The Truth of the Thing

A student asked me to talk a little about what I mean when I talk about creative nonfiction writers. She might be getting more than she bargained for, but I thought I would throw it up here in case someone else was wondering.  I promise I am going to post some practical stuff this month, too…Stephany

I bet you instantly recognize this as a Celtic Cross, right?  Except that its not. It is an Anglo Saxon cross at St Paul’s Church in Cumbria, England. Celts did not have a patent on knotwork.

There is a lot of fanciful neopagan recreation out there surrounding the word “Celtic” and it’s hard work to get to the truth of the thing.

Hell, my  thesis has errors because of it, even though I tried really hard to use sources I thought were viable.  I could probably give hundreds of examples.   Carmichael’s work compiling the charms of the Highlands absolutely employed some creative writing.  Then people muck around with them more by “paganizing” them further and soon they are being cited in academic papers as the original version and no one knows the difference. Luckily there are less creative sources and a good professor will call you on bullshit.  Thanks, Eva.[1]

So, here’s my first tip, if something says it is “adapted from” any source that means the author of the paper has changed the words to suit their own beliefs or worse yet prove an erroneous thesis—thus, creative nonfiction. It’s kind of akin to cherry picking except you just make things up yourself.  (This does not pertain to recipes.)

Even some of the beloved authors of the Celtic Twilight were prone to “throwing in a little fancy” to sell books.   (A professor used this phrase a lot.  It’s from a Melville quote: “ It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; . . . to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy. . . . Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.”)

For example, Lady Wilde wrote that a common saying in Ireland was “The blessing of Bel and the blessing of Samhain be with you,’ that is, of the sun and of the moon.”  Native Irish speakers of the day quickly scoffed at the idea, Douglas Hyde retorting,

“It would be interesting to know the locality where so curious a Pagan custom is still practised, for I confess that though I have spoken Irish in every county where it is still spoken, I have never been, nor do I expect to be, so saluted.”[2]   Hyde offers up this poem as likely being the source of her bit of fancy.

Patrick Sarsfield, a man with God are you are,
Blessed the country that you walk upon,
Blessing of sun and shining moon on you,
Since from William you took the day with you.
Och, och hone.

It’s funny to read Hyde’s books of stories because the discussions in his footnotes remind me of the discussions held on my Irish language forum today.   Before you think him perhaps sexist, you should know that he worked frequently with Lady Gregory and wasn’t entirely critical of Lady Wilde’s work.  He just disliked that she never named her sources and was not a native speaker, so unlike Lady Gregory she had to work entirely through translators.  He was equally harsh concerning American Jeremiah Curtin’s appalling handle on the language.  I regret not finding much of Hyde’s  work until after I wrote my thesis.

The fancy is, of course,  quite appealing to the public.   Frazer shared such odd and  unique explanations of his observations, that Edmund Leach a noted anthropologist of the 20th century to criticized Frazer’s assumptions saying that that he and other anthropologists seemed to think they “possess some kind of golden key whereby they can blandly assert that a particular piece of stereotyped human behaviour ‘stands for’ or ‘is a symbol of’ this, that, or the other thing.”[3]   At least Frazer tried to be objective.  Robert Graves wrote completely fictional poetic myths and convinced people it was history.

Jung’s work was infused with this as well, which is problematic as he shared his friend Freud’s  disdain for women. If you want a good collection of articles essays that tackle his evident racism, antifeminism, anti-Semitism read Post-Jungian Criticism Theory and Practice, edited by Baumlin, Baumlin and Jensen.

So, there’s another thing to look for.  If someone tries to tell you exactly what something meant, much it’s pretty conjecture on their part. As far as Frazer goes, you can generally accept the observation as fact, just ignore his interpretation and honestly don’t even bother reading Graves.

Start questioning everyone.  If someone tells you a word means something look into it.
If someone is using a word that you can’t find in an dictionary or defining it in some odd way, there is a strong chance that you are reading some creative nonfiction. Here are some online sources: Irish, Irish,  Scottish, Cornish

The poet modern author Irish linguists like to pick on most for “murdering the Irish language” is John O’Donahue. Take the word tenalach which O’Donahue defined as “a relationship one has with the land, air and water, a deep connection that allows one to literally hear the Earth sing.”

A linguist friend of mine had a lot to say about that, “Tenalach {sic} which would be properly spelled tenlach was a variant spelling for the word tellach[4] the Old Irish word for a fireplace or “those who shared a fireplace” so a family.”  There are variations of the word in Old and Middle Irish which have a variety of meanings related to fire such as tendálach [5] which translates to fiery.”

I suppose a bit of creative license is to be expected, but think what is lost by supplanting the true meaning of the word in this case? While not as flowery, I love that there is a word for people who share a hearth because I tend to attract stray people. 

And then there is his use of the word anamchara.  Despite the words literal translation, the word originally applied to members of the clergy.  Your anamchara was your confessor, offered spiritual advice and read you last rites.  O’Donahue’s claims that this was an extension of a Druidic tradition of priests advising kings kind of falls apart when you understand that at first this was only a thing amongst members of the clergy.  It was common practice in the church to have a colleague who was your confessor. Eventually everyone wanted one, because an anamchara could reduce the penance demanded of people for personal sin, by church doctrine.[6]

“In Ireland, everybody [this was written in the early 1960’s, he means every man] had an anamchara, a pater confessarius. It was a proverb: colann cen ceann, duine cen anamcharaid, a man without an anamchara is like a headless body’. Kings and princes, nobles and commoners, prelates and monks, all had their ‘soul-friends.”[7]

Power distribution in these relationships was not equal.  The anamchara was looking out for the well-being of the eternal souls in his charge and had little concern for their embodied selves’ physical comfort. The anamchara often demanded harsh sacrifice or toil from those they agreed to serve in this role.  One king had to fast for forty days and forty nights on nothing but bread and water.  Frequently, the white priests refused to let their charges have intercourse with their wives and forced them to live otherwise ascetic lives.

Not to go off on a weird tangent here but this was kind of significant.  Because the transition to Christianity went fairly smoothly in Ireland, they didn’t have any actual martyrs.  So the holy men got into some freaky stuff.   White martyrs were ascetics and  hermits and green martyrs were in to self-flagellation and penance.

So, please try to understand that when you are talking about your lovely Druidic friendship rite, anamchara, I am imagining Bishop Powertrip getting his jollies by making his penitent little puppets dance.  It detracts from my enjoyment of the word.

I have plenty of respect for O’Donahue as a poet and a visionary who wanted to make the world a better place, just don’t call him a historian or a linguist and we will get along just fine.  As Irish is a living, evolving language Donahue’s “soul friend” definition has been adopted, by enough people to make it valid as a modern definition.

I have the same issue with the word “herbalist.” Its meaning has clearly evolved over the years, but once I learned its etymology, the word started to remind me of elitist douchebags like Gerard who got the title because he wrote an herbal (in which he advocated beating women), so I stopped using the word to describe myself.

I am going to take just a minute to share with you what I find to be “the truth of the thing.”    I  have a problem with making shit up while you are invoking the ancestors.  Their words have meaning. Their beliefs were important to them.

I kind of live in dread fear of crossing over and talking to my great-grandmother like I know all the things, only to have her say “Jesus, Joseph, Mary, child, what the devil are you on about?” and hand me an ear of corn to shuck.

The whole idea of a uniform “Celtic” identity in Ireland has been pretty thrashed since we started mapping the human genome.  The Irish and Scottish share just as much genetics with indigenous people, Spanish and Russian ancestors as they do the Keltoi.    So I think it is time for us to give up this idea that only Druidic/Celtic customs influenced ancient Ireland because my Irish ancestors were not all Celts.

I also contend that it is poor form for people to appropriate Christian charms, “adapt” them, and call them their own.  Gaelic Christianity is part of my heritage, too. I am tired of being expected to feel badly about it.

I love the mishmash of beliefs represented in the charms as they were collected by Mackenzie, because it a representation of the beliefs of my ancestors at that time.  That is sacred to me and I don’t appreciate it being “re-paganized.”

Also, it’s never as good.  It doesn’t ring true in that part of you where you store the memory of the ancestors.

It’s one of those things about the UU that used to bug me.  They used the music for services that I heard sometimes growing up, but gave it new words. It was odd and I always found myself singing the “real” words under my breath.

I’ve probably gone on about this more than enough, but I do want to say that I love the idea of invention and I think the work that people involved in creating new and evolving forms of spirituality is important.

To me though you make something new, you want to revel it is newness and make everything about it uniquely yours.  Don’t just change the words to the same old song and redefine some old words.  They  might still mean something to someone.

           [1] Mackenzie, William. Gaelic incantations, charms, and blessings of the Hebrides… Inverness, Scotland: Northern Counties Newspaper and Printing and Pub. Co., 1895.
           [2] Hyde, Douglas. Beside the Fire: A Collection of Irish Gaelic Folk Stories. London: D. Nutt.
           [3] Leach, Edmund, E. R. “Magical Hair.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 88, no. 2 (1958): 147.
           [4] Royal Irish Academy. “eDIL - Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language.” Royal Irish Academy, 2017.
```````````[5] Ibid
           [6] Bradshaw, Brendan. “The Wild and Woolly West: Early Irish Christianity and Latin Orthodoxy.” Studies in Church History 25 (1989): 1–23.
           [7] Ryan, John. “The Sacraments in the Early Irish Church.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 51, no. 204 (1962): 508–520.