15.06.02, Waddell, Archaeology and Celtic Myth

Main Article Content

Dan M. Wiley

The Medieval Review 15.06.02

Waddell, John. Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014. pp. xv, 203. ISBN: 9781846824944 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Dan M. Wiley
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

In some respects, John Waddell's most recent book, Archaeology and Celtic Myth: An Exploration, harkens back to the elusive promise of old-school Frazerian comparative mythology. His argument is premised on the widely-held belief that ancient traditions survive in the later medieval literatures of Celtic-speaking countries. Though these traditions were often poorly understood or piously censored by the Christian scribes who recorded them, modern scholars can use them to help interpret archaeological remains from a much earlier period. This approach to the study of prehistory entails obvious risks, but Waddell is careful to set realistic goals. He does not attempt to offer definitive interpretations but to explore alternative readings that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. In this way, he hopes to advance the discussion of this material in new and interesting directions. Viewed in this light, Archaeology and Celtic Myth is a definite success even if its arguments are necessarily speculative.

Knowing his methodology will prove controversial with some readers, Waddell begins by justifying his attempt to read archaeological remains through the lens of medieval myth. While he acknowledges that early Irish literature can no longer be viewed, pace Kenneth Jackson, as a "window on the Iron Age," he believes that it nevertheless contains mythic material of demonstrable antiquity. Citing scholars like Myles Dillon, Georges Dumézil, and the Rees brothers, Waddell discusses a number of shared motifs in Irish and Vedic tradition that are "so numerous, unusual, or precise" that they must be due to "a common Indo-European inheritance" dating back thousands of years (5). This explanation is widely accepted in contemporary Celtic Studies, and it will satisfy a fair number of Waddell's readers. Others, however, will likely take issue. The belief that these similarities are due to a common heritage is ultimately a legacy of the early days of comparative mythology when the discipline was inextricably linked to historical linguistics and the reconstruction of the parent language. Whatever the merits of the comparative method in linguistics--and there are many--scholars nowadays are increasingly wary of trying to use the same technique to reconstruct other aspects of society. Indeed, the very notion of an original Indo-European culture has been called into question. It is likewise important to note that comparative mythology is no longer the sole domain of linguists. Even before the turn of the last century, scholars in other disciplines, especially the nascent fields of anthropology and psychology, had taken an interest in the topic, and as a result, new theories were developed to account for these similarities. While none of these theories is without its problems, they ought to be acknowledged in Archaeology and Celtic Myth if for no other reason than to put the Indo-European hypothesis in its broader context.

Having offered some justification for his methodology, Waddell launches into his first major topic, the appearance of solar imagery in literary and archaeological contexts. Well aware of Müller's legacy and the contentious nature of this subject, especially among students of myth, Waddell treats his sources with due caution. He agrees with the general consensus in the field that there is precious little evidence for sun worship in medieval Irish texts, and what there is, such as St. Patrick's condemnation of the practice or O'Rahilly's identification of the Dagda as a solar divinity, is ambiguous at best. He does run into a potential problem, though, in his discussion of Marion Deane's interpretation of Compert Con Culainn. While this review is not the place to critique Deane's work, suffice it to say that hers is a complex and sophisticated reading of the Old Irish tale that demands serious consideration. However, the solar dimension of her argument, such as the identification of Lug and Conchobar as aspects of the sun, is based more on the need to complete a structuralist homology than on any association these figures have with the sun elsewhere in Irish literature. It therefore seems unlikely that this aspect of the text would have been apparent to the original audience. While that is immaterial from a structuralist perspective, it does lessen the value of Compert Con Culainn as evidence of solar imagery in medieval Ireland.

Waddell is on much firmer ground when addressing the archaeology evidence, Newgrange in particular. Thanks to the excavations conducted by Michael O'Kelly in the '60s and '70s, a good deal is known about this five-thousand-year-old Neolithic passage tomb. Its most striking feature is a small roof-box through which the light of the rising sun on the midwinter solstice shone, briefly illuminating the tomb's single passage that terminates in a cruciform chamber. The existence of this roof-box is proof positive that the solar phenomena played a significant, if indeterminate, role in the construction of this monument and whatever rituals took place there. Waddell also relates other aspects of Newgrange, including its location in the Boyne valley, to the themes associated with it in medieval myth. While his discussion of this material is not entirely new, it is well argued and highly compelling. Also of interest is Waddell's interpretation of the curvilinear designs on artefacts like the Petrie crown and the Battersea shield, which he first advanced in a 2009 article. He argues that these highly abstract patterns represent sun boats though he is quick to note that the designs in question are intentionally multivalent and thus open to other interpretations.

In exploring the literature and archaeology of the Otherworld, Waddell covers the usual ground of subterranean deposition in its various forms. The centerpiece of his discussion, though, is a small cave in the Rathcroghan complex known today as Oweynagat. This cave, to which a souterrain was attached in the early medieval period, is almost certainly to be identified with Uaim Chruachna, The Cave of Cruachu, which is famous in early Irish narrative. According to several texts, it was a portal from which Otherworldly monsters emerged to wreak havoc on the surrounding country. Waddell draws particular attention to a brief anecdote in Cath Maige Mucrama in which Amairgene, the father of Conall Cernach, slays the many three-headed beasties that erupt from the cave one night. Recalling Dumézil's theory that battles against tricephalic monsters are mythic representations of warrior initiation rites and drawing attention to the mystic experiences associated with St. Patrick's Purgatory in later literature, Waddell suggests that the Cave of the Cats had a special significance in prehistoric Ireland. In particular, he argues "that Oweynagat was a focus for cult practices in pre-Christian times that included sensory deprivation and altered states of consciousness associated with divination, oracular activity and warrior initiation" (68). It is an intriguing, if highly speculative, suggestion, one made possible by all the clever connections Waddell makes throughout this chapter.

Like the cave at Rathcroghan, Emain Macha, now Navan Fort in Co. Armagh, "became a focal point in the topographical and literary landscape" (109). In medieval narrative, the site was regarded as the ancient capital of the Ulaid, but excavations conducted by Dudley Waterman in the '60s and '70s clearly show that the primary structure on the mound, which dates to around 95 BC, was ritual rather than domestic in nature. What ritual activities accompanied the systematic construction and dismantlement of this structure are unclear, but Waddell believes they may have had something to do with royal inaugurations. This is a reasonable conjecture. In early Irish literature, Emain is universally regarded as the royal center of the province, and in later Ireland, inaugurations often took place upon a mound of some local, historical, or mythological significance. Waddell also believes that these inaugurations took the form of a hieros gamos, a "sacred marriage" between the new king and the local goddess. Though the identity of this goddess is unknown, Waddell draws evidence from Ulster myths to suggest that she had equine associations. Indeed, several figures in these stories, Macha in particular, appear to be euhemerized horse divinities. There is also some evidence in Gerald of Wales that an inauguration rite similar to the Vedic açvamedha, an elaborate horse sacrifice, was once practiced in northern Ireland. Looking at all this evidence as a whole, Waddell speculates that "cyclical equine rites associated with kingly ceremonial" took place at Navan in the prehistoric period (101).

As he continues his examination of kingship, Waddell notes that the goddess might also choose the new ruler by offering him a drink like she does in texts like Baile in Scáil and Aristotle's account of the founding of Massalia. This action is also latent in characters like the Irish Medb and the Indian Māghavī, whose names are etymologically related to the word "mead." Although drinking rituals of one kind or another are well attested in prehistoric Europe, Waddell notes that it is difficult to link "the archaeology of intoxication with goddess figures" (118). He points to some possible examples of this motif on a relief from Pagny-la-Ville in Burgundy and an image from a Roman shrine in Wiltshire, though both depictions are susceptible to other interpretations. More compelling are his discussions of some famous female burials, notably the lady of Vix from eastern France (fifth century BC) and the Juellinge woman from Lolland (c. AD 100). Among the rich goods in each grave were certain drinking utensils, some of which came in pairs, a fact that led Pierre-Yves Milcent to suggest that these items were meant to be used by two people, perhaps in a ritual context. Drawing on Enright's highly influential Lady with a Mead Cup, Waddell suggests that la dame de Vix and her Danish counterpart, like Medb and Māghavī, may have been dispensers of drink in a ritual designed to validate new rulers. This suggestion again is speculative but nevertheless worthy of consideration.

The final topic Waddell tackles in this volume is sacral kingship. Although the literary evidence for this institution is abundant and aptly summarized in the last chapter, Waddell admits that it is "difficult to identify" in an archaeological context. Most archaeologists, in fact, are hesitant to attach words like "king" and "royal" to particular sites in the absence of other evidence. Waddell suggests, though, that certain monuments, like the inaptly named Banqueting Hall on the Hill of Tara, may have been used in royal rituals and that horse sacrifices may have been performed at Navan. He also discusses some sculptures--like the sandstone statue at Glauberg and the ithyphallic figure at Hirschlanden--that may represent sacral kings. Curiously, both sculptures had their feet broken off. Waddell interprets this oddity as "the deactivation of the powers of a sacral king by eliminating the protection provided by his special footwear" (150), a topic he covers elsewhere in the book. He also examines the famous Hochdorf burial of the mid-sixth century BC as well as Stéphane Verger's rather elaborate interpretation of site as the grave of a sacral ruler, though Waddell notes that this reading has not found favor in French and German archaeological circles. While he admits that it "may not be possible to demonstrate that the Hochdorf and Mill Hill individuals were rulers with a sacral dimension...an acceptance of the institution of sacral kingship as an interpretive option allows us to consider new or different possibilities" (162), and that, of course, is the whole point of his book.

The study of mythology has changed a great deal just in the past few decades. Since the publication of Bruce Lincoln's Theorizing Myth in 1999, scholars in the field have become increasingly conscious of the fact that we too are mythmakers. One cannot help but wonder then what myth this book is promoting. Surely, it is something about the value of interdisciplinary studies, the longevity of prehistoric traditions, and the antiquity of medieval Celtic literature. Consequently, Archaeology and Celtic Myth is an affirmation of beliefs longstanding in the field, yet it should also be a reminder that the study of Celtic mythology, even in its broader archaeological context, has seen little change theoretically or methodologically in the last hundred years.

Article Details