Thursday, December 25, 2014


The meeting point between antique Celtic civilization and modern Christianity, though unrevealed


Apart from the prohibitive price of the book, we cannot do any research in the field of Welsh, Cornish, Celtic and even Breton studies without that book, though Irish and Pictish are less concerned. Some though, like Philippe Walter, the supposed French specialist on medieval culture in Europe of the 10th-12th centuries, do not even quote the book in the bibliography of his last publication that came out in 2006. This is a fatal and capital mistake.

The book is important because of its introduction first that really analyses in detail some fundamental questions about the origins and the dates of these triads, and consequently clears up the origins and dates of some names and stories. We must understand the author is essentially considering the Welsh corpus and she only considers other Celtic sides of this culture incidentally. She also considers rather regularly the eventual influence of continental French romances onto the Welsh corpus. These triads were codified in writ as a whole more or less in the 13th century, in our surviving versions. All of them are not of the same origin and from the same period. But she clearly states that these triads are the result of a long tradition that was oral for several centuries before starting to be written down at some time in the 12th century, maybe and probably a little bit earlier.

These triads contain direct references to historical events that can go back to the fifth or sixth centuries. This means that they cannot have existed in their present form before these dates. On the other hand some allusions in some triads to eleventh or twelfth century events cannot lead to the idea that the concerned triads were written after these events. The author here favors the idea that the triads were modified over the centuries and elements were added to some of them with or without full restructuring or rewriting. This leads to the idea that a tradition probably existed even before the oldest events quoted in the triads. And that opens a completely different can of worms because we thus open up the door to the possibility of pre-Roman existence for these stories. That then will justify the druid connection some want to see behind some cultural references.

What the author writes concerning triad 26 (Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain):

“This triad should be considered in relation to the great importance attached to swine in the life and mythology of the Celtic nations from the earliest times. A Gaulish swine-god Moccus is commemorated in a dedication to Mercurius Moccus . . ., and the boar is found frequently as a symbol on altars in Gaul and Britain . . . In Gaul as in Ireland swine-flesh was particularly prized; in Irish sources it is represented as constituting the food of the gods at Other-world feasting . . . and immense boars figure also at more mundane feasts in the sagas of Mac Datho’s Pig and Bricriu’s Feast. In these tales the choicest parts of the pig appear as the object of contention for the curadmir or Champion’s Portion, allotted to the warrior who was recognized by all to be pre-eminent. Boar-hunts also figure largely in the sagas. In the Triads of Ireland . . . a wonderful boar which was hunted by Fionn mac Cumhaill is described as one of the Three Wonders of Glenn Dylan in Tyrone; while in the Boyhood Deeds of Finn, the hero slays a sow called Beo who has been devastating Munster . . . To hunt the boar was geis or taboo to Diarmaid O’ Duibhne because his half-brother had been turned by magic into a wild boar . . . “(page 53-54)

It is quite clear that it is both too much and not enough. It is only a side remark, piurely factual and it does not widen the question of mythological constructions and beliefs that lie and stand behind such simple elements. A systematic approach of the mythological dimension of these triads would be justified and is wanted.

To come back to that dating problem, was there an even older Celtic tradition, and maybe mythology, running around in the Celtic world before the fifth century, before the arrival of the Romans even? In the Welsh context, just like in the Cornish context, it might be difficult to get data from that older period. It might be possible in Ireland but we have to keep in mind that the Celtic language is not a fully unified language. It can be divided into two groups or families. The Goidelic group with Irish (from Ireland), Manx (from the Isle of Man) and the Celtic language that has disappeared in its phylogenic continuity in Scotland. Then the Brythonic group that covers Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Gaulish in general and even the Celtic language of the Celtiberians (in Galicia for example). The legend of Tristan and Iseult seems to overemphasize the place and role of Ireland in this Celtic situation. At the same time the rejection of Ireland with the killing of Morholt could be based on the division between the two cultures and geographical zones, Ireland being out of the Brythonic zone. In the same way the marriage of Iseult and Mark could be interpreted as an attempt to bridhe the gap, but an attempt that was totally failed by circumstances, and maybe some people’s intentions.

This leads to another question, that of the writing tradition of this culture when it was dominated by the druids. The Ogham alphabet was already there since it was devised a long time before in the Rhine Valley which was Germanic and no longer Celtic for quite some time before our era. This alphabet was improved in the 5th century by the Christian missionaries. Was that alphabet still in use in the Middle Ages? Was it ever in use beyond Ireland? In Britain and on the continent for example? The spelling used in this book shows clearly it was not completely stabilized. In other words it was in transition between some older writing system and the Latin alphabet that was not necessarily well adapted to this language. This linguistic aspect of things could date some versions, and the author uses that argument now and then, but it could also reveal an inner phylogeny for Celtic languages and thus enable us to see some themes in temporal depth, which is not the objective of the author in this book.

Those who would look for Celtic mythology for example will be totally disappointed. There are some elements here and there, like what I have quoted on pigs, but definitely not that many, and far from out-reaching and systematic.

But the book has such enormous advantages at other levels that we can disregard this aspect of things. First it has collected all the triads that have been recovered, probably as far as 2014. Many triads are given in several versions and each version in its original language or dialect is translated into English. A vast corpus of notes explains the language and the translations for each triad and also the historical context, allusions and other meanings like eventually some mythological elements.

But the book provides us with systematic tools that are immensely valuable. First a complete glossary of all names of all characters in the triads, actually quoted in the triads or implied by the triads and quoted in the notes. It also provides a select bibliography and no one will be surprised to find out that Philippe Walter who did not quote this book in his volume on Tristan and Iseult is not quoted in this book either. There is in such facts the feeling that there are different university and academic trends in the field, though it is in no way justified. In this case Philippe Walter seems to be the loser.

Several indexes are also provided: the index of places, the Index to Trioedd Y Meirch, and the general index, and this one is essential to use the book as a reference book since with this index you can go across the book from one page to another systematically and fast. Unluckily the index of abbreviations is not complete. The author and the editors, without speaking of the publisher, did not make sure all abbreviations used in the book were listed, even if some could sound like abbreviations for dummies. There is in this incomplete listing some arrogance that the readers should know better, or just should know. Maybe it would be good to provide the book in an e-version  so that we could navigate on the Internet to compensate for such shortcomings.

Apart from that it is obvious such a book is capital and essential. At least it solves the problem of the origin or the legend of Tristan and Iseult: on the basis of various borrowing from various traditions within Brythonic Celtic culture, some continental French speaking authors (I mean literary authors and poets) have created a long-lasting tale that could become popular at once. We can now start wondering why the catholic church of the time accepted that tale of guilty adulterous love instead of sending the “heretic” author to the stake. The hypothesis that comes up here, partially contained in this book, is that the tale by Béroul and the subsequent medieval versions satisfied one requirement from the church after the 9th century religious reform: it Christianized the deeper Celtic culture (and surviving mythology) and provided a conclusion that was based on repentance, confession, absolution and forgiveness and it avoided any relapse into the basic fault of adultery right through to the end. It is quite similar to some kind of Pilgrim’s Progress across and through the dangers and difficulties of sin, crime and un-Christian action. We could even consider that the death of the main “warrior” after three endangering wounds suffered in battle is a perfect lesson about the “Peace of God,” an important religious and popular movement called by the Catholic church at the end of the 10th century and that was finally implemented during the 11th century (local warfare being replaced by the Crusades for the satisfaction of the death instinct of warriors).


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