Celtic Reconstructionism


For a few years I’ve been looking at Celtic Reconstructionism and at one time identified as one.

Reconstructionism is taking your practice back to what would have been practiced in the Iron Age and is feasible to practice now. If I lived in an Irish long house with the cows and the hens in the house with me today, Social Services would be down on me like a ton of bricks, and quite rightly so.

I’ve found that I can’t confine myself to one period of time. Things change. Other people have ideas which work better but Recons can’t use because they don’t belong to the time period. For example, I use a charm bracelet to carry any spells I need daily. That is an Egyptian practice, but it works well.

The trouble I am having is that I need to keep an eye on my practice to ensure it remains Irish and I do not take so many other things in that it becomes a hotch-potch of practices from around the world.

If I was Eclectic, it wouldn’t matter. However, I am following Irish deities, so I try and keep my path as Irish as possible.

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24 Comments

  1. watcher said,

    June 17, 2012 at 12:00 am

    But it sounds like you ARE eclectic.

    • June 17, 2012 at 10:46 am

      One or two things added to a practice that are from elsewhere do not make it eclectic. That is, if it remains one or two. Things in the British Isles do not remain exclusive to a country, which is why you have Ogham in Ireland, Wales and Scotland (it probably spread from Ireland) and not elsewhere in the Celtic lands. The ancient Welsh and Scots were not going to say “we can’t do that because it’s Irish” they thought “that’s a good idea” and promptly used it.

      • Treasa said,

        June 23, 2012 at 5:10 pm

        But it does not make it Reconstructionist either. The Celts of the British Isles and Ireland never mixed with the Egyptian.

      • watcher said,

        June 23, 2012 at 8:23 pm

        There isn’t a numerical cutoff on eclecticism. If you are strongly rooted in a cultural tradition you do not need to bring in things from other cultures. The fact that there are some of the same cultural elements found in multiple Celtic cultures does not lead to a logical conclusion that foreign practices are therefore OK. Non-Celtic practices are, well, Non-Celtic.

        If you’re bringing in non-Celtic practices, especially from totally unrelated cultures, you’re at best modernly syncretic. It still sounds to me like you’re eclectic. It’s not shameful to admit you’re eclectic. But it’s wrong to try and change the meanings of words rather than just admit what you are. I’m sorry but I get the impression you either want to present yourself as something you are not, or you don’t really know what these words mean.

  2. Sara Star said,

    June 18, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    I am totally with you on this QR!

    I think there are two parts to my practice. The spirituality, which is Irish. And then there is the witchcraft. Which is witchcraft. And frankly I don’t think traditional Irish witches like Biddy Early sat around obsessing over whether their workings were authentic iron age Irish or not.

    Eclectic witchcraft, Irish Polytheist spirituality–that’s me.

    • Sara Star said,

      June 18, 2012 at 5:39 pm

      Well maybe not eclectic, I don’t tend to call myself that, just because it brings so much negativity to mind, often eclecticism equals cultural appropriation. But within reason, I would say the root meaning of eclectic fits. Different time periods, different spells and workings from different areas, etc.

  3. QuercusRobur said,

    June 18, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    I’m still trying to be an Irish witch as well as an Irish pagan, I just don’t want to throw everything out that isn’t Irish just because it isn’t Irish.

  4. June 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Treasa, I never said that the Celts mixed with the Egyptians. As for Reconstructionism not being taking your practice back to the Iron Age, when I was on various boards/groups/whatsit they seemed to be trying to take their practice back to that era. Apart from The Carmina Gaedelica I didn’t see any evidence of anything from a different era. What practices do you use that are not from the Iron Age or The Carmina Gaedelica?

    • Treasa said,

      June 23, 2012 at 6:49 pm

      I know you were on a couple of boards/forums I ran in the past and I can tell you, we NEVER claimed that CR comes from the Iron Age. Anyone who tells you different is seriously mistaken. The CR FAQ spells it out, clear as day. Simple as that.

      We use practices from all sorts of places: traditions (both living and those fallen into disuse — the majority stemming from more modern times) that were collected by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, A.W. Moore, Sean Ó Súilleabháin, Augusta Gregory, John Gregerson Campbell, Walter Gregory, F. Marian McNeill, Thomas Crofton Croker, Joyce Miller, Kevin Danaher, E. Estyn Evans, Henry Glassie, Cyril I. Paton, amongst *so* many others.

      Mythology based in the Iron Age and Medieval periods and Carmina Gadelica are only *two* sources we look to. Along with the more modern folklore collections above, we also look to academic studies on life in ancient/medieval times but not to recreate those times now, but to gain inspiration from them on how those traditions might look today, in today’s world.

      • June 24, 2012 at 11:44 am

        Treasa, that’s the party line from the Gaol Naofa website, but when I was on the boards you moderated it was Carmina Gaedelica this and Carmina Gaedelica that plus references to the texts.

        In order to believe you I need some actual examples. You can find my email address in the old messages on the boards and contact me that way if you don’t want examples in the public domain.

      • Seren said,

        June 24, 2012 at 12:21 pm

        I’m not Treasa so I hope you don’t mind me jumping in on this one, QR…

        The Carmina Gadelica does make for a good reference as far as providing inspiration for liturgy is concerned yes; there’s a reason it’s recommended so much. If you look at Douglas Hyde’s Religious Songs of Connacht you can see that much of the Carmina has similarities with what’s recorded in Ireland. None of that’s very helpful without looking to earlier sources, though. If we don’t look to earlier sources we don’t get a very good idea of the things that might genuinely be old. We look at the myths and ancient Irish poetry, prayers and so on. A lot of these can be found online at websites or in books available at archive.org, and in some cases we see that songs that have been recorded bear genuinely old markers. They might not be pre-Christian in origin, but they are modelled along the same lines that we can see in the older material, which in some cases may indeed have pre-Christian roots. The Sengoidelc site is useful for giving pointers there.

        Then of course, none of that has much context if we don’t have an understanding of the culture. There are primary sources we can look at (I’ve already mentioned those – laws, annals, myths etc), though mostly we rely on academic commentary that brings all of those things together in a coherent picture. The authors that Treasa mentions above are just some of these.

        The Carmina is limited in providing evidence for festival practices, though – especially when you consider that Irish and Scottish festival customs can differ. Kevin Danaher’s The Year in Ireland provides a good go to source. Maire MacNeill’s The Festival of Lughnasa and Seán Ó Duinn’s The Rites of Brigid give more specific info. These are relatively recent books, of course, but they contain material from as early as the fourteenth century or so, not including the references to the myths etc.

        When people make the cros Bríde at Lá Fhéile Bríde we don’t know how old that practice is, but in historical terms we can trace it back to something like the sixteenth or seventeenth century (IIRC). A lot of academics feel that it’s older in origin, possibly even pre-Christian. We can’t prove it, but we can say it’s all a part of the continuum. Likewise when we put rowan above the threshold, or when people churn butter at Bealtaine. Carving tumshie lanterns, making the brideog, performing Samhainn divinations, making flower garlands for Lunasa…And clearly, if you dig up new potatoes for a Lughnasa feast that’s not something that goes back to the Iron Age either. If we want to get married, welcome a child into the world, lay someone to rest, it’s difficult to know exactly how this was done in the Iron Age (and what we do know, it may not be feasible, like excarnation or ‘sky burials’, for one), so we look to how these things evolved. There’s evidence to suggest that milk was used to sain newborns in pre-Christian times, which carried through to the medieval period, so we can use that idea, and yes, look to the Carmina and other sources to get an idea of liturgy.

        We can’t say for certain that any of this comes directly from the Iron Age, but like I said it’s part of a continuum of practice and much of it has evolved from the pre-Christian era. I’m not saying we ignore the Iron Age evidence either; I think it’s fair to say that’s the starting point, as it were, but we have to work with the evidence we have to hand.

      • June 27, 2012 at 6:09 pm

        No, I don’t mind you jumping in at all. Sorry for taking so long to get back to you, but I was feeling ill, tired and annoyed, most of which have nothing to do with this discussion and I have found that those sorts of feelings do not make for an adult and reasonable discussion.

        Firstly, I have had no reply from Treasa either publicly or privately yet. This means I have to consider the possibility that you are the exception to the rule instead of the fact that I have got it wrong.

        What I am annoyed about is that the practices you mention are the sort that can be openly discussed, yet in my experience they are not. While I do the turnip carving at Samhain, I first heard it mentioned on a neo-pagan forum and while I knew it was an Irish practice I did not realise it was a Recon practice. The garlands I have never heard of; possibly because I have not yet read the book on Lughnasadh yet.

        Of the three Recon message boards I was on, only one asked what people were doing for the festivals. It is that board that stops me agreeing with people who say that Recon is a dry and spiritualess practice. Most of the boards seem to discuss scholarship and while we need scholarship to base our practices on, it is useless if we cannot put it into practice.

      • Seren said,

        June 27, 2012 at 6:55 pm

        If you read the CR FAQ, all of the exact same kind of things I’ve described above are recommended there as well. If you’re not seeing it, then I can only wonder if you’ve read the material that would have been most useful to you in the time you identified as a recon. See for example:

        http://www.paganachd.com/faq/ritual.html#samhain
        http://www.paganachd.com/faq/ritual.html#imbolc
        http://www.paganachd.com/faq/ritual.html#bealtaine
        http://www.paganachd.com/faq/ritual.html#lunasa

        I can assure you I’m not the only one who’s doing this. I would also say that these kinds of things *are* being discussed. I see them being discussed and described on people’s blogs all the time and do so myself. Not everyone shares this stuff publicly. Some people do so privately or semi-privately (such as in closed groups/forums) because what they do is personal and they are only comfortable sharing with people they know and trust; they want to talk about their deeply personal experiences, not feed other people who expect to be spoonfed ideas. I understand that and I respect it; I don’t talk about every single thing I do either, there are some things I will only discuss with a trusted few as well.

        Nobody is – or should – be under any obligation to speak openly about what they do when those things are deeply personal. I do think, however, that everyone should be under the obligation to do their own legwork. It’s not difficult to find this information when it’s in very basic resources like the FAQ.

    • Seren said,

      June 23, 2012 at 7:43 pm

      I’ve been on a lot of the same boards and groups and the only people I’ve seen who insist it’s simply about going back to the Iron Age and bringing what’s still feasible today are the ones who weren’t recon to begin with. Somehow or other it’s one of those misconceptions that’s been going round for year and nobody seems to know where it started.

      While we don’t have any exact accounts of what pre-Christian Celtic religions were like we do have a lot of sources we can use to build a picture. For the Gaels, we can look at the archaeology but that can only tell us so much. We need to look at other sources that compliment it: The myths we look to are medieval, not Iron Age, as are the laws, annals and other historical sources we can look to. Bearing in mind that pre-Christian beliefs survived alongside the Christians for a few centuries or so, into the medieval, the evidence we’re looking for isn’t necessarily even Iron Age to begin with. Then we can consider that some of the beliefs and practices were subsumed into Christianity, and in the case of the Gaels there are also a lot of survivals and customs that have been recorded and are still practiced today. So to say it’s simply a case of looking at what the Iron Age Celts did is wrong. We’re looking at a continuum, and when we get an idea of what pre-Christian beliefs were like in pre-Christian times (their cosmology, their worldview etc) we can get an idea of the kinds of things we can look for in more recent evidence that exist within that continuum. While the context of those survivals may not be overtly pagan anymore, they are more recent and relevant to our present circumstances and therefore more feasible in terms of adopting into a polytheistic context.

      A big part of the process means getting an understanding of not just their beliefs, but the culture those beliefs existed – and/or still exist – in. If we don’t try to look at things in their own context then it’s difficult to fully understand the whys and wherefores. This includes looking at the kind of terms that may or may not be appropriate to use. In the case of witchcraft, it has and still does mean something very negative. The modern revisioning and recontextualisation of it in a Neopagan setting is at odds with the traditional definition, and to call someone like Biddy Early – whose work would have included ‘unwitching’, working against witches – would have caused a huge amount of offence to them. Biddy Early was a wisewoman or ‘bean feasa’, not a witch.

      • June 24, 2012 at 12:06 pm

        Seren, first up I’ve never once mentioned Biddy Early on this board, so I don’t know why you and Treasa have mentioned it. If it’s the fact that I’m learning to be a traditional witch, traditional in this sense means “pre-Gardnerian” which does not necessarily mean Biddy Early or any of the fairy doctors. I respect the Good People, but have enough problems in my life.

        Secondly, the Iron Age thing was something that was mentioned to me ages ago when I was still a recon. I defended against it then, then recently I looked at it again in the context of what I had read on the boards and realised that the person was right. If I am wrong, then I have gained the wrong impression through being on those boards.

      • Seren said,

        June 24, 2012 at 12:24 pm

        My apologies for not being clear – my comment about Biddy Early was based on another poster’s mention of her.

  5. June 24, 2012 at 11:56 am

    Watcher, I only bring in two practices to fill gaps that I can’t cover by Irish practices.

    First, the charm bracelet is because I carry a couple of spells on me daily to protect myself in my work and to ensure safe travel on public transport. Not safe as in “I won’t get beaten up” but safe as in “it will arrive on time with no accidents” as British public transport is notorious for being late. In my work I can have my bag, which has my spells, searched or I can be subject to a full strip search (which has happened once). I use a charm bracelet because I don’t want my spells being pawed about by people who do not know the first thing about them and if I was strip searched today they would overlook the bracelet because they could see I couldn’t hide anything in it. If you can think of an Irish way to do this, then please do and I’ll switch.

    The second is Graeco-Romanic astrology. In the texts it is mentioned that the druids used astrology, but so far I do not know of any Irish astrological practices I can use. As you probably know, The Celtic Tree Astrology was thought up by Graves and in my opinion is as astrological as the sun signs in the papers. I use the transits as they apply to my birth chart daily.

    Apart from these two exceptions, there is nothing I can think of that is not Irish. Note I do not The Carmina Gaedelica because that is Scottish and not Irish. I have no quarrel with those of an Irish practice that do use it, but that is their practice and not mine and I can’t be comfortable with using it.

  6. June 28, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    Seren, I opened your links and searched for the words “turnip” and “garland” and neither were found. These were the sort of practices I was asking why weren’t they written about : not saining which I already know about.

    While you are correct and no one has to write about practices, I cannot see why Recons do not write about making turnip lanterns and garlands when they are simple craft things and the turnip lantern would have been known to non-pagans.

    Let me phrase it another way : do you write about such things, and if not then why not?

  7. March 17, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Seren, I’ve just finished spending a long time reading the last 25 Gaol Naofa posts and writing a summary of them. I can post the summary or email it to you (it’s two and a bit pages long) but in a few lines it sums up that I don’t see anything like you said discussed, there’s very little that’s spiritual or relevant to my practice and most of it is frankly quite boring, which was why I left Gaol Naofa in the first place. I only had the emails left in my account because I wanted to check that the State of Things to Come emails (which contained many links) didn’t have anything of relevance to me. I enjoyed your post on omens which was one of the few that a) I did enjoy b) I felt had something useful to practitioners

    • Seren said,

      March 17, 2013 at 10:34 am

      You can send it if you like but I’m really not sure what the point of it would be. GN/CR’s not for you, that’s fine. No one’s saying it has to be. To be honest, though, I’m absolutely at a loss as to why you’d go to the trouble of doing such a thing when you find anything that I or my colleagues have to say “boring.”

  8. March 17, 2013 at 11:01 am

    Seren, when you have stopped feeling hurt come back and read what I said. When you do, you will find that in the above comment I have said that I enjoyed your post on omens.

    Why I took time to go back through the emails was to validate what I said as I try and go into arguments being sure of my ground. I left Gaol Naofa just over a year ago and may have remembered incorrectly. A lot can happen in a year and my opinions may have changed. However, I found that neither of those was true.

    If you want to read a detailed deconstruction of what I have to say, then reply to this comment and I will send it to you. I am only going to send it if you’re going to take in what I say, otherwise there is no point.

    However, I stand by my original post. I have looked into it and see nothing that would cause me to recant what I have said. You obviously disagree and that is your right.

    • Seren said,

      March 17, 2013 at 11:05 am

      No hurt feelings at all, Fiona, I’m just a wee bit boggled at all of this. By all means I’m sure you have my email address or can find it on my website.

  9. March 18, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    I’ll see if I can get it sorted this coming weekend. I’ve written it, but I need to re-read it to make sure it makes sense and means what I want it to mean


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