Part 2 — Gods: Being Pagan on Stolen Indigenous Lands

Three-Part Series on Irish Paganism in America

Founded in 1976, The Black Rose, is one of the best known Irish Pubs in Boston.

Last week, i used a lot of antiracist and anticolonial theory vocab.

But basically what it comes down to is asking the question of how we as white pagans can be in right-relationship with the Land beneath our feet and all around us. With land spirits who are stolen indigenous lands. Land spirits that have seen continued colonisation and genocide. Lands who give and sustain life. Lands who are alive and conscious and sovereign and more than a resource to exploit or a foundation to build temples upon.

This week I want to go further on a few things that were touched upon regarding the gods and whether or not they are even here in the Americas?

Should we begin to reframe? Move towards a less anthropomorphic practice? A non deity-centric pagan path outside of Ireland?

In my religious studies classes we used to discuss the premise of being omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent. If the white christian god can be, why can’t others? Is it just a fallacy to bolster Christosupremacy? An all powerful, all knowing/seeing, and ever present white god used to frighten new converts into accepting the new paradigm? Yet another layer of cultural imperialist fear mongering?

The Irish gods to me don’t seem to be all powerful. They may live for a very long time, but they can die and can be hurt and their magics are specialised to them.

The Irish gods to me don’t seem to be all knowing. Though they can use magic to see glimpses into the past, present, and future; they do not possess knowledge of everything.

The Irish gods to me don’t seem to be all being everywhere simultaneously… though this is where I feel there is nuance.

Let me be clear here, I am speaking about Irish gods, not the homogeneously lumped and appropriated neopagan “Celtic” gods — “Celtic” is a made up academic term by cultural history archaeologists who lumped six very different groups of people into one “culture” using a very big language umbrella.

So here I’m discussing Irish gods, not Welsh gods, or Scottish ones. Not Cornish or Breton gods in France. Several Irish gods are anthropomorphic representations of natural Irish landmarks and the land, rivers, lakes, and ocean itself. But this does not mean that just because Boínn is the river Boyne, that she is in the land, sea, and sky throughout. She is somewhat limited, though not contained.

River Boyne near Dunmoe & Ardmulchan, near to Hays, Meath, Ireland

This does not mean a land spirit or god cannot change their shape and cannot go where they wish to go. Irish folklore tells us about House spirits that follow families wherever they go, and it is safe to say that they travelled with the diasporas alongside Irish immigrants and indentured servants across the Atlantic. Morgan Daimler writes about a lot of these topics in their article “Irish Faeries in America.”

updated to add: Lora O’Brien also discusses this as well in Irish Witchcraft From An Irish Witch (second edition) on page 54: “…it is often said that when our ancestors emigrated they brought some of their land spirits or Fairies with them, especially in the larger Irish communities. Check around, and be respectful and aware. Don’t presume that just because you aren’t on Irish ground that there is nothing Irish to be found.”

The question though that weighs more heavily is this: did the gods come as well? Did An Daghda, An Mórrígan, An Cailleach, Aíne, Dian Cécht, Oghma, Goibniu, Lugh, Nuada, and my fav Bríghid? Last we knew the Tuatha Dé Danann went under the earth through the mounds and into the Otherworld from where they still offer their blessings to humans. What has happened since then? It’s been at least 3000 years since the Milesians came and changed the dynamics forever. It makes me wonder quite a bit about things and the new relationships and contracts with the Gods and Aos Sí that the Irish hold with then and now.

So did some or all of the Irish gods come? Did the sidthe? Did they displace the liminal spirits and beings that were/are here as extensions of colonialism? Do they patron and hangout in Irish pubs and Catholic cathedrals? Do they come and visit and then return back to Ireland? Do they winter here in the warmer climates and go on vacations to Mexico? These are the questions that I ask myself at night when I cannot sleep.

St. Brigid Catholic Church, Westbury, NY

I don’t want to say they aren’t here in the Americas, Irish witchcraft does work here after all; but there is something to be said that they are felt stronger in Ireland. Their believers and followers may have brought bits of them here and they may hear our calls, but being here must take a bit more effort on their part.

But if they are here, do they live in right-relationship with the Indigenous gods and spirits of these stolen lands? Or do they fight amongst themselves?

We white pagans focus so much of our time on the god-to-human relationship that we very often ignore or disregard the god-to-god and spirits-to-spirits relationships.

And it is this blindspot that is a product of neocolonialism. As Kwame Nkrumah has said, “methods of neo-colonialists are subtle and varied. They operate not only in the economic field, but also in the political, religious, ideological and cultural spheres” (1965).

This cultural neocolonialism can also be called cultural imperialism, which involves establishing the culture of the ruling class as the norm. It “is the experience of existing with a society whose dominant meanings render the particular perspectives and point of view of one’s own group invisible at the same time as they stereotype one’s group and mark it out as the Other.” (Iris Young, 1988)

Paganisms may not be the dominant religions in the Americas — we all know the power of christonormativity — but in America even the old religions seep into popular dominant culture and are accepted and celebrated. Any white heritage festival is filled with a celebrated, albeit nationalistic, nostalgia for folk tradition. There is hardly a school child that does not know about “fairy” tales about leprechauns, elves, trolls, witches, and devils. We cannot say the same for Indigenous gods and liminal spirits unless there is an active want to incorporate them for inclusivity. Neoliberal world religion classes universalise Indigneous worldviews with a passing mention, if at all. I said it last week, whether we like to admit it or not, white pagan culture is increasingly being accepted while Black paganisms are still feared/demonised and Indigenous practices are whitewashed, demonised, or erased.

There are some Indigenous spirits that we might not wish to say the names of for good reason, as are there reasons why corn (maize) fields are feared in popular dominant white culture while wheat fields are not. Not every place or spirit is meant for us, and many may just wish to be left alone, and we would do well to remember that.

There is an entitled feeling that perhaps we white pagans are afraid of recognising. Why do we see our own gods and spirits in everything here on stolen land, but not the Indigenous gods and spirits? These rivers and waves and forests and lands have Indigenous names afterall.

In order to live and practice in right-relationship, I feel it is so important to privilege these names and spirits first before we begin to laud our white gods over the spirits of these lands. We white pagans think ourselves so progressive and open-minded and accepting of so many others’ gods, but we fail to see the ones right here under our coloniser noses. The ancient ones beneath our very feet.

It’s time to put an end to the Doctrine of Discovery, and the white right to rule just because white men “won” the wars.

The fuckery of it all, layer by layer, has got to go.

It’s 2021. Let’s help put #LandBack into Indigenous hands, and empower Indigenous people across Turtle Island with the tools and strategies to do LANDBACK work in their own communities. Sovereignty gods and spirits demand it of us to be comrades not colonisers.

The LANDBACK Campaign officially launched on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 12, 2020; but has a much older history. It’s time to weave some magic to Dismantle, Defund, Return, and for Consent. Will you and your gods help us?

Anthropologist. Abolitionist. Cultural Critic.