Thursday, April 7, 2011

Aisling, Ársaíocht, agus Agallamh: A Modern CR Triad

Several new blogs have appeared in the past few months that would likely be of interest to folks who have read my (admittedly and shamefully infrequent) posts here. These include The Presence of the Past by Disirdottir, A Wolf-Man, Not a Wolf in Man's Clothing by Faoladh, and Finnchuill's Mast by Finnchuill.

Each of these individuals, all of whom I know and who are friends of mine, are approaching reconstructionist religions and, usually, Celtic Reconstructionist religions, as an enterprise that requires as much flexibility and attention to intuition and mysticism as it does to history and archaeology. Some people would argue that intuition has no place in reconstructionist religions, or that anyone who is researching or (horrors!) practicing more than one path can't be a "real" reconstructionist, but I would argue that the ancient world was filled with both of these ways of living and that a search for a pure, non-intuitive indigenous Pagan religion is unlikely ever to turn one up. People worshipping deities from multiple cultures happened all over the world without being the "dirty word" sort of eclecticism that some reconstructionists appear to hate, and it still occurs in many places, including in many modern reconstructionist Pagan households.

Pretty much anyone who has ever read my work knows that I am as much in favor of a mystic approach as I have been of an approach incorporating a necessary understanding of history, folklore, and the archaeological record. I proposed this when I originally founded the Nemeton email list as "aisling and archaeology." It's a phrase that still comes up from time to time in discourse with in the CR community, and I'm pleased that there are still some who remember that the concept is there.

In a conversation on Finnchuill's blog, on the post Revisiting the R Word, it was noted that an expansion of this duality needed to be brought forth and what needed to be included was "argumentation," not in the form of fighting about viewpoints, but in terms of discourse between people who might disagree but who still treat one another with respect for their knowledge and ability, as we see in The Colloquy of the Two Sages from the Irish literary tradition. In this text, two filidh fight it out for who will be the supreme poet. They each strive to gain that position, yet their discourse was a respectful one that acknowledged both parties and that they were both worthy to contend for the position. The conversation on Finnchuill's post is well worth exploring.

The triadic construction that was arrived at for the concepts we are discussing was Aisling, Ársaíocht, agus Agallamh.

Aisling is the power of vision. It's a word that means "dream" and is also one of the classes of tales memorized by the filidh in their studies. This, in the context of CR, could be classified as UPG, though aisling is a term recognized within Gaelic culture, where UPG is not. Dream, vision, Otherworld work and journeying, and oracular work all fit here. All of them were recognized and, in fact, necessary aspects of the original cultures and spiritualities of the larger Celtic world. Prophets, oracles, dreams, and diviners were an immensely important part of public life in Celtic cultures and, in fact, in all ancient cultures.

Ársaíocht is "antiquarianism" and fills in for "archaeology" in the original dyad; it stresses the importance of the past, of the physical record, of the textual and the problems of the textual within the tradition. It signifies history and tradition. It also explicitly implies (given the nature of "antiquarianism") that our knowledge of history and tradition is incomplete and ever-evolving as new discoveries are made and new theories in scholarship are proposed. Our understanding of the past is not static. When new information is brought forth, we must decide whether, or how, we are going to readjust our understandings and our practices.

Agallamh is the word used for a colloquy: a conversation, a discussion, a debate between those with knowledge that serves to generate a process of critical discernment wherein the other aspects of tradition and practice are brewed. Without learned discourse within the tradition, little can be learned and nothing can be fruitfully passed on to a new generation. This is the place where history and mysticism meet, where the insights of imbas are brought into practice, where ideas are examined critically and with respect for both the past and the needs of the present and the future.

All of these aspects must balance one another. Mysticism, history, and discussion are all important in the rediscovery and reconstruction of oral traditions like those of the Celtic peoples. If we lack one or more, we risk falling into different types of dogmas that can solidify into fundamentalisms; this is an undesirable place for us to be, as anyone can plainly see just by looking at everything happening in the world today.

Pagan literalist fundamentalisms are as appalling as any Christian or Islamic literalist fundamentalisms, even if we're not lobbing bombs at one another over it. We have to remember that "the lore says" is often just another form of "the Bible says," and remind ourselves that a phrase frequently found in that same "lore" was, "and other versions say..." The texts are no more flawless in their revelations of the Pagan past than are the various interpretations of archaeological sites that have fallen in and out of fashion over the decades.

It's obviously possible to fall too far into the idea that what we get from our practices of aisling and imbas should apply universally, but this is where agallamh will serve to curb the worst excesses and bring one back to balance. Individual practice has a lot more space in it for these things, but public and community practice can both be deeply enriched by inspiration. The answer is not to crush any and all manifestations of mysticism within reconstructionist religions because there is a risk that one might be wrong (by far the most common response I have seen), but to examine these manifestations both critically and respectfully in light of what is known, then make a decision.

Talk without action, study without practice, leads only to spiritual masturbation which, generally speaking, isn't pretty and should only be done in your own space with those who have consented to be present. Debate simply for the sake of debate, or argument just to stir people up, is useless and annoys nearly everyone. It certainly doesn't contribute to building either community or practice. If you're only going to stand there arguing, get out of the way while the rest of us do the work.

In the end, the practice of filidecht requires mysticism, the study of history, and discourse. A fili who was unable to access the Otherworldly spark of imbas was no fili at all.