John and Caitlin Matthews
Element Books, Rockport, MA, 1995

Just when you thought the Matthewses had exhausted the possibilities for writing new books on Celtic myth, out comes this wise and wonderful reference work. In keeping with the popular resurgence of writings on European shamanism (including reprints of works by Eliade, Campbell, and Graves, and recent books like Fire in the Head), The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom seeks to explore references to shamanic practices in poetry, prose, and songs of the Celts. The bulk of this book is based on new translations, by the Matthewses, of ancient texts, including poems, tales, and bardic songs. I thoroughly enjoyed their discussion of the Ogham alphabets, including not just the ubiquitous tree alphabet (enhanced and, some say, invented by Robert Graves in The White Goddess), but alphabets of animals and stones as well. "The Memory of Trees" is an eloquent chapter which beautifully augments Graves's writings on the power and magic ascribed to trees by the Celtic peoples. It is almost heartbreaking to witness the deep love and respect the Celts had for the natural world; in a country whose climate and weather are often cruel, its early inhabitants found ways to cherish the gifts from the Earth. Celtic-based covens would do well to study this tree lore carefully; the Matthewses have here created a perfect primer for Pagans on the Druid path who want to brush up on their knowledge of our tree kin.

Druidic prophecy, magic, healing, and memory are all discussed in terms of their connection to Celtic shamanism. Though the "s" word is bandied about a bit carelessly these days by anyone with a drum in one hand and a bundle of sage in the other, the Matthewses are here referring to the European variety, specifically Celtic, which includes magical practices used by shamans in areas as far afield as France, Brittany, Gaul, Scotland, Ireland, and Cornwall. Celtic shamans were "medicine men" in the style of contemporary native American shamans, but one important distinction is the poetic tradition of the Celts. Any leader respected as a warrior, king, or healer was also expected to be a skilled bard or poet. Hence we have such a rich tradition of literature from these tribes who, after all, were rather savage and barbaric in their way (they crafted some beautiful jewelry, too).

Packed with information and not to be skimmed lightly, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom is a book to be savored and pored over lovingly, thoughtfully. Yet it escapes being dry or academic. This is a work aimed at the serious student of Celtic studies, if not at the toffee-nosed Celtic "scholars" who might find it lacking in "authenticity."

Reviewed by Peg Aloi

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