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The Celts: A History

The Celts: A History - Peter Berresford Ellis The final update: I've been meaning to add the last few excerpts I'd underlined, but yet another inaccuracy reared its head, like a teenager at the bit. My edition, "copyright 1998, 2003", but copyright the author 1988, seems to make no mention of discoveries from 1996 (mentioned in my [b:The Cut Throat Celts|2812512|The Cut Throat Celts (Horrible Histories)|Terry Deary|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348137972s/2812512.jpg|413020], copyright 1997), of Romans in Hibernia. The argument can be made, and has been, that there is difference between Romans invading vs. Romans merely visiting early Ireland, but, given that this book mentions Roman historical records, a discussion, at the very least of those 1996 discoveries would give the book more credit.

It may also be worth mentioning that this book is from the same publisher of [b:A Brief History of Infinity: The Quest to Think the Unthinkable|812261|A Brief History of Infinity The Quest to Think the Unthinkable|Brian Clegg|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348544465s/812261.jpg|798197], which has substantially worse problems of clarity and/or organization.

-- Livy, or Henri Hubert, "he" stated that Celtic expansion happened because the Celtic heartland had become overpopulated.
-- "the search for the magic cauldron of plenty...turned in the search for the Holy Grail"
-- "There are at least 25 identified Arthurian tales in Irish from the medieval period."
-- Fionn Mac Cumhail was always more popular as an Irish hero than Arthur.
-- Among several magic cauldrons was the cauldron of rebirth, "whereby the dead are put in and come out alive."
-- Kings of Thrace had Celtic names up to 192 BC.
-- Celts who crossed into Asia Minor settled in the central plain of today's Turkey, making their capital at Ankara
-- Celtic mercenaries often joined groups fighting Rome, but turned down large sums from Rome itself.
-- Celtic warriors for Ptolemy tried to take Egypt for themselves but were starved to death on an island in the Nile.
-- Viridomarus challenged Marcellus to single combat, in the Celtic style, and Marcellus not only accepted, but beat Viridomarus, whereby the Celtic army crumbled.
-- Celts of the Po Valley, unlike some mountain cousins, were not warlike.
-- Hannibal's army was over 50% Celtic in the Po Valley.
-- Flaminius had a Celtic chieftain who surrendered himself, slaughtered along with his family, to entertain his boyfriend.
-- Mithridates died at the hands of a Celt.
-- Celts and Dacians in today's Romania defeated the Romans, although some people believe the tribes Cimbri and Teutones, were Germans, not Celts
-- There appears to be no evidence of large-scale Celtic migration (to Ireland?) Rather, Celts appear to have fled to to Ireland from at least 5th century BC

Semi-final excerpts, from pg 120 onwards, before I foist this on some new victim bound by duty. Keep in mind that many facts may be accurate, but their analysis is suspect, as hinted at by a subtle contradiction in sequencing discussed in the comment section.

Update from pg 120 to end.

-- 4th century play to look up, by a Gaul, "Querolus", about a Celtic astrologer.
-- From the 11th century, Arabic cosmology displaced Ptolemy in europe.
-- Ellis wonders in passing whether ancient Celts were "a sea-going people."
-- Refers to a curragh as a "river vessel". To the degree that he is right, one of my ancestors is said to have drowned in the Atlantic using something similar.
-- "Early Irish texts speak of their ancestors arriving from the Iberian peninsula"
-- "Severed human heads abound" in Celtic coins.
-- "Celts used cross motifs as solar symbols, including the swastika-style cross which evolved into Brigit's cross"
-- Smiths were ranked with the "high intellectual caste of society."
-- Depiction of Celtic deity Cernunnos from AD 14-37 found beneath the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
-- "Celts believed their origins lay with mother goddess, Danu, who fell from heaven and whose waters created the Danube. From there sprang he pantheon of gods known as The Children of Dau"
-- "Most of the major Celtic deities were in the form of a triune of gods and goddesses -- three aspects, three names, three faces, or three heads, very common to the Indo-European tradition"
-- A Gaulish Celt, Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers, in his great work "De Trinitate" defined the concept of the Holy Trinity for the first time.
-- "Nuada, ruler of the gods in Ireland, surrendered his rule to Lugh, master of all crafts and skills."
-- "The famous decapitation game in 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' has its origins in Celtic myth."
-- "The Celts celebrated birth with mourning for the death in the Otherworld, and regarded death with joy for birth in the Otherworld"
-- One Irish name for the Otherworld to the West, Hy-Breasail, Bresal's Island was considered so real that the first Portuguese explorer thought he'd discovered it and named it Brazil.
-- "The notion of Truth as the highest principle and sustaining power of creation pervaded all early Irish literature [Professor Miles Dillon]"
-- Celtic Christian theologian Pelagius argued against pre-ordained original sin without free will, as prescribed by Augustine of Hippo. The argument of Pelagius ultimately prevailed, although Pelagius is still considered a heretic and Augustine a saint.
-- Christian clerics, "eager to denigrate pagan beliefs of their ancestors", never describe a tradition of human sacrifice.
-- "Ireland was the only Celtic land to escape Roman conquest."
-- "The old gods and goddesses are defeated and are forced to retreat underground, becoming 'sidhe' or 'people of the hills', known in folklore as 'fairies'
-- "The great god of arts and crafts, Lugh, was demoted to 'Lugh chronain (stooping Lugh), Anglicised as 'leprechaun'".
-- Legends
-- Cycle of the Kings: Flaithius, "obviously a goddess of sovereignty...appeared as an ugly hag, with black skin and green teeth, demanding that Niall of the Nine Hostages and his companions have intercourse with her. Only Niall does so, whereupon she turns into a beautiful goddess"
-- Fenian Cycle too.
-- "This vibrant mythology is based on 150 stories, while a further 450 remain unedited and untranslated."
-- "Irish mythology seems to share a curious Mediterranean warmth with its fellow Indo-European cultures. The brooding blackness that permeates Nordic myth is not there."
-- "Death is never the conqueror...the Celts were one of the first cultures in Europe to evolve a doctrine of the immortality of the soul"
-- Interesting story of "Hanes Taliesin", a 6th century poet sometimes conflated with Merlin.
-- "only complete Celtic mythological texts are from insular Celts, not as much from Continental or Gaulish Celts."
-- Livy may have been a Celt whose histories were influenced by Celtic oral tales.

Here begins a first update which contains underlines not already in my GR updates, probably from page 162 onwards. Some of my comments in the review below may not be fair, since the shotgun organization went everywhere, often, while seldom hitting me.

1) Ellis, following the line of thought of one book he cites several times, spends a lot of time matching Sanskrit writings and practices with ancient Irish ones. This is most intriguing to me when he suggests that the intellectual castes and the leadership position of the Druids are based on the intellectual hierarchy in the Hindu Vedas.

-- Words in the Vedic laws of Manu are very similar (in written form) to the Celtic Brehon laws.

-- "Hindus and Celts worshipped sacred rivers and made votive offerings there." The Vedic myth of the mother goddess Danu may have become "Danuvius ... the first great Celtic sacred river", or more simply, the Danube.

-- "Celts have been painted as warlike, flamboyant, given to excess in alcohol and food and hardly more than high-spirited children."

-- "Only the Greeks, with the exception of those Greeks in Roman employment, tended to be unbiased commentators on the Celtic world."

-- "The earliest Celtic inscriptions occur in the Etruscan alphabet...none have so far been interpreted."

-- In the Christian era, "Irish took its place as Europe's third oldest literary language, after Greek and Latin"

-- [Benignus wrote] that "Patrick, in his missionary zeal, burnt 180 books of the Druids"

-- "Irish Christian sources are all fairly clear that books existed in Ireland before the coming of Christianity"

-- "The oldest surviving medical books in Irish date from the early 14th century and constitute the largest collection of medical manuscript literature, prior to 1800, in any one language."

-- West was the direction of the Celtic Otherworld. "The phrase 'To go west' was a euphemism for death in English.

-- Only one Celtic area has never matched the princely burials of the Continent, and that is Ireland.

-- The Romans ritually slaughtered up to 50 Celtic leaders at a time to celebrate various Roman triumphs. Ellis uses this as an example that Romans were as equally prone to human sacrifice as the Celts.

-- Caractus, the over-king of southern Britian, was taken by the Romans and somehow saved his family's life with his eloquence.

-- The two houses of the Ui Neill dynasty -- for now, a Prince in Portugal and a Marques in Spain -- can trace their lines back to Nial of the Nine Hostages, from AD 379-405.

-- "Many of the early Celtic (Christian) saints where Druids or children of Druids. The new religion became "the Celtic Church"

-- "Generally, the Celts were not interested in central authority and discipline...In modern times these attibutes are seen as laudable. In ancient times, they were the reason for the downfall of the Celtic peoples."

I've been browsing 3 books about the Celts, wildly different and some blending quite favourably into the imaginary. Dozens of underlines later in this particular bad compromise between fete and encyclopedia, I am slightly indifferent to its factual basis and utterly bored finding or reviewing what worked. To be honest, modern Ireland often has men who are more encyclopedic than colourful, which may explain why the oral tradition didn't produce a memorable history by the time the Christian era arrived. That's admitting, by Ellis's estimates, that some 2/3 of the ancient literature has never even been translated.

Ellis made one really strange organizational decision, probably predicated on his need to show that Celts were highly cultured, not the crazed warriors of Roman history, which appears to be the main pre-Christian history available. Ellis put the detailed history of Celtic wars, kings, and tribes at the end of the book. Then, possibly because the Romans were the ones finishing the stories, he stops short, absolutely every single time, of completing the stories, always as the really interesting details are starting.

The chapters preceding this have no similar sense of order. Tribes and eras hundreds of years apart are lumped together as "Celtic" if Ellis wants to show that they were good at one time or another at, say, farming.

It may also be a mistake to dwell almost entirely on the pre-Christian era. Christianity seems to have defined modern Celts almost as much as the Byzantine Orthodox era made the modern Greeks, not that I am asking for a treatment of theological questions in any way, just accomplishments once the Celts started writing down their own histories.

There really are some excellent and intriguing quotes, so I'll put them here soon, so none of us has to carry the whole book.

April Fool's Day

April Fool's Day - Josip Novakovich Confirmed my suspicion that the characters were Eastern European puppets more than people when the main character, imprisoned because his friend made jokes at a parade, meets Tito and a brutally dictatorial Indira Ghandi (?) touring his prison. Given a chance to talk to Tito and even explain why he's there, he remains mum, then blurts out something like "it was only a joke". A man who can't learn basic self-preservation doesn't interest me, as he probably doesn't exist in the real world (for long) anyway.

Travels in a Strange State

Travels in a Strange State - Josie Dew One of the few books I've dropped because the style ruined the substance. The writer has genuinely interesting and courageous adventures, but the sentences are all at the same synaptic/apocalyptic level, a kind of working-class quipping, as alluded to in my update. It might work as disconnected fables from history if less honest and more overwritten.

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World 1914-1991

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World 1914-1991 - Eric J. Hobsbawm It seems as if Hobsbawm was too confused or dishonest about the goals and accomplishments of communism to give it to us straight in chapter 2. It's possible that's because he was an old man. But it seems he'd had a lifetime to consider communism and hadn't quite strayed from the idea that world-wide revolution was still the answer. I'm not interested in muddled thinking, or diplomacy at gunpoint and his meandering analysis would have snapped my already broken bag of books even further.

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman When I was a teenager I used to stare at a single strange shape in the wall of the shower tile as I showered. I somehow knew it would be significant when the shape's meaning changed. What had long looked like paunchy, monstrous face with cavernous features one day simply transmografied into a phallus. Don't read too much into this.

It so happens that, like the narrator, I am somewhat involuntarily spending all day in a room of yellow wallpaper, covered in a disjointed mix of shapes. I also spend a lot of time alone with things yellow (he says cryptically) and I don't mean journalism. This appreciative review is like a yellow placeholder, should one of us disappear, perhaps at the bus station, where I could still enjoy reading it.

The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be King - Rudyard Kipling Perhaps this was shocking or surprising to empire builders in Kipling's era, but to this modern reader, the troubles of two idiot chancers/minor empire builders in Afghanistan seem slightly obvious. I remember it worked exceptionally well, visually, as a movie with Michael Caine.

Nor do I see much transparent chauvinism. On the contrary, it appears to be a warning to self-centred empire builders. Also, the tribe who caused them the most trouble were "British" and already knew the ridiculous symbols of empire.

It seems to go some way towards revealing how the Brits, including the narrator, adapted to a certain amount of chaos and social preservation. I've sometimes wondered if some of the energy and class-based excesses of the Victorian era owe their origins to adaptations developed in the Jewel of the Empire -- India.

Thanks to this book for the reminder regarding how damn hot India can be. Was nearly there just about now and the heat has been killing Indians by the thousand. Not much pity reserved for Peachy, though. He blithely went shooting whatever natives seemed least important at first.

Fingal's Ghost

Fingal's Ghost - Kathleen Fidler This gets 5 stars for the strangest reason. It's just my feeling that every single episode of Scooby Doo was based on the structure of this book. Or maybe it's the eternal structure of a "meddling kids" fable.

Granted, the accusation was originally "nosey" not meddling in this book. And the curiosity and odd bravery of the kids was notched up a gun belt for WWII readers. The bloodthirsty young heroine who's always saving her male compatriots was strange and compelling.

Finally, despite living within spitting distance of Fingal's cave for quite some time, I was able to read the legend of Fingal and the Giant's Causeway really for the first time.

Cyprus Berlitz Pocket Guide

Cyprus Berlitz Pocket Guide - Unknown Author 50 It's a bad idea to put off reading travel guides until the final days in the country. However, fairly or not, the guide makes short shrift of Paphos as a destination for ancient architecture and beauty. The fact that it describes the people of Cyprus as being so grateful for British rule, then innocently overrun by the big bad Turks makes the history quite suspicious, although it does a fine job of discounting the imperialism of Lawrence Durrell's Cyprus memoirs in one tight sentence. It's a pity that both Paphos and the "beautiful" parts of North Cyprus seem so hard to reach by local bus.

The March of Democracy: A History of the United States

The March of Democracy: A History of the United States - James Truslow Adams What can I say about a banker who retired early to write books coining "The American Dream" during the Great Depression? I don't really know. His characterization of the first British settlers as fiercely independent seems out-of-keeping with their status as fully incorporated indentured servants, and, well, Brits. In fact, I can't this book listed by its name, "The Americans", so the fact that it was published in 1943 and dropped out of sight suggests that it may be praising British origins of the U.S. as support for WWII. But here are some interesting things I've learned or heard again so far:

-- The British really sent Polish and other foreign settlers to the first colonnies in Virginia just to find new sources of trees for their shipping demands. There were apparently no trees in the U.S.

-- Much moving around in Virginia was done strictly by navigating its many rivers by boat.

-- London transportation at the same time or later was done mainly by boat also? True?

Six Days or Forever? Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (Galaxy 416)

Six Days or Forever? Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (Galaxy 416) - Ray Ginger Given that the trial was designed as pure political theatre on both sides of the dais, a booklength account thrives or fails on the context or analysis it provides. I'm grateful to hear about the religious atmosphere at the time, about the fact that William Jennings Bryan changed tactics as a populist and may just have predicted the worst consequences of social Darwinism in a final speech he was destined never to deliver. This is not the book's focus, which adds some slightly outmoded analytic framework from academia of the time to an otherwise intellectually rich account by this Boston professor. But the strange fact remains that the accused teacher faked his alleged teaching of evolution to get a guilty verdict and that Clarence Darrow pushed for a verdict of innocence for legal reasons. Possibly better as documentary, theatre, or a Pirandello play, although Darrow's famous questions about Creationism to Bryan on the witness stand don't seem so explosively telling, as portrayed in the book.

The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology - An A-Z Guide To The Myths And Legends Of The Ancient World

The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology - An A-Z Guide To The Myths And Legends Of The Ancient World - Arthur Cotterell & Rachel Storm This is one of a number of similar reference works -- highly visual, pointlessly list-oriented and presented without much context -- which I bought in chains of busy remainder stores, downtown Bucharest. This book in particular has really astonishing, but oddly garish illustrations of every imagineable mythology and sort, but all a similar shade of orange red, which blurred detail as it was printed at some bargain in China.

It's hard to know where to begin with alphabetical listings of every major mythology on earth. I spent a Bucharest winter just reading the two page introductions to regional mythologies, continent by continent, along with gentle skimming of some of the entries.

I can remember being astonished by the Nordic and Celtic introductions, the differences between selfless sacrifice for a final doomed battle in Nordic mythology, vs. the individualist on the quest in Celtic. The Indian myths struck me strongly, although the only one I can remember now is the churning of the milk, using a serpent wrapped about a mountain. I must have seen this at Angkor Watt, but should have read the myths before going. Three possibly controversial points I remember are:

-- Asian myths put the sun at the center of orbitting planets, far before Galileo or Copernicus.

-- The book claims that Buddhism has been effectively reabsorbed back into Hinduism

-- The mythology gets more shamanistic as one heads north from India, into, say, Nepal, where the multiarmed, multifaced figures, with the heads of their enemies worn like crowns seem to increase steadily. I'd have an airline ticket to Nepal just about now, if I'd thought I had the budget, but I'd have arrived to terrible desolation, not ancient enlightenment right now.

In keeping with the fact that the flood myths repeat themselves from flood-prone Egypt, that the Romans stole Gods and everything else from the Greeks, and that it seems clear Tolkien borrowed a lot from his studies of Nordic myths (ask if you want the litany), it would have been more interesting and easier to remember if the thousands of entries had somehow been on a timeline showing similar myths. Reading a disconnected myth told as an encyclopedia entry was seldom pleasant either.

The infintessimal text in the invaluable introductions was unneccessary and unreadable, especially at night, even if my glasses were bad. A reference work quite nice and well researched to have, but not one to carry across eastern Europe or remember for its storytelling pleasure.

The Butcher Boy

The Butcher Boy - Patrick McCabe Dwells on corporeal suffering to the point of unbelievability and/or tedium. Not that I don't believe poor Irish boys did what their priests demanded for cigarettes, but dwelling on the bare details began to seem pointless. Possibly revelatory for Irish or other readers who didn't know any better. DNF.

The Island of the Colorblind

The Island of the Colorblind - Oliver Sacks I KNEW, KNEW that Oliver Sacks wouldn't give me informative details on the epidemiology of islands. His chatty, superficial, and self-absorbed style made me drop both his Hat and Awakenings books and give it 4 stars anyway, out of what, charity? But this one I bought new, with high hopes anyway, and it quickly became apparent that there is something seriously wrong with this man. By page 30 he'd spent several pages talking about his prowess as a swimmer, being a Victorian reader who always picked out adventure stories high on style, light on substance, etc., etc.

Well, as Wikipedia so pointedly put it, Oliver Sacks is the man who mistook his patients for a book --about himself. Not only is there, according to the New York Times, doubt about his clinical accomplishments, but the man is pushing on, full steam ahead, with an autobiography about his greatness. Look at his profile page. Look at it! This man would write about truckdriving if it gave him some kind of celebrity. Look at the weightlifter! That's not him lifting the weights!

If this fool doesn't define an era of self-centred pretense over genuine accomplishment, I'll eat my hat.

Bartleby, the Scrivener

Bartleby, the Scrivener - Herman Melville I feel guilty not giving this a five. I recently used Bartleby as a write-in candidate in a poll for U.S. president, based strictly on his reputation of saying "I prefer not to..."

I prefer not to tell you one spurious claim about Bartleby's "problem", this time on Wikipedia, since the theory mixes up cause and effect.

Bartleby is a lot like a spokesman for the information age -- a clerk bored into deadly complancency/indifference, his will too strongly exercised on trivial things.

If Mike Judge, the creator of "Office Space" didn't read this, he didn't need to, since it's the kind of lassitude every office worker immediately recognizes.

I've deducted one star because Bartleby's final contemptuous words to the narrator showed that he harbored some contrarian willpower that seemed missing in all previous and final acts. Even if the narrator is emotionally ignorant, what hint is the reader offered?

The Road

The Road - Cormac McCarthy DNF


Eric - Terry Pratchett Didn't get far. DNF. See update. If it sets any fans at ease, reading "Mort", despite occasional but real flashes of brilliance, isn't compelling to me either.