Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Turning Point : Third Point : Gateway

Thoughts on the history of Celtic Reconstructionism and Gaelic Polytheism, 1985 - 2008

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 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 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 :-)

Kathryn Price NicDhana


John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Thanks for an interesting discussion. I'm an outlier about all this, but I have kept up on that fringe from time to time. If you search my blog back a ways via Blogger's box, you can find a long review of Patricia Monaghan's "Red-Haired Girl" book. That ties to my article on Irish language learners from the U.S. and how they link their grasp of Gaeilge to the landscape.
Estudios Irlandeses 2 (2007): 151-160, "Making the Case for Irish through English: Ecocritical Politics of Language by Learners"
html or PDF.

Thanks for the CR coverage and your many good works. I'm a learner myself, so here's today's Beltane-themed clumsily bilingual mention of your site (which I had read about in the Irish Voice article).

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Go raibh maith agat, a Fhionnchú!

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Samhain 2015

Some thoughts three decades on from some of the events mentioned here:

In this post I briefly mentioned some of the goings-on in the mid-1980s (which link to additional details over on the CR FAQ), and how they did or didn't contribute to the gradual founding of CR.

From my perspective, our work at PSG 1985 was really no different from what we did at any other gatherings my groups and I went to in those years. I think the only real difference was that it was a slightly bigger gathering (being the main national event back then), and some people also organized a formal discussion. Most discussions of this, in years before and after, were informal, and the rituals we were doing were mostly kept to our own circles.

An important point to note is that most of the people at that PSG discussion did not go on to be part of developing CR. We discussed Celtic history, and what some of us were doing. Then they mostly went back to being Wiccans. Most of them still are Wiccans.

I realize it was a major turning point for some of the attendees, if that was the only time in the eighties or nineties (or ever) that they got a chance to hang out with those of us who were doing this work. But if they just came to a talk on Celtic history and practice and then went right back to being a Wiccan for the next fifteen, twenty, or even thirty years... please understand if the rest of us look a bit taken aback at anyone who claims more significance for that event than it merits. <3

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

27 Nov 2016

Recently someone who linked to this post commented that they thought I somehow had it "easy" doing this work - notably, laying the groundwork decades ago. I think their point was that this has somehow been "easier" for me than for others because I know who my ancestors are. I honestly don't know how to respond to this without sounding like a Monty Python's sketch about how early we had to get up in the morning and how many miles we had to walk to school through the dark and snow, half-dead, dragging our siblings on our backs, with nothing to eat, etc. :)

So I'll say this: We had no Worldwide Web. Everything we knew that didn't come through our families (those we knew locally or through snail mail - remember, no international communications at the click of a button, that stuff hadn't been invented yet), we had to find in libraries, and bookstores in intellectual oases like Harvard Square. I was "lucky" that I made the personal sacrifice to leave my family of origin and all my childhood friends so I could move on my own to one of these intellectual oases.

I was lucky that my great-great-aunt was a respected genealogist, whose work is now used internationally. I am both blessed and cursed that some lore and gifts came down through three Scottish lines of my family, and that at least three of those lines include ancestors who intermarried with Indigenous people once they came to Turtle Island, and that these alliances gave me a good start in being able to communicate with the spirits of the landbase and bioregion where I grew up. This reciprocal communication is essential to what we do. Without that connection to the spirits of the land and water, we would have nothing.

I am lucky that even as I suffered the usual loneliness and social isolation that smart, spiritually sensitive kids always go through, that I also lived on spirit-infused land and water where the spirits loved me, spoke to me, and allowed me to love them back. I am lucky that I survived the abuse I suffered at various points in my challenging life. Above all I am lucky that I found community and Elders who saved my life and kept me on track when I easily could have wound up just another casualty.

But was any of it "easy"? Really? I am lucky I still have an intact sense of humour. Sometimes people think I sound bitter. You have no idea. I will now go laugh with my friends until we cry, remembering all the things we've barely survived. All the times we were so close to death that it's a miracle we're still here. All the loved ones who didn't make it through. Easy. That's a good one. I wish everyone reading this well. I wish you perspective. I wish you a long enough life that this all makes sense. With love, - KPN

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

A bit later on 27 Nov 2016

I guess I'm also "lucky" that I grew up in communities with a very large Irish immigrant population (but anyone who romanticises that has never lived it), that the Irish side of my family were more recent immigrants, and that I was exposed to some degree of Creideamh Sí customs (or superstitions) while young. But I think the main thing that I find disorienting about the idea that any of this was "easy" thirty or even twenty years ago is that all of the groundwork and foundations of GP and CR that people take for granted now... everything we had to revive, reconstruct and test for relevancy through the school of hard knocks... we simply did not have that advantage then. We did not have any of that groundwork. We had to lay it down ourselves.

So... yeah. Disorienting. Sometimes I really wish we had a time machine so I could take younger people back and show them what we had to go through. We tell them how it was, but apparently some of them really don't believe it.

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

6 Oct 2017

A note on music. In some comments about this post elsewhere, there was a bit of confusion about what I mean by the importance of *traditional* music as a carrier of tradition. When I talk about this, I mean the music sung in the Celtic languages: Prayers in the original language that are sung, and as they're to spirits of nature, might not even be seen as prayers by those from other backgrounds; songs that carry lore, waulking songs in Gaelic, Irish songs *in Irish* that carry relevant symbolism and cultural significance, or Old Irish or Irish poetry that's been set to music. And, as an experiential, living tradition, the songs that continue to live and grow as we work with this traditional music in community.

I'm not talking about twee, romanticised but superficial, modern songs in English, drinking songs, or newage instrumentals that various disconnected people believe have "a Celtic spirit" to them. I'm not talking about the dreck that gets randomly filed under "Celtic" in the bins at the store or online. I'm talking traditional music that those in the living cultures recognise as carrying cultural meaning; songs that carry on meaningful parts of tradition.

Hope that clears it up. <3