[This issue, we sit down with Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran. A poet, musician, podcaster, and scholar, she is currently a PhD candidate in Folklore. Here, MacCath-Moran discusses her love of writing and folklore; her music; and her upcoming projects.]
ev0ke: How do you describe your personal spirituality? Does it have a name, or is it more intuitive and eclectic?
Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran: I’ve been Pagan for 36 years, and during that time I’ve practiced Druidry, Wicca, and Heathenry. I’m a Druid Grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and I was a mentor in the Order for two years before I returned to university for my PhD. I recently joined the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and because I’ve completed the Bardic Grade in OBOD, the AODA advanced me a grade to apprentice, and I’m working my way through that program now. I love the AODA’s focus on Druidry built on contemporary ecological concerns and the encouragement it offers students in the Order to build a practice that reflects the cycle of seasons where they live. I also recently began studying Georgian Wicca in a specific lineage of the tradition, largely because I want to participate in the development of teaching methodologies in Pagan denominations. That said, I most strongly identify with the term “Nordic Animist” because my cosmological compass points north more often than it does in any other direction and because animism is the theological underpinning of my spirituality.
ev0ke: Which Deities, spirits, or other powers do you honor in your tradition?
CSMM: We honour the Goddesses Brigid, the Morrighan, Frigga, and Freya in our house. Brigid and the Morrighan have been part of my practice for over twenty years (a friend once said to me, “Brigid smiths the Morrighan’s armour”), and my husband honours Frigga and Freya. The Gods Odin and Tyr also have a place on the household altar. Tyr is of special importance to me as a God of justice, which you’ll remember from the poem I sold to Eternal Haunted Summer last year; “Tiw, Tiw, Tiw: A Triple Invocation of Tyr for the 2019 Global Climate Strike.” I hear His voice in Black Lives Matter chants, in Greta Thunberg’s contemptuous “blah, blah, blah,” and in the voices of animal rights activists raised in defence of the voiceless. Of late, Bragi has also become important to me as I work toward the release of my first EP. Last but perhaps most important, we honour the spirits of place here on our 100 acres in Cape Breton by keeping most of it wild and by respecting the right of bears, coyotes, foxes, ermine, rabbits, squirrels, snakes, mice, eagles, hawks, ravens, and crows to live alongside us.
ev0ke: You are currently a PhD candidate in Folklore. First, congratulations! Second, what draws you to folklore? What do you find so compelling about it?
CSMM: Thank you! Folklore scholar Dan Ben-Amos famously writes that folklore is artistic communication in small groups. When we gather as Pagans and share our experiences of faith and practice, we create vernacular religious narratives. When we paint signs and march in the street on behalf of a cause, we perform ethical beliefs (a particular academic interest of mine). When we make a recipe handed down to us by a grandmother, we perpetuate family foodways. When we combine folk and metal musics into that fusion of culture and grit called folk metal, we expand both in new directions. You can’t watch Alien Weaponry’s video for “Kai Tangata” and not see the folklore in it. Those guys are singing in Maori, the video is a powerful representation of their language and culture, and it’s probably the most metal thing I’ve seen in a couple of years. (Seriously, go watch it.) What’s not to love about folklore? It’s human culture in motion.
ev0ke: Most people think of folklore as “old”; as something from the past. But it’s on-going. What is one of your favorite examples of modern folklore, or of folklore that has survived and evolved?
CSMM: I’m a metalhead, so we’re going to start where we left off in the last question. Much of Amorphis’ discography is taken from the Kalevala, an epic poem widely regarded as the most important representation of Finnish literature, which has its origins in the region’s oral narratives. Wardruna makes and uses historical instruments like the lur in both their recordings and their stage performances. Einar Selvik himself said in Montreal (a great concert, and I was so chuffed to be there) that the band was taking something old and relevant and turning it into something new, still relevant. Týr includes traditional Faroese folk songs on all of its albums. (“Ormurin Langi” is my favourite of these.) And of course, there’s The Hu, which incorporates traditional Mongolian throat singing and instruments in its music. (Watch the video for “The Great Chinggis Khaan.” They just kill it.) All of these are examples of modern folklore, surviving and evolving in folk metal music all over the world.
ev0ke: You run the Folklore and Fiction newsletter and podcast. When and how did it get started, and who is the intended audience?
CSMM: In 2016, I began my PhD in Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, one of only three universities in North America to offer a Folklore PhD in a Folklore department. I had already been writing and publishing for twelve years at that point, and I was keen to make my degree serve my writing career. It didn’t take long for me to realize that folk narrative scholarship had a lot to offer in that respect, but while I was becoming a folk narrative scholar myself, I couldn’t find anything written by a folklorist for speculative fiction writers, poets, musicians, and other kinds of storytellers.
So I began research for the Folklore & Fiction project in April 2018 at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive, shortly after I finished my PhD coursework. Later that summer, I consulted with Angela Ackerman, half of the dynamic duo that wrote The Emotion Thesaurus, at the When Words Collide writing festival in Calgary. With her insights and those of other professional writers firmly on board, I decided to start a free monthly newsletter full of folkloristic scholarship aimed at storytellers and expand the newsletter into a series of books after I had built an audience for my work.
I launched Folklore & Fiction as a folkloristic guide to storytelling in January 2019. I’m reasonably certain it’s the first project of its kind, and it’s been widely shared by members of the American Folklore Society, #FolkloreThursday, independent folklore researchers and enthusiasts, writers, musicians, and others since the time of its inception. The project has been adopted into undergraduate English and graduate Folklore curricula, it has been utilized as source material in student scholarship, and it has inspired and continues to inspire the creation of stories, music, and other kinds of art, just as I hoped it would. In January 2021, I transformed the newsletter into a monthly dispatch and podcast, which has been downloaded nearly 2000 times in only 11 months. Now writers and musicians are asking me to cover specific ballads, tale types and motifs to complement their creative work, and I’ve been delighted to accommodate them. That series of books is on the horizon now, just after my dissertation is finished, and I have a robust audience already looking forward to its publication.
ev0ke: What sort of research goes into Folklore and Fiction? Big stacks of books? Long hours online?
CSMM: I do have big stacks of books! Because I studied for my comprehensive exam at home in rural Nova Scotia, I bought my books and built a small, but respectable folklore library thereby. Then when I started the Folklore & Fiction project, I invested in several reference sets; The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, and The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography, among others. I also make heavy use of academic folklore literature from journals like Western Folklore, the Journal of American Folklore, and The Journal of Folklore Research. I read a number of folk tales for each edition of the dispatch and podcast and often borrow from the Internet Archive for this; there are so many wonderful folk tale collections digitized there. I also listen to quite a bit of music when I’m working with ballads to understand the nuances of interpretation various folk music performers bring to them. On the storytelling side of my work, I’m fond of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s writing thesauruses, Peter Chiykowski’s The Story Engine, which is a massive deck of storytelling cards made for genre fiction writers, and Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other. Last, but certainly not least, I read a lot of speculative fiction and include it in the project whenever possible.
ev0ke: How have you worked folklore into your own fictional writing (poetry or prose)? Have you been inspired by certain pieces of folklore, or adapted them into new stories?
CSMM: I recently finished work on a podcast radio play for the Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa titled “The Belt and the Necklace,” which is based on a little-known fairy tale of the same name collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth. The Schönwerth collection was only recently discovered, so it’s likely that mine is the first re-telling of the tale in over a hundred years. That’s exciting for me, and I hope the teller who came before me would have found my adaptation a worthy one. “The Belt and the Necklace” debuts in February 2022 alongside other fantastical plays by Jo Walton, Daniel Peretti, Emily Pohl-Weary, and Marty Chan. A couple of years ago I wrote a climate change fable titled “Metal Crow and Ghost Crow” and embedded Aesop’s fable “The Crow and the Pitcher” in it. I wrote that story using my own research in Folklore & Fiction as a guide (see the “What is a fable?” edition), and you can find it in the G Is for Ghosts anthology. I’ve written quite a few poems with mythological characters and themes, but I should own my Paganism there, because most of that mythology is metaphorical cosmology for me. I hold the work of storytelling sacred, I hold the old stories sacred, and I try and make new sacred stories with them; the old and relevant becoming new, still relevant.
ev0ke: In addition to being a scholar and author, you are also a musician. Do you find your music influencing your writing? Or visa versa? If so, how?
CSMM: Music and writing are similar and also quite different from one another. My vocal coach Su told me once that when she works with the elderly, often they’ll remember songs in the later stages of dementia, when they’ve forgotten much else. My old Gàidhlig professor made us learn the first verse of “Soraidh Le Eilean a’Cheò” because he said that long after we had forgotten our coursework, we would remember how to sing that song (and I do). But while music and writing occupy different cognitive places for me, they operate together in my creative work. I write lyrical poetry and set it to music, and I write songs into my fiction. Honestly though, this is a question I hope you’ll ask me again in five years. I returned to music after a long hiatus in 2017, and I’ve only recently built the skills to begin releasing my music to the public. Perhaps in half a decade, after I have a few EPs out in the world, I’ll find new ways to marry these two loves of mine.
ev0ke: Where can readers find your work?
CSMM: My website is a hub for everything I do, so visit me at folkloreandfiction.com (which resolves to csmaccath.com). You’ll find a signup block on the homepage for the Folklore & Fiction dispatch and podcast and for my blog, there’s a comprehensive bibliography of my published work on the “Bibliography” page, and the Folklore & Fiction archive can be found on the “Blog” page.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
CSMM: I’m working on my dissertation, which I’m determined to finish in 2022. In the meantime, I’m putting together an EP of original songs titled “Shatter and Rise,” and I’ll begin drafting the first book in a trilogy after that.
Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about my work! A merry Yuletide to you and to your readers. May there be a light in your homes even on the longest of nights.