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Association of Polytheist Traditions

Confessions of a Celt

Copyright © by Robin Herne 2004

I have met Heathens who felt worn down by having to struggle against the constant assumption that they must be neo-Nazis ~ an assumption made not just by Christians or passing atheists, but by plenty of other pagans.

Being a Celt these days also feels pretty exhausting, not to say demoralising. No one (so far) has suggested that I parade around in jack boots... well, except that guy at the pub last Thursday, but let's not go there. Eclectic pagans and New-Agers claim virtually every and anything as Celtic, whilst some academics seem determined to prove that so few things are Celtic that the tribes can scarcely have had a culture at all. Geneticists and sociologists do battle as to who is "truly" Celt, and what it even means to be Celtic in the first place. Even amongst those who class themselves as pursuing a mystical path, constant battle rages as to who is more Celticier than thou. Let's not even get into the political factions who seem to think being a druid requires one to either support the IRA, or hate Romans, or loathe Saxons, or be of a certain bloodstock.

There are days when living in a cave, shielded from all human contact seems quite desirable. When I was a teenager spirituality appeared to be a cause for great uplift, calmness and communal bonding. Now I am thirty-something it feels like just another excuse for people to shout, posture and hate each other.

Just as there are a 100 brands of Wicca, so there are endless subsets that come, however loosely, under the banner of Celtic spirituality. There are Celtic Wiccans, Romantic druids, Revivalist druids, Gaelic Traditionalists, Celtic Reconstructionalists, Tuathans, Senistrognata, Aurrad, Wittans, Druidiactos, Fenians, Dryads, Ueledans and on and on it goes.

For this article I will describe a little of what I do, and why I do it. What I will avoid doing is adding yet another label to the heap, or try to add to the maelstrom by tearing apart other peoples practices.

I came to Paganism via books on Wicca. I was never initiated into a Wiccan coven, so I cannot claim to be part of any lineage. This interested me for a few years, but gradually I felt a greater and greater pull to study Celtic myths and early history. I helped found a Celtic study group in the winter of 1993, which quickly developed into a ritual group called Clan Oghma (the lord of language, poetry and storytelling being one of our dia-flaith, or patrons.). We've changed a lot over the years, but settled into a pattern that feels good. These days it's more family than anything else.

The widely held view of a Triple Goddess, of which all goddesses are but aspects, stopped ringing true for me. Increasingly the Gods seemed to be separate, individual beings. The more I read around Celtic lore, the more vibrantly did those Gods make themselves known to me. This led me to learn about polytheism as a philosophical stance.

I class my spiritual practice Celtic because I follow those deities honoured by tribes living in the British Isles during the Iron Age ~ whom many, if not all, historians call Celtic.

The rituals we perform for these Gods are not historical re-enactments of what the Ancient Britons were getting up to. Firstly, detailed evidence for their rituals is very slim indeed. Secondly, there is no indication of continuity in their rituals over time or place. A funeral rite conducted by the Iceni in 50 bce may well have been quite different from one conducted by the Brigantes in 200 bce. Instead of trying to replicate a piece of historical whimsy, we are trying to form meaningful relationships with our Gods in the 21st century. The rituals we perform are influenced by several factors ~ what the deity in question want us to do; what we actually have the resources or skills to do; what has a desirable spiritual impact on us.

The latter factor is important, because we are not slaves mindlessly making obeisance in a one-sided relationship. Not only must the ritual please the deity, but we need to get something out of it too.

Broadly speaking, we perform two main types of ritual. There are celebratory rituals, which usually give thanks for some good thing that has come to pass ~ the beauties of the changing seasons, an important event in a member's life etc. Then there are the magical rituals, performed only sporadically, which are geared at instigating some change in ourselves or the world around us.

Magical rituals are, for us, performed in conjunction with our spirits. On some occasions it is really more a request for divine intervention, whilst on others the magical force is raised by ourselves, but only after consultation with deities as to the wisdom of the action.

As well as Gods we also perform rituals geared at communicating with other spirits ~ such as ancestors, the Sidhe (sort of nature spirits), the bocain (rather like land wights) and so forth.

The pattern of our ceremonies was inspired by looking at the behaviour of the old tribes towards honoured guests. Gods are not invoked, because we feel that, if it wants, anything so powerful will turn up (if it is not there already) whether we ask it or not. Likewise, we do not invoke the spirits of place because they are already there. Rather, we address them. This may seem like semantic quibbling, but there is a mental approach that goes with summoning or calling down a spirit which, in these instances, we feel inappropriate for us. Some spirits do seem to require a formal invite ~ particularly the spirits of the dead.

Once a spirit has been formally greeted various forms of entertainment are laid on. These are fun activities that the spirit has expressed some interest (prior to the ceremony) in experiencing. Examples of things we have done include storytelling, praise poetry, mead brewing, sword fighting, making music, chanting, archery, cooking food and mulling wine, and drag hunting.

Having entertained them, that is when we get down to business. Through dercad (meditation), divination, and visionary experiences we establish a link with the spirits in question. They inform us of anything else they want done in future, we may ask for advice on personal matters, interventions (for which a reciprocal gift is made) and so forth.

Once all that is done, a feast is held and the spirits are thanked. If they disappear off into the Otherworld or continue to hover round this one, is entirely down to them.

In terms of annual festivals we hold to the four major Gaelic festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtainne, and Lughnasadh. Much debate can be seen in books as to exactly what these festivals meant to ye olde Brits. Personally I suspect they meant different things to different tribes at different periods. I doubt there was any definitive meaning to these festivities even in the pre-Christian world. Each year we commune with the Gods and let them guide us as to what they want done at that festival for that year. Last year we also held a midsummer ritual down at the beach to honour Manannan Mac Lir. There is some evidence of midsummer ceremonies to him being held on the Isle of Man, though the format that he requested did not involve any of the activities mentioned in the Manx records.

In addition to these major festivals, if a spirit puts in a request (filled in in triplicate, with at least 28 days notice) then we will hold other festivals on a one-off basis. One April we held a ritual to Blodeuwedd, which involved making mead from some of the plants mentioned in her myth, for example.

Sometimes Wiccan friends have asked me how we cast a Circle. As such we don't. However, many traditions have a sort of opening gambit which they do at the start of every ritual ~ either as a means of declaring the place sacred, or to focus the minds of participants, or get rid of bad vibes (or all of the above, and a few more things besides.) In this sense, we are no different. We have no idea what the ancient tribes did at the start of their ceremonies. Even if we did, there is no guarantee we would want to do the same. We have changed our format about a dozen times over, refining it, questioning the validity of doing it this way rather than that etc. The form we have finally settled upon (till the next big change) is to give our thanks to the spirit of the place for letting us ritualise there (having checked in advance that we could do so), to ask the goddess Nemetona to guard the ceremonial space from all unwanted intrusions and to make a series of toasts to the Gods to be honoured in ritual, the ancestors who guide us, and to each other for fellowship and support.

In outdoor rituals we pour libations on the roots of a tree. Indoors, we pour them into a cauldron which can be emptied later. In either case the tree or the cauldron forms a focal point to the ritual, and we process around it a certain number of times to mark the official start and finish of the ritual. We got his idea from the common practice in Celtic countries of circumambulating a special site. We like it, and the spirits donāt seem to mind.

The functions of druids in the ancient world is much debated, as is the question of how sensible it is to claim to be a druid in the modern one. Do I consider myself a druid? Sort of. Druids performed many functions for the old tribes. Some of them are beyond my league ~ I canāt imagine that I will ever end up advising monarchs! However, there are functions which I certainly perform in my daily life. I teach, perform ritual, commune with the same Gods, give guidance to people who seek it, study Celtic languages, live honourably, represent my faith at civic events etc.

The Book of Ballymote, a medieval Irish tome, describes various professions as having seven grades. Qualifications are given for each rank. Considerable detail is gone into of the Fili (poet) grades, but no mention is made of the Draoi or Faith (diviners) grades. Using the Fili grades for inspiration, along with a bit of mystic guidance, we have developed a workable proposal for what a druid or faith might be expected to know at each grade. The reason for doing this is to have something to work towards. Such grades have no validity outside of the group, but then they do not need to. Value in the eyes of one's tribe is more important than the opinions of strangers. The old tribes did not lay down a specific ethical code by which to live. There are books which give sayings and precepts from Scotland, Wales, Ireland etc. These have all been written down during the Christian period, though some of them may well express sentiments current amongst the pagan tribes. One of my favourite is the suaicheantas (motto) attributed to the Fianna, the war band of Fionn Mac Cumhail: "Strength in our hands, truth in our hearts, fulfilment on our tongues." Courage, personal integrity, eloquence and a passionate embrace of life ~ what more could I ask? It means that I have to make my own moral judgements about the choices life gives me. For further insights I can study the Brehon laws of old Ireland, though merely because people behaved one way a 1000 years ago, is hardly a cause for me to do the same now ~ unless, through reasoned approach, it seems like a wise idea.

Two aspects of the far past that do inspire me are tribalism and joie de vivre. Anomie and social isolation seem to be a normal state for so many people these days. With such a vast population, it is hard to see how we will ever be able to form tribal communities again. However, I do feel that such social unity is vital to our survival as a species. Not to mention our happiness as individuals.

Classical accounts of the Celtic tribes describe a loud bunch with a riotous enjoyment of life. I am nobodyās idea of a warrior, but most of the time I enjoy life. I enjoy being around people who are colourful, funny, forthright, eloquent and sybaritic. Most of the miserable people I know are inhibited, timid, subservient, fearful of seizing life and seldom getting any pleasure out of it. Passion brings its own problems, but I prefer it to being a colourless shade.

Trees, of course, play a strong role in Celtic religion. As a child I never enjoyed beach holidays ~ all that lounging about, sunburn and sand in strange places. Give me a woodland anytime. Trees are not the only important living things in my faith ~ animals, plants, rocks, rivers. Hell, even humans get a look in every so often! Experience convinces me that humans are far from being the only sentient thing on this planet. Part of my spiritual growth is forming relationships with the other living, thinking creatures around me. One of the common themes in Celtic myth is learning about a thing by becoming it.

I do not regard myself as reconstructing an ancient religion, but rather as forming mutually beneficial relationships with a tribe of deities who were once commonly reverenced in this land. A corollary of these relationships is that I also seek to form a link with those long dead people who knew these Gods. Their experiences can only better inform mine. I do not try to emulate them, but to learn from their example. I also have my own ancestors who take an interest in me, and those spirits who inhabit the places where I live or visit regularly. Plus some spirits whose interest is not so much in place as in activities.

To return, briefly, to the thorny matter of politics ~ what obligations do I have to the descendants of the people who used to worship Epona, Lugus, Brigantia and so forth? Learning to speak Welsh will not enable me to conduct rituals in the language of the ancient druids, in some wonderfully romantic manner. The languages spoken by tribes 2000 years ago are not the same as the ones spoken today, though they are related. However, learning a language will help me to more easily understand the myths, will improve my mental discipline, and helps to preserve something that has been pushed to the edge of extinction.

There is much to be had from preserving sites once sacred to my or related deities. Personally, I am more than happy to help support the reintroduction of those beasts once held sacred, and the spread of native trees and plants.

Matters of cultural preservation, for me, are much more ambiguous. Some people who follow Celtic religions get heavily involved in supporting Celtic political factions, or supporting the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. I have never been entirely clear why I should be supporting groups of murderous monotheists who have no relationship with my Gods, and who would probably be deeply antipathetic towards "godless pagans".

Likewise, I have never felt the urge to go on St Patrick's Day parades, merely because they are "Celtic". I have no desire to celebrate the life of a man who did his best to stamp out the worship of my Gods. I will not support activities merely because they are, in some tenuous manner or other, Celtic ~ unless they are engaging in something that is beneficial to myself or others on whom my Gods cast a benevolent eye.

What I desire to support, through money or time and effort, is specifically British polytheist culture and the diverse eco-system that birthed it. Those things which are hostile to it will get short shrift, no matter how Celtic they may be.