Sword, harp and singing bird: Aonghus Óg

Edain came out of Midhir’s hill, and lay

Beside young Aengus in his tower of glass,

Where time is drowned in odour-laden winds

And Druid moons, and murmuring of boughs,

And sleepy boughs, and boughs where apples made

Of opal and ruby and pale chrysolite

Awake unsleeping fires; and wove seven strings,

Sweet with all music, out of his long hair,

Because her hands had been made wild by love.

When Midhir’s wife had changed her to a fly,

He made a harp with Druid apple-wood

That she among her winds might know he wept;

And from that hour he has watched over none

But faithful lovers.

– William Butler Yeats, “The Harp of Aengus”

Amid the falling snow, the light lengthens; buds began to swell on the icicle-laden branch. The green force of life trickles and then flows in tandem, rising forth as winter’s cloak melts from the land.

It is at this time – the birth of spring and its slow swelling – that Keltrian Druids honor Aonghus Óg, the Young Son with the swan wings.

Áengus_mac_Óg,_Irish_deity

A painting of a Victorian era description of Áengus mac Óg, via Wikimedia Commons. Painter unknown.

His name has been variously spelled, and variously interpreted. Scholar and linguist Marie-Louise Sjoestedt interprets his name as “unique force,” while Celticist Mary Jones translates it as “Chosen One.” Writer Aedh Rua, drawing on other research, connects it to the old Celtic/Gaulish name Oinogustus, interpreted as “one choice” or, occasionally, “one strength.” His title is a bit more consistent: Mac Óg means “young son,” and Óg simply “young.” There are, however, variants: Mac ind Óg “son of the young/son of youth” and even Mac in Dá Óg, “son of the two young ones,” which perhaps refers to his parents, Boann and the Dagda (Sjoestedt 41-42).

He is associated with swans, which appear in a variety of myths, as well as four birds that continually circle his head, bringing joy and love (Rolleston 121). Some descriptions have him playing a harp of gold, drinking the ale of immortality and using his cloak of invisibility to protect chosen lovers (McKillop 138). In a larger sense, he appears to be the same god as the Welsh Mabon and Gaulish Maponos, the Divine Youth whom the Romans interpreted as Apollo. To draw on a wider range of Indo-European mythology, he has qualities in common with the Indian Kama, the Slavic Lado/Yarilo and the Norse Baldur.

But don’t let the swans and the flowers fool you; Aonghus is more than a winged Victorian Cupid figure. To use a Greek analogy, he’s equal parts Eros, Apollo and Hermes: the lover, the poet and the trickster. His is the primeval force that shatters the arbitrary chains of tradition — a bit like sex itself. Love may have swan wings and a harp, but he also carries a sword. And he’s not blind; in fact, he’s sharp-sighted and pretty darn smart.

A love that crosses boundaries 

Aonghus Og, from the 1914 book "Heroes of the Dawn," via Wikimedia Commons

Aonghus’ parents, “the Two Young Ones,” are the river-goddess Boann and father-god Dagda. There is a catch, however; Boann is already married to a god named either Elcmar or Nechtan, who may be the same as Nuada Airgetlám, the Tuatha de Danann god associated with rulership, justice, the sword and law. Associated with fresh water and a magic well that eventually transforms Boann into a river, Nechtan must be tricked the allow Aonghus Óg to be born; when the Dagda sends him off on an errand, the gods stop the passage of time to make a single day last nine months, allowing for the birth of the Young Son, who is then sent to his brother Midhir (“judge,” whom I interpret as the Celtic moon god) to raise. Upon his birth, his mother said, “’Young is the son who was begotten at break of day and born betwixt it and evening’” (Rees and Rees, 216), the origin of his title and also a hint of the god’s interesting relationship with time.

While Boann never leaves Nuada, it is perhaps telling that Aonghus is born of an affaire de coeur rather than a sanctioned partnership. He later helps his foster-father Midhir in his own matters of the heart, winning him the hand of lovely Etain (or Edain) via a series of impossible tasks with some help from dad – and conveniently ignoring the fact that Midhir is already married to the goddess Fuamnach. His brother and new wife live with him for a year, perhaps circumventing the rule in which the elder wife would be able to work her will on the new bride during the first days of partnership. When Fuamnach turns Etain into a jeweled insect, he provides Etain a home and protection in the form of a glass room. When the elder wife tricks Aonghus and Midhir away from Etain and blows the latter away with a Druidic wind, it is Aonghus who seeks vengeance, ultimately beheading Fuamnach in a rare act of violence (Heaney 25).

In short, propriety and social rules do not matter to the Young Son; throughout myth, he supports the path of the heart, no matter the cultural ramifications or consequences. He’s probably a great fan of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, although he’d likely give the titular couple more time together before the inevitable disaster.

He does meddle in human affairs of the heart, although in a protective role rather than the typical Cupid-armed-with-arrows image. His foster-son, Diarmuid of the Love-Spot, has the magical ability to inspire transgressive love, which he tries to curtail by keeping the infamous spot covered. He inevitably slips up and Grainne, new bride to his chief Finn, falls in love with him – although, dismayed by an arranged marriage to a man older than her father, she was admittedly on the lookout for a better opportunity. She forces Diarmuid to run away with her via a potion and a geis, over his protests. Interestingly, Aonghus seems to bless this love – spiriting the couple away in his cloak of invisibility over the heads of Finn and his men, giving Diarmuid advice on how to keep one step ahead of Finn, and later also spiriting away Grainne alone as Diarmuid fights on. As Diarmuid fights, he uses Aonghus’ sword, Manannan’s spear and a hefty dose of trickery to win the day.

Swan in snow. Photo by Jenne Micale

Love and Time

Aonghus has a complex relationship with time and its manipulation. As seen above, his birth comes after an alteration of time – an illusion that allows a day to last nine months. He is also heavily involved in the myth of Midhir and Etain, which involves the repeated transformations and ultimate reincarnation of the latter, who is continually gained and lost by her love, a cycle reminiscent of the waxing and waning moon.

He gains Brug na Boinne, his home, through the verbal manipulation of time-concepts. He asks the occupant at the time, the Dagda, to borrow the house for a day and a night. Feeling generous as Aonghus does not have a sídh mound of his own, his father grants the request. When he shows up the following day, Aonghus won’t hand over the house-keys. Irish, as it happens, has no article that differentiate “a day” from “day” itself. Or as the god explains it: “’It is clear,’ said the Mac Óc, ‘that night and day are the whole world, and it is that which has been given to me’” (Rees and Rees, 88). It’s a bit of trickery that would make the Greek Hermes proud.

From his conception, Aonghus alters the perception of time – although not time himself. He doesn’t stop the sun’s passage or count the years of Etain’s loss; other gods do that. Instead, he’s an illusionist, making us question the reality of what we see and experience and to look to the loopholes in the contract. In some senses, the Young Son stands outside of time, a perspective that influences the One Choice that must be made. These choices aren’t only limited to love; he advises his father, for example, to trick the ravenous Fomorian satirist Cridenbel by mixing gold coins in his food (Blamires 101), thus poisoning the Fomhoire and providing an alibi all at once. Standing outside of time and recognizing the limits of perception are, in essence, the key to cleverness.

Aonghus interacts with time in another way: by freeing the light and warmth of spring. According to a Scottish myth, the Cailleach – a goddess of winter – imprisons his sister Brighid in the mountain Beinn Nibheis, and Aonghus rides on a white horse to save her (Kondratiev, 152). The god associated with youth, poetry, love and springtime frees the fire-goddess, and together they bring the spring to the wintry land.

The fort of the yew-berry

While Aonghus plays a role in many myths, he’s the focal point of Aislinge Óenguso, the Vision of Aonghus. For a year, the god sees a beautiful woman in a vision or dream; she plays the lute or harp. He falls deeply in love with this vision-woman and begins to pine away, unable to rouse himself from his trance-state. Physicians call in his mother Boann, who searches the world for this woman to no avail. Then they call in his father, the Dagda, who has a rather comical, if pragmatic, response: “What is the use of talking to me? … I know no more than you do” (Celtic Miscellany, 94).

The Dagda, however, calls in another of his sons: Bodhbd (Bodb) Dearg, whose name means “Red Raven” and who is associated with arcane knowledge. Bodb’s search is successful and he finds the woman at Loch Bél Dragon, the Lake of the Dragon’s Mouth. Her name is Caer, a name that appears to be connected to the word cathair, which means a city or rocky fort; she is also called Ibormeith, or Yew Berry. Bodb takes his brother to the lake, where he recognizes the woman of his dreams – who wears a silver band around her neck, connected by gold chains to 150 other young women.

Unable presumably to catch her attention, Bodb refers Aonghus to the rulers of the land, the famous Maedhbh (Maeve) and Aillil, who summon Caer’s father, Ethal Anbhuail, to their hall. He refuses to come, and their forces – aided by the Dagda – overun Ethal’s sídh. Amid threats to his safety, Ethal tells them that he cannot give Caer to them, for she is a shapeshifter whose own power exceeds his own – and possibly that of Aonghus. After a little ungentle prodding, he admits to them how she may be approached: she changes shape each Samhain at the lake. Caer’s hand, as it turns out, cannot be won by either force or trickery.

Come Samhain, Aonghus goes to the lake, where he picks out Caer from 150 identical swans linked by silver chains. He simply calls to her, introduces himself and asks her consent to the match. She gives it, provided that he permit her return to the lake. He happily grants this and they fly off together in the shape of swans, singing the song that puts all into blissful slumber for three days. “The girl stayed with him after that,” the eighth century version of the tale ends (Celtic Miscellany, 97).

In some senses, the story is reminiscent of the Roman Cupid and Psyche, save that the roles are reversed; it is the god who must pursue the vision of his soul and win her hand. Force and flattery cannot win her, only the ability to choose the beloved correctly from others – a task that resurfaces in Midhir and Etain, except the king mistakenly chooses his own daughter rather his wife. After the choice is made, the beloved is asked her consent, which she gives in exchange for free will. Perhaps tellingly, she never leaves him – even though she has the right to leave and return to her lake at any time.

The Rees brothers compare this story to Indian tales of Gandharvas, or nature-spirits who appear as half-bird and half-man; their wives, the Apsaras, are water-nymphs (276). Kama, the Indian god of love with his flower-tipped arrows, “is also called ‘The Gandharva,’” they note (278); Aonghus turns into a swan alongside his bride, in essence, becoming a nature spirit. To take a larger view, shape-changing swan-maidens persist in folklore throughout the world, as part of a larger theme of animal brides.

The Fort of the Yew Berry is obviously something other, a boundary-crosser with great power, the last according to the admission of her father. Where, or what, is the City of the Yew Berry? James MacKillop provides this answer: “Her nickname Ibormeith (yew berry) implies something of the nature of her character. The long-living evergreen yew is commonly a symbol of immortality in European tradition and is still often seen in Christian cemeteries. Wood from the tree is hard to burn and was the favoured material in druids’ wands” (167). The City of the Yew Berry represents a kind of immortality, the numinous, shape-changing power of spirit that lies behind magic.

The story of Caer and Aonghus can be seen as the definition of ideal love: seeking, finding, asking consent and granting free-will. It can also be seen as the artist’s pursuit of the “Muse,” the creative spirit behind the work. (MacKillop, interestingly, sees Aonghus as a god of poetry rather than love.) It can also be interpreted as the sacred’s courtship of and relationship with the soul, who has her own free will and agency.

Restorer of the soul

On swan wings, we alight on another of Aonghus’ roles: the restorer of the soul. Caitlin Matthews considers Aonghus as a powerful “healer of souls” (283), and a primary guardian of the soul-shrine with his sister Brighid (328). In support of this, we may remember the songbirds (or swans, depending on the story) that circle his head, whose tunes inspire joy, love and release from depression. Aonghus and Caer also bring bliss and restful sleep to all those who hear them sing. In some tales, when his brother Midhir loses an eye breaking up a quarrel, Aonghus is the one who brings the physician Dian Cecht to restore him.

Matthews in particular cites Aonghus role in protecting Etain when she was in the shape of a fly, and thus vulnerable to Fuamnach, and his treatment of Diarmuid after his foster-son’s death. While Aonghus cannot restore him to human life, he brings him to the brug, where he breathes the spirit into him every day, allowing the two to converse for a while. Diarmuid experiences, in short, an eerie kind of half-life similar to that of the speaking head of Bran the Blessed in Welsh lore. To Matthews, “Aengus is concerned with the harmony which should be in the soul-shrine” (328), which perhaps explains his violent reaction to the repeated disharmony caused by Fuamnach.

As spring edges into fullness, allow your soul to listen to the song of Aonghus – his birds and his harp, his longing and his love. Like springtime itself, he is fresh and new – the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as poet Dylan Thomas puts it. That force – chi, prana, spirit – is a powerful one binding us to the cosmos and its cycles as long as we live, and to art, love, music and visions. Aonghus Óg is a manifestation of this force, which is not limited to lovers or the young, but feeds all who drink from its sweet waters.

Bibliography

A Celtic Miscellany. Ed. and trans. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson. New York: Penguin Books, 1951.

Blamires, Steve. The Irish Celtic Magical Tradition. Cheltanham, UK: Skylight Press, 1992, 2012

Heaney, Marie. Over Nine Waves: A Book of Irish Legends. London: Faber and Faber, 1994.

Jones, Mary. “Óengus mac ind- Óg.” Jones’ Celtic Encyclopedia. http://www.maryjones.us/jce/oengus.html. Accessed Dec. 29, 2015.

Kondratiev, Alexei. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. New York: Citadel Press, 2003.

MacKillop, James. Myths and Legends of the Celts. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Matthews, Caitlin and John. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: A Celtic Shaman’s Sourcebook.Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1994.

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961.

Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1917.

Rua, Aedh. Celtic Flame: An Insider’s Guide to Irish Pagan Tradition. New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2008.

Sjoestedt, Marie-Louise. Celtic Gods and Heroes. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.

“The Wooing of Etain.” from Heroic Romances of Ireland Volume II, ed. and trans. A.H. Leahy. London: David Nut, 1906. Published on http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/etain.html, Accessed Dec. 30, 2015.

Druidic symbol approved for VA gravestones

Circle Sanctuary's Lady Liberty League reports: "On January 9, 2017, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) added the Awen to its list of emblems of belief authorized for inclusion on the gravestones and other memorial markers it issues to honor deceased veterans.   It is number 65 on the list: http://www.cem.va.gov/hmm/emblems.asp

The first VA headstone with the Awen is already in production and is for retired Air Force Captain Wayne Laliberte of Texas (1954-2013)."

Click here for the full article.

Keltrian Druid Altars and Shrines

Altar, in the traditional sense, means a place of sacrifice. Keltrian Druids, like most modern religions, find the modern altar to be more of a ritual tool storage table than anything else. It is still a sacred place, and the objects on the altar are made sacred through consecration before being placed upon it. The tools used during the ritual are there, used when needed, then replaced.

Keltrian Druid altars may be as simple as a table with a couple of candles, a pair of vessels for Earth and water, and an incense burner. Other altars may hold many optional tools such as a candle snuffers. In either event, the altar holds the tools during the ritual. An altar is populated with sacred tools before the ritual begins. The tools are removed immediately following the ceremony and, once the tools are removed, the Keltrian altar is dismantled.

Shrines, on the other hand, are places that remain set up indefinitely. Typically, a shrine is a place dedicated to a specific entity of awe and respect where that entity may be venerated. The most common Keltrian Druid Shrines are dedicated to the Ancestors, the Nature Spirits, or the Gods. They too can be simple or complex. I have neighbors who don’t know I am Pagan and have seen my Ancestor Shrine, which is a wall in my den with photos and some mementos of my ancestors on it. Nothing spooky, just photos and objects that remind me of my ancestors. I see the shrine every day and think of them. When people visit, I often point out each of my ancestors to the visitors and explain how they are related to me. My earliest ancestor image is a circa 1881 drawing of a 4th Great Grandfather.

pencil sharpener water pump

Water Pump reminder of my great-grandmother.

Objects you keep with your shrine may be directly related, that is to say something from the individual, or the object might be something that reminds you of something about the ancestor.  For example, on my Ancestor Shrine, I have a metal pencil sharpener in the shape of a hand water pump. In the early 1960s, my great-grandmother still had a hand pump in the kitchen drawing water from a shallow well.  Whenever I see the pump, I remember her and my helping by priming the pump and getting the morning water started. I think remembering her and the morning ritual helps keep me in touch with my great-grandma and my other ancestors.

Do you have a shrine? Is it a Keltrian Druid Shrine?  If so, who is it dedicated to; the Ancestors, the Nature Spirits, or the Gods and Goddesses?

Below is a photo of an altar from a Keltrian Gathering. Please share a photo of your Keltrian Druid or personal altar, ritual table, or shrine. Tell us a bit about it and why the objects on it are important to you.

Walk with wisdom,
- Tony Taylor

Altar - Keltrian Druid - Gathering 2012

Keltrian Druid Altar (Gathering 2012)

  • Three cauldrons, for Ancestors (water), Gods (charcoal & incense), and one of Nature Spirits (earth).
  • Grove Candle and a God candle and a Goddess candle.
  • Two Chalices (one for water one for mead).
  • Sacrificial Branch and Sickle.
  • Bell Branch.
  • Shell for calling Manannán mac Lyr.
  • Offering Bowl.
  • Oil for blessing, mistletoe extract, and incense (also spare charcoal).

From the President: Happy Solstice!


Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice in the mid 1980s. By Mark Grant, via Wikimedia Commons

In the hustle and bustle of this time of the year, amidst endless demands for our attention and dollars, and in the manufactured tension between “political correctness” and expressions of individual devotion, let’s remember the reason for this season. (The malcontent complainers are hardly a credit to their faith, whichever it is.)

In the northern hemisphere, this is the darkest time of the year and, at the solstice, we anticipate the rebirth of the sun. The Unconquered Sun is the reason the emperor Constantine declared Sunday (day of the Sun) as the official day of rest – now celebrated by most Christians as the day of worship -- and December 25 was only fixed as a Christian celebration during the fourth century. The Solstice had been long celebrated as the birth of solar deities and was a fitting time to mark renewal through the birth of the Christian and Mithraic (Roman) icons. Gift-giving was already a part of the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia. 

From Northern Europe comes the tradition of the shaman who, at the time of the Solstice, rode his reindeer-powered shaman’s sleigh into the heart of the Sun and returned to his people to bring gifts and guidance – the original figure who has become known today as Santa Claus.

So, let’s get beyond these petty late-coming internecine squabbles. No matter with what sectarian group we identify and may pretend is the original or truest, let’s remember what pre-dated them all: the cycles of life where, out of the darkness of the year, is born divinity originally found in Nature as the renewed Sun; where light arises out of darkness, life out of death. The words we put on these cycles are but clothing on the body of the Great Mystery of life, death and renewal. 
So, Happy Solstice, along with whatever else you may be celebrating!

Light in darkness: Ritual ideas for the Feast of Rebirth

Photo by Cypresseyes

Photo by Cypresseyes

The snow drifts down, light and powdery with the breath of the cold. Dawn tarries and night hurries in.

Now is the time of Meán Geimhridh, what the Henge of Keltria terms the Feast of Rebirth. Traditionally, we honor the Dagda (the Good God, as in "good at everything") and Brighid (her name has been interpreted as "exalted" or "she who rises") for this feast day.

If you have Keltria's Book of Ritual, you'll notice that they don't include suggestions for "Grove's Choice" for the Feast of Rebirth; you're meant to come up with your own ideas here. Grove's Choice is essentially the symbolic act at the heart of the ceremony, and is up to the practitioners; since most people operate as solitaries, I like to call it the meat (or tofu) of ritual.

So, what's my tofu like for Meán Geimhridh?

This year, I'm doing something different: Making a set of prayer beads, according to the instructions set forth in Lunaea Weatherstone’s Tending Brigid’s FlameThe making of the beads is part of the ritual. From my script:

I call upon you, Brighid Bean-Goibhne, Brighid the Smith, for your inspiration in this work. I call upon you, Dagda, the Good God, who is good at all things. Bless my work.

Afterwards, I will immediately use the beads for their intended purpose. Later on in the rite, I will also light candles and chant to strengthen the waxing light, which is something I do every year. The chant (which I always sing, rather than speak) comes from the lore, although the melody is my own:

Peace up to the sky

Sky down to earth

Earth beneath heaven

Strength to everyone

The prayer beads are a new innovation. We'll see how it goes this year. As I make the beads, I plan to play a mix CD I made for Brighid some years back. (Yes, I do make mix-tapes for the Gods. I also have a Morrigan mix and Aonghus Og mix about.)

In previous years, I've tried different innovations. I've honored Brighid as the Goddess of the Hearth and the Dagda as the Lord of Abundance by holding the ritual in the kitchen, baking bannock and meditating on the Gods of the Season while the bannock baked. I've done a trance-meditation on the light reaching the spiral in the heart of Brugh na Boinne (Newgrange).

When White Cat Grove was more than just me, I also had each member present write a blessing on a slip of paper and put it in the bowl; they included such things as health, warmth, financial security, right livelihood, etc. Here's the meditation:

Dagda, the Good God, has a cauldron from plenty from which none ever go hungry. He is the father that feeds the tribe, lover and protector and nourisher. The Red One of Knowlege bestows blessings without stinginess, without fail, for all those who seek. And so, in this time of cold, let each of us follow example, granting blessings in a time of darkness.

What blessings does the world need most -- you, your family, your Druid sisters? Ask not for yourselves, but as the bestower of blessing. When the Dagda's spirit moves you, take up the paper and pen and grant four blessings on separate slips of paper. Then fold them and out them in the offering bowl

At the end of the meditation, each of us took one slip to show the Gods' blessings on our own lives. The rest went into the offering fire.

These are just some of the ways I cook my ritual-tofu for the Feast of Rebirth. Feel free to use any of these ideas, and to share your own!

Feed the fish: Drop your hazelnuts into the Well of Wisdom! We're always looking for submissions to the Keltria blog: poetry, photos, essays, articles, recipes, random musings related to the Henge and more! Share your imbas with your fellow Keltrians. Contact HH-Editor@keltria.org or dulcimergoddess@keltria.org.

Name Poem: An exercise for the poetically-minded

I recently finished Lunaea Weatherstone's Tending Brigid's Flame, a truly wonderful book about my matron Goddess. I can't recommend it enough, truly.

One of the many explorations and exercises Weatherstone recommends is the creation of a name-poem, similar in spirit to the Song of Amergin or the Song of Taliesin. The poem captures your essence of self -- your attributes, perhaps the turning-points in your life if you choose to include them -- in imagery that speaks to your spirit.

Weatherstone doesn't go into the purpose of the poem, specifically, but I imagine it can be used to give strength when you are weary and courage when you are afraid. It sings the soul back home, and changes when you feel that you need to change it -- like your life.

My name-poem follows. What is yours?

I am the fox that escapes every hound

the speckled veery on its forest perch

the tune of a song threaded by birds

 

I am the ink that scribes the words of truth

the artisan of the air, beading words

and music into a vast creation

 

I was born of blossoms in the sun's heat

the much-cherished daughter of the heavens

who bears a name of ill-repute and boldness

 

I am a warrior of the wind

who lands no blows but sends the opponent

into the diamond net of gravity

 

I am the pale phantom and the noose

whose borrowed name asks: “Who is like god?”

I am the namer and the describer.

 

I am the walker in dreams, the changer

behind the veil of sleep, the traveler

in my coracle of harp string and drum

 

I am a fisher-cat for fierceness

and an owl for grace. I am the great leaves

of borage, the blue stars of its bloom

 

I am an oak tree, a green stone, a stoat,

a spear, the strength of the arm and the foot

I am a priestess of flame and delight

 

I hold the dream-spear of the Red Woman

I wield the sword of the Fisher King

I serve at the altars of all the Gods

the_arts_poetry

"Poetry", part of the series The Arts, by Alphonse Mucha (1898) via Wikimedia Commons

The Power and Pitfalls of Mythologies

Photo by Ulchaban

Photo by Ulchaban

Mythologies – recognized and not recognized – are powerful forces in all societies. They help tell us who we think we are and our place in the world, and how to relate to those within and outside our official circles. They inspire acts of heroism and terrorism, conquest and resistance to conquest. They give people hope and reason to live, ways to navigate our world, and a relationship with the Divine (or an image thereof). They are also used in the subjugation of conquered peoples to erase unwanted ideas or troublesome competing mythologies and languages.

Celts had mythologies that celebrated a direct connection with the land and the ruler’s responsibility toward that land. If the ruler was unfit, the land suffered.

The power of mythology is not limited to history or religious expression. Countries carry their own (often white-washed) mythologies, and their leaders use mythologies (via propaganda) to present a desirable image of themselves. We see negative mythologies created about the character and identity of others. Often we see an illusory image created by the opponents purporting to know the motivation and some secret agenda of the other. As a psychologist, it is painfully obvious that how much we are asked to make judgments on is based on little more than rumor, innuendo, accusation and a contrived image. Truth is an unwelcome guest at this table.

06-14-07-staugustine-281Of course, mythologies are not always consistent and will provide contradictory models for us. But those contradictions, I submit, simply show the complexity of human nature and the human condition.

Speaking of the human condition, our memories are often the mythology we use to explain who we are and how we came to be this way. We have constructed a mythological identity for ourselves, attributing influence to others, to ideas, to lessons, successes and failures.

The test of any mythology – religious, personal or secular – is whether it helps us navigate our world and allows us to draw inspiration from it. If not, it is just a social belief system; for genuine mythologies are alive, and enliven those who can embody them!

For Keltrians, do our myths live in us, inspire us, educate us? Do they help us relate to one another, to the Spirits of Nature, to the Ancestors, to the Divine? How personal is our relationship with any of the divine figures of our pantheon?

I invite us all to examine how we might – each in our individual way – engage with and celebrate our myths. We can re-read the stories, see where they come alive in us, how they speak to us and give us a glimpse into the source of wisdom and inspiration. We can celebrate our holidays and rites, and honor the characters that live in the mythologies and, perhaps, discover them already alive inside of us.

Karl is the ArchDruid Emeritus and current President of the Henge of Keltria.

Feed the fish: Drop your hazelnuts into the Well of Wisdom! We're always looking for submissions to the Keltria blog: poetry, photos, essays, articles, recipes, random musings related to the Henge and more! Share your imbas with your fellow Keltrians. Contact HH-Editor@keltria.org or dulcimergoddess@keltria.org.

 

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