To judge by some of the recent correspondence in the pages
of Keltria, there is a quite a bit of disagreement among us on the value
of learning Celtic languages and the relation of Celtic tradition to living
Celtic communities. Much of the disagreement, I think, stems from differing
degrees of awareness of the relationship between language and culture.
There are some (cf., for instance, Pat Taylor’s “Druids : Who Are We?”
in the Samhain issue) who seem to suggest that the only reason one would
want to study Celtic languages is to provide some kind of purely decorative
“authenticity” to our rituals. “Ancient” gods want to be addressed
in an “ancient” language -- so we
might want to preserve such languages, but for liturgical purposes only. Of course, this is a rather flimsy premise (and if we wanted to apply it seriously in a Celtic context, we would have to do rituals in Old Celtic, not in any extant form of Irish!), and Pat Taylor rightly shows us its limitations. However, she maintains an opposition between Celtic languages as “ancient” and English as “modern”. Apart from being hair-raisingly insulting to modern Celtic-speakers, this view of the relationship between Celtic and English is clearly based on insufficient knowledge : it can be maintained only by those who know nothing (or very little) of the Celtic-speaking world.
To those of us who speak Celtic languages, English is not the “modern” vehicle of Celtic culture; it is the language of Anglo-American culture, which is completely different from -- and, in some ways, inimical to -- Celtic culture. English-speakers conquered Celtic-speakers, crippled their self-
respect and self-confidence, and weakened their tradition, stamping it out completely in some places where it had been alive and vibrant. For the conquerors then to dismiss the survivors and appoint themselves the “successors” to their culture, decreeing that what they’ve borrowed from it is
all that’s worth preserving, is the height of colonial arrogance. As I’ve pointed out on previous occasions, Native Americans have been treated in the same way : Native American cultures, in their extraordinary variety and specificity, cannot be reduced to just a sense of cozy kinship with Mother
Earth, as so many pop-Nativists would encourage us to believe; yet this is the image the Anglo-American media promote. Native American languages (like Celtic ones) get depreciated in this process, and are shunted aside as irrelevant to the simplistic “message” the Anglo world wants to hear from Native sources.What results is not a revival or continuation of any preexisting Native
tradition, but a new ersatz tradition tailored to the expectations of Anglos and Anglicized Natives.
Despite this cautionary example, I get the impression that there are some among us who are perfectly willing to subject the Celtic heritage to the same treatment. They are satisfied with a certain idea of ancient Celtic civilization which they have gotten from secondary sources, and want to excise
that from the rest of Celtic tradition, which they can then throw out as irrelevant to their purpose. They feel confident that what they build on this very limited base can be described as “Celtic”. But “Celtic” is not the name of a religion or philosophy that can be easily defined by a few catchwords. To be concerned with “equal rights”, for instance, (to respond to David Schaal’s argument) -- even apart from the fact that the ancient Celts had no concept of “equal rights” in our modern humanistic sense -- is not necessarily to be the heir of a Celtic tradition; it is far more likely to be the result of the long evolution of Enlightenment ideas in our English-speaking milieu. And all the other isolated elements that seem particularly attractive in our modern image of the ancient Celts are really just reflections of what is going on in our own culture. When strung together in an Anglo context, they don’t amount to anything very Celtic at all. [I also fail to understand how a religion that calls itself “reconstructionist” can be content to “borrow” just a few things from its model, without attempting to reconstruct the whole.]
No, “Celtic” is the name of a cultural tradition which has been passed down from generation to generation through the use of Celtic languages in certain communities. It is an immensely rich and complex construct, far too rich and complex to convey its essence in translation. Like all cultures, it is limited by its own particular flavour of interpretation and expression (which embodies its difference from other cultures), but is flexible enough to accommodate all the many personality types that make it up. It can embrace both conservatives and progressives; pragmatists and idealists; xenophobes and xenophiles. It can borrow any element from outside and assimilate it by subjecting it to the
culture’s interpretational grid. One can be Celtic and Catholic, and Celtic and Protestant. One could, very likely, be Celtic and Muslim, or Celtic and Buddhist. And one can, of course, be Celtic and Pagan, with a special sensitivity to the pre-Christian elements in the heritage, the particular
relation to Land and Otherworld that is still inscribed in the culture as a whole. All these different strands that make up the Celtic world can sometimes appear to be at loggerheads with one another, yet they all function within the same basic world-view -- they are all, as it were, nourished at the same source. A Celtic Catholic and a Celtic Pagan both have the same intimate knowledge of what it means to be Celtic, although they will express it in different ways, with different priorities; and if they lose their language, they will lose that knowledge they share.
If you speak a Celtic language, this will all be perfectly obvious to you. If you don’t, you probably won’t be able to fully realize what it means until you’ve begun to cross the language barrier. However, it should be stressed above all that learning Celtic languages is fun, and intensely rewarding. It’s not just teaching your mouth to make odd sounds to express concepts that could
just as easily be expressed in English. It’s like a magic door opening onto a new universe, a new way of thinking and feeling about things. And with it you gain access to an unbelievably rich and ancient body of lore, much more than you could guess from English translations : most of it, indeed, has never been translated, and probably never will be (and will vanish without a trace if the languages are allowed to die out). I’ve frequently run across monoglot English-speakers living in Celtic communities who didn’t have the slightest idea of the rich cultural traditions enjoyed by their Celtic-speaking neighbours. If it’s the beauty of Celtic myth and Celtic poetry in translation that originally drew you to Celtic tradition, think how much deeper and more spiritually rewarding your enjoyment of such material could be once you experience it in its proper linguistic context, where it resonates with all the myriad associations that can never be conveyed in another language. You
won’t see it as something “ancient” that has to be rescued through the distorting filter of English, but as part of a living, moving tradition that can engage you directly. And there’s no barrier between the “modern” and “ancient” aspects of the Celtic continuum, as some have suggested -- quite the
contrary : Old Irish isn’t the same as Modern Irish, but it takes much less effort to approach it through Modern Irish than through English.
Given such wonderful resources, what true lover of Celtic things could possibly throw them away? Does it make sense to turn one’s back on the living Celtic world simply because one is likely to meet more Christians than Pagans there? Would anyone, after all, seriously demand that Neo-Pagans stop using English because most English-speakers haven’t embraced Neo-Paganism? Why be
more petty when it comes to the Celtic world? The best way to become a Celtic Pagan is to learn to be a Celt first, and then to see that world through Pagan eyes. All the elements, then, fall into place, almost miraculously, down to the smallest detail -- because the pattern that held it all in place is still
Notice that I haven’t mentioned Druidism. Because no living Druidical tradition has survived in unbroken lineage from antiquity, there is no “authentic” practice one can return to. Within the last three hundred years a number of groups have arisen that have described themselves as “Druids”, some of them quite opposed in their views, and most of them operating from a non-Celtic perspective. In the absence of an “authentic” model, none of them is more “right” or “wrong” than any other. By now Neo-Druidism has become a familiar and self-contained concept that need not relate in any concrete way to Celtic reality. But if one claims to be a Celtic Druid, if one sees
Druidism as a spiritual dimension of Celtic tradition, then one cannot escape facing the Celtic connection -- which includes the languages and their communities, and all that complex and messy welter of cultural traits that has come down to us through the centuries.
If more Pagans became involved in the modern Celtic revival with an attitude of respect and a willingness to learn, they would be less likely to meet with suspicion or hostility. And the revival would benefit immensely from Pagan participation, since it would derive great strength from being more consciously in touch with its most ancient roots. While native Celts may have nothing but scorn for those Neo-Pagans they see as ignorant and presumptuous exploiters, they may, on the contrary, warm to someone who, through sincerity and serious effort, comes to a genuine understanding of the tradition -- because they see it as a validation of an aspect of their heritage which is deep and empowering but which they’d been taught to be ashamed of. Unfortunately, the more destructive encounters with the Neo-Pagan world are still all too common. Around Samhain the Celtic League American Branch received a press release (which apparently went out to a wide variety of Pagan
and Celtic organizations) from a group in New England which claimed to provide information about the Celts. Focusing on an incident in which a California school board had banned the celebration of Hallowe’en as “pagan”, they identified it as a Celtic holiday, deplored the general ignorance of the media when it comes to Celtic matters, and presented themselves as authorities on the subject, available as a resource. There then followed several pages of the most stunningly ignorant misinformation on Celtic history and tradition I have yet read in a Neo-Pagan publication. At the end a bibliography and resource list was provided, almost entirely Neo-Pagan in nature, with virtually no
mention of any mainstream Celtic scholarship of even the most popular sort. I have no doubt that these people were sincere and well-meaning in their defense of what they took to be Celtic civilization, but from a Celtic point of view the effect was, of course, one of breathtaking arrogance. The Celtic- speakers I showed it to reacted with a mixture of hilarity and anger : it confirmed, unfortunately, their impression of “Celtic” Neo-Pagans. Think what a different impression would have been created, and what a precious communication could have been initiated, if the press release had included statements from traditional Celtic communities on how they felt about Samhain
and its portrayal in the media. Such a development, I hope, may yet be possible in the future -- but not before a generation of Neo-Pagans with a sincere love of the Celtic world will have learned to become Celts.
For those of us who speak only English, the treasure-trove of the Celtic consciousness is still behind a locked door. But the key to unlock the door is there, within our grasp. Anyone of us can, at any moment, decide to fit the key to the lock and be on the other side.
©The Ogmios Project, 1999. All rights reserved.