The image of the tree is ubiquitous in both Celtic mythology and Celtic folklore contexts. Otherworld trees surround the Well of Wisdom, dropping their nuts into the water, where the salmon of wisdom crack open the kernel of knowledge inside. Many types of trees are mentioned in the source materials – oak, yew, hazel, apple, holly, hawthorn, ash, just to name a few. Often times there are descriptions of remarkable fruit, leaves, nuts or flowers, sometimes all bursting forth at once (something which does not typically occur in nature).
Less mention is made of the roots of these magical or sacred trees, and it is to the roots that I wish to draw attention in this entry. Without roots, the plants could not ‘take root,’ or draw from the earth what they need in order to burst forth from their seed-shell and begin growing. The roots permit the plant to exist ‘between the worlds,’ rooted in the dark, moist soil of the earth, and also growing towards the sun and the rain – a balanced existence between the Lower World and Upper World.
I was once at a gathering of people interested in Celtic folklore, and a holiday enactment was underway. Someone asked me what I thought of their Maypole. I said little – it was well made and the Maypole dance beautifully executed. Later, I was pressed for more commentary, and as we were standing apart from the main group I admired its admirable qualities, but said that truthfully, if this was meant to be a Celtic enactment, the Maypole was not in origin something from Celtic culture. The person said to me, “Well, there must be blossoms as well as roots.”
That statement really stuck with me over the years, and there is truth in it. But I would put forth the opposite and equally valid notion that their must be roots, as well as blossoms. Some spiritual and cultural activities are of modern derivation, and may be resonant and useful for many people. But when we say we are setting forth to enact or embody something ‘from the past,’ or ‘that the ancestors once did,’ we are doing something very different, and the bar must be raised (or at least changed).
I’ve been involved in Celtic Studies for almost two decades, and have taught mythology and folklore at the university level. I’ve published a number of academic journal articles on Celtic myth, religion, poetry and esoterica, and have read hundreds of academic books and hundreds more academic articles. It’s what I do professionally – research, publish, write and teach.
I am a firm believer in ‘bridging the gap’ between academia and the other 99.99 percent of the population, who may be interested in these topics and who have a right to know, and to access this information. I’ve worked hard at that goal, often with good results. More and more people are realizing that the information in many (if not most) popular books and websites about Celtic spiritual topics are not accurate, and often not even Celtic.
This is a sad state of affairs, with several culprits at the helm. The first is the relative obscurity of many academic materials – not visible with a google search (unless one already knows the name of what one seeks, which is counterintuitive), and the high price of many academic books. At least some academic journal articles are becoming available online now, and this is a huge boon.
But for the most part, the average (or even not-so-average) person who says to themselves, “Gee, I’d love to know more about Celtic thus-and-such” will almost inevitably either google that term (leading them generally to chat rooms and NeoPagan websites) or look at large book dealers online. So, only what is visible through those two portals comes to people’s attention.
Popular publishers make much more effort to have their books visible on those sites; academic publishers often primarily advertise to universities and libraries. Which brings me to culprit number 2: publishers. Popular publishers are interested in making money, and will often ‘ride fads’ and throw plenty of compost at the wall to see what sticks. It is extremely rare for the editors to be sufficiently versed in many of the topics they publish books about, to edit for content (rather than grammar). In short, they wouldn’t recognize a Druid if he knocked on their front door with printed materials from the Iron Age.
This is a huge disservice to those who are actually interested in authentic, factual, historical and respectful information about Celtic cultures, whether ancient, medieval or modern. And the popular websites – well, there is no system of checks and balances there at all, so infer from that what you will.
What we are left with is a beautiful, eclectic and diverse garden – all good qualities! – with a big knotwork sign out front saying ‘Celtic Sanctuary’ or ‘Druid Herbs’ or ‘Fairy Garden’. There is something there to appeal to everyone, and that is good. However, I believe people deserve ‘truth in labeling,’ especially when it pertains to another culture and their proprietary beliefs, traditions and wisdom. It is a matter of respect.
I sometimes liken this ‘blossoms only’ phenomenon to eating only dessert. Lots of cake and candy and ice cream and cotton floss. Yummy and fun. But after awhile, many people want something more substantial. A nice organic salad, some protein, fresh fruit. Something that has roots, substance and grounding.
Here are some tips and guidelines to helping sort ‘grain from chaff’:
1) Your best book sources are either published by academic presses (small independent ones, or university presses, or well known and well-established Celtic academic publishers). Or, if on a more independent press, or one you do not know, check to see if the author has actually studied Celtic Studies at a university with an actual Celtic Studies (or Irish studies, Welsh Studies, Scottish studies, etc.) program. If they have, their work will have undergone supervision, checking that the information is correct, and has a much better chance at being authentic. This is not to put in place any system of privileged superiority – but to state unequivocally that if what you want is authentic, historical, respectful, and actually Celtic, this is where you need to look.
2) For the most part, with books and articles, you want to be looking at materials from 1975 to the present. There are many reprints of ‘ancient looking’ books and essays on Celts, Druids and so forth from the Victorian era, which are inaccurate and really outdated. These are reprinted over and over, and the information in them has been channeled into a century-long game of ‘Telephone’ so that it has gotten garbled and repeated over and over again.
3) If you are looking for some guidance with books or articles, a short, respectful email to a junior professor at a Celtic studies program may receive a useful and respectful response. Don’t discuss your religious views. It’s completely irrelevant. And do not ask them to read your essay, or do translations for you (including for tattoos). These folks are overworked and underpaid, and often under a huge amount of pressure. But if you keep your email short, succint and focused, they will often be happy to suggest books or articles for you.
4) If you really need something translated, you can send a short, focused email to the secretary of the department, asking if there is a grad student at that department who might be interested in being paid to help. They will not have time to translate a large amount of material for you. And they are broke grad students, so you will need to ask them what they would charge. I found my first Old Irish tutor this way. He needed money, I needed instruction. Because I showed up on time, paid, did my homework, and was quiet and polite, over time I was able to ask more questions and gained valuable guidance with many topics. With the internet, skype and so forth, so available these days, no matter where you live you can interact. Politely. and Appropriate.
5) There are some great websites where people can read actual Celtic materials these days. E-Keltoi, for one. And CELT – Corpus of Electronic Texts (although keep in mind that not all texts are translated, and often older translations are posted there, rather than newer, more preferable ones). There are some interesting things on Archive.org, but again, alot of this stuff is old, not up to date, and could be very misleading.
6) Read academic bibliographies. Yes, it’s dull, but if you do so, you will learn who’s who, what articles are out there to search for online, and you will gain access to authentic and more up to date resources. This all takes time and energy. It is work, but sacred work! Spiritual growth requires effort.
7) If you can, try and spend some time learning a Celtic language. It can really make a difference. There are free introductory tutorials online for most modern Celtic languages. If you’re looking for the medieval or ancient languages, you are pretty much going to have to study at a college to get access to this. Very complicated, lots of pitfalls. There are a few books but many are meant to be used inside the university classroom setting with an instructor teaching you as well. Don’t pretend you have more knowledge than you have. It will turn people off, disrespect the ancestors, and possibly even annoy those you are trying to invoke.
8) Approach all of this with ‘Beginner’s Mind.’ Even if you’ve been involved in Celtic paganism or spirituality for decades, there is always room for growth, change, refinement, realignment and learning. Academics are constantly looking for new and updated information, and adding that instantly into their work. It’s painful sometimes to see that something was overlooked, or realize we didn’t know something. But the sooner we can set our ego aside and make ourself an open (and open-minded) vessel, the more knowledge can flow in.
9) Don’t forget the Ancestors. Or the living members of Celtic speaking communities. We do not have the right to re-write their history, make claims for them that are untrue (even unwittingly), or co-opt their long held beliefs and traditions and morph them into something unrecognizable. This is what has been done to indigenous people all around the world, and it must stop. Take a moment, and think about the importance of the roots. These are what keep traditions grounded, connect us to the earth, and through which the wisdom must flow in order for there to be stems and trunks, as well as leaves, fruit, nuts and blossoms.
Sharon Paice MacLeod is a Celticist, author and musician. She is an Old Irish translator at Stanford University and has published several well known books on Celtic religion including ‘Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief’ as well as ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’.