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The Nine Elements

by Gilbride, with Sitheag Bochanan and L.S.A. Thomas

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2. A Devotional Practice

Most religions have sects or aspects which are especially demanding, and often especially rewarding as a result. The Nine Elements is such an approach to Celtic religion. It is available to every worshipper, and includes no initiations, ranks, or titles of priesthood. It is simply a disciplined and demanding way of practicing Celtic spiritual traditions. I designed these requirements to be a balanced combination of research, language study and more obviously spiritual practices. They are designed to bring a new learner into an active spiritual life immediately, while providing direction for a lifelong religious path. Furthermore, they are designed to open up the whole world of Celtic culture to the learner- for Celtic religion is ultimately the spiritual expression of the Celtic cultures, and without Celtic culture there can be no Celtic religion. This system is not defined exclusively as Christian or Pagan, as it can accommodate either perspective. Although its core assumptions are polytheist, some people who identify themselves as Christian may be comfortable practicing this system. Its requirements were inspired by the demanding Rules of the Celtic Christian monasteries, which placed much emphasis on disciplined devotional practice. But many Celtic spiritual traditions derive originally from the pre-Christian era.

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3. The Purpose Of This Approach

Too many people practice religion or spirituality as a compartment of their lives, deliberately separate from daily living. Religion in the past was not separate from daily life- in fact, the two were so intertwined that no separate word for "religion" is known for Old Celtic. Life was once immersed in spirituality, a spirituality which encompassed and permeated every mundane action, until there could be no hard distinction between sacred and mundane at all. Every ordinary act, from getting out of bed to making clothes to eating food, was sacramentalized through deliberate ritual action. This way of life is not entirely forgotten in the Celtic-speaking communities today. And it can be entered into by choice, although not without effort. Through providing a clear set of guidelines, I hope to offer a realistic way to start living this kind of life.

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4. The Nine Elements

In Celtic tradition, there are certain Elements which make up the substance of the universe. In Gaelic, these Elements are called the "Duilean", which can also mean "expectations". The Nine Elements are the expectations which together make up this system. As the Nine Elements is not an organization, there will be no one to oversee you. It is up to you to fulfill these expectations on your own, and to decide how deeply committed you wish to be.

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The Nine Elements are :

I. Language - learning a Celtic language.

II. Prayer - praying in a Celtic language on a daily basis.

III. Contemplation - private meditation on a daily basis.

IV. Scholarship - regular study of Celtic history, religion and culture through reliable sources.

V. Culture - working for the continuation and health of the modern Celtic cultures.
VI. Festivals - marking the holy days of Celtic tradition.

VII. Consecration - marking important life events with Celtic customs.

VIII. Lore - regular practice of traditional lore.
IX. Offerings - offerings to the ancestors and the dead, the household spirits, the spirits of the Land, and the gods.

Each one of these elements will be addressed in turn.

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5. A Culture-Based Religion

The Nine Elements is not an eclectic neopagan type of spirituality. It is one way to practice a culture-based religion, the spirituality inherent in the culture and the traditions of a particular people. This is not an easy thing to do. Commitment, and a willingness to undergo a personal transformation are a must. If you decide to follow this path, read this article thoroughly before you get started. Then, immediately begin to practice and fulfill the nine expectations as well as you can. If you do this with devotion and commitment, you will need no teacher to guide you further unless you want one. At first, you might want to concentrate on fulfilling the basic requirements. When you have made these a part of your life, if you are drawn to go further, you can choose to expand your practice.

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6. Language - The First Element

To explore another tradition is to enter another world. You may have to abandon the idea that this world is already your own. Family connection, emotional or aesthetic attachment, instinctive love, even a significant spiritual experience- these things can draw you towards the Celtic world, but they are not the same as participating in it. You can always practice religion within the customs of your own culture or the insights of your own imagination. But if you want to practice a Celtic religion, you will have to do so within the customs of the Celtic cultures and the insights of the Celtic poets and storytellers who have gone before, and still live today. When you learn a new language, you learn to see with new eyes- not just one new perspective, but a thousand new perspectives and more; new ways to describe color, texture, emotion and every other facet of your life. And a new way to describe a thing is, in itself, a new way of seeing that thing. It's easy to see this process as a difficult chore, and certainly it is hard work. But it's also an exciting, beautiful and joyful experience, and one that will prove richly rewarding over a lifetime. This is true of any language. But the Celtic languages, in particular, could easily be compared to the Dagda's Un-Dry Cauldron, endlessly giving yet always full. Language is the element which will bring all of the other elements into your life, and make it possible for them to truly transform you from within. For that reason, the first requirement is to begin the study of a Celtic language, and to continue that study in one way or another for as long as you are involved with this system.

If you already speak a Celtic language fluently, you should concentrate on reading Celtic literature and poetry in order to deepen your experience. You can study in a classroom, through a correspondence course, or from a book (preferably with the help of a recording). There are many organizations which can help you find teachers, local clubs or societies, and fellow learners. There are newsletters, festivals, seminars and other resources. Your language study, although important, should not be an end in itself. Your goal should always be involvement in the wider Celtic world.

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Celtic Language Resources

7. Prayer - The Second Element

Until recently, prayer encompassed almost every aspect of life in Gaelic Scotland. There were prayers for rising in the morning and for going to sleep at night, prayers to be said before working or traveling or doing business, prayers to bless specific tasks such as milking the cows or hunting, prayers for justice, healing and protection, prayers to greet the sun and the new moon, and prayers to surround the household and family with the mantle of Bride's protection. These prayers are still not completely forgotten, although their use has greatly declined over the past century. They are a part of the Nine Elements because praying every day is a sacred way of life. It is easy for daily, mundane reality and religious, sacred reality to be separate things. But we cannot afford to live this way, to be fully awake and connected to the divine only on special ritual occasions. If every aspect of your life is encompassed by prayer, then every aspect of your life will be a part of your religion. Every daily action will be sacramental, and even work and chores will have a meaning beyond mere survival. Prayer is the element which will give meaning, purpose, and a sense of beauty to everything you do. The second requirement is to pray in a Celtic language every morning when you rise from bed and every evening before you go to sleep. When you have made this a regular part of your life and are comfortable with that level of commitment, you may want to expand your use of prayer. If you reach the stage where you are praying several times a day, you will truly have encompassed your life with prayer, and you will feel the special quality this gives to daily living.

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Celtic Prayers - New Celtic Poetry

8. Contemplation - The Third Element

While prayer encompasses the actions of daily life, and our interactions with the outside world, contemplation turns our focus inward. Private meditation has a role in most religions. Highland bards used to compose their poems while meditating silently in total darkness. Periods of meditation were sometimes used in healing practices, and intense meditation during prayer was a practice of the early Celtic church. Contemplation can include a range of religious experiences, from the ascetic to the ecstatic, leading to radical personal transformation or to the most intense direct contact with divine mysteries. But in daily religious practice, it serves a simpler purpose. In a short period of private meditation every day, you can work on integrating your religion with your internal life. You can meditate on religious concepts, principles, symbols or phrases. You can concentrate on a deity for whom you feel special devotion, or whose worship you wish to explore. You can develop an awareness of the divine in the deepest parts of your personality. Contemplation is the element which will bring your religion and your private self together. The third requirement is to meditate every day. There are many ways to meditate, and you can decide for yourself which type to practice, and how much time to devote to it. About ten minutes every day, however, would be a good start.

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9. Scholarship - The Fourth Element

Personal involvement and experience are crucial. But without knowledge and understanding, religious practice can become disconnected, unbalanced or even empty. We must understand not only the traditions we practice, but the culture out of which they grew. One way to do this is to participate, and another way is to study. If you learn the history of the Celtic peoples, you will understand much more about the roots of your religion, the millenia of experience which led to the religious acts you perform every day.

Be careful, though, and do not swallow any theory uncritically, no matter how much you respect the person who presents it. There are many gaps in our knowledge of the past, and any theories about ancient Celtic religion are bound to include some speculation. Every generation of scholars rejects some of the work of the previous generation. If you build your personal spirituality around a theory, you could be very shaken if that theory is disproved. The Nine Elements system is based on active spiritual practice. If you carry out the practice, the spirit will come alive inside you. Study the theories and learn from them, but in the end, let your own spirituality be based on what has been documented and done, more than on transient theory.. Then your relationship with the divine will be unharmed by changes in your opinions. Scholarship is the element which will give you knowledge and understanding. The fourth requirement is regular study of Celtic history and culture. You can structure this study as you see fit, but be careful- there is a tremendous amount of misleading, ill-informed or even dishonest material about the Celts. Learn to recognize serious scholarship, and reject the misinformation.

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Celtic Reading Lists - Celtic Scholarship

10. Culture - The Fifth Element

Religion is that which binds us, the obligations we feel in our gratitude to ancestors and gods and the natural world which sustains our life. It is important to remember that Celtic religion is inseparably infused throughout the culture, and therefore it is our highest duty to ensure the culture's survival. This is the element which calls upon you to help preserve the Celtic cultures from extinction. The fifth requirement is that you work to preserve the culture of the Celtic-speaking peoples. This work can take a variety of forms, some political and some social. You can volunteer for an organization which promotes the Celtic languages, or which works for political autonomy. You can donate money to Celtic causes. You can take the time to learn traditional arts, craft skills or sports. You will decide for yourself where your efforts would best be spent, but you should take this element very seriously.

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Celtic Cultural Organizations

11. Festivals - The Sixth Element

Most religions have a sacred calendar, with holy days for celebration and worship. Four great Festivals, which have their origins in the pre-Christian past, are still widely celebrated in the modern Celtic world. These are the holidays which are commonly called Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lunasa (although they have a number of different local Celtic names). The pre-Christian themes are, naturally, more subtle in current Celtic practice, but the Festivals themselves are not forgotten. This is the element which will allow you to mark the passage of the seasons and thank the gods and powers for their generosity. The sixth expectation is the celebration of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lunasa. If possible, you should devote at least an entire day to each of these major Festivals. There are also a number of local traditional Festivals which you may want to celebrate.

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Celtic Festivals

12. Consecration - The Seventh Element

If religion sanctifies our daily actions, it should play an even greater role in consecrating major life events and rites of passage. We should ask for the blessing of the divine powers upon every milestone of life- from the birth of a child to our own death. Such milestones are liminal times, neither one thing nor another, and as such they are open to the Otherworld and pregnant with its influence. The first goal, then, is to satisfy the spiritual forces and protect ourselves from spiritual harm. The second goal is to ask for their blessing and their help. Also, marking the events of your life in a Celtic way represents a complete commitment. Simply knowing that you have made this commitment is a step in your spiritual path. This is the element which consecrates your personal life to the powers of the Land, Sea and Sky. The seventh requirement is to mark all the major events of your life according to Celtic custom. You can learn how to do this by studying Celtic folk traditions.

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Rites of Passage

13. Lore - The Eighth Element

Lore is the knowledge of old things, including myths, folktales and ballads. You can read about these things in English, but you cannot fully appreciate them except in the original words. English can only record the bare events of a traditional Celtic story, but in the original the heart of that story can be found. Some of these traditional stories are tales of adventure and magic, some are humorous, some are anecdotes of daily life, and some are heroic legends with pre-Christian roots. In the stories, the values, dreams and ideals of Celtic society are shared and passed down. By hearing, reading or telling these stories, you can gain greater insight into the Celtic traditions. You can understand the spirit of the myths as you could never do by reading translations alone- but you should not restrict yourself to reading myths. Everything in the storytelling tradition will have something to offer you. This is the element which will bring you face to face with Celtic culture, on its own terms and in its own words. The eighth requirement is to read Celtic lore regularly in the original. Obviously, this will not be very easy at first. But that doesn't mean you can't get started. Bilingual collections can be very helpful. Read line by line if you have to, first the original and then the English. As your language study progresses, you will need the translation less and less.

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p 14. Offerings - The Ninth Element

To sacrifice something means to set it aside, to make it sacred by offering it to a spiritual power. This was a basic religious duty in ancient times, and even in later times, regular offerings were made to the land spirits, the ancestors and the saints. In my opinion, spiritual powers do not need our offerings in order to survive. But when they consume the energy from our offerings, they are brought closer to us, and they can become more directly involved in our affairs. Making offerings is a way to express gratitude, to maintain good relations between the human world and the Otherworld, and to bring its power closer to you for help and protection.There are many occasions for making offerings- you can leave offerings on holy days, or when you want to express gratitude for something or atone for something, or obtain a blessing for some venture or important event. Four types of spiritual power should always be remembered. These are the ancestors and honored dead, who created our current lives through their efforts; the household spirits, who protect the home and family from harm; the spirits and powers of the Land; and the gods and saints of Celtic tradition. These are not exactly four distinct classes, in fact there is a continuum between them all. Some of the gods are also ancestors, and there is some overlap between the land spirits and the dead. This is one example of the fluid nature of Celtic belief. This is the element of regular honor and respect for the powerful forces on which human life depends. The ninth expectation is that you make offerings to the dead, the household spirits, the land spirits and the gods. These offerings might include bread, cheese, nuts, fruit, alcohol or milk. No elaborate ritual is needed. You can keep a special set of offering dishes if you wish to. You can leave the offerings in a special place, or simply in a place that works well for you. Set out the offering, and recite or sing a prayer with a sense of warmth and feeling. When I pray or leave offerings, I also bow my head briefly to the hearth which I use as an altar. And that's about it.

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15. Conclusion

You are now ready to begin the practice of the Nine Elements. The spiritual life is complex by nature, and exploring a cultural tradition is even more so. But you now have a direction in which to move. So, what is the next step? I suggest you decide how you are going to fulfill the Nine Elements on an ongoing basis, and then get started immediately. Begin your daily prayers and meditations, start a course of language study, work through a reading list of scholarship and lore, mark holy days and important events with ritual, leave your monthly offerings, and work for the good health and growth of the Celtic cultures. Let every aspect of your life be a part of your religion, until there is no distinction. 

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If you have comments or questions, feel free to contact me


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