Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in my room writing my essay, when I heard someone on the street outside laughing as they wished their friend a “Happy Sam-Hane!”
This, of course, is a gross mispronunciation of the Gaelic word Samhain. Being Halloween, the speaker could only have been referring to the pre-Christian Gaelic festival that commemorated the end of the Harvest and Winter’s coming – now celebrated in a variety of forms by the 21st century Neopagan community.
In modern Gàidhlig and Gaeilge, the word was historically used to refer to All Saints Day but is now used in both languages to mean the month of November. The Christian etymology can still be seen in the Gàidhlig Oidhche Shamhna, which translates as Hallowe’en, or more literally, as the Night of Samhain. (Gàidhlig likes to indulge in nasty genitives).
So who then are these Neopagans that celebrate Samhain? I would divide them into four VERY broad groups (in descending order of historical accuracy) – Celtic Reconstructionists, Eclectic Pagans, Neodruids and Wiccans.
Although demographics are difficult to establish, we know that the 2011 Census for England and Wales revealed 56,630 people describing themselves as Pagan, 4189 as druids, and 11,766 as Wiccans. The Scottish 2011 Census shows 3,467 people identified as pagans, 245 as Druids and 949 as Wicca.
Figures for the US for Neopagans usually give a maximum figure of one million, though the real number will be lower, with the figures for Wicca ranging an order of magnitude from one hundred thousand to one million.
Now I’m not saying that every Pagan bases their spirituality on Gaelic elements, but compared to the number of Q-Celtic Language speakers, there IS a sizeable number of people in the UK and US who affiliate themselves with an ostensibly Celtic or Gaelic religion.
Their attitudes towards the culture from which they draw their gods, superstitions, festivals and symbols vary enormously. Eclectic Pagans are happy to pick-and-choose between lots of different cultures, and many do so without a care for consistency or guarding against appropriation. Wicca and Neodruidism are fully-fledged faiths, whose claims to be representative of genuine ancient Celtic spirituality have been repeatedly debunked. And Celtic Reconstructionism (sometimes called Gaelic Polytheism) is supposed to be a scholarly endeavour to reconstruct the faith of the pre-Christian Celts based on literary and archaeological evidence, as well as on the pagan traditions that were still extant in Gaelic cultural regions in the 20th century (and in the 21st, I can confirm).
When I first discovered these movements online last year, I conflated them all into one evil culture-appropriating monolith and proceeded to attack them vehemently on Tumblr. This painfully-long text post gained 123 notes, and a fair bit of criticism from the tumblr Celtic Reconstructionist community. I’ve reproduced about half of it below:
“I feel angry when reading the Celtic Paganism/Reconstructionism tag. When Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland is dying, Breton is on its knees, Welsh is just surviving, Cornish/Manx barely exist, why on earth waste time trying to reinvent religions which died out over a thousand years and which you can never in any way recreate properly? If you want to be part of Celtic culture, join in with modern, living, changing Celtic culture and languages. No culture, no religion, is a monolith. Its damn right offensive that so many people value dead Celtic culture over the living.
Maybe if Scottish Gaelic dies by 2100, teens in 2200 will be dancing around the Cuilinn Mountains in Skye worshipping a whicker figure of the great bard-god Sorley.
When real-life Celts have to fight day and night to preserve their languages, most people on Tumblr (as evidence by the size/activity of the paganism as opposed to celtic language tags) are more concerned with pretending to be worshipping the gods they imagine the ancestors of those real-life Celts worshipped.
And what about the cheek of Celtic Reconstructionismts who want to learn our modern languages in order to make their experience more genuine? See http://www.paganachd.com/faq/whatiscr.html They actually want to use Celtic Languages “to develop” their (invented) tradition.
People are entitled to worship whatever they want. Believing in poorly-reconstructed and half-invented Celtic gods from 2000 years ago is no more objectionable than worshipping Wotan or Thor. The only difference is that the modern Anglo-Saxon culture and language is healthy and thriving and can afford to have people fixate on the past – it won’t make any difference to the survival of English if a few kooks want to try and ressurect life in the 600s, instead of trying to create new English literature and art. But for a language like Gaelic or Welsh, this fixation on a fictional past is dangerous – these people interested in Celtic could be becoming Gaelic science teachers, innovative Welsh poets, mechanics working thru the medium of Irish. They could be working to assist the survival and evolution of endangered cultures, instead they endanger us with their Celtic Reconstructionist cult.”
Well, as one might expect, this self-confessed “rant” earned me the ire of pagans of all stripes on Tumblr. The gist of the criticism was that being a pagan doesn’t in itself preclude respectfully taking part in the modern culture, and, moreover, that one choose a religion for spiritual reasons, not for issues of minority language preservation.
This is still hard for me to understand. As an atheist, I see no reason whatsoever to believe that the polytheist religion of pre-Christian Gaels is somehow more likely to be true that any other religion you care to name. I can’t understand why irrational faith should use up the energy of those interested in Gaelicness, when the language and 21st century culture should be the priority. But, then, that’s probably a valid criticism of the Wee Frees too!
So, in retrospect, I do now appreciate that I have many aims in common with Celtic Reconstructionists. Their philosophy on the whole is sympathetic to learning the languages respectfully, as well as to researching and preserving the beul-aithris.
It was unfair of me to tar CRists with the same brush as the Wiccans and Druids, whose beliefs and actions are certainly not deserving of this reading. As Selchieproductions wrote last year in the run up to Halloween, in a post emphasizing the Christian nature of Gaelic spirituality:
“When your neo-Pagan friends tell you that Samhain is a Gaelic festival when the green man dies or something similar, tell them that they’re wrong. Non-Christian Samhain traditions exist, and we do still talk of the arrival of a’ Chailleach Bheurach, the Winter Crone, but Samhain is first and foremost the name for the month November, secondly a festival to honour the ones who have left this world and lastly the time to take down the cattle and sheep from the hill-sides before the winter snow would arrive.”
There is a world of difference between respectful CRist engagement with Gaelic culture and the ignorant paganism of whose who haven’t even bothered to learn how to pronounce Samhain properly. Samhain is something I, as a representative of the minority culture, have ownership of – it is not for Anglophones to sculpt their own festivals and meanings from it, in direct opposition to the broadly Christian living Gaelic cultures of Scotland, Ireland and Man. Stealing words from minority culture for your own amusement without seriously learning about that culture is just lazy cultural appropriation.
(For anyone concerned about my use of the word appropriation, please see the Virtual Gael’s excellent post Cultural appropriation: Gaels and other natives, explaining how the Gaelic experience intersects with whiteness.)
The American blogger The Rambling Witch argues, however, that it is not appropriation for Anglophone Wiccans to use a word like Samhain, just borrowing:
“Without cultural borrowing, we have languages that are at risk of extinction. The Gaelic languages are dying, and the folks trying to save it aren’t always Gaelic. In fact, the Gaelic youth have shown no interest in their own culture and it is those of other cultures and ethnic groups that are revitalizing that group of languages. Should those languages die if there are no Gaels who wish to carry on the tradition? I hope not.”
It’s certainly right that the Gaelic language and culture is at risk of extinction. But that doesn’t mean its dead yet. It’s also true that all three Gaelics have expanded beyond the white, rural Christians that historically spoke them. Yet to claim that ‘indigenous’ young Gaels aren’t interested in the language is down right offensive. Look at Lurgan in Ireland, or FilmG in Scotland. Or the success of Gaelic-medium schooling in all three Gaelic nations.
The Rambling Witch sounds like they have a bit of a Pagan Saviour Complex. Yes, respectfully take part in Gaelic culture as a learner of the languages, but please don’t erase the lives of those young people growing up today within it. Gaelic culture is open and welcoming to new Gaels, but if you want to take something from it, you have to give something back.
I grew up with semi-pagan stories of the Second Sight, and sìthichean and bòcain, as well as going out at cullaig for over a decade. So I do value the work of CRists like the blog Tairis to research and remember the dualchas that belongs to us all.
But what I don’t appreciate is wholesale mining of my culture to create ahistorical neopagan religions. I don’t appreciate people who will carry on calling Samhain “Sam-Hane” even after I correct them. I don’t appreciate those who exploit old Gaelic culture for their own ends, without engaging with its living, modern form.
If just 10% of the neopagans in the US could be persuaded to go beyond Wicca and Neodruidism, if they could be persuaded to see Gaelicness as something that’s real and thriving not something ancient and mysterious, if they could be persuaded to learn Gàidhlig in a respectful manner, then we’d more than double the number of speakers living in the world today…