Posts tagged ‘folklore’

Celtic vs. Mediterranean Polytheisms

In pan-polytheistic online discourse I frequently see assumptions about polytheism from different cultural or philosophical types of polytheists. For better understanding of where I’m coming from as an Irish polytheist, a previous post compared Celtic & Germanic polytheism. This is an attempt to compare Irish polytheism and a little about continental Celtic polytheism with polytheistic religions bordering the Mediterranean, specifically I’m thinking of Greece, Rome and to a lesser degree, Egypt.  These are generalizations referring to several spectra of cultures that existed (and still exist just in different forms) across a long time period. Feedback, corrections and critique are welcome and I’ll make note of changes.

Differences

Theology– Our theolog(ies) are very much up to us as contemporary revivalists to discover and develop. Beings in our lore and literature are not easily categorized as gods, ancestors, heroes and spirits of place. There is much overlap between them. It’s debatable how much particular gods were euhemerized by monks or whether the Irish Dindsenchas- that explains the legendary origins of place name or the tales of Mythological Cycle are more authoritative.  Even the question of whether a particular being is friendly or not towards humans can vary by place or even specific person! For example, Balor is a monster thought to symbolize the dangers of the late summer sun being too hot and threatening the harvest. He was defeated by the god Lugh in battle, the young, many skilled god who brings the harvest. But in the folklore of the Tory Islands the two were reversed and it was Balor that was honored!  The Good People are for the most part avoided and propitiated but certain individuals do make treaty and develop a relationship with a spirit or group of spirits. Sometimes these people are called fairy-doctors and act as an intermediary between the spirit and a local community.

Departmental Deities– I often hear people in Irish/Gaelic/Celtic pagan or Druid groups explain to newcomers that “unlike the Greek or Roman pantheons we don’t pigeon-hole gods into departments like god of love/sun/thunder.” Fair enough, but that’s also not an accurate description of either Greek or Roman religion. It’s an oversimplification that might fit a specific cultus at a given time or for your classical mythology class, but not for all times, places and practices. This is also the case for Irish gods. There also isn’t a fixed, organized pantheon with a set hierarchy, no “chief god” and the family trees of the gods and other beings contradict each other in different sources. You know, like in Greek mythology!

Purity– there is a concept of ritual purity, but it doesn’t seem to be a emphasized as it is in Greek and Roman polytheism. Here is an essay discussing concepts of purity/impurity in Gaulish polytheism.

Hubris (or hybris  in the original Greek)- isn’t really a concept that exists in Celtic religions. There are certainly boundaries of respectful and disrespectful behavior in general and in ritual specifically, particularly related to hospitality and reciprocity. Threatening the gods or spirits, especially with weapons or use of iron in general (esp. towards the Good People) are all certainly ill-advised. Boasting, especially among warriors was as common as it was in ancient Scandinavia. The consequences for going too far with boasting were social and sometimes legal in nature, resulting in a loss of honor and possibly being publicly satirized.

Images– statues and images in continental Celtic territories seem to be mostly a later Roman influence and earlier images seem to be syncretized or influenced by Thracians and Scythians. I occasionally come across the assertion than the Celts had a taboo on divine images, but that is likely a projection from Abrahamic laws against idolatry. That said modern Celtic polytheists do typically use various images for the gods in worship.

Lack of primary sources from pre-Christian times- as with most Germanic & Slavic traditions, we don’t really have anything recorded directly by polytheistic Celtic peoples themselves, We have secondary sources from the Romans who were fighting or trading with them, and later ruling over them but of course these have some built-in biases.  Texts written by monks in Ireland recorded native literary traditions and combined them with classical and Biblical references. Christian era folklore & customs end up being really important in Gaelic & Brythonic traditions because they give us more of an idea of everyday spiritual practice of regular people, particularly towards local spirits and the dead. Reconstructing continental Celtic religion involves study of archaeology and comparative linguistics, religion and mythology.

Similarities with Kemetic religion (from my limited knowledge of it!)

-Strong belief in afterlife, alternate realm, though in Celtic cosmology typically there is an Otherworld existing parallel to our own that is partly afterlife realms, but many other realms belong to gods and the Good People.

-the concept of Ma’at -meaning roughly justice & order in a cosmic sense reminds me a lot of An Firinne- which means truth in Irish, cosmic order with a moral dimension

-The ritual role of kingship, relationship to people and the land. This does not necessarily mean a need for a contemporary king/queen, but the concept of kingship/queenship and sovereignty is key to cosmology. Were Celtic kings/queens deified after death, as with pharaohs or some Roman emperors? Not as a rule that I’m aware of, naturally they’d be important ancestors, founders of particular dynasties, kingdoms, chiefdoms, clans were historically viewed as family patrons, and this practice has been continued with the revival of polytheism with key ancestors.

There are a couple more common pan-polytheistic topics that I am unsure of. What do we know about expectations of piety in pre-Christian Celtic societies? In Ireland, which is the area I’m most familiar, our sources of information about ethics are Brehon law, a system which continued with some modifications long after Christianization, and advice for kings on good behavior. I will have to check them to see if anything is said about piety. But my general feeling is that a sense of piety would be pretty different than a Greek or Roman one. Celtic traditions overall strike me primarily as animistic in character and secondarily polytheistic, they are more primal and localized and tribal. Those elements are definitely in place in both Greece and Rome especially in earlier periods and even later on in certain aspects- the cult of Dionysus seems like something Celts would totally be down with. Whereas Greece and Rome seem more primarily polytheistic.

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October 13, 2018 at 8:40 am 7 comments

Devotions, Mumming and other Links of Spiritual Interest

I keep finding more and more nifty resources and ideas on other blogs to further my spiritual interests. A series of posts by Mystik Nomad on developing a devotional practice (link is for the last post, but it has links to all the previous ones)

More from the same blog on designing/making/using prayer beads  Additionally, here’s a website that’s been around a long time: Karen’s Prayer Beads– she has prayer bead examples from many different religions.

I love collecting beads, beading and have been meaning to make my own prayer beads forever, but the procrastinator and perfectionist in me have gotten in the way. Newsflash Caelesti- you can always take them apart if you change your mind!

Ariel, the Practical Polytheist lays out instructions for making your own Prayer Book: Intro,  Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, Step 4, Step 5, Steps 6,7,8,9

All of these are relevant and helpful to anyone who honors multiple gods/spirits (regardless of exact theology) Makes things a lot less intimidating when they are broken down into pieces.

Dver, Hellenic polytheist and spiritworker, also has an interest in masks and mummery– the old European (and New World versions) folk traditions of dance, processions and other customs that take place at transitional seasons. Like me, she is interested in them regardless of how truly “pagan” they are in origin.  I think if more of us were to take this perspective, these are the sort of customs that could bring Wiccans, Druids, Heathens, assorted pagans and polytheists, and yes Christians and spiritually-minded atheists and agnostics together.

The first issue of Air n-Aisthesc is out– a peer-reviewed scholarly magazine on Celtic polytheism. Available both in print & digital! Will add this to Celtic polytheism resource page.

A good follow-up to my rather thrown together post on Diplomacy, here’s a good review on those handy qualifying words: Some, Many and Most.  I know for posts I’ve written that have gotten me in trouble, going back and editing with those words  (sometimes) helps calm people down.

Just for fun: Tattuinardola Saga– Star Wars- if it was written as an Icelandic saga. (In English just in the style of a saga) Maybe a way to bring the Tolkien & Star Wars geeks together?

February 19, 2014 at 9:25 am Leave a comment

Authenticity: What’s Traditional Anyway?

One thing that seems to unite members of many religions as well as postmodern hipsters, is the search for authenticity. So as people debate over whether this or that custom, method of worship, holiday etc. is authentic or not, and to what degree, I think it best to take a step back and ask, what do we mean by “authentic”?

Many holiday customs that we think of as “traditional” for both Christian and Pagan holidays, we don’t have record of much beyond the Middle Ages. Pagans often make claims that this or that holiday custom was of Pagan origin, and meant such and such, but lot of this is conjecture. But does that really matter? It’s interesting, certainly to know the antiquity and origins of our practices and symbols, but you and your family (or coven/grove/kindred) think it means something, and you find out that it doesn’t, does that lose its meaning or power? No. The story behind it may change, the reason may change, the meaning may shift, but it’s still there. In fact the story of how you found out that the “traditional story” was wrong becomes a new part of your tradition! Such as my fiance’s great-grandmother claiming to be related to President Harrison, which they figured out was impossible.

Are we doing things we think are authentic for their own sake, or for their intrinsic meaning and relevance?
Take say, Latin Mass. Latin was the language that united the Roman Empire, and its cultural heir, the Catholic Church and later the language of the educated classes. After Latin’s influence had waned for centuries, the Vatican decided that Mass would be in local languages. Some people enjoy the rhythms and cadences of the Latin language, and they like to experience Mass spoken and sung in Latin. And so some churches still have Latin Mass. There were some people at the time of Vatican II that were upset about these changes simply because they were new.

Change is threatening. So is the unfamiliar. But we shouldn’t cling to things that aren’t relevant to our time and place out of insecurity. On the other hand, throwing out something just because it’s not modern and shiny is also spiritually immature. Be honest about the origins of your spiritual practices and beliefs, that gives you and your path more legitimacy than claiming false antiquity.
Remember, everything had to start somewhere.

Pagan Blog Project 2014

This post owes a lot of inspiration to this article by Gordon Cooper, and an interview with John Michael Greer on Deo’s Shadow Podcast (both of the Ancient Order of Druids in America) in which he discusses “authenticity vs. validity”.

January 10, 2014 at 10:32 am 6 comments

Spirits of Winter

A follow-up to my earlier post on the recurring “Jack” figure in English folklore- Jack Frost being one form. Here’s a brain-storming list of spirits and personifications of winter- winter in general, not Yule/Winter Solstice specifically. I would like to do some more research and go into more depth with them individually.

  • Jack Frost– a sprite who paints frost on windows and the colors on leaves. I think his trickster aspect comes into play as he sneaks in before you are expecting frost, maybe haven’t finished harvesting or covering your flower beds, or doing certain kinds of chores- like painting outside.
  • Old Man Winter- metaphorical phrase, like Mother Nature. Also makes me think of Old Man River- a nickname for the Mississippi.
  • Father Frost– Russian version of Old Man Winter, though he actually shows up in folk tales. It would be worthwhile to take a look at Russian folklore, the climate in some areas is certainly a lot closer to Minnesota’s!
  • Snow Queen– a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, the Snow Queen has made it into American & Western European culture as a broader archetype. Also makes me think of the White Witch in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe- in fact I think it is intentional on the part C.S. Lewis to have a vain, beautiful and powerful woman who tempts children into the cold. (Link to post about Frozen, a modern “re-mix” of the Snow Queen)
  • Cailleach Bheur– Scottish female spirit- some think her to be a legacy of an older goddess- particularly associated with storms in March. March is a winter month in Minnesota, and we often get a lot of snow then. Awesome post by Leithin Cluan on the Cailleachan- a group rather of weather & land spirits in Scotland and Ireland
  • Boreas– in Greek mythology, the god of the north wind. His wife is Oreithyia, representing the cool mountain wind, and their daughter is Khione, the goddess of snow.
  • WinterPower/Archetype in Waincraft, a good distillation of ideas/concepts related to feminine wintry figures in European folklore

Note: as I write posts on these characters, I am linking them back to this post.

November 28, 2013 at 2:20 am 2 comments


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