Toward a Progressive Pagan Culture
As I write this entry, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia is in full, autumn glory and the Celtic Colours International Festival is well underway. For those of you who don't know, Cape Breton is a Gàidhealtachd, a place where the Scottish Gaelic language is still spoken and taught, a place where Gaelic culture still lives. Every year in mid-October, people come from all over the world to celebrate the rich heritage of this place with concerts, classes, discussions and demonstrations rooted in the Gaìdhlig language that traveled here when so many of its native speakers emigrated from Scotland.
Cape Breton is also my home. An American by birth, I immigrated to Canada three and a half years ago after twenty years of Celtic Paganism and a Celtic Studies degree because I wanted to become a fluent Gaìdhlig speaker and advocate. My local Gaìdhlig learning began in Halifax, where Sgoil Ghàidhlig an Àrd-bhaile serves the community with a wide range of classes and workshops. I have since come to sit on the Board of Directors of that organization and maintain its web site, which has given me the opportunity to understand more about the mechanics of Gaìdhlig transmission in the province and also put me in touch with many wonderful Gaìdhlig speakers and learners. More recently, my husband and I bought the Presbyterian minister's manse where the Reverend A.W.R. MacKenzie lived when he founded the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts in 1938, and it is our joy to bring the Gaìdhlig language back into this house where I sit, writing to you.
I've heard two terms applied to people like me, who come from outside the Gaìdhlig community and settle within. The first is the title of this blog and this entry, 'Gael Ùr'. It means 'New Gael' and is usually self-referential. The other is GalGael, a term I learned from Alastair McIntosh, which he described as an older word that referred to people who were not Gaels by birth but were assimilated. My native Gaelic friends are less circumspect; they often remind me that the Gaels were great travelers who collected people into their communities, who themselves became Gaels as they absorbed the language and culture.
To be sure, not every culture - and indeed not every Gaelic or Celtic culture - has the same price of entry. For instance, I'm given to understand that while it's certainly possible to learn Gaìdhlig in Scotland, it's more difficult to integrate into Gaìdhlig-speaking communities there than it is here. Beyond this narrow example are the many Gaeilge (Irish), Gaelg (Manx), Cymraeg (Welsh), Brezhoneg (Breton) and Kernewek (Cornish) communities whose members have shared languages, cultures and histories and whose intrinsic sense of themselves is defined by these things. If they are to survive, then their decisions about who is 'inside' and who is 'outside' must be held inviolate.
This can be problematic for those of us who come to Gaelic and Celtic culture by way of their pre-Christian cosmologies. In seeking the spirituality of the early Western Europeans, we necessarily reach behind their contemporary counterparts to gather what fragments remain of their Pagan histories. There we find little separation between the sacred and the secular, which is true of many early lifeways. This integrative approach to spirituality can provide much-needed nourishment to those of us who seek the union of our sacred and secular selves, but in piecing together the fragments of Pagan history we find gaps, often large ones. Since a whole lifeway can't be reconstructed with so many pieces missing, we fill the gaps with elements of contemporary Gaelic and Celtic culture, gnosis, psychological imprints left over from mainstream religion and even wish-fulfillment. What results is Celtic Paganism, a thing apart from contemporary Gaelic and Celtic culture even though they all share the same roots.
Since moving to Nova Scotia, I've heard prominent Gaels of my acquaintance preface the term Gaelic with 'authentic' when referencing the culture. I've also heard it said in Celtic Studies academia that the word 'Celtic' has come to mean so many things that it no longer has any meaning at all. These are the efforts of a people and its academic advocates to define a thing against something else in order to distinguish and preserve it. And while Celtic Paganism certainly does not represent the entirety of the thing they oppose, we as Celtic Pagans are significant contributors to the dilution of Gaelic and Celtic culture. Why? Because our integrative approach to spiritual invention makes heavy use of the intellectual artifacts of a living, secular people.
But what do we owe these living, secular people, if anything? This issue isn't entirely a matter of cultural appropriation with its dichotomies of indigenous and colonial, oppressed and oppressor. If the price of entry to a given community is variable, then the narrative that describes that transaction must also be variable. Beyond that, Celtic Paganism should have the right to define itself as a community on its own terms, just as every other group has. At the same time, we must acknowledge that our efforts at self-definition have a direct impact on people whose ancestors preserved the fragments of Pagan history we cherish. More importantly, Gaelic and Celtic language and culture did not die with the pre-Christian, Celtic Pagans. They evolved, and modern Gaels and Celts are their inheritors at a time when these precious intellectual artifacts are threatened with extinction. So if we as members of a modern, secular society are expected to uphold the right of all indigenous peoples to preserve their languages and cultures as they see fit, do we not owe the secular inheritors of our spiritual histories more than that? In fact, do we not owe them our thoughtful, educated support?
How should that support manifest, and how do we deal with road-blocks along the journey? I'll explore these and other topics in future blog entries with the caveat that because I am a Gael Ùr, I still have a lot to learn from my friends, mentors and elders here about the home of my heart. I'll also be discussing Pagan fiction and poetry, since I believe storytelling is a crucial tool of self-definition in any community. Finally, I'll be looking at intersections between culture, language, story and faith as they relate Celtic Pagans especially but also to Paganism in general.
Tapadh leibh airson a' leughadh, 's beannachd leibh,
(Thank you for reading, and bless you,)
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