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Hey kids! It's time for another...

Bad History Rant!

Today's rant is brought to you by a particular song from Night of Hunters by Tori Amos. Now, given that we should generally take history from pop songs with a whole damned salt mine, "Battle of Trees" perpetuates a steaming pile of New Age cow pattie that was debunked a really long time ago. The problem, then, is that this cow pattie persists and sticks to popular culture.

Now the song itself is largely just very confused poetry, (Cad Goddeu is a mediaeval Welsh poem probably penned by Urien Rheged's songwriter-for-hire, Taliesin, and much of the Amos song concerns Ireland. No, they are not the same country) but there was a particular phrase that had me thinking "Oh you can't be serious":

So when the church
Began to twist the old myths
They built their own Tower of Babel
From Ulster to Munster

Say what?

The whole song might be a silly bit of nonsense, but this was the piece de resistance of a ditty filled with bad, bad history. And it's all probably Robert Graves' fault. Again.

"Battle of Trees" references the Ogham alphabet or technically Beith-luis-nin, which, unlike the Roman, is actually a combined alphabet/glyph set. It is not a runic set like in the old Norse writing system, and it was specifically developed by an unknown scribe who was intensely familiar with Latin for a language that, up until that point, was entirely oral. (Which is why it is considered to be an alphabet: it has a Latin base) I won't get into too much detail about the many theories of it because this is one of those few times where the wiki article is actually reliable. (And if you want links to functional fonts, there's the Omniglot page) But I will say this: if you want to make up a fantasy about Norse and Christian invaders (and at the time, as the wiki page notes, the Irish were much more concerned with Roman invasion: the final Norse invasion was in 1014 and was the standard rape-and-pillage shtick until they were absorbed into Irish culture, and Christian conversion was done from the inside out) suppressing a 'Goddess religion' that wouldn't be invented for at least another thousand years, you'd probably be better off skipping allusions to an alphabet that might have been developed by those nasty patriarchal Christians.

The subject matter is also pretty dodgy: poets. Here's where Amos at least gets a little bit correct: poets were an important class in pre-Christian Ireland, (and even Christian mediaeval Ireland! It wasn't until successive English suppression that poets as a class were downgraded) and there were more than a few satire 'wars' between poets. But there was not anything particularly mystical about this, and it wasn't quite as psychologically devastating as Amos would have you believe. Imagine if Jon Stewart and P. J. O'Rourke started a 'flame war' with each other (and these wars were nothing if not pure politics) and you can start to get the idea.

I think what ultimately happened here is that poor Amos mistakenly thought Robert Graves was an actual reliable scholar than just a simple poet with no idea what the hell he was babbling on about when he crapped out all his airy theories about goddess spirituality. Aside from all the other things that any layman pan-Celtic scholar can tell you is bullcrap, Graves wasn't privy to the common academic knowledge that by the 14th century, most native paganism had been largely abandoned. (Yes, abandoned, not suppressed or stamped out) In fact, according to Wiccan scholar Catherine Noble Beyer, Graves said of his own work:
Some day scholars will sort out the White Goddess grain from the chaff. It's a crazy book and I didn't mean to write it. (Graham Harvey, Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth (New York University Press, 1997), page 26.)

Moreover, as I've pointed out before: pre-Christian Celtic (which, by the way, there was not just one singular 'Celtic' belief system!) religion was not -- I say again, NOT -- matriarchal. There was no 'Goddess in all her aspects' -- each goddess in pre-Christian religion was unique and many times didn't get along at all -- and Celtic cultures practically bathed in testosterone. We are talking about a culture dedicated to the big hairy manly man... and in many ways, that is still the cultural ideal.

Yes, that's right folks: Celtic cultures are still alive and well in spite of being dirty filthy Catholics (or Protestants if you're talking Scots and Welsh). And I don't mean due to pachoili-drenched, drum-beating, Goddess-worshipping hippies; if you want to know what pre-Christian Ireland was like, head to the football (soccer) stadium the next time Ireland plays England. If that is not your idea of a rollicking good time, you wouldn't have liked pagan Britain all that much.

Lastly, "twist the old myths" is such a hysterically bad line I don't even know where to begin. As Ronald Hutton points out, Christian monks who ended up recording the tales were probably largely ignorant of the traditional paganism of their country rather than outright hostile; by the time they recorded the oral tales, many Irish had already been converted. And as I've pointed out, most of them were simply recording the tales as best they could from poets who themselves had been Christianised and changed it themselves. Irish history isn't the place to look if you want to pretend your ancestors went through some exciting persecution. Sadly, most regular history was actually pretty boring.

And that's really what I find wrong with "Battle of Trees" on a philosophical level. The insults to history and lack of respect for the things that really happened are bad enough. Celtic storytelling embellishes, but there's a small grain of truth within the crazy stories. Making crap up out of your own crazy imagination is a whole other arena.
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June 2015


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