by David G. Thorne (writing as Dafydd Gwyncerunnas)
Originally published in Issue 24, Imbolc 2008 of Pentacle Magazine.
These days’ Celtic imagery and ideas are ubiquitous. One cannot visit a gift shop or bookshop without being bombarded with a plethora of gaudy “Celtic” knotwork gracing everything from tea towels to trite self-help books. In the pagan world we are particularly susceptible to Celtic charms, with Celtic styled Wicca and shamanism ever more popular. But not everyone interested in finding a nature-based Celtic spiritual path feels comfortable with these multicultural forms of spirituality.
Since the early 1990’s a small but dedicated community of neo-pagans have been developing a vibrant movement known as Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism. Commonly referred to as CR, Celtic Reconstructionism is a religious and cultural movement, founded on well-researched and scholarly interpretation of archaeological evidence, and mythological lore. In essence it is an effort to “reconstruct” polytheistic, animistic Celtic paganism for the modern world, by piecing together the available historical evidence.
By ‘Celtic’ we refer to a subfamily of the Indo-European language group and the cultures associated with them. In modern times these consist of the Goidelic or Q-Celtic (Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx) and the Brythonic or P-Celtic (Welsh, Cornish and Breton). Most Reconstructionists base their identity on being part of this linguistic and cultural grouping rather than on genetics or “blood” and welcome worshippers irrespective of race, nationality or sexual orientation.
The earliest known reference to “Celtic Recontructionist” was by Kym Lambert nì Dhoireann and appeared in the USA in the spring 1992 edition of Harvest magazine, and is believed to be an interpolation of Margot Adler’s term ‘Pagan Reconstructionists’ in “Drawing Down the Moon”.
The movement began partly as a reaction to the populist approaches to Celtic Spirituality such as Celtic Wicca and Celtic Shamanism (sic), which seek to put a Celtic veneer on essentially non-Celtic religious and cultural practices. As a result Reconstructionists have gained a somewhat unfair reputation for being anti-Wicca due to their insistence that Celtic spirituality should be rooted in the culture, rather than grafted on to practices and beliefs from outside the culture. CR is not opposed to Wicca per se. However, our insistence on authenticity in our practices and critical attitude toward cultural misappropriation has on occasion led to dissent among those who see our position as a judgement on the worth of more eclectic spiritual practices.
Although most early Celtic Reconstructionist individuals and groups began as some form of Celtic Wicca or eclectic pagan with Celtic tendencies, the modern movement has very little in common with Wicca and is avowedly against eclecticism.
Probably the most immediately apparent difference between CR and other forms of neo-paganism is that we do not cast circles or call quarters. Instead we work with the three realms of Land, Sea and Sky, often with a fire at the centre of our practices. People who work outdoors or in groves may place a Bile (a representation of the world tree) at the centre of their ritual space. Some groups such as my own also honour the winds, but this practice is by no means universal and is a bone of contention with some sectors of the CR community.
Our cosmology defines existence in terms of three worlds – the physical world in which we live, the Otherworld where the Gods and Fairy folk reside, and the Underworld where those who have passed over dwell along with the nature spirits.
As polytheists, Reconstructionists believe in many deities, each as a separate and distinct being. We therefore do not worship a Lord and Lady, dismissing the notion of “All Gods are one God, and all Goddesses one Goddess”, as an early twentieth century invention. A similarly sceptical attitude is taken to Jungian archetypalism.
CR rejects the Triple Goddess concept of Maiden, Mother and Crone, as an invention of Robert Graves (in The White Goddess), based on his misinterpretation of the historical record. Although some Celtic Goddesses such as Brighid and The Morrigan do appear on occasion as threesomes, they are described as sisters, rather than women of different ages.
Whilst paths such as Wicca and Druidry subscribe to the notion that all their adherents are priests/esses, CR seeks to create a community in which we honour an abundance of paths. Thus we have those who pursue the way of the bard, the warrior, the healer and many others. Anyone can set up an altar and honour their deities, but the role of priest or priestess (the word Druid is seldom applied) is seen as a position which requires years of specialist study and dedication.
Ritual life centres on seasonal celebrations and marking rites of passage. We make offerings to our Gods, our Ancestors and the spirits of nature, as well as every day observances such as purification and blessings for sustenance. Particular attention is paid virtues such as Truth and Loyalty and to the notion of hospitality, both to guests of this world and the other. We also celebrate child blessings, handfastings and funereal rites.
CR encompasses a range of ritual calendars, according to the Celtic culture being reconstructed. Some people abide by the eightfold wheel of the year; others celebrate just the fire festivals. Gaulish Reconstructionists may use the Coligny calendar where possible. Many CR people try to choose their days of celebration according to the seasonal changes, such as first frost, the blooming of hawthorn etc. Other days of celebration vary according to the practice of individuals and the deities important to them.
So where do our ideas and practices come from? A popular misconception is that the prehistoric Celts did not write anything down, and that therefore we know very little about their religion. Contrary to popular belief, we are actually able to employ a diverse range of sources in reconstructing ancient Celtic religion. Firstly we have the archaeological record, our only primary evidence from the period we are reconstructing. This includes sacred sites and cult centres; votive offerings from lakes and wells; bodies recovered from bogs; ritual items and goods deposited in graves as offerings.
Secondly we have the epigraphic evidence – inscriptions and stone carvings. Most of these date from the period of Roman occupation, so are of limited use, although there are some pre-Roman examples to be found from Spain and Southern Gaul.
Thirdly there are the classical authors. Greek and Roman sources provide a wealth of information about the Celts in Britain and Gaul, although we have to take some care when using these sources. Roman writers are fundamentally biased due to their political and religious agendas and the audience they were targeting, but they are nevertheless useful first hand accounts of the time. In particular Caesar’s correlation of the Celtic gods with their Roman counterparts helps us to understand the functions of many in the Celtic pantheon.
Fourthly we have the insular literature of Britain, which include histories such as those by Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth, and socio-political geographies such as those of Giraldus Cambrensis. These are useful because they give us an impression of what religion may have been like in those Celtic countries not conquered by Rome.
Finally we have the folk traditions preserved through storytelling and song. For example, The Carmina Gadelica, compiled in the late 19th century by Alexander Carmichael, although superficially Christianised preserves a wealth of useful information about pagan magic and lore from Scotland.
It must be said that the extant literature for some Celtic cultures is sometimes limited. We do from time to time look to other indo-European cultures to help us form a working model of how our ancestors may have practiced their religion. However, that is not to say that we steal or borrow elements from other cultures. We look for points of commonality with cultures such as the Norse to provide clues as to how things may have been done.
In spite of its insistence on rigorous research and quoting of sources, CR does allow for what is known as Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis or UPG. Originating in Asatru communities in the early 1990’s UPG is the term used to identify ideas that derive from meditation, intuition or visions. Usually this kind of information cannot be verified from historical sources or lore. UPG thus allows for considerable freedom, variation and spontaneity in individual spiritual practice whilst preserving intellectual integrity. It is tolerated by the community at large, so long as it is clearly identified as UPG and no attempt is made to pass the information off as genuine academic research or gained from previously unknown or ‘secret’ sources.
At the present time, the CR community is fairly small and tends to be focused in the United States, particularly when it comes to organisations. But increasing numbers of people on this side of the Atlantic are now starting to become involved. In particular we are starting to see the emergence of Brythonic Reconstructionism as more of us on this side of the pond become dissatisfied by the Irish-American hegemony within CR. The community is largely made up of individuals and family groups with most people keeping in touch and sharing ideas through Internet forums and websites. A word of warning – anyone joining these discussion groups should expect to back up any claims or assertions with well-documented sources, as uncorroborated statements are certain to be challenged.
So how do you become involved in CR? The simplest way is by reading about the ancient Celtic peoples and getting to know their history and mythology. This way we make a spiritual connection with those times and get to know the Gods and Goddesses and begin to understand how we relate to them. What’s important here is to be discerning in the books you read. Most CR people tend to favour, serious academic works, written by scholars steeped in the Celtic tradition. Books and authors from New Age or occult publishers tend to be frowned on, for lacking academic rigour, or for hijacking Celtic imagery and ideas to sell modern, unauthentic inventions. E.g. Celtic Shamanism, Celtic Astrology or Celtic Feng-Shui!
Once you have a thorough grounding in Celtic studies and are able to discern the authentic from the modern fantasy, you can begin to build your own spiritual practice. Many people begin by setting up a shrine to their Gods or ancestors. Others seek out a special place outdoors where they feel they can connect with the spirits of the land. Some of us have an instinctive connection with a particular Celtic country or people, either through our ancestors or because of where we live. Others may take years of study before deciding on the culture they want to reconstruct. What is important to realise at the outset is that CR is not pan-Celtic. Whilst most of us will study many or all of the Celtic cultures, each individual or family will concentrate on reconstructing the spirituality of one.
Whilst it is not essential to speak a Celtic language, an increasing number of Reconstructionists feel that at least a basic vocabulary is necessary to fully understand the worldview of the Celtic countries. For most of us this means learning Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh or Breton. However, much work has been done in recent years on reconstructing the proto-Celtic language and a few people are even beginning to incorporate this in some of their rituals.
Spend some time in contemplation. Examine the three realms and meditate on how you are connected to them. Be aware of how the three worlds are linked by the world tree and reflect on the fire, which rises from the well at the foot of the tree. Celebrate the festivals with feasting and practice the virtue of hospitality.
Read the tales about the gods and heroes, and listen to the voices of the deities that call to you. Make offerings to them at your shrine or find a place in nature, which they seem to inhabit strongly. Find ways of bringing them into your life through imagery, poetry or song.
Celtic Reconstructionism is not just a religion to be practiced on special days, but way of life, which is inseparable from our culture. Reverence the gods. Honour the ancestors. Be true to the old ways. Live and breathe the way of the Celt.
CUNLIFFE, Barry, The Ancient Celts, Oxford University Press, 1997
GREEN, Miranda J (ed.), The Celtic World, Routledge, 1995
HUTTON, Ronald, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Blackwell, 1993
KONDRATIEV, Alexei, Celtic Rituals: An authentic guide to ancient Celtic Spirituality, New Celtic Publishing, 1999
ROSS, Anne, Pagan Celtic Britain, Academy Chicago Publishers, 1996