Celtic Mythology

Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes

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Philip Freeman
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     2017.
     296 pages.
     $24.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190460471.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Like Philip Freeman’s previous work, St. Patrick of Ireland (Simon and Schuster, 2004), Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes offers clean, readable access to texts and traditions that are alluring but tricky. Early Welsh and Gaelic are languages hard to master, yet the subject matter holds a fascination well beyond the world of Celtic Studies. This collection does not claim to be a critical edition; still, Freeman leaves his readers a trail to the original texts that lie behind his own retelling.

Mythic texts present worlds beneath and beyond the worlds of authors and readers. These, like all mythic texts, are ancient tales of heroes, rulers, and druids, of supernatural powers and warring tribes. These are “Celtic” myths in that they are tales handed down in lands where Celtic languages abide—Ireland and Wales. Place names such as Ulster and Dyfed give the tales a loose mooring in these worlds. These are tales of feasting, of contests and trials, of romance and trickery. Only occasionally do these myths seek to explain their origins, as Greco-Roman and Native American myths seem to do. Freeman offers the reader succinct introductions to each set of stories, leaving the source references to clear, uncluttered endnotes.

The pre-Christian myths of Ireland—selected and slightly abridged—give us a good sampling of the adventures of the ancient Celtic pantheon. As these early Irish texts were based on bardic tradition, they offer us a glimpse into the pre-literate world of the Celts. By placing the early Welsh texts, the Mabinogi, after the Irish myths, and followed by the earliest Irish-Christian texts, we begin to see some resonance between those worlds. St. Patrick battles the druids; Brigid works miracles of abundance; and Brendan is on a quest that reminds us of Welsh knights. The world behind these texts is that of the medieval authors who are using the written word to relate and represent these well-told tales.

These tales are captivating and worthy of multiple editions and versions. Celtic warriors are portrayed as competitive, fearless, vicious, wily, and devious. They are fond of beheading their rivals. Fantastic birth stories are common, and the women are strong, beautiful, and aware of their sexual power. These myths are full of magic and miracles—shape shifting is a particularly Celtic power. The readers find themselves pulling for imperfect heroes, and even the druids are a mixture of good and evil. Still there is a kind of morality and justice in these tales. Once St. Patrick arrives, the primal forces are overtaken by the Christian God, at least according to the tellers of these tales.

Just how faithful or accurate are Freeman’s versions? Scholars would not think of this as a “critical” edition, but that may be a strength. These original texts can be complicated and unwieldy at times. I found Freeman’s efforts clear and lucid, if a bit laconic. Perhaps, by comparing this version with others available in English, a faithful simplicity may be found.

Here we compare the opening lines “The Quest for Olwen,” in Peter Berresford Ellis’s Celtic Myths and Legends (Running Press, 2008).

There was once a king of Cilydd who was related to the famous Arthur of Britain. This king, who also bore the name Cilydd, married a princess named Goeuddydd. As her name suggested, she was a “bright light” among her people. The marriage was a happy and prosperous one, and soon the couple were blessed by Goleuddydd becoming pregnant.

Ellis’s version goes on to say that Goleuddydd later “became unhinged by the pain of childbirth” (371). By contrast, Freeman’s version of these opening lines reads:

Cilydd son of Cleyddon Wledig wanted to marry a woman as noble as himself. He set his heart on Goleuddydd daughter of Anlawdd Weldig, and she agreed to marry him. After their wedding she became pregnant, but at the time of the conception she went insane and wandered the country avoiding people (205).

Freeman’s brevity and terse style may also be seen in this comparison of Brendan’s voyage from the translation in Oliver Davies’s “The Voyage of Brendan,” in Celtic Spirituality (Paulist Press, 1999):

One evening, a monk by the name of Barinthus, a kinsman of his [Brendan’s], came to visit him while he was engaged in spiritual warfare in a place which is called Brendan’s “Meadow of Miracles.” When the holy monk asked him all kinds of questions, he began to weep and prostrate himself on the ground, where he remained for a long time. But St. Brendan lifted him to his feet and kissed him, saying: “Father, why does your arrival make us sad, when you came to comfort us?

Freeman’s version of Brendon’s Voyage reads:

Once he was praying in a meadow when a certain priest named Barrind came to him [Brendan] in the evening. This man began to cry and fell onto the ground until Brendan raised him from the earth and kissed him, asking what troubled his soul.

Freeman’s Celtic Mythology is a satisfying presentation of a decent selection of Irish and Welsh myths and tales from both pagan and Christian sources. An example from Scotland would have also been welcome, but Freeman’s language is not as lofty as in other versions and the Oxford hardback is smallish and well-designed. The introductions are short and sweet, as are the endnotes, and since Irish and Welsh names are tricky, a glossary is provided. This would be an excellent collection for introductory courses in Celtic Studies; it is also an entry point for anyone wanting to become familiar with these tales. Freeman’s version is engaging, accessible, and faithful.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Prichard is adjunct faculty in religious studies at Chapman University.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip Freeman holds the Orlando W. Qualley Chair in Classics at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

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