Chapter 16 The Sight, Gift of Celtic Seers
A long cavalcade of warriors, some on horses, most on foot, are traveling across the north of Ireland, west to east, against the sun's path, hooves and feet pounding the earth. At their head rides a woman of power, dressed in embroidered fabrics and adorned with jewels artfully set. Her name is Medbh and she is Queen of Connacht, leading her troops in a raid to steal a great bull. She is confident of victory. Then, approaching them in a chariot, they see a young woman, weaving threads on a handloom as she walks. Medbh asks the young woman to identify herself. She says her name is Fedelm and that she comes from the sídhe mound of Cruachain, an entrance to the Otherworld. She also says that she is vowed to Medbh's service and that she is a fáith, a seer. Medbh asks her to foretell the outcome of the raid. Fedelm chants:
I see crimson, I see red.
Using the skill called imbas forosnai, the seer has looked, seen, and spoken truly. As the story unfolds, the raid will end in massive bloodshed.
Tales of the Celts, whether historical accounts, medieval myths, or more modern folktales, are filled with references to the ability of some to see and know what is hidden from most. This ability has given the Celts as a whole the reputation of being mystical dreamers, when in fact, though the belief in such abilities is widespread, it has always been believed that only a few receive what in English is called the "sight."
Celtic Tradition: The Sight
Those with the sight obtain knowledge either by a sudden knowing or through a vision. Such visions are often symbolic and easily misinterpreted, as we shall see later in this chapter. Sometimes, they may be startlingly real, like watching a video in one's mind, but frustratingly incomplete. A seer may see an accident occurring but have no idea when or where the event is supposed to take place. Other times, the seer simply knows the answer; suddenly the knowledge is simply there in one's mind. It may even come as a feeling that the knowledge is passed into one's body like an electric charge so that the experience may be more a bodily knowing than an intellectual one. There is also evidence that some Celtic seers spoke from a state that might be likened to trance, in which the seers did not actually realize what they were saying and might have no memory of what they had said once they recovered from the trance-like state. Sometimes, the experience combines several of these elements so that, for example, the seer sees the events in a vision and knows when and where they will occur.
It is difficult, to some extent impossible, to describe such experiences since the seers themselves may be only partially aware of what is happening. Those observing the seer may be able to describe what the seer was doing externally, but they will have no sense of the seer's intense inner experience.
We assume that the arts of Celtic seership reached their height in the pre-Christian period when such skills were valued. In those days, gifted children and young adults were probably guided and trained by elders with experience and skill. Remnants of these traditions can be found in the descriptions of the poet's art left by the secular poets of medieval Ireland. Although some of the seer's skills were banned by the Christian establishment, others were permitted. We owe much of our knowledge of medieval practices to these references. However, often they are described in terms whose meaning is now lost to us, and often we are left to guess.
Every culture has its own words for talking about what visionaries and seers do. Like many, the Celtic traditions use words and images relating to sight and vision to talk about the ineffable experiences of shamanic-type practitioners and others who journey to the Otherworld. For example, the Irish term imbas (modern iomas) means "vision that illumines." As such, it refers to the ability to see what is not visible to most. Imbas also means the experience of having that vision. Combined with forosnai, the term also refers to a method of inducing vision. The Welsh awen has similar meaning and use, and awenyddion refers to the insight that comes from receiving awen. Awenyddion also refers to practitioners who went into trance and made ecstatic utterances.
All these concepts were the opposite of sous, the Irish term for the knowledge obtained by study and scientific or rational investigation. The Irish term fios refers to knowledge obtained through inspiration, contact with the Otherworld, or mantic insight. In modern Irish, fios or fios feasa can be used to refer to what is sometimes called second sight. The person who has this ability is called fer (man) feasa or bean (woman) feasa. If their gift includes the ability to heal, then the practitioner is likely to be called fairy doctor or herb doctor in English.
In Scottish Gaelic, this ability is more likely to be called da shealladh-"two sight" or "double sight." The phrase refers to the ability to see two worlds-this world and the Otherworld-at once. The vision itself is known as taibhs (the same word is used for ghost or wraith). The visionary person is called a taibhsear and the process taibhsearachd. The sight includes the ability to see the dead and the non-human. It may also include the ability to know what is happening at a distance or what will happen. Sometimes the knowledge comes because it is sought, or it may come unbidden. The latter can be quite upsetting, especially if it concerns bad news. Imagine saying good-bye to someone at a party and suddenly realizing they were going to die in the very near future. Martin Martin was thinking of unbidden visions when he wrote in the seventeenth century:
The second-sight is a singular faculty of seeing an otherwise invisible object, without any previous means used by the person that sees it for that end; the vision makes such a lively impression upon the seers, that they neither see nor think of anything else, except the vision, as long as it continues: and then they appear pensive or jovial, according to the object which was represented to them. At the sight of a vision, the eye-lids of the person are erected, and the eyes continue staring until the object vanishes. This is obvious to others who are by, when the persons happen to see a vision, and occurred more than once to my own observation, and to others that were with me.
The sight was also thought to include knowledge of how to cure illness, especially illness resulting from curse or "fairy" attack. Since seers often knew a great deal about herbal treatments, they could combine their rational and infused knowledge. Visions may come as literal views of what is or will happen-like watching a video-or they may be symbolic. For example, among Scottish seers, a common symbol was to see an impending death as a body with a shroud upon it. The position of the shroud indicated when the death would occur. If the shroud completely covered the body, death was imminent, a matter of hours. If the shroud came up to the waist only, then death might be delayed by several months. Sometimes the seer might misinterpret symbols or other parts of a vision, for just as people may misjudge the evidence of their eyes, seers may misinterpret the evidence of their second sight as well. In the seventeenth century, Robert Kirk described a taibhsear seeing what appeared to be a dead body, but in fact the person recovered after being near fatally wounded. In the vision the person had only seemed dead. An unidentified "Irish mystic" told W. Y. Evans-Wentz:
I may close my eyes and see you as a vivid picture in memory, or I may look at you with my physical eyes and see your actual image. In seeing these beings of which I speak, the physical eyes may be open or closed: mystical beings in their own world and nature are never seen with the physical eyes.
Earliest Images of Celtic Seers
The earliest evidence of religious belief in Celtic culture comes from the objects found in graves or at religious sites. Since the ancient Celts did not record their beliefs, we can only guess at the significance of these objects. However, a number of scholars have suggsted that carvings on rocks in the Camonica valley in Italy bear a remarkable similarity to Siberian representations of shamanic activities. They seem to illustrate a band of hunters pursuing a figure that is, at once, both human and deer. This figure has been interpreted as representing a "Master of Animals," a spirit whose permission must be sought before animals were hunted. For a hunt to be both safe and successful, most hunter-gatherer societies believe, the deity who "owns" the "wild" animals must be addressed and appeased beforehand. The next notable piece of evidence is a panel on the Gundestrup cauldron. Scholars differ as to whether the cauldron is of Celtic origin. If it is Celtic, it certainly bears the imprint of surrounding cuiltures, notably Dacia. One panel shows a seated male figure, apparently lost in meditative trance and wearing stag antlers. Several types of animals cavort around the figure. Some scholars believe that the figure depicts a shaman contacting animal spirits or the Otherworld, while others suggest that the figure is that of a "Master of Animals" deity who watches over the animals. Of course, it is not certain that "Celtic" artists created the cauldron, but similar stag-antlered figures bearing torcs have been found elsewhere in Europe and Britain.
Classical Period: Druides and Vates
In the Classical period, non-Celtic writers generally agree that there were three types of religious specialists among the Celts of Continental Europe. While the titles and occupaitons vary somewhat, they can be generally seen as:
· Druides: specialists in law and precedent including right behavior, and leaders of community ritual, especially sacrifice which they either conducted or oversaw
· Vates or seers: they made predictions based on rituals or dreams
· Bardoi or singing poets: they told tales and composed poetry in praise of leaders and heroes.
Archaeologists have turned up all sorts of evidence of healing devotions at Celtic sites, but the classical writers never describe Celtic healers. It is difficult to believe that religious specialists were not involved in healing, so this must be an omission on the writers' part, though a curious one. Perhaps in their view, healing functions were not religious and this view imposed itself on their descriptions of Celtic groups. In the Classical sources, seers are depicted like the practitioners at Roman or Greek templesas performing specific rituals to obtain knowledge, or reading signs. For example, Strabo wrote in his Geography: ". . . they would strike a man who had been consecrated for sacrifice in the back with a sword, and make prophecies based on his death-spasms . . ."
Diodorus Siculus, writing about the same time (c. 60-30 BCE), made a similar report:
They also make use of seers, who are greatly respected. These seers, having great authority, use auguries and sacrifices to foresee the future. Then seeking knowledge of great importance, they use a strange and unbelievable method: they choose a person for death and stab him or her in the chest above the diaphragm. By the convulsion of the victim's limbs and spurting of blood, they foretell the future, trusting in this ancient method.
A later account, from Tertullian, reports another method of obtaining knowledge: "the Nasamones receive special oracles by staying at the tombs of their parents.... The Celts for the same reason spend the night near the tombs of their famous men, as Nicandor affirms." As we shall see later, the practice of seeking knowledge through dreams at tombs can be found in later Irish tradition as well.
Various writers report predictions made to future Roman emperors by Gaulish "druidesses." One almost senses that the term was used for women who had taken on the folk role filled by "gypsy women" in the modern era: an anonymous woman of an alien culture credited with mysterious powers.
Finally, Tacitus' described a seeress living in an area now considered Germany. At the time, the boundaries between Celt and German groups was not hard and fast, and the cultures often mixed. Since the woman's name or title seems to be Celtic, scholars have concluded that her people followed Celtic ways, though Tacitus identified them as German. Tacitus called her Veleda, which is apparently cognate with Welsh gweled, commonly thought to derive from a Celtic verbal root *wel- (to see). Thus, it may be that Veleda was a title-Seeress-rather than a personal name in the usual sense. Tacitus wrote that her people attributed prophetic powers to Veleda and she also served as a sort of negotiator with other groups. He described her as living atop a tower. When a Roman delegation arrived to meet with her, her assistant took their questions up to her and returned with the answers. Michael Enright suggests that she functioned as a sort of oracle. Her methods, however, are unknown.
In summary, the Classical era evidence tells us that some Continental Celtic groups had seers but very little about how they operated.
In the medieval period we look primarily to the myths and law for evidence. There are both advantages and disadvantages to these sources. The myths do not describe real, human characters so we have to be careful about drawing conclusions about real life. Also, they reflect Christian input and perspective. The laws tell us about real life in Ireland and Wales, but they tend to collect all the precedents without telling us during what period they were used. So we see laws mentioning druids without any idea of what period they were first in effect or when they ceased to be used because there were no longer any druids.
Types of Seers
In the medieval period, we find traces of five types of seers. In Ireland, there are druí, fáithi, fili, and fénnidi. In Wales, there are awenyddion and reports of others who communicated with spirits.
(i) druí: Irish sources depict druids as priests, seers, astrologers (in the ancient sense), teachers of lore, and witnesses of oaths. However, by the time of the earliest law texts (7th-8th centuries), druids have been reduced to the status of sorcerer (in a pejorative sense) and their status is mixed.
The following passage from the Táin Bó Cuailgne presents a view of druids typical of medieval Irish texts:
One aged man among them lifts his gaze to heaven and watches the clouds of heaven, and he gives answer to the wonderful troop around him. They all lift up their eyes to the heights and observe the clouds, and they cast spells into the face of the elements so that the elements are contending among themselves, and they cast shower-clouds of fire at the fortress where the Men of Ireland are. "Who is that, Fergus?" asked Ailill. "That I know," said Fergus. "He is the foundation of wisdom, the lord of the elements, the striving for the heavens. He makes eyes blind. He takes away the vigour of strangers through his druidical knowledge. He is Cathbad the druid, with the druids of Ulster around him. And this is what he brings: he is the chief at judgment of the elements, to examine them and to decide what there result of the great battle will be...It will be difficult for the Men of Ireland to endure the chanting of the druids.
(ii) fáith: a fáith was a seer, although the sight was also one of the functions of the poet.
(iii) fili, éces: a poet could be a powerful figure in early Irish society. The poet's main function was to satirize and honor through verse. Thus, the poet controlled the distribution of honor, an extremely important commodity in all Celtic societies. Conversely those who satirized without cause were subject to harsh penalties. In myths, fili and other poets are depicted as acquiring their skills from the Otherworld, though it is clear from the laws and texts on the poet's art that they also spent long years learning the complex rhyming schemes and other metric rules that were required of poetic artists among the Celts.
(iv) fénnidi: historically, the fénnidi were young, usually landless, warriors who left their family groups to live in marginal areas such as the forest. They lived in a warband-type group called a fian led by the righfénnid. They survived mostly on what they gathered or hunted in the forest. Hagiography, especially that of St. Bridget by Cogitosus, depicted the fénnidi as the last pagan holdouts, hiding in the woods, marking themselves with "diabolical signs," and engaging in "pagan" rites before setting out to do murder. It may well be that within the hunter-warrior bands of the fénnidi, there long survived rituals that required seers to find the animals, appease the protectors of the animals, and ward off the hostile forces with whom the fénnidi lived in the forest. Perhaps this included a sort of hunter shamanism.
One of the best known of Irish mythological figures, Fionn mac Cumhaill, was said to be a righfénnid, a poet-seer-hunter-warrior who lived with his trusty band of men on the outskirts of Irish society. He received his gifts as a seer from the Otherworld. One story says that he was working as the servant of a poet who had been waiting by the river, trying to catch the salmon of knowledge. Finally, the poet caught the fish and he set his servant to broil it over the fire. But the Otherworld had different plans for the fish: when Fionn saw a blister rising on the skin of the broiling fish, he pressed it back down with his thumb, then instinctively sucked his thumb to soothe the burn. From that small gesture, Fionn gathered the knowledge borne by the salmon. When the master poet ate the fish, he realized that the gift had already been passed on and he questioned Fionn who admitted to sucking his burnt thumb. The master poet resigned himself to the fact that Fionn had been meant to receive the gift. But Fionn went to live in the forest, not the court. Although no longer a hunter-gatherer society, Celts continued to have a strong component in their beliefs that focused on the hunter-gatherer model. The myths that involve hunting clearly have an Otherworldly component. It is probably not accidental that so shamanic a figure as Fionn is so closely associated with forests and a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Indeed, it suggests that an old model/association was passed on in the myths of Fionn. Though Fionn and his fellows were hunters, they were closely identified with all the animals of the hunt. Fionn had a cowl that could change him into a deer or a hound-prey or predator-with a simple adjustment. His hounds were his transformed nephews, his son had a tuft of deer hair on his forehead, and one of his wives was a deer. Such characteristics suggest that the figure of Fionn adopted attributes once associated with a hunting deity or protector of the forest, no matter what his original character may have been. Such associations with animals were also true of the historical fénnidi. They were also described as howling like wolves as they prepared to hunt. All warriors were likened to wolves-even Lugh was called a "bloody wolf" in battle-but the fénnidi absorb all the negative attributes of this comparison, as the following example from Cóir Anmann ("Fitness of Names") shows:
[Laignech Fáelad] was a man who used to go wolfing, i.e. into wolf-shapes, i.e. into shapes of wolves he used to go and his offspring used to go after him and they used to kill the herds after the fashion of wolves, so that it is for that he used to be called Laignech Fáelad, for he was the first of them who went into a wolf-shape.
(v) awenyddion: in the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales wrote about his travels in Wales and Ireland. In one of his books about Wales, he described the activities of some poets. Since this passage is often heavily edited, I'll quote it in full:
Among the Welsh there are certain individuals called aweyddion who behave as if they are possessed by devils. You will not find them anywhere else. When you consult them about some problem, they immediately go into a trance and lose control of their senses as if they are possessed. They do not answer the question put to them in a logical way. Words stream from their mouths, incoherently and apparently meaningless and lacking any sense at all, but all the same well expressed: and if you listen carefully to what they say you will receive the solution to your problem. When it is all over, they will recover from their trance, as if they were ordinary people waking from a heavy sleep, but you have to give them a good shake before they regain control of themselves and when they do return to their senses they can remember nothing of what they have said in the interval. If by chance they are questioned a second or third time on the same matter, they give completely different answers. It is possible that they are speaking through demons which posses them, spirits which are ignorant and yet in some way inspired. They seem to receive this gift of divination through visions which they see in their dreams. Some of them have the impression that honey or sugary milk is being smeared on their mouths; others say that a sheet of paper with words written on it is pressed against their lips.
As soon as they are roused from their trance and have come round again after their prophesying, that is what they say has happened.
These Welsh seers seem to be trance visionaries. Unfortunately, this is all we know of their methods.
Medieval texts offer an assortment of evidence about the methods used to induce communication with the Otherworld.
(i) Imbas forosnai
A medieval compilation known as Sanas Cormaic (Cormac's Glossary) contains some of the most concrete descriptions to be found. The problem is that Cormac and the other scribes who compiled the glossary evidently did not hesitate to mould their material to suit their perceptions of how things should be. Also, their language is sometimes difficult to interpret. Nevertheless, it is worth considering what Cormac has to say.
Imbas forosna reveals the thing that the fili wants to know and has to reveal. It is thus that it is performed. The fili chews a morsel of raw pig, dog, or cat meat and then puts it on the flagstone behind the door. He chants over the morsel and offers it to the idol gods. He calls them to him and does not leave the next day. He chants over his two palms and calls the idol gods to him lest his sleep be disturbed. He puts his two palms over his two cheeks and sleeps; he is watched lest he turn over and be disturbed by someone. Then is revealed to him whatever is going to happen to him in the next nine, eighteen, or twenty-seven days or until the end of the period during which he can be at sacrifice. And so it is called imbas: after the palm (bas) on each side of his face or head. Patrick banned this as well as the teinm laída and decreed that anyone who had practiced these would be neither of heaven nor of earth, since to do so was a denial of baptism. But the díchetal di chennaib was left in the system of art, for it is knowledge (soas) which underlies it. The díchetal di chennaib does not require sacrifice to demons; instead it is information instantaneously from the tips of bones.
Nora Chadwick concluded that, "There can be no doubt, therefore, that imbas forosnai, tenm laida and dichetal do chennaib are three technical terms, which are closely and constantly associated together in relation to the art of the filid."
The Irish myths present some examples of imbas forsonai. Its use by Fedelm to foretell the outcome of the Táin was mentioned at the beginning of the chapter. Similarly, when Scathach prophesies the career of Cú Chulainn, she is said to be speaking in imbas forosnai. So, imbas forosnai is obviously a technique used to foretell the future. The description in Sanas Cormaic suggests that it was a journeying technique, but the other evidence is less clear.
Imbas forosnai is also often mentioned in connection with one of the most famous figures of Irish literature, Fionn Mac Cumhail, and many other seers in myth. It seems that as time passed, the term came to mean any technique used to generate Otherworldly inspiration.
(ii) teinm láida: literally, "chewing the pith," this was a method of obtaining knowledge that apparently involved reciting a charm while sucking one's thumb. When he used this technique, Fionn came up with obscure verses that included the information he was seeking. So it seems that the technique was thought to elicit inspired verse that contained the information or answer being sought.
(iii) dichetal do chennaib: literally, "chanting from the tips," this was a method of divination or poetic art; acquiring this skill, along with teinm láida and imbas forosnai, was required to reach the highest grades of poetic accomplishment. However, exactly what is involved is not really known.
(iv) Cauldron of Poesy: though it comes to us in a sixteenth century text, the treatise known popularly as the "Cauldron of Poesy" is of much earlier origin. It is arguably one of the most important sources on the art of the fili, presenting what a poet thought about his-or possibly her-own art. As we have it, the treatise is a remarkable fusion of native and Christian ideas. The poetic process is depicted as the interaction of three cauldrons. Much of the treatise uses language which is not immediately clear to modern readers. Space does not permit a thorough discussion of its ideas, but a few quotes may provide a feel for the way medieval Irish poets approached their art, especially the subject of how they received their inspiration. For example, the poet begins:
My own Cauldron . . .
Taken by God from the mysteries of the elements
A fitting decision that ennobles one from one's center
that pours forth a terrifying stream of speech from the mouth.
This is a definition of poetry that has nothing to do with sweet rhymes. Also, poetry in this context is not the art of pen and paper. It springs from one's center and comes out of one's mouth. It is linked to the same elemental depths from which the world was created, and, like a god, the poet's lips pour forth a new creation in a torrent of words. This verse recalls other descriptions of inspired utterances, whether teinm laída or awenyddion.
Further on in the text, the poet writes:
Where is the root of poetry in a person; in the body or in the soul? They say it is in the soul, for the body does nothing without the soul. Others say it is in the body where the arts are learned, passed through the bodies of our ancestors. It is said this is the seat of what remains over the root of poetry; and the good knowledge in every person's ancestry comes not into everyone, but comes into every other person.
What then is the root of poetry and every other wisdom? Not hard; three cauldrons are born in every person, i.e., the Cauldron of Incubation, the Cauldron of Motion and the Cauldron of Knowledge.
In short, the initial prompting to "poetry" is a combination of biology and spirit, ancestry and gift. Only "every other person" receives the call, and the remainder must cultivate the gift if they wish to use it. In other lines of the text, the poet discusses the factors that evoke inspiration:
God touches a person through divine and human joys so that they are able to speak prophetic poems and dispense wisdom and perform miracles, as well as offering wise judgment and giving precedents and wisdom in answer to everyone's wishes. But the source of these joys is outside the person although the actual cause of the joy is internal.
As the poet explains, "God" uses the experiences of life to bring inspiration:
How many divisions of sorrow that turn the cauldrons of sages? Not hard; four. Longing, grief, the sorrows of jealousy and the discipline of pilgrimage to holy places. It is internally that these are borne although the cause is from outside.
There are then two divisions of joy that turn the Cauldron of Wisdom, i.e., divine joy and human joy. In human joy there are four divisions among the wise. Sexual intimacy; the joy of health untroubled by the abundance of goading when a person takes up the prosperity of bardcraft; the joy of the binding principle of wisdom after good (poetic) construction; and, joy of fitting poetic frenzy from the grinding away at the fair nuts of the nine hazels on the Well of Segais in the sídhe realm. They cast themselves in great quantities like a ram's fleece upon the ridges of the Boyne, moving against the stream swifter than racehorses driven in the middle-month on the magnificent day every seven years.
So, in spite of the Christian veneer that attributed inspiration to "God" and suggested "holy pilgrimage" as a source of inspiration, the medieval poets were still seeking the knowledge that came from the Otherworld Well of Segais in the sídhe.
(v) Tarbfheis and Taghairm: these two words appear to apply to the same basic technique. Tarbfheis reportedly was the method once used to select the kings of Ireland.
This is how a bull-feast used to be made: to kill a white bull, and for one man to eat his fill of the flesh and of its broth, and to sleep after that meal, and for four druids to chant a spell of truth over the man.
Another story, "The Battle of Findchora," relates:
When the four Fifths of Ireland were at Findchora with Ailill and Medb and Eochaid mac Luchta expecting to fight Conchobor and the Ulstermen, the Men of Ireland asked for advice as to how they should give battle. They told their druids to find out for them what the consequences of the battle would be and which side would be defeated. Then the druids had recourse to their wisdom and their learning, that is, Crom Deroil, Adnae mac Uthidir, Mael Cenn Mianach, Daire and Ferchertne. They made sacrifices to Mars and to Osiris, to Jove and to Apollo, and these are the sacrifices they offered: the flesh of dogs, pigs and cats. Afterwards they went upon the hides of old hairless bulls and on hurdles of rowan, and turned their faces towards hell. The gods to whom they sacrificed told them . . . (the outcome of the battle).
These accounts are from myths, but they appear to reflect actual practice. In his History of Ireland, Geoffrey Keating wrote:
The druids used the hides of bulls offered in sacrifice for divination and the acquisition of wisdom. And many are the ways in which they acquired wisdom, such as looking at their own images in water, or gazing at the clouds of heaven, or listening to the noise of the wind or the chattering of birds. But when all these things failed them, and they were obliged to do their utmost, what they did was to make round wattles out of branches from a rowan tree and to spread on them the hides of bull offered in sacrifice, putting the side which had been next to the flesh uppermost, and thus acquiring wisdom by summoning demons to get information from them.
(vi) Journeys: Celtic tales abound with examples of heroes who travel into one or more Otherworlds in quest of fame, magical prizes, knowledge, or power. Two classes of Irish tales built on the theme of journeying: the imrama (voyages) and echtra (adventures).
The word imram means "rowing about," a reminder of how water-going vessels were powered in medieval times. Imrama usually involve a hero, sometimes with companions, who takes a voyage by sea, thereby involving the part of the tripartite paradigm often associated with the Otherworld. On such journeys, the voyagers encounter all sorts of strange beings as they travel from one island to the next. Rees and Rees have suggested that these tales may, together, represent a sort of "Celtic Book of the Dead" that instructed the dying in what to expect as they crossed over into the Afterlife. The best known examples are the Imram Brain and the Imram Maíle Dúin. Navigatio Sancti Brendani, a Hiberno-Latin story, is an attempt to apply the tale type to a saint. In a Welsh story similar to an Irish imram, Arthur journeys to Annwn, the Underworld of Welsh tradition, in quest of a mysterious Cauldron of Inspiration and Rebirth. He sets forth in his ship Prydwen with three companies of men, but "except for seven, none return" and his quest fails, a lesson in the hazards of seeking the Otherworld's treasures.
Originally, the word echtra referred to adventures that involved the hero's literally going out of this world, often in response to the lure or invitation of a beautiful woman or mysterious warrior. The early stories always described the hero's interactions with inhabitants of the Otherworld. As time passed, however, echtra came to mean any sort of story involving encounters with marvels and powerful opponents. The supernatural or Otherworldly component became less explicit.
Hunting trips play an important role in both Irish and Welsh tales. The hero may be sent on a quest for something, or he may be running from pursuers. On the way he encounters all manner of supernatural creatures.
(vii) Dreams: as noted earlier, Tertullian recorded that dreams at the graves of their ancestors was one way the Celts obtained knowledge. In medieval myths, dreams play a significant role as communicators of knowledge from Otherworldly figures. For example, the story of the recovery of the Táin is attributed to a dream or vision experienced by the poet Emine. Emine, a poet-in-training, and Muirgen, the son of Emine's teacher, set out east from Connacht to meet a poet said to have the Táin. When Emine was seeking a place to spend the night, Muirgen rested at the grave of Fergus mac Róich at Enloch in Connacht. As if he were speaking to Fergus himself, Muirgen chanted a poem about the reasons for their journey. In response, a mist surrounded Muirgen, a mist so thick that no one could find him for three days and three nights. In the midst of the mist, Fergus appeared and recited the whole of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, so that Muirgen had the story from beginning to end. But one scribe recording this story objected and added an alternative: "some say that the story was told to Senchán himself (Emine's teacher), after he had gone on a fast to certain saints of Fergus' line. This sounds reasonable." This laconic comment tells us that a medieval scribe thought inspiration was more likely to come from saints than gravestones, but the ancestral connection remained.
Aislinge, dreams or visions, are a class of Irish story that poets were required to learn. The best known, Aislinge Óengusso, contains themes that recall the encounters of shamans with their spirit brides. Óengus, the son of the Dagda and Bóann, has a bed-time vision of a beautiful young woman who vanishes when he tries to take her to bed. Yet each night for a year she visits him, playing sweet music on a stringed instrument. As time passes, he grows ill from his unfulfilled desire for her. Fingen, described elsewhere as a fáithliag or seer-physician, comes to see Óengus and listens to his symptoms. Then he tells Bóann to do her best to find the young woman for whom her son pines. Soon, all of Óengus' kin are involved in a search for the young woman. Ultimately, she is found in enchanted form, a swan upon a lake. On Samhain, that most liminal night of the year, Óengus seeks her out. But to have her, he must assume the swan form himself. When he does, they fly off together to his home, the síd mound of Brug na Boinne.
Perhaps the most telling evidence for dreams and visions is, however, a comment made by the Christian scribe who recorded the tale, Serglige Con Culainn:
For the diabolical power was great before the faith, and it was so great that devils (demna) used to fight with men in bodily form, and used to show delights and mysteries to them, as though they really existed.
(xi) Fairy Lovers and Helpers: Harner's definition of a shaman says that a shaman has "at least one, and usually more, 'spirits', in his personal service." Many characters in Celtic myth and folktale, fact and fantasy, ancient and modern, fit this definition. The greatest heroes even claim Otherworldly parentage. For example, in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, Conaire is depicted as the son of an Otherworldly figure who alternates between bird and human-like forms. At the beginning of his story, Conaire is favored by the síd; they even coach him on how to be selected as king. Conaire's reign is blessed with prosperity until he begins to break his geasa. As his kingdom falls into chaos and destruction, the Otherworld figures contribute to Conaire's final moments.
The god Lugh was said to be Cú Chulainn's father. When Cú Chulainn was in most desperate need of help during the Táin, Lugh appeared in Cú Chulainn's form and fought while his son took some much needed rest. Earlier in his career, Cú Chulainn traveled to "Alba" (possibly an analogy for the Otherworld) to seek advanced training as a warrior. But first, he had to pass obstacles and fight with the head teacher, Scathach, to convince her that he was worthy of being her student-as so many shamans must best spirits in the Otherworld. After teaching him the feats that he later uses to best all comers throughout his career, Scathach gave him knowledge of his future. Though Cú Chulainn is clearly a warrior, any shamanic culture would see in his tales analogues to their own stories of shamans learning to battle spirits in the Otherworld.
Celtic tales are full of humans who had "fairy" lovers. The seventeenth century Scottish taibshear, Robert Kirk, spoke disapprovingly of human seers who accepted fairy lovers, but he affirmed that it often happened. There seems to be a long and consistent tradition. We may even find a trace of it in Augustine of Hippo's condemnation of Gaulish women consorting with what he considered demons ("... et quosdam daemones, quos Dusios Galli nuncupant...) though the Gauls called them by a name that probably meant something closer to "spirits."
Modern Folk Tradition
In the writings of Celts about themselves and in the collections of folklore, we find evidence that the beliefs, atti-tudes, and some of the techniques used by earleir seers did survive and persist.
The tradition of the fili did not die out completely, if Martin Martin's seventeenth centuiry account is to be believed. He wrote:
. . . they shut their doors and windows for a day's time, and lie on their backs, with a stone upon their belly, and plaids about their heads, and their eyes being covered, they pump their brains for rhetorical encomium or panegyric; and indeed they furnish such a style from this dark cell, as is understood by very few; and if they purchase a couple of horses as the reward of their meditation, they think they have done a great matter.
Welsh Charmers and Healers
In Welsh folk tradition, there were two types of folk practitioners: "charmers" and "cunning folk."
Charmers usually possessed no other magical powers and treated only ailments that were thought to have a "natural" cause. This included injuries from accidents (bleeding, burns, snake-bites, and pricks) and diseases such as ringworm, toothache, scrofula, and warts. Charmers did not interact with the Otherworld or treat ailments that were attributed to the actions of the "fairies." Charmers usually inherited the job along with the charm or charmed object and the knowledge of how to use it.
The group Davies calls "cunning-folk" or "the wise" seem to correspond to the Irish "fairy-doctors." To them is attributed the ability to see and/or interact with the inhabitants of the Otherworld, to diagnose ills caused by fairy actions, and to find out how to correct the ill through interaction with the Otherworld. Davies notes that among rural communities, a distinction was made between the acceptability of Christians consulting charmers versus mixing with the wise. Charms were thought to have originated with saints or to contain words from the Bible so they were wholly acceptable (though the clergy often disagreed). However, many who saw no problem in using charms and consulting charmers would not go to the wise because they thought the latter interacted with fallen angels or even the devil.
Irish Fairy Doctors
Most of our evidence about the work of fairy doctors in Ireland comes from nineteenth-century antiquarians collecting folklore in rural areas. In 1771 Bishop Sweetsman issued a proclamation that:
No pastor, priest or ecclesiastical whatsoever, in the diocese of Ferns, must presume . . . to read exorcisms or gospels over the already too ignorant, and . . . too much deluded people, or act the fairy doctor in any shape, without express leave in writing from the bishop of the diocese.
At the time the proclamation was issued, Roman Catholicism was still essentially illegal in Ireland. Priests kept a low profile and Mass was said primarily in private homes or in buildings that on weekdays were used as schoolhouses or even threshing floors. People felt free to maintain their "popular religion" combining Christian and pre-Christian traditions. The situation began to change after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 when clergy had more freedom to act, organize, and build structures.
Nevertheless, it is clear that people went on consulting fairy doctors in spite of priestly opposition. As Timothy Corrigan Correll notes, "Certainly desperation was a key factor which drove individuals to seeking alternative methods of healing in spite of church condemnation." In support of his conclusion, Correll cites the following examples from Lady Gregory's writings:
The priests were greatly against Biddy Early. And there's no doubt it was from the faeries she got the knowledge. But who wouldn't go to hell for a cure when one of his own was sick?
Despite the clerical objections, many came to the same conclusion as one woman who spoke to Lady Gregory about Biddy Early: "The priests were against her, but they were wrong. How could that be evil doing that was all charity and kindness and healing?"
(i) Objects and Tools: In Celtic traditions, seers often used objects on which to focus their attention while seeking answers. For example, Biddy Early was said to use a bottle to elicit her visions. There are conflicting stories about where the bottle came from, but sources agree that she used it to obtain answers. An informant told Lady Gregory, "She had but to look in it and she'd see all that had happened and all that was going to happen."
(ii) Sheep Bone Augury: A Munster fairy story recorded by Jeremiah Curtin in 1895 contains the following passage addressed by Maurice Griffin, a dying father, to his younger son:
Go out to-night, kill a sheep and dress it, pick the right shoulder as clean as any bone could be cleaned from flesh, and in the night look over that bone, and the third time you look you'll see every one that you knew who is dead. Keep that bone with you always and sleep with it, and what you want to know to cure any disease will come to you from the bone. When a person is to be cured from a fairy stroke, look over the bone and a messenger will come from the fairies, and you will be able to cure those who come to you.
Nearly three hundred years earlier, Robert Kirk had written of a similar practice used by what he called "the minor sort of seers" to "prognosticate many future events, only for the space of a month." Kirk specifies that it be:
. . . from the shoulder-bone of a sheep, on which a knife never came, for . . . iron hinders all the operations of those that travail in the intrigues of those hidden dominions. This science is called silinnenaith.
. . . By looking into the bone they will tell if whoredom be committed in the owner's house, what money the master of a sheep had, if any will die out of that house for that month, and if any cattle will take a trake, as if planet-struck, called earchal. Then will they prescribe a preservative and prevention.
The remarkable thing about both stories is that we have two examples of such very similar practices set apart by three hundred years and different Gaelic traditions (Dingle and the Scottish Highlands). The differences appear to be minor. Kirk specifies which bone and stipulates that iron must not be used to clean it; the later Irish account's direction to "pick" the bone only implies that a knife not be used. Also, the Irish use seems to be more restricted in that it tells the user how to heal but not provide foreknowledge, while the Scottish version allows for augury, even if only for the duration of the currents month. However, both accounts seem to preserve traces of what seem to be much earlier traditions: an animal was essentially sacrificed and its bone used as a divining tool in a way reminiscent of classical tales of Gaulish seers reading entrails. The bone enables the user to cross into the Otherworld, symbolized by the statement, "you'll see every one that you knew who is dead." Finally, the bone will continue to elicit Otherworld help: "look over the bone and a messenger will come from the fairies, and you will be able to cure those who come to you."
(iii) Frith: Probably of Norse derivation, frith was a technique of augury used as a means of working out the right times for actions and schemes. This technique was used first thing in the morning. After rising and reciting a prayer, the frithir circled the house sunwise and then looked out at the landscape through a circle made of finger and thumb. Whatever passed the line of sight was taken as an omen of the quarter's prospects. The other method was to rise, close one's eyes, position oneself in an open doorway (a liminal spot) with a hand on each side of the jamb. Then, one recited a prayer and opened one's eyes. Whatever appeared in one's sight would be taken as an omen. Traditionally, there was a long vocabulary of symbols that helped the frithir interpret the signs.
Receiving and Passing on the Power
In some cultures, shamans pass on their power before they die. An Irish example of this is found in the story, mentioned earlier, collected in nineteenth century Ireland by Jeremiah Curtin. Maurice Griffin was a cow herd who was said to receive his power from magical milk as described below:
. . . one morning while out with the cattle he saw something come down through the air in the form of a white cloud and drop on a hillock. It settled to be a lump of white foam, and a great heat rose out of it then. One of the cows went to the hillock and licked the foam till she swallowed every bit of it.
When he went into breakfast Maurice told the man of the house about the cloud, and that it was a wonder to see the cow licking up what had settled on the hillock. 'And it was white as any linen,' said he.
The master of the property, recognizing that the cow's milk will contain power of some sort, instructs the milk maid to milk the cow carefully and bring back every drop to him. However, Maurice contrives to get the first drink of milk, just as did Fionn get the first taste of Finn Eces' salmon and Taliesin the first sip of Cerridwen's brew. When the master of the property realizes that Maurice has already drunk from the bucket, he concedes, "It was his luck gave him all; 'twas promised to him, not to me," and the story continues, "Maurice began to foretell right away and cure people." It is remarkable to see the way certain motifs persist in the tradition, whether Irish or Welsh. It seems there may have been a continuing belief that food blessed by magical forces could be used to convey certain Otherworldly gifts of knowledge.
Maurice Griffin wished to pass on his gifts within his family, but he perceived that only his elder son could carry both parts of his gift: the ability to heal and the ability to tell future and remote events. Unfortunately, as Maurice felt death approaching, the elder son chose to take a trip with friends, and Maurice tried to give the gift of healing, using the sheep bone, to his other son. Hoeever, the younger son decided not to take the healing gift after all, fearing that "Maybe in after years when I have children it is on them the diseases I cured would come." This concept of "penalty," reparation for gifts granted, is discussed later. Maurice passed his gift on to his wife who healed for a number of years after his death. However, as Curtin records, "Mrs. Griffin was not able to give her gift to any one; the bone was buried with her."
Sometimes the gift was thought to come as thanks for favors rendered, as in the following story recorded by Curtin:
One woman of great name as a doctor got her power in this way. Three women were going to a village a mile out of Dingle. On the road they came to a small river, and there was no way to cross, but to walk through the water. All at once a fine lady stood before them, spoke very kindly to the first woman, and asked would she carry her over the river. "Indeed, then, I will not: I've enough to do to carry myself." The lady asked the second woman and received a like answer, but when the third woman was asked she said: "I will carry you and welcome, and why not?" So she took the fine lady on her back, carried her over the water, and put her down on the dry bank. The lady thanked her very kindly, and said, "When you wake to-morrow morning you will know all plants and herbs, you will know what their names are, and what virtues are in them." Next morning when the woman woke she could call all plants and herbs by name, she knew where they grew, and knew the power of each, from that out she was a great doctor.
There are several echoes of earlier tales in this story. Like the story of Niall Noigiallaig and his brothers with the hag, the women are asked by a stranger to render service involving physical touch. Of course, this story being about women in nineteenth-century rural Ireland, no sex is involved. However, the women are asked to bear the young woman across a river, actions with strong parallels to the copulatory embraces requested from Niall. Both Niall and the amiable woman of Dingle are changed by the experience. He becomes a king, servant of the people and land, and she is imbued with extraordinary knowledge that she will use to help her community.
The "Penalty" Revisited
According to Curtin there were good reasons not to take the gift if one could avoid it. He quoted one source as saying, "Sometimes the best [fairy] doctors will leave off curing, for they say that curing will bring misfortune in the end to the doctors or their children. It is believed firmly that there is a compensation for all this supernatural knowledge, and for everything out of the usual course of things."
Lady Gregory recorded:
It was Flaherty gave his life for my sister that was his wife. When she fell sick he brought her to Biddy Early in the mountains beyond. And she cured her the first time. But she said, "If you bring her again, you'll pay the penalty." But when she fell sick again he brought her, but he stopped a mile from the house. But she [Biddy Early] knew it well, and told the wife where he was, and that time the horse died. But the third time she fell sick he went again, knowing full well he'd pay the penalty; and so he did and died. But she was cured; and married one O'Dea afterwards.
Another informant related, "There was a man did a cure on his son that came from America sick. He didn't like to see him ailing, and one night he did the cure. But before sunrise the sight of one of his eyes was gone."
Pay for Services
Fairy doctors customarily took payment in kind, not money. A client of Biddy Early told Lady Gregory:
There were side-cars and common cars and gentry and country people at the door, just like Gort market, and dinner for all that came, and everyone would bring her something, but she didn't care what it was. Rich farmers would bring her the whole side of a pig. Myself, I brought a bottle of whiskey and a shilling's worth of bread, and a quarter of sugar and a quarter pound of tea. She was very rich, for there wasn't a farmer but would give her the grass of a couple of bullocks or a filly.
Divination and Seers
(i) What Is Divination?:
Among academics and anthropologists, there are almost as many definitions of divination as there are of shamanism. The Cambridge International Dictionary of English defines divination as "the skill or act of saying what will happen in the future or discovering something that is unknown or secret by magical methods." Note that divination is more than fortune-telling or predicting the future. Rather, it involves discovering any information that would not be obtainable through normal means. Thus, Scottish seers were depicted as being consulted about the fate of family members who had gone to another country, or they were asked to determine the fate of a cargo ship that was long overdue. Indeed, one Scottish seer was supposedly executed for giving a noble lady news about her husband that she did not like: that the husband was indeed alive and his return home from Paris had been delayed not by disaster, bad weather, or business complications but by pleasant feminine company.
(ii) Examples of Celtic Divination
This chapter opened with an example of divination, a scene from the early part of the great Irish epic, the Táin. In medieval Irish saints' tales, angels may take on the role of heavenly messenger, but in the heroic sagas and folktales, seers and personages from the pre-Christian Otherworld often appear to nudge the course of events or to warn the main actors that dire consequences lie ahead. But attempts to learn the end before it happens were not confined to stories. A historian tells of a historical, mortal queen who took steps to seek the outcome of the battle before it was engaged. As Dio Cassius describes the events, Boudicca, who had taken over the leadership of the British Iceni after her husband's death, mounted a mound of earth and rallied her troops. Then:
she used a type of augury, releasing a hare from the folds of her garment. Because it ran off in what [her people] considered to be the auspicious direction, the whole hoard roared its approval. Raising her hand to the sky, Boudicca said: 'I thank you, Andrasta, and call out to you as one woman to another... I implore and pray to you for victory and to maintain life and freedom against arrogant, unjust, insatiable, and profane men.
Similarly, Celts before and after the arrival of Christianity took steps to learn what the future held for them, whether it was the outcome of a battle or the prospects of marriage. Everyone probably knew some charms to tell the future. For example, a young woman pulling wild carrots in the Highlands of Scotland knew how to use the occasion to predict what her future husband would look like: she knew the charm to say and what signs to look for in the appearance of the carrot. But some members of the community were-and are-thought to be especially gifted with what in English is usually called the sight or the knowledge, the ability to see and know things most people do not. If we look carefully at these traditions, we find that this knowledge and ability are often said to come from the Otherworld. These gifts are also said to enable communication with the Otherworld and its inhabitants.
Evaluating the Evidence for Celtic Diviners
i) Were Celtic Seers Shamans?
Throughout history there have been Celtic seers, religious practitioners who were thought to communicate with the Otherworld and obtain knowledge not available through "normal" means. However, having the ability to see the future or things at a distance does not make someone a shaman. Classical observers told of Celtic seers taking omens. Medieval writers described various forms of trance used to foretell the future or acquire information. Nineteenth-century antiquarians told of seers who were credited with the ability to find a lost object or learn the fate of a missing person. Even today some people are said to have "double-sight," meaning they can see this world and the Otherworld at the same time, and also observe how they interact. In the past, scholars generally referred to Celtic practitioners as seers. However, as the term shaman becomes more widely used in religious studies and literature, Celtic Studies scholars increasingly use the term shamanic in reference to behaviors in myth and hagiography. The evidence does suggest that some of the methods and behaviors attributed to Celtic practitioners are similar to universal shamanic traditions.
The trainee learns the traditional songs and actions that have been passed down orally from generation to generation.While the religious practitioners of many cultures share the common characteristics we now call shamanic, the exact procedures and tools, words and songs a shaman uses come from the surrounding culture. Ultimately, each group has its own ways of inducing trance-whether by drumming or dancing or chanting or ingesting substances. Each society has its own symbols and names for the beings encountered in ecstatic journeys. These cultural customs and the type of "work" a shaman does-whether healing, divination, or guiding dying souls-help to determine the shaman's activities. Also, the dreams and experiences that a shaman undergoes will lead them to a personal path within the boundaries of the cultural tradition.
Apprenticeship involves journeys to the Otherworld where the apprentice encounters spirits and learns to work with them. Eventually, there is a point when the apprentice learns to master the spirits and oblige them to help. A shaman may also form an intense relationship with one particular spirit, often referred to as the "spirit bride." Once engaged as allies or put under control, these spirits become helpers and teachers in future journeys, assisting the shaman to acquire knowledge, defeat hostile powers, and negotiate with unwilling forces.
With the power granted by the spirits, shamans cross the invisible borders between worlds to see what is hidden to most and to master hostile forces on behalf of others. The number and nature of the worlds visited by shamans in trance vary from one culture to another, reflecting each society's beliefs about the make-up of the cosmos. Piers Vitebsky suggests, "When shamans talk of other worlds, they do not mean that these are disconnected from this world. Rather, these worlds represent the true nature of things and the true causes of events in this world." The spirits who have chosen to work with the shaman may grant help outright, or they may give the shaman knowledge of how to effect a cure or find a solution. While in the Otherworld, the shaman may also do battle with the forces that are causing illness, bad weather, or some other adverse condition. Some spirit allies may have the ability to adopt animal shape. Shamans who receive this shape-shifting ability from their allies may change form in their journeys to the Otherworld.
(iii) What Does a Shaman Do?
Precisely what shamans do depends on several major factors:
· The gifts and skills they've been given by the Otherworldly powers
· The traditions they've been taught by their teachers
· The needs of the community
In communities where hunting is a major source of food, shamans perform ceremonies to find the animals, ensure their cooperation in the hunt, and protect the hunters so that all return home safely. Shamans often function as seers who journey to the Otherworld to find lost objects or learn the fate of missing people. The most experienced and gifted shamans often function as healers. As part of their training, they learn herbal and other medicinal lore, but their treatments are guided by their interactions with spirits.
Wherever they exist, shamans typically occupy a unique niche in their communities. In societies where such skills are accepted and valued by all, the shaman may be a repository of traditional lore as well as sacred technique. In societies that are less homogeneous, the shaman may be a more marginal figure, an object of awe and fear from some and derision from others. In countries like Tibet, shamans continue to practice alongside the more "established" religious leaders, the Buddhist priests. Later in this chapter, we will consider a similar situation in Ireland and Britain, where "fairy doctors" and "cunning folk" have long practiced, with or without the approval of the Christian clergy and government officials who also belonged to the community.
(ix) Being a Shaman
While anthropologists talk about what shamans do, in speaking about their role, indigenous practitioners often talk more about who they are and only secondarily about what they do. In their perception, someone is called to be a shaman. No matter what you do, you are a shaman, someone called by the spirits and initiated into their world. Shamans are both like and unlike other people. A modern Native American shaman, John Fire Lame Deer, believes that "being a medicine man, more than anything else, is a state of mind, a way of looking at and understanding this earth, of what it is all about."
Shamans don't fit the stereotypes of western-style clergy. As the same shaman observes:
You've seen me drunk and broke. You've heard me curse or tell a sexy joke. You know that I'm not wiser or better than other men. But I've been up on the hilltop, got my vision and my power; the rest is just trimmings. That vision never leaves me, not in jail, not while I'm painting funny signs for some hashhouse, not when I am in a saloon, not while I am with a woman, especially not then.
I am a medicine man because a dream told me to be one, because I am commanded to be one, because the old holy men . . . helped me to be one. There is nothing I can, or want, to do about it.
Shamans' experiences have transformed them in ways that are not visible to ordinary sight. Once you are called, you never really cease to be a shaman, even if you stop doing the tasks normally expected of a shaman. A shaman dedicated to the call never really stops growing and learning from their own experiences and from discussion with and feedback from others. Being a shaman, serving the spirits and the community, is not an easy life. Shamans typically undergo exceptional ordeals in their quest for healing power and magical knowledge. The very nature of the shaman's suffering and trials place the initiates outside of ordinary society, where the thought of undertaking such questing is anathema to the conventional man or woman. This contributes to the shaman's liminality, the state of in-between-ness that is a keynote of Otherworldly and sacred power in Celtic tradition.
Shamans or Diviners?: Evaluating the Evidence
Using our knowledge of modern shamanism, let's see how Celtic models compare.
(i) A shaman is called by a term that identifies their role in the community.
The Welsh cunning folk and Irish fairy doctors known to us from modern descriptions and folklore had roles similar to those filled by shamans, though, as discussed below, their methods are not the same. However, there is a real disconnect between the aristocratic tradition of the medieval myths and the folk traditions of the fairy doctors. Perhaps, the "wise" do not represent a survival of the "official" pre-Christian religion. Instead, they may continue a tradition that was alive in pre-Christian times alongside the "official" religion, a tradition that survived the onset of Christianity by serving the humbler members of the society and by adapting and learning to live with the latest official religion, just as it had survived alongside earlier ones.
(ii) A shaman believes that the world is inhabited by intelligent, conscious spirits who can control or affect events in the lives of humans.
This belief has always been an essential part of the Celtic worldview.
(iii) A shaman undergoes transformative initiatory experiences that involve visions, trances, and, frequently, debilitating illness. These experiences permanently mould the shaman's view of life and the world.
We do not know whether these experiences were part of the ordinary training and apprenticeship of seers in pre-Christian or medieval times. However, these motifs do sometimes appear in myths in the context of Otherworld encounters, and they do sometimes characterize the careers of fairy doctors and cunning folk.
(iv) A shaman "travels" in trance to other dimensions or modes of consciousness, more or less at will, although ceremony is usually used to induce the trance.
Certainly, the Otherworld played a huge role in the traditions of the medieval Irish, Welsh, and Bretons, though it is difficult to determine to what extent this role was inherited from past, inactive traditions rather than from present practices. As Leslie Ellen Jones notes, if one looks in the Celtic tales, "there is no tale that tells us of a druid's journey to the Otherworld," though druids certainly are depicted working all sorts of magic. Except for Taliesin, those who journey are kings or warriors. Fionn is identified as a poet, but he is also a hunter, warrior, and king (rigfhénnid) of the fian. Historical accounts provide little clarification, if any. Whether the seer is sleeping on a bull-hide, lying in trance after chewing raw pig flesh, or whirling about like the awenyddion, the medieval historical accounts depict a change of consciousness in which the seer contacts spirits. Given the Celtic belief that such spirits inhabited the Otherworld, should we assume that a sort of journeying was involved? In other words, while medieval seers thought their inspiration came from Otherworldly sources, it is not clear that they thought of themselves as journeying. This is important because journeying distingishes a shaman from a seer. Also, while a journey to the Otherworld may be part of the seer's initial receipt of "knowledge," it is not necessarily an ongoing part of their practice. Should we assume that every trance or vision is by definition a journey because it involves an altered state of consciousness?
(v) A shaman acquires spirit allies who provide knowledge during Otherworldly encounters. The process of acquiring allies may also involve receiving animal shapes used in Otherworld "journeys."
In Irish myths, the heroes often acquire Otherworldly allies, frequently in the form of "fairy lovers" but also in the form of powerful kings such as Lugh or Manannán. The description of imbas forosnai in Sanas Cormaic specifies that the seer invokes his "gods." Robert Kirk speaks of obtaining knowledge from the inhabitants of the "secret commonwealth." Biddy Early had those she called "my friends" or "my people." Lady Gregory's informants agreed that a fairy doctor's powers came from the Otherworld.
Celtic myths are replete with deity figures adopting animals forms as often as human ones, and modern folktales speak of "fairies" that appear in animal form. However, modern seers do not speak of their guides taking on animal forms though modern folk traditions do talk about taking omens from the behavior of animals. This aspect of earlier practice may have been lost.
(vi) A shaman assumes a role of service to the community in one or more capacities such as seer, psychopomp, or healer.
The classical evidence is clear that the seer-vates-played a significant role in the ritual life of the Gaulish communities. We can only assume that equivalent figures played equivalent roles in pre-Christian Ireland and Wales. After the coming of Christianity, the role of seer was passed to the fili who continued to take omens and foresee for those who consulted him. In the modern era, the folk practitioners played important roles in their communities as sources of healing and advice, despite opposition from Christian clergy. With advances in scientific medicine and technology and a general breakdown of traditional culture, their role has diminished in importance. Interestingly, the folk practitioners do not serve psychopomp roles other than to predict deaths. In traditional Celtic communities when people were dying, they usually turned to Christian ministers and priests. Stories told to Lady Gregory insisted that even Biddy Early was attended by a priest at her death. Even if the stories aren't true, their existence suggests that having a priest at hand was the "proper" thing for anyone to do.
(vii) A shaman assumes a position of liminality in the community or in magical stance. Some shamans deliberately live apart while others are simply perceived as "different" because of their gifts and practices.
We don't know how closely seers were integrated into their communities before the modern era. Certainly, modern accounts depict seers as part of their communities yet also distinct within the community. The way fairy doctors were singled out and attacked by Christian clergy in itself gave them a kind of liminal status. Practitioners' association with the "fairies" also made them "different," but it was a kind of distinction that was accepted within the community, too. Although some condemned fairy doctors for consorting with what they considered "devils," most accepted them as playing a role that made a positive, if somewhat unorthodox, contribution to the community's well-being.
(viii) A shaman follows a path firmly rooted in the culture of the community being served. This culture determines the methods, cosmology, and other ideology on which the practice is based.
Traditionally, the methods, practices, and beliefs of Celtic practitioners reflected those of the community and culture they served. This is not simply a question of education or a lack thereof. The seventeenth century Scottish seer Robert Kirk was well educated. His interpretation of what the "good people" were, and why certain practices were done reflected his exposure to other cultures, belief systems, and technology and science as they were understood in his time. However, he followed the practices of his culture. In both respects-his adherence to tradition as well as his willingness to develop his own ideas about his practice-Kirk was typical of practitioners in any time or place.
(ix) A shaman uses ceremony and ritual to contact spirits and seek their help. The cultural context determines the details of the ceremony or ritual.
Perhaps we should also note what may be a crucial difference between Celtic practitioners and indigenous shamans: the lack or minimal use of ceremony. Classical shamanic cultures intensively use ceremony to induce the journeying trance and bring the "patient" into the right frame of mind. While rituals may be conducted for someone who is not physically present, conducting the ritual is still crucial. In Scottish, Irish, and Welsh accounts, however, the lack of ritual is notable.
For example, let's look at the case of Biddy Early. We don't know what Biddy Early was doing when she went out to her stable alone. Though her clients were sure she was contacting the "fairies," perhaps she was just trying to get some peace from those who thronged her kitchen! Moroever, in contrast to Siberian shamans or practitioners of almost any indigenous culture, there are no accounts of Biddy donning a special outfit or chanting special songs to induce trance. Instead, the closest we get to ceremony is Biddy looking in her bottle and telling people what to do. If this is ceremony, it is a minimalist one!
In modern times, some of the wise-fairy doctors, cunning folk, or whatever they were called by their communities-played a role analogous to that of shamans in indigenous communities but that, of itself, does not warrant using the label "shaman" when discussing Celtic practitioners. Alice B. Kehoe cautions against rushing to place the shaman label on European seers because the cultural context is crucial. As she points out, "trance does not equal shamanism." David Holmberg remarks that:
Although a rich ethnographic literature is subsumed under the term shamanism, shamanism remains intractable as an object of general study, in part because disparate practices have been disassociated from larger cultural contexts and linked to universal motivations . . . [The] reconstruction of shamanism as an isolate appears as an anthropological illusion . . .
As noted earlier, the notion of shamanism as a universal religion or a phenomenon dissociated from religion is an anthropological construct, not the belief of the people who practice. While practitioners may play similar roles in their cultures, this does not make their practices the "same." Differences in approach are what make each culture unique. At what point are the similarities more crucial than the differences? An anthropologist observing a Siberian shaman and an Irish ben feasa might focus on the facts that both use traditional herbal medicine, claim to receive knowledge from the Otherworld, and serve their community. From this overview, the anthropologist might conclude that both should be called "shamans." But practitioners like John Fire Lame Deer and Biddy Early might conclude: "Yes, we both serve the people, and when we talk we understand each other, but our ways are different." The differences are as important as the similarities, and the rush to depict all cultures as "the same" helps to extinguish cultures, especially minority ones.
As I see it, the Celts have always had seers, people who receive knowledge from the Otherworld but, if they once had shamans in the fullest sense, they died out with the last of the fénnidi. Celtic seers surely had contact with the forces of the Otherworld, contacts that might result in their making "friends" or allies who communicated with them regularly. Their experiences probably included what could be called journeys in dream or trance. The journeys may have helped to build the relationship and communication between seer and spirits. However, when it came to serving others, Celtic seers sought knowledge of what others should do; they did not conduct healing ceremonies as a rule. Time and again, descriptions stress the ordinariness of Celtic seers and their ways. In whatever way suited them best-whether by looking in a bottle or sitting back in a chair- Celtic seers re-established the line of communication and waited for the "vision that illumines." In medieval times, the vision might have been followed by a torrent of verses with an answer hidden in the lines. In the modern era, the vision might be followed by the suggestion that the patient eat some "cold oranges" or drink a bottle of an herbal mixture, re-assurance that the lost person was well and would soon send a letter, or a shake of a the head and the statement, "It is none of my business." No drumming, no feathered robes, no dancing around fires. The closest we get to ceremony is when the frithir says a prayer and then walks sunwise around the house or stands in the doorway. Perhaps drumming, special garb, and ritual movements were all once part of pre-Christian ceremonies and rituals, but their traces are gone.
Also, the words the Celts have used in connection with the practices of seers have stressed two images or concepts: knowledge and sight. Barbara Tedlock defines divination as, "a way of exploring the unknown in order to elicit answers to questions beyond the range of ordinary human understanding," and this accurately described the ways of Celtic seers. They sought knowledge, which often came in the form of visions, although it also could come as inspired utterings. Thus, Celtic practitioners should be considered seers or possibly diviners, but not shamans. While divination and shamanism are closely related, they are not the same.
Now that we've looked at the evidence for shamanic behaviors and seer practices in Celtic cultures, let's see what the tradition really was.
1. Classical writers from the Continent speak of Celtic religious practitioners as either philosophers or priests. However, a few depict seers-vates-taking omens by observing the behavior of animals or interpreting other physical evidence. Descriptions of Celtic tribes in what is now Germany describe a woman seer whose ecstatic utterings were interpreted and announced by an assistant. Shamanic behaviors are not mentioned.
2. Despite the lack of classical commentary, the earliest pre-Christian Celts may have had full-fledged shamanic practitioners associated with their hunting activities. Traces of these practices may be seen in Continental iconography. Medieval Irish tales and saints' stories suggest that hunter-shaman traditions may have persisted among the forest-dwelling warbands known as fiana in Ireland. These war-bands became assimilated as kings' body-guards no later than the eleventh century.
3. The main emphasis of Celtic food production was herding and crop cultivation. Community ritual focused on ensuring good weather and other favorable circumstances. These needs required clergy who specialized in leading ritual. Also, some became specialists in law and other ancestral lore while others specialized in learning and recounting myth. Working alongside these specialists in ritual and lore were seers-called fáthi in Irish- who probably contacted Otherworldly forces to obtain knowledge and overcome unfriendly spirits.
4. Some warriors may have undergone a type of visionary initiation that involved encounters with Otherworld forces.
5. After Christianity became dominant in Celtic societies, three strains of shamanic-type practices continued in the mainstream and folk traditions:
· Poets continued to use journeying-type trance techniques to invoke inspiration. With the decline of the native aristocracies, the role of the poet also declined
· Folk seers, through contact with and gifts from the Otherworld, served their communities by telling the future, finding lost objects or learning the fate of missing people, and discerning and fighting what they perceived as the activities of harmful magic
· Folk healers-fairy doctors and cunning folk-frequently were credited with the ability to effect cures by invoking Otherworldly power or activating talismans. Fairy doctors and cunning folk also typically acquired a large store of herbal knowledge.
If any living Celtic tradition can be said to be "shamanic" today, it is that of the fairy doctors and cunning folk who remain in traditional Celtic communities. Their stores of lore and practice remain our strongest living link with the shamanic traditions of the past. Perhaps instead of turning to Celtic-flavored core shamanism or other modern adaptations, interest in Celtic seer practices should lead us to these traditional practitioners. They are living treasures.