Gentlidecht: Ireland Before Christianity (Sort Of)
An exploration of what medieval Irish sources actually say, and how these can be used by modern polytheists in a spiritual context.
What is 'Gentlidecht'?
For the men of Ireland have again followed gentlidecht as it was at first before belief, before Patrick’s advent, save only that they have not worshipped idols. For the heathen had a lie and a good word, and this existeth not today. And every evil which the heathen used to do is done at this time in the land of Ériu, save only that the Irish do not worship idols. Howbeit they perpetrate wounding and theft and adultery and parricides and manslaughter, and the wrecking of churches and clerics, covetousness and perjury and lies and false judgment, and destruction of God’s church, draidecht, and gentlidecht, and dealing in charms, philters and enchantments and fidlanna.
—“Adomnán’s Second Vision” (c. 1096 CE), §15-16
The text above is from Whitley Stokes’ edition and translation of “Adomnán’s Second Vision,” which was published in 1891; few scholars, let alone everyday Pagans or polytheists, have paid much attention to it since then. Many modern Celtic Reconstructionist groups have been founded, and have created Irish and other Celtic neologisms as names for their polytheistic practices; but here is a thoroughly medieval Irish word for what the Christians understood to be the Paganism of ancient and medieval Ireland, still going strong (if their reports in this 11th-century text are to be given credence) after centuries of post-Patrician conversion: Gentlidecht. Stokes translates the word as, rather amusingly from a modern Pagan perspective, “heathenism” or “heathenry”…if only the Ásatrúars knew!
You might, however, want to know a bit more about why this text was written, and who Adomnán was, and why both his “First Vision” and his “Second” are not on the reading list of every CR practitioner or modern Pagan. St. Adomnán was the ninth abbot of the island monastery of Iona, founded by his relative, Colm Cille, around a century before Adomnán himself was its abbot. He was the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Niall Noígiallach, “Niall of the Nine Hostages,” the founder of the Uí Néill dynasty of the Irish high kings of Tara, who ruled the northern half of Ireland from the late fourth century through the early seventeenth century CE, with very few interruptions in their rule. (Not only does Niall have descendants in numbers rivaling Genghis Khan, he was also the protagonist of the most well-known Irish tale in which the Sovereignty Goddess of Ireland comes to him in a hideous form to test his fitness for the kingship, and then becomes beautiful once he successfully beds her.)
Adomnán wrote an extensive Vita of Columba (the Latinized version of St. Colm Cille’s name) around the year 697 CE. He also wrote a piece on holy places in Palestine, Alexandria, and Constantinople, De Locis Sanctis, which was based on the work of the Gaulish monastic pilgrim Arculf, and which Adomnán
presented to Aldfrith, the king of Northumbria, in 698 CE. A law-text that he promulgated, the Cáin Adomnáin, was one of the first legal documents to attempt the protection of women, children, and clerics as non-combatants, and his law was re-promulgated on a number of occasions in future centuries. There is also an apocalyptic visionary text of the Christian afterlife that is attributed to him, Fís Adomnáin, the “Vision of Adomnán,” which dates from the tenth or eleventh century, and which is most certainly not a text that he wrote himself—but, it does contain a variety of interesting things, including some lines that are reminiscent of The Chaldean Oracles. Adomnán was one of the most learned men of his day in Ireland and Britain, and the presence of a great deal of Christian apocrypha in Ireland indicates that it is very possible that some otherwise strange or unexpectedly obscure ancient texts may well have made their way there in some form or other.
The “Second Vision of Adomnán” continues the tradition of posthumous attribution, but this time with a very specific historical purpose. In 1096 CE, which was a leap year, St. John’s Day (June 25th) fell on a Friday. “So what?” you might say: no big deal, right? Not remotely for the medieval Irish: this meant that 1096 CE might be the year the world ended, or at very least that Ireland would be destroyed by some calamity or other.
Why did they think this?
Ní hansa: not difficult.
It is because of Mog Ruith, the druid, the son of an Irish sage and a British slave-girl, who was taught by all of the druids of Ireland, as well as Simon Druí (that is, Simon Magus) who practiced every form of sorcery and magic amongst the Samaritans, was baptized by St. Philip, and challenged St. Peter to allow him to buy the power to transmit the gifts of the Holy Spirit, thus becoming the fountain of all heresies in Christian tradition, and the teacher of mysteries in some Gnostic sects. Mog Ruith was the only person bold enough to cut the head off St. John the Baptist, and for doing this wickedness, much evil and hardship would be loosed upon the people of Ireland, the land of his birth.
(We can see by this, of course, that this is in no way a historical person or series of events, it’s a medieval Irish literary myth that some clever and enterprising Irish author created in earlier centuries to connect their own honored ancestors to the narratives of the Gospels and subsequent patristic tradition. And, that clever and innovative story had the force of doctrine, and of very real prophetic insight, given to it despite its non-canonically Christian status. No matter what religion the Irish practiced, it was stories that created their realities.)
Thus, the Irish clerics of the late eleventh century were worried that the backsliding into pre-Christian ways that some of the people of Ireland were exhibiting boded ill for the continuation of Ireland’s blessed place in the world
after the coming of the Gospel and of Patrick.
While a great deal more can be said about the above passage, and the various intertexts to which it can be related, and the many traditions which underlie its meaning, there are a number of larger points to be made here regarding the relevance of this material for modern Pagans and polytheists, both CR-specific as well as more widely.
First, we often find out more useful information for us as modern polytheistic practitioners in texts that seem “Christian” from medieval Ireland than we do from texts that seem “Pagan.” For all the richness in myth and narrative and custom that comes from reading Táin Bó Cúailnge, Acallam na Senórach, Lebor Gabála Érenn, and any number of other texts, there is an equal and often far more specific amount to be discovered about the actual practices of real individuals living in the fifth through sixteenth centuries CE in Ireland that is mentioned in ecclesiastical texts associated with Christianity. Getting to know them and understand them, while difficult, is most certainly useful.
Second, there is genuinely useful and insightful material to be found in medieval Irish texts generally speaking, even though they are not known to many modern Pagans and polytheists. One should never assume that the Irish polytheistic religion that was practiced before Christianity has been completely lost, or that certain matters of belief and practice cannot be recovered (with some discernment exercised along the way) from the texts that do exist. No, it may not be a “complete” religion that is discovered from these medieval sources, but one must further ask whether “complete” means “systematic” in the fashion that an institutionalized religion like Christianity is “complete” and “systematic.” (After 1,500 years of unchallenged literary, intellectual, political, and institutional hegemony in Europe and the Western world, it would be rather disappointing if it were not thoroughly systematized by now!) One should, further, not assume that because this completeness cannot be achieved, and that there has been some genuine loss (which should be lamented and acknowledged), that therefore it is not useful to dutifully and diligently study these medieval texts whenever possible, and never assume that there are not potential answers to one’s questions contained in them…or, as is often the case and far more likely, further answers to questions one didn’t even know one had, or which one didn’t know were even significant, can also be re-discovered.
Third and finally for the moment (for what Irish scholar does not enjoy a triad?), one must likewise realize that the “contamination” by Christianity that is present in these texts is thoroughgoing—one cannot remove this pervasive influence simply by removing God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the various Prophets, Saints, and Angels from the mix, substituting one’s own preferred deities, and calling it good. The very vocabulary in which these literate texts were composed is rife with words borrowed from Latin, and which are adapted from the extensive biblical and classical learning (including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) that the Irish
literati had on a level more complete than anyone in Western Europe at the time. The syncretism that occurs when one brings in Simon Druí to the magical lineage of Mog Ruith, which makes Dido rage like a geilt rather than a maenad in the Irish version of the Aeneid, which believes the Fury Allecto and the Morrígan are the same being in the first recension of Táin Bó Cúailnge, and which suggests that Medb and Ailill of Connacht had their druids sacrifice to Mars, Jove, Apollo, and Osiris (!?!) before a martial foray in Cath Findchorad, is richer for the connections made between classical polytheism and Irish polytheism. These are the ways in which the Irish understood themselves and their ancestors, in line with what they knew of “pagans,” “heathens,” and practitioners of gentlidecht,
“gentilism,” as reflected in these learned sources from Greece and Rome that were transmitted in literate form to them through Christianity’s influence. They did it with the Hebrew Bible as well: just as the “Old Testament” and its prophets struggling against Ba’al and other gods was a part of the pre-Christian heritage, so too was their own pre-Christian past their own “Irish Old Testament,” with some of the same gods, including Ba’al in the alternate form Bel…you know, the god that many pagans celebrate with fires at Beltaine? It’s a Canaanite god, not a Celtic god! To the medieval Irish, these connections between the Paganism of the Greeks and Romans and the polytheism of their own ancestors were causes to be more proud of their ancestors, not half-assed attempts to fill in gaps, or over-learned efforts to show off one’s knowledge.
We can look at the passage on gentlidecht in the late eleventh century and see that there are obvious inconsistencies in it—how could the Irish have reverted to the ways of gentlidecht, which existed before the coming of Christianity to Ireland, if part of those ways includes destroying churches and clerics, since there were no churches nor clerics in Ireland when gentlidecht was the only religion in town? (Though, since there weren’t “towns” either, that metaphor may not be the best one to use here…anachronism was a medieval practice as much as it is a modern one!) But, we can also look at it and see that idol worship, magical practice, the warrior customs of the fíanna (which the church, and later Norman/English rulers in Ireland, fought to suppress until the fourteenth century CE, but which was documented and preserved carefully in a variety of tales of Finn mac Cumhaill and other great Irish warriors), and “divination by wood,” which is the suggested translation of the term fidlanna, all also occurred, both in the eleventh century and in the pre-Christian past. While the clerical writers of these texts certainly had suppression of these practices in mind, and engaged in hyperbolae to make their point, nonetheless in doing so they often serve to preserve some of these practices—however faintly rendered—so that latter-day readers can at least know some of what went on for both pre- and post-Christian Irish polytheists, even if the details are not supplied.
While the debate over the usefulness or not of the word “Pagan” as an umbrella term for a modern group of various potentially polytheistic religions will certainly go on for a very long time, it is a term—not unlike “witch,” “queer,” and various other terms—which has been reclaimed as a banner of pride and honor under
which to march for modern people, even though our ostensible “enemies” have created it and imposed it upon us as a means to demean and discredit us. Gentlidecht is of the same sort, for good or ill: a word based on a loan-word into Irish from Latin, gentes, i.e. “nations,” as in the Gentile peoples in comparison to the “People of Israel.” Unlike “Pagan,” however, “Gentile” does not necessarily have negative baggage outside of a Christian or Jewish context—indeed, “the nations” and their individual cultural understandings of religion and spirituality, which were considered inextricable from their other ways of life and thus did not generally have a distinct conceptual category or term to describe them in each individual culture, could be an even more appropriate and useful term than “Pagan” as far as its connotations (or lack thereof) are concerned.
What can be known of Irish polytheism from the medieval sources which have survived: that is Gentlidecht.
May the Gods and the Non-Gods smile upon those who come to know these ways with victory, blessings, good hospitality, and health for all their days!
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