Shamanism in the Celtic World
by Corby Ingold
The idea of shamanism as a part of Celtic tradition has become very popular in recent years. Various authors and workshop presenters have promulgated the idea of a Celtic shamanism. What validity is there to the claim of these authors that Celtic peoples posessed an indigenous shamanism, similar and equal to the shamanic systems of Native Americans and other tribal peoples? This chapter will endeavor to examine the claims for an indigenous Celtic shamanism. We will draw upon sources both ancient and modern, literary as well as from folk and oral tradition.
What is a Shaman?
In recent years authors such as John and Caitlin Mathews, Tom Cowan, and others, have spread the idea of a Celtic shamanism through their books and workshops. These primary writers have inspired a host of imitators. There are now ongoing workshops and classes in Celtic shamanism in which attendees pass through a graded curriculum of knowledge in order to qualify or be certified as bona fide practitioners of the tradition. This recent phenomenon has caused no end of controversy among students and scholars of Celtic tradition. Most of the controversy seems to constellate itself around the problem of identifying what a shaman actually is, and whether this kind of sacred practitioner can actually be said to have existed within ancient and more recent Celtic societies.
According to Mircea Eliade, “Magic and magicians are to be found more or less all over the world, whereas shamanism exhibits a particular magical specialty, on which we shall later dwell at length: “mastery over fire”, “magical flight”, and so on. By virtue of this fact, though the shaman is, among other things, a magician, not every magician can properly be termed a shaman. . . . . the shaman specializes in a trance in which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld.”
Michael Harner describes a shaman this way: “A shaman is a man or woman who enters an altered state of consciousness – at will- to contact or utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other persons. The shaman has at least one, and usually more, “spirits” in his personal service.” Harner goes on to say, “To this I would add that, in his trance, he commonly works to restore a patient by restoring beneficial or vital power, or by extracting harmful power. The journey to which Eliade refers is usually undertaken to restore power or a lost soul.” It should be pointed out here that Michael Harner is talking primarily about healing shamanism. A case can be made for the existence of other forms of shamanism, such as warrior shamanism, hunting shamanism, or even evil or black shamanism. In actual practice though, the various forms often exist side by side, though shamans do typically specialize. Thus a healer is not usually a warrior, etc.
Shamanism, in a “pure” sense, is usually characteristic of paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies. As such, it can safely be said to represent humankind’s earliest and most primal form of religion, magic and healing modality. It is also the most conservative and well established form of human spirituality, as we were hunter gatherers for literally thousands and thousands of years, far longer than the subsequent span of our collective history. Contemporary thinkers like ecologist Paul Shephard and anthropologist Calvin Martin maintain that we are still, essentially, hunter-gatherers who have never left the Pleistocene era. This fits in well with many indigenous peoples’ concept of the Original Instructions or Original Teachings, the primary and aboriginal rules for living received many thousands of years ago during the dreamtime or mythic beginning time of the tribe.
The Celts were, nonetheless, advanced beyond the paleolithic, hunter-gatherer stage long before they became distinguishable from their Indo European cousins and arose as a separate cultural entity. However, given the notable conservatism of Celtic society, it is very likely that they preserved archaic elements and institutions long beyond other Northern and Western European peoples. And this seems to be the main element upon which the argument for a Celtic shamanism hinges. This and the fact that, although shamanism can be said to have it’s origins in the paleolithic, it clearly survives in a fairly unaltered form within societies which have made the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist, pastoralist, or even modern post industrial lifestyles, as with contemporary Native Americans. Also, the Irish Celts, at least, did preserve within their society nominal hunter-warrior bands, as the existence of the fennidi clearly demonstrates.
The Awenyddion of Wales
The awenyddion of Wales, first written of in the Twelfth century by Geraldus Cambrensis, are cited by some writers as evidence of a native tradition of Celtic shamanism. The awenyddion were prophets and soothsayers who , when asked a question by those seeking divinatory guidance, would fall into a deep trance and give strange, sibyl-like prophecies and oracular utterances. The trance of the awenyddion was so deep that it appeared to be a kind of possession, from which they had to be violently roused to awaken. Some have claimed that, like shamans the world over, the awwenyddion communed with their tutelary or helping spirits while in this state. Others have claimed that the phenomenon of the awenyddion does not resemble shamanism, but rather the trance possession of Vodun and other Afro-Caribbean religions. This distinction between being “possessed” and possessing a guardian spirit helper is cited by Harner. Based upon this idea, and in reaction against the popularity of Mathews, et.al., some modern Celtic reconstructionists have gone so far as to claim that ancient Celtic spiritual practice , far from being in any way “shamanic”, was actually more akin to the practices of Vodun, Santeria, and other African-derived religions, and thus incorporate African drumming, etc., into their “Celtic” rituals. As one who was both initiated into an indigenous shamanic tradition and served an eleven year apprenticeship with a master shaman of Salish and Nuu-Chah-Nulth descent, I have found that the distinction between trance possession and possessing a guardian spirit, while it sounds quite plausible on paper, often does not exist in actual practice. Thus, while Pacific Northwest elders exhort those with newly acquired spirit power to “have a strong mind, control that thing” (meaning the spirit helper), there are, equally, many traditional stories within the culture of those shamans who “go under the spirit”, and perform miraculous or outlandish deeds, healings, etc., while under the influence of their helping spirit and later have no memory of their actions while in trance. And personally, I have always found it quite inconceivable that the ancient Celts were practicing anything remotely resembling contemporary Vodun.
It would appear from ethnographic literature that what we might refer to as the full shamanic complex is found primarily in primal hunter gatherer cultures. A nomadic or semi-nomadic life and close proximity to wilderness and wild animals is concomitant to this complex. Nonetheless, there are plenty of examples, throughout Asia, Northern Europe and the Americas of this shamanic complex surviving relatively unaltered even in urban environments. The non-urban, even anti-urban quality of ancient Celtic societies is very well attested to by Roman historians, who were keenly aware of the, to them, essentially alien nature of Celtic lifeways to their own urban, bureaucratic civilization. And of course, Finn MacCumhal, the Celtic shamanic figure par excellence, spent most of his life with his fennidi band in the wilderness among wild animals. For these reasons it is not too much of a stretch to conceive that some form of shamanic complex may have survived among the agricultural and pastoral Celts. The main consideration here is whether shamanism proper was a feature of Celtic culture. Some anthropological purists insist that shamanism proper is found only among Siberian and North and Central Asian societies. The fact that very pure forms of the shamanic complex are found among North, Central and South American, as well as Australian Aboriginal tribal groups seems to argue against this limited interpretation. Again, drawing from personal experience, academic definitions of shamanism and of what, precisely, a shaman is often differ considerably from the definitions of indigenous practitioners of the art. So the probelm arises: do we give more credence to academic definitions, often formed in an entirely artificial environment, with little or no actual field experience, or do we pay more attention to the indigenous practitioners, however lacking they may be in Western academic credentials?
According to Whistemenknee – “Walking Medicine Robe” (Johnny Moses), a Pacific Northwest Coast Indian Doctor, or shaman,
“Well, my grandparents were both shamans. My grandfather was a shaman that dealt with mainly people who were dying, cases of near death experiences, and my grandmother was a midwife and a shaman that dealt mainly with children and counseling…They would also bring me around to other people who were also shamans; not necessarily my relatives. We went to other tribes and they would leave me with teachers who were shamans, for instance Twakwaddle and Towuk Bay. I was left with this one man at the age of eleven for two months to learn about spirit travelling, a shamanic practice that our people do…There are some shamans that just have the power to communicate with people well. There are some shamans that heal through art. There are some shamans that do the painting board ceremony, in which the shaman would ask the client, “Well, why are you here? What are you here for?” That’s how they talk in Indian, and they’ll start explaining themselves. The shaman will be a good listener, and through time of however long it takes for that person to explain themselves, it could be half an hour, three or four hours, sometimes all night. Then after that the shaman will go into shushutsulus, the spirit world. Some of the white people might call it a trance, but it’s not really a trance because you know what you’re doing at the same time that you’re in the spirit world. The designs that he would start painting would have many different meanings. The painting might tell another shaman about the sickness, problem, that this person has. Another shaman might have the power to read paintings. He can look at the painting and tell the client what his sickness or problem is just by the painting. . . . . The shamans are always working together. That’s what it’s all about; coming together, learning about people. When you become a shaman you have to work for the people, not just for yourself. You have to share.”
Steven Wolf, a Sundancer and shamanic practitioner of Northern Cheyenne and Irish ancestry, who has practiced within the Northern Plains spiritual traditions for over twenty five years, has this to say:
“These days everyone seems to have a definition, and interpretation of the term ”shamanism” from the structural anthropologists to the mythologists to the Jungians, the Freudians, the transpersonal psychotherapists, the process oriented psychologists, to the New Agers with their psycho- babble. The academics hold to a strict, rigid definition, feeling they have proprietary rights to the term and smirking at everyone else. On the other hand, New Agers have a definition so broad as to be meaningless. Both sides miss the profound depth and breadth of this particular spiritual way, which is much more than mere technique. Shamanism may possibly be the oldest spiritual path, and consequently has far more profound implications for contemporary humans than its academic interpreters realize. The reason for this is that the act of interpretation is a mental exercise, whereas “shamanism” is a living dynamic that involves all of the senses. A sensuous experience that must be known in a primary and primal way. The mental wheel-spinning of academics or the shallow genuflecting of New Age entrepeneurs will never truly comprehend it until they stop interpreting and start experiencing it, internally and externally, with mind, emotion, body and spirit.”
If we use Harner’s definition of a shaman (quoted above) as a man or woman who “enters an altered state of consciousness…to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other persons”, and who has “at least one, and usually more, “spirits”, in his personal service” (quotation marks Harner’s), then we shall quite easily find many examples of the shaman within Celtic societies, from ancient up through contemporary times. It should be noted here that it has become fashionable of late in some quarters to attack Michael Harner, thus calling all he has written anent shamanism into question. Upon questioning these critics I have usually found that their reasons for attacking Harner are obscure (though perhaps jumping on the bandwagon of the latest intellectual fad isnt so obscure after all, – it certainly doesn’t require much in the way of intelligence). To the extent that these critics are able to justify their position at all, it usually has something to do with the fact that Harner isn’t teaching “cultural” shamanism – shamanism from within an indigenous cultural perspective. He certainly isn’t, and makes his reasons for not doing so very clear in The Way of The Shaman. I was initiated into a Northwest Coast Native American shamanic tradition in 1984, and subsequently served an eleven year apprenticeship with my teacher/initiator, a master shaman of the SiSiWiss (“Sacred Breath”) tradition. Let me go on record as saying that I find Harner’s definition of a shaman to be a very accurate modern statement of what I have encountered in a more traditional cultural context. I have also attended two of the workshops presented by his Institute For Shamanic Studies (independently of my indigenous training) and find his presentation of basic shamanic techniques and knowledge to be accurate, honest and effective.
Shamanism in Celtic Tales
Celtic tales abound with examples of heroes who travel into one or more Otherworlds in quest of magical prizes, knowledge or power, with which to bring healing to the land, skill to craftsman, warrior or hunter. King Arthur’s famous journey to Annwn, the Underworld of the British Celts, in quest of a mysterious Cauldron of Inspiration and Rebirth, recorded by the Thirteenth century Welsh poet Thomas Ap Einion, is a late example of the type of Celtic Otherworld journey known in old Irish as immramma. Immramma usually refers to a voyage by sea, that is, into that portion of the triadic Celtic cosmos (land, sea and sky) equated with the watery element. True to form, King Arthur journeys into Annwn aboard his magical ship Prydwen. The bard Taliesin, in many respects the classic shaman figure within Welsh tradition, accompanies Arthur on this perilous Otherworldly voyage. Like the Irish poet and outlaw Finn, who frequently pays a price of personal humiliation or wounding in obtaining Otherworldly gifts, Arthur does not emerge unscathed from this adventure. For though Arthur sets forth with three companies of men, “except for seven, none return”. This idea of reciprocity between the worlds, that a price must be paid for Otherworldly knowledge and gifts, runs though world shamanic tradition. Shamans typically undergo exceptional ordeals in their quest for healing power, magical knowledge, etc. The very nature of the shaman’s suffering and trials place him outside of ordinary society, where the thought of undertaking such dangerous questing is anathema to the conventional man or woman. This contributes to the shaman’s liminality, the state of in betweeness that is one of the keynotes of Otherworldly and sacred power in Celtic tradition. The essential liminality of the Irish hero Finn and the Fiana, his war-band of fennidi or “outlaws”, has been explored by Nagy and others…Outlaw, poet, craftsman and seer, Finn MacCumhal is the quintessential shamanic figure in the old Gaelic sagas, though by no means the only one demonstrating shamanic abilities.Early in life Finn undergoes the training to become a fennid, being raised in exile in the wilderness by two mysterious foster mothers, one known as a druid, who train him in the arts of hunting and fighting. According to Joseph Nagy, “In early Irish literature, the fennid usually appears as a figure living and functioning outside or on the margins of the tribal territory and community (the tuath).”The fennidi together form a group called a fian, or war band. Their leader is the rifennid, usually one known for his exceptional prowess. These fennidi functioned as mercenaries and upholders of the law in ancient Ireland, even though they themselves were often seen as outlaws.
Finn becomes adept in the arts of fennidecht, the hunting and martial arts of the fennidi, and in time becomes rifennid of his own fian. An element that distinguishes Finn from other fennidi though is his status as a fili, or poet/seer. The role of fili is very highly regarded in the Irish tribal hierarchy, quite in contrast to Finn’s other role as outlaw mercenary. This dual role fully establishes Finn’s liminality, his quality of being both within and outside of any particular world, social stratum, role, etc. This liminality, and Finn’s winning of liminal knowledge and power from Otherworldly sources, is illustrated in the many tales of his journeys into various Otherworld realms.
Like numerous other characters in traditional Celtic stories Finn passes quite easily between the worlds. Indeed, one often has the impression that Finn and his companions do not always know when they have left the ordinary, mortal world and passed into one of the Otherworldly realms. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the collection of stories about Finn and his fian, taken from Gaelic oral tradition, known as the bruidhean tales. According to leading Finn scholar Joseph Nagy, “The word bruidhean means “hostel,” and in both Fenian and non-Fenian narrative the dwellings described as bruidhne are explicitly or implicitly otherworldly”.(9). Finn and his men have many wondrous and terrifying adventures within these bruidhne, where they are often the guests, willing or otherwise, of supernatural hosts. As Nagy points out, “in the bruidhean situation Finn alternates radically between being a victimized guest and an aggressive intruder – between being manipulated by, and a manipulator of, the otherworld.” The apparent dichotomy between being at the mercy of, and yet also manipulating the spirit world features strongly in the accounts of shamans the world over. In a number of the bruidhean stories Finn and his men become, or almost become, food for the Otherworldly hosts. In a Scottish bruidhean tale collected from oral tradition Finn is captured and placed upon a griddle, where his legs are burned off. He is then impaled upon a stake. In another tale the bruidhean host threatens to remove the flesh of the fennidi with pincers and feed it to his dogs; his cannibalistic wife wants to eat the fennidi raw. These stories are strikingly similar to accounts from shamans of many different cultures and eras who report a common experience of being devoured by spirits, only to be reshaped or reformed as a result and emerging from the experience restored to greater wholeness and vitality, often with enhanced shamanic powers. An indeed, in all of the stories in which Finn is cooked or dismembered he is eventually restored, and frequently gains some magical boon or ability which he is able to bring back from the Otherworld and use within human society.
Finn does, though, sometimes bear lasting wounds or scars from his Otherworldly battles. In a story called the ‘Feast of Conan’s House’ Finn is tricked by a woman of the sidhe (faery or supernatural woman) into swimming in a magic lake which robs him of his characteristic youth and strength. The lord of a nearby dwelling gives Finn a magical drink which both restores Finn’s strength and gives him special supernatural knowledge. Though Finn regains his youth, half of his hair remains grey. The faery lord offers to restore it to it’s original color, but Finn chooses to keep it the way it is. From then on Finn’s hair is half grey and his person exudes a smell of decay, emblems of his dealings with the Otherworld and of his supernatural knowledge. Such visible markers of Otherworldly experience and attainment form part of the shaman’s regalia in many indigenous cultures, at once setting the shaman apart from the common populace and underscoring his liminality.
Finn also fulfills a shamanic role in one other important respect: his journeys into various Otherworld realms are not merely gratuitous, for he sometimes uses his supernatural powers to protect human society from dangerous Otherworld intrusions. As quintessentially liminal figures Finn and the fennidi act as buffers and border guards between the human and supernatural realms. Thus in one bruidhean tale the son of a king of the sidhe tries to conquer Ireland, but is defeated by Finn and his Fian. Again, in another story Finn’s men protect the coastline from a sea monster Finn detects using his Otherworld-gained divinatory powers. Finn also rescues the corr bolg, or crane bag, a bundle of magical treasures of immeasurable value to the land of Ireland while avenging his father’s death. The source of this Otherworldly bag is said to be the sea god Manannan, a mysterious deity possibly pre-dating the Celts, who acts to part the mists between the Worlds.
The Voyage of Maelduin’s Boat
Another ancient Irish tale that perhaps goes the farthest in describing the various Otherworld islands encountered during immrama is Immram Curaig Maelduin Inso or The Voyage of Maelduin’s Boat, first written down in the eighth or ninth century A.D. The hero Maelduin sets out to avenge his father’s murder, first consulting a wise druid for counsel. He ends up voyaging with seventeen men in a curragh, or skin boat, to thirty three distinct Otherworld islands. Maelduin and his shipmates undergo numerous adventures on the magical islands with names like the Island of Giant Ants, The Island of the Crystal Keep, and the Island of the Falcon, where they encounter beautiful Otherworldly women, ancestors, and mysterious semi-divine beings. Through his adventures Maelduin’s personality matures and deepens, he grows in wisdom and ends up forgiving his enemies.
A striking element of Maelduin’s Voyage, like other Celtic wonder tales, is that the Otherworld realms are not described as amorphous, vaporous places constructed apparently of ectoplasm and dim, misty light, as in some modern New Age and spiritualistic literature, but rather as definite, embodied worlds, each vivid and unique. These are sensuous realms, the “many coloured land”, as the early twentieth century poet and mystic AE (George Russell) characterized it, filled with forests of golden trees, magical animals who act as guides, women of unearthly beauty, and sparkling, crystal seas. In this respect, also, the Celtic tradition accords with accounts of shamans worldwide who describe the alternate worlds of their voyaging in specific and vivid terms. This very specificity of the shamanic spiritual worlds is what distinguishes the shaman’s journey, always undertaken with a clear purpose in mind, from the mental wandering of psychically unbalanced individuals. This characterisitic of the Celtic tales is matched in the Northwest Coast SiSiWiss tradition, as presented by my teacher Whistemenknee and other elders, by the “Teachings”, colorful stories handed down through many centuries of oral presentation, at potlatches and other ceremonies, which embody the entire spiritual lore of the hereditary northwest coast Indian Doctors (shamans). “We say the stories are the Teachings,” as one elder expressed it. Within these stories animals talk, human beings travel to Otherworldly realms such as the land under the ocean, the land of the dead, or up into the sky world, or backward or forward through time. Hunters and basket weavers gain supernatural allies, and miraculous healings and transformations occur. All realms interpenetrate, the tree and rock people express their concern at what the human beings are doing to Mother Earth, little men who live beneath the earth tell shamans how to heal various diseases, and time is circular rather than linear. The various locales of the Spirit World, which it is assumed within the culture anyone can travel to, willingly or unwillingly, are described in precise and vivid terms. And just like our physical world, these various extra-physical realms, and the beings within them, operate according to specific laws. In this sense the ancestral shamanic teachings of traditional Northwest Coast Native American Medicine People and the ancient and modern Celtic tales of Finn, Maelduin, and Arthur, among others, provide a strong reflection of each other. Again, there is the implicit assumption that within Celtic societies, as with Native Americans, the stories carried, in addition to entertainment value, the moral values, codes of conduct, and inherited spiritual lore of the tuath or tribe.
Though the days of high Celtic culture, of kings, warriors and druids, is long past, many elements of pre-Christian belief and ritual have survived in what is popularly known as the Fairy Faith. These remnants of ancient belief and lore were handed down from generation to generation among humble cottagers, shepherds, farmers and village folk living in outlying areas along the Celtic fringe. Along with Celtic traditional music, this considerable body of lore and practice represents a living and bountful heritage for students of Celtic spiritual ways. Within the Fairy Faith tradition, practiced in a far more humble context than the aristocratic millieu of ancient Ireland and Wales, voyages to the Otherworld, often in the company of supernatural companions and helpers, are undertaken by seers and fairy doctors – healers who treat their clients with a combination of inherited folk charms and supernatural aid. W.B. Yeats, who recounted many of his personal dealings with the people of the sidhe, has this to say,”The most celebrated fairy doctors are sometimes people the fairies loved and carried away, and kept with them for seven years; not that those the fairies love are always carried off – they may merely grow silent and strange, and take to lonely wanderings in the “gentle” places. Such will, in after-times, be great poets or musicians, or fairy doctors . . .”(10). Going on to discuss witches, Yeats refers to another classic shamanic ability: shapeshifting: “But the central notion of witchcraft everywhere is the power to change into some fictitious form, usually in Ireland a hare or cat. Long ago a wolf was the favorite.”(10). Here the great poet, in discussing the traditional lore of his native land, reveals the essentially shamanic nature of those beliefs and practices current among Irish country folk at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Shamanism in Irish Country Lore
Perhaps the most famous fairy doctor of more recent times was Biddy Early, of County Clare in the west of Ireland, who died in 1873. Her life and doings are fairly well documented, due in part to the efforts of Lady Gregory who, early in the twentieth century, took it upon herself to interview many old people who had known Biddy and had been cured by her. Early in life Biddy reported experiences with the fairies as commonly as other children tell of playing with their friends. Though other country folk believed in and sometimes saw the “good people”, as the fairies were traditionally called, Biddy demonstrated an unusual degree of familiarity and contact with them. It appears that, as time went on, she became more private about her dealings with the Otherworld folk, suffering, no doubt, some of the social stigma of those who were thought to be “fey”. It is a fact that, throughout her life, she was often at odds with the local priest and bishop, who feared that her popularity as a healer among the local people threatened their spiritual authority. On several occasions they visited Biddy’s home to rebuke her for her “devilish” and un-Christian practices. Nonetheless, Biddy’s fame and efficacy as a fairy doctor spread throughout the land.
As a girl Biddy learned a great deal about the local herbs and healing plants, and her supernatural friends taught her of the plants’ occult, as well as natural, healing properties. Combining this otherworldly knowledge with inherited lore that was, undoubtedly, passed down within her family, she quietly began using her powers to help a few close friends and family. As Dermot MacManus writes about her, “Country traditions vary a great deal, according to custom and kinship, and it is always difficult to find a satisfactory dividing line between them and full-blooded magic, for each merges into the other imperceptibly”.
Her reputation as a healer and ‘white witch’ soon spread, and though the parish priest and bishop may have disdained her occult powers, the effectiveness of her cures was all the guarantee the country folk needed. It was to Biddy that they came, for she alone could cure what the priest and the bishop, with all their orthodox prayers and rites, could not. Following old tradition, Biddy took no payment for her services, though she did accept gifts, and was quite clear about just what sort of gifts she desired. These frequently included gifts of strong drink, for which Biddy had a very human weakness.
So far the life of Biddy Early exemplifies a number of themes which we can recognize from cross cultural accounts of shamans. Early in life she is chosen by, and demonstrates a marked affinity for, the denizens of a hidden, supernatural realm. These invisible allies instruct her in the healing arts, and combining their Otherworldly instruction with traditional lore passed down within her family, she gains prominence as a healer and seer. The fairies gift does not come without price, for the young Biddy undergoes a certain amount of social stigmatization as a result of her supernatural leanings, and this parallels somewhat the traumatic initiation of shamans within many indigenous cultures. This stigmatization continues throughout her life, despite her popularity as a healer, in the form of condemnation by church authorities.
A turning point in Biddy’s career came when she received the gift of a mysterious blue bottle, which some authors have compared to a shamanic “power object”, from the fairies. Her son, who shared her ability to see and communicate with the Otherworld folk, but not her healing and other magical gifts, was returning home one summer day. He was a lad of about nineteen at this time, of fine physical condition and noted athletic prowess. He had decided to take a short cut across country when, about a mile from his home, he saw a group of fairies with hurley sticks in a field, preparing for a game. But they were a man short, and asked young Early if he would come and play for them. He finally agreed, and playing well and skillfully, his team won. The fairies then presented him with a blue glass bottle and told him to take it to his mother. He asked them what he should say to her, but they answered, “You will tell her nothing. Just give it to her. She will know.” When he got home he presented the bottle to Biddy, who gazed into it with astonishment. She soon noticed that the bottle began to fill with a vaprous mist, within which she could see mysterious signs and portents which had meaning for her. Though able to heal and function as a seer without it, Biddy began to employ the blue bottle in her work with clients and found that it enhanced her abilities. When she was unable to help a person in her usual way she would gaze into the fairy bottle, and soon found the message or information that enabled her to help the client. Within the swirling mists that formed within the bottle Biddy was able to see images of things to come, and the accuracy of the prophecies and personal predictions which she shared quite freely with those who consulted her was proverbial among the country folk who lived round about. Also, if Biddy gazed into the bottle and the characteristic mist did not appear, she knew that she could not help the person and would send them away. When Biddy died she left instructions that the bottle be cast into the depths of Loch Kilgarron, near to her home, from whence it has never been recovered.
Here again we encounter an element in fairly recent Irish country lore that reflects a theme running through cross cultural accounts of shamans. The receipt of a magical gift from Otherworld helpers which enables the shaman to heal and prophesy for the good of the community is a phenomenon encountered in many cultures around the world. A significant element within the story is the casting of the bottle into Loch Kilgarron at Biddy’s death, suggesting a return of the magical gift to it’s Otherworldly origins, since lakes are frequently entry ways into the numinous realms in Celtic tradition.
The final significant point in Biddy’s career, from a shamanic standpoint, is the little shed behind her house to which she would often repair at night to commune with her Otherworld helpers. This small enclosure was isolated by a little distance from the distractions of her home and family, and was probably dark dark inside, rather like a Native American sweat lodge. Her she held nightly consultations with the fairy folk who were her invisible companions and instructors in the arts of healing, spellcraft and prophecy. The dark enclosure within which to commune with tutelary deities and helping spirits is, again, so well known within the annals of shamanism as to require no comment. Biddy’s shed could have served a similar function to the bull hide in which the seer was wrapped during the ancient Gaelic tarbh feis ceremony, recounted in ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’.
It appears as though the fairie doctor tradition in Ireland and Scotland, like many aspects of traditional culture, either disappeared or went underground with increasing modernization and technological advances in the Gaelic speaking and adjoining areas where it survived most strongly. However, I remember tales of people who had the “sight” and the ability to heal in Connemara and County Clare in Ireland in the 1970’s. And the interraction with the sidhe, in the village in County Galway and surrounding areas where I then resided, was a fact of daily life. As a Dublin educated traditional musician once said to an American friend of mine when asked about the fairies, “Well, I dont believe in them . . . . but, they’re there.”
In her book Seal Morning, Rowena Farre gives an account of Mr. and Mrs. Fraser, a couple of fairie doctors who were her neighbors in a remote part of Sutherland, in northern Scotland, in the 1950’s. The Fraser’s were renowned healers, especially gifted in working with animals. Mr. Fraser was also known as a storyteller who had memorized three hundred and seventy six stories. Mrs. Fraser was an accomplished singer of Gaelic mouth music or peurt a beul, as well as being an extremely skilled knitter. “Mr. Fraser accepted fairies and the efficacy of spells in the same way as others accept the power of electricity. He did not believe so much as know, and therein lay his strength”. Farre goes on to say that Mr. Fraser’s father was from Wester Ross and his mother was from Tiree, in the Outer Hebrides. In his northern Scottish tradition magical knowledge is passed on from mother to son, and from father to daughter, and this is how the fairie traditions, the traditional lore of healing and spellcasting and seership, were passed on to Mr. Fraser and his sister.
Mr. Fraser was on speaking terms with water horses, supernatural creatures who haunt local lochs and often lure the unsuspecting to a watery death. His father, also a fairie doctor, had tamed one, so that it would come when he whistled and carry him to the other side of the loch. Mr. Fraser goes on to disclose elements of traditional Celtic magical lore to Rowena Farre, including the proper times of day for casting spells, occult lore of birds and animals, and a number of stories dealing with human interaction with the Otherworld. Farre’s book, which was a popular best seller in the 1950’s, should give the lie to those writers who claim that the fairie doctor tradition died out at the turn of the century and that nothing of the old ways survived into modern times.
We have made a brief survey of several traditional stories and historical and recent accounts, primarily from the Gaelic tradition, which all seem to illustrate a very strong shamanic component within Celtic society. It remains for us to ask whether we can then confidently speak of the existence of Celtic shamanism and Celtic shamans. This is where problems arise. Though the shamanic components within Gaelic and Celtic tradition are, as I have tried to demonstrate, fairly easy to discern, it is difficult to assess whether these components were part of a cohesive system of practice and belief that comprises what we would refer to, in other indigenous contexts, as shamanism . Certainly, in the case of the ancient Celts, it is very difficult to know this, since those elements of ancient ritual and religious practice that have come down to us are very fragmented. In the more recent examples of the fairie doctors, I am almost tempted to say that we have something very close to the full shamanic complex. For one thing, my own experiences in the Connemara Gaeltacht (Gaelic speaking area) and in the Outer Hebrides in the early 1970’s made it very clear to me that the traditional belief in and interaction with fairies and other Otherworldly denizens was a fact of daily life for the farmers I lived amongst. This interaction took the form of frequent stories told about them, prayers, offerings, and other humble practices. A number of elements of the Gaelic fairie faith as I experienced it then were remarkably similar to traditional teachings and stories I encountered a decade later when learning from Pacific Northwest Coast elders and shamans on reservations in northern Washington, half a world away.
In the fairie doctor tradition we have something surviving into our own time that we can draw upon, since much has been written down and recorded about it. Much else, of course, remains locked within oral tradition, being jealously guarded by those few families who may carry the traditions today. Still, there is much food for fruitful research here, and probably much more to be brought to light by the skilled and sensitive student. The ideal student here, as in any of the multitiude of surviving indigenous and folk-magical traditions around the world, will be one who, while perhaps academically trained, has yet that awareness of and sensitivity to the Otherworld that will make her the ideal bridge between cultures and ways of knowing.
It is clear, of course, that one element of classical shamanism is missing from the Celtic tradition: the drum. Though Sean o’Riada began the modern revival of the bodhran as a band instrument, subsequently to be popularized by The Chieftains and other Celtic bands, it seems fairly clear from historical evidence that it’s prior use was limited to the annual Wren Boys ceremony in County Kerry. But even within indigenous cultures commonly identified by anthropologists as containing the shamanic complex, not all shamans used the drum for travelling in the way popularized by Michael Harner in The Way of The Shaman. Some South American shamans shake dry leaves on a branch to induce trance, and shamans elsewhere work with bells, gongs, stringed instruments, or simply with the human voice, traditionally a very powerful opener of Otherworld gateways. Celtic peoples have never wanted for forms of musical expression, whether instrumental or vocal, and surely would have evolved their own means of using sound to travel into realms beyond the physical.
The final problem remaining to us is identifying the Celtic shaman. We have no word from ancient Celtic tradition that is exactly cognate with the word “shaman”, though there are plenty of terms for religious and magical practitioners of various types. Some scholars have suggested the Old Irish word fili, meaning a kind of poet/seer, as the likely term for a shaman in ancient Irish society. Opinions on this are, however, far from unanimous. Without knowing what an ancient Celtic shaman might have been called within whichever of the Celtic societies he existed in, and precisely how his role as a shaman was defined within those societies, it is very difficult to say with any certainty that there were Celtic shamans.
We can say with some certainty, however, that shamanic elements are to be found within Celtic tradition from ancient to modern times, and back up our assertion with prominent examples such as those given here. For the modern spiritual seeker or shamanic practitioner seeking a connection with Celtic roots, there is a wealth of rich material to explore in several languages, existing in books both ancient and modern. There is, in addition, research to be done among living Celtic peoples and lands. And ultimately, there is the Land herself upon which our Celtic ancestors lived, and upon which their descendants yet live today. If we empty ourselves, and go to Her, and seek in the silence to hear Her voice, she will speak to us as she spoke to those ancient and far flung wanderers.