Outlaws/Outsiders Part I – Fénidecht

The following article has been published in “Oak Leaves – The Quarterly Journal of Ár nDraíocht Féin” Spring 2014 Issue No. 64

If  you attend Neopagan festivals or belong to a public Neopagan group, you have likely encountered individuals who, while willing to participate in social activities, for specific and often spiritually-based reasons they are unwilling or unable to take part in the religious aspects. As Neopagans, we generally accept that from outside the community many of us appear different from the norm or don’t seem to fit easily into mainstream culture. It’s often this “otherness” that brings us together, despite the variety of our beliefs and practices. So it’s understandable that when our members seem committed to remaining apart from our most central religious activities, we may react with disdain, discomfort, or simply not know what to do with them. After all, what’s the point of belonging to a community if you don’t actually want to belong?

At issue is a basic misunderstanding: Neopaganism as a whole has not yet recognized the true  motivations and needs of these individuals, nor recognized that a historically-grounded role known as the ‘outsider’ can be a powerful spiritual path for its practitioners while also contributing to the broader
Neopagan culture.

Though every person has his or her own reasons for remaining on the fringe of their chosen community, this article will focus on the Gaelic based ‘warrior outsider’ path known as fénidecht. Presented here  from a historical perspective as well as a modern spiritual practice for those who identify as Irish or  Scottish polytheists, we look to the tales of the Irish warbands known as fiana for inspiration.

Ancient Fiana
 Up until the medieval period, communities of Indo-European descent were routinely harassed and, paradoxically, protected by bands of men living in the wilds. Often wearing the pelts of and referred to as wolves, these men  have had many names among many peoples, such as the French iuventus, Irish fíana, Germanic úlfhéðnar, Welsh gwyn , Greek krypteia, Gaulish gaesates and in Indo-European *koryos (McCone, The Celtic and Indo-European Origins of the Fian 22, 30; McCone, Werewolves,  Cyclopes, Diberga, and Fianna: Juvenile Delinquency in Early Ireland 15). As in other cultures, the Irish fíana,  were typically comprised of temporarily disenfranchised youth (such as second sons without inheritance or uncontrollably rowdy adolescents), social outcasts, and self-imposed outcasts seeking recompense for offenses given outside the law (as in the case of Nessa, who sought  to avenge her foster father’s death at the hands of a fían). (McCone, Werewolves, Cyclopes, Diberga, and Fianna: Juvenile Delinquency in Early Ireland 13; Nagy, The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in
the Gaelic Narrative Tradition 48-51). Living outside of established communities, these men formed an ancient counterculture; existing beyond the bounds and protections of their villages laws, they had their own rules and values.

Leading these outlaw bands were older warriors who for various reasons never transitioned back into the communities. Instead, they trained and fostered the young men (and if we believe the tales, sometimes women) who were sent to them to become féinnidi (singular féinnid).  Despite being part of the counterculture, these aging warriors were held in high regard by local leaders and ironically were often asked to enforce the established laws and defend towns and villages from outside forces. Despite such status, they remained outsiders in both their eyes and those of the people they protected. They lived
and worshipped their gods on their own.  (Nagy, The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in the Gaelic Narrative Tradition 50; McCone, The Celtic and Indo-European Origins of the Fian 20).
According to the lore, in Ireland these bands were led by gods and heroes such as Finn mac Cumaill; Nessa, daughter of the King of Ulster; the druid Cathbad; and many others named in the Ulster and Ossianic Cycles of Irish mythology. These roving warrior bands often raided the countryside, attacking farms and hostels, while at the same time defending Ireland against invaders from the Otherworld or across the sea as necessary (Nagy, The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in the Gaelic
Narrative Tradition 54-55). To join a warrior-band or fían required one to give up all claims to hearth and home and complete legendary feats requiring mental and physical discipline (Keating 349-350). Separate from their society, they had to fulfill the most crucial and highly valued roles for themselves, including those of hunter, warrior, poet, and seer. As he excelled in all these things, Finn mac Cumaill was often considered the epitome of the accomplished warrior outsider.

Modern Fiana
 The reality is that we no longer send our disruptive youth into the wilds to learn usefulness as hunters and warriors, or to keep them from making trouble for the community. However, outsiders do still play a role in 21st century culture. From the hermit living in his rural home to the soldier and his family
living next door, the outlaw motorcycle club you saw on the highway and the loner kid who seems slightly off to classmates and parents alike, modern life affords the intentional and unintentional outsiders many different lifestyles and expressions, and unlike in the past, they may or may not come together in counterculture groups. The hermit isolates himself voluntarily much like some ancient seers and poets while the soldier, also a volunteer (at least in the U.S.), is involved in a military lifestyle not so different from the warriors of old, and that is separated from regular society by the tasks they are asked
to perform. Some outlaw motorcycle clubs may be involved in criminal activity, while the loner kid is intellectually or socially in conflict with his peers. These are all examples of modern situations and lifestyles that can set people apart from their societies of origin.

So how does fénidecht manifest as a life practice in the 21st century with our cities, supermarkets, standing armies and police forces? The answer is complex due to the fact that those I know who identify themselves as féinnidi vary greatly. Though fénidecht manifests as a spectrum encompassing wildly different lifestyles, all are practitioners of fénidecht due to what they have in common.

To begin with there are the physical and mental aspects of the warrior/hunter, namely combat and survival training. Warriors are trained to fight and are expected to do so if the need arises. In the 21st century hand-to-hand training is the most available and does not come into conflict with any legal authority the way weapons may. The mental training a warrior goes through to cultivate survival skills typically includes simple plant identification and ideally the experience of a hunt. At minimum  warrior/hunters would know if they can and would kill for food, and it’s best if they test that
capability occasionally. An authentic practice of Fénidecht also requires that the warrior/hunter aspect of the path be sustained through non-combative physical training.

Following the old model, modern féinnidi should also be reading and writing poetry—in other words, practicing filidecht. As noted previously, in Irish lore Finn is held as the quintessential warrior outsider, and his command of poetry rivaled that of the more widely known bardic traditions. Filidecht is a basic and as essential a component of fénidecht as hunting or fighting skills (Nagy, The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in the Gaelic Narrative Tradition 17-40). Further, the requirement for the
memorization and recitation of poetry comes to us from the stories of Finn and the initiation requirements to join his fían (Keating 349-350; Nagy, The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn inthe Gaelic Narrative Tradition 248). Today, this requirement could be expanded  to include the writing of rituals and liturgy that they share with their communities.

Additionally, as the fíana had the ability to interact with and even enter the Otherworld (Dooley and Roe 13-15; Nagy, Shamanic Aspects of the “Bruidhean” Tale 302), it follows that modern féinnidi must  cultivate the skills of the seer. Unlike Finn and his fían we don’t physically cross the boundaries between the worlds, but through journeying and divination we can interact with the Otherworld to get answers
and seek aid for ourselves or our community.

Last but not least, as much as the ancient fíana conducted raids, they also defended their homelands and thus the communities to which they would eventually return to finish out their days as householders or
old men (Nagy, The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in the Gaelic Narrative Tradition 51; McCone, The Celtic and Indo-European Origins of the Fian 20). Because modern fénidecht
mostly live in communities rather than remaining camped in the wild, this defensive role must evolve slightly. Serving in the national or local defense industries, working with or on the police and firefighting forces, working in the personal or self-defense industry, doing festival and event security, and even participating in activism to protect your community’s interests are all ways in which the “defense of the people” can manifest.

Beyond the traditional roles and their associated skills that define féinnidi, another defining feature of Fénidecht is the worship of the gods of the Gaels, since this path is specific to the Irish and Scottish cultures from which Finn’s legends come. (As a side note, the same tradition of warrior outsider exists in the Welsh culture and is called gwynwyr in Middle Welsh (Lewis xi)). Many naturally worship the war
deities but there are also “outsider” deities, such as Manannan, Finn, and Brig Ambue.

Today’s Outsiders and Their Communities
 What I’ve described so far are practices familiar to many pagans, especially those who follow a warrior path. However, there is a distinct difference between warriors and warrior outsiders, namely  “separateness” from the larger community. Again, the reasons vary, but for those who identify with the fiana or for whom Fénidecht would be an appropriate path, those reasons typically have to do with differentreligious practices, views, or values that restrict what they are able or willing to share with others. For example, it’s common for Neopagan groups to work with a variety of deities from a variety of cultures in ritual space—but for a warrior outsider devoted to a particular god or Gaelic pantheon, this
kind of ceremony may be best uncomfortable, and at worst in direct conflict with his oaths.

So then what can an outsider or even a group of outsiders do for the communities to which they only peripherally belong? I have already covered a few things that féinnidi can do to contribute to the communities’ wellbeing, such as being part of defense efforts and contributing poetic and ritual material to the liturgies. But I believe Neopagan communities can provide more proscribed roles and open themselves to including féinnidi in yet more ways.

If affiliated with a group, féinnidi could participate in community rituals by acting as guardians—protectors outside the ritual itself—both in a physical sense as well as spiritual. When attending public festivals they could do the same—in fact, it was at a pagan festival where I first witnessed a large-scale  recognition of the outsider as the organizers gave them space and latitude to function as they saw fit. Some who follow fénidecht have composed prayers and ritual acts they perform during these community rituals either independently or together as a small, intimate group. The féinnidi could also come together, much  like their predecessors, as groups that aid each other in development in all areas of fénidecht and to celebrate the outsider lifestyle and spirituality. Part of this effort could include an exploration of the transitory nature of being an outsider.

After all, being a féinnid was never meant to be a permanent state, but a temporary one after which the individual would return to society (Nagy, The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in the Gaelic Narrative Tradition 50-52). For most, this is still true. There are warrior outsiders who fluidly move in and out of society during different periods of their lives, and others whose status relates more to their profession or experiences, such as the soldier who is leaving military service or returning from war. This aspect of fénidecht has historically been addressed through rites of passage transitioning outsiders back to the community-at-large when desire or circumstance calls for it. The Gunderstup cauldron has a
depiction of one of these rituals and is described by McCone in detail (McCone, The Celtic and Indo-European Origins of the Fian 28-29). But groups of féinnidi can do more than facilitate these rituals and transitions for their own  as members go through phases of being within the community and without—they can provide such work as a service to the broader community as well, facilitating rituals of ‘cleansing’ and ‘purification’ for others, such as the aforementioned soldier. (Lupus).

As you can see, Fénidecht is a modern, complex and valuable spiritual practice. It is my hope that in  exploring how those who practice fénidecht approach their spirituality and showing how these féinnidi
can support the Neopagan community, this article may inspire more groups to provide for the inclusion and spiritual development of these individuals in their organizations. As knowledge of this path spreads, I look forward to seeing the community learn how to acknowledge and accept the outsiders, and
give them a place and a voice, which is, ultimately, what all human beings—even self-described outsiders—desire.

Dooley, Ann and Harry Roe, The Tales of the Elders of Ireland: A new Translation of the Acallam na Senorach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Keating, Geoffrey. The History of Ireland from the Earliest Period Through the English Invasion. Trans. John O’Mahony. New York: P.M. Haverty, 1857. PDF Document.
Lewis, Timothy. A Glossary of Mediaeval Welsh Law Based Upon the Black Book of Chirk. London: University Press Manchester, 1913.
Lupus, P. Sufenas Virius. The Hidden Imbolc. 1 February 2011. 1 October 2013.
McCone, Kim. “The Celtic and Indo-European Origins of the Fian.” The Gaelic Finn Tradition. Ed. Sharon J. Arbuthnot and Geraldine Parsons. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2012. 14-73.
—. “Werewolves, Cyclopes, Diberga, and Fianna: Juvenile Delinquency in Early Ireland.” Camrbidge Medieval Celtic Studies Winter (1986): 1-22. PDF.
Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “Shamanic Aspects of the “Bruidhean” Tale.” History of Religions 20.4 (1981): 302-322. PDF.
—. The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in the Gaelic Narrative Tradition. London: University of California Press, 1985.

8 thoughts on “Outlaws/Outsiders Part I – Fénidecht

  1. I am working on being able to identify and (maybe) name my path within Gaelic polytheism. I think I do pursue the path of an outsider, and my household gods include Manannan and Brig Ambue, while my primary goddess is Bhearra/Bui of West Cork, who is a goddess of chaos and mountain wilderness. But I have difficulty identifying myself as a Feinnidi, because I'm a disabled outsider, and would never have been able to join a war band. I'm the kind of outside who might have been left outside the community to die of exposure (though I really don't know what happened to disabled people in Celtic societies – I've tried and failed to find out). So it's difficult for me to be sure what I am.

    • I know it's not help to you right now but I hope to be working on Part II soon and Part III by the end of the year. Part II will be about other types of outsiders within Irish culture, with Part III being the results of interviews with people who identify themselves as outsiders/outlaws.

    • For some beginning in researching disability in early Ireland and Wales, you might start by finding a copy of Patrick K. Ford's article, "The Blind, the Dumb, and the Ugly: Aspects of Poets and their Craft in Early Ireland and Wales", which is in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 19 (Summer 1990), pp. 27-40.

  2. Pingback: » Outlaws/Outsiders Part 2 – A Personal Address Trials of a Féinnid

  3. Pingback: Gentlidecht – Finn, God of Fénidecht | Trials of a Féinnid

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