Six Questions XXI
Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran
Interview conducted via email by Joseph S. Hopkins over the course of February 2019
Academics in ancient Germanic studies turn to a variety of extensions of anthropology to make sense of the ancient Germanic record. One of the most important of these academic disciplines is folklore studies, the academic study of folklore. The term folklore encompasses a variety of genres—from myth and legend to jokes and recipes, each of them everyday elements of human discourse both yesterday and today, in all corners of the globe and in all layers of society.
For Six Questions XXI, Mimisbrunnr.info interviewed Canadian-American folklorist and writer Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran. Residing in Nova Scotia, Canada, MacCath-Moran discusses her upbringing, her areas of academic focus (including studies on the place of Norse myth in metal music and the topic of unverified person gnosis (UPG) in modern Paganism), and elements derived from Germanic myth in her own fiction. Readers can dig deeper into MacCath-Moran’s work at her website here.
1. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Dayton, Ohio and spent much of my youth there except for the few years my family lived in semi-rural Kentucky when I was a child. My parents were Jehovah's Witnesses and raised their children in the cult. I was the eldest daughter and the only one of us to escape, but congregational Elders instructed my family to shun me when I left, so I haven't seen my parents or sisters in over thirty years. My maternal grandparents took me in, having already been like parents to me, and I lived the latter part of my teen years with them. My grandfather was a WWII veteran who planted a tree in the back garden when I was born and overcame alcoholism to watch me grow up. My grandmother was Appalachian and taught me how to garden, preserve food, and quilt. I still make cornbread in her cast iron pan.
2. Can you remember when you first encountered Norse mythology or, more generally, Germanic mythology? What was the context?
Like many others, I read Tolkien's work as a child, but I didn't understand its ties to Germanic mythology at the time. The year I moved in with my grandparents, I discovered the Elder Futhark by way of Ralph Blum's The Book of Runes while browsing the Occult section of a bookstore. But I had no money at the time, and it would be another six years before I encountered the runes again. In my early twenties, I was working third shift as a telephone tarot card reader and clairvoyant in a Columbus, Ohio office building when I met a young Germanic Pagan who worked with the runes as tools for divination. From him, I learned about Germanic mythology and rune-casting in a Pagan context. Thereafter, I began to study Germanic Paganism and make my own runes.
3. What is your academic background? Do you teach any courses related to the topic of ancient Germanic studies?
I hold a B.A. in Celtic Studies from the University of Toronto, an M.A. in English from the University of Maine, and I'm presently a PhD candidate in the Folklore Department at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. I haven't taught any courses in Germanic studies, but I've prepared and taught a pedagogical project on the Norwegian metal scene in the 1990s, how it shaped European metal thereafter, and the ways Northern European symbols like Thor's Hammer and the Elder Futhark have been used in metal music. My notes and PowerPoint presentation for that project can be found at: https://csmaccath.com/blog/ideology-and-symbology-european-metal-music-search-context.
I also undertook a small, ethnographic project about contemporary Germanic Pagan women and their experiences of unverified personal gnosis, which may be defined as a nuanced supernatural transmission of knowledge, sometimes communicated during an altered state of consciousness and sometimes not, which contributes to the believer's understanding of her faith in a meaningful way. Six women responded to my call for research participants, each of them a long-time Pagan whose gnostic experiences inform her beliefs and practices. The paper that resulted from this research may be found on Academia.edu at: https://csmaccath.academia.edu/research.
4. What was your earliest work related to the topic of Germanic mythology?
My earliest work on Germanic mythology was fictional, since I'm also a published writer of speculative fiction and poetry. There is a spacefaring Germanic Pagan priest in my comedic poem “Bringing Woden to the Little Green Men,” which was written in Modern English using Old English alliteration. Of interest, I blogged about alliterative poetics after finishing that poem, and the blog entry is still available at: https://csmaccath.com/blog/old-english-poetics-poets. There are elements of Germanic mythology woven into a couple of my short stories as well. “Akhila, Divided” incorporates Germanic gods and symbols into a syncretic spirituality practiced by far-future monastics, and a time-traveling vǫlva in “Sing the Crumbling City” performs with a band that stitches the fragmented universe back together with music. This story also contains an embedded, alliterative poem.
5. Which scholars had the greatest influence on your work? Why?
My current project is an ethnographic research of animal rights activists rooted in folkloric belief studies and performance theory, so the scholars who most directly influence my thinking are those whose work is similarly centred. David J. Hufford comes to mind first, though his writing is more closely related to religious and supernatural belief than it is to ethical belief. Hufford deconstructs academic and cultural biases about religion and supernatural experience in an effort to resituate discourses about these issues in ways that honour the contributions of research participants and utilise folkloric methodology in the analysis of them. This is important, since knowledge making about supernatural belief in particular so often proceeds from a “Why is it that people still believe this crazy stuff?” sort of question, which itself is a product of scientism in the academy. In the early days of my PhD coursework, I found his scholarship refreshing as a Pagan, and now it encourages reflexivity in my work on the ethical beliefs of activists.
Performance scholar Dwight Conquergood also comes to mind, and his writing is more directly applicable to my current project. Conquergood addresses the hegemony of textualism in the academy and culture, arguing that it shuts out other ways of knowing, a position I think might be useful to the contemporary Germanic Pagan community’s hyper-focus on historical and literary texts as “lore.” He also identifies a power disparity in textualism versus embodied participation and personal connection, citing Foucault’s term “subjugated knowledges,” and writes that regional, vernacular, naïve knowledges are often unrecognized, neglected, excluded, and repressed by dominant culture. This perspective plays out in his approach to activist scholarship, most especially in his impassioned critique of the death penalty. His work has brought me out of the text and into the world, both as a performance theorist and as a scholar who is comfortable with her own positionality as an activist.
6. What research are you currently conducting that relates to ancient Germanic studies? What do you hope to work on related to the field in the future?
In 2017, I made the second of two trips to Iceland and conducted interviews of Icelandic women about the huldufolk, primarily as research for a novel duology I plan to write while I’m otherwise engaged in field work this year. Some of that research found its way into a forthcoming short story entitled “Every Broken Creature,” which will appear in the F is for Fairy anthology edited by Rhonda Parrish and published by Poise and Pen Publishing. Meanwhile, I wrote a couple of blog entries about my huldufolk research, which you can read at: https://csmaccath.com/blog/huldufolk-part-1 and https://csmaccath.com/blog/huldufolk-part-2. It’s fairly vernacular stuff, and my informants asked to remain anonymous, so there isn’t any identifiable information about them in the entries.
Returning to the topics of unverified personal gnosis and the hegemony of textualism in contemporary Germanic Paganism, I’d like to undertake more extensive ethnographic research of gnostic, vernacular, and embodied Germanic Pagan beliefs and practices. I’m interested in the ways they contribute to religious innovation in general and specifically in the ways they knit the fragmented information we have about early Germanic Paganism to the spiritual needs of modern practitioners. While I have every respect for scholars of Germanic mythology and cosmology, I also have a natural discomfort with religious practices that lean too heavily on textual supports, likely because of my upbringing. I also think religions grow in constructive directions when they innovate and creolize, and it may be helpful to explore how these processes are playing out in contemporary Germanic Pagan practice.
Joseph S. Hopkins thanks Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran for her participation.