The following is a brief Q/A with Michael, an Irish Pagan I met.
Q: Who are the main gods?
A: The gods are members of the Tuatha Dé Danann (tribe of Danu)
Danu is often considered the mother of them all, but she is not explicitly mentioned in the mythology.
The Dagda (the good god) and the Morrigan (great queen) are sometimes considered to be mates, however the Morrigan couples with others as well, which seems to be how she gives blessings and shows favor. The Morrigan is often taken to have three main forms: Badb, Macha and Nemain.
Goibniu, Credne and Luchta are craftsmen.
Brigit is often considered the daughter of the Morrigan and is much like Saraswati in that she gives inspiration to poets and musicians. I see her as the spark of life and she is often represented by an eternal flame. She can also be compared to Vesta. Brigit’s nine priestesses who tended her fire in Kildare, became nuns and continued their practice well into the Christianization of Ireland.
Lugh Lámfada (long arm or multi talented) may have originally been a Gaulish storm god, although he is often seen as a god of the summer sun in Irish paganism. His grandfather Bolar, whom he kills is often seen as the winter sun. His father is Aengus Og, who is often seen as a god of love.
Manannán mac Lir is often considered a sea god and is patron of the Isle of Man. The legs on his flag are actually his and represent his ability to stand in all worlds: land, sea and sky.
There are many more but this is a good start and I’d call them the main gods.
Q: What is the founding myth?
A: Unfortunately, the Irish cosmogony is lost to time because our cycles of mythology were written down by Christian monks who felt the need to tie it into the biblical narrative.
However, it is possible that pieces of it remain hidden in what they recorded. For example, the two bulls fighting in the cattle raids of Cooley (one brown and one black) may be a reference to it. When one overtakes the other he carries him across Ireland dropping pieces as he goes.
The pieces are said to become the mountains. It would fit the common Indo-European theme of one primordial being defeating another and using its parts to make the world. Another possibility is that the world could have been born from the womb of a great goddess as symbolized by the Sheela na gig.
Q: Are only the gods worshiped?
A: No, ancestors and heros are also of great significance.
Q: Are there a set of principles believers must follow?
A: Yes, although it is very unique in a way. It is called Brehon Law, or sometimes Patrick’s Law (St. Patrick recommended them) although they were dictated by a specialized “Brehon” (judge) and took into account individual circumstances to determine what was truly fair.
Two principles held in very high regard were hospitality and honor, especially when dealing with an enemy. It is interesting to note that the first ruling passed in Ireland according to the mythic cycle, was ruled against Partholón (who was a leader) in favor of his wife. He came home to her sleeping with another man and killed the man and her dog who had tried to protect her. He was stopped before he could kill her and was made to give her everything he owned and a new dog to protect her.
Q: How does your belief form the way you see the world? How about other religions?
A: Irish paganism, like most pagan religions, is pluralistic. We see other religions as having some perennial wisdom at their core. We are like different leafs on the same tree. We may even be on different branches but we all have the same roots that draw from the same well. You see, what makes us different makes up our cultural identity and individuality, but what makes us similar makes us family. Both are important and both should be celebrated.
Q: Are there many Irish pagans left?
A: If you gathered us all up into one place I’m sure there would be many, but we are few and far between.
Q: What are the gender roles in your belief? Are there any?
A: In Irish paganism there is nothing men can do that women can’t. There is no wall between genders. In fact, goddesses seem to be emphasized more than gods. Women could rule, become druids, go to war, become Brehon (judges). Pretty much anything.
In some cases, our ancestors had a ways to go but there was no comparison in the ancient world. Today, Irish pagans view men and women equally and are often of the opinion that gender roles are a social construct we can do without.
Q: Is there a priesthood hierarchy?
A: In ancient times, the druids would have taken on the role of priesthood. However, they were far more than that. They were multi-talented and specialized in a wide variety of intellectual fields. You could see them as the “PhD holders” of the time and for this reason, they had more power than a king.
Q: How are Irish pagans perceived in America?
A: At least where I’m from in the United States it is not taken very seriously and I am often laughed at or lumped into the “new age” category.
Q: Is it a very ritualistic religion?
A: Yes, ritual is central to the practice of Irish paganism. It is generally tied into natural events and often re-enacts events in mythology. In Ireland, sacred places such as standing stones, mounds “raths” (which are the buried remains or ancient forts sort of like a tel in Hebrew) rivers, mountains, lakes, ponds, wells, and anything that has a tie to an event in Irish mythology.
If you’re not in Ireland like me, you often have to make these or find a place that resembles them. Cairn stones are very popular with Modern Irish pagans for this reason, and because they are used in very many cultures and have been for a very long time.
There is a daily devotional dedicated to the chosen divinity of the house (like an ishta devta in Hinduism). Offerings are usually made that are relevant to the god or goddess and a prayer is usually said. Oghem sticks (like rune stones) are cast to make sure the offerings were accepted.
Full moon and new moon rituals are usually preformed as well as the high days, which fall between transitional periods of the seasons and important times for farming. They are Imbolc (in celebration of the first signs of spring). February 1 is the start of spring in the modern calendar.
This is dedicated to the goddess Brigit, so wells and the eternal flame are sacred. People tie ribbons to trees to signify the goddess regaining her maidenhood as she turns from the crime of winter (an cailleach) “the hag” or “grandmother.” It literally means hag but this was not seen as a bad thing to the ancient Irish. Bells can also be hung from trees. Offerings can be made at wells too. Also, crosses made of river reeds can be made at this time that are thought to protect babies.
This high day is still celebrated and many of the rituals are the same. The only difference now is that Brigit has been Christened as St. Bridget. Her eternal fire is still tended by the Bridgetine order of nuns, although it was stopped for a time by the Roman Catholic Church when they realized it was crypto-paganism. The other high days are Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain.
Did you find this article interesting? If so, feel free to leave a comment about Irish paganism.