Book Review: Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld

It’s very rare, maybe too rare, that I read a book that requires me to re-evaluate my approach to Druidry, but Sharon Paice MacLeod has certainly achieved that with her latest book, ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’. Parts of the book re-affirmed some of my own lines of thought that don’t seem to appear in mainstream contemporary Druidry, parts introduced me to new ways of thinking about knowledge I thought I already had and parts had me challenging many deeply held assumptions.

The author sets out to piece together fresh insight into the beliefs and practices of the Iron Age inhabitants of Ireland, Britain and Gaul regarding creation myth and cosmology, deity and landscape and the otherworld through a kind of psycho-archaeological approach to myths and legends left written down from the 7th century onwards, archaeology, comparative anthropology, folklore and linguistics. Inevitably, given the nature of the subject, the further back one reaches the more the conclusions take on the nature of conjecture, but I belief that she achieves her aim magnificently and with style. At times, as I was reading, it felt as if I was remembering things learned as if half remembered from the echoes of a dream, at others, there were moments of sheer “aha!”. From an early proposed reconstruction of a celtic origin myth, through repeated illustrations female deity becoming or entering aspects of the landscape, I was constantly reminded of elements of the indigenous Australian ‘Dreamtime’.

It’s difficult in a review to give a sense of how the author constructs her arguments. At times it feels like a meandering river, with diversions down many tributaries, but in reality it is the joining together of the dots from often apparently disparate sources within the mind of someone deeply immersed in the broadest body of knowledge related to her subject. While the subject matter is divided into the tripart areas of origin myth, sovereignty and liminality, connections are made throughout all areas of the book. The author shows how the sacred nature of the landscape is illuminated through myth that reveals how it was that the landscape acquired its sacred aspects while drawing on a broad knowledge of anthropology, Indo-European scholarship, the value of storytelling and myth itself, the various Celtic languages and cultures and more.

This is, without doubt, a scholarly work. But it is by no means dry. It breathes life into its subject matter, and informs a spiritual understanding of the stories, the landscape and ancestry in a way that very few books I have read in recent years manage to do. If you read any book this year that relates to indigenous Celtic spirituality, read this one.

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