Gaelic Polytheism

Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism (often referred to simply as CR or ‘Celtic Reconstructionism’) aims to bring the religious beliefs and practices of pre-Christian Celtic cultures into a modern context, using historical, archaeological, and academic sources, as well as folklore and traditions that have been recorded and may even survive to this day. CR can be regarded as an umbrella term, because reconstructionists focus on a particular Celtic culture in their practices and so end up using more specific terms to describe what they do.

Gaelic Polytheism (often shortened to GP, sometimes referred to as ‘Gaelic Reconstructionist Polytheism/GRP’ to make its connection with CR clear)1 is a form of Celtic Reconstructionism which focuses on those countries with a common Gaelic pre-Christian heritage. These countries are Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, and each one has its own distinct culture, history and heritage in spite of the fact that it was the Irish Gaels whose language and culture it was that initially came to Man and Scotland and took hold, providing a lasting legacy. It’s probably also fair to say that the influences sometimes went the other way as well, but primarily we are looking at the major influences coming from Ireland and taking hold in Man and Scotland.

In practical terms, Gaelic Polytheists generally focus on one culture in particular in their practices, and it’s probably fair to say that Ireland is the most common, with Man being the least common (mainly due to the amount of information available, and the cultural attachments that many people in the Diaspora have to Ireland compared to Man). As you look around this site you’ll see that the primary focus here is on Scottish practice, but often with reference to Irish (and occasionally Manx) belief and practice. This is because pre-Christian Ireland is the ultimate source and influence for the Scottish Gaelic language and culture, as it were. For example, while Irish and Gaelic (Scots Gaelic, or Gàidhlig) have a common origin, they are now two distinct (though obviously closely related) languages. If we look at the poetry and songs of the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland we can still see a lot of similarities and clear influences between them. As a result, many Gaelic Polytheists whose focus is on Irish practice also find a lot of value in looking to Scottish sources like the Carmina Gadelica as they look for inspiration for prayers and ritual expressions. Many of the songs found in the Carmina Gadelica can be seen to have Irish counterparts, but it is generally agreed that the material from the Carmina Gadelica bears far less evidence of Christian influence than the prayers recorded in Ireland during the nineteenth century, when Alexander Carmichael was collecting the songs and prayers that would eventually be published in the six volumes of the Carmina Gadelica.2

While there are similarities as a result of this common heritage, it’s also important to remember that there are differences as well; as Scotland began to evolve separately from Ireland, so did some of the traditions. As a result, there are some practices that are specific only to Scotland, or Ireland, or Man, for one reason or another. One factor that has affected both Scottish and Manx culture is the legacy of longterm Norse settlement; while the Norse settled in parts of Ireland as well, their influence was generally not as far reaching, long lasting, or consistent as Scotland (in particular), which has had a long legacy of contact with Norse cultures even before there was any Norse settlement.

In addition to all of this, it cannot be ignored that Scotland in particular has been subject to several other Celtic cultures – not just the Gaels. The Gaelic Dál Riadans (a people who occupied a large part of Northern Ireland at one time) are thought to have begun settling the west coast of Scotland as early as 200 C.E.,3 moving into areas that would have originally been Brythonic. Within a century or so of this, the Picts emerge in the historical record, occupying the east and far north of Scotland, while the south of what is now Scotland was occupied by the Brythonic peoples. The Picts themselves are likely to have been Brythonic in origin, but over time their language and culture evolved into something distinct and separate, perhaps because of political or geographical isolation from the Brythons in the south, as well as influence from Scandinavian traders.4

Since very little is known about Pictish beliefs, and the Brythonic people had relatively very little influence on the development of Scotland as a whole, most Gaelic Polytheists with a Scottish focus tend to concentrate on the Dál Riadan legacy, and therefore Scots Gaelic culture. Some Gaelic Polytheists may also incorporate Norse practices that are attested in the sources.

Basic Beliefs

As a rule, Gaelic Polytheism can be defined by the following beliefs:

  • Hard polytheism – seeing the gods as distinct individuals rather than along the lines of “all the gods are one god…” or archetypes common to some branches of modern paganism
  • Animism – recognising that places and objects have a spirit, or spirits, which are acknowledged and honoured in our practices
    Reverence of our ancestors – along with the gods and spirits of the place, our ancestors form a sort of triad which are honoured an acknowledged in ritual
  • Recognising a Gaelic cosmology – of the three realms of land, sea and sky as opposed to the Classical four elements as the basis of the world around us, along with seven or nine (or more) duile, ‘elements’, and the concept of fire-in-water as a creative force
  • The sacred centre – as expressed by the bile, the sacred tree that formed the sacred centre of a túath (a ‘tribe’), or on an individual level, the hearth; the sacred centre is representative of this world’s connection to the Otherworld, our relationship with the gods, spirits and ancestors
  • Observing and upholding traditional values such as truth, hospitality, courage, honesty, generosity, good judgement and the importance of the bonds between kin, family and/or community

The concept of the gods, spirits and ancestors can be encapsulated in the phrase “dé ocus an-dé,” which is found in historical sources – in myths and poetry.

As with Celtic Reconstructionists as a whole, Gaelic Polytheists also firmly believe that Gaelic or Celtic ancestry is absolutely not necessary for anyone to explore or devote themselves to the path and the gods. The gods call who they may; skin colour has nothing to do with it, and any kind of discrimination, bigotry, homophobia, transphobia or racism are things that are seen as totally abhorrent and antithetical to our values.

Since Gaelic Polytheism is also a path that emphasises a cultural basis for practice, eclecticism and the appropriation of other cultures’ beliefs and practices is also considered to be antithetical to the principles of our beliefs. In the process of adopting a Gaelic Polytheist practice, we adopt a polytheistic worldview rooted firmly within the culture in which our gods are based. As such, our outlook in life is first and foremost informed by the values, cosmology, beliefs and practices of our religion and spirituality; Gaelic Polytheism involves adopting not just a religious and spiritual outlook, but a lifeway that comes to permeate every aspect of our life. This is a gradual process for those who adopt Gaelic Polytheism later in life, which evolves as we learn.

Practices

Gaelic Polytheist practice is based on observing and celebrating the cycle of the year according to the seasonal festivals, as well more regular rites and observances, including daily devotions. Prayer or song, meditation and offerings form the main focus of these regular observances, and are also a part of the seasonal celebrations. The ceremonial lighting of bonfires, feasting, games, divination, the crafting of protective charms, along with the performance of protective ‘saining’ rituals form a part of the observances for the seasonal festivals as well.

This festival calendar is centred around the four Quarter Days that mark the end of one season and the beginning of another. These are (according to the Scottish terms):

  • Samhainn – November 1
  • Là Fhèill Brìghde – February 1
  • Bealltainn – May 1
  • Lùnastal – August 1

Other festival days might also be observed, which aren’t necessarily directly from pre-Christian (or even Celtic) practices, but have become incorporated into cultural observances. On the Isle of Man, it is traditional to pay the rents to Manannán on June 25 (Midsummer), while in the south of Ireland Áine is honoured at this time. In Scotland, March 25 is known as Lady Day (or Là na Caillich) – the day on which spring is officially said to have sprung, and the Cailleach Bheur finally admits defeat and gives up her struggle against the end of the winter season. This struggle begins at Là Fhèill Brìghde, February 1st, and after her defeat at Là na Caillich she rests until it is time to take up the reins at Samhainn and rule the winter period once again.5

Yule celebrations might also be observed by some Scottish-focused Gaelic Polytheists who incorporate Norse influences into their practices. Sometimes the Scottish Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) celebrations form more of a focus at this time, however, since this is perhaps the most distinctive and popular celebration still observed today. Unlike the rest of Britain, Scotland has the 1st and 2nd of January as Bank Holidays, arguably because there’s more time needed to recover from the hangover… Hogmanay is a serious time for celebrating!

Other observances might centre on culturally-focused festivals, like St Patrick’s Day (March 17th), Tynwald Day (July 5th), Burn’s Night (January 22nd) or St Andrew’s Day. For many these days are a celebration of Irish, Manx or Scottish culture, rather than religious observances, but Celtic Reconstructionists as a whole tend to emphasise the participation and support of the existing Celtic cultures (and communities) as much as the focus is on bringing pre-Christian beliefs and practices into the modern day.

As such, some Gaelic Polytheists have also worked towards supporting the preservation of sacred sites that are under threat in Ireland and Scotland in particular, and in some cases rituals and vigils have been held with the aim of aiding these causes. Likewise, some of us also support campaigns for the preservation of sites that are sacred to indigenous cultures, as well as supporting campaigns against racism and cultural appropriation in general.

Gods

As previously mentioned, the gods are seen as distinct and individual (hard polytheism). Because the starting point for Gaelic Polytheists is (usually) what we can glean from the historical sources, the gods are understood and approached in ways that might seem very different when compared to other modern pagan paths. Gods are not generally worshipped in a male/female pair like in traditional Wiccan, or other Wiccan-derived paths, and so there is no Lord and Lady, and no Horned God or concepts like the maiden, mother and crone (since these are not concepts that are found in Gaelic belief). Gods are not ‘worked with’ or invoked, but are honoured through devotions and offerings. Relationships with the gods are individual and personal, although the myths and legends form our primary source of understanding and getting to know them. These myths can be seen to inform our approach, and our practical experiences with them.

There is often a very blurry line between gods, spirits and ancestors, so things can look a little complicated at first. At the most basic level, however, we can say that the gods are seen as being intimately associated with the land in general, and many are associated with particular places. In addition to this, some gods are said to be the ancestors of certain Gaelic families, while in general the mythology shows quite clearly that over time the gods evolved into what we might call the sidhe (or sìthin Scots Gaelic). In practical terms, the idea of the gods, spirits and ancestors (or the dé ocus an-dé – “the gods and ungods” as we often call them) is quite complicated, and the lines between them all can be quite blurry.

To start with, Gaelic Polytheists might start off honouring the gods in general, until closer relationships might develop with specific deities; regular devotional practices and exploring the mythology are good places to start in finding particular gods that you might want to develop a closer relationship with. Some gods can be honoured at certain times of the year (and so may be seen as more approachable at these times) – Lugh at Lùnastal, Brìde at Là Fhèill Brìghde, the Cailleach at Là na Caillich, Áine or Manannán at Midsummer, and so on, while others are seen as being particularly relevant to specific approaches in practice. Gaelic Polytheists whose practices centre on the hearth and home, for example, tend to see Brìde as being the goddess of the hearth and so honour her accordingly, while those on a warrior-focused path might find a close relationship with the Morrígan develop. In addition to these kind of relationships that can be formed with deities – or as an alternative – some polytheists find that they develop close relationships with only one, or a limited number of deities that they then dedicate themselves to formally. In this sense there is room for a lot of different approaches within Gaelic Polytheist practice.

Irish gods also form a part of Scottish and Manx focuses, given the historical influences between them all. In general, while many gods are associated with particular areas they are not seen as being confined or constricted by geography (after all, they were brought over to Scotland, and Manannán is to be found in all three of the Gaelic heartlands). As much as they are a part of the land, they are also Otherworldly and timeless; no matter where you are in the world, the gods can hear you. However, considering that Gaelic Polytheists generally refer to a specific Gaelic culture in their practices, some gods might be seen as more relevant to certain contexts than others. Those with ancestry associated with certain families that consider a particular god or goddess to be their ultimate ancestor might want to explore a relationship with that deity, for example. Otherwise, certain gods can be seen as being more relevant to the Scottish landscape than others. These include:

Brìde (Brigid/Brigit…), who seems to have been an extremely influential goddess in Ireland, originally centred around Kildare. Evidence suggests that the goddess became associated with a saint of the same name (though it’s not entirely certain if such a person actually existed, historically), or else the popularity of the goddess meant she was adopted as a saint and into Christianity. Regardless of her origins, her influence has been – and still is – incredibly important in Irish and Scottish Christian tradition, as well as modern pagan traditions.

Cailleach Bheur, related to the Cailleach, or ‘The Old Woman of Beare’ in Irish myth, can be found portrayed as the spirit of winter in Scottish legend, who imprisons Bride and uses her as a slave. Bride is eventually freed and falls in love with Oengus (Angus), a son of the Dagda, and her freedom brings spring along with it. The legend is likely to be a much later evolution of the traditions surrounding Bride and the Cailleach, who is likely to have originally been an Irish sovereignty goddess, but their role in the seasonal year can form a focus of specifically Scottish practice.6

Manannán mac Lir, who lends his name to the Isle of Man is also relevant to Scotland, and might appear in Scottish lore in the guise of Shony. (See Offerings). Manannán was adopted into a Christian context in Scotland as St Mannan, and Black comments that on Lewis the surname Buchanan, and MacPherson on Skye, are anglicised forms of it. Kildavannan on the Isle of Bute also relates to Manannán.7

Considering the origins of Gaelic culture in Scotland come from the Dàl Riadans of northern Ireland, it may also be reasonable to consider the gods associated with the northern Irish landscape (like the Dagda) as being particularly appropriate to a Scottish Gaelic context as well. Placenames and toponymics also suggest influence from Irish gods – such as Banba possibly lending her name to Banff – and Nemain or Badb may be seen in the name of the Scottish fairy queen NicNiven or Neven.8 Localised deities are also suggested from river names such as Clutha/*Clota, who may lend her name to the river Clyde in the west of Scotland (which would be Brythonic in origin, in this case).9

Sacred Texts

There are no sacred texts, as such, in Gaelic Polytheism. Myths and legends form an integral part of understanding the beliefs and practices of the pre-Christian Irish and Scots, giving us an insight into the gods and who they are but they aren’t to be considered sacred, per se. Although they relate to sacred matters, the myths as we have them are often corrupted by time and the people who recorded them. This means that – as valuable as they might be – they also have their limitations, and these have to be considered in our studies.

Language

Language is an integral part of any culture and so most reconstructionists feel it is important to learn (or try to learn) the language of the culture being focused on. Over time the Gaelic languages of each country have evolved separately – into Gaeilge in Ireland (though usually referred to as ‘Irish’), Gàidhlig in Scotland (or Gaelic, to distinguish it from Scots dialects, which are a mixture of Old English, Norse and Gàidhlig words) and Gaelg in Man, so usually one of these would be chosen depending on the focus.

However, some reconstructionists feel that learning the language of the primary sources the myths are preserved in is also relevant – if not more so – since understanding the language they were written in gives us an insight into the many nuances that words can have, which in turn helps us get a better understanding of the gods and pre-Christian beliefs. In this case, the relevant language would (usually) be Old or Middle Irish.

Because Old and Middle Irish are relevant to Scotland and Man as well, some of these terms are adopted by Gaelic Polytheists no matter the individual focus. For example, the phrase dé ocus an-dé – “the gods and ungods,” which is usually interpreted as referring to the gods, spirits and ancestors, is common amongst all kinds of Gaelic Polytheists. Sometimes those with an Irish focus might be render it in modern Irish – déithe ocus aindéithe – although there are some difficultues with how aindéithe may be translated in modern Irish (generally signifying false gods rather than ‘un-‘gods. Whether or not the older languages are pursued, most Gaelic Polytheists believe that supporting the continuation and preservation of modern Gaelic languages is equally as important, though these endeavours tend to be slow progress!

 


References

1 Those who prefer to use the GRP label tend to do so deliberately. The ‘Gaelic’ part obviously refers to the cultural milieu that is being focused on, while the ‘Reconstructionist’ part is included because the term denotes a specific methodology and approach to practice. ‘Polytheism’ is a term that is often favoured by modern pagans who wish to avoid confusion with those paths that might be described as being ‘soft polytheist’, and are often ultimately duotheistic or monistic (as some forms of Wicca and ‘neo-Wiccan’ practices can be), or simply associated with things like rampant eclecticism and cultural appropriation, and practices and beliefs that aren’t generally considered to be ethical or appropriate to our own values. The adoption of the term ‘Polytheism’ is becoming increasingly common by non-heathen reconstructionists, though it is by no means only used by reconstructionists.

It is important to note that while the shortened ‘Gaelic Polytheism’ or ‘GP’ is often used – for simplicities’ sake, if anything – reconstructionists are not the only group who might use the term. There is often a lot of confusion between Gaelic Reconstructionist Polytheist groups and other Gaelic Polytheists, and it’s important to remember that there are some fundamental differences in terms of the underlying philosophies and aims of these groups when compared with Gaelic Reconstructionist Polytheism and even each other.

2 Compare the Carmina Gadelica with the songs and prayers collected in Douglas Hyde’s Religious Songs of Connacht, for example.

3 Were the Scots Irish? by Ewan Campbell.

4 See for example Katherine Forsyth’s Language in Pictland for a discussion of their origins.

5 See The Coming of Angus and Bride and MacKenzie, Scottish Folklore and Folk Belief, p139-141.

6 See The Coming of Angus and Bride and Rosalind Clark’s The Great Queens.

7 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p427.

8 “Banba is connected with banb, now banbh, a sucking pig; she was probably a swine goddess. Kuno Meyer did not hesitate to regard both Banff on Deveron and Bamff near Alyth, Perthshire, as the equivalents of Banba, both meaning Ireland… It is true that Banff is Banb in the Book of Deer and Banbh in modern Gaelic – one syllable. On the other hand, banbh, a sucking pig, is not appropriate – one might it is impossible – as the name of a place or district…” (Watson, Celtic Placenames of Scotland, 1926 (2004), p232).

Badb and Nemain are seen in the name of the Scottish fairy queen:

“The most interesting name of all, used to specifically denote the queen of the fairies, is NicNiven or Neven, which appears to derive from Neamhain, one of the Gaelic and Irish war furies better known as Badb. The matter is complex since Neamhain and Badb may represent different aspects of the same persona, but badhbin some Irish dialects is the word for the supernatural death messenger more familiarly known in Ireland and Scotland as the banshee, bean-sithe literally ‘fairy-woman’ in Gaelic. Badhb also means a hoodie-crow and carries the sense of ‘deadly’ or ‘ill-fated’; it can also translate as ‘witch’, which is apposite since Scotland NicNiven was also queen of the witches. This intriguing name therefore, originated in the Gàidhealtachd whence it was imported into the Lowlands and even found its way to Shetland. W. B. Yeats was therefore incorrect when he stated that ‘the gentle fairy presences’ which haunted the imagination of his countrymen became ‘formidable and evil as soon as they were transferred to Scottish soil’, since this truly terrifying death messenger seems to be shared by both Ireland and Scotland while her associations give some indication of how the Scots regarded the fairy queen.” Lizanne Henderson, Scottish Fairy Belief, p18.

9 “Like many other river names, Clota is really the name of the river goddess, meaning ‘the washer, the strongly flowing one,’ or such. A similar idea is found in the name of its affluent the Cart, connected with Ir. Cartaim, I cleanse.” (Watson, Celtic Placenames of Scotland, 1926 (2004), p44). However, consider also the review for this book for Nicolaisen’s refutation of this.