Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Book Review: Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth

As I mentioned in my last post, I was lucky enough to be offered a review copy of Mark Williams' new book. This is a first for me – usually my reviews come from books I've either bought or borrowed from the university library (including Mark Williams' previous book, Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700-1700). Another first here is the fact that my website, Tairis, gets a footnote mention in the penultimate chapter (of an actual book!).

I'm honoured to have been offered a review copy, and I think it's only right and proper to be up-front about these things lest I be accused of having something to hide or undue bias. With that out of the way, let's get to the review...

Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth
Mark Williams

So we'll start with a quick overview of what this book is about... On the face of it, the aim is simple: To trace the evolution of the gods of Ireland throughout history, from the very earliest evidence through to the modern day.

As you might imagine, if you want to achieve this in any kind of thorough way, you're not going to do it in a few pages: More like 570+ (which for the price, is a bargain, really). Given the huge scope of the book it's split into two parts, with both of them having a very different focus from the other. The first part concentrates on the very earliest evidence through to the Middle Ages, and the context of their portrayal during a time of conversion and then, later, established Christianity. The second part has a more contemporary focus in looking at the way the gods were (essentially) rediscovered by the early Celtic scholars at the very dawn of Celtic Studies (as an academic discipline), and how they were then adopted by the movers and shakers of the nineteenth century Celtic Revival, and into the present day.

If the former is more your area of interest then the latter may not muster much enthusiasm in you – and vice versa – but the result it actually quite fascinating, and it's just one of the many things that make me so enthusiastic about this book. One thing part two hammers home is how much the Celtic Revival, and those early academics, has influenced out modern perceptions of the gods, whether we're conscious of it or not. In general, it also helps that the writing isn't dry and dense; there's a dry humour, and it's easy to get swept up in the arguments put forth.

There are a lot of books out there that talk about the literature in the context of how they were produced; how the monks who recorded them may have changed things, left things out and whatnot. This has been done many many times, and of course it's an important part of the conversation when you're talking about this kind of thing. What those books don't tend to do is explicitly lay out how that treatment may have changed over time and link it to how the gods are portrayed as a result, in a straightforward, linear fashion, or discuss what that can tell us about them. You might find articles and case studies, but I'm hard pressed to think of something that compiles it all into one volume outright. This is exactly what Williams aims to do, using examples of particular myths to make his points. I think in doing so he raises a lot of important questions and implications that we – as Gaelic Polytheists – would benefit in thinking about and discussing (I'll get to some examples in a minute, though). The same goes for those more interested in the academics or the literature for literature's sake.

The first half of the book is packed full of things that will be of interest to Gaelic Polytheists, and I think it offers a lot of good food for thought. The first chapter (which you can preview here) gives an overview of the kind of evidence we can draw on in finding the gods, and gives a kind of case study of two different deities – one of whom survived into the manuscript tradition (Lug), while the other didn't: *Loigodeva, who lends her name to the Corcu Loígde of Munster. Straight away we're reminded that the evidence is, in many respects, rather arbitrary. We see what remains, but we don't know how much was lost. It also stresses the localised nature (or origins, more to the point) of the gods.

Further on it's suggested that the story of Dian Cécht's murder of his own son, Miach, in Cath Maige Tuired, is a later addition to the tale (and I think John Carey's comments in A Single Ray of the Sun, where he points out that the first recorded deaths of the gods only start appearing in the tenth century or so, a century later than the bulk of CMT was written). The discussion of the tale here is fascinating, picking up on points – like the way the tale mirrors so many elements in so many subtle ways – I'd never considered before.

Part one finishes with Williams pointing out that after the Middle Ages we enter into something of a wilderness, as it were, where the gods "fade" until we come to the nineteenth century. It's not that they're forgotten, as such, but by this point their divine nature isn't especially relevant. On the face of it he's not wrong, but I think it would've been useful to have some discussion of the Historical Cycle – which emphasises the role of the sovereignty goddess – and how that concept became so important in the aislinge poetry of this period, due to the political climate of the time. As the book itself shows, the popularity of certain deities ebbed and flowed over the centuries, and if anything I think the big thing about this period was that the Tuatha Dé Danann were sidelined by the desire of Ireland's greatest poets to assert their nation's sovereignty, drawing on their mythological heritage.

In part two we delve into the world of the early academics of "Celtology" (as Celtic Studies was then called), the Revivalists who followed, into more contemporary literature, music, art, and Celtic Paganism. What really stood out here was the discussion of how the Revivalists essentially "adopted" Óengus mac Ind Óc and turned him into the quintessential "love god" as he's so often called today. I've long wondered about how – and why – that happened, when it's not really reflected in the myths as a whole. Off on a tangent from this, as Yeats' wonky efforts at filling in the gaps that were left in the myth of The Wooing of Étaín shows, this section can be taken as a lesson in the limitations of "reconstruction" (in whichever sense of the word you want to consider – academic, literary, mythological, religious...), especially when we blind ourselves to anything other than our own biases. A complete version of the tale wasn't available until the 1930s, and so Yeats was working on limited information. As a result, he assumed that Étaín left Midir to be with Óengus because after all, we alllll know he's a love god, right? How wrong he was!

My biggest quibble with the book comes with Chapter 9, which turns its attention to Scotland, and how figures such as William Sharp (better known as "Fiona Macleod") followed in Macpherson's footsteps and adopted the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann as their own. There's also some discussion of the more influential folklore collectors of the day – including, of course, Alexander Carmichael. The "pagan nature" of Shony and Bride can be found here as well, and it's this part in particular that I felt was dealt without as much nuance as elsewhere; excellent points are made, but I would have liked to have seen a more rounded, balanced discussion when there wasn't really much room to manoeuvre at all. There are other times I felt the same, but not to such a degree as here.

As we get to the present, Williams touches on Celtic Paganism, amongst other things (including some wonderfully bad poetry that includes the lines, "Leaning on sword-hilts, their great paps dark as warts/Within the gleam of breast, their scrota bulged in shadow.") It's refreshing to see something like Celtic Paganism – and Celtic Reconstructionism, for once – tackled in a book like this, not just at all, but without condescension or being patronising to boot. Once again we see the vogue for certain gods change as attitudes and influences do; whereas Óengus was arguably the most important and popular in the imagination of the Revivalists and beyond, even up until the late twentieth century, at the turn of the century we start to see goddesses taking over – the Morrígan, Brigid, and the Cailleach are now far more significant than any others today. It would have been nice to see this expanded on within the chapter – why is this the case? How did this come about? Perhaps this is fodder for another book.

It has to be said, this book is not a simple introduction of the gods in the Irish pantheon (if you can even argue such exists...) – the nuts and bolts of who they are, what they do, who they're related to, etc. If that's what you're looking then I recommend you look elsewhere. This is very much a literary, not literal, overview of how the gods were (and are) perceived. And while this book is definitely aimed at a more general audience than academics alone, I think at least a basic level of knowledge about Irish mythology and literature would benefit the reader. For the most part the book succeeds in introducing need-to-know academic concepts, movements, or jargon in a way that won't overwhelm the non-expert, and there's a handy pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book that will certainly be useful for a lot of readers, but the sheer size and scope of the book might be a little daunting for a total beginner.

Given the monumental aims and scope of the book, it's inevitable that some things didn't make the cut, and to be fair, Williams himself is well aware of this. While there may be room for so much more to be said, what you get here is a good start, and – to compare it with his first book, while I think that one deals with a more niche subject and fills a much-needed hole there, this one made me realise that there was a hole I never really knew existed in the first place until I was showed it. There's so much to talk about here, and it's only the beginning. I think Ireland's Immortals would do well to grace your bookshelves.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Tairis update: New page

It's been almost a year since I overhauled and updated the Tairis site, which was much-needed and very belated after a catastrophic outage that pretty much broke everything (while I was on holiday, no less...).

So last year, when I was updating and re-coding every single damn footnote by hand (never have I regretted my attempts at being thorough in my research more!), I decided that there was one page that wasn't really serving much purpose anymore – the "Article Downloads" page. I decided not to bother including it.

When I first made the page, there was no such this as academia.edu and JSTOR didn't offer public access, so finding decent articles freely available to read was something of a rarity. As such, I figured it would be useful to make a list of articles I'd found that might be of interest to my fellow Gaelic Polytheists. By the time I got to updating the site last year, I figured there was so much more that was available now, it was too much of a big job to try and maintain that page.

Since then, I've had a change of heart – not least because I've been reading some new publications that I've been really enjoying. In particular, I've been lucky enough to get a review copy of Mark Williams's new book Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth (and I'll be reviewing it in due course), which has resulted in my spending a small fortune on even more books for my already over-stuffed bookshelves, alongside some furious googling to see if I can find some of the articles that are referenced in the footnotes (I've sadly not been as successful as I'd hoped to be...). At a certain point, it became clear that a new list of articles was going to be useful to me, so I figured might as well make a new one for the website.

So here it is: Articles.

I can't exactly call it "Article Downloads" anymore because the nature of JSTOR's open access is that you can view, but you can't keep, the articles that are made available to you. It's still an amazing resource, though, and signing up for a free account is easy enough (or it was when I did it...).

There are plenty of articles that I would recommend and list on the page, but I'm unable to. Unfortunately, not everything is freely available to read online if you don't have access via an academic institution; journals like Celtica, Peritia, Studia Celtica, Éigse, and Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie frustratingly don't offer much, if anything, to the great unwashed like me and most of you... For the remainder that is available, I've been pretty selective in my listing. I try to make sure that what's there is reliable and useful, and there's a lot more out there that isn't so reliable. If there's something you think is missing then I'd love to hear from you!  

Friday, 11 November 2016

[Link] A Gaelic response in support to Water is life. Water is sacred.

Many – even most – of you have probably heard about what's happening at Standing Rock, if you haven't been actively following it. The campaign by water protectors, trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, is ongoing. The consequences and impact of the pipeline actually being installed is going to be devastating, not just environmentally; the consequences and impact of the struggles so far are more than enough. Sacred sites have already been destroyed and desecrated by the pipeline, and that's only going to get worse. The peaceful water protectors and ceremonial elders, journalists and medics have been attacked by militarised police, and set upon by private security guards illegally using dogs. Meanwhile, efforts have been made to clear camps, resulting in sacred, ceremonial items simply being dumped by the police and private security firms.

Now, with Donald Trump (who has financial ties to the company in charge of DAPL) elected to serve as president come January 20, 2017, he's pledged to overturn the "roadblocks" standing in the way of "vital energy infrastructure projects, like the Keystone Pipeline..." and "lift the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion dollars' worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal."

It seems like the struggle is going to continue for a long time to come.

If you haven't seen it already, I urge you to head on over to the (amazing and wonderful) Cailleach's Herbarium and read their article:
The travesties that are happening around ours and others countries right now are many. We have fracking underway in England. We have the Dakota Access Pipeline company attempting to cut its way across the major, central rivers and aquifers of North America, including unceded Native American territory, sacred sites and burial grounds. We have displaced people from a war torn country homeless and in danger in Calais. All because of one thing. Oil. Democracy and human rights are being overturned in the wake of this monster. It has me thinking. What do our tales, as Gaels and Celtic descendants, tell us of the actions that are happening right now? What would our ancestors say? What would they do?

What would our ancestors say? It's a good question.

As Gaelic Polytheists the land, to us, is sacred, and so are the waters and the skies. The three realms are a fundamental part of our worldview. If we say the land and the waters are sacred but don't do anything to try to protect them in the face of environmental (social, cultural, spiritual...) disasters like Keystone or the DAPL, those words surely become meaningless.  

There are some good links at the bottom of the Cailleach's Herbarium article there if you're interested in offering support to those causes (and are able to, of course). Those ones, as far as I'm aware, are legit. Unfortunately, now that more and more people are paying attention to the situation at Standing Rock, there are a lot of "fundraisers" and "official t-shirts" out there on offer that are little more than fraudulent cash grabs; be careful who you give your money to, and make sure you do your research.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Links and things for Samhainn

Seeing as I didn't get around to doing one of these this time last year, I figured I'd make up for it now...

Before we get into the links, I thought maybe it would be good to clear up a few things. Samain is the Old Irish spelling; Samhain is modern Irish or Gaelic (Gàidhlig/Scottish Gaelic). In Gaelic, you might also see the spelling Samhainn or Samhuinn, the latter being the "old" way of spelling it (Gaelic orthography was overhauled and modernised in the 70s, so spellings became more consistent).

Samhain can refer to the month of November – mi na Samhna or Samhain in Irish, or an t-Samhain in modern Gaelic, for example (click on the links for audio files; note that the pronunciation differs according to dialect). You might see claims that it's incorrect to refer to the festival as "Samhain" because that's the name for the month, not the festival itself, and instead, more specific names should be used – Oíche Shamhna ("Samhain Eve" – the eve of October 31st) and Lá Samhna (the day itself, November 1st) in Irish, or Oidhche Shamhna and Là Samhna in Gaelic. This is true; these are the specific terms that refer to the specific eve/day that's celebrated today as Hallowe'en and you should probably use them if that's what you're talking about specifically. But... As we see in the myths, "Samhain" is used to refer to the festival (in a pre-Christian context), and that's an entirely valid way of referring to the festival in that sense. The reason it's used this way in the myths is probably because the festival was originally celebrated over several days – some sources say three days and nights, others suggest the festival was up to a week long, so it's not just referring to a particular day or night. In context, it's clear that the festival is being referred to, not the month in general, so it's fine to use "Samhain" as a shorthand for the festival. It is good to bear in mind who you might be speaking to and what you're specifically talking about, though. Sometimes, in the context of a conversation, you might want to use the modern terminology rather than the shorthand.

Clear as mud?


So now we've got the terms out the way, let's look at what Samhainn is all about and what you can do to celebrate it.

As usual let's start with a video! This is Gaol Naofa's most watched video on our Youtube channel, which just goes to show how popular the festival is. Here you'll find just about everything you need to know to get started:

If you'd prefer a little light reading, then how about starting with some articles from Tairis?

You've probably heard that Samhain is "the Celtic New Year," but is it really? Where does that idea come from, exactly? Very probably it comes from the nineteenth century antiquarian John Rhys (with a little help from some friends), and I've outlined the evidence I've found so far about that in The New Year. Your interpretation may vary...

Feasting is a huge part of the celebrations, and of course it's a time for divination, games, and giving out treats to guisers. Some of the divination "games" that are played (or performed, if you prefer) involve the use of traditional dishes, including:

  • Cranachan – a Scottish dessert of whipped cream flavoured with toasted oatmeal, honey, and whisky, usually served with raspberries. At Samhainn, charms can be mixed in as a way of telling the recipients future
  • Treacle bannocks – used in a very messy game where they're covered in treacle and hung above the head so the players can try to catch their "prize" using only their teeth
  • Bairín breac – an Irish tea loaf which is traditionally baked with charms mixed into it (measurements given in cups)
  • Colcannon – buttery mashed potatoes with cabbage (and often onions); another medium for the charm game

Though if you prefer a basic sponge cake works well for the charms, too.

Protective rites are an important part of the proceedings at Samhainn and the Irish Parshell cross is traditionally made and hung over the threshold to protect the occupants of the house. If you keep livestock, you can make one for the barn or stables, too. A Scottish tradition sees a special bannock being baked and then thrown, piece by piece, over the shoulder as an offering to dangerous or evil spirits as a means of keeping them at bay.

Guising, mummers plays and strawboys are also an important part of Samhainn traditions, and also have a protective tone. You can find out more about them in Ireland here. Typically guising (kids going around in disguise collecting treats from neighbours) – which can be seen as the precursor of modern-day trick-or-treating – involves the performance of a piece of entertainment to "earn" a treat. The trick, if necessary, is traditionally done later, in secret. There are lots of traditional songs or rhymes that are associated with guising, but jokes are acceptable, too.

If you'd like your kids to get into the spirit of things and learn some traditional songs, here's one example, called Oíche Shamhna, Oíche Shamhna – sung to the tune of "Frère Jacques" (video included at the link).

Finally! Here's a link not directly relevant to Samhain celebrations per se, but it's a wonderful write-up of a trip to Tigh na Cailliche (a place very dear to my heart!), from Scott at Cailleach's Herbarium. According to tradition, the stones at the shrine (which are said to represent the Cailleach and her family) are brought out from the shrine every Bealltainn and put away inside for the winter, at Samhainn, so now's the perfect time to read all about it!

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The roll call of the dead

For only the second time since I became a Gaelic Polytheist I have a family member to add to the list of ancestors I'll be honouring at Samhain. The first was my granddad, who got to meet his first great-grandchild (my son) before he died only three months later on New Years' Day, 2006.

Now I get to add my father-in-law, who died earlier this year. It was very sudden – and tragic and awful – and it's left us all in an aftermath of differing proportions. My mother-in-law lost her husband of nearly 50 years, my husband lost his father, my kids lost their Papa. To me, he was more a father than my own ever was.

This was clearly Rosie's idea

The best we can tell, he fell head-first down the stairs. He didn't try to stop his fall or cry out, so it seems likely that he lost consciousness and it was only when his head met the floor that his fall came to a very sudden stop. He lost a lot of blood and sustained a massive head injury, but the way he landed also meant that his chin was pressed into his chest and he was unable to breathe. He was without oxygen for at least 20 minutes, as far as we can tell, probably closer to 30 minutes. By the time the paramedics/EMTs arrived his heart had stopped, but they managed to revive him – somehow. He never regained consciousness, however. A small mercy, I think. After it was confirmed he was braindead, and his immediate family had managed to come to his side and say their goodbyes, life-support was switched off. He died at 11.55pm on June 15th, 2016, after only a matter of minutes.

It's been a difficult time since then, in some ways. We've all had to navigate our own grief while accommodating each others', trying to be understanding and sensitive to everyone else's needs as we reach different stages of grief ahead of, or behind, other people. The first night he was in hospital, while Mr Seren was by his side and they were still hoping that there was some hope left, I went outside and prayed (throughout the whole ordeal I stayed home with the kids; we felt it was better for them to remember him as he was, and the days were just too long for them to handle anyway). I prayed and I felt a presence at my shoulder, a brush against my hand, and then a stillness and a peace. I knew then that he was gone. He wasn't coming back from this.

Acceptance was the easy part for the adults. My father-in-law was a complicated man and he was hard to know in some ways. He was a man of many passions but life had worn him down. Towards the end he was an unhappy man – a little lost after his retirement, depressed and lacking in purpose, angry, in pain from his bad knees, and unable to play the music he so loved. He'd given up in many ways. He was struggling and didn't go out much. In that respect his death has come as a relief and a release. As tragic as it was, he was ready, and in some ways that's a comfort. At his funeral, it was standing room only. Over 150 people came to pay their respects. That was comforting, too. Flawed as he was, he touched a lot of people's lives.

None of that's offered much comfort to the kids, though. My son, in particular, is having a hard time parsing the loss of his Papa. He's found it difficult to go to his grandparent's house knowing that he won't see his Papa there, even though all of this things are still there. The ghost of his memory hangs heavy in Tom's mind, and he found the funeral a little overwhelming, not knowing what to expect, not knowing how to deal with his emotions. We talked and tried to walk the kids through everything that was going to happen, but I suppose for a child hearing it and living it are very different things. It was a humanist service and the stories that were told were not stories of the Papa the kids knew, really. The Papa who went to seminary but left, the Papa who cycled the Highlands every weekend, and who met Nana at an archaeological dig. The Papa who left the house and did stuff. The Papa who was young once. That wasn't the Papa they knew.

When I broke the news of their Papa's death to the kids – the morning after, when they were supposed to be getting ready for school – they were shocked. We'd prepared them as best we could and had told them that it was going to happen, but again, hearing it is different to living it. Aside from asking how and why, Tom's only comment was, "But I didn't really know him yet. It's not fair!" The funeral only compounded that.

The family is planning to go over to Derry at some point – where my father-in-law's mother came from – so we can spread his ashes in the place his mother was born, per his wishes. Hopefully it will help Tom come to terms with it all and find some closure, but in the meantime, with Samhainn approaching, I'm trying to think of things to do to help him (and Rosie) keep processing. He finds it hard to talk about his emotions at the best of times so it's a fine line between helping him open up and picking at an open wound.

This is the first time we've had someone to add to our ancestor altar, as a family, so I'm going to try and involve the kids in what we'll be doing – finally getting some photos printed so we can set up a small altar to our ancestors, sharing stories (including old favourites like The Time Papa Got Stuck in the Bath, Twice, And Only The First Time Was Really Accidental, followed by The Time Papa Decided To Remove A Wasp's Nest, Drunk, And Surprisingly Fell Off A Ladder), and each of us adding a stone to the cairn out in the garden. We've been working on some decorations (Rosie's crafted a clay headstone with "RIP Papa" on it), and we will have our usual feast (Rosie has requested stovies, a speciality of Papa's), and leave a space for our ancestors to join us. I'm also planning on taking the kids to the beach so we can each pick a stone to bring back and place on our cairn. Knowing Rosie, she'll probably want to decorate it first.

So as always at this time of year, the ancestors hang heavy in the air. But this year, one more face joins the crowd, and now the kids have something more tangible to frame what, exactly, "the ancestors" really means to them. One more face joins the crowd. Goodbye Papa.