Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: A Celtic Shaman's Sourcebook

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: A Celtic Shaman’s Sourcebook By Caitlin and John Matthews 1994

This was quite a fat book with a lot of original Celtic mythological and saga material - some recently translated from the ancient Gaelic by the authors. The book is divided into four parts: 1) Shamanic Memory which covers mythical history, earth lore, tree lore, animal lore, and ancestral lore. 2) Vision Poets, Druids, and Shamanic Guardians which covers lore about initiations, shape shifting, and some of the possible Druidic ideas about spirituality in general. 3) The Bright Knowledge which deals with divination, healing, soul restoration, visions, and dreams. 4)Otherworldly Journeys which talks about journey quests and the realms of the Sidhe (Faery).

The various versions of the stories of Gwion and Cerridwen, Taliesin, Merlin, Art Mac Conn, Suibhne, Eithne (Enya), various High Kings of Ireland, CuChulain, Fionn MacCumhail, Etain, Bran the Blessed, Maulduin, St Brendan, Amairgen White-Knee and many others are recounted in whole or part. The God of the Sea, Manannan appears in many a tale as does Angus Mac Oc -patron of love and inspiration, the healer god Diancecht, and Brighid.

It should be noted that much or all of Celtic lore was compiled in written form in post-Christian times (post St Patrick 6th Century?). So lots of things were re-written and changed into a pro-Christian perspective but certainly not all. As I understand it this is also true of the Nordic lore. The Druids were definitely shamanic - that is aligned to a general type of worldview kept by Stone Age peoples in the northern parts of Europe and Central Asia. They were also a priesthood - complete with initiations, grades, and much scholarly work. They were required to learn ogam - the special alphabet language based on tree lore and to memorize fairly massive amounts of stories and poems. Poetry (word magick) and magick were very intertwined among these folk. In the story ‘Colloquy of the Two Sages’ there is a dialogue between two druid-poets - one younger challenging an older one - sort of sizing each other up:

“A question , O youthful instructor: what art do you practice?

Nede answered
Not hard: reddening of countenance,
Flesh-piercing satire,
Promotion of bashfulness,
Disposal of shamelessness,
Fostering poetry,
Searching for fame,
Wooing science,
Art for every mouth,
Diffusing knowledge,
Stripping speech,
In a little room,
Making poems like a sage’s cattle,
A stream of science,
Abundant teaching,
Polished tales, the delight of kings.

And you , O my elder, what art do you practice?

Ferchertne answered
Hunting for the treasure of knowledge,
Establishing peace,
Arranging words in ranks,
Celebrating art,
Sharing a pallet with a king,
Drinking the Boyne,
Making briarmon smetrach,
The shield of Athirne,
A tribulation to all men,
A share of wisdom from the stream of science,
Fury of inspiration,
Structure of mind,
Art of small poems,
Clear arrangements of words,
Warrior tales,
Walking the great road,
Like a pearl in its setting.
Giving strength to science through the poetic art.”

Inspiration was very important to these seers. The Irish Gaelic word for it is imbas. The Welsh word is awen. One method to invoke inspiration was to quest while dwelling in complete darkness. - perhaps symbolized by the hands covering the face. Apparently there was a similar Nordic method referred to as ‘going under the cloak’ to find inspiration to solve a particular problem or to make an important decision.

There is some discussion of incubatory sleep practices which may have been derive from Greco-Roman practices for physical and soul healing. This required dwelling in underground temples for long periods wrapped in tight bandages. The Celtic methods seem a bit different - searching for omens in dreams.

“…..self-induced visions, which may be brought on in a number of ways, including the position of the sleeper, bodily contact with other men or women, and contact with the skin of an animal on which the sleeper lay to have his or her dream.”

In a section titled “The Quest as Shamanic Journey in Celtic Tradition” there is this quote about Celtic storytelling protocol,

“We know that Gaelic storytellers had a fund of different categories of stories which were told under particular circumstances: births (coimperta)were told at confinements, wooings (tochmarca) were told at weddings etc. From the many categories of tale, the ones which most echo the shamanic vision journey are the voyages (immrama) and the adventures(echtrai).”

The authors list the following general themes that occur both in these
last two types of tales as well as in a shamanic quest:

1. A situation in mortal realms requiring resolution or healing
2. A prior contact by an otherworldly being, providing help or patronage
in mortal realms, often caused by an alliance requiring reciprocation
3. exile/journey from home to seek for an object/help/wisdom etc.
4. recontact with an otherworldly being for advice/guidance
5. overcoming/passing of threshold guardians or adversaries
6. location of object/wisdom/healing
7. return with object to vindicate actions and restore”

(perhaps modern movies are our way of taking these type of shamanic journeys vicariously)

One of my favorite parts of the book was the section called 'The Three Cauldrons of Inspiration”. Cauldrons are big in Celtic Lore:

“Notable Celtic cauldrons include: the cauldron of the Dagda, which leaves no one unsatisfied; the cauldron of Diwrnach, which will not serve cowards; the cauldron of Bran the Blessed, which confers rebirth; and the cauldron of Cerridwen, which confers knowledge” These are likely the precursors to the holy grail.

Each person is said to possess three cauldrons within: The Cauldron of Warming - which is always upright which maintains vital energy (authors put this at belly) - The Cauldron of Vocation -which concerns one’s inspirational gifts and talents is said to go from upside down when one is unaware to on it’s side when one is aware of one’s gifts to upright when one can use one’s gifts and talents adeptly - is associated with the emotions and psychic function - both joy and sorrow as sources of inspiration can turn this cauldron to a more evolved position -(the authors position this at the heart) - The Cauldron of Knowledge - which is originally inverted (authors place at head) - it is associated with spiritual awareness and being in a state fully receptive to inspiration so then becomes upright.

The cauldrons can be associated with dragons and the ancestral alchemists fferyllt -that upkeep the heat and vitality of the land. The three female deities that foster inspiration are Boann, Ceridwen, and Brighid. The river Boyne is named for Boann and is said to have nine purple Hazel trees growing at its source - a fountain with five streams (the five senses) and a door to the Otherworld. Five salmon husk the nuts after they fall into the stream. The highest form of inspiration is said to be given to those who drink both from the streams and from the fountain. Only the truthful of heart can approach this mystical fountain. Ceridwen is sometimes called Mistress of Awen.

A lot of these source materials are rather enigmatic, perhaps overly poetical, and slow to get to the point but one can certainly get a feel for the way these people thought and lived. Battle, magick, and ensuring the health and wealth of the tribe/kingdom seems to have occupied most of the time and energies of these peoples. Deal making was prevalent and the honour of keeping one’s word was very important.

Tribal kinship was aided by a fosterage system where children of one family were fostered by other families of the tribe. This helped feuds from getting out of hand and built loyalties. Many stories involve illegitimate children of nobility being hidden away and coming back in future - shape shifting stories where one being chases another - both in various animal forms - where the chased ends up being eaten by a woman and reborn as her child. Orphaned children were sometimes cast out and became shamanic soul travelers. Several early saints were said to be born from a raped mother. So we see that various types of family and tribal taboos were adhered to - often to the detriment of some.

Some of the early saints like St. Columba were imbued with magickal powers in the shamanic way in tales where they retrieve ancient stories and travel to the Otherworld. This attests to how gradual the transformation to Christianity took place. Necromancy - or divining from the recently dead was practiced. There is an interesting account of this in a dialogue of St Columba (Columcille) and a dead youth (the trickster - Mongan). Mongan comes to the middle realm - human Earth - in order to find “the place where knowledge and ignorance have died, the place where they were born and the place where they are buried.”

The authors give an answer to this riddle - The traditional ancestral memory.

Soul fragmentation often appears in stories and this is well known in shamanic cultures in central Asia. Various types of soul-loss occur and require various magickal types of restoration techniques. Soul migration is also covered - a bit different than in the eastern traditions in that in some transmigrations of heroes there is a continuous knowledge of both the land/tribe-history as well as a remembered change into various animal forms.

In a section called “The Circuits of the Soul in Celtic Tradition” there is some interesting information. The body is called the shrine of the soul - and the shrine of the triad of soul, heart (belief) and mind. There is also the hidden or external soul - as in many shamanic and ancient cultures. Then there is the double, or co-walker - like a shadow being - said to be seen by seers. There is also a section on Soul-theft and Soul-binding - often brought about by powerful jealousy - commonly warded against.

The authors have undertaken various shamanic journeys of their own in order to discover some of the lost knowledge of the tradition as well as for healing. This can be a useful way to truly contemplate a reconstructed tradition in tune with our modern sensibilities. Much to ponder.

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