Friday, October 28, 2016

New Book: Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth by Mark Williams

Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth by Mark Williams is a new book released this week. If you are interested in Irish folklore, this is a must for you.

This is a hefty tome of nearly 600 pages. I received a review copy but haven't had the time to read it closely yet. However, I have read some passages and the first impression I have is, "Wow, I didn't know that about ____." Fill in the blank to whatever I was reading on the page.

The second impression is "This is surprisingly very readable for how scholarly and informational it is." Because, yes, I, too, struggle with twenty-five cent words in many academic texts. If I paused to consider a sentence while I was reading this, it wasn't to parse the meaning of the sentence but to contemplate that meaning. The tone is even conversational with first person perspective offered which may be off-putting to some but which I find refreshing since that is the way I approach much of what I write. Reading this book makes you think that Mark Williams would make a fascinating dinner companion.

I mean really, here is a paragraph from the first page of chapter 1:

The earliest written evidence for native gods comes from early Christian Ireland, not from the pagan period; this is a pivotal fact which must be emphasized. Christianity did not entirely consign the pagan gods to the scrapheap, but the consequences of its arrival were dramatic and affected Irish society on every level. Pagan cult and ritual were discontinued, and a process was set in motion that eventually saw a small number of former deities reincarnated as literary characters. Christianity—intrinsically a religion of the book—enabled the widespread writing of texts in the Roman alphabet. Some of these have been transmitted to the present, with the paradoxical upshot that we owe our ability to say anything at all about the ‘personalities’ of Ireland’s pre-Christian gods to the island’s conversion.

That's fascinating and highly readable stuff if this is the type of stuff you like to read. Which if you are here, you most likely do.

There is also an excellent index which is what I used to look up passages with names and concepts I am familiar with--Yeats is represented abundantly but I also found Lady Jane Wilde--some of who's Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland I have been reading recently, she was a folklorist of sorts and mother to Oscar Wilde--as well as other writers such as James Stephens and Walter Sharp.

So if this topic interests you at all, I'd consider this one to be a new important addition to your library. It's earned a place on my shelves.

Book description:

Ireland’s Immortals tells the story of one of the world’s great mythologies. The first account of the gods of Irish myth to take in the whole sweep of Irish literature in both the nation’s languages, the book describes how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era—and how they were recast again during the Celtic Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A lively narrative of supernatural beings and their fascinating and sometimes bizarre stories, Mark Williams’s comprehensive history traces how these gods—known as the Túatha Dé Danann—have shifted shape across the centuries, from Iron Age cult to medieval saga to today’s young-adult fiction.

We meet the heroic Lug; the Morrígan, crow goddess of battle; the fire goddess Brigit, who moonlights as a Christian saint; the mist-cloaked sea god Manannán mac Lir; and the ageless fairies who inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves. Medieval clerics speculated that the Irish divinities might be devils, angels, or enchanters. W. B. Yeats invoked them to reimagine the national condition, while his friend George Russell beheld them in visions and understood them to be local versions of Hindu deities. The book also tells how the Scots repackaged Ireland’s divine beings as the gods of the Gael on both sides of the sea—and how Irish mythology continues to influence popular culture far beyond Ireland.

An unmatched chronicle of the Irish gods, Ireland’s Immortals illuminates why these mythical beings have loomed so large in the world’s imagination for so long.

Mark Williams is the Simon and June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he teaches medieval Irish, Welsh, and English literature. He is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.


"Scholars and researchers will leap to add [Ireland’s Immortals] to their collections."--Publishers Weekly


"In 1896, George Russell wrote to W. B. Yeats announcing that ‘the Gods have returned’ to Celtic realms; Mark Williams’s brilliant and powerful book makes good the claim. Learned, discursive, masterfully organized, and often very funny, it illuminates the cults, characters, personalities, and uses of Irish divinities from their emergence in saga, pseudohistory, and folklore through to their exploitation in the Celtic Revival and the literature of fantasy, and their analysis in modern scholarship. This is an important contribution to the history of religion, nationalism, and Gaelic culture; it is also so well written as to be unputdownable."--R. F. Foster, University of Oxford

"With its huge range, constant new insights, colorful material, and sparkling style, this is a truly remarkable book. It should delight a very big readership."--Ronald E. Hutton, University of Bristol

"This magnificent book is a tour de force and a great leap forward in the study of Irish mythology. Mark Williams tells the whole story of the Irish gods, tracing their transformation from ancient times through today. His discussions of medieval sagas, early modern scholarship, Celtic Revival mysticism, and contemporary fiction are equally assured, original, and substantial. Lively and engaging, Ireland's Immortals will appeal to general readers as well as students and scholars."--Ralph O'Connor, University of Aberdeen

"This is an extremely important book. It not only brings together known texts in new and exciting ways but also introduces important new interpretations. Mark Williams is one of the very few people with the expertise and good sense to be able to write a volume like this."--Paul Russell, University of Cambridge


List of Illustrations ix
Abbreviations xi
Preface xiii
Guide to Pronunciation xxi


1 Hidden Beginnings: From Cult to Conversion 3
2 Earthly Gods: Pagan Deities, Christian Meanings 30
3 Divine Culture: Exemplary Gods and the Mythological Cycle 72
4 New Mythologies: Pseudohistory and the Lore of Poets 128
5 Vulnerability and Grace: The Finn Cycle 194
6 Damaged Gods: The Late Middle Ages 248


7 The Imagination of the Country: Towards a National Pantheon 277
8 Danaan Mysteries: Occult Nationalism and the Divine Forms 310
9 Highland Divinities: The Celtic Revival in Scotland 361
10 Coherence and Canon: The Fairy Faith and the East 406
11 Gods of the Gap: A World Mythology 434
12 Artgods 489

Acknowledgements 503
Glossary of Technical Terms 507
Conspectus of Medieval Sources 511
Works Cited 517
Index 557