Celtic Heritage

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athelia143's picture

Author: Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees

Publisher: Thames and Hudson

ISBN Number: 0-500-27039-2

Publication Date: 1961 (Reprinted in 1990)

Reviewed by: athelia143


The art of telling a story to illustrate an event in life or a lesson to be learned is one that is practiced by nearly all cultures and most religious organizations around the world.  The Celts valued the ability to tell a story and storytellers and poets were held in high regard in society.  In their book, Celtic Heritage, Alwyn and Brinley Rees take a close look at Celtic stories and how they illustrate important aspects of Celtic culture.  I have always believed that stories and legends can tell just as much about the values and practices of a culture as scientific studies can, which is why Celtic Heritage appealed to me.  

To me, Celtic Heritage is like an onion with more details becoming apparent as one peels away the layers (reads on). At first, a chapter may just discuss a concept like the names of the provinces of Ireland, and then as one reads further, cultural aspects such as class system, personal roles, symbolic aspects of the provinces and how all of this is found in the myths are examined in more and more detail.  Myths and legends are used to support the cultural aspects being discussed and the true richness of the examined culture emerges.

Celtic Heritage is divided into three parts, which seems appropriate for a book of this nature:

  • Part One – The Tradition

The book’s introduction provides details of the importance Irish storytellers as late as the early sixties, when the authors were researching and writing the book.  The authors describe a kind of magic that comes from hearing a storyteller.  Good things can happen to those who host or just listen to the storyteller. Examples from the Rees' own experiences and research as well as that from other cultures are presented. There are some excellent descriptions of some of the storytellers and their environments which weaved a bit of storytelling magic of their own. The four cycles of Irish Mythology and what their characteristics are are examined as well as the branches of the Mabinogion and how they compare.

  • Part Two – The World of Meaning

The reader is taken deeper into the culture of the Celts and how they might have lived. I enjoyed how the authors investigated a separate part of Celtic culture in detail using the mythology, folklore and scholarly research to illustrate their points in each chapter.  Throughout the rest of Part Two – The World of Meaning, the reader is treated to an abundance of information about Irish and Welsh “geography” and the intricate symbolism surrounding them. I believe this chapter would have been significantly enhanced if the same detailed research had been done for Wales (travelling in Wales, talking with people as well as investigating the Mabinogion) as was done for Ireland.

  • Part Three – The Meaning of Story

Each section begins with simplicity and slowly draws the reader into an exquisitely detailed account of the concept being examined. While the reader is introduced to the ‘cycles and personages’ of the stories at the beginning of the book, it is speculated by the authors here that perhaps the storytellers of old did not categorize them by cycle, but rather by type. This would make sense since stories were often told to enhance certain events. It is explained by the authors that the telling of certain stories at certain events would provide benefit, as if the story itself was a blessing or a working of magic. As a Toastmaster, I find that having a story for every occasion is useful when giving a prepared or even an impromptu speech.

Two lists of classifications are given, taken from Irish sources, such as the Book of Leinster.  A translated pre-amble to the first list is given, which details how many tales there are and which stories are restricted to be told by certain classes of people.  As well, it is speculated that certain stories may not be told to the general public by these specific classes of people. 

The chapters following examine the various classes of stories with apologies that the authors could not tell them all since ¾ were missing and there were just too many to share. The manner in which the stories are presented by the authors is a beautiful cross between science and art, in my opinion.


The first time I read Celtic Heritage was when I was about sixteen and just starting out on the Druid path. It had just been reprinted and I had found it in a bookstore after seeing it listed in several bibliographies. The book took a long time to read due to its dry scholastic nature yet I found it fascinating in a way that only someone who is deeply interested in a topic can be. At the time, I found that I could not really absorb much since most of the concepts were still very new and therefore alien to me. 

Reading it now, I find I have a better understanding of the concepts and can see and enjoy the subtle details that are presented by the authors. The joy for me is in the ability to apply the knowledge in this book to certain areas of my life, such as my ritual style, family traditions as well as in my everyday life.

Celtic Heritage is a book that should be read more than once in order to fully grasp and appreciate the concepts being discussed. It is often considered "recommended reading" for beginners, but I would suggest that beginners read Celtic Heritage again after doing a lot of other reading and research on the aspects of Celtic culture to fully appreciate its worth. The more experienced reader will definitely find it a delight to read Celtic Heritage a second, a third or even a fourth time!

Celtic Heritage, storytelling, recommended reading
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cuardai's picture

Absolutely agree, I read it

Absolutely agree, I read it 3 times and each time I get something new out of it.

Tosach Eolais Imchomharc.
The beginning of knowledge is inquiry.