All Hallows Eve falls on the 31st of October – the night before All Hallows Day, also known as All Saints Day. It’s part of the Catholic calendar. All Hallows Eve is also, in this tradition, known as All Souls Night – a time for remembering the less saintly-dead. It’s this tradition that Mexican day of the dead festivities, and pumpkin lanterns would seem to belong to.
We know that Samhain was the end of the Celtic summer. However, as with all ancient festivals, the issue of dates is a tad compromised by the problems of calendars. In 1582, the Gregorian calendar came in, adjusting the previous Julian calendar and fine tuning when leap years happen. The reason for this is that the date of Easter is calculated (because the only reference to it is the Jewish lunar calendar) in relation to the spring equinox, so calendar drift was causing the Church some headaches.
We are now about 14 days different from when the Julian calendar would have placed dates, but we can’t just work with the 14 day difference to get something like the ancient date. It’s seems unlikely the Celts were using Julius Caesar’s calendar, for a start. That calendar was not managing to keep with the recognisable solar events (critically the spring equinox) which was why it was reformed. Whatever calendar the ancient Celts had, it was neither of these. By the time Samhain shows up in written record, we were well into the period using the Julian calendar. No help can be found there. That All Souls night latched onto it, seems likely, but with the calendar issues, the exact date is tricky to pin down.
Maybe there wasn’t an exact date. The other three Celtic festivals are all associated with events. Imbolc is ewes milk and the snowdrops. Beltain is the hawthorn flower (may) and the bluebells. Lugasnadh is the grain harvest. Samhain has got so tied to the 31st and Halloween, that we don’t talk so much about the physical triggers. It’s the end of summer, but what does that mean?
For me, Samhain is all about the leaves coming down. While there are green leaves on the trees, something of summer remains. When the last leaves have gone, it is definitely winter. Samhain falls on the uncanny tipping point between the two. The threshold. The falling of the leaves tends to coincide with the coming of the frosts, another easy to spot marker of seasons.
Today (2nd November) there has yet to be a frost here. I can see green leaves from my window. We have not yet turned to face the winter. For me, it does not yet feel like Samhain, even though All Hallows Eve has been and gone.
Midsummer runs riot all over this land, the winter lakes have long gone, giving rise to verdant fields and hedgerows, swathed with elderflower, cow parsley and meadowsweet like white foam. Comfrey flowers blush purple in the shadows. Glastonbury Tor truly becomes the Glass Castle of British myth at this time, entrance to the land of Faery. On Midsummer Eve, as the dusk gathers, the hill comes alive, pilgrims climb the summit to drum the sun down, somewhere in the woods that sprawl around its base, a fire is lit in vigil, as it has always been at this time. A new generation take over the duty every so often, each person called to the task by something inside them, a compulsion, a call from the hill itself. All who come to sit by its flames bring wood to burn, drink to share, a tale to tell… This night, and all through the season, the veils between the worlds are thin, or thinner still. This land of water and mist is only ever half a human place, the Summer Land – the county of Somerset- rises above the lakes when summer is at its height, to sink beneath the waters again when autumn comes. But for now Jack in the Green, Jack Stag as he is known here, is having his day…
I make my way along the labyrinthine tracks, climbing along the hill's steep sides singing old songs to the spirits as I gather elderflower (Sambucus Nigra) for cordial and medicine. Blossoms fall like tiny stars as I reach precariously over brambles and nettles, I wind a strand of my hair over the branches in thanks for their gift. The apples nearby are swelling and green, not ripe for a few months yet. The promise of harvest can be seen on the horizon, but for now, for me, it is the time of the elder tree. Sleeping beneath an elder was said to lead someone into Faery never to return, and sitting below the tree at dusk on Midsummer's eve grants a vision of the faerie hosts. Here at this liminal time, as the wheel turns, on this Sacred Isle the realms of the Sidhe, of Faery, are close at hand. All who wander here step on to their Green Road, if only for a while.
Elder is a very important in British folklore, associated with not only with faeries, but with the ancient Celtic goddesses. She is the home of the Elder Mother, a being of great power that watches over the woodland and cares for all who live there. The Elder Mother is said to be the special friend of mothers and children, and in our old tales She would rock the cradle while everyone slept. She was especially revered by woodcutters, who would never cut down an elder tree without Her permission, and without some kind of ritualised exchange. Later tales fear the Elder Mother, as the wild spirits became demons in the eyes of the Christian clerics, but Her power as never been forgotten. Having an elder growing by the back door conveys great magical protection, as well as a sign of faery friendship and I was truly blessed this year to see a sapling has self-seeded by my garden gate. She was a foot tall in March, and is now taller than me.
I find a secret, quiet place, and weave my magic with the Elder Mother, and with the Sidhe of the hill, growing drowsy with Her heady Elder perfume. And when it is time, I make my way home with a basket of blossoms. I make Elderflower tincture to help with fevers and summer allergies, cordial, as a special summer treat, and elderflower water and salve for my skin, and as gifts for friends. (Bathing or washing ones face in elder flower water, or dew from the blossoms is said to confer the beauty of the goddess upon you.) As I work steadily in the kitchen, the whole house begins to smell of elderflower, evoking the goddess and reminding me of all the women who have worked in this way before me. I feel the spirits of the Tor gather around my home for a while, adding their magic to my brews and potions, and I thank the Elder Mother for all She’s taught me. It’s a beautiful path to tread, the long Green Road; spiralling the hillside, in this glorious, Summer Land.
Elderflower water recipe: Shake the elderflowers and check them for insects, then place in a stainless steel or enamel pan, and cover with spring water. Cover with a lid and bring to a gentle simmer for about 10 minutes, then leave to steep overnight. The next day, strain carefully and bottle in a sterilised glass bottle and top up 50% with vodka as a preservative.
Elderflower cordial recipe: Prepare the flowers as before with the addition of some sliced lemon, before steeping overnight. Then after straining the next day return to the heat and gently dissolve enough caster sugar into the mix to make a syrup. Being careful of the heat, taste occasionally- you may need to add more lemon juice to suit your pallete. Store in sterilized glass bottles. Dilute to taste in water, or pour over ice cream.
Always give thanks to the tree for its gift, and always gather wild flowers and herbs responsibly.
St. Patty's Day can be an odd time of year for we Irish Wiccans and Pagans. On the one hand, the attraction of all things Irish is strong. First there's that stirring fiddle music and the rumble of the drum. The food is mighty tasty, folks are feeling celebratory, and who doesn't like the color of bright, springy green? On the other, who wants to revere a man for driving the "snakes" out of Ireland, a.k.a. the Druids? There is still a spirited scholarly debate regarding how much damage St. Patrick actually did on his own versus the mythic qualities that surround him to this present day. This presents a quandary, but not one insurmountable. I believe that you can partake in festivities in your own way, honoring your Irish heritage. Perhaps this year is one of the most opportune times, when we have the Irish holiday falling within the same week as the Spring Equinox. If you do up a dinner party combining the two, with a focus on some of the more classic Celtic traditions– problem solved!
Take down your favorite celtic knotwork wall hanging and use it as a tablecloth. Hopefully it is nothing you mind cleaning a little spilled food or drink off of. Decorate the table with fresh cut spring flowers, such as daffodils. Invite about 4 to 6 others to join you and pull up a chair. For your menu, think Celtic-eclectic. This is your very own hybrid holiday, after-all.
Had it with tired old corned beef and cabbage? Give this tempting main course a try:
Irish sausage, bacon, onion and potato hotpot
by French Tart from food.com
4 1/2 pounds potatoes
2 large onions, peeled and sliced thickly
1 pound good quality pork sausages
1 pound bacon, piece thick cut
2 cups water
1 ham stock cube or 1 beef or 1 chicken stock cube, if ham stock isn't available
3-4 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
salt (to season)
coarse-ground pepper (to season)
Peel the potatoes. Cut large ones into three or four pieces: leave smaller ones whole. Finely chop the parsley. Boil the water and in it dissolve the bouillon cube.
Grill or broil the sausages and bacon long enough to colour them. Be careful not to dry them out! Drain briefly on paper towels. When drained, chop the bacon into one-inch pieces. If you like, chop the sausages into large pieces as well. (Some people prefer to leave them whole.)
Preheat the oven to 300 F. In a large flameproof heavy pot with a tight lid, start layering the ingredients: onions, bacon, sausages or sausage pieces, potatoes. Season each layer liberally with fresh-ground pepper and the chopped fresh parsley. Continue until the ingredients are used up. Pour the bouillon mixture over the top. On the stove, bring the liquid to a boil. Immediately turn the heat down and cover the pot. (You may like to additionally put a layer of foil underneath the pot lid to help seal it.)
Put the covered pot in the oven and cook for at least three hours. (Four or five hours won't hurt it.) At the two-hour point, check the pot and add more water if necessary. There should be about an inch of liquid at the bottom of the pot at all times. Guinness, bottled or draft, goes extremely well with this dish (indeed, adding a little to the pot toward the end of the process wouldn't hurt anything). Another good accompaniment is fresh soda bread, used to mop up the gravy!
Some other nice touches would include tossing some regional pea shoots into a salad or soup. They look like little shamrocks and have a pleasant, earthy flavor. Serve up some warm Irish coffee for dessert with a cool mint sorbet for contrast.
Instigate some spirited discourse: Invite people to share unusual stories of distant travels, spooky occurrences, and odd serendipity. Keep the mood casual and lively. People should feel at home at a dinner party; not afraid to spill some ale on your best white linen napkins.
As far the tunes, there are so many great Irish punk and folk bands, you can take your pick. From Gaelic Storm to the Dropkick Murphys, play a nice shuffle of whatever stirs your Celtic soul. Encourage your dinner guests to bring an instrument of choice for a possible impromptu jam session after. Break out the bodhran, the fiddle, and the bagpipes. Have the guys don kilts (always a treat for the ladies) if they're feeling bold, and have yourselves a real ceilidh.
"Green Plant" photo by Pong, from freedigitalphotos.net
But February 1st through 2nd (note: Irish pagans see the day as starting at dust the prior evening) is also sacred to the Celtic goddess known as Brigid or Bride. (The Celts were the tribes of people who eventually became the Welsh, Manx, Cornish, Scots, Irish, and people of Brittany). Her name means “Exalted (mighty) One”, as well as “Bright Arrow”. She is often seen as 3 goddesses in one, known as a “triple goddess”, because she had mastery over three things: fire and smith-craft, hearth and home, and poetry – which was thought of as magical, and born from the “fire” of inspiration. She is a goddess of fire, but also of water.
This may surprise you, but it is often true: for something to thrive, it needs a little bit of it’s opposite. The warmth of the sun (fire) makes things grow, but it can’t do it without the rain (water). The fire goddess Brigid is also goddess of sacred wells where people would go for healings. So that the goddess would remember them and aid their health, people would tie strips of white cloths, called “clooties”, to the branches of the trees surrounding the wells. It is similar to the way some Christians light candles before a statue of a saint in church, to be a reminder that their help is needed.
Brigit was so powerful a goddess that even the Christian church could not make the common folk forget her. So, when the Catholic Church became the major religion in Ireland, February 2nd was picked to be the feast day of “Saint Bridged”! She was patroness of the same fire, wells, and poetry as Brigit. Even today, nuns tend a sacred fire in the town of Kildare Ireland, just like the pagan priestesses of Brigid did centuries ago. Brigit’s symbols now became the symbols of the Saint.
The pinwheel made of rushes (a straw-like plant), that represented the turning of the year towards spring, became “Brigid’s Cross”, said to have been woven by the Saint for her dying father. Folks would make a doll, or “effigy”, of Brigid out of old wheat, and have the youngest daughter in the household wait with it outside the front door. Meanwhile, the rest of the family would make a bed of straw under the table by the fireplace. When all was ready, they would open the front door and welcome in the “goddess” (doll), which the youngest daughter would place in the straw bed. This was still done, only now it was the Saint who was welcomed. Saint Brigid became so popular, she was called “The Mary of the Gaels” (Irish People). As Mary was the mother of Jesus, the Christian son of God, so Brigid was the mother of Ireland – still a goddess, even though the Church called her by other titles!
Even today, wells and fires, prayers for healing, clooties and candles all remind us of both goddess and saint. So, keep the Imbolc candles burning, let a pinwheel blow in the wind, notice the days getting longer, and welcome Brigid into your homes and hearts!
by Kat Clark, Art by Thalia Took
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
When I was a student of Celtic at the University of Toronto, my Gàidhlig teacher administered an oral examination that included the first verse and chorus of Cànan Nan Gàidheal because, he said, it might be the only Gàidhlig I ever remembered from his course and indeed the only Gàidhlig I might ever have. I'm happy to report that he was wrong on both counts, but I understand his reasoning. Gàidhlig, like its Gaelic and Celtic cousins, is a minority language clinging to life because of the love its speakers have for it. For some, that love is a product of national and cultural pride. For others, it's a linguistic fascination.
I came to the language for the reasons you might expect.
Back in the day, when I was a Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan (and not a Gnostic Druid with a Buddhist practice), I believed that learning a Celtic language would bring me closer to the divine. I have since come to realize that Gàidhlig isn't a path to the Gods, but the journey toward that understanding left me with a deeply-rooted desire to protect the minority languages that carry the wisdom I value. That said, I think my experience begs a few rather Reconstructionist questions. First, if Celtic languages aren't a path to the Gods, why pursue them at all if the primary motivation for doing so is spiritual? Second, what sort of welcome can a Pagan learner expect from a secular Gaelic or Celtic community? And third, how does this example inform practitioners of other culture-based Paganisms?
I've written previously about the interconnectedness of language, culture and spirituality, and it is for that reason I advocate Gaelic and/or Celtic language learning for Celtic-inspired Pagans. Language influences thinking on such a fundamental level that it's virtually impossible to have a thorough understanding of the pre-Christian Gaelic and Celtic worldview without some groundwork in the way these people communicated with one another. Logically, this should lead the practitioner to a study of Old Irish and/or Medieval Welsh, and if that's your passion, by all means pursue it. There are a number of universities offering undergraduate coursework in these languages. However, unless you're planning doctoral work in Celtic and a career in the field, your access to them will be limited after you graduate. And unless you intend to become an early Celtic language specialist, you will likely never attain fluency (if fluency in these ancient tongues is even possible).
Another, and perhaps more realistic way to approach the matter is to learn a modern Gaelic or Celtic language and use it to research elements of Paganism in Gaelic and Celtic folk belief, literature and song. Fortunately, there are many more learning opportunities available now for the non-academic learner than there were when I began in the 1990s. Some are quite extensive and can provide the student with a solid grasp of her chosen language. However, a solid grasp is not fluency. In order to attain that, she must interact with fluent speakers, which can only be done by nurturing contacts in secular Gaelic and Celtic communities where these languages are still spoken.
At this point, I think I ought to be honest about the reception my own Paganism has received here in Cape Breton. In spite of my participation in the Gàidhlig community for more than two years before I 'came out' and in spite of my Celtic Studies degree, there are a handful of people who have either put me at arm's length or shunned me altogether. A few of those are important figures in the community, tradition bearers whose Gàidhlig I value even though I'm hurt by their behavior. Most are neutral in their opinion, and among these are friends who advocate silence about my Paganism out of concern for my well-being. Perhaps one is positively sympathetic and wishes there was more information about the authentic beliefs and practices of the early Gaels. None are Pagan themselves.
So while I can't speak for the welcome others might receive here or elsewhere when their language studies prompt them to seek out fluent speakers, I can say that this secular Gàidhlig community isn't too different from secular communities elsewhere, with the exception that there are those who equate the protection of their culture with the exclusion of Pagan interest in it. Even so, I believe that making respectful contact with secular Gaelic and/or Celtic communities is a necessity for Celtic-inspired Pagans. Without that contact, our Paganism has no viable mechanism for checking itself against its own sourcewaters, a crucial component of grounding our path-working in reality.
Finally, it should be noted that not all Pagans draw their inspiration from pre-Christian/non-Christian cultures. Further, not all secular cultures - and especially not all minority cultures - care to share their languages with outsiders. However, for those Pagans who are Reconstructionist or Revivalist, I believe there is value in negotiating opportunities for learning and interaction, where possible. In this way, we begin to avoid the spectre of cultural appropriation and work to create dialogue with tradition-bearers and others who might come to value our contributions.
So while I maintain that Celtic languages are not a path to the Gods, I do believe they can educate, inform and connect the practitioner of Celtic-inspired Paganism with authentic resources for enriching her spirituality. And while I certainly cannot assure you that an exploration of Gaelic and Celtic languages will be met with enthusiasm by their respective fluent speakers, I also believe Celtic-inspired Pagans should make the effort anyway, as should other Pagans, where appropriate. We cannot persist in an environment of watered-down source materials painted with a cultural veneer and passed off as authentic, nor can we allow wish-fulfillment to stand in for reality where it concerns the foundations of our spiritual path-working. It's bad for us both as individuals and as a community, and it makes us look bad to outsiders. Language learning is one way to help combat this problem, and it has the added benefit of helping us to distinguish gnosis from appropriation.
I'm leaving you with a list of resources for learning the Gàidhlig language, if you're interested (and I hope you are). I'm also linking to a video of my participation in a 2011 milling frolic in Halifax, for those of you who might be curious about the intersection of Gàidhlig language and culture in Nova Scotia.
Bliadhna Mhath Ùr, 's beannachd leibh,
(Happy New Year, and bless you,)
Ireland has recently conducted national DNA research that asks the question of what actually makes the Irish...well, Irish? As a country conditioned by emigration the Celtic tiger of the 1990's and early Noughties brought an influx of new blood into the population. Cue some national soul searching.
If you read the earliest Irish texts, such as the Book of Invasions, Ireland has always been rather 'multi-cultural' although that was probably not the fashionable interpretation in earlier times. This DNA survey has noted that along with the Irish being well connected with the Scots and other British populations, there is a strong marker for Spanish, specifically, Basque, lineage.
Back to Danu and the primordial invasions, it is now speculated that the Basques are the marker for the sons of Mil or Milesians who vanquished the Tuatha dé Danaan, precipitating their withdrawal into the sídhe. But then this makes us ask about those who are said to predate the Tuatha dé Danaan, the Firbolg and Formorians. What makes anyone truly indigenous?
Some Irish pagans have pointed out to me that Celt is a useless term and this DNA research clearly shows that what Celtic influence in Ireland came via the Basque country rather than central Europe. Yet Danu was well-established in central Europe that was the stomping grounds of the Celts. She was venerated enough to give the name to the main watercourse, the Danube.
But this may also be an example of how in Ireland there are never more than three degrees of separation. (For instance, you, dear reader, are connected to me, who lived next door to James Joyce's great-nephew, so now you are three degrees from James Joyce...and Samuel Beckett, for that matter.)
Somehow, Danu's cult spread, perhaps to or by non-Celtic people. Or perhaps we are to take this story as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all things.
More importantly, the legends of the Tuatha dé Danaan have always struck me as symbolic of how humans are a combination of immortal and mortal, for the tales tell of intermarriage with the Formorians. In particular, you read of Brigit, a goddess, marrying a mortal Formorian Bres. Three of their sons were slain at Moytura and it is said that this was the first incidence of keening in Ireland as Brigit mourned her sons.
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,)