There is a deep place, far from any road or path, absent on any map and hidden from mortal eyes, which reaches down into the very beginnings of time. Flowing upward from that vast depth come all the waters of the world. Trickling between the roots of the great hazelnut trees which stand in a solemn circle at the wells edge, the waters come together to birth the many rivers of Ireland and eventually, the sea.
Long ago, a single salmon made the long journey inland from the sea and found itself swimming alone in that great dark pool. Hungry from its exertions and finding nothing else to eat, the salmon consumed nine hazelnuts which had dropped one by one from each of the trees surrounding the well. Taking nourishment as they do, from the undiluted waters which spring from the center of existence, these trees bear fruit of amazing potency. In this way a simple fish was imbued with both immortality and the knowledge of all things.
From the time we are born our primary occupation seems to be the acquisition of knowledge. First, there is the basic knowledge of survival, communication and social interaction. Later, we wade into the realm of the arts and sciences where we learn many more things than we are likely to use in our daily lives.
Finally, we tackle the bigger questions, the great “Whys” and “Whos” and “Hows” that make up the underpinnings of our understanding of the universe. For many people, religion provides the answers to these great questions.
My religion does not provide easy answers to the big questions. Instead, it helps me to better formulate the questions themselves.
The goal of Celtic Reconstructionist Polytheism is to honor the gods and the spirits of the land through traditional modes of ritual and belief, most of which have been lost for centuries. This means we spend a lot of time picking through the surviving lore in the effort of piecing together a functional belief system.
Sound like a lot of work? It is.
My reading list often makes me nostalgic for my college days when I had more time and less need of sleep. Yet, this is the kind of work I truly love. In ancient times a Druid was expected to dedicate twenty years of his or her life to memorizing the lore before earning recognition by his tribe. A smattering of stolen minutes throughout the week seems like a small sacrifice in comparison.
Years passed and the legend of the Salmon of Knowledge spread to the mortal men who came and settled in Ireland. Many sought to catch the magical fish, knowing that to taste its flesh would convey unto them the knowledge of all things. One of these men, a great Druid and poet, learned that a large salmon, pale almost to white with age, had been seen swimming in a pool of water at the edge of the river Boyne.
For six years he lived at the edge of that pool, waiting with his nets for the moment when he would catch a glimpse of his prize. Finally the moment came for him to cast his net over the water. The salmon was his at last!
Wading back to the shore, he handed the fish to his student, a loyal and trustworthy young lad, with instructions on how it should be prepared. While the old man made himself ready for the long overdue feast, the fish was skewered and suspended over a fire.
Turning the fish on its spit, a drop of hot oil ran down the skewer and seared the lad’s thumb. Burned and in pain, the young man naturally sucked his thumb. Through no fault of his own he had disobeyed his master and tasted the cooking fish.
Returning to his camp, the Druid could smell the savory aroma of cooking fish. Pausing for a moment to look into the eyes of his pupil, he saw there an intelligence he had never before known. With a sigh, he offered the fish to his student. The Salmon of Knowledge had eluded him yet again.
Sometimes, the acquisition of knowledge comes through great toil and study. Occasionally, however, it’s about being in the right place at the right time. Celtic Reconstruction is about more than just words on paper. We are called to our beliefs. We experience the world in a way that shapes our practice into a living tradition which is at once new and a continuation of our ancestral traditions.
Each truth gained, either through study or insight, leads to more questions and more surprises. Mostly we work for the little answers that will help fill in those big questions. Occasionally though, there is movement beneath the surface, a pale shadow on the water that tells us that the Salmon of Knowledge is still out there. And we who are hungry, make ready our nets.