[I] cast [my] lot with the Fianna: to have rivers, wastes and wilds, and woods, and precipices, and estuaries

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Blue Heron in flight The title comes from a passage in Standish Hayes O’Grady’s translation of The Colloquy of the Ancients, “Verily the younger son elected to cast in his lot with the Fianna: to have rivers, wastes and wilds, and woods, and precipices, and estuaries.” (it is on pg. 69, The Irish “Rue do roga in mac ba só . beith ré Féind, ní himargó, foithri, fássaigi, feda . aibhne is alia is indbera.” can be found Whitley Stokes ed., Acallamh na Senórach I,  Irische Texte vol 4, part 1, 1900  pg. 71)

The passage tells of brothers dividing Ireland, the elder’s share were the houses, domestic herds, riches and civilized men. After the elder’s murder, the younger avenged him and took all of Ireland back, giving the leadership of the Fianna to Morna, eventually to pass to Finn MacCumhail, of course. It’s a phrase that struck a cord for me, the indication is that the younger son preferred the wilderness, for he chose it, and that this was seen as an equable division. For the wilderness always seems preferable to me and I have come to see it as the best place to cast my own lot, while so many have turned their backs on it.

I have lived in urban areas, but at one point even then I identified as the Outlaw, one of the wilderness, acting as an Outsider in a couple of Druid groves to which I never actually belonged. One became a very formal role. However, when this arrangement ceased to be, mostly due to my acting on behalf of the members as I should and becoming scapegoated by them (which too may be fitting for for that role), I made the mistake of trying to go Inside. As many others do, I became interested in trying to create some sort of community, broadly based with many roles. A focus on culture. It burned me out. It wasn’t my place.

It seems that for most Gaelic Polytheists there is a strong focus on the civilized culture of the Gaels and finding ways to recreate it or even who claim that they live in some form of Gaelic community (I’m referring to those who are here in the US). Some are very focused on recreating what they see as Pre-Christian society, although most of our information is actually well into the Christian period. They are trying to reconstruct the concept of the túath, often complete with the class system. Others look to the later and modern Gàidhealtachd/Gaeltacht. In both cases there is often a lot of, rather necessary, adaptations which I found I am not comfortable with.

I don’t live in the Gàidhealtachd, I do not live anywhere where it once existed; I simply live where some from those lands, with those languages, immigrated. And gave up their language and culture to assimilate because that was the option they saw best at the time.  I can’t pretend that I am truly part of a living culture nor can I create a childhood of “Gaelic traditions” despite having both Scottish and Irish ancestry (along with French). There is a generation between myself and my last Gàidhlig speaking ancestor, two generations between myself and my last Gaeilge speaking one. Like my father who was Québécois they saw assimilation into “America culture” very important for survival and the survival of their children, especially in light of the discrimination that they experienced first hand.  I might see this as sadly short-sighted, but I can’t pretend it wasn’t what happened.

 This is not to dismiss the importance of the cultures, then or now. We must learn about them to understand them. We must support the living cultures so that they can grow and continue, including keeping the languages going. But this is different than claiming we are living in them, unless we are actually living in the Gàidhealtachd, something which is not an option for most of us.

But would I fit in these cultures if I were born to them? Outside of what we must now accept are Victorian fantasies of multitudes of women warriors fighting as equal to the men, um, not so much.  I’ve already noted that accounts of female warriors in the literature are predominantly Outlaws, aside from Medb and her sisters and Macha Mongruadh, who were instead Queens. Not common, everyday, in the community soldiers.

The more I read and reread the writings of McCone, Nagy and Sharp as well as sections of the literture, the more I am convinced that these warbands constituted more than just a way-station for young men between fosterage and gaining inheritance and adult status.The the Fianna/díberga were fully a counterculture, albeit one of the wild, to the more civilized culture that they protected. And a very Pagan one possibly well into the Christian period. I believe we must try to understand this wild culture too, as much as the civilized one we know more of. We might never be able to know enough about it, but this is the situation we have with all Pagan Gaelic culture…we have no direct information from those living it, our “myths” are not actually myths but Christian literature. This, as I keep noting, why we “Reconstruct,” because we do have to.

Uprooted tree in our swampThis also brings to mind the popular debate about whether Gaelic Paganism is a nature religion or not. Many other cultural Reconstructionists are much clearer that they are not, as some are very urban religions often in conflict with nature. There does seem to be some of that in the more Gaelic ways which are more mainstream and focused on the culture. The romanticism that all of Celtic religion is based in nature, rather than a defense from nature, is, well, romantic. But the Outlaws were of nature, so I can keep that romanticism all I want. Even while actually living with it, understanding why there is often a hostility to it from those who didn’t and don’t have the luxury of seeing it from afar while in their safe houses or apartments, eating food they picked up from a grocery they traveled paved roads to go to and really being separate from that nature they claim to love. Of course, some of us get very romantic about hardship even as we’re in it….some of us cal ourselves homesteaders.

This is the land I belong to now, although my people are late comers. I don’t own it, it owns me. I can’t tame it, it wilds me. It feeds me, it homes me, it both protects and challenges me and I care for it as best I can. I am of the rivers, well brooks anyway, “wastes” and wilds and woods, although the closest precipices are a bit of a hike and I’m rather far from any estuaries. But lots of fresh water swamp. We share it with the deer, the coyotes, the fox, the bear, the stouts, the squirrels, the beaver and countless birds. This is my religion and if not culture then it is my community.

copyright © Saigh Kym Lambert

4 thoughts on “[I] cast [my] lot with the Fianna: to have rivers, wastes and wilds, and woods, and precipices, and estuaries

  1. I've seen you talk about this a little bit in past posts, but the ideas you're writing about really reached me on a couple of levels this time. Similarly to how there are living Gaelic cultures, there are still living Chinese cultures (though modernization and industrialization are killing a lot of them). But I'm not part of any of them, and your question "would I fit in these cultures if I were born to them?" is one I've asked myself many a time.

    There is also a rich history of outlaw and hermit-types living on the margins of Chinese society, and I've always felt inspired by those stories. In actuality, I draw more of my practice from what I know "normal" Chinese people do, but the example of those outsiders gives me reassurance about what my actual situation is (i.e. on the margins of the larger Chinese culture, and definitely on the margins of the American one in which I actually live).

    I also struggle a lot with feeling like an outsider in the pseudo-communities I've chosen to participate in (gods, how disgustingly modern that sentence is!). I've drifted away (though not broken with entirely) from the ones I've interacted with in the past, but I haven't reached the point where I've decided to embrace that identity for all potential future communities. It sounds like you've come to a definitive realization that the Outsider is a part of your identity, which seems like a very useful self-knowledge.

    But like I said above, when it comes to the mainstream American culture, I'm an outsider. I know that for sure, and it pervades who I am and what I do.

    I'm not familiar with the "nature religion" debate within CR, but I can imagine some of the arguments from what you've written. Sure, the Romanticism of the 1800s will inevitably cloud attempts to interpret what we know the past, and even color our perceptions of the world today. And sure, anyone living thousands (or even hundreds) of years ago struggled with what could be called "forces of nature." But if the view of Nature as a monolithic Other is irreparably influenced by Romanticism (which isn't to say that people in the past never felt that way about the wilderness), then it seems equally silly to say that the ancient religions of partially urban cultures were exclusively "in conflict with nature," doesn't it? Even if natural forces cause destruction, they also bring benefits to humans, even if it's through the actions of gods or heroes that those benefits are realized–I guess I keep on thinking of river deities, here, so it's not a universal theory or anything. And don't so many of the powers actually live somewhere in the land or on the tops of mountains? It feels to me that there's something to that which defies a simple dichotomy.


  2. Ack! I am bad about responding to comments here sometimes.

    Maya and Donna, I am sorry, I'll try to stop reading your minds. LOL Seriously, I am glad it hit a chord.

    Heathenchinese, thank you for sharing your thoughts and I am sorry I hadn't responded earlier. I believe the culture/nature issue is extremely complex and intertwined, indeed far from a clear dichotomy. I think attempts to make them opposed always fall apart. I think this is why the Outlaws of Gaelic culture ring so strongly for me, as likely similar roles from other cultures might. Because of the liminality of being an Outsider who actually has a role inside the culture. This sort of flow is needed, because we never are completely separate from either nature nor human community. Nature and culture constantly interact on each other, I think part of being the Outlaw in this way is to be standing in a place where you see this and try to negotiate it. Hmmm…Perhaps I delayed responding because this gets me thinking to much. LOL

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