Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Andreas Hofeneder (ed.), Die Religion der Kelten in den antiken literarischen Zeugnissen, Band III: Von Arrianos bis zum Ausklang der Antike. Sammlung, Übersetzung und Kommentierung. Mitteilungen der Prähistorischen Kommission, 75. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2011. Pp. 640. ISBN 9783700169970. €91.00.

Reviewed by Alexander Falileyev, Aberystwyth University (axf@aber.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

The first volume of Die Religion der Kelten in den antiken literarischen Zeugnissen by Andreas Hofeneder was published by the Austrian Academy of Sciences in 2005. It was followed by the second volume three years later. This became an event of considerable importance, highly appreciated by scholars of various disciplines worldwide. The publication of its final part in 2011 completes the corpus.

Celtic mythology has been and still remains a subject popular with academics and lay people alike. The insurmountable amount of publications on this topic appearing every year varies in size, importance, methodology and targeted audience. It should be admitted, however, that the phrase Celtic mythology itself is to a certain extant controversial. The term Celtic used as a modifier is the target of skepticism among scholars of various disciplines, with the notable exception of linguistics, where the concept of Celtic languages is undisputable. Indeed, Celtic archaeology or Celtic spirituality, for example, are very much criticized notions; and the validity of naming a discipline Celtic mythology depends on our understanding of the term Celtic. 1 On top of that, there are various ways of studying mythological issues which are well reflected in the existing scholarly literature. To cut the story short, one of the basic problems facing a student of comparative mythology doing his research predominantly based on texts, is to form an opinion on the possible relationships among the passages, found, say, in Posidonius's accounts of the Continental Gauls and medieval Irish sagas, bearing in mind that the former offers a view of a Greek looking at Barbarian practices and that the latter were written down in monastic milieux.2 If a genetic relationship is accepted, , the notion of Celtic mythology coincides with that of Celtic linguistics, and if not, the classification "Celtic," as used for example by linguists, becomes to a large extent irrelevant, and we should rather speak in terms of Gaulish and Medieval Irish mythology. Moreover, a question arises regarding ancient times and sources: what will be the justification for considering together data pertaining to the Gauls and to, say, the Celt-Iberians in modern Spain, who spoke languages which were apparently mutually unintelligible, even though they both go back to a Common Celtic stock.

This may seem to be a somewhat oversimplified statement of course, but the core issue remains. One should also take into consideration that a discussion of (to use the term conventionally) Continental Celtic mythology is based predominantly on the study of Greek and Latin texts, with other data, particularly archaeological, used to complement it. Needless to say, the majority of these texts have been the focus of scholarly attention for centuries. Ironically, before Hofeneder, there had never been an all-inclusive complete collection, to say nothing of summarizing accompanying discussions of the whole corpus.

The third volume covers the data, as the subtitle to the volume tells us, Von Arrianos bis zum Ausklang der Antike, and indeed the first passage the author surveys here is a fragment of De rebus physicis by Arrianos. The book ends with a discussion of evidence provided by a XIIIth century Byzantine text and a passage from a tract by the XVIth century Italian humanist Natale Conti, and therefore, strictly speaking, goes beyond the defined chronological period, although this of course should not be regretted. The lay-out of the publication, as expected, follows the model accepted in the previous volumes, with the relevant data usefully cross-referenced. Each passage presented in the book contains the original Greek or Latin fragment provided with a German translation and followed by a very comprehensive discussion. The fragments are arranged chronologically, and they also include glosses and later commentaries on the works of earlier authors, as well as a number of place-names recorded, say, in the Antonine Itinerary or Ravenna Cosmography. This very welcome consideration of geographical sources in a book dedicated to mythology is absolutely appropriate, as a comprehensive study of the mythological component say of the Gaulish onomastic (toponymic) landscape is still to be done. Several passages presented and discussed by Dr Hofeneder may at first glance seem to be unrelated to the topic, but the author convincingly and persuasively advocates for their relevance.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is an outstanding work. The author apparently—judging by the abundant references to purely textual matters and his own insights and regular comments on philological cruxes of Latin and Greek passages—is an expert in Classical philology, and his proficiency in Celtic studies (to use it as a general term, linguistics included) is beyond any doubt. As a result of the author's competence in these disciplines, accompanied by methodological clarity and abundant references, we have now at our disposal a definitive corpus of Greek (including Byzantine) and Latin sources related to the mythology of the peoples of Continental Europe who were called by various authors Gauls, Galatians, Celts, etc.3 It should be stressed that the volume as well as the publication in general goes far beyond mythology, and raises enough historic, ethnographic and other issues to become a standard source-book (if not a starting point) for anyone involved in the study of the vexed prehistory and sometimes problematic history of the "Celts" or Celtic languages, to name just two disciplines.

An undertaking of this scope and at such a high level—and it must be underlined again that this is one man's work!— necessarily contains passages which may be subjects for criticism, further comments or additional bibliographic references. Thus, for example, the analysis of the Atecotti and Scotti on p. 378-9 could be considerably enhanced;4 or the connection of Vettonian Vaelicus with Irish fáel 'wolf' (on p. 41) may well be revisited. This list could of course be continued, but it should not even look like a reprimand to the author: in fact we are all grateful to Dr Hofeneder for encouraging further opinions and discussion of the data he has scrupulously presented and thoroughly analysed. The book is excellently published and well proof-read; the number of misprints is negligible5 The volume is supplied with useful indices (p. 586f.). The publication of the third part of Die Religion der Kelten in den antiken literarischen Zeugnissen will be thus welcomed by scholars of Classics and Celtic studies, experts in comparative religious studies and historians, experienced academics and undergraduate students alike.


1.   On this set of matters see a recent comprehensive discussion by Simon Rodway, Celtic - Definitions, Problems and Controversies, in In search of Celtic Tylis in Thrace, ed. Lyudmil Vagalinsky (Sofia 2010), p. 9-32.
2.   Cf. e.g., Bernhard Maier, Comparing Fled Bricrenn with classical descriptions of continental Celts: parallels, problems and pitfalls, in Fled Bricrenn: reassessments, ed. Pádraig Ó Riain (Dublin 2000), p. 1–14.
3.   The three volumes of Die Religion der Kelten in den antiken literarischen Zeugnissen contain more than 1600 pages (of A-4 format) in comparison to just over a hundred pages of Fontes Historiae Religionis Celticae by Ioannes Zwicker (Berlin 1934).
4.   See references provided in A. Falileyev, rev. Kim McCone, The Celtic Question: Modern Constructs and Ancient Realities (Dublin 2008), in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 62 (Winter 2011), 89-92, at p. 91.
5.   Such as Gaule instead of Gaul on p. 578; note that some misprints in the first two volumes are corrected in Corrigenda on pp. 572-573.

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