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Pagans, Polytheists, and St Patrick’s Day

by Sionnach Gorm
Do not reproduce without explicit permission.

How do we, as devout polytheists, reconcile the historic reality that our ancestors (at some point in the 5th-6th century CE and with no evidence of coercion) chose to turn to a god of bells and tonsures, of monks and scriptures, of Rome and the Papacy? Why would they “abandon” the gods of their ancestors, and choose this newfangled Christ and his missionaries?

If the tales are to be believed, it is because the representatives of the new god talked a better game, and worked superior wonders. They followed in a pattern which would have been the very basis of the Irish identity in the medieval period: they came, they saw, they conquered.

Well, sort of.

Mythically, at least, Pádraig and later saints subsumed the role of the warrior-elite heroes in the popular imagination. By replacing chieftains and druids with Christian saints possessed of miraculous powers, early Christian mythology carried on the patterns of the polytheistic originals they replaced. The mystical, and not the physical, would be the lynchpin in the conquest of the mythic landscape; a trope which is common enough that it appears in the Mythological Cycle, among others. While not unique to Irish hagiography, this is something that occurs repeatedly in the Irish lore. The supremacy of a figure like Patrick over that of the Druids (the most common representative of the Pagan past) is not based on his moral character, but on his supernatural abilities. This is a pattern which is discernible in other hagiographies, particularly that of St. Brigid of Kildare and St. Columba.

The primary accounts we have of Pádraig’s missionary efforts are hardly the hagiographical smorgasbord where Golden Idols are toppled, demonic forces are smote and serpents are driven from the land. No, what we have is very dry, very matter of fact, accounts of the difficulties young Pádraig was forced to endure while a slave and then later in life as a wandering Christian priest. These tales are followed by a letter wherein he rails against not the blasphemous heathen Irish, but rather a blasphemous fellow Christian. It isn’t until well into the 7th century CE that we begin to see the really interesting, mythic Pádraig begin to emerge and therein the origins of the dichotomy I explored in my earlier article on Oisin, Cailte and Pádraig.1

The historical Pádraig is precisely what one would expect, a staunchly devout Christian missionary who was able to organize the existing Christian communities already present in Ireland. In his lucid prose he aptly describes himself as being a stranger to his own people. Because his writings are so clearly couched in purely Roman (and therefore, in that period, Christian) language, there is little doubt that in his youth he was deeply immersed in a very Romanized community. The historical Pádraig either was ignorant of, or did not care a whit for, the Irish folktales and legends that his successors (or his mythic self) would so painstakingly record and write down for posterity. The historical Pádraig then may very well be better reflected in the Pádraig who cajoles and bullies the decrepit Oisin in “Agallamh Oisín agus Phádraig” (Or “The Dialogue of Oisin and Patrick”), but perhaps a comparison would be worthwhile.

Earlier I put the term “abandoned” in quotes, because while it may seem precisely what occurred at first blush, the (hypothetical) reality is much more complex. If we are to believe that the folk customs pertaining to the fair folk are reflections or connections (tenuous as they may be) to some aspect of pre-Christian religion, then we must also acknowledge that there is a degree of cultural continuity which was present in Ireland (and Scotland) well into the 19th and perhaps even 20th century. Indeed we can go back further than folklorist surveys of the Victorian era, to see that many “heathen” practices continued to persist well after Christianity gained its ascendancy. Medieval Penitential texts, which were lists of prohibited behaviours, are rather informative sources for such things, though a bit of reverse engineering is required to understand them. Generally if a church authority, and these tended to be fairly localized, was concerned enough to publicly chastise a given community for its continuing “superstitious” practices, then there are reasonable grounds to assume that there were members of said community participating in such activities. Conversely, it ought to not be over stated, and certainly there are examples throughout history where the evidence of such “superstitions” was highly fantastic, although these tended to be when accounting considerably more severe crimes, like witchcraft.

There are some in the online polytheist milieux who believe that much of the turbulent and tragic history of the Irish can be traced to the abandonment of what some modern adherents have retroactively called “The Pact,” a mythic compact made between the conquering Milesians (humans) and Tuatha Dé Danann (gods), that in exchange for regular offerings and worship the fecundity of the land would be guaranteed and prosperity would abound. I find such an explanation for centuries of strife, animosity, subjugation and tragedy in Ireland almost comically simplistic and mythically nonsensical; because if we are to believe that folk custom and the “fairy faith” (creideamh sí) are indeed holdovers or reflections of pre-Christian traditions, then this “Pact” would have never been broken (until perhaps into the latter half 20th century).

No, one can not simply point to one precise moment in a people’s history and say, “Yup, this is where it all turned to shit,” because history is not so neat, and the reality of Irish history is so much messier. Proximity to medieval and early modern super powers, aggressive colonial policies by invaders, the lack of a centralized state apparatus (like a standing nationally mobile army) and fractious tribal politics had a lot more to do with the erosion of Irish sovereignty than the coming of Christianity. Indeed, as in many movements for civil rights, spirituality – of whatever sort – has been a strong force in motivating freedom fighters, and this has certainly been the case in the struggle for Irish sovereignty. This fantasy of our Pagan-turned-nominally-Christian ancestors having suddenly become hateful to the spirits of the land is laughable. It is not historically sound, and anyone familiar with Irish rural culture knows that country people have continued to leave out offerings for the spirits – down into the present day – even though they also may consider themselves Christians.

As far as St. Patrick’s day is concerned, I can certainly understand why many a polytheist would balk at the idea of celebrating a day which is dedicated to the mythic figure made famous for his conversion efforts. From a purely visceral standpoint, I would never celebrate the life of a figure whose sole purpose was the eradication of the pre-Christian Gaels; fortunately I don’t have to. As I mentioned above, in the medieval texts, as well as later tales, there remains a cultural continuity where the “hero” figures subsume that function from previous generations. The myths themselves are made to fit into a narrative more at home in the language of the new religion, but the fact that they are written down at all is a point worth noting and indeed celebrating. It reflects a very different sort of conversion narrative, almost divorced from what would occur later in the lands to the west and north, and certainly very different from the previous conversion of the Romans.

There simply are no accounts of the Christian Irish putting the Pagan Irish to the sword, of the wanton destruction of Pagan holy sites (save from some later hagiographical Idol smashing), even of the suppression of the Druids (who were present as late as the 8th century). Nor, according to a text fragment known as the Cambrai Homily is there evidence that the Christian community experienced any persecution from the pre-Christians. This lack of bloody conflict resulted in the early Christian community in Ireland having to develop their own system of martyrdom because the traditional “red” (or “blood martyrdom”) method was all but non-existent. Instead, two additional forms of martyrdom had to be added:  bánmartre (“white”) which was rooted in asceticism and hermitage; and glas (“blue/green”) which focused on fasting and self-inflicted harm.2 What this demonstrates is an utter lack of “native,” violent opposition to the Christian communities, which would not be seen until the coming of the Vikings. Rather we have accounts of gradual conversion, incorporation of sacred sites and the very real possibility of the absorption of the Druids into the priestly or poetic roles of a Christianized society.3

Now, the argument could be made that this is simply the history of the victors, that there could very well have been a whitewashing of Christian pogroms against the Pagans, and that this secret history has been swept under the rug. Except that if one has actually spent any time studying the spread of Christianity across Europe, such tales of the wicked Pagans being suppressed isn’t something that would have been hushed up, it would have been shouted from the pulpit. Very few neighbouring cultures had any qualms about announcing the coercive nature of their own kingdoms’ adoption of Christianity, so why would the Irish have been any different? Well, because there is no good reason to think that the conversion of the Irish was anything but peaceful. Frankly it is astonishing, and quite anomalous in the wider historic picture. This too, perhaps, is worth acknowledging as being something worthy of praise.4

Since there is no good reason to argue that the conversion of the Irish to Christianity was due to coercion, then we are forced to ask ourselves why our ancient forbears forswore their own ancestors’ ways for a new and foreign faith. This is, however, a topic better suited to dissertation or whole texts, and so I haven’t got an answer. One last bit of fact to mull over: Christianity has been present in Ireland since at least the 4th century CE, that is roughly 1600 years. The most likely period for the spread of the Irish language (and by proxy culture and religion) is thought to have begun between 1000 and 800 BCE in Ireland, roughly 1400 years prior to the coming of Christianity.5 The early Christian church in Ireland saw a great deal of syncretism and localization, and this is no where more apparent than in the mythic literature of the medieval period. Gaelic Polytheists (GPs)6 tend to put a great deal of emphasis on the veneration of our ancestors and our ancestral ways; but to reach back to an ancestor who was not in some way influenced by Christianity requires a leap backwards of the lion’s share of a millennia of history and culture. Are we as GPs then just going to pretend that the last 16 centuries didn’t happen, or that any Irish culture since the coming of Patrick is tainted, and so we would be better off to ignore it? If we are to honestly and fully embrace our cultural heritage, then to not acknowledge how influential and significant the impact of Christianity has been upon it – if nothing else because without the cultural preservation done by nominal Christians we would have nothing – is to dishonour that heritage.

So this is what it all boils down to: St. Patrick’s Day (in the diaspora anyway) has been intimately tied to the Catholic religion, yes, but so too has it been tied to Irish identity. Uniting on this day as a cultural holiday has been a way to publicly, and in the face of massive cultural opposition (historically), celebrate our ancestral culture, heritage and homeland. For the recent ancestors in the diaspora, ties to the old country tethered fledgling immigrant communities to one another, and back again to “home.” While poverty, disease, famine and oppression may have driven these ancestors away from Ireland, and separated kith and kin, the celebration of ethnic identity and heritage acted as a reminder and link to their distant homeland. It is therefore because of this continuance of tradition that we celebrate the struggles of our forbears and how they helped in shaping the nations we call home. While it is true that the day and procession began largely at the behest of the Catholic clergy during the 1830’s and on, by the 1850’s the cultural and more secular component came more and more to the fore. Indeed, as Michael Cottrell notes

“Religious hymns were replaced by popular tunes and secular emblems such as shamrocks, harps and wolfhounds were now more prominent than Catholic icons. As the clergy lost their previous stature in the extra-Cathedral festivities, the whole tone of these events also changed. Clerically-induced temperance gave way to alcoholic good cheer…”7

Look past the sparkly green Bacchanal, the idiotic stereotypes trotted out as “Oirish,” and the rest of the Plastic Paddy-isms. Look to the ways of your ancestors, Christians though the recent ones almost certainly were, and recognize that their lives mattered, that they faced genuine oppression and yet managed to overcome it. Celebrate the comfort you have and give thanks to those who came before you. Instead of simply picking another mythic figure to honour as a place holder for the day’s namesake, use it as a day of reflection and ancestor veneration. Recognize that though the ancestors who marked this day before you were probably Christian to some degree or another, that they still shared in and maintained a cultural continuum that stretches back to the distant, polytheistic past, and a continuum that you are still a part of. Reflect upon how you wish to move forward and reconcile your polytheistic ways with your monotheistic ancestors. Welcome the greening of the Earth and the first signs of spring. Connect with those of a like mind and help educate a misinformed public.

 


 

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Kathryn Price NicDhàna and Annie Loughlin for their research and editorial assistance.

 

Works Cited

Cottrell, M. “St. Patrick’s Day Parades”, A Nation of Immigrants: Women, Workers and Communities in Canadian History, 1840’s-1960’s. Ed. Franca Iacovetta, Paula Draper, and Robert Ventresca. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. pp.35-54.
Mallory, J.P. The Origins of the Irish. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2013.
O’Daly, John (ed. and tr.), “Agallamh Oisín agus Phádraig”. Laoithe Fiannuigheachta: or, Fenian poems, 2 vols, Transactions of the Ossianic Society 4, 6, Dublin, 1859—1861. pp.3-65.
Stokes, Whitley and Strachan, John (ed. and tr.). Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus: A Collection of Old-Irish Glosses Scholia Prose and Verse. Cambridge University Press, 1903, vol. 2, pp.244–247.
Watson, Alden. “Kings, Poets and Sacred Trees.” Etudes Celtiques 18, 1981. pp.165-180.

 

Footnotes

  1. See Gorm, Sionnach (October 9, 2013) “Oisin or Cailte?” at Three Shouts on a Hilltop for an earlier discussion of Oisin, Cailte and Pádraig.
  2. Cambray Homily, pp.244-247.
  3. For more on the roles of the Druids, poets and priests, see Watson, pp.165-180.
  4. Perhaps those who prefer a Conan the Barbarian-type image for our distant Irish ancestors are also reluctant to face the fact that many of our ancestors actually chose peace and cooperation over the taking of heads in battle.
  5. Mallory, p.280.
  6. Or, more accurately, Gaelic Reconstructionist Polytheists, but to be a bit less wordy…
  7. Cottrell, p.40.

 

For briefer, more colorful and musical coverage of this topic, see our YouTube channel.

March 12, 2014

Gaol Naofa Relaunches and Celebrates Five Years

Fáilte!

While it may seem we’ve been quiet for a while, much has been happening behind the scenes as we’ve celebrated five years as an organisation. Our council has been very busy, creating new content for this site, as well as for private use by the members of Gaol Naofa. All of the site documents have been updated and restructured. While much of this site will still be familiar to our long-term readers, there is a lot of new material here.

Notably, we have substantially revised and expanded The Gaol Naofa FAQ into an 89 page pdf document that addresses many of the common questions about Gaelic Polytheism and, specifically, our Gaelic Polytheist Lifeway (Ár nDóigh Bheatha Ildiach is Gaelach / Ar Dòigh-Beatha Ioma-Dhiadhach Ghàidhealach) as practiced by the core members of Gaol Naofa.

New articles include “Rowan and Red Thread: Magic and Witchcraft in Gaelic Cultures” (pdf) — an in-depth look at practices and terminology in both historical and contemporary Gaelic cultures, as well as an upcoming piece on the Triple Flame of Brigid.

Adding to our series of practical, how-to articles, we have slightly revised the Offerings article, and written a companion piece on Prayer (pdf). The prayer article includes some new translations of liturgy, as well as practical instructions on building a Gaelic Polytheist practice.

Members will note that there is a new, members-only, Gealach Ur Rite, which has been completely rewritten to include traditional liturgy, ritual, and an accompanying article on the moon in Gaelic cultures. This will be available to renewing members in the new year.

We plan on opening up our membership process for new members after the activity of the Winter Holidays subsides a bit. In the meantime, you can get to know members of our community on our public Facebook group, where all who are interested in Gaelic Polytheism are welcome to come and chat with us, whether or not they are members of Gaol Naofa.

More coming soon!

December 11, 2012

Articles

Articles from Gaol Naofa

If you’re new to Gaelic Polytheism, we recommend you start with the FAQ and work your way through this list in order to get a good idea of the basics. We will be updating some of our older materials shortly.

Title
Published
Revised
The Gaol Naofa FAQ – by Treasa Ní Conchobhair, Annie Loughlin, Kathryn Price NicDhàna, and Tomás Flannabhra
2007 2014
Daily Rites  by An Chomhairle Ghaol Naofa 2007
Ritual Within Gaelic Polytheism – by Treasa Ní Chonchobhair and Annie Loughlin 2010
A Gift for a Gift: Offerings in Gaelic Polytheism – by An Chomhairle Ghaol Naofa 2007 2014
Prayer in Gaelic Polytheism – by Annie Loughlin, Kathryn Price NicDhàna and Treasa Ní Chonchobhair 2012
Children and Family in Gaelic Polytheism  by Annie Loughlin and Kathryn Price NicDhàna 2014
Breath of Life: The Triple Flame of Brigid  by Kathryn Price NicDhàna and Treasa Ní Chonchobhair 2013
Rowan and Red Thread: Magic and Witchcraft in Gaelic Cultures  by Annie Loughlin, Kathryn Price NicDhàna & Treasa Ní Chonchobhair 2012
Pagans, Polytheists, and St Patrick’s Day  by Sionnach Gorm 2014
History, Myth and Genocide: Real and Imagined; Or, The Pagan Problem with Patrick – by Sionnach Gorm 2015
A Beginner’s Guide to Old Irish Pronunciation – by Annie Loughlin 2011 2016

 

Recommended Reading Offsite

Some useful articles and blog posts on Gaelic Polytheism from around the web.

Title
Published
Revised
Cornerstones of Wisdom: Poetry, Permanence and Wildness in Gaelic Polytheism – by Treasa Ní Chonchobhair  2012
(De)constructing Reconstructionist Ritual – by Annie Loughlin (a companion piece to Ritual Within Gaelic Polytheism) 2010
Leprechaun Vomit… Or Why I Hate St. Patty’s – by Sionnach Gorm (part of a trilogy of articles on St Patrick)  2012
KILLYOUANDEATYOU! Or, a Well-Intentioned Celt’s Guide to Non-Celtic Bioregions – by Raven nic Rhóisín & Kathryn Price NicDhàna  2007  2015
Saining – by Annie Loughlin  2008  2011
Sources for the Three Realms – by Annie Loughlin  2008
Tree Huggers: A Methodology for Crann Ogham Work (a.k.a. Raven and Kathryn Get Lost in the Woods) – by Raven nic Rhóisín & Kathryn Price NicDhàna  2006
Values – by Annie Loughlin  2011
Thoughts on the history of Celtic Reconstructionism and Gaelic Polytheism 1985-2008 – by Kathryn Price NicDhàna  2008  2015
An Interview with Kathryn Price NicDhàna – Celtic Reconstructionism – by C. Derick Varn for The Green Triangle 2008
Religion – what we make public, what we keep private – by Kathryn Price NicDhàna 2007
Mysticism with Structure – by Breandán Mac Suibhne 2015
Tradition – by Annie Loughlin 2012
Orthopraxy, orthodoxy and what makes a Celtic Reconstructionist… – by Annie Loughlin 2012

August 23, 2009

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