I regularly scan the internet for new books or articles examining Medieval Irish literature, particularly those discussing the possible religious beliefs of the pre-Christian peoples of north-western Europe. However, as I have pointed out before, such publications tend to lean towards the simplistic and the reductionist, with a hefty dose of New Age or Wiccan sentiment at the popular end of the market. When it comes to Gaelic mythological and folkloric studies I generally fall into a category that might be described as the “hybrid school”. To explain, for the last five decades or so the academic world in Ireland was strongly influenced by a form of ideological “anti-nationalism” that was related to a sort of counter-revolutionary or post-colonial scepticism among younger students and professors who grew into adulthood during the 1960s and ’70s. In terms of the relationship between Ireland and Britain, between the colonised and the coloniser, the movement was very much in sympathy with the latter. While those who espoused the new view styled themselves as “revisionists”, others equated them with “negationists” or “apologists”, professional and amateur writers dedicated to soft-soaping the role of “Greater England” on this island nation for contemporary political reasons.
The field of early and pre-historic studies in Ireland was not immune to this form of activist historiography, some archaeologists and philologists taking up the term of “revisionist” while dismissing their opponents as “nativists”. Whatever about the poor reputation of revisionism in broader Irish academia, where demands for factual rigour were twisted into something quite different, there is no doubt that a sense of healthy scepticism was required in the staid world of Medieval and Celtic scholarship. The tendency to see “sky-gods” and “sun-goddesses” or their manifestations in almost every mythological figure, to dismiss Christian or Classical influences while emphasising the supposedly pagan, did a great disservice to the original source materials as well as to the members of the general public who had an interest in such matters. Unfortunately the scholarly pendulum swung too far in the revisionist direction, creating a sort of “anti-Celtic” camp among writers and researchers (though not, notably, among those with a strong interest in linguistics). By the 1990s it seemed that in the world of “serious” Irish studies every narrative subject, every character or action, could be explained by reference to some Old Testament or Graeco-Roman inspiration. Celtic mythology, it was proclaimed, was dead. Long live the insular consensus!
Fortunately a new generation of writers have come to the fore in recent years, men and women taking the best aspects of the revisionist and nativist schools, recognising that we do not require an exclusionary approach to the subject. Medieval Irish manuscripts represent a complex and multilayered blend, a hybridization of the internal and the external, of the old and the new, to create a body of literature in its own right and with its own well-deserved merits. One does not need to dismiss the non-Christian to recognise the Christian in these works, or vice-versa. To do so would be like ripping out the European mythological sources from the imaginative legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien and arguing that the purely personal writing left behind represented the sole and authentic version of his works. As Tolkien borrowed, blended and innovated over the course of several decades in his fantasy labour so too did the intelligentsia of the Medieval Church in Ireland, albeit over several centuries. Just as we can point to real world influences in the fictional history of Middle-earth so too can we reasonably speculate about the “pagan” in the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann or similar traditions. Thus the new school in early Irish philology can be fairly dubbed the “hybrid” one.
All this leads me to an interview by Debra Liese with the historian Mark Williams for the Princeton University Press, where he discusses his new book, “Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth”, a title that made me wary of what was to follow. Thankfully Williams’ view seems to fall into the “hybrid” school of thought and he takes a nuanced approach to the thorny subject of the (almost) de-paganised Irish pantheon that we find in the literature of the period.
“Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshipped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshipped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters.
…the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.
…literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature…
The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealised twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterised by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.
The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge.”
Which is a fairly accurate summary of the situation for a general readership. The point below is particularly important and one I have made many times on ASF:
“One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages.
Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history.
People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.”
Hopefully I will be able to purchase a copy of Mark Williams’ book in the near future so I can post a review (the retail price is reasonable enough, unlike some recent works published in Ireland that have asking prices approaching the €100 mark!). In the meantime I am working on a longer synopsis of the Leabhar Gabhala Éireann, examining its complicated development, which I will publish on ASF in the near future. For more you information now you can try my short introduction to the subject of Irish mythology, the “Tuatha Dé Danann“, or for a broader overview the essays on the excellent website Tairis are well worth a study.