Book Review: Philip Freeman – Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes

Philip Freeman – Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

An entertaining collection of retold Celtic myths. I listened to the Audible version. Freeman offers some historical and cultural analysis to go along with the stories. The added context makes it easier to appreciate stories with cultural norms very different from ours. It also puts them in proper historical context, mostly stretching across a period stretching from Ireland and Britain’s time at the periphery of the Roman Empire up until Northern Europe’s economic revival around the time of Charlemagne.

The cultural and textual similarities to Nordic myths and Icelandic sagas was surprising. They are both very violent. Women are relegated to the sidelines, but occasionally flash independence and deviousness. And they are clearly honor and kin-based cultures. This was more for fun than for research for me, but there is plenty there at both levels.

Then again, during this period and after, as Michael Pye argues in The Edge of the World, the areas ringing the North Sea were almost their own distinct civilization, just as was the Mediterranean region to the south. The sea connected the British Isles to what is now northern France and Germany and the Lower Countries, whose traders would later form the Hanseatic League. Norway and Sweden were on the eastern edge of this ring. And Iceland was settled by their more adventurous sailors, and brought their language, customs, and stories with them. The Celtic tradition Freeman shares is distinct, but also part of this larger whole.

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