Dáithí Ó Hógáin, The Celts: A History (The Collins Press, 2002)

Dáithí Ó Hógáin is an Associate Professor of Folklore at University College, Dublin, a poet, and a respected author of several Irish folklore studies. His recent The Celts: A History is a bit of a departure for him, as he attempts to provide a chronological description of the Celts throughout their long and wide-ranging history. The book is largely, as Ó Hógáin says in his preface, "a general study of [the Celts'] military fortunes," tracing the spread of Celtic-speaking peoples from the western Danube valley c. 1,000 B.C., across Europe and into Asia Minor, and, eventually, concluding with the "Dawning of the Middle Ages" and the last bastion of Celtic-speaking peoples, Bretagne, Wales, and Ireland. The chapter titles are a fair representation of the subject matter, beginning with "Origin and Culture of the Celts," followed in good order by "The Celts in Italy," "Thrust to the East," "Celtiberia and Cisalpine Gaul," "Widespread Tumult and Disaster," "Clashes with Romans, Germans," "Dacians," "The Destruction of Gaul," "Twilight of the Celts," "Survival in the West," and concluding with the "Dawning of the Middle Ages."

The book includes nine pages of black and white photographs and six maps showing migrations and tribal locations throughout Europe — both insular and Continental Celts are well represented — and it concludes with reference notes for each chapter, a bibliography, and index. All in all, Ó Hógáin presents a solidly referenced work, albeit somewhat pedantically presented with an emphasis on Continental Celtic names and narratives of battles won and lost. Although the book ostensibly attempts to align the usually propagandistic Classical sources with more modern archeological and more sympathetic Celtic sources, the final result is somewhat less than successful, in part because Ó Hógáin seems to take all his sources at face value, aside from a few attempts at cultural interpretation, and in part because Ó Hógáin veers from reasonable statements to sweeping assumptions.

For instance, he asserts the existence of a male "sun-god deity," under various names, including the familiar Lugh, Taranis, Sucellus, Cernunnos, etc., and declares that the deity's functions included "the production of rain for the crops, the development of fertility in herds, and the guaranteeing of social and commercial contracts." He later asserts that horseman iconography "clearly represents the sun-deity." This sort of interpretatio romana, like the emphasis on solar deities, is an antiquated attempt to make the plethora of Celtic deities fit into a nicely ordered and hierarchically arranged pantheon, an attempt doomed to failure given the multivalent nature of Celtic myth, and the plethora of deities. There are other odd lapses as well, in part I suspect because Ó Hógáin relies extensively on outdated sources.

Should you read this book? Yes, if you have an abiding interest in Celtic military history, or are well versed in Classical and early medieval history. If you're really looking for a history of the Celts that places them in a cultural context, you'd do better to pick up a copy of Barry Cunliffe's The Ancient Celts (Oxford, 1997), or even the "old standby," T. G. Powell's The Celts (W.W.Norton, 1983).

[Lisa Spangenberg]