The Riocht for the Soul
from The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom
by Caitlin Matthews
Those with the sight are accustomed to see the riocht of the soul, which may appear like an astral body or else be so manifest that the seer can barely distinguish between the two. The riocht or co-walker is frequently seen as a presager of death, and its bilocation causes great remark or fear. The modem Scottish seer, Eilidh Watt, speaks of visiting her brother in her sleep by sending out her own coimimeadh; the next morning, her sister-in-law phoned at the behest of her brother who, on having seen and spoken with his sister’s riocht, determined that she must be dead and was most distraught.
Few people are so skilled as this seer, able to send forth their double at will; only a great shock or the approach of death itself will cause their riocht to be manifest to others. This is brought about by the sudden or gradual loosening of the ties of life upon the soul, causing part of it to fragment out. In the presence of a person who is agitated or grieved, I have discerned the riocht as an identical shape imperfectly superimposed upon the body itself. Here we touch upon the manner in which the soul ‘escapes the body’ when danger threatens, a factor we will explore further below.
Side by side, and often-entangled, with the idea of the double, is the animistic notion of the hidden or exterior soul. The hidden soul is exterior to the soul-shrine and its contents; its existence is usually bound up or shared with another form of life. This brings us into the area of shamanic spirits as helpers or life-companions. A child’s soul life is often parallel with that of another being – often animal or tree. While the animal or tree lives, the child lives; but their fates are intertwined, and if one suffers damage or death, the other is also wounded or killed. Thus, the life of Diammuid O’ Duibhne is fatally entwined with that of his half-brother, who was saved from death by being turned into a boar. When Diammuid slays this boar, his own life seeps away. Individuals who have such a shared or hidden soul are usually obliged by geas never to harm the parallel animal or tree, as was the case with Conaire and his bird kindred (see chapter 8).
There are numerous cases of the soul’s double or spirit-helper being seen just before death. A common death-herald is the bird. Many Irish people express great dread of unusual bird activity near or in their houses, since they recognize this as a death-omen for one of their family. The death-herald or way-shower may appear as a bean sidhe, a faery woman who bewails impending death in certain families who have relations or soul-friends with the local faery-kind. Faery alliances are commonplace in Celtic lore, a reciprocal arrangement whereby faery and mortal parties enter into agreements for mutual benefit, service being required by one from the other. The work of R.L. Stewart to re-establish such contracts between faeries and modern practitioners is based upon the identification of co-walkers as faery allies and animal spirits. (See R.L. Stewart, Earth Light.)
The many stories of transmigration or shape-shifting that occur in Celtic tradition relate to the shamanic ability to send the soul into any shape – only one who is most skilled can track and catch the hidden or shape-shifted soul. The shamanic ability to take the feth fiada or ‘deer’s aspect’ upon oneself, brought one within the otherworld, making one invisible to others. In Celtic shamanic practice, the soul’s shrine is hidden or wrapped up in many levels of protective lore. The home of the soul is strictly guarded and never divulged. Celtic folk-story retains the memory of druidic practice in numerous stories relating to a series of titanic beings or giants. Possessed of primordial skills which are druidic in origin, the giant can only be overcome if his soul is discovered. Needless to say, like any skilled shaman, he disperses his soul into many different elements, places and animals, so that no hiding place can result in soul-loss. His soul leaps from shape to shape, changing nightly like a password in a stronghold, so that no one can catch him unawares.