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Issue 38 - Beltaine/Summer 1998




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The Feathered Cloak and the Antlered God

Druids, Shamans, Sacred Trees and Shape-shifting in the Ancient Celtic Bardic Traditions

Part 1 of 2

by Sharynne NicMacha

For many Neopagans, the image of the Antlered God evokes a strong ancestral memory of our tribal roots. It resonates with our own inner wildness, our animal nature that roams restlessly in this society, seeking out the smell of moss and loamy earth in a rich forest where amber and sap drip like honey from the flanks of ancient trees. These are trees whose branches intertwine overhead like the antlers of sacred deer, which intertwine like the two Worlds. Once we have seen the image of this deity for this first time in this incarnation, the Antlered God seems to always have been there, a symbol and entity etched into our minds, a flame which burns eternally, slowly and powerfully like a Samhain bonfire. He carries the torc and the ram-headed serpent that mirror our own inner talismans. Statues of Antlered Goddesses have also been found at Celtic sites, including one who presides over a host, carrying an Otherworldly cauldron of exquisite beauty.

Whether our path leads toward becoming a Druid, Shaman, Prophet/ess or Bard, our souls cry out for flight above and beyond our daily existence -- into clear, spacious sky realms. We dream of retreat and re-discovery, and of crawling deep into the body of the earth itself. The eyes of the animals we encounter reflect back parts of us that exist in the recesses of our spiritual domain, and yet may be incomplete. The very terms "drum" or "chant" inspire us to leave whatever we are doing and reconnect with the sacred. The words of ancient bards, poets and prophets cleave us to the very heart, when we make the time and space to bring them into our circle of existence.

Throughout the year-wheel, we strive for transformation in our rituals, meditations and our daily lives. We sometimes surprise ourselves with our accumulated growth and wisdom. At other times, the primal energies and deep wisdom of figures such as the Antlered God and other deities, Shamans of many cultures, and the ancient Celtic Druids and Bards seem beyond our grasp, regardless of the wordless inspiration they provide. How can we, as modern Pagans, in the time and world in which we find ourselves, return to the ancient ways? Can we become as those of old who had power over the elements, knowledge of trees and animals, the power of prophecy, the ability to shape-shift or transform, and a personal connection with the sacredness of the earth?

Let us step down to an earlier level of the spiral of time, about 2,500 years. At this point, extant written records from which much of our knowledge of the Druids derives, had their origins in the writings of Greek and Roman authors. Celtic mythology and later historical references to the Druids prior to the introduction of Christianity supplement these records.


Foreign authors noted three classes of people and often mentioned them together as potentially three branches of one tradition. These are the Druids, Bards and Seers (Prophets or Vates). From all of these sources, we find that the roles and wisdom of the Druids included worship of the Gods and Goddesses, sacred ritual, knowledge of the natural world, knowledge of the Otherworld, magic, prophecy and divination, use of mystical incantations, astronomy and astrology, medicine, law, teaching, serving as guardians of ancestral lore and genealogy, and in the case of the bards in particular, poetry, music and storytelling.

Caesar, one the few early authors who actually had personal contact with the Celts, says in The Gallic War (1st century CE), "Throughout Gaul there are two classes of persons of definite account and dignity ... Druids and Warriors. The Druids ... are concerned with divine worship, performance of sacrifices, and the interpretation of ritual questions. They decide in almost all disputes. A great number gather about them for the sake of instruction and hold them in great honor. They have many discussions as touching the stars and their movement, the size of the universe and the earth, the order of nature, the strength and the powers of the immortal gods, and hand down their lore to the young."

Diodorus Siculus, writing around 8 BCE, reports, "There are among them (the Gauls) composers of verses whom they call Bards. They have philosophers and theologians who are held in much honor and are called Druids; they have soothsayers too of great renown who tell the future by watching the flights of birds."

Pliny, in his Natural History published 77 CE, "It (magic) flourished in the Gallic provinces, too, even down to a period within our memory. At the present day, Britannia is still fascinated by magic, and performs its rites with much ceremony..."

Diogenes Laertius states, "[The] Druids make their pronouncements by means of riddles and dark sayings, teaching that the gods must be worshipped, no evil done, and virtuous behavior maintained." We know this three-part form of teaching as a triad. It was doubtless common in Druidic teaching as a mnemonic aid.


Traveling eastward towards the dawn, we now take a look at Shamanism, which, in the strictest use of the word, is a religious tradition from Siberia and Central Asia. The magical and religious life of these societies centers on the shaman/ess, the great master of ecstasy, or ecstatic religious trance states, and their powers of magic and healing. We find similar traditions in North America, Indonesia, Oceania and other parts of the world.

For the most part, shamanism exists in a society with other forms of magic and religion, although shamanism maintains its own particular magical specialties, such as mastery over fire, magical flight, and shamanic healing. The shaman is a magician who has mastered the skill of entering into trance states during which the soul ascends to the sky realm, or descend to the underworld. She or he has a special relationship with the spirit world, controlling his or her own spirits, and communicating with nature spirits and the dead. Shamans exert a powerful influence on the religious ideology, mythology and ritual of their culture and society.

One becomes a shaman by hereditary transmission of the shamanic profession, or by spontaneous vocation ("call" or "election"), although there are also cases of those who become shamans of their own free will or by the will of the clan. Society does not recognize someone as a Shaman until after he or she receives two kinds of teaching: (1) ecstatic (dreams, trances, etc.) and (2) traditional (shamanic techniques, names and functions of the spirits, mythology and genealogy of the clan, secret language, etc.)

This twofold course of instruction, given by the spirits and the old master shamans, is equivalent to an initiation. Sometimes initiation is public, but it can also take place in dreams or during ecstatic experiences, which often include an initiatory illness or period of religious madness. Both methods reflect the traditional pattern of an initiation ceremony: suffering, death, and re-birth.

The initiatory dreams of future shamans almost always include a mystical journey to the Underworld, as well as to a Cosmic Tree by which she or he may ascend to the Celestial realms and the Gods. Shamans make the shell of their drums from the branchs of this tree, thus facilitating communication between sky and earth by means of the Sacred Tree.

After initiation, Siberian, Eskimo and North American shamans are able to "fly," and transform into animals, often into the shape of birds, whose flight makes them like spirits. This mirrors in birdlike character and symbolism of Siberian shaman's costumes. These powers of shape-shifting and flight are often of a purely spiritual character, "flight" expressing divine wisdom, and understanding of secret or metaphysical truths.


In exploring these two ancient traditions, we find many similarities. This is of great value to the seeker of wisdom today both in terms of the inherent power of shamanic trance and healing.

Both Druids and Shamans were the central figure of the clan's magical and religious life. Like the Shaman, the Druid was part of an "elite" or "special" group or part of society, and would have been involved with areas of magic and religion that others in the tribe would not. Druids are recorded as figures of utmost importance, before whom even a ruler could not, in some cases, speak. They meditated upon certain issues, which may have involved a trance-like state, as it does in the case of wise human beings world-wide. The power of the Druids and their knowledge and experiences also held powerful sway both over tribal life and Celtic religious ideology, mythology and ritual.

As with Shamanic training, a young Celt might have found Druidic teaching available due to the parent having been a Druid. Many of the noble classes flocked to the Druids for training, but it seems likely that others with special abilities or sensibilities, or those who indeed were "called" may have had access to training as well. While we do not have an extensive body of information concerning initiation rites of Druids, it would seem unlikely that there was not some sort of initiation or ceremony, as this is common world-wide. There are details of events in some of the tales that could be construed as being initiatory in nature. These include the possibility that initiates were blocked in a cave, in complete darkness, for three days and three nights, a time period that reoccurs frequently in Celtic mythology and almost always has magical significance. This cave initiation seems to have involved trance states, dreams and visions, as well as the universal initiatory theme of death and re-birth that abounds in Celtic mythology.

One Druidic rite of which we do have documentation is the tarbh-fheiss or "bull-feast," which involved a trance state and vision. As described in the tale "The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel," "A bull-feast was prepared by the men of Erin in order to determine their future king... a bull was killed by them, and thereof one man ate his fill and drank its broth, and a spell of truth was chanted over him in his bed. Whomsoever he would see in his sleep, would be king, and the sleeper would perish if he uttered a falsehood." It seems that the seer performed this rite wrapped in a bull's hide, perhaps an echo of the costume or cloak of a Shaman.

The Druid was the traditional guardian of Druidic techniques and knowledge, the names and functions of the gods and spirits, and the mythology and the genealogy of the clan, as with the Shaman. They also used secret languages, sometimes called "the dark speech." Of particular interest is that Druids had power over fire, as well as other elements such as water, mist and wind, and even features of the land. That they were skilled healers we know from many sources. They also had the power to transform themselves or others, into different forms.

Transformations into animal form, such as the stag and the boar, occur with great frequency in Celtic mythology, but perhaps none so often as the bird, especially the swan, eagle and raven, which is in keeping with Shamanic traditions. A very convincing parallel exists between the birdlike Siberian shaman costumes, and the mention in several sources of Bards (particularly those especially gifted in the connected gifts of poetry and divine inspiration) dressing in cloaks of bird's feathers.

"The Colloquy of the Two Sages," describes the possession of such a robe accompanied the position of High Bard and describes it being three colors. "... A covering of bright bird's feathers in the middle, a showery specking of fin-druine (white-silver) on the lower half, and a golden color on the upper half." Another description of the tugen or Feathered Cloak traditionally worn by Irish poets is found in Cormac's Glossary: "made of the skins of birds, white and many-colored from the girdle downwards, and of mallard's necks and crests from the girdle upwards." Such a cloak, containing the luminescent green, blue and purple feathers of the neck of a mallard duck, would have been a stunning and powerful emblem of mysticism and knowledge. The great Druid Mogh Ruith (Mac Roth) also commanded the powers of fire and air, and was able to "take to the air" with his bull's cloak (reminiscent of the tarbh-feiss) and feathered headdress.

The Druid, above all others in ancient Celtic society, had a special relationship with the Gods and the Spirits. Greek and Roman writers speak of them as being the ones who oversaw rituals, they knowing best how to communicate with and make sacrifice to the Gods and Goddesses. Their years of study of both the natural world and the Otherworld, and their magical interconnection with and potential control of the powers of nature, including animals, indicates their special relationship with the Spirit world.

In Celtic Tradition, the Otherworld may refer to that of the Sidhe or Fairy Folk, to magical Otherworld locations that came in a variety of forms, and to the Otherworld where human souls passed after death (and before re-birth, in some cases). It was often located underground and was accessed in a variety of ways, through a sidh mound, a cave, a spring, well or other body of water, or simply, "Into the earth." Its second most common location was across the water, sometimes on a magical island reached by crossing the sea, usually in a westerly direction. The water itself contained a deep symbolism of "powers beneath the surface." This profound tradition of the Otherworld being located underneath the earth seems to directly parallel an aspect of Shamanic tradition.

While the "ascent to the sky" is not as well documented in Celtic tradition, the worship of sun and moon existed in Celtic lands well into this century, and likely Deities existed which were associated with them. Not as much evidence of solar and lunar deities exists, as compared with deities who were known for their skills and magical powers (although tutelary deities, usually female, of the land, and features of the land, did exist). The Scots and Manx generally saw the moon as female and called her the "Queen of the Night." The Welsh figure of Aranrhod, which means "Silver Wheel," may have been a moon goddess, whose character was later vilified by the scribes writing down her tale well into Christian times. She was the mother of Lleu Llaw Gylfes, ("Bright One of the Skillful Hand"), who may be a Welsh counterpart to Lugh Samildánach ("Shining One", "Many Skilled) an Irish deity described as having a face which shone exceedingly brightly, a master of all arts with solar attributes.

We do have extensive evidence of Celtic Tree lore and worship, another link with Shamanic tradition, both through the tales and other manuscripts ( mainly Irish) from early in the historical period. Trees were connected with sacred sites, including healing wells and entrances to the Otherworld. Tribes were sometimes named after a tree and sacred trees are found in charms and Celtic lore to this day. Trees not only symbolized the link between this world and Otherworld above, but also to the Underworld below when envisioned in its inverted position, which is a symbol of ancient origin, found in many cultures.

Certain trees had special properties, and indeed, the choice of wood from which a Shaman makes his or her drum depends entirely on "the spirits" — it is a choice made by the spirits, and reflects the relationship between the Shaman/ess and the Spirit world. Some Siberian shamans have "personal trees," and there is evidence that a single, sacred tree may have been kept in the heart of a Celtic clan's territory. To steal or destroy this tree would have profound effects. Indeed, the word bile, found in Irish tales, indicates a single, sacred tree. In modern Irish, bile translates as "great tree" or "champion."

In some Shamanic initiation rites, nine trees are set up near a stake bearing a bird at the top. We might compare this to the widespread Celtic tradition of using nine kinds of sacred wood in the Beltaine and Samhain bonfires. In addition, the branch of a sacred tree, such as the apple, was used for passage to Otherworld or to the realms of the sídhe. The branch sometimes had bells attached, and was shaken to announce the speech of an important figure or the performance of a Bard. In Shamanic cultures, a bell branch announced when a poet is about to speak or sing, or to signify when the Shaman/ess was about to cross over into the Otherworld. Drumming is one of the major methods of transport into the trance state and thus to the Otherworld, for the Shaman, and a drum or timpan is often a signifier of the Celtic Otherworld in mythological references.

In Shamanic traditions, the birch was often the most sacred tree for literal or symbolic ascent to the sky realm and the Gods. Interestingly, although oak is the "king of trees" in Celtic tradition (yew and ash being highly regarded, and hazel and rowan mentioned in connection with the Druids), it is the birch tree that is the first letter and first tree of the Ogham alphabet.

Ogham is an ancient bardic alphabet used in Ireland and western parts of Britain, and is found on rock faces, stones, artifacts and manuscripts. Most examples date from the 2nd century BCE to 6th century C.E. It was used mainly in memorials, but also had mystical associations as evidenced by the trees connected with each letter. Ogma, a Celtic God skilled in dialects and poetry, invented the Ogham. He was a champion, showing the Celtic reverence for poetry and the spoken word and their strength and importance in Celtic culture. In Modern Irish, "ogham" refers to this ancient alphabet, while in Scottish Gaelic, "oghum" means both "writing" and "occult sciences." (1)

From the Book of Ballymote (in typical Druidic riddle form) we find this description:

From whence come the figures and namesakes in the Ogham?

From the branches and limbs of the Oak Tree; they formed ideas which they expressed in sounds....

The branches of the wood give figures for the branches and veins of ogham, chief of all.

The tribe of B from Birch, Beth, and the daughter, that is the Ash of the wood, is chief;

and of them, the first alphabet was formed:

Of L, from Luis, the Quicken Tree (Rowan) of the wood

F from Fearn, the Alder, good for shields

S from Sail, a Willow from the Wood

N in ogham from Nin, the ash for spears

H from Huath, Whitethorn (Hawthorn).. because of her thorns

D from Dur, the Oak of Fate from the wood

C from Coll, the Hazel of the wood...

The verse continues listing the remainder of the consonants, with associated trees, such as Apple, Vine, Ivy, Reed and Blackthorn. The vowels are connected with fir, furze, heather, trembling aspen, yew, aspen, spindle tree, honeysuckle, gooseberry, witch hazel, and pine.

Note, while the various Ogham letters and sacred trees are said to be branches and limbs of the kingly Oak, it is Birch that is the first letter, the sacred world tree, used to reach and learn from the Gods. Also significant is the mention of ideas expressed in sounds, which may refer to the use of Ogham as a secret spoken language; the concept of "naming things" in magical traditions that gives them existence; and the use of sacred sound in rituals and trance work.

The Shaman/ess sometimes use a bag that contains items sacred to her, to her work, and to her connection with the Otherworld. This is familiar to many as the Native American "medicine bundle." In Celtic tradition, a "Crane Bag," made from the hide and feathers of a crane, performs the same transformative function. The crane bag appears in the poetry attributed to Taliesin and in the tales of Fionn Mac Cumhail. The connection of a bird with this sacred ritual item shows its connection with Shamanic flight and Druidic trance work. The connection between poets and divine inspiration and knowledge is well attested in Celtic and other traditions. Many poems are ascribed to Finn, who was not only a great warrior and leader of the Fianna, but also gained sacred wisdom or illumination. Myrddin (Merlin) was also said to have often uttered poetry and prophecy at the same time. Welsh folklore, to this day, saids that anyone who spends the night in the "chair" made of rock at the summit of Cader Idris, will, in the morning be either dead, mad, or a poet.

Thus, we see in how many ways these two traditions are alike, in ways that can are meaningful and practical to the modern Pagan. There is a great deal of documentation regarding Shamans, their actual rites and practices, and methods of journeying to and connecting with the Gods, the Spirits and the Otherworld. These are areas in which evidence is scarce or cryptic regarding the actual practices of the Druids or meanings of Bardic poetry, but which now may perhaps emerge from the mist into a clearer set of beliefs and experiences. Concepts such as Inner Sight, Shape-shifting, Dreamwork, Ritual Music, Poetry and Prophecy can indeed come to life, in our time, in our society, and in our lives, both mundane and magical, through the realization of the connections between these traditions. Indeed, for the Celtic ancestors, the mundane and the magical were not so separate. This world and the Otherworld were intertwined in many ways, and on many levels, and were particularly "open" at the Quarter Days, points apart from time.





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