and Gaulish elements are also brought in here and there; an examination of the meaning of ‘awen’, the stories of Taliesin and Ceridwen, a section on Cernunnos, and so on. There is also the suggestion of a wassail bowl, which couldn’t even be considered to be Celtic. All of this smooshing makes it a very hodge podge affair. To me, these are very different and diverse cultures – different languages, different histories – and while they might have the same Celtic roots, they’ve evolved in very different ways and deserve to be looked at and appreciated on their own terms.
It seems odd to have such a regard for historical practices, detailing folklore and customs from the various cultures, to then completely disregard their context and then mix them all up in a completely ahistorical way. This is rather disappointing, but at least Freeman is (usually) clear where everything comes from, and she’s also quite good at referencing her sources. It would be easy to pick bits out that are relevant to one’s own focus, but ultimately there’s nothing here that comes from particularly esoteric sources and it would be just as easy to go to the source yourself.
It’s a well-written, beautifully presented book. Ultimately, though, as inspirational as this book was for me, I’m not sure it’s something I would recommend to a CR audience these days. Aside from being potentially confusing for the beginner, there are better sources out there to look to now, far more so than ten or even five years ago, so I think that looking to them instead would be more helpful – do your own research, or look to CR websites or groups that are out there.
As a reconstructionist, it’s hard to find decent books that cater to such an audience, especially the beginner or seeker if they want to look further than The CR FAQ. Academic books can be dry and off-putting, and rarely offer anything in terms of ideas for how to actually start doing anything in a ready-to-go form. Aside from being off-putting, then, they can be frustrating too, as a starting point.
In lieu of a lack of specifically CR 101 type books, some recons try looking elsewhere in the neopagan marketplace for something that might offer a sort of middle ground in the meantime. So as far as books are concerned, something that can offer good, solid information about the Celts, whilst dispelling any myths about potato goddesses, are always a plus. Some might feel that this book fits the bill, with a good dose of selective reading here and there, perhaps. I’m not sure I do, really, but I think I can see where they’re coming from.
I can kind of see why this book was recommended, especially for the refreshingly analytical tone of assessing previous notions about the Celts in general. I can also see that for someone who’s more interested in druidry, or bardery, or filidecht than I am, then this book might offer more in the way of inspiration that it did for me. In that respect, I can’t say if there are any other books out there that might be better suited to the beginner, but certainly I can say from an Irish perspective in particular (IMHO), better sources could have been used.
Looking at the book on its own terms, as much as I can, I think that it’s not, ultimately, about the Celts; the book is about self-transformation, and coming from an author who’s described as a ‘German occultist and freestyle shaman’ on his Wikipedia page, that’s not surprising, I don’t think. It took me a while to realise this, though, but with hindsight the clue is in the title – the use of the word ‘magick’ – plus the fact that Crowley and his definition of ‘magick’ is mentioned on the first page… What can I say? Sometimes I’m just really slow…
I suppose you could say the Celtic packaging of the book is simply a hook to reel you in, and give you the message that (it seems) the author really want to get across, about aligning oneself with your True Will. But then again, that makes the Celtic stuff in the book sound superficial, and I’m not sure I can really say that it is – there are over 500 pages here, and you do get quite a lot of information on the Celts. And unlike say, McCoy or DJ Conway, Fries actually bothers to do some research. Arguably, though, the ‘Celtic stuff’ is treated as a means to an end, a part of the journey to reach the desired result.
For the beginner, who doesn’t know much about the Celts at all, you’ll learn a lot, and for the first few chapters it’s all good stuff (with some quibbles here and there). As I began reading, I found it quite refreshing – a book! Aimed at neopagans! With actual research! Yes. There were a lot of exclamation marks to start with. But as I got further into it, I began to have more reservations about the way things are presented, and some of the interpretations the author gives.
Once we get passed the first few chapters and the druids, there’s a heavy emphasis on poetry, particularly that of Taliesin (or, as Fries points out, the probably several Taliesins that there really were). The book eases us into all of this, though – first we learn about Celts and Celts throughout history; then we go into things a bit deeper – learning about druids, the bards of Wales, the filid of Ireland, songs, charms and story-telling, and so on.
As we go through the chapters we’re given exercises to do – imagine this, imagine that, what do you think it was like? How does it measure up to the following information… There’s a focus on knocking down pre-conceived ideas; historical fallacies, notions of druids prancing around in white robes; changes in academic approaches – from noble savages and builders of Stonehenge, to princely burials and the acceptance of the word ‘Celtic’ as a linguistic umbrella term, not a word that is meant to imply that all Celts are the same.
Much of this is solid, and presented in a conversational and engaging tone, with a good smattering of irreverant humour here and there, along with some illustrations by the author himself that helps to break things up a little. I learnt a few bits about the lesser known Celtic cultures, and agreed with a lot of what the first few chapters had to say. It all started off so well… I started to get a bit excited.
Deeper into the book, I started to have more and more problems with the approach and the content. It’s not really clear where things are going, for one thing, even after the first couple of hundred pages. A few references to shamanism get thrown in (and I should say that I’m one of those who see it as a very culturally specific term, and not relevant to Celtic practice at all) until ultimately the reader is encouraged, if they so wish, to employ a few of the techniques we find in Siberian shaman initiation along our own journeys of self-realisation… This may be enough to put a fair few people off so much as touching the book with a bargepole, others may simply feel they can ignore it. I can say this made me feel deeply disappointed.
But my problems go beyond just a few mentions of shamanism, or even the addition of theories mooted about gods-as-aliens and Iolo Morganwg into the mix (to be fair, Fries is clear that Iolo is a fraud; he argues that the work is inspirational and worth looking at, whereas personally I’d instinctively avoid it. Another bargepole moment). One of my biggest problems with the books’ general approach is the way the Celts are ultimately presented – yes, ‘Celtic’ is an umbrella term – hurrah for this being recognised for once! But personally I see the various Celtic cultures as being more distinct than Fries presents them – the divides for him by and large seem to be Continental vs Insular (or ‘Island,’ as he puts it), so Ireland, Wales and Scotland often get lumped together. It’s not something I can get on board with, to be honest, although if you wanted to pick and choose bits that are relevant to your cultural interests, you could. The main focus is Welsh, though, and there was very little for me – in terms of Irish or Scottish content – that was either new or interesting.
But I’m getting ahead of myself… I mentioned there were exercises here and there. As we get deeper into the book, the exercises change. While the first exercises – meditations, really – focus on knocking down our own misconceptions about the Celts, the exercises begin to focus on the self, analysing ourselves and who we are. The exercises seek to impart betterment, fulfilling your potential, and various forms of hypnosis throughout its history are explored; neuro-linguistic programming is mentioned. At this point, having waded through approximately 375 pages, wondering where all this is going with very little clue, it occurs to me that the previous exercises, knocking down those fallacies about the Celts is really (it seems to me) just a subtle way of making the reader more receptive to analysing fallacies about themselves. As the book initially seeks to plunge us into the world of the Celts, giving us a clearer view, the table is turned onto ourselves.
I don’t have a problem with this in itself, really, except the exercises themselves couldn’t really be described as ‘Celtic,’ or ‘Celtic Magick,’ I don’t think, and as such I’m not sure it lives up to being a ‘manual’ of such. As the book goes on, it becomes less about anything Celtic, and more about the author’s own vision, with bits from Norse, Germanic and Siberian practices are drawn into it more and more, along with further reference to Crowley and mention of Qabala, none of which seems to be particularly relevant to the purported cultural focus of the book. References are increasingly made to previous books by the author, especially Seidways. If you’re interested in the basic premise of the book and want to pursue it – do the exercises, and so on – then it seems that this is not a standalone book. I’d find that a little annoying, if I’d bought the book for that purpose, because it’s not made clear on the blurb. Otherwise, I can’t help but feel you might as well crack open a good book on Celtic cultures, like Bernhard Maier’s The Celts… Maier’s is shorter than this one, for a start.
Ultimately, while I’m given a good history lesson (although it’s generally weaker on the Irish stuff than the Gaulish or Welsh – or what I know of the Welsh material involved here), I’m not really given much in the way of what practical applications might be as far as an actual Celtic religious practice might be. This isn’t what the book promises, to be fair, but there’s an awful lot of talk about it to start with – nemetons, burial practices, offerings, some reference to gods… But while it raises some hopes, it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.
Really, I think the book needed a heavy-handed editor (and a proofreader – it really really needed a proofreader). The promise of the first few chapters didn’t deliver as far as the rest of the book was concerned, and bore very little relevance to it aside from giving a good historical grounding in who the Celts are, or were. We’re talking several hundred pages about the Gauls, to suddenly switch to the Welsh, a smattering about the Irish, a dollop of the Carmina Gadelica, and then suddenly Bob’s apparently your Siberian Shaman uncle…
I’d say it’s certainly an interesting and unique book. Perhaps, for me, interesting because of its uniqueness than anything I really got from it.
There aren’t many books out there (that I’ve seen) that take on the task of providing a good, meaty, philosophical discussion of polytheism – especially one that comes from a polytheist point of view. This is very much a book that is aimed at the polytheist, rather than the Wiccan or neo-Wiccan/Wiccanesque pagan, and that in itself is refreshing for me, because it’s not something I come across often.
I got off to a bit of a bumpy start with the book because much of the introductory stuff in the first few chapters were kind of obvious to me and I wasn’t sure if the book was going to offer much for me to chew on – which is not to say that I think I know everything there is to say about polytheism, just that it’s something I’ve had plenty of opportunity to think on over the years, and I’m pretty set in my ways by now. I was happily proven wrong, though, and once I got into the meat of the book I found a lot of good stuff (and to be fair, the more experienced polytheist or scholar of religion is invited to skip a few chapters near the beginning, to get on with it, but I wanted to read it from start to finish).
The first few chapters certainly help introduce the beginner to a good understanding of polytheism, and as much as I had some reservations about where it was all going I did appreciate seeing things being spelled out clearly, and in a way that helped me appreciate where others might have questions and confusions about certain things. I can see this being a good book to point people to, if they have some questions about how polytheism actually works.
I found the middle of the book more challenging and enlightening, and one chapter in particular helped solidify a few thoughts on something that had been bugging me for a while (chapter 8, dealing with offerings and reciprocity; the next one was interesting too).
For the most part the book is very straight forward, well-written and clearly thought out. There is a heavy emphasis on philosophy and logic in the way the subject is approached, and Greer does a good job of introducing the big words and concepts that the average reader probably won’t have much familiarity with (and there’s a handy glossary at the back in case you get lost).
Because of the philosophical focus of the book, it’s not a how-to sort of tome, with ritual suggestions or an encyclopaedia of gods tucked in at the end so you can pick your favourites and invite them round to lunch. Nor is this the kind of book that I could really pick up and put down, or pick at here and there. This is a book that needs to be read from start to finish to appreciate it at its best, I think.
Over the course of the book, subjects like the different types of polytheism, and the ethics, myths, spirituality, ways of worship and the logic of polytheism are dealt with, as well as the question of why people might be polytheists. Greer keeps the focus of the book as general as possible, calling on various different cultures and polytheistic religions to illustrate his points – mainly Norse, Celtic, Shinto, Greek, Roman, with a few others mixed in – along with some analogies that help explain where he’s coming from. Inevitably that means there has to be generalisations here and there to accommodate as broad a view as possible, but given the purpose and focus of the book I think it worked well. Both the commonalities and differences of polytheistic views and religions are taken into account, so it’s pretty thorough. It would be nice to see something that focuses solely on Celtic Polytheism (though of course I’d say that), but as an introduction to polytheism in general, Greer has the right of it here.
One thing in particular that I appreciated is the emphasis on ‘traditional polytheisms’, which Greer stresses tend to be hard polytheisms. While generally I would say the arguments Greer presents are well done, there are some aspects that I think might be slightly lacking, and this lack mars my feelings towards the book in general. Inevitably in discussing polytheism there is going to be some comparison to the major monotheistic religions (especially Christianity) as well as atheism, and I think the author’s own bias towards accepting a polytheistic viewpoint means that certain elements are glossed over when presenting all the various different arguments. For example, at one point the argument was made that the widespread belief in the afterlife – or various forms of the afterlife – is itself evidence that supports its existence. I don’t think this is the kind of argument that stands up to objective examination, really, and this type of fallacious argumentation is all too common.
In addition to this, concluding that alternative viewpoints rely on ‘special pleading’ – and are therefore weak or invalid – is a common refrain throughout the book, while ignoring the fact that Greer himself does exactly the same thing. It comes across as hypocritical and lacking in any true objectivity or honest insights. If you’re totally on board with Greer’s own views and you’re not interested in weighing up the arguments and examining them, then it’s probably not a problem, but if you look at the arguments objectively, as he seems to think he’s doing, then I’m not so convinced. I can imagine my atheist husband would say that Greer’s argument in favour of polytheism, for one, relies on special pleading as much as anyone else’s beliefs.
In some ways, perhaps, agreeing with Greer’s arguments are beside the point; if anything, whether you agree or disagree it helps finish your own train of thought about these subjects, and helps you make up your own mind. Greer’s apparent assumption that his conclusions are 100% logical and watertight can grate a little, though, and at times it does get a bit repetitive.
More and more as I’ve come back to this book, the faults become glaring and far outweigh any of the positives I originally saw. In particular, as much as I enjoyed the middle portion of the book, and appreciated the novelty of the book itself, the last couple of chapters weren’t as good, to my mind. The chapters on myths and eschatology in particular weren’t so much about polytheism, I felt, as they were arguments against monotheism (or, ultimately, any religion that claims to be the True Religion) so the book seemed to lose focus a little towards the end, and frankly, it felt unnecessary and somewhat prejudiced.
I’m not sure this is a book I could read again and again. I originally thought that I could see myself referring back to the more helpful parts now and then, but ultimately I haven’t. Even from the start I was unable to give the book a resounding yes! as a recommendation, but felt that an outright no was unnecessary. However, as time has worn on I can’t help but feel that the more I’ve learned about the author himself has perhaps made me feel even more negatively towards the book than I originally did. Ultimately, I can’t in conscience recommend something that benefits a racist, and a known associate of racists and abusers. It’s a shame that a good book on the subject has yet to come out, but I’m still looking…
Singing with Blackbirds is an investigation of the survival of primal Celtic Shamanism in later folk-traditions of Gaelic speaking peoples. This is an insightful and intelligent work that brings together areas of study not normally combined.
Going by this alone, it’s obvious that this book has clear and lofty aims. I’ll say right out, though, once you get into the nitty gritty of it all, those aims will probably end up leaving you with more questions than answers (and not in a good way). It certainly did me…
I’ll admit that I have something of a bias against anything that claims to be “Celtic Shamanism,” and to be fair to the author, he’s well aware of some of the criticisms that are aimed towards the use of the label (or “shamanism” in general). So perhaps I’m predisposed to be skeptical of books like this, but I’d like to think that even if I’m not keen on principle I can at least give valid reasons for any criticisms I might have beyond some kind of knee-jerk reaction. I hope so. Harris-Logan mentions “encountering a lot of hostility from a number of groups which took exception to my research,” so I’m sure it will come as no surprise to the author himself that there are those who might be critical (though I wouldn’t say I’m especially hostile, personally…). Because of this, at the back of the book there’s a section called “Apologia,” where Harris-Logan gives a very useful outline of his reasons for using the term, and the crux of it boils down to this:
“Arguments against the use of ‘shaman’ and shamanism’ as ethnological terms appear to be founded on the notion that they are not derived from a Celtic language. If we were to retrict its use merely to it’s [sic] native culture, then only Tungusic shamans could be defined as such…
“Restricting our vocabulary in this way makes an exercise in intercultural comparison both awkward and limited. Without an umbrella term, how are we able to hold one technique up against the other? …I need a term to compare the practices of the Kwakiutl hamatsa and the Irish gelta. I need a term to compare the Buryat shaman’s and Cú Chulainn’s visionary experiences. I need a term to compare the spirit dance with rituals found to be taking place in latter day Coll and Uist. In short, I need ‘shamanism’.” (p133)
But I want to be clear that it’s not simply the principle of using a loanword that I object to here. It’s the fact that such a word describes a specific set of practices of a specific people, and I feel it’s impossible to separate the original word from its culture and specific meaning within that culture. I feel it’s wrong to try. Co-opting that word, adapting and generalising it to assume that the ritual practices of disparate are all one homogenous thing does a disservice to all of those practices, to my mind, especially when there are more accurate words from those cultures languages to describe them better.
On top of that, there’s the fact that “shamanism” (in the popular sense) has been used to apply to a set of beliefs and practices that are highly problematic (see links, above). Not just “problematic,” but mired in racism and rampant appropriation. It’s unfortunate that Harris-Logan uses the very author responsible for kicking that all off – Michael Harner – along with at least one of Harner’s students in order to try to prove the points he makes throughout the book, and this is something that certainly casts a negative over the whole book for me.
So there’s the principle of the thing that I object to, yes. But it’s also the fact that such an approach just doesn’t hold up under any kind of academic scrutiny, and Harris-Logan himself is keen to emphasise that Celtic Studies has a lot to offer this kind of subject. The very problems I have with “core shamanism’s” (as Harner himself calls it) approach in general underpin the approach Harris-Logan takes throughout the whole volume, as well: context is ignored, and comparative evidence is relied on heavily, even though the evidence comes from completely unrelated cultures and so have only limited bearing upon one another (more often than not). For instance, we’re told that the Celts had totems and power animals, just like Native Americans do, even though he doesn’t really define what these actually mean to Native Americans (or if they’re even universal or exactly the same between tribes). The logic goes that totems are a thing somewhere in the world, therefore it follows that the exact same concept exists amongst the Celts because animals appear in a spiritual, similar-seeming context, too. Ergo, shamanism. And so it goes. What the evidence amongst the Celts – and amongst the different Celtic cultures themselves – suggests isn’t considered.
In general, no matter which culture is being referenced, they’re all treated as if they’re talking about the same thing. On a very basic, broadly generalised level, there are similarities between many cultures, even those who never came into direct contact with one another, to be sure – we’re all human, after all. But here, Harris-Logan draws on evidence from all over the world to show that shamanism is found in Celtic cultures, and at times it feels like he focuses more on non-Celtic cultures to prove a point than he does the actual Celtic cultures that we’re supposed to be looking at.
Where there are clear relationships between cultures, they’re treated as though they’re one and the same, to the point where I’m not really sure if this book is supposed to be about “Celtic” Shamanism or “Gaelic” Shamanism. One of the people who contributed a glowing endorsement for the back cover seems to be similarly confused (referring only to “Gaelic Shamanism” despite the book’s title), and I can only assume that this is presumably because it doesn’t matter, because it all goes back to a primal (which seems to mean “universal”) set of practices, anyway. (Which makes me wonder… why bother with slapping on a cultural label at all?)
But let’s get down to the nuts and bolts, not just the general approach. The evidence is often twisted to fit the point the author’s trying to make, even when the evidence is very obviously lacking, and one of the worst examples of this is in Harris-Logan’s attempt to prove that drumming – as an element of shamanic practice that’s “a crucial technique to most shamanic cultures, a catalyst for the spirit journey…” (p27) was also a thing for the pre-Christian Celts. He acknowledges that there isn’t any overt evidence for this – no archaeological evidence, nothing in iconography or myth that outright describes or shows ritualistic drumming – but he goes on to argue that the “wheel” iconography found in Gaulish depictions of religious art, like this one shown on the Gundestrup cauldron:
Interior plate ‘C’ of the Gundestrup Cauldron. Source: Wikipedia
Is really a drum (in spite of the fact that these wheels consistently have way more spokes than the “shamanic drums” he compares them to, which only have four – rather like some bodhrán designs, which are relatively modern in origin as instruments go). Obviously this leaves something of a hurdle for the Gaels, because the Gaulish evidence doesn’t apply and drumming is never mentioned in any of the myths, so here he argues that drumming was such an obvious part of practice that it wasn’t necessary to reference it overtly, and also points to examples where he argues that an oblique reference to a drum is being made – interpreting passages and names from Irish myth that refer to wheels as secretly referring to the shamanic drum (though why not just say it outright if it’s something that’s so obvious and pervasive a practice? If it’s no great secret, why the secrecy?). The significance of all this, Harris-Logan argues, is that, “This may be suggestive of a shamanic spirit journey.” (p31)
Ultimately, Harris-Logan concludes:
“With the weight of this evidence it is impossible to discount the theory that the early Celts possessed drums. I agree with Trevarthen’s note that the drum is a very primitive instrument possessed by most cultures across the globe (whether operating within a shamanic mode of perception or not), and it would be surprising if early Celtic tribes did not possess this basic instrument.” (p33)
I find this whole argument to be extremely tenuous at best.
The meaning and etymology of certain words are discussed at several points, but actual meanings are often ignored in favour of personal interpretations that have no factual basis. Take “imbas” for example, which eDIL defines as “great knowledge; poetic talent, inspiration; fore-knowledge; magic lore,” and breaks it down as coming from two words, “imb-ḟiuss or imb-ḟess.” (Note: the wee dots above the ‘f’ in both examples there indicates lenition, which effectively kills the ‘f’ sound altogether). Harris-Logan, on the other hand, asserts that:
“The etymology of the term imbas (often translated as ‘inspired’ or ‘poetic knowledge’) is commonly given as ‘in the hands’ im (in) + bas (hands). It is also possible, though, that bás may have been intended instead of bas. If this is true, then a more correct translation would be ‘in death’ – supporting the shamanic mode of perception surviving in the modern Scots Gaelic language.” (p48)
Although I’d still disagree with his conclusions here, I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with assertions like this if the author was clear that this was either his own opinion, or could back it up with citations and a discussion of why he feels the eDIL etymology is wrong and why he discounts it. Phrases like “commonly given” don’t help here, either (weasel words), in trying to suggest this is a firm and accepted fact when it isn’t.
In some cases, to be fair, he does make his linguistic speculations (or acceptance of other authors’ speculations) more clear – such as the speculation that dán may be more accurately translated as “co-creative power” or even “shamanism” rather than “skill, art, gift, fate,” (though I still disagree with his argument here). Elsewhere, however, he makes more spurious claims, like his mention of the dance called “cailleach an dùdain” (described by Carmichael in the Carmina Gadelica, in reference to a Michaelmas tradition) as evidence of birds having ritual significance in Gaelic “shamanic” practice. This is based on his translating the phrase to mean ‘dance of the smoky owl,’ which I can only assume is his own interpretation because it really means ‘The Old Woman of the Mill-Dust.’ Cailleach-oidhche means “owl,” which is probably where he’s coming from, but there’s absolutely no supporting evidence for his interpretation here, and again he’s stating something as fact when it’s far from being the case. Things like this undermines any actual points that are being made because he’s simply stretching the evidence to fit the picture as he wants it to.
The book is split into three main sections, the first section being titled “Druids and Drums: The Instruments of Ecstasy,” and the second “Gaining Possession of a Sacrality.” These two sections are primarily devoted to illustrating Harris-Logan’s view of how the Celts were obviously a “shamanic” culture, based on comparative sources from all over the world. In the third section of the book – which is titled “A Shaman in the Gàidhealtachd?” – the majority of evidence is drawn from the Carmina Gadelica, with various prayers being given to support Harris-Logan’s assertion that shamanism is evidenced in later folklore. My problem here is that no consideration is given to the context of the prayers – who said them, why, how – or how old they might be, what influences there might be evident in them, or whether or not Carmichael might have helped to “improve” the verses, to support or detract from the point that’s being made. A prayer for justice (Ora Ceartas) is given, for example (along with several other prayers of varying purpose), but after the previous two sections, which go to great lengths to show that shamans were specialists of their arts – it wasn’t something that everyone did, or was open to anyone who wanted to know more; the rituals and arts of the shaman were the purview and privilege of the shamans alone – the third chapter leaves me wondering how prayers like this (which were said by anyone in a situation where such a prayer was needed) are evidence of shamanism? If the rituals and specialist knowledge of shamans was known only to initiates, how and why did shamanism become more “public” in the Gàidhealtachd? This isn’t addressed by Harris-Logan at all.
None of the prayers, or the myths that are discussed throughout the book, are viewed critically at all. At several points in the book the druid Mug Ruith is used to illustrate evidence of “shamanism,” but the fact that the stories involve Mug Ruith are quite late, and Mug Ruith himself is presented as a “druid” through a very Christian lens, is ignored (see, for example, the discussion of Mug Ruith in Fiery Shapes). Harris-Logan himself argues for a more academic approach in dealing with the material, but over all I can’t help but feel that he fails to illustrate one.
I can’t say I found everything to be a total negative, though, and I don’t want to sound like I’m totally hating on the book. In spite of my total disagreement with the majority of his interpretations and the over all point of the book, some of it was interesting and he draws on a diverse amount of evidence to support his arguments. As a fluent Gaelic speaker, he also gives his own translations of some of the prayers given in the Carmina Gadelica, and while they don’t seem to be wildly different from Carmichael’s own translations – just a few tweaks here and there – they do at least seem reliable (though I’ll note that I’m not a fluent-speaker, by any stretch!) and are a little more up to date in language.
I also appreciated his discussion of how Gaelic works – the way only things that are integral to us, like family, or body parts, are spoken of with “possessive” phrases. To say “my hand” you say “mo lamh,” which is literally “my” (mo) “hand” (lamh), but to say “my husband,” or “my wife” you say “an duine agam,” which literally means “the man (husband) that is at me.” This isn’t the first time I’ve seen such a thing discussed, but I’ve not really seen it discussed in any detail, and it’s refreshing to read about this stuff from fluent speaker.
Again, however, there’s a problem with some of the stuff that interested me because it’s unreferenced and so I’m not sure how reliable it is. In particular, there’s a note that tells the reader that the phrase ri traghadh ‘s ri lionadh, “With the ebb and with the flow” is “the name given to a traditional form of Gaelic singing.” I recognise the phrase from a prayer that Carmichael gives in Volume II of the Carmina Gadelica (it’s a prayer that we outlined in our Children and Family in Gaelic Polytheism article on the Gaol Naofa website, and expanded on as well), but I’ve never heard of it being applied to a form of singing and can’t find anything to back this up. But if this is the case I’d certainly be interested to know more, especially if it sheds light on the prayer Carmichael gave, which is simply titled “Fuigheal/Fragment.”
Ultimately, there just aren’t enough interesting tidbits to make up for all of the problems I find with the book over all, and I couldn’t recommend it. I think you’re better off going straight to the source, so to speak, getting hold of the Carmina Gadelica and reading the myths yourself. Learn about the hisory and society these things come from, as much as you can. Context is important.
Aside from The CR FAQ this is the only other book that ever really comes up in conversation when people want to read something that’s good for a Celtic Reconstructionist. It’s understandable, given how much Alexei contributed to the CR community over the years, but it’s also one I find problematic in many respects.
This is not a Celtic Reconstructionist book. For this reason alone I find it difficult to recommend it for anyone wanting a book on Celtic Reconstructionism, because it is not a book that fits the bill, plain and simple. This doesn’t mean that it’s a bad book, or a terrible book, just that it isn’t one that can be considered to be particularly illuminating as far as CR is concerned. In that sense, it’s a difficult book to review because on its own terms it surely has a lot of positives. It is thorough, and unlike many other books aimed at a neopagan audience, it doesn’t shy away from getting into details. The research is good, and well-presented, and at the time it was first published it certainly offered something very different to anything else that was available at the time.
Even so, none of this means that it is a good book for a CR audience, although it does arguably make it an important one as far as its place in CR’s history goes. After all this time, I think The Apple Branch has held such a special place in Celtic Reconstructionist circles for so long due to the fact that it is far more sympathetic to CR’s emphasis on decent history (as opposed to ye anciente Irish potato goddesses and Celtic alternatives to patriarchal penises…), and when it first came out it was as close to a reconstructionist book as anyone was going to find. For me, though, that just isn’t a reason to hold on to it.
So why isn’t this book CR? Put simply, Alexei himself repeatedly pointed out that this book isn’t CR, and it was never intended to be. One of the biggest points that makes it “not CR” is that the rituals outlined are really no different to the myriad other Wiccanesque kinds of ritual on offer by other authors offering “Celtic traditions.” This puts it in the dubious company of the McCoys and Bucklands of the world, and also perhaps proved influential in the work of Aedh Rua’s Celtic Flame which is similarly Wiccanesque in ritual approach, and really this is not surprising since Alexei himself was Wiccan. There is talk of ‘the God’ and ‘the Goddess’, there is circle casting and invocations at each quarter, and so on, although there is definitely a slightly different spin put on all of it. Given Alexei’s emphasis on language, invocations at each quarter are given in Celtic languages – Scots Gaelic in the north, Welsh in the east, Breton in the South and Irish in the west. It’s not something I can really get on board with, personally; deep down, I can’t help but feel that it’s using languages for the sake of it, without regard for their own context, and it all seems rather pointless if you don’t even speak those languages and understand what any of it means, or even honour the gods of those cultures anyway.
The over all approach is pan-Celtic, and while this might have been popular in academia in the 60s, we’ve come a long way since then. Celtic cultures do have their similarities, even their common origins, but that doesn’t mean we can mix them all together and get something that is reflective of anything that would have ever been practiced. For me, it makes a hodge podge, and it’s one of my biggest problems with neopagan books that fall under the ‘Celtic’ umbrella in general. It certainly makes something meaningful for a lot of folks – otherwise these books wouldn’t be so popular – but to my mind, I don’t see the point of looking to historical sources and then… ignoring history.
Ultimately, it seems that the pan-Celticism undermines a very important point that the book emphasises, and that’s the importance of using Celtic languages to justify the use of the label Celtic in the first place. I wouldn’t go so far to say that language is the only thing makes something Celtic (as Alexei basically seems to), but he does have a point that language is incredibly important. But in advocating for linguistic authenticity, framing it within a pan-Celtic approach just seems contradictory, and ignores the rich variety of Celtic cultures, and their differences.
With that said, one thing that Alexei does manage to do is give a decent historical overview of the Celts. The pan-Celtic approach gives a slightly misleading view, to my tastes, but it can’t be denied that the research here is (otherwise) very good. It’s perhaps a little coloured by politics that some might find distracting or distasteful, but you could do far worse. I do think it’s a little dry, though, and very dense in places. Most people, when they’re reading a book on a particular religion, are looking for what that religion is about, not so much a history lesson. If I wanted that, I’d read a history book. Here, I would anticipate that a fair few readers end up wondering what exactly the oppression of the eighteenth and nineteenth century really has to do with paganism…Of course, it is relevant in a round about way, and as history, people should know this. I just don’t think don’t think starting off with this kind of stuff works in the book’s favour.
I’m not sure it’s Alexei’s fault that the blurb states that it presents “the” Celtic traditions, but however it came about, it’s more than a bit misleading. What the book describes is a way of doing things, to be sure, but it’s a synthesis of many different things that are presented in a modern, Wiccanesque framework, not a traditional one. Ultimately, as much as the book is a part of CR history, it has no practical relevance, and I would only really recommend it if you’re looking for a wee slice of history.
I bought this book because I’d heard good things about it, along the lines of it being good inspiration for prayers and so on. Having read a few of the Matthews’ collective works over the year and having not been particularly impressed, I’d held off bothering with it, but a preview of it on Google Books coinciding with a fit of boredom piqued my interest. At a penny and change for postage, second hand, I figured even if it was awful I wouldn’t be losing out on much.
It’s not bad. I can’t say I found it to be fantastic, either, though. There are some genuinely good bits and pieces in here, but there is also a lot in here that as poetry goes, is not so good. I’m no expert in poetry, but I can spot clumsy and strained attempts at maintaining a rhyme or rhythm a mile off. Those I am an expert at…
For the most part I found the way it was all framed and phrased to be very off-putting. The book is very New Ageish, and that might sound more than a little snobbish but what I really mean is that much of it articulates ideas and concepts that are just alien to my thinking: Lots of Lords and Ladies, Grandmothers and Grandfathers (of this, that and the other), ‘soul-midwives,’ self-contemplation and self-realisation, and love, light and life (“notes of,” “drops of,” “glows of,” “greetings of,” “gems of,” etc)… Some of the terminology does make me cringe a little, in amongst a good smattering of jargon.
The book is set out season by season, with prayers and invocations to usher in and see out each season/Quarter Day, and then there are daily prayers and invocations given for each day throughout each quarter, along with activities, meditations or contemplations to concentrate on that are relative to the theme of the quarter. There are kindling prayers on rising, smooring prayers on going to rest, and so on, but they are all to do with the soul rather than any literal kindling or smooring. In that respect, I can’t help but wonder if ‘smooring the soul’ each night is rather ill-advised? Hmm… Smooring is also explained as a Scots Gaelic word – it’s not. It’s a minor mistake, but it’s also an unnecessary one. But anyway, the soul theme in general is consistent with the over-arching aim of the book – the first chapter is titled ‘Opening the Soul Shrine.’
In spite of my reservations and the New Age phrasing a lot of the time there really is some genuinely beautiful work in here. Matthews has certainly managed to capture the general essence and tone of Irish and Scottish poetry in places (to my eye), and it’s interesting to see the kind of things she’s picked up on. But it’s just not enough for me to either like this book enough to keep wanting to come back to it, or think it’s worth recommending. As you work through you can see that much of it is pretty formulaic, which will either seem nicely consistent or thoroughly repetitive. I don’t see myself ever actually working my way through the book day-by-day, to be honest.
I think the main problem I have with the book is that it’s a ‘Celtic’ devotional, but aside from being framed around the use of the Irish names for the Quarter Days and the general idea of daily prayers that echo what you find in the Carmina Gadelica, there’s nothing that’s really Celtic at all. For one, the main inspiration is clearly Gaelic, but there’s nothing really Gaelic in there and so the whole thing comes across as more than a little bit superficial. A lot of the prayers address ‘Grandmother’ and ‘Grandfather’, ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’, or the soul-friend or soul-mentor of your choosing. In general, when anything theological is touched on, it’s framed in terms of ‘the Divine,’ which seems to be a way of keeping everything as neutral as possible in order to appeal to a broad audience.
Ultimately it’s not something that appeals to me. It’s certainly not aimed at anyone wanting to explore an actually Celtic path, whichever Celtic culture that might be. Over all the book’s just not something I find to be particularly workable or adaptable to my own circumstances. For me, the quibbles permeate the whole content, so even the bits I do like I don’t think would be something I’d find myself looking back on or using in my own devotions (your mileage may vary, of course).
All in all, it’s a beautifully presented book if nothing else. It certainly looks lovely. But aside from that I’m not sure I’d jump up and down raving about it and recommending it to anyone who might care to listen to the crazy lady.
Now here’s a little slice of neopagan history…
Way back when this was first published, in all of 1993, there was a huge explosion in the neopagan market for this kind of stuff. Wicca was well-established by this time, and Hutton had yet exploded a few myths on that with his Triumph of the Moon, and so people were starting to wonder about the alternatives out there, looking for something more… specific to their tastes.
So along come books like Witta, this one offering the ‘Old Religion of Ireland’ in a neatly packaged, suitably green (of course) cover. It’s not Wicca, but it sure as hell looks like it (there’s the “Wiccan or Wittan Rede,” the four elements, the ritual tools like the knife or sword, the wand, the chalice, the besom, and pentagrams agogo). But wait! It’s not a rip off because many of these things are just natural additions to the tradition over time. And of course it looks like Wicca, because really it’s just a sister religion to it. Gardner brought us ‘Ye Olde Religion of Britain,’ y’see. Here’s what it looks like on the other side of the Irish Sea… Both evolved in slightly different ways. Nyah.
In case you’re wondering where the druids fit in to the picture, they were “the real power in Ireland” from around the second century BCE to the fourth century CE. But Witta, so the author tells us, has its origins in the earliest Celtic period, pre-druids. Witta continued, of course, and with the coming of the druids, they changed a lot about the Wittan religion, and often served “as a bridge between the matrifocal and patriarchal periods.”
But, erm… What’s actually Irish about it then? Classical elements? Drawing down the moon? Ritual robes? Cones of Power? Matriarchy?
It’s certainly not the name, that’s for sure. How McCoy came up with that and thought she could get away with it, I don’t know (if it’s an Irish religion you’d think it would have an Irish name, right? Except the Irish language doesn’t even use the letter ‘w’ and words generally have a ‘broad’ to ‘broad,’ ‘slender’ to ‘slender’ rule with vowels which means that the ‘i’ [slender] and the ‘a’ [broad] shouldn’t be next to each other between the consonant ‘t’s’). Or, if her claims that she learnt the tradition from an authentic Irish woman, in Ireland, are actually true, then more fool the author for not checking the basic facts.
But then, consider this gem, for one:
“Potatoes, Ireland’s staple crop, were used magickally in spells for healing and fertility, and were also carved into various forms for image magick much as the mandrake root is today. Because they grew underground potatoes were sacred to the Goddess and used in female fertility rites. Potatoes have a grounding effect. If you feel frazzled and stressed out cuddle a potato.”(p82)
Of course, the author does point out (elsewhere) that the potato is a latecomer to Ireland. But still. And in case you missed it the first time, let me repeat it:
THE AUTHOR SERIOUSLY ADVISES YOU TO CUDDLE A POTATO IN TIMES OF STRESS.
Really? Maybe I’m just an awful cynic. Maybe I’m seriously missing out on some seriously good potato cuddles. But I think I’ll give it a miss.
Although on the plus side, there’s less chance of getting infested with wee creepy crawlies such as hugging a tree presents…
There are so many other problems, as well. Cernunnos is neither an Irish god, nor a Greek name. Beltene, “Irish god of death”? Really? Seriously? Colcannon is an old Wittan tradition? Umm; The Burning Times™; and so on. Let us not forget the evil patriarchal penis either…
I suppose I should make it clear, it’s not necessarily the system that’s presented that I have a problem with – I mean, it essentially is just Wicca with shamrocks and potatoes slapped on – and it does seem to have worked for some people… Personally, though, it’s not for me (I’m sure you’re shocked and surprised) and the fact that any of this is presented as even vaguely “authentic” is just plain dishonest. I’ve come across a few Wittans over the years, and most haven’t lasted long on various fora because ultimately it doesn’t tend to go down so well when the majority of people tell you your religion isn’t historically accurate at all, really. When the author who sold that religion has put such a heavy stress on its authenticity and historicity, and that’s obviously something that attracted you to it in the first place, having that undermined by other people doesn’t tend to go down too well. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.
And really, when you take away the potatoes, there’s not much left that you can’t find elsewhere. It pretty much is just “Wicca with Shamrocks.” If that’s what you’re looking for then Lora O’Brien’s probably more your bag (though it’s by no means my intention to dismiss O’Brien as just that, or that at all) – she at least seems honest about what she’s doing, unlike McCoy here.
The book is a contradiction in terms. It even contradicts itself from the front cover to the back – on the front, it’s “An Irish Pagan Tradition”, on the back it’s “the Old Religion of Ireland” (emphasis mine). Make your mind up! Ultimately, I just don’t see how anyone can come away from having read the book and not feel lied to, barefaced, and gladly skipping off the bank with your hard-earned cash.
This is a difficult book to describe in some ways because for all that it’s pretty short – it’s 52 pages all told – it packs an awful lot in and I don’t want to do any of it a disservice. In general, this is a book about the intersection between ecology and religion, arguing that being environmentally aware isn’t enough; that is, if we are to have a future on this planet then the three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) will only get us so far. So we need another R: Religion. In particular, we need to listen to the gods, or listen to those who are God Bothered, as it were, and this is where the title comes in. If we want to be mindful of what the gods want from us then we need to be sure that we’re getting the right messages; not wishful thinking from our subconscious or outright lies.
The title perhaps has a double meaning, though, because as much as it deals with this subject matter, it’s also a book that has come about as a direct result of the author’s own experiences with “God Speaking.” Due to the length of the book it has more the feel of an essay in a way (a fairly long one, with chapters), and there’s a very conversational tone to it – along with a good dose of self-deprecating humour – that makes it an engaging read. The author assumes a degree of knowledge that means it’s maybe not geared towards an absolute beginner as far as things pagan goes, and while there’s a healthy smattering of examples from Irish myth and lore to illustrate certain points, there’s also a good balance of other examples that I think will give a wider appeal to those who aren’t especially rooted in Irish or Celtic practices.
Although I couldn’t say I’m particularly well read when it comes to books aimed at pagans these days, this is a book that strikes me as being genuinely unusual – both in the over all message and the strands that are brought together to make the point (philosophy, science, as well as spiritual bits, that is). In explaining how God Speaking works for the author, and what the pitfalls may be once you get into the finer details of the matter, you really get into a discussion that I don’t think you find anywhere else. I think it’s a really important discussion to have even if you’re not gifted – or don’t think you are – because so many people set themselves up as mouthpieces these days, when really they’re just spouting wishful thinking or outright lying for attention (consciously or not).
The good thing about it all is that the author always makes it clear that this is just her point of view, opinion or experience, and whether you agree or disagree, it’s a thought-provoking ride. There are lots of philosophical tangents you can go off on as you read, and spend some time chewing on a sentence here or there before carrying on with the text. That makes it feel like this could or should have been a much larger book. In some ways I think it should be (or perhaps more to the point wish it were so) and I think a lot of people might think that. But at the same time I think it’s a book that’s exactly as it should be, because if it were longer then the over all message might become somewhat diffuse and lost in the details. Those details are perhaps for another book. Whatever the case, I hope there is another one, at least.
Please note: This book has been removed from publication
Finally, another offering for a Celtic Reconstructionist’s bookshelf; like the last one I reviewed that was aimed at such an audience, I bought it through Lulu, so it’s a self-published work. And like the previous book, a large part of this one focuses on material from the Carmina Gadelica. Where they differ is that while Morgan Daimler’s book perhaps offers more scope in the amount of charms offered, Highland Heathenry offers more detail on ritual outlines as a whole, as well as both English and Gaelic versions of the charms that have been chosen for the book, and reworked and ‘de-constructed’ for a CR audience. Neither of them, however, end up being especially successful, for me.
The book is aimed primarily at the beginner, or anyone looking for an introduction to ritual within CR – specifically Scottish (Gaelic) practice. It’s very short, which should be a good thing for anyone looking for something that isn’t too overwhelming; the content presented here is clear and to the point, beginning with clear definitions for certain words and terms that the author uses throughout, and the reader is encouraged to go and do their own research as well.
The layout is clear and the use of some of the illustrations from the Carmina Gadelica gives a nice touch to the overall look and feel of the book. It’s a little smaller than A4 in size (note: US and UK A4 sizes differ; this is US A4), and considering the fact that many of the charms and rituals offered throughout the book cover more than one page, the size helps if you want to sit down and study what’s going on here without having to constantly flick through.
Where the book falls down, I think, is in some of the details. Some are minor and probably more a matter of taste – I would quibble that for a CR book, ‘heathenry’ isn’t the most appropriate term to use because (as far as I’m aware) most associate it with a specifically Norse practice. It would also have been nice to see more thorough and consistent referencing throughout (though there is some).
It has to be said that there are some fairly fundamental problems to be found here as well, that go beyond quibbles. I think this is truly unfortunate; what the book aims to deliver is good, it’s just the problems all add up to having to question whether or not the book as a whole is workable without at least some major revision. Some of the information offered is just inaccurate – for example, the bile is a sacred tree that stands at the heart of a tuath’s territory, not “a pile of stones with a flat table-topper slate.” I think what’s being referred to here is actually a dolmen, and these are common to Ireland (and neolithic), but not Scotland, and nor is there any evidence that they were used as altars by the Celts. There is also reference to the arms of the triskele representing the Dagda, Lugh, and Ogma, and also the cycle of life from childhood, adulthood, to old age, which is based on a questionable resource; the meaning of the triskele is by no means known for certain, although there are many modern interpretations. As UPG these are not something I can debate, but here they are apparently presented as fact, and that’s where the problem lies.
The inclusion of Rhiannon and ‘Toranis’ as deities in a book that encourages specifically Gaelic practice, and also their assignations as deities of particular elements (albeit in a Gaelic elemental context, not Classical) is completely out of place to me, as is the use of the Welsh names for the solstices and equinoxes – Alban Arthuan, Alban Eiler, Alban Heruin, and Alban Elved. I suspect these names may have origins in modern druidic practice as well, which puts them doubly out of place.
A fair few of the charms will be ones that most recons will already be familiar with and are likely to have adapted for use themselves, so it’s good to see Gaelic versions of these readily on offer and available for a reconstructionist audience. There are some that I find problematic, though, and at least one of them appears in a completely different context than it was originally meant; for the Bealltainn celebrations, Carmichael’s Red Water Charm has been used as a ‘Bealltainn exorcism’ in the morning. As far as I’m aware, exorcisms are not a pre-Christian concept, and the charm itself is originally meant to be a healing charm for kidney stones. The use of the charm and the idea in general just seem thoroughly out of place, even inappropriate here.
At times, the Gaelic that’s offered is also a little problemmatic. Spelling is a recurring problem – mixing both old and modern orthography, as well as a lot of spelling mistakes, and some errors are downright unfortunate (the Diesel Turn, instead of the the Deiseil Turn), but not something that couldn’t be corrected in further editions with thorough proofing. As it is, though, while these will be easily spotted by anyone who knows what they’re looking for, it will make the job of reading through and correctly pronouncing certain parts for others, who may be less advanced or confident in their understanding of Gaelic, more difficult.
However, while I can’t claim to be advanced in my studies of Gaelic, I suspect that the problem may go deeper than spelling and orthography, with some parts of the Gaelic itself. For one, I have reservations with the use of the word ‘deathachan‘ as the Gaelic for ‘gods’; as far as I’m aware, the accepted plural is ‘diathan,’ or ‘dée,’ and as far as I can tell the only source for ‘deathachan‘ having this meaning is Alexander Carmichael himself. While it’s possible this is an archaism, I suspect given the context of Carmichael’s use of the word that it’s more likely to be his own extrapolation, and so the accuracy of it seems questionable. Over all, it gives cause for concern about the reliability of the transliterations here. [Note: on discussion with fluent Gaelic-speakers, much of the revised Gaelic is flawed throughout. For one, a lot of the Gaelic inserted by the author follows English grammar construction, not Gaelic… I can’t fault the author for trying, but I can’t help but think that more fluency was needed – a feeling I know well, myself.]
Books that are aimed at a purely Celtic Reconstructionist audience are still very thin on the ground, and like the last one I reviewed this one is self-published; given the fact that the CR community is probably still very small, and self-publishing allows greater editorial control over the content without having to compromise with a publishing house, I think this is the way that most CR books in future will go. The main downside to this is that proofreading is often an issue, and it puts the author at a disadvantage in terms of advertising their work compared to an established publishing house, and many must also rely solely on online sales rather than those from a bookshop; maybe most people buy their books online nowadays anyway, but there are certainly those who would still prefer to be able to look at something before they buy it.
As such, reviews like this are certainly going to be one way that any self-published author will hope to garner at least a few sales. I do regret that I can’t give this book a better review, but when all is said and done, I’ve tried to be honest and objective in what I find just as with any other book I review here. Ultimately, I find that there are problems with the book are a severe detriment to what it’s trying to achieve. Although over all it’s aims are good; I’m just not sure it’s quite there.
As I understand it, this was originally written as a CR101 book, but never quite made it that far, for one reason or another. The author himself stresses that he no longer identifies as CR, although the influence of some of those who were involved in the early stages of the CR community (especially Alexei Kondratiev) is unmistakeable. The book also begins with a veritable who’s who of movers and shakers as far as the founders of CR are concerned.
Perhaps because of all this – both the author’s involvement, the influence, and the many names invoked here – I can’t help but feel that the focus of the book gets a little confused at times. On the one hand, it’s not a CR book, but one that describes the author’s own path and beliefs. Fair enough. On the other, it seems that the audience the author is talking to is meant to be, or expected to be, CR, since this is the community most often referred to.
This might be indicative of the fact that the book and the author evolved in their path over the course of its writing, or else it could be that the author simply assumes that the CR community, or those interested in it, will indeed be his audience. If it’s the latter, I don’t think it really works too well; if it’s the former, then it’s probably symptomatic of the fact that this is a self-published title and, like so many under that heading, in need of some editing – and certainly elsewhere, in terms of layout, formatting and proofreading, it could use some work too. There’s nothing major here, but the Bibliography alone causes a headache if you actually want to find something; the references don’t always seem to match up to what’s being talked about, and so on.
It’s an odd sort of book. In terms of doing what it offers, I think it does OK – you come away with a good idea what the author’s path is all about, even if there is some confusion as I’ve mentioned. I would have to disagree that it’s ‘authentic Irish pagan tradition’ as the author presents it; rather, it’s one way of doing things, and I have to say I find language like that a little concerning and disconcerting. The chapter on values, however, genuinely offers something that I’ve not seen elsewhere – outside of Alexei Kondratiev’s article on Celtic Values, which it draws heavily on – although it maybe ends up going on a little too long as far as how they relate to different levels of society is concerned. Interesting though it might have been, though, when I looked into what was being said here and tried to verify it, I found it seriously wanting. The words used to refer to the different kinds of values being talked about didn’t actually even mean what they were said to mean.
The author also goes out of his way to include a good amount of Irish (and in the ritual chapter, Scottish Gaelic, too) – introducing Irish words for concepts he’s explaining, explaining what they mean, and so on. That’s a definite plus, but along the way all these different words gets hard to keep track of, and I didn’t realise there was a handy glossary given at the back until I’d nearly finished the whole book (it’s not even listed in the contents page). The Irish in particular seems a bit confused to me, with – as far as I can tell – Old Irish and modern Irish mixed up at times, but always with modern pronunciations given (when they’re given at all). This may be an issue of spelling/proofing more than anything else, but I would be leery of using any of it myself without checking it thoroughly first. In the ritual chapter, I have to give the author props for being upfront and honest that his Irish isn’t up to adapting the Gaelic of the Carmina Gadelica, but I’m not sure that simply adapting the Gaelic with Irish deities is nothing more than something of a fudge here when everything else is so avowedly Irish in focus. This is supposed to be Irish Paganism and it seems to detract a little from that.
The ritual format is not something I personally get along with – tools, casting a circle to make a sacred space, invocations to deities and so – but some of the poetry here is quite good and inspiring. With the Carmina Gadelica being a major source for inspiration here, it’s maybe not something that will be unfamiliar, but I’m always interested in what other people do with it, and how they approach the material.
The section on gods also bears mentioning – the way the gods, spirits and ancestors are split up into the ‘head’ gods, ‘specialist gods (of skill) tutelary spirits/gods, and so on – is genuinely nothing I’ve ever seen before and interesting for that alone, even if I don’t entirely agree with the reasoning. One problem I have here is that the gods are listed in terms of attributes and symbols (including lunar/solar stuff for good measure), with a handy reference guide on what to call on them for – it comes across more like a menu for rent-a-god than anything with real depth, and certainly is one of the points where the author and most CRs would most definitely disagree.
Rua’s views on the Fomorians are a little too black and white – he has them as demons, eternally pitted against the Tuatha Dé Danann. At the very least, this seems to ignore the fact that after the Fomoire were defeated at the Second Battle of Mag Tured, they’re never mentioned in an adversarial role again (as far as I can recall. The TDD themselves take on that role, against the Milesians, even). It also ignores later Irish folk tradition. Other types of spirits are included under the Fomorian title, though, including Scottish ones like the Fachan, which not only confuses the Irish focus in the book otherwise (again), but also doesn’t address the point that although they might seem similar, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same… I think if you find this book of interest, this is a chapter best ignored.
All in all, this seems to be a book that came so close, and yet didn’t go far enough in some areas. To a certain extent it feels unfinished in a way that I can’t exactly put my finger on. Certain parts feel like they need fleshing out – a little spit and polish wouldn’t go amiss in general – and over all I think it would’ve done better to stand on its own merits rather than in the shadow (even nominally) of CR. The book needed to decide what it was supposed to be – CR or not – and to stick with it. The book needed a focus – Irish or not – and to stick with it. And it needed better research and better referencing. Given the problems with references not checking out or words even meaning what they’re said to mean, this is not a book I’d recommend. You could do better.