Sometime in 1995 I wrote an article about Celtic Reconstructionist (CR) religion called “Neocelts: A Modern Celtic Religion.” Between 1995 and 1999 I updated and changed it four times until it was finally published in Connections Magazine as an article about a specific faith based on the CR methodology “Aurrad: Old Faith in a Modern World.” Things have changed since then but the argument of what to call a religion based on what we know of ancient Irish beliefs still rages on. However, this article is not about making an argument for what to call the religion, for that look at my November 2013 article Gentlidecht: Old Irish for (Irish) Heathenism. This article is to briefly explain what a form of Gentlidecht looks like, specifically what followers of Gentlidecht na gCuanaigh believe and what we do as part of our faith.
As I explain in the above linked article, gentlidecht is the Old Irish, 10th century word used by Irish monks to describe the pre-Christian Irish religion and beliefs including those still practiced at the time. The 19th century Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes translated the word to ‘heathenism’. For purposes of this
article and future writings by me on the topic, I will be defining Gentlidecht as the reconstructed
religion of the pre-Christian indigenous faith of the Irish people with members of the faith being genti or singularly gent. I will also use the terms cuanaigh (plural) and cuanach (singular) as more specific terms for those who practice Gentlidecht na gCuanaigh.
Gentlidecht as a religion is derived from a methodology known as reconstructionism. Religious reconstruction is the act of researching and applying that research in a way that results in the formation or founding of various a living religion. In short, a reconstructionist religion is one that bases its practices on the history, mythology, archeology and folklore of a particular culture. Gentlidecht is
specifically the reconstruction of the pre-Christian religion of Ireland, the worship of the Tuatha Dé, Danann. The purpose of any reconstructionist religion is to rebuild the Pagan religion of a
specific culture, within the context of the modern world. Other examples of reconstructionist faiths include Asatru (Germanic), Hellenion (Greek), Nova Roma (Roman), Dievturyba (Baltic/Latvian) and Romuva (Baltic/Lithuanian).
Being part of a reconstructionist religion Genti have attempted to glean information about the rituals and values of the early Irish from the many sources. However, due to the lack of written records from the pre-Christian era, there are many things that we do not know or have little information. As a result we have to flesh things out in those areas that we do not have any Irish source material using material from
related cultures, expanding from those that are closely related to the more distantly related but staying within Indo-European cultures. Erynn Laurie calls this “Ársaíocht”, antiquarianism.
Our beliefs and practices are further expanded by aisling and imbas, inspiration or what some call Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG). Even with all the research being done to reconstruct a belief system and calling on all the resources available, it is inspiration that makes it a living religion and way of life. Aisling and imbas are required in order to take the material we have read and apply it by creating rituals, prayers and devotionals. Aisling and imbas are what allows us to piece together all the various mythological, historical and archeological material into something that makes sense.
To bring aisling and ársaíocht together there is “agallamh”, the colloquy. The discussion among knowledgeable people on the things people have read, the research, and the things people have received through imbas, the inspiration, with the end result being the beliefs and practices of Gentlidecht. These concepts were identified by Erynn Laurie and you can read more about this triad at Erynn’s blog post Aisling, Ársaíocht, agus Agallamh: A Modern CR Triad.
Genti have a cosmology that is uniquely Celtic; that the ancient Irish, and Celts in general, knew the world to be made up of three realms; Land, Sea and Sky. Cuanaigh call this An Thríbhís Mhór, which translates to “the great triskele.” These three realms are intertwined and overlap at the edges, such as seashores, hill and mountain tops, the horizon, and where springs erupt from the land. This cosmology was so pervasive that oaths based on it are found from Ireland to Galatia.
Genti are polytheists and as such we view the world as having many different gods and many
different valid religions. We strive to respect other people’s gods and religions, but their gods are not necessarily ours. The primary gods of the genti are the Tuatha Dé, Danann, with respect for beings known as the Fir Bolg and Fomorians. Genti are also known to have personal relationships with gods of other cultures as well as gods and spirits specific to their locations, such as the local land goddesses.
Gentlidecht is also family oriented with the smallest organized group being a household. Households and individuals usually form intentional family groups, calling themselves a family (fine), tribe (tuath), clan or kindred. At this writing I am aware of two public groups that identify as Irish Polytheists, and one specifically identifies with Gentlidecht. Most people who identify as Gentlidecht are either worshiping alone or have joined groups that are compatible with the faith, from small local groups that allow worship of the Irish gods to larger organizations like Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) that has specific sub-groups dedicated to the Irish hearth culture.
Genti acknowledge the existence of the Otherworld, the realm of the gods, spirits and our ancestors. The perception of this Otherworld is left to the individual as we each may perceive it a bit differently. What is agreed upon is that the Otherworld is located below the waves and below the ground.
All Genti celebrate the four major festivals named in the Wooing of Emer. The holidays that hold primacy are Samain (November 1), Imbolc (February 1), Beltain (May 1), and Lughnasad/Bron Trogain (August 1). Some expand their ritual year to include the cross-quarter days of Solstices and Equinox, as well as rituals associated with the phases of the moon. The cuanaigh have identified nine annual feast days: the additional include 2 feast days for Irish hero’s, 1 for the local goddesses, and 2 days for the patron of the local group.
When Cuanaigh hold worship services, we honor two groups of beings; the Gods and Ungods. The gods are primarily the Tuatha Dé, Danann but we include the local land goddesses and patron gods in this group. The spirits are usually those that reside in the local area as well as the spirits attached to the specific place, after all it is only proper to respect them while we are there. Our ancestors are both cultural and familial and we honor them, not only during ritual, but also through living.
Like other Neopagan and Heathen religions, the Cuanaigh also honor the earth as our home and giver of life. This is not based on some ancient Irish belief that the earth is sacred, but the modern proof that we are destroying the planet and ourselves and that we should treat our home with respect. We do not deify the planet, but elevate the spirits of the local river to that of land goddesses, just as the ancient Irish did, and include them in our worship.
Every religion has its moral values or ethics. Gentlidecht na gCuanaigh derives its moral code from the various law codes and instructional stories of Ireland. You are encouraged to read the various sources for how one should live but for simplicity the values can be broken down into a list: Truth, Eloquence, Justice, Loyalty, Courage, Community, Hospitality, Strength and Gentleness. Within each of these are further ideals, such as wisdom, piety, self-reliance, restraint and balance. So where is “Honor?” Honor is the highest ideal, it is what you have when you apply these values to your life and live them.
By doing daily devotionals as well as familial and seasonal rites we stay in touch with our gods, ancestors
and the spirits. Living by the basic values outlines above, we contribute to our communities and set high standards by which we can judge ourselves and each other. To be a practitioner of Gentlidecht is to be
bound by honor and loyalty to the Gods and each member of your tribe, clan or grove.
20 years after the original article, not much has changed. The concepts have been refined, the rituals have been tested, and our faith in the gods has been reaffirmed. Gentlidecht na gCuanaigh is the result of these 20 years and I hope others find value in what I have shared.
One day these concepts may be organized into a book. In the mean time please feel free to share this article and other articles with friends.
Gentlidecht na gCuanaigh is the version of Gentlidecht as practiced and taught by Five Rivers Protogrove, ADF in Columbia, MD which was founded by the author.