The Irish Potato Goddess: Or, Why Paganism Annoys Me

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My journey from Christianity to atheism didn’t happen in a day. I didn’t pick myself up off the street in Omagh, dust my shoulders and say ‘well, atheism’s for me!” as I clicked my heels and went on my merry way. It was a journey that took a number of years and included several pit stops. Among these were quick detours into Buddhism, deism, and even a brief look at Taoism.

My longest spiritual wayside on the road to atheism was the faith of several women in my family, most notably my grandmother. While they practised and acknowledged some Christian traditions, they were primarily what one would call animists. But it was even less than that, hardly a religion at all. My grandmother simply acknowledged and ‘worshipped’ the land. The soil, the sea, the sun and stars, the trees, she acknowledged their power and believed that certain actions under certain circumstances yielded certain results. She had learned her beliefs from her mother, who learned it from her father, all the way back to who knows how long. It’s a dying ember of pre-Christian Irish culture, and while I don’t think I ever really believed in it, I respected it as part of my people’s history.

It wasn’t until I came to America that I was exposed to the commercialised, bastarised, culture-grubbing version 9f my grandmother’s beliefs. And it took about five minutes exposure before I was deeply annoyed.

It’s called modern paganism, or neo-paganism. It encompasses all sorts of different branches like Wicca, heathenism, neo-druidism, neo-shamanism, and others. Despite what they might claim, the origins of the neo-pagan movement is actually quite recent. Starting with the renewed interest in Classical works and Greco-Roman mythology during the Renaissance period, the neo-pagan movement was truly launched with the Romantic era of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Aided along by leaders like Aleister Crowley, the 1960’s and 70’s provided the final revival that created the neo-pagan movement that thrives in the alternative bookstores of today. These movements center around the beliefs that they are the heirs to pagan traditions that date back to the pre-Christian eras of antiquity. Many of them practise rites, spells, and rituals that they claim originated with the pagans of thousands of years ago. Many pagans worship the gods of ancient civilisations like Rome, Egypt, and the Celtic and Germanic tribes. You can go into any Barnes and Noble around and find shelves of books with ancient mystical practises, healing rituals, spells and incantations, and histories of the ancient pagans.

There’s only one problem. Most of the pagans left little, if any record of their religious practises. One can find the odd fragment of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, but other religious traditions left no trace of themselves in our histories. The druids of Britain and Ireland never wrote down their practises. So how do the pagans and Wiccans carry on the traditions that they claim?

Culture appropriation. And lies.

Take for example, this book about Celtic Wicca. Witta: An Irish Pagan Tradition by Edain McCoy claims to be a historical review and insight to pre-Christian Irish paganism. And, before you even open the cover, the book begins to lie.

It claims that Witta is “the Irish Gaelic term for the Anglo-Saxon word Wicca.” But the Irish language doesn’t even have a ‘w’ and the letter combinations don’t make sense in our tongue.

McCoy claims that the maypole was an old Beltane fertility dance performed by the pagans. The Maypole came to Ireland in the 18th century from Britain.

But most hilariously infuriating is this little gem. McCoy claims that the Irish Great Goddess held the potato as sacred. “Because they grew underground, potatoes were sacred to the Goddess and used in female fertility rites,” she claims.

Yes, the Irish apparently had a potato goddess. Even though potatoes originate in Peru and didn’t come to Ireland until 1,100 years after the Christian conversion of Ireland, we had an ancient potato goddess.

I can’t be as virulently angry at paganism as I am at Christianity. Wiccans never blew up streets in Ireland. Neo-pagans didn’t enslave thousands of young women in the Laundries. Instead, they have targeted something else that is very near and dear to me. The culture of my home and of my own people.

My native language has been twisted and sold as a ‘sacred tongue’ that can be used for mystical spells. The history of my home has been appropriated and changed to fit a more pagan-friendly slant. The British tried to destroy our culture by outright banning it. Our customs survived, but what the neo-pagans have done is far worse. They’ve commercialised it for money. To sell books and jewelry and masterclasses on our history.

All religions are based in deceit and lies in some capacity or another. But the Wiccans and pagans are lying about my home.

And we’re not the only culture to suffer such treatment. Not even close. Go online or to any pagan festival and you’ll find ‘authentic’ Native American shaman rituals, voodoo and hoodoo rites, Egyptian prayers for protection, and more. Languages  are twisted into something that’s less than a shell of what they are meant to be. Histories are exploited and sold as religious truth. On and on it goes.

And what does it matter if we object? What does it matter of those of us born into the land, raised in these cultures, taught in these languages, object to seeing them bartered off like trinkets? My culture is part of my skin, it’s part of who I am. The neo-pagans have turned it into a second-hand sport jacket that you can get at a bargain price and dress up your spiritual heritage.

Those of us who come from the lands and cultures the pagans are appropriating don’t care who they bow down to. They can worship Lugh, Isis, or a mule for all I care.

I do care, however, that they have completely and unabashedly misrepresented our culture, our people, our history and our way of life. I care that they have taken our symbols and our history and twisted them to fashion something that they were never meant to be. Their Celtic gods, their banners with “Celtic knotwork” their mystical prayers and spells have nothing to do with what my people actually are or represented.

I care that they have turned the historical culture of my people into a shoddy, commercialised, plastic facade. I care that they treat the history of all these different people as a playtoy, with no care for historical accuracy or accountability. I care that I have dedicated my entire life to the arts, history, and language of Ireland e and have to watch neo-pagans claim that they are carrying on our traditions and ways of life without having the smallest clue what it means to be “Celtic.”

It’s not the Wiccan or pagan beliefs that disgust me.  It’s their actions. It’s that bartering commercialised versions of different cultures does more to destroy them than outright Imperialism. Listen. Culture is free. Culture should be shared. No one should be denied the chance to study or learn about a culture or way of life that is not their own. That’s not the point of this. The point is that culture should be respected. It should be valued, and overwhelmingly Wicca and neo-paganism have no regard for culture beyond what they can glean from it and sell. The way Jews feel when Christians hold a fake seder before Easter is similar to the way I feel when I hear Wiccans talking about potato goddesses and chanting in ‘Gaelic.’

Keep your religion, but leave my home and culture out of it.

 

This can be filed under 'things the Irish would never be caught dead wearing.'

This can be filed under ‘things the Irish would never be caught dead wearing.’

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14 thoughts on “The Irish Potato Goddess: Or, Why Paganism Annoys Me

  1. It’s like when someone gets a tattoo with Chinese characters because they think it’s cool, then a person who actually reads Mandarin says, “Bite the Wax Tadpole? WTF?”

  2. Not to mention that what little there is written down was written by christian monks (literacy being the privilege of the church for centuries) whom, we might suspect, had their own agenda that had NOTHING to do with whatever people were actually believing/thinking or doing at the time.

  3. Thank you for posting this.

    I’ve noticed a lot of blunders about language in books like those, but the potato goddess beats it all.

    I hope some of the neo-pagans who most need to read this will actually find it.

  4. Actually, most modern neo-pagans know very well how recent our tradition is, and deplore the hordes of shallow, barely-researched quickie guides that overpopulate the big bookstores ever since Wicca became “trendy.” The existence of Edain McCoy’s “Witta” is a running joke among me and my friends; coincidentally enough, we use the exact same phrase as you used in your title – “The Irish Potato Goddess” – as a kind of shorthand to refer to the worst offences of the publishing market.

    But don’t mistake the market for the movement. Whenever there’s money to be made, people will rush in to make it—commercialization is a sad side-effect of a free market. That doesn’t mean the movement itself is responsible.

    “Celtic” has become the new big thing in fringe circles, like “Egyptian” was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and “Native American” was in the sixties and seventies. Slap a Celtic label on, or decorate your product with some knotwork (which is actually Germanic in origin, heh) and you’re guaranteed to stir someone’s interest, even if it’s only teenagers and new enthusiasts with more money than sense. I totally get how infuriating that is—I’m Irish on my mother’s side, though three generations removed, and it’s annoying enough to me. It’s also annoying to me when people spout spurious half-truths about Wicca. (And I’m sure any member of the First Nation would roll their eyes and tell both of us “welcome to the club.”)

    But remember—it’s not “Wiccans” and “Neopagans” who are doing this…it’s the people who want Wiccan or Pagan dollars. Are the people cranking out knotwork jewelry and scads of near-worthless “Wicca 101” guides really pagan? Well…are the people cranking out little plastic crosses and printing bibles really Christians? I’m sure some of them are, but I’m also sure a lot of them aren’t. The ones who are, are mostly not the best and brightest of their subculture. And the ones who aren’t are just business folk, interested in making money. Just because their products are more visible than the average Pagan doesn’t make them a true representation of the core (well, of any of the myriad cores) of modern Paganism.

    Most neo-pagans don’t NEED to read this…we already know it. We’re painfully, face-palmingly aware of all of it, every day.

    • I had a bit of debate recently with some “practioners” in a blog about money & payment for services, so often they put themselves on the same level as a Dr, engineer, lawyer, Psychiatrist without wanting to have the same levels of accountabilty in their profession, just the right to charge well above the average middle class hourly wage.

      some are justbusiness opportunist, but others are genuine (maybe misguided or naive)

  5. As somebody with a strong interest in paganism as well as a commitment to logical thinking and historical accuracy, this article is a bit frustrating but very understandable. Yes, there is some absolute bullshit being promoted as “paganism”, but there are posers in every subculture. Other pagans are usually the first to call this stuff out. There’s even a nickname for this kind of watered-down, urban legend-driven pagans: “fluffy bunnies”. Paganism is a wide spectrum of people and practices, from scholarly reconstruction of historical faiths to modern initiatory religions like Gardnerian Wicca, as well as (unfortunately) obnoxious pseudo-historical woo. Your criticisms are all true, but they don’t tell the whole story.

    • This isn’t just a matter of a few ‘fluffy bunnies’ who are on the fringe. See my article on the exploitation of Romany identity by a pagan store for a better idea of the real damage neopaganism does to already marginalised minorities.

      • Yes, all pagans are cultural appropriators, you caught us. Just like all Christians oppress gay people and moderate Muslims refuse to speak out against ISIL, amirite?

        I am not denying that all sorts of wack shit goes on in the trendier, more consumerist side of paganism. It’s a real problem. However, *other pagans* are among the first to call it out. Hel(l), I only got to this page because I heard other pagans complaining about a hack author who claimed there’s an “Irish potato goddess” and I wanted to check who that author was. Just because we’re involved in religious and occult practices doesn’t mean we have no critical thought.

        (I will say that in a way I respect you acknowledging paganism. Most anti-religious atheists act like only the Abrahamic faiths exist.)

      • I never made a claim of “All pagans are culture appropriators,” nor would I. You made that little strawman yourself, and I’m not going to entertain it.

        I could #NotAllPagans at you until the air turned blue. But I’m not going to, because ‘Not all’ anything is an avoidance of the issue, not a resolution. You claim that pagans are the first to call out culture appropriation? Haven’t seen it. Because most of that calling out is not from pagans, but from the cultures being exploited.

        So yes, to entertain your vanities, not all pagans are culture appropriators. But is it regulated to the fringe you describe? No. Is it a pervasive and prevalent folly in your communities? Yes. Is it a defining point of neopagan relations with marginalised and historically oppressed racial and ethnic communities? Yes. Am I going to continue to call I out without bothering to put in a derailing #NotAllPagans tag every time? Yes.

  6. There are dozens upon dozens of traditions that can fall under the broad category of paganism. Not all pagans are Wiccans. And not all Wiccan’s are pagans. Wicca is a new religion. It appears you’ve come across Witta – no wonder you are upset. Sometimes it feels like 20th century spiritualists just wrote down a bunch of rules and branded it a religion with ancient roots. There are many gimicky “witchy” shop that sell overpriced and low quality goods. They prey on tourists and new pagans. Sometimes, they get business because they are fun to go into. However, many pagans don’t shop at these shops but instead they use ingredients they find in nature – wood, water, stones.

    I encourage you to not take your anger out broadly on Irish pagans. Real paganism focuses on individual spiritual experience and evolution. Irish pagans and reconstructionists are well aware that ancient traditions were passed down orally and all literature/scripture must be looked at with a critical eye. This spiritual path is beautiful and logical. It also requires extensive study. I highly recommend reading John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods. It sheds a lot of light on the validity of polytheism and why many people choose to go this route.

  7. What your grandmother practiced is called animism. It is a major proponent of paganism. Animism and paganism are world-wide practices. As Christianity has dominated our world for centuries, most people drawn to the pagan path did not have the privilege of having knowledge passed to them by family. That does not make them or their practice less valid. Also, Irish Americans that practice Celtic witchcraft are not appropriating your culture. They trace their families back to Ireland and many can do so for generations and generations. It is more logical to aruge that Irish Americans practicing Native American spirituality or Egyptian spirituality are the culprits of cultural appropriation.

    I respect your opinions. As someone who is Irish, I’m just glad that our little known history isn’t being forgotten.

  8. I’m a Norse Heathen and most Heathens HATE being labelled as a “Neo-Pagan”. The reason I’m part of this beautiful religion is because I believe in respecting your culture and not tarnishing it with “fluffy” BS, like what most Wiccans seem to do.

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