The Mabinogion is the most famous collection of Celtic (or Welsh to be more precise) mythological stories. They are not like the Nordic myths, no stories about creation, etc., but more like faerytales with a double layer. This Penguin paperback is a cheap way to get your hands on this famous anthology.
I realise that this is one of my ‘impossible reviews’. I ran into the 1976 German translation (1981 second printing) of this book in an Amsterdam bookshop. The title in French means “the secret of the Celts”, the German title is more promising: “Das geheime Wissen der Kelten”, or “the secret knowledge of the Celts”. Looking for the book on the internet I only found a few references, not totally clear if it is this book for sale. Still I want to bring it under your attention.
The book has a strange format, square. There are many books about the Celts, but this one rose my interest because it has a lot of symbols in it. The writer investigated Celtic coins and their symbolism and only after that Celtic mythology and the like. There is a lot information in this book which was new to me, but the writer literary gives meaning to anything, triangular eyes, dots and spots, cracks and the form of a haircut. Often I have the idea that Lengyel goes way too far in his minutious investigations, but of course everything can be taken into concideration and does not necessarily have to be believed. A fact is that the coins may be rich in symbolism, but they do not tell us too much about gods, goddesses and mythology, or do they…?
The writer continues with short chapters about subjects such as ‘the not-rational’, ‘the sun-hero Finn’, ‘the dear-god’, etc. More towards the end pieces of continental, Irish and Welsh mythology with (sometimes) interesting explanations. At least to me, unconventional!
Less good about the book is that I found it almost impossible to read. I read in German quite a lot and I don’t know if it is the construction of the sentences, the use of words, the density of information or maybe the ‘unexpectedness’ of the information, but for some reason I really had a hard time reading the book. I’m planning to put it aside (I have paged through it all, read most of it) and reread it in small parts of so.
One thing is for sure, this is the most informative book about Celtic symbolism and mythology that I have read so far. There is a staggering amount of images and highly detailed descriptions of coins, so if you want to learn more about this side of Celtic culture, try to locate a copy of this book.
In set-up this book holds the middle between the other two books that I reviewed in this series, “Die Germanen” which is a scholarly book about this ancient peoples and “Götter und Kulte der Germanen” mostly based on archeological findings. Demandt deals with the Celts and mostly uses archeological findings for his ideas, but also uses the scriptures of especially Ceasar about the Celts. The book mostly speaks about the history and also political history of the Celts. A hard-to-answer question is who the Celts exactly were and where they came from. Demandt supports the idea that they originally came from south-west Germany, but quickly went to north-east Germany and from there, northern France, the Brittish isles and the rest of Europe. Unlike the Germans, the Celts were good enough warriors to make the lives of the Romans miserable. They even managed to take in Rome for a short while. At the peak, the Celts inhabited an area from Great Brittain to Romenia. When the Romans regained power, the Celts were drawn back. Also the (quite similar, but not quite the same) upcoming Germans took (back) much land.
Even more contrary to the Germans, the Celts were a flexible folk who adjusted to new surroundings. They took the good things from the Romans, blended well into the Italian and near-Eastern peoples just to name two examples. Still this couldn’t prevent them to become parias in the Roman empire and being pushed back as far as Ireland and Scotland. There they met a new treat: Christianity and also here (as we all know) the Celts (outwardly) adjusted their convictions and way of living.
The worldview, myths, religion and folklore is shortly dealt with. At the end you can read a bit about the Celtic revival in the Romantic periode and in our own day and time.
The first title about the Celts is so far the only serious book about the Celts and their religion that I know. It was released in a softcover, while from number three on, the series come in a hardcover. J.P. Boosten did a wonderfull job explaining how he got his information, who the Celts actually were, he gives a lengthy explanation about the religion with an historical overview, speaks about the temples, rites and magic, druids, afterlife, folklore, etc., etc. The book is only 240 pages, but extremely informative. I am not familiar with the subject enough to know if in the last 50 years information has been disproved or enlarged, but I am very satisfied with this book, also because it has many wonderfully-looking pictures, which seems to be characteristic to the series.
Green has written quite a few books about the Celts. I was certain that I had at least one book of hers, but apparently I don’t. I probably had one in my hand some time and for some reason decided to not buy it (yet). I started these series with her wonderfull book Celtic Myths. The book first says where our information comes from, then explains the difference between Irish and Welsh mythology and texts and in the rest of the book, keeps these two apart. I loved reading her rewritten tales and myths with explanations throughout. Green makes you familiar with the main characters, gods, styles of writing, texts, etc. in a very easy-to-read fashion. The book speaks about both mythological as historical subjects which makes this book a marvelous insight in the world of the Celts, especially for ‘beginners’ but also for those who have already read some more. There is an index and a short bibliography to makes this book complete.
I think the runes are a terrible subject to buy books about. These books tend to be either overly scholarly, saying that the runes were nothing more than easy-to-make symbols to write simple texts such as shopping lists; or in the other case “fluffy bunny” newage books turning an ancient practise into modern witchy oracle things. I know Melville from his very reasonable Book Of High Magic which is about Medieval and Renaissance magic. Also he wrote a cheap, but fine book about alchemy which comes in the same series as this Book Of Runes. Melville opens with the scholarly approach, telling about the history of the runes and the different ‘alphabets’. After this you will get a very brief lesson in Norse mythology and then Melville starts to write about the runes themselves. However he warns for this a few times in the first pages, this is where the book comes into the difficult practises of explaining the runes. There is hardly any traditional information, but the Eddas and other classical texts mention more than once that the runes were used for magical purposes. The names of the runes differ in different books and languages (also traditional) and the different alphabets even sometimes have different symbols for the same letters. Melville gives associations for the runes and this is what makes this kinds of books so hard to compare: these associations are personal and by no means traditional. Melville sometimes says how he comes to his connections with gods, trees, plants, animals, astrological sign or planet, colour and element. He might have added Tarot or I-Ching hexagrams like some other books do, but especially in the case of the Norse gods and astrology the opinions differ. A few examples of how this works:
The rune Ansuz is connected to Odin, because the root Íss means “god” and Odin is the highest of them. In fact, originally Tyr was the highest God, but later he was surpassed by Odin. Other Germanic/Teutonic tribes had other main gods, so this is at least questionable. The bird associated with this rune is a raven; of course because the ravens are Odins animals, but so are his dog, or the Midgardsnake that he kills, or… Well then, the raven is a bird bringing messages from the world to Odin, so the planet becomes Mercury who is in Greek mythology the messenger of the gods (Hermes). For the same reason the plant is the mushroom which in Dutch is called “fly-fungus”, because it is hallucinative and this allows the shaman to travel between the world of the gods and our world below.
Another one. The name of the rune Hagal means “hail”, so Melville had to think of the primal giant Ymir “who was born from the melting ice”. In fact, Ymir came forth from interaction between the fires of Niflheim and the ice from Muspelheim. If you want to name a character that really came from ice, then I would say this is Bure who is licked out of a salt stone by the primal cow Audhumla.
In a way these connections are logical, but you can imagine that other writers come to other conclusions, so how should we find out what is credible and what is not? Probably not of it all is, which makes the runes even more difficult. Probably a personal interpretation could only make them fit to use them as some kind of Tarot or I-Ching. That Melville supports this idea is proven by the fact that for every rune he gives a “worldly” or “predicting” and an “esoteric” meaning.
Then the book continues by telling how you can make your own runestones and how to use them in “rune magic” and towards the end you will read about talismans, blessings and the like.
As I said, I have more of such runes-books which all more or less are the same. This one by Melville and a little one by Bernard King seem to at least try to be a bit serious, but I am still not sure about all the practical things that are dragged towards the subject with no obvious reason.
At The Well Of Wyrd * Edred Thorsson (1988 samuel weisser isbn 0877286787 / 1999 samuel weisser isbn 157863136X)
This is the third part of a ‘runic divination’ trilogy with the titles Runelore: a handbook of esoteric runology and Futhark: a handbook of rune magic. I just happened to be able to buy this book cheap, second hand and in my own country. My first printing is called At the well of wyrd: a handbook of runic divination, so the title was changed for the reprint it seems. Stephen Edred Thorsson/Flowers is the founder of the Rune Gild, “a school of esoteric knowledge based on the Odian system of the Runes”. He is a sholar (PhD) and esotericist, making him an authority in the eyes of some. Of course I haven’t read a whole lot of Rune Gild literature, but their website has some (nice) writings, the Finland header has a blog (PYHÄ) and I am currently reading Thorsson’s 1986 dissertation Runes and Magic. However it is all interesting in a way, I am still not convinced of the historical justification of some of the systems and ideas of Thorsson. In At The Well Of Wyrd Thorsson says several times that there are only hints about the historical systems of runic divination, yet he builds a complete system and sometimes even refers to Tacitus’ Gemania as source, while Tacitus only gives a very loose remark of “lots” and “signs”. In all my ignorance, I cannot see in this booklet much difference from all too wanting, modern interpretations of possible functions of the runes in the past. Nice is that Thorsson names every rune in the elder Futhark with quotes from the famous rune-poems, but when it comes to casting systems and the like, I am off. No worries of course, I will just stack this booklet with my other runebooks, continue to read the disseration and probably come to the conclusion that these texts of Thorsson are not meant for me.
I know Edred Flowers/Thorsson because of his writings in the Tyr Journal and later from his Bureus booklet. Of course I learned that the man is the founder of the Rune Gild. I had no intention to read the man’s ‘standard works’ until I had some discussions with another Rune Gilder. At The Well Of Wyrd (see elsewhere) arrived earlier and wasn’t too much of a good encounter. Runes and Magic is Flowers’ dissertation. Written on a typewriter and with a pen for the uncommon letters, impossible to get, so I got a library copy. Runes and Magic is (of course) a much more scholarly work than that other booklet. It deals with runes and magic (and not ‘runic magic’). Flowers investigated a great many Northern magical and runic scriptures and inscriptions, cataloged them, gives interpretations, looks for systems, etc. Very interesting for sure! Flowers is very open about the level of speculativity, but his theories are founded as well as possible (and his masters agreed of course). I had never seen so many inscriptions together (even though the writer doesn’t give the actual runes very often) and so much information on this kind of Northern magical systems. Runes and Magic didn’t change my view on Flowers’ and his Rune Gild system though. In any case, I can advise this book to anyone interested in runes and/or Northern magic, either or not affiliated with the Rune Gild. -20/9/06-
Ingwaz.nl is a new Dutch Asatru website that made a flying start. Immediately after it was launched there were plenty articles, translations of ancient texts and a section about the runes. The man behind the site thought that it was a good idea to make the rune-section available in a booklet as well because that is easier to read and easier to access. Before I wrote this, there was a messages-section saying that you can order this booklet for E 7,-. For a reason I don’t know this message-board is now gone and there is no mention about this booklet anymore. But I suppose you can still contact the writer to inform about it.
The booklet is written in Dutch, printed with colour plates on the inside and inspite of the 50 pages highly informative. I have a few runebooks, but I like this one best so far. Bos opens with an introduction telling that most of the runebooks on the market are too free in explanations, combining the runes with whatever has nothing to do with them (Tarot, astrology, etc.). After the introduction you get a nice history of the runes. Very nice is the table with different futharks next to eachother. After this I would have preferred to get the last section, but in the booklet now follow the individual runes with their sounds, associations and a little bit of explanation. I am particularly happy about the last part which contains an introduction, reproductions and translation of the different ‘rune poems’. These are famous ancient texts explaining the runes. You get three versions of the Abecedarium Normandicum and then the Anglosaxon rune-poem, the Icelandic rune-poem, the Oldnorse rune-poem and the Swedish rune-poem. These rune-poems not only give us the name of the runes in the different futharks, but also the explanation. So why do the modern runebooks leave out the poems and come up with their own interpretations?
“Hagal/hail is a cold rain and a shower of wet snow and the illness of snakes. hagal – leader of the battle.”
A very nice booklet and definately a suggestion for those of you who can read Dutch. Contact the writer to see if you can get a copy too.
This booklet doesn’t give an author, but I expect it to be written by McNallen. On 12 pages you will get quotes from the Nordic scriptures on the following subjects: friendship, love, moderation, wisdom, hospitality, modesty, courage, caution, pride, immortality and self-reliance. Every subject is introduced and then a few quotes follow. Unfortunately the sources are not given, but according to the introduction most come from the first poem of the poetic Edda: the Havamal.