“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”
We’ve all heard the above rhyme right? Certainly those of Gen X or older were told this in school, in response to a bully, whatever the situation was. We were told words wouldn’t hurt us and to let it wash off like the rain. (OK in other countries, you might not have been told the rain bit, but in Ireland it’s relevant!)
The people who told us this were trying their best, but they were wrong. Words matter. Language matters. It all matters. The words we use show other people what we think is important and how we want them to think as well. No really! So why am I talking about this? Well it’s the 3rd of May here in Ireland (an tríú lá de mhí na Bealtaine, as Gaeilge) which means that Friday sunset to midday Saturday was the festival of Bealtaine.
Cue memes all over the internet celebrating “Beltane”.
Now, I’ll admit, this particular language issue probably isn’t going to solve world hunger and yes, I do agree world peace, world hunger, gender equality, etc are more important than this. But here’s the thing – this is important too. “Beltane” is the anglicisation of Bealtaine and like most anglicisations, it loses all meaning in the translation. Bealtaine (or indeed Bealltinne in Scottish Gaelic, although I’m less sure of this one and very open to correction by someone who knows better!) comes from “bright fire”, “blazing fire”, something like that. “Beltane” means nothing really. It’s like many of the anglicisations forced on my country: by making the word more “acceptable” to non-Irish speakers, it loses all meaning and context.
And yeah, it’s appropriation. I know, it’s not cool to think of appropriating from Irish culture, cos after all, we’re European, we’re white, how can people appropriate from us? Really easily as it happens. Our culture and traditions are living and breathing – just look at all the reports of yellow flowers scattered across thresholds or May bushes being used across the country this weekend. And yeah, fire is an integral part of the festival. If you want an overview of the traditions associated with the festival here in Ireland, the Irish Pagan School has a class on it, go take a look. Or check out www.duchas.ie (there’s 688 manuscripts on Bealtaine, 2195 for May Day)
But back to appropriation. Many Irish people won’t create a fuss, will say “Beltane” is grand, will say just there’s no point nitpicking about things like this. This is part of our post-colonial bullshit which taught us our own language was worthless, barbaric and rustic at best. We were taught over centuries that our language was less than that of our oppressors (the language of our oppressors being English, just in case anyone was in doubt). And yeah, this is political. A lot of every day life is political – that’s no reason to not speak about this.
So what has this to do with Brigid? Well, she’s a poet. Words matter to anyone in creative wordsmithing. Whether it’s stories, histories, poems, whatever, the language and words we use, matter. That’s why I encourage people to learn na cúpla focail, the few words of Irish, because language is important. Brigid has been through millenia of the Irish language. She’s used it, she uses it, she will use it in the future. But Beltane? Why on the gods green earth would that mean anything to her?
And as I’ve said before, if you really think Brigid doesn’t give a damn about politics, I strongly invite you to go look at the role of the filí in the Ireland of the past.
This post is an expanded version of a post I’ve been typing on Facebook for most of the weekend. I’m getting really tired of dealing with people who tell me this isn’t important. It damn well is. We work with a deity of words. The majority of the Irish magic system is one of words. How did Amergin claim Ireland? How did the Dagda lose Brú na Boinne to his son? How do the prophecies of the Morrigan come true? Words, words, words.
If you’ve been a practicing pagan for decades and never heard of this issue before, then maybe don’t reject it off hand, but have a think about how great it is that even after decades you can learn something new. If you’re an Irish person who’s feeling really uncomfortable with the fuss I’m making about this – I feel you. Have a think about why you feel uncomfortable about this and where that’s coming from. If you think this is all bullshit – well I’m questioning why you’re reading the blog at all to be honest.
Words have power. Have a read of this article from the Scientific American to consider why: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-words-matter-what-cognitive-science-says-about-prohibiting-certain-terms/ And even if you don’t celebrate an Irish Bealtaine, but insist that your festival of Beltane has nothing to do with Ireland, have a look into where “Beltane” comes from and who were the influences that caused it to be so widespread and where their information came from. The real stories, not the myths. There’s nothing to say you can’t keep marking the festival as you currently do, but know the history and context of what you’re doing and learn from it.
Sticks and stones may break my bones and words most certainly can hurt me.