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Posts Tagged ‘Celtic Cultures’

I keep seeing or hearing people discuss how they feel Samhain and/or  Halloween should be celebrated.  Some say it’s too scary; others that it isn’t scary enough.  Some call for more reverence for the ancestors; others feel the holiday has become too somber in Pagan culture.  Those later folk embrace the carnival nature that secular Halloween has come to embody.  And of course, there are those who turn their nose up at modern Halloween because it’s too disrespectful to the cultures it came from and  too materialistic.

Honestly, I find truth in all of those thoughts.  Here are my thoughts, but know they are merely my thoughts and not my recipe for Samhain goodness that you must follow or else!

Halloween can be too scary.  I remember running out of haunted houses when I was younger and I still dislike most horror films.  And I enjoy more whimsical costumes myself.  Fairies, historical figures, animals…

Halloween, and Samhain especially, can be too watered down.  These traditions originate from the Celts, and it wasn’t just the ancestors who could cross over the veil – it was all of the sidhe realm! Every fairy, goblin, and bump-in-the-night came out.  Not all fairies are nice happy things as some modern folk seem to think.  That said, not all ancestors are nice either!  Nobody wants the unhappy ancestors to visit…  And yet, the belief in these Otherworld denizens fueled many of our traditions.  Some have suggested that carving turnips or pumpkins into faces could scare away nasty boos.  Dressing up in costumes is believed to confuse spirits.  People who value and respect the sprits and the Otherworld should feel a sense of fear about Samhain.  It adds to the fun but, also, it is good practice to be careful.  I know, this time of year, I often look over my shoulder in case the Pooka is about…

There should be more reverence for the ancestors on Samhain.  They are part of the reason for the season, if I may borrow that phrase.  To completely ignore them feels disrespectful to me.  In my belief system, the ancestors come back to visit us and hospitality – towards living and dead – is incredibly important. (At the same time, to only pay them attention on Samhain is equally disrespectful in my point of view).  

Samhain can be too somber, and that can make the holiday almost unbearable for some which is a shame when it’s such a sacred time.  Sarah Lawless found a way to embrace the carnival nature of the day while also honoring the spookiness and the dead.  And it shouldn’t be all sadness, no matter how scary and painful death can be.  Joy and fun are the ways we come to terms with death. We remember the good times.  Pagan rituals that don’t allow anyone to dress up feel backwards to me.  Dr. Jenny Butler recently did an interview on Transceltic and explained many of the fun Samhain traditions, including dressing up in costume on this day. “It is a playful time,” she says, “when it is acceptable to have a subversive appearance, so people can chose to dress as they wish, whether that is as something scary or outlandish.”  Trust me, it’s possible to dress in a costume and still feel the fullness of the event.  Although I agree that some costume choices are much more appropriate for ritual settings than others!  

People have lost touch with Halloween’s roots.  Many probably wouldn’t care because they celebrate the secular holiday, and that is fine and well.  However, many who embrace Paganism in one of its forms can also forget.  It’s a Celtic holiday.  It was a time to honor the Ancestors, light bonfires, and engage with the Otherworld.  We can get lost in the plastic world of imported costume accessories, racist costume stereotypes, and sugar highs without regard to human dignity, Nature Spirits, of the Earth Mother herself.

So what’s a Gaelic polytheist ditzy Druid in modern America to do?

I find harmony in the blend of Halloween and Samhain.  

At least, that’s what I try to do.

Halloween can be too scary.  Clowns, for example, are horribly frightening to me.  I had a negative experience with one as a child and it left an imprint.  However, I can’t try to censor Halloween and tell others not to dress as clowns any more than I can tell someone not to dress as other peoples’ worst nightmares*.  I can’t stomach most horror films because they are too gory.  I do, however, adore a good ghost story.  Halloween should be a little scary.  It’s in its DNA!  As they say in The Nightmare Before Christmas, “life’s no fun without a good scare.”  And it’s true.  Sometimes it reminds us what is so precious about life.  And that’s why it shouldn’t be all scary.  We care tenderly for our beloved dead, for one, and should create a home that is welcoming and warm for them.  Bring out the good table settings!  And if some people would rather dress as fuzzy rabbits or cute princesses – why not?!  Let people have fun on their own terms because, as discussed above, there’s no set costume in Samhain tradition!  Get in touch with your inner bard and let your costume tell the story you want!

I have great reverence for the Ancestors, and I could honestly be a lot better about honoring them all year, but I do try.  Samhain is a special day, though, when it is believed our beloved dead can return to us.  I feel them as the veil thins.  They are in my thoughts, my dreams, and sometimes in the corner of my eye.  It is not depressing to me, but it feels good to know they want to come see me, check on me, and maybe bestow some kind of blessing.  I know I would want to do the same for my loved ones after death.  Why not set out a nice spread and be hospitable about it?  Why not show that respect while having a good time with the living?

And it needn’t be somber.  My experience with ADFers has taught me how to find a good balance between the deep reverence and joviality.  Samhain, more than any other High Day, moves me in a way that is almost ineffable.  It is one of the few rites where I seem to laugh and cry every time.  Even if I haven’t lost someone that year, the sorrow from others impacts me deeply.  Again, it reminds me just how precious life and our time with other loved ones is.  And so we laugh as well because we remember those good times and enjoy new ones with those around us.  To me, you must have both to fully experience Samhain’s mystery.  

Finally, in my household, Samhain is deeply Celtic.  The holiday came from Celtic cultures, Halloween traditions were brought over by Irish immigrants, and those are deeply respected under my roof.  If you should stop by, expect to hear some Irish music playing.  Expect to see carved turnips.  If you come to a Northern River’s ritual on Samhain, expect to see us honoring the ancestors as well as the Tuatha de Dannan.  In my opinion, to have a ritual with any other cultural focus but Celtic (a specific culture or pan if you must), is just nonsensical since the holiday has Celtic roots and, chances are, the other culture you wish to honor already has a holiday with similar traditions.  If you must celebrate using different cultural symbols, why not just research that culture and use the name they would have instead of one originating from Celtic languages?  And although I will be embracing the Celtic traditions to the best of my ability, I’m still a modern American of mixed cultural background.  You will hear modern Halloween songs playing along with the traditional and folk.  You’ll see big orange and white pumpkins along with the turnips.  You’ll see me handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, although, this year, I’m doing my best to give out more eco-friendly varieties**.

But that is just in my sphere of influence!  

If I visit your household or your spiritual circle and find you doing differently than I, I will respect you as a human being.  I understand we aren’t all cut from the same spiritual or cultural cloth.  I know some of us find value and purpose in celebrating differently.  It’s not my place to throw my weight around. Several years ago, I tried to argue with folks who wanted to do a completely Hellenic rite while calling it Samhain and it didn’t end well.  I’ve grown up since then and realize that is not the way to conduct myself.  I may not do things the same way or agree with you, but I would rather work on finding my own harmony with Samhain than insist on how you should find yours.  

On that note, no matter how you celebrate, I hope you are just as excited to celebrate Samhain!  Wishing you a blessed Samhain my lovely readers!

* There is, of course, a time and place for some costumes.  We all have our boundaries and we must respect the wishes of hosts and hostesses.  In other words, if you show up to my home as a clown, I may punch you in the face! 😛

** Even if you can’t afford organic candies, at least try to avoid chocolate that isn’t fair-trade.  Human dignity and preserving the world’s biodiversity are worth more to me than an affordable chocolate fix!

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A grovie recently brought a documentary on Hulu to my attention.  It’s called “The Celts” and you’re able to watch it free online!  With six fifty minute episodes, I decided to give it a go while marathon nursing my little one (growth spurt, I guess?).  Narrated by John Morgan, it spans Celtic history from that civilization’s cradle to modern times.  Because I am, admittedly, new to the Druid scene, I can’t claim this is the most accurate documentary ever made about the Celts.  I will say, however, that nothing struck me as contrary to the historical reading I’ve been doing.  There were even some fascinating tidbits that matched up with what others who have been studying longer have shared with me.  For example, I learned a lot about the salt mines in the Hallstatt region – something Michael Dangler brought to my attention in past musings about the Celts, modern Druids, and natural resources.

The documentary also asks some compelling questions such as who are the Celts?  What does it mean to be Celtic?  This question is explored in the final installment – the episode I thought would be least interesting considering it was about the modern era*.  There is no fluffiness about this series.  It teeters between respecting modern Druidic practices in Celtic nations as revivals of national pride – a way to celebration cultural and linguistic heritage in a modern way – and as anachronistic nonsense that continues to confuse modern folk about the historical facts.  Also questioned are kitschy elements that so many modern folk, especially the diaspora who make pilgrimages back to the old country, think represent the Celtic identity.  The conclusions are that defining “Celticness” is difficult to do outside of the usual reliance on linguistic groups alone.  I think all modern Druids and Gaelic polytheists who live outside of Celtic nations should check that episode out and think on it.

The best part of this production are the visuals.  Not only were there the usual views of seaside cliffs, standing stones, and rolling green hills.  I was able to delve into the aforementioned salt mines, visit a people in China who are believed to be descended from an ancient Celtic people, and examine a wide variety of artifacts in exquisite detail.  Although the music was a bit odd at times, I think they were going for a Celtic sound that wasn’t obviously Irish.  Otherwise, I enjoyed hearing different examples of Celtic languages spoken.  The episodes about modern Celts also feature some very interesting stories about how those languages were suppressed – something we should not forget about when we go to honor our ancestors in ritual!  I also really enjoyed seeing a carnyx for the first time.  I had read about them in history books and saw them illustrated upon photos of artifacts in books.  The Gundestrup Cauldron  features some, for example.  This show included a man who reconstructs and plays them.  I had read of their sound and the belief that they brought fear into enemies.  To hear one was truly wonderful!  I don’t know why I never looked them up for more detail, but here’s a start**.

I definitely recommend this documentary.  I believe it would be very accessible to people who are new to Celtic studies and Druidism, and after ten years of learning, I also got a lot out of it.  I’m sure old hats would enjoy it just as much for all the beautiful footage!

 

*This is, of course, something I want to study more to have a better understanding and appreciation for my ancestors and the hearth culture I’ve embraced.  It’s just sometimes difficult to get into because there are so many political and imperialistic aspects to wrap my head around.  I’m more intrinsically motivated to learn about the ancient Celts, their religious practices, and their customs.  I’m trying to learn more about Christian and modern Ireland in baby steps.

** Now how cool would it be for a Druid grove to have one during Lughnasadh games?

 

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Last night, while attempting to do my Nine Moons Retreat, I took some time to focus on my studies and finished a book I’ve been reading in bits and pieces for months – Celtic Rituals An Authentic Guide to Ancient Celtic Spirituality by Alexei Kondratiev.  While I’m always wary of anything claiming authenticity, Kondratiev has a pretty solid reputation as a linguist and as someone who has studied and worked in Celtic communities.  Finally, the book had two glowing reviews.  I was not disappointed.

This book was not the usual drivel that usually passes as Celtic in Neo-Pagan literature.  Everything was very well-researched and, as a linguist, he understood the languages and cultures he was talking about.  He is one who encourages study and activism within the culture one wishes to focus on.  He argues for the preservation of smaller, traditional cultures over the global monoculture so prevalent in Western society.  While the rituals he described were somewhere between Wicca and Celtic Reconstructionism, he was up front about the lack of evidence for calling quarters in ancient Celtic rituals.

It is no secret that Kondratiev had Christian leanings despite his study and involvement with NeoPaganism.  This made his book even more unique in that it encouraged Pagans and Christians to work together to preserve the cultures of the Six Nations.  Chapter Five: The Cycle of the Tribe was particularly interesting to me because it argues that Celtic-inspired Pagans should accept and embrace the reverence of saints within the Celtic nations as they have absorbed much of the Pagan mythos and are politically and spiritually important days full of heightened energy.  While he doesn’t insist that Pagan circles out right revere the saints, he suggests taking those days to remember, celebrate, and ritually support the Six Nations.  It is something we should consider as St. Patrick’s Day approaches.  I know I went through an “All Snakes” phase during my more uninformed period of Paganism, but I now know more about Irish history and understand that St. Patrick didn’t violently eradicate the Pagans, nor was he responsible for introducing Christianity to Ireland.  If anything, it is a day to embrace your Irish culture and remind the world what your ancestors went through.

Chapter Four: The Cycle of the Moon was of particular interest to me.  He argues that “The Song of Amergin” can actually be used as a mythological calendar.  He doesn’t intend for it to replace the Coligny Calendar in historical importance but as “a living, resonant dynamic for relating to the lunar cycle in a Celtic cultural context.  It can therefore provide a serviceable alternative until a more practical approach to the Coligny Calendar becomes possible; it may, in fact, reveal certain mythic patterns that will be directly applicable to the Coligny Calendar” (206).  Each “I am” line from the poem corresponds to an “age of the moon,” starting, of course, with Samhain.  Much of it is probably UPG, but Kondratiev makes a very convincing case!

I highly recommend this book to all aspiring Druids and anyone interested in Celtic cultures.  You may not wholeheartedly adopt all of his practices, but Kondratiev surely had some interesting ideas.

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I’ve seen a lot of people making pessimistic remarks about the New Year.  I’m not referring to such comments as, “2010 sucked.  Glad it’s over!”  Some people have genuinely unfortunate years.  While it’s true that most people don’t even know who Janus is and why it’s significant that the first month of the year is named after him, and while it’s true that Samhain is a more spiritually important New Year observation to me – I recognize the power of the transition between December 31 and January 1st.  As previously discussed, it is a threshold, a crossroad, an in-between state.  Any Druid or witch worth her salt knows that such things are big, powerful deals!  Yes there is Samhain, but the Scottish Celts have Hogmanay.  This can still be an important time to a Druid.

It disturbs me to see so many negative comments about the New Years celebration.  I’ve seen many people claim that it’s just another day.  Others are grumbling about how 2011 will be the same as 2010 and people who think otherwise are delusional.  Further, I’ve seen people look down their nose on resolutions, stating that people shouldn’t set goals just because it’s a holiday.

That’s all well and good.  Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but at the same time that’s just being passive aggressive and/or down right rude!  Some of the people I’ve seen making these comments are in some tradition of Paganism or studied such things as anthropology in college (so much for cultural relativity!).  Why be such a scrooge?  Sometimes I get a little put-off by how in-your-face Christian holidays can be, but I am so over the whole “militant Pagan / your holiday is stupid and stole everything from mine and is wrong” phase. I saw Pagans laughing at Christians who had a religious holiday decoration vandalized.  Really?  That’s funny to you?  That’s disturbing and doesn’t say much for such people or our religion.

But back to the New Year.  Just because it’s not one of your holy days, doesn’t mean there isn’t magic to be found!  What is just another day to you is a day of joy for another!  And so what if someone uses a holiday as an excuse to set a goal.  Humanity has set a president for that!  There are many examples of cultures that set aside certain days for certain activities – including reflecting on the past year and making new goals/resolutions/oaths/magical tools/etc.  It’s part of being human!  And in a community that should understand the workings of magic, it surprises me when someone decides to verbally poo all over another’s excitement and desire to make a change.  Even if someone is not making a resolution based on magical correspondence, some people need an excuse to even admit that they want to make a change.  Some people genuinely are hopeful for something better.  Saying that 2011 will be the same as 2010 will not make the person who lost his or her job feel better.  It will not make the person who wants to give up smoking feel better.  It will not help the person trying to write that first novel, buy that first house, have a baby, do better in college, etc etc etc…  Why be negative?

Some people will always be negative.  I’m not saying I’m perfect and free of pessimism or judgment, I just don’t understand why some people are bahhumbugging what could be very meaningful to others.   We need to stop looking down our noses at another person’s harmless celebration and find some sort of joy in it – even if all we can say is “I hope it works out for you.”  Because that’s all New Years is about – hope for a better tomorrow.  What is wrong with that?

That said, I want to wish everyone a very happy 2011.  May the new year be filled with the blessings of your Gods, good food, drink, friends, and accomplishments!  May you be happy and may you reach your goals.

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