So What Do You Believe?

There are many different approaches to Gaelic Polytheism, and some of them can be very different. Some consider themselves to be on a warrior path; others have an interest in pursuing the arts such as poetry (filidecht), or – like myself – a path that is primarily focused on the home and hearth.1

In some respects these different focuses result in very different expressions of belief and practice within Gaelic Polytheism; it is also true that not everyone who might share the same kind of focus will practice in exactly the same way. Either way, as much as there may be differences, there are also commonalities, and a lot to be learned from others no matter what their personal focus might be.

I can’t claim speak for other members of the Gaelic Polytheist community in outlining my beliefs, and nor do I speak for others when talking about my practices. This website is very much a personal take on something that has yet to be codified into anything like a unified and standardised path. At this point in the development of Celtic Reconstructionism as a whole, or Gaelic Polytheism specifically, it seems unlikely that such a thing is even possible.

As a Gaelic Polytheist my focus ultimately lies in pre-Christian Irish belief and practice, but since my focus in particular is on Scotland, much of what I do and research is informed by Scottish culture and Scottish expressions of belief and practice, as they have evolved over time (both the Scots, Manx and the Irish ultimately have the same roots in pre-Christian Ireland, but time saw them evolve in different ways). Given this focus, I am learning Gaelic (Scots Gaelic), I honour gods that are particularly relevant to Scotland, and I refer to Scottish folklore to help me get a good idea of how to celebrate the festivals and my daily practices.

The hearth is the focus of my practices since I believe it to be central to the home, family, and therefore my ancestors. In this sense it provides a link with the past, and also with the gods, spirits and ancestors, since the flame of the hearth nourishes and warms, just as I believe the gods and ancestors are involved in the well-being of myself and my kin. Since I don’t have a literal hearth in the kitchen of my home – the heart of the home, as I see it – I maintain a representation of it there, on a shelf:

Là Fhèill Brìghde 2009Là Fhèill Brìghde 2009

Along with a candle that can be lit for the festivals and other occasions, I also maintain certain bits and pieces that represent important aspects of my practices; some things are associated with the deities I am closest to, with the spirits of this land/area I live in, or things that represent the realms of land, sea and sky. Some items are associated with certain ancestors or other honoured dead, and it is for this reason that I situate my shelf (‘hearth’) in the west – the direction of the ancestors – while other items include protective charms, a ‘hob house’, a dealbh Bride (icon of Bride) that I make each year, and symbols of the season. As part of my devotions, it is a place where I can leave offerings before moving them outside.

In addition to marking the Quarter Days I perform Daily Practises and observe additional festival days that are relevant to Scottish practice specifically. These include religions celebrations at Là na Caillich (March 25th), which celebrates the final triumph of spring against the desperate efforts of the Cailleach to cling on to the winter season. Other celebrations include Hogmanay, one of the most important days in the modern Scottish calendar, as well as joining in with national, cultural celebrations on Burns’ Night and St Andrew’s Day.

I believe that the gods, spirits and ancestors are as distinct as much as they can be closely intertwined: Sometimes the gods might be seen as spirits, or as ancestors, or both, or neither of these things. They are timeless, and they are Otherworldly. They are in this world and outside of it. As part of my practises, I work to build a relationship with the land I live on by leaving offerings to the gods or spirits of the place. In building this relationship, I make these offerings both in my immediate environment (i.e. my garden), as well as at certain vantage points in the village I live in; at high spots, or at the beach, looking out across the sea to Argyll and Bute:

Argyll and Bute in the winter sun

Argyll and Bute in the winter sun

I tend to my garden (as much as I’m able) and try to grow plants that are native to the area, and tend to fruit and vegetables in the garden to give a rhythm to the festival year and help maintain my relationship with the land and the seasons. These things form part of the focus of my practises, and are incorporated into my celebrations. Through all of this, I aim to honour the gods, spirits and ancestors, and maintain the well-being of my family: Slàinte, dòchas is sonas. Health, hope, and happiness.

I do not believe that eclecticism – incorporating bits and pieces from other cultures and religions in order to help flesh out our own practices if we find gaps, or simply because it feels good – is compatible with a reconstructionist approach. I believe that what we lack in terms of pre-Christian evidence, we can find by looking to the cultural continuum of the Gaels as a whole; while learning about other Indo-European cultures and practices – even other Celtic cultures – can help in figuring out what to look for in a Gaelic context can be very useful, that is the extent of my references to other cultures. And while Celtic Reconstructionism as a whole is neo-pagan in its origins, it has very little in common with a lot of the things that other neo-pagans might do, or might espouse. I find that other neo-pagan paths or their practices – as fulfilling as they may be for those who follow them – have no place in my own path, and are not a point of reference in what I do.

To me, Gaelic Polytheism is a lifeway;2 it permeates every aspect of my life and thinking, and it is my life. My ultimate aim is to build and maintain a fulfilling and thoroughly modern practice, but I believe that it must be rooted in the culture of the gods that I honour. In addition to my own practices, I believe that community is incredibly important as well. Without community, there is no support mechanism, no commonality between us all. As the pre-Christian Celts were very much focused on community and kin, I believe that Gaelic Polytheism should aim to do the same. In these modern times, like most Gaelic Polytheists, I rely on online communities for the most part (in addition to my own family), and it is there that I first discovered CR and what came to be Gaelic Polytheism.

I believe that learning and reading are an important part of any path, and I’ve found that these things help me to understand what I do, and help me to evolve my practices. Since my personal focus is a Scottish one, learning the language is also incredibly important. Without language, we lose a lot of insight into how that culture thinks and sees the world around them, and so I try to incorporate as much Gaelic as I can into my practices, in order to express myself and honour the gods, spirits and ancestors. A love of language, a love of learning, are both things that I hope to pass on to my children as they grow, and I aim to involve them in their culture and heritage as much as possible: music, food, history, the changing of the seasons, this land… These are the things we celebrate:

My son, at the summit Dunadd hillfort, 2009My son, at the summit Dunadd hillfort, 2009

There is just one more thing that I can add: At the heart of any path there are the values that underpin how we should live, behave, and how we can honour the gods. I strive to uphold those values just like anyone else, and I believe that truth should be at the heart of what I do, and that in sharing my experiences I should be honest. I cannot claim to be an expert in anything, I cannot – and would not – claim to know better than anyone else. But I do hope that in sharing the things I find freely, you may judge my words and opinions freely, too, and find some value in it.

I don’t believe in what could be called ‘paying to pray.’ I believe that when it comes to religion, knowledge and ideas should be freely available if it is freely sought, and that is why I choose to share my writing and research here online. Whether anyone agrees or not is an entirely different matter!

 


References

1 See The Gaol Naofa FAQ for more on this.

2 In Gaol Naofa we refer to it as Ar Dòigh-Beatha Ioma-Dhiadhach Ghàidhealach – Our Gaelic Polytheist Lifeway (in Gaelic).