Celtic Myth and Religion:
A Study of Traditional Belief,
with Newly Translated Prayers, Poems and Songs

by Sharon Paice MacLeod

McFarland & Company, Inc. (800-253-2187), 2012. ISBN 978-0-786-46476-0.
Reviewed by Mary Jo Doig
Posted on 06/06/2012

Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief, with Newly Translated Prayers, Poems and Songs is a well-researched and richly diverse scholarly study of Celtic myth and religion, and an abundant treasure trove of information for both a novice, such as myself, or a student of Celtic history. Author Sharon Paice MacLeod's passion to learn more about her Celtic heritage led her, as a young person, to begin studying medieval history. She researched back in time to more ancient sources studying some of the Celtic languages, "which really 'cracked open' the hazelnuts of knowledge, revealing layers of understanding which would have other wise remained hidden or obscured." Thus was born Sharon MacLeod's pursuit of professional academic Celtic studies, which took her "into a path of marvels, mysteries and discovery."

Celtic Myth and Religion contains three sections: Celtic Religion and Mythology, Celtic Shamanism and Wisdom Traditions, and Celtic Legends and Folklore. In the opening pages we learn that an early requisite to understanding the myths and religions of the Celtic peoples is "to identify some of the basic elements of those beliefs and practices." Although early Celts lived in a huge expanse of regions that included Turkey, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, northern Italy, much of Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Britain and Ireland, and religions differed in varied regions, the people each shared nine common elements:

  • The worship of both male and female deities
  • Respect for ancestors and elders
  • Appreciation of the natural world
  • The interconnection between this world and the Otherworld
  • The cyclical nature of time and the immortality of the soul
  • Cosmology and the sacred center
  • The cauldron, the sword, the well, the head, the number three
  • The importance of knowledge and skill
  • Respect for truth, honor and courage

Additionally, to understand Celtic beliefs and practices it is necessary to be aware of the culture and times. MacLeod has provided three primary sources to aid readers: archaeology, classical accounts or early written records that were usually reliable yet occasionally less so when second-hand accounts were passed on, and native writings dating back as early as the fifth or sixth centuries, often in monasteries. The latter two sources each have strong areas of reliability yet MacLeod also considers the recorders' biases.

In these fascinating pages we meet diverse people, as well as varied aspects of the natural and spiritual world. Bards, seers, druids, shamans, animal and bird symbols, Arthur's Legend, fairies, healers, seers, and more grace the pages of this delightful, and often, magical book.

I found it interesting that triads are important to Celtic tradition and discovered many throughout the book. One of MacLeod's favorite triads, that I also like, is: Three candles that illuminate every darkness: Truth, nature and knowledge.

MacLeod provides an extensive bibliography along with several pages of chapter notes. Three appendices provide more information women's rights in early Celtic culture, further reading and study suggestions and, my favorite, Celtic Folksong Traditions. This last appendix is a natural extension of this study since the author is also an accomplished singer and musician. In this lovely overview I found songs as well as poems and prayers set to music, written in beautiful ancient languages, including Scottish Gaelic, each with an accompanying English translation. I found myself wishing for just one more addition to this particular appendix: the musical notes, so that I could sing or hum the tune and actually hear the often-haunting song.

For anyone wanting to more deeply explore their Irish roots, like me, or to simply journey into a land rich in ancient history and folklore, MacLeod give us a deep Celtic well of wisdom from which to draw.

Sharon Paice MacLeod has taught Celtic literature and mythology at the university level, and has presented and published work through the University of Edinburgh, University College Cork, and the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, among other institutions. She is a faculty member of the Celtic Institute of North America, and an award-winning singer and musician. Ms. McLeod's research specialties include ancient Celtic culture and religion, early Irish poetry and wisdom texts, Medieval Irish and Welsh literature and legends, Scottish and Irish folklore, onomastics, seership, Otherworld traditions, and the ritual expression of indigenous Celtic wisdom through word, song, poetry, chant and story.

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