Reading is part and parcel of the reconstructionist methodology, but for those who are new to it all it can be a little daunting knowing where to start. The following list is intended to give you a solid foundation in the basics so you get a good idea of what Gaelic Polytheism is, and so you can find some solid reads on the different kinds of topics that you might want to know more about. For quick reference, I’ve split the recommendations into the following subjects:
- ‘Start Here’
- Prayer and Folk Practice
- Celtic Reconstructionism
You don’t need to spend a lot of money in getting these books, either. Many of them are readily available second hand, or else libraries should be able to get them for you, although I realise that this is easier said than done for some.
Here are some recommendations for books that I think are a good place to start learning more about the basics of Gaelic Polytheism. Of course, it should go without saying that reading the rest of this website, and working your way through Gaol Naofa’s pages, is a good start (and free! Yay!). This little website is pretty good for the absolute noob who just wants the bare bones of what Gaelic Polytheism is about, too.
The Gaol Naofa FAQ – Treasa Ní Conchobhair, Annie Loughlin, Kathryn Price NicDhàna and Tomás Flannabhra
The Gaol Naofa FAQ offers an introduction to the organisation, but also covers the basics of Gaelic Polytheism so it’s a good read regardless of whether you’re interested in becoming a member of Gaol Naofa or not.
The FAQ covers the fundamentals of Gaelic Polytheist belief, theology, cosmology, ritual and practice, and also covers common misconceptions that we often have to deal with. All in all you should get a good idea of what Gaelic Polytheism is from this FAQ alone.
The FAQ is currently being revised, updated, and substantially expanded. Once the update is finished it will be published in eBook and paperback formats soon(ish), along with a number of other articles from our website, with all profits going to charity (yet to be determined). A companion volume, containing many of Gaol Noafa’s other articles is also being prepared.
The Gaol Naofa website will be updated with the new version of the FAQ and other articles, laid out on static pages, for extra searchability.
Gods and Heroes of the Celts – Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (trans Myles Dillon)
Short, sweet and pretty much to the point, this is a lovely little introduction to Irish myth and to the gods themselves. In spite of the name this book almost exclusively deals with the Irish side of things, though given its age it does treat Celtic cultures as basically a big conglomerate that are basically all the same. This isn’t how modern Celtic Studies treats them, but if you separate out the Irish stuff from everything else you’ll do just fine.
Given its age it’s a little outdated in other places as well, but Sjoestedt brings up some great points and one of the book’s strong points is her emphasis on considering the evidence – the myths – on their own terms, and not through the more usual Classical bias that many academics often apply.
The book also gives you a good feel for what Irish deities are like, so if you’re interested in Gaelic Polytheism and want to know more about who you might end up honouring, this is a great place to start. Because it’s fairly short and well-written, being aimed at a general audience rather than an exclusively academic one, it also has the added bonus that it’s an easy read that won’t overwhelm. Getting hold of a second-hand copy shouldn’t break the bank, either, and I think it’s a good first book to be getting on with beyond exclusively Gaelic Polytheist materials.
An Introduction to Early Irish Literature – Muireann ní Bhrolcháin
A relatively recent publication that gives a good, basic introduction to early Irish myth and literature. It’s very much aimed at the beginner, so aside from a good grounding in the fundamentals you’ll probably manage to stay awake because it doesn’t have the dry, dull jargon that’s (too often) the mark of the more advanced works. Always a bonus. Since it’s more recent, it also gives you one of the most up-to-date perspectives on the subject as matters stand today.
It’s a more comprehensive tome than Sjoestedt, but equally as good for the absolute noob. The book introduces the general background you need to know about the literature, and then it gives details about each of the cycles (as the myths are split into today, each cycle being relatively self-contained in terms of characters and general setting – the early Irish themselves split them by subject matter, like violent deaths, wooings, cattle-raids, and so on, regardless of the characters involved).
Some people feel this book is perhaps a little too basic and simple, and that might be a fair criticism if it’s the only book you’re ever going to read on the subject. I think it makes for a good start that introduces the essential concepts you need to know, giving you a solid foundation to build on in future. Aside from being accessible, it’s also widely available, so getting hold of a copy for a reasonable price shouldn’t be a problem.
Celtic Heritage – Alwyn and Brinley Rees
This is one of those books that’s often highly recommended in Gaelic Polytheist and Celtic Reconstructionist circles, but it’s not without its problems. I might even go so far as to say it’s the most problematic book I’d recommend (with any enthusiasm, anyway).
The problem here is largely a product of its age; the Rees brothers were heavily into their comparative approach and so they drew on the evidence of the Vedas to help “fill in the gaps.” A general attitude of “it’s similar, and it ultimately comes from the same milieu, so it must be the same!” This is a problem because they unquestioningly assume that the evidence is compatible because of their shared Indo-European roots, without regard for the fact that they’re actually very different. In spite of their common origins we’re dealing with material from vastly different periods in time, different societies, languages, and cultures. Read around the Vedic stuff and you’ll do fine, though.
Despite the name – “Celtic” Heritage – the book focuses mainly on Irish mythology, with a few chapters on Welsh myth thrown in. It’s a relatively straightforward read (although quite dense in some respects) and it provides a valuable insight into not just the myths but also the cosmology of the Celts. For a long time this was the only book that dealt with much in the way of cosmology at all, but even though there are now more focused books that concentrate on that subject they’re not what you’d call easy reads. I think this is a good start for that, and one that will be easier to get through if you’ve read Mac Cana and Sjoestedt. It will certainly help consolidate what you’ve learned about the mythology so far, though. So that’s cool.
Celtic Christianity and Nature: Early Irish and Hebridean Traditions – Mary Low
In spite of the name, this is a great book for Gaelic Polytheists because it talks as much about the pagan elements and survivals in Irish and Hebridean traditions as it does about Christianity itself. It’s an extremely charming book and a great read – engaging but thorough, and well-laid-out and organised to boot. It’s a little shorter than Celtic Heritage (above), and doesn’t have the problems of that particular tome, either.
You’ll get a great view of Gaelic cosmology (such as it is), and each chapter looks at a different subject like the land and the landscape, trees, water, fire, birds, the seasons, and the elements, which makes it a bit easier to find what you might be looking for if you have a sudden burning desire to find out as much as you can about, say, what the early Irish views on trees were.
Aside from outlining the basics, it explores whether such attitudes towards them might be evidence of pre-Christian belief, Christianity, or a synthesis of the two, so it gives you a good grounding in how to interpret things yourself. Over all, this is a great book to follow on from Celtic Heritage with, and if you struggle to understand what Gaelic Polytheists mean by looking at the cultural continuum as a whole, then this book will clear things up for you in no time. I would definitely recommend this as a good book for the beginner.
There are a fair few good books that concentrate more specifically on a deity or certain kinds of deities, but many of them are more academically-minded and so may not be so appealing to the beginner. The recommendations here are ones I think have a more universal appeal, so hopefully won’t be too off-putting. I’m assuming you’ve already read Sjoestedt and Ní Bhrolcháin, recommended above, but if not, I’d say start with those and then come here:
The Old Gods of Ireland: The Facts about Irish Fairies – Patrick Logan
A fairly slim volume, this is a fantastic introduction to the lore relating to many of the gods of Ireland. Instead of focusing on the myths like the other books I’ve recommended so far, Logan concentrates on local traditions and folklore. Many of the tales and anecdotes he relates have a wry sense of humour, which makes for an easy read, and although it’s a very slim volume, it’s surprisingly comprehensive for its size.
This is a book that’s as much about the fairy-faith of Ireland – the creideamh sí – as it is about the gods themselves and I can’t recommend it enough. In particular, you’ll find lots of good stuff about Donn, Finbarr, Áine, and many others. On top of that, you’ll get a good grounding in the lore of figures like the leprechaun, the púca, the water horse, and some of the more malevolent beings you might encounter in the Irish countryside. It’s perhaps a little on the sanitised side, but over all it’s a solid read that will do well to grace yourself. Definitely one for the beginner.
Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth – Mark Williams
Probably one of the most important books to come out in recent years, I would heartily recommend this to anyone who’s interested in getting beyond just the basics…
I do think that you’d benefit from getting a few other books under your belt before you start on this one – it’s a pretty hefty volume and it’s probably a good idea to have the basics down before you pick this book up (via Sjoestedt and ní Bhrolcháin, above, for example) – but it’s such a good read that I’m going to recommend it here as a “must read.”
This book does a fantastic job of introducing concepts and jargon the lay-person might be unfamiliar with, and it has a very handy pronunciation guide at the beginning, too. You won’t find the bog-standard list of deities with a run-down of who they are, what they do, and which myths you can find them in; instead the book explores how the gods have been portrayed in literature (and later on other media) over time, from the earliest evidence up until the present day. Along the way it raises some really important points to ponder, so I’d definitely suggest you add this to your wishlist. All in all, this is a bit of a game-changer.
Ortha Nan Gaidheal: Carmina Gadelica in English and Gaelic – Alexander Carmichael
Regardless of whether or not you prefer to keep an exclusively Irish focus, or prefer a more Scottish expression, this is one of the most important and useful set of books you can get hold of as a Gaelic Polytheist.
Carmichael was a fluent Gaelic speaker who spent time in the Highlands and Islands during the nineteenth century collecting (with a little help from his friends) the prayers, charms, blessings and tales of the Gaelic speaking community before they died out and were lost for good. These, and the accompanying notes, give an insight into the society of the time, and many of the charms show pagan elements. They are also strikingly similar to examples of Irish prayers that have been recorded from the same period, and this is because of Ireland and Scotland’s common heritage. As a result, a lot of Gaelic Polytheists adopt or adapt some of the prayers recorded here for their own use.
Originally published in six volumes, with both English and Gaelic, the whole set will put a large dent in your pocket – if you can find it, these days. A condensed version of the first five volumes, without the Gaelic (or the indexes, glossary and some additional notes of volume six) is available, however, and you’ll find it a lot cheaper than the full set. The single volume English-only version is a good starting point, but remember it’s not as complete as the individual volumes. Even if you do end up with the complete set, the edited single-volume version is often handy for quick reference.
Do bear in mind that books one and two are available online, for free, at sacred texts (for example) and volume three can also now be found online as well. These are generally the most useful volumes for informing everyday practice, though if you can get hold of volumes four-six they have good stuff in them too.
The Gaelic Otherworld: John Gregorson Campbell’s Superstitions Of The Highlands And Islands Of Scotland And Witchcraft & Second Sight In The Highlands & Islands – John Gregorson Campbell, edited by Ronald Black
Originally published as two separate books by John Gregorson Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld contains a huge amount of folklore, beliefs, and customs that were collected during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
You can find Campbell’s original books free to read online at archive.org (or there are cheap Kindle versions available on Amazon), but I recommend this single volume over those because Black has extensively annotated Campbell’s original work, providing up-to-date commentary, corrections, cross-references, and plenty of pointers for further reading that make this version by far and away the best.
Black’s notes on the original work is very informative – perhaps even more useful than Campbell’s original work. The whole volume gives a fantastic insight into the beliefs and practises of the Highlanders and Islanders, and makes a great complement to the Carmina Gadelica. It’s occasionally difficult to get hold of if you’re looking to buy a copy, but definitely worth it.
Irish Folk Customs and Belief – Séan Ó Súillebháin
A good wee introduction to many of the key aspects of practice and belief that can be gleaned from Irish folklore. This book is short and sweet, and doesn’t go into too much detail that will overwhelm a beginner. It’s an easy read that doesn’t require too much knowledge of Irish folklore and customs so it’s a great place to start. You should be able to get hold of it for a reasonable price if you can’t find it at the library, but it’s no longer in print so availability may be limited.
Irish Folk Ways – E Estyn Evans
Quite possibly more than you ever wanted to know about even the most minute details of Irish life…
I’ll be honest, this is – mostly – an extremely boring book and unless you have an unreasonably enthusiastic penchant for the very specific types of tools, vessels, furniture, and whatever else you can think of that may have been used by “Irish folk” of bygone days, you’re probably going to wonder why the hell I’m even mentioning this book.
I promise there’s some good stuff in here, though. I promise. Even in the boring bits there are a few tidbits here and there that may rekindle the will to keep reading, but for the most part it’s going to be the last few chapters that will really pique your interest; these are the ones that cover the festivals, life passages, and pishrogues (charms and folk cures etc.), which is what you probably really want to know about. In spite of the other boring stuff, it’s worth it for these chapters alone.
The good thing is that it at least has an index at the back if you recoil in horror at the thought of reading it from cover to cover. This is a nice complement to Danaher’s book (below) and it shouldn’t be too hard to find for not too much money.
The Year in Ireland – Kevin Danaher
Everything you ever wanted to know about Irish calendar customs…
This is a great book for information on how the Irish celebrated the quarter days (and more) into living memory (and, arguably, the present day). Like a lot of books on the list, The Year in Ireland isn’t in print anymore, but second hand copies should be kicking around quite cheaply.
I cannot stress how great this book is, and how useful. If you really do have to be careful with how you spend your pennies then I would definitely recommend that you put this one at the top of the list if you’re looking for just one book to give you an idea of how you can celebrate the festivals. It’s comprehensive but not too overwhelming to read, and it’s aimed at a general audience, not an academic one. There’s a definite charm to Danaher’s writing style that makes it easy to get sucked into.
The Silver Bough (four volumes) – F. Marian McNeill
One of the most comprehensive works on Scottish folklore out there, the series is a little dated now, but it’s still chock full of good stuff. McNeill draws on a vast array of folklore, primarily collected during the nineteenth century, and (almost) all of her sources can now be found online via places like archive.org. Her discernment in picking out the most pertinent or most interesting bits is a definite bonus; she does the legwork so you don’t have to!
Each volume concentrates on a specific subject. Volume one deals with general folklore, beliefs, and practices, which gives you a good overview of charms and folk magic, etc. Volume two and three focus on the festival calendar in Scotland, with volume two covering Imbolc through to Lùnastal, and volume three covering Samhainn through to the Yules. Volume four, probably the least immediately useful of the the series, covers local festivals throughout the country – riding the Marches, Up Helly aa, Stonehaven, and so on.
Since the pennies do start to add up when you’re trying to get hold of multiple volumes, I’d recommend volumes one to three as the most essential (and you don’t really need to get them in order, each book is pretty well self-contained). These books are a great starting point and will provide a good amount of inspiration.
The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint – Seán Ó Duinn
Detailing everything you ever wanted to know about Imbolc (or Là Fhèill Brìghde), this book is a fantastic resource and really should belong on your bookshelf. Ó Dúinn details all the different elements of the festival, from the cros Bríde to the crios Bríde, the Threshold Rite (where Brìde is ritually invited in) to basically everything else. I cannot stress how much you want to buy this book! It really is a great start, but if you have to count your pennies then there’s this article that will come a close second.
The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest – Máire MacNeill
A massive tome covering just about everything there is to know about the festival, from its Irish origins to its observance in Ireland, the lore and practices associated with it. This includes extensive appendices detailing localised folktales involving figures associated with Lughnasa, including Lugh, St Patrick, and Crom Dubh.
Although primarily focused on Ireland (by virtue of the festivals origins there, really), MacNeill also has chapters detailing the evidence for its celebration in Scotland, Man, and beyond. Whatever your personal focus, the whole book is well worth a read.
As a fair warning, this book is pretty monumental, so it may be a little daunting for the beginner because it’s extremely thorough and huge in size, but it’s definitely a must-read once you’ve got beyond the basics. The biggest downside to this book is that it can be hard to find and – even new – it will set you back about £50. Second-hand it tends to go for more, so this may be one for the inter-library loan.
Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature – Kim McCone
Not necessarily a good book for beginners, but seeing as I’ve already listed some of those above, I’m putting this one here. Although perhaps better suited to someone who already has the basics down, this book is invaluable for anyone wanting to look at the myths in more detail and get more in depth…
McCone offers a very different perspective from most of the books that are usually recommended on Gaelic Polytheist reading lists, and for that alone it’s a good read. There are a number of different approaches that academics can take when it comes to Celtic Studies, and McCone is what you might say “firmly in the anti-Nativist camp.” This basically means that his approach emphasises the time and place that the myths were recorded in – by monks, in an ecclesiastical setting, with their own particular agendas and biases. While the Rees brothers (for example) are very much in the opposite camp, and accept that the myths show evidence of pre-Christian beliefs, and pre-Christian myths with Christian material inserted in (in places), academics like McCone are more skeptical. As such, you’ll find a heavy emphasis on the Biblical influences that have affected or crept into the myths, and he mostly gives a staunchly non-pagan interpretation of the material (his chapter on “Fire and the Arts” is something of an exception, perhaps). What may seem pre-Christian can often be interpreted through a Biblical lens, if you know your Bible, and this leaves us with some ambiguities…
You may not agree with a lot of the book, but McCone offers a good counterpoint to a lot of authors who often assume that if its mythological it must be pre-Christian, and he gives a good overview of how the myths came to be recorded and so on and so forth. The aforementioned chapter on “Fire and the Arts” alone is worth the cost of buying it, IMHO.
This book can be hard to get hold of (cheaply), so you might want to get this one out at the library. However you get a copy, I do think it’s worth it.
The Origins of the Irish – J. P. Mallory
A wonderfully witty and engaging volume, The Origins of the Irish covers the basically the whole of Ireland’s prehistory from the Big Bang up until the dawn of the early medieval period.
Each chapter deals with a different time period, including a fascinating overview of how Ireland – and the rest of the world – shifted around like a very slow game of musical chairs until the landmasses ended up where they are today (give or take a few metres or so…). From there we’re taken on a journey through the very first evidence of life, and eventually human occupation, in Ireland, through the Stone Ages, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. The focus here is very much on what archaeology can tell us about how people lived and died, and while it’s well-referenced and well-written from an academic perspective, it’s not dry, dull, and overwhelming for the non-expert. The non-expert is really the target audience here.
After the archaeological ages, we then deal with what the myths have to tell us about Ireland, and also included are some extremely fascinating chapters about genetics, language, and, in general, just what the “Origins of the Irish” really means. You won’t find much about practice or beliefs as far as Gaelic Polytheism in general is concerned, but it’s an important book to read in that it gives you a solid grounding in not just history and archaeology, but what it means to be Irish.
Before Scotland – Alistair Moffat
This is about as close to a comparison of Mallory’s book – but for Scotland this time – as I can think of, and it’s a great introduction to the shadowy prehistory of Scotland. Like The Origins of the Irish, Moffat takes you on a journey through the ages, from the earliest human occupation through to the emergence of the enigmatic Picts (Scotland, as such, wasn’t a thing until the Picts and the Gaels united and eventually became one nation). One of the really interesting bits is the relationship between what’s now Scotland and what was Doggerland – the landbridge that connected the British mainland to the European continent during the last Ice Age; the implications are tantalising, what we’ve lost is sad.
Moffat’s main strength in his writing is that he makes each period feel tangible – not dim and distant, living in a murky past of generalisations, but something that’s vivid and real. It does lose its steam a little in later chapters (in comparison), but the information is still solid.
Like Mallory’s The Origins of the Irish, Before Scotland is very much aimed at the average lay-person, no prior knowledge needed, and it’s a pretty easy read. The one major downside to this book is the lack of any real referencing or citations, but nevertheless what you get here is reliable. It’s probably fair to say that if you should ever meet the author in person, you don’t want to mention the Romans!
Cattle Lords & Clansmen – Nerys Patterson
An invaluable book that gives a nice balance to the folklore found in Danaher and Evans, and the mythological background of Rees and Sjoestedt et al. In some respects, Patterson picks up where Mallory (above) left off, although here we’re dealing with historical, not so much archaeological, evidence.
This book gives lots of information about the more practical, less folksy aspects of early Irish society, which helps to give a good idea of context as far as society and culture, rather than pure myth, goes. It covers some familiar ground as far as monks and manuscripts goes, but you also get chapters on the laws, social hierarchies, kingship and so on.
A fair criticism of this book is that it’s written for an academic audience so it can be quite dry (long and involved…), which makes for good bedtime reading if you’re an insomniac. In spite of that, the chapters are easily read on their own for the most part, so you can dip into it at your leisure. The chapter on seasonal celebrations is a good read, for one, but it’s definitely worth a full read through.
Because it’s a little dry for a lot of people’s tastes, you might want to save this one for a bit further down your reading list. While I definitely recommend it, if it’s the first book you read you might end up feeling a little put off in bothering to read anything else! Extremely cheap copies are few and far between, but on the plus side availability shouldn’t be a problem. At the very least you can buy a Kindle/eBook version.
Seeing as Gaelic Polytheism is a subset of Celtic Reconstructionism, I think it’s good to know some of the history of where we’ve come from as a movement, as it were.
The CR FAQ – Various authors
A consensus document that had its start on the Celtic Reconstructionist group on livejournal (the main CR forum of the day), the bulk of The CR FAQ was written by some of the most senior members of the CR movement (at the time).
This book is a printed version of the CR FAQ that can be found online. Fully indexed and with a few added extras that you won’t find on the website (like a glossary and very handy pronunciation guide), all profits from sales of the book version go to a charity promoting the preservation of Gaelic language and culture. See here for more information.
Start here or on the CR FAQ website for answers to pretty much any question you have about CR (like, what CR actually is…), and probably some you didn’t even think of… Do note, however, that as a book written by committee it necessarily reflects compromises in some places that not every individual author agrees with. Coming up on ten years since its initial publication, it’s a little out of date now, and given the people who were involved in its authoring, do bear in mind that the main focus of the book errs towards the Gaelic side of CR; unfortunately for Brythonic or Gaulish Polytheists, there isn’t much out there, even today.