These are the books I think of as a basic “starter kit” for Celtic Studies. Many of the books that have been considered essential reading are now out of print. They are still current and worth having, so I’m still going to recommend them. You’ll notice that I’ve created two separate lists, the “starter” kit, and a short listc containing a few more “advanced” or secondary books.
If you want a single book that offers a survey or general overview:
Cunliffe, Barry. The Celts: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2003. ISBN: 0192804189. ISBN-13: 978-0192804181.
This is exactly what the title suggests; a very short introduction, but it’s a thorough survey of Celtic history and culture, from a leading archaeologist and expert on the ancient Celts. It’s readable, accurate in spite of its brevity, and a good review for those looking for the current research and theories, as well as a solid introduction for those who have interest but neither time nor money for the larger tomes.
I wrote a longer review here.
The Celtic Studies Starter Kit
If I had to list the must have books, I personally find the following books essential:
Patrick K. Ford. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. ISBN 0520034147.
The Mabinogi are the four Welsh mythological tales. Ford doesn’t include the romances, which aren’t part of the Mabinogi proper, but he does include the four branches, the native tales, and Taliesin material that is not available elsewhere in English. I think Ford’s introduction alone is worth the price of the book, and his translation is faithful to the tone and text of the Welsh, and easier to enjoy than any other.
Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. London: Penguin Books, 1981. ISBN 0140443975.
Gantz offers his own abbreviated translation of the Táin, as well as most of the central Ulster tales and mythic sagas (The Death Of Aife’s Only Son, The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulaind / Serglige Con Culain, The Tale of Mac Da Thó’s Pig / Scéla mucce Meic Da Thó, The Intoxication of the Ulaid, The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu).
These are accessible, readable translations in standard English of texts than can be difficult to find in English in translations that aren’t Victorian in style and attitude. Gantz’s translation of The Feast of Bricru / Fled Bricrend is the most recent, modern English translation that’s readily available.
Thomas Kinsella. The Tain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970. ISBN 0192810901.
Simply the most readable English translation going of the Irish national epic, and the associated main mythological tales. Kinsella also offers a brief introduction to the Tain itself and places the various “pre tales” he includes in context. Kinsella makes note of where he has turned to an alternate version from another manuscript, and adds contextual notes to assist in trying to create a narrative in the modern sense from a collection of loosely connected tales.
Koch, John T. and John Carey eds. The Celtic Heroic Age. Malden, Massachustetts: Celtic Studies Publications, 2003. Fourth edition. ISBN 1891271091.
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 includes a selection in translation of the Classical texts about the early Celts (including extracts of the standards, Herodotos, Plato, Aristotle, Livy, Diogenes Laertius, and Cicero as well as more obscure texts; pseudo-Scymnus, Lampridius, Vopsicus, Clement of Alexandria and Ptolemy I), some Gaulish selections, as well as literary materials from 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. It assumes that you have a basic understanding of the Celts terms of early European history, pre-and-post Romans (something like Cunliffe’s Short Introduction), though there are short introductory head-notes.
MacKillop, James. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0192801201.
There are several “dictionaries” 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, a Celticist would want both MacKillop’s and Green’s books, but MacKillop, who includes a bibliography as well as citations, is more likely to be reliable and good for the long term, and it’s far superior to that of Ellis, who is somewhat careless, frequently wrong, and doesn’t use citations.
Unfortunately, both editions of MacKillop’s Dictionary of Celtic Mythology seem to be out of print at present.
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T. G. E. Powell. The Celts. Thames and Hudson: New York, 1980. Second ed; reprint. 1991. ISBN 0500272751.
A basic overview of Celtic history, via cultural artifacts, Classical references, and medieval texts. This is somewhat dated in terms of current archaeology and approach, also, it was written for an academic audience and thus assumes a fair amount about what the reader knows.
The quality images and the background material regarding historic understanding of who and what the Celtic peoples and cultures were believed to be is still helpful, especially in understanding how and why scholars are adjusting their approaches and understanding of what Celtic-speaking cultures means in a wider European context.
Sjoestedt, M. L. Gods and Heroes of the Celts. 1949; translated by Myles Dillon. repr. Dover Publications, 2000. ISBN 0486414418.
A slim easy to read book, this is still considered a standard text, with some interesting observations. It was originally written in French in the early 1940s; it was translated by the Irish Celticist Myles Dillon, and has been recently reprinted by Dover Publications in an affordable paperback.
In some ways, Sjoestedt is a predecessor for the work of Rees and Rees, listed below. There’s much more to Sjoestedt than meets the eye; read carefully and thoughtfully. She makes complex things sound startlingly simple, and has many observations that are far more revelatory than you might think.
A Slightly More Advanced Starter Kit
This is the standard collection of medieval Irish literature in translation, and it includes the basic mythological tales, one version of the Tain, and samples of the heroic tales, dindsenchas, king cycles, and the other genres. Sadly, it’s now out of print. It was briefly made available as a textbook reprint from Barnes & Noble, and it is still available in used book stores. It’s worth searching for.
Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997; Penguin 2000. ISBN: 0140254226.
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. He also provides a good context for understanding some of the current scholarship for placing the various Celtic language speaking cultures in a wider European context.
The book includes an index, a good bibliography, and excellent maps, with a useful chronology and many images.
I’ve posted a lengthy book review here.
Green, Miranda J. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992. ISBN: 0500279756.
Green’s Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend is a useful compendium that goes beyond myth and legend. I wish that Green had been more careful about distinguishing her opinion from scholarly consensus and fact, but she does provide a useful bibliography, and this was intended for a general audience rather than a scholarly specialized one.
Green always has super photographs of artifacts and related images, and this book is no exception.
Brinley Rees and Alwyn Rees. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1961; repr. 1989. ISBN 0500270392.
A solid introduction and overview of the mythological medieval Irish and Welsh literature, from a comparative (Dumezielian and occasionally quirky) point of view. The various myths from Irish and Welsh texts are summarized and discussed in context in terms of shared thematic aspects, with some reference to Indo-European myths and tales from other languages. This can be slow-going sometimes, but it is well-worth the effort. Some familiarity with the concept of Indo-European language and shared myths, or a with the myths of Greece, India and Persia will increase the the readability of the the book (see, for, instance Comparative Mythology by Jaan Puhvel).