The Truth of the Thing…

I bet you instantly recognize this as a Celtic Cross, right?  Except that it’s not. It is the Irton High Cross,a cross most likely built by some Vikings of unknown heritage at St Paul’s Church in Cumbria, England. Viking was not a culture it was a job and Vikings could be from a number of places including Ireland.

There is a lot of fanciful neopagan recreation out there surrounding the word “Celtic” and its arduous work to get to the truth of the thing. I mean my thesis contains some hot garbage, even though I tried to use sources I thought were credible.  I hadn’t done enough research at the time to know better.

Carmichael’s work compiling the charms of the Highlands absolutely employed some creative writing.  Then people muck around with them more by “paganizing” them further and soon they are being cited in academic papers as the original version and no one knows the difference. Luckily, there are less creative sources and a good professor will tell you when you are citing nonsense. Unfortunately, there are a lot of not-so-great Celtic researchers out there.  

It’s a red flag for me if something says it is “adapted from” any source. It often means the author of the paper has changed the words to suit their own beliefs or worse yet proves an erroneous thesis—thus, creative nonfiction. It’s akin to cherry picking except you just make things up yourself.  (This does not pertain to modernized receipts although I would at least look at the original.)

Other beloved authors of Celtic Twilight were prone to “throwing in a little fancy” to sell books, as well.   A favorite professor used this phrase a lot when talking about Victorian literature.  It’s from a Melville quote: “ It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; . . . to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy. . . . Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.” The fancy is, of course, quite appealing to the public.  Modernly we call it clickbait.

For example, Lady Wilde wrote that a common saying in Ireland was “The blessing of Bel and the blessing of Samhain be with you,’ that is, of the sun and of the moon.”  Native Irish speakers of the day quickly scoffed at the idea, Douglas Hyde retorting,

“It would be interesting to know the locality where so curious a Pagan custom is still practised, for I confess that though I have spoken Irish in every county where it is still spoken, I have never been, nor do I expect to be, so saluted.”[i] Hyde offers up this poem as likely being the source of her bit of fancy.

Patrick Sarsfield, a man with God are you are,
Blessed the country that you walk upon,
Blessing of sun and shining moon on you
Since from William you took the day with you.
Och, och hone.

It’s funny to read Hyde’s books of stories because the discussions in his footnotes remind me of the discussions held on my Irish language forum today.  

Before you think him sexist, you should know that he worked frequently with Lady Gregory and wasn’t entirely critical of Lady Wilde’s work.  He just disliked that she never named her sources and was not a native speaker, so unlike Lady Gregory she had to work entirely through translators.  He was equally harsh concerning American Jeremiah Curtin’s appalling handle on the language.  I regret not finding much of Hyde’s work until after I finished my thesis.

Frazer shared such odd and  unique explanations of his observations, that Edmund Leach a noted anthropologist of the 20th century criticized Frazer’s assumptions saying that that he and other anthropologists seemed to think they “possess some kind of golden key whereby they can blandly assert that a particular piece of stereotyped human behaviour ‘stands for’ or ‘is a symbol of’ this, that, or the other thing.”[ii]  At least Frazer tried to be objective.  Robert Graves wrote completely fictional poetic myths and convinced people it was history.

Jung’s work was infused with this as well, which is problematic as he shared his friend Freud’s disdain for women. If you want a good collection of articles essays that tackle his evident racism, antifeminism, anti-Semitism read Post-Jungian Criticism Theory and Practice, edited by Baumlin, Baumlin and Jensen.

So, there’s another thing to look for.  If someone tries to tell you exactly what something meant, much it’s pretty conjecture on their part. As far as Frazer goes, you can generally accept the observation as fact, just ignore his interpretation and honestly don’t even bother reading Graves.

Start questioning everyone.  If someone tells you a word means something investigate it. If someone is using a word that you can’t find in a dictionary or defining it in some odd way, there is a strong chance that you are reading some creative nonfiction.

The poet modern author Irish linguists like to pick on most for “murdering the Irish language” is John O’Donahue. Take the word tenalach which O’Donahue defined as “a relationship one has with the land, air and water, a deep connection that allows one to literally hear the Earth sing.”

A linguist acquaintance of mine had a lot to say about that, “Tenalach {sic} which would be properly spelled tenlach was a variant spelling for the word tellach[iii] the Old Irish word for a fireplace or “those who shared a fireplace” so a family.”  There are variations of the word in Old and Middle Irish which have a variety of meanings related to fire such as tendálach ] [iv]which translates to fiery.”

I suppose a bit of creative license is to be expected, but think what is lost by supplanting the true meaning of the word in this case? While not as flowery, I love that there is a word for people who share a hearth because I tend to attract stray people.

This is one of the biggest problems I see with academic specialization. A lot of historians I encounter do not have a broad enough base of knowledge to know linguistics or science for that matter, so they play the telephone game a lot. I dabble in a little of this and a little of that. I don’t know the language as well, but I do know who to ask.

I find his use of the word anamchara, far more problematic.  Despite the words literal translation, the word originally applied to members of the clergy.  O’Donahue’s claims that this was an extension of a Druidic tradition of priests advising Irish kings kind of falls apart when you learn that Irish druids, at least what we “know” of them is mostly monastic invention.

It was common practice in the church to have a colleague who was your confessor. A priest’s anamchara was their confessor, offered spiritual advice and read their last rites. Eventually all people wanted one, because an anamchara could reduce the penance demanded of people for personal sin, by church doctrine.[v]

“In Ireland, everybody [this was written in the early 1960’s, he means every man] had an anamchara, a pater confessarius. It was a proverb: colann cen ceann, duine cen anamcharaid, a man without an anamchara is like a headless body’. Kings and princes, nobles and commoners, prelates and monks, all had their ‘soul-friends.”[vi]

Power distribution in these relationships was not equal.  The anamchara was looking out for the well-being of the eternal souls in his charge and had little concern for their embodied selves’ physical comfort. The anamchara often demanded harsh sacrifice or toil from those they agreed to serve in this role.  One king had to fast for forty days and forty nights on nothing but bread and water. 

Frequently, the white priests refused to let their charges have intercourse with their wives and forced them to live otherwise ascetic lives. The green martyrs undoubtedly demanded worse. Because the transition to Christianity went fairly smoothly in Ireland, they didn’t have any actual martyrs.    White martyrs were ascetics and hermits, and green martyrs were into self-flagellation and penance.

So, when you are talking about your lovely “Druidic” friendship rite, anamchara, I am reminded of Bishop Powertrip getting his jollies by making his penitent little puppets dance. 

As Irish is a living, evolving language Donahue’s “soul friend” definition has been adopted, by enough people to validate it. I will never be comfortable doing so because of childhood trauma involving corrupt clergy. I have plenty of respect for O’Donahue as a poet and a visionary who wanted to make the world a better place, just don’t call him a historian or a linguist and you and I will get along simply fine.

I have the same issue with the word “herbalist.” Its meaning has clearly evolved over the years, but once I learned its etymology, the word started to needle at me, so I stopped using the word to describe myself.

I am going to take just a minute to share with you what I find to be “the truth of the thing.”  I have a problem with making shit up while invoking the ancestors because it is disrespectful.  Their words have meaning. Their beliefs were important to them.

I have this recurring nightmare in which I am talking to my great-grandmother like I know all the things, only to have her say “Jesus, Joseph, Mary and the wee donkey, child, what the devil are you on about?” as she’s handing me an ear of corn to shuck.

The whole idea of a uniform “Celtic” identity in Ireland has been pretty-well thrashed since we started mapping the human genome.  The Irish and Scottish share just as much genetics with Indigenous Irish, Spanish, and Russian ancestors as they do their Celtic encroachers.   It is time for us to give up this idea that only Celtic customs influenced ancient Ireland because the Irish and Scottish ancestors were not all Celts. Nationalism is a tool that has been used to invoke hate and racism. Let it go.

I also contend that it is poor form for people to appropriate Christian charms, “adapt” them, and call them their own.  Gaelic Christianity is part of my heritage, too. I am tired of being expected to feel badly about it. I love the mishmash of beliefs represented in the charms as Mackenzie collected them, because it is a representation of the beliefs of my ancestors at that time. 

That is important to me, and I don’t appreciate it being “re-paganized” incorrectly by modern neopagans. It doesn’t ring true in that part of me where I store the memory of the ancestors. It’s one of those things about going to Unitarian services that used to bug me.  They used the music for services that I heard sometimes growing up but gave it new words. It was odd and I always found myself singing the “real” words under my breath.

I’ve probably gone on about this more than enough, but I do want to say that I love the idea of invention and I think the work that people involved in creating new and evolving forms of spirituality is important. To me though you if you go to the bother of making something new, you want to revel in the newness and make everything about it uniquely yours. Don’t adopt another culture’s agricultural holidays. Don’t just change the words to the other peoples” song and redefine someone’s ancestral language.  That’s colonization.  Eventually you are going to run across someone like me who is fed up with that sort of thing.

If you can’t break away from the herd enough to be authentic for the love of all that is green, at least use the right term. I would like you to imagine me looking over my glasses and saying, “Which Celts?  The Welsh, the Cornish, the Gallaeci that lived in Iberia, the Gauls that lived in France, the Bretons that lived in Brittany, the Boii tribe that lived in Bohemia and Bavaria, or perhaps you mean the oldest documented group of Celts that spoke Lepontic and lived in the Alps?”

I think you mean the Gaels, friends.

[i] Hyde, Douglas. Beside the Fire: A Collection of Irish Gaelic Folk Stories. London: D. Nutt.

[ii] Leach, Edmund, E. R. “Magical Hair.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 88, no. 2 (1958): 147.

[iii] Royal Irish Academy. “eDIL – Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language.” Royal Irish Academy, 2017.

[iv] Ibid

[v] Bradshaw, Brendan. “The Wild and Woolly West: Early Irish Christianity and Latin Orthodoxy.” Studies in Church History 25 (1989): 1–23.

[vi] Ryan, John. “The Sacraments in the Early Irish Church.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 51, no. 204 (1962): 508–520.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

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