INTERVIEW WITH ERYNN LAURIE
I’m delighted to be able to present this interview with Celtic Reconstructionist author and Fili , Erynn Rowan Laurie. She’s not only a walking compendium of all things Celtic, but also a dear friend.
Erynn Rowan Laurie (author) (The Cauldron of Poesy, A Circle of Stones: Journeys and Meditations for Modern Celts, Not Your Mama’s Tree Ogam) presents a much broader, deeper view of ogam.
EOTC: Happy Imbolc to you, Erynn! Congrats on your new book, Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.
ERYNN: Thanks, Raven, and a blessed Imbolc to you as well. I’m very excited about the ogam book – I’d been working on it for years. This was actually the fourth version of the book. I started over three times from scratch, throwing out everything I’d done before and rewriting everything. I’m very pleased with the end result, though.
EOTC: Your’re one of the Founders of Celtic Reconstructionism. How did that happen?
ERYNN: Wow, that’s quite the question. The “how” probably just has to do with me being stubborn and really bookish and being in the right place at the right time. When I started learning about Celtic mythology, Wicca was being presented as “Celtic” and it was nigh unto heresy to suggest that it wasn’t. The more I read, though, the more I realized that early Celtic religion looked nothing like Wicca at all. Eventually the idea started to gain more acceptance in the Pagan community, and I connected with others who were saying the same things.
I think I ended up as one of the founders just because I write a lot. I founded several online forums for the exploration of Celtic Paganism and it snowballed from there. It’s always been something of a surprise to me to see how much influence that I and a few friends have had in the community over the years.
EOTC: How has Celtic Reconstruction grown and changed over the years?
ERYNN: These days it’s no longer heresy to say that Wicca isn’t of Celtic origin, or to find people pointing to better books and resources for folks who are interested in exploring Celtic paths. There’s a lot more good material available and much more easily. Folks like Robert have helped that along, by carrying some of the more scholarly stuff for folks like myself in their shops and that’s been a great resource. Thanks, Robert!
When I started out on this, there were no books at all on CR. Now there are a couple, and more folks working on new texts about ritual and personal experience, as well as writing on Celtic Pagan theologies. There are actually a lot of folks locally who are working on CR ritual and community, though we’re all coming at it from different angles. One old friend of mine is working hard on the warrior tradition and has been a student of Gaelic swordsmanship and other similar esoteric topics. There are more ways into the community now than there were at the beginning, and it’s easier to find information of all kinds. More people are talking about CR in more places, and we’ve been mentioned in books now along side other types of Paganism.
There’s more of an awareness of Celtic cosmologies and deities than there was, more of an acceptance of genuine polytheism rather than the duotheism you find in a lot of Wicca and general Paganism. People are exploring different aspects of the Celtic paths and while there aren’t any large CR organizations, I think local communities are actually starting to come together finally. I think this is a more important step than trying to found national or international organizations or start up training programs. Until there are communities to serve, there’s not really that much call for clergy training!
There’s a lot going on in online forums, particularly on LiveJournal, and more people are expressing interest all the time. It’s pretty exciting. In my experience, a lot of the newer folks are hesitant to speak up in online forums because they feel intimidated by the amount of knowledge that the folks who have been around for a while have.
Everyone starts somewhere, and asking questions is important – this is why several of the elders in the community put together the CR FAQ project. It was over 150 pages online and is now available as a book. It doesn’t tell you how to do CR or give ritual scripts, but it does offer some really good suggestions for places to start. I’d love to see more of these folks speaking up and participating. Just because you don’t know that much right now doesn’t mean you can’t have a personal practice or talk about what you’re learning and working on.
EOTC: Do you see this form of spirituality growing in the next decade? Where do you think its going to go? Where would you like to see it go?
ERYNN: My hope is that local communities will continue to develop in much the same way that Heathen hearth groups started. I think there are going to be quite a few more books coming out on different aspects of CR, from theology to ritual to devotionals for different deities. I think there will be regional CR gatherings at some point, and I’d also love to see more interfaith work between different reconstructionist traditions, as we have many of the same approaches and issues in our communities and in our concepts of theology and interactions with the larger Pagan community.
I’d love to see other people in the CR communities writing books. I have at least two more in my head, and I know other folks are working on other aspects of CR ritual and practice. My personal practice focuses on the Irish and Scottish material, but others are interested in other Celtic cultures, and I’d love to see more variety with that as well.
Right now, CR tends toward solitary practice, and I think for some of the more mystical forms it will likely remain so. There are household-based forms, though, and people will be developing groups around holy day and household practices as time goes by. A lot of the CR founders don’t have children, but many people who practice at home do have kids, and it will be wonderful to see how that develops and how families with kids can be a part of the movement as a whole. We need them as the practice develops, because without the kids, this can never be a living Pagan culture.
My personal preference is to see CR as a balance between historical study and personal inspiration, each informed by the other. Sometimes we get people who believe that reconstructionist Pagans don’t have an actual spiritual practice, but that’s really not true. We do, but we try to back it up with things we can learn from history and from the scholarly sources. The way I put it when I founded the Nemeton list back in the early 90s was “aisling and archaeology” -- inspiration and study together, hand in hand. Leaning too far in either direction can lead to spiritual dead ends.
EOTC:Books on Ogam are rare, so it’s wonderful to see yours on our shelves. “Ogam” is a departure from the standard fare that one commonly sees in the bookstores. How does you book differ from others?
ERYNN: Pretty much every other ogam book out there deals with the ogam strictly or primarily as a tree alphabet. The truth is so much broader. My approach has been to work from the actual meanings of the names of each letter, and from the briatharogam or “word ogams” associated with each letter. I’ve found this to be a much more accessible and varied system, more like Norse runes than what’s usually presented.
I also deal a lot with the misconceptions surrounding ogam, like the idea that it’s a “Celtic tree calendar” or that it has anything to do with the recently-created “Celtic astrology.” Part of the original tradition was that people created their own ogam lists and I talk about how, when, and why you might do things like that. It’s not so much a table of correspondences as a web of connections, and I think it’s limiting to see things in rows and columns when dealing with such an organic system.
I also talk about the use of ogam in ritual and how to make your own set of ogam. I don’t give ritual scripts, but rather talk about how and why to choose individual ogam feda or letters to use for your personal needs.
My approach to the whole thing is that my readers are intelligent people and they don’t need to have their hands held through the process. They know the kinds of rituals they need and what they want to accomplish spiritually and magically, so they’re intelligent and mature enough to use the resources I’ve laid out and create those things for themselves.
EOTC: You use a term to describe yourself and your practice : Filidecht. What does a Fili do?
ERYNN: Filidecht is the practice of poetic nature mysticism in the Gaelic tradition. As a fili, I do divination, otherworld work that includes vision-seeking and healing, and I also do a lot of work out in the wild. I get out into the wilderness whenever I can, because this particular type of path demands contact with the wild world, even if you live in the city. Some types of Paganism are perfectly comfortable as urban paths, but filidecht really needs contact with the outdoors and with the land spirits in order to get deeply into it.
Part of my devotional work involves writing, both prose and poetry. I do my best to work through those knotty philosophical and theological questions and to share what I know with others. Music is also a part of the path, though “bard” and “fili” are not the same thing – originally in Gaelic, a bard was an untrained poet, while a fili was one who had gone through years of strict training in many fields, from history to genealogy to philosophy and natural history.
EOTC: How is that different from a Druid?
ERYNN: That’s a very complicated question – much more than it appears on the surface. The easy answer would be to say that the druids were more concerned with questions of public ritual and sacrifice than the filid. Because of the fact that everything we know about the druids and the filid come from either later Christians or from outsiders to the Celtic cultures, there are a lot of questions we need to ask. It would appear that the filid and the druids originally had rather different functions but when Christianity arrived, the filid took over many druidic functions within the Christianized society.
Technically speaking, what we know about the filid and druids all comes from what the filid were doing. We know very little about the druids per se. It’s much easier to reconstruct an authentic and traditionally-based practice of filidecht than of draíocht, to be honest.
EOTC: What do most seekers expect from you, and how does that differ from reality?
ERYNN: I’ve had a lot of people approach me thinking I know all the answers. I really don’t. I’m just another student on the path with more years of study under my belt. I do my best to share what I know
EOTC: The month of February brings the Gaelic holiday, Imbolc. Do you have any special ways of celebrating it , according to your tradition?
ERYNN: Imbolc traditions include putting the brat Brid or cloak of Brighid – any cloth or piece of clothing will do, traditionally – out over night to collect the dew at dawn and receive the blessing and touch of Brighid’s hand. Brighid’s crosses are often woven, and that’s a great thing that kids can do for fun. Brighid’s beds are also prepared, usually in the fireplace, and in the morning traces of her presence might be seen in the ashes around the bed.
Imbolc is also a festival very likely associated with the fianna or outsider warriors, much like the Roman lupercalia festival. It was likely a time when the outsiders were reintegrated into the tribe after they’d spent their time in the wilds. In Scotland, Imbolc is said to be the time when serpents come out of the ground and it’s the beginning of spring in the Gaelic tradition.
I celebrate with a fire in the fireplace part of the night, candles on her altar, laying out the brat Brid, making offerings of food and mead, and by keeping a vigil until dawn.
EOTC: You’re hosting a discussion group at our store.What’s it about?
ERYNN: It’s partly a discussion group, partly a group to develop community, and partly a ritual group. We’ll be having our Imbolc of Brig Ambue ritual on Monday the 11th at Edge, between 7-9 pm. Brig Ambue is Brighid of the Cowless Warrior, basically the patron of the outsider warriors, and the ritual will be about incorporating outsiders into society. It’s my hope that the group will foster the growth of the CR community locally, and that folks will be interested in studying the path and doing ritual and other work together.
EOTC: Anything else you’d like to add?
ERYNN: I’ll be down in California at PantheaCon later this month, doing workshops and the Brig Ambue ritual down there. I’ve been to the con several times and I always have a great time. If anyone is going down there, by all means, look me up! It would be great to see some of the locals down by the Bay.
Locally, I do ogam readings and I sometimes teach classes and workshops. Interested folks can get in touch with me through email.
EOTC: Erynn, it’s been a real pleasure. Blessings, and happy Imbolc.** Erynn lives in Everett, Washington and has been involved in the Pagan communities of the Pacific Northwest since 1984. An independent Pagan Scholar and one of the founders of the Celtic Reconstruction movement, she writes and teaches on many aspects of Celtic Paganism, Druidism and Filidecht. She offers readings, consultations and other services by appointment.