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March 25, 2021

Celtic Paganism

Community Interview with C. Lee Vermeers

The third part in our Community Spirituality Series, where I interviewed C. Lee Vermeers of the Facebook Group ‘Celtic Paganism’, about his personal spiritual practice, and his online work for the Pagan Community. (Note – the resource links throughout have been added by me, to facilitate further study on specific topics. Some of these may be affiliate, fyi!)

Q. 1 – When and where did your interest in Pagan/Earth based Spirituality begin?

I could say that it began when my Dad read excerpts from Beowulf to me as a child, or when I first read Greek myths (appropriately bowdlerized for children), or heard and read Irish, Norse, and Finnish stories, but more directly it was reading Illuminatus! as an early teen and therefore having someone effectively say, as it were, to me that it was all right to love those gods, that they weren’t, as I had been repeatedly told in Sunday School and books, superseded by one or none—some of the collections of stories that I’d voraciously read had literally said that at the end: “And then along came Jesus” or “Of course we don’t believe that now” or the like! I really connected all of that to the world I lived in at that point, and got myself out of the books and into the concrete existence around me.

Q. 2 – How did you practically go about getting started, and what resources did you have available to you – eg. books, teaching courses, events, people you met?

I had this word, “Wicca”, so I went around trying to find out more about that. It wasn’t easy at the time (this would be in the very early ‘80s, so there was no Buckland Big Blue Book, no Ravenwolf, nor any of the other entry points that are so common for a lot of people today). At the same public library that I had found Illuminatus!, there were copies of Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense and some book by Max Freedom Long about his “Huna” frippery. Perhaps not the best footing to start on, but it got me moving at least. I came close to having a mentor in those early days, as the mother of a friend who lived around the corner from me had left out some pamphlets on Wicca one day and I excitedly asked her about them, but she turned me away—probably not surprising given that I was maybe 13 at the time.

After tinkering with wiccanate types of practice over the next few years, I found some better footing, as it were, in The Sacred Cauldron. Not a perfect book, to be sure, but a good one that set aside the “circle and directions” model that underpinned wiccanate and most other neopagan practice at the time, and it set me in a direction that felt more like what I was looking for. That led to a local BBS that echoed PODS (“Pagan/Occult Distribution System”), a FIDO-based set of forums. There, I reconnected with Erynn Laurie, whom I’d met some years earlier, and got involved in the PODS:CELTIC echo. That, in turn, led to being exposed to the early ideas about “Celtic Reconstructionism”, which wasn’t called that, or anything else, at the time. Actually, as I write this and do some fact-checking, I am not sure if I found CELTIC or The Sacred Cauldron first. The publication date of the latter seems later than I remember.

In any case, CELTIC led to nemeton-l and the people there led to IMBAS and its public mailing list, which led to the years of having to actively shut down the hordes who insisted that they knew the Seekrit Celtic Wisdumb of the Ages, given to them by their grannies in a direct line of transmission from the Misty Mists of Misty Histry and the Drooids Who Lived There. [editor: please imagine a Lora O’Brien LOL at this point] And occasionally getting a chance to discuss archaeology, folklore, real history, and so on in order to start putting together a picture of what was done in the past based in scholarship but suited to the practical needs we had. By the end of the ‘90s, we’d started to secure a real place where those discussions could happen in depth and without the constant interruptions by well-meaning (you can read that as “paternalistic”) know-nothings.

There were many other people I met (or rather “met”, in the online sense) during that era whom I consider to be strong influences on me, if not quite the mentor that Erynn always has been. Alexei Kondratiev is probably the most notable there—he set me right on some wishful thinking I’d allowed myself to retain and instilled the importance of the languages into my thinking. “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam,” as Pearce said. We also developed a local community of interested people in my region, developed some ritual, and such.

Q. 3 – What does being Pagan mean to you? (or your term of choice, please explain!)

First and foremost is recognizing that the world around us is alive, and that we are part of that world in a web of relationships and interconnections. That’s “animism”, according to the scholars who want to divide all of these concepts into discrete entities. It also leads, inevitably, to “polytheism”, the recognition that there are Powers in the world Who are greater than we are, and Who deserve to be acknowledged and adored, and that those Powers have various and separate wills and intentions that are not always in line with each other, but aren’t always at odds either. And then singing and dancing (even if we might not have the talent or skill of whatever pop star is the current mega-darling). Anyway, I prefer the term “polytheist”, since “pagan” has historical usage to simply mean anyone not Christian. To me, if the Powers I mentioned above aren’t involved, then it isn’t what I’m doing, so an “atheist” whatever doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Since there are legitimately “atheist pagans”, then that means that “pagan” isn’t what I’m doing.

I won’t quibble if someone else wants to call me “pagan”, or really anything else, though. I do still have some emotional attachment to the term, and what words other people use are more for their convenience than mine, so long as they keep me apprised of what they mean when they use them.

Q. 4 – What sort of things do you do on a daily/weekly, monthly or seasonal basis to explore or express your Spirituality?

Lately, I’ve let my actual practice sort of slide. I pour daily libations in honor of various individual Gods, as well as the Ancestors (understood as an abstract set of forerunners, since like many of us my recent ancestors would probably not appreciate acts of veneration to anyone who isn’t a recognized Saint or, you know, The Divinity) and the Good Neighbors. To keep variety and not just pour to Lugh and Bríd every day, I pick Déithe Who are related to the day of the week. Which is not to say that Lugh “is” Woden or Mercury, whatever that sort of theological statement might mean!

I also keep an eye on the phases of the Moon, but don’t celebrate them as much as I probably should. They do rule my personal ritual calendar, which is based on the one found at Coligny, with my own extensions. I generally have some small thing that I do at the Quarterly festivals, but I do miss having a group of other people to celebrate those with (not to mention the difficulties in doing so with the current pandemic conditions).

When I’ve been more assiduous in the past, I would practice broadsword fencing with a spiritual and magical bent and daily magical practices to keep my spirit and mind sharp. I keep trying to get back into that habit, but it’s not always easy.

Q. 5 – What advice do you wish someone had given you, that you would like to give people starting out on this path?

“You’ve already been doing magic your whole life, so when you start to practice it formally it isn’t going to seem as world-shattering as you want it to be. When you get better at it, you’ll come to realize just how world-shattering it really is. Also, you don’t need to do magic to venerate the Gods, though it doesn’t hurt either.”

Q. 6 – What is the name of the Facebook Group you admin (Celtic Paganism), and how did you get involved there? (please feel free to provide group details eg. member numbers or general guidelines, and a link to group)

I’m a co-admin of Celtic Paganism on Facebook. I just sort of stumbled into administering it, and am very lucky to have two co-admins who are wonderful. I have no idea what I’m doing, but people seem to respond to our methods. Our rules are simple and mostly come down to “don’t be a dick”, though a few specific cases are spelled out. We prefer that advertising be kept to an advertising thread that we renew every week so that the group doesn’t become nothing but spam. We don’t allow discussion of Wicca unless thoroughly connected to “Celtic” cultural and linguistic matters, since that religion can quickly overwhelm any other discussion due to being the proverbial 800-pound gorilla. You can find the group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/celtic.paganism.

Q. 7 – What is the most frustrating thing for you about being involved with that group?

The constant trickle of far-right wing ideologues that inevitably get past our screening. And people who insist that “DNA” has any relevance to a fundamentally cultural and spiritual group.

Q. 8 – What is the most satisfying thing for you about being involved with that group?

Being able to provide an ongoing space in which people can learn and grow in relation to the animist and polytheist traditions, as expressed today, related to the various Celtic cultures.

Q. 9 – If you could guarantee that each group member had read AT LEAST one book before joining, what book would that be?

It’s really hard to pick just one, but I suppose Celtic Heritage by Alwyn and Brinley Rees, which gives the most bang for the buck across multiple Celtic cultures.

Q. 10 – Anything else you’d like to share?!

I am all for tradition as a road map to help us move through life, but letting tradition become a straitjacket is as much a mistake as ignoring tradition altogether. We live now, in a real place and time. Abstractions like “tradition” can help us think about our circumstances by giving us access to a distilled wisdom derived from the experiences of people who have gone before us, but every moment is unique. In the past, people learned from each other and shared what they knew, even across boundaries of nation and language. There was no hermetically sealed “culture” that excluded all other knowledge than that from the local region. We can still do that.

On the other hand, people who take willy-nilly from colonized peoples or (to pick an example that goes in the other direction) arbitrarily make up words in the languages of other peoples aren’t sharing anything. They are imposing and stealing.

That’s just a bugbear that has been weighing on my mind lately. Hopefully, none of it will be relevant in ten years, but I bet it will.

A huge thank you to C. Lee Vermeers for the interview, it’s always fascinating to see how others are practicing Paganism, and serving the Celtic Paganism community!

Please do remember these book mentions and links are based on C. Lee’s view and experiences, which are valid and respected, but may or may not reflect my particular recommended resources lists 😉

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About the Author

Irish Author, Educator, and Guide to Ireland. Co-Founder of the Irish Pagan School, Eel & Otter Press, and Pagan Life Rites (Ireland).

Lora O'Brien

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