The Book of Better Than Nothing: Overly Sarcastic Productions and The Book of Invasions
YouTubers Overly Sarcastic Productions have just put out a look at Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Book of Invasions. It’s an Irish medieval pseudohistory consisting of a mash up between Christianity and local pre-Christian traditions:
The presenter spends a fair amount of time complaining about the Christian overlay. Specifically, that we can no longer easily disentangle those elements that reflect genuine pre-Christian traditions from later Christian ones. For those – like the presenter – who just want to learn about the pre-Christian traditions, the result is frustrating.
While I can understand the frustration of the presenter, there is nevertheless an elephant in the room here. An elephant that is the reason I am writing this blog post.
Those eleventh century Irish monks who put together The Book of Invasions are the only reason we have any of these stories. At all.
It is not as though there was a wealth of pre-Christian Irish texts just sitting there, before the Christians went and tore it all up. The pre-Christian Irish did not write their stories down – it was a purely oral tradition. For the stories to survive to the modern era, the stories needed to be written down… else they would be lost forever. And by the time those anonymous monks sat down to preserve their culture with vellum and quill, Christianity had been in Ireland for some six hundred years.
Now, it goes without saying that an eleventh century monk did not have the mindset of a twentieth or twenty-first century researcher. For our monk, there were really two ways of viewing the mythology of their ancestors…
(1) It was a false mythology, full of devils, and designed by malevolent forces to endanger souls.
(2) It was a worthwhile tradition, worth preserving as a memory of bygone times (Irish monasteries had long preserved countless classical era texts, because Ireland was out the way of the general European chaos of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries).
Note that our eleventh century Irish monk was not alone in this quandary. The Beowulf poet a few centuries earlier faced much the same issue. Ditto Snorri Sturluson in Iceland a couple of centuries later. And so on. It was a balancing act of wanting to preserve the old lore of one’s people, without actually wanting to damn oneself to Hell, or get in trouble with authority.
So our monk took a middle-ground. Editing the material to bring it into line with Christianity meant that one could preserve it (to some degree) without endangering anyone. Beowulf does much the same, albeit in a less clunky manner. It’s also a very medieval approach – rather than the more modern view of discarding older rejected ideas, the medievals were very keen on synthesising them, to iron out the discrepancies.
Sure, went the reasoning, those older ideas may be wrong… but they weren’t entirely wrong, and there might be some useful intellectual building material in there. A couple of centuries later, Saint Thomas Aquinas went to town on Christianising Aristotle (and awoke a fair bit of controversy as a result). Another Irish-Christian mash-up was the Voyage of Saint Brendan, a popular medieval melding of the old Irish Immram story with the Bible. Unlike The Book of Invasions or the Immram genre (Old Irish), the Voyage of Saint Brendan was written in Latin. Cultural mixing and creativity, and all that.
In other words, rather than bashing our eleventh century monk for tinkering with the unpolluted purity of Irish mythology, I’d say we owe him a debt of gratitude, just as we owe thanks to Snorri for helping preserve Norse material. The alternative to our monk’s work isn’t the record of a faithful, pagan mythos. It’s no record of a mythos at all. Sure, we might wish he had done things differently, but it’s the fact that he did this work at all that counts.