Sacred Symbols: The Celts
(Thames & Hudson, 1995)

I am by nature suspicious of the little "gift" books found for sale in every tourist site from Lancaster County's Amish Country to the ancient mound and chambers at Newgrange. Still, sometimes -- when the price is right -- impulse will spur me to pick up one of these books, even if its purchase labels me clearly for all to see as a tourist.

One such book is Sacred Symbols: The Celts, a wee hardback I picked up in a gift shop somewhere on a trip to England or Ireland ... I'm not sure which. And like many such books, it sat on a shelf, unread, for a good long time before I got around to paging through it.

OK, so it doesn't list an author anywhere on or in it. In fact, the only person credited anywhere by name is Mladinska Knjiga, who printed and bound the book in Slovenia. Otherwise, the only creator cited in the book is Thames & Hudson, a London publisher responsible for the Sacred Symbols series.

Already, I'm wondering if this was £655 (about $11.50 U.S.) poorly spent. After all, that money could have bought two frothy pints in a British pub! However, never fear, it turns out OK in the end.

This is by no means a scholarly work of any note. But as a hasty overview, it serves its purpose well, providing brief descriptions of various symbols, sites and practices, and providing excellent photos and examples throughout. The book includes entries such as standing stones, sacred wells and baths, the Tree of Life, metamorphosed gods and humans, warrior and hunter deities, mother goddesses, the Cauldron of Rebirth, phallic symbols (standing stones again, plus the chalk giant of Cerne Abbas in Dorset), torcs, heads and head-hunting, and human sacrifice. It touches on sacred animals -- bull, boar, dog, horse, stag and eagle -- and sites like the ancient Hill of Kings at Tara and the twin mounds of the "mountain goddess" in County Kerry.

There are numerous sources out there which provide greater detail on these topics. There are certainly better collections of photos, and anyone looking to do real research on any of these subjects should look elsewhere. But Sacred Symbols is a nice, if tiny, coffee table book, the sort of thing that people who wouldn't pick up a hefty tome on Celtic traditions might still browse through and enjoy. I don't have high praise for the publication, but at the same time I can't deride it, either. It was worth the money.

In short ... it's a cute little book.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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Also check out Ancient Egypt in the same series!