The Breath of a Poet: Breathing as a spiritual tool

By Jenne Micale

Pause and be still. Take a moment simply to listen to the play of sounds around you, and then within you.

There is one sound always present: Your breath, swelling then ebbing like ocean waves, or the whisper of the wind through leaves. This gentle sound has been with you from your first emergence into the world; when its music finally ebbs into silence, you will die. Every inspiration is an echo of this first breath, this first emergence, the creation of yourself and the creation of the world. Every expiration is an echo of this last breath, your passage over the Sunless Sea into the Otherworld, the dissolution of the physical world, self and name.

When you breathe in, you write your name and your message on the sands of time. When you breathe out, the waves wash the words away.

Practicing pranayama in yoga. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Practicing pranayama in yoga. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In our day to day lives, we don't often notice our breath unless something disrupts it – whether a shocking moment that takes our breath away, fear that compresses our chest and makes it difficult to draw air in, or a medical issue such as an asthma attack. Breath control, however, has a long history in the mystical traditions of the world, and provide us with a Druidic tool for transformation and healing.

Of course, there are practical uses for breathwork as well. The Lamaze technique for childbirth famously uses breath as a way of dealing with and dissipating the pain of labor, and patients with pulmonary diseases such as COPD are often given tips on how to regulate their breath to maximize their airflow – and minimize the panic that comes from not being able to breathe freely. Breathing is also used to lower blood pressure, and there are handy apps as well as medical devices that teach you to do that.

Classically trained singers also learn to how to most efficiently draw in breath, modulate it so as to perform all manner of vocal techniques, and place each in-breath in the appropriate spot in the song so that it flows smoothly and without interruption. There is evidence that Celtic bards worked in much the same way. “(F)ive words are adjudged to be a breath of the poet,” the grammarian Longarad writes in the Auraicept na n-Éces, or scholar's primer, which reputedly dates back to seventh century Ireland (Jones). A professional fili, or poet, would have paced her breaths when reciting so as to preserve the rhythms of the work, augment its art and power, and draw attention to the intricate play of language.

Indian sadhu in meditation. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Indian sadhu in meditation. Image via Wikimedia Commons

There are hints, however, that the Druids may have used breath for more occult reasons, much as the Indian sadhus. One method that survived in the poet-training schools of Scotland and Ireland involved spending all day inside a shuttered room with eyes covered and a heavy stone on the belly while composing verses (Laurie 182, Colman 151). On the surface, the stone on the belly could be seen as a tool to force proper bardic breathing techniques for composition: the five words of the poet, as the traditional texts point out. But combined with the darkness and the shrouded eyes, this breath-control technique may also have led to a trance state that wouldn't be unfamiliar to the modern practitioners of yoga.

Breath and the Subtle Body

Unlike most asana, or modern postural yoga, breathwork has ancient roots in India. The Upanishads mention the use of breathing to control the mind with the earliest mention perhaps dating back to the third century BCE (Singleton 26). Breathwork, or pranayama, is a mainstay of hatha yoga, which is “concerned with the transmutation of the human body into a vessel immune from mortal decay” (Singleton 28). So, all those postures and breathing techniques you do in a yoga class aren't intended to just give you great abs or a sense of calm after a tough day at work; they're supposed to make you immortal! (Author's note: I have practiced yoga since graduate school and, sadly, I am not immortal – yet.)

How does breathwork make you immortal, so to speak? To answer that, we need to explore some of the “subtle body,” as it's often called. Prana, or breath, is the same as chi or ki in other parts of Asia. The Latin word for breath is spiritus, which has the same meaning and implications as the ancient Greek pneuma. Breath is connected with spirit itself – the animating force that keeps us alive when we are embodied, constitutes our substance after physical death, and allows us to perform physical, intellectual and spiritual feats. It's no coincidence that inspiration and expiration mean so much more than just breathing in English! Modern Paganism usually calls this force magick. As Druids, we may wish to call it awen (in Welsh) or imbas (in Gaelic).

Different cultures provide different anatomies of the subtle body and how prana, chi or spirit runs through it. Because the techniques I will explore below are yogic in origin, I will focus on how the subtle body is viewed in India.

There are two main channels of energy in the body: Ida, on the left, associated with the moon; Pingala, on the right, associated with the sun. In between, along the column of the spine, is a hollow tube called Sushumna. The seven chakras – you may have heard of those! – lie along the path of Sushumna, and are the nexus where Ida and Pingala flows meet. Of course, there are a lot of smaller channels that course through the body, similar to veins and arteries; these are called nadis, and they traditionally number anywhere from 72,000 to 300,000 (Singleton 29).

The seven chakra in the body. Nepalese painting, 18th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The seven chakra in the body. Nepalese painting, 18th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Once it's absorbed from the larger universe, prana flows in the body in five great winds, which are in some ways similar to the “organ systems” of Chinese medicine. Prana-vayu, the forward wind, is seated in the heart and deals with inhalation, and the “rising energy of reaching out and taking in,” as Richard Rosen puts it (24). Apana-vayu, the downward wind, is seated in the pelvis and deals with exhalation, elimination, and energy that falls, gives out or gives away. Samana-vayu, the middle wind, is situated in the belly behind the navel and deals with processes of digestion, assimilation and incorporation, whether of food or experience. Vyana-vayu, the circulating wind, circulates energy throughout the body and, in Rosen's words, “is the glue that holds us together.” Upana-vayu, the upward wind, is seated in the throat and represents the energy of expression, speech and the mind.

Some traditions of yoga speak of kundalini, or the serpent-like cosmic energy, that sits at the seat of the nadis, usually at the first or second chakra. Spiritual disciplines such as meditation and pranayama cause the kundalini energy to rise to the crown chakra, leading to a state known as samadhi, when you are completely merged with all-that-is and the mind becomes completely still. The raising of kundalini energy also heightens magical and “psychic” abilities, which can be profoundly destabilizing and leads to all manners of warnings in yogic texts. Here is an example from B.K.S. Iyengar in his seminal text, Light on Yoga:

Pneumatic tools can cut through the hardest rock. In Prāņāyāmā the yogi uses his lungs as pneumatic tools. If they are not used properly, they destroy both the tool and the person using it. The same is true of prāņāyāmā (431).

If the warnings seem over the top, it's because they are not based in physical reality. For most healthy people – without, say, asthma or COPD – it's difficult to injure yourself with breathwork. If you hold your breath too long or hyperventilate, you may pass out – and then, the body will begin breathing again normally on its own. However, if you channel kundalini energy improperly, you can wreak all sorts of magical havoc on yourself and others; at least, that's how the thinking seems to go. You don't want to screw up the process of becoming immortal, if that is your aim.

Iyengar yoga in particular takes an especially cautionary approach to pranayama, encouraging students to learn it only from a teacher, practice at certain points of the day and only at least 15 minutes after physical exercise, etc. Other traditions of yoga – such as the type I practice – have a much less timid approach, and encourage practitioners to try it out. In fact, the rules that are hard and fast in one tradition – no yoga before postural practice in Iyengar yoga, for example – are often completely different in another. (In Sivananda Yoga, you do breathwork before the physical practice, not after.) So, go with whatever works for you, or is part of a tradition you follow.

The practice: Breathing techniques

There are many, many different types of breath in yoga, and the names vary depending on tradition. I'll go into some of the more common kinds based on my own experiences. My very first teacher was trained in Sivananda Yoga, so those are the basis of the techniques I have learned; they are also common to most traditions of hatha, or physical, yoga. Iyengar Yoga has its own extremely detailed take on pranayama, which you can consider the Ph.D. progam of breathwork; like actual Ph.D. programs, a lot of people just don't have the patience for it. Kundalini Yoga offers similar techniques when it comes to pranayama, but they're used in different ways.

Sometimes, breathing techniques are performed in accord with three muscular locks, located in the perineum, the abdominals and the neck/throat. These locks are called bandhas. Other techniques involve the use of specific nostrils, which control the energy flow through the Ida or Pingala channels. That's beyond the current scope of this article, but you're more than welcome to read up on them.

Unless otherwise specified, breathing is done using the nose. Sometimes, you may breath in or out of your mouth to regulate temperature, but that is usually specified in the technique. If you're prone to congestion, blow your nose or use a neti pot to clear your nasal passages before practice.

Preliminary cautions: If you have respiratory problems, be cautious with breathwork for obvious reasons. Even if you're otherwise healthy, stop if you feel lightheaded, dizzy or otherwise unwell, and begin breathing normally again. You don't need to worry about destroying yourself with pneumatic tools, but respect your body and your limits.

The four-part breath

Let's start with the basic four-part breath. Breathe in slowly, filling first your lower abdomen, middle abdomen, your sides and back, and upper chest and clavicle area. Then, just as slowly, breathe out, starting with your upper chest and shoulders, your middle chest and back, and lower abdomen.

When you're ready, you can add the pauses. Breath in fully, from the lower to the middle to the upper abdomen. Pause, when you're full of air, the height of the flow of life-energy. Breathe out, from the top of your lungs, your middle chest, your lower abdomen. Then pause again, once you are empty. Repeat, with the pauses both after full inhalation and after full exhalation.

The four-part breath, usually called the yogic breath, is a good way to get in tune with the basic flow of energy. Do you feel the energetic difference between full inhalation and full exhalation?

This breath is calming, and helps your lungs function at full capacity. If you want to explore, you can adjust the length of the inspiration, the expiration and the pauses. Generally speaking, inspiration enlivens and exhalation calms and relaxes. The retentions allow the prana to circulate through your body. Feel free to explore different ratios of breath, always keeping your health and safety in mind.

The victory breath

You'll commonly encounter Ujjayi breathing in yoga classes; some teachers ask you to do this throughout your postural practice. Ujjayi means “victorious,” and this breath is used to relieve tension and slow the heart rate, as well as address insomnia (Redmond). If you have heart disease, don't combine Ujjayi or other breath techniques with breath retention or the use of the bandhas as this can create issues with internal pressure.

In Ujjayi, you will contract the muscles in the back of your throat – the glottis – slightly, creating a sound like ocean waves. You'll do this both during the inhale and the exhale. Breathe long and evenly, just as you did with the four-part breath.

'Skull-shining' and the Bellows Breath

Now let's explore two less-calming forms of breathwork. Kapalabhati and Bhastrika are both heating and energizing. They raise energy in the body, warm you up and sharpen your mind. They can also lead to hyperventilation in excess, so be mindful.

Kapalabhati means “skull shining” and it's also used as a purification process in Sivananda Yoga. One of my former teachers called it Kapala-snotty because it's really good at clearing gunked-up nostrils, so practice with a box of tissues handy! In Kundalini Yoga, it's usually called the Breath of Fire, which can give you some indication of its more occult uses.

To perform Kapalabhati, take a full breath in, and then breath in and out in tiny inhales and exhales. Pump your abdominals on the exhales; you'll sound a bit like an oncoming train. Start with practicing three rounds of 20 Kapalabhati-breaths, and you can eventually work up to 60 (Sivananda 72). After each round, take a few deep, full breaths to re-balance yourself.

Bhastrika, the Bellows Breath, is similar but even more focused on the forceful nature of the exhale. It's performed in a variety of ways, but I like the version that uses the arms.

Here's how to do my version: Take a deep breath in and put your arms at your sides, bent in right angles. Then, do a short, forceful exhale, bringing your elbows down into your ribs to get even more air out. Inhales are short and silent; exhales, assisted by your arms, are short and hard. Unlike Kapalabhati, the breath pattern is a hair longer; keep a steady rhythm and don't speed up. Start with three rounds of 10 Bhastrika breaths, and work your way up to longer sessions.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

A_style_of_nadi_suddhi

If you have a pranayama practice, it's good to follow Kapalabhati with alternate-nostril breathing, as the former clears out those clogged nasal passages. Alternate nostril breathing is usually called Nadi Shodhana or Anuloma Viloma, and sometimes involves breath retention or the use of a mudra on the hand that's pinching your nose.

Here's the simplified version: Pinch your left nostril shut. Breathe in slowly through your right nostril, a full deep breath. Pinch both nostrils shut, and then open your left, breathing out slowly. Once you have fully exhaled, breath in your left nostril slowly and fully, pinch both nostrils shut, and then open your right nostril, breathing out fully. That's one round. Sivananda Yoga recommends starting with three rounds and building up to 20.

Remember Ida and Pingala, the two main channels of energy? Anuloma Viloma balances these channels.

The cooling breath

While Kapalabhati and Bhastrika heat us up, Sitkari and Sithali cool us down. In these techniques, you will inhale through the mouth and exhale out the nose.

To prepare for Sitkari, touch the tip of your tongue to your palate. Take a full breath in through your mouth, keeping your tongue planted. Close your mouth and hold your breath as long as you can, and exhale slowly through the nose. Repeat five to 10 times.

Not everyone can do the next breath, Sithali, for genetic reasons. Instead of touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth, you will instead roll your tongue and breathe in slowly through the “straw,” close your mouth and hold, and exhale slowly out your nose. If you're not one of the genetically blessed, you can simply stick your tongue out and breathe over your tongue instead, or just practice Sitkari. As in Sitkari, repeat five to 10 times.

Interestingly, Sitkari is supposed to give you a beautiful face. These techniques are also used to relieve hunger and thirst and cool the body (Sivananda 74).

Bee Breath

Bhramari, the bee breath, is one of my personal favorites; the name actually means “she who roams” (Budilovsky and Adamson 189). It's soothing and calming, and can induce trance states and psychic sensitivities; Layne Redmond recommends it early in the morning or just before bed.

It's done in a number of different ways, but I prefer Redmond's method. As a preparation, make a gutteral, clicking aaaahhhh or groan in the back of your throat; you've likely done this as a kid. Breathe in, close your mouth and begin the back-of-the-throat groan, then send air and sound through that groan. This creates a clear, humming buzz that sounds a lot like a Theramin; it's essentially throat-singing. Start with five to 10 rounds of this, taking a full, deep breath and doing the buzz on the exhale.

When you're done, I guarantee that you'll feel the buzz!

Uses of breath of Druidic work

Add the above techniques to your Druidic toolbox; they have a variety of uses. Ujjayi, alternate-nostril breathing and the four-part breath can be done prior to ritual to calm the chatter of the mind and get you in a meditative state. They and Brahmari can also be done just prior to trance-work. Kapalabhati and Bhastrika are good tools to raise energy, while Sitkari and Sithali can follow energy-raising as cooling and grounding techniques.

Celtic reconstructionist Erynn Rowan Laurie uses breathwork in much of her spiritual work. In one particular exercise, called “Sparking the Cauldrons,” she uses breath – combined with simple hand-gestures similar to mudras – to raise energy in the Cauldron of Warming, the Cauldron of Motion and the Cauldron of Wisdom, which are essentially the Celtic version of chakras (Laurie 183-6). These cauldrons and the energies they represent are described in the Cauldron of Poesy, an Irish text dating back to the medieval era.

Laurie describes using deep, even breathing to spark the cauldrons in a series of nine breaths each. In my own exploration, you can use different types of breathing techniques to imbue the cauldrons with energy. Kapalabhati and Bhastrika, for example, would fill the cauldrons with spiritual fire, while Ujjayi would lead to a calmer, more watery and reflective character.

See where your experimentations take you! This spiritual tool is always available for your use, as long as you are alive and breathing.

Bibliography and suggested resources.

Budilovsky, Joan and Eve Adamson. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Yoga, Third Edition. New York: Alpha, 2003.

Don't let the title put you off! This is a very accessible and thorough book on all aspects of yoga.

Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.

The yoga classic. Iyengar also has another book, “Light on Pranayama,” which is specifically about breathing practices.

Laurie, Erynn Rowan. Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom. Stafford, England: Megalithica, 2007.

A must-have book on ogham and Celtic reconstructionism.

McColman, Carl and Kathryn Hinds. Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Press Books, 2005.

Redmond, Layne. Heart Chakra Meditations. Sounds True, 2005. CD.

A wonderful CD by the late drummer Layne Redmond, who leads you through a variety of meditation and breathing practices.

Rosen, Richard. The Yoga of Breath: A Step-By-Step Guide to Pranayama. Boston: Shambala, 2002.

The “gold standard” of books on pranayama in the Iyengar tradition. Rosen's practice is very cautious and slow-going, however, and may not appeal to the types who prefer to dive in.

The Sivananda Yoga Center. The Sivananda Companion to Yoga. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.

My first yoga book. The Cirque du Soleil positions they demonstrate may scare you off from the practice, however. It's a period piece, as they say.

Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 2010.

Not a “yoga book” per se, but an actual scholarly history that shows you the origin – sometimes ancient, more often modern – of the yoga practices common today.

Teixeira, Nubia. Pranayama: May Our Breath Be Our Prayer. Sounds True, 2005.

Another great two-CD set with a variety of breathwork practices.

The Scholar's Primer.” Celtic Literature Collective & Jones's Celtic Encyclopedia. http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/scholar_primer.html

A translation of the Auraicept na n-Éces.

Shamanic Elements in Druidism

Shamanic Elements in Druidism: A Summary of a Workshop Presented by C. Leigh McGinley and Karl Schlotterbeck at the 2016 Annual Gathering – prepared by Karl Schlotterbeck.

This workshop carries forward ideas presented in a previous article (from September 2009) titled “Celtic Shamanism: Fad, Fact or Fantasy?” In this workshop, the co-facilitators first addressed the challenges inherent when people from one culture attempt to understand the activities of another culture without the language, perspective, experience and environmental realities of the observed culture. As in any culture, direct translation of language can be a problem with idioms, double meanings or nuances that are not recognized. It should first be noted that the term “shaman” comes originally from the Tungus people in Siberia and has been applied by anthropologists and others to similar practitioners in other cultures – even if they have their own word for these people.

An illustration of a shaman in Siberia, produced by the Dutch explorer Nicolaes Witsen in the late 17th century. Via Wikimedia Commons.

An illustration of a shaman in Siberia, produced by the Dutch explorer Nicolaes Witsen in the late 17th century. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The first writers to observe shamanic activity in the New World were missionaries in the 16th through 18th centuries who dismissed it as “devil worship,” and called the practitioners jugglers, charlatans and imposters. When anthropologists began describing them in the 19th and 20th centuries, shamans were often described as “mentally deranged” or “tricksters,” although some saw them as “outstanding people” or serving as psychoanalysts to their people. The belief in animism was described as a concept for “lower races.” It was not until the 1950s, when anthropologists and others actually participated in shamanic activity that more respectful and objective descriptions came about. (See Shamans Through Time, edited by Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley, Tarcher/Putnam 2001.)

Thus, observers saw only what they were prepared to see, based on their own reality-orientation, expectations, set of pre-existing ideas, and perspective.

A Mudang, or Korean shaman. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A Mudang, or Korean shaman. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the elements of shamanic activity relevant to our discussion include:

  • The use of altered states of consciousness, and the induction of trance through drumming, singing, chanting, dancing, storytelling, sounds of nature, fasting, entheogens, etc.
  • Purposeful travel into the Otherworld
  • Shapeshifting
  • Interaction with spirits
  • Divination
  • Psychopomp work
  • Weather shamanism
  • Healing
  • The use of ritual dress – usually animal-based – to facilitate the transition of consciousness
  • The perspective of an interconnected web of life and that everything in nature is alive and willing to communicate

(Note that no one of these necessarily denotes a shaman as, over time, various functions have been appropriated for use by healers, channelers, therapists, entertainers and priests.)

Irish stories make reference to such things as shapeshifting, spirit flight, interaction with the dead and with denizens of the Otherworld, weather influence, healing, chanting, forms of divination, ritual and ceremonial dress, etc.

Some of the elements we see in Celtic literature and mythology suggestive of an orientation similar to that of shamanic societies include:

  • Mogh Roith who used bull hide, speckled bird mask and other “druidic gear” to fly and send fire to the enemy.
  • The possibility (suggested by Stuart Harris-Logan in Singing with Blackbirds) that the wheel mentioned in stories of Mogh Roith, as well as Fechertne’s claim that he traveled on “chariot without a wheelrim, on wheelrim without a chariot,” may have the double meaning of drum – similar to such references in other cultures.
  • The wasting sickness of Cú Chulainn who was beaten into a trance, as well as his “battle frenzy” and “magical heat.” Harris-Logan reads Cú Chulainn’s story as typical of shamanic activity: an initiatory sleep, visits to the Otherworld, a totemic name and the trance of his battle fury.
  • Fionn and company were described as using a chant (dordfhiansa) that would scatter the enemy and is described in a way that suggests Tuvan overtone singing.
  • The image of Cernunnos – with antlers and accompanied by animals, including a serpent with horns.
  • Shapeshifting, often into deer (which “Saint” Patrick is said to have done to elude capture).
  • Being “taken by the Faeries” as shamanic initiation (as suggested by Tom Cowan in Fire in the Head).
  • The use of the term “sleep” to suggest the activities of trance.
Detail from the Gundestrup cauldron, via Wikimedia Commons

Detail from the Gundestrup cauldron, via Wikimedia Commons

There is always discussion about the origin and meaning of the term “druid” and I believe it is a distraction from into a deeper understanding when we attempt to nail down one specific idea. I’ve come to believe that the many possibilities of translation reflect the many facets of meaning inherent in this word. Such meanings have included: door, oak, strong, true, knowledge, witness, experiential wisdom, and knowledge of the oak. This last descriptor – knowledge of the oak – has a double meaning as well: it could mean “knowledge about the oak” or “knowing what the oak knows” – or both.

There are some differences, to be sure, between Celtic society and common shamanic concepts. The need to journey as in our modern idea reflects our felt distance from the Otherworld, whereas in the Irish/Celtic, the Otherworld was immanent and we could stumble into it at any time. Thus, formal “journeys” were not so necessary.

There are various practices described in Irish literature suggestive of shamanic divinatory activity such as:

  • Imbas forosna, in which, after preparation and invocation, the individual chanted over his/her palms, put the palms over the eyes, and “slept” for an answer to a question while watched over by others;
  • Toghairm, in which the person was wrapped in a fresh hide, lain near a waterfall, given a question and left to divine the answer;
  • Frith, in which a process of moving “twixt and between” was used to divine an omen to answer a question;
  • And all manner of nature augury such as cloud divination, bird song, bird flight, the reading of entrails.

Again, engaging in these activities wouldn’t necessarily make one equivalent to traditional shamans, but these are activities quite similar to those of shamans.

Maeve and the Druid. By Stephen Reid (Eleanor Hull, The Boys' Cuchulainn) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Maeve and the Druid. By Stephen Reid (Eleanor Hull, The Boys' Cuchulainn) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In our live workshop, we were fortunate in being able to take these ideas beyond theory and guide participants in forms of divination such as imbas forosna, toghairm and frith. In addition, TopazOwl showed the use of a story – Heart So True – to effect healing, thus, demonstrating that the well-known practices of storytelling were likely used for more than entertainment.

In summary, as state by Harris-Logan: “Through their songs and chants, the Gaels displayed a complete spectrum of shamanic activity: from shapeshifting and sensory deprivation to healing extraction and totemism. . . The shaman is a specialist in the Sacred; one who fosters a personal and interactive relationship with the spirits. The druids did this, and so did the Gaels. (Harris-Logan, p. 122)

References used in preparation for this seminar included (along with personal experience):

Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit, Tom Cowan, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Mircea Eliade, Bollingen/Princeton University Press, 1964 edition/translation

Cauldron of the Gods: A Manual of Celtic Magic, Jan Fries, Mandrake of Oxford, 2003

The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing, Michael Harner, Harper and Row, 1980

Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality, Michael Harner, North Atlantic Books, 2013

Singing with Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk-Traditions, Stuart Harris-Logan, Grey House in the Woods, 2006

The Celtic Shaman: A Handbook, John Matthews, Element, 1991

Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge, edited by Jeremy Narby & Francis Huxley, Tarcher/Putnam, 2001

Forbhais Droma Dámhgáire: The Siege of Knocklong, Seán Ó Duinn, Mercier Press, 1992

 

DUIR – URA – Druid Cord

DUIR – URA – Druid Cord

by Eibhlean/Owl GryphonSong Clan

Photo of Secretary Eíbhlean

Eíbhlean

Cord work is widely adaptable. One very basic use is for protection. A cord can be made with the intent to protect the wearer from harm. Then, when worn, the cord protects from specific types of harm as the need arises. One caution: these protective cords should only be used when needed, not casually worn day in and day out. They work well when sleeping in an unfamiliar place, or visiting somewhere the wearer is uncertain about.

The truly wonderful thing about the Druid’s Cords is that they are completely Continue reading

Unverified Personal Gnosis, Truth and Imbas

Unverified Personal Gnosis, Truth and Imbas

by Searles O’Dubhain

Thumbnail photo of Searles O'Dubhain.

Searles O'Dubhain

As Amergin White Knee has taught us in the Cauldron of Poesy materials:

"When the Cauldron of Knowledge is turned by divine ecstasy, rather than by human joy alone, its special grace is a gift that transforms a person, who becomes both sacred and knowledgeable, so that their works include miracles, prophecies, judgments and precedents. It is these people who establish the wisdom that guides our knowledge and regulates the forms of our speech. Though this knowledge comes from within a person, its truth and its power is from the gods and originates from outside of a person."

This is one of the main abilities of the Draoithe (Irish Druids) and the Filidh (Irish Vision-Poets) that distinguishes them from all others. It is the knowledge that illuminates and is known as imbas in Irish and is called awen in Welsh/British writings and traditions. Some modern folks term such inspirations as UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis). This seems to be an attempt to negate prophetic knowledge and inspiration as being only imagined (until it is verified by currently accepted science or through academic logic alone). To apply this term as a blanket to divinely inspired knowledge is to overlook a few truths from that heritage:

In ancient Irish society and tradition, that which was true was considered to have its own power to stand alone in the world or anywhere, to the point that those who heard truth could see its meaning and importance even when it seemed to contradict those things that were supposed to be the “accepted wisdom.”

To this point, it was the Druids and Poets who were seen to be the sources of imbas and the judges of truth in that society. This attitude and basis in that society had an accompanying paradigm saying that no person could be a Druid, Poet or Judge who had ever been demonstrated to have broken the truth and to have presented a falsehood.

Generally, the imbas or awen that was received by a Celtic Seer was seen to be verified in Nature or in the actions/results of the people presented in the traditional tales. If not already a tradition, then  the results of a divine prophecy or a discovered wisdom had to be eventually demonstrated in society by examples or outcomes (remembering that a given for a wise person in Irish Celtic society was that they retained their status and position only so long as they were shown to be true and correct).

As Katheryn Simms observed and stated in her article, the “Poetic Brehon Lawyers,” this idea of truth from imbas bringing real results to the people was not just an Irish or a Welsh notion, but was a pan-Celtic concept:

“The pagan belief that the moment when a judge issued his verdict was an encounter between the human and the divine, and that the will of the gods was outraged by an unjust decision, while just judgements drew down divine blessings, is already testified among the Celts of Gaul in the first century B.C. where Strabo remarks that the druids were chiefly trusted to try cases of homicide, and that when there is an abundance of these they consider that there is also abundance of the land, presumably because their many just judgements drew down the gods blessing on the crops. “

Imbas is not a free ride. It has to be demonstrated to be true wisdom from the gods. Such inspiration and universal truth is not unlike Einstein’s brilliant understanding about the ways in which matter and energy are related. The truth of it came to him in a flash and he spent years (if not the rest of his lifetime) proving and expanding upon this insight. I expect that ancient and modern druids also do the same with their own knowledge that is received from the minds of the divine. It is not enough to receive the revelation; one must also do the work of bringing the new truths back to the people in a useful and relevant way.

Being true and wise is wonderful but one must also be useful and productive. That is why the demonstration of imbas is to be found in the results that grow from its seeds rather than in claims or even discussion. The tales are filled with how prophecy and the uncovering of hidden things is accomplished or demonstrated to be true. These tales formed the basis of society’s codes of living and morals to the point that prophecy and divine truth were considered to be usual rather than exceptional (or to be challenged as untrue out of hand, as is often the case in our more disillusioned and skeptical modern society). The use of the term UPG, a classification and claim that something is merely made up or an illusion, as a club nowadays to quash inspirations and unusual wisdom to the point that thinking remains within the confines of accepted wisdom, is also a great wrong. Society must continue to advance in its life or it risks the death of stagnation and rot that accompanies the imprisonment of any idea or material thing. Innovation and inspiration deserve open fields upon which to exercise their creative truths to the benefit of all. To keep these in a box only makes for humus and decay, to the point that only nature in her long-term laboratory can transform them into anything new or renewed.

So, let’s rejoice in imbas and rather than calling it UPG, let’s get up and go out into the great laboratories of existence, science, and Nature, to ascertain what the power of truth has uncovered for us via inspiration and knowledge provided to us by the gods. It is only through the verifiable and proven results that we should be known as druids and not by our own or anyone’s claims, or even the acclamations of others, for there really is a truth against the world. Sometimes, one must journey far to find it and bring it back to the people and the lands where life is lived.

-SO

The Sacred Celtic Horse

The Sacred Celtic Horse

by Topaz Owl

I suppose I should be flattered at the number of times I have found this article plagiarized on the web somewhere. Instead, I am only angry and disappointed -- especially when those who have stolen it think tacking a few ill-written paragraphs on the end of my article will disguise it somehow. I have brought it to rest in this place where so many of my other Celtic-themed writings live, in it's original publication form, so that there can no longer be any question who wrote it, and when.

-- TopazOwl, Ring of the Oak Druid, Henge of Keltria, author and copyright holder.

Earth Light

By Eibhlean

Photo of Eibhlean

I have had the privilege of walking and learning from many esoteric paths during my adulthood journey to understand my place in the world and in developing my personal language of communion with Deity.    The expression of devotion and service that continues to call me back time and again is my love and reverence of the Soul of the Land.   I am never happier, more centered or feel more complete than when I am in the woods surrounded by trees.   For me, it is a feeling of connection on a core cellular level and the one place where I can truly be in the Present.

Our little clan is very blessed to have Land Stewards who have opened their hearts and their properties and allowed us to connect and work with a little corner of paradise in their 50+ acre property.  Our space has a lovely small natural stream flowing three quarters of the way around it from the south west and away in the north east.  Listening and feeling this flow has brought a depth and resonance for me to every Rite we have observed.  We are embraced by some of the biggest oaks, beeches, sweet gums, tulip poplars and birch trees that I have ever had the pleasure to be around.  Tree frogs trill happily in the large Beaver made lake just over the ridge.  Huge vines as thick as our wrists drape and dangle above us making us feel at night as if we are looking up into the roots of the World Tree when we turn our faces to the sky.

Being somewhat of a “Sonics Devotee” I will often use vibration to synchronize and step into that space where I experience a camaraderie and link to the landscape around me.   Singing, chanting, drumming, humming – each can bring a very distinct and immediate message from the collective presence of the landscape.  This connection is a Light, born of Song that encircles and illuminates with a sense of Grace.  It is what R.J. Stewart wrote of as the “Power in the Land”…the power and majesty of Place.

Working with a staff as an extension of that connection with the trees and our own “trunks” has helped me make yet another visceral connection to the consciousness of our world.    Using this tool as a focus has given me much insight into moving my perspective outside of my physical limitations and experience of my surroundings into the “eyes, ears and skin” of the trees themselves.  How does this place present itself for them; what is the language of the touch of a bird’s weight or the brush of another tree limb with theirs?  What stories will the wind move through their branches and leaves?

Well over ten years ago I made a sacred esoteric pilgrimage to Ireland with another group I had entered into Bhairdic studies with.  I still remember the humor that our Druid guide had for me regarding how I always sought the trees to work with, no matter what the particular lesson of that day was.

The path leading to our sacred space was originally a very narrow deer path.  We made a point of meditating and asking the land what it did and did not want us to do as we developed our area to work in.  It was amazing that we had to do very, very little to make our area a workable space for gathering.   The land and animals have always projected a sense of acceptance to our presence.  We have had beautiful moments with deer bucks trumpeting to us from the top of the ridge overlooking our circle.  I had one young buck (he was sporting about four tines on his antlers) stand and watch me set up our space for ceremony quite calmly for a very long period of time.  Deer, fox, reptiles, rabbits and the occasional evidence of what looks like a larger forest feline have made their presence known. We have felt very blessed.

The trees, rocks, water, wind and animal co-walkers offer such a rich gift to us if for no other reason than as a reminder that we are more than what we think we are.    We are all Earth Light and the beauty of Deity shines and sings in every part of our world.

Ask the Wild Bee What the Druid Knows

Ask the Wild Bee What the Druid Knows

By Karl Schlotterbeck
Beekeeper and mead maker

Photo of Karl Schlotterbeck

Karl Schlotterbeck

There is, I’m told, an old English saying: “Ask the wild bee what the Druid knows.” Maybe it’s just a quaint folk saying but, even if it were, we’d need to ask why they said it in this way. Indeed, what where they saying? Of course, we do know of the Celts’ fondness for mead, the drink made from fermented honey. In most of the world, it was known that most any liquid with sugars might ferment because of naturally occurring yeasts. [These naturally occurring yeasts, however, (known as “wild yeasts”) made a relatively weaker wine than we are used to today because our modern vintners have bred stronger yeasts able to tolerate a higher level of alcohol before it kills them.] Mead, then, is a product of flower, bee sugar and yeast. Mead is an intoxicating, sweet drink named after a queen – sometimes referred to as a queen of Ireland, and sometimes as queen of the Otherworld.

Our quote suggests that Druids know something not known by others, but could be known by bees. Why would bees be the ones to ask if we want to know about the Druid’s knowledge, if they did not have something to do with it themselves? They are, after all, the source of honey. It may be the mead itself – product of land, water, flower, and invisible forces that provide intoxication. Or might it be something about the life of the bee and its hive?

Perhaps we might change the question to ask the Wild Druid what the Bee knows. Indeed, what is it that bees know? An English woman recently told me that her gramps told the members of his family that they should always tell the bees their family news. (Curiously, she hadn’t heard of the saying “Ask the wild bee what the Druid knows.”) Apparently, bees are expected to hold knowledge – maybe even disseminate it as they make their journeys from flower to flower. Perhaps that’s one clue – like traveling Druids open to sources of knowledge that, in their search, also sparks new life in others. I refer here to the honeybee, which is only one kind of bee, but is my favorite.

And then there is the mead. Bees are the source of the basic element of this particular intoxication or inspiration of mead - an alteration of consciousness that can, if used carefully, prompt inspiration, courage, poetry, creative art, love and lust; opening our senses to the world, to possibility and to a freedom that we seldom have in our sober world. That would seem to be enough, but I think there’s more.

 

Photo of Bees

Bees

What does the Wild Druid know about the Bee? Bees are a highly organized matriarchal culture. They may travel miles to collect their riches (pollen and nectar), which are shared with the entire hive; and they recognize no human boundaries. They collect pollen from whatever is available: tree, flower or grasses. They are organized into non-rigid castes or jobs that support the colony: those that attend to the nursery, or attend the queen. There are scout bees that search for sources of food and return to communicate what they’ve found to others through dance-like movements. There are guard bees that prevent “robber bees” from other colonies from invading their food stores. And all of these workers are female.

A healthy colony has few (male) drones that hang around waiting for a queen’s one virgin flight. After impregnating the queen, they are of no further use to the colony. Individual bees live only a few weeks during the summer (except for the queen) and so the survival of the colony depends on the contributions of all members – each one responsible for a fraction of a teaspoon of honey. The health of the queen is paramount and her condition is broadcast to the entire hive through pheromones. If anything in the hive becomes unsatisfactory – like crowding or an ailing queen – the workers feed some larvae “royal jelly” to make a few new queens. The first queen out of her cell finds and kills the others, and then leaves with half the hive to establish her own colony. Watching a swarming hive is an awesome sight as tens of thousands of bees take to the air, circling around an invisible center making a noise like no other. I’ve seen them move slowly away like a cloud of hums. And I’ve seen them cluster on the branch of a tree where, if I’m careful, I can bring them to an empty hive where they make their new home.

We see some parallels here with old Celtic society, where the health and uprightness of the ruler meant a good relationship with the Goddess of the Land which, in turn, brought prosperity to the tribe. Not only men, but also women were rulers, warriors and workers, and the male ruler’s authority derived from the Goddess of the Land. An unfit ruler who lost her or his connection to the fertility of the land could be dethroned and a new one selected. Rulers were, above all, servants to the relationship between the people and the Spirit of the Land.

For bees, there seems little significance given to individual survival as the bee can make only one strike (sting) – and then she dies. Thus, their champions go out to meet the invader and are ready to sacrifice their lives to attack or drive them off. There is an immediate cost to aggression.

We know that bees are responsible for a tremendous amount of pollination and thereby our food. In this way, they are truly intermediaries in the fertility of the land as they go about their work. And they are willing to die for the sweetness they produce.

Modern times have seen “Colony Collapse Disorder” where whole hives disappear. Theories abound, but it seems caused by a combination of factors including the stress of moving colonies for pollination of fruit fields, diseases, and insecticide. This sounds like our life today: accosted by stresses that weaken the immune system, diseases becoming resistant to our treatments, and environmental toxicity. Our needs are so similar to those of the bee: safe food, clean water and air, community and a balance of contribution and benefit.

In short, the state of the bees and that of the land (and, therefore, us) are inextricably entwined; the fate of the bees and human food sources are interdependent. It’s true: what we do to the land we do to the bees and to ourselves. Disruption of the colony’s organized tasks in which all contribute and receive benefit, as well as any cult to an individual, are threats to the survival of the tribe.

That said, we do not have one ruler these days, but rather a collective of people who are charged with making our land prosperous and safe. It’s now difficult to see how our “rulers” (legislators, senators, warriors, presidents, oligarchs and mega-corporations, etc.) gain their right to rule from their fitness in the eyes of the Goddess of the Land. These days it seems to be about the amount of money one can accrue – power for its own sake. And I hear the sounds of discontent, a swarming of people in city after city, objecting to how the benefits of American society are apportioned, perhaps looking for the new queen or champion who will take up their cause and make their lives-in-community worth living again.

It appears that bees do know what it takes to make a working tribe, and they show us what endangers it. So maybe we’d be wise to, indeed, ask the Wild Bee what the Druid should know.
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Angelica

By Nione

Photo of Nione

Nione

Angelica is a genus of the family ammiacea, of which there are several species native to North America. It can be found growing in fields and damp places, as well as all around my property.  This is a beautiful plant, which really makes a statement in the garden. It is a beautiful backdrop for the color of the flowering plants. My neighbors think I am a little nuts to let weeds grow in my flower beds, but they would be appalled to find that most of those lovely flowers are actually weeds. Technically a weed is a flower growing where we don’t want it to.

This is a tall bright green perennial, usually reaching in height from 4 to 6 feet. The stem is stout, fluted and hollow with multiple small branches sprouting from about half way up the stalk to a full spread at the top. The leaves are finely toothed, and the flowers at the top are small and yellowish to green in color. The flower groups, which form in umbels, are similar in appearance to Queen Anne’s lace.  The odor of Angelica is peculiar though not unpleasant. Flowering occurs from July to August, when it begins to go to seed. This plant is easily cultivated in the garden; however, it can get out of hand if not controled. Because of its aromatic qualities, in France angelica is a cash crop grown on farms for use as a flavoring for liquors, candies and hops bitters.

This plant should be dried or candied quickly to retain its medicinal qualities. Once dried, as with all herbs, it should be stored in a glass container; plastic containers leech the flavaniods from the herb rendering it useless.

How Angelica is harvested depends on the intended use of the plant. Taken as a young plant it can be candied; the taste is mild and somewhat like anise. I generally harvest Angelica in early summer for candies.  Here is the process for candying Angelica if you wish to try it. It is a little involved but worth the effort.

Candied Angelica

Cut the stem into 4” pieces. I usually split the stem as well. Boil these in water until somewhat tender.  Remove from the water and strip off the outer skin, return it to the pot with fresh water and simmer until bright green. Remove them from the water and pat dry.

Using equal parts of sugar and angelica, add a layer of sugar, then angelica, then a layer of sugar until your container is filled or you run out of herb.  Cover with a towel or cloth and let it sit for a couple of days.

Next, put the contents of your container into a pot. There may be enough juice from the angelica or you may need to add a little water.  Slowly bring this mixture to a boil until the sugar begins to form syrup. Let it boil a few minutes longer and then strain through a sieve and scatter on a plate or a cookie sheet to dry. Sprinkle a little sugar on your plate to prevent the candy from sticking.

Angelica flowers are harvested for medicinal purposes and so are the seeds. Be sure to keep some of the seeds for reseeding in the spring.  The roots are taken in the fall after the plant has died back to the ground.

Illustration Angelica archangelica

Angelica archangelica

This plant is an astringent and generally used for menorrhagia (abnormally excessive menstruation), diarrhea, and dysentery. It is also good remedy for colic, gas, sore stomach, heartburn, angina and high blood pressure.   The medicinal properties are easily extracted in water. Dosing is one teaspoon of the dried herb to one cup of boiling water. Drink one to two cups a day.  Externally, angelica is used for ulcerations of the throat and mouth, the tea is gargled warm 3-4 times a day.

Angelica is an herb which should be avoided by pregnant women as it is a strong emmenagogue. (Induces menstruation.)  Diabetics should not take this herb due to its ability to cause weakness.

Magically, Angelica is an herb of Imbolc. It is either spread on the floor or used in incense to purify. According to “[amazon_link id="0875421229" target="_blank"] Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs [/amazon_link]”:

Its gender is masculine, Planet is the sun, its element is fire, and  the Deity is Venus
Powers: Exorcism, Protection, Healing, and Visions.

Magical uses: This is a plant grown for protection; it is used in all protection and exorcism incenses. Sprinkle the four corners of the house with Angelica to ward off evil or sprinkle it around the perimeter of the house. Added to the bath, angelica removes curses, hexes, and any spells that may have been cast against you. The root was carried in the pocket as a gambling talisman among some American Tribes. Angelica is also used in healing incenses and mixtures.