There’s a ridiculous number of introductory books on Celtic mythology out there. Figuring out which ones are the best can be a daunting task. This already difficult quest is further complicated by the fact that most of these books have extremely generic titles like “Celtic Myths and Legends” or “Celtic Mythology.” At first glance, they all appear to be more or less identical.
But anyone who’s well-acquainted with this field will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Some are far superior to others in terms of the scope and accuracy of the information they present, as well as in writing style. Some are written for scholars or a more intellectual audience, while some are written for a more general audience and are written in a more entertaining and accessible way.
So how can you determine which ones are worthy of paying your hard-earned cash for, and which ones are just forgettable, “me too” efforts?
This list was written with the intention of helping you to do exactly that. Here, I present ten of the best introductory books in the field (last updated January 2017), along with descriptions that are designed to help you figure out which book or books on Celtic mythology are the best matches for what you personally are looking for.
The books are numbered roughly from the most newbie-friendly and general (#1) to the most advanced and/or specialized (#9). The lower-numbered books aren’t necessarily better than the higher-numbered ones, but they are generally more accessible.
The Celtic and Germanic peoples, including the Norse, shared very similar mythologies. This shouldn’t be surprising, since they shared similar ways of life, lived in similar lands, spoke similar languages, and shared a common ancestry. So if you’re into Norse mythology, chances are you’d get a lot out of Celtic mythology, too. If you’ve come to this page for that reason, you might want to take an especially close look at #5, H.R. Ellis Davidson’s Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions.
If you find this list to be helpful enough that you decide to buy one or more of the books listed here, the best way you can say “thank you” is to buy whatever you decide to buy through the Amazon.com links provided at the end of each book’s description. When you do, I automatically get a small commission on your purchase with no extra cost or hassle for you whatsoever.
Without further ado:
1. Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis
For the reader who’s looking for an entertaining introduction to Celtic mythology that focuses squarely on the stories themselves, Peter Berresford Ellis’s Celtic Myths and Legends delivers that exceptionally well. His retellings of the Celtic tales make for a very fun and pleasurable read.
Ellis is a talented and esteemed Celtic scholar as well as creative writer, and although the book is completely nontechnical, jargon-free, and reads as fiction rather than nonfiction, the reader can sense that this is the work of an accomplished professional in the field.
The book assumes no prior knowledge of Celtic mythology whatsoever, and is highly accessible and newbie-friendly. On the whole, Celtic Myths and Legends is probably the best book on the subject for most total beginners. Click here to view or buy Celtic Myths and Legends at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 42% from the list price.
2. Celtic Gods and Heroes by Marie-Louise Sjoestedt
Just about every book on the Celts that was published after the 1940s cites Marie-Louise Sjoestedt’s Celtic Gods and Heroes frequently, and with good reason. This book has stood the test of time remarkably well, and remains the quintessential scholarly introduction to Celtic mythology.
While Sjoestedt does retell a few of the most important tales of Celtic mythology, those stories are embedded within conceptual discussions of Celtic mythology and religion. The point is not the stories themselves, but rather what the stories show us about how the Celts experienced the world and its divine inhabitants. Accordingly, Sjoestedt groups her material according to some of the major themes in Celtic religion so that those themes can be explored in depth.
Her writing style is another one of this book’s major strengths. While intellectually rigorous, the book is never dry. At times, the words seem to glow on the page.
And despite its rigor, the book assumes no prior knowledge of its subject.
Highly recommended for anyone who’s looking for a scholarly, conceptual introduction to Celtic mythology and religion. Click here to view or buy Celtic Gods and Heroes at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 5% from its list price.
3. Celtic Mythology by Proinsias Mac Cana
Proinsias Mac Cana’s Celtic Mythology (hey, I warned you that these books all have deceptively generic names) is, like Sjoestedt’s Celtic Gods and Heroes, a book that you’ll find referenced over and over again in the scholarly literature and in the derivative, “me too” introductory books on Celtic mythology. It’s another one of the landmark works in this field.
Like Sjoestedt, Mac Cana considers the material conceptually and analytically. When he recounts a story from Celtic mythology, it’s to illustrate a bigger point about the Celtic worldview, not to simply tell a story. His writing style is outstandingly lucid and to-the-point, which enables him to convey a very large amount of information and ideas in a relatively short space. Also like Sjoestedt, he’s most interested in the underlying patterns in Celtic mythology and religion, and doesn’t assume that the reader has any prior knowledge of the Celts.
Mac Cana’s Celtic Mythology and Sjoestedt’s Celtic Gods and Heroes complement each other very nicely, with differences in emphasis that contribute to a fuller picture than you’d be able to glean from either book alone. Click here to view or buy Celtic Mythology at Amazon.com.
4. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales by Alwyn and Brinley Rees
In Celtic Heritage, the Rees brothers provide an in-depth consideration of many of the recurring ideas in Celtic mythology, with a particular eye for the meaning of these motifs and the positions they occupied within the structure of Celtic mythology and religion as a whole.
But the book focuses on different themes than Sjoestedt or Mac Cana (above) do. It also draws extensively from later folk traditions from the Celtic lands, especially Wales and Ireland, and compares them with what we know of pre-Christian Celtic religion.
In addition to providing a rich and detailed look at a beautiful and compelling cosmology and philosophy, the book is often able to demonstrate that echoes of this cosmology and philosophy have resounded powerfully in folk traditions well into the modern era.
While the book doesn’t assume any prior knowledge, it’s certainly helpful to have read something like Sjoestedt or Mac Cana (above) before tackling this one due to its level of detail. Click here to view or buy Celtic Heritage at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 24% from the list price.
5. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions by H.R. Ellis Davidson
Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson was one of the giants of the scholarly study of the mythology and religion of the Norse and other Germanic peoples. Most of her books, such as Gods and Myths of Northern Europe and The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, were written for a general audience, and they’ve delighted, inspired, and stimulated scholars and laypeople alike for many decades.
Toward the end of her very productive life, she turned her attention to the mythology and religion of one of the Germanic peoples’ neighbors, the Celts. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe was her highest achievement during this period.
The book compares the mythology and religion of the Celts to that of the Norse and other Germanic peoples, illustrating many of the powerful and compelling commonalities between the two traditions. This approach is especially important since the sources of our knowledge of the Celts and Germanic peoples are few in number and written at a late date, usually by people who had already converted to Christianity. None of them provide anything close to a full or comprehensive picture, but all of them have clues to contribute.
What Ellis Davidson did in this book is assemble those clues and provide as close to a full or comprehensive picture of pre-Christian northern European religion as she could. The fact that she drew on both Celtic and Germanic sources enabled her to form and present a fuller picture than would have been possible to by drawing on the material of either one of those two closely-related traditions alone.
Like the other books on this list, no prior knowledge on the reader’s part is assumed.
Highly recommended for anyone who’s interested in either Celtic or Norse/Germanic mythology, and for those who are interested in both, this book is simply indispensable. Click here to view or buy Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 16% from the list price.
6. Early Irish Myths and Sagas translated by Jeffrey Gantz
Now we come to the primary sources on Celtic mythology from the ancient and medieval worlds – in English translation, of course. Since the single greatest source of our current knowledge of Celtic mythology and religion comes from Old Irish literary works, any list of primary sources on the Celts should start with those Irish pieces. (For those of you who are familiar with Norse/Germanic mythology and religion, Irish literary sources occupy roughly the same position with regards to the mythology and religion of the Celts as do the Icelandic literary sources with regards to the mythology and religion of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples.)
Early Irish Myths and Sagas is an anthology of many of the most important of these texts, and it’s the perfect place for someone new to Old Irish literature to start. These are epic tales of adventure, heroism, romance, mystery, and magic – greatly entertaining and moving as well as educational. Click here to view or buy Early Irish Myths and Sagas at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 35% from the list price.
7. The Tain translated by Thomas Kinsella
The Táin Bó Cuailnge (“Cattle Raid of Cooley”) is a prose epic that forms the centerpiece of the so-called “Ulster cycle” of Celtic mythology. It tells the story of the formidable deeds of Cú Chulainn, a son of the god Lugh and perhaps the foremost of all of the Celtic heroes.
While the tale is largely concerned with happenings amongst humans, several Celtic divinities make appearances at various points, and scholars debate the degree to which many of the human characters themselves are actually deities whose true identities may have been censored by the Christian monks who recorded the story. Thomas Kinsella’s translation is highly evocative and full of life and energy. Click here to view or buy The Tain at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 14% from the list price.
8. The Mabinogion translated by Sioned Davies
The Mabinogion is a collection of Welsh stories that were written down in the fourteenth century, but whose origins lie in oral traditions from earlier times. Scholars debate just how old these stories actually are, and just how much authentic Celtic mythology they contain. But the Mabinogion does contain numerous mythological elements, many of which have certain parallels in the surviving records of the mythology of Ireland and Gaul. Whether one sees those elements as genuine pre-Christian survivals, whimsical productions of a later age, or some combination of both, the Mabinogion is a text with which one must grapple in forming one’s own views about Celtic mythology and religion. Fortunately, if you’re into medieval romances, the Mabinogion should be right up your alley, anyway.
While the writing style of many of the other available translations is wooden and awkward, Davies’s is flowing and natural, with no affected loftiness nor affected casualness. And while many editions of the Mabinogion only present select parts of it, this edition presents the work in its entirety. Click here to view or buy The Mabinogion at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 42% from its list price.
9. The Celtic Heroic Age edited by John T. Koch and John Carey
Continuing with the primary sources, Koch and Carey’s The Celtic Heroic Age is an anthology of texts from ancient and medieval writers on the pre-Christian mythology and religion of the Celts. Some of the writings included in this volume will be familiar to those who have already read Early Irish Myths and Sagas, The Tain, and the Mabinogion. However, many of the other pieces included here will not be. These include lesser-known but still highly relevant texts from the Celtic countries themselves, from ancient inscriptions to medieval folktales.
But the real centerpiece of The Celtic Heroic Age is the writings on the Celts from ancient Greek and Roman authors, which are one of the most significant sources for our current knowledge of the Celts’ world, including, of course, their mythology and religion. All of the significant classical sources are here, including Julius Caesar, Posidonius, Tacitus, Strabo, and many others. Collecting them all here in one volume, together with so many other texts on the Celts, is an accomplishment that will be of great value to any serious student of the Celtic world. Click here to view or buy The Celtic Heroic Age at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 20% from the list price.
10. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend by Miranda Green
When studying any mythology, names and other proper nouns can sometimes come and go as densely and rapidly as in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example. Just as readers of Tolkien tend to appreciate his work much better if they’re armed with a dictionary or at least glossary of key terms in Tolkien’s works, so it is with any mythological system. Celtic mythology is certainly no exception in this regard. Those with a dictionary on the topic will make progress much more quickly and with less frustration, and end up with a more thorough mastery of the subject.
Miranda Green’s Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend is hands down the best such book out there. The other dictionaries of Celtic mythology on the market today are all essentially just watered down and less detailed versions of Green’s book. Where the other dictionaries offer a short blurb for each entry, Green in many cases offers a short article. And since Green is one of the leading archaeologists of the Celtic world today, you can be sure that what you’re reading is top-notch in terms of its accuracy. Click here to view or buy Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend at Amazon.com.
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