An Interview with Kathryn Price NicDhàna

Celtic Reconstructionism

 

             by C. Derick Varn

 

Derick Varn: How would you like to introduce yourself?

Kathryn Price NicDhàna: I am one of the people to blame for the Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan (CR) tradition and community.   Seen as religious fanatics by most uber-hip intellectuals, and overly intellectual by your garden-variety hippie/newage Pagans, we have still managed to carve out our little niche in the world for those seeking an authentic, culturally based, polytheistic Celtic tradition.  Or, we're working on it.  There is still a lot of work to do, but as we attract our share of workaholics, we are progressing fairly well.

I am 43, female, and live in the wooded mountains of Western Massachusetts with my best friends and a pack of canids.  In addition to being involved in CR since the proto-CR period in the '80s, I am a co-author of our tradition's two defining documents: the CR FAQ and the CR Tradition Essay.  I have founded or co-founded a variety of groups and two CR sub-traditions (Pàganachd Bhandia and Nigheanan nan Cailleachan).  In the '80s I was very involved in organizing and co-priestessing rituals in the broader Pagan community (sometimes huge rituals, for up to 700 people).  But in the '90s and '00s I've been more focused on my work with other CRs, my family and close friends.  It's been less dramatic, but generally more rewarding.

 

D.V.:  Well, let's dive right into the background. How do you see Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism as fitting into the larger "Pagan spectrum"?  You have already sort of indicated a divide.  Is it any different from the divide between most eclectic paganism and Polytheistic/Heathen Reconstructionists such as Asatru, Hellenismos, and Religio Roma?  Or are there specific issues that get CR's painted as Woad Wearing Fanatics (despite that fact that woad use is historically questionable and all).

KPN:  From what I've seen, I think the issues we face as CRs are pretty similar to those faced by other serious Reconstructionist traditions.

I see the broader Pagan community as an open marketplace where eclecticism prevails.  It can sometimes be a good place to meet people of diverse traditions, and look around for what you want to delve into; but there is also a tendency towards the lowest common denominator, and a large population of people who skate along on the surface and don't feel any need to go deeper into a specific tradition.

In America the predominant cultural roots of the Neopagan community are hippie, white and liberal. Though there have always been exceptions to this, historically, those are the predominant strains.  So, what you wind up with is a lot of people who have this unquestioned, very American, sense of entitlement and appropriation.  The ultimate authority is the individual self, and the primary rule is "if it feels good [to me], do it."  The problem is, these attitudes can wind up causing people to behave very offensively, both towards the tradition-bearers of the cultures they are looking to for their eclectic collection of practices, and even towards the Gods they claim to be worshipping.  This usually comes out of simple ignorance; most people don't *try* to be offensive. They just don't realize there is a fuller tradition that they could study, or perhaps they lack the humility and discipline to spend time learning before they try to lead.   Or maybe they're subtly racist, or xenophobic, and don't want to venture too far out of their comfort zones.  They'd rather sit around with other white people and pretend to be Native "shamans", or anything but what they really are.

In contrast, the Reconstructionist traditions are concerned with authenticity, and with a sense of community that doesn't necessarily put the individual first.  We believe in getting to know the traditions of our Deities very well and, in many cases, putting Their needs before our own.

In my late teens and early twenties, I spent a few years as an eclectic Pagan.  I think it's actually a healthy phase to go through when one is young and searching, but I personally think it's a sign of maturity to focus more as one ages, and commit to a tradition.  It's not for everyone, but that's how it progressed for me.   One of the reasons I became frustrated with the fantasy and rootlessness of so much of the Neopagan community is because I also became involved with traditional cultures such as Hinduism, Afro-diasporic traditions, and I was doing political work with some First Nations/Native American people.  I actually came very close to initiating into a traditional, Lucumi/Yoruba house.  But then I got drafted by my ancestors and their Goddesses, so it was CR for me.

As far as being "woad-wearing fanatics"... [laughs]  I really don't know why some people can't understand the difference between the words "Reconstructionist Religion" and "Historical Re-enactment".   They must not be listening when we stress how Reconstructionism is about revitalizing the lost parts of our polytheistic religions, but making them relevant to our lives today.  None of us wants to live in a flea-ridden, moldy roundhouse with no running water. Or, if some CRs do, the people they'll be living with will be their SCA buddies, not other CRs.

D.V.:  How do you see Celtic Recon developing that may be different from related religions such as Neo-Druidry or Gaelic Traditionalism or the Feri tradition?

KPN:  Whenever I think about the future of our tradition, I can't separate it out from the context of  what we are all facing as a human, global community. When I think of what the near future holds for us in terms of ecological crisis and the global political situation, I sometimes have to question if I'm wasting my time by focusing so much on religion and spirituality.  That said, I do feel that once one has done all one can to work on the world situation, having a sense of culture and community can be vital to sustaining us – so we can avoid burnout and continue to do the work we need to do in the world.  I am one of those people who needs to feel connected to something larger than myself – whether it's the human community I belong to, or the extension of that which includes our Deities, ancestors, and the spirits of the land.

I do see Celtic religion, and CR in particular, helping people live their lives in a way that can contribute to a better world.  We have a strong tradition of honor and personal responsibility – the idea that once you find your purpose, you uphold it honorably even if it means you die in the process. This is intrinsic to the warrior ethic that is interwoven with the basic mindset of Celtic culture. For many of us, being part of a warrior culture has invigorated our commitment to political and community activism. The belief that honorable behaviour is more important than a long life, and the faith that we live on beyond this lifetime, enabled our ancestors to fight with great courage.  Similarly, I've seen modern Celtic religion help people to be very courageous in standing up for what they believe is right.

A strong part of the Celtic mystical tradition is a reverence for nature.  This is especially seen in the poetic traditions.  While the ancient tales do contain examples of Deities and humans doing things like clearcutting, we have to understand that those stories are probably about things that did happen, but that there were penalties for it – for instance the Goddess Tailltiu clears the plains of Ireland for agriculture, but then she dies of exhaustion.  At the time these tales were written, there was no understanding of the global impact of local environmental decisions, and the over-population and ecological devastation we now face was not yet a problem.  The poetic tradition, in particular, is full of a love of nature, and a sense of the sacred in nature.   With the veneration of sacred trees and holy wells, and the belief that certain hills and mountains, lakes and streams are the abode of Deities and ancestors, the Celtic traditions can certainly nurture a sense of ecological responsibilty.  When you believe the Earth is the body of God, sacred to God, or the abode of many Goddesses, Gods and spirits, you are inclined to treat it better, in my opinion, whether you're a Celtic Christian or a Celtic polytheist.

As far as CR's influence on the broader Pagan communities, what I am really happy to see is an increasing awareness of the living Celtic traditions. It used to be incredibly common for Neopagans to act as if Celtic culture (and I include religion/spirituality as part of culture) was this dead thing; that they could pick a deity name out of a book, insert it into a Wiccan or Ceremonial format, or make up something out of pure fantasy, and call that result Celtic.  We've been working very hard over the past 15-20 years to educate people that that sort of thing is cultural appropriation, and actually harms Celtic culture. But along with all the people who still don't get it, we also have a lot more people who now understand these issues, who are studying the languages, and who are learning about the cultures and the real wealth of traditions instead of just making stuff up.  Though there's still a long way to go, and all kinds of hideous abuses are still happening, the situation has definitely improved and I assume that this will continue.

One valid criticism that has been made of CR is that we have a steep learning curve.  The bar is set rather high, and it can be off-putting to those who just want to join a group and not be a scholar.  In the areas where we have functioning households and larger groups, it is very possible for someone to just join that group and participate on a casual level. However, we don't have very many groups yet.  This can be frustrating to the casual member who just finds us on the Internet, or meets some CRs at a festival but doesn't live near enough to join their household.

Anyone coming to CR right now is still in the early waves of this tradition.  The older Neo-Druid groups (which are not specifically Celtic), and the magical systems like Feri (which is eclectic), have a significant head start on us.  When CR was just getting started, some of those traditions had already had over twenty years to thrash out their basics and build a foundation as a community.

In CR, a number of us have very well-developed personal practices, and we are involved in the broader, Celtic communities on a cultural level.  But in terms of community-wide, shared CR ritual structures, and enough people to have thriving CR ritual groups in every city and region, no, we're not there yet.  Right now most CRs practice on their own, or with household-size groups.  Though there have been some attempts to adapt individual and small-group practices to huge rituals, it is still something we're working out through trial and error.  I think our best efforts at doing large rituals have been to base them on the community celebrations from the living (or practiced up until very recently) traditions in the Celtic lands and pockets of the diaspora.

But people who are coming to CR from the Neopagan community tend to expect occult-type rituals for large groups.   They also tend to expect that these things will be immediately provided for them on a regular basis, without them having to contribute much work themselves.  Often they bring with them a newage attitude, and believe that the primary purpose of the ritual should be to provide them with an experience that bolsters their sense of uniqueness and self-importance.  In many cases they would prefer to pay a fee than work together to build community.  If that's what they're looking for, we may not be the place for them.

While no truly CR group or individual will ever provide a  "buy your power animal, be an Anciente Celtique Shamynne" type of exploitative experience, I do think we will be eventually providing a variety of larger, CR rituals for the broader community.
However, if large rituals include deeper, vision-seeking elements, they will by necessity be a somewhat new interpretation, as most of what we have in terms of actual, historical, Celtic visionary practices were traditionally limited to things done by individuals or very small groups.   But some things, such as the surviving pilgrimages to holy wells, or the practice of making offerings to the spirits, do involve deeper mystical practices that, while involving individual meditation and vision, can also be done in the company of other people.  And some of the really deep practices we know of *required* the presence of others as guardians and monitors.  With the aim of larger-group adaptations, I've been working on ritual structures that combine the traditional community celebrations with the known, Celtic mystical practices.  But even in a conservative approach like that, the hybrids will be a bit of a new creature.

Right now we are working on writing and publishing articles and books about how we do ritual, including practical suggestions for a personal practice when one can't find a group.  In our consensus tradition documents, we've needed to lay the conceptual groundwork, and our discussions of how we do ritual have been mostly confined to online communities and in-person colloquia.  Over the next few years, as we get more things published, it will become much easier for new people to begin a CR practice without becoming a scholar.

D.V.: Do you find it is difficult to get people to this sort of recon work in print and keep it there?   Is the Internet helping this any?

 

KPN: Very difficult.  I have a colleague who recently shopped their CR book around.  It was aimed at a popular audience; it included ritual scripts and practical, easy-to-use materials.  It was accessible to Wiccans and newbies.  It could have easily been marketed in a way that would have made money for the publishers.  It did not get a single nibble.  I just don't understand it.  Every month there's another pile of terribly written, completely derivative, often outright laughable, Neo-Wiccan books published. Obviously someone's buying them, but I find it alarming.  Friends of mine who give workshops on CR and traditional Irish storytelling have generally had a terrible time getting people to attend their presentations, while newage authors are filling, well, not huge halls anymore (because the fad is waning), but still fairly large rooms.

I've had book offers over the years, but so far none that suited me.  One new publisher, an editor I'd worked with before, made me a serious offer for a CR book; but they never really got their house together. Other anthologies have languished on publisher's desks and eventually been abandoned.  Once I wound up tearing up a contract when they wanted me to "change the focus" to better suit their inaccurate preconceptions.  Most of these people don't care if what they print is accurate, only whether or not it will sell.

I didn't even want to try jumping through the hoops to publish the CR FAQ with a mainstream publisher.  We worked so hard to get consensus answers that we could all live with, that going with a deal that would have meant giving up all editorial control was simply not an option.   So we are going to self-publish it and donate all proceeds to a Gaelic language preservation charity. In the process of preparing the manuscript and researching printers we are tentatively exploring setting up our own publishing house.  The FAQ will be our first book, and our test-run of the idea. Recently a small, print-on-demand house did express interest in publishing the FAQ.  But it was an awful deal.  They wanted to set the cover price much higher than we feel comfortable with, and then take 90% of the profits.  That division of the proceeds would be acceptable if they were an established publisher, who would invest considerable resources in promoting the book.  However, they weren't going to do that;  they expected us to do almost all the promotion and distribution ourselves.  So, we declined the offer. By self-publishing we will retain complete editorial control, keep the cover price lower, the profits higher, and all the money will go to our chosen charity.

The Internet is definitely helping.  We've been able to research a variety of publishing options, find a printer, and I believe we will be able to market the book fairly effectively, all because of the Internet. Additionally, a commercial publisher would almost certainly demand that we take the website version of the FAQ down, in order to sell more books.  We started the FAQ with every intention of it being a web document.  Doing the book was actually an afterthought – so people can have the option of a bound, print version that's more user-friendly than a bunch of loose printouts.  We're throwing in a few small extras for those who buy the book version – an index, glossary, and the knowledge that their money goes to language/cultural preservation – but the website is staying up so people will always be able to read it for free.

In terms of future books,  we'll see.  If the situation continues as it is, we will definitely be establishing our own publishing house.  If things change with any of the more established houses, and they want to publish us without savaging our content... it will just depend on how good a deal it is. 

D.V.:  This reason ask is sort of two fold, I know pretty much all the Reconstruction faiths, with the exception of Asatru/Heathenry, have the same problems keeping anything in print that isn't self-published.  This is true for Hellenismos and Religio Roma--there are scholarly books or ones on cafepress and that's it.   But the other is something I want to talk to you about... the Celts, more than almost any of the other pre-Christian cultures, get used in Romantic and New Age misinformation, and as you say, the bad stuff stays in print...   how has this sort of misinformation effected CR's development?

 

KPN: Most people interested in Celtic religion, especially of the Pagan variety, will head to their local bookstores or library.  And they will read what's available.  If all someone has access to are fantasy-based books, that's what they will soak up and incorporate into their belief system, and into their identity.  Almost all of us went through this in the beginning, to one extent or another.  Even though I had grown up in a family and community that had maintained a certain degree of Celtic culture (predominantly Irish and Scottish), because the few spiritual beliefs and practices that had survived were fragmentary and largely Christianized, I was also vulnerable to the books that swore Wicca was the secret stuff of the True Celtic Traditions.  It was far more exotic and attractive to me as a teenager than the simple things I already knew.

And even as I started to realize that a lot of what was in these books was wrong, and I tried harder to find information on actual Celtic polytheism, it was far easier to find Romantic Revival era books (with their outdated (but copyright free!) fantasies), or Newage crap, than real materials.  Not only was it "easier" to find that stuff, unless someone was in a good, University-level Celtic Studies program, that was *all* that was available to the layperson.  After years of using those inaccurate materials, I saw a number of people of my generation get so attached to the fantasies, that even though they now know better, they can't let go:  the fantasies and misinformation are too familiar to them after all these years, too entrenched.   To question those things would shake their sense of self, and their faith.

The thing that finally made it shift for me was when friends of mine went back to school and got seriously into Celtic studies.  We discovered scholarly books and papers, and the primary sources, and we started realizing that actual Celtic cosmology and theology have significant, foundational differences from what we'd learned in Wiccan covens and through Occult books.  At first it was shocking and disorienting so, believe me, I understand when some people new to CR are confused and react emotionally to these ideas. Those of us who started this tradition had to go through all those emotions, too.  In my case, I had so deeply wired my magical perceptions into the four-element/four-direction model, and the idea that "all Goddesses are aspects of the same Goddess" that it was a rough transition.  I had been a very confident Neopagan priestess, and the move into CR really took the courage to risk all of that:  to step into the void, start over, face confusion and disorientation, and go through neural repatterning. But it's been worth it.  I did it so I could go deeper with my Goddesses, ancestors and nature spirits, and so I could have a coherent symbol system that reflected my worldview and my heritage.

With the research my colleagues and I have undertaken in the old manuscripts and folkloric records, as well as in reconnecting with the living cultures, I've also received the gift of finding confirmation for some of the practices I learned as a child.  This has made me rooted in my family and culture in a way I was not before.  It's also brought a new level of interaction and cultural appreciation to my family:  Whereas Wicca seemed silly and alien to my parents and grandparents, my work in CR has allowed them to make sense of some of the customs and attitudes in our family.  They are enjoying being able to have their childhood memories help us flesh out this tradition.  Things that were regarded as quaint superstitions or "games" are now put in the context of the religious traditions, and they can take pride in having helped maintain the culture.  Now some of my family members join me in rituals, attend cultural events, and have contributed to CR as a whole.

Anyway, that's a bit of a tangent.   I understand why people get stuck in the misinformation and fantasies. It can be scary to let go of that stuff, especially when one has built one's sense of power and identity around it.  It takes humility, open-mindedness, and the willingness to change.  Not everyone can do it, especially in a society that seems to prefer fiction to fact, and Hollywood-type fantasy over substance. That's why it can actually be much easier for people totally new to magical traditions to get up to speed in CR.  They don't have to struggle to un-learn anything.

An odd thing that has happened is that we now have some people who call themselves CR, and who incorporate some degree of actual Celtic research, but who still shove it into a foreign, Wiccan format (four elements, four directions, casting circles with a blade, no offerings, duotheistic ideas of Deity, ideas that Deities can be commanded or "used"). People who are doing that, who have not been willing to let go of all that and start over in an actual Celtic cosmology, aren't CR -- they're Celtic-inspired Neopagans, or Celtic-inspired Wiccans.  We are sometimes flattered that they want to call themselves CR, and some of them have contributed to the community, but if they're misrepresenting the tradition, no, that's not flattering at all.

So while I understand how hard it can be to let go of misconceptions, when people are completely unwilling to do so it can cause serious problems for all of us. I've seen some American Neopagans, and even some self-described "Traditionalists" or "Tribalists",
actually get into arguments with people from the Gàidhealtachdan / Gaeltachtaí – with the Americans arrogantly trying to tell people from the living cultures what is really "traditional".   As the Gàidhealtachdan and Gaeltachtaí are the areas where the Gaelic languages and cultures still survive, I'm sure you can understand that that sort of behaviour is quite embarrassing and can potentially give us all a bad name.

When I interact with people from the Gàidhealtachdan or Gaeltachtaí, or from language and cultural preservation groups, I've never hidden the fact that I am a type of Pagan.  But neither do I blurt it out.  I don't need to know someone's religion (if any) right up front, and they don't need to hear about mine.  We can talk about the folklore and mythology, the surviving "fairy faith" practices, no matter what our religion.  But when they find out I'm a type of Pagan– albeit a different sort than they may have met before – some of them have actually been shocked that I haven't acted like an asshole and tried to educate them about their own culture.  Because they've had it happen, all too often.  Due to all the misinformation that cheerfully passes for "Celtic" in the so much of the Neopagan, re-enactment, sf/fantasy and goth communities, and the degree of arrogance and cultural appropriation, many traditional people are understandably prejudiced against Neopagans.  I really can't blame them.   I share those feelings. At this point I'm actually feeling more kinship with people in the Celtic cultural communities, who aren't necessarily Pagan (or necessarily any religion), than in the general Neopagan community.  Or, actually, with polytheists of any serious traditional or reconstructionist religion.  I'm also finding more sincere interest in CR among those folks than among Genero-Pagans.  And when they do get involved with us, it is generally much easier for them, especially if they already know the language and culture, than it is for someone who has to struggle against entrenched misconceptions.

 

D.V.:  Two questions. One positive. One sort of negative.  I start with the negative, why is it do you think cultural arrogance and appropriation are such a part of the Neo-Pagan community in the US and UK (and do you think this is related to the demographics traditionally attracted to it)?  Postive, how do you think living traditions-even Christianized ones--inform Celtic reconstruction traditions in ways that they do not neo-pagan or even some Reconstruction groups (for example, I almost never heard of living tradition talk in Hellenismos)?

 

KPN:  America and England are nations built on the conquest and destruction of other cultures.  Sometimes that destruction happened through obvious destruction, and at other times through a process of absorption and watering-down.  I think cultural appropriation runs so deep for most Americans that they don't even understand what it means, let alone how to begin to question it.

America is very much a multi-ethnic society.  The potential blessing in this is that people have the opportunity to learn about very diverse cultures, sometimes right outside their front doors.  The bad side is the ways the ideal of the "melting pot" can make people jettison their cultures of origin, and this leaves us with many people feeling so rootless that they have no idea who they are.  I think so much of American so-called culture is just vapid consumerism, fast food and crappy TV shows.  Compared with most other nations, Americans have very little sense of history.  Once someone winds up in that state, encountering any actual culture, any vital spiritual tradition, can sometimes be such a heady, exotic experience that they want to gobble it up, and then the ingrained consumerism can lead them to assume they simply have a right to everything they want, without necessarily taking on any responsibility for respecting the values of that culture.

Having a living tradition, even one in which the polytheism is largely needing to be reconstructed, makes a world of difference from trying to live a faith that was only made up within our lifetimes or our parents' lifetimes.   Older is not always better, and I enjoy using my intuition and creativity as much as the next person, but I personally also like to have things to rely on that have been tested over time.  I don't see the living traditions as being limiting, I see it as having a firm foundation to start from, and then my creativity can come into play.   The old manuscripts are vital for helping us understand our ancient history and the stories of our Deities, but I think the living Fairy Faith and related cultural traditions are actually more valuable when it comes to knowing how to have an actual spiritual *practice*. The Fairy Faith in particular has preserved some of the ways our ancestors interacted with the spirit world -- it's all about how to make alliances with the spirits, how to bless and protect yourself and your loved ones, what songs and prayers to sing – all these practical, yet also esoteric, things that the recently-created traditions have often just made up without a sense of how these things work. Additionally, if you have an ancestral connection, you can know what deities and spirits your ancestors worshipped, and who may be willing to make alliances with you now.   If you incorporate ancestor reverence, as CR does, the ancestors can help us reconstruct what was lost, and they tend to be very appreciative of being addressed with customs and languages they recognize.

I'm surprised you haven't heard the Hellenismos folks say much about the living traditions, because I know they exist.  Actually, one of my first exposures to the concept of cultural appropriation was in 1985, when a Greek friend of mine and I attended a Genero-Pagan, community Yule ritual together.   He got very upset and stormed out of the ritual, because he was so offended by the way these Wiccans were misrepresenting the Greek Goddesses.   As we talked outside the ritual, he said that in the marketplace of his village in Greece, you could still buy amulets for Hecate and Selene (two of the Goddesses invoked in the ritual we had just left), and that the local people still petitioned these deities, and others, with a variety of rites that had nothing to do with the ill-fitting roles these Neopagans were trying to shove these Goddesses into.  He had a lot to say about how Greek polytheism is a living tradition, not a dead thing everyone owns just because we learn a bit about Greek mythology in school.  I have to tell you, it was a real wake-up call for me, and it took me a while to really understand where he was coming from.  Because truly listening to his anger meant that I, and all these other people, were going to have to radically change our attitudes.

 

D.V.: Given the sort of scant evidence we have from direct Celtic and Gaelic literature, and the lack of much that hasn't been Christianized, how valuable do you think Indo-European studies and the use of comparative religion are when augmenting "theology" to living traditions?

 

KPN: Well, with combining the manuscript sources with the folkloric ones, we do have a significant amount to work with.   And so much of the Christianization is really only a thin veneer.  But I do think it's important to have a good overview of comparative religion, no matter what tradition you are practicing.


For CR, it's especially helpful to study the various Celtic cultures, and the closely-related ones like the Norse.  While my personal practice does not include Welsh or Norse deities or rituals, I've certainly found some great parallels in their lore that have helped flesh out my understanding of similar Gaelic deities and concepts.  My background in Hinduism and African religions (and my early years spent in general psychic development groups) has also served me well when it comes to understanding how ritual works and how to connect with the spirits.

Not everyone who wants to participate in the CR community needs to do that sort of broad study, of course, but if you're working on theology and ritual construction it can certainly be helpful to see how others have tackled the same problems.  I think it should be required for those aspiring to be clergy.

The only drawback is when people go broad but not deep.   We've had some problems with people only doing a limited study of, say, Celtic religions and Hinduism, and then assuming there are more similarities than there actually are.  This has specifically been an issue when it comes to ritual structures and how to do offerings, because while there are definitely parallels between some Celtic and Hindu approaches, there are also marked differences.

I'm more of a splitter than a lumper when it comes to theology.  Similar patterns across cultures, to me, mean that a similar need is being addressed by that deity or belief, not that different cultures are worshipping the same deity, or that they can be reduced to the same root religion.  I think it's a more complex system than that.

 

D.V.: To you see the sort of "fragmented" nature of Celtic culture contributing to a fragmented "Celtic Reconstruction" movement?

KPN:  "Fragmented", how?  Are you talking about the variations between different Celtic cultures and regions in antiquity, or the "fragmentary" nature of the surviving lore?

 

D.V.: I was referring to variations, although really, the fragmentary nature of the lore does contribute to the lack of any sort of "unified field theory of Celtic church" that is based on anything substantial.


KPN:  I don't see the cultural variations as fragmentation; I see them as a natural diversity based on the geography and occupations of the different tribes and nations.  A semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer culture is going to have different deities and beliefs, different rituals and tales, than a more settled, agrarian one.  Those who live in the inland mountains will have a different inner landscape than those who live by the sea.  Actually, given the wide range of environments our ancestors inhabited, I think it's surprising that what we have inherited is as united as it is.

I don't think our ancestors perceived their culture as being fragmented at all.  One's tribal religion was probably very complete and deep, just somewhat different from what your cousins at the other end of the island may have been doing. We are far more unified than were our ancestors with their distant neighbors, as we now have mass communications, books and the Internet.  Obviously there is a degree of diversity in CR, but I think there's far more unity among the "tribes" in contemporary society than there was when you'd likely live your whole life never leaving the same region, and probably rarely communicating with anyone who had traveled very much.

The only part that isn't "substantial" is the misconception that there was ever one, uniform, Celtic monoculture.   And there's no reason we should try to impose that imagined lack of diversity on anyone now. Of course there are limitations on what is and isn't Celtic, and what is and isn't part of the various Celtic subcultures, but as long as that is understood, there is certainly room for a variety of styles and flavors of CR.  People naturally gravitate towards different deities, based on occupation and temperament.  And if you're connecting with your local land spirits, that will definitely cause the feel of a group in, say, New England to be quite different from one in Australia, even if both are coming from the same basic heritage and beliefs.

 

D.V.:  Thank you for your insight, is there anything you'd like to say in closing?

KPN:  Just to expand a bit on the issue of Christian vs Pagan, and how important the "Christianized" practices are to us as Polytheists.  The Gaelic oral tradition has been remarkably conservative.  We have tales still told in my grandparents' time that are
virtually unchanged from the same tales in the most ancient Irish manuscripts.  And as the saints in Celtic Christianity are almost always based very clearly on their predecessors – the Goddesses, Gods, local nature spirits and deified ancestors – it's generally very clear which Deities these practices were originally dedicated to.   So there's not the huge conflict between ancient and contemporary, polytheistic and Christian, that many Neopagans assume there is.  It's more like the veneer of Christianity found in traditions like Santeria.  Granted, if someone goes on about Witchcraft and "Magick", and their "great occult powers" to a Christian from the Celtic Nations, they will most likely get laughed at or be met with anger, just as they would be if they say that stuff to most American Christians.

But some of it is just semantics.  My grandparents considered themselves Christian, but also "very traditional Irish".  My grandmother taught Bible study, and also did divination.  For her there was no conflict.  After my Christian grandmother told me about her great-grandmother the Scottish psychic and healer (from whom she thinks we've inherited our psychic gifts), because I was a stupid teenager who'd been reading Wiccan books, I asked her to tell me more about the "Witches" and "Wiccans" in our family.  She freaked out.   But had I been smart enough to instead ask things like, "What did you do for Halloween?  For May Day?  Did you ever leave milk or other things out for the fairies?  When you left coins at the wishing trees, was there something specific you said?  How did you decide which tree to leave the offerings at, and what did it mean to you personally?  What else do you remember from your childhood that isn't done now? Could you tell me more about the songs and dances, and the stories told, at the Ceilidhs held at your grandparents' house?  What about the year Grandad decided to go back to doing the Halloween/Harvest bonfires the old way, with two fires everyone had to walk between – what led you to do that?"  I would have learned a wealth of things.   But because I thought Christians wouldn't understand my Great, Secret Occult Powerz, I didn't notice that my grandparents actually knew more about my religion than I did.

Thankfully, I did learn some practices before my grandparents died, because these things and a number of others were just customs that we kept.  But I did miss out on other practices and, most notably, the beliefs behind them.  This is because the Wiccan/Occult misinformation I had been exposed to led me to ask the wrong questions.  And like many parents and grandparents, they often assumed the kids weren't interested in hearing about that sort of "old fashioned" stuff unless we asked specifically. That makes me very sad.  I am lucky that my mother remembers things from her childhood, so she knows at least partial answers to these things – including how I first learned to make offerings to the spirits, and how some of the traditional customs were also observed in other places we lived when I was very young.  She and my father have been very valuable in helping me reconstruct the things that weren't observed as much in my generation.  But I will always regret the mistakes the Wiccan misinformation led me to make, and all it led me to miss out on, because my parents, as much as they want to help, just don't know as much about the traditions as their parents and grandparents did.   It was this realization that we had all been so misinformed and so misled that inspired us to establish CR.  I only wish we'd gotten started on it sooner.

Closing thoughts:  The Gods are real.  Everything proceeds from that. Tapadh Leat for doing the interviews!   I've enjoyed talking with you.  May you have a good Samhain, a good year, a good life.  May you have satisfying relationships with your Deities, ancestors and spirits of the land, as well as with your friends and family.


Slàinte Mhath!  Beannachd Bhrìghde Leibh!