Thursday, 26 January 2012


Gaelic Polytheists tend to talk a lot about tradition. Observing tradition, upholding tradition, being part of a tradition...preserving tradition...and on and on.

We tend to use words like tradition a lot, but nobody really talks about why all that much. It's kind of assumed that this is how things are, and this is what we do. Looking to tradition gives us the framework of what we do. I don't think that's the only reason why they're important, though. When we look at the underlying meaning of the words we use, and how they are seen in their native context, then it helps to put things into perspective a lot of the time. Language is a complex thing. I'm in no way a linguist, I hasten to add, so I can only really go by what dictionaries tell me, but I do see that language is important to understand what it is we're doing, and why.

Words like 'tradition' or 'customs' take on a very different meaning when we consider them from the perspective of the culture we focus on in our practices. When I was working on the last article - the one on values - one of the things I found most interesting was all of the stuff I found relating to customs and tradition; in particular, the fact that bés ('custom, habit, usual procedure, practice, manner, or way') can be seen in terms of moral behaviour, and that it can be found in the word for 'morality' itself, béstatu.

To the early Irish, it wasn't just the values that an individual had and upheld, it was the customs they observed and the way they conducted themselves publicly that made them an upstanding, upright member of the community. When we apply that idea in a modern context, we might hold ourselves to the same kind of standards. It is how we conduct ourselves, what we do, that makes us a good person.

Even so, when it comes to the doing in terms of 'tradition' or 'traditions, customs', we have to consider the fact that for most of us, they are not generally ones that we've been brought up with. There's a learning curve that comes with adopting a new religion, a new worldview, a new way of doing things. It can be a steep learning curve to begin with, but eventually, with a bit of work, we get there. Soon enough, we find ourselves in a sort of rhythm of daily practice - prayer, offerings, doing things a certain way...Suddenly, we've become part of a new worldview, a new way of life.

Some of us might have been brought up with a few traditions or bits of lore - those of us whose family might have come from Ireland or Scotland, or might be second or third generation or so - but even then, while those traditions might take on a new light, a new meaning, we still have to work hard to adapt and build our own traditions and practices within a worldview that we have to work at adopting. For many people in the western world, the worldview and attitudes we've been brought up with can be very different to the ones we find in Gaelic Polytheism, or any kind of polytheism that is rooted in 'traditional culture'. For a lot of people these days there's an ingrained 'every man for themselves' kind of mentality - the individual comes first - whereas in a Gaelic Polytheist view it's pretty much the opposite. It's family and community first, however you might define those things, and it can be quite alien to our upbringing and thinking to begin with. I know it was for me, anyway (my family are not the picture of functionality, to be fair), but it's also an ideal that I found to be attractive, having not really had much sense of family or community before.

Then again, in many ways it's pretty much impossible to talk about Gaelic Polytheism as a tradition, because everyone has their own approach and interpretation of what that tradition is and should be. I think this makes sense when we consider the fact that as a community we're extremely diverse and spread out. What works for me, as a married woman with children, living on the west coast of Scotland, and all the other things that make me fundamentally me (for better or worse) doesn't necessarily work for someone who is single, has no children, and lives somewhere that's vastly different to the kind of climate I live with here (wet and windy, mostly...did I mention wet?). So there will be differences in tradition, because tradition must serve different needs and different locales, and that's something we can see in the lore as well. In Ireland, say, different counties made different kinds of cros Bride at Lá Fhéile Bríde, while at Bealtaine some counties had the tradition of the may bush or the May ball, and others decorated with yellow flowers. And so on...

Ultimately, when it comes to tradition, it's the doing that counts, but the doing is nothing without the roots. Even Cú Chulainn - not someone I think most people would generally hold up as an example of wisdom - understood the need for tradition. "Be vigilant [to observe] regulations of [your] fathers," he said. This is what creates stability, and it's also a way of honouring the wisdom and traditions of your ancestors (or the ancestors who performed those traditions if you can't claim any heritage yourself). It is also a way of recognising that those who came before us - their experience, knowledge and wisdom - is valuable, and worth listening to. Those who have come before us, who may have struggled in the face of adversity, who may have had to fight for their own freedoms and rights...these are the people we should listen to and learn from as we might have to face our own struggles. This is a common ideal in many traditional cultures, and it's common because it works.

When you're at some remove from those traditions, though - when you haven't been brought up with them, when they have to be learned or even revived or reconstructed - then there isn't necessarily someone to turn to directly for guidance on the matter. One of the first things I did when I started seriously trying to practice as a Celtic Reconstructionist was to figure out what my traditions could be. People on the email groups and discussion boards directed noobs like myself to the kind of books I could read, and so off I went and read them. I looked at the Carmina Gadelica for inspiration, I read all the books on festivals and folklore that I could get my hands on, and I got an idea of the things I could start doing. They've evolved slowly over the years, as I've figured out what works and what doesn't, but they haven't changed much, I don't think. What I used to say in English I now try to say in Gàidhlig, as much as I can, for one, and I'm always trying to find things I can include the kids in.

It's thinking about the kids that makes me appreciate the idea of tradition the most, I think. There are some family traditions from my childhood that I remember with affection (and some with not so much affection...), and it's those kinds of things I want my kids to have and pass on if they have kids of their own. I can include them in a lot of traditions even if I'm not bringing them up with the religious elements, and I want them to remember those traditions with affection, the kind of things that brought us together as a family; churning the butter and everyone calling for the lumps to come, our seasonal pictures that we make each quarter, making the dealbh Bride for Là Fhèill Brìghde and carving the turnips at Samhainn, cooking all the yummy things for our feasts, and building wee cairns at the beach, and so on...

During a discussion on the cr_r group some years ago, somebody said something along the lines of (and I'm paraphrasing and framing it in the way I see it): Even though things have changed and have been lost over the years, centuries and millennia, or perhaps subsumed by Christianity, there is a thread that runs through it all - a thread of tradition that persists and perseveres no matter what. A bright red thread, one might say. I like that imagery. Even though things might have changed and evolved with the times, its all part of that one thread, continually being woven. It is part of a continuum.  

Some of the songs and prayers in the Carmina Gadelica talk about doing things as a saint or famous figure did - "I will wash my Mary washed her Son..." - or else the songs or prayers being said or sung are said to be those of Brigid or Mary, or whoever else, themselves. It is the connection with these powerful saints, the repetition of and respect for tradition that makes them effective. It is the thread there, shining brightly throughout.

Tradition is important. It's a huge word, when you think about it. Words can have such depth and meaning that can make them so powerful. I do as those before me did, and the weight of that tradition hangs around me like a warm blanket. It brings me comfort when I need it, and it gives me direction and an identity too, I suppose.

This tradition can bring a depth and meaning to even the most simplest of things. As I walk this path, I suppose I might see myself treading carefully in the footsteps of those who have gone before me. And as I walk, there are those who walk beside me in friendship and community, such as I've found across the internet, and I am grateful for that.

Maybe there isn't just one bright red thread reaching through the ages, but many, all being woven together into a thick, strong cord. It is in observing and preserving these traditions that we can make sure that the cord stays strong and bright, and it is in thinking about this kind of thing that I think I've also begun to really appreciate other people's traditions as well, and just how and why some people might be so offended and upset when their traditions are appropriated for fashion or folly, or simple ego. Or money. Most of the time, maybe it really comes down to money. Whatever the reason, it's appropriation; without regard or respect for other people's heritage or traditions or culture. But that, perhaps, is an entirely different post...