Celebrating “Sam-Hane” – the problem with Paganism

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…

26 thoughts on “Celebrating “Sam-Hane” – the problem with Paganism

  1. Nice article. Thanks for the quote… but I am a *witch*, not a pagan… thus the title of my blog “The Rambling Witch”.

    And I am from the US, but Sean MacDhai is actually my real name. Go figure, you can’t really judge someone by their name, eh?

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment, I will correct that! Sorry, I am so used to Gaelic names being self-given (like my own, I have an English name on birth certificate, self-identify with the Gaelic I’ve always been called by), that I assumed you’d taken it on. That wasn’t fair of me.

      1. LOL! No worries, it gave me a giggle. I am a proud great-grandson of Scottish and Irish immigrants.

        Like I said, nice article, you make some fine points. It all needs to be said…

  2. As I read the post I found myself nodding my head several times in agreement. I have no objection to anyone’s religious or cultural beliefs, ancient or modern. All religions are “invented” since they are all man-made. The product of human intellect, imagination or superstition. They are also usually a collation of several traditions, some quite unrelated. Christianity is the magpie of faiths 😉

    But yes, if people are going to claim that they are reviving something authentic then the least they can do is honour the source materials. Islam is indelibly associated with classical Arabic. Judaism with Hebrew. These are the languages of the faith and true apostles become knowledgeable in those tongues (if not fluent).

    If one claims to be a follower of a resuscitated Celtic religion then at least use the languages that the religion was originally practised in or at least have a titular knowledge. The problem is that most converts or revivalists are ex-Christians and the strength of Christianity is its abandonment of liturgical language or terminology. Latin and Greek (or Aramaic) are no longer of any great import in being a Christian (if at all). Christianity’s culturally promiscuous nature has shaped the views and actions of many who claim they wish to escape it by founding or refounding other faiths.

    I’m an atheist and secularist myself but I still mark and celebrate the Feis Shamhna because of its historical and cultural importance to my Gaelic nation (and related Gaelic nations). Atheists may not believe that the “son of god” was born on the 25th of December but they still celebrate Christmas Day. So Celtic or Gaelic atheists should respect and participate in days that were formerly of religious significance and which are tied up with language, culture, history and identity of their peoples and nations.

    Christians have Christmas, Easter, etc.

    Gaelic revivalists, secular or otherwise, have Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lúghnasa and Samhain. They should respect and celebrate that.

  3. I do very much agree with you on a lot of points, but I do have a few thoughts on the post.
    There is a big difference between people who are ‘trying on’ a culture or religion for shock value or individuality, and the people who genuinely feel connected to it. I understand this on a purely observational level, however. All I can say is what I see. And I would personally consider myself an atheist, I don’t believe in a deity at all, so religion itself is a bit of an enigma to me, however I know religious people so I spent much time trying to put myself in their shoes (thoughts). My mother felt connected to Druidry and studied through OBOD and several people who knew a lot on the topic. As someone who considered this a viable life decision, studying the religion as it is today, trying to connect, she and many people she knows took language courses to speak Gaelic, took lessons on the culture both modern and archaic as much as anyone knows about the archaic. Not all people who choose that path think it is a close reconstruction and that the modern doesn’t matter. Many who do know they are taking up an interpretation on a long dead religion, but still feel drawn to it, and respect the culture that birthed it.
    Secondly, though it is a culture and language that is dying, I feel it prudent to look on the positive. Yeah, there are people who butcher the language and loosely interpret the culture, often because they view wicca as a rebellion or ‘cool’. However, that is true of almost anything. When one is trying to express individuality in a stifling atmosphere they will go to extremes to break free of it more often than not. I think a lot of the people who don’t give a shit about the culture are just that, and since it is their form of rebellion they will grow out of it. But just because they don’t respect it doesn’t mean it is doomed. I live in Canada, and even here there are Gaelic schools and a genuine interest in a lot of people I know to understand both language and culture.
    I do get where you are coming from, but seriously, I don’t think a few ignorants spell doom and gloom for an entire culture and language.

  4. You heard someone say something outside your window, and you assume he is of a religion you don’t like. He may have been making a sarcastic joke to his friend, actually making fun of the same people you are. He may be an isolated researcher who never hears any of the words he reads said aloud. Or maybe he is an obnoxious Neopagan poser who doesn’t know how to pronounce Samhain. (There are obnoxious people of all spiritual bents). I don’t know any more about that guy than you do. But I do know this: there is a guy out there with enough interest in Celtic language that he is trying to use it in conversation. He is your target audience. Instead of alienating him for not already knowing what you have painstakingly learned, teach him.

    1. The use of Samhain followed “Happy Halloween” so it was clearly used in that context.

      Scottish Gaelic wasn’t something I “painstakingly learned” – its my first language, I couldn’t speak English til I went to school.

      I happily teach people my language.

      My problem is with people using Samhain without showing any interest in or engaging with the living cultures and languages.

      1. Points taken. From the above, it seemed you didn’t know the person. Given what you know, that person is painfully ignorant. But please don’t consider all Pagans to be the same. Every Christian isn’t the same as the guy standing on the corner yelling, “the end is nigh”. And I totally agree that claiming to love the roots of a culture without any interest in the current branches is weird. Also, I really wish you were my neighbor because I spend a lot of time researching Celtic history and I can’t pronounce anything I read. I’d annoy you in the opposite extreme. 🙂

  5. Mòran taing gun do sgrìobh thu seo! Bha an aon seòrsa deasbad agam-sa dìreach cuid laithean air ais, le daoine an seo sa Ghearmailt nach robh ag iarraidh fiù ‘s cluinntinn bhuam ciamar a chanar “Samhain” gu ceart. “Tha a h-uile duine ga ràdh mar seo” – “Cha bhiodh duine sam bith gam thuigsinn nan chanainn mar sin e” – “Tha e nas àlainne(!!) mar tha mise ga ràdh” – Agus an rud nas miosa: “Tha mi coma mu na Gaidheil”. Seadh.
    ‘S e paganach a th’ annam fhèin, ach tha an cac sin gam chur brònach agus feargach.

  6. You mean I can’t just pop a Gardnerian liturgy into google translate and BAM now I’m an Irish Pagan? What do you mean? Nevermind just break out the Guinness!!! Whooooooo!

    I appreciate this article very much. I’ve been learning Gaeilge(Irish) slowly for a while now. Mostly liturgical stuff at first, but also tourist Irish. If I could afford to be off of the face of the planet for several weeks I’d go into an immersion program.

    For a long time I was a practicing atheist. I didn’t believe the Tuatha De were external forces, but still I practiced. I began to have experiences over and over with them long into a 10 year period where I maintained my skepticism but spoke with the Gods in my own mind. I believed them to be Jungian archetypes.

    In that time, I approached things for the value of the effect and result of the practice rather than than scratching an itch of belief. I didn’t give offerings to be saved, I gave them to increase thankfulness and reverence for the crazy universe that big banged into existence.

    It’s not about believing in superstition, indigenous religions manage properly the psyche for those of us with a spiritual propensity. Atheist Druids, Witches, and CR’s are common, but it’s the culture and practice which heals the heart is that we’re after.

    I’m a CR and a Neo Druid. The use of Irish in our rites is mandatory, scholarship is our blood, revival our bones, and we flesh ourselves in the new practices a few of us try to respectfully invent.

  7. See, here’s where I have a problem with both CR and Druidry (loosely considering myself to be a bit of both). CR gets so focused on *pre-Christian* “Celtic” culture and spiritual traditions that sometimes it becomes tricky to “engage in its living, modern form.” Not to say that CRs are trying to recreate the past, but to intelligently envision what a modern Celtic “hearth culture” (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, etc.) might look like had it not had its unique religious practices steamrolled by Christianity. //And in that regard, CR might have similar aims to your own — preserving and honoring traditions that have been steamrolled by bigger, more politically powerful/centralized forces.// But back to the original point, I have frequently seen two things in CR groups that make me cringe a bit… First, anything that gets posted about Celtic-speaking cultures as they existed after Christianity came to the insular Celts gets dismissed as irrelevant, which leaves a whole lot of culture that is relevant to the modern Gaels as out of bounds. For my personal practice, I like knowing that if I’m calling what I’m doing “Celtic” or “Gaelic,” that I’m connecting that in some meaningful way with the modern people and cultures who still carry and honor that title. Secondly, CR members sometimes appoint themselves the Academic Police, and assume complete idiocy on the part of those who ask honest questions. There are times when I’m up for wading into the “who’s better educated” wars that some like to engage in, and other times when I just want to heal my spirit and rest a bit, or give and receive hospitality without the pissing matches.

    And then there’s the Druidry thing. I think it is absolutely ridiculous for any tradition to call every member of it a “Druid,” and see no need to call all practitioners that. It’s not historically authentic. I can want to practice a tradition that incorporates elements known to be of pre-Christian Celtic origin without wanting to be an “expert in the field,” or priest/ess to others. There’s the religious elite and then there’s folk practice. The latter appeals to me more. There’s also the issue that many of the modern groups calling themselves “druids” are complete crap built upon shoddy research and nineteenth-century idealized notions of Celts and Druids. The group I’ve found to be less so, or at least attempting to remain research-based and historically aware, is ADF. So, I’m a member. I cringe at the fundamental concept of all members calling themselves Druids. Parts of the theology and ritual structure aren’t my thing (I tend to shy away from fancy pants solitary ritual in favor of simple meditations and connections, and have a very simple theology). But overall, I find in it a structure, mysticism, and healing that I haven’t (yet) found exclusively in CR.

    Anyway, I did get a lot out of reading this, particularly a good reminder that there are people who ARE part of living, breathing Gaelic cultures, and that the way I practice the path that has called me (because I do believe it’s something that drew me in, rather than being intellectually chosen) should not ever disrespect the experiences of those still living in Gaelic cultures. I’m trying. I follow several writers on social media (which is how I found you) who write thoughtfully and/or academically about modern Gaelic culture. I’m a distance student at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig learning Gaelic. I constantly have a non-fiction book under my nose about history of the British Isles and the different cultures in them, and the issues currently facing those cultures. I have a lot still to learn, but I hope I’m doing so respectfully.

    1. I cant believe no one responded to your post. It is beautifully written and quite obvious that you put a lot of time and thought into sharing your thoughts to this topic. Thank you for posting!

  8. The Scottish quarter days reflect the climate and therefore agriculture and so are more immediate in their impact than the solstices and equinoxes based on day-length, which while important are a little more esoteric. Anyway this is all just one more piece that got built into the riotous melange that is neo-paganism. The fact that some of the names are anns a’ Gàidhlig is an historical accident really.

    “During the 1970’s and 1980’s modern paganism became yet more eclectic. It did not expand and enrich its repertoire by a closer study of the past, but spread sideways to combine with other modern traditions. From the ‘earth mysteries’ it took … From the upsurge of Celtic ‘revivalism’ came the teachings of Barddas (yet again), the retranslation of Margaret Murray’s four ‘witch festivals’ into their Gaelic names … From native American traditions …” etc. etc. (Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, 1991, pp 337-8).

    I admit, like you I fell into the trap of thinking these people had some interest in real Celtic languages and in what survives of our cultures. On the whole however this is not the case. But then most things are first encountered in a watered-down and distorted form. We can only hope that the occasional true seeker will ‘swim upstream’ and seek out the genuine article. For the rest you can maybe try to educate them, but based on my own experiences I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    Tha thu gu math fortanach oir tha dà chànain is dà chultur agadsa. ‘S beag an t-iongnadh gu bheil farmad aig luchd na Beurla riot.

  9. As a frequent visitor to Avebury and occasional visitor to Glastonbury I have seen a different kind of appropriation. http://bardoftweeddale.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/offerings/ shows something of what I mean. Exactly to what people think they are leaving these gifts and what they expect to gain from doing so, is a mystery. Not only do we not have the faintest idea of the spiritual beliefs of those who erected the stones at Avebury but the confused process of Avebury’s development suggests that over the centuries of its construction the builders ideas changed.
    However, whatever people suppose those beliefs were, something at Avebury compels people to leave gifts and I also regard visiting Avebury or Glastonbury as something of a pilgrimage.
    But I do not regard leaving a carnation on a stone as an act of appropriation, so much as an act of homage, or recognition, (albeit perhaps a false recognition as bronze age man was responsible for clearing most of Britain’s woodland so was hardly a mascot for green-ism) of a common ground between two beliefs.
    What is really happening is a form of personalised, catholic (with a small ‘c’) eclectic and poly-cultural religionation of a somewhat tenuous spirituality. In other (and fewer words) people look for a fixed and established form of belief to anchor their much less established beliefs on. For some, that may be an approximation of ‘ancient’ belief (btw, my understanding is that samhain is Celtic/Anglo-Saxon, rather than exclusively Gaelic so there’s no reason to assume your pronunciation is any more correct than mine) for others it’s a mish-mash of eastern philosophies founded on Zen and raked gravel. My version happens to be a combination of atheism (which is of course simply the belief that there is no/are no god(s)) and animism, which I find is best expressed by concepts such as genius loci and, in religion, by Shinto, albeit, I am not an adherent to either beyond occasionally making a gift at Avebury or having a moment of quiet reflection on Glastonbury Tor or fetishising a Roman brooch a like wearing.
    To be honest, your overall stance is a bit odd. It’s a bit like you’re arguing that rail travel in the UK is usually a pretty miserable experience therefore all the thousands of people giving up their leisure time to operate preserved steam railways ought to be working for Scotrail or Virgin Trains.
    Colin (Failed Novelist)

    1. Thanks for your comment Colin.

      Samhain is undisputably a Gaelic/Celtic festival.

      A better analogy would be – there’s only a few functioning, delapidated trains left in the UK, driving along tracks that were deliberately damaged by the state, piloted by a few hardworking but despairing individuals, while thousands of people are giving up their leisure time to decorate and fix up steam trains that don’t even move anywhere and not giving a shit that the real, living working trains will be gone in fifty years time.

      Because, over-wrought analogy as it is, that is how it feels to be a Scottish Gaelic speaker in the 21st century, desperately trying to revitalize your culture, while thousands of people would much rather fetishize the dead, magical aspects of it, rather than helping with the gritty reality of keeping an indigenous culture and language alive.

      1. It might feel like that, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening. An interest/inclination to believe in folklore/spirituality by someone in the UK is most probably going to take them back to the Celts simply because they are the first peoples for whose spiritual beliefs we have some information (if patchy and sometimes biased) and as Celtic culture and language to some extent survive in modern day Welsh and Scots Gaelic culture is a happy accident for those inclined towards ancient form of beliefs. However, an interest in Celtic beliefs and an interest in contemporary Welsh and Gaelic speaking culture are two quite separate things.
        I think the underlying problem is that you are an “angry young atheist” (which condescending though that sounds is probably an essential stage for any atheist to go through) and you are inclined to regard spiritual matters as something of a distraction, possibly an irrelevance, from practical matters and while I would agree that the thinking of someone leaving a carnation on a stone at Avebury is ‘fuzzy’ at best, I’m pretty sure that whatever they’re looking for they won’t find it by learning Welsh or Gaelic.
        In other words, the person who borrows the word ‘Samhain’ is very unlikely to regard it as part of Scottish culture, historic or contemporary, but simply as a word representing an older tradition of belief which, for them, is not dead.
        PS, it’s not just your culture being picked on. I’ve doe a fair bit of research for my novel and the utter nonsense that’s become attached to runes (about which we actually know very little) is extraordinary.
        PPS I think we have the makings for a conversation in the pub next Sunday!

  10. Great post. I agree with you, the large use of gaelic language for neo-pagan cults works against the efforts to preserve gaelic language and culture in actual days. Gaelic should be used like any other actual language.

  11. As an American, I do not know what it’s like to grow up speaking a Celtic language and living the Celtic culture and watching it die, but I do know what it’s like to be of Celtic descent and to want the Celtic languages and culture of the blood in my veins to survive with a burning (sometimes sad, sometimes angry) passion. I know what it’s like to be studying one of those languages out of pure love for it and the people who speak it and the land that it comes from, out of want for it to survive and trying to find ways to use it in a country that it doesn’t even come from. (I’m studying Welsh and am in the process of making plans to pursue a masters degree in linguistics at Bangor – as opposed to somewhere else – solely so that I can hopefully get more exposure to Welsh.) And I know how these things feel, ultimately, because of Paganism. Let me tell you, learning of the oppression of the Celts – their (our?) cultures, their (our?) languages, their (our?) identity, gets me fired up big time. I know that Americans of European or Celtic descent trying to identify with their European roots is often met with disdain and a backlash of “you’re not _________, you’re American, shut up” from people currently living in Europe. But I do not feel America is my home – because it isn’t, it’s the Native Americans’ home. My peoples’ story here is one of invasion and conquest and transplantation. We have no roots here. All the stories, almost all the food, all the culture and customs I grew up with and cherish, are European. But that’s another topic… Also as an American growing up in Oklahoma, trust me when I say I’ve seen it – the literal death of ancient and beautiful cultures and languages goes on around us whities all the time, and almost no one seems to care nor notice.

    If you don’t know much about American history, Oklahoma was the 47th of the 50 states despite being right in the middle of the country, and turned state so late because it was “Indian Territory”, aka the shitty land that the Native Americans were forcibly herded into via a death march called the Trail of Tears and therefore the final resting place for many a tribe. It was the land we “gave” the Indians to live on while we took over literally everything else in the country all around them, literally boxing them in, and then eventually of course we took that land too. “We” meaning white European-descent folk in general. Reading anything about the Trail of Tears will make anyone with a heart in their chest want to cry. I tell you there isn’t much in this world beyond witnessing direct physical human suffering that will utterly pull your soul into the depths like seeing an old Native American who doesn’t have anyone else to talk to because no one has learned his language any more and he knows he is seeing the truly last days of his spirituality and culture because these are all so inextricably tied to the language of which he is among the last remaining double digits of aging speakers. I was ashamed to be white for much of my childhood because of the atrocities we’d committed against the natives and other people too but especially the natives — or at least I was before I learned that we aren’t just “white people” — we were, at some point, English and Welsh and Irish and German and French people. There is very much a sense of division by color in the US, rather than by actual nationality the way it is everywhere else in the world. And the oppression of the Native Americans that was brought over the water by the English and other Europeans was perpetrated first at home on the Celts and other European minority groups (Basques, Catalonians, etc).

    I *DO NOT* want the culture and language and identity of my forebears to go the way so many Native American ones have. I see it happening still under the comments of English people who continue to treat Celts and the regions of land that’ve been left to them as uncultured backwards hicks. I see it in stuck up English people who continue to be angry that the Celts want to speak their own language in their own territories because, as English speakers, it “inconveniences” them to have to learn something else. I see it in English people who pretend that the Celtic languages are never spoken except when English people are around to hear it in order to drive home some sort of political point or agenda, as if the world revolves around them to the most minute degree that people will switch their language just and only to irk them, because they are the center of the universe. I see it in short-sighted youth (not all of them mind you, but I’ve argued with some of them) who are either Celtic blood born or born in Celtic countries (of whatever background) who see no need to learn the language of the land they live in because “why bother” when there’s English and everyone else already knows it anyway, and the jobs are all in English, and half their background includes English people anyway. I truly cannot describe how much such pompous attitudes towards a minority and oppressed culture make me absolutely furious.

    I want you to know that, despite it not being the effect on the majority of people, there are some people like me out there. Try to understand where we’re coming from — the place is called total ignorance (and not willful). As Americans, we are taught NOTHING about Celtic cultures or history in school. I cannot emphasize the word NOTHING enough here. Growing up, I did not really even know what the word Celtic meant. I thought it described some small group of people or perhaps a European sub-culture that made pretty knot patterns apparently and had some vague relation to St. Patrick’s Day. That was literally the extent of my understanding, and it is not an uncommon extent in the US. I did not know Ireland and Scotland and Wales were Celtic countries. I did not even know they WERE countries! I knew where the UK was on a map, but I did not know the United Kingdom was different from England – I thought they were two words for the same thing – utterly synonymous. And so does nearly everyone else over here, because in our histories we are only taught about England, and a tad about France and Spain because the French and Spanish claimed and settled lands that now belong to the US. “The Pilgrims came to the US from England (and sometimes from Holland and Germany too) for religious freedom”, “the explorers came from England and established Jamestown”, England, England, England. I did not even know Wales and Scotland were different countries. I thought they were parts of England, like states (in the US sense of states) or like regions of it. Most Americans have no idea that England is not the same as the UK, and it’s not their fault – you can’t know something you’ve never been taught. And as Americans, we have little need to learn more about it on our own. And of course it’s not helped by the fact that the English themselves are perfectly peachy with everyone thinking the whole blasted island is England. A lot of them certainly seem to believe it themselves even though they know better! Even once I did realize “hmm… Welsh/Scottish does not equal English” (in full adulthood I finally realized this), I didn’t know for a long time that Wales had a separate language, because everything out there when you look up “Celtic” seems to be about the Gaels. Or at least everything readily available in the US focuses on the Gaels.

    I did not even know Welsh was a language until I became a Pagan and, being a studious sort of person, I quickly recognized the BS factor in the Wicca how-to books and started studying the real history of Celtic cultures for myself from more credible sources than the “Celtic Magick” books. (I love history!) 😀 It is because of Paganism that I know I have a mostly Welsh and Scottish background, that I know Welsh is a language, that I know Wales is a country (or ought to be, dammit!) and that Scotland is a country – separate from England, that I know Breton exists, that I know the Galatians spoken of in the Bible spoke a Celtic language (Galatians — Gaels), same for Gaul. Paganism prompted me to learn SO MUCH about history that was never taught to me in school – was never even mentioned in passing, nevertheless glossed over or covered. Paganism prompted me to learn more about my family tree, which, at least according to what I’ve found between my own family records and the (probably largely inaccurate beyond a certain point, but it’s all we’ve got here in the US) records on ancestry.com… goes so far back into Welsh-ness that everyone’s just “first name son/daughter of father’s first name” (which might still be a fairly common practice amongst Gaelic speakers, I’m not sure, but it is not still common among the Welsh and hasn’t been for a long time). And there’s something of a rush that runs through you when you can see the digital copy of your European ancestors’ names in a census or marriage or death record, and see their signatures on the lists of people who came into the country or hopped on a boat back in the 1600s and 1800s. It truly is awe-inspiring, at least to me, and at least to me as an American, to know I do come from somewhere and (ought to) belong somewhere, somewhere that wasn’t forcibly taken from others, somewhere that my own people aren’t the historical bad guys, a land that I really do belong to (and not the other way around). My biggest beef with Europeans who’ve never lived outside Europe who jump on Americans for wanting to identify with them is that they have no clue what it feels like to not have somewhere that feels like you belong to it. It’s not like we’re Japanese people trying to claim some sort of heritage back to Stonehenge — we’ve got the records to prove who and where we come from, and it’s Europe. But anyway…

    I began learning about these things, and about the rich history of Europe in general and especially of the Celts, and about the injustices that have been done to the Celtic culture and people, because of an original fire to learn more about the ancient cultures and spiritualities of my Celtic ancestors, because of a fire to want to respect my forebears by following, as best I could, the paths they followed. That fire has grown more and more into a fire to defend and perpetuate something that I discovered to be still living although I had thought it to be a thing already relegated to the misty and vague past. That thing being the living cultures and languages of Celtic people, with whom I identify even if they won’t have me and think me obnoxious or romantic for doing so.

    Pure ignorance is the reason your culture and language are fizzling out — at least it is the reason outside your own country — people literally do not know that Irish and Scottish and Welsh have their own languages, that they even exist, nevertheless are or have been oppressed. They do not know that the “Irish accent” is a product of a mother tongue affecting their English, they just think it’s like any other regional accent and believe everyone there speaks English with an “Irish accent” and give no more thought to the reason than they do about why my father has a Southern American accent. It’s “because they’re from Ireland” just like it’s “because he’s from the South”. And when I presented on the Celtic languages in my college linguistics classes, everyone was surprised and interested to learn that Irish and Welsh were languages and not just descriptions of lineage, and several commented on how beautiful the languages sounded (I provided audio examples). People DO want to know more about the Celts and their languages and cultures — but they’ve got to know they exist and are still alive to be learning about and fighting for in the first place!

    I am only one person, I know that I won’t save Welsh by myself, but I am doing what this one person can. I’m not going down without a fight, and I’m not even nationally Welsh, and my folks haven’t been for 5 or 6 generations. It’s a fire burning in me, even if it’s somehow a misplaced one. I literally can’t comprehend how it ISN’T a burning fire for people who are living in it directly! I listen to the one (ONE! 1!) Welsh language radio station the BBC deigns to let them have in Wales online and on my cell phone. I buy and download Welsh language music on iTunes. I watch the programming that’s available worldwide (which is only 2 shows because of stupid contract agreements) from S4C Welsh language TV on my computer — from the, of course ONE Welsh language TV station that exists there. I’ve bought study books and audio CDs to try to learn more. In truth, I want to move to Wales and send my future children to a Welsh medium school (I just turned 30 and we’re trying to start a fam), but my husband isn’t too keen on that idea and would be more than happy to stay in the US (the only way he’d move with me is if I got a teaching job at a Welsh college — *cough* studying at Bangor for more than just the Welsh immersion opportunities *cough*)!

    I can’t tell you the sense of wonder and utter joy I was filled with when I landed at Cardiff airport and saw everything written in both Cymraeg (Welsh) and English, and saw all the driving sign posts in both Cymraeg and English. I equally cannot tell you how then absolutely destroyed I was that I heard NOBODY SPEAKING IT in the whole 5 days we were in Wales. I literally cried I was so frustrated and angry and depressed that no one was speaking it, that I had studied and was so excited to use this beautiful language and saw no opportunity to use it in its own land, and my husband didn’t get it, but cry I did anyway! I was so excited to just say “good morning” or ask how someone was or order a cup of coffee in Cymraeg, but everyone around me within ear-shot was always speaking English. It felt so… artificial. To have all the bilingual signs, to have all the bilingual information posted, but to not hear it in use. It was very eerie actually, like it was a ghost language. I hope and pray that people will see the light and start REFUSING to use English and start actually USING their Celtic tongues, at least when inside their own Celtic borders. Otherwise, they will be swallowed by English in no time, like so many other languages before them. It’s simple linguistics. I don’t think people understand how much they must ACTIVELY fight this if they don’t want to end up like the poor Native Americans – if they don’t want to end up on the long list of people who don’t have a language or a culture or an identity and are just amalgamated into being effectively English, just residing in a different country.

    The English and other English speakers (like us Americans!) are spoiled arrogant and must be forced to get off their high horse. People must actively REFUSE English and FORCE people to learn their language. People speak French in France, and Spanish in Spain, and when people travel to those countries, if an English speaker gets upset that the people there don’t speak English, of if he gets upset that he must speak French or Spanish if he chooses to visit or live there, everyone looks at him like he’s an imbecile. Duh, they don’t speak English, they aren’t English. Duh, you must speak French/Spanish, it’s France/Spain. So why should they expect English in Wales and Scotland and Ireland??!!! Duh, it’s Wales, they speak Welsh, you must speak Welsh there. If you want to live or visit there, learn Welsh. Duh, it’s Scotland, they speak Gaelic, you must speak Gaelic there, if you want to live or visit there, learn Gaelic. It’s Ireland, they speak Irish, if you want to live or visit there, learn Irish. It SHOULD be this way, just like every other country, where they speak the language of their country and aren’t demeaned for doing so, and require it of anyone who wants to live there. But it is NOT this way, and the Celts just roll over and keep on letting the English bully them around! When will it end?! REFUSE TO USE ENGLISH EXCEPT IN TRULY INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS OR IN THE TOURIST INDUSTRY AND AIRPORTS, JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER COUNTRY, AND YOUR LANGUAGE WILL SURVIVE!!! I know this is easier said than done, but it is what must happen, or else there will be no real-life incentive or reason to not just use English. And without real-life practical reasons for its use, a language will die. That’s all there is to it. There must be things you can do and access in your language that aren’t available and doable in English in EVERYDAY LIFE, not just some poetry or arts here and there, and not just for its own sake or for nationalism, it must be practical for use everyday or else there’s no reason not to use English. Plain and simple. That’s linguistics.

    As for the effects of religion high-jacking your culture wholesale — take advantage of it and try to use that leverage to create more of ME. The Jews brought back a totally dead language because of religion — as much as you may disagree with it in principle as an atheist, religion is a powerful people-motivator. Absolutely continue to rebuke the misuse and mystification of your culture for others’ entertainment — but don’t let that make you forget to encourage them to embrace the things about the religion that brought them to even be exposed to words like Samhain in the first place.

    I hope this can give you at least some bit of hope for people who are beginning in ignorance that may or may not be entirely their own fault, who are starting or are mid-journey down a path of learning more about your culture and people and languages because of Paganism. I know, like I said, that I’m not the majority, but I’m not the only one, either. Let us work together towards the furtherance of the beauty of Celtic language and identity for the next generation, regardless of what has drawn us to do so.

    Rant done. 😉 Cymru am byth! And Scotland too though I don’t know Gaelic! <3

  12. Dear D.I. MACDONALD,

    Thank you for this blog article.

    You were so eloquent and passionate about the dying languages of today, and that was sort of how I found your blog article, I was surfing the web about learning Welsh as that’s what me and my man are doing, but it has nothing to do with paganism, per se, more the fact in what you’d mentioned that these are very small minority of languages being spoken as ‘live but dying’ languages.

    Our interest is in learning ancient and/or dying languages, because they seem to be the most interesting. At present, we’re trying our hand at Welsh, Olde English, Runes, and Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs.

    I do consider myself pagan, but only because I can’t find any organized religion that fits my personal concept of spirituality, just basically the love of nature and life itself, knowing that everything in the universe is connected. It’s more of a very broad positivity than an attempted recreation of an ancient religion, which, I agree with you, would probably be impossible.

    That said, the reason I want to learn these languages in their original form and that they should be saved from extinction, if they’re not already a dead language, is that they have whole stories from peoples who didn’t conquer all and therefore a different perspective and they’re beautiful in their own right. It’s fun to learn and share and understand more about each other and sometimes things don’t translate across the language barrier, but most of all, I want to be able to actually look at various text in its own language and just read it as easily as anyone reads this note.

    One of my favorite things, that you kind of touched on with the ‘Sam Hane’, is that scholars translating Egyptian hieroglyphs chose ‘e’ as the letter to use when they didn’t know how the word would sound, so that if someone from ancient Egypt were to meet them on the road today, they’d have little idea of what that person was saying.

    In closing, thank you for putting it out there to save those languages that are spoken by literally less than 0.2% of the world population. They’re fun to learn and me and Ed are definitely getting a whole new perspective by doing just that. And one day we hope to walk right up to a native Welsh speaker and have them understand us! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *