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Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity


Edited by Marion Gibson, Shelley Trower & Gary Tregidga


London: Routledge, 2012.

Paperback. ix+240 p. ISBN 978-0415628693. £24.99


Reviewed by Yann Bévant

Université Rennes II – UEB




Gary Tregidga is well known among celticists and has been for years a pillar of the Institute of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter. He is co-editor of Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity with Marion Gibson who is Associate professor of Renaissance and Magical Literatures at the University of Exeter, and Shelley Trower who lectures at the University of Hull. This collection of essays is the fruit of the Mysticism, Myth, Nationalism Conference which was held at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus under the aegis of the Arts and Humanities Research Council in July 2010.

The association between myth and nation has been familiar to academics since at least the works of Gellner and Hobsbawm published in the 1980s and 1990s, and the book clearly moves away from the traditional Celtic studies focus on medieval textual and language studies to an exploration of cultural productions from the early modern period onward. Though most of the book’s material is Cornish, the avowed aim of the editors is to relocate the label “celtic” into the wider context of reflections on myth, mysticism and nationalism, and to bring a fresh contribution to new celtic studies as defined by Amy Hale and Philip Payton in their New Directions in Celtic Studies published in 2000.

 Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity is organised along three main themes which constitute its three chapters: Prehistory and Paganism; Gothic, Romance and landscape; Memory, myth and politics, with contributors from various fields such as literature, history, geography, archeology, a feature which provides a multidisciplinary approach to the themes.

The first chapter, edited under the supervision of Marion Gibson, builds on present representations of myths and fictions resulting from science or pseudo science. Ronald Hutton’s paper on the representations of druids in history and literature perfectly epitomises the contents of the chapter, as the claim that “the druid priesthood described by writers and archaeologists up to 1950 was both vivid and insubstantial” reveals as much and perhaps more about societies and eras producing such representations than about actual Celtic paganism. Landscape is not ignored either, as Carl Phillips’ paper at the end of the chapter offers a case study of alternative construction of the Cornish landscape as a battlefield for cultural and ideological ownership of the land and sites.

 The second section of the book, edited by Shelley Trower, explores the notion of ‘celticity’ in places traditionally associated with Celtic culture: Wales, Scotland, Brittany, Cornwall (and Devon, for once included through Dafydd Moore’s paper which challenges the notion of a divide along the banks of the river Tamar). As argued by the editors in their introduction, this chapter is deliberately focused on the literary and performative works and narratives from the Romantic and Gothic period, as the period played a vital part in the building of the notions of identity and nationalism, and in the construction of myths still enduring today. The second chapter therefore proceeds naturally from the questions raised in the first part, and through a range of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century perspectives examines the set of images, fictions and writings which led to the common stereotyped portraits of the ‘Celts’ and ‘Celtic regions’ as people and lands alien to modernity.

The last chapter, edited by Gary Tregidga, widens the scope by examining the ways of remembering, reenacting and reimagining past events and contested myths. Hesse’s and Tregidga’s papers draw on comparative analysis to explore the dynamics of shared mythic narratives. Wilson and Whittaker also use comparative approaches to show how the malleability of notions such as mysticism and nationalism and the appropriation of semiotics are at work in the strategies of entryism by racist, neo-nazi groups and networks. Jo Esta’s paper ponders over the tension between inward-looking and outward-looking Cornwall heightened by folk tales lack of textual stability and of an established local origin. Esta’s approach is reminiscent of another fascinating book written by Patrick Malrieu on the Breton tradition of Gwerz (Qui veut faire l'ange, fait la bête ! De la gwerz bretonne de Yann Girin à la légende hagiographique et au mythe, TIR-CRBC, Rennes, 2010), and leads to the same conclusion, which is by and large one of the main lines of argument defended by the editors: cultural forms do not belong to one group, nation or school of thought, they can be subject to an infinity of interpretations according to time and space. Their very hybrid nature entails that apparently obvious signifiers such as “Celt”, “English”, “Cornish”… are in fact signifiers without clear signifieds, and as identities feed and develop on cross-fertilisation, they overlap and their borders inevitably become blurred.

One of the apparent shortcomings of the book is probably the lack of precision and homogeneity with which important notions such as that of identity are being discussed. Yet given the aims and conclusions of the editors and authors it would be unfair to blame them, as they precisely show how slippery and questionable restricted definitions can be on such highly sensitive and far reaching concepts. In the same vein, the rich and fertile contents of the various papers sometimes leave the reader under the impression that too many discussions are pursued at the same time, and that the whole book is more a mosaic than a collective undertaking. But once the final pages are read it is possible to look back and take a comprehensive view of the book, and this impression vanishes. If it raises more questions than it answers, Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity puts present day celticity to the test of scholarship discussion, challenges worn-out or dangerous perceptions and representations, and resets the perceptions and representations of Celtic identity/ies in a multicultural context. Well built and well informed, though the reader may regret the lack of non-English speaking sources – Claude Sterckx’s monumental Mythologie du Monde Celte, (Hachette Marabout, 2009) and Catherine Maignant’s seminal writings are ignored, for instance – Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity is undeniably thought provoking and is a tribute to the vitality of Celtic studies in Britain.


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