Recent heated discussions in the online Celtic Reconstructionist (CR) communities have brought to the fore some issues central to who we are as a community and a movement. Veterans of any sort of social, religious or spiritual movement, or students of history, may see some common patterns here:
◊ Something starts out small and controlled. Doesn’t mean anyone is particularly trying to “control” it – usually there’s no one outside the movement who would perceive the group’s efforts at self-definition as anything but that: self-definition.
◊ After a period of time, the movement becomes popularised. It moves beyond the realm of the small handful of people who’ve developed and defined it, into something that a larger group of people identify with.
◊ Once a large group of people identify with it, they are also invested in helping define it, and in making sure that the movement reflects their individual personal experiences and goals.
At this point, the people who initially developed the movement, and those who popularised it, can have a variety of responses, often determined by personal temperament as well as how much of their time, work and identity they have invested in the tradition. This turning point has happened with other traditions such as Wicca and Asatru, and it is now happening with CR. Opposing viewpoints are clashing… but also, a gateway is opening.
Where we've been, where we are, where we may be going
Whether you pinpoint the birth of the Celtic Reconstructionist movement to the early discussions and rituals with our groups in the mid-1980’s; or to Imbolc of 1992 when I first published some explanation of what we'd been doing1 and, in the next issue of the same magazine, Kym Lambert ní Dhoireann agreed with me and mentioned the term we'd been using for this ("Celtic reconstructionist")2 – leading to exposure in the community at large; or to a few years later when the development of the World Wide Web led to much wider exposure and successive waves of new people coming in from the midwest and west coast; CR is now either a young adult or a teenager. I personally put the “birthtime” of CR in a liminal zone – somewhere in between the proto-CR rituals and discussions among my groups and friends in the mid-'80s and the time when we began to speak of it to a larger audience (late '80s and early '90s) and it grew beyond a handful of us. Either way, the birth was not one moment in time; it was a process of streams converging until something new emerged.
CR did not emerge fully-formed from anyone’s head. It was a process of collaboration and experimentation. As a living tradition, that journey is never-ending. Yet at the same time there have been a series of turning points. This is one of them.
We are going through a growth process similar to adolescence – some surges forward are happening, internal conflicts are arising, and some factions are splitting off. This is a natural process, and one I feel we’d be better to name and accept rather than try to control.
I realize that some observers of, and participants in, the recent discussions probably see me as one of the people who is trying to be too controlling. Let me say this: For everyone, there is their first few years of CR – where they explore it, see how it does or doesn’t match up with their life, decide whether it is for them, decide whether they need to make any personal changes (or whether they should try to change the tradition to better suit them, which is problematic, but some have been trying to do that...). My first years of CR consisted of a handful of people hanging out in my living room, or talking around the coffee at Pagan gatherings, or doing ritual experiments in the woods. Again, all of this happening with just a small handful of close friends. For years, whenever we tried to talk to others in the Pagan community, they didn't know what we were talking about or why we'd want to do such an odd thing. We were outsiders to the Pagan community. After Kym, Paul and I started sharing what we were doing with a larger audience, via our writings in the Pagan zines and Paul's and my early writings online, more people picked up on the name and some of the ideas. I was surprised people picked up on our terminology, as "Celtic Reconstructionism" is an awkward name, but it happened. In the early years of expansion I think we were so happy to find others who were interested in any degree of authenticity, or doing what might be similar things, that we got along well; either most of us agreed on the core principles and goals of the movement, or I believed that we agreed. Starting from these small and very personal beginnings... this is the reason I have an attachment to what CR means, and what CR is. I am not its only mother, but I think it’s understandable that at times I feel like it’s my baby.
Our baby is now a boisterous adolescent, and it often hates its parents more than anything else in the world.
Mathematically, we have reached a point where there are too many people who identify with the term “Celtic Reconstructionist” for us all to agree about what we believe, what we practice, what our boundaries are and, at times, even what the words “Celtic Reconstructionist” mean. Conversations of self-definition that happened decades ago, that I thought everyone was clear on, are being repeated recently and it’s all a bit surreal to me. Yet at the same time, I know this is natural in the growth process of a movement. I don't necessarily like it, but I know it's natural.
To backtrack a bit: After more people got online in the 1990s, many more people were drawn to CR than we had ever foreseen. But very quickly, this new influx turned the fledgling CR forums into places I did not want to be. We almost instantly switched over from arguing with the Wiccans who swore Wicca was Celtic, to creepy fights with newcomers who just wanted to yell about who had read the most books, and never discuss spiritual practices. I suspected most of these newcomers didn’t even have spiritual practices. I was disgusted, and I left all those forums for a few years. I considered no longer calling myself CR. I went back to just working with my in-person group and developing our own CR traditions – Nigheanan nan Cailleachan, agus Ora nam Bandia.
In 2003, Kym got a handful of the old guard to join the brand-new cr_r forum on Livejournal. I was skeptical, but I agreed to try. We dedicated ourselves to discussing actual practices, and a group of us got together to write the CR Essay. The CR Essay was written by whomever wanted to participate, which wound up being about a dozen people, and a handful of us did most of the writing. There are things I would change about that essay, as some of the phrasing was either too vague, or in more Neopagan terms, as opposed to terms more suited to discussions of traditional cultures. But we were writing it as something to post on WitchVox, so we oriented towards that audience.3
Three years later, a slightly different group of us got together to write The CR FAQ, and we vetted all the answers with anyone who chose to participate on cr_r. Like with the CR Essay, we advertised it on all the major lists, and welcomed input. Those with a lot of input were invited to join the core group writing the text on the CeltiWiki. After the fact, some people complained that they weren’t invited, but we chose to invite those who were already contributing writing of some sort in the community – at the very least message board posts with some content to them, on one of the major forums. At this point, it was harder to work together, as there were already some pretty serious differences of opinion among a number of the contributors. But, with struggle and perseverance, we managed to come to consensus on some basic principles, despite our differences.
That moment is gone, and will not come again.
As noted earlier, the number of people who self-identify as Celtic Reconstructionists is now far too big for every one of us to completely agree on who does and doesn't fit under the CR umbrella. We all have our opinions; we all believe we are right. Contrary to what recent events may have led some to believe, I don’t enjoy arguing about these things. I never have. I do it when I feel it needs to be done, for I am protective of those people and principles to whom and which I am committed. Some may feel I am overly protective of CR, but I hope that what I have touched on about my background helps explain this, as well as possibly explain the behaviour of many of us who identify as CR (or any tradition or group or movement).
With the FAQ, we have the basic principles we agreed to. Undoubtedly, some will want to debate interpretations of those principles. I don’t expect everyone to agree.
We have reached the point where the adolescent has not only left home, but we have realized the adolescent is actually a loose conglomeration of different groups, individuals and traditions. At this point, we need to acknowledge that “Celtic Reconstructionism” or “Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism” is not only an umbrella term, but it’s become so big that, beyond the basics we’ve agreed to in the FAQ, it’s barely more precise than saying “I’m a Christian.” Or, "I'm Norse." What kind of CR are you? If you have a tradition, what is its name? Not the name someone else has come up with, but a name for your specific practice, which is a branch, or maybe a subset, or maybe an offshoot, of CR.
There is great power in naming. It is a spiritual journey that a group or individual needs to take to truly find their place, their identity, their spiritual power.
It’s time for those who are arguing about who gets to define or redefine CR to do some soul-searching, to look at the roots of their beliefs and practices, what those things are for them now, as well as where they are headed, and name it.
For me, naming the tradition “Celtic Reconstructionism” wasn’t the choice to name a tradition based on the above principles. I wish I could say it was, but the truth is, it happened by accident. I was just using descriptive terms for what we were doing, and had no idea they would be picked up and codified as a name for the tradition. If so, I would have suggested something far more poetic!4
After our initial sharing of basic CR concepts with the broader community, a small number of us continued to develop these ideas and practices in person and, through their writings in Pagan zines, Kym and Paul in particular did a lot to publicize these concepts to a broader audience. My part in the developmental work in that period was mainly in the ceremonial and trance-priestess department, along with Gaelic folkloric input from my family of origin, my background in comparative religion, and my years of experience as a ritual priestess. Paul and I are also to blame for people on the Internet being exposed to the name CR and our ideas behind it, as we had been online since 1985, and started posting about it online around the same time, first on the CompuServe Religion forums, then the GEnie Celts forum, Podsnet and, once it was begun in 1994, the early days of Nemeton-L.
For the first few, in-person years of my contributions to the movement, I didn’t think I’d read enough of the old Celtic texts to qualify as CR myself, even though I was one of the few people reviving, defining and building the Gaelic Polytheist traditions. As I was having success at finding things through metaphysical means, I actually felt at that time that it was a strength to not have my nose buried in the books, as I couldn't have my visions and inspirations biased by scholarly expectations. But as I studied more, I found that study of the lore helped my spiritual work, instead of interfering with it. As time passed I became more dedicated to the language work. This happened because I was visited by ancestors and deities in a series of key dreams. They spoke to me in Gaelic, so I had to learn Gaelic to understand what they wanted of me, to progress on the path, and to help build CR. I am still learning. It’s not easy. But you know what, it’s been the most rewarding thing for me. What is rewarding for you?
In an earlier post on cr_r, Paul Pigman spoke of how the language, music and folk practices that we preserve and continue forms the “bright cord of tradition” at the center of what we do, a link to our ancestors and Deities that transcends our individual lives and experiences. A couple others took exception, one even claiming the cord, if it exists at all, is "dingy." My question is: if you haven’t found that bright cord at the center of your spiritual practice, why are you doing it? And if that bright cord isn’t of a specific Celtic culture, why do you identify as CR?
I have named what we do Nigheanan nan Cailleachan,5 for my extended family, over multiple generations, has seen many times that we are Daughters of the Storm Hags. When we include the male members of the family, we are Clann nan Cailleachan – Children of the Storm Hags. In broader terms, our tradition is Ora nam Bandia - Song/Prayer of the Goddesses. In broader terms, Ioma-Dhiadhachd Ghàidhealach / Ildiachas Gaelach - Gaelic Polytheism: As traditional as possible; reconstructing only when the earlier, polytheistic version of a practice has been fragmented; and rooted in the languages, music, and traditions of the living cultures.
Who are you?
Kathryn Price NicDhàna
April 30, 2008
Taigh na h-Aibhne
May be linked to, reposted or quoted as long as text is unaltered and the above attribution is included. Copyright ©2008 Kathryn Price NicDhàna.
1. Theatana, Kathryn [K.P. NicDhàna] (1992) "More on Names", Harvest, Southboro, MA, Vol. 12, No. 3, Imbolc [Feb] 1992, pp. 11-12: "As time passes and I get to know the Goddesses more intimately, I've also had these same feelings of discomfort about white Neo-Pagans taking the names of major ancestral Goddesses like Rhiannon, Cerridwen or Danu - in this case it's more the hubris angle than the cultural ignorance/racism reason. ... My experience is that as we move to deeper and deeper levels with the Deities who guide us, They demand more and more of us. Often these demands include developing and/or reconstructing Their traditional forms of worship. (As in, you may be able to get a Deity to show up within a ritual structure foreign to Their cultural tradition, but it may not be what They want to work with over the long haul.)"
2. Lambert, Kym [K.L. ní Dhoireann] (1992) "Celtic God/Goddess Names", Harvest, Southboro, MA, Vol. 12, No. 4, Spring Equinox [March] 1992, pp. 11-12: "I'd like to add a couple of comments to Kathryn Theatana's letter in the Imbolc issue... Kathryn's 'digression' about the fact that '... you may be able to get a Deity to show up within a ritual structure foreign to Their cultural tradition, but it may not be what They want to work with over the long haul' is a good point. It is also one that is too often overlooked or misunderstood by a Pagan Community too focused on Wicca. ... There are lots of other Pagan religions, old and new. (By the way, I'm not Druidic either - I fall into that wholly unromantic sounding category of Celtic reconstructionist.) Like Kathryn I'm really glad to see these topics being discussed and hope the discussion continues. Perhaps it will lead to more understanding of non-Wiccan Pagans and more information about reconstructionist forms of Paganism."
3. I now regret having posted on a site with "Witch" in the name. But at that time it was the central networking site for contemporary Pagans, there were no alternative Polytheist sites, and some were concerned that if we did not post something there, that Wiccans or others with no connections to our communities would try to define it for us.
4. Varn, C.D. (2007) "An Interview with Kym Lambert", The Green Triangle, Jan. 2007: "It will always amaze me that this term, this path, has developed any sort of a following at all. When Kathryn NicDhàna, Paul Pigman and I were sitting among their books one night and Kathryn, we think, first uttered the term in the context of such a path, my thought was 'This is perfect, it's so unromantic and cumbersome that no one else will want use it!' (this being around '90 or '91 when there were huge fights about the titles 'Witch' and 'Druid')."
5. Grammatically, Nigheanan nan Cailleach and Clann nan Cailleach are more proper. We named the traditions when we were beginners at Gaelic, and I've tended to stick with this spelling to make sure people know we are talking about the Storm Hags and not just The Hag. Your mileage may vary :-)