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Archive for the ‘Celtic Reconstructionism’ Category

Clifton, Chas S.  Her Hidden Children The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America.  Lanham:

AltaMira Press, 2006.

Many of us come to Paganism with an interest in ancient history.  We wonder who and how our ancestors worshiped and we attempt to follow in their footsteps.  I can speak for myself when I say that when I began studying Wicca in high school I was not interested in Paganism’s modern history until I reached a point in my spiritual journey where I started to wonder why certain things were done.  Her Hidden Children the Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America by Chas S. Clifton attempts to explain the evolution of modern Paganism in ways that are both respectful and honest.

The important thing to remember when studying Paganism is that it is a spiritual path made up of many different religious outlooks.  Not everyone can agree on what Paganism is as a whole and so the movement must be looked at as an organism made up of many smaller cells.  Clifton successfully compares modern Paganism to an island teeming with diversity.  Just as everything is connected and dependent on one another in an ecological biosphere, so too are the modern Pagan movements connected.  Each Pagan path shares certain commonalities, whether it is a group of founders, cultural inspiration, similar ritual patterns, or the similarity of existing outside of the major five world religions.  Clifton’s goal is to examine Pagan literature as he believes that a study of the writing is the only way we have to map the evolution and growth of the movement. It is in this way that he is able to piece together the history of modern American Paganism.

Clifton’s main focus is Wicca.  It cannot be denied that Wicca has played a significant role in popularizing Paganism in general.  Like many forms of Paganism, its history starts outside of America – in Europe – with a man named Gerald Gardner who, by publishing Witchcraft Today, allowed for society to start thinking about Paganism (14).  Since then, numerous authors have written on “the craft” including Raymond Buckland, Doreen Valiente, and Cunningham.  Clifton argues that literature has been paramount to the spread of Wiccan thought and practice (13).  Since so many Wiccans are solitary practitioners, they rely on the written word to teach and learn more often than not. Clifton’s discussion on Wicca’s history is worth reading due to Wicca’s influence on Paganism as a whole.  The elders of the movement, dead and living, possess such interesting characters that one cannot help but admire them for their eccentricity.  Just as interesting is the transformation that Wicca has undertaken from a coven-centered religion to a diverse buffet of traditions with many eclectic solitaries.  The availability of literature has played a significant role in this growth and change, but the increasingly sexy portrayal of witches in the media, as discussed in the chapter “The Playboy and the Witch: Wicca and Popular Culture”, has helped as well.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book takes an in-depth look at Paganism’s relationship with nature.  I read this chapter shortly after taking part in a heated forum discussion on just that topic.  My experience on the Pagan forum was a revelation – not all Pagans identify with the title “nature religion.”  Many felt that their religion did not focus on nature but rather on magic or cultural heritage.  Others, like myself, argued that all of those things were part of nature.  Clifton explores this situation and suggests that there are three categories of “nature religion.”  He calls these “Cosmic Nature,” “Gaian Nature,” and “Erotic” or “Embodied Nature.”  Simply put, Cosmic Nature is concerned with magic and energy, Gaian Nature explores the philosophy of the Earth as a deity, and Erotic Nature involves sexual pleasure.  It is interesting to explore the different approaches to nature taken by other spiritual paths within Paganism, but the inherent message from Clifton is that concept of Paganism being a Nature Religion is  largely an American phenomenon with connections to the growing environmentalist movement (41).  However it must be understood that not all Pagan faiths are concerned with nature in the same way that some Wiccans and Druids are.

The book includes a chapter dedicated to other modern Pagan movements, but the discussion is very limited.  Clifton summarizes such movements as The Church of Aphrodite, Feraferia, The Church of All Worlds, The Council of Themis, and, finally, modern Druidism.  I was surprised that there was not a larger discussion on Reconstructionists (although they received brief mentions scattered throughout the book), Asatru, Modern Shamanism, or Chaos Magic.  Some of these movements, especially Asatru, have become incredibly influential in the Neo-Pagan world.  Clifton’s discussion on Druidism, while very interesting and helpful in understanding the development and inspiration for Ár nDraíocht Féin, seemed to fall short of other Druidic traditions.  The Henge of Keltria is only mentioned, and the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids seems nowhere to be found despite its having American members and an obvious influence on the modern Druidic movement.  If Clifton were to release a later edition, my suggestion to him would be to include a chapter on Druidism as well as a chapter on Astaru and Heathenism.  His chapter on other Pagan paths should be dedicated to the less understood, less discussed paths such as chaos magic and Christian Witches.

Despite the minor quips I’ve expressed, Her Hidden Children was an immensely enjoyable book with a lot of important information.  The writing style was very straightforward and easy to understand.  At times, the book was a page turner simply because of Clifton’s narrative style and the interesting facts he presented.

Her Hidden Children has been helpful in understanding the development of Wicca, Druidism, and Paganism as a whole within the United States.  It does not change my spirituality in any way, but it does make me a wiser, more informed, more tolerant person.  I think that, if Paganism is to remain a strong, growing religion, the diverse paths will have to celebrate their differences while embracing their similarities in order to unite for the common good.  This book serves as an excellent starting point for just that.

 

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Ellis, Peter Berresford.  A Brief History of the Druids. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers,

2003.

Each Summer Solstice the news media releases a handful of articles on a modern group of Druids worshipping near Stonehenge.  The photos are of regular looking people wearing long white robes and sometimes white head coverings that look more akin to Egyptian head dresses.  They stand in a circle and perform their ritual to the Gods.  One has to ask whether what they are doing is historically accurate or not.  To answer such questions, Peter Berresford Ellis’ book, A Brief History of the Druids, is an excellent starting point.

Ellis’ book is earnest in admitting that he does not know everything about the Druids.  In fact, there is very little in which he could possibly know in our modern times.  Relying on archaeology, linguistics, history, and lore, Ellis explains what is and isn’t known about this mysterious group of people while debunking several myths at the same time.  The book is organized in such a way that he starts with a generalized introduction and then narrows the topic down chapter by chapter.

He begins by describing what is generally thought about the Druids.  Most of our perceptions are shaped by the reports of foreigners such as Caesar and Pliny and are therefore often full of anti-Celtic propaganda (11).  Much of the remaining evidence comes from Christianized Celts.  Everything else must be surmised through linguistics and archaeology for the Druids left no literature of their own due to a taboo against writing (13).  It is therefore difficult to fully understand the Druids.  Everything examined must be taken with a proverbial grain of salt.

Having provided a few disclaimers, Ellis explores the world of the Celts beginning with what little is known of their origins.  These people lived “north of the Alps … from Ireland and Britain in the west, as far east as the central plains of what is now Turkey” (23).    They are defined as Celts based on the similarities of the languages they used which survive today as modern Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton (25).  The Celts, Ellis explains, lived in a society divided by classes: workers, artisans, warriors, and the Druids who represented the highest level of academia in Celtic society (29).

So what of the Druids themselves and where do they come from?  Ellis first delves into the etymology of the word Druid to come to various possibilities.  The first is that the word Druid means “oak knowledge” as drus is Greek for “an oak” and wid means “to know” (37).  Another meaning could be “immersed in knowledge” due to the similarities found between old Celtic and Sanskrit words for water and dew.  Either way, the Druids are already connected with knowledge, trees, and water – three very important things in both ancient and modern Druidry.  However the Druids evolved, they came to be the priestly class who oversaw religious, judicial, medical, political, scientific, and educational matters of the Celtic people.  According to the Greeks and Romans, the Druids were divided into three subclasses: Druids, Vates, and Bards.  The Druids were basically the teachers, philosophers, and scientists.  Meanwhile, the Vates focused more on nature and divination and the Bards were historians, musicians, and poets (51).  This special class of intellectuals, which was made up of both men and women (91) held a lot of power – so much so that not even a king was allowed to speak before a Druid (75).

No discussion of the Druids would be complete without a chapter or two dedicated to their religion and rituals.  So many of the ancient texts refer to them as performing mysterious rites and worshipping various deities that we know religion played a large role in the life of a Druid.  Ellis explains that the Celts were polytheists although several modern men have tried to mold the Druids into proto-Christians who worshiped a single God (114).  There are actually over three hundred known Celtic deities, and several are localized meaning that they are associated with only one place (114).  There are a few Gods who were known in many places.  Ellis provides brief descriptions of some of the better known deities such as Danu, Dagda, Bel, Cernunos, Nuada, Lugh, Taranis, Ogma, and the Mórrígán.  Although the explanations are short, they are fitting for a work dedicated to the Druids rather than the Gods.  There is the possibility that the sudden deluge of Celtic Gods and mythology could confuse and overwhelm a novice, but I’ve found that further reading will help to better familiarize the curious mind.

In dissecting the wisdom of the Druids, Ellis breaks the chapter down topic by topic so that we are given an in-depth look at what we know of their skill in various areas such as magic, astrology, and medicine.  I found this section of the book to be the driest, possibly because I am most interested in the Druids’ function as priests rather than judges and astronomers.  However the section should not be overlooked as it truly shows the rich knowledge of the Druids. They were not simply a barbarian people as the Romans were so fond of thinking.  The Celts and their Druids were very well versed in science and enjoyed many accomplishments.  Anyone of Celtic background should feel a sense of pride when reading about such feats.

A Brief History of the Druids should be essential reading material for anyone aspiring to the knowledge of the Druids.  It first provides a good historical background of the people we in ADF are hoping to emulate and also grounds us in our practice by providing the context for our rituals.  Ellis’ discussions of holy wells, trees, divination, and fire in connection to the landscape, festivals, and mythology help to make sense of our liturgical practices.  A good understanding of why a person practices what he or she does is essential for a truly spiritual, intelligent, and introspective human being. Aspiring Druids should hope to be all three of those things.

The book ends with a discussion on the Druidic revival that has been going on for a few hundred years.  It is an interesting although lacking explanation of modern Druidry.  I say that because Ellis focuses on the romantic Druidic groups and only briefly mentions the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, one of the largest Druidic groups today.  There is no reference to Ár nDraíocht Féin or even Celtic Reconstructionists.  This is too bad because he leaves the unknowing reader under the impression that many modern Druidic groups rely on poor research to create their traditions.  He ends the book by reminding the reader that many Celtic countries are forgetting their language and losing their social customs which is truly sad.  He bemoans the fact that many modern Druids are more concerned with the esoteric aspects of Druidry and not the cultural.  I believe that this is a legitimate concern, however, once more, by failing to explore Ár nDraíocht Féin or Celtic Reconstructionism he is overlooking groups who do require learning about the cultures and at least a minimal amount of language study.  Although students of Druidry must be aware of the historical realities of their Druidic homelands, I feel that the pessimistic ending spoiled what was otherwise a very well-written, informative book.

 

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I had a wonderful experience in the forest earlier, and I will blog about that later – but for now I want to talk about something else.

For me, ADF satisfies three very important things – my desire to worship using reconstructionist models, my desire to be creative, and community.  I love these aspects of ADF and it’s why I feel at home there.

But there are times where I find myself wanting more…  And I guess when I say more, I mean more community in the here and now.  I wish the grove was closer and I wish we met more often than on high days.  I know this would be terribly demanding in reality, but there are times when I feel like I could really benefit from a more hands-on teacher.  I read about traditional witches with their apprentices or very close-knit CR groups that practice trance, divination, and other folk magic together.  I try to do these things on my own but I so often feel like I’m afloat in a great big sea.  I have had significant trance experiences, including moments where Gods or a spirit guide help me out, but they are rare.  Often it is only myself.  In some ways, I suppose this is empowering.  I can forge my own paths without bending to the will of an elder, but that’s very easy for a young whippersnapper like myself to rationalize.  I know I could gain much from an elder, but few seem spiritually/emotionally/physically available, especially when it comes to CR or CR oriented Druidism.

Anyway, these were just thoughts rolling around my head this afternoon.

( For My LJ Friends: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ )

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The “writer’s block” topic on Live Journal today is about Valentine’s Day and I decided to add my two cents.

Given that we’re less than a week out from Valentines, how do you feel about the approaching holiday? Will you participate or abstain? If you’re not in a relationship, how will you celebrate your single status?

You know… I just don’t do V-day anymore. It used to be a big deal to me, in part because a majority of my life was spent in public education where, every year, we spent tons of money on candy and crappy, mass-produced cards that my classmates inevitably threw away shortly after receiving. As someone trying to live a more sustainable life, I can’t help but see this highly commercialized holiday as environmentally disgusting. Ok, I’ll admit a detail about my personal life – I work with children. Despite my feelings, I don’t want to disappoint their wee little hearts. Try to discuss sustainability with an X-Box and toy-obsessed youngster. I dare you. 9 times out of 10, it doesn’t change much because, in the end, it’s really the attitude of the parents that matter. All the same, I’m not giving cards or plastic bags of candy. They are getting pencils bedecked in hearts because they are useful. Yes, I am that sort of adult.

“But Grey Catsidhe! You’re newly married! Aren’t you going to have a romantic evening with your hubby?”

Our first date several years ago was on Valentine’s Day. A year after that, we started to think about why we were celebrating. We knew we loved each other. But…was that really a good reason to go out and spend money? Especially after the winter holiday season? We were in college and we were broke. When we really thought about it, we realized that Valentine’s Day just didn’t matter to us. If we were going to spend money on gifts, then let that be on our birthdays and the Solstice. Otherwise… Neither of us are Catholic so St. Valentine doesn’t matter to us. I’m a Celtic Recon/Druid, so Lupercalia isn’t for me either. And I’m no longer a fan of celebrating religious holidays claimed by secular America just because it’s socially traditional. Bah. I’ll stick to traditions that I actually find enjoyable!

If you celebrate Valentine’s Day, that’s fine. Go out and have fun! Maybe even take some advice and see how sustainable you can be while you celebrate. My husband and I? We’ll use a holiday as an excuse to get jiggy with it on the 1st of May. Beltaine baby! Sex in the forest! Show the plants how it’s done! February is too cold for that anyway… So why even bother? 😉

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