Thursday, July 23, 2015
A warlike people who have all gone away
Mythology is a funny thing. It can tell you a lot about a culture in some ways, and in other ways it just tantalizes you with what it can't tell you about a culture. Mythology and folklore are distinct and that's important to keep in mind: myths tell you what a culture values and wants to think of itself, folklore tells you more about what the people of that culture are actually like. On the whole I think I prefer folklore - myths are too stodgy, too militaristic, and in some ways just too damned sad.
I didn't know a hell of a lot about Celtic mythology before diving into this collection of stories and I don't know a hell of a lot about Celtic mythology now. This collection is just a tiny snippet of the history of kings and gods and god-kings who went into forming the collective unconscious of the Celtic fringe, and it's primarily an Irish collection so it's even more limited. There's a lot of love for green hills and cold seas and pale enchanting maidens and musclebound warriors, which is all to be expected, but there are more stories about might of mind and wiry kings than I would have thought to anticipate.
What I did anticipate, and what saddened me, is that you can see cultural assimilation happening as you move through these stories. Chivalry isn't a thing that the ancient Celts would have embraced, it's an English court thing and it plays too much of a role in these myths for them to do anything but communicate the eventual defeat of these independent peoples and kingdoms into a massive monarchy. Even more disheartening is the displacement of old religions to make space for Christianity. It's difficult to read about the Sidhe disappearing from the lives of men, difficult to see golden druidical wands tossed aside in favor of crosses, difficult to wait for a spell to be ended by the announcement of the one lord and savior coming into the land. There's one particular story in this collection, "The Children of Lir," in which the titular characters are tortured by the methods of the old magic of their people and made to wait a millennium to be saved by the good news. Setting aside that that's fucked-up bullshit it's also internally inconsistent - if there is one true god and he is the source of all the supernatural power in the universe it was he who allowed the children to be tortured in the first place and to have to endure the torture until a dude with a dislike of snakes showed up to tell everyone about him. The evil stepmother in this tale isn't the villain, the Christian god is. And that's kind of the moral of the entire set of stories - they all have this ring of "wow, things used to be awesome and full of wonder and mystery and honor and loyalty, but things are much better now that we've assimilated into a different culture."
I wanted to know more about the world that came before, not learn how that world got swallowed up into ours. But I guess I'll just have to look for those stories in folklore, not myths.
Neeson, Eoin. Celtic Myths and Legends. Barnes & Noble Books.
New York: New York. 2000. (1965)