The Crane Bag

Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition

by Anne Ross
Columbia, 433, 96 plates pp., $25.00

This beautifully produced book with splendid photographs of what archaeologists call “cult objects” has a misleading title: Pagan Celtic Britain. “Pagan” properly refers to the superstitious survival of pre-Christian beliefs in country villages remote from a Christian city; yet most of Dr. Anne Ross’s exhibits date from before the arrival of Christianity. And “Celtic” is properly applied only to the Aryan invaders who, under the Greek name of “Celti” or “Galates,” and the Latin name of “Galli,” invaded Europe and Asia Minor in the Iron Age, reaching the British Isles in two waves: Goidels, or Q-celts, in the seventh century B.C., and Brythons, or P-celts, in the fifth. The Goidels imposed their language and customs on the even more gifted non-Aryan Bronze Age agriculturists who over a thousand years before had come to the British Isles from North Africa, one horde by way of Central Europe and Norway, another by way of Spain.

Dr. Ross’s chief interest lies in Roman Britain and she includes among her illustrations not only pre-Celtic pieces, which she styles “Proto-Celtic,” but such later non-Celtic work as a Roman statue of Mars with his usual woodpecker crest. About a third of her photographic subjects come from France, Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere on the Continent. Yet the legendary material that she relies on is almost wholly Irish—if only because the Romans had never reached Ireland and destroyed its Druidic culture, as in Gaul and Britain, and because Irish poets in the early Middle Ages who inherited this culture were therefore better educated and held in far greater esteem than their abased Welsh or Scottish contemporaries.

As a girl of seventeen, Dr. Ross had done what anthropologists call “field work” by learning Gaelic for six months in a West Highland peasant’s hut. Then after graduating at Edinburgh, she took an educational job in the same Goidelic region, but later returned to Edinburgh for a degree in Celtic studies and a Ph.D. in Celtic archaeology.

At Edinburgh, a most academic university, she forgot, it seems, how to think in Gaelic crofter style, which means poetically, and grew afraid of having her newly acquired scientific intelligence warped by any magic material she might handle in the course of excavation. Last year, by the way, a gifted young woman friend of mine, a lecturer in anthropology at a London College mainly devoted to scientific research, was forced to resign her job. As she explained to the Dean, one cannot lecture on primitive magic without giving it at least de facto recognition for its effectiveness; and all her students jeered at her unscientific credulity.

I hope Dr. Ross will forgive me if I reject the established view that an ichthyologist knows more about the nature of the fish he studies than the fish themselves do. One can prove that by putting an ichthyologist naked in a sealed water tank and telling him, or her, to behave like a fish for just three minutes…. The truth is …

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Letters

The Crane Bag October 26, 1967