Gentlidecht: Old Irish for (Irish) Heathenism

Since the movement began Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans (CRP) have been seeking something better to call ourselves, a term that would flow off the tongue like, Asatru, Romuva or Theodism but many stumbling blocks existed, and still do.  No country has accepted any form of CRP as a national religion as is the case for Asatru nor has there been a small group still practicing a version of the ancient Celtic religion as is the case for Romuva for the Baltic faith. There is also the unlikelihood that there ever was one religion that spanned all the Celtic peoples or that there could be single word that identified what the religion was among the varied Celtic language speaking peoples.

 

So how could we have a single word to describe what could be many related but different religions?  There is the option of creating a neologism from a language referred to as Proto-Celtic.  Alexi Kondrotiev did this for the defunct organization Imbas, Inc.  The word was not accepted outside of the organization so it never caught on and once the organization went defunct the word that was created fell into disuse.

Instead of trying to come up with a single word focusing on a linguistically specific version is the next option.  Again there are neologisms that have been created by groups that never spread beyond the group and then there is the option of appropriating an old word and redefining it in a modern context.    I am only aware of two attempts at re-appropriation and of the two only one appears on any list of CRP religions and both were only ever used by their proponents.

The obvious ideal would be to use a word utilized by the pre-Christian people to describe their own belief system.  However, to date no one has been able to locate such a word in any of the Celtic languages so we assume that none existed or the scribes intentionally did not pass it on to us.

Accepting that neologisms and re-appropriation have not succeeded, that there is no pre-Christian word available and that it is not possible to have a single word to cover all the various version of CRP then perhaps we should look for  words used by the Christians to describe the pagan religion within specific cultures.  My focus is Irish so looking into the Irish sources we do in fact have two such words, the Old Irish gentlidecht and the Middle Irish págánacht. Both are loan words from Latin that the scribes Gaelicized and are translated as heathenism and paganism and are used by different authors during the same period. In all but one instance writers chose one word over another with only one 17th century writer using both words in the same manuscript.

The oldest use of págánacht can be found in a document known as “A Middle-Irish Fragment of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History” (Unknown, 2008). It is an 11th century translation of the Old English manuscript written by the 8th century monk Saint Bede. The translator used pagandai and paganacht throughout the manuscript in place of the words hæthen and hæthenesse (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1895). Págánach, a pagan, is also found in use in 15th -16th century document “The Gaelic abridgment of the Book of Ser Marco Polo” (Stokes, 1896). Further págánacht, págánach continued to be used into the modern Irish where págánacht is the word for both “paganism” and “heathenism” (An Gúm, 1992, pp. 108,162,434).

Meanwhile I have been able to find gentlidecht and its variants in many more manuscripts in Old Irish, Middle Irish and early modern Irish but it seems to have fallen into disuse by the 18th century as I can’t find it in any reference after the 17th century.  The oldest confirmed documented use of a variant geinti, translated as heathens or pagans, is in the “Sanas Cormaic: an Old-Irish Glossary compiled by Cormac úa Cuilennáin, King-Bishop of Cashel in the 9th century” edited by Kuno Meyer. We find a variant used by the 10th century bishop Saint Oengus of Tallaght in his manuscript “The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee”. (1905)  It turns up in use in a 15th century religious manuscript called “Leabhar Breac”” and its latest use appears to be a late 16th century early 17th century manuscript called “Foras Feasa ar Éirinn” by Geoffrey Keating where he spells it gheintlidheachta (Keating, 1857). It does not appear to make it into current Modern Irish as it is not found in any online translator or Irish to English dictionary that I have accessed.

The origin of both words is Late Latin, 3rd-6th century Common Era, gentilis and paganus. Gentilis at one time meant belonging to a tribe, over time it took on the meaning of “not a Roman citizen”’ and after the Christianization of the empire it came to mean non-Christians (Wikipedia, 2013). Paganus is a military word for ‘civilian’ but by the 5th century was used in a religious context to mean non-Christian (Harper, pagan, 2013). Gentile and pagan are attested to have entered the English language in the 14th century when it replaced the use of hethen about 300 years after their use in the Irish (Harper, gentile, 2013).

Some have chosen to use the term págánacht, not necessarily following the tradition set by other Neopagans of simply using the term Pagan but slightly redefining it to mean their form of CRP when it is capitalized. I am of the opinion that when you call yourself Págánacht, you may as well say Heide or Pagano (pagan/heathen in German and Spanish) it is still the generic term for Pagan, you’re just saying it in Gaelic and a native speaker may not understand your speaking of a specific religious tradition.

However, I argue that the older and recently unused word is a better choice to describe the Irish reconstructionist faith. Gentlidecht has not been used since the 17th century and is older than págánacht by a hundred years. It’s usage in the manuscripts is simply a description not a pejorative the way that the words pagan and gentile came to be once they entered the English language. There is no judgment when the scribes tell us “For the men of Ireland have again followed gentlidecht as it was at first before belief, before Patrick’s advent…” (Lupus, 2013) just a statement of fact. This allows us to adopt it for the 21st century without having to change its original meaning; the beliefs of the pre-Christian Irish.

So while we could not locate a name for our faith prior to the 10th century, we have a word that is used in a desirable context and meant exactly what we want it to mean. To learn it we simply had to set aside our own prejudices and look to the scribes of the early church in Ireland and see what they had to say about the beliefs of the pre-Christian Irish. Lucky for us, they did have something to say. More than that they pointed out that some of the beliefs were still being practiced and they called it gentlidecht.

Note: Many thanks go to C.L.Vermeers who first introduced me to the word gentlidecht and P. Sufenus Virius Lupus for eir article “Gentlidecht: Ireland Before Christianity (Sort Of)” that lead me to the first sources used to put together this article.

Updated:

C.L.Vermeers provided a modern version of the word “gintlíocht” which he says is used to mean ‘sorcery’.

Morgan Daimler provided the following from an Irish dictionary.  Gintliocht – 1. Gentilism, paganism. 2. Gentile lore; heathen craft; sorcery (var: gintleacht) from Focloir Gaeilge-Bearla, by Niall O Donaill, published by Rialtas na hEireann 1977

eDIL( http://edil.qub.ac.uk) has many variations of Gentlidecht but none ever meant gentile as we use the word in English.  However, eDIL does have genti and gent meaning heathen/pagan or when used in a Jewish context to mean gentiles.

Changed the title from  ” Gentlidecht: Gaelic for Irish Heathenism” to ” Gentlidecht: Old Irish  for (Irish) Heathenism”.  Gaelic is the modern language and the gentlidecht is from the Old Irish.

An Gúm. (1992). Foclor Poca. Dublin: An Gúm.
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. (1895). (T. Miller, Trans.) London: Early English Text Society.
Harper, D. (2013, September 17). gentile. Retrieved from Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=gentile
Harper, D. (2013, September 17). pagan. Retrieved from Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pagan
Keating, G. (1857). The History of Ireland from the Earliest Period Through the English Invasion. (J. O’Mahony, Trans.) New York: P.M. Haverty.
Lupus, P. S. (2013, May 13). Gentlidecht: Ireland Before Christianity (Sort Of). Retrieved September 17, 2013, from Witches & Pagans: http://witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Paths-Blogs/what-is-gentlidecht.html
Martyology of Oengus the Culdee. (1905). (W. Stokes, Trans.) London: Henry Bradshaw Society.
Stokes, W. (Ed.). (1896). The Gaelic abridgment of the Book of Ser Marco Polo. Retrieved September 2013, from CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T305002/
Unknown. (2008, 09 29). A Middle-Irish Fragment of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Retrieved September 2013, from CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/G100052/index.html
Wikipedia. (2013, September 17). Gentile. Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentile

4 thoughts on “Gentlidecht: Old Irish for (Irish) Heathenism

  1. I'd like to point out that the word is still current in modern Irish, though the spelling has changed (in line with other spelling reforms of the modern language). It is now gintlíocht, and is conventionally translated as "sorcery" – but keep in mind that the word "druidism", draíocht is similarly translated as "magic, enchantment"!

    • Faoladh,

      When did that shift occur? I have been unable to find gentlidecht after the 17th century. Was it a spelling shift but continued use of the word or did they re-invent the word or what?

    • The spelling reform? That was in the early 20th century, I think.

      It is entirely possible that it was not in common use and simply added to the dictionaries by antiquarian language activists, but I don't actually have any solid information on that. Whatever, it is there now (take a look in the Foclóir Póca).

  2. I also want to add (and probably will later) that Gentlidecht and Gentile. while sharing a source "gentilis' have never be used in the same context.

    The Irish word gentlidecht has always meant 'heathen/pagan beliefs". While gentile has only ever meant 'non-Jew' or "non-Christian" (and non-Mormon in the Church of Latter Day Saints).

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