Juliette Wood, The Celtic Book of Living and Dying: The Illustrated Guide to Celtic Wisdom (Chronicle Books, 2000)

The Celtic Book of Living and Dying, by Juliette Wood, is one of those books which is a rare pleasure to find, and an absolute joy to read. It is also unique in that it does not fit neatly into a category, being neither a "history" volume, nor a rehashing of Myth Cycles, grimoire, magical study, nor devoted to arcane devotional sites. It is exactly what it claims to be: a neat compilation of definite and genuinely Celtic philosophy on a number of things spanning from life to death, but not confined by any means to these two subjects. While not a large collection, it is delightfully illustrated in the manner of the old "illuminated manuscripts," such as the Book of Kells, and these brightly colored pieces are interspersed with breathtaking photography. The Celtic Book of Living and Dying is not meant as a scholarly text, but the beautifully realized array of poems, tales, philosophy, and legends will spellbind even jaded Celticists.

Though the book focuses on the journey of life, it explores wisdom dealing with key themes of courage, fertility, time, prophecy, destiny, and the Afterlife, drawing from a wide range of sources. As we know, the ancient Celts possessed no written language (aside from Ogam, taught to a select group of individuals), and most of their knowledge was transmitted in oral form by the Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Later, curiously enough, many of the folktales and histories were committed to writing by early Christian monks, with certain "changes" made to accommodate the switch in religious dogmas. For instance, the old goddess Brighid, patron of crafts, learning, animals, fertility, etc., became St. Brigid, and as such, she was no longer a forbidden figure of paganism of the type discouraged from preservation in writings sponsored by the Christian church. Thereafter, literature about her became "acceptable" to commit to print. In his own way, St. Patrick (Padraic) at first greatly encouraged monks to record the histories and customs of Irish folklore, then changed his mind for some reason and destroyed much of it. Enough of the native folklore and practices survive, however, and it is these very wisdoms and philosophy that The Celtic Book of Living and Dying illuminates so well. Wood provides us with a treasure trove of the core beliefs of this imaginative, individualistic race who came to be known as Celts.

The chapters are devoted to some of the most important concepts in Celtic life: the Warrior’s Way, the Wheel of Nature, Mystical Creatures, and Voyages Between Realms, to name a few. For example, Wood points out: "For the Celts, war was not mindless, mechanical slaughter, but a complex craft requiring dedication and skill. In battle a people expressed themselves." Indeed, there were few peoples who had such a deep philosophy of battle as the Celts. Although other civilizations lived by the widely held concept of the "Warrior’s Code," their close Nordic neighbors -- and their enemies, the Romans -- being just two such examples, the Celtic warrior’s most precious possessions were beautifully decorated weapons which not only accompanied him/her to the grave to serve in the Afterlife, but whose unique designs brought personal power and totemic qualities to each individual warrior. The code of loyalty and bravery were prized above all, and soldiers did not fear death; for Celtic warriors, life was cyclical and death was merely a transition.

In the beginning of a chapter entitled "The Wheel of Nature" -- and in those that follow --the author goes further toward explaining this cyclic philosophy so central to Celtic belief. "The Celtic year has no beginning and no end, but follows the rhythms of nature in a continuous cycle during (their) festivities, the boundaries between the material and the supernatural worlds are dissolved, and the ghostly inhabitants of the Otherworld break through to enter the realm of the living," says Wood. In essence, Nature (of which both life and death are an integral part) has two faces: one of growth, and one of decay. Plants and animals have both healing and mystical powers, and are a huge part, even today, of Celtic religion. Without dragging through every deity in the pantheons, Wood's examples and illustrations are instead presented as part of the huge role mysticism plays in Celtic philosophy, and man is shown as a very integral part of nature. Charming illustrated vignettes explore various deities’ mystical relationships with not only man, but other such creatures as fish, boars, horses, and stags, as well as their unique significance in symbolism.

Carefully balancing the first half of the book, which is more dedicated to the Celts' distinctive views of life, the chapter "Echoes of the Otherworld" reminds us that life itself "encompasses the land of the dead, the realms of the gods, the fabled western isles, the kingdom under the sea and the fairy mounds... humans venture into it at their peril, but those who realize their innate virtues on the quest return endowed with supernatural powers, special knowledge or magical gifts." Wood gives us lore and some of the poetry so precious to the Celts, of those "islands beyond" -- the Fairy realms -- Tir N'a Nog, the Summerland, the Isle of Women, on beautifully illustrated pages. From the West, the direction of these magical Otherworlds, comes the next phase of the cyclical pattern of life.

Wood's Celtic Book of Living and Dying: The Illustrated Guide to Celtic Wisdom lives up to its name, and much more. I would be hard pressed to think of any other book which so sums up the unique philosophy of the Celtic people, and presents the profound ideals within in such a delightful flow of poetry and folklore. The gorgeous, colored illustrations are an added bonus, and with their "illuminated manuscript" style perfectly complement the contents. "Poetic" and "ethereal" are the first words that come to mind after reading the Celtic Book. It could easily have been written by a fifteenth century scribe -- but Wood is such a talented writer, her prose flows along not only in an authentically Celtic expressionism, but with an Otherworldly feeling of wisdom imparted. Once received, this wisdom -- coming from so very long ago -- cannot help but have a powerful influence on our own lives. Beautiful, simply beautiful.

[Kimberlee Sweeney Rettberg]