Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Does the Name Match the Claim? Using Historical Linguistics to Assess Claims of Pagan Continuity

Every word tells a story.

Unfortunately, it's not always the story that we want to tell.

Back at the end of the last century, it was not uncommon for pagan groups to claim unbroken continuity with the paganisms of the past. When someone makes such a claim, one way to test what they say is to look at the vocabulary that they're using to see if it matches their claims.

To take one preeminent example: in the 60s and 70s media witch Sybil Leek claimed to be high priestess of a Keltic tradition group in Hampshire's New Forest called Horsa Coven.

(Sorry, but after nearly 50 years in the Craft, I still cringe when I hear the term "high priestess." Talk about hokey.)

Now, “Horsa” has a pleasingly archaic sound to it: unsurprisingly, as it's an Anglo-Saxon/Old English name meaning “horse.” The fact that the name is Anglo-Saxon, however, sits uncomfortably with her claims of a “Keltic” tradition.

Horsa was the name of one of the two legendary Anglo-Saxon brothers who led their people to the Promised Land of England. (His brother was reputedly “Hengist,” which means “stallion”; the word survives into modern English as the first syllable of henchman.) The implication, I suppose, is that the tradition goes back to Anglo-Saxon times.

If so, the name itself disproves the claim. If the name had survived in continuous use since ancient days, it would automatically have modernized to "Horse." The fact that it didn't is proof that the name is a modern one, chosen for its archaic sound. Interestingly, one can say the same for the word “Wicca.”

Back in the early 90s, a group in the English Midlands calling itself Tuatha de Cornovii claimed to be a survival of the Iron Age Keltic tribe of the same name. Does the name match the claim?

One can readily see why modern pagans would find such a claim desirable. Although the meaning of the ethnonym is ultimately unclear, it likely derives from the Brythonic (British) word for “horn.” Pagans, of course, just love horns.

Tuatha de Cornovii clearly means “people of [the] Cornovii.” Unfortunately for the claims, though, it means this in two different languages. Tuatha de is Irish, a Q-Keltic language; Cornovii is Brythonic, a P-Keltic language. Clearly, the name has been cobbled together by someone who speaks neither Irish nor Brythonic by analogy with the renowned Tuatha de Danaan.

Ah, those desirable Kelts; they'll get you in trouble every time. I can remember reading an article in Mike Howard's flagship Old Craft periodical The Cauldron back in the mid-90s about a Swedish witch tradition that claimed to have been around for hundreds of years. Unfortunately for the veracity of such a claim, individual covens in this tradition were called sidhes.

Why a native Swedish witchcraft tradition would call itself by an Irish name—an Irish name which means “fairy mound,” no less—is a question well worth asking, especially when the Swedish language has a number of different indigenous terms for “fairy mound.”

These days, thank Goddess, the allure of the unbroken tradition seems to have waned. It's a powerful story, true, but at thirteenth and last, authenticity is measured not by unbroken tradition, but by how well we manage to be the pagans for our own time and place.

Not someone else's.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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