Book Review: Comparative Mythology

AT LONG LAST!  My final essay!

The Dedicant Path recommends that the first of the three book reviews be of the Indo-European studies, in order to provide Dedicants with an overview of the various “I-E” cultures.  However, I felt that I came into the Dedicant work with a good grasp of most of the cultures and so did not need the help of a book to select a hearth culture.  Instead, I saw this book as the primary gateway to the works of Georges Dumézil upon which so much of ADF’s core foundations are built, and as a result I wanted to leave it until near the end of my DP studies when I hoped to have a better grasp of these foundations and could formulate some questions to explore through the reading. In particular I have long had concerns about a proto-I.E. religion being the foundation for ADF’s exclusive Indo-European focus.   However, all of this has very little to do with the purpose of a simple book review except by way of explanation for my decision to leave it until last.

So let us dive in.  First and foremost, Comparative Mythology is an extremely dense tome.   From almost the first page I wished that I was able to read it on my Kindle with its auto-dictionary-lookup function, for the text is replete with the kinds of words that are so obscure that they can only exist in a written language where dictionaries exist.  I did keep my Kindle with its Oxford English Dictionary nearby and used it heavily; for those not steeped in arcane scholastic terminology, access to a dictionary is vital to getting through this book.  Fortunately, the relative inaccessibility of the language is off set by Professor Puhvel’s abundant dry wit.  Whether he is talking about Bres “becoming a governmental advisor in matters of agriculture” (p. 178), or playing on words (“India eschewed eschatology”) (p. 182), believe it or not, this is a funny book.

Nonetheless, while the humour makes for a more enjoyable read it does not make for a quicker read, and the density of both the language and the scholarship require periods of uninterrupted quiet reading to make headway through it.   This is not a book that you can pick up and read a few pages then put down again.  As a result, I was at Comparative Mythology for nearly six months.

The book is divided into three broad sections.  The first and shortest section was actually, for me, the most interesting and valuable.  Here, Puhvel provides an entertaining overview of the foibles entrenched in the study of myth and the harmful penchant for early mythologists to first come up with a theory and then to find myths which support their theory.  He then proceeds to discuss diffusion, the tendency of mythic stories to travel and morph from one culture to another, and the difficulty that it presents to modern comparative mythology, using creation stories as an example.  Finally he presents an overview of Indo-European and Indo-Iranian history.

The second, and by far the largest section, sees Professor Puhvel taking us on a whirlwind tour of the various Indo-European cultural myths.  I have to admit that the chapters on Vedic and Epic India fly right over my head.  My limited knowledge of Hindu, mostly gleaned from some books that the Hare Krishnas gave me back in the 80s and more recently the Xena episode “The Way”, provided me no preparation for following the detailed mythological accounts.  The Iranian chapters I found easier to absorb, but not by much.  One of the concepts which I found most interesting in these chapters was the idea that there were separate Gods and Goddesses for the three different societal classes.   The remaining chapters in this section cover off the bulk of the Indo-European cultures; Greek, Roman, Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic.   Most of the chapters are structured as overview of the respective pantheons, with scattered attempts at describing linkages to other cultures.

The final section of the book describes a handful of themes that repeat throughout Indo-European myth.  While somewhat interesting from the perspective of comparative mythology, which is what the book is actually about of course, I found this section of little overall interest from a religious perspective with the possible exception of the chapter titled ‘Fire in Water’.  The tome ends finally with a whimper rather than a bang, having no actual conclusion to speak of.

Overall, I found the book at times compelling, challenging, and entertaining.  Puhval shed much light on topics which I had not had a good chance to explore, such as the Olympian versus Cthonic dichotomy in Greek mythology, as well as how the classic three classes of proto-Indo-European society is reflected in the cosmology.  It has also given me much more food for thought related to the relative importance of cultural diffusion as opposed to heritage.  I hope to explore this more as my studies progress.

Book Review: The Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis

For my preferred ethnics study book review, I opted again to use a book that was already on my book shelf and thus familiar to me.

But, let’s put this bluntly; to paraphrase Monty Python, Peter Berresford Ellis’ (A brief history of) The Druids is not a book for reading.  It is a book for laying down and avoiding.

To be fair to Ellis, the book does have its moments.  The problem is that between those moments lie eternities of eye watering, somniferous torture.  Having already read through much of it a couple of years ago, I thought that I could finish it in about three weeks.  In fact, it took me almost three months.  There were days when I would pick it up and read a few pages until I suddenly realized that I was not absorbing any of it and would put it down again.  Then, of course, when I finally and reluctantly got back to it I would have to flip back several pages to try to discern what point Ellis was attempting to make before I could proceed.

In his introduction, Ellis tells us that the book could very well be subtitled ‘An introductory argument’, and this is perhaps the root of the problem with this book.  One gets the impression that the author is continually debating some point or another, and the actual information is presented merely as evidence to prove his point, as opposed to being interesting or valuable unto itself.  In some instances this works well, and some of the best sections sees Ellis writing polemically with great, contagious enthusiasm.  In most other instances, however, it just doesn’t work at all.  As an example, the author provides a chapter titled “The Rituals of the Druids”, which should be one of the most interesting for ADF Dedicants.  However, more than half of the 24 pages in the chapter is devoted not to telling us anything about ancient Druidic rituals but rather to trying to refute Caesar’s claim that the Druids practised human sacrifice.

But enough moaning (for now); let’s delve into the tome itself.

The first two chapters provide a brief overview of the Iron Age Celts and the Druids themselves.  These feature Ellis at his best, savaging the theories of those writers that came before him as he argues that Druids were a caste within Celtic society, where ever the Celts were found, and providing us with plenty of comparative analysis with other Indo-European cultures along the way.  The next chapter, “Druids Through Foreign Eyes”, keeps the reader’s interest high as it provides detailed descriptions of the main observations made by the Greeks and Romans on the Druids, all the while ripping apart their ‘jaundiced views’.

From here on, however, the book generally falls apart.  Ellis spends 180 pages meandering from topic to topic with little in the way of direction and less in the way of organization.  Following a short section on Druids as founts of wisdom, for example, he segues right into a discussion on comparative Druidic hairstyles. One finds oneself wondering what hairstyles have to do with wisdom before realizing that in fact they don’t; the author has simply switched topics without bothering to tell us.

Ellis also falls victim to the same questionable logic for which he blasts other authors.  In the section on the religion of the Druids, he hypothesizes that there were 33 main Celtic gods.  As evidence he offers up that the Vedas ‘speak of thirty-three gods’, and then goes on to enumerate every instance of the number 33 in Celtic literature, such as the Picts having 33 Pagan kings and 33 Christian kings.  Likewise, in attempting to advance a theory about an ancient ritual hunger strike (a troscad), Ellis discourses extensively on Irish hunger strikes in the twentieth century.

Far more frustrating, however, even than the poor organization and the faulty logic, is the lack of source citing and the nearly non-existent indexing.  The fact is that The Druids is packed with excellent information and citations to source material that are difficult to find elsewhere.  However, without a useful index the book is nearly useless as a reference.  To take one example from the previous paragraph, nowhere in the scant index will you find ‘troscad’ or ‘hunger strike’.  Likewise, without references to source material the many citations are equally useless as reference. While some source citations are made these tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule. If one wants to know more about those 33 Pagan Pictish kings, Ellis provides no clue where to look.

In the final chapter titled ‘Reviving the Druids’, Ellis returns to his polemical best, hammering away at the British Revivalists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the Neo-Pagan reconstructionists alike, and ending with a lamentation on the fate of the Celtic languages.  Of these he says that if they die out “it will be no natural phenomenon.  It will be as a result of centuries of a careful policy of ethnocide.  Once the languages disappear then Celtic civilization will cease to exist and the cultural continuum of three thousand years will come to an end.”  One cannot help dwelling on the parallel to the subject matter of the book itself, in that the Druids were made extinct by equally careful policies of ethnocide, and much of their wisdom is lost to us forever.

To conclude, I do think this book belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the ancient Druids, but it is not a book for picking up and reading cover to cover.  The first three chapters provide an entertaining and excellent overview of what is known about the Druids and the final chapter provides a useful summary of the British Revival.   The remainder, however, amounts to plenty of tantalizing bits of valuable information hidden within unreadable prose and without a useable index to aid in research.

Book Review – Drawing Down the Moon (Part 3)

Margot Adler 8

Margot Adler. Photograph copyright Randall Gee Photography.

The fourth and final section of Drawing Down the Moon begins by exploring the demographics associated with neo-Pagans.  Alder tells us, based on her many interviews and surveys, for instance that neo-Pagans tend to be urban technophiles who care about ecology.  Beyond this she provides few generalizations, reflecting the fact that Pagans come from all walks of life and can harbor radically differing views on politics and social issues.

The remainder of this section is a miscellany of Pagan related topics.  She discusses the availability of Pagan studies, inter-faith relations, Paganism on the Internet, and Pagan festivals.  This last topic is greatly expanded in the 2006 revision and contains not only comprehensive historical information, but delves into some of the questions that the spectacular rise in popularity of these festivals raises.  For instance, are these festivals promoting a homogenisation of Pagans at the expense of individual paths?  In this, Adler does a commendable job of providing both sides of the story and leaving her readers to ponder the answers themselves.

The book finally ends with a beautifully written epilogue.  In it, Adler compares archaeologist George Mylonas’ quest to discover the secrets of the Eleusinean Mysteries with the neo-Pagan desire to experience the mysteries that lie on our own spiritual paths, mysteries that we will only discover through experience, not intellect.

Book Review – Drawing Down the Moon (Part 2)

The second section of Drawing Down the Moon concerns Wicca and is by far the largest section of the book.  This is, perhaps, fitting given the author’s involvement with Wicca and given Wicca’s predominant position within neo-Paganism.  However, as the audience of this review is expected to be Druids, I will not dwell long on the this part of the book here except to say that it is a refreshingly honest report by Adler upon her own path.  It manages at once to dispel romantic notions that modern Wiccans are carrying on a tradition kept secret but unbroken since the Inquisition, while at the same time validating Wicca as a modern spiritual and magical path.  This is a lesson which should not be lost on ADF dedicants!

Greek vase image depicting the Drawing Down the Moon ritual from the inside cover of the book

I should note that within this second section, the most relevant chapter to ADF members is likely that on Magic and Ritual.  I will perhaps return to and explore this chapter more in a future blog posting.

The third section of the book concerns all of the other Pagans.  In 70 less pages than she spent on Wiccans, Adler takes us through a whirl-wind tour of every other significant path; Hesperian, Sabaean, Kemetic, Asatru, and Radical Faeries amongst others.

After the deep plunge into Wicca, this section disappoints for several reasons.

The first and foremost reason is that Adler focuses on the history and major players within the paths rather than what it means to walk the path.  As an example, in the ten pages she devotes to the Kemetic path, Adler writes almost exclusively about the history and founders of the Church of the Eternal Source and says next to nothing about what it means to be a member.  What do they believe?  What are their rituals like?  The book says next to nothing.

The second reason this section disappoints is that Adler dwells at length on paths that may have been  interesting and potentially had an impact on modern neo-Paganism but which are considered really very ‘fringe’ these days.  The most obvious example here is the entire chapter spent on the Church of All Worlds which by the 2006 revision of Drawing Down the Moon was clearly no longer considered a valid spiritual path by most Pagans.

Still, even the pages spent on groups like the Church of All Worlds would not be so disappointing if, in context, the ‘living’ paths were given at least equal treatment.  Unfortunately, this is not to be.  Asatru likely makes out the best with perhaps 14 pages, but Druidry – despite getting second mention in the books sub-title “Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and other Pagans in America” – has only about ten pages.  Even worse, it is included in the chapter titled “Religions of Paradox and Play”.  While such a chapter is an appropriate place to discuss the Reformed Druids of North America, it relegates the much more serious efforts of Ár nDraíocht Féin into the same bucket.  Of course, given that only given two out of the ten pages on Druidry is devoted to ADF, this is perhaps understandable if not entirely forgivable.

Continue to Part Three

Book Review – Drawing Down the Moon (Part 1)

This was my third time reading Margot Adler’s massive tome, if one can say that it is possible to “read” it at all. The book is almost encyclopaedic in nature, lending itself more to targeted research on specific topics rather than reading from cover to cover. I first encountered it back in the late 80s shortly after becoming involved with the Wiccan Church of Canada. I recall feeling quite overwhelmed at the sheer number of different types of Pagans out there, having only been familiarised with Witches. I read it again after purchasing the 2006 revision a couple of years ago, and my latest reading was just recently after finding it on the ADF book list.

The first section of the book contains three chapters which seem aimed towards non-Pagan readers and does an excellent job of introducing Paganism, offering several different definitions, as well as providing an overview of the typical Pagan world view and describing some of the most usual ways in which people find their paths.

Adler is adept at using engaging real life anecdotes to bring the concepts under discussion to life. One of my favourite such stories involves her visiting a farm run by a small coven in Colorado. Adler was put to work trying to catch fish before the river they inhabited dried up as it did every summer.  She found the task near impossible until Michael, the high priest of this coven, had her visualise being a bear, hungry and in need of fish. By taking on the mind of the bear, and going after the fish as a bear would, she filled up her buckets in no time. This, explains Adler, is the essence of magic.

Continue to Part Two