[Originally written in 2003]
“I am the daughter of Satan,” she said in her London accent, repeating lines which I will assume for her sake came from some low-budget horror film. “Who will come and unite with me, on this night of nights?” Her golden tresses were splayed across her shoulders like a nymph from some pre-Raphaelite painting. A few of the local boys, slightly drunk, visibly toyed with the idea for a moment before coming to their senses. Little did I expect to experience this clash of civilizations at the summer solstice at the stones of Calanais (aka, “Callanish”).
In the summer of 1997, a group of us – artists, poets, folklorists – had rented a renovated thatched house in a small village on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis for a week. This rugged Hebridean island, far from the Scottish mainland, has long been a stronghold of the Gaelic language and culture which have managed to survive despite centuries of neglect and attack from the English-speaking world. The stone circle at Calanais is one of the most impressive megalithic sites in the British Isles, and one of the most remote. As we happened to be nearby on the summer solstice – the astronomical event to which Calanais is aligned – we thought it would be interesting to see what happens nowadays at that numinous site at that auspicious time.
The megalithic monument contains a circle of stones, enclosing a kind of inner sanctum. The local people were perambulating the outside of the circle, watching the antics of the New Age travelers who had taken over the holy center. What were they doing to demonstrate their reverence for this ancient marvel? The daughter of Satan was soliciting sex; a male companion, intoxicated to incoherence, had his grimy dungarees open and was urinating on the stones; two others were slaughtering a tune with a fiddle and whistle.
Among us was an accomplished Scottish folklorist who had spent part of her childhood in Lewis; let me call her “Peigi.” I turned to her and said, “We’ve got to do something about this.” Now, it just so happens that Peigi sings Scottish Gaelic folksongs, and several of us sing with her to produce a pretty forceful chorus. We moved into the center, sat on the stone altar next to the musicians and began to sing songs that have been sung for centuries in the area to accompany the working of cloth. The musicians attempted for a moment to accompany us before acknowledging their unfamiliarity with the music and putting down their instruments: the New Age circus was stopped in its tracks. The most satisfying result, however, was that the locals stepped in from the shadowy distance, drawn in by the familiar tunes and words. After our musical coup d’état, a few of them came over to tell us how much they enjoyed hearing the songs.
Then the daughter of Satan sauntered over. “Excuse me,” she thrust into our conversation. “Are you famous?”
“Not really,” answered Peigi, with characteristic Gaelic humility.
“Would you like to come and sing for us next year?” suggested her Satanic majesty, already assuming control of the sacred site for the motley crew.
“Perhaps,” said Peigi, but after the demon seed departed, we began speculating on what might be done on forthcoming summer solstices in order to stake a permanent claim for local culture.
While the daughter of Satan was an extreme example of the neo-pagan fringe, our encounter did highlight discrepancies between living native communities and the images projected upon them and their cultural traditions by an external culture. When the external culture is able to dominate the media and the public imagination, this imbalance leaves the native community feeling impotent and voiceless, even when the stereotypes about them are meant to be noble and redeeming. Such stereotypes are the staple of the mass media, and they influence the way in which we perceive ourselves and other people.
We exercise great freedom in creating our own personal identities in the modern era, and these liberties have been extended in recent decades to a build-it-yourself approach to religion. People frequently now, based on personal aesthetics as much as chosen ethnic allegiances, create their own altars, rituals, pantheons, liturgies and denominations. These privileges, however, aren’t always counterbalanced by any set of obligations, by an understanding of the ramifications of the appropriation and commoditization of religious systems, or even by a concerted study of the original cultural contexts in which these religious systems operate.
Many millions of people can legitimately claim Celtic ancestry and some think of themselves as “reclaiming” a Celtic heritage “denied” to them, and thus honoring their forebears. The first problem with this belief is that the Celts are not and have never been a race. Not only is the idea of race inherently flawed, but the essence of Celticity is not race or ancestry, but language and culture. This is a fact that has been recognized for many centuries in the Celtic world. The ideology of race is still far too strong in the modern world, however, it and misleads us in many ways.
The term “Celtic” is used so vaguely at present as to render it meaningless. It has become a marketing label suggesting a product which is “cool, neo-tribal, white-ethnic,” and has even been hijacked by White Supremacists looking for origin myths. Such abuses of the term have caused a few scholars to argue for the complete illegitimacy of the concept. This, however, is an over-reaction. The term “Celtic” most specifically refers to a family of languages and the societies that speak them, which survive to the present in parts of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany, as well as in immigrant communities in Cape Breton (Canada) and Patagonia. There are also on-going efforts to revive the Celtic languages and cultures of Cornwall and the Isle of Man. The different parts of the Celtic world have been developing independently from one another for centuries, and, for all of their common roots, their differences cannot be easily dismissed. The Celts were never a homogenous people with a single way of life and set of beliefs.
The nature of popular religion in the Celtic world was not much different from that in the rest of pre-Reformation Europe. Only the local priest or minister was literate and had access to church texts; secular society generally had enough independence to carry on its own traditions and practices even if frowned upon by church officials. The common people accepted the ultimate authority of the church in many matters, but their world-view was big enough to include both Biblical characters and the pre-Christian heroes of their ancestors. A vigorous oral tradition has kept alive stories about the early Christian saints, but remodeled them according to Celtic tastes and expectations. Special features of the landscape – trees, wells, stones, hills – retained their sacred associations, but many were rededicated to saints or churches.
What we see, then, in popular religion is neither orthodox Christianity nor true paganism, but a constantly shifting amalgam, reinterpreted by each generation according to prevailing circumstances. It must be remembered, furthermore, that popular religion was a highly localized phenomenon. While a few saints (such as St. Columba, St. Patrick, and St. Bridget) were venerated throughout Celtic Scotland, some saints were specific to a particular region. St. Fillan came to the area known as Breadalbane in the early eighth century, and traditions and sites associated with him still abound there. Until it was felled by a storm in 1893, there was a holy ash tree where he was reported to have meditated; people suffering from mental disorders were taken to his holy pool for healing; the sick of Breadalbane resorted to the eight healing stones of St. Fillan (specific to parts of the body) into the nineteenth century. While the cult of St. Columba contributed to national unity, the cults of local saints expressed regional rivalries much like modern football teams.
Indigenous cultures – Celtic or otherwise – integrate their sense of place, their sense of identity, their tight social structures, and their spirituality, and these solutions cannot be easily translated into New Age “recipe-books.” The spirituality of a culture cannot be separated from its language, landscape, or society, and these are forms of local knowledge. The creation of a spiritual marketplace for a global audience unacquainted with the nuances of real Celtic culture affects the nature of the representation of knowledge and notions of ownership, with many a dog being wagged by his market-driven tail.
It is, in some senses, encouraging that Gaels, Native Americans and other groups are finally being respected for their traditions, rather than being repressed. There is, however, a subtle subversiveness to the way in which “native wisdom” is celebrated: the control is always in the hands of the dominant group, which gets to decide what elements are positive or negative, to assess the valuable contributions of any minority group in relation to these elements, and to control and benefit from the process of cultural asset stripping. At best, the minority group can only mediate as cultural brokers who must ultimately lose their ownership of the commodity and often come to view it in cynical terms.
The marketplace, spiritual or not, is about individual consumption and satisfaction. It lures us by producing an effect that is immediately comprehended and satisfying. It is thus no surprise that Celtic products feature beautiful artwork and mystical music that answer our expectations and reinforce our stereotypes about the Celts: wild landscapes, serene and spiritual retreats unspoiled by modern civilization, or brisk jigs and reels. They make an emotional appeal to what we lack in our lives: roots, spontaneity, and magic. Anything goes, it seems, as long as it makes us feel good. And it is this common claim that a person is Celtic just because they “feel Celtic” – rather than applying the more important linguistic and cultural criteria – that has given birth to the cynical label “Cardiac Celt.”
Marketplaces are merely channels of supply and demand. The market does not impose any standards on factual content, and all too often the product must be designed simply to meet the needs and expectations of the marketplace. Anything that cannot be translated into feel-good wisdom for the international consumer gets discarded. Unfortunately, popular ideas about Celts generally come from misleading sources, as the daughter of Satan so dramatically personified. Hollywood films and fantasy novels are created to appeal to the tastes of modern Anglophones and their desires for wish-fulfillment; they are not accurate sources of scholarship. While scholarship may not, in itself, offer spiritual solace, how can anyone claiming to practice or teach authentic Celtic spirituality afford to ignore the results of decades of research?
It could be argued that the Scottish Gaelic community is still in post-traumatic stress from the upheavals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the abolishment of the native Gaelic intelligentsia and widespread forced eviction from their homes, Scottish Highlanders experienced profound cultural disorientation. Many found refuge and leadership in the Protestant Evangelical movement, but it sometimes became excessively pious and disapproving of old customs, songs and stories. This instigated a sense of alienation from the forms of popular religion which retained aspects of pre-Christian customs and cosmology.
“It is surely no harm to any Celt today if Americans want to buy books about ancient Celtic wisdom!” people have said to me. Celtic communities don’t relate to the New Age mumbo-jumbo written about them; in fact, it reinforces their sense of estrangement from their primal past. Just like the Lewis locals pushed outside of the inner circle of Calanais by assertive usurpers, native Celts are outmaneuvered and overshadowed by the spiritual hucksters offering the slick products the market prefers.
The discord of musical styles at the Calanais stones also exemplifies the conflict between authentic local knowledge and the products of the global marketplace. The English fiddler, acquainted only with the modern reinterpretations of selected music that would appeal to a mass audience, was simply not familiar with or capable of playing the tunes actually used by a Celtic community. Capitalism favors the production of items with the widest possible appeal, causing musicians who might otherwise be involved in perpetuating the idioms and repertoire of their local community to be diverted into the more profitable enterprises of global capitalism. This has an insidious influence on undermining local tradition and breaking the links between generations.
It is significant that the Celtic peoples and traditions featured in the spiritual marketplace are typically extinct: they are either the ancient pagan Celts or the early Christian Celts, who can be reconstructed as desired. It is indicative of how out of touch popular writers are that living Celtic communities and tradition-bearers are generally non-existent in such works, as they aren’t pagan enough, or earthy enough, or some such stereotype. But living Celts are real humans with real needs and real flaws, and they may want to disagree with the way their history and heritage has been recreated to suit the needs of others. Modern gurus can too easily create mirages that undermine the legitimacy of local cultures and lure followers away from ever seeing Celtic communities as they are today and the challenges they face for their very survival.
The commercialization of Celtic spirituality can be disrespectful to living Celts because it creates false identities which deprive them of their individual voices. Just as Native Americans struggle to overcome the stereotypes that have been thrust upon them, so too do modern Celts often find it difficult to express their histories and cultures in their own terms when they differ so much from the expectations created by outsiders.
It is not uncommon to read nowadays about a “Celtic Renaissance” or “Gaelic Renaissance” in various places because of commodities in the marketplace labeled as “Celtic.” But this by no means implies that a Celtic community or culture is enjoying self-confidence or vitality. Quite to the contrary, Celtic languages and cultures have, because of the colonial relationship between the Anglophone imperial center and the Celtic fringe, continually declined as their respective communities are strangulated politically and economically.
Perhaps these are all issues that seem irrelevant to spiritual seekers who are on a personal journey for self-enrichment. I understand the appeal of the Celtic arts that draws people, and I agree that Celtic cultures do hold much that is beautiful and inspiring, but I also believe that the deepest truths and most startling beauties that have been produced by Celtic cultures are only accessible after studying the language and contexts of which these cultural artifacts are inextricably a part. And hence these are not the goods that one can easily buy in the marketplace.
How can you honor real Celtic culture and communities, and gain an authentic understanding of spiritualities of Celtic peoples? I offer a few suggestions:
1) Get specific. Don’t just read about the ancient Celts in the abstract: identify a living Celtic community, “adopt” it and get to know and understand it on its own terms.
2) Think critically. Look for writers with a knowledge of a living Celtic language and culture, or even for anthropology about cultures outside of the Celtic world. You will get a better perspective.
3) Learn a Celtic language. Of course it is a challenge, but only through the language will you move beyond the superficial and get the key to unlock the inner workings of the culture.
4) Suspend expectations. Don’t dismiss religious or cultural aspects of a real Celtic community just because they aren’t what you want them to be. Celtic cultures have not been entirely free to choose their own futures, but they have always been in constant motion, with old elements being refashioned to meet contemporary needs. If you take the time, you will come to understand the reasons for the developments that occurred.
5) Support the efforts of your chosen Celtic community to survive. Get to know the issues they are wrestling with in the present and see how you can make a contribution.
If you meet the daughter of Satan at the next summer solstice, she might try to seduce you with her glamour and good looks. My advice would be that you approach the locals and try to form more meaningful relationships.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Rhiannon Giddens for her encouragement and feedback on the original drafts of this article.