Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Hello Wikipedians!

So I noticed a few hits on the old blog here coming from Wikipedia, of all places, and it seems that there is currently a debate raging over there with regards to rutabaga, of all things. So hello! Thanks for all the support and nice things that are being said.

I have to say, it's a bit weird to find myself being debated on a corner of the internet dedicated to a root vegetable...

While I feel very honoured to have my website referenced on a Wikipedia article, I have to say I'm quite surprised, too, because I wouldn't have thought that it qualifies from what I understand of Wikipedia's rules about what is and isn't suitable for referencing. I do make an effort to write my articles to a decent standard and put references in, but it's not like they're peer reviewed, or anything. Having said that, I do live in Scotland, so I could point out that I am carrying on the tradition and am speaking from experience.

I didn't grow up in Scotland, but my husband did so I've spoken at length with him and my father-in-law about the practice. I can say - for what it's worth - that it's definitely rutabaga that was (and still is) used for carving the lanterns, though here they really are called tumshies, neeps, or just 'turnips'. In supermarkets you'll find them on sale as swedes, but colloquially they are rarely referred to as such in Scotland, as far as I've ever heard.

I can also say that they're an absolute bugger to carve.

Anyway, I've been unable to ascertain for certain how old the tradition is, but like some have been saying on the talk page it's not something that can be said to be particularly 'ancient' or specifically pre-Christian - especially seeing as the tumshie itself only dates from the seventeenth century. So the start of the section on Hallowe'en is incorrect when it says:

Since early times,[when?] people living in Ireland and Scotland have carved turnips and used them as lanterns to ward off harmful spirits.[19] They are still popular throughout Britain and Ireland today at Halloween, [20]however their use goes back to a much earlier time.
This bit here:

The bonfires were replaced with hollowed out turnips (the common name for rutabaga in Ireland, Scotland. and Northern England) filled with glowing coals.

Is also a bit questionable, I think (there's also a full stop after 'Scotland' that should be a comma). The lanterns didn't replace the bonfires; in Scotland, the bonfires have arguably shifted to Guy Fawkes' night on November 5th - see Ronald Hutton's Stations of the Sun. It's true that tumshie lanterns aren't as common as they used to be, though, and most people carve pumpkins these days. Most years you'll find the odd piece in the paper about trying to revive the tumshie. 

I would also say that Samhain is not a Celtic festival, it's a festival that is Irish in origin. Given Scotland's Gaelic heritage, it is also referred to as Samhain (or Samhainn/Samhainn) in Gàidhlig. It's an important distinction that needs to be made, because 'Celtic' is a linguistic term that refers to a variety of languages. It is sometimes used as a cultural term but in this context it implies that Samhain is a festival that is found in all Celtic cultures. This is not the case.

Just my tuppence worth there.

Anyway, another useful reference for you might be F. Marian McNeill's book, Hallowe'en: It's Origin Rites and Ceremonies in the Scottish Tradition. The song on page 33, called A Nicht o' Tine has a verse:

A howkit neep wi' glowerin' een
To fleg baith witch and warlock.

In other words: "A carved turnip with scowling face, to scare both witch and warlock." As far as I can tell the book was published in 1970 or 1971 - there's no date or ISBN number, but it was published by The Albyn Press in Edinburgh.

And one final thing, just to clarify: I am, in fact, a 'her'!

Book Review: Kindling the Celtic Spirit

One more review for now.

Kindling the Celtic Spirit
Mara Freeman

This is a book I bought early on in my first few tentative steps towards Celtic Reconstructionism, and at the time it was one of those fantastically inspiring books that got me very excited. This is the book that helped me see what a non-Wiccan/Wiccanesque style of practice might actually look like, and helped me see that Celtic Reconstructionist practice was actually workable; at the time I found it difficult to wrap my head around what to do because at the time - before the CR FAQ, before even the CR Essay, I think - there really wasn't much out there and I myself had been floundering after leaving Wicca behind and exploring various other paths like ceremonial magic and various forms of Druidry that all have fairly similar ritual approaches.

So I have a soft spot for this book, I really do. Let me be clear though: This is not a Celtic Reconstructionist book, or even written with such an audience in mind. It is written for what you might call a neo-Druid audience in mind, one that's looking for a more historically-minded approach without the Druid Revivalist trappings of Iolo Morganwg and Ross Nichols' dodgy history. It's also geared more towards the solitary practitioner than group practice, and the ritual outlines draw reference from traditional sources rather than neo-pagan ones, but here and there you will certainly find what might be seen as a neo-pagan approach, that don't necessarily agree with a CR approach - invocations to deities, Robert Graves, advocating developing a working relationship with the Good Folk...that sort of thing.

The book is laid out month-by-month, after a few introductory bits and pieces, and each month accommodates a particular focus relevant to the month, season, and related theme of the chapter. Tales and bits of folklore, animal lore, and spotlights on different deities are given in each chapter, and there are meditations to work on (there's also a CD that accompanies the book, with these meditations on it; you have to buy it separately, though, and I didn't so I can't comment on that). The festivals are dealt with as well - the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year, but with a focus on customs and lore from historical sources - and there are some practical ideas and recipes for things to do for each of them - making a May Bough at Bealltainn, carving turnips at Samhainn, that sort of thing. There are also plenty of prayers, charms, poems, blessings and so on, many of which are adapted from the Carmina Gadelica or early medieval Irish manuscripts.

There is a very hearthy, domestic focus to the book which is something that really appealed to me, and I found the inclusion of practical, creative things to do for the festivals a nice touch as well. The adaptations and prayers are mostly well done, and while the guided meditations aren't really something that appeal to me personally, they're well written and I can see that they might work well for others.

Where it falls down, I think - and it's a problem that I find with most books like this - is that while the focus is mostly on an Irish or a more generally Gaelic practice, Welsh, Brythonic and Gaulish elements are also brought in here and there; an examination of the meaning of 'awen', the stories of Taliesin and Ceridwen, a section on Cernunnos, and so on. There is also the suggestion of a wassail bowl, which couldn't even be considered to be Celtic. All of this smooshing makes it a very hodge podge affair. To me, these are very different and diverse cultures - different languages, different histories - and while they might have the same Celtic roots, they've evolved in very different ways and deserve to be looked at and appreciated on their own terms.

It seems odd to have such a regard for historical practices, detailing folklore and customs from the various cultures, to then completely disregard their context and then mix them all up in a completely ahistorical way. This is rather disappointing, but at least Freeman is (usually) clear where everything comes from, and she's also quite good at referencing her sources. It would be easy to pick bits out that are relevant to one's own focus, but ultimately there's nothing here that comes from particularly esoteric sources and it would be just as easy to go to the source yourself.

It's a well-written, beautifully presented book. Ultimately, though, as inspirational as this book was for me, I'm not sure it's something I would recommend to a CR audience these days. Aside from being potentially confusing for the beginner, there are better sources out there to look to now, far more so than ten or even five years ago, so I think that looking to them instead would be more helpful - do your own research, or look to CR websites or groups that are out there.