Toward a Progressive Pagan Culture
Thig thugainn, thig cò' ruim gu siar -
Gus an cluinn sinn ann cànan nam Fèinn,
Thig thugainn, thig cò' ruim gu siar -
Gus an cluinn sinn ann cànan nan Gàidheal.
Come to us, come with me to the west -
And hear the language of heroes (of the Fèinn),
Come to us, come with me to the west,
And hear the language of the Gael.
- from Cànan Nan Gàidheal, written by Murdo MacFarlane
When I was a student of Celtic at the University of Toronto, my Gàidhlig teacher administered an oral examination that included the first verse and chorus of Cànan Nan Gàidheal because, he said, it might be the only Gàidhlig I ever remembered from his course and indeed the only Gàidhlig I might ever have. I'm happy to report that he was wrong on both counts, but I understand his reasoning. Gàidhlig, like its Gaelic and Celtic cousins, is a minority language clinging to life because of the love its speakers have for it. For some, that love is a product of national and cultural pride. For others, it's a linguistic fascination.
I came to the language for the reasons you might expect.
Back in the day, when I was a Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan (and not a Gnostic Druid with a Buddhist practice), I believed that learning a Celtic language would bring me closer to the divine. I have since come to realize that Gàidhlig isn't a path to the Gods, but the journey toward that understanding left me with a deeply-rooted desire to protect the minority languages that carry the wisdom I value. That said, I think my experience begs a few rather Reconstructionist questions. First, if Celtic languages aren't a path to the Gods, why pursue them at all if the primary motivation for doing so is spiritual? Second, what sort of welcome can a Pagan learner expect from a secular Gaelic or Celtic community? And third, how does this example inform practitioners of other culture-based Paganisms?
I've written previously about the interconnectedness of language, culture and spirituality, and it is for that reason I advocate Gaelic and/or Celtic language learning for Celtic-inspired Pagans. Language influences thinking on such a fundamental level that it's virtually impossible to have a thorough understanding of the pre-Christian Gaelic and Celtic worldview without some groundwork in the way these people communicated with one another. Logically, this should lead the practitioner to a study of Old Irish and/or Medieval Welsh, and if that's your passion, by all means pursue it. There are a number of universities offering undergraduate coursework in these languages. However, unless you're planning doctoral work in Celtic and a career in the field, your access to them will be limited after you graduate. And unless you intend to become an early Celtic language specialist, you will likely never attain fluency (if fluency in these ancient tongues is even possible).
Another, and perhaps more realistic way to approach the matter is to learn a modern Gaelic or Celtic language and use it to research elements of Paganism in Gaelic and Celtic folk belief, literature and song. Fortunately, there are many more learning opportunities available now for the non-academic learner than there were when I began in the 1990s. Some are quite extensive and can provide the student with a solid grasp of her chosen language. However, a solid grasp is not fluency. In order to attain that, she must interact with fluent speakers, which can only be done by nurturing contacts in secular Gaelic and Celtic communities where these languages are still spoken.
At this point, I think I ought to be honest about the reception my own Paganism has received here in Cape Breton. In spite of my participation in the Gàidhlig community for more than two years before I 'came out' and in spite of my Celtic Studies degree, there are a handful of people who have either put me at arm's length or shunned me altogether. A few of those are important figures in the community, tradition bearers whose Gàidhlig I value even though I'm hurt by their behavior. Most are neutral in their opinion, and among these are friends who advocate silence about my Paganism out of concern for my well-being. Perhaps one is positively sympathetic and wishes there was more information about the authentic beliefs and practices of the early Gaels. None are Pagan themselves.
So while I can't speak for the welcome others might receive here or elsewhere when their language studies prompt them to seek out fluent speakers, I can say that this secular Gàidhlig community isn't too different from secular communities elsewhere, with the exception that there are those who equate the protection of their culture with the exclusion of Pagan interest in it. Even so, I believe that making respectful contact with secular Gaelic and/or Celtic communities is a necessity for Celtic-inspired Pagans. Without that contact, our Paganism has no viable mechanism for checking itself against its own sourcewaters, a crucial component of grounding our path-working in reality.
Finally, it should be noted that not all Pagans draw their inspiration from pre-Christian/non-Christian cultures. Further, not all secular cultures - and especially not all minority cultures - care to share their languages with outsiders. However, for those Pagans who are Reconstructionist or Revivalist, I believe there is value in negotiating opportunities for learning and interaction, where possible. In this way, we begin to avoid the spectre of cultural appropriation and work to create dialogue with tradition-bearers and others who might come to value our contributions.
So while I maintain that Celtic languages are not a path to the Gods, I do believe they can educate, inform and connect the practitioner of Celtic-inspired Paganism with authentic resources for enriching her spirituality. And while I certainly cannot assure you that an exploration of Gaelic and Celtic languages will be met with enthusiasm by their respective fluent speakers, I also believe Celtic-inspired Pagans should make the effort anyway, as should other Pagans, where appropriate. We cannot persist in an environment of watered-down source materials painted with a cultural veneer and passed off as authentic, nor can we allow wish-fulfillment to stand in for reality where it concerns the foundations of our spiritual path-working. It's bad for us both as individuals and as a community, and it makes us look bad to outsiders. Language learning is one way to help combat this problem, and it has the added benefit of helping us to distinguish gnosis from appropriation.
I'm leaving you with a list of resources for learning the Gàidhlig language, if you're interested (and I hope you are). I'm also linking to a video of my participation in a 2011 milling frolic in Halifax, for those of you who might be curious about the intersection of Gàidhlig language and culture in Nova Scotia.
Bliadhna Mhath Ùr, 's beannachd leibh,
(Happy New Year, and bless you,)
Distance Learning Opportunitites
Milling Frolic Video
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