This issue, we sit down for an interview with CS MacCath. A member of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and a student of Gaelic culture, MacCath is currently working on a nine volume science fiction epic. Here, she discusses the joys and trials of learning Gaelic and the place of science fiction in Paganism.
Eternal Haunted Summer: If you could correct one misconception about contemporary Paganism, what would it be?
CS MacCath: I’m concerned that contemporary Pagans are still othered by non-Pagans and by the media. Two recent examples come to mind. In the US, there was the public spectacle around Delaware Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell’s statement that she “dabbled in witchcraft” in the 1990s and her subsequent “I’m not a witch” campaign commercial. In the UK, there was the vitriolic opinion piece written by Melanie Phillips of The Daily Mail about the recognition of Druidry as a religion there, wherein she called Druidry a cult and belittled the spiritual tenets of the practice. In both cases, Pagans were depicted as misguided and hurtful of others, and the media cooperated with that depiction to various degrees. This forced Pagans in both countries to defend their faith before a variety of dismissive sensationalism that would not have been visited upon a major world religion.
Granted, Time‘s interview of Delaware high priest Michael Smith was quite good, and Smith’s responses to the magazine’s questions about the O’Donnell matter were excellent. The BBC‘s article about the recognition of Druidry as an official religion was less than stellar but tolerable at least, and it did include a short interview of Phil Ryder from the Druid Network, the organization that applied for official status. So in neither of these examples was the othering monolithic, and that’s encouraging. Still, our faith is not the butt of a joke, and our people are not stereotypes. We are a diverse group of believers and practitioners who have the right to be treated with tolerance and to have our beliefs represented fairly in the media.
EHS: How would you describe your spiritual path?
CSM: I’m a Buddhist-leaning Druid fellow of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids with a Heathen wood shed into which I clamber occasionally for inspiration and guidance. More importantly though, I’m a vegan environmental and animal rights activist. My ethical principles dictate the direction of my spiritual practice and not the other way around, since I believe that my impact upon the world is more important than the mythology I hold sacred.
EHS: How’s the Gaelic coming along?
CSM: Glè mhath, tapadh leat! Tha Gàidhlig agam meadhonach, ach tha mi ag ionnsachadh.
Very well, thank you! My Gaelic is middling, but I’m learning.
I moved to Nova Scotia with my husband in September so that I could live in a place where it was still possible to immerse in Scottish Gaelic and gain fluency. My undergraduate degree was in Celtic Studies, so I’ve had quite a bit in the way of Celtic language study, but it’s hard to learn minority languages well enough to speak them, because there are so few people who do.
Right now, I’m taking a TIP (Total Immersion Plus) class in Halifax once a week, where we speak nothing but Gaelic, and I’m taking a class through the Atlantic Gaelic Academy via Skype. Finally, and this is my favorite Gaelic thing ever, I’m practicing and singing traditional milling songs with An Cliath Clis, a Halifax-based performing group.
If you’ll indulge me, here are some good links for interested folk:
EHS: Have you found that learning another language is affecting your writing, your thoughts, your worldview? If so, how?
CSM: I wish I had enough Gaelic to answer this question as well as I want to, but I’ll do my best with what I have. One of my favorite examples of the difference between the Gaelic languages and English is that none of the Gaelic languages utilizes the verb ‘to have’. Things in Gaelic are at you (agad), on you (ort), with you (leat), etc. Your anatomy and your family belong to you more personally; ‘do làmh’ is ‘your hand’, and ‘do bhean’ is ‘your wife’, but the Gaelic languages don’t allow you to ‘have’ any ‘thing’. I’ve often wondered if this speaks to a communal ethic of ownership among early Gaels, since both Irish and Scottish Gaelic people had strong ties to family and clan.
Another interesting feature of Scottish Gaelic is that it began to fall out of common usage before many modern conveniences were invented. So I often find myself looking for words like ‘refrigerator’ and finding constructions like ‘soitheach-fuarachaidh’, which is essentially a cold vessel used for storing food.
So when I speak Gaelic, I’m conscious of differences between my culture and the culture that gave rise to the language, and I’m also conscious of the gap in time between everyday use of the language and its current revival by Gaelic enthusiasts.
EHS: My first introduction to your writing was “Bringing Woden to the Little Green Men” in PanGaia #48. How did you come up with the idea of a Northern Tradition missionary trying to teach aliens about Woden?
CSM: I was frustrated at the pejorative use of the term ‘unverified personal gnosis’ to describe an individual’s private experience of the Gods. One of the most important lessons I carried away from my degree in Celtic Studies was that while the lore is certainly helpful to modern Pagan practice, Gaelic is not God. So I am sometimes impatient with the hashing and rehashing of history and literature in the Pagan community, as if an opinion about the Second Battle of Maigh Tuireadh might be more spiritually relevant than meditation, or prayer, or the product of these activities.
In a moment of frustration-meets-humor, I imagined a far-future, Heathen lore-hound explaining The Eddas to aliens with no success, but coming to the truth of his faith by direct experience. So the poem was satire, I’m afraid, a comment upon the necessity of private experience to a person’s faith and the validity of that experience on its own merit.
I would hasten to add that I value my education, and I respect the educations and researches of other erudite Pagans into the history and literature of their respective traditions. But history and literature are only part of the spiritual equation. We have to live in our faith, too, and we can’t do that if we’re always looking backward.
EHS: Do you find that Paganism and science fiction go well together? What does science fiction, as a genre, offer Pagan authors?
CSM: I think Paganism and science fiction can go well together, and I’d like to see more Pagan authors writing in the genre. Science fiction is prognosticative by nature, so it offers Pagan authors the opportunity to speculate about the future of our faith; how it might develop over time, the impact it might have on the world, the myths that might spring from it. In a religion where terms like UPG arise out of a sometimes backward-focused search for meaning, a look forward can be healthy, can help us set goals and avoid pitfalls on the road. I want to read about twenty-second century Wiccan monasteries, twenty-fourth century story books full of tales about twenty-first century Pagans, twenty-sixth century cautionary tales about what happens when Paganism becomes a major world religion and the inevitable corruption of power that follows. I want for us to imagine our future as thoroughly as we already imagine our past.
EHS: You are currently working on Petals of the Twenty Thousand Blossom, a nine volume space opera. Nine volumes?! What can you tell us about it?
CSM: It’s a three-trilogy set of stories that focuses on the passing of ancient technology and culture from an alien species to select human beings for the purpose of preserving us against a possible genetic failure later on in our evolution. The first trilogy, World Sea Legacy, builds the society that arises from this transmission of technology and culture. The second, Sacred Assassin, shows the society in action. The third, Motherland, brings the story back to Earth.
A number of religious perspectives appear in the first book, which is nearly finished, but subsequent books feature some of the prognosticative stuff I mentioned before. I’ll be playing with what happens when Pagans influence the religious environment of another planet, what rites and rituals follow seasons on an alien world, and so forth.
I’m calling the series a space opera, but it’s probably more accurate to call it a sociologial space opera, since I’m playing with ideas like individualism vs. group-think as it relates to the role of consciousness in quantum collapse. Of course, most physicists don’t care for the notion that the same consciousness which determines the position or velocity of an electron can also manifest reality in the macrocosm, but I’m not a physicist. I’m a Pagan, and I’ve seen what we can do when we work magic together.
EHS: You are also hard at work on a short story collection. Will the collection feature all new tales? Previously published? A mixture?
CSM: Spirit Boat is actually on hold at the moment while I finish Twilight of the World Sea People. This series has required a great deal of research and world-building, so while I have a general game plan for the short story collection, I want to wait until the current novel is finished and the series is thoroughly outlined before I continue work on it. Some of the stories are previously published, but the story that frames the collection and most of the tales inside it have yet to be written.
EHS: You’ve written (and published) quite a bit. How do you decide which pieces to include?
CSM: I love to world-build, and I love the mythical expression of spirituality and culture, so I’m working to create a kind of science fiction spiritpunk sensibility that takes the reader to places where technology and religion interact seamlessly. Frank Herbert and Gene Wolfe are literary heroes of mine, so I’ve been heavily influenced by the metaphysical journeys of Severian the Torturer and Paul Maud’dib, if that tells you anything.
The other thing I might mention about Spirit Boat is that where the included story has already been published, the frame for that story is told from the perspective of a secondary or tertiary character in it.
EHS: What other projects are you working on?
CSM: That’s it, for the moment. In a year or so, once we’re more settled in Nova Scotia, we want to begin hosting Pagan book clubs, regular sabbats and the like. I’d like to be drumming again, and since there aren’t really any West African groups playing around here, I think I might start one. And I wouldn’t mind hanging out my shingle and teaching the bodhrán. I’m an advanced-intermediate player, and I’ve successfully taught a beginner’s workshop for the drum, so I think it would be fun to teach beginners individually. For now though, the writing and the Gaelic are taking up all my time.
EHS: Which books fairs, conventions, festivals or other events will you be attending in the foreseeable future?
CSM: I haven’t been a big convention-goer, as a rule. I went to Pantheacon in 2008 because I was short-listed for the Pagan Fiction Award, but that’s the only one I’ve been to since MarCon in 1993. I’m told that I should make the effort though, so I’m thinking about ReaderCon next year. I’d enjoy participating in panels and teaching workshops, but I’m not really certain who to ask about such things or how to set them up.
As for festivals, if Druidic Dawn hosts another Druid gathering in Canada next year, I’ll certainly go to that, and I’ll hope to attend whatever events are happening next year in Nova Scotia. Beyond that, I’ll go wherever I’m called or have the interest, but I have no particular plans at present.