Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Ancient, modern, verified

Ronald Hutton, a professor at the University of Bristol (UK) and author of over eleven books about pagan and medieval Europe with a focus on the British Isles and the Celts, was interviewed a couple of years ago by the Druid Network. He had this to say about modern Druidry and its provenance:

My line on this is consistently that we know so little of certainty about the ancient Druids that really all we have is a set of literary stereotypes of them left by foreign or Christian authors. All of the latter may be wrong or misleading. This means that nobody is in a position to tell modern Druids that what they are doing is inauthentic, but it is equally true that no modern Druids are in a position to declare that what they do is the authentic ancient tradition. We're all working with flawed and unreliable images, and doing our best with them.

I admit to finding this argument compelling on some levels. He's not far off, though some would say this soundbite oversimplifies what we have of pre-Christian Celtic material. Hutton is certainly not the sort who'd be unaware of the volume of material, though. One thing nobody can deny is that no extant texts of druidic rituals performed by any tribe assigned the label of Celtic have surfaced as such. Christian Guyonvarc'h's analysis of the Colloquy of the Sages sees in its pages a codified test to determine the fitness of a druid. Past that, most of what we have are archaeological analysis and folk practices. Some of the latter might be time-degraded versions of druid-led traditions. I for one could see such events as the hobby horse parades on St. Stephen's Day as older ritual turned into children's play. But it's not what it once was, and we can't be sure what that original form was without a lot of speculation.

This is where Hutton's argument comes in. We have bits and pieces. Guesswork and maybes. Some items are less likely to have been part of the Celtic mentality than others, such as the maiden-mother-crone Triple Goddess of Wicca or vegan sensibilities. But some of the lines that get drawn in the sand in some pagan circles are even less stable than the sand. One of the claims in Celtic reconstructionist circles often taken as gospel is, "The Celts didn't work with the directions." However, they felt the compass points sufficiently important that the king's residence at Tara in Ireland was built with five directions in mind as an analogy to the five provinces (the four cardinal points plus the center). Each province was assigned a direction as well. This is not prima facie evidence they called the directions, but it is proof they knew they were there and found them of some significance. Any opinions about their usability in Celtic ritual are just that. Opinions.

Nobody has a direct line on ancient lore as it was before the Romans and monks showed up to change the Celts forever. We're all doing "best guess" work, even the people who claim they're hewing closest to tradition by leaving things out when they can't be verified in three sources that postdate the Great Hunger. I think it's one of the dangers and strengths of Celtic reconstructionist paganism. We stand at risk of needing to re-invent our wheels whenever the theories of academia run headlong into our personal practices. But in the quest to create a tradition rooted in what we know of the Celts that fits the world we live in today, we are not shackled to ritual patterns that might not make sense without, say, full fluency in Old Irish, the way some mystery traditions' rites are not fully comprehensible without knowing their source. It runs the risk of importation of truly incompatible items as well, but that is where the rigor of scholarship comes in. It's a delicate balance. I can only hope my fellow CR pagans and myself continue to see the value in flexibility paired with a just caution.

No comments: