Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism (also Celtic Reconstructionism or CR) is a polytheistic reconstructionist approach to Celtic neopaganism, emphasizing historical accuracy over eclecticism such as is found in many forms of Neo-druidism. It is an effort to reconstruct and revive, in a modern Celtic cultural context, pre-Christian Celtic religions.
Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism originated in discussions among amateur scholars and Neopagans in the mid-1980s and evolved into an independent tradition by the early 1990s. Currently, “Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism” (CR) is an umbrella term with many recognized sub-traditions or denominations.
Celtic Reconstructionist Origins
As modern paganism grew in scope and cultural visibility, some Euro-Americans saw the pre-Christian religions of their ancestors as worthy of revival and the study of mythology and folklore to accomplish this. While most Neodruid groups of the period were primarily interested in “revitalizing the spirit of what they believe was the religious practice of pre-Roman Britain,” the Celtic Reconstructionists (CRs) focused only on “reconstructing what can be known from the extant historical record.”
Many of the people who eventually established Celtic Reconstructionism were involved in modern pagan groups in the 1970s and 1980s. Much dialogue in the 1980s took place at workshops and discussions at pagan festivals and gatherings and in the pages of pagan publications. This period, and these groups, are referred to in retrospect as “Proto-CR.” Later, with the Internet’s establishment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of these groups and individuals came together online. This began a period of increased communication and led to the growth of the movement.
The first appearance in print of the term “Celtic Reconstructionist,” used to describe a specific religious movement and not just a style of Celtic studies, was by Kym Lambert ní Dhoireann in the Spring 1992 issue of Harvest Magazine. Ní Dhoireann credits Kathryn Price NicDhàna with originating the term “Celtic Reconstructionist”; however, NicDhàna credits her early use of the term to a simple extrapolation of Margot Adler’s use of the term “Pagan reconstructionists” in the original, 1979 edition of Drawing Down the Moon. Though Adler devotes space to a handful of Reconstructionist traditions, none of those mentioned are specifically Celtic. In chapter eleven, while describing his Neo-druidic group, New Reformed Druids of North America (NRDNA), Isaac Bonewits uses the phrase “Eclectic Reconstructionist.” Eventually, this pairing of terms became oxymoronic; in the pagan/polytheist communities, reconstructionist had now come to mean traditions that specifically exclude eclecticism.
With the Internet’s growth during the 1990s, hundreds of individuals and groups gradually joined the discussions online and in print. The movement became more of an umbrella group, with several recognized sub-traditions.
Celtic Reconstructionist Practices
While Christianity largely subsumed the ancient Celtic religions, many religious traditions have survived in folklore, mythology, songs, and prayers. Many folkloric practices never completely died out, and some Celtic Reconstructionists (CRs) claim to have survivals of Irish, Scottish or Welsh folkloric customs in their families of origin.
Language study and preservation, and participation in other cultural activities such as Celtic music, dance, and martial arts forms, are a core part of the tradition. Participation in the living Celtic cultures – the cultures that exist in the “areas in which Celtic languages are actually spoken and in which Celtic traditions have been most faithfully handed down to the present day” – is vital to their cultural work and spiritual practice. The protection of Celtic archaeological and sacred sites is important to Celtic Reconstructionists. When construction of the N3 motorway in Ireland threatened to destroy archaeological sites around the Hill of Tara, Celtic Reconstructionists (among others) organized protests and a coordinated ritual of protection.
Like many other modern pagan traditions, Celtic Reconstructionism has no sacred texts, so personal research is stressed. To more fully reconstruct pre-Christian Celtic religions, many CRs study archaeology, historical manuscripts, and comparative religion, primarily of Celtic cultures, but sometimes other European cultures. Celtic Reconstructionists are not pan-Celtic in practice, but rather immerse themselves in a particular Celtic culture, such as Gaelic, Welsh, or Gaulish. According to Kathryn Price NicDhàna, CRs believe that while it is helpful to study a wide variety of Celtic cultures as an aid to religious reconstruction, and to have a broad understanding of religion in general, in practice, these cultures are not lumped together. Besides cultural preservation and scholarly research Celtic Reconstructionists believe that mystical, ecstatic practices are a necessary balance to scholarship. This balance is a vital component of any Celtic Reconstructionist tradition.
While CRs strive to revive historical Celtic peoples’ religious practices as accurately as possible, they acknowledge that some aspects of their religious practice are reconstructions. Celtic Reconstructionists state that their practices are based on cultural survival, augmented with the study of early Celtic beliefs found in texts and scholars and archaeologists’ work. Feedback from scholars and experienced practitioners is sought before a new practice is accepted as a valid part of a reconstructed tradition.
Celtic Reconstructionists believe it is important to lay aside elements of ancient Celtic cultures, which they consider inappropriate practices in modern society—Celtic Reconstructionists attempt to find ethical ways of integrating historical findings and research with daily life activities. Many Celtic Reconstructionists view each act of daily life as a form of ritual, accompanying daily acts of purification and protection with traditional prayers and songs from sources such as the Scottish Gaelic Carmina Gadelica or manuscript collections of ancient Irish or Welsh poetry. Celebratory, community rituals are usually based on community festivals recorded in folklore collections by authors such as F. Marian McNeill, Kevin Danaher, or John Gregorson Campbell. These celebrations often involve bonfires, dances, songs, divination, and children’s games. More formal or mystical rituals are often based on traditional techniques of interacting with the Otherworld, such as making offerings of food, drink, and art to the spirits of the land, ancestral spirits, and the Celtic deities. Celtic Reconstructionists give offerings to the spirits throughout the year, but more elaborate offerings are made to specific deities and ancestors at Samhain.
The ancient Irish swore their oaths by the “Three Realms” – Land, Sea, and Sky. Based on this precedent, reconstructed Gaelic ritual structures acknowledge the Land, Sea, and Sky, with the fire of inspiration as a central force that unites the realms. Many Celtic Reconstructionists maintain altars and shrines to their patron spirits and deities, often choosing to place them at outdoor, natural locations such as wells, streams, and special trees. Some Celtic Reconstructionists practice divination; ogham is a favored method, as are folkloric customs such as taking omens from the shapes of clouds or birds and animals’ behavior.
NicDhàna and ní Dhoireann have stated that they coined the term “Celtic Reconstructionist / Celtic Reconstructionism (CR)” specifically to distinguish their practices and beliefs from those of eclectic traditions like Wicca and Neo-druidism. With ní Dhoireann’s popularization of Celtic Reconstructionism in the neopagan press and then using the term by these individuals and others on the Internet, “Celtic Reconstructionism” began to be adopted as the name for this developing spiritual tradition.
Some groups that take a Celtic Reconstructionist approach to ancient Gaelic polytheism call themselves “Gaelic Traditionalists.” Preservation of the living traditions in modern Gaelic (and other modern Celtic) communities has always been a priority in Celtic Reconstructionism. However, according to The Celtic Reconstructionist FAQ, there has been some controversy around using the term “Gaelic Traditionalists” by groups outside of the Gaeltacht and Gàidhealtachd areas of Ireland, Scotland, and Nova Scotia. In the opinion of Isaac Bonewits, this is partly because “Gaelic Traditionalists” is a term used almost exclusively by Celtic Christians. As Kym Lambert ní Dhoireann put it, “Gaelic Traditionalists” means “those living and raised in the living cultures and who are keeping their culture, language and music alive, not any of the American polytheistic groups that have been using it lately.” The CR FAQ states that due to those in the Gaelic-speaking areas having a prior claim to the term, most Reconstructionists have been uncomfortable with the choice of other Reconstructionists to call themselves “Traditionalists,” a sentiment which Bonewits echoes. According to the authors of The CR FAQ, while the disagreement over terminology has at times led to a heated discussion, the polytheistic “traditionalists” and “reconstructionists” are taking the same approach to their religion, and there are generally good relations between the founders of both movements.
Celtic Reconstructionist Sub-traditions
While Celtic Reconstructionism was the earliest term in use and remained the most widespread, as the movement progressed, other names for a Celtic Reconstructionist approach were also popularized, with varying degrees of success. Some Celtic Reconstructionist groups have looked to the individual Celtic languages for a more culturally-specific name for the tradition or their branch of the tradition.
Some Gaelic-oriented groups have used the Scottish Gaelic, Pàganachd (‘Paganism, Heathenism’) or the Irish version, Págánacht. One Gaelic Polytheist group on the East Coast of the US has modified the Gaelic term as Pàganachd Bhandia (‘Paganism of Goddesses’).
In 2000, IMBAS, A Celtic Reconstructionist organization based in Seattle active during the late 1990s to early 2000s, adopted the name Senistrognata, a constructed “Old Celtic” term intended as translating to “ancestral customs.” Imbas is an Old Irish word meaning ‘poetic inspiration.’ The organization “promotes the spiritual path of Senistrognata, the ancestral customs of the Celtic peoples. It is a path open to Pagans, Christians, and Agnostics alike.”
The Irish word for ‘polytheism,’ ildiachas, is used by at least one group on the West Coast of the US as Ildiachas Atógtha (‘Reconstructed Polytheism’).
Celtic Reconstructionism and Neo-druidism
Though there has been cross-pollination between Neo-druid and Celtic Reconstructionist groups, and there is a significant crossover of membership between the two movements, the two have largely differing goals and methodologies to Celtic religious forms. Reconstructionists tend to place a high priority on historical authenticity and traditional practice. Some Neo-druids tend to prefer a modern Pagan, eclectic approach, focusing on “the spirit of what they believe was the religious practice of pre-Roman Britain.”
However, some Neo-druid groups (notably, Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), and the Henge of Keltria) adopted similar methodologies of reconstruction, at least some of the time. ADF, in particular, has long used reconstructionist techniques. Still, the group has been criticized for its pan-Indo-European scope, which may result in non-Celtic combinations such as “Vedic druids” and “Roman druids.”
Terminological differences exist as well, especially in terms of what druid means. Some Neo-druid groups call anyone interested in Celtic spirituality a “druid” and refer to the practice of any Celtic-inspired spirituality as “Druidry.” In contrast, reconstructionist groups usually use the older definition, seeing “druid” as a culturally-specific office that requires decades of training and experience, which is only attained by a small number of practitioners, and which must be conferred and confirmed by the community the druid serves.