Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Back in January I was working on a project to get the bedroom closet cleaned out for creating an incubation chamber. Everything has been moved out into the garage now, though I'm still waiting for somewhat warmer weather so I can do a second coat of paint with the windows open. The time it required to air out the bedroom after the first coat was an abject lesson in proper timing. Best to work on this kind of thing when the weather is cooperative.

Incubatory practice is still on my mind, though. It shows up again and again in hints and pieces through the literature of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Today I read an article by Patrick K. Ford from the Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies titled The Death of Aneirin about the Gododdin poem that probably originates in 7th century Wales. The article involves references to being imprisoned or buried under the earth as a potential reference to initiatory and/or incubatory ritual.

The ogam fid úr is soil and its word ogams refer to the grave and to burial and death, but this metaphor is taken up in so many places as one of incubation and initiation. Whether the poet is buried in the ground, lies within a darkened chamber with plaids over her eyes or a stone on his belly, whether she is bound up in a bag and set adrift for forty years, the themes of darkness and restriction of movement appear over and over again. Aneirin lies under the earth with a chain about his knees. Taliesin was found in a bag in a salmon weir. The poets in Scotland lay within windowless huts seeking inspiration.

What is apparent is that illumination comes from within. External objects of meditation -- images, fire, the stars in the sky -- are not a focus in this particular practice. Blindness is its metaphor. To be blind in one eye is to see into the Otherworlds, those places that can't be seen with the physical eyes in this realm. Darkness opens a door. 

When we look at what the filidh sought when they went to sit on a burial mound we see the same thing -- poetry, madness, death. Madness is what pursues us, death transforms us, poetry arises as the fili arises out of the darkness of the incubatory chamber of the symbolic grave. The search for poetic inspiration brings death to our old life, our old personality, and a new spirit, alive with imbas, is born.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


My last post generated some confusion and a number of comments and I wanted to be very clear about what I was saying.

There are apparently some folks out there who would insist that CR can only be practiced by itself and that a CR person can never honor any deities from any other culture. I think this is bullshit, pure and simple. I believe that, as polytheists, it's our responsibility to properly honor any deities or spirits who come knocking, in their proper context. In some cases, if your home is small, you may only have space enough for one altar, and in those cases, it's okay for deities to share space even though you're honoring them separately. If all you have is a windowsill for your altar, that's all you have, and it doesn't make you not-CR if you have Thoth on that altar beside Lugh and Epona and Dian Cécht. We all know they're not the same deity and they aren't approached in the same ways or with the same ceremonies and offerings.

Eclecticism and syncretism are kneejerk words for a lot of people, myself included. This is because a lot of us have seen them used as an excuse for the worst possible mashing together that ends up with things like thinking Kali and the Cailleach are the same Goddess because they're "crone Goddesses" (which is more bullshit) and their names sound similar. This is right out of the Barbara Walker school of confused monism. This is not eclecticism or syncretism being done properly. It's laziness and self-delusion.

If we look at the definitions of eclectic and syncretic, we can see that both are necessary if we're going to reconstruct, recover, or otherwise (re)create a group of modern Celtic paths that are full and workable in our time and for our lives today. The little hints we have about the internal cauldrons that are a part of Gaelic filidecht are going to be nearly impossible to reconstruct without some reference to Hindu understandings of chakras, despite the fact that the cauldrons and the chakras are obviously not the same thing. We don't have enough in the Gaelic material to go on without those outside references. People on a CR warrior path inevitably seem to end up studying eastern martial arts at some point because that's where most of the information is. This is slowly changing as more information becomes available about western martial arts, but it's still a basis for a lot of the modern CR warrior path and serves as an important point of comparison.

CRs can legitimately and happily be a part of religions other than CR. Polytheism recognizes all the deities and spirits, even if any given polytheist doesn't honor all of them. Honoring all of them would be impossible because there are so many, even within just the Celtic cultures alone. Remember that historical syncretisms occurred -- we have Romano-British deities, we have Gaulo-Roman deities. We have Epona who was honored by Romans. We have the mixing of cultures in Ireland and Scotland where the Norse/Germanic peoples came in and shared space and families and cities with the Gaels. Celtic cultures extended from Iceland to Spain to Anatolia, and ignoring all of that in favor of some sort of Gaelic purity movement simply does not make sense.

Pay attention to context. Pay attention to the deities who come to call on you. Respect each of them for who and what they are. Don't turn your back on one just because it's not "Celtic enough." Live your life with honor, and have fun.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

You say "eclectic" and I say "syncretic" -- let's call the whole thing off!

Eclecticism and syncretism are a couple of words that tend to generate a lot of heat in reconstructionist social circles. Sometimes they're used interchangeably while other times eclectic is taken to mean a much looser form of intercultural exchange while syncretism is offered as a more measured, thoughtful alternative.

We can take a look at dictionaries to help us a little. Merriam-Webster's 11th Colligiate has eclectic as:

"1. selecting what appears to be the best in various doctrines,  methods, or styles."

Syncretism is defined as:

"1. the combination of different forms of belief or practice."

Both of these practices were found in the ancient world. Both were practiced by our ancestors, whoever they were and wherever they lived. It isn't eclecticism or syncretism that are, in and of themselves, a bad thing. Far from it. What a lot of us are actually concerned about is not eclectic or syncretic practices, but sloppiness and disregard for context. 

Context is an extremely important part of any reconstructionist process. Language and culture influence religions and spiritual practices deeply and they help to determine what types of practices develop in different regions and for different deities or spirits. Sincerity is fine, but when you're looking at culture and custom, a sincere mistake may still be an insult and can have some serious consequences. Culture and pre-existing practice determine things as important as acceptable offerings, how one approaches deity or spirit, and often the forms used for prayer or propitiation. What is acceptable in one practice may be strictly forbidden in another, and if you are inviting deities or spirits from many cultures to your table, knowing these rules can make the difference between success and failure in your relationships with them.

In spiritual practices that regard deity or spirit as something strictly internal, this is obviously not going to be all that much of an issue. If it's all in your head, from what I can see, it doesn't matter that much what you do so long as you get the results you're looking for. But from the viewpoint of someone who believes in the external/Otherworldly existence of deity and spirit, small things can make all the difference in the world. Effort is important. History and custom are important. This doesn't mean that nothing can change, but it does mean that knowing the road signs is useful and can often keep you out of troublesome spots along your path. If the mountain is an illusion, the map doesn't matter, but if it's real, you'd best not ignore the place where it says there's a five hundred foot cliff. It makes all the the difference between whether you bring a day pack or your mountain climbing gear.

Both eclecticism and syncretism can be legitimate parts of CR and other reconstructionist religious practices. It's best when those things are approached carefully and allowed to grow organically. Time and depth of both study and practice are necessary in understanding how to enlarge a practice or invite a new deity or spirit into your life. Sometimes they come pounding at the door while at other times they approach quietly and subtly. Often this will depend on the personality of the deity or spirit in question. Sometimes it happens that we decide we need new energies in our lives or wish to cultivate new relationships to help us with goals and areas that are challenges. Like people, each spirit or deity is going to have its own areas of expertise, and sometimes going to a deity from a different culture may be the best answer for us.

It's helpful in these cases to remember that not all our deities have to get along, in much the same way that not everyone in our family or among our friends gets along with everyone else. Uncle Fred's favorite pot roast might upset your vegan best friend Clara's sensibilities. It doesn't mean you can't invite them to the same party, but it's a good idea to have things that they can each enjoy when you're feeding them if you want both of them to be happy at your table. Remember that a favorite offering for one deity might be unclean or an offense to another, and keep those things as far separated as necessary -- different altars, or even different rooms in the house might be a good idea.

Eclecticism and syncretism aren't about cooking everything together in the same pot. They're more like creating a satisfying, multicultural meal that includes favorites and harmonious dishes from many lands, with many ingredients. It takes great skill and a strong knowledge of ingredients to have it all come out right and be satisfying for everyone joining you. 

Sometimes the experiments fail pretty badly, but that's a part of what it takes to create a working practice that involves deities and spirits from more than one culture. Be prepared to offer apologies if you've unintentionally offended. It goes a long way with humans and with spirits.

When it works, it can be glorious.

Monday, March 3, 2008

At the table of many Gods

I practice a polytheistic path, one that recognizes and celebrates a wide variety of deities and spirits. My path recognizes that there are historical methods of interacting with these beings that we can discover and work with today. Those methods and newer ones based on fragments of older ritual and thought are centered primarily on insular Celtic, primarily Gaelic models. 

I consider my practice to be primarily Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism. This, however, does not in any way prohibit me from worshipping other deities or working with spirits outside of the insular Celtic world or its paradigms. I am a polytheist. I believe that all the deities and spirits exist somewhere, that they are all real and can have an effect in the lives of their followers. There are deities and spirits that I'm not particularly interested in, but this doesn't mean I don't think they're out there.

As a polytheist and someone who does a good bit of Otherworld work, I find myself in a place where the doors are often open. Sometimes the spirits ask things of me that I expect. Other times, their requests bring me up against difficult choices and take me places that I never expected to go. A Cherokee teacher who lives locally once said to me that spirits talk to people who listen, and that our bodies and our ancestry are not of particular concern to them. This helped me immensely with an issue I struggled with for about twenty years, but it also has bearing on European and other Pagan paths.

As someone who does Otherworld work, who speaks to spirits, and who treats with deities and the dead, I often find myself in relationships with deities who are not a part of the families of insular Celtic deities. I honor Gods and Goddesses from several continents in my home. I have shrines for Sarasvati and Ganesh. I offer honor to Buddhist entities. As a child I was fascinated by the deities of Greece and Egypt. Spirits of the land -- animals, plants, places -- have no "nationality" or "race" and they are simply what they are.  When I do healing or visionary work for others, it is right and necessary to speak to and honor the deities and spirits that they honor, for they often will approach me and teach me how to help the person in a way they understand.

No culture and no religion has ever sprung from a vacuum. Each spiritual path that exists in the world today -- that has ever existed -- has been influenced by its neighbors. As a polytheist, this becomes an important part of my spiritual reality. And as someone that listens to the spirits, sometimes someone new and unexpected drops by. As a good Celtic Pagan it would be a violation of my practice to refuse them hospitality, just as it would be poor form to turn away the friend of a friend who came to my door unexpectedly with an introduction and a request.

It's important for us to remember that we have room for more than one culture's deities at our table. Joy and wisdom can be found in the cross-cultural pollination of such conversations and relationships. When Garuda sits down with Exu, surely something interesting is about to happen.

By this I'm not talking about randomly inviting deities from multiple cultures to a ritual and expecting them to work together and cooperate. But if they show up at the same time unasked, perhaps there's a message there for me. The universe is a very big place, and attempting to place limits and conditions on it from my particularly small human point of view is, perhaps, an act of hubris. I'm not going to sing a chant that equates all Goddesses with one singular Goddess, but if I have relationships with Brighid and Sarasvati the fact that they have similar interests means they might be willing to come and visit at the same time. They might even be willing to share altar space if there's very little room where I live.

Polytheism, done with respect and due caution, can be a freeing way of approaching deity. If someone's knocking, don't be afraid to answer the door.