“Once upon a time, a noble illustrious king assumed sovranty and sway over Ireland: Cormac grandson of Conn was he. At the time of that king the world was full of every good thing. There were mast and fatness and seaproduce. There were peace and ease and happiness. There was neither murder nor robbery at that season, but every one (abode) in his own proper place…” – Cormac’s Adventures in the Land of Promise
One of my favourite Irish myths of all time has to be ‘Cormac’s Adventures in the Land of Promise.’ In the story, the Otherworld goes to great lengths to get Cormac’s attention, eventually luring him (or guiding him) into an Otherworld encounter. At one point he is shown a vision of a fountain with five streams flowing from it. The god Mannanàn mac Lir explains that what he is seeing is the Fountain of Knowledge, and the five streams are the senses through which knowledge is obtained. He adds that the ‘Folk of Many Arts’ are those who drink from both the streams (the senses) and the fountain (the source of knowledge).
In modern paganism, we enjoy the freedom to ‘drink up’ through the wonders of the senses, through time spent in nature, ritual, study, exploration and song. Drinking at the Source, however, can be a little trickier. How can we know if the things we are doing, sensing and experiencing are ‘Celtic’ or ‘personal,’ if the beliefs and concepts we are discussing are Celtic or from some other path (new or old), and if the ways in which we are expressing our inner experiences are in fact ‘Celtic’ at all?
We can all remember times when our senses ‘failed us,’ when we thought something was a particular way – through our perceptions at that moment – but later realized we had missed something, or misinterpreted. Senses are wonderful, and can be a powerful guide. But they are not infallible. This is why Mannnàn states that the Folk of Many Arts must also drink at the Source. From the Well of Wisdom flows a stream of truth, knowledge and understanding that we aspire to drink from, or at least stand in the presence of, in journeys, meditation or ritual. ‘Being in the presence of’ can be a powerful form of ‘felt experience’ that can teach us as much as words on a page (and sometimes more).
In Cormac’s story, he forms an alliance with Mannanàn, who eventually gives him a cup with which to discern truth from falsehood. This would be a powerful tool to own, providing access to knowledge above and beyond the senses. If our goal is to ‘walk in the footsteps of the ancestors,’ then we must be able to discern what those footsteps were. As mentioned previously, ‘truth,’ ‘honour’ and ‘respect’ are key concepts in this endeavour.
One of the benefits of modern paganism is that each person is free to find his or her own spiritual path, to define spiritual reality in terms that make sense from within, rather than dictated from without. This of course results in a massive amount of diversity, as well as confusion, if we are attempting to work in a specific cultural context. This, in turn, creates a great deal of ‘information’ being passed around in books, websites, and classes, which all profess to be ‘Celtic’ in nature. What sacred vessel do we have access to that can help us discern between truth and falsehood? How do we judge or measure the origins of this information and step into alignment with the truths (such as they can be known) from authentic Celtic sources?
I’ve thought a great deal about this, and would distill it into a single question: Is what we are saying or doing something that a person from a traditional Celtic-speaking community (past or present) would recognize? If yes, then we may be onto something. If not, then we must discern from where these things come. There are so many possible points of origin that I could devote an entire blog to that topic alone. Suffice it to say that the vast majority of what one can reasonably and easily find that is labeled ‘Celtic,’ is more than 80 percent of the time either someone else’s personal spiritual path (which is truth for them, but not something you can walk yourself), or comes from someplace else.
This is not to say that we cannot learn from each other – we do and should! But keep the image of Cormac’s cup in front of you. Also picture Indigenous Celtic peoples from various eras and places, who wish to be spoken about truthfully – as you would want to be yourself. How are they feeling about what you are saying about them, about what is being claimed about their lives and beliefs?
In the final chapters of ‘The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles,’ and in ‘The Triumph of the Moon,’ Ronald Hutton (both a scholar and a pagan) does a remarkable job of describing the origins of modern Pagan beliefs. Throughout ‘Celtic Myth and Religion’ (especially Chapters 2 and 21), I discuss some of these topics, as well as provide information about discerning truthful sources from non-truthful ones. By comparing the two, one I think will begin to discern the differences between them.
There are a couple of yardsticks – tools, if you will – that a person can begin to utilize in this admittedly difficult quest. First, if the information comes from a spiritual book, then keep in mind you are reading about someone else’s – possibly very beautiful and resonant – spiritual path. You’ll need the ability to discern between their truth and the ancestors’ truth. If the information comes from an academic book, stick to sources dating from 1975 or later. Much of the antiquarian books – which look ‘old’ and therefore seem like they may contain ‘lost knowledge’ – are fledgeling attempts to study cultures little understood at the time. It’s like using phrenology when laser surgery has been developed. Alot has happened since those books were written – so stick to up-to date academic work. That’s where the really juicy stuff is happening!
Another useful tool is to ask yourself, Is the information too ‘easy’? Does it already conform to a great deal of what you already think you know? If so, it may not be native. In my study with tradition bearers in Ireland and Scotland (as well as comparative work in Andean and Lakota traditions), things are rarely as easy as that. Indigenous knowledge can be more difficult to parse (or obtain), and there are frequent twists and turns, surprises and challenges. In fact, the more it surprises you, correct you, or humbles you, the more it may be from an actual Native tradition.
Another useful question is, ‘Do I need this to be a certain way?’ If so, ask yourself why. Native traditions are not here to gratify or provide easy answers. Cormac undergoes a number of tests and trials before he is given gifts from the Otherworld. The outcome of his encounter was never certain, but by remaining in alignment with the purpose of his encounter, he is eventually given access to many gifts and blessings.
One of the challenges modern pagans face when trying to work within a cultural tradition is access to authentic information and guidance. This is especially challenging in Celtic, as outside of academia and Celtic-speaking communities, there are no surviving elders or teachers with access to this knowledge. There are no remaining (non Neo-Pagan) druids, and traditional healers and seers do not advertise at all. (Take a moment to digest the ramifications of that fact – it’s huge). But do not lose hope! There are many wonderful resources which can guide us on the path, which we will explore next time. We will also learn about the Eolas ar Senchas research project. For now, use good historical sources as your guide, and ask for clarity, truth and alignment with the wisdom of these remarkable traditions. The time and effort you put into the quest will be well worth the rewards!
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’.