Reconstructionism in general requires a lot of research and Gaelic Polytheism is no different… It can be hard to know where to start, especially when there’s no real, clear “beginning” to speak of when it comes to adopting and embracing a new religious identity and practice. Trying to figure it all out can be very overwhelming, so here are a few suggestions for how I think it’s best to get started. You don’t have to go in order, it’s up to you to pick and choose what you want to read or focus on learning. In that respect, I’d advise you to go with what interests you the most at the time. Then move onto something else… So, with that in mind:
1. Read up on what Celtic Reconstructionism (in general) and Gaelic Polytheism (specifically) are about and learn about the basic principles of belief and practice. This is kind of a no-brainer, and you’ve probably covered this already – or at least started to – but finding good information is important. I’d recommend The Gaol Naofa FAQ as a good start since it focuses on the basics of Gaelic Polytheism in general (as well as the basics of the org itself), so it will give you a good foundation of our beliefs and practices. The CR FAQ is worth a read, too, for a broader grounding in CR. It’s also worth exploring the other articles available on the Gaol Naofa website, and here on this site, too (if I do say so myself…). One article in particular that I’d recommend is Children and Family in Gaelic Polytheism, which is a good primer on the basics of belief and practice broken down into simple terms. In spite of the name, it’s useful for adults, too, whether you intend to involve anyone else in your practice or not.
2. While you’re reading up on things, there are online groups and communities you might want to explore, too. Ten years ago or so most conversations took place online in email lists through Yahoo, or in communities on Livejournal, but these days the main focus is on social media like Facebook. Gaol Naofa runs one such group on Facebook for members and non-members alike (see our Facebook page for details), but if Facebook isn’t your bag you could also try somewhere like the Paganacht community on Reddit… A lot of conversations tend to take place on blogs these days, as well, so it’s worth hunting those up and following them. You can find a list of some of them in the links section.
If you’re lucky, you might also find local groups in your area that you could join, but these are unfortunately few and far between. At the moment, most Gaelic Polytheists practice alone or in small household groups or extended families. Either way, online and in-person communities are a great way to find help, support and direction while you’re getting to grips with things, and a good group can be an invaluable resource.
3. Explore the history of the various Celtic cultures, the various sources that we have to hand about them and what ‘Celtic’ actually means. Getting a good understanding of who they were and are, and where they came from, will help give you a solid foundation of knowledge which will help you in your studies. Good books to start with are:
The Celts: A History From Earliest Times to the Present – Bernhard Maier
The Ancient Celts – Barry Cunliffe
And try starting with some of the articles on here.
4. Read up on the myths and legends. This is the best way to get an understanding of the gods and the cultural milieu they come from. The Celtic Literature Collective is a good place to start for reading the myths themselves, and Mary Jones is an amazing resource as well; you don’t have to spend a fortune on books to access them.
For a basic introduction to Irish myth, take a look at this article here. Some of the most important tales are:
Although bear in mind that the best or most up-to-date translations available probably aren’t online (The Second Battle of Mag Tuired is the exception here, that’s probably the most up to date translation at the moment, but many of the translations available online are probably 50-100 years old. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but at some point you probably want to invest in more up-to-date versions). Reading the myths on their own is all well and good, but there are lots of books that discuss the myths and give a lot of food for thought, and help explain what’s going on in the tales themselves. These are useful for bringing it all together and can help in building a solid foundation for your beliefs and how you perceive the gods to be. Some good books to get hold of are:
Celtic Mythology – Proinsias Mac Cana
Celtic Heritage – Alwyn and Brinley Rees
Gods and Heroes of the Celts – Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (trans Myles Dillon)
Getting an idea of how the myths have been recorded and transmitted is also important, in order to give you a good understanding of the issues affecting them and why they can be so contradictory in places. The section on Mythology here on the site covers some of the basics you need to know, and the first article, The Problem of Irish “textual omelettes” has some points that I think are particularly important to consider.
5. Read up on folklore, too. Depending on your focus, you might prefer to concentrate more on Irish practice, or Scottish practice, or you might draw from both. See The Quick and Dirty ‘Where Do I Start?’ Booklist for some suggestions.
6. Start practising! So theory and practice go hand in hand but you don’t have to work your way slavishly through as much theory as you possibly can before you start practising. Without practice – and the experience that comes with it – you’re never going to know if this is the right religion for you, so it’s a good thing to start as soon as you’re comfortable with it.
Some advice to bear in mind, which I think would be useful: Don’t feel like you have to do everything at once. Go at your own pace, as fast or as slow as you feel is right for you. It may take a while, as you’re finding your feet, to feel like you’re really connecting with anything. Or you might feel like it’s all falling into place right from the start (great!). Everyone’s different. Also, bear in mind that not every prayer or offering will be accompanied by an awe-inspiring sense of presence or thunder clap and flock of birds… It’s great when that does happen, but that’s not the point of it all. We give honour to An Trì Naomh because we sincerely believe that it is right to do so. From that, all else flows.
7. It’s all well and good to say get started, but it helps to have an idea of how you go about it. There’s no set, rigid framework of ritual and ceremonial practice, but broadly speaking our practice is founded upon prayer and offerings. Our observances can be split into:
Daily Rites – simple prayers said upon starting and finishing your day. You may wish to make daily offerings, or at least regular offerings (made as often as you see fit), as well Monthly – many Gaelic Polytheists observe the first sighting of the new moon, welcoming it back and making offerings of thanks to the gods, spirits, and ancestors .
Festivals – the Gaelic Polytheist year consists of four festivals, or Quarter Days, known as Bealltainn (May 1), Lùnastal (August 1), Samhain (October 1), and Imbolc (or Là Fhèill Brìghde, February 1). Celebrations begin the evening before. Some Gaelic Polytheists may also observe solstices and equinoxes, and/or local festivals.
Life Passages – important events in a person’s life may also be observed, like birth, marriage, death, as well as other occasions such as adoption.
In addition to these, we can also include those times where you might feel like you want to engage in devotional rites just for the hell of it, not because of any set schedule. Some Gaelic Polytheists like to make a schedule for devotional rites – setting aside some time each week to focus on devotions for the ancestors, or the guardian spirits, or the gods (or specific gods), for example. Others prefer to keep things more spontaneous. Variety is the spice of life and all that…
Our daily practices tend to be short and simple, while other occasions such as festivals and life passages may be more formal. How you celebrate, and how formal you get, will depend on your personal preference, but ultimately prayer and offerings underpin will underpin these occasions just as any other. You might also include elements such as feasting, and ritualised actions such as observing more formal ceremonies as well, such as festival celebrations, or the observance of life passages. More formal ceremonial occasions may also include things like feasting; sunwise movements, song, and so on. Meditation and contemplation may also form an integral part of your rites and pratices; it’s important to listen to what the gods, spirits, and ancestors have to say.
How you go about practising, and where you start, is entirely up to you. Some people prefer to keep their observances simple, while others find that formal ceremonies suit them better. It may take a bit of experimenting to find what works for you. Although daily rites are the basic foundation of our practice, some people find the idea of a daily routine daunting. It’s an ideal, and it’s something that I, personally, have taken great comfort in, but it can take a bit of getting used to. Find the level of practice that suits you and give yourself some room to breathe. The Daily Practices section here outlines a few simple things you can do to start off with, and the articles on the Festivals also have a few suggestions for things you can do for them. Gaol Naofa has some good suggestions, too.
8. In your daily and other observances you may wish to honour the gods, spirits, and ancestors as a whole (you might wish to refer to them collectively as An Trì Naomh, or “The Sacred Three”), or you might have specific deities in mind. Sometimes you might wish to make offerings to the land spirits you share your space with – offerings of peace and friendship – or else you might wish to pray to and make offerings to specific deities (addressing a specific deity, or number of deities). At times you might wish to do the same for your ancestors. This is something that’s completely up to you. As you work on building and then maintaining a good relationship with the gods, spirits, and ancestors, it’s important to listen to their wishes.
9. You may want to have a space set up that forms a focus for your observances, which could be a shrine or altar in your home, or somewhere outside in your garden. You might also find a place you like to visit in your area – a local beauty spot or park, the beach, a loch or river, hilltop or wherever – that you might go to on special occasions or when you need to clear your head, where you feel more connected with the gods, spirits, or ancestors. At the very least you’ll need to figure out where you’re going to put your offerings; they can’t be eaten and shouldn’t be thrown away with your rubbish (garbage). Instead, you’ll want to leave them outside, or maybe burn them. If your offerings may attract rats then you can either avoid the problem by offering liquids and/or make food offerings well away from your home – in a local park, perhaps.
If you decide to have a shrine or altar, you might wish to put certain items on it that have some sort of spiritual significance to you. Small heirlooms from your ancestors, pictures of them (though it’s not advised to use pictures that have still living relatives in the frame as well – they aren’t ancestors and don’t belong yet); representations of land, sea, and sky and your connection to the environment around you; representations of your connection to the gods, or particular deities you have a close connection with; representations of cosmological concepts that are relevant to your beliefs (fire as a central focus, for example); seasonal items that are pertinent to the festival; practical items such as candles, a space to place your offerings and libations, along with special dishes or glasses set aside to receive them; and so on.
10. The bottom line when it comes to our practices is that they help open up lines of communication with An Trì Naomh, and they help us maintain those lines of communication. We honour the gods, the spirits, and ancestors, and we live our lives according to the values and principles of our religion. Our religious beliefs don’t just exist in a bubble of ritual or ceremony; we are Gaelic Polytheists whether we are making offerings or celebrating festivals, or not. Our beliefs inform our values, which may in turn inform our actions in the everyday. Our beliefs inform our worldview.
Our worldview affects the way we look at the world around us (the clue’s kind of in the name…), and it affects the way we interact with the world around us. This worldview isn’t just informed by the way we see the gods, spirits, and ancestors as being a part of this world around us, or that the Otherworld is just a threshold away… It’s also informed by the way we see the world itself. We see it as being comprised of land, sea, and sky (rather than the more typical duality of heaven and hell, or the four elements, say), so this can inform how we articulate that in the everyday as much as we might refer to it in our prayers and ceremonies. We see the natural order as following the course of the sun, and so – since our beliefs are integral to our lives – we see sunwise actions as being a good thing and observe them in the everyday as well: We might clean or decorate the house in a sunwise manner, and mow the lawn, take the dog round the block, sew something, or stir our soup likewise. Doing so works with the natural order, and so, in its own way, can help to invite all things positive into our lives (and, conversely, keep out the negative. In theory). To begin with, we can adopt these things consciously, but as we learn more and get more experience, they eventually start to become second nature.
11. Try learning as much as you can about a Gaelic language (whichever suits your focus). There is an extensive list of language resources that can help you here, and a very basic pronunciation guide for Old Irish here (very basic). Language is the heart of a culture; without it, it’s very difficult to understand the worldview of that culture, so try to learn as much as you can. Fluency is the ideal, but not necessarily essential.
12. Last one, I promise. This step isn’t so much something to do, but advice to bear in mind: Remember that you’re just starting out and cut yourself some slack! It’s very easy to get caught up in the details, to obsess about whether or not you’re doing it right, and to feel a little overwhelmed or out of your depth as you’re trying to figure things out. Just breathe. Remember that we’ve all been there, and if you get stuck then maybe someone can help you. Go and do step two and ask for help and support; ask those questions that have been niggling at you. A good community can – and should – gladly help.