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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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If you are a Pagan and have not read ‘Polytheology: Syncretism, Process Theology, and “Polyamorotheism”‘ by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, you absolutely must.  This well-written and very thoughtful article about cultural appropriation, syncretism, Pagan theology, and religion in general is amazing.  It certainly gave me a lot to think about in regards to the nature of the Gods.  I love the beautiful image he weaves of Gods evolving and/or creating other Gods through romantic or sexual meetings that we have not considered, discovered, or sung about yet.  It almost makes me envision deities as spider plants.  Have you ever had one?  They grow smaller versions of themselves that can be removed and planted as normal.  Are the Gods like that, each a spider plant that creates similar plants (Gods) for different places or even purposes?  It can make sense when considering it in light of the various Celtic triple deities.  Hello American Gods!  Oh the possibilities…

It causes me to look at syncretism a little differently.  Truthfully, I have softened to it already as of late, though I think it must be done with care and for well-considered purpose.  The author himself cautions against doing so without respect, understanding, or proper involvement with the culture.  That is very reasonable, I think.

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

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“Pagan” and “environmentalist” don’t always go hand in hand, but I believe that a majority of Pagans at least claim to care about the environment.  I am no exception as you should know by now.  I do my best to keep abreast of the latest environmental issues.  As you can imagine, this can become depressing.  There are times (probably some visible through my postings) when I succumb to the alarmist nature of others.  Normally, I try to maintain a balance.  I don’t totally see myself as a luddite and I’m not sure what to think about the Dark Mountain Project, intriguing though it is.  On the other hand, I’d like to think I’m not as materialistic as most people, environmentally conscious, attempting sustainability, and open-minded to drastic but positive change for the betterment of Mama Earth and society.  It’s hard to find a balance between it all, but I make it work most of the time.  I don’t claim to know all the answers or to be perfect.

I think a large part of my attitude has been shaped by reconstructionist methodologies.  And by that, I mean the methodologies put forth by people like Erynn Rowan Laurie of the CR movement – not the racist, sexist, behind-the times version presented by some more “hardcore traditionalists.”  For example, within the CR FAQ (which Laurie helped author), the definition of Celtic Reconstructionism is given as thus: “Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism (CR) is a polytheistic, animistic, religious and cultural movement. It is an effort to reconstruct, within a modern Celtic cultural context, the aspects of ancient Celtic religions that were lost or subsumed by Christianity.”  The key of this definition is the phrase “within a modern…context…”  Whether you are interested in Celtic, Norse, Slavic, or Egyptian culture, reconstructionism is about adapting it for our times while remaining as true to the myths and parent culture as possible.  This means that, even if an ancient practice (such as head hunting) may have been acceptable, important, or even sacred to our ancestors, it is neither legal, appropriate, nor necessary at this time.  The practice becomes left to our ancestors and stories.  Except in extreme cases, I think we all agree that human sacrifice, head hunting, and cattle raiding (excusing, of course, for sport 😉 ) are outdated*.

 There are, of course, some contentious issues among Celtic-inspired Pagans – such as the place of men in keeping Brighid’s flame.  There are also people like me who, despite my love of Celtic cultures, use Reconstructionist reasoning to explain why I don’t have to eat the animals that were such a staple to my ancestors’ diet**.

It’s easy for those of us looking back at a culture that was lost/altered to pick and choose what is and isn’t acceptable to ourselves and society as a whole, but what about living cultures having to do that right now?***

That brings me to an issue I’ve been reading about a lot lately.  There is one environmental issue that has me more worried and more angry than many others – the destruction of our oceans.  To me, it’s one of the scariest things going on right now and several scientists and activists feel the same way****.  Between the BP oil spill, the plastic gyres, and overfishing, it is enough to make me cry and gnash my teeth.  Overfishing, especially, just boggles my mind…

Perhaps you’ve heard of the bluefin tuna and how endangered it is.  Yet countries like Japan reject protecting it for cultural reasons.  Seriously, Japan?  How can you be so short-sighted and, well, stupid?  This is an endangered animal we are talking about – a creature that is linked to many others in the ocean.  We are losing our big fish, people.  The statistics are staggering…  Something like 90% of the world’s big fish are dead.  And yet people continue to destroy all in the name of human greed painted as human culture!  If Japan truly values bluefin tuna and its place in its culture, it would allow the fish to repopulate and support the proposed ban.  Just stop eating it!  Is that really so hard?

Too often we hold culture up on a golden dais as something that is sacred and should not be tampered with or questioned.  Yet history shows us that cultures change – they have to!  It is part of what it means to exist, whether we change by choice or force.  We need to start changing by choice not for any particular culture, but for humanity as a whole and for the myriad of other organisms who cannot speak or vote or protest.  Japan, this a great opportunity to transform what the bluefin means to Japan.  Where are your Shinto beliefs when money is involved?

It’s time for Japan and countless other cultures around the world to do as Reconstructionists have done with so many other outdated practices – leave industrial fishing to the history books.  ***** 

On a more positive note, Kevin Costner may have a way to clean up the oil spill!  It’s people like him that give me hope for our species and the oceans.  Thank the Gods for good news!

* For more thoughts on this, read more of the CR FAQ.
** Not to mention, there are vegetarians who live in modern Celtic countries…  So what if I would rather eat the sacred hazel nuts rather than the salmon who eat them?
*** I’m not trying to imply that Celtic cultures are not living…  They are having to adapt and make new choices as well, but since they are largely Christian and/or secular in nature, their dominant culture is, I would argue, a tad different than the reconstructionist Pagan cultures showing up there and across the sea…  I hope that makes sense…
**** At the very least, watch that last video.  Sylvia Earle is an amazing woman and there is some beautiful footage. http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf


*****I feel that I should mention, lest anyone try to put words in my mouth, that I am very supportive of small-time fishermen who work/sell locally and try to employ sustainable methods.  I just don’t eat their catch. 🙂

[ For my LJ friends, please visit me at: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ ]

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