Sunday, 27 August 2017

Fat cakes and kittens

Last week the kids started back at school for the new school year (and a new school for Tom – he started high school!), and it so happened that we made our celebrations for Lùnastal (on the "Old Style" date, seeing as the weather's kinda weird at the moment and the fruits are taking their time) in the run up to the holidays finishing. We did the usual cleaning and tidying from top to bottom, inside and out, and had the requisite feast and games, with a thorough saining for good measure. 

The next day we went into the neighbouring tourist-trap town and had a Proper Good Ice-cream Sundae, as has become our annual end of summer holidays tradition. And we picked up Oscar's medication from the vets, because Oscar is apparently engaged in an epic and seizure-inducing battle against the demons under the living room carpet epileptic. (Thankfully we're getting the kinks worked out and the right dosage sorted now, and he's doing a lot better; it's been a bit of a bumpy ride this past year). And we booked Coco in for his first round of vaccinations. Yes: we have a new addition to the family, our very own ginger ninja (cue shameless excuse to post a cute photo of a kitten):

Oscar is a happy puppy, having finally succeeded in making friends with a cat for the first time in his life. His greatest ambition has been achieved. Their favourite pastime is playing Bitey Face together. Coco doesn't seem to mind Oscar's doggy death breath.

With new school years, new schools, new uniforms, and new routines for the kids, times are changing round these parts. The seasons, however, seem to be stuck in a weird flux between summer hanging on for dear life as long as possible, while autumn valiantly tries to barge its way in. Meanwhile, a few brambles have decided it's time to ripen but the bulk of the harvest has a way to go just yet, and I'm holding off on trying to pick any just yet (you can't beat a good apple and bramble crumble).

So while we're waiting, I decided maybe it would be a good idea to make some fat cakes to put out for the birds. It's something I usually do over the winter, but seeing as I had a new mould I wanted to try out, I decided why not whip up a batch a little early:

I was originally intending to use the mould to make some wee homemade candles – ones that aren't too big, so I can burn them in one go. The wicks I've ordered are taking forever to arrive, though, so I figured the individual triskeles would make a nice offering to put out (I forgot we have a brain mould... those would've been cool, too).

I'm always conscious of the fact that while birds will usually eat pretty much anything, not everything they'll eat is necessarily good for them nutritionally, so I like to put bird-food out as often as I can. If they're going to eat my offerings, I might as well try and give them a balanced diet, you know? So I mixed some bird seed in with some melted suet until the proportions seemed about right and left them to cool and harden – they don't take long. Rosie, who was off sick on Friday (schools being little more than germ factories, really), helped. We also made a cow and a star, which are considerably bigger and we'll keep those to put out later.

As it is, the crows seem to be enjoying the triskeles, and I'm sure once the weather clears up the smaller birds will be out in force as well. In the meantime, we're just waiting for the blackberries to ripen. It looks like it will be a good harvest this year, they're just taking foreeeeeever.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Shony revisited

One of the traditions that has long piqued my interest is the tradition of offering porridge or ale to Shony and its possible connection to Manannán, and since I was poking around a few old journals and found some stuff that provoked some Thoughts, I figured I'd work them all out here.

The custom has been most famously described by Martin Martin, who wrote about it in his A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, first published in 1703:
"John Morison of Bragir told me that when he was a boy, and going to the Church of St. Malvay, he observed the natives to kneel and repeat the Paternoster at four miles distance from the church. The inhabitants of this island had an ancient custom to sacrifice to a sea-god called Shony, at Hallow-tide, in the manner following: The inhabitants round the island came to the Church of St. Malvay, having each man his provision along with him; every family furnished a peck of malt, and this was brewed into ale; one of their number was picked out to wade into the sea up to the middle, and carrying a cup of ale in his hand, standing still in that posture, cried out with a loud voice saying, "Shony, I give you this cup of ale, hoping that you'll be so kind as to send us plenty of sea-ware for enriching our ground for the ensuing year"; and so threw the cup of ale into the sea. This was performed in the night time. At his return to land they all went to church, where there was a candle burning upon the altar; and then standing silent for a little time, one of them gave a signal, at which the candle was put out, and immediately all of them went to the fields, where they fell a-drinking their ale, and spent the remainder of the night in dancing and singing, &c.
The next morning they all returned home, being well satisfied that they had punctually observed this solemn anniversary, which they believed to be a powerful means to procure a plentiful crop. Mr. Daniel and Mr. Kenneth Morison, ministers in Lewis, told me they spent several years before they could persuade the vulgar natives to abandon this ridiculous piece of superstition; which is quite abolished for these 32 years past."

Some of the key points that have been debated over the years include who, exactly, Shony is, and what Martin meant by "Hallowtide."

Some academics argue that "Shony" is Gaelic for Johnny (Seónaidh), possibly St John the Baptist, and that it's related (in a very roundabout way) to Manannán:
The porridge, gruel or ale was dedicated to a god or saint called Manannan (Manntan, Bannan) or Shony (Seónaidh)... As it involved immersion and was usually performed on the night of Holy Thursday in Easter Week, it appears that Seónaidh is St John the Baptist, having undergone gradual Christianisation from Manannan mac Lir through St Bannan. Some writers, notably Banks and Hutton, have misunderstood Martin's 'Hallowtide' as meaning that the ceremony took place at Hallowe'en. In one recorded instance in Lewis (MacPhail 1895, p.166) Manannan turned into St Brendan the Navigator (Brianailt, Brianuilt) instead, and the ritual took place on his feast-day, 15 May... 
Black, The Gaelic Otherworld (2005), p590. 

Others favour a Scandinavian influence in the name, suggesting that "Shony" comes from the Old Norse son-, meaning "an atonement, a sacrifice:"
As ö from Norse would become o, an fn became nn, one thinks of Sjöfn, one of the goddesses in the Edda. In any case the word is Norse. Captain Thomas thought the word was són, a sacrifice; sjóni, a nickname in the Landnámabók, and akin, suggested Vigfusson, to són, atonement, sacrifice; German sühne, ver-söhnung. In the Hebrides they gave what they had, which would account for the departure from ancient usage. The ancient Norse sacrifice of atonement was thus performed: “The largest boar that could be found in the kingdom was on Yule-eve laid before the king and his men assembled in hall; the king and houseman then laid their hands on the boar’s bristly mane and made a solemn vow… The animal being sacrificed, divination took place, probably by chips shaken in the boar’s blood…. Són was the name of one of the vessels in which the blood of Kvásir, the mead of wisdom and poetry, was kept” (Cleasby-Vigfusson). But cf. N. sjóli, which occurs in an epithet of Thor: himin-sjóli, heaven-prop, heaven-defender (?), hence perhaps king.
Henderson, The Norse Influence on Celtic Scotland (1910), pp101-102.

Henderson has a tendency to assign Norse origins to a lot of things, rightly or wrongly, and it has to be said that the description of the sacrifice doesn't suggest much in the way of similarities with Shony's offerings. This doesn't rule out any Norse influences, conclusively, but (personally) I'm skeptical. Stiùbhart mentions the possible Norse connection, but also suggests that the word may have originally been something like "Sionn" or "Sionnaidh," giving a cognate with Gaelic words like sionn (something mysterious, uncanny, supernatural), sionnach (a fox), sionnachan (Will-o'-the-wisp), and sionnaich (bright). Clearly something Otherworldly or supernatural, either way, and the people of Lewis long had a tendency to refer to supernatural beings and other kinds of phenomena with euphemisms – the sìth being muinntir Fhionnlaigh, for example, or an Otherworldly whirlwind that has a tendency to spring up on the moors being known as uspag Fhionnlaigh. Stiùbhart further suggests that the "Fhionnlaigh" in question here may well be "a modern 'rationalisation' of the original 'Sionnaidh'." Although on the surface this might seem like a bit of a stretch, both "Shionn" and "Fhionn" would sound quite similar to the ear, since the lenition (the addition of the "h" after the consonant) kills the sound of the consonant before it and you'd end up with a "h" sound instead.

If this is the case, we're probably not looking at an association with Manannán, as far as the offering to Shony goes, but more an offering to the spirits of the place (though presumably originally a deity, before Christianity?). Looking to Dwelly's Dictionary, we find an entry for seonadh that supports this idea:
seonadh -aidh, sm Augury, sorcery. 2 Druidism. Martin says that seonaidh is the name of a water-spirit which the inhabitants of Lewis used to propitiate by a cup of ale in the following manner. They came to the church of St. Mulway, each man carrying his own provisions. Every family gave a pock of malt and the whole was brewed into ale. One of their number was chosen to wade into the sea up to his waist, carrying in his hand a cup filled with ale. When he reached a proper depth, he stood and cried aloud “Seonaidh, I give thee this cup of ale, hoping that thou wilt be so good as to send us plenty of seaware for enriching our ground during the coming year.” He then threw the ale into the sea. This ceremony was performed in the night-time. On his coming to land, they all repaired to church, where there was a candle burning on the altar. There they stood still for a time, when on a signal given, the candle was put out, mid straightway they adjourned to the fields where the night was spent mirthfully over the ale. Next morning they returned to their respective homes, in the belief that they had insured a plentiful crop for the next season.
It seems clear that as far as the issue of timing goes, Black is right and Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday) was the traditional date, though he kind of glosses over what Hutton actually says about the matter. Hutton doesn't just state that it was held at Hallowe'en, but argues that:
The ceremony was ended in the 1670s after a determined campaign against it by the two ministers, but it simply migrated to, or resurfaced upon, the midnight before Maundy Thursday at the opening of the sailing season. 
Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (1996), p369.

Quite why it supposedly shifted from one part of the year to another isn't commented upon or explained by Hutton, making the claim seem less than convincing.

Returning to Ronald Black's commentary on the subject, after noting a possible connection with Manannán (above), he goes on to note that R. C. Maclagan records a "development" of the rite, which began involving animal sacrifice:
Dr R. C. Maclagan was told of a development of the custom as practised in Lewis c. 1800. Just as the porridge, gruel or ale had formerly been given to the sea to stimulate a supply of seaweed to fertilise the fields, so was a living creature now given to it to encourage the fish (Tocher 20, p.162): "A sheep or goat was offered as a sacrifice. The oldest man of the sea was expected to take the lead, assisted usually by the one who came second in respect of seniority and experience. The animal was brought down to the edge of the sea, and after a certain order of procedure was observed, the officiating person, who was a kind of priest for the occasion, in the midst of dead silence, and surrounded by the whole company of those interested, who stood looking on, went down on his knees, and proceeded to kill the victim, whose blood was carefully caught in a dish. This over, the officiating man waded out into the sea as far as he could, carrying the vessel in which the blood was, and scattered the blood as widely as he could on the water round about him. Then followed the disposing of the carcase, which was cut up into pieces corresponding to the number of poor persons in the district, and a piece was sent to each such person, to be eaten by them; but none else would touch it."
Black, The Gaelic Otherworld (2005), pp590-591.

However, Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart has since published a letter from 1700 that describes animal sacrifice being involved already, a hundred years before Maclagan described this "development"; even more interesting is that the letter was written by John Morison (Iain mac Mhurch' 'c Ailein), the same person who Martin says was his informant in describing the offerings to Shony that he included in his A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland.

The letter that Stiùbhart published and provides commentary on is "Ane Accompt of some heathenish & superstitious rites used in the Isle of Lewis given by a friend to Mr Alan Morisone Minister of Ness 15 April 1700," and in it the author lists a number of "paganish customes," some of which he fears are "not as yet abolyshed." In giving a list of these customs, he includes:
Others contribut a quantity of Corn & make malt of it, & brew it into ale, and drink it in the kerk pouring the first coigfull into the sea, that they may have fish the better that yeir and sea ware for there land, And all the town with joyn in this work but now its abolyshed, they called this kynd of sacrifeceing Shion, but the Etymology of that word I know not. Others killed ane heiffer or bullock and threw the blood of it into the sea wt certaine rites and ceremoines promiseing to themselves therby the more abundance of fysh and sea ware to be brought ashore to them.
Stiùbhart, "Some Heathenish and Superstitious Rites: A Letter from Lewis, 1700," Scottish Studies: the journal of the School of Scottish Studies 34 (2000-2006), pp205-205.

According to Morison, then, the sacrifice of a cow was an alternative method of doing the same thing (perhaps something that was reserved for more desperate times?)

In spite of the author's claims that the rite was already "abolyshed" by his time of writing, references to such efforts continued up into the 1900s, though it's not entirely clear if the descriptions are from contemporary accounts, or are a recycling of Martin Martin's own description. Alexander Carmichael mentions the custom in the Carmina Gadelica, saying:
Maunday Thursday is called in Uist 'Diardaoin a brochain,' Gruel Thursday, and in Iona 'Diardaoin a brochain mhoir,' Great Gruel Thursday. On this day people in maritime districts made offerings of mead, ale, or gruel to the god of the sea. As the day merged from Wednesday to Thursday a man walked to the waist into the sea and poured out whatever offering had been prepared, chanting: 
'A Dhe na mara,
Cuir todhar ’s an tarruinn
Chon tachair an talaimh,
Chon bailcidh dhuinn biaidh.' 
O God of the sea,
Put weed in the drawing wave
To enrich the ground,
To shower on us food.
Those behind the offerer took up the chant and wafted it along the sea-shore on the midnight air, the darkness of night and the rolling of the waves making the scene weird and impressive. In 1860 the writer conversed in Iona with a middle-aged man whose father, when young, had taken part in this ceremony. In Lewis the custom was continued till this century. It shows the tolerant spirit of the Columban Church and the tenacity of popular belief, that such a practice should have been in vogue so recently. 
Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume I (1900), pp162-163.

Although Carmichael doesn't mention Shony explicitly, it's clear that he's describing the same rite as Martin and our letter-writing friend up above. Mark Williams favours the idea that Carmichael was drawing from Martin and argues that "Carmichael was drawing, not on oral tradition, but on a text that was already two centuries old," (p366) and that he "hedged" with referring to "A Dhe na mara" rather than explicitly naming Shony:
Carmichael's version generalized Martin's highly local account... and ignored his testimony that it had long been extinct. He also gave a Gaelic version of Martin Martin's invocation which looked so suspiciously like a verse from one of the Carmina that it may well have been his own back-translation from Martin's English. If this is so, he inserted another significant hedge, replacing the outlandish 'Shony' with the tactful A Dhè na mara, which he translated 'O God of the sea.' The difference between the 'God of the sea' and the 'god of the sea' exactly encapsulates the tension between piety and paganism that Carmichael was negotiating.
Williams, Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth (2016), p368.

If this is the case, Carmichael's prayer is effectively artificial, "back-engineered" from Martin's account. One thing that isn't explained here, however, is Carmichael's reference to having spoken with a man from Iona who's father had taken part in the rite; in spite of the problems with Carmichael's work, he very obviously did speak to a lot of people and collect information from them directly. I think here it seems likely that while Carmichael did draw on Martin's description (consciously or not), he also noticed a similarity between Martin and his informant's description. To what extent he may have embellished or blended things to reflect what he thought was "true" is unclear.

Carmichael also doesn't ignore Martin's reference to the fact that the custom was "long extinct" by his time as Williams writes, but neither does he present the custom as being current to his day. Claims like that – of customs "surviving until recently" – are a common trope amongst folklorists of his day, and if it weren't for the fact that other writers mention the custom as being recently observed it would be tempting to explain Carmichael's portrayal as just that: a common trope. There really does seem to be more to this than authors like Carmichael rehashing Martin and adding their own touches to things, and John Gregorson Campbell might be a good start in helping to explain why and how it survived, in spite of the Church's disapproval and attempts to stamp it out: Campbell mentions the custom a couple of times, first of all commenting that the rite was only observed during stormy weather in the spring after a sparse winter that was lacking in seaweed being brought to shore:
In the Western Islands, in olden times (for the practice does not now exist anywhere), when there was a winter during which little seaware came ashore, and full time for spring work had come without relief, a large dish of porridge, made with butter and other food ingredients, was poured into the sea on every headland where wrack used to come. Next day the harbours were full. 
This device was to be resorted to only late in the spring – the Iona people say the Thursday before Easter – and in stormy weather. The meaning of the ceremony seems to have been that by sending the fruit of the land into the sea, the fruit of the sea would come to land.
Black, The Gaelic Otherworld (2005), p134.

In his commentary on the Gaelic year, Campbell reiterates this point:
This was the Thursday before Easter, and was known in the Hebrides as là Brochain Mhòir, 'the day of the Big Porridge'. It was now getting late in the spring, and if the winter had failed to cast a sufficient supply of seaweed on the shores, it was time to resort to extraordinary measures to secure the necessary manure for the land. A large pot of porridge was prepared, with butter and other good ingredients, and taken to the headlands near creeks where seaweed rested. A quantity was poured into the sea from each headland, with certain incantations or rhymes, and in consequence, it was believed, the harbours were full of sea-ware. The ceremony should only be performed in stormy weather. Its object no doubt was, by throwing the produce of the land into the sea, to make the sea throw its produce on the land.
Black, The Gaelic Otherworld (2005), pp548-549.

So it seems plausible that it was only done during times of need (or at least ended up that way, after the Church succeeded in stopping it for a time), and this could easily explain why it keeps on popping up over the centuries after having "died out." As Alexander Carmichael points out, seaweed was incredibly important to the local economy in the Western Isles because it was used as manure:
The people of the Western Isles are greatly dependent upon seaweeds for the manuring of their lands. The soil, being for the most part either peaty or sandy, and containing little lime, mineral salts, etc., is poor and infertile unless constantly refreshed by seaweed, which, though rather poor in quality, is available in large quantity. Seaweed is detached by the action of storms and thrown upon the shores by the prevailing westerly winds. The scarcity of seaweed caused by a prolonged calm period is a serious matter; the people watch and hope and pray for the coming of seaweed, and are anxious at the prospect of impending famine. When the seaweed comes they rejoice and sing hymns of praise to the gracious God of the sea Who has heard their prayers.
Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume IV (1941), pp32-33.

This is something that Carmichael had previously written about in his Grazing and Agrestic Customs of the Outer Hebrides (1884), which he produced for the Crofter Royal Commission. It's pretty clear that without the seaweed, things could get pretty dire. Old ways die hard, and tried and tested tradition are easy to fall back on when the stakes are raised. 

Returning to the Carmina Gadelica, Carmichael goes on to give an example of a prayer (or hymn) that celebrates the arrival of the seaweed, and then follows it with an Ortha Feamainn, "Prayer for Seaweed." What's interesting about this prayer – published in Volume IV of the Carmina, which came out posthumously in 1941 and well after John Gregorson Campbell had died as well – is that the first two lines of it echo – almost exactly – the last line of Campbell's about "throwing the produce of the land into the sea, to make the sea throw its produce on the land." The Ortha goes:
Toradh mara gu tìr,
Toradh tìre gu muir;
Neach nach dèan 'na ìr,
Crìon gum bi a chuid. 
Feamain 'ga cur gu tìr,
Builich, a Thì na buil;
Toradh 'ga chur an nì,
A Chrìosda, thoir mo chuid! 
Produce of sea to land,
Produce of land to sea;
He who doeth not in time,
Scant shall be his share. 
Seaweed being cast on shore
Bestow, Thou Being of bestowal;
Produce being brought to wealth, [fruitfulness being caused in kine]
O Christ, grant me my share!
Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume IV (1941), pp34-35.

The similarities here makes me wonder if Campbell was (independently) aware of the prayer himself and was referencing it, consciously or not.

But still, Campbell doesn't mention Shony, and Carmichael uses the term "God of the sea" on more than one occasion, which gives a clear hint that he was well aware of something going on but for whatever reason didn't go into details. So far, though, we only have Black's speculation on Manannán's connection with the custom. Both Carmichael and John Gregorson Campbell make clear references to Manannán in other prayers, so clearly they weren't shy of mentioning him or other figures they may have seen as pagan. The fact that they didn't make a connection with him in relation to the offering to Shony, or mention Shony either, suggests that they weren't aware of anything like that, not that they didn't want to say.

Looking elsewhere, we find a key piece of information that might help to explain what's going on here. Alexander Macbain gives us this tidbit after rehashing Martin's description of the offerings to Shony:
This superstition is but lately dead, though the sacrifice had been repressed, for they proceeded in spring to the end of a long reef and invoked “Briannuil” to send a strong north wind to drive plenty sea-ware ashore. 
Macbain, Celtic Mythology and Religion (1885), p100.

This is presumably corroborated by the source that Black references above (an article I can't access), which links Brendan the Navigator (Brianailt, Brianuilt) with Manannán, and was apparently observed on May 15. Either way, it seems clear that the custom continued, and as it did so, it continued under a slightly different guise. This goes a long way to explaining why it's so difficult to pin down just who we're dealing with here.

So are we looking at Manannán in one form or another here? Or some kind of local spirit? Or what? Following up the references that Black gives in his notes in relation to all this (the ones I can access), I've found an explicit reference to Manannán being connected to the custom from Eoghan Mac a Phi, in his Am Measg nam Bodach (1938), but he doesn't say where this information comes from. The comparatively late date of publication here doesn't help to inspire confidence... Poking around elsewhere, however, brought up an intriguing piece of commentary from Malcolm MacPhail that adds a slightly more convincing link (assuming Black's equation between Manannán and Banann/Manntan is correct):
Lite-cuire (Sowing-porridge), otherwise Lite-Mhanntan (Manntan’s porridge), was porridge made of Ulag-meal, and made once a year only, of what remained over, after sowing, of the grain that had been prepared and set apart for seed-corn. Thick porridge was made of this Ulag-meal. The thicker and richer the porridge the heavier and richer would be the crops in harvest. 
This custom came down almost to our own times embodied in the following rhyme: 
“Là lite Mhanntain,
Lá ‘us fearr air bith;
An coire ‘us an croucan,
’S a’ maide crom air chrith.” 
“The day of Manntan’s porridge,
The best day of all;
Kettle-crook, and crooked-stick,
Shaking like to fall.” 
Ulag was grain expeditiously dried for the quern, either in a pot over the fire or by a red-hot stone that was being kept perpetually rolling among the grain in a tub. The operator preserved his hands from being injured by the hot stone by keeping both his hands full of grain as he rapidly rolled the stone round. Ulag so made is the origin of the Gaelic proverb, which not many understand now: “Clach fo shiol” (stone under grain); or in full: “Tionndadh na claich fo’n t-siol” (turning the stone under the grain); in other words, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”
MacPhail, "Folklore from the Hebrides IV," Folk-Lore Volume IX (1900), pp440-441.

It doesn't say what happened with the porridge, but presumably at least some of it was given as an offering, if not all of it. What's interesting, though, is that the custom described here is explicitly associated with the fields, not bringing the seaweed to shore. If offerings were made to the sea to bring the seaweed, it would make sense that similar customs would be observed when sowing the seeds in the very fields that are fertilised with that seaweed, too.

The frustrating thing is that all of this doesn't exactly add up to much that's especially conclusive... But it does offer a bit more perspective, I think. Clearly there's something going on here and it's a lot more complex than it might seem on the surface.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Book Review: Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration

Back in June last year, my father-in-law died very suddenly. I posted about it a while ago, and as anyone who's lost a parent or significant figure in their life will know, it's not something that's always easy to deal with. It's a terrible loss, whether it's imminently anticipated or not.

My father-in-law was unfailingly generous and accepting of others into his family, and he was kind enough to leave something for his children and their spouses with the stipulation that we should use at least some of it to buy ourselves something "selfish," instead of doing something boring and sensible with it. Naturally I immediately trawled Amazon and bought a shit ton of books.

In his honour, I ended up getting:

  • Ireland in the Medieval World, AD400-1000: Landscape, Kingship and Religion – Edel Bhreathnach
  • Introduction to Early Irish Literature – Muireann Ni Bhrolchain
  • The Kingship and Landscape of Tara – Edel Bhreathnach
  • Classical Literature and Learning in Medieval Irish Narrative (Studies in Celtic History) – Ralph O'Connor
  • Early Christian Ireland – T. M. Charles-Edwards
  • Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland (Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic) – Andrew Sneddon
  • Approaches to Religion and Mythology in Celtic Studies – Katja Ritari and Alexandra Bergholm
  • The Scottish Witch-Hunt in Context (Studies in Early Modern European History) – Julian Goodare
  • Celtic Curses – Bernard Mees
  • Celtic Christianity and Nature: The Early Irish and Hebridean Traditions – Mary Low
  • In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature – J.P. Mallory

Some of these I've already read but had to return them to the library and I really wanted a copy of my own. One of them I swear I already bought but couldn't find it, so decided to replace it.

I'm slowly working through the pile (I won't necessarily read them all, but I intend to get through most of them) and without further ado, here comes the next review:

Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration
John Waddell

I've not read any of John Waddell's books before, but I did enjoy his article on 'The Cave of Crúachain and the Otherworld' in the Celtic Cosmology book. He's also got some fascinating lectures you can watch on Youtube, which he credits as being the "motivation" behind ultimately producing the book I'm reviewing here. For the most part, though, I ordered this one after my interest was piqued in seeing it referenced more than a few times in another book I'd been reading and thought it might be worth a look.

As the title suggests, we're looking at the points where archaeology and myth collide here, so in some respects it covers a similar sort of ground as Mallory's In Search of the Irish Dreamtime (that I've just reviewed) in discussing the two. On the whole, though, Waddell's interest isn't in looking at whether or not the archaeology can support the myth, or vice versa (as Mallory does), but instead he tries to combine the two strands to paint a more comprehensive picture of a whole, focusing on various aspects of pre-Christian belief and practice. In this respect, I think they make a nice complement to one another, but would also say that this particular book is probably going to provide more immediately satisfying material to Gaelic Polytheists who want to focus more on exploring concepts surrounding religious belief and practice.

I think it's safe to say that Waddell comes from a very different school of thought than Mallory does, being far more invested in solar mythology/deities and, in places, a keen interest in bringing in comparative examples from other Celtic cultures or Indo-European evidence. Shades of Miranda Green surface with the solar stuff and it's really not something I can ever get on board with, but I found it wasn't too difficult to read around those bits. As much as I might disagree, it's always good to read views that oppose or challenge your own, sometimes.

The book brings together everything in a fascinating way and I think it's definitely going to be a good read for Gaelic Polytheists. Waddell focuses especially on the mythology and archaeology relating to some of the best-known ritual sites in Ireland (Newgrange, Rathcroghan, Emain Macha, and Tara) and tackles matters surrounding sacral kingship, sovereignty goddesses, cosmology, and the Otherworld (his chapter, 'In Pursuit of the Otherworld,' nicely complementing the article from the Celtic Cosmology book I linked to above, and covering similar areas). His descriptions of the sites – what the archaeologists found in their excavations, and how those findings have been interpreted – are easy to understand, even if you don't have a background in archaeology.

There's some genuinely interesting stuff here and I particularly enjoyed the second chapter, 'The Otherworld hall on the Boyne,' where Waddell focuses on Newgrange and its related monuments in the area, as well as its association with Bóand, the Dagda, and their son, Óengus mac Ind Óc, and its possible cosmological significance. The later chapters that cover various aspects of sovereignty (goddesses, sacral kingship, ritual sites involved in inauguration, etc) are also good, and I especially appreciated the discussions on the "horse cult" as it relates to Irish kingship. I'm not entirely sure that "cult" is the right word, to be honest, but it is something that lurks in the background of kingship, and it's not isolated to Ireland alone – it seems to be a genuinely "Celtic" concept, and it often gets overlooked so it's refreshing to see the subject being discussed in more detail than it usually is in books like this, which tend to focus more on sacred marriages and sovereignty goddesses and not much else. That, too, is focused on, though.

The last chapter focuses on sacral kingship and draws heavily on Gaulish examples of "princely" burials in discussing some key themes of pre-Christian belief and the concept of "decommissioning" a king, which are demonstrated in the elaborate burials we find in Gaul, but only really hinted at in Ireland. Waddell is careful to make it clear that the "princely" label isn't exactly helpful (just because the burials are rich and elaborate, it doesn't mean they're royal, and the label is unnecessarily distracting and potentially misleading...), which is important. Normally I'm not so keen on such a heavy reliance on bringing in comparative material, but aside from the fact that I found it all genuinely interesting, I think the chapter did a really good job in providing some food for thought on the subject, and in linking it all back to Ireland. Sometimes it's refreshing to step outside of your own comfort zone and look at things a little differently.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book, in spite of my strong disagreement with the reliance on solar mythology and symbolism. Although it's pretty short it provides some good food for thought and it's one I'll certainly be coming back to when I'm doing research on various subjects. It's a good one for the bookshelf, and it definitely isn't one that requires an academic level of knowledge or an in-depth background in Celtic Studies – it's aimed squarely at the academic and non-academic, and welcomes a broad audience. Nonetheless, I think you'll get more out of it when you have some background reading under your belt so you can take your own critical view of the ideas and concepts that are outlined here.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Book Review: In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature

In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature
J.P. Mallory

I've previously reviewed another book by the same author – The Origins of the Irish – and I really really liked it (for its witty and engaging tone as much as the content in general). So in some respects it's hard not to compare the two, perhaps especially so when this particular book has been written as something of a companion piece to the first one.

Back in the 1960s Kenneth Jackson came out with the idea that early Irish literature provided us with a "window on the Iron Age," since (he argued) the tales preserved pre-Christian beliefs and concepts that had been passed on by an oral tradition that valued consistency and integrity of the content it conveyed. While Christian elements had been added, strip them away and you could get something close to the pre-Christian original...

It's an idea that's been much-debated in academia since, and Mallory himself has weighed in on the subject previously, in an article in Ulidia ("Windows on the Iron Age: 1964–1994"), as well as his Aspects of The Táin (as the editor and a contributor), for example. Dreamtime, then, is essentially an expansion of his previous work, taking a critical look at what the literature tells us about material culture (and to a lesser extent, beliefs), and whether or not the archaeology supports what the tales tell us. For example, tales that take place at well-known sites such as Emain Macha or Tara give the impression that these places were occupied as (essentially) royal centres in the Iron Age. They also mention things like weaponry that we might assume are indeed Iron Age in origin, if we can actually assume that the tales were composed in that time frame and were never changed to any significant degree.

I'll try not to give too many spoilers here, but the results that Mallory outlines may or may not shock you, depending on what your opinions are on the matter... Regardless, it's pretty thorough and convincing.

For the non-expert, the book does a good job of giving an introduction to the major elements that you need to know in order to form your own opinions (if that's your thing) and keep up with what's going on – the history of the manuscript tradition itself, an overview of the stories, and the context in which they were written. Then we focus on the major areas where archaeology and mythology collide, so we can explore how the two may or may not match up. This includes material culture in general (clothing, dyes, jewellery, games, etc.), warfare and weaponry, transport, the landscape and environment, and matters surrounding death and burial, based on what we see as archaeologists, and what the literature tells us.

It's an interesting idea for a book and over all it does a good job of proving its point. The first few chapters, with the introductory material, really runs the risk of being overdone and boring but Mallory's wit and engaging style really helps to put a fresh spin on things. Like his The Origins of the Irish, we're introduced to a character who helps take the reader on the book's journey. In Origins, it was Niall of the Nine Hostages, our quintessential Irishman, while here we have various incarnations of Katu-butos, Cattubuttas, or (ultimately) Cathbad – a theoretical fili, or professional poet and tradition-bearer, who would have been responsible for telling the stories we're dealing with. The different names relate to the different linguistic periods we're dealing with – Proto-Irish through to medieval Irish, based on the evidence we have to hand (linguistic, literary, archaeological, though primarily the latter two), and thus the audiences the storyteller is targeting specifically.

Over all, I found some parts of the book more interesting to read than others. It got off to a great start, and it takes an unusual approach in looking at the Lebor Gabála (for example) and emphasising its supposed historical context for each of the invasions the story outlines, based on the Irish annals. Creating an explicit timeline for that is pretty interesting when you compare it to what was actually happening at the time as far as we know from the archaeological record, and it helps set the tone for what we find in later chapters. It's all very thorough, but in doing so I felt that some of the later chapters got bogged down in details I wasn't particularly interested in, and it began to drag a little. To an extent that may be because the subject matter was something I wasn't overly keen on, but then again the writing did sometimes veer into simply listing facts, rather than commenting much on them. Even so, that didn't last for long, and even where I felt things got bogged down I can definitely see that if anyone's interested in the finer points of life in the Iron Age or early medieval period, this is absolutely invaluable – or if you're a fiction author looking to write an authentic period novel, or a re-enactor of some sort, say, then it has almost everything you need to know about where people lived, what they wore, and what they ate, and so forth. And of course, it appeals to the geeks and nerds like me.

Considering the scope of the book, it more than fulfils its stated aims, and it really does offer a lot to the reader. It's also rather unique in its focus and the information it gives, and I can certainly appreciate that. Books like this – presenting reliable, factual information that's easily accessible and (mostly) engaging to the non-expert as much as the expert – are few and far between.

Whereas Origins offers a far broader scope, Dreamtime narrows in on a more specific area and offers a lot more detail. The title of this particular volume, as you might gather, takes inspiration from the Australian aboriginal peoples, "who recognized a sacred time in which both the natural world and human culture and traditions originated and that these beginnings still resonate in the spiritual life of people today." Mallory sees a similarity between these aboriginal stories (their purpose and aims) and this concept, and the myths of the Irish that survive into modern times. I see his point even though I wonder about the value in bothering to use the term in the first place. He recognises that appropriating (or mis-appropriating) the term may not be the best way to frame the Irish traditions we're dealing with here, and he apologises for that, but nonetheless ultimately can't resist the concept. I do wonder why he bothered, given the fact that he acknowledges the potentially problematic nature of it, but I'm not Australian or Aboriginal and I don't really feel qualified to condone or condemn on that front. Still, I can't help but feel that choosing such a title both detracts and distracts from the contents of the book as whole.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy it, and I think it will be one of those books that I'll come back to time and time again. It's not always easy for an archaeologist to really delve into literature and give a decent, critical overview of it, as well as the issues surrounding it (Miranda Green...) so Mallory deserves recognition for that. But more than that, it's just a good read.

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.