Posted by: Nyxks | February 21, 2007

Taliesin The Last Celtic Shaman

Taliesin the Last Celtic Shaman
by John Matthews with Caitlin Matthews © 1991, 2002
Inner Traditions
330 pages + Bibliography and Index
ISBN 0-89281-863-7
$16.95 (U.S.) $26.95 (Canada)
Reviewed by: Mike Gleason

John Matthews is a long-time student of the Celts (thirty years) and is acknowledged internationally as an authority on Grail and Arthurian legends. He currently resides in England and teaches throughout Europe and America.

Mr. Matthews has written more than 40 books on Arthurian and Celtic themes, while Caitlin Matthews has authored nearly as many. Between the two of them, the amount of scholarship on Celtic themes is most impressive.

This is a second edition, and benefits from the increased research and scholarship which a decade has provided. It is not the final word on the subject of Taliesin, nor is it the most scholarly. It is a welcome addition to the field in that it provides an easily understandable overview of a subject which is too little spoken about by any but those who have proclaimed themselves experts. The Matthews accomplishments in this field speak for themselves.

The subtitle of this work may be a little misleading, since there have, obviously, been other shamans since Taliesin’s time. Perhaps “The Last Great Celtic Shaman or “The Greatest Celtic Shaman” might have worked as well (or better).

I knew very little about the work of this Celtic bard and shaman besides generalities. I had never read more than extracts of his work, so I wasn’t sure what I was letting myself in for when I requested this volume.

This book consists of new translations of his poetry, as well as commentaries by the author. The Select Bibliography consists of over 300 entrees and is most impressive all by itself.

The author provides translations of Taliesin’s poetry, both those made by him and by others. He freely acknowledges that there is no way to determine, accurately, the original form and content of these poems through the intervening centuries. What he offers are his interpretations of what these poems most likely conveyed at the time of their origin.

He also takes the time and effort to provide background on the Celtic life and customs, as we understand them. He does not insist that his translations are better or more accurate. In fact, he uses the work of others to present different interpretations.

Throughout the book he makes assumptions which vary from those which have become “traditional” or accepted, but he takes pains to point these out as his own assumptions and how they differ from the more accepted ones.

The last 50 pages or so of this book consists of translations of the major mythological poems attributed to Taliesin, along with commentaries upon them. Most of these translations (there are a total of 27 poems translated, with excerpts from 3 more) are new translations by the authors. I’m not a Welsh scholar, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of these authors’ translations.

Speaking as someone with minimal familiarity with the subject to begin with, I found the book engaging and easy to understand. It was clearly written and obviously aimed at the non-specialist. Mr. Matthews clearly knows his subject matter, yet still retains the ability to speak to, rather than down to, someone without his wide background.

Those who specialize in this field may not find it as valuable as I did, but for the individual who is beginning his or her Celtic studies, I feel it would be a valuable addition to their library.

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