Wednesday, August 30, 2006

When is a Celt not a Celt?

The genetic identity of three mummies found in the Takla Makan Desert has been declared far and wide to be Celtic. But that's the popular press talking. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a common genetic marker that says "this person is a Celt." There are common markers amongst the Irish, not the least of which is for a blood disease in which the body doesn't process iron properly. But the Scots don't share it to the same degree. The Bretons and Welsh don't, either, let alone the Cornish and the Manx. The assumption of red hair marking a Celt is a fantasy, too, as red hair is more common amongst the Norse.

So what does that make the most embarrassing archaeological find the xenophobic Chinese government could imagine shy of discovering they were founded by time-traveling American capitalists? Most definitely genetically European. But that's as refined as it gets unless you're lucky.

As for the carvings, their similarity to continental Celtic designs makes perfect sense without assuming the mummies were refugees from prehistoric Aberdeen. It was noted years ago that the blatantly Caucasian mummies and wall paintings in the area were associated with the Tocharians, a culture that started up near the Ural Mountains and extended their reach along the Silk Road. The Ural Mountains are where a lot of the European cultures got their start, so design elements in common make sense. As for the fabric? Tocharians were Silk Road traders. The trade routes did not terminate at either end of that road; they branched out. Without clear evidence they had more than those pieces in that vicinity, it's quite a leap to claim they were from that part of the world. And the Scots were not the only people who wove like that then, either.

Their being Tocharians does put them right into the Indo-European matrix alongside the Greeks, Norse, and others. This means their burial traditions are useful to contemplate for possible common threads. Blue stones where coins normally go in some IE burial rites are still likely to be an offering for the conductor of the souls of the dead, for example. But Tocharian is not a Celtic language, and a few dolmens and spirals don't make them a Celtic culture.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Milestones and exposed myths

First, this represents my 100th post. Go me.

Second, and more importantly, I wanted to recommend Phillupus Doctor Ecclesiae Antinoi's latest essay on Witchvox. In it, he discusses the history and contents of the early Irish literary tradition and what they mean to Celtic pagans. He suggests good approaches to the material, especially when it comes to trying to avoid falling for some of the traps of presumption that are common in Celtic pagan circles. I know it's a piece I'll keep in mind in future years as I progress further in this tradition. And if you're wondering why someone with a non-Celtic name would write such a thing, his mundane certifications include a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies. He's probably spent more time on the material in the original language than most people in CR.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Nature and Culture

One of the blanket terms for Neopagan traditions is "nature-based." This is a label which many reconstructionist pagans reject for our traditions. Yes, our calendar of feast days is related to natural events, and the lore from which we draw inspiration for our practices is rife with tales of nature interactions as told through the bonds and wars amongst our gods. But frankly, claiming a reconstructionist pagan is practicing a nature-based religion is not presenting the entire picture.

A nature-based religion in and of itself requires no relationship to a culture other than some passing nod to the majority secular one of the nation in which the practitioner resides. A subculture within it, to be sure, but there's nothing barring a nature-based pagan from developing a practice that bears the names of gods not followed at any time in Europe or any other nation. As a reconstructionist, the standards are a bit different. And what those standards encompass is more than the cycles of the moon and sun.

Not only are we seeking to build a religion that's sensitive to the cycles of the natural world, we're working out how to do this within a specific cultural framework. This is why many of us prefer the term "culture-based" paganism over "nature-based." The relationship to nature is part of the culture and cannot be removed from it without significant difficulty. There's something to contemplate in a culture such as the Celtic set, in which a god established a holiday in honor of a goddess who clear-cut a forest to permit grain to grow and died from the effort. How do we square that with many of the minimal-impact philosophies bandied about in environmental circles? Do we curse our ancestors for their cruelty or recognize it as a sign that it is impossible to live on the earth without affecting it and choose how to do so instead? And how would our ancestors have felt about it then? How do the modern members of that culture square it in their heads? These questions are just one example of the wider set contained in determining and practicing a culturally sound approach to nature interactions.

We also do not worship nature per se. Forget all of the jokes about druids and trees; they were part of a symbolic complex, not the end-all of the lore. Natural events, the gods, the ancestors and the spirits that dwell within and without the world at the same time all combine into one dynamic system that informs the culture and is interpreted by it at the same time.

Nature is, thus, part but not all. It's impossible to split them, so labeling something with part of the whole just doesn't make sense to me.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Strikingly dissimilar

I'm usually wont to take on modern politics in my blog here, but this topic strikes too close to home for me to avoid it.

Cindy Sheehan, one of the more well-known American protesters against my country's involvement in Iraq, has declared herself to be on a hunger strike. Potent statement, you say? Yes, it can be. Those of us who are old enough to remember the IRA and INLA prisoners who staged one in 1981 will never forget regardless of what side of the argument you landed on then or now. Those of us who've studied Irish history know it's a tool of last resort for the common man to gain justice from someone who has offended the concept. The goal is either concession or death. One starves. One sits and waits for death or satisfaction; there is no third road.

Ms. Sheehan, however, seems to define "hunger strike" as a "liquid diet." Then there is Code Pink, an anti-Iraq War group who is calling for people to do 24-hour to two-week fasts, but to make sure they drink their fruit juice and eat avocado slices if they really need to. The ten who died in 1981 only drank water unless forced, and even that didn't stop them. And some of these self-declared "hunger strikers" are flying around the globe to discuss their goals. A true hunger strike does not involve transcontinental flights. No poet attempting to get paid would ride around the countryside discussing why he was doing it.

I'm not saying where I stand on the Iraq War. What I'm saying is they're abusing a term and a practice with a very long and unbroken tradition, and I do not like it. Not in the slightest.