“The gods of the Celts, as they are presented here, are quite unlike the gods of classical [read: Greek] mythology. They are not patrons of love or war or of various crafts, nor have they a home in heaven. They differ among themselves. . . not so much in function as in name, and it is suggested that the multiple names reflect various local origins. The Irish Other World is not given much prominence, for gods and men dwell together upon Irish soil in an uneasy partnership.”
First published in 1940, then translated from French into English and re-published in 1982 and 1994, Gods and Heroes of the Celts is a deceptively simple book. In it Marie-Louise Sjoestedt takes up the (at that time) little-studied field of Celtic mythology and sets out to open it up as a world-view both complete in itself and also distinct from the “classical” mythology that forms an underpinning for much of Western literature. That Sjoestedt succeeds in this task at all is a tribute to her superb scholarship and her skill as a linguist. That she succeeds in a mere 130 pages, inclusive of notes and bibliography, is marvelous.
Sjoestedt chooses to focus her attention on the Celts of Ireland, given that the term Celt is broadly vague and can encompass the Gauls, the Irish, the Welsh, and Bretons. The first two sections of the book, however, give an initial overview of the mythological period Sjoestedt explores and of the gods of the Continental Celts. She then proceeds to in-depth studies of the mother-goddesses and chieftain-gods of Ireland, significant festivals such as the Feast of the First of November, and lastly the heroes of Irish mythology, who bear as much significance as the gods.
One of the most significant aspects of the book is the clarity that Sjoestedt brings to an earthy, complex mythology that is marked by “… a continuous engagement between the natural and supernatural worlds.” She sets out the differences between all of the supernatural “folk” of Irish myth, whether they be the race of Partholon, the Fomorians, the Fir Bolg, or the Tuatha de Danaan. She also shows the distinctions — and lack of distinctions — between the Irish gods and their heroes, who achieve heroic stature by a mixture of inborn character and magic gifts.
The character of the Celtic hero fascinates Sjoestedt. The Celtic hero does not excel merely by strength of arms, or by magic, or by wits. He is a “maker,” a man capable of all trades and also of the sacred art of poetry. The song that Amairgin, chieftain of the Sons of Mil, sang to Eire, the sacred goddess of the land, illustrates this so well that it bears quotation in full:
“I am the wind on the sea.
I am a wave of the ocean.
I am the roar of the sea.
I am a powerful ox.
I am a hawk on a cliff.
I am a dewdrop in sunshine.
I am the strength of art.
I am a spear with spoils that wages battle.
Who clears the stony place of the mountain?
Who has sought peace (in death?)
Seven times seven without fear?
Who brings his cattle from the house of Tethra?
What man, what god forges weapons in a fort?…
Who chants a petition, divides the Ogam letters…?
A wise chanter.”
Amairgin’s legacy in Ireland, and among the Celts as a whole, is the tradition of poetry and song-making as sacred and powerful crafts, tools of making. Indeed, the Celtic role of the druid is, for all purposes, inseparable from that of the poet.
Sjoestedt’s facility with language makes this book, although it deals in complex ideas, easy to read. She uses a simple writing style, not hiding in scholarly obscurities, and her flashes of wit provide charm and light. Of course, hearty thanks should also go to her translator, Myles Dillon; many an excellent book has foundered upon translation into another language.
If, as I’m reading a book, I find myself underlining more lines than I leave alone, that book goes on my reference shelf. Gods and Heroes of the Celts is such a book.
(Turtle Island Foundation, 1982)