Jean Markale, The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture (Inner Traditions, 1993; originally published in French, 1976)

Poet, philosopher, historian and storyteller, Jean Markale has spent a lifetime studying Celtic civilisations. He is the author of a number of books on pre-Christian civilisations -- including an eponymous book on 'Merlin' and what has probably become his best known work: Women of the Celts. In his work he tries to combine a poetic and philosophical position with a scholarly approach to the subject.

That short introduction to the author should, then, give a clue as to nature of this book. In short, it is a serious and comprehensive read. No glossy coffee table book, this! Over three hundred pages of dense, articulate and academic-like text with maps, drawings, illuminations, reproduced art work, an appendix of notes to the text, and a scholarly conclusion worthy of any degree thesis set the seal on a work that requires from its reader time and careful consideration to fully digest.

Markale takes us on his journey through the myth and history of the Celts by use of prose that is, at one and the same time, considered and considerable, if not to say dry. He also uses examples of original Celtic poetry to outline his views and theories of the peoples that he takes us to visit. And he certainly does cover a lot of ground. Early in the book, we visit the Cimbri, who left their home in Cimbrica Chersonesus (the Jutland Peninsula) following a disastrous tidal wave in 113 BC, and travelled southwards to make new settlements. The big question here (at least for Markale) is whether the Cimbri were Celts at all -- or were they Germanic in origin, perhaps? At the risk of sounding like the guy at the bar in the theatre showing the Mousetrap -- who tells you that the policeman did it -- I can disclose that Markale concludes that the Cimbri were in fact "non-indo European Megalithic peoples, whose land had been usurped by the Celts and who were attempting to wrest back their homes from the invader." So there!

He then moves on to explore the Roman and Celtic Epic (as he puts it), reviving a chapter from another of his works, dating back to 1960. Other chapters include studies of Delphi, the history of the Gaels, the ancient poetry of Ireland (translated into English), the Celtic Christian Church, a study of the origins of the British peoples, the Britons and the Bretons, Taliesin and Druidism, and Celtic mythology. As mentioned, this is a wide ranging and thoroughly comprehensive work. If he left any aspect of the Celts out, I am certainly not the one to argue the point with him!

It is this very point, arguing with Markale, that I want to use to illustrate my main concern with the book. His opening salvo in the chapter on the "Roman and Celtic Epic," is to pour scorn on the work of Livvy as an historian, and to argue that there has been no serious critique of his "facts." He even cites other writers who give Livvy a serious working-over (academically speaking), and goes on to finish off the hapless chap with a few well-aimed blows of his own. I raise this because, up until reading this chapter, I had never heard of Mr. Livvy. Furthermore, at the end of it, I still didn't have much more of an idea of who he was. Markale does not explain who Livvy is, and perhaps more importantly, why he feels the need to attack him. I had hoped to get some clue from finding Livvy in the bibliography, but unfortunately Markale does not seem to consider him even worthy of a single entry! As we encounter more of this sort of writing throughout the book, it becomes even clearer that this is a scholarly work aimed at scholars (of at least some degree -- pun intended) and that at least a modicum of previous knowledge on the Celtic Civilisations and -- perhaps more worryingly -- their chroniclers, will come in handy.

That, for my money, is this book's chief flaw. Markale is at serious risk of putting off his readers by seeming to require them to have read another "primer" on Celtic culture before tackling his own tour-de-force. He also makes his points with such authority and conviction that I suspect it will be some time before another writer does what I now like to refer to as "a Livvy" on Mr. Markale. Who would dare!

Seriously interested readers who perhaps have "dipped into" other less comprehensive works will, I have no doubt, be impressed by this book's complete and thorough exploration of a fascinating and wide-ranging subject. It is a scholarly and, it has to be said, masterly work that must have taken many years in the writing. It deserves to be considered as an important and significant contribution to the literature on this subject.

[Steve Power]