Cairn Loch Craobh Sliabh na Cailli Loch Craobh An Mhi Eire

Celtic Cosmology, Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland

Tuatha De Danann - Carn T, Cairn Loch Craobh, Sliabh na Cailli, Loch Craobh, An Mhi, Cúige Laighean, Éire
Tuatha Dé Danann – Carn T, Cairn Loch Craobh, Sliabh na Caillí, Loch Craobh, An Mhí, Cúige Laighean, Éire (Íomhá: An Sionnach Fionn 2009)

Over the last two decades relatively few studies have been published analysing the cosmological traditions of the Celtic-speaking peoples, at least by academic authors. There was a lot of interest in such matters in the 1980s and early ‘90s, coupled with tentative suggestions about the composition of native Irish or Welsh beliefs in the composition of the universe and the afterlife. However given the paucity of sources and the multiplicity of theories the world of Celtic scholarship eventually moved on to more literary and philological concerns leaving the way open for populist-writers on all things “Druidic” to fill the gap. In the last couple of years that trend has somewhat reversed as historians and mythologists from Ireland and elsewhere have made good use of new interpretations of the original materials to speculate more directly on such matters, albeit in a justifiably guarded manner. The always excellent Tairis has a good review of the 2014 Canadian publication “Celtic Cosmology: Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland”, a compilation of essays partly based on a series of papers presented to the 2008 conference “Celtic Cosmology and the Power of Words” organized by the Research Institute for Irish and Celtic Studies at the University of Ulster. Featuring a Who’s Who of the better known names in Celtic studies the book seems to be well worth a purchase: if you can afford the princely fee of 70 euros. Unfortunately such exorbitant prices for academic works are the main reason why most people’s knowledge of the Celtic-speaking nations will continue to come from dubious internet sources or even more dubious “New Age” writers. The areas covered in the publication are:

  • The Irish Cosmos Revisited: Further lexical Perspectives by Liam Mac Mathúna
  • A Gaelic Eschatological Folktale, Celtic Cosmology and Dumézil’s “Three Realms” by John Shaw
  • The Relationship of the Chthonic World in Early Ireland to Chaos and Cosmos by Séamus Mac Mathúna
  • The Cave of Crúachain and the Otherworld by John Waddell (you can read a “taster” here)
  • The Location of the Promised Land in Hiberno-Latin Literature by Jonathan Wooding
  • The Word of God and Early Medieval Irish Cosmology Scripture and the Creating Word by Marina Smyth
  • The Creation of the World in Saltair na Rann by Gearóid Mac Eoin
  • Tara and Cashel : Manifestations of the Centre of the Cosmos in the North and the South by Edel Bhreathnach
  • Roads and Knowledge in Togail Bruidne Da Derga by Grigory Bondarenko
  • Leisure and Recreation in an Age of Clearance : The Case of the Hebridean Michaelmas by Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart
  • Pagan Beliefs and Christian Redress in Acallam na Senórach by Ann Dooley
  • Landscape and Cosmology in the Dindshenchas by Gregory Toner

The book can be ordered locally in North America or Europe. I’ll have to break open the piggy bank for this one!



  1. It looks amazing , just by the essay titles. If I win the lotto, sigh. I despair of internet sources. Wasted the last two days in a futile ‘debate’ about the term ‘Celtic’ – as in did they exist and is it right to so describe the ancient Irish? Mostly, but not always, such arguments are made by apologists for the British empire. But, back to this book – wouldn’t it be great if there was some kind of club where you could pay a small subscription and get such books on ‘tick’! I used to think nothing of spending 50 or 60 eu in Russells or Waterstones …but then I lost the job.

    1. Dara.
      You can order any book from your local library.
      If they don’t have it..Then they get it from another library which does have it.
      All you need is the title and the authors name..The ISBN number would be useful but not necessary.
      Once the book is in any one of the libraries they will reserve it for you and transport it to your local library where you can pick it up.
      They usually email you when it comes in

      1. Given the current state of the library service in Ireland that might well be a long-shot, but still a good idea, Oz. The details are as follows: “Celtic Cosmology: Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland” edited by J. Borsje, A. Dooley, S. Mac Mathúna, G. Toner (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies 2014, and Brepols Publishers 2014) ISBN: 978-0-88844-826-2.

        If (when) I get my copy I will try and post a lengthy review on here 🙂

        1. Two or three of the chapters appear to be revised versions of journal articles. These might possibly be available on line. It would be worth searching for other chapters too. These days authors often post pdfs of their contributions to such part-works, also lecturers post copies for their students etc. Might be worth searching if anyone has the time/interest.

          1. A couple are. The first article is based on two previous articles by the author. One of them is available online, Irish Perceptions of the Cosmos:

            The other one is ‘The Christianization of the early Irish cosmos?: muir mas, nem nglas, talam cé,’ which used to be online somewhere, very poorly formatted. It may have got taken down because I’m not sure it was an official copy.

            The second article, John Shaw’s ‘A Gaelic Eschatological Folktale, Celtic Cosmology and Dumézil’s “Three Realms”’ is available to read on (you probably need an account):

    2. Dara, I was the same when it came to books but with redundancy only a body or two away I have become far more cautious. I agonize over spending large amounts on books that several years ago I would have bought with hardly a hesitation. Sad state of affairs.

      1. if library access proves impossible, what about crowd sourcing (among interested parties, say 20 or so) to buy one copy, scan it and upload it to them?

  2. Ta shoh feer hymoil dy jarroo. Lhaih mee eh reesht as reesht.
    Gura mie ayd!

    1. I’ve not read it yet but I’ve had my eye on this one for a while, and the price is a little more reasonable than the Celtic Cosmology book:

      The Otherworld Voyage in early Irish literature: An anthology of criticism

      Some of the articles from it are referenced on the Wikipedia page:

      And you can find a few of them online somewhere, like JSTOR. There are some other articles listed on the page that are worth a read, too.

      Thanks for your kind words, An Sionnach Fionn! I hope you enjoy it once you get your hands on the book.

  3. Jacqueline Borsje and the other members of the editorial team have been right at the forefront of studies in the subject. The recovery of the ancient cosmology relies upon repeated re-appraisal of many texts and willingness not to use preconceptions based upon older interpretations of literature in reinterpreting folklore. Often, the folklore is closer to the apparent ‘truth’ than the written mythology from the middle ages or from the classics.

    The really interesting question is how Ireland Christianised so rapidly if its own cosmological system was so alien to Christianity?

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