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Culture of the Imagination, Part 1

Recently, I saw a photo of an old, Pagan friend on Facebook. He was wearing a great kilt and a body full of blue paint, likely woad. His arms were crossed, and he was laughing at something off-camera. Behind him, a woman in jeans and a sweater walked down a garden path with a sword in her hand. There were tents and green trees in the background. I remembered his laughter as it had been when I knew him and missed the days when I could sit with kilted friends on American hillsides and talk of a Scotland that never was.

Two years ago, I was visiting Toronto for the World Fantasy Convention and met with another friend in Dundas square; a Pagan Celt and hospital chaplain who wears a torc I don't believe he ever takes off. Like me, he's a graduate of the Celtic Studies program at the University of Toronto, and he introduced me to two other graduates who went with us for chips and a pitcher of beer. We talked about the intersections of our educations and our spiritualities alongside a liberal smattering of pre-Christian references in early texts. It was an evening with people for whom no explanation was necessary, and I remember it fondly.

There is a Welsh word, 'hiraeth', which has no direct English translation but refers to a deep longing for homeland that might not exist or have ever existed. Dion Fortune surely touched on this idea when she referred to Glastonbury as the 'Avalon of the Heart'. Some feel this longing more deeply than others, and I think many who do find their way to Paganism, where there is a sympathetic welcome for refugees of places none of us can ever visit in our bodies. I'm certainly one of them, having felt this longing since I was in my early twenties, having built my life upon it, having earned a Bachelor of Celtic Studies, traveled to Ireland, immigrated to Canada and settled in a Gàidhealtachd of the Scottish Gaelic language because of it.

I still haven't found that homeland, by the way. It wasn't at the University of Toronto, though I did find many of the old stories there. It wasn't in Ireland, though the bones of that place played me like the instrument I am. And least of all, it isn't here in Cape Breton, where there is Gàidhlig culture aplenty steeped in the Catholic and Presbyterian religious ideologies of insular Celts who have less interest in enthusiastic newcomers than they claim1. Do I still support their efforts to preserve their unique heritage? Of course. Do I feel at home here?

I felt at home in the world of my friend's photograph. I felt at home in the pub where I sat with fellow Pagan Celts and sacralized the histories we love. I have felt at home wherever there were people like me, answering the call of similar places in their souls. Together, we've created a culture of the imagination, where we could recognize in each other what we had not found in the world, what may never have existed in the world until we created it. There are those who would belittle that culture because of its origins in us, but I think it's useful to remember that all cultures are products of the imagination. Some are just older or perhaps have a better established lineage than others.

And this culture nourishes us, doesn't it? When we come together, we create a home for each other where we can explore what it means to be human in the contexts of our Pagan spiritualities. For awhile, no explanations are necessary, and there is power in that. So I'm  a great fan of circles, covens, groves, festivals and conventions; where we share the meals, rituals and realities we have created. Yes, there is conflict in those places sometimes, but the good we can do for each other and for the world far outweighs the potential for negativity. For my part, I'll be attending the Aegis Pagan Gathering and Spiritual Retreat later this summer, and I'm really looking forward to it. I hope you'll take the time to connect in person with your community as well. Pitch a tent, build a fire, cook a feast and invite your fellow Pagans to help create a culture that empowers you all.

Next time, I'll write a bit about what we might do with all that power.

1. 06/01/2014 19:19 ADT: I've been thinking about this sentence all afternoon, and I really feel I need to qualify it. Every word is true, but I realize it's possible to misconstrue what I've written as a condemnation of the Gàidhlig community here. That isn't my intention at all. I do have many Gàidhlig friends and acquaintances in Nova Scotia, and I value them greatly. However, integration into an insular, minority community is a complex process, and my own journey has certainly reflected that complexity. It's worth noting that many of us here who 'come from away' have similar stories to tell.

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C.S. MacCath is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Clockwork Phoenix: Tales of Beauty and Strangeness, Murky Depths, Witches & Pagans and other publications. Her poetry has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award, and her fiction has received honorable mention in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection. Ceallaigh's first collection of fiction and poetry entitled The Ruin of Beltany Ring has been called 'wonderful, thoroughly engaging, always amazing', a book of 'tiny marvels' and 'well-worth reading'. At present, she's working on a science fiction series entitled Petals of the Twenty Thousand Blossom and a second collection of fiction and poetry.  


  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Sunday, 01 June 2014

    Excellent post. The memories we have are not always of this world; they may come from alternate realities which were no less real. It is in those shared memories of another dimension that we find fellowship.

  • Rebecca Kinney
    Rebecca Kinney Thursday, 05 June 2014

    You have just described, in the most elegant way, exactly how I feel. That overwhelming sense of just not quite belonging where I am, the sense of belonging I feel with certain people, in certain places and my longing for a like-minded community. Thank you for this beautifully written piece.

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