Monday, 1 September 2008

History or Myth - Which should come first?

I have a dilemna - and its ongoing. Which do I read first: history or myth?

I know that I need to read the myths associated with the British Isles, but I have also been informed, by people I respect, that I need to read them in context. But, how is this achieved if you havent' read the history first? And, just how much history do you need to know before you start reading the myths?

Its all very confusing to me. I try to read a book a week and I try to alternate between myth/folklore, history and general pagan subjects. The problem I'm finding is that when you read one history book, (e.g. Hutton's "The Druids"), it often contains references to other works with comments like "If you wish to explore further, then read ...". Well, fine. Except I will be reading a book under the myth/folklore section next week and, after that, I have this history book which is relevant to the next myth/folklore book I'm reading and so on.

I checked my library catalogue the other day to find 125 books on my "to be read" list and 75 on my wishlist. If you add that up, that's about 16 years reading, provided I ignore all bibliographies and recommendations contained within those books. This is quite daunting and I am having to consider whether I should just read the myths/folklore/tales and disregard the history; applying a modern sensibility to the texts.

I wonder how others have managed or are managing to do this?


Bo said...

start with general overview historical works, I would.

The thing is to grasp that one isn't really reading 'myth' when one looks at things like the Mabinogi, or the Tain Bo Cuailnge; rather they (and all 'Celtic Myth') are medieval literature with *some* mythic roots, but lots of other important things going on too. Thus what you need is literary context. Usually, the introductions of the most recent editions (Carson's Tain, Davies' Mabinogion) are pretty good. Proinsias Mac Cana, 'Literature in Irish', Aspects of Ireland / Gneithe dár nDúchas, 8 (Dublin, 1980) is a good book to start with for Ireland. The same scholar did a lovely little book in the 'Writers of Wales' series, entitled 'The Mabinogi', which is also good. Over an above that, I'd recommend the appropriate sections of John Davies' 'A History of Wales'.

Hope that helps!

Lee said...

a tough one. mainly because it is alwasy a good idea to read more than one book on a subject for a balanced and braod viewpoint.

i would say it is fine to read either before the other, which ever grabs your interest most. then, when reading subsequent texts you can bear the ones you have read in mind. if you are reading accademic studies of the mythos, then read the myths first so you are with familiar with twhat they are talking about.

i think the key is to read these books in the first place, the order in whcih you do so is less relevant.


Ancestral Gael said...

Ah, Bo - I'm trying to reduce my "to be read" and "wishlists" not increase them. *LOL*

But, yes it is helpful. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I suppose the answer is to spend 16 years reading...



Bo said...

Those are the things I would read *to the exclusion* of other things, especially Pagan-authored works.

What bit of Kent do you live in btw? I'm stuck in canterbury for two weeks!

Geraldine Moorkens Byrne said...

I would have to say having grown up reading irish myths and sagas and then studying history in UCD I would be inclined to say, it doesn;t actually matter which order in which you read, as long as you read both with an open mind.
There are several bodies of work one can say confidentally predated medieval literary Iriah,( irish as a language has a specific linguistic development.) However as long as you read a good translation of even the most fragmentary or tampered work, it will not only point out the insertions but will offer alternatives from other fragments in other MS. And reading the mythology in its proper form, un reconstructed into modern narrative, also gives a glimpse into the imagination of the ancient Irish ; an imagination very different from that of medieval Ireland as demonstrated by Mrg. Curtin's work.

Reading the history - an absolute must. But the historian and archaeologist is as prone to self revelatory gnosis as the most fluffy neopagan. read all and real with an open and critical mind. In the end there is a symbiosis intellectually between the history and myth that can lead to greater and more rounded understanding.

if possible also read editions which give at least a flavour of the original irish words. Few non irish speakers realize the subtle differences between irish words translated into english.