The Nine “House-Posts” of Gaol Naofa
The ridge pole, house-post or cléithe, is the main supporting structure of a traditional Irish dwelling, usually referring to the pole running horizontally across the highest point of the roof.1 The cléithe is not just a wooden pole, though; the word carries secondary meanings of “the crown of the head,” “the heavens, sky, or firmament,” as well as “perfection,”2 and so there are hints of metaphysical and cosmological associations to the word.3 The cléithe is the backbone of the house — the spine that supports the roof, giving it shape and strength. Without it, the house cannot support the weight of the roof, and so it is central to the structural integrity of the building.
Using this idea as a metaphor, we might refer to the basic tenets of our beliefs as Gaelic Polytheists — those ideas which are integral to, and provide the frame for, our practices — as cléithe as well. The following nine “house-posts,” or fundamental elements and principles, are what we believe to be the supporting structures of Gaelic Polytheism and its practice within Gaol Naofa.
- Senchas (“tradition; lore; history”)
- Fír (“truth; justice”)
- Dírgas (“righteousness; uprightness”)
- Cairdes (“friendship; alliance; pact; kinship”)
- Teglach (“family; household”)
- Cethardúil (“cosmos; universe; nature”)
- Eólas (“knowledge”)
- Muinter (“community; folks; family; followers”)
- Comalnad (“effecting; fulfilling; performing”)
Ní choman-se th’fhírinne ar thoil daíne.
You should not trample your truth to please others.4
Our lore (senchas) is the body of traditional knowledge of the Gaelic peoples and consists of customs, mythology, laws, folktales, beliefs, arts, values, history, wisdom, poetry, and songs. To know the lore is to know something about the Gaelic ethos, for it embodies and transmits a worldview, and the values, beliefs, and principles embodied in that worldview. The lore stimulates the mind and the soul, inspiring one to recognize the truths of humanity and spirituality as revealed through the experiences of the Gaels. It is said that “the lore of the past sustains a man,”5 and the Gaelic lore is an invaluable inheritance from our ancestors, imparting meaning, value and vision in our lives now, so that we may revive and preserve this lifeway for the generations who are to come.
Gaol Naofa’s vision is the practice and preservation of our Gaelic Polytheist Lifeway (Ar Dòigh-Beatha Ioma-Dhiadhach Ghàidhealach / Ár nDóigh Bheatha Ildiach is Gaelach) in the context of modern life, yet in strict conformation with history and tradition. We seek to affirm our native, earth-honouring traditions as a fulfilling and inspirational way of life for Gaelic people. Within Gaol Naofa, tradition and ancient authority always take precedence over whim or convenience, and all modern adoptions, adaptations, reconstructions, innovations and interpretations of the polytheistic ways of our ancestors are expected to be in alignment with history and tradition, as well as in harmony with contemporary cultural survivals.6
Three doors of falsehood: an angry pleading, a shifting foundation of
knowledge, giving information without memory.7
The wisdom-texts teach us that every falsehood is bitter and fír (truth) is the cosmic principle of rightness and justice that governs the natural order, social institutions, and interpersonal relationships. According to the Senchas Mór, a compilation of early Irish law, judgment of the law was founded on three things — fír (truth), dliged (right), and aicned (nature).8 It is the principle of fír which members of Gaol Naofa seek to preserve, and which is the foundation of our choices and behaviour. A life lived in accordance with fír fosters happiness, stability, balance and good order; it is through traditional Gaelic values, virtues, and ethics that a Gaelic Polytheist comes into accord with fír. Being rigorously honest is not always easy, but at the heart of it, truth is the way of right living, and of comporting oneself with honour. Without fír, truth, there can be no good judgment, and therefore there can be no justice: “Three things which justice demands: judgement, measure, conscience.”9
Is mairg ailter cen ríagail.
Woe to him who is raised without rules.10
Gaelic ethics are a matter of the positive practice of virtue, and intended to put one in balance with the community and self (dírgas). Our ethics are based in cultural conventions rather than a codified system of “thous shalt”s and “thou shalt not”s — we derive our values from the customarily accepted mores and standards of the Gaelic ethos. Virtue is not something that is exercised for the sake of appeasing deities — though the gods do look favorably upon those who are virtuous — but (in addition to the above) to create an honorable and respected reputation, and to live a life that is happy and healthy, honest and just.
Gaelic morality can be described as a system of “acceptance morality” in which standards of behaviour are specific to a particular community of people, and are largely concerned with personal integrity and honour (enech/clú). Therefore, shame is the result of transgressions of ethical and moral behaviour; morality is not so much a matter of what is good and bad, but rather what is honourable and dishonourable. An individual who is honourable displays febas (“excellence”), which encompasses ideals like dignity, worth, and behaviour that is fitting for one’s position in life, and this is what all members of Gaol Naofa should aim for, at all times.
Three fires that illuminate the world:
the excellent gods, the kindly fair-folk, and the beloved dead.
Gaelic Polytheism recognizes and acknowledges the multiplicity of divinity that manifests itself throughout nature, and it is from nature that knowledge of the gods and spirits comes to humanity. It is in the hearth fire where one encounters radiant Bríde; in the waves that massage the shore that the race of Manannán’s stallions are observed; in the walls of our homestead that the voices of ancestors can be heard; and it is among the hills, trees, springs, and standing stones that the land spirits find their abode. Known by many names – Na Trí Naomh (“The Sacred Three”),11 the Excellent or Immortal Three, or the Dé ocus An-Dé (“the gods and ungods”) – the gods, ancestors, and land spirits are the immortal entities with whom we share the world. They influence and supervise the processes and functions of nature, harmonizing and animating the world.
Hospitality is a core virtue in our Gaelic Polytheist Lifeway, and the practice of hospitality develops our cairdes (kinship) with our relatives – both human and those of the spirit world. Hospitality necessitates comporting oneself to the standards of a good host and providing well for those who are present, both humans and the Dé ocus An-Dé. It also means comporting oneself as a good guest. Hospitality, then, consists of mutual obligations and gestures of respect, dependent upon the occasion and space, whether social or ceremonial. Expressions of hospitality include providing a clean (physically and spiritually) space for the Dé ocus An-Dé, and presenting offerings in their honor and in expression of gratitude. Evans-Wentz’s The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries tells us, “as long as man kept himself in harmony with this unseen fairy-world in the background of nature, all was well.” Our relationships with the gods and spirits are based in the spirit of kinship, mutual affection, hospitality, and clientship. Dutiful maintenance of these relationships with the gods, ancestors and land spirits is crucial in our Gaelic Polytheist Lifeway. It is upon these relationships, and the extension of hospitality to our broader human community, that Gaelic Polytheistic life and ceremony are founded.12
Sinn ag loighe ar in lucht romhainn, lucht oile orainn san úaigh.
We rest on those who came before us, and others will rest on us in the grave.13
Family (teglach) – in all its diverse and extended forms – is the most important and fundamental unit of Gaelic Polytheism and of society in general, and our extended families (of birth or choice) deserve loyalty, duty, honor, and concern. As honour and mutual respect are core values for our communities, families must also hold their members accountable for their actions. Loyalty to our kin and allies, and protection of our communities, demands that we do not accept unethical or abusive behavior, even (and especially) from our own.
Three columns that support the world:
the blue sky, the beautiful sea, the ever-present earth.
We recognize the world as supported and encompassed by nem nglas, muir mas, talam cé (“the blue sky, the beautiful sea, the ever-present earth”).14 These three realms make up the cethardúil (“cosmos”) and represent balance and wholeness; they are the natural order of things, and the world that we see around us. This means that Gaelic Polytheists often base their rituals around the concept of the three realms, as they are an integral part of our thinking and expression.
The Otherworld (An Saol Eile) is the realm that is generally not visible to humans under normal circumstances, except by those with the “sight,” and it is in the Otherworld that the gods and many of the spirits are said to dwell. It is accessed through the síde (“mounds”), under lakes, below the sea and land, and through sudden mists. Encounters with the Otherworld take place at areas of boundary or liminality such as the sea shore, territory or property lines, and where civilized territory ends and untamed nature begins. Just as there is no segregation of the sacred and secular, there is no segregation of this world and the Otherworld; the two are entwined to form the fabric of reality.
Eochair fessa foglaim.
Learning is the key to knowledge.15
“Better the spark [of excellence] than ignorance,”16 Flann Fína tells us. As Gaelic Polytheists we strive to understand our world, our history, and fír. What Flann Fína is telling us is that we should pursue knowledge and wisdom (eólas or fis) in order to magnify our art or skill, and to increase our understanding of the world around us. Knowledge is the beginning of the path to wisdom. It is through learning – gathering knowledge, understanding, experience and insight – that we can truly illuminate the meaning of the world around us. Wisdom, therefore, illuminates fundamental truths about human nature and the world we live in; it can be seen as the distillation of abstract concepts, giving shape and meaning to ideas and the understanding attained through experience and age.
Is maith cech dál dia ticc síd.
Any meeting place which produces peace is good.17
Community (muinter) ensures the preservation and continuation of our cultural, historic, and spiritual heritage, and community is the medium through which such things are expressed. A Gaelic community is rooted firmly within the cultural institutions, traditions, religion, values and conceptions of the Gaelic people. Culture is honored as that which provides not only cohesion but collective strength and cooperation, and it is that which bestows our identity and that which defines us. As a community, those with more experience can be looked to as having knowledge and wisdom (eólas) that can be shared with the less experienced, who are willing to listen and learn. It is essential to listen to one’s Elders in the tradition; even after many years of deep experience, we must still rely on our Elders and peers to give us feedback and keep us on track; we must be accountable to one another in the community. Otherwise, the community cannot thrive.
Na dein nos agus na bris nos.
Neither make nor break a custom.
The lore (senchas) is something that we can explore, celebrate, and pass on. Traditional rites, rituals, prayers, ceremonies, and observances are to be performed and fulfilled (comalnad) to the highest of standards and ability. Ritual and ceremony are a physical means of expressing our worldview and collective experiences, and keeping tradition strong within our lives. Within Gaol Naofa, ritual, spiritual practice, correct observance, and right action are the things that create and sustain social and spiritual bonds and cohesion; these things form the basis for the religious expression of our Gaelic Polytheist Lifeway.
- Dames, Mythic Ireland, 1992, p255.
- Meyer, Contributions to Irish Lexicography, p384.
- See Sengoídelc, originally from Bríatharthecosc Con Culainn; for a translation of the text see Maxim Fomin’s Bríatharthecosc Con Culainn in the Context of Early Irish Wisdom-Literature (2009).
- Koch and Carey, The Celtic Heroic Age, 1995, p271.
- Many of the cultural survivals have been lightly Christianized. However, some practices that are termed “survivals” can only be traced back through to the last few centuries or so, and may be relatively recent in origin though they can clearly be seen to be rooted in the kind of native expressions that are a holdover of pre-Christian symbolism and belief. Through decades of study, practice, and living these ways we have come to an understanding of what aspects of Gaelic Christianity are in harmony with Gaelic Polytheism, and are carryovers from Gaelic Polytheism, and which are Christian innovations that are best discarded. This work is ongoing and collective, in the context of the checks and balances of community.
- Meyer, “The Triads of Ireland,” in Royal Irish Academy Todd Lecture Series Volume XIII, 1906, p23.
- See eDIL entry for aicned (1).
- Meyer, “The Triads of Ireland,” in Royal Irish Academy Todd Lecture Series Volume XIII, 1906, p11.
- Stokes, Meyer, and O’Davoran, Archiv fur Celtische Lexikographie Volume 3, 1907, p215.
- Na Trí Naomh (Gaeilge), An Trì Naomh (Gàidhlig), or Yn Tree Noo (Gaelg), “The Sacred Three.” Our inspiration for this phrase comes from the prevalence of triads in the Gaelic lore, and the use of the phrase (though with an archaic spelling, or perhaps a spelling unique to Carmichael) in the Carmina Gadelica (For example, in “Smaladh an Teine” [CG 84], “The first peat is laid down in the name of the God of Life, the second in the name of the God of Peace, the third in the name of the God of Grace. …in the name of the Three of Light. …An Tri numh – The sacred Three”). Gaol Naofa’s use of the phrase to apply to sacred triads in addition to this particular “three of light” is, as far as we know, a modern adaptation based on these precedents. For more on this, see The Gaol Naofa FAQ.
- See: “A Gift for a Gift: Offerings in Gaelic Polytheism.”
- Bergin, Ériu 9, p118.
- Mac Mathúna, ‘Irish Perceptions of the Cosmos,’ Celtica Volume 23, 1999, p181.
- See Sengoídelc.
- Ireland, Old Irish Wisdom Attributed to Aldfrith of Northumbria: An Edition of Bríathra Flainn Fhína maic Ossu, 1999, p81 (6.18).
- See Sengoídelc.