Two concepts that come up a lot in European polytheist religions, especially Celtic ones like Gaelic Polytheism, are that of culture, and ethnicity. Many people come to these religions because they feel a lost connection with their ancestral heritage and want to reclaim it.
Yes, this is another article that begins with an overtly “Oh great, here we go with this again” style line and then moves on to a completely different topic. It catches people’s attention.
Rather than re-explaining how blood-religion is nonsense and ahistorical and folkish sentiments don’t make sense from a reconstructionist point of view, let’s bring up something that no one wanted me to ask (and therefore by proxy, is far more interesting): Can Gaelic Polytheists become culturally Gaelic Polytheist?
This is something I’ve been thinking about for a few months now, and I’ve seen some similar talk in the Gaulish community every now and then. The question is simply that of “Can someone construct a culture that they feel is more in-line with the teachings of their religion, and adopt it?” – I believe this is possible, although arguments can be made about if it’s practical or not. If we suppose culture is defined as “The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group – also, the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time”, then there becomes some leeway for religious culture to be something we embrace. Largely it’s something many polytheists have avoided to avoid “LARPing” – something I touched on recently – however it’s something almost all other religions have in some form or another. I’m here to argue it’s something we shouldn’t avoid, because it’s something we’ve largely not thought of or discussed, even if we thought we have.
Suppose Jane the Heathen wants to adopt her religion more completely. She doesn’t just want it to be her private religion, she wants to be culturally Heathen – she wants to relearn her customary beliefs and social norms, rebuild her material traits, and change the characteristic features of her everyday life to be more in line with the teachings of her Gods and the practice of her faith about Them. One way she might go about this, as we’ve seen historically, is to try to reconstruct what the pre-Christian Germanics (or, more often on accident, early- to mid- Christian Norse in particular) would wear, and eat, and drink, and play, and do etc. Then, having done her best reconstruction, she adopts those that are viable in the modern day, and claps her hands, calling it a day.
Jane, my friends, is LARPing. Not about her religion, which is completely genuine, but about her culture. She’s trying to revive a culture that existed in the material conditions of pre-Christian Northern Europe, however she is likely not in that location, and definitely not in that time. That culture doesn’t fit in the modern day, very major swathes of it are non-viable, impractical, or impossible – the result being that the culture seems…”weird.” It’s off, it feels forced, and it comes off as insincere. This isn’t because she hasn’t put all the work in and genuinely tried to adopt a new culture – it’s purely because she tried to adopt a culture that cannot work in the modern day, away from the context in which it actually existed.
There’s something else Jane can do, however. All that effort reconstructing perfectly what the pre-Christian Germanics would have done, can be put to use afterwards with a bit more effort in order to effect the creation of a modern Heathen religious culture, one that can function in the material conditions of the modern day without sacrificing any of the religious teachings or merits. This is possible because we’re aware that Jane can start doing all things associated with adopting a new culture, and in this hypothetical she started that process with old Norse or what have you (I’m pretty garbage with Germanic religions and cultures, as many readers can tell I’m quite sure). All she’s doing instead in this instance, is rather than reconstructing an old culture, she’s constructing a new one that fills the same role the old one did, but in the modern day. (Post edit – I’m aware the roles these cultures fill are not the same, as religion and culture in pre-Christian Europe were largely interchangeable and that’s not exactly the same situation in the modern day, but I think you’ll find that doesn’t change my point.)
One question that immediately comes up, and that I still ask myself often, is “Why would anyone want to put the effort in to do this?” – especially for Gaelic Polytheism which has living Gaelic cultures like in Ireland, Scotland, and Mann. The way I describe the difference here is through “lines”. Think of a line connecting Séan the ancient Gael and Daithi the modern Irishman. There is an unbroken line here, influenced by Catholicism and Protestantism and invasion and colonization and many things. This is a living, breathing, real and beautiful culture worth engaging with on its own merits. On the other hand you have a sporadic, broken line connecting Séan the ancient Gael and Aisling the modern Gaelic Polytheist. This is a culture that we are looking to construct from the modern day, based on what we know from the ancient period. The reason why the ancient period is relevant is, as in my article on Ancient Beliefs in a Modern Day, we can use these ancient people’s knowledge as a stepping stone for what the Gods want to share with us and teach us in the modern day.
As for the actual question of “Why” do it – everyone has their own answer. If you have no reason to do it, that makes sense. However many of us find ourselves exhausted with the individualist consumerism of American culture, the poisoned constructed “white” culture that doesn’t exist but somehow does, even though no one wants it to, etc. Personally, I’m quite ready to have white America view me as something very different from itself. Even if I readily recognize I’ll never not benefit from the inherent privileges of being white, I’m quite attracted to the idea of making those privileges as few as possible for me by completely disconnecting myself from the culture.
With my thought process hastily described, and fully planning to go more in depth in a future post a good while from now, I’d like to propose the concept formally as something polytheists not be afraid to experiment with. I’m going through the process of adapting my material traits from the standpoint of a modern Gaelic Polytheist culture, as with my standard everyday interactions. I think more actively about how the Gods would want me to act, and that has made me more vocal and firm on my beliefs in public while also less aggressive and, well, “assholeish” for lack of a better phrase. I ask for my religious holidays off like my other religious co-workers do, because my holidays are serious days of celebration for me and I want to spend them worshipping instead of working, and I take my religion seriously – like everyone should. These are small steps but make a very big deal – they “out” you as something other than a normal, white American (For those of us GPs who are or seem to others in public to be white), and I believe that’s a rough and easy way to measure how much of your religion you’ve adopted as your culture. The day polytheists can get together, and random Americans say “Who the hell are these foreigners??” is the day we can be confident that we are Gaelic Polytheists religiously, as well as culturally.
Not all of us want to be that, though. That’s perfectly acceptable, and isn’t any better or worse of a concept or a goal. Being 1% culturally GP, 5%, 50%, 99%, or 100% are all “side-grades” as they say. This is not an inherently religious venture – it’s first and foremost a personal one, however I believe it can very rapidly become a devotional one. That is to say, it’s a way to get closer to your Gods, become more devout, and follow Their teachings more closely and reliably. Hopefully this is a concept that is more readily acceptable and distinguishable from historical LARPing going forward.
Knowing me, it’s definitely not. I’ve been told that basically everything I do with religion is LARPing. Feel free to contact my agent and inquire about hiring me for your local Ren Faire.