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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Gaelic Heathenry

   So what exactly do I mean when I say that I'm a Gaelic Heathen? Well, basically it means that I follow a syncretic Irish polytheist and Norse polytheist recon approach to my spirituality. My approach was born out of the gradual realization that, firstly, the two cultures have a great deal in common, and secondly that there is historical precedent for the blending and melding of Norse and Celtic tradition. The two cultures did historically interact and influence each other; the Norse invaded and settled parts of Ireland and the Irish were in Iceland. I was also in a situation where I had strong ties to both Irish and Norse spirituality, neither of which could easily be put aside. Still, I might never have reached the point I am now if not for a friend who is a Gaelic Heathen and allowed me to see the possibilities and break out of my rigid separation of the two and let go of my feelings of conflict.
    Just to clarify up front, syncretic practice is not the same as eclectic. Syncretic is the fusion or reconciliation of two different systems of belief into a single system, often heterogeneous, while eclectic is selecting and using a variety of elements from many different sources (Syncretic, 2012; Eclectic, 2012). Gaelic Heathenry is the syncretic union of Celtic and Norse polytheism, whereas eclectic practice would blend in anything and everything that might appeal to me. In many ways syncretic approaches to overlapping cultures such as these are inevitable; when I'm feeling brave enough I may start researching British material where Anglo-Saxon and Celtic syncretism has a long history.
   Syncretic practice is, in many ways, new territory for me and I am only slowly feeling my way into it, after years of very rigidly separated practice. I tend to divide the holy days of the year between the Irish and Norse, with the Fire festivals celebrated in an Irish manner and the equinoxes and solstices given to the Norse. I have not, so far, made any attempt to unify the two into a single ritual as I do feel that honoring the gods is best done separately, although I have a healing altar that I use for a variety of healing work that is mixed, with Eir beside Brighid and Airmed next to the Matronaes. The ritual structure itself is different between the two, although not radically so; both involve making offerings, for example, but the Norse faining tends to be more formally structured and patterned, while the Irish ritual has a more organic feel to it. In a faining I would follow the normative modern structure: gathering, hallowing, invoking the land vaettir, ancestors, and gods, describing the rite, passing the horn, making the offering, closing ritual. In the Irish I would begin by singing or reciting a poem for the occassion, then invoke the ancestors, daoine sidhe, and gods, discuss the rite and perhaps say a prayer of blessing, make the offering, consult a method of divination to see if the offering was accepted, close the ritual and then feast. I have two separate altars at home, one for the Norse gods I honor and another for the Irish. I read and study material from both cultures. I have found the worldview and values very similar; both believe in multiple Otherworlds, nine in the Norse and innumerable in the Irish, and these views are perfectly compatible. Both consist of Gods that represent civilization and Order that are at odds with, but also intermarried with, primordial beings of entropy and chaos. The Norse have a complex creation myth and eschatology story, but the Celts have none, so there is little conflict there. Both share similar views on honor, hospitality, courage, right action, and respect. Both also have similar views on the afterlife, in that the soul is immortal and may be reborn (the Norse see this as occuring within the family line) or may go to a variety of other places, although the Norse views on the nature of the soul are slightly different, seeing it as being divided into distinct parts. Again though the slight differences are easily reconciled. I have previously blogged about the similarities in oracular practices as well as Otherworldly beings and in these two areas I take a very blended approach, particularly in the way I relate to the daoine sidhe or vaettir. Honoring my ancestors is the same in both practices.
   On a daily basis I embrace both. I wake up and great the day with Sigdrifa's Prayer before making a small offering at my shrine and saying a prayer for Imbas. I study both Runes and Ogham. Throughout the day I may speak to Odin as easily as Macha, and I pour out a little bit of coffee for my ancestors as I place some food out for the Spirits - whether I call them daoine sidhe or vaettir doesn't matter. In practice some aspects are personal, of course, in which deity I may pray to or honor as there is no set pantheon, but I have found there is no conflict in calling on Odin for inspiration and Brighid for healing, Nuada for strength during suffering and hailing Thor when the thunder rolls, or calling on Macha for protection and Freya for guidance in seidhr work. And then of course there are the deities that are both Norse and Celtic, like Arto and the Matronaes.
   I am an American, part of the Celtic diaspora, but it goes without saying - I hope - that my views and approaches are shaped by being where I am and that they in turn shape my spirituality. While culture and cultural preservation are important to me, my experience of Irish, or German for that matter, culture is the experience of a second and third generation immigrant and I do not pretend that it is the same as if I lived in Ireland, or Germany. However it would be impossible to remove the influence that these cultures play in my life, as it is all part of who I am, from the languages to the music, from the food to the folklore. The gods of the Irish and Norse are the ones who call me most strongly and the worldview and beliefs are the ones that make the most sense; I also feel that honoring these cultures connects me to my ancestors in a deeper way.
  Another key part of my approach to spirituality is reconstruction. I have found nothing as effective, personally, for deepening my connection to the Gods, ancestors, and spirits of the Otherworld than using a reconstructionist approach. I research and piece together the ancient pagan beliefs and look with a pagan eye at the modern cultural practices to form a picture of what I think that paganism would have looked like had it never stopped being practiced. I have no interest in recreating the past or in imitating a distant time period, but I truly connect to the idea of bringing the old ways forward, of using the resources at hand - archaeology, anthropology, mythology, folklore - to understand what was done and how as well as what the beliefs were and then finding ways to revitalize and modernize them. Or in the case of more recent folk beliefs, to envision the pagan applications. It's like fitting together a fascinating puzzle that creates a picture of what might have been had polytheism continued uninterrupted. Reconstruction has provided me with a wide array of daily and seasonal practices, of oracular practices, of beliefs, and has allowed me to connect to the gods in profound and meaningful ways.
  Much of what I study involves looking at separate sources, a wide variety of both Celtic, Irish, and Norse material that only occasionally overlaps. The main sources that I use to understand how the cultures interacted and effected each other involve looking at Celtic areas with strong Norse influence that have been preserved, including the Orkney Islands and some Scottish material, such as McNeill's Silver Bough series. Although my own focus is Irish I find the Scottish and Orkney material easier to access and it provides a useful template to understand the pattern of cultural interaction. I have also found books like Lady with a Mead Cup, Beyond Celts, Germans, and Scythians, and In Search of the Indo-Europeans helpful in understanding the ancient roots that the two cultures share.
   I also focus on the Viking presence in Ireland. Viking influence in Ireland began around 800 CE and by 950 CE there were established Viking settlements in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Wexford (Viking Answer Lady, 2012). For most of this period the Viking invaders and settlers were still pagan, although the Irish at this point had converted to Christianity. There is significant archaeological evidence of the Norse presence in Ireland during this period, including burials (Fischer, 2012). Evidence also indicates that the Norse settlers assimilated to life in Ireland by adopting the lifestyles of the Irish (Preet, 2010). There is some evidence that surviving Irish customs surrounding midwinter are Norse in origin, the result of Irish assimilation of practices brought over by Norse settlers (Preet, 2010). Certainly such cultural "sharing" is seen in Scotland where the Norse also raided and settled, so it's reasonable to assume that the same would occur in Ireland. Similarly, Iceland shows Irish influences with many examples of Irish names and nicknames recorded; equally influential   many of the slaves were Irish and were the mothers of later generations (Clements, 2005).
     Interestingly I found out that my grandfather's surname, McSorley, meant "son of the summer sailor" and was a reference to the Norse presence in Celtic lands; in fact the name itself in Gaelic, Somhairle, is the Gaelicized version of the Norse word Sumarlithr "summer warrior or sailor" ( Although listed as a Scottish name, McSorley is actually both Scottish and Irish; my grandfather was from a section of the McSorley's in Cork, not the Dalriada Scotland branch. I found this information very serendipitous given my religious focus. 
   For me Gaelic Heathenry makes sense, but it is also a continuously evolving process. I am only slowly getting comfortable looking at the two cultures holistically and using the knowledge and material from one to fill in gaps in the other. It certainly helps that my main focuses - the spirits of the Otherworld and magical practices often termed "witchcraft" - are very similar between the two cultures and provide a sense of continuity for me in actual practice. Of course being a witch in either Norse or Irish culture (or modern recon) is not without contraversy, but that might be an entirely separate blog topic. In actual practice I have found that my role as Druid within Irish polytheism and my role of Gythia in my kindred are simply two names for the same function, which also helps. For many people one culture or the other is what calles them, but for me giving up either one would mean giving up a part of myself. In that sense Gaelic Heathenry is, ultimately, where I belong becuase it allows me to be fully myself.

Further reading:

Viking Answer Lady (2012). Vikings in Ireland
Fischer, L., (2012). Evidence of Vikings by County
Preet, E., (2010) Slainte! Ireland's Viking Heritage
Clements, J., (2005) The Vikings
Syncretic (2012) Free Dictionary
Eclectic (2012) Free Dictionary


  1. My grandmother was a Finnegan from Cork.

    Sorry, random observation.

  2. Cool : ) Funny how small the world is sometimes.

  3. I am always confused by the syncretic practice of Irish polytheism and Norse polytheism when as you stated in your blog, The Irish were Christian and the Danes/Norse were Pagan when the two cultures met.

    1. Apologies if I was unclear - I am not trying to recreate a period when both pagan cultures inter-mixed (which as you point out didn't happen), but rather looking at a synchretic practice based on both cultures and the idea that historically they did interact at different periods, as well as both being Indo-European derived cultures with certain commonalities of belief and practice.

  4. I have a question for you. How do you view the afterlife? Is it more Irish or Norse or a mix of both? Do you believe in Hel's realm (Norse not Christian...hehe) or do you take the approach that if you live a good life you will go to Valhalla? Do you take reincarnation as the Irish do with trans migration or norse with just being reborn through family line. Ok I guess it's more than a question. Sorry.

    1. I think they both have a lot in common actually so I blend the two for myself. The Norse do have some specific locations - Helheim, the halls of certain gods such as Freya or Odin (for the battle-dead) or Gefion (for unmarried girls), but they also believe that some dead become disir (spirits who gaurd a family line) or mound-dwellers, or are reborn. Similarly in some ways the Irish see the dead as, in some cases, joining the daoine sidhe, or going to islands in the west, or being reborn. It seems both views embrace the idea of many possibilities after death....

  5. It's nice to see that I am not the only one on a path like this although my blending is Scottish not Irish. I am descended from a sept of Clan Macleod who while considered Scottish is originally Nordic. the "leod" in MacLeod is a nordic word meaning ugly thus son of ugly lol. and the Macleod lands were held by king Olaf until becoming part of Scotland. but yes as you said the vikings raided and settled all around the islands and of course England is a blend of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon peoples.

  6. Thank you, I really needed to see this right now. I have been struggling about bringing Thor into my ritual work with Rhiannon, and was wondering how to begin. Thank you for confirming it is possible!

  7. I feel like I've seen this post before but I can't remember; anyway, I just found it right when I needed it. I'm very drawn to some Welsh deities/lore and the Celtic worldview in general, but also drawn to Thor/Thunor and Anglo-Saxon Heathenry. Trying to come up with a syncretic practice has been daunting but I'm sure it can be done. Thanks for this! :)