Posts tagged ‘irish history’

Culture-Based Religions

Culture-based religions are often otherwise called ethnic, tribal or indigenous religions- all those terms have more limited connotations, hence why I came up with a more general one.  The label of “folk religion” is also sometimes thrown in with these by anthropologists, though that is a little different, so I’ll treat that separately. Individuals or groups who practice culture-based religions may or may not identify with the word Pagan, especially if they belong to a (more or less) continuous living tradition.

A culture-based religion can be contrasted with a universalist religion– which typically has a prophet, or series of prophets and claims to have a moral code & message for all of humanity- such as  Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Bahai’ism. Strictly speaking, we can’t really divide all religions perfectly into either category- for one, universalist religions are of course, influenced by the cultures from which they originate, though they tend to adapt themselves- and often syncretize (combine) with culture-based religions. For example, Shinto in Japan is quite seamlessly syncretized with Buddhism, so much so that Japanese people often don’t label themselves as being Buddhist or Shinto(ist). They just *do* Buddhist and Shinto-related practices.

That there is the clincher. The religion is an inseparable part of the culture- to the point where if there is a word for the religion, it’s often one invented in response to foreign missionaries- frequently with a meaning like “The Kami Way” (in the case of Shinto) or Old Custom (Forn Sidr- Danish) “traditions of our people” and so forth. Just as the word people call themselves in their own language simply means “People”, “People of the Mountain/River” etc.

To join a culture-based religion, one typically needs to be ritually adopted into the culture, if possible, or otherwise immerse themselves as they can into the culture. I have seen some people divide culture-based religions into “closed” and “open” traditions- and while that does help people understand that they can’t join anything they want to, I believe it’s an oversimplification. We’re not talking about joining or converting to any specific religion at this point, we are merely exploring and learning.

When newcomers enter the Pagan community, they often ask for suggestions on which tradition or pantheon they might start out with exploring. In the United States, Canada, Australia and other multicultural colonized countries, people are often told “Start with the traditions of your ancestors”. After a lot of observing of other folks journeys as well as my own, I actually recommend against that advice. Why? Because culture is more important than ancestry. Honoring ones’ ancestral roots is certainly an important part of many traditions, it’s not that I’m discouraging. But we are often very disconnected from the cultures of our ancestors. If it is our calling we can certainly make the effort to re-connect. But to begin with- I would look again at those questions I asked in my previous post- what aspects of culture were you raised with? What other cultures are you familiar with?

For myself- I was raised by college-educated liberal parents, multiple generations removed from my mixed British Isles ancestry- so fairly conventional mainline Protestant American culture, with its various holidays (Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Independence Day) I was always interested in learning the origins of holiday customs, and read up on all of them, as well as any fairy tales and mythology books I could get my paws on. I came to identify more with my Irish heritage, and have been studying the language, history and culture, Druidry and Celtic Reconstructionism. However, I have to admit that this has been a somewhat artificial process- all a choice on my part. I wasn’t raised with much in the way of Irish culture, other than with an awareness of being Irish, some knowledge of history of the Potato Famine, “No Irish Need Apply” signs and so forth. Lately, I’ve been pondering more about how to incorporate my mixed cultural influences- I don’t mean so much by ancestry, but more by environment. I talk with Druids from across the pond, in Britain and there are various things that strike me about our cultural differences- a lot them simply being- who the heck would I be, even as a “white” culturally Protestant American, without influences of Eastern European Jewish, African-American and many other cultures? I don’t belong to any those cultures, but I carry pieces of them with me.

What is culture? It’s all the stuff you take for granted. This is the way we do things of course! Any other way would be weird or rude or just “not feel right”! Most of it is less visible than all the things we point to when we’re trying to be multicultural (holidays, food, music).


May 16, 2015 at 8:36 am 6 comments

Nationalism: Playing with Fire

Many polytheistic and animistic religions have a focus on the sacred nature of fire- the hearth-fire is central in Gaelic, Hellenic and many other traditions. We use fire to cook our food and keep us warm, but also to bless our homes, give sacrifices and to celebrate. We guard closely our flames of freedom of religion, speech and other rights here in the United States, but we have to be careful not to smother them, or let one person or group’s freedom burn away another’s. We celebrate Independence Day with fireworks and sparklers, but playing with fire can be dangerous!

As we move away from the celebration of “America the Awesome” on July 4th, coming up are a couple of holidays celebrated in Europe which also illustrate the double-edged nature of nationalism. It’s like fire- it can be useful and necessary but it can get out of control easily. To a oppressed people, nationalism can be the “jet fuel” needed to kick a revolution into high gear. Revolutions can get out of control, however and sometimes after the revolution emotions continue to boil over. Also when nationalism is embraced by historically dominant groups, their triumphs are rubbed in the faces of oppressed groups, and old embers of conflict are re-kindled. How far should this freedom go? Leaders and regular citizens in Northern Ireland are asking themselves this- as members of the Orange Order prepare to march on July 12th in celebration of victory in battle of a Dutch king over a British king. Why would they celebrate the defeat of their own King?  ” The truth is, they are really celebrating the defeat of Catholicism. James II was a Catholic and when the Dutch king defeated him, Protestants were granted great wealth and positions of power. It opened the door for instant change – one that Protestants in the area have enjoyed for centuries.”- Roghnu Glas.

An Irish-American discusses this on her blog, with a little confession I can very much identify with:

Now I have no real right to talk about the Troubles. I have not lived through them. I know a whole lot about them and have studied Irish history for most of my life but I’m just too far away from the reality of them to have a truly valid opinion. I often wonder if that distance allows for the emotional detachment necessary to be logical, or if it just makes me more insensitive. I also know that I’m about to dip my toes into something that may label me that dumb American or “Plastic Paddy” again.

I know of American Pagans/polytheists who have traveled to Ireland, to be asked “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” Those who answered honestly were sometimes met with “Well, then are you a Protestant Pagan or a Catholic Pagan”. This just goes to show how this is as much of a political and tribal division as a religious one. It’s weird for me, because as a Unitarian, I’m technically a sort of Protestant heretic! (and Unitarianism is sooo culturally Gaelic- not!)

The other European holiday in July I was thinking of is Bastille Day on July 14th- just called National Celebration in France.  This commemorates the day the prison Bastille was stormed, and the prisoners were freed.  “Besides holding a large cache of ammunition and gunpowder, the Bastille had been known for holding political prisoners whose writings had displeased the royal government, and was thus a symbol of the absolutism of the monarchy. As it happened, at the time of the siege in July 1789 there were only seven inmates, none of great political significance.”- Wikipedia

The local Covenant of the Goddess typically has a Bastille Day BBQ every year (I suspect in part because people are either busy with family or Convergence around Independence Day) but maybe there is a French connection I’m unaware of.

It’s rather arbitrary, the days we choose to celebrate our countries. It seems they are more based on emotion and what’s popular than what might make actual historical sense.  In the U.S. we celebrate the day Thomas Jefferson & co. signed a letter that basically amounted to “F.U. King George” We don’t actually celebrate the day (whenever it was!) that we actually won the war of Independence. Similarly while we raise a glass of cerveza on Cinco de Mayo, it is not Mexican Independence Day! “Cinco de Mayo—or the fifth of May—commemorates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War (1861-1867). A relatively minor holiday in Mexico, in the United States Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with large Mexican-American populations.” Kinda reminds me of St. Patrick’s Day….

July 12, 2014 at 5:28 am 1 comment

Alternatives to St. Patrick’s Day

As I’ve discussed before, I do celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, as a celebration of Irish culture. I’m curious what other Celtic Pagans/Polytheists are doing for alternatives to conventional St. Pat’s Day? This year I’ll be attending Paganicon, from the 14th-16th, and as the 17th will be on a Monday I’ll be going to Irish class as usual in the evening.

Years back I remember reading Dancing With the Sun,  a book on Witchcraft by Yasmine Galenorn, in which she suggested celebrating Liberalia, a Roman holiday for Bacchus that happened to fall on March 17th. I thought, sure, that’s Pagan, but it’s not Irish. Well, Lupus came up with an interesting idea– e pointed out that like Bacchus/Dionysus, in Irish myth Cuchulainn was born twice, so it would make sense to honor him on that day. Lugaid & Caer are going to be doing that (as well as honoring him on other days)

I would also like to read the Fenian stories in which Oisin or Cailte meets St. Patrick, and engage in interfaith debate.  And here’s some of Gorm’s suggestions on the same blog for celebrating.

I’ve long had the idea of simply honoring the personification of Ireland- Eriu– or Hibernia, Kathleen ni Houlihan- or a sovereignty goddess associated with a part of Ireland that you feel a spiritual connection with (travel, ancestry etc) So please, share your ideas!

February 26, 2014 at 4:28 am Leave a comment

When the Gods Become Real

One thing that became apparent from the Pop culture Paganism discussion last year was a lot of assumptions people were making about how historic myths are, and where the distinctions lie.  The problem is if these assumptions are false then their whole religion falls apart. Hence part of my reasoning in the Authenticity post.

  • Mythological heroes (Heracles, Perseus, Odysseus) were historic and therefore worthy of cultus
  • Superheroes were never real people there therefore can’t be “real” gods
  • Certain characters in medieval Irish and Welsh literature, written by Christian monks were all historically worshiped as gods.
  • A counter-point by others: mythology and folklore was the pop culture of its day

Does this imply that the “high gods” of Olympus and Asgard (etc) were originally human, and that makes them more real? The funny thing is good ol’ Euhumerus made that argument a long time ago, that the gods were all deified humans, but he used that as a rationalist explanation of religion, and his ideas were later used by Christians to discredit polytheism. Which is rather ironic given their spiritual focus on a historic deified human.

While there are some who literally worship Superman, Sunweaver was originally just talking about using characters like him as a metaphor, but even that people freaked out about.  Saigh also writes about using a modern warrior woman character as an icon at her shrine, to serve as inspiration but clarifying that she is not worshiping her as a being. Gefnsdottir shares an intriguing anecdote: “A woman who posts on one of the fora where I lurk had been trying to get pregnant for a year without success. At the end of the year, she remembered a particular ritual from the Kushiel’s Legacy series, wherein D’Angeline women (who can’t get pregnant otherwise) light candles and pray to the goddess Eisheth to “open the gates of their womb”. She decided to perform the ritual, and the following cycle, she became pregnant, and has had no problems since.”

The evidence of worship of many supposed Irish divinities is sketchy and even more questioned is the divine status of characters in the Mabinogi tales such as Manawyddan and Arianrhod.  Some of their names are cognate with the Irish (Manawyddan=Mannanan, Llew=Lugh) memories of gods that have been “demoted” to powerful humans in the stories.  Other characters can be seen as heroes or demi-gods worthy of honor as well. The lines between God, Sidhe, Human Dead and Hero are very blurry in Celtic and Germanic traditions, and they often aren’t as clear in Greek & Roman traditions as people think they are. (Saigh addresses this historical iffy-ness in her above post)

Nowadays, instead of Euhemerus, we have scholars like Ronald Hutton that tell us, sorry to burst your romanticized bubble but that holiday custom was invented by a Scottish nationalist, and that god you’re worshiping was invented by a poet.  Nothing against Hutton, he has been a needed correction to Robert Graves and Margaret Murray, but what he says is historical should not determine our religious practices. If you want your practice to be all historically attested, fine but you’ll constantly have to re-invent the wheel whenever the new scholarly journal comes out.

This is why I’m becoming more comfortable with the idea of honoring folkloric and older literary figures as deities.  I prefer older characters (19th century or earlier) not due to the “older is more authentic” mentality necessarily but because they have had time to show their cultural staying power and relevance.  Also, by then the copyrights have often expired and the commercialism has faded.  A lot of characters come and go in waves of popularity, others stick around for decades or centuries.  At some point, new gods and spirits appear to us. Maybe they are old gods in new guises, trying to be noticed. Maybe they are totally new. Maybe old gods do disappear and reappear in other forms? But we can’t really tell for sure what’s new and what’s old we just have to follow our instincts. I think it’s the spiritual equivalent of evolution and biodiversity. Spirits and their cults and religions have their own eco-spiritual niches, they evolve with the times- or at times they die and come back in a different form if their “niche” no longer fits them.  Some spirits also broaden or narrow their cultural or geographic territory. Gaia, for example from what we know historically wasn’t worshiped very much as a goddess in ancient Greece, she was more of a distant, cosmic principle. But now she is widely worshiped among Neo-Pagans and even Hellenic recons due to modern ecological consciousness.

This is a rather rambling post- I am sorting out a lot of tangled threads, I’m sure I’ll find some of them are strong material, while other strands are thin, weak and don’t lead me anywhere.  Eventually I will start some more weaving!

More bloggy links-

Stone of Destiny: No Capes “Because fandom is not worship. Worship involves pouring energy outward to achieve a result.Fandom, on the other hand, is about the self. It’s about satisfying a need that we feel, filling a hole that our modern society has forgotten how to satisfy.”

January 21, 2014 at 11:43 pm 2 comments

P is for Psychology

Psychology can be useful in understanding of our spiritual and emotional development. Spiritual practices such as yoga, meditation, prayer and spiritual communities can be of great help in maintaining and recovering mental health. Yet practices that fall outside the “mainstream” may be seen as evidence of insanity- such as: communication with spirits, ritual possession, journeying to the otherworld.

There is a point at which these types of practices can become unhealthy, but it may be tricky for a therapist to tell unless they are familiar with the person’s religion.

In the past, shamans* often lived on the edge of society, and due to their way of life, may not have supported themselves economically- so the community supported them. In modern society, such people may be seen as mentally ill, and our society is not set up to support them.

Erynn Laurie, Celtic Reconstructionist author, gives an example of this in her description of the “geilt” of the Irish.

There is a concept in some cultures called “soul loss” which corresponds to our idea of depression.  I believe there can be bio-chemical causes of depression, but I also think the stresses and spiritual alienation of post-modern societies contribute as well. Sociologists speak of “anomie” a state of normlessness- alienation, purposelessness, a lack of social connection,

We don’t have roots, we don’t know we are. We aren’t connected enough to our families and communities. We change jobs, homes, spouses. We have more choices and seemingly more freedom than our ancestors, but we don’t know what to do with it.

We often too easily trust that anyone with a Ph.D or medical degree is an expert that will have all the answers. As one who has had many dealings with mental health practicioners, I have at times, found them to be wrong after doing my own research and following my own reason and intuition. We need to find a balance between accepting guidance from psychology and trusting our own spiritual truths.

 *Note: I am using the term “shaman” for lack of a better term across cultural boundaries. I mean no disrespect.

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project

August 5, 2012 at 10:50 am Leave a comment

Some Nifty Resources

Here’s a couple of nifty resources I discovered recently, of the audio variety.  I went to a presentation & performance about  Tobar an Dualchais or Kist o Riches (meaning Well of Heritage). It is a archive full of recordings of traditional Scottish Gaelic & Scots  music, poetry, speeches on history, folklore, stories and traditions. Ethnic You can search for specific songs, artists, key words, etc.  Folklorists have been collecting recordings since the 1930’s, and they are in the process of being digitized and uploaded to the website. I haven’t even explored it yet, but it sounds amazing!

Since most of what I know of Irish (and other Celtic) history is from the pre-Christian era, I wanted to learn more about later periods. But to a Yank, with only a 300-some year old country  it is such a  long history, I didn’t know where to start. When I searched “Irish history” in the St. Paul library catalog, I got hundreds of hits. So I poked around online and found a the Irish History Podcast. The fellow who does it, does a great job of explaining things- I particularly enjoy  how he discusses what everyday life was like.  For the next step in this journey, I will pick a time period or topic that especially interests me (women’s role in history for example) and read more on that.


July 22, 2012 at 12:35 am Leave a comment

Of Snakes and Saints

Every March I hear Pagans proclaim that we shouldn’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day because he converted Ireland to Christianity and suppressed the old religion. First off,  St. Patrick wasn’t entirely responsible for the conversion of the Irish people. Both Scottish and English missionaries had come there before him, but he was very influential in spreading the religion.

Secondly, the conversion of Ireland and Britain was fairly peaceful. So it wasn’t this “Evil Patriarchal Christians vs. Good Goddess-Worshipping Pagans” scenario you find in Mists of Avalon and other fantasy novels.  They’re just that:  fantasy novels!  The Irish people were quite receptive to the Gospel- here is an article about the conversion of Britain, and the reasons an Anglo-Saxon king found it appealing- it was probably similar in Ireland.

Well, enough history. So, should we, as Pagans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? We aren’t a monolithic group, it’s a personal choice.  I think those who do and don’t celebrate should respect each others choices.

In the United States, and other countries in the Irish Diaspora (Canada, Australia etc.) St. Paddy’s Day is a cultural holiday rather than a religion, a celebration of Irish heritage and culture. It’s more of a religious holiday in Ireland, but the American version has been spreading there as well.   I was raised with pride in my heritage and so we always had fun wearing green, listening to music and such.  So why change that?

If anyone reading this is in or near St. Paul- I invite you to the Irish Music & Dance Association’s celebration at the Landmark Center.  It’s a great time, with music, dancing, workshops on topics of interest and vendors

Enjoy yourselves, but  please drink responsibly and choose a Designated Driver just in  case. Metro Transit also has free rides after 6pm on March 17th.


March 9, 2012 at 4:19 am 1 comment


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