Monday, 30 April 2012

Postponed due to lurgy

I have Teh Dreaded Lurgy and the weather is about as awful as I feel at the moment, so on both counts I'm postponing my Bealltainn celebrations until I have the energy to get the house in order and properly prepared. I might aim for the weekend or early next week instead - I don't want to wait too long.

In the meantime, since I have a bit longer to think about stuff and make preparations, I'm contemplating the usual butter churning (and warbling singing that goes with it) and perhaps getting brave enough to make some crowdie cheese. I can't smell anything right now so at least I won't be put off by the smell...On top of that, I might try might hand at a clootie dumpling as part of the feasting, and the rowan, which is nearly in full leaf...

...needs a bit of pruning, which will allow me to restock my supplies for rowan charms. There will be all of the other usual stuff as well, including skimming the well and saining, and so on, although the non-ritual stuff I might spread things over a few days so I don't over-do things. I'm waiting for an epidural injection that will hopefully help manage my pain levels until I can have surgery to remove the disc that's causing all my problems, but until then I still need to be careful. That is certainly one thing I'll be celebrating - I finally have an answer for what's been causing all of these problems!

I stumbled across this article (from 2005) that is linked to on the Beltane page on Wikipedia, which I think is interesting:
Last Sunday Maybush fires raged in Arklow once more to greet the arrival of May. But the local residents were also enraged - by the fact that their areas were made dumping grounds for unwanted household goods. According to reports, many householders used the camouflage of the Maybush bonfires to disposed of unwanted furniture and other items. 

There are lots of modern celebrations these days, like the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh, but things like this just go to show that there are survivals that have deeper roots than the ones like Edinburgh that have been recontextualised. It's nice to see.

Anyway, I hope you all have a good one (and for any readers in the southern hemisphere, a good Samhainn if that's what you're celebrating).

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Filling in the gaps

Of all the different kinds of reconstructionists out there, Celtic Reconstructionists have the dubious honour of having the least amount of hard evidence to work on when it comes to belief and ritual. Obviously this means that when it comes to "filling in the gaps" we have some pretty big ones to fill, and because of this some folks might dismiss Celtic Reconstructionism as being possible at all.

Naturally I, and many others, disagree. Yes there are gaps. Yes, when it comes to explicit pre-Christian "how to manuals" that have miraculously survived intact over several millennia, we're shit out of luck, quite frankly. Contrary to what some people say...

That doesn't mean that we have nothing to go on; it just means we have to look a bit harder. Given the nature of what "Celtic culture" really is - an umbrella term for a variety of sub-cultures, all with different languages, gods, myths and even expressions of belief and worship - it's not just a simple matter of coming up with one monolithic reconstructionist anything. Likewise, Celtic Reconstructionism is an umbrella term. What applies to Gaulish Polytheists doesn't necessarily apply to Brythonic Polytheists, although in many ways they arguably have a lot more in common with each other than perhaps either of them do with Gaelic Polytheists.

For each different culture, the gaps are different. A lot of headway has been made with reconstructing the Gaulish language in the past few decades, and thanks to the Romans there are several hundred deities recorded on Gallo-Roman altars and the like. Brythonic Polytheists have Romano-British altars they can refer to, and unlike the Gaulish Polytheists, they also have Welsh myths and early poetry like Y Gododdin they can refer to - albeit with a host of problems that come with those myths. Folklore can provide the possibility of a rich vein of survivals, too. I will leave it to the experts to carry on down those avenues, though; I'll stick to what I know from here on in...

For Gaelic Polytheists we have language, myths and survivals in folklore as well, not forgetting archaeology. The literature is not without its problems - by any stretch of the imagination - but it does give us an idea of the who the gods are, and we can find evidence of belief and practice in them too: The three realms, blessings, the festival calendar and the Bealtaine fires, all of this and more. We even have descriptions of some kinds of rituals, and in some cases we have descriptions of rituals performed in relatively recent times (e.g. the taghairm), which bear a striking resemblance to rituals described in earlier sources (e.g. the tarb-feis). Likewise, there are modern prayers and charms that also bear a striking resemblance to those recorded a thousand years (or more) earlier.

In spite of the problems any of us might have in the process of reconstructing, there's more for us to work with than some might give us credit for (in terms of ritual, I've had a stab at putting together some of the ritual elements we can glean from the sources, and Treasa and I did a more general look at ritual as well). Inevitably, though, there are gaps. For one, we don't have a creation myth - if ever there was just one (I'm not convinced...for Ireland alone, not to mention other Celtic cultures).

Sometimes, in these cases, looking to other cultures can help give us an idea of what we can look for in the sources. With an idea of Indo-European creation myths we can look for evidence in Irish myth to see if we can find anything. This is what I did in the creation myths article I finished last year, and to be honest, as articles go it's one I'm least happy with. Certainly there are Indo-European (or PIE) elements to be seen in Irish myth, but with hindsight the process of simply digging out I-E elements and using that to cobble together something of a picture was the wrong approach. It's all well and good to pick those bits out and confirm that there are indeed elements that seem to show the presence of common I-E creation motifs, but I think the problem ended up being that it meant that I failed to fully consider the myths on their own terms - in their own context, appreciating all of the nuances that make them Irish myth, rather than Indo-European. I ended up speculating about creation myths as a way of confirming an Indeo-European view, rather than a specifically Irish one. If I did it over again, I would change an awful lot. I'm still thinking about scrapping the whole thing, really.

When it comes to "filling in the gaps," we can't forget the roots of what we're doing. If we simply look to confirm the presence of I-E elements then it can end up with us forcing a foreign framework onto the evidence we have to hand. If we add in elements from other cultures - even other Celtic ones - to flesh things out, then - again - what we end up with is not where we started. Taking a bit of Irish, a bit of Welsh, Brythonic and Gaulish practice and building our practices on that may be fulfilling, may be recognisably Celtic in the general, but can it be said to be reconstructionist? Is it rooted in what we can glean of historical practice, or is it creating something new from a rich buffet of Celtic elements? Although it references historical practices, it doesn't represent a picture of what was, or what may have been. That's not "filling in the gaps."

Likewise, if we plug in a heathen blot or symbel and fancy it up with Gaelic terms (for example) does it make reconstructionist ritual? How about if we take the idea and wonder if, perhaps, types of ritual feasting are evidenced in Ireland? In that case we'll find that yes, it is. We see evidence of it in Irish myth and it's backed up by archaeological evidence that can even tell us when these feasts might have taken place - the age of the animals killed and eaten gives us an idea of the time of year. So the idea that some sort of fled (or feast) being a good addition to a group practice is certainly an avenue to explore. By looking at the Irish evidence, that is.

So it can be useful to look to other cultures as a reference point, to get an idea of what we should (or could) be looking for, perhaps, but at the same time it should only be the starting point, a possible avenue of inspiration. Just one of the bricks that makes a sturdy building, rather than the foundation, say.

There are some who argue that we need to look to other cultures to fill in the gaps, using that as justification to add in elements of practice from elsewhere. I have to disagree that such is necessary or even desirable. We don't need to add bits in from other cultures in order to fill in the gaps. We have plenty to go on from within, if only we'd look; we have a whole continuum of thousands of years to look to. Of course none of the sources by themselves are perfect, but we can use a bit of common sense and careful research to build an educated view of something workable. If we choose to add things in from elsewhere anyway, and insist that what we are doing is still rooted in the one culture, then are we being entirely honest with ourselves?

Friday, 20 April 2012

Stomping grounds

The glorious weather we've been having means the bluebells are out early this year - they've been shyly unfurling for a good few weeks now already - and after spotting the first few out at the beach the other week, and then even more at the weekend, I decided it was time to go out and see if the woods were in their full glory yet. It's one of those signs that Bealltainn isn't far off now.

I've not been doing so well with the intended regular circuits of the village as part of my regular devotions; alas, with birthdays, visitors and the resulting plague my nephews brought all keeping me busy, I overdid it a little and haven't been so mobile again for the past few weeks (not as bad as it could have been, thankfully). However, with a new addition to the family...

...(Hamish the hamster, that is), our youngest and totally neurotic mostly sheepdog, Mungo, has all but been having a nervous break down. What is this thing, and why does it not fuss me? Why?! LOVE MEEEE!!!! Mungo has been in need of something to make it better. A little adventure, perhaps. And frankly, a change of scenery wouldn't go amiss for me, either.

Off to the woods we go, then. I took some pictures of the woods that go through the middle of the village just after the storms earlier this year, but there is another wooded area that I hadn't been to yet this year. Until today. This woodland hasn't faired much better, to be honest, and being a little more out of the way it's been somewhat neglected compared to the other woods in terms of clean up. There are still felled trees everywhere, blocking paths and leaving huge scars in the earth, but even on the uprooted trees, life springs eternal:

And the ones that are less fortunate, well...They're part of the cycle of life too. Fungus food:

And home to the odd critter or two:

Alas, we didn't spot the woodpecker we've been hearing while we've been out in the garden recently - hammering away at the trees at any given opportunity - but the bluebells didn't disappoint:

You can tell they're bluebells, Rosie says helpfully, because they're blue. And they look like bells.

Thanks Rosie.

There are a lot of bees out, too:

Tiny ones like this, or big fat bumblebees lumbering ponderously around from flower to flower, it's nice to see them when the stories in the news are always so depressing lately.

Yes, Bealltainn will be here soon. There will be butter-making and feasting, saining and rowan-collecting, the hearth-fire will be renewed and the summer welcomed in. And the cycle continues on...

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Orthopraxy, orthodoxy and what makes a Celtic Reconstructionist...

My good friend and colleague Treasa posted a really thought-provoking article called The Meaning of Ritual over on her Mo Thearmann blog a while ago now (I've been busy...), and it has some really well thought out points there. And then, with the discussion of what CR is and what defines a Celtic Reconstructionist, there's another post by Treasa, What is Celtic Reconstructionism, or How do I know I'm a Celtic Reconstructionist? I think they're both worth a read and pertinent to the discussions that have been going on recently.

I think a large part of those recent discussions is about whether one interprets CR as being primarily an orthodoxy or orthopraxy, even though it's not something that's been explicitly discussed much. The whole orthopraxy versus orthodoxy debate, as far as CR is concerned, can get quite heated sometimes (but what's new, eh?), but I'd point out this paragraph from Treasa's Meaning of Rituals post, where she says:
The religiosity of Gaelic Polytheism is not defined by a system of beliefs (though shared belief does have a place); rather it is a collection of rites, rituals and observances. This is what makes Gaelic Polytheism orthopraxic rather than orthodoxic. While belief is important, what is even more important is what we do and how we do it.
Quite. While what we do is surely based on what we believe, the believing is nothing without the doing; it is our actions that define who and what we are, not to just to others - the community - but between ourselves and our gods as well. I've been struggling to really understand what orthopraxy is all about, and why debates like this tend to get so heated, and whether or not it's all that important anyway. It's just a word, right?

Well, words can be powerful, can't they? I think - in chewing things over - I'm finally getting to grips with it and coming to realise that it's perhaps a bit more important than I've ever really appreciated before now. It's pretty fundamental, really, even though nobody likes that word much these days.

Whereas orthodoxy ultimately involves an emphasis on observing the correct forms of ritual - like the Catholic Mass, say - as the means of expressing right belief, orthopraxy eschews the quibbling over ritual formats being performed to the letter, and instead emphasises the the observance of proper behaviour. This is seen in ethical terms as much as ritual or liturgical terms, and this feeds into the proper observance of tradition in general. It's not so much doing things in the prescribed manner, it's the observance of them in general that matters. Or, to sum it up:
While orthodoxies make use of codified beliefs, in the form of creeds, and ritualism more narrowly centers on the strict adherence to prescribed rites or rituals, orthopraxy is focused on issues of familycultural integrity, the transmission of traditionsacrificial offeringsconcerns of purityethical systems, and the enforcement thereof.
In that sense, an orthopraxic religion must do, but it doesn't have to be done in exactly the same everywhere, every time (although arguably the bit about observing and maintaining tradition does feed a certain sense of guidance in how things should be done, albeit allowing for more wiggle room than orthodoxy). In an orthodoxy, on the other hand, failure to observe strict ritual formats, and so on and so forth, leads to heresy. Like I've said before, tradition is incredibly important. Integral, in fact. So an orthopraxy doesn't mean you can just make it up as you go along, or just "do stuff" no matter what that is (as some critics have said), because by emphasising tradition and cultural integrity (etc), orthopraxy ensures that there are at least some sort of checks and balances as far as how things are done.

Naturally, when "cultural integrity" and "issues of family" (which we might extend to "community") are a part and parcel of what defines an orthopraxy, we might say that these are obvious candidates to look to as sources for those checks and balances; not just referring to the cultural focus of what it is we're doing, but maintaining the integrity of that culture.

Ultimately, it's not the scholarship or the act of reconstructing that that defines what or who we are. It's the living. As far as I'm aware, that is - and always has been - the point of Celtic Reconstructionism and the wide variety of paths that form the branches of the same tree. We are what we do, and as far as that goes it's not just the practice and articulation of our beliefs or faith, but how we act based upon those beliefs and practices. That's where the "ethical systems" bit comes in, and it all goes round in a circle and comes back to family and community. If we are missing some of these things then...well...

Who are we?