It is just after nightfall here in Moriconion.
I am writing in the kitchen. The smell of haricot and flageolet beans cooking slowly in olive oil, white wine and tarragon escapes from the oven, filling the room with an earthy, musty, autumnal aroma. My forearms are still lightly dusted with spelt flour, from kneading dough that will become a herbed and salted bread. These things, along with some local cider mulled with cinnamon, ginger, honey and pepper, I will offer to my ancestors at the passing of the year.
Tonight is the second new moon following the autumnal equinox, which according to the Moriconion Liturgical Calendar makes this the first night of Centugiamos, the first month of the new year. In this blog, I intend on documenting my exploration of the ritual year as it happens, month by month and festival by festival; and I invite you to explore it with me.
We can be fairly certain that the pre-Roman Britons, like virtually every group of people throughout history, celebrated a cycle of seasonal festivals. What we can’t be sure about, however, is what and when these were. We have no direct evidence: the Britons themselves did not leave any written records, and the accounts of their contemporaries (the Greeks and Romans) do not record any information about the annual round of festivals. What then is there to celebrate?
It was widely assumed in the 19th century that the mediaeval and early modern seasonal festivals of Britain were thinly Christianised continuations of authentic Pagan practices. Similarly, based on a few oblique references in early Irish literature, it was also assumed that “the Celts” had a common set of four festivals which opened the four seasons: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Just as these long-held assumptions were being critically re-examined by the Academy, Neopaganism embraced them both wholeheartedly: an adoption from which ultimately derives the common Neopagan “Wheel of the Year”.
In his magisterial The Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton presents evidence which firmly rejects both assumptions. By tracing the annual festivals of the British Isles as far as records permit, he demonstrates not the preservation of barely changed pagan rituals from the mists of time, but that annual festivals were dynamic, constantly changing and evolving, with some falling into desuetude and others arising in their place and with the varying forms of Christianity within the Isles being a constant source of inspiration. He also rejects the idea of a “common Celtic” set of four festivals, seeing the Irish quartet as being rooted firmly in the particular transhumant and pastoral economy of early mediaeval Ireland.
For the modern Neopagan, this all adds up to the rather uncomfortable sensation of the rug being pulled firmly from under one’s feet. If the assumptions upon which the Neopagan ritual year is based are shown to be false, what then should we celebrate?
Creating a ritual year
In spite of emphasising how little of the pre-Christian festival year can be recovered, Hutton emphasises that there are some festivals which have clear pre-Christian antecedents, that there is even evidence for some “common Celtic” practice. He also demonstrates that while the outer forms of celebration are in a near-constant state of change, the impulses from which they arise remain constant: “a yearning for light, greenery, warmth, and joy in midwinter, a propensity to celebrate the spring with symbols of rebirth, an impulse to make merry in the sunlight and open air during the summer, and a tendency for thoughts to turn towards death and the uncanny at the onset of winter.”
It is on these two foundations that my ritual year will be built: what little we can recover of pre-Christian practices and the constants of the British year. To this we can add evidence from comparative sources: if we have evidence for a festival celebrating the ancestors across the Indo-European world, then we can probably safely assume that the pre-Christian Britons had a similar festival, whether direct evidence of this survives or not. As such, I have not been averse to incorporating “Brythonicised” versions of festivals attested in other Indo-European cultures: for example, as Vedism recognises four major feasts which mark the beginnings of the four seasons, so will this ritual year.
As a result of the first of our assumptions above, Neopagans regularly assert that Christians have “borrowed” or even “stolen” originally pagan festivals. The truth of this, as we have seen, is somewhat different. However, I do not feel that this is an impediment to making use of Christian festivities in our ritual year: they form part of our heritage as well, and to reject them is to reject centuries worth of creativity and innovation. Rather than attempting to unpick these Christian rituals in an attempt to discern a “purer pagan origin”, which is in all likelihood not actually there), I intend on examining them to see what aspects might work well in a Brythonic context. To a degree then, this ritual year will be a construction more than a reconstruction, consciously taking elements from related or descendant traditions and (hopefully) pulling them together into a coherent whole.
Throughout the year, with each new month I will not only lay out the festivals I intend on celebrating and how I plan on celebrating them, but I also intend to discuss them, the sources and reasoning behind their selection and elaboration. Furthermore, I want to discuss the relevance of this seasonal cycle. Until relatively recently, the festivals of the British ritual year have been overwhelmingly focused on the rhythms of the agricultural and pastoral years, celebrated a community. Today, however, the daily lives of most people are more than a little removed from both: for example, I do not live among a community of like-minded pagans with whom I could celebrate, nor is my daily life governed by the considerations of the agricultural year. At first glance, celebrating a cycle of agricultural community festivals would be anachronistic at best and utterly irrelevant at worst. One of my main concerns then will be to navigate this necessary tension between being an urban solitary practitioner of communal rural festivals. My celebrations will be based on the home rather than the community; the hearth rather than fire of communal sacrifice.
Along the way I hope to explain some of my personal theology and practice: an outline for basic domestic rituals, a discussion of why sacrifice is important to me, some retellings (or reimaginings) of stories about the gods. I hope that you’ll find all this interesting, and that you’ll join me on my journey.