Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld

Mythic Origins, Sovereignty an Liminality

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Sharon Page MacLeod
  • Jefferson, NC: 
    McFarland Books
    , May
     293 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sharon Paice MacLeod is a Harvard-trained Celticist, a researcher, a historical consultant, and a professional musician. The combination of these various activities is undoubtedly one of the reasons why her Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality is so engaging, despite it’s complex subject. From the first page of the Introduction, we feel as though she is telling us a beautiful story, going back-and-forth in time with ease and an effortless rhythm. This being said, the project undertaken in this book, which is to “provide a scholarly exploration of certain aspects of Celtic cultures and their religious beliefs” (4) with a focus on “the origins of things, the presence of the pre-Christian Otherworld and its inhabitants, and the all-important concept of Sovereignty” (5) is a gigantic one, and the sum of knowledge required to achieve it is difficult to imagine. Given her incredible story-telling abilities, the author manages to navigate centuries of tales, songs, poems, political texts, and archeological findings from countless peoples to provide us with a somewhat cohesive idea of how Celtic Otherworlds may have been imagined and understood in the past.

The three parts of the book—Mythic Origins, Sovereignty, Liminarity—allow Paice MacLeod to discuss important ideas; among these is the idea of a female deity, or female power, which seems to have been erased by centuries of Christian culture. The use of vital sources provides valuable background to the author’s line of thoughts, and allow readers to push their inquiries further. While it is a little annoying to be provided with only tiny fragments of the texts and sources being used to develop the argument, we have to admit that more extracts would only have made it harder to follow a clear argument, considering the variety and profusion of material available. This process, as well as the general tone of the book, creates a bond of trust between the reader and the author which winds up incredibly refreshing. To be able to research, gather, translate, analyze, understand, and then render in a seemingly effortless way such knowledge is a true gift, and if this book doesn’t really open new doors, or bring forth groundbreaking theories, it remains a must read for all scholars working on Celtic cultures, as well as religious studies, medieval literature, and so forth. The author’s ability to work with theories from different disciplines—the axis mundi, for example—and her respect for facts and nuances, contribute to making this book a valuable asset to any library.

Paice MacLeod’s easygoing style should not be mistaken for a lack of knowledge or rigor; on the contrary, it allows readers to get lost in the pages of this book, and to travel with her through history. People unfamiliar with Celtic material may not enjoy the content as much considering a fair amount of knowledge is required to really appreciate the ideas being deployed; and for this reason, I would not recommend Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld for everyone. I would, however, strongly suggest it to scholars familiar with Indo-european and/or Celtic material.



About the Reviewer(s): 

Geneviève Pigeon is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sharon Paice MacLeod is a Harvard-trained Celticist, grant-funded researcher, historical consultant and professional musician. She has taught Celtic literature, mythology and folklore at the university level, and her areas of expertise include Celtic religion and belief, early Irish and Welsh poetry and wisdom texts, cosmology, and visionary traditions.



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