Celts, cults and comprehensiveness

Newport church, Pembrokeshire http://wp.me/s36La9-celtic
Newport church, Pembrokeshire http://wp.me/s36La9-celtic

James MacKillop Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Oxford University Press 1998

The tag “Celtic” is one of those catch-all but often meaningless labels that are a lazy shorthand for anything mystical, fey or even implicitly racial. Too often it is used by those profoundly unaware of its scholarly origins in linguistics or cultural history, so it is refreshing to have this Dictionary written by a specialist displaying his undoubted expertise in linguistics, literature, archaeology, history and comparative religion. The four thousand entries cover mythology and legend, literature and folklore; people, places, ideas and threads are all listed, some in concise form, others expanded into mini-essays. The Celtic world ranges from the insular nations — Ireland, Scotland and Wales — to Brittany and other Continental cultures which survive in the documentary and archaeological record; and MacKillop gives helpful pronunciation guides to help us negotiate the particular orthographical pitfalls of Gaelic and Welsh.

Especially impressive is the range of subjects covered here: from beasties such as water-horses and various homunculi (such as leprechauns) to heroes, heroines and deities; literature such as The Mabinogion, Arthurian narratives, Irish sagas and the Lives of saints; and themes including the cult of the severed head, tale-types and folklore motifs. As with any reference book worth its salt one fascinating entry leads to another, displaying that essential corollary to academic authoritativeness, accessibility.

The hardback is reassuringly solid, so it is disappointing that the paperback seems so slight and insubstantial in comparison, but either edition should be on the shelves of anyone avowing even a passing interest in Celtic culture. You won’t find any other guide as comprehensive as this, and it renders the many dilettante New Age dictionaries entirely dispensable.

12 thoughts on “Celts, cults and comprehensiveness

    1. Glad you are enjoying this blog, Margaret. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve read little Heaney; have got his Beowulf translation somewhere but haven’t got round to enjoying it yet, an omission I ought to remedy soon.


      1. He really nails BEOWULF. If you read his “Feeling into Words” talk (I posted it in a swoon), you’ll understand how he intuitively grasped the tone and essence of the epic and was able to so masterfully render it to us today in language we can understand. It’s a whammo 🙂


  1. Well, here goes another book to add to the growing collection of your recommendations.
    I swear, here in the states, anything green and leafy is sold as “Celtic”.


    1. Same here, especially where tourist traps like Glastonbury abound: anything twee and fey and misty and mystical is grist to the mill. If it’s got interlace in it so much the better, despite the fact that the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings after, the Romans before and Moslems not long after that all featured interlace in their designs.

      Still, hope you enjoy it when you get it, Sari — the paperback edition certainly won’t empty the coffers too much!


    1. I have the hardback, Col, but as far as I can see the 2004 paperback edition entitled, as you point out, The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology is substantially the same. I have no idea why it took so long — six years — to appear in a cheaper format.


    1. You’re very welcome! And I’ve just popped over and had a quick look at your blog — looks interesting, and I hope to browse through your posts on the Mabinogion and so on.


Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.