19.09.15 MacLeod, Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld

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Máire Johnson

The Medieval Review 19.09.15

MacLeod, Sharon Paice. Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co Publishers, 2018. pp. vii, 285. ISBN: 978-1-4766-6907-6 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Maire Johnson
Emporia State University

MacLeod is no stranger to the academic search for evidence of pre-Christian belief and practice; the current volume is the third such study, after MacLeod's 2012 publication of Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief, with Newly Translated Prayers, Poems and Songs and The Divine Feminine in Ancient Europe: Goddesses, Sacred Women and the Origins of Western Culture from 2014, both also issued by McFarland. The present work, Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld, is meant to continue the examination MacLeod began in Celtic Myth and Religion. If these two prior analyses follow the same pattern as Celtic Cosmology, then they likely also offer a wide-ranging approach to a challenging and fascinating era of human history.

MacLeod's main focus is on providing accessible scholarship about Celtic Studies and Celtic traditions to a broad readership, and particularly to a non-academic audience. In the company of many scholars, MacLeod emphasizes the necessity of a rigorous cross-disciplinary approach that incorporates fields such as archaeology, history, manuscript studies, comparative religion/mythology, linguistics, literary studies, and so on as a way of insuring that the extant data is examined and interpreted from as many fronts as possible. The results of such study, she asserts, should then be published in as many formats as it can in order to be available to as many interested parties as possible.

MacLeod also agrees with Edel Bhreatnach in seeing sufficient evidence from early Ireland to reconstruct at least some of the pre-Christian practices and beliefs of that island, as long as the following cautions are held foremost: all written evidence from Ireland is medieval in origin; it is filtered through post-conversion interpretation; and it looks backward on an era centuries prior. There also continues to be a significant need for reliable and easily obtainable translations of a great deal of Old and Middle Irish material. In Celtic Cosmology, MacLeod uses both a cross-disciplinary approach and a notable body of evidence to attempt to reconstruct such components of pre-Christian Celtic culture as origin stories, the locations and denizens of the supernatural realm known as the Otherworld, and the ways in which human communities saw themselves interacting with that Otherworld.

MacLeod divides the study into three parts. Part One (chapters 1-3) attempts to reconstruct the pre-Christian cosmology of the Celtic peoples. In chapter 1, MacLeod argues for a cosmology in which supernatural beings inhabit a sacred Otherworld that serves as the archetype of the mundane, human realm; humans then access the sacred via specific zones, times, or places. MacLeod asserts that the Celtic universe was conceived of as a central point occupied by a World Tree similar to Yggdrasil in Norse tradition, which anchored four directions each seen as possessing its own attributes (e.g., the north as linked to birth, death, the color black, battle, and the talisman known as the stone of Fál). MacLeod concludes that, despite uncertainties concerning the extant evidence, its variety and volume "support the possibility that [it] may in fact reflect aspects of native tradition" (55). Chapter 2 then uses a similar corpus of material to suggest the components of a pre-Christian creation myth and the genealogy of its deities. MacLeod is clear that the "cosmological narrative" proposed in chapter 2 is wholly speculative "and undoubtedly inaccurate" but maintains that its components align with the general expectations of comparative mythology for both the deities and their actions (74). Part One concludes with chapter 3, in which MacLeod assesses evidence for a cycle of festivals associated with the agrarian calendar. MacLeod examines the traditions of these festivals, Beltane, Lugnasad, Samain, and Imbolc, and discusses aspects of time-keeping, including the months as understood from the Gaulish Coligny Calendar. MacLeod also turns to more recent Scottish and Irish folklore to support the view that pre-Christian traditions appear to have continued past the arrival of Christianity in those regions. Though MacLeod is careful to say that the conclusions of chapter 3 apply primarily to "an Irish cultural context", she also adds that they may apply "in other Celtic contexts as well" (92).

Part Two (chapters 4-6) examines concepts of kingship and power and their associations with the Otherworld and its divine residents, particularly goddesses. In chapter 4, MacLeod seeks the identity of the goddess Danu, who is said to be the mother of all Irish divinities yet is otherwise scarcely named. MacLeod uses linguistic and other approaches to compile the possible attributes of this goddess, to assert that Danu and the similarly named Anu are likely the same goddess, either a singular divinity or two names of a divine triad, and to propose that the goddess Mórrígan shares sufficient mythological elements with Anu that "Mórrígan" may be another epithet for Anu, and thus for Danu also. MacLeod concludes that Mórrígán's associations with sovereignty and rightful kingship are part of what make her--and by extension, Danu and Anu--a key divinity. This view that the sovereignty goddess is a critical figure then becomes the basis of chapter 5's analysis, in which MacLeod argues that the Irish Findabair and her Welsh cognate, Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), also represent aspects of the goddess of sovereignty whose identity was warped by the arrival of Christianity into a sexual profligate rather than a divine mother and protector, and that careful attention to tales about these women can reveal their original characteristics. MacLeod concludes that both women are manifestations of a goddess who originally chose her own sexual partners to signify the bestowal of kingship upon them but who, over time and under the influence of a new faith, "became objects to acquire or control" (128). In Part Two's final chapter, chapter 6, MacLeod argues that a woman in Irish literature, Flidais, due to her independence, her association with attributes such as "kingship, battle, protection, healing, wealth and abundance," and her ties to Fergus, a man known for a supernatural sexual appetite, is likely still another aspect of the sovereignty goddess--and possibly of "an early antlered goddess"--in Ireland (138,153-154, 160).

Part Three (chapters 7-9) wraps up MacLeod's study with an assessment of the liminal. In chapter 7n MacLeod attends to liminality itself, the union of opposites that produces a third element that is both and yet neither of its originating parts, and asserts based on interpretations of an array of evidence that pre-Christian Celtic tradition included female magic-workers/priestesses who may have lived in community groups on islands around Gaul and Britain. Chapter 8 examines the figures of the druid Mug Roith and his daughter, Tlachtga, in Irish texts; MacLeod uses their stories to argue that (1) druids held sufficient status even into the Middle Ages to both disseminate pre-Christian notions about rebirth and to thereby draw ecclesiastical censure; (2) that a variety of aspects of druidic tradition can be reconstructed, including the existence of sacred objects associated with various natural elements such as thunder; and (3) that the lore of Tlachtga herself, a figure of supernatural skill and forbidden knowledge, has been obfuscated due to her presumed threat to Christianity, but that it too can be resurrected with judicious textual study. Part Three, and the book itself, then comes to an end with chapter 9, in which MacLeod discusses the magical, medical, and spiritual properties of bodies of water in Irish and Welsh literary sources. MacLeod asserts that the evidence is broad and sufficient enough to show that sources of water linked the Otherworld with the mundane realm and conveyed "creation and destruction, healing and transformation, and the acquisition and manifestation of divine wisdom and poetic skill" (231).

Curiously, there is no chapter dedicated to concluding thoughts the way there is an introduction, so the study appears to stop a little abruptly at this point. The main body of work is followed, however, by copious, thorough, and detailed endnotes (233-266) that not only provide MacLeod's sources but also often engage in further debate and exploration. The bibliography (267-278) does not list primary and secondary sources separately, but it is also comprehensive rather than a simple accounting of works cited.

There is little question of MacLeod's overall knowledge, as this study generally handles evidence thoughtfully and with a solid understanding of its complexities, often deploying a cross-disciplinary approach that frequently benefits her discussion of those peoples now known as the Celts. She makes use of written works from medieval Ireland and Wales--including annals, canon decrees, saga, and legal tracts, often translated by MacLeod herself, archaeology from Ireland, Britain, and the continent, classical history and poetry, linguistic analysis, comparative mythology, and even recent folklore. MacLeod's most effective arguments are those that tie a region's and/or a chronological era's evidence with the region and time that produced it, such as arguing for hints of pre-Christian practice in Ireland from Irish textual sources or suggesting possible Gaulish traditions based on classical sources and continental archaeology. MacLeod's ability to observe parallels across regions also produces interesting discussion points, particularly when the cross-disciplinarity of her overall approach brings into play a broad foundation of analytical and evidentiary skills. It is, however, when evidence of a different time or place is deployed (such as medieval Irish literature as support for assertions about classical Gaul) that it may be necessary to take some of her conclusions with a bit of care.

MacLeod does make solid cautions against the application of evidence from one region to the culture or beliefs of another, and similarly observes that the written traditions of one chronological era can only be used with great care to explain much earlier periods of history. MacLeod also uses turns of phrase that indicate the inevitable uncertainties of her conclusions, such as in chapter 2, where she states outright that her interpretations, while "reasonable", are still "hypothetical" (74). At the same time, MacLeod also seems to use the copious written material of Ireland to reformulate some pre-Christian traditions not only for Ireland, or even for Ireland and Britain, but apparently for the continent as well, often by analyzing the medieval Irish evidence alongside non-Irish Iron Age archaeology or classical Greek or Roman texts. As a result, the cross-disciplinarity of MacLeod's study, while a strength in instances such as those noted above, can in other places lead, like a marvelous will-o-the-wisp, down a beguiling but potentially very risky path. MacLeod also suggests that it is possible to lay bare original pre-Christian material by "peel[ing] away layers of projection and misrepresentation," such as in her arguments concerning the identity and attributes of the sovereignty goddess (117). While there is likely some truth to this concept, determining what constitutes "projection and misrepresentation" will nearly always risk undue subjectivity. A final point of potential concern is that MacLeod does not really confront or discuss the issues that surround the identities of those peoples we now call the Celts. Though the study's intended generalist audience requires the application of some limits to that rather convoluted discussion, at least some commentary on the matter in this volume seems critical to MacLeod's goal of countering the staggering level of misinformation about these cultures.

There are a few editorial and stylistic issues to note. On page 22 in the second line from the bottom, it appears as though "druid" may be an autocorrect error for the Old Irish druí. There are some inconsistencies in capitalization, particularly of the word "medieval"--e.g., it is not capitalized mid-sentence on page 64, but is capitalized on page 58 (first paragraph, line nine)--and of "muscaria", which should not be capitalized on page 219, line 31. The holiday associated with May 1 is spelled two ways without explanation, either Beltaine (e.g., lines 9 and 10, page 81) or Beltene (e.g., pages 77, 82); while specialists will see the distinctions of era and language, MacLeod's broader audience could likely use clarification. Line 19 on page 136 should read "can't really say that she". The word "fawn," as in young deer, is misspelled as the Greco-Roman mythological creature, "faun," on page 141 in paragraph three. Line 17 on page 201 should read (the underlined words indicate missing text): "it states that she was ravished." On page 203, line 28, where MacLeod directly quotes the words of John Carey, there appears to be another error; at present it reads "the passages seems however to lend", but should be written as "the passages seem"--or to have a [sic] notation if the mistake is original to Carey's text. Finally, MacLeod's tendency to italicize the first mention of a new placename, term, or individual is of unclear purpose; without explanation, a general audience may find this pattern confusing.

Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld has much to recommend it. In many respects, MacLeod offers what her introduction promises: a cross-disciplinary academic examination based on a broad foundation of evidence written in an accessible style and published at modest cost to the reader. A considerable level of information is thus made available to a wide audience, so that MacLeod makes some inroads in halting the constant flow of the fantastic; while the weaknesses of the study do not undermine all of its strengths, however, they may limit the degree to which that misinformation may be countered. Despite these concerns, MacLeod has certainly succeeded in providing considerable fodder for further exploration of a challenging topic, and more than a few of MacLeod's conclusions offer very tempting possibilities for increasing our understanding of pre-Christian traditions in a number of regions once dominated by Celtic-speaking peoples.

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