Gael Ùr: Cànan, Sgeul 's Creideamh

Discussing Gaelic culture, advocating Pagan story, honoring the Earth and the beings who share it with us.

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C.S. MacCath

C.S. MacCath

 C.S. MacCath is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Clockwork Phoenix: Tales of Beauty and Strangeness, Murky Depths, Witches & Pagans and other publications. Her poetry has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award, and her fiction has received honorable mention in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection.


Ceallaigh's first collection of fiction and poetry entitled The Ruin of Beltany Ring has been called 'wonderful, thoroughly engaging, always amazing', a book of 'tiny marvels' and 'well-worth reading'. At present, she's working on a science fiction series entitled Petals of the Twenty Thousand Blossom and a second collection of fiction and poetry.


 

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Culture of the Imagination, Part 2

Last month, I wrote about hiraeth, the cultures of the imagination we create as a Pagan community and the empowerment that occurs when we cultivate sacred spaces together. This month, I'll be expanding upon that theme with a discussion of the psychological dynamics behind this process and some suggestions about what we might do with the power inherent in it.

"I think the search for community, be it within the traditional cultures in Alba Nuadh1 or the various pagan cultural communities, is the proof of how crazy global consumerist culture has made us and, indeed, how wrong it is for us. We are instinctively looking for what felt right. I don't think that a homeland of the imagination is better than an actual community of people who see and speak to each other, but perhaps it can form a useful bridge to sustain isolated cultural thoughtful pagans during this period of global cultural and environmental decline." - Sylvain Grandcerf

Grandcerf is a member of my local Pagan community, and I've posted this excerpt from an online discussion with his permission because he's right. We understand on an intuitive level that global, consumerist culture is wrong for us, and we're looking for something better. Beyond the natural, human inclination to create internal landscapes, I believe this is a core reason why we seek the Avalons of our hearts in the outer world. We want to externalize a reality we already know is healthful and meaningful. And when all of those internal landscapes commingle in our communities, the natural result is a pool of power and a cooperative effort to create a better world. Of course, this means that Pagan groups and gatherings are not an end unto themselves but rather a means to create something positive and enduring.

One way we already do that is by investigating the pre-Christian elements of our favored cultural histories and re-sacralizing them. Some of those efforts are less respectful than others, but I think there is an overall movement in Paganism away from cultural appropriation, and that's good. At the same time, the recovery of ancient spiritways is not the only or even the most important function of our collectively-imagined communities. Think about it. We're showing the world that animism is a viable spiritual philosophy at a time when our modern way of life is destroying the living Earth. In truth, I think this is our most sacred task and perhaps part of the reason modern Paganism exists to begin with, but that's food for another blog entry.

There are other, more immediate ways to wield the power of community. One of my favorites is the global Transition Network, which seeks to foster community resilience in a post-peak oil environment. There isn't any reason why regional Pagan communities couldn't become a part of the Transition Network and every reason why they should. And there are other, more immediate problems that ought to receive the benefit of our collective power. For instance, many Pagans are estranged from their families as a result of their faith, and I am among them. My husband is also estranged from his family, and so we are both concerned about finding an appropriate executor for our estate in the event that we die together. It's an unhappy task, to be sure, but a local, stable Pagan community could act in this capacity on behalf of people like us. Speaking of elder care, many of our fellow Pagans are ageing. A local, stable community might keep them company, mow their lawns, shovel their snow and help them transition into retirement homes. On the other side of life, there is surely a need for Pagan child care, community resources for young Pagan families and the like. Frankly, I think we're still outsourcing far too much of our community care to institutions who know very little about us, and that makes us vulnerable. We ought to be using the power we generate together to lift one another up locally, which will  strengthen the Pagan community globally.

It isn't Avalon...yet. But a collective culture of the imagination, born from our individual homelands of the heart, has the power to do great good; for us, for one another and for everything we hold precious. My hope is that we never forget this essential truth, even when we're confronted with community challenges, which is what I'll be writing about next month.

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Culture of the Imagination, Part 1

Recently, I saw a photo of an old, Pagan friend on Facebook. He was wearing a great kilt and a body full of blue paint, likely woad. His arms were crossed, and he was laughing at something off-camera. Behind him, a woman in jeans and a sweater walked down a garden path with a sword in her hand. There were tents and green trees in the background. I remembered his laughter as it had been when I knew him and missed the days when I could sit with kilted friends on American hillsides and talk of a Scotland that never was.

Two years ago, I was visiting Toronto for the World Fantasy Convention and met with another friend in Dundas square; a Pagan Celt and hospital chaplain who wears a torc I don't believe he ever takes off. Like me, he's a graduate of the Celtic Studies program at the University of Toronto, and he introduced me to two other graduates who went with us for chips and a pitcher of beer. We talked about the intersections of our educations and our spiritualities alongside a liberal smattering of pre-Christian references in early texts. It was an evening with people for whom no explanation was necessary, and I remember it fondly.

There is a Welsh word, 'hiraeth', which has no direct English translation but refers to a deep longing for homeland that might not exist or have ever existed. Dion Fortune surely touched on this idea when she referred to Glastonbury as the 'Avalon of the Heart'. Some feel this longing more deeply than others, and I think many who do find their way to Paganism, where there is a sympathetic welcome for refugees of places none of us can ever visit in our bodies. I'm certainly one of them, having felt this longing since I was in my early twenties, having built my life upon it, having earned a Bachelor of Celtic Studies, traveled to Ireland, immigrated to Canada and settled in a Gàidhealtachd of the Scottish Gaelic language because of it.

I still haven't found that homeland, by the way. It wasn't at the University of Toronto, though I did find many of the old stories there. It wasn't in Ireland, though the bones of that place played me like the instrument I am. And least of all, it isn't here in Cape Breton, where there is Gàidhlig culture aplenty steeped in the Catholic and Presbyterian religious ideologies of insular Celts who have less interest in enthusiastic newcomers than they claim1. Do I still support their efforts to preserve their unique heritage? Of course. Do I feel at home here?

I felt at home in the world of my friend's photograph. I felt at home in the pub where I sat with fellow Pagan Celts and sacralized the histories we love. I have felt at home wherever there were people like me, answering the call of similar places in their souls. Together, we've created a culture of the imagination, where we could recognize in each other what we had not found in the world, what may never have existed in the world until we created it. There are those who would belittle that culture because of its origins in us, but I think it's useful to remember that all cultures are products of the imagination. Some are just older or perhaps have a better established lineage than others.

And this culture nourishes us, doesn't it? When we come together, we create a home for each other where we can explore what it means to be human in the contexts of our Pagan spiritualities. For awhile, no explanations are necessary, and there is power in that. So I'm  a great fan of circles, covens, groves, festivals and conventions; where we share the meals, rituals and realities we have created. Yes, there is conflict in those places sometimes, but the good we can do for each other and for the world far outweighs the potential for negativity. For my part, I'll be attending the Aegis Pagan Gathering and Spiritual Retreat later this summer, and I'm really looking forward to it. I hope you'll take the time to connect in person with your community as well. Pitch a tent, build a fire, cook a feast and invite your fellow Pagans to help create a culture that empowers you all.

Next time, I'll write a bit about what we might do with all that power.


1. 06/01/2014 19:19 ADT: I've been thinking about this sentence all afternoon, and I really feel I need to qualify it. Every word is true, but I realize it's possible to misconstrue what I've written as a condemnation of the Gàidhlig community here. That isn't my intention at all. I do have many Gàidhlig friends and acquaintances in Nova Scotia, and I value them greatly. However, integration into an insular, minority community is a complex process, and my own journey has certainly reflected that complexity. It's worth noting that many of us here who 'come from away' have similar stories to tell.

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  • Rebecca Kinney
    Rebecca Kinney says #
    You have just described, in the most elegant way, exactly how I feel. That overwhelming sense of just not quite belonging where I
  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor says #
    Excellent post. The memories we have are not always of this world; they may come from alternate realities which were no less real.

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

This month and bho am gu am (from time to time) hereafter, I'll be sharing Gàidhlig music with you. Sometimes that music will have specific applicability to Paganism, but more often than not I'll just be passing along bits of song culture I think you might find interesting. I'll always provide Gàidhlig lyrics and their translations, and I'll always provide recordings of my renditions of the pieces.

Today I'm sharing a strathspey Port-à-beul* with you. 'Puirt-à-beul' is Gàidhlig for 'tunes from the mouth'; instrumental pieces sung to simple, sometimes nonsense lyrics often for traditional dance accompaniment. Strathspeys are in 4/4 time but are slower and accented differently from reels, which are also in 4/4 time. Finally, mouth tunes are usually sung in pairs, but I'll save the reel I learned with this strathspey for another entry.

Here are the lyrics, and you'll find my recording below. I hope you enjoy them, and Happy Beltane!

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Evil Thrives on Secrecy

Many of you will have already read that long-time Pagan leader Kenny Klein was recently arrested for possession of child pornography. If you have not yet read this news, you can do so here. I was already aware of certain allegations against him stemming from a problematic incident in the 1990s, but the information came to me third-hand, and so I was reluctant to credit it. However, the way the information came to me - via someone who said she was breaking a coven oath to impart it - left me thinking about secrecy in the Pagan community for a long time afterward. More recently, Kenny himself posted a blog entry to the PaganSquare community about the issue of secrecy in magical communities that I thought was a good exploration of the topic, and I commented with a link back to my own discussion of secrecy among Pagans when speaking with non-Pagans.

In the coming days and weeks, I expect there will be a great deal of public conversation among us around Kenny's arrest, what the community knew or believed about his character and what the press might make of his faith. And while I am indeed using him as an example to re-introduce the topic of secrecy in the Pagan community, I am not willing to speculate in this entry or in the comments about his guilt or innocence. Rather, I want to have a conversation about silence; the kind we offer one another as Pagans and the kind we visit upon outsiders.

I am a reluctantly graying Pagan who came to the faith in the 1980s and lives in a conservative, Gàidhlig, island community now. So silence about my faith has always been a matter of active negotiation for me. That said, I believe in a certain level of transparency and accountability within the Pagan community, which is another kind of active negotiation, one that involves us all. I wrote about that negotiation some years ago for PanGaia's "Toe-to-Toe" series, and I am reprinting that article below because I think the discussion is timely. I encourage you to seek out PanGaia #46 for commentary on the subject by fellow contributors Alex Bledsoe, Nicholas Graham and David C. Webb.

Evil Thrives on Secrecy

I’ve been Pagan for more than twenty years, and in that time I’ve observed many fellow Pagans engaging in behaviors that were damaging to themselves, to their inner circles of friends and family, and to the Pagan community in general.  Some of these behaviors were egregious in nature, and I’ve often found myself shaking my head in disbelief or shaking with anger at what I’ve witnessed.  On more than one occasion I’ve responded to these behaviors with varying degrees of tact - proportional to my age and wisdom, as you might expect – and on more than one occasion I’ve found myself at loggerheads with various members of my community out of a sense of personal outrage, or duty, or whatever I was calling it at the time.  I’m not very good at the “shut up and sweep it under the rug” thing, you see.

But even though I’ve matured over time and learned to express my righteous indignation more diplomatically, I’ve never regretted the impulse that drove my younger self to right the wrongs I found in my community; to encourage mentally-ill friends to seek professional help, to report fellow Pagans to the proper authorities when I knew they were abusing their children, and to stand up to those leaders who used their influence improperly. I love the Pagan community; it was my refuge from the dark corners of my youth, it taught me almost everything I know about honor, and it brought me to a deep and abiding reverence for life.  I believe in fostering the same refuge for others who need it, and that isn’t always easy.

However, I’ve also observed – and been subject to – what happens to Pagans who speak out against the inappropriate behavior of other Pagans.  Often they are accused of inciting conflict whether their concerns are legitimate or not.  Moreover, those people who are charged with inappropriate behavior often hide behind the pretense of conflict avoidance and thereby escape censure whether they are guilty or not.  This is not appropriate, and over the years it has left me wondering why our community appears to favor conflict avoidance over straightforwardness and accountability.  It’s a hard question, and I think it demands that we look at the reasons why we avoid conflict in the first place.

One possibility is that because we have had to fight hard for a long time to be recognized as a legitimate faith path in the eyes of non-Pagan culture, we want to put on the very best face we have for the public eye. Internal conflict mars that public face and makes it more difficult for us to interact with non-Pagans. Therefore, it is possible that the Pagan community has, in its desire to be seen as positive and life-affirming, sought to quash dissent rather than deal with those problems illuminated by dissenters.

Another possibility is that our desire to foster diversity makes us hesitant to question people whose behavior bespeaks a need for intervention when they insist their activities are integral to their path-working. Many of us know people who use psychotropic substances to facilitate visionary experience; who are we to determine how much is too much? Many of us know people who are nurturing non-traditional romantic and familial relationships; who are we to determine whether or not those relationships are equitable for all parties involved? We exist in a community full of radical and experimental forms of expression, and most of us know that we can’t possibly understand them all. Perhaps we are worried that we might not understand them enough to know when the line between progressive and problematic has been crossed.

A third possibility is that many of us come from broken places and have brought our psychological baggage with us into the Pagan community. Conflict is sometimes personal and painful for people even when they are not directly involved in it. As previously mentioned, a number of us sought refuge here in the hope that we could recover our strength and thereafter make positive contributions in the lives of others.  Therefore, it is certainly possible that some Pagans simply have little tolerance for discord.

But whatever the reasons for this ethic of conflict avoidance, the consequences are the same. We decay from within when sick members of our community do not seek wellness, and we enable their sickness with our silence. We are viewed negatively by the outside world when we do not censure members of our community who have harmed others. And most importantly, we fail to do the spiritual and environmental work the multiverse brought us together to do, since that work can only be done in a spirit of perfect love and perfect trust.

We all fall ill and make mistakes from time to time. I am not suggesting that we punish the imperfections of our fellow Pagans by permanently excluding them from our community. However, I am insisting that we overcome our fear of conflict and demand that our fellow Pagans seek help when they are ill and account for their mistakes. Our community is important and good and holy, and we all need to be healthy and productive together if we are to survive, thrive, and be a place of safety for our members.

"Evil Thrives on Secrecy." PanGaia Apr. 2007: 12. Print.

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  • Deborah Blake
    Deborah Blake says #
    Very well said!

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

Creideamh a' Bhata Bhuidhe: The religion of the yellow stick. A Coll priest of former times was accustomed to drive recalcitrant natives to church by a smart application of his walking stick, those who yielded were thus said to come under “creideamh a' bhata bhuidhe.” Another version says Hector, son of Donald Maclean of Coll, was the one who applied the yellow stick. Hector was laird in 1715 and as the religion of the yellow stick was introduced into Rum in 1726, it is beyond dispute that Hector was the author, or propagator of it. He was dignified in appearance and stern in manners and could no doubt wield the yellow stick gracefully and with efficiency. - Dwelly's Illustrated Gaelic to English Dictionary

I was raised a Jehovah's Witness and forced by my parents to attend Kingdom Hall three times a week. So you'll understand if I confess a visceral reaction to the prospect of being beaten with a stick for the sake of piety. In fact, I still deliberately linger in bed on Sunday mornings, and it's been nearly thirty years since I had to attend a weekend service. But that's one of the lovely things about being Pagan, isn't it? We don't adhere to a rigid belief system, so we don't punish our members when they fail to think or do what such a system might dictate. Rather, the religious beliefs of Pagans are diverse, perhaps far more than members of mainstream religions. Around the circle at any given public ritual, we might have Dianic Wiccans, Celtic polytheists, Heathens and others, each nurturing an internal spiritual narrative unique to her needs.

Of course, that's precisely what faith is, an internal narrative about the way the universe works. In some religions, that narrative is externally prescribed, which helps to create unity among practitioners but also leaves them vulnerable to manipulation. In others, the individual is expected to function as his own guru, which helps to foster spiritual resilience but can leave him feeling isolated. However, in both cases, people of faith are receiving or creating sacred stories overlaid upon the unknown. No Christian actually knows if the serendipity in her life belongs to God or chance, no Wiccan is certain whether or not his magic is working, and no cartomancer can tell you why her efforts at divination are more than random but never wholly reliable.

Simply put, we tell stories to heaven, and sometimes we think heaven answers.

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  • Jose M
    Jose M says #
    Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant!!
  • C.S. MacCath
    C.S. MacCath says #
    Thank you!
  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor says #
    This is deeply thought-out and exquisitely expressed for its clarity. I can see why your writing has been nominated for so many a
  • C.S. MacCath
    C.S. MacCath says #
    You're very kind to say so! Thank you.

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Sgeul

True story.

I met a Notable American Druid (NAD) in Ireland while I was on scholarship as a Celtic Studies student, and we traveled together from time to time while we were there. One evening, after touring County Donegal, we stopped at a pub in Carrick on the way back to Glencolumbkille. I don't remember what NAD drank that night, but the publican taught me to make what he called 'Hot Bush'. Here's the recipe:

Boil the kettle.
Pour hot water into a mug.
Boil the kettle again.
Pour the water out of the mug.
Put 3 cloves, a teaspoon of sugar and a shot of Bushmills into the mug.
Pour boiling water into the mug and stir.

It was good insurance against the temperamental June weather on the island, and I drank a lot of it during my stay. Anyway, so there we were, listening to a session, me drinking Hot Bush and NAD making conversation with the locals. One of them, a portly, middle-aged woman told me her son had done bass work for the Pogues and invited me to contact him about the undergraduate project I was working on (I never did). She also told me that her family had been involved with the IRA and specifically that her mother had moved weapons for the organization. She was a great conversationalist, and she seemed to like me too, so we were getting on well together.

Then NAD interrupted (during the whole running guns for the IRA bit) to tell the woman that he was a Notable American Druid, that he believed Ireland had been better off without Saint Patrick and that he thought the Irish should turn the island back over to the Druids altogether. Mind you, I didn't entirely disagree with the man, but I didn't think a pub in Catholic Carrick was the place to share that sentiment, and I didn't think the daughter of a militant family was the person to share it with. She seemed to agree, and over the next hour, I helped her edge him out of the conversation while we continued to chat about music, politics and life.

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  • C.S. MacCath
    C.S. MacCath says #
    I completely agree the idea is worth revisiting; in novels, short stories, poetry and new media. I want to see good markets contin
  • Deborah Blake
    Deborah Blake says #
    I love a good Pagan story. Your stories especially :-). I was really disappointed when I discovered recently that the first (and i

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

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

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