I originally posted this on alt.religion.druid on Thurs, Aug 30 2001 6:42 pm
Irish Traditional Materials, Objections and Rebuttals
Over the years, I've seen various comments made about Irish traditional materials and modern approaches to learning from them. Some of these comments have been very supportive of Irish tradition and have also been helpful in locating and learning from hitherto unknown sources/materials. Other comments have ranged from objective criticisms to outright attacks and even lies about Irish Celtic traditions and those who seek to follow them. I've listed some of the more prevalent objections that I've seen raised and have attempted to provide my own insights into how to handle each of these objections (and in some cases how to learn from them). Without further ado, here's what I came up with.
The Irish traditional materials receive these sorts and types of challenges from those who seek to negate them:
1. They are said to be inaccurate (and hence unreliable) because of one of the following factors:
A. They were written down hundreds of years after they were first formulated within the oral tradition and hence suffer from the failings of human memory.
The counter to this argument is that the stewards and guardians of these tales and materials were the Druids, Filidh and Seanchaí of the various tribes, They were (and in some places still are) renown for the accuracy of their memories and recitations. The traditional tales were know verbatim by thousands of trained minds and memories. The extent to why someone buys into this idea of memory corruption seems to be based on their experience or lack of experience with those people and cultures who have accurate memories. Some people will swear that the material was remembered without flaw (which was a requirement within the schools of the Druids and the Filidh) while others will talk about *party games* and the corruption to be found within the average modern memory. Those who are between these extremes might point to modern studies of memory within oral cultures and point to changes and discrepancies that occur in recitations (with the result being many different, though similar versions of the same tales).
B. They were actually written down by Christian scribes who edited their Pagan content according to Christian biases.
The Filidh co-existed with these scribes. In fact, it was they who recalled the tales so that they could be written down in the first place. Many of these Filidh could read and write Latin and Irish themselves. As the guardians of the tales and traditions, they would have raised a loud and lengthy argument against any distortions and changes in the tales (of which they themselves did not approve). We see little disputing the content of the tales except for the disclaimers of the scribes themselves against the veracity of any Pagan or counter-Christian materials within them. some of the tales do have obvious synchronization or Christian themes within them. This does not mean that all of the tales are like that and even in the worst case of modification there are still underlying Pagan spiritual concepts left within the material. An inventory of identifications and classifications of these Christian themes can be developed and maintained to allow the student to efficiently recognize them.
The saying is preserved in a text from the Book of Leinster:
"Ní fili nad chomgne comathar nad scéla uile" (He is no poet who does not synchronize and preserve the ancient knowledge).
The tale list that a File was required to know perfectly is translated here:
The original Irish from the Book of Leinster is here:
C. Many of the tales seem to follow the form and storyline of other well known European tales and sagas like the Odyssey or the Aenid.
This is problematic in the study of any literature. Much ongoing work, analysis and discussion occurs on this topic in every academic forum concerning the Irish tradition materials. It is recommended that every student and researcher keep abreast of the latest *theories* as to influence and origin of each of the tales. The amounts and quantification of these influences seems to fluctuate with academic circles based upon the latest fads making the rounds. Even if all the tales were constructed based on this approach, we would still learn something about the early Irish societies based solely on what they selected to include and how they handled the incorporation of that material into clearly native Irish traditions. Once again, it can be seen that a study of the Irish traditional tales will be beneficial to a student of Irish traditions.
D. The tales were used as social and political tools to increase or maintain status for various powerful families and dynasties.
This is a very real possibility with the tales as one of the functions of the Filidh and (later) the Church was to support their benefactors and to increase their prestige. It is for this reason that a study of Irish history is necessary to place each tale in the proper objective perspective. One must be able to identify the subjective influences on the tales by their authors or custodians. It should be borne in mind that other Filidh also had access to the same traditional tales with similar opportunities to slant or adopt a tale for their own groups or aims. It is for this reason that all of the available surviving versions of a tale are analyzed by those who research them. One version of a tale is compared to another to identify corruptions or political modifications. One should check editions to see that this has been done. In the case of original materials, one should seek out all available versions (and even similar tales by the same authors or scribes).
E. The tales are just stories to influence the young and the feeble minded.
I think that a complete study of all the tales within context will show which are merely a yarn, which have historical content and which might teach a philosophy or moral that was applicable to a time within Irish culture. a study of comparative religions, mythologies and philosophies will be very helpful in weeding the fallacies from such tales and also allow one to discard clearly impossible fantasies. Discernment and a good grasp on the possibilities that exist with the natural, scientific and esoteric worlds, is necessary in the consideration of any fantastic materials.
F. What applied to one era of Irish history and culture does not apply to another directly. The tales and the historical evidence spans thousands of years.
This is very true that the Irish traditional material and the history within which it was created *did* span upwards of 5000 years. Not many other cultures or people have this wealth of material and background within which to learn and upon which to establish modern traditions, realizations and techniques. It is also true that for a great part of that history (at least half of it or about 2500 years), the Irish culture has been characterized as being Celtic. This means that it had a conservative learned class of Druids and Poets to preserve the traditions. A long held saying among the Irish is, "He is no Poet who does not preserve the ancient tales and synchronize the common knowledge." As I've said before, the Druids, Filidh and Seanchaí had a responsibility to preserve these traditions. They studied from 12 to 20 years to perfect their knowledge of them and to learn techniques that would aid them in their tasks. What all this means to this point is that traditions changed very slowly among the Irish. Scholars characterize these types of traditions as being conservative. It is because Irish tradition has been so conservative of its materials that one can compare it to Hindu and Indian materials and traditions that are remarkably similar. This is because Indian society and culture is also very conservative of tradition for many of the same reasons as are found within Irish culture. A study of these commonalities was done by the great Celtic scholar Myles Dillon in his work, Celts and Aryans.
2. These are some other areas of objection that don't concern themselves with accuracy:
A. The Irish materials don't apply to other Celtic cultures.
This is a moot point for those whose only interest is in Irish culture and traditions. For those seeking to apply what is known from Irish materials a broadly based study of other Celtic and Indo-European cultures is necessary (and perhaps even the real objective in the first place). I think people should be encouraged to study and research the traditions and materials that most appeal to them personally. I don't think such a study would be harmful to anyone. I do want to say that not all Celtic ways apply to every Celtic culture though there must be some identifiable characteristics in common between the various Celtic cultures in order for them to even be considered to be Celtic. The first obvious requirement is whether the culture or people shared a common Celtic language or languages. Usually this aspect of a culture's language is determined from the modern remnants of those languages that are still being spoken or from the written parts of the language that was preserved in writings, inscriptions and books. Another part of Celtic culture that seems to have been pan-Celtic (though in different time frames) is their artwork. Two large groupings of art's influence on Celtic people and culture are known as La Tene and Halstatt styles. There are other groupings that may apply as well; these being the Beaker and Corded-ware people (who may variously be described as being Celtic or proto-Celtic). Myles Dillon and Nora Chadwick identified art and language as well as several additional commonalties within Celtic cultures in their seminal work, _Celtic Realms_. These are the main identifiers of a culture according to the authors:
Art, music, social structure, spirituality, tradition and language.
B. Another broad class of objections are just "flack." These objections are smoke screens and non-related noises that are used in attempts to discredit Irish traditions. They are sometimes based on the personal and/or secret agendas of those raising the objections. These are not *honest* objections at all but are merely an attempt to confuse and muddy the waters (especially when no clear rebuttal or counter-point can be made). A lot of these types of attacks come in the guise of "strawman" arguments (where hypothetically created strawman arguments are set up so that they can be knocked down again). Most of these pseudo-arguments are constructed to subtly include weaknesses that can be discounted in the later *proof* or rebutting evidence. They are "set-ups" and "frame-jobs." People who use these tactics don't have any valid objections to Irish Celtic materials so they attempt to create fictitious flaws in their own versions of it.
C. The material is characterized as being neo-Pagan or New Age and must obviously be made up, misunderstood or the product of an *air-head*.
These objections are actually either "flack" or they are a clear indication that the person making them up is biased and/or bigoted in some way. If the material is not worthy, then clear-cut facts and objections can be made to them based upon their content and what they actually *say*. It's not necessary for any reputable scholar or person to resort to name calling and finger pointing (though unfortunately, many of us are all too human and prone to emotional and irrational responses at times). Some Newage and neo-Pagan material is well researched, thought out and pertinent to the topics and traditions that they address. The traditional material has stood the test of time and a new packaging of it is possible without diluting or polluting it. Anyone that tells you otherwise is IMO working with a closed mind (if they have a working consciousness at all).:-)
D. The person making the objection is lazy in their own research, inaccurate in their information or they just can't recognize truth when they see it.
This might be because a person is biased or just narrow-minded. It could also be a mark of laziness or mental incapacity on their part. It's best to check with such people to verify what their situation is before going ballistic. They might be new to the subject or ignorant about it because they haven't previously had access to valid information. Their own teacher might have been such a person as well. a lot of people who've read and embraced 21LOM might fall into this category. As P.T. Barnum said, all of us get fooled some of the time. Be nice and if you can't be nice, then at least be informed and informative.
Those are all the approaches of attacks on Irish tradition that I can quickly bring to mind, as well as a few points to consider when addressing each of them. IMO, one should consider both sides of the issue when evaluating and learning from the Irish tales and traditions. It is my opinion that there is much to learn from a careful study of any and all of them. If one also studies widely to establish a basis for objective evaluation then the maximum benefit will accrue within one's knowledge. In fact, this wide, deep and detailed study over a lifetime of study is one of the characteristics I've seen in my own study and experience of Druids and Filidh. May you study with an objective and an attentive mind.