Dia daoibh a chairde!
A question that is sometimes asked of those of us who follow a pagan religious path is: “Do you believe in magic?” Usually, this question is rooted in popular fictionalized depictions of paganism and maybe a smattering of good ol’ biblical “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” hoopla. It is also a question that belies an all too typical lack of understanding where the word “magic” is involved. There are many kinds of magic in the world and one of the most common (and powerful) is language.
The power of language, the thing that makes it magical, is it’s ability to shape a shared consciousness and identity. For example, when we speak of the Celts we are not discussing a single race or tribe. The Celts were a collection of peoples spread across Europe (from the British Isles in the west to the highlands of Asia Minor in the east) linked together by a shared linguistic heritage. This heritage is survived today within the Six Celtic Nations (the six regions where Celtic languages are still spoken). These nations are Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Wales and Brittany.
Unfortunately, the power of language to unite can also be used to dominate and enforce the will of one culture over that of another. Certainly the English understood this power, as demonstrated by their efforts to eradicate the Irish language during their occupation of the island. The language we speak guides the way in which we think and shapes the culture in which we operate. If you kill the language, you eliminate the culture and the desire within it’s membership to resist occupation from outside forces.
This same sort of thinking exists today in the political efforts to single out those immigrants (legal and otherwise) within the U.S. who do not speak English. Treat Spanish speakers like second-class citizens and they will be more likely to raise their children to speak English. English speaking children will be less likely to see themselves as different than their fellow citizens and will be more likely to toe-the-line (whatever that line may turn out to be). These sorts of efforts are usually packaged as “improving the economic prospects of the children” but what it really comes down to is control by a single mono-culture.
In Ireland, this strategy almost worked. Had the Republic of Ireland not gained it’s independence in 1922 it is hard to say if there would even be an Irish language surviving today. As it is, despite being a required course of study in Irish schools, only a tiny fraction of the Irish population speak the language on a daily basis. Many parents still believe the lie that Irish is the language of the impoverished, working-class poor and imprint in their children a desire to learn “better” languages, like English or German.
Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge go mall.
As a Celtic Reconstructionist, my goal is not simply to foster a return to the gods and traditions of our ancestors but to preserve and grow the living Celtic culture that exists today. We do this by contributing with time or money to cultural causes and organizations, and where possible by learning and promoting the various Celtic arts, crafts, music, dance and most importantly language.
For the past several years I have been making efforts to learn to speak (and read) Irish. It has been hard going, made even more difficult by the absence of Irish speakers in my own area. Computer programs, iPhone apps and audiobooks are all good tools but still my progress has been very slow. I falter on all but the most basic phrases.
This weekend I was fortunate to attend a Two-Day Irish Immersion Event held by the DFW Gaelic League at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. There I found myself surrounded by new friends both young and old, men and women from various backgrounds and walks of life who all had one thing in common – a desire to learn the language of their ancestors. As I listened to the ebb and flow of conversation among the more experienced speakers I thought I would feel my own efforts diminished. Instead, with their friendly encouragement, I only grew more determined to increase my proficiency. By the end of the event several of us were discussing the possibility of starting an ongoing class in the Fort Worth area. Celtic culture will grow anew even in places as far removed from it’s homeland as Texas.
So yes, I do believe in magic. Magic is, at it’s heart, the art of effecting change through the power of will. Language shapes the way we see the world around us, it guides the changes we seek to make and provides the community through which those changes may occur.