Celtic Cultural Histories

Cunliffe, Barry. The Celtic World. New York: St. Martins, 1993. ISBN 031209700X. Cunliffe offers a general survey with lots of background information on some of the most important Celtic sites in Europe. This is a good introduction to the ancient Celts and their descendants. I wrote a longer review as well.

Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0198150105. I’ve posted a lengthy review here. Cunliffe is one of the leading European archaeologists, and specializes in early Bronze and Iron age. Some of his linguistic data is a bit out of date, but he offers a thorough exploration of the various Celtic migrations and of Celtic culture and history pre-and post-Roman empire. A good bibliography, and excellent maps, with a useful chronology.

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Dillon, Myles, and Nora K. Chadwick. The Celtic Realms.
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972. 2nd ed. Some may regard this book as hopelessly outdated because much of the historical background is inaccurate, but it still serves as a useful survey of Celtic mythology, particularly Irish mythology, by two important scholars. It’s a little outdated, but Dillon’s observations about the core myths are well-worth reading.

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Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celt and Greek: Celts in the Hellenic World. London: Constable, 1997. This is a popular rather than a scholarly work. Ellis presents a survey of Greek, and some Roman, references to the Celts, placed in an historical context. There is a reasonable bibliography, but Ellis presents his personal theories and beliefs as generally held theories, or as facts. For instance, he states that the Arthurian round table is directly descended from the Gaulish practice, described by several classical authors, of sitting in a circle to eat. The descent of the roundtable from a Celtic cultural habit is by no means certain, however plausible it may seem. Ellis indulges in quite a bit of this sort of unsubstantiated assertion, much of it quite unsupported, but he does a good job of presenting the Greek texts in context.

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Ford, Patrick. “The Blind, the Dumb and the Ugly: Aspects of Poets and Their Craft in Early Ireland and Wales,” Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 9.

A super article about the role of the poet in Celtic literature, and a good companion to Nagy, Wisdom of the Outlaw.

Green, Miranda J. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992. ISBN 0500279756.

A very useful compendium that goes beyond myth and legend. I wish that she had been more careful about distinguishing her opinion from scholarly consensus and fact, but she does provide a useful bibliography. Green always has super photographs of artifacts and related images.

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Harbison, Peter. Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts.New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988. ISBN 0500278091.

The central concern for Harbison is Ireland, and Irish archaeology, but he does a thorough job of placing Irish Celtic history in a larger European context. A good readable survey of early Irish archaeology from a leader in the field.

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Koch, John T. and John Carey eds. The Celtic Heroic Age. Celtic Studies Publications, 4th REV and Expanded edition, 2003. ISBN-13: 978-1891271090. The sub-title describes the book: “Literary sources for ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales.” The work of two leading Celticists (though Koch is the prime mover), it discusses the Classical and Gaulish materials, as well as the literary materials of Wales and Ireland with a nod at Breton material. The text is thematically organized, and offers a good introduction to the cultural background of Irish and Welsh literature, and is particularly useful for its presentation of Classical texts.
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Kruta,V., O. Frey, Barry Raftery and M. Szabo. eds.) The Celts. Thames & Hudson: New York, 1991; second edtion 1993. This is the official catalog of the international Celtic exhibit at Venice in 1991. It’s a collection of papers by leading international scholars. This very large coffee table sized book is richly illustrated and includes over 800 pages of essays by leading Celticists on every conceivable topic related to the ancient Celts.

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Mac Cana’s Celtic Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1991; ISBN 0872262421; repr. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1996. ISBN 0760701903. Every one should have this. A good overview of things Celtic, concentrating on the myths (both Irish and Welsh, with some discussion of the Gaulish myths), with lots of lovely photographs of artifacts. It’s out of print, but there are multiple editions in both paperback and hardcover; find it, and buy it.

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Matonis, A. T.E. and Daniel F. Melia. Celtic Language, Celtic Culture: A Festschrift for Eric P. Hamp. Van Nuys, CA: Ford and Baillie, 1990. This is a collection of mostly excellent essays by lots of Celticists, including Patrick Sims-Williams and “Some Celtic Otherworld Terms.” The bibliography alone is worth the price of the book.

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MacKillop, James. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0192801201. There are a lot of “dictionaries” (think encyclopedia rather than dictionary) of Celtic myth out there; I’ve decided to recommend this one. No, it’s not perfect, but the only real competition it has is from Miranda Green’s Dictionary. Green’s book, though I do like it for its lovely images, is a bit too idiosyncratic in some of Green’s personal interpretations, which are not always clearly presented as personal interpretations. Ideally, one would want both books, but MacKillop, who includes a bibliography as well as citations, is more likely to be reliable and good for the long term, and MacKillop’s Dictionary is far superior to that of Ellis, who is somewhat careless, frequently wrong, and doesn’t provide citations.

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Megaw, Ruth. Celtic Art: From its Beginnings to the Book of Kells. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1990. ISBN 0500275858.

An affordable, attractive introduction to Celtic art from 700 B.C. to A.D. 700; hundreds of photos, a number in color. This is an older book, and some of the conclusions and assertions are not really current, but the book and its photos are still useful.

 

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Powell, T. G. E. The Celts. Thames and Hudson: New York, 1980. third ed. 1997. ISBN: 0500272751.

A basic overview of Celtic history, via cultural artifacts, Classical references, and medieval texts. It’s outdated in terms of some of the assumptions Powell makes, but in terms of the primary sources and the integration of Classical references, it’s still very useful.

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Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, c1987. ISBN 0801839386.

One of the most approachable surveys, in my opinion. Puhvel discusses Celtic myth in the context of Indo-European myths, via Dumézil. This is a really useful introduction to comparative mythology, and helpful in terms of thinking about Celtic medieval and mythic texts in an Indo-European context.

 

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Rees, Alwyn and Brinley. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1961; repr. 1989. ISBN 0500270392.

A super introduction and overview of the medieval Irish and Welsh literature, from a comparative Dumezielian (and occasionally quirky) point of view. Lots of re-tellings and summaries of medieval mythological texts, and some perceptive and intriguing connections and questions. This is a great companion read with Sjoestedt’s Gods and Heroes of the Celts and Puhvel’s Comparative Mythology, and of course, the medieval Irish tales and Medieval Welsh tales.

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Ross, Anne, Ph.D. Everyday life of the Pagan Celts. London, Batsford; New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970. Series: Everyday life series.

An overview of early Celtic culture and history, one I desperately want a copy of. This is one of those woefully-outdated-but-not-replaceable sources in Celtic studies.

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Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain. Chicago: Chicago Academy Publishers, 1996. ISBN 0897334353.

A good background source for archaeological and literary connections, though much of the archaeology is now less than current and needs to be checked against recent work.

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Sjoestedt, M. L. Gods and Heroes of the Celts. 1949; translated by Myles Dillon. Dover Publications, 2000. ISBN-13: 978-0486414416.

A slim paperback, still considered a standard text, with some interesting observations. There’s much more to Sjoestedt than meets the eye; read carefully and thoughtfully. This is a good, readable and brief introduction to Irish myth, and comparative analysis. I freely confess that I love this little book. It’s provocative.

 

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J. Tierney, J. J. “The Celtic Ethnography of Posidonius.” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Vol. 60 Section C, No.
5 (1960): 189-275. Dublin, Royal Irish Academy.

Tierney presents most of the Classical era Greco-Roman sources on the Celts, including the less well-known ones, and places them in context. This compendium is largely useful in that it gathers lots of disparate Classical sources and references in a single volume.

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