My review of Bernard Mees’s Celtic Curses is now published with the Journal of Folklore Research. Read my review below, or at the Journal of Folklore Research webpage:
Bernard Mees’s recent work, Celtic Curses, arrays an impressive range of scholarship on ancient and medieval Celtic cursing practices. Most treatments of this topic focus primarily on literary representations of curses in the British Isles; Mees, however, also considers the historical and archaeological evidence for cursing practices among both Insular and Continental Celts. Throughout his work, the author offers careful close readings of actual curse texts and situates them as best as possible into their historical and cultural contexts, attempting to show how curses were used in particular real-life situations. For this work, the volume was nominated in 2009 for The Folklore Society’s Katherine Briggs Award.
The volume’s chapters can be roughly divided into two sections. The first section examines the scant archaeological evidence for Celtic cursing in antiquity, focusing on several kinds of sites where curses are found inscribed on objects, usually lead tablets. The chapters “Infernal Powers” and “Dark Waters” both examine such curse tablets found in watery bodies—a natural spring in France and the famous spring at Bath—used as ritual sites for healing cults. These sites are filled with objects given to gods of the underworld. The three Celtic-language curse tablets found at these two sites are significant because they provide philologists with rare evidence of two ancient Celtic languages, Gaulish and British—the curse tablets at Bath represent the only documentary evidence for British other than names on coins. Mees is able to extract much from a close textual analysis of these precious documents.
Topics of other chapters in this first section include: a curse tablet found in a tomb (the dead, unsurprisingly, are good intermediaries between the living and the underworld); curses that seek to punish enemies; and curses that are somehow fragmented (either through poor preservation, incomplete contexts, or texts that are just plain confusing).
The tablets examined in these chapters provide insight into numerous aspects of ancient Celtic culture and religion. Some tablets include names of Celtic deities who are called upon to fulfill the curses written on the tablets—curses that request punishment for thieves and victory against opponents in legal disputes, as in the following curse, found in a graveyard with some puppy bones: “I give notice to the persons (whose names are) written below, Lentinus and Tasgillus, in order that they may [be taken away by] Pluto and Persephone. Just as this puppy harmed no one, so (may they harm no one) and may they not be able to win this suit. Just as the mother of this puppy cannot defend it, so may their lawyers be unable to defend them, (and) so (may) those opponents be turned back from this suit” (72).
The second half of the book turns away from archaeological evidence in antiquity and takes up historical and literary evidence from the Middle Ages, primarily from Irish sources. Just as Celtic cursing in antiquity was influenced by Roman cursing practices, so medieval Celtic cursing was influenced by a now-Christianized Roman Church. This influence as demonstrated in the literary record is striking: druids and saints engaging in cursing duels, the intersection of cursing and excommunication, the replacement of Celtic cursing words with Latin ones. This second section includes chapters on breastplates (protective prayers) and clamours (ecclesiastical curses); geases (an Irish form of taboo) and binding curses; and incantations (versified spells). The book is framed by an introduction that assesses trends in Celtic historiography and by a brief conclusion.
Celtic Curses is a valuable, in-depth look at Celtic cursing practices. That said, the author presupposes knowledge of Celtic history and linguistics that may prove daunting to the casual reader and may at times overwhelm even the specialist. This is in part due to some poor organizational choices, a problem that could be ameliorated by more clearly explaining key terms, forefronting important information, and utilizing chapter subheadings. However, the work’s complexity is also due to the author’s comparative and philological approaches, which necessitate a large corpus of source materials that, when arranged together, creates an interpretive context. As such, Mees often veers back and forth between evidence from Celtic texts and analogs found in Greek and Latin texts. While this habit is often confusing for the reader, it underscores the amount of contact between the these cultures and the difficulty in distinguishing between imitation and adaptation. Mees often raises the question: was the Celtic cursing tradition an indigenous, pre-Roman tradition or the syncretic amalgamation of Graeco-Roman curses with the native Celtic language and religion? The answer, of course, depends on the situation, and Mees is careful to acknowledge the intricacies of the problem.
Mees is responding to two threads in Celtic scholarship: one that attributes pagan, pre-Christian meaning to Celtic literature written by Christian monks, sometimes influenced by a romantic impulse that characterizes these texts as somehow archaic and untouched by Christianity (an impulse still present in modern neo-pagan and Celtic heritage movements); and another that emphasizes clerical, Christian influences on Celtic texts, ignoring the possibility of native traditions. Throughout his work, Mees attempts to navigate between these two poles by examining actual evidence of cursing, informed by ethnological principles, to see if there are any connections between actual Celtic cursing in antiquity and later Irish literary curses. Mees gives such attention to early Celtic curse tablets from the Continent because these curses, unlike Insular literary representations of curses, are embedded in actual, lived experience.