Book Review, Prefered Ethnic Study: The Celtic Heroic Age

B)  Book Review, Preferred Ethnic Study:

The Celtic Heroic Age, Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland & Wales

Fourth edition revised and expanded

Edited by John T. Koch in collaboration with John Carey 2005

The Celtic Heroic Age is a textbook that painstakingly translates extensive ancient Celtic texts and written works from ancient Celtic Europe up into the 11th century into the English language including not only literary work but also inscriptions found by archeologists.   The textbook is divided into three parts, Ancient Celtic Europe which is subdivided into writings that precede the ancient author they are choosing for their milestone, Posidonius (a Greek writer, historian and philosopher of circa 1BE,) and authors of the Posidonian era including authors considered classical writers on the Druids.  The second section includes early Irish and Hiberno-Latin Sources which include the Ulster Cycle and the Finn Cycle.  Finally the books third section includes writings of Brittonic sources.

In Ancient Celtic Europe I found myself fascinated reading about things from as mundane as dining customs to the attempt of Brennus to take Delphi.  Something that was meaningful to me on a personal basis, I have always held to celebrating High Days based on solar and lunar accounting of a natural calendar while current day most follow the modern Gregorian calendar to place when to celebrate the non solar days (i.e. Beltane on May 1st where my family celebrates Beltane on the full moon of Taurus.)  On page 32 in the translation of Pliny (AD 24/4-79) Natural History this translation reads “…as it is then that the moon is powerful but not yet halfway in its course (it is by the moon they measure days, years, and their cycle of thirty years).”  Another thing of particular interest is how while modern meso and neo druids make a point of stating that women are equal among their ranks where not long ago this equality was not a modern notion, I spent this portion of the book carefully reading for an answer to the equality issue and if it was truth or fiction that women were among the druids.  Well I found it, according to the translations on pages 34 and 35.  Translation 32 of Lampridius on Alexander Severus 59.5 says “…a woman of the Druids shouted…” and translation 33 of Vopiscus on Numerianus 14 says “…He went once to settle the day’s bill for his accommodations with a Druidess.  This woman said to him…” and of Aurlianus (also page 35) the translation reads “…He (Asclepiodotus) used to say that Aurelian once consulted with Gaulish Druidesses to discover whether his progeny would be more famous in the history of Rome than the future descendants of Claudius…I think that his descendants will achieve the glory prophesized by the Druidesses.”

While I found that first section of the book quite interesting, it was when I got into the second section of the book where I genuinely found entertainment.  In the Tales from the Ulster Cycle, I found myself actually laughing while reading Bricriu’s Feast and his incitement of the woman in competition to be the first to enter the hall to the point where they were hoisting their robes “to the curve of their buttocks” in their race to be the first through the door to the hall, and then the war of words that followed.

The Ulster cycle continues with the adventures of Cu Chulainn right through to the story of his death, and one thing that struck me (odd things do) in the translations is a slang phrase.  Every generation has one, and something that appeared repeatedly in the translations is the phrase, “Not hard to answer.”

Something I was not expecting is the texts of Christian writings.  The writings about Saint Patrick, well in my mind he was far from heroic.  The tale of him convincing the king’s daughter’s, Ethne and Fedelm that they would only see the true god after “tasting death” and “receiving the sacrament,” well if this tale were true, poisoning comes to my mind.  Next I found myself reading “The Book of Invasions” which starts with a rendition of the Christian Old Testament, so basically an English translation of the Celtic brief retelling of the Christian biblical story of creation through Noah so as to explain that through Noah’s son, Japhet, all the people of Europe come as Japhet’s son and his son and so on until we get to Albanus who took North Britain and called it Alba and that the descendents of Magog, son of Japhet came to Ireland before the Gaels and if I am understanding it correctly, that from Nemed came the Fir Domnann, the Fir Bolg and the Tuathe de’ Donann.

Further on in the Invasion section they talk of Cesair, daughter of Bith who settled in Ireland 40 days before the great flood.  She speaks of being in Ireland when it was empty, and then the Fir Bolg and Fir Gaileoin came, followed by the Fir Domnann who took Irrus in the west.  The Tuatha De’ followed in masses, all of this with as told by a Christian point of view towards the history of Ireland and I cannot say I enjoyed it much, but that is my own personal opinion.  I thoroughly enjoyed “The Story of Mis and Dubh Rois” and it reminded me a bit of a Celtic version of another culture’s folk tale, “Tiger’s Whisker.”

The Gododdin Elegies (which are heroic death songs)are prefaced with an explanation of the three different translations of the text that follows, which are presented with an interesting side by side comparison of those three translation versions.

I read translations of story and poetry from the Book of Taliesin, more death songs, and a verse about The Eagle of Pengwerm that left an echo in my thought as though it were a song not ready to die.  Indeed, many of the texts in this book are recounting of sadness such as the poetry of Llywarch Hen.

Finally, the book closes with a glossary, which is always helpful but in this case especially so as the names and terms are not only ancient but much of it is also of a language foreign to most.

All in all it was an informative read with extensive footnotes and explanations though I must admit it was my most difficult read scholastically of the three required reviews for the DPS course and though I enjoyed it, it took did take a great deal of time to get through it.  I highly recommend this book to anyone studying Celtic culture, history and/or literature.


~ by Spider Lily on August 29, 2010.

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