Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Irish - or Celtic?

Recently a news article hit both the Irish cultural community and the pagan community. Titled 'Man’s discovery of bones under his pub could forever change what we know about the Irish' the article discusses an archaeological find, the genetic analysis of the bones found, and one main academic response to it. The response focused on is that of Barry Cunliffe, professor of Archaeology at Oxford University, who sees the find as supporting a lack of Celtic presence in Ireland; however what many readers don't seem aware of is that Cunliffe has been advocating for this view since at least 2001. John Koch, who is also quoted in the article, was the co-editor of 'Celtic from the West' with Cunliffe and is another strong proponent of the theory. So it should be clear that the article has some serious issues with bias out of the gate. While reading the article may indeed give the impression that this find is hugely significant for Irish culture it really doesn't seem to be, and offers little that is new or revolutionary.

In the 15 years that Cunliffe's 'Celtic From the West' theory has been circulating, so far nothing has radically changed in academia regarding the Irish as Celts. This finding really isn't that groundbreaking - we already knew that at that time in Ireland the people were pre-Celtic and while its interesting that there's a genetic tie to modern Ireland other studies have also shown a strong genetic tie to Spain which does support a Celtic migration to Ireland. So its all still up in the air - and none of the genetics really explains the cultural end anyway.

Some basic points about all this:
  1.  The bones were found in 2006; Cunliffe's first 'Celtic from the West' anthology was published in 2010 as a follow up and expansion to his 'Facing the Ocean' published in 2001. So in short this idea of Celtic culture originating on the Atlantic seaboard is not new at all, nor is the idea that the Irish may have been the origin of Celtic culture or perhaps even that what we call insular Celtic may have been a separate culture that merged or influenced Celtic culture on the continent. 
  2. DNA is not culture. Just because the bones show that 2,000 years ago people had a genetic tie that isn't to known Celtic peoples and is related to modern Irish people doesn't actually mean anything from a cultural perspective. Culture isn't transmitted genetically. Also, again this is old news dating back several years at least when genetic studies started to come into vogue.
  3.  The Irish don't stop being a Celtic culture just because Ireland had pre-Celtic inhabitants and modern Irish people are genetically related to them. Celtic is a language group with loosely associated cultural markers like shared art forms and related myth. What made a culture Celtic was speaking a language within the Celtic branch of Indo-European languages. Irish is a Celtic language, and while the article does suggest that this may be re-assessed until it is and until the Celtic languages are reclassified as non-Indo-European and specifically until the Goidelic and Brittonic languages are re-classified as non-Celtic by the standard academic definition Ireland did have a period where Celtic culture influenced it and is still considered a Celtic country today*. I would personally be really, really surprised if that ever changed. 
  4. Let me repeat: Celtic is a language group with loosely associated cultural markers like shared art forms and related myth. What makes Irish paganism Celtic from a certain point on is the language spoken and patterns of myth and deity that are shared with other Celtic cultures, although it should be noted that the language is the main factor. This really only matters to scholars, for the most part. The modern pagan idea of 'Celtic paganism' has always been a vague generality that causes more problems then it fixes. The only thing this article does for Irish pagans is to highlight the fact that Irish paganism is and has always been its own thing, only tangentially related to its 'cousin' Celtic cultures (although for a variety of reasons that have little to do with anything in this article). 
 In the end the article is interesting but it is far from groundbreaking and should in no way effect you personally as an Irish pagan (or pagan following Irish Gods). We already knew that the pre-Celtic people's at the very least had influenced and shaped the Irish Celts into the unique culture that they became. How much or how little is an intriguing question but one that ultimately shouldn't change how we as individuals approach our spirituality. It is still tied to the land, to the myths, to the folklore. It is still everything it was before, whether we call it Celtic or we call it Irish or we call it something else. Academia will be arguing over this for a long time to come and short of necromancy will probably never know for certain what language those pub bodies spoke or what Gods they honored, whether they were the source of what we now call Celtic or whether it grew in Eastern Europe and spread west - and for us, even as Reconsctructionists - it doesn't really matter. I'm an Irish Reconstructionist Polytheist, however you slice it, and while there's a convenience in using the term Celtic I've always been aware of its limitations and pitfalls. Nothing about my beliefs or practices is changed by this article, nor should yours be, because knowing the ultimate source of Irish culture as we understand it historically is interesting but in the end neither essential nor impactful to modern paganism. 

*Celtic outside academic classifications does have some problematic connotations and misuses, but its beyond the scope of this article to address those, and as well the misuse of the term in my opinion shouldn't in this case effect its usefulness as an academic discritpor.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Transltion ~ Pangur Ban

Pangur Ban is one of the more well known Old Irish poems, a work from around the 9th century which details the exploits -academic and hunting - of a scholar and his cat. The following Old Irish is from Stokes Thesaurus Paleohibernicus, from 1903. The English translation is my own. 

Messe ocus Pangur bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindán;
bíth a menma-sam fri seilgg,
mu menma céin im saincheirdd

(Myself and Fair Pangur
both of us with our tasks;
for his mind is on hunting,
my mind on each separate art)

Caraim-se fós, ferr cach clú,
oc mu lebrán léir ingnu;
ní foirmtech frimm Pangur bán,
caraid cesin a maccdán.

(I love the quiet, better than fame,
and my book zealously I study
no envy against me has Fair Pangur
he loves his own youthful skill)

Ó ru-biam ­scél cén scis ­
innar tegdias ar n-oéndis,
táithiunn ­ dichríchide clius ­ 
ní fris 'tarddam ar n-áthius.

(Where we are adventuring without rest
  here in our house, the single pair
we have unlimited feats
of acuteness to apply against something)

Gnáth-huaraib ar greassaib gal
glenaid luch ina lín-sam;
os me, du-fuit im lín chéin
dliged ndoraid cu n-dronchéill.

(Usually his furious attack
catches a mouse up in his net:
 my eye, my own net, reaches
a difficult concept that is well hidden)

Fúachaid-sem fri freaga fál
a rosc a nglése comlán;
fúachimm chéin fri fégi fis
mu rosc réil, cesu imdis.

(He sharpens his skill against these
his eye is the perfect tool for this
I direct my clear eye, though very weak
towards sharpening knowledge)

Fáelid-sem cu n-déne dul,
hi nglen luch ina gérchrub;
hi-tucu cheist n-doraid n-dil,
os mé chene am fáelid.

(He rejoices with his swift snaring
Cleaving a mouse in his sharp claws
I grasp a question, difficult, dear,
and my mind in that time is happy)

Cia beimini amin nach ré
ní derban cách a chéle;
mait le cechtar nár a dán
subaigthiud a óenurán.

(Even if we work thus every time
neither hinders the other one;
good we each are at our skill
rejoicing when alone)

Hé fesin as choimsid dáu
in muid du-n-gní cach óenláu;
do thabairt doraid du glé
for mumud céin am messe.

(He himself is capable of the purpose
at the work he does every single day;
to bring a dark thing to light
at my own work, am I)

Friday, March 4, 2016

Ostara versus Easter - or Lets All Just Color an Egg

Every year there's a lot of commentary that floats around the pagan community claiming several things about the holiday of Ostara, most of them untrue. So lets take a look at the urban legends and the realities, shall we?

 Firstly the idea that Easter is related to the Goddess Ishtar. Ishtar is not pronounced 'easter'; it's a pretty straightforward name actually and is pronounced 'ishtar' just like it looks. Her symbols were not rabbits or eggs but rather storehouse gates, lions, and stars with different numbers of points (Ishtar, 2016).  The Christian holiday itself was not stolen from or dated based on the pagan holiday; it developed on its own based off of Jewish traditions and was originally known as Pascha in Latin, only later becoming known as Easter; as late as the 8th century the holiday was still known as Pascha in England. So I can say conclusively that the idea which goes around that Constantine in the 4th century C.E. speaking Latin was calling the holiday Easter (for the record it still isn't called Easter in most languages that aren't English) is false and he didn't invent the holiday itself. As a Christian holiday Pascha (Easter) seems to have been well established by the mid second century (Melito, 1989).This is at least 200 years before Constantine's lifetime.
original meme author unknown: "bullshit" label courtesy of Ian Corrigan

So that's that one.

Now the other main idea that get's tossed around is that Easter is stolen from or based on a Germanic or Anglo-Saxon holiday or Goddess named Ostara/Eostre. I can't even give an example of this meme because honestly most of them are blatantly offensive in the way they are worded but the gist of it is claiming that Ostara/Eostre was an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess celebrated in spring whose symbols were rabbits and eggs and Christians stole it all, etc., etc.,

Let's start with the rabbits and eggs because that keeps showing up in all of these memes. The concept of "Easter" bunnies (originally hares, "Osterhase") cannot be dated before the mid-1500's and the eggs appear to have started in the 1600's, both in Germany (Bauer, 2016). In 1682 Georg Franck von Franckenau is the first to explicitly mention the rabbit bringing eggs in De Ovis Paschalibus where he describes the folk practice and the way people get sick overeating the eggs. This appears to have been because eggs - like meat and milk - were on the Lenten 'don't eat' list and so eating them on Easter was a treat (Newell, 1989). Unlike milk and meat however eggs could be preserved more easily and a hard boiled egg played a role in the Jewish Passover meal making eggs both abundant, desirable, and symbolic at Easter (Newell, 1989). Coloring eggs was also a widespread folk custom in many cultures, and while it was surely used by pagans it was easily adapted to Christian symbolism as well. There doesn't seem to be any certainty of exactly where the idea of hiding eggs for kids to find came from, but there is evidence that it began in Germany and spread from there to England and America. 

 The name of the holiday is likely derived from a word that means "east" and may be related to the name of an obscure Germanic or Anglo-Saxon goddess about whom we know virtually nothing. The name of the goddess - Eostre to the Anglo-Saxons and Ostara to the Germans - is probably related to the same root as the word east: both etymologically come from the proto-Indo-European root aus- meaning 'to shine' and likely relating to the dawn. Our only source of information on Eostre is the Venerable Bede who wrote in the 8th century: Eostur-monath, qui nunc Paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit: a cujus nomine nunc Paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquæ observationis vocabulo gaudia novæ solemnitatis vocantes (Giles, 1843)
[Eostre-month, which is now interpreted as the Paschal month, which was formerly called Eostre and celebrated in that month: now the Paschal season is called by this name calling the joys of the new festival by the ancient name of the old]
From this we know that there was an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre who had a holiday celebrated for her around the same time as Easter/Pascha but basically nothing else. And we already know that Pascha as a Christian holiday was well established long before this. So we appear to have a case of the new religion's holiday being called by the name of the old one in part due to a coincidence in timing. 

About a thousand years later Jacob Grimm would go on to write about a hypothetical German goddess he called Ostara who he reconstructed based in part off of the German name for the Christian holiday of Easter, Ostern, and a name for April of Ostermonat (Grimm, 1835). He further supposes based on this a connection between this name and the direction of the east and the idea of dawn and spring, as well as widespread connections between Ostara [the goddess] and contemporary Christian Easter celebrations including bonfires and drawing water at dawn which had special properties (Grimm, 1835). Although it is possible that Grimm was noting genuine pagan folk practices that had survived his connection of these practices to a goddess named Ostara are impossible to prove*

So in the end we have the name of a goddess which is etymologically connected to the word east as well as the dawn, and likely related to other Indo-European dawn or spring goddesses. But basically there is no real information about her, no known symbols, no myths**. As with the Ishtar claims we can say that this holiday was not taken and turned into the Christian Easter, which as we've mentioned already existed many centuries prior and with a different name. It is true that English and German speakers use a name for the Christian holiday based on the pagan one and it is possible that some pagan folk practices were maintained but that was not a matter of intentional theft by the Church - rather it was the people converting to the new religion themselves refusing to give up certain things. 

While these practices and names may or may not be originally pagan,  why does it matter? These are fun folk custom that we can practice today, pagan or Christian, whose origins are more or less lost to history. So lets stop arguing over whose holiday is whose and what traditions belong to who - color an egg, make a little nest for the Osterhase and put the eggs in, jump a bonfire, and have a great holiday whichever one you celebrate.

*that story about Ostara and the bird getting turned into a rabbit which then laid eggs is entirely modern
**I am not however arguing that Eostre/Ostara never existed, just that Grimm's evidence of her folk customs in 19th century German is pretty shaky. 

Ishtar (2016) Encyclopedia Britanica 
Melito of Sardis (1989) "On the Passover"
Bauer, I., (2016) Der Osterhase
Giles, J (1843) The Complete Works of the Venerable Bede
Newell, V., (1989) Eggs at Easter; a folklore study
Grimm, J., (1835) Deutsche Mythologie