The Three Cauldrons: Celtic Myth and Spiritual Wisdom

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Walking our Talk: Native Wisdom and Respect

This blog has taken many hours - and no small measure of courage - to write, and is written from the heart. It discusses some potentially uncomfortable aspects of modern Celtic Paganism. I encourage you to read and contemplate. Note: Flaming will be deleted, and protection is already set in place, as well as spirit assistance to return anything harmful to sender. The ultimate message here is awareness and respect. If that doesn’t resonate for you, please pass on by. 


I want to say some things on the topic of showing respect for our fellow/sister/trans Celtic/Druidic pagans. Many - if not most - pagans believe that nature is sacred, as well as all of its beings. 
That includes human beings, who have complex lives and experiences, struggles or situations, as well as strengths and insights, the extent of which we may not be aware (especially if our only ‘knowledge’ of them is through Facebook or the internet).Why would we have compassion for a wounded or struggling plant or animal, but not for another human being?
 
As some are aware, over the last year or so there have been some flareups of aggressive and judgmental words and behaviors from some in this community towards others. This is of course nothing new, but in recent times, the diatribe has been fueled by labeling others as engaging in cultural appropriation.
 
That’s a handy term to fling about in order to cast aspersions on other people, the details of whose lives or practices we may not be fully aware. In light of this, we should define what the term actually means. Here is a good summation from Wikipedia:

“Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation,is the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. Because of the presence of power imbalances that are a byproduct of colonialism and oppression, cultural appropriation is distinct from equal cultural exchange.

Particularly in the 21st century, cultural appropriation is often considered harmful, and to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating, minority cultures, notably indigenouscultures and those living under colonial rule.

Often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, cultural appropriation can include using other cultures' cultural and religious traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and songs.

According to critics of the practice, cultural appropriation differs from acculturationassimilation, or cultural exchange in that this appropriation is a form of colonialism: cultural elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of members of the originating culture.

Often, the original meaning of these cultural elements is lost or distorted, and such displays are often viewed as disrespectful, or even as a form of desecration, by members of the originating culture.”


It’s easy to think of examples of how this may take place in the 21st-century. We have all seen non-indigenous people paying alot of money for New Age workshops led by people who claim to have access to indigenous wisdom.

When scrutinized, it doesn’t take long to see that the information provided often comes from a variety of eclectic sources (including Buddhism, Christianity, Wicca, and the personal path of the facilitator) mixed together in a feel-good blend that seems to provide instant access to ancient knowledge.

 In addition, the credentials of the facilitator may be mixed and opaque... self-describing as a High priest/ess, shaman, witch, storyteller etc... one who may have studied psychology, explored Egyptian or Hawaiian traditions, and so forth. Few are actually from the culture they claim to represent, nor have they been trained by (or approved by) those tradition bearers. They have not learned the languages, nor given up significant aspects of the modern non-indigenous lifestyle (money, job security, family, car, buying a home, etc) to do so. 

With all of this in mind, what are some reasons why cultural appropriation may have become such an important buzzword at this time? 

As economically or militarily powerful countries or cultures who have engaged in the cultural oppression of others slowly begin to take responsibility for past wrongs, the suffering and loss experienced by those cultures has come into the limelight, and rightly so.

There have been some efforts to recognize what has happened, ceremonially make apologies, and in some cases, concrete steps and efforts to restore land and sovereignty to the cultures in question. This is a good start, but clearly there is a long way to go.

So how does this concern practitioners of modern pagan Celtic spiritual paths? On one hand, it gives us an opportunity to step back and think about what we are doing, to see if what we are saying or claiming to be practicing is free from cultural appropriation, and if there are ways in which we can be more aware or mindful.

On the other hand, it has also lead some pagans to publicly judge and try to discredit or humiliate others based on a knee-jerk reaction or assessment of what they think others may be doing. 

While some queries may be sincerely motivated by curiosity or concern, the words and actions of others seem to be fueled by internal feelings or struggles that may have little to do with the people who are the target of their words. These feelings can include anger, inner wounding, frustration, jealousy, disconnection, unhappiness, insecurity, or excessive ego.  

Since it would be inappropriate for me to speak on behalf of the experiences of others without their consent, I will speak about my own experiences with these types of situations. In particular I would like to address the aggressive words, judgments and public shaming enacted by certain people or groups towards those who talk about (or even inquire about) topics such as shamanism and First Nations beliefs and practices.

I’ll try and keep this narrative as on topic as possible, as this is not about me, but about people painting others with a very broad brush, without taking the time to investigate properly or consider different angles of complex situations. In short, it is about intolerance, shaming and ego. 

I’m Canadian, and my grandparents were from Scotland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I have no American ancestors, and my great grandfather from Dundee, who was extremely poor, was the first in our family to cross the ocean. He lived in a barn and worked on a turnip farm in order to earn money so his wife and child could escape poverty in Scotland. 

We have relatives from Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and that was a huge influence on me as I was growing up. As my grandparents got older, I began to explore my heritage more deeply. I read a lot of history, which seemed to be very different from what was being claimed in New Age and NeoPagan books and groups. 

I wanted to separate fact from fiction as I began to build a foundation for my spiritual practice. The gods and spirits brought several people into my life who knew the languages and cultures, and understood which sources were reliable and which were not.

I started voraciously reading based on their guidance, and worked on learning Scottish Gaelic which my mother had heard her grandmother speak well into the twentieth century. I was strongly (re)directed by Spirit towards historical cultural and practice, rather than modern eclectic earth religion, and so I primarily practiced as a solitary. 

At the time, I was working as a professional singer and musician, and had a rich and full life... not much money but a lot of friends and interesting experiences....And then I got sick. Debilitating nerve pain, extreme fatigue, severe insomnia, and more. No one could diagnose it, and no one could treat it. I had to stop working, and my life begin to fall apart.

In order to put food in my stomach, I began to teach music and Celtic paganism. The teaching went well, but my health and life continued to deteriorate. I had previously bought many books on Celtic topics, some related to neopaganism and some related to history.  I became so sick that I could not read for several years. I learned yoga and meditation to help me survive my situation. 
 
Finally I improved slightly and was able to read a little bit. The Gods and Ancestors strongly directed that in my spiritual practice I was to stick with the history books. Eventually I was able to sort out which things were part of my ancestral cultures, and which were modern ideas - which, although beautiful and resonant - were not Celtic.  I ended up selling a lot of these books to pay bills, and I kept focused on the historically attested materials (which luckily I found fascinating). 
 
Then, the economy shifted and I lost the home I had lived in for 14 years, as well as my band of ten years, my relationship of seven years, and two of my three cats died. I became too unwell to teach, had very little money and came within weeks of homelessness. 

Then, through a truly divinely-orchestrated set of circumstances (which I won’t go into here), magically a door opened and I was able to study at Harvard where I trained professionally in Celtic studies. That totally changed my life and my spiritual path. 
 
At school, I had to hide my illness and my poverty. I went to a thrift store and spent eight dollars to buy two tops, a small gray cardigan and a skirt, which I wore for two years to class because I had no other appropriate clothing. I sold my personal belongings in order to pay bills and afford bus fare.
 
As challenging as it was, every moment in that training was a sacred gift and I knew it. I was quiet much of the time, listening to everything so that I could learn as much as possible. 
 
I made friends with some wonderful people in the field, who are still very close. I also began to sing again from the support of people at traditional ceilidh’s, where we learned and shared songs in the modern Celtic languages in a supportive setting. 
 
In spite of my continuing health challenges, I would go on to publish and teach in academia, write four books, and engage in research in Scotland and Ireland, with the magical intervention and support of the Gods and Spirits. 
 
So, what does this all have to do with cultural appropriation? One day, one of my students asked my opinion of a popular book about Celtic shamanism. I routinely helped students with reliable books and information, so I borrowed the book briefly to take a look at it. There seemed to be tidbits of Celtic lore in it, but I realized that I did not know exactly what shamanism was. 
 
I assumed it was the latest New Age fad, along with angels and dolphins, and was extremely skeptical. I went to the library and checked out numerous academic books on the topic. As I read, I found the topic fascinating, and noted many parallels between shamanic beliefs and practices in other cultures, and things I recognized in Celtic literature, folklore, and ethnography. It remained a topic of scholarly interest, on the side. 
 
Sometime later, when it became clear that Western medicine could not help with my health situation, I decided to seek the counsel of a therapist to help me cope with the drastic changes in my life. As it turned out, this person was married to a native American and had extensive professional training and experience in shamanism with First Nations and Nepalese cultures.
 
One day, I sheepishly began to ask a little bit about shamanic illnesses, and my counselor said, “ I’ve been waiting for you to ask about that.” The hair stood up on the back of my neck. She taught me how to shamanically journey in order to gain information and assistance with my illness and my life, and this (along with yoga and meditation) truly saved my life.
 
From the very start, I was aware of the misuse of the term shamanism, and the inaccurate information floating around about shamans, shamanism and indigenous cultures. It would be many years before I felt sufficiently trained and grounded in Celtic, and in culturally respectful ways of approaching shamanic traditions, to utilize and teach journeying as a visionary tool in order to help us understand aspects of Celtic religion. 
 
There are those in some Celtic pagan Facebook groups, organizations or communities who feel the need to scream bloody blue murder if anyone ever uses the ‘S’ word. In most cases, they have not actually taken the time to examine the evidence in a calm and open minded way. Instead they assume the worst about anyone who dares to use the word shaman... including beginners who are just trying to learn... and are extremely rude and aggressive, often traumatizing new pagans. 
 
Now, of course we know that the word ‘shaman’ itself comes from a specific Siberian context. Other cultures have their own word or words for healers, seers, and those who fulfill the roles of what in English is now commonly referred to as a shaman.  I have never called myself a shaman, and am very clear with students that at the end of a workshop they will not be a shaman. 

I have studied and practiced shamanism thoughtfully and respectfully as part of my private personal path for over 20 years and have nothing to apologize for. Nor do I think anyone should be shamed for exploring a particular spiritual practice. If you’re not interested in shamanism, then don’t practice it. 
 
The other examples I want to share have to do with non-indigenous people learning from culturally specific indigenous teachers or traditions. As stated above, we all know there are many instances where this takes place in an inappropriate way. Because I was keenly aware of the ways in which indigenous cultures were further oppressed by the appropriation of their beliefs and practices, I had made a point not to engage with these type of events.
 
Some time later, I found a western trained doctor who could help me with chronic pain. Unbelievably, it turned out that this person was also trained in shamanism. He too was very careful and respectful in regards to indigenous cultures. 
 
He and his partner had traveled to Peru over many years and had become friends with a number of Andean Paqo’s (the Q’ero equivalent of ‘shaman’). Sometimes they would bring students down there to learn from the Paqo’s in their own environment and cultural setting.  Other times they organized for the Paqo’s to come to America to teach (in appropriate settings in which they were comfortable and set the agenda). 
I was invited to come and hear a talk, and though I did not feel I was drawn to this culture (even though my father was born in Peru), out of respect for my friends, I attended. I was very pleasantly surprised by the depth of the teachings, and the humility of the Paqo’s. 
 
Their love for the earth and all of its beings radiated from them. I learned a great deal about connecting with the spirits of nature, and about how a traditional holy person comports themself. They were very grounded, calm and patient, and extremely experienced, capable of what many would consider magic. I have seen things I can’t pretend I didn’t see, things that could only take place because the Paqo has trained for many years and has an actual (not theoretical or metaphorical) relationship with Spirit Allies. 
 
Over the years we had the opportunity to study with both male and female Paqo’s, and they taught us how to create and use a type of medicine bundle called a Mesa. Sometimes we would receive what is known as a Karpay initiation, in which the shaman transfers a bit of his or her power to you to help you seed or deepen your own practice. That experience was not only tangible but visible, and was again, not a metaphor.
 
After many years, the Spirits said that I was to receive the Rites of the Pampamesayoq, a type of Paqo specializing in rituals honoring the Earth and the Divine feminine. Sadly, my health and finances did not permit me to travel to Peru to further explore this path. 
 
Years later, I was at an Indigenous Art fair at Harvard. I had been reading about Native American cultures, not intending to participate, but to learn about whose land we are on. There I met a traditional craftsman who was also a Lakota holy man (Wicasa Wakan) from Pine Ridge. 
 
I spoke with him and and his wife at several events over the years, and was eventually invited to participate in a traditional Lakota Inipi ceremony (sweat lodge), in which both indigenous and non-indigenous participated. It was so profound that I wept through most of the first lodge. 
 I had been hoping to learn from a tradition that is more intact than Celtic, in order to understand more about working with Gods and spirits, and the energies of the earth, in a deep and grounded way that had ancient roots. It is one of the more difficult traditions, but I participated fully, alongside of other Lakota, Cherokee and Wampanaug, as well as non-indigenous people (some of whom were not ready for the work, and some of whom ended up participating in Vision Quest at Pine Ridge).
 
I augmented my practice with reading suggested specifically by the indigenous members of the lodge. I began to have dreams in which Red Cloud and other elders appeared. Some members of the lodge were slowly committing to become pipe carriers, which is something that all participants were given lengthy training about, as it is a lifetime commitment. 
 
One of my non-native friends in the lodge eventually took the plunge, and after crafting his own Canunpa (pipe), he begin participating in a deeper way. One night I had a dream that he and I were in a store, and after we went through the checkout lane, we saw two Lakota elders standing there smiling at us. 

They opened up a piece of cloth and inside was a piece of Catilinite, the reddish stone quarried by the Lakota from which the canunpas are made. However, it was in two pieces and I thought “that stone will never work, you can’t glue it together as the heat inside the lodge is so intense that it would come apart.”
 
I shared this with the lodge leader and my friend, who turned pale when I told him about the dream. He said that he had not told anyone, but the piece of stone that he had been given was far too big and he had cut it in half. The lodge leader told him to give me the other half.
 
I created the Canunpa but prayed and meditated for over three years before I agreed to the commitment and responsibility. It does not necessarily make one’s life easier, and can be very challenging to walk with. It is not a status item. But after three years of consideration, and all of the synchronicities, it was clear that this had been put into my path. 
I was later invited (actually strongly urged) to participate in Vision Quest at Pine Ridge, but as it is a four year commitment, my health and finances have not permitted me to do so. Instead, I have participated in other ways, assisting the lodge leader, helping to teach beginners about lodge etiquette, dispelling misinformation, and several times completing the Wopila ceremony. 
I also participated in the ceremony of giving flesh. In this ceremony, one stands between the lodge and the fire, holding the Canunpa perfectly still and praying continuously in Lakota. One cannot move, flinch or cry out as small pieces of flesh are cut from one’s upper arms and offered. The Lakota believe that the only thing we truly own is our body, so it is one of the highest sacrifices one can make.
 
The power that came through the canunpa and my gratitude for the tradition enabled me to feel no pain, which completely surprised me. I was surrounded by what I can only describe as a shining numinous energy. It was one of the most sacred moments of my entire life. 
 
So, again, I have nothing to apologize for, and if one has issue with this, I suggest they take it up with the spirits. I have not shared this personal information to aggrandize myself. I don’t, and will not, teach, write books or accept money in relation to Q’ero or Lakota traditions. These experiences are part of my private personal spiritual development. 

These narratives are meant to illustrate the inaccuracies and inappropriateness involved when (as an example) people who know little about me... and who are probably upset about something else... publicly proclaim that I am engaging in cultural appropriation. This is especially ludicrous as anyone who does knows me is aware that I have been a vocal supporter of native cultures and helped raise money on their behalf. 
 
I wanted to illustrate the way in which false claims - which are not only hurtful but libelous - constitute defamation of character, which one can assume is meant to aggrandize the perpetrator. The fact is that this type of behavior has little to do with me, but instead reflects something that is going on for those who act in this way. 
 
I for one am tired of seeing people belittling and shaming others, and  jumping to conclusions, especially in public settings where people can get hurt… Some people are in fact traumatized, as we find out later through private  conversations on Messenger, where we try to help them. 
 
The irony of all of this is that the accusers are often guilty of the very thing which they accuse others of doing. And here I will have to ask for your calm indulgence as I make a point. While I dislike having to make the following statement, in many cases the people who make these accusations are also participating in cultural appropriation or misrepresentation… in this case, in regards to Celtic cultures.
We have already noted that First Nations cultures are misrepresented on a daily basis in books, online, and in workshops and events. Sadly, the same is true for Celtic speaking cultures. This state of affairs stems in great measure from the propagation of Victorian misperceptions and fantasy, as well as the willingness of popular publishers to put out anything that might sell, regardless of its veracity (or lack thereof) or its effect on traditional cultures. 

This is something that you do not have to take my personal word for. 
You could consult with any of the hundreds of working Celticists who have spent 20, 30 or 40 years or more learning the languages, the history, the cultures, the in and outs of the literature, and the ways in which these languages and cultures have been slowly disappearing.

Or you could consult with actual tradition bearers in Celtic language speaking communities... seanchaidh, healers, singers, poets... but as with most tradition bearers, *they do not advertise * (I can’t stress that point enough). This is something I learned while traveling in Ireland and Scotland on a research grant. 
As in other native cultures, one needs to spend time in the environment and community, understand the languages, and the culture, and gain its trust. It’s a long term commitment, not something you’re going to find a website about to quickly provide you with the information. 
In the right setting, we would see that the very cultures we love and wish to embody or emulate, are every day being misrepresented and projected upon, which only further obscures and destroys another little piece of what we hope to learn and preserve. 
 
So the next time someone lashes out at another person who is trying to learn and build a spiritual practice based on respect for nature and all of its beings, it might be a good time to look in the mirror, set ego aside, and honestly evaluate one’s words and actions. Is it dignified, accurate, thoughtful and respectful?... both in regards to the spiritual traditions, and to other people walking on the path. 
 
If we can’t accurately and respectfully represent the traditions and beliefs of our own cultures of origin, how can we be taken seriously by those in other indigenous cultures - who some try to ‘speak for’ in an attempt to harm others or aggrandize themselves.
 I think one of the most important things I have learned from all of this is the role of humility. Not some kind of feeble Judeo-Christian fear-driven faith, but the humility that comes from Awe... from being in the presence of the Gods and Spirits, under the watchful eye of the Ancestors, and in relationship with the spirits of the land. By opening ourselves to their wisdom, our pettiness and egos are set aside, and true learning and embodiment can come through. 
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Born on the eve of Lugnasad, your guide and ban-fili/ban-druí is a published author, teacher, and Celtic singer and musician. She trained in Celtic Studies through Harvard University, and has taught Celtic mythology and folklore at the university level. Her research in Celtic myth and religion has been presented at the University of Edinburgh, University College Cork, the International Celtic Congress, the Harvard Graduate Study Group for Ancient Magic and Religion, and the Ford Foundation Lecture Series.

She has served as Faculty at the Celtic Institute of North America and the Omega Institute, and her books include: ‘Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief' (McFarland), ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’ (McFarland), 'The Divine Feminine in Ancient Europe' (McFarland), ‘'Queen of the Night' (Weiser), ‘Early Celtic Poetry and Wisdom Texts: The Three Cauldrons, The Songs of Amairgen, and other Cultural Studies’ (forthcoming) and a chapter in the academic collection ‘Celtic Mythology in the 21st Century’ (University of Wales Press).

Currently she is Director of the Eolas ar Senchais research project, which received international grant funding to research and restore authentic ancient Celtic instrumental music and vocal art forms, and historically attested Celtic ritual in socio-religious context.

She sings in many of the modern and medieval Celtic languages and is a multi-instrumentalist. Her previous musical group, The Moors, has cult status in the pagan world. She leads workshops and distance training programs, with new books, CD's and research on the way.

Comments

  • Searles O'Dubhain
    Searles O'Dubhain Sunday, 02 December 2018

    All important things are a gift. Life is a gift. Knowledge is a gift, Love is a gift. Creation is a gift. Even the gods are gifts. The fact that these things (and more) are given to us does not mean that each of them also requires us to do the work of receiving and honoring these gifts. To stay alive is a struggle. Learning often brings hardships of financial stress and sacrifice. Love is a heartbreaking experience at times. Creating anything requires that we give a part of ourselves to the work. To know the gods we must literally die within our shells.

    It is not safe to take risks, yet we would not have been born without taking such a risk. Life is a series of risks. Life is dangerous for everything and is food for something. Death is also a risk because the doorways are hard to find and the ways to walk them are razor blades. Ever the eagle will devour life's lesson if we are not wary and have no allies. Our strongest allies should be ourselves, yet often we treat them as dangerous enemies.

    Fear perhaps causes us to make bad choices, though fear is itself the first doorway we must pass in order to ride the eagle. Some can be admired for their courage in attempting these tasks. I admire your skill and your successes. I also admire your survival in the face of adversity. Please continue your work for it makes the work of others possible. Every work is food for the work of others. A lesson might be that food creates food, as knowledge creates knowledge, as work is rewarded by the work of others.

    You are not alone even when you alone must act. You are a nation of selves and feats by which you are marked. The pieces of yourself that you give to others creates an aura of safe harbor for many. For from many are powerful beings formed, even when each is an individual. The garment of fate is stronger than a stone of destiny, yet the two together come to a new world that is melded from their union.

    Here is power for your work and hope for your success. I am humbled by the strength of your spirit and the courage of your will. For nothing great ever came to be without sacrifice and daring to be great. Those along the way salute you in your quest for the lesson to be learned has been awakened. A thing that can be, will be and has always been, gain and again. Thank you for your gifts.

  • Síthearan NicLeòid
    Síthearan NicLeòid Monday, 03 December 2018

    Searles, I can’t thank you enough for your wise words and caring response... Sometimes all we need is to know that there are others out there who see and understand... In a time of so much potential divisiveness, its so important to respect and support each other. Go raibh maith agat - I will read this again in the future when the path gets steep or rocky

  • Kris Hughes
    Kris Hughes Sunday, 02 December 2018

    Sharon, I applaud your bravery and openness in writing this. We (and sometimes me) are too quick to judge people's specific experiences, as well as their lack of experience.

    We cannot go back, we can only go forward. On a crowded planet full of displaced people it would be very strange if some people did not have experiences like yours. We do need to be vigilant for fraudsters. As for appropriation, too many who throw out these accusations don't really understand what it means to be part of a cohesive indigenous culture, or that those cultures are not static. They also don't understand that membership in those cultures is rarely defined solely by any one factor like bloodlines or language ability.

    Thank you for also touching on the question of appropriation from Celtic culture. People need to realise that a culture can be colonised by people who have the same approximate skin colour as those they colonise, and that it is still a painful wound which echoes down the centuries, when it happens. I am not denying by this statement that white privilege exists, because it undoubtedly does. Merely that skin colour does not define the concept of colonisation and therefore cultural appropriation.

  • Síthearan NicLeòid
    Síthearan NicLeòid Monday, 03 December 2018

    Kris I’m so relieved that the true intention and message could be heard and appreciated. It was hard to say and probably even harder to hear. We all assess and use our own methods to navigate all the information we see online. Sometimes Facebook as a place of so much fun enjoy and support. And other times, in this fast-paced world, we have to choose how we use our discernment. Scrolling until we finally find something that resonates what makes us feel connected to others. Some days we find no connection or support. Other days it is they are in spades. I’m so appreciative of your wisdom and understanding - many thanks and blessings!

  • Síthearan NicLeòid
    Síthearan NicLeòid Monday, 03 December 2018

    Oops, typos! And joy, not enjoy. And that makes us, not what. There, not they are. One must be ever vigilant with voice recognition technology!

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Sunday, 02 December 2018

    Thank you for sharing. My own practice is based on book learning and dream inspiration. I am a solitary practitioner.

  • Síthearan NicLeòid
    Síthearan NicLeòid Monday, 03 December 2018

    I’m so pleased if any of this was of service or inspiration! Wishing you every blessing on your path!

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