Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Oisin or Cailte?

Fenian lore, in all its longevity and folk charminess, bears the distinction of being the mythic period which overlaps more than any other, with the coming of Christianity to Ireland. While the accounts themselves, and the exploits of the Fianna under Fionn mac Cumhaill, take place in the centuries proceeding the mythic start of Christianity, Padraig's mission, the tradition ends with two accounts which are both some of my favourite literature, as well as quite inverse to one another.

These are Acallam na Senorach  (Or "The Tales of the Elders of Ireland") and Agallamh Oisín agus Phádraig (Or "The Dialogue of Oisin and Patrick". The former dates to the 13th century, and I would highly recommend Anne Dooley and Harry Roe's Translation. Oisn and Patrick, on the other hand can be found in Lady Gregory’s adaptation of the Fenian Cycle, Gods and Fighting Men (1904), itself derived (in large part) from Jerimiah Curtin’s “Myths and Folk-lore of Ireland” (1890). Curtain based his translations off of Agallamh Oisín agus Phádraig, which was published in Duanaire Finn, by Aodh Ó Dochartaigh, in the 17th century.

Acallam na Senorach, is the larger of the works, and it contains a treasure trove of Fenian lore and legends. The basic premise is that Caílte mac Rónáin and Oisin, as well as a band of unnamed followers, are all that are left of the Fianna. Oisin and Caílte meet one last time, and Oisin decides he is going to stay with his family in the Sidhe. Calite and the others are then left to wander about, when they happen to stumble upon St. Patrick, who is in the process of missionizing to the whole of Ireland. Patrick inquires as to the giant, yet aged figure of Caílte, and he recites a few tales of the exploits of the Fianna. Patrick is naturally enamoured by the stories, when two angels descend and instruct Patrick to record all of the tales Caílte recites, for the betterment of Ireland. The story then has Caílte and his cohorts travelling from place to place with Patrick and his followers, while Caílte recites tales about the Fianna at every single place they inquire about. This story, among other things, is the source of the oft-quoted:

Truth in our Hearts, Strengths in our Arms, Fulfillment upon our Tongues.

"Patrick and Oisin", on the other hand is really an end piece of the Fenian lore, dealing specifically with Oisin upon his return from the Otherworld. Oisin, having become an ancient upon his touching down upon the earth, is now blind and decrepit. He is taken in by Patrick and his monks, and the story revolves around the debate which occurs between Oisin and Patrick regarding the merits of their pre-Christian and Christian beliefs. It is somewhat reminiscent of "The Madness of Suibne", in that Oisin as the Suibne figure, is the man out of time, enamoured of the wilds and the wonder of nature. Patrick is a joyless, at times cruel figure, giving Oisin only the meagerest of food and drink, and chiding him for his fondness of his heathen past. Patrick is very much the fire and brimstone preacher, condemning the Fianna to hellfire and Oisin himself will share their fate if he does not convert. There are some different versions, usually Oisin relents and converts, but sometimes he refuses and dies unbaptized.

We are presented with two very different accounts of a similar type of event, and two very different approaches to the subject (or subtext) of the religious conversion of the Irish. The later is fueled by animosity, contrast and Patrick being an all around git. The former, on the other hand, does its best to showcase the very best of the Pagan and Christian worldviews, and how they (could have been) reconciled. The nobility of the past, the heroic days of valour and adventure, the dignity of an old warrior mingled with the peace and joy of the new faith, in its magnanimity and charity to those who, while not "saved" in life, are deserving of heaven none the less.

I am by no means a fan of Christianity, as any who have a familiarity with my blog and me personally, are certainly aware. I'd not go as far as some who recognized March 17 as a day of mourning, but theologically there are some very real and problematic elements of the religion, and the world view that has developed, which I find myself at odds with. Truth be told, and it ought to be, I rather liked "Oisin and Patrick" precisely because of the animosity which permeates the narrative. It presents a side of the "argument" which has for the most part been omitted or left out, that of the pre-Christian. Even in the older manuscripts and texts, primarily the Ulster cycle, there is an underpinning of the "natural evolution" towards the new faith. All having been written long after the conversion, there none the less remains an undertone of "we know what's coming, and it has little to do with magical folks in mounds". The inevitability of the coming of Christianity, written with the gift of hindsight, precludes a lot of the value of the pre-Christian world view. Oisin and Patrick presents that rare voice of the conquered, who still clings to a way which is no longer seen as feasible or worthwhile by contemporaries. Make no mistake, Oisin is the conquered: aged, debilitated and crippled, at the complete mercy of Patrick. This is not a robust, full bodied defense of pre-Christian religion or world view; it is a man on his deathbed, lamenting for a bygone age, in the face of his own misery and the bully pulpit of Patrick. None the less, the criticisms made by Oisin are both poignant and even of value today. Who among us has been fortunate enough to never encounter Christian triumphalism? None to few, I would wager. Oisin and Patrick appeals to that part of me which seeks to stand against the hegemony, which wishes to see a broader return to the religion of my far distant ancestors in a more robust way. It appeals to the part of me which has endured for decades the notion that Christianity was and is "it" when it comes to religion, and that nothing before or since has any value.

On the other hand...

It would be foolish to ignore the centrality of the Christian religion, and in particular Catholicism in the history and culture of Ireland, both historically and today. Certainly, like many western democracies, there is a gradual shift towards secularism occurring; albeit in Ireland's case it is remarkably slow. The majority of the population of the republic is Catholic, and most of the rest are Protestant to some extent or the other. Certainly those of us who find ourselves in the Diaspora, whose ancestors left Ireland some centuries ago, have to face up to the fact that by and large, our ancestors were staunchly Christian. We really do need to go back to times immemorial to find those pre-Christian connections, and almost certainly any individual in our family tree's with a name would be Christian.

Christianity is also still the dominant religion in the world today, certainly this is not going to change in western countries any time soon, and so we find ourselves faced with the reality of demographics and being a rather tiny minority, have little recourse but to learn to live with it. Well, reality check time again, we already are living with it, have been and will continue to do so far into the future, so this will surprise exactly no one. I suppose the point of all of this is how ought we to proceed? The way of opposition and confrontation or the way of cooperation and pluralism? Do we walk with Oisin or Caílte?

In my youth, unabashedly, I would have sided with Oisin in this matter and there remains a part of me which still wants to. Being a little older, and by proxy more experienced, I think the best choice lies, however, with Caílte . Well for the most part; Caílte did after all become a Christian, and that's simply not something a GPR can do. Our textual traditions are the product of a gradient of pre- and co-Christian world views, but this does not prevent us from holding them as being central and relevant. We need to understand that we will never have a purely pre-Christian textual tradition, and do our best to sort the bits out which can in fact, be sorted.

The history, the "bad blood" between the pre-Christians and the Christians, is all but absent from our history; texts like "Oisin and Patrick" are extremely rare. By and large we simply do not have much evidence to support an antagonistic relationship between the ancient and slightly less ancient religious traditions of the Gaelic world. There is no evidence of the sort of religious conquests or mass conversions under the sword which is evident in the lands further to the north and to the south. I can understand why an Asatruar or Heathen may balk, why a practitioner of the Religio may be understandably hostile, but our own anger and frustration is a byproduct of a modern worldview which is noticeably absent in our own records. Try as some may, black armbands on March 17th and all, there simply is no basis in the evidence we have for such theatrics or outrage. This is because the process of conversion was gradual, peaceable and highly syncretic. Yes, in later hagiographical accounts the image presented of the "noble pagan" is replaced by conjurers of demons and other Christian bogey-men, but an examination of such "events" reflects far more the retooling of existing Biblical stories or of continental hagiographies made local, than disdain for actual pre-Christians. The largest victim of the coming of Christianity to Ireland, was Christianity itself; it would become quite literally, its own worst enemy. Christians have carried out far more unspeakable things to each other than they ever did to the pre-Christian Gaels.

I like to think I'm not so naive to see everything as sparkles and rainbows, but historically speaking, the Celts had a lot worse done to them by other polytheistic cultures (in fact one of the only clear examples of religious persecution from a polytheistic culture was that of the Romans towards the Celts, and in particular the Druidic functionaries) then they ever did from Christians. Yet, I've not seen any sort of the vitriol or disdain among some GRPs (and CRs) which is held for Christianity, aimed at members of the Religio.

Returning to the main thrust of this post, however, this entire piece is written primarily as an exploration of mythic ways in which figures who represent disparate world views interact with one another, and what (to some kind of extent) follows. The real world applicability is of relatively small consequence; not because the question is one that need not be explored, but because of demographics. It may have some wider applicability beyond the scope of GRP, perhaps extending as a model for CR’s or even more broadly neo-Pagan traditions stemming from the Celtic cultures. If nothing else, perhaps something to consider before slapping on a black arm band or celebrating “All Snakes Day” on March 17 as a knee jerk reaction to the imagined horrors of the conversion of the Gaels to Christianity.
Practically speaking, the vast majority of Christians aren’t even aware of our existence, or have some vague notion that people actually believe in those silly fairy tales they read as children. Anecdotal as it is, most of the people I encounter have such a poor grasp of their own religion, they’ve not even thought about other traditions, let alone how to interact with them. Pre-Christian perspectives are just that, pre-Christian, and as such are relegated to the past and have little to no bearing on the present. Patrick in which ever version outlives both Caílte and Oisin after all.
Ours is presently a rather insular community, already awash in a lake of polytheism, itself surrounded by a continent of monotheism. At the end of the day, I direct my message to the GRP’s, CR’s and Celtic influenced neo-Pagans. We decide how we want to understand and interact with the Galileans (albeit this could certainly be broadened to interfaith relationships in general), by understanding how the (mythic) “last Pagans” chose to do so. Perhaps it will largely depend on context, as so much often does. It is rather easy to abide alongside an open minded, pluralistic styled Christian, and this is reflected in the Patrick from the Acallam. The fellow who is not only willing to attentively listen, but to discuss and recognize the merits of a world view outside of their own. Of course is also helps when the other side is represented by someone who is also willing to listen, who is up to the task and capable. Caílte, while ancient, remains a staggeringly powerful figure throughout the narrative of the Acallam. It is another matter altogether to sit idly by while the fire and brimstone preacher lambastes everything one holds dear, and demeans and debases what is considered sacred. It does not help when the other is reduced to decrepitude  at the utter mercy of his host, that the host thinks nothing of the words being spoken, and only hears the last mewling of a long broken worldview.
I have come to understand that while the later is certainly the most vociferous, the most bombastic and the most influential, there are folks who are willing to listen. There are those who are willing to not only listen, but to learn and understand; to see the value in the worldview of another. This is really the only basis upon which we can build any sort of interfaith dialogue, and I think the best way forward.