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Keltria Journal

Issue 32 - Samhain/Winter 1996


Letters to Editor

Dear Editor:

Pat Taylor's letter in the Fall '96 issue of Keltria, written largely in reponse to some views I expressed in my last article, betrays a certain confusion in regard to the nature of cultural tradition. Since I have found this confusion to be widespread in our community, I think it might be worth our while to try to disentangle some of the elements that have contributed to it.

First of all, ethnic labels come cheap. Anyone can use the label "Celt": there's no patent on it. However, unless one defines the term "Celt", the label will have little meaning. And there does not seem to a single, agreed-upon definition in popular use. Some people [...] think the term should refer to one's genetic heritage: if your ancestors were "Celtic", then that makes you a "Celt". But this simply begs for a further definition: how do you know your ancestors were "Celtic"? Because they came from Ireland or Scotland or Wales or one of the other countries that are thought of as "Celtic" today? All this says is that you are of Irish or Scottish or Welsh descent i.e., that some of your ancestors were born on the geographical territories bearing those names. But what common thread runs through those national identities to justify thinking of them as representing a single genetic heritage? There's no such thing as a "Celtic race". A very diverse mix of populations contributed to the genetic heritage of each of the six Celtic nations, and while geographical proximity has given them certain traits in common, there are as many differences as similarities. So, if there is no unifying physical factor to define them, what makes them all "Celtic"? The answer would have to be that they share a cultural heritage we call by that name.

This brings us to the cultural definition of the term "Celtic". It is the definition all Celtic scholars work with, and the one I use myself. But what is "Celtic culture"? If you simply mean any cultural tradition that exists or has existed on the territory of the six Celtic countries, then that would have to include English culture, French culture, Scandinavian culture and probably, by now, a number of Asian cultures as well. The only "hard" cultural definition of the term "Celtic" (and, again, the one Celtic scholars use) is a linguistic one: "Celtic" refers to a family of interrelated languages all descended from a common ancestor (Old Celtic, spoken during the late Bronze and early Iron Age) and to the cultural traditions expressed through those languages. This means that a huge portion of western and central Europe, well beyond the present-day Celtic nations, was once part of the Celtic realm. It also means that some cultural activity in the Celtic countries (for instance, writing by English-language authors with no interest in Celtic-language tradition) has no relation to anything Celtic at all. The six modern Celtic nations are called "Celtic" because a Celtic language is still spoken in each one of them, serving as the focus for that nation's main cultural heritage. And we can use the term "ex-Celtic" to describe the situation of regions where Celtic languages have ceased to be spoken and Celtic culture thus ceased to exist, although scattered fragments of it may remain embedded in the new culture the people have adopted.

The confusion arises when cultural identity is equated with genetic heritage. Those whose ancestors came from a Celtic land may indeed, if they wish, claim the title "Celt" for themselves as a "birthright", but what precisely about them is "Celtic" in a cultural sense, beyond the name? As I've pointed out before, culture is not passed down through the genes. Simply having Celtic ancestors does not give one any special insight into Celtic civilization. It can provide one with a powerful motivation to learn about Celtic culture, but it will not, in and of itself, give one a superior aptitude to learn. This is, in some ways, a peculiarly American problem: when our families came to this continent as immigrants many of them lost the use of their languages and all direct access to their ancestral cultures, so that genetic lineage has come to be more important than culture itself in defining ethnic identities within what is really one vast Anglo cultural continuum with regional variations. Taken too far, this can lead to a really obnoxious form of racism, as in the claim that one's genetic background must define one's cultural allegiance the claim that people with black skins, for instance, should only be attracted to African traditions (and, conversely, should have no place in European ones), or that only people with Native American "blood" (however little) should have any involvement with Native American cultures, and so forth. Given the amount of ethnic mixing that has taken place here, the demand for "pure" ethnicity becomes ludicrous. As someone who is part-Russian, part-French, what single ethnic label could I possibly give myself? I suppose I could claim a "Gaulish" lineage through my mother's side, but it would have very little to do with why I am attracted to Celtic culture, and why I've devoted much of my life to studying and defending it. I know people of "Celtic" descent who are actively participating in African traditions, and people of African descent on this continent who feel drawn to Celtic things. For that matter, I know people of African descent in Wales and Scotland who are fluent in Welsh and Gaelic and have completely embraced Celtic language, culture and ethnic identity. One major promoter of the Breton language is Japanese. In my own concern for linguistic minorities worldwide, I've had the occasion to learn a good number of Native American and Oceanian languages. When I've met native speakers of those languages, they've been happy to converse with me and correct my mistakes when necessary, but have never made an issue of my genetic heritage (amusingly, it is only those who don't speak the languages who have objected to me on racial grounds!); language alone enables me to share their cultural continuum without laying claim to some surrogate ethnic identity. There is thus no necessary bond between genetic heritage and culture of choice (although the two often go together, for obvious reasons); and conversely, any culture one wasn't brought up in has to be learned, regardless of genetic background.

"Few of us in today's society have the combination of time, resources, and finances to study, travel, and find a language tutor." Well, when one looks at all the language schools and home-study language courses around that are doing well, someone must be using them. There are many excellent resources available for learning languages even small, economically unimportant languages like the Celtic ones that are not financially prohibitive and don't involve traveling to where the languages are spoken. As for the time factor, the key to making time for study is motivation; and I find the lack of such motivation in the Celtic/Druid milieu extremely disturbing, especially when one compares it to what goes on in other traditions. Anyone studying to be a rabbi, or simply to gain a deeper knowledge of Jewish tradition, would see the necessity of learning Hebrew. Anyone seeking a position of authority within Hinduism would study Sanskrit as a matter of course. And on a non-religious level, I don't think any Italian-American interested in his ancestral heritage would assert that Italian language is completely irrelevant to Italian culture; the same would go for most other ethnic Americans. It is only people who claim "Celtic" identity who treat their ancestors' languages with contempt or indifference (even though they say they revere the "culture" of the past). This simply reflects the colonial experience in the Celtic countries themselves, the horrifying process by which Celtic peoples were driven to reject the language that linked them to the culture of their ancestors, and which led them to pass on that rejection to their descendants. The same colonial heritage manifests itself when we depreciate the modern Celtic world and substitute a mostly fictitious, Anglo-derived "ancient Celtic wisdom and world-view" for the living essence of Celtic tradition.

How could we possibly have any knowledge of the "ancient Celtic wisdom and world-view" if we had not been guided by the living tradition? The Druids left no literary records. What their Roman conquerors wrote about them is fragmentary and problematic. The only other sources we have for ancient Celtic religious practices are archaeological digs of temple sites, Roman-influenced statuary, and some inscriptions and most of this evidence would be impossible to interpret without the frame of reference that living Celtic tradition provides. Knowledge of modern Celtic languages gave scholars access to ancient ones. It is because pioneers of Celtic scholarship like Eoghan O'Curry spoke modern Irish that they were able to make sense of Old Irish manuscripts and lay the groundwork for the translation of older Irish texts into international languages. The word Samonios in the Coligny Calendar makes sense to us because we know the modern Irish word Samhain. Thanks to the Welsh word caled ('hard'), we can guess what the ancient tribe called the Caletes thought of themselves. It is because we have the Irish words cing and that we can understand what the name of the famous Gaulish rebel Vercingetorix means ('great leader of warriors'). One could go on for pages listing similar examples. And it is also to the ritual practices that have been preserved in Celtic-speaking communities that many scholars turn to get an inkling of what was done at Celtic religious sites in ancient times.

When [anyone] dismisses the modern Celtic world as a "muddied shadow", I'm not sure they realize there still are communities where Celtic language and tradition are fully alive. [In my interview in] People of the Earth, I talk about an ex-Celtic land, where the Celtic language had vanished long ago and the continuity of the cultural tradition was broken, leaving scattered remnants of Celtic customs that are no longer fully understood; but this is not at all the case in places where Celtic languages are still spoken. Examples of traditions becoming corrupted through time all refer to cases where the language that carried the tradition has been abandoned. I see no evidence that Native American languages have become particularly corrupt over the last 150 years; wherever they have remained strong, the culture remains strong, too. It is where they have ceased to be spoken that the traditions have disappeared, or been replaced by New Age ersatz. "Jazz, talking jive, and eating soul food" are not lineally descended from African culture: they are cultural traditions developed on this continent by people of genetic African ancestry who lost their direct connection with African tradition when they lost their ancestral languages. In Latin American slave communities (especially in Cuba and Brazil) where use of the Yoruba language was preserved, ancient spiritual traditions have survived that Yorubas from Africa can still recognize as authentic.

Is there a "spiritually relevant link between modern and ancient Celtic culture"? Of course, people don't go around worshipping gods and goddesses with names from the Mabinogion or the Book of Invasions (there's no evidence that the ancient Celts did, either). Many of the divinities have been transformed into saints with identical attributes (although some have maintained their pre-Christian identity). What has remained solid and constant is the ethos of relating to the Land, and the ritual forms needed to maintain that relationship properly. If this comes as news to some people, I suggest that, just for starters, they take a look at Mçire Mac NÄill's The Festival of Lúghnasa (1962): they will be made to appreciate that the "few surviving folk customs" can amount to a very hefty volume indeed! Mac NÄill had originally planned to study Lúghnasadh customs throughout the Celtic and ex-Celtic lands, but was so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the Irish material that she decided to limit her research to Ireland. What emerges from her study is a consistent body of theological and ritual material related to the feast which explains its ancient meaning, but which could never have been known from archaeology or from Classical or mediaeval literature (although they can provide some corroborating evidence). And Lúghnasadh was until then the least documented of the great quarterly feasts: the material on Samhain and Bealtaine could fill entire libraries (for a less in-depth but similarly instructive study of another feast, turn to F. Marian McNeill's account of Scottish Imbolc customs in The Silver Bough). Many of these customs are still alive today. It is the language of tradition, wherever it survives, that keeps them meaningful.

As for my use of the name "Kondratiev", why, it's the name I was born with: it reflects my partially Russian ancestry, and the fact that Russian is my native language and that I function quite naturally in Russian cultural milieus (among others). It is an aspect of my identity I am quite happy with, and which I see no reason to hide. In lieu of the "cultural genuflections" demanded of me, I spend the greater part of the year teaching the Irish language and matters relating to Celtic culture and history to "genetic" Irish people who feel a need to re-connect with the tradition of their ancestors. I have been doing this for over a dozen years, and have proudly watched many of my students achieve fluency and the cultural awakening that comes with it. I think this represents a far more tangible and profound investment in Celtic culture than if I had adopted a fake Celtic name. By the way, one of the best-known and most dynamic figures in the Irish-language scene in Ireland today is named Gabriel Rosenstock. Doesn't sound very Celtic, does it? Funny, no one over there seems to care.

Beir bua agus beannacht,

- Alexei Kondratiev


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