by Kaathryn MacMorgan
What is “Celtic?” What defines a Celt? What do we know about them? Is Wicca Celtic? What is the ancient religion of the Celts? What’s Faerie Wicca? Is it real?
What is a Celt?
The Celts are one of the indigenous peoples of Europe. Historically, their lands ranged from Ireland, though Great Britain, into France, Germany, Spain, Italy and elsewhere. In 387 BCE, a group of them even sacked the city of Rome. In the modern world, they are found in their indigenous lands, as well in most other countries. Large Celtic communities exist around the world, and many of the largest cities in the United States and Canada have huge Celtic communities, particularly Irish, Scottish and Welsh communities. It is commonly estimated that there are 2-3 times more people of “pure Irish decent(1)” in The United States than in Ireland itself, and even where they have mingled freely with the cultures around them, they’ve remained visible in distinct ways, such as my wife’s father, born in Italy, clearly of Italian decent, with a last name unpronounceable in Italian, shared by lords (both ancient and modern) in Lowland Scotland and Wales.(2)
The Modern pagan Celtic Problem stems from three distinct issues. First, the Celts are a hard to define people consisting of several hundred tribes, multiple languages that are roughly divided into two groups (though all descending from one language,) and a set of mythologies that can vary from one group to another. This makes it hard (not impossible, though!) to weed out good Celtic materials from bad because any difference may be (but is not necessarily!) the result of a tribal difference, not poor research. Secondly, scholastic research has often ignored the Celts; their lifestyle and location didn’t leave the huge edifices of Rome, Egypt or Greece, their conversion to Christianity was accomplished with little bloodshed and, until modern times, they lived in basically the same places they always had. As if this was not bad enough, there was (and, to a lesser degree, still is) horrible prejudice against Celts and their languages amongst English speakers, even other Celts who are English speakers (for example, on the East Coast of the United States, it was often the Scottish factory owners stating “no Irish need apply.(3)”)
In addition to the difficulty of research, and the lack of good research, the Victorian age, and the Romantic poets, saw a rush towards fanciful interpretations of Celtic myth and legend, often sterilized for an English public, or just plain incorrect. The nasty boggles my relatives warned ill-behaved kiddies of were turned into bedtime stories and fables. The use of the Celtic milieu for these fanciful stories lives on in their name: Fairy Tales.
It’s not surprising, then, that Modern Pagans, often including Wiccans, in their creation of mystic concepts often label their fairy tale flavored faith as Celtic or “Faerie”. The only problem with this is that the Celts are still around, and will tell you that Wicca, Witta, Faerie Paganism and the like, are not their religions, current or ancient. It can be difficult to refute the claims of people promoting their non-Celtic faith as Celtic because a mountain of nonsense is out there to back them up. That this material is nonsense is not hard to prove, for example, the claim that there was an ancient Irish Potato Goddess when the potato plant doesn’t get to Europe until the 16th century is pretty easy to refute, but the massive bulk of bad material can make it hard to avoid, and when people don’t bother doing any research into the validity of what they are learning, the fact that a lot of other people say it becomes proof enough.
So it’s not surprising that there is a lot of anger between the Pagan and Celtic communities: On the one hand, modern paganism offers to resurrect ancient religions, but on the other, what they are resurrecting is often completely wrong. With the Celts this is especially tragic, because they’ve been watching the slow murder of their culture for a thousand years, and the people doing the worst right now do it while claiming to be helpful.
If you ask people in the Celtic Communities what a Celt is, you’ll get a number of different answers, but they all share a common theme: recognition by other Celts of your status amongst them. My own definition is a little strange: I do not recognize any definition that would include myself. I was born in the United States, and was never exposed to anything particularly Celtic as a child, even though my family is predominantly Scottish. My birth names are English and French, more specifically Saxon and French. I was not raised in a Celtic community, nor brought up with a church, let alone a traditionally Celtic one. As far as stereotypes go, I do fit many: I enjoy Guinness and have a fairly typical round-cheeked, short, pale skinned, Auburn haired Celtic phenotype. I have perfect pitch and have sung in local pubs, where I’ve also gotten in the occasional verbal spar. I am curmudgeonly at a young age in a thoroughly Scottish manner, and am nearly as happy griping about things I cannot change as I am spinning an utterly false tale to a child, only to go “no, it’s not true at all” when asked “Did that really happen?” While I meet stereotypes, which many people do, I’m not a Celt because I live up (or down) to a few stereotypes.
What I am, instead, is a Celtic-American, more American than anything else. A Celt, unlike myself, is a member of a greater Celtic Community, speaks (or tries to speak) a Celtic Language and raises their children with that language in a community invested in the preservation and furtherance of that culture. I’m, at best, a kind-hearted caretaker of my own Celtic culture; my sole investment in it is a quest for better knowledge of myself (as well as, from a biological standpoint, knowing what genetic diseases I’m more susceptible to.) At worst, I’m a dilettante, and it’s for that reason that I reject any definition of Celt that includes myself. Put simply, in addition to being recognized as a Celt by other Celts, someone must have more invested in the culture than I do in order to be a Celt. That’s pretty subjective, all in all, and I don’t expect anyone to define Celt as more Celtic than Kat MacMorgan, but it is reasonable to say that the Celts are capable of defining who is and is not Celtic, and don’t need any American’s help in doing so.
The next unit will explain why Wicca is not Celtic and why Celtic Wicca, Witta and the like aren’t either. I had the great fortune to be exploring both Wicca and my Celtic Heritage before McCoy, Conway, Stepanich and the like ever got the idea of combining the two, and was thus spared falling into the trap of accepting their nonsense as true. Like the imaginary Logosians, who had a couple thousand years of belief called incorrect within decades by Neopagans who had claimed their culture, the Celts, who are neither imaginary nor extinct, had a culture long before Neopagan authors imagined one and slapped their name upon it, a culture worthy of preservation and interest, and deserving of protection from profiteering.
What is Celtic in Wicca, and how did things that are not get stuck with that label?
There are very few things in Wicca that are inherently Celtic. In general, the entirety of Celtic culture borrowed in Wicca is the language used for the non-astronomical holidays (Samhain, for example.) Even the practices that occur on the holidays given these names are rarely Celtic in nature, and whether or not they should be called by these Celtic names is a valid question, especially considering that Early Modern Wicca labeled them August Eve, November Eve and the like. To read the erroneous literature out there, the four elements are Celtic (Celtic holy numbers tend to come in threes, and more rarely, fives,) the concept of duotheism, having a great goddess and a great god is Celtic (they, like most indigenous peoples, were polytheistic, and in their current culture are many religions, most predominantly Christianity) and the eight liturgical holidays, enumerated by Murray, are Celtic, even though they used a radically different calendar than our own to figure their holy days.
Surprisingly, it is not these elements that most Anti-Wiccan Celtic Reconstructionists attack Wiccans for, and this may have nearly as large a hand in the lack of corrective literature as the ignorant belief that the Celts have somehow vanished and therefore no one can say that the new “ancient Celtic traditions” are neither ancient nor Celtic. Instead, the alleged Wiccan belief in harming none is what is attacked. Since the majority of serious practitioners, as discussed earlier, do not see the universal prohibition of harm as a Wiccan belief, this myopic attack on one aspect of Wicca-an incorrect one- may’ve wasted years of valuable dialog. We often cannot even discuss why Wicca is not Celtic with Modern Celts without first hearing that our belief in harming none (which we don’t have) is wrong and not Celtic.
What should be discussed instead, and has begun to be covered in the past few years, are the things that some Wiccans are actually claiming of the Celts, such as that they had a singular God and Goddess. To understand the phenomena, you have to understand that these Wiccans sincerely believe that the Celts are an ancient culture that went to way of the dinosaur. Their works will inevitably state things like “we don’t know what the Celts believed, but we can make educated guesses based on archaeology and their legends.” That archaeology often includes the relics of pre- and proto- Celtic cultures, as well as Romans, Saxons and a few dozen other peoples and those legends are usually fanciful translations of ancient Celtic Epics, if not entirely new works with a Celtic flavor.(4) The main side effect of this belief is that these Wiccans see any statements about what Celts do and don’t believe as completely subjective. Thus, if I were to say “Wicca bears no resemblance to the ancient Celtic religions” these Wiccans would say that I was overstepping my bounds-since no one knows what the Celts believed and that they were correct in saying the Celts practiced Wicca because there is no proof otherwise.
Setting aside, for a moment, the fact that there is, indeed, proof otherwise, this idea that something must be true because you can’t prove it is not true is a scary concept. This is a huge divergence from scientific thought, which teaches us that something is not definitely false until proven to be so. The difference can be subtle- one says something is true merely because you can’t prove it is not true, the other says that something may or not be true until it is proven to be false. This is a huge distinction in thought, and this shoddy logic should be something we keep an eye out for when evaluating materials.
Convincing these Wiccans that the Celts are still around is the first step towards helping them understand that what they say about Celts and Wicca is incorrect, but inevitably, some of them are going to decide that Modern Celts who disagree with them are somehow less Celtic. Often, the fact that the mass conversion of Celtic cultures to Christianity was nearly bloodless is brought up in some manner. These people see modern Celts as divorced from their distant ancestors because more recent ancestors practiced Christianity. Strangely, the fact that the ancestors of the Wiccans claiming this were nearly always Christian is not seen as important… it is as if the person’s own family or personal journey from Abrahamic religions is seen as more valid than the transition of thousands of Celts. On a personal note, I’ve never understood this point of view, so I can’t really explain it. To me, the fact that the Celts exist is enough to trust what individual Celts say about their beliefs until those individuals give me a reason to think they are misled or being deceptive, and I just can’t grasp what would make an otherwise reasonable person state that the modern people of a culture s/he does not belong to are incapable of understanding their ancestors as well as some outsider does. I’ve been witness to this behavior enough times to say only that it exists, not why it exists.
Understanding that these people believe that Celts don’t exist is key to understanding why they say their Modern beliefs are those of the ancient Celts. For many, it is not a case of outright lying, although certainly some people have done some lying, but a case of “fill in the blanks” gone awry. Murray teaches that the Witch-Cult of her thesis existed in Western Europe. Gardner claims the ancient Witch religion is of the British, Sybil Leek claims it is British and French, and a score of early authors claim it is rooted in what is now England, specifically.
Your average educated person knows a bit about who came and went in Ancient Great Britain. They have knowledge of the Normans, of the Romans, of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora, knowledge that gets less speculative as you approach Modern day. They know, from histories, epic poems and plays, that these cultures’ beliefs bear little resemblance to Modern Wicca. They also know that another group of people existed in the area-The Celts. For reasons described earlier, this average educated person knows little or nothing about the Celts. When they read, for example, that Wicca is the indigenous religion of Great Britain, they know who didn’t believe anything like Wicca, and therefore assume that the culture they don’t know of is the culture that is being spoken of.
It’s not hard to see how in four generations of Wiccan writing the unknown indigenous people became the Celts, and it is probably likely that as Celts begin to openly criticize works that credit them with the creation of Wicca, we shall see the unknown indigenous people become the Picts, or some as yet unnamed Paleolithic culture. What these people less often consider is that the fact that indigenous peoples in the area of what is now England never practiced Wicca. It is a less romantic idea that points to heavier flaws in Murray and Gardner than just not naming which indigenous people they meant when they spoke of indigenous peoples, and the average person often feels too uneducated or unimportant to argue with the printed word.
With this “they must mean the Celts” mentality, you can see why every minute detail of Wicca is attributed to them on occasion: if someone asks why you stand in a circle and you don’t know, you do so because the Celts did. If someone asks you why you hold your hand in such a way and you don’t know, it also must be because the Celts did it. Those who see ancientness as the core source of validity in a religion will do everything to avoid confronting the actual fact of the matter: that you do those things you did not create yourself the things the way you do because you learned them from someone, who either created them, or learned them. This “teaching chain” probably goes back 3-4 generations at most before you reach some progenitor that invented your process, either by taking parts of pre-existing practices and using them in a new way and inventing the rest, or creating it all. It does not go back to the Celts. It may be inspired by them, or inspired by works inspired by them, but it is not ancient Celtic Practice. Indeed, even the holiday names, the sole thing in Wicca genuinely of Celtic descent, are phonetic spellings in an alphabet the Celts did not have.
Celtic and Faerie Wicca: An attempt to merge what should not be merged:
With the knowledge that the only things really Celtic in Wicca are a few words under our belt, it becomes possible to objectively evaluate such things as Celtic and Faerie Wicca. In her fabulous essay When is a Celt Not a Celt, Johanna Hautin-Mayer covers in detail the flaws within such well-discussed works as Edain McCoy’s thankfully out-of-print “Witta: An Irish Pagan Tradition” and Kisma Stepanich’s Faery Wicca books. These books are typical of the early movement to attach Celtic images to Wicca and make rather extreme claims that it can be argued would not have been made had their authors realized that very real Celts were going to question the reality of what they wrote. Hautin-Mayer attributes many of these mistakes to the authors’ apparent lack of research, and certainly any case study of a book of the Celtic flavored Wicca movement will show huge numbers of historical inaccuracies that can be corrected with little more than a child’s encyclopedia.
Part of the problem here lies in the structure of Wicca itself, which often does not attempt to describe the divine in cultural terms, but in general terms. The young, new Wiccan is encouraged to look to his spiritual and genetic ancestors for an understanding of the divine as he studies, and it is inevitable that a Wiccan of Celtic descent is going to find his ancestral gods among the Celtic pantheon, and the epics that inspire his soul in Celtic cycles, and that is where he will turn during his circle.
While some Celts would see this as somehow worshipping their gods in ways alien to their culture, often describing it as invoking the divine, most Wiccans do not view the casting of a circle as an invocation of the divine, but instead as what Starhawk calls an “enacted meditation(5).” For simplicity, I will discuss the circle in its use as a dynamic meditation, which is a fancy term for things like Tai-Chi and ritual dances that enact a change in mental state. The Wiccan circle is an exercise that promotes the inner stillness that assists in the worship of any god- it is a deliberate walk through mental and physical stages that lead the practitioner to a state that assists in communication with the divine by altering the Wiccan, not the gods or even the space in the air around him. To bring this home with silly metaphor, If Joe the purple god of daisies and frogs is traditionally worshipped by his followers by singing the mystical purple flower song and by chanting “wugga wugga” when eating, the Wiccan follower of Joe the purple god would probably sing that song within his circle-but the song would not be altered in any way, and would still chant “wugga wugga” when he ate, in circle or not.
Thus, the worship act would be the same whether the follower was a Wiccan or a traditional follower of Joe the purple god, and the difference would lie in the worshipper’s preparation and in his community ritual. It is here where Witta, Celtic Wicca and Faerie Wicca fail. They attempt to take the personal worship of individuals (which are, unfortunately, both cast as the worship of a community and as historically accurate practices) as communal worship. The practices outlined take the communal worship of Wicca-which may involve several practitioners doing different things within the Wiccan paradigm-and claim them as practices of all Wiccans, as well as non-Wiccans, despite the fact that they are the practices of individuals.
Individual worship hurts no one. If you think that dancing around a bonfire naked with black chicken feathers on your chest will cause The Morrigan to ride you like a Loa, that’s fine, it’s when you write or teach that dancing around a bonfire naked will cause this to happen to other people, despite the assurances of her historic followers that this is not so, or when you write or teach that this is a historic practice, that you touch on dangerous ground. First, whenever you make a statement that is causal (doing X causes Y) you need to have darned good proof of the matter- you must demonstrate that it is replicable and that the effect is what you claim it is. Marie the newbie would be able to pick up your work, do as you say, and have the same effect, with some proof that this Morrigan was the same as the Celtic entity. Second, if you claim it is a historic practice, the onus is on you to prove it is, not on others to prove it is not. Lastly, you have to take responsibility for all the people who do the ritual as outlined by you- their disappointments included.
I’m wandering here a bit in this discussion because I am attempting to not paint the authors of these Celtic Wicca materials as nothing more than culturally exploitive imperialists, which there is certainly evidence for. It may be true that the UPG of people like McCoy and Stepanich showed them that their experiences-described in their writings-worked. For all I know, the gods themselves came down and told them to write what they wrote, but they offer no proof of this, so we can only guess at their motives. What we can do is compare their writings to those of the Celts themselves and see which come out as more believable.
Returning to the concept of Wicca itself, Wicca is best described as a religion of the polis. Like the state religions of Greece and Rome, Wicca represents the baseline practices required for inclusion in the community-in this case not citizenship in a true nation but citizenship in the virtual nation of Wiccan practitioners. There are certain things we use to recognize other members of that nation-core beliefs and practices-but, like those state religions, individual practices vary from that core. Iule the good Roman might begin everyday with an invocation to his ancestors, Quinta the equally good Roman might begin each day by stoking the sacred fires in a temple and Septus the nearly as good Roman might sleep in and miss his bath, having had a long walk last night from the shrine to Mithras, but they all stand in the plaza and participate in the sacrifices and prayers that the entire dutiful citizenry are called to.
This idea can be fairly different than the Abrahamic religions many Wiccans were raised in, and it is easy for those raised with the idea that having practices that differ from your neighbor makes you a different religion to see their individual practices as a new and different religion. If Caitlin the Celt casts the circle the same way as most Wiccans, celebrates the eight holidays outlined by Murray, uses the tools and methods of Wicca, and believes in concepts of minimal harm, self-responsibility, and the like, she does not become a practitioner of a new religion when she refines her concept of the divine. She can stand right next to Petros the Wiccan follower of Zeus in a circle and participate as one without affecting her relationship with her gods.
This is perhaps best outlined with what’s been called the triarchy of religion: the religions of Family, of Nation, and of Heart. Rather than use another fanciful example, I’ll stick to the one example I know best: myself. My religion of Nation is Wicca. I am a citizen of the virtual nation of Wiccan practitioners, thankfully born in a country where freedom of association allows religious nationhood to differ from literal citizenship. When a presidential candidate says, for example, that Wicca is not a religion, I am amongst those he is slandering. When a newspaper article says that Wiccans are all 12-year-old girls, I have the right to object. More specifically, my virtual nation is Universal Eclectic Wicca tradition within Wicca, just as I am a citizen of the United States but more specifically an Upstate New York Yankee. As part of my religion of Nation, I celebrate on the eight days in Murray’s liturgical calendar, and have certain techniques of worship I share with other Wiccans.
My religion of Family is two fold- with my son and my wife I practice a sort of Anabaptist secular humanism. Recently, my son has expressed interest in Wicca (although he is strongly leaning towards atheism) and has participated in a few rituals, but he was raised with the idea that his religion is a decision for him to make when he has gathered information, not something he is by virtue of his birth. In addition, he’s been taught that morality transcends religion and that his job is to be a good person, regardless of religion. With my wife alone, I practice both Wicca and Hellenic Reconstructionism. This makes for a busy liturgical calendar, but as we are often required to miss practicing together because of our schedules, we learned long ago that sometimes doing the minimum required on a holiday is just as spiritual as having a huge festival. Together we celebrate a number of festivals that are pan-Hellenic as well as the Wiccan festivals.
My religion of Heart, the most specific religion and the one that speaks most powerfully to me, is what is probably best described as membership in an ecstatic cult of Apollo. As you move from the broadest category to the narrowest, the validity to others of your practices declines, so that while I will often speak on my religion of nation, I speak considerably less on Hellenic Reconstructionism, and perhaps least on the worship of Apollo. Likewise, I discuss Wicca in general frequently, and do not expect the practices of my tradition to have much bearing on the entire community, nor the practices of my family to have much bearing on my tradition, nor my personal practices to have much bearing on my family. They are all related, and if any one piece were in conflict, I would need to reconsider the practices of any part of that religious life.
Likewise, our Celt, Caitlin, may have Wicca as one of her distinctions, and traditional Celtic practices as another. She may combine these things when practicing or not, as her faith dictates. To bring the example back to me, my worship of Apollo requires certain things of my behavior and lifestyle, and I’m not ashamed to say that at a particularly clouded and hedonistic time in my life I failed in those things and was promptly both shown the error of my ways and how to be cleansed of the spiritual residue they left behind-information that had nothing to do with Wicca and could not be found within it. Say, for example, that Caitlin followed the imaginary Celtic God Lowena Angus the Black Cow of Happiness (I don’t encourage the following of any imaginary gods, but I also don’t wish to use a genuine example and have it used by someone to establish their worship techniques) and that followers of Lowena Angus were required to abstain from sex outside of marriage, not consume beef or anything made from barley and consume a bottle of wine once a day at sunset. Nothing in this silly collection of rules stops her from entering a circle, participating in communal worship as a Wiccan, or even taking the Catholic Mass (although the rules of the Catholic Mass might stop her.)
Again, it is our Abrahamic prejudices at work that prevent us from understanding this concept. Most cultures outside of the Abrahamic ones had levels of worship: participation in state and personal cults, private practices of individuals and families. Put most simply, if you wish to be a Wiccan and a practitioner of traditional Celtic religions, you do so not by altering your Wicca or Celtic practices to smush them together unnaturally, as Celtic and Faerie Wicca do, but as separate parts of your spirituality. In no thing other than religion do we attempt to create these monolithic things that are for all people at all times. Even in cooking, we know that garlic tastes good in some things but not all things. The vast majority of Gods are not offended by parts of your spiritual regimen that do not include them or are not dictated by them. The vast majority of gods are not jealous or exclusive, and the vast majority of religions do not dictate that their followers have no spiritual life outside of them.
What is an unethical religious practice and why are allowed to exist?
This leads to the question of how the average Joe (not to be confused with the deity of the same name) determines what to blend and not blend in his religious life. In general, Joe is fine as long as the religious practices he is engaging in are ethical. In other words, if Joe’s religious practices are not based in lies or otherwise creating some kind of harm, he’s free to do as he will.
What is an unethical religious practice is a difficult question because some people see all religious practices that differ from theirs as inherently unethical. For some, unethical is defined by non-religious personal beliefs. An animal rights activist, for example, may find that any religious practice that involves animal sacrifice is unethical, but another person may hold the view that sacrifices that (like the vast majority of animal sacrifices) provide food for the followers and/or are done humanely are not unethical. This is a fairly subjective question when you deal with very specific concepts, so we’re going to return to the Celtic and Faerie Wicca “traditions” to discuss how they are unethical religious practices in the hope that an example makes it clear.
The Celtic-flavored Wicca movement does three distinct things. It blends Wicca and Celtic tradition, which is not always inherently unethical, it teaches that Wicca is the traditional religion of the Celts, which is unethical because research demonstrates otherwise, and it assigns to both Wiccans and Celts various practices and beliefs that one or both may not have at all, which is highly unethical. When this is done completely by accident, it is unethical in that it could’ve been avoided, and if the author owns up to and tries to correct his or her errors, it’s utterly forgivable. When this is done out of laziness or greed, however, it is not only unethical, but also unforgivable for it is the intentional exploitation of one or more cultures for personal fun and profit.
These books are unethical because of the grave disservice they do to the religions they are about. Taking the words of other peoples and manipulating them to one’s own ends is never correct. If you disagree with the practices of a people, you do not simply ignore that those practices exist when writing about them, but state them and why you disagree with them. You give the reader the chance to make an educated choice rather than follow what you have done. Some of these writings and practices are beautiful, even inspirational, but as long as they are based on lies, they do damage to everyone they touch.
Being inspired by these things is not unethical, but continuing the exploitation is. If, for example, you purchase a book (or recommend purchasing a book) by one of these authors knowing full well that it is full of lies and inaccuracies-an act that tells publishers this type of practice is alright, I might add-you are financially supporting the exploitation (and thus somewhat morally accountable yourself.) If, on the other hand, you read one of these books at the library or purchased it not knowing what you were supporting, the fault lies squarely on the author.
We find ourselves in the difficult position of being required to be smart shoppers in the bookstore, which for bibliophiles like me is almost painful, we can’t purchase every title on Wicca just like we can’t drive whatever car suits our fancy if we like the environment or eat whatever we want if we value our health. Like the automakers and people who make bad foods, publishers are held accountable for what they put out. They either publish everyone-in which case the responsibility for writing ethically falls 100% on the author-or they are to be held responsible for what they choose to publish because their choice indicates standards.
Not surprisingly, it is unlikely that the vast majority of houses would’ve published the Celtic and Faery Wicca-type books. When a historian, for example, pays hard and fast with the truth in a book by a mainstream publisher and that publisher finds out, the book is pulled and the author promptly sued. The religious and “new age” publishers are often less concerned with truth because they see the fact that the books are religious in nature as somehow meaning that they can say whatever they want.
This is likely one reason why these unethical practices are published-shortsighted editors that cannot see the difference, for example, between an author that says that they believe that the Celts came from Atlantis and an author who claims the Celts practiced Wicca. One is a belief, the other is a statement of an incorrect fact. Perhaps the belief that there is no truth in religion is to blame here, but simple fact checking seems so important to the concept of authorship that it would be altogether impossible for many authors, let alone people who worked with them, to avoid it completely without a fairly unique paradigm.
Perhaps, as mentioned earlier, the unethical practices, which really do boil down practices based on lies about other people, are merely the result of the belief that the authors would not get caught. It may even be that the real practices were just too boring to sell books. At a young age, many children will tell lies because the lies are so much more interesting than the truth. Psychologists encourage parents to respond to such lies by acknowledging that it would be really neat if that were true. For example, I recall asking my son, at four, that “although it would be really neat if you had seen the papers throw themselves on the floor, wasn’t the truth more boring?” They attribute this lying to two things, the sincere belief that the child really thinks that their imagined reality would be better than the real one and the child’s lack of understanding that this kind of lie is wrong. We may find ourselves wondering when authors that paint really interesting realities that are patently false if their parents never encouraged them to tell, instead, the boring truth.
It would be a less boring than reality untruth to say I knew why authors and editors allowed unethical things to be written. I could say greed, I could say sloppiness, I could say arrested psychological development, and I could even say that it was because they thought they could get away with it. None of these things are completely true, however, and it is likely a combination of these things and more that have allowed the current situation, which, while most severe in the Celtic-flavored community also stretches throughout Wicca. A Celtic friend asked me, quite bluntly, what reason my community had to do this injustice to his people and others and I found myself forced to answer that I simply did not know. What I do know, however, is what to do about it.
An Introduction to Intellectual Integrity.
Those familiar with the All One Wicca website are familiar with the term intellectual integrity. At its core, intellectual integrity consists of making the decision to not lie about persons, places, or other facts when writing about your religion. More specifically, it is the decision not only to not engage in those behaviors, but to not sponsor or promote them, nor to stand for those that do. It can be a bit of a scary concept. On the one hand, we don’t wish to seem to be splitting the community into two parties-the ones that embrace intellectual integrity and those that don’t, and on the other hand, those who are expecting this integrity already (which is not too much to ask) shouldn’t have to ask for, or work toward, it. It should already be there.
Intellectual integrity takes the place of the community censure that those originally writing things like “whatever works” expected to be in place. Whatever works and whatever feels good are not the same ideas. A Wiccan doing things that exploit other people, by definition, is not doing what works. Those stating whatever works expect that those that seek their inspiration and practices from other people will respect the people they are learning from. To the authors, there is no purpose in saying “Whatever works does not mean whatever you want,” because it’s an obvious distinction.
Incidents of persons apparently devoid of intellectual integrity are not hard to find. A person who is a guest at the otherwise closed ritual of a group with the condition that they not reveal the ritual watches it only to write a ritual identical to it in his work, an Irish woman with no Native American blood watches a movie on Native American rituals, writes a book called “I am Shaman” and sets up Shaman Workshops where she makes $100 a head performing a ritual that is not genuine-it neither does what she claims it does nor comes from where she claims it does. These are not far-fetched phenomena. This lack of integrity can be based on nothing more than greed, but we also see examples of it based on ignorance. The student at that Shaman Workshop paid good money to “become” a shaman, and when she writes books as a shaman, she’s not intentionally fooling someone. She had an experience that was powerful and was told that that experience made her a shaman. If Caitlin the Celt’s mom lied, for example, claiming the family had an unbroken line of Wiccans that went back 500 years, she’s not a bad person for repeating it.
So, in addition to asking people to just not lie, intellectual integrity also asks people to research any things they learn to get all sides of the story and to state why they are saying such things, which other people do already. If I pick up a book by imaginary shaman David Spottedpony it might say “David Spottedpony has been practicing shamanism for 47 years. He began the study with his father, who learned it from his father, etc.” If I pick up the book of our imaginary shaman above, it had better say she became a shaman at a Shaman Workshop run by the author of “I am Shaman.” Both books give me the chance for further research. If I know the author of “I am Shaman” has a questionable background, and if her student covers that, I know the book is more objective than if the book just takes the author of “I am Shaman” at her word. Likewise, I can look into David Spottedpony’s practice and even his father. 47 years is a long time to leave no trace of your practice and with a little footwork I should be able to learn something.
A few friends of mine are practitioners of a British family magickal tradition (FMT)(6) going back at least 200 years and claiming to go back longer. The family is Christian, so they aren’t a precursor of Wicca, but they believe that they are granted power because of their mystical roots and ties with the land. They have authenticated letters between family members that speak of these beliefs dating to just after the American Revolution as well as older documents that are harder to authenticate. In what my research shows to be a fairly typical view of the type of FMT, they believe that blood relation to a particular relative is the source of their power. They also believe in entities that we would probably call household gods or ancestral spirits that have to be appeased and honored in various ways.
Intrinsic to their FMT is blood relatedness, and as such, they are more interested in genealogy than any group but the Mormons (who they have no nice words for, seeing the practice of posthumous baptism of non-Mormons as nothing other than trying to capture the spirits of other families, a worthless practice with the singular result of disrespecting both living and dead and absolutely 100% with no other effect.) Part of their FMT involves several other families with similar powers and similar lineage, and they try to keep track of all the current descendants of these people. This research flavors who they’ll marry, date and more and they have long established rules for dealing with non-related relatives and methods for adoption.
Even if you think this is complete bunk, genetic relatedness is an intrinsic part of their practice. It flavors everything they do. It is in every single part of their learning. Even their “prayers” to their ancestors begin by invoking the blood in their veins. This is poignant in that it is an extreme version of what often occurs in modern ethnic Reconstructionism, but it is vital that you understand that for these people participation in their rites could involve DNA testing. While their beliefs allow non-related people into their circle, the tests to do so are difficult and complicated.
Some of their beliefs involve a sacred site that is on their land-a circle of low, flat stones built within the past 200 years. They believe that this stone circle encases a great power that, if offended, could do horrible things to the surrounding countryside and the rites to quell it would be dark and extreme, and probably involve someone dying. To my skeptical American ears, the rites seem backwards, even outright wrong, but other things they have done have had powerful results that I’ve been witness to, so I believe that they believe their tales regarding this stone circle, even if I’m not prepared to say I believe that evil boggles rest in people’s backyards. When an ex-wife of this family threatened to do the ritual to awaken this boggle and set it free because she didn’t believe in it and was going to prove it was false, she was kept from the circle with physical force. Hunting rifles, sticks and strong young men barred her way even though their beliefs were that she, as a non-genetically related individual only had a one or two percent chance of having any effect. Within three months, they had done the intense magical and physical labor to move the stone circle and whatever was underneath it, rededicate it, hide it and set up a simple security perimeter. Their local priest even came out and put a blessing on the new area, like me, a skeptic, but their belief in it was enough that he felt it was important to indulge them.
The Ex-wife is a good example of a complete lack of intellectual integrity. She was going to do a ritual she didn’t have the right to do to her own selfish ends. As if this was not bad enough, a local witch who’d visited the old site with her boyfriend was going to do a Wiccan-type ritual there to appease the old spirits, purify the land and undo the anger she “felt” there, anger she claimed was created by the rituals of this family, which were based pretty much in fear of what would happen if the rituals stopped happening. This despite the fact that the land was not hers, the feared entity was Christian and the area was already “pure.”
This witch exhibited another kind of lack of intellectual integrity, which was sadly also fairly well demonstrated by Starhawk a few months ago when she and several protesters burned sage and did a purification ritual on a road used by industrialists on Native American land without the permission of the land holders. Notable publicity witches and even Christian “prayer warriors” have done the same thing: trespass on other people’s spiritual and physical property. To quote Joseph, the patriarch of the clan detailed above “If I unleash a nasty force on my land, and it is confined to my land, I put it there for a reason and even though your purification rite is not going to make it go away, you’re injuring me if you try to send it away.” The intellectual integrity here consists of knowing what is not your space to invade. In short, it’s about not fooling yourself…not lying to yourself about what you probably know deep down inside to be the wrong thing to do.
This is all that intellectual integrity is really, not lying, to yourself or others, about what you are doing. If the Logosians say you have to be a blood relative of theirs to participate in their rituals, don’t participate in their rituals. A minority of polytheistic cultures do say you can’t worship their gods without certain requirements, so if you chose to do so without meeting those requirements have reasons and be willing to explain them-don’t claim the culture doesn’t care what you’re doing. If the Celts say their indigenous religion is not Wicca, don’t say it is. If you make things up, claim authorship of those things. If you want to do a ritual to purify some land, make sure it’s okay with the owners of the land. In short, take responsibility for your actions and words. This includes both acts of inspiration and things you teach. Remember, your rights (and your rites, as well) end where another’s nose begins. The second something leaves your personal domain-your brain, your journal, your land, your private ritual, the whole set of rights and responsibilities regarding that thing changes.
Intellectual integrity is not about getting things right or taking every opinion into account before doing something. What it is about is being wise. Wise about your motives, your facts, your rights and the feelings, motives, rights and the like of the people around you. It is not, as some have complained, some sort of slippery slope. If you remove elements of other cultures from Wicca, it still stands as a religion. If removing erroneous or stolen elements from your brand of Wicca renders it nonsensical, the problem lies not in Wicca itself but the brand you practice.
Believe it or not, having intellectual integrity is pretty easy. Once you start, not only is it hard to stop but also it begins to flavor everything you do. Those who embrace intellectual integrity are generally recognized (even by people who hate them) as really stand-up people. It might not be the way to win large numbers of friends or have the flashiest or trendiest circle, but it certainly improves your reputation as a force for truth in the universe. For those of us who see serving truth as serving the divine, it becomes even more important, because every checked fact or corrected error becomes a sort of prayer.
1. This is difficult to define. One friend defines it as having all Great Grandparents be from Ireland or the children of people from Ireland. Certainly if we were discussing thoroughbred horses, instead of people, this would be a valid definition.
2. This is enough information to come up with the actual name within three guesses. I welcome emails with those three guesses.
3. Including factories owned by some of my own distant relations. While I am a mutt at best, I was still reminded fairly regularly as a youth (at the least, on every St. Patrick’s day) that my blood included Scottish and other Celtic flavors, but NOT Irish. One distant relative still living in Cornwall insists that despite the high number of Morgans in Wales we are utterly Cornish and not Welsh… Telling other Campbells we’re descended from Romans gleans nasty looks… The prejudice now is reduced to jokes and dirty looks, but it is still prejudicial at its heart.
4. Indeed, one of my favorite fantasy authors of all times is Kenneth C. Flint, and I once met a Modern Pagan whose beliefs were entirely modeled on a book of his about Sidhe in New York City. I’ve heard of similar experiences with Pagans basing their religious beliefs on other Faerie-in-the-Modern-age books as well. While basing your beliefs on a fantasy book is neither new nor bad in and of itself, many of these people will tell you the authors of these books have written the 100% truth and are engaged in a cover-up, which is kind of scary. For my part, I don’t think vampires or faeries are employing Rice or Lackey to hide their existence by fictionalizing it. (I admit some doubts about David Bowie, however.)
5. I admit here, to using the same quote in both of the books I’ve written on the subject…but it is an AWESOME term, and deserved use and recognition of its author.
6. Any information here not fictionalized was vetted through the matriarch of the FMT noted. It is used with full permissions and her blessings. I used a rare technique called asking permission, I use it a lot and recommend it highly.
©2003, Kaatryn MacMorgan, used with permission