Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain (Columbia University Press, 1967; reprint by Academy Chicago Publishers, 1996)

Pagan Celtic Britain by Anne Ross is a scholarly book, but this is not a scholarly review. It is rather a review by someone interested in Celtic Britain, who has done some research both on her own and at undergraduate and graduate school. If one is interested in a more scholarly review, there are many journals whose focus is on history and antiquities.

Dr. Anne Rossí credentials, which appear on the back cover of the book, are quite impressive; she is eminently qualified to write and research an ambitious study such as this one. She was a Research Fellow in Archaeology at the University of Southampton and lectures at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Amazon UK says of her, "Dr. Anne Ross, a Gaelic-speaking Celtic scholar and archaeologist, has lived and worked in crofting communities, enabling her to collect information at first hand and to assess the veracity of material already published."

In this day of everyone and everything being on the Internet, I was really surprised to find that Dr. Ross had no Web site -- or none that I could locate. I did find reviews of Pagan Celtic Britain and many of Dr. Rossí other works in everything from Keltria Journal to the New York Review of Books.

A good bibliography is the key to any scholarly work; therefore, that is the first thing I checked upon receiving Pagan Celtic Britain. I was not disappointed. The extensive bibliography includes scholarly journals, histories and collections of folk tales and legends ranging in publication from the late 19th century through the mid 20th century. There is also a very inclusive index that makes reference easy -- and I feel the reader will use it. This is a scholarly work of some scope and more detail. Anyone who wishes to read Celtic legends or lightly given opinions has come to the wrong place. Dr. Rossístyle is not uninteresting, but it is dry. She backs all her premises up with meticulous and carefully annotated research. This is a fascinating book but not a frivolous or light work.

Dr. Ross points out that until recently (that being the late 1950ís) no one had paid much attention to what she calls the "native" element of pagan Britain; emphasis was all on the Romans and their remains. Her objective is to research the subject of pagan Celtic Britain -- understood to have a paucity of physical evidence for its traditions and rituals -- by "triangulating." She uses first the archaeological remains, second contemporary accounts, and third legends and folk tales, which have been preserved and in some cases observed to the present day.

Dr. Ross discusses the archaeological remains in Britain, Ireland, and to some extent continental Europe. Her notes and research are quite extensive, including both well-known artifacts and those so obscure that when her book was written they hadnít been published anywhere else. Her goal, which she states in the introduction, is not merely to list all these artifacts but to use them as the bones of her analysis.

The second leg of her analysis, contemporary accounts, of course present several problems. The chief among these is that there are no written accounts of the Celts themselves, since theirs was an oral tradition. What have been preserved are writings about the Celts from a very different culture and tradition -- Sicilians such as Diodorus Siculus and Greeks such as Posidonius, who sometimes wrote about what they had heard secondhand at best. Other contemporary accounts were written by those, like Julius Caesar, who had a political and military agenda.

The vernacular literature of Celtic Britain is complicated by a long oral tradition during which key elements could be changed. When these stories and rituals were finally written down, it was often by Christian monks who frequently added Christian elements. Because of this, Dr. Ross feels that in reconstructing the rituals and religion of Celtic Britain one must know the Celtic people. She believes that knowledge of the Celtic language is crucial to this work. Dr. Ross makes the excellent point that the "oblique, indirect, circular approach of these peoples to art, literature, religion and social transactions" is crucial to interpreting the archaeological evidence, and that their outlook on life "has not vanished with the breakdown of the Celtic world." She further states: "A training in the Celtic languages and an understanding of the social organization and traditional attitudes of the Celts is absolutely essential if we are to pick our way, with any hope of success, through the complex realms of early Romano-British history."

Dr. Ross makes an excellent point. The purpose of archaeological discovery is to some degree interpretation of a culture. This interpretation can only be benefited by a study of that cultureís language, which both molds and reflects its attitudes.

One of the few disappointments I have with Pagan Celtic Britain is its illustrations. There are some good photographs, some less clear photographs, and many drawings. These drawings are often hard to decipher, and of course are only renderings of the objects and thus less valuable to the reader than photographs would have been. I donít know if obtaining good photographs with the equipment available in 1967 was too difficult, or if curators didnít want their objects subjected to a flash. At any rate, the drawings are one aspect of the book that I feel could have been improved.

The book is divided into eight chapters that include archaeological evidence of sites, the cult of the head, gods, goddesses and sacred animals. The final chapter mainly discusses the religious and social differences between the pastoral North and the agrarian South of Britain. Each chapter ends with a very good, concise summary. Notes fall at chapterís end and often contain long quotes from different authors or even stories and myths. These notes are a fascinating and integral part of the book -- which means that the reader must always mark the end of the chapter to make sure of not missing anything.

Dr. Ross is very conservative in her conclusions. As she says, "rich and varied and capable of many colourful interpretations as it may be, a sober consideration at once reveals [the evidence's] limitations and its interpretative problems." This means that you can trust her conclusions to be well thought out and based on research. She presents the evidence and uses her linguistic skills to interpret it, but stringently applies her rule of the three aspects of her study -- archaeology, contemporary accounts and folk ways -- to back up her deductions.

Pagan Celtic Britain will appeal to the serious student of Celtic studies. Not for someone wanting to skim a few stories, it presupposes the reader to be familiar with fairly esoteric anthropological terms and concepts. It also presupposes a good background in ancient geography. Just looking at the bibliography would give most amateur historians a wonderful reading list. The book also contains enough stories, especially in Chapters 4-7, to appeal to those who are interested in Celtic mythology. Those who embrace a Celtic-based religion should be particularly interested in the archaeological evidence, which indicates the ways in which the ancient Celts performed their various rites and rituals.

[Andrea S. Garrett]