Chapter 17 Healing in the Celtic World

 It has long been recognised that the herbal knowledge of indigenous people has some basis in scientific fact, and these days researchers are more ready to admit that many other folk healing practices have some effect on the particular illnesses and injuries that beset all human groups. Indeed, such medicine is now dignified with the name ‘ethnomedicine’ and there are many studies of surviving indigenous healing methods in Africa, the Americas, Asia and parts of Europe.

The healing practices of the ancient Celts, and their more modern counterparts in Wales, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland, are similarly worthy of study and consideration. Rather than simply a hotchpotch of superstitions and bizarre customs, many of these practices grew out of a magico-religious belief system that identified sources of power and how to harness it for healing purposes.

In this chapter I propose to look at some of the healing methods used, both those described in the ancient texts and the more recent folklore examples, and give some consideration to the beliefs they grew out of.




The ancient Celts inhabited a very different world to ours in the modern day West. They didn’t live in towns and cities but in rural communities based on kin-groups and they had no knowledge of the science and technology that we know today. As they saw it, they were at the mercy of the land, sea and sky, the elements, and the inhabitants of the Otherworld for food, clothing, shelter, weapons, travel and trade. The essentials for survival had to be wrested out of a chaotic and unpredictable environment. The tools that enabled them to do this were an observation of, and reverence for, natural phenomena, a formalized relationship with the denizens of the Otherworld (including the ancestors who had valuable experience of life) and an oral system of passing down knowledge.

The ability to function and perform one’s tasks was essential For the individual and the community to survive, people had to be able to function and perform their work, meaning that health was one of the things that had to be maintained. Disease was seen as coming from a state of imbalance with the Otherworld, as a result of actions that contravened natural laws or from malign influences such as the evil eye.

We’ll look now at some of the concepts that underpinned the society of the ancient Celts and have implications for their view of healing. We’ll also consider some of the tools and spiritual technologies they used to try and maintain the order and balance they needed for survival.


1 Truth and ’Rightness’.


Medieval tales

In the ancient Irish tales, order and prosperity were maintained by truth, which was seen as a magical force. The concept of ‘the justice of the ruler’ (fírinne flátha) meant that the king had to uphold the truth at all costs:


Truth in a ruler is as bright as the foam cast up by a mighty wave of the sea, as the sheen of a swan’s covering in the sun, as the colour of snow on a mountain. A ruler’s truth is an effort which overpowers armies. It brings milk into the world. It brings corn and mast.1

In one story, after the king, Lugaid, gave a false judgement, the boy Cormac macArt pronounced the true one and the side of the building in which the false judgement had been uttered fell down the hillside - a graphic description of how things fall apart when the truth is

not maintained. But it is not just man-made things that are affected; abundance, prosperity and health are granted from the Otherworld when the ruler upholds and utters the truth, and scarcity, lack of growth, sickness and even death ensue if he does not.

There was a strong connection between healing and regeneration, fertility and abundance. In Celtic Europe, for instance, healing goddesses were often associated with imagery of corn and fruit, and in Ireland St Brigit, who took on many goddess-like attributes, was able to grant healing, protection from disease and abundance of food and drink. Both Brehon Law and the ancient sagas show that the Irish were aware of the role of nutrition in caring for the sick.

Food was grown by harnessing the fertile but chaotic forces of the universe through the work of sowing and harvesting. These had to be carried out at certain times, on certain days, using the appropriate rituals that sought the protection and help of the deities. Healing charms had to be accompanied by the right ritual actions or words and to be used only by the people they had been handed down to. In this way ‘rightness’ was maintained and order was imposed on chaos in a way that respected the elemental forces and the world of the gods and spirits.

Since the king was mystically connected to the well being of the land and society, if he wasn’t ‘whole’, if he was diseased or blemished in some way, he could no longer rule. Because of this, Nuada could no longer be king when he lost his hand in the first battle of Maige Tuired. More recently, the wounded fisher king who presides over a wasteland in Arthurian legend reflects this idea.

We can still see related concepts in the later 20th century in Ireland. For the folk of Ballymenone in Ulster the idea of ‘rightness’ conveyed a state where things partake of the natural order when it is in balance, maintained by truth. ‘...the District’s people are "right" when they are complete, natural, in good health, in perfect tune with conditions. To be right you must be happy.’ (And to be happy you must be right). Cures were "right" and "true" when they were handed down through the traditional families who had been gifted with the cure for a particular illness.2


2 Balance

 Balance was fundamental to the natural order and had to be maintained by ritual, work and the law.

 Classical Reports and the Medieval Tales

Julius Caesar wrote (c. 52 BC) that:

 "The whole nation of the Gauls is greatly devoted to ritual observances, and for that reason those who are smitten with the more grievous maladies and who are engaged in the perils of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow to do so, employing the Druids as ministers for such sacrifices. They believe, in effect, that unless for a man’s life a man’s life be paid the majesty of the immortal gods may not be appeased".

If he is reporting correctly then it seems that a person who was facing death could redeem himself or herself, in effect, by giving someone else’s life as a sacrifice. Was this because, as Caesar seems to suggest, one’s life belonged to the gods and they had to be given compensation if they were cheated of it? Or perhaps it was because the dead person should have gone to the Otherworld, the home of the gods, and if he stayed in the world of the living it would create a vacuum that had to be filled. Caesar was interpreting Gaulish religion through the lens of his own religious beliefs and practices so we have only a distorted picture, lacking in precision. Nevertheless, this account does point to the importance of balance as it applied to healing. In a sense, recovery from an illness had to be paid for, and the more serious the illness, the greater the fee.

In the medieval Irish tales, disease and death were often seen to arise as a result of disorder and imbalance - many heroes met their death as a result of violating their geis, a prohibition or taboo placed upon them which, when broken, disturbed the order of things. There was a geis upon the king of Tara that he should not let the sun rise above him while he was still in bed in Tara. Certain inadvertent or disrespectful interactions with the Otherworld, which disturbed the balance between the two worlds, could also result in sickness. For instance, the wasting-sickness of CúChulainn, the champion of Ulster, comes upon him after he tries to kill two birds of Otherwordly power.

The Brehon Law of early Ireland assigned a value to everything and a system of compensation was applied so that order and balance - when it had been disturbed by injury to persons or damage or theft of property - could be redressed. This illustrates how the old Irish legal system was built not upon the idea of punishment or retribution but on a kind of restorative justice that maintained order for the individual and society. If someone had harmed another person they had to pay a fine which would enable the injured party to have medical care. This gave rise to a system of doctors who were qualified to assess the damage and give medical attention.



Folk Tradition

For the Irish folk, illness often resulted if one of the fairy folk was not treated with kindness or respect, or if their activities were disturbed in any way (such as by the building of a house across one of their track ways). They talked of the ‘penalty’, the price that had to be paid to re-establish the balance. The fairy doctors were able to restore the balance between the world of the fairies and that of the folk, but this often meant that they were the ones to pay the penalty, although a relative of the sick person could also be called upon to pay it. Just as Julius Caesar had talked of a person being sacrificed in the place of a seriously ill person, a life for a life, an informant of Lady Gregory’s recounted:


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 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.3

The ‘eye’ (evil eye) was thought to be the cause of many misfortunes including the illness and death of both people and livestock, the butter failing to form, or the crops to prosper. Witches, fairies or malevolent persons could use the ‘eye’ and therefore it was unwise to offend them.

In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the early 20th century, alongside a belief in the malign influence of the fairies and the evil eye, it was commonly held that there were twenty-four diseases of man and beast caused directly by fridich or microbes and the like. The reason why some were afflicted with these was unknown, but the folk speculated that it was as a result of offending - not the fairies this time - but the Christian God. There is a consistency in this belief, namely that offending Otherwordly beings results in sickness. The fairy doctors and traditional healers of the insular Celts were able to restore right relations with the Otherworld and bring about healing.

 For the Christian people of Ballymenone, diseases and cures had their own balance for the people of the area believed that God sent disease to test humankind but also gave them, through saints and nature, the means to heal.

 3 Human Beings and the Cosmos

There may be a lost Celtic tradition, in common with other Indo-European examples, that the world was created from the body of a giant or one of a set of divine twins. Human beings were then made from the materials of this created world. There is an interdependence in this thinking that has implications both for ritual sacrifice (since the sacrifice of the body of a human being will then restore the world when it has gone out of balance) and for healing.

There are certain texts in Irish and Welsh, which, although they show an obvious Christian influence, may reveal traces of this earlier concept since they state that human beings are made from parts of the cosmos. One of these texts appears in Welsh in a medical manuscript dated c. AD 1400 and is as follows:


[The Eight Parts of Man]

There should be eight parts in each man: the first part of the earth, and the second of the sea, and the third of the sun, the fourth of the wind, the fifth of the cloud, the sixth of stone, the seventh of the Holy Spirit, the eighth of the Light of the World called Christ.

Man’s flesh is of the earth, his blood of the sea, his eyes of the sun, his breath of the wind, his mind and his inconstancy of the clouds, his bones of [the stone], his soul of the Holy Spirit, his understanding of the Light of the World, that is, of Christ.

If the greatest part of him is of the earth, he will be languid and heavy; if of the sea, he will be wise; if of the wind, he will be volatile and adulterous; if of the cloud he will be volatile and wrathful; if of the stone he will be hard and niggardly and a thief; if of the Holy Spirit he will be amiable and perfect and godly in his deeds.

The conventional medieval medical theory of the four humours, expounded by Galen (AD - 200), that humans were made up of just four elements, water, fire, earth and air, corresponding to blood, choler, phlegm and melancholy, also appears in the Hafod manuscript. The idea of the four elements comes from the 5th c BC Greek Empedocles, and is not, originally, a Celtic concept. The ancient Celts thought in terms of more than four elements; there are an indeterminate number somewhere between seven and eleven. In the Eight Parts of Man, we see six - earth, sun, cloud, sea, stone and wind. Too much of one element will cause an associated disposition, a mental, emotional or moral imbalance - so too much stone will make a man hard and niggardly and a thief. Unfortunately it is not recorded how this theory was applied therapeutically, but it may once have had implications for physical illnesses.


4 The Slain God

The slain god is a variation on the creation myth outlined above. According to Mircea Eliade, there are several stories from different cultures in which a divine being is sacrificed to give the means of life to humankind; usually different kinds of plants grow from his or her body to be used for food.v

In The Second Battle of Maige Tuired there is an Irish adaptation of this motif. DíanCécht, the physician of the Túatha Dé Danaan, killed and buried his son, Míach, being jealous of his superior powers of healing. From Míach’s grave grew three hundred and sixty-five herbs which his sister Airmed gathered and spread on her cloak according to their properties. However, DíanCécht, his jealousy apparently unabated, mixed them up so that no-one would know what these were. In this version of the myth, healing plants are the gifts that are given rather than nutritive ones. In this mindset, healing, as well as food, is necessary to humankind and is given by a divine being.

However it is unlikely that this belief has survived into Christian Ireland. The people of Ballymenone in the 20th century believed that the Christian God made a herb to cure everything, rather than his sacrificed son providing them. There was speculation about how people knew which herb cured which disease. One theory suggested that the specific cures found within families were originally whispered to the ancestors by God. God also told St Patrick about the dho (a healing herb) on Inishmore and he gathered the plant and gave it into the keeping of the Noble family. "The cure works because God works through it." viOthers say the cures may have been discovered by experimentation.


5 Wisdom from the Otherworld

In Celtic tradition wisdom comes from the Otherworld and is gained, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes by stealth, by an individual who then becomes possessed of extraordinary powers.

In Irish tradition Demne is the recipient of the Otherwordly wisdom that was supposedly meant for Finn the poet. Demne is given the task of cooking the salmon of wisdom from the river Boyne. Although he had been told not to eat any of it, he burnt his thumb while cooking it, which led to him instinctively putting his thumb into his mouth and tasting the salmon’s juices. In this way he obtained all knowledge and was given the name Finn by the poet. So the youthful Demne is transformed into the all-knowing Finn, the gaining of wisdom becoming an initiation into a new identity.

In the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne, when Diarmuid is fatally injured by a wild boar, he tells Finn that he has the power to heal him

 "...for when thou didst get the noble precious gift of divining at the Boyne, it was granted thee that to whomsoever thou should give a drink from the palm of thy hands he should after that be young and fresh, and sound from any sickness he might have at that time." vii

In Welsh legend the witch Ceridwen gathered magical herbs, uttering incantations as she did so, and put them in a cauldron to boil, giving Gwion Bach the job of stirring the cauldron. The brew was intended to give inspiration and science to her son Afagddu to compensate him for his ugliness. By chance, however, three drops of the magical brew flew out of the cauldron as Gwion was stirring it, and landed on his finger. Because of the heat, he put his finger into his mouth and at once received the gift of inspiration and wisdom and, after being pursued through several transformations and finally eaten by Ceridwen, was reborn as the chief bard Taliesin. The wisdom he gains includes the knowledge of true healing, of restoring the life force, as described by a poem in the Book of Taliesin entitled Angar Cyfyndawd, The Inimical Confederation:

 Let my liquor be that which rightfully belonged to Afagddu.
Did he not skilfully bear away the strains of knowledge?
Gwiawn on whom it overflowed,
And he became profound.
He could restore the dead to life. viii

Oral tradition from Scotland has a similar story but one which relates more specifically to the gaining of healing knowledge. Michael Scott, who supposedly lived in the 13th century, obtained his knowledge of healing in much the same way as Finn and Taliesin. He tasted a magical broth made from a white snake which he had been asked to watch over by a woman who had intended the knowledge for herself. Immediately, ‘light and knowledge broke in upon him, and he discovered that he had the power to foretell events, to work magic cures, and to read the minds of other people.’ He also gains fairy helpers. ix In another version the protagonist is called Farquhar, the name of an actual doctor mentioned in two charters dating from 1379 and 1386, which grant land to ‘Fearchar the leech.’ This tale is similar to others in Teutonic tradition in which the person who eats the white snake is able to understand the speech of the birds. In the Scottish treatment it retains the idea of the finger being put in the mouth and of this imparting the gift of knowledge, both of which relate to the Welsh and Irish tales.

A word of caution however. The seeking of wisdom, including the wisdom of healing, is a dangerous business, death may ensue or the gift has to be paid for by maiming or disease. Wisdom comes from the Otherworld, for it entails seeing outside the confines of the mundane and temporal and there is a price to be paid for interfering with the Otherworld, a penalty as we have seen. There are Irish stories about the river goddesses Boand and Sinann who sought the wisdom found in magic wells. They both drowned and gave their names to the rivers Boyne and Shannon respectively. Boand loses an eye, an arm and a thigh. In some strands of the Finn tradition Finn had to cut off his finger in order to escape the wizard who has intended the knowledge for himself. In another story he became old and grey-haired after swimming in a magical lake. The lord of an Otherworldly dwelling offered him a drink which restored him and gave him special knowledge but half of his hair remained grey and Finn chose to keep this, probably as a symbol of his Otherworldly knowledge. x


Otherworldly Knowledge Passed Down in Families

It is common to Welsh, Irish and Scottish tradition that families of physicians are descended from someone who has been given access to Otherworld knowledge. As we have seen, there was a historical physician called Farquhar who was granted lands by charter, and oral tradition says that Fearchar’s descendants were the Beatons who became hereditary physicians to the Munros of Foulis. It was characteristic of Celtic society in Ireland, Scotland and Wales to have learned and professional classes who adhered to a strong hereditary principle, had rights and status in law and were bound to clan leaders and princes. In Wales, Rhiwallon and his three sons Cadwgan, Gruffydd and Einion, were physicians to Rhys Gryg, a son of Rhys ab Gruffydd, the prince of Deheubarth in South Wales in the thirteenth century. A tradition arose that their healing skills had come from a fairy woman who appeared from a lake called Llyn y Fan Fach and married the son of a widow. She returned to the lake after receiving three causeless blows from her husband. Later on she met with her eldest son and gave him a bag full of prescriptions and instructions for healing, as well as prophesying that they and their descendants would become famous doctors for many centuries. These physicians were granted lands and privileges around Myddfai in Carmarthenshire and their descendants continued to practice medicine until the middle of the eighteenth century and possibly longer.

In Ireland families of physicians, such as the O’Lees, were often said to have obtained their knowledge from Otherworld books. Certainly many of the physicians in all three countries did possess books containing medical knowledge and these were of considerable interest and value - in Ireland the Earl of Kildare bought a medical textbook in 1500 for the equivalent of £1,000 and in Scotland the cost of copying a certain medical manuscript in the 18th C was 60 milk cows. It is not surprising therefore that legends and superstitions arose concerning these books.


Fairy Doctors

As we shall see later, in Celtic folk traditions the fairy doctors obtained their knowledge and healing abilities from the Otherworld. They were able to converse with the fairies and other spirits in order to find out what the cause of a person’s illness was and how it might be cured.

 6 The Power of Language

 The Spoken Word

 Before the advent of the written word the spoken word, in particular poetry, was seen as possessing magical and creative power. The Old Irish word for poetry, creth, and the Welsh cognate, prydydd, contain the idea of shaping, leading the linguist Calvert Watkins to suggest that the image underlying these is one of magical transformation. Celtic words for inspiration are related to the words for breath and wind. The spoken word, which is uttered by means of the breath, may have been seen as a tangible expression of inspiration and creation. xi

 In Medieval Tales and Poetry

The chief poet and leader of the Gaels, Amergin, called the land of Ireland into existence out of the magical mist of the Túatha Dé Danaan by uttering an invocation, and in the Welsh Ca^d Goddau or Battle of the Trees, Gwydion the magician appealed to God for help and is told:

 By means of speech, o magician,
Conjure up lordly trees -
A hundred soldiers in hosts -
And impede the vigorous one. xii

Such creative power could also be used for healing. The Cath Maige Tuired although written down in the 11th c or 12th c contains material from as early as the 9th. In this mythological tale, the warriors of the Túatha Dé Danaan who are wounded in the battle are put into the Well of Sláine and emerge healed. We are told, "Their mortally-wounded were healed through the power of the incantation made by the four physicians who were around the well."xiii In the 8thC recension of the Táin Bó Cuailnge, or Cattle Raid of Cooley, CúChulainn and Ferdia are so badly wounded towards the end of their conflict that they are beyond the help of herbs and plants and ‘nothing could be done but lay magic amulets on them and say spells and incantations to stop the spurts and spouts of blood.’ xiv

What is an incantation? It is a particular form of spell in which the words are chanted or sung. It is built up by the repetition of words, phrases, sounds and cadences to produce a hypnotic effect. This may put the person reciting as well as those listening into an altered state of consciousness, making them more receptive to suggestion. In the case of healing incantations, when these are combined with a ritual action which simulates ridding the sufferer of disease, or with drinking or applying healing herbs or objects, it must often has a powerful and positive effect. Names of power – of deities and the ancestors - were often used in incantations and were thought to actively summon up the powers of the deity or being so named. A

In the case of the healing of the mortally wounded warriors at the Well of Sláine, the incantation is singled out as the most important part of the healing act. However, there are other components in this healing ritual which re-occur throughout the healing folklore of the insular Celts - the use of water, especially from wells, and of herbs, for we are told that Dían Cécht put into the well "every herb that grew in Ireland." We will come back to these later.

A The lulling and hypnotic effect of the incantation or charm often made ritual actions more effective. No doubt also the fact of being in the presence of the healer, a person known to have special powers would have had an invigorating effect on the psyche and immune system of the patient. Ritual actions, symbolic and often highly dramatic, were also a feature of folk healing. Kate Bosse Griffiths tells of a dyn hysbys, John Harries of Cwrycadno, who was said to have cured a madman who believed that he had a devil living in him, and who had been given all sorts of treatment without effect. Dr. Harries told the man that he did indeed have a devil living in him, that he had swallowed a tadpole while drinking from a spring and that this had grown into a frog inside him. He then proceeded to use a book, call upon the spirits and made the madman vomit, making sure that there was a frog in the vomit. The patient screamed "Here he is the devil. I've got you at last. You shan't disturb me any more, you devil" and was completely cured of his malady. The symbolic enactment of a cure resulted in an actual cure.

There may also be some significance in the description of the four physicians who stood around the well to make the incantation. In a story called The Sickbed of Cú Chulainn three heroes of Ulster visit him on his sickbed, together with his wife, Ethne, and they arrange themselves around Cú Chulainn at four points with himself in the middle. xv We are told that it was ‘as they were in this manner’ that a man called Angus, the son of Aed Abrat, came in and sang a song to Cú Chulainn after which he spoke for the first time in a year and was able to relate what had happened to him, setting in motion a train of events that eventually leads to his healing. There are similarities here in the arrangement of four people around the sick or wounded person in the centre and the utterance of an incantation or a song.


Folk tradition

Just as incantations are used in the Táin Bó Cuailnge to stop CúChulainn and Ferdia from haemorrhaging, there are recorded accounts of people in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall being able to stop bleeding by the use of incantations or rhythmical prayers. In Scotland the practice of casgadh fala, the checking of blood, was carried out without even touching the patient, and sometimes even from a distance. Although the crowfoot plant was sometimes touched or present it was not an essential part of the cure which consisted of the utterance of a "short rhythmical prayer" or incantation such as :


Checking of blood,

Mother of Christ

In name of Father

Incantation of blood,

Shield us,

In name of Son,

Blood shall congeal,

Succour us,

In name of Spirit,

Wound shall close.

The holy Three of life,

Salve of Mary

Spare us, aid us xvi


It had to be recited by someone of upright life and pure heart and was passed down, as were many healing charms in Ireland, from man to woman and woman to man (in Wales they seem more often to have been passed down through the same gender). In Pembrokeshire of the mid-nineteenth century there was a charmer who specialised in stopping blood. He dipped his finger in the blood of the person haemorrhaging and made the sign of the cross on his forehead. Then he muttered over him words from Ezekiel "And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thy own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live. Yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live." He then stretched out his hand as if blessing the man. This incantation was repeated 9 times. xviiThe use of this charm has also been recorded in Cornwall while in Ireland another formula was used relating the flow of blood to the flow of the river Jordan, such as: "There came a man from Bethlehem to be baptised in the river Jordan, but the water was so muddy that it stopped flowing. So let the blood! So let the blood!…"

We are very fortunate to have numerous examples of incantations and charms or ortha collected by Alexander Carmichael in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. The charms were in the original Gaelic and translated into English by Carmichael. Although Scotland lacks the early written tales and poetry of Ireland and Wales, this collection, entitled the Carmina Gadelica, is unique in its depiction of the prayers, rituals and charms that were part of the everyday lives of the folk of the 19th century Highlands and Islands and which, although Christianised (and to some extent ‘improved’ by Carmichael), give us a glimpse of older beliefs and customs encapsulated in oral form to an extent not found elsewhere. The healers and fairy doctors did not like to disclose the words of charms and incantations for they were thought to lose their properties if they were not said in the right way and with the right accompanying actions, or if they were told to someone who did not take them seriously, and this would have repercussions for their custodians. Rather than offend, it seems that people would often pretend to have forgotten the words of the charms when asked by folklorists or researchers, and examples of them are much scarcer in Ireland and Wales. It says a lot for the trust that the folk must have had in Carmichael that he was able to collect so much.

Of the healing incantations and charms, together with rituals, found in the Carmina Gadelica there are some for healing diseases of livestock, some for the healing of people and some that were to be said while collecting the various protective plants and medicinal herbs. English translations do not do justice to the complexity and beauty of some of the Gaelic originals. Here, for instance, is a verse which will give some idea of the repetition, alliteration and assonance contained in the originals:

Air na saigheada sìdhe sìodha,
Air saigheada sìodha seun,
Air saigheada sluagha sàthach,
Air saigheada sàrach seud;

Against the fairy elfin arrows,
Against the elfin arrows charmed,
Against piercing arrows of fairy host,
Against harassing arrows on the journey;

The names of power found in the ortha are a mix of Christian and pagan, as is also the case in many Irish charms and prayers. The charms show a synthesis of Christian and pagan tradition. For instance the charm made by Fionn son of Curnall (quoted from above) clearly reflects the belief in the fairies but ends "In tryst of Father and Son of tears/ In tryst of perfect Spirit of might/Refuse not the prayer to one in need/And say it not on the Lord’s day."

We can see from this how the two systems of thought and belief could exist side by side. The Christian story is interwoven with more ancient beliefs. Jesus, his heavenly and powerful Father who had sent him as a sacrifice to the people, his loving mother Mary and foster-father Joseph appear beside Gaelic saints like Columba and Bride, as well as alongside the traditional beliefs in the often malign power of the fairies, of the evil eye, of the ‘surly creatures of the mountains’ and the heroes and heroines of Gaelic myth and legend like Fionn. Bride is written into the Christian story as his foster-mother, an obvious anachronism since the saint was born hundreds of years after Christ, or perhaps the earlier pagan goddess Brigit is being remembered here.

All this gives us a rich picture of the way that the folk appropriated and embraced the Christian story and imbued it with a unique perspective. The divine family is welcomed in a personal and intimate way into each person’s home and family to lend their support and protection:

 I am lying down tonight
With Mary mild and with her Son
With the mother of my King
Who is shielding me from harm.

Often the treatment of the Christian material shows just this emphasis on Celtic values, such as the importance of the hearth and of kinship as seen here. The key to understanding the Celtic mindset lies not in rejecting everything with a Christian or contemporary overlay but in looking at how these things have been incorporated into the Celtic world-view and how the treatment and practice of them differed from the treatment and practice of them in other cultures.

In comparatively recent times it was believed that poets could, by writing verses, which referred to particular illnesses, effect a cure. There are folk stories of the 19th c blind Irish poet Anthony Raftery protecting a house where he stayed from a fever that was prevalent in the village by composing and reciting a verse.xviii


A form of verbal charm which had spread from the Continent rather than being native to the Insular Celts, was that of the ‘legend’. This took the form of a brief story of a healing act carried out by a divine being, Christ himself or one of the saints. This charm, for instance, was popular in Wales and one version of it, although in the Welsh language, was said to have come from an Irish priest in county Cork, showing how such things moved from country to country:

 Peter sat on a marble stone,
Jesus came up to him all alone.
Peter, what is the matter?
The toothache, my Lord God.
Rise Peter and thou shalt be cured;
And every man and woman who believes these words
Shall be cured of the toothache,
Which I perform in the name of God.

This type of charm contains similar elements to the invocatory charms since it uses the power of the word and of names but being in story form gives it another dimension. Story-telling was an important part of Celtic society and its uses and benefits went far beyond that of mere entertainment and social cohesion. In the process of the telling the ancestors were brought to life and their supernatural powers affirmed. The people of the tribe or community were brought into contact with the myths that affirmed the values and truths that were believed to underpin the mundane world. Although the ‘Legends’ from the Continent were in the main brief tales of Christ and his disciples, as we can see from the Carmina Gadelica the holy family, as well as certain of the non-Celtic saints such as Michael (thought by some scholars to be a replacement for the Celtic god Lugh), were in a sense adopted by the Scottish Celts and brought into the community and the family.

From Ireland there is an instance of a long story being used for healing xixand in The Vision of MacConglinne, the belief that the telling of a story could confer all sorts of benefits upon the hearers is satirised; it includes the promise that if recited as the first tale in a new house, no corpse would be taken out of it. Although satirical, this nonetheless demonstrates that there were such beliefs. xx It is possible therefore that the Legend charms found special acceptance in Celtic society because they told such a healing story.

One of the ways in which telling stories may have been supposed to work was by sympathetic magic - the story, spoken on the breath, was a created truth, giving an example of healing. In a similar situation - i.e. toothache - a similar outcome – a cure of the toothache - could be created.

 The Written Word

 Julius Caesar commented that the druids did not commit any of their teachings to writing although they used Greek letters for recording other matters. The early insular Celts had a largely oral culture and left few written accounts, apart from inscriptions. In Ireland the earliest writings date from the beginning of the seventh century when some laws and traditional lore began to be written down, as well as Christian material such as lives of the saints.

 Medieval Books

Medieval Christian manuscripts were thought to possess miraculous healing powers. In 1627 Connel Mac Geoghegan, the translator of the Annals of Clonmacnoise told of the 300 books that St Columba is said to have written:

 ...which Bookes have a strange property, which is that if they or any of them had sunck to the bottom of the deepest waters they would not loose one letter, signe of character of them, which I have seen partly myselfe of that book of them which is at Durrow...for I saw the ignorant man that had the same in his custody, when sickness came upon cattle, for their remedy putt water on the book and suffered it rest there a while and saw alsoe cattle returning thereby to their former or pristin state and the book receave no loss.xxi

In Ireland, some of the medieval physicians were thought to have derived their knowledge from Otherworldly books, as we have seen earlier.

 Folk tradition

Healing charms were often written down and then kept in a small pouch hung round the neck (as were some of the Legends). In both Ireland and Wales the opening paragraphs of St John’s Gospel were thought to protect the wearer from illness and misfortune and were often written down (sometimes in Latin, by the priest) and worn in this way. In Ireland this was known as the custom of Leabhar Eoin. The opening lines of this gospel state:


"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God."

Here John was drawing on an idea from the pre-Christian religion of the Greeks concerning the Logos which emanated from the mouth of God and was responsible for creating the universe. This idea of the Logos was not unlike the personification of Wisdom (Sophia in Greek) found in the Hebrew ‘Wisdom Literature’ (Psalms, Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, etc) in which it was understood that Holy Wisdom was with God in creation. The author of John took this idea and connected it to the Logos, and gave the Greek world a version of Incarnation with which they could resonate; it also resonated with the Celts as with other Indo-European groups.

The dynion hysbys often possessed printed books for their education but also handwritten books of the various remedies, charms and rituals they used. These books have become part of a tradition in Welsh literature; known as ‘secret books’ owned by the dynion hysbys or cunning men - sometimes a page of one would be lost with wonderful consequences. A dyn hysbys from Denbighshire filled a tenth of his secret book with instructions for calling the fairies, the Tylwyth Teg, all but one of them being in Welsh. The rest of the book contains details of fortune telling and astrology, strict metre spells in both Welsh and English and instructions on how to make an amulet according to the tradition of the Cabala.xxii


 7 The Power of the Elements

Fire and water were particularly important elements in Celtic thought and belief. Strabo, in the 2nd century CE, recorded that the Druids believed that men’s souls and the universe were indestructible although both fire and water would at times prevail over them. Burning and drowning, along with wounding, were the three components of the triple, sacrificial death. Almost two thousand years later, in the folk tradition of Ireland, a way of protecting against a bird of ill-omen was to say, "Fire and water be on you, and in your mouth; and may the curse be on your head, O bird of evil, for evermore." xxiii

Water could cause flooding and there are many myths about wells or streams which overflow (often because of the actions of a woman) and overwhelm the land. The stories of Boand and Sinann have been mentioned earlier, and in Welsh tradition the land of Maes Gwyddno was flooded when the maiden who looked after the well, Merered, forgets to put the lid back on it. The Book of Invasions emphasises the Biblical flood and The Roll of the Kings makes a record of lake-bursts that occurred during a king’s rule. Too much rain could not only cause floods but also create waterlogged conditions which were dangerous to crops and a hindrance to human activities.

Yet obviously water is necessary for life and in a time when piped water was unknown, sources of water were both vital and sought after, for no individual or community could survive without it. It is strange to us today, but dew was a prime source of water. By soaking a cloth in it and then wringing it out quite a substantial amount could be collected. Dew was often seen as a blessing and a gift, appearing almost magically as it does, and was considered one of the elements.

Mythologically and symbolically water was associated with wisdom, not only in the Wells of Segais and Connla, but also as a constituent and medium of the potion in the cauldron of inspiration, and, as the Boyne river, the agent which carried the hazelnuts of wisdom and contained the salmon of wisdom. It was also associated with regeneration for cauldrons of liquid and wells appear in Celtic mythology as a means of rebirth.

Fire could be just as unpredictable and hazardous as water, destructive of both life and property. Yet it could also be life-giving, for, like the sun which it imitated, it gave warmth and light. It was seen to possess the power of transformation and was an intermediary enabling ‘raw’ qualities of the Otherworld to be harnessed for human use: the potion in Ceridwen’s cauldron of inspiration is heated or cooked by fire, as is Finn’s salmon. Its destructive side could also be harnessed - there is reason to believe that the ritual burning of an object was thought to destroy it in this world but send it transformed into the Otherworld. This may have been the purpose of the ritual burning of the ceremonial structure at Emain Macha in Ulster.

Such vital elements as these also had an important role to play in healing and there was a strong link between water and the sun or fire in this connection. Light sparkles and is mirrored in water and this had connotations of illumination in the context of poetry and wisdom. In the realm of healing there are several associations between healing springs, deities and the sun. The Celtic Apollo who appears in some places as Apollo Vindonnus, Apollo the fair or white, and in others as Apollo Belenus, the bright one, was associated with healing springs on the Continent. xxiv There is less direct evidence of this in Britain and Ireland but an important site is Aqua Sulis, or Bath, where hot water gushes out of the ground at a vast rate. Sulis was a native deity whose name is linked with the sun although at this site she is equated with the Roman Minerva, perhaps because Minerva was the Roman goddess associated with crafts which included the craft of medicine. It may have been thought that the sun heated the water underground during its sojourn in the nether regions when its light was not visible. The fact that the sun could venture into the dark and unknown regions of the world (in the West where the dead were thought to go) and return unscathed was another aspect of its role as nurturer and healer. In folk tradition, a prayer to the sun in the Carmina Gadelica, which speaks of it as feminine, expresses this:

 "Thou liest down in the destructive ocean
Without impairment and without fear;
Thou risest up on the peaceful wave-crest
Like a queenly maiden in bloom."

Another Romano-Celtic healing site, sacred to the Celtic god Nodens, was built above the River Severn and there is archaeological evidence of the sun/water connection in the form of objects which have images connected with both. There is also evidence of the treatment of eye diseases and there were obvious connections between eyes, the sun and water. Eyes were able to see because of light which came from the sun and the eyelashes mimicked its rays. The folk of the Scottish Islands express this connection in a Christian context by referring to the sun as "The eye of the great God...The eye of the King of the living".

The sun was a source of great healing energy. Walking three times round a fire or sacred place was a potent ritual action because it imitated the circling of the sun and was therefore always carried out sun wise (cor deiseil in Irish), to draw down its beneficent power on any undertaking. This action also partook of the natural way of things which, as we have seen, was important because it asserted the fruitful power of truth and order.

Sunrise was a particularly potent time and therefore good for enhancing the effect of healing rituals. In folk tradition, people would go up to a hill top on May morning to experience the full power of the rays of the rising sun and in one Irish ritual for healing urinary problems in cows the healer would form her hands into a trumpet, point them at the rising sun and recite the incantation through them as loudly as possible. xxv

Fire was venerated as the most sacred or holy thing, it brought blessing or divine favour and could therefore strengthen and protect. In folk tradition in Ireland it was thought very unlucky to put out a light while people were at supper for this would mean that there would be one less person at the table before the end of the year. xxvi It was also unlucky to carry fire out of the house where a person was ill for to do so was to take away the blessing from the house along with it. xxvii There may have been the concept expressed here that fire in some way represented the vital spirit of a person and so to extinguish the fire also represented extinguishing the vital spark of life.

It was the custom to walk round the fire three times on St John’s Eve (the Christian saint’s day closest to Midsummer) in order to ensure health for the year to come. xxviii In parts of the Celtic world the livestock was driven between two fires at Beltane, in order to purify them and rid them of disease. The festival occurred on May 1st, which marked the beginning of summer or the warm half of the year and the bonfires were an integral part of the ritual activities. They were a symbol of the sun and, as well as greeting it they expressed the hope that, by sympathetic magic, it would blaze as strongly and brightly throughout the months ahead.

Water was known to be sacred to the Celts for many offerings of valuable weapons and ornaments were thrown into lakes, streams and rivers. As with the destruction of objects by fire, sending them into the water may have been thought to send them to the Otherworld. In folk tradition, the dew gathered on May 1st was considered a potent liquid and people bottled it and used it for the rest of the year. Wells were also visited on May 1st to drink or bathe in the water which was infused with the power of the Beltane sun. In Wales, spring and summer, and especially May and June, were thought to be the times when all types of water were at their most potent, probably because it is then that the sun sends its most gentle and beneficial warmth and light.


In the ritual described above where the incantation is chanted to the rising sun, water was also used as part of the healing. The woman would first cup her hands and catch the urine of the affected cow in them. She would then throw the urine into running water to carry away the demon that had caused the complaint and wash her hands in clean cold water before forming them into the trumpet. This illustrates the properties of water - it is a cleanser and a vehicle or medium for carrying things, seen and unseen. In folk healing, water was obviously used as a medium for making up herbal potions but it also had a role to play in absorbing and taking on the healing and beneficial qualities of other objects. Quartz and rock crystal (which sparkle in the sun and give a pale glow in moonlight) were highly prized and much in evidence at ritual sites in the Celtic countries. Their properties could be harnessed medicinally by placing them in a bowl of water, the water then being drunk or applied to a part of the body in need of healing.

The same was done with certain stones, especially white ones, and metal objects which were thought to have special powers - especially gold, silver and iron. Although rubbing the affected part with them could access their powers, they were also placed in water which was then used medicinally. Carmichael records a very moving account given by a nurse in the Highlands who witnessed such a ritual:

 "I was waiting for the doctor and very anxious the while. The patient’s mother filled a small basin with water and into this water she put a number of rings and brooches of gold and silver, which she stirred about in the basin. She then held the basin to her dying daughter’s lips and made her drink three mouthfuls of the water, each mouthful in the name of Father, of Son, and of Spirit... Soon after that the child came. Then the doctor came and soon all was well. But the child was born before the arrival of the doctor, and the birth was as gentle and as easy as any I have ever seen. How the trinkets in the water could affect the case I do not pretend to know, but that some occult matter was at work in the whole matter I am certain.." xxix

Water also had the ability to absorb or carry the magical and curative effect of prayers and incantations. In another ritual from the Highlands used to cure illnesses of people or animals caused by the evil eye, the person had to go in silence to running water over which the living and the dead had passed. Taking a palmful of water the healer would recite an incantation which affirmed that she was doing this in the name of the Holy Trinity, while putting the water into a clay crock. This water was then put in the ears or some other part of the person or animal, and a banishing spell or incantation was uttered; "Shake from thee thy harm/Shake from thee thy jealousy/Shake from thee thy illness" in the name of the Trinity. The rest of the water was then poured away onto a grey stone or steady rock.

Some lakes and rivers were thought to have healing properties. In the Táin Bó Cuailnge we learn how:

 Cúchulainn lay there sick. Senoll Uathach, the Hideous, and the two sons of Ficce were the first to reach him. They bore him back with them to Conaille, where they nursed his wounds and bathed them in the waters of the rivers Sas, for ease, the river Búan for steadfastness, Bíthslán for lasting health, the clear Finnglas, the bright Gleóir, the dashing Bedc; in Tadc, Talamed, Rinn and Bir, in the sour Brenide and narrow Cumang; in Celenn and Gaenemain, Dichu, Muach and Miliuc, Den, Deilt and Dubglas.

However the connection between healing and water may most clearly be seen in the importance of wells for healing. We have already learnt that the Well of Sláine was one component in the healing of wounded warriors, reminiscent of the cauldron of rebirth in the Welsh story of Branwen which brought back to life the dead warriors placed in it. Most of the wells of Britain and Ireland had some curative function and a whole range of illnesses and diseases were capable of being cured by them, from leprosy to toothache, from mental troubles to rheumatic pain. Infertility was one of the most common reasons for seeking the help of a sacred well, not surprising when one considers the regenerative and fertility aspects of water.

Eyes are associated with water as well as the sun; eyes are the source of tears and the Welsh word for eye, llygad, can also mean the source of a river. Many of the healing wells were associated with the cure of eye complaints - whether this is because eye complaints were so numerous in ancient times or because of a particular healing connection between water, wells and eyes is not known.

Many wells and springs were sacred in pre-Christian times and were probably connected with certain deities, like Coventina’s Well in Carrawburgh, Northumberland, and the springs of Sulis. However, in line with the Christian practice of converting pagan sites to Christian ones (advocated by Pope Gregory in the 7th century) many pagan well-sites became associated with Christian saints, who often had the same name as their pagan predecessors. In this way the saints took over the associations and roles of some of the pagan deities and became the means by which the people could gain access to supernatural or Otherworldly powers. Relics of the saints eventually became imbued with healing powers and were often enclosed in shrines or caskets and became the focus of pilgrimages, as did the wells.

 Healing Well Rituals

 The rituals conducted at the wells are varied and were carried out throughout Britain and Ireland, although some of them appear more in one country than another.

Times of visitation were important for there were certain days (as well as certain seasons) that were more efficacious. These were very often the day special to the saint who was connected with the well, known in Ireland as Pattern days. Irish wells dedicated to St John the Baptist were thought to boil up at midnight on 23rd June and for the first hour of the 24th of June any illness could be cured by the water. xxx Special days were also those connected with certain periods in the Christian calendar, such as Easter. In Wales, favoured days were Thursdays, especially in May, Fridays, and Sundays, especially in July. Also in Wales, the most auspicious times were night and morning, midnight, before sunrise, dawn and while the dew was still on the ground.

Bathing in and drinking the water were part of the well ritual. Sometimes the whole body was immersed in the water, sometimes just a part, usually the diseased part. Water from the well could be put in bottles or pails and taken to a sick person - often this had to be done while maintaining a state of silence, and in fact, most of the rituals performed at the well took place in silence, apart from the recitation of charms or prayers. Sometimes the water was taken into the mouth and had to remain there while a circuit was made of the well or a surrounding feature. Cloths or rags were sometimes soaked in the well water, used to bathe the afflicted part and then tied to a tree near the well or placed under a stone.

Drinking from skulls was a feature of some wells, especially in Wales and Scotland. The head was a particularly important part of the body to the Celts; they may have believed that the higher qualities and the soul resided in the head. Skulls were therefore potent objects and drinking from them was thought to be efficacious. In Wales, the water of the well of St Teilo, Ffynnon Deilo, was drunk out of the saint's skull, which was in the keeping of the Melchior family, and it was reputed that the cure would not be effective unless this were done. Commonly, whooping-cough and epilepsy were the illnesses most often cured by drinking out of skulls.

There are quite a number of instances where a stone circle, megalith or tombstone is located near to the well and in Wales part of the healing ritual involved sleeping on the stone. In some cases though, the sick person would spend the night on the altar stone of a nearby church or at a local farmhouse. If he or she were able to sleep, it was taken as a sign that a cure would occur. This is similar to the practice carried out at ancient healing shrines such as the one at Lydney where pilgrims would have stayed the night and had visionary dreams which were part of a cure. There are instances in Celtic mythology of sleep - and music- being used to heal; the birds of the Irish goddess Cliodhna were said to sing so sweetly that the sick would fall into a healing sleep and in the Mabinogion, the birds of Rhiannon were able to sing to lull the living to sleep and to wake the dead.

At other wells there were special healing stones which had a part to play. In Wales small white or quartz stones (thought to be particularly holy) were offered at some sites. In some places the pilgrim would pick up a stone and after walking round the well would place it on a cairn. Sometimes small stones which resembled a part of the body had to be rubbed on the appropriate part, and by St Brigit’s stream in her supposed birthplace of Faughart (where there is a well and a shrine dedicated to her) there are a series of large stones representing different parts of the body which the pilgrim would touch as part of a healing ritual. I once observed a middle-aged couple walking the stations of the cross down to the stream and then visiting each stone in turn, performing in silence a set of graceful and ritualised movements at each one in order to touch it with the appropriate part of the body. I was much impressed by this silent and dignified veneration of the sacred objects of both a Christian and pagan culture, and the seamless blending of the two.

Some of the wells and springs contained fish, salmon, trout, or eels, and it was taken as a sign that the sick who sought healing there would be cured if they saw one. Sometimes the patient would have to stand in the water of the well and if the eel coiled round his or her legs, this was a good omen.

Circumambulating the well was always done by walking sunwise or cor deiseil round the well a certain number of times. Three times was the usual number but it could be seven or nine. As we have already seen this action was in accordance with the movement of the sun and the proper order of things, and was thought to draw down the power of the sun. Sometimes only the well was circumambulated, sometimes the pilgrim also had to walk round a sacred stone or a nearby church, or chapel.

As already mentioned, ritual actions at the wells were usually carried out in silence except for the recitation of special words. Francis Jones who researched the folklore of the wells of Wales in the first half of the 20th c was unable to find out what incantations and ritualistic phrases were used. Some of them had obviously degenerated into meaningless sounds, such as the words to be said at Ffynnon Fair in Rheadr, "Frimpanfroo, Frimpanfroo/ Sali bwli la/Iri a" xxxi In Ireland in more recent times the words to be said are Christian prayers and incantations, for instance at St Brigit’s well at Liscannor Co. Clare, the Paternoster and the Hail Mary are to be said a certain number of times.

In Wales many things could be offered at healing wells. Francis Jones gives a list which includes clothes, rags, pins, buttons, coins, thorn-points, flowers, stones and fowls. Most common, however, were pins (which were often bent), coins and rags. Why the pins were bent is a matter for speculation. It may relate to the ancient practice of breaking swords and other precious objects before throwing them into lakes and streams as offerings to the gods, metaphorically ‘killing’ them so that they were no longer of use in this world. Other theories are that bending them was meant to get rid of the evil spirit troubling the sick person or that it would stop the pricking pains often associated with eye complaints.

Sometimes prophecies could be made as to the course of an illness, depending on what happened to the objects thrown into the water. For instance, if a pin became discoloured it was a sign that the pilgrim’s wish would be granted, or the rate at which something sank would give an indication of the rate of healing.

The leaving of rags is more common in Ireland and Scotland where they are called ‘clouties’. They were usually tied to trees or bushes - in Ireland particularly there is often a single tree, often hawthorn or ash, growing by a well, in which case it was especially venerated. Sometimes they were left under stones and at Doon Well in Co. Donegal (which at one time had no trees near it although some have now been planted there) they were wrapped round the crutches left there by people who, presumably, no longer had need for them. Different reasons are offered for why they were left but it is most likely that they represented the part of the body in need of healing, and that as the rag rotted away, so would the sickness go; also the rag represented the sick person since it had been in contact with them and by leaving it, the patient would in a vicarious way be in contact with the healing presence of the deity or the saint. However it is also possible that they were a sign of thanks to the guardian of the well or a votive offering, given in fulfilment of a vow.


8 Riddance, Transference and Reciprocity

Rags or clooties were not the only things that may have had the sickness transferred onto them In ancient times objects representing the afflicted part of the body were often left at shrines and wells, possibly so that the healing power could continue to have an effect. The anatomical models and carvings found at Fontes Sequancae (the healing spring in France at the source of the Seine, dedicated to the water goddess Sequana) included whole people, limbs, internal organs and heads (often the eyes were emphasised). In the time of the free Celts these offerings were usually made of wood but in Romano-Celtic times they were more frequently of stone. Illnesses represented were respiratory and heart disease, stomach and intestinal disorders, problems connected with the breasts, the genitalia and the limbs. xxii

Another explanation of the purpose of these anatomical offerings however is that the images of the diseased part were offered to the deity so that he or she would bestow healing onto the person who had given it. xxiii This comes back to the idea of balance maintained by a mutual exchange

More recently, the folk of the Scottish Highlands and Islands show in their charms and incantations that they had the notion of riddance or transference. The charms for chest constriction or seizure use the power of the elements or of Jesus to send all maladies, ailments and discomfort onto animals, birds, whales, rocks, mountains, moor and the sea. "It will cause them no harm /And it will cause good to thee..." says one charm. xxxiv There is the idea here that the illness overwhelms the person, but by transferring it to other beings and elements it not only leaves the person but is redistributed so that it loses its power to do harm and a better balance is achieved. Another charm sends a part of the malady onto ‘the great surging sea’ for ‘She herself has the best means to carry’ and we see here again the role of water as transporter and cleanser.

There is a Welsh language charm, one of the few which has survived, against the shingles, which again shows the operation of riddance as a healing principle. Shingles was thought to have been caused by a malevolent eagle and could be cured by someone who had eaten eagle flesh, or someone whose ancestor up to the ninth generation had done so. The charmer had to spit on the eruption, rub it with his finger and then blow on it nine times after first chanting an incantation which "sent" the disease "Over nine seas, and over nine mountains/ And over nine acres of unprofitable land/ Where no dog shall bark and no cow shall low/And where no eagle shall higher rise." xxxv


9 The Healing Power of Herbs


As already noted, herbs were put into the Well of Sláine where the warriors wounded in the Battle of Maigh Tuired were healed, and after DíanCécht slew his son Miach, 365 herbs grew from his grave. Airmed, DíanCécht’s daughter, arranged them according to their properties but DíanCécht mixed them up, ordaining that, although Miach, the supernaturally-gifted surgeon and healer, was no more, Airmed, the herbalist would remain. Alexei Kondratiev has pointed out that the Breton herbalists retain some of the ancient traditions and see their 26 sacred herbs as corresponding to the body of a slain god, with vervain, one of the Druid herbs, at his head, and St John’s wort representing the blood. xxxvi In Wales a sachet of powdered vervain root was worn round the neck to cure all diseases, but especially those of the head.

Although the herbs were mixed up so that no one knew their properties, it seems that over time these were rediscovered. Many of the old Scottish Gaelic remedies were eventually used in early medical practice. Alexander Carmichael tells us that Dr Donald Munro Morrison who was a proficient student of chemistry as well as a physician, remarked that " the Highlanders

had cures for all the common ailments of man and beast, but where or how they had acquired them he could not understand; he had analysed the plants, earths and other remedies they used, and in no instance were these misapplied, on the contrary their ingredients were those now used by practitioners in a more concentrated form." xxxvii Much of this healing lore has been lost today. As Mary Beith has pointed out in her book ‘Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands’ (which contains a useful herbal) the knowledge of herbs and other remedies used by the Highlanders and Islanders has been largely ignored. Yet there is much manuscript, documentary and personal evidence which could yield medical information as valuable as that being sought from traditional healers and remedies in other parts of the world. xxxviii

The use of herbs for healing the wounded in battle is described in the Irish tales, especially the Táin Bó Cuailnge, the earliest version of which date from the 8th century. In this we hear how ‘men of medicine and healing’ came to Cúchulainn and Ferdia to ‘heal and make them whole’ by applying plants and herbs to their wounds, and later a man of the Síd heals Cúchulainn with charms and herbs after his fight with Lóch. The ‘men of medicine’ were part of the army, as in the Second Battle of Maige Tuired, their contribution being to treat the warriors and if possible enable them to continue fighting. 2

2 It is also apparent in the Táin that the value of nourishing food and comfort for the sick was known. The men of medicine belonged to the army of the men of Ulster but they treated Cúchulainn and Ferdia so that it could not be said that, if Cúchulainn won, he had had an unfair advantage. Likewise, Ferdia had sent to Cúchulainn all the food and health-giving drinks that were available to him, for the same reason. It is also stated repeatedly that it was right for men wounded in battle to be given beds of rushes with rests for their heads The law tract Bretha Crólige (probably 8th c) deals mainly with the system of compensation and entitlements of those who have been injured but it also places emphasis on diet and the care of the sick (keeping them away from noise and disturbances, for instance). These are also features of the indications for the care of the sick in the later manuscripts of the Welsh physicians of Myddfai and the medieval Gaelic physicians, but we can see here that this was part of a much older practice.

Herbs are referred to in the law tract Bretha Crólige which states that the only condiment a person on sick-maintenance was entitled to were garden herbs and adds that "it is for this purpose that gardens have been made, viz. for care of the sick." xxxix Mary Beith has pointed out that an early 9th c record of the herb garden for the hospital at the monastery of St Gall in Switzerland xl (founded by disciples of Columbanus, an Irish monk), shows that over thirty herbs and vegetables were grown, namely "lilies, roses, climbing beans, sage, rue, iris, pennyroyal, watercress, cumin, lovage, fennel, onion-leaf celery, coriander, dill, poppies (including the opium variety), radishes, beet, garlic, shallots, parsley, chervil, lettuce, parsnip and cabbage." xli Most of these were used in the Highlands and Islands according to Beith and folk medicine in Wales in the 20th c still uses remedies made from herbs, fruits, trees and vegetables. xlii

The evidence of the Táin, as we have seen, certainly suggests that the uses and properties of herbs were known well enough to determine when injuries were beyond their efficacy and only magical healing had any chance of working. In the Tochmarc Emire, The Wooing of Emer,

dating from the 8th c, Scáthach, the warrior woman, gave Cúchulainn a sleeping-draft which would be enough to keep an ordinary man asleep for 24 hours, but only lasted for an hour in his case. This supposes a knowledge and understanding of the dose needed to obtain a desired effect.

However, we can do little more than speculate as to which herbs were used in early Celtic times, since, apart from Pliny’s comments, these have not been recorded. The medieval manuscripts of Ireland, Scotland and Wales reflect the medical learning of Europe rather than native tradition. As for the later folk uses of herbs, these varied a lot from area to area and
local names for plants also confuse the issue. James McKillop mentions some ‘fairy herbs’ widely used in Celtic countries, namely dandelion, eyebright, foxglove, yarrow, ivy, plantain, polypody of oak and vervain. Dandelion was believed to have curative powers, especially in heart disease, Eyebright was often used in Europe including the Celtic countries for diseases of the eye and the Irish had affectionate names for it such as soilse na súil, light of the eye, and radhaircin, little sight. The foxglove was seen as a particularly potent herb:

  • "In Gaelic and Welsh tradition its powers are thought to flow from the realm of the fairy; its name means literally ‘fairy fingers’ [méirini púca] or ‘fairy thimble’ [méaracán sídhe] in Irish and ‘banshee herb’ in Scottish Gaelic [lus-nam-ban-sith; cf. Ir. Lus na mban sídhe]. Its prestige in Ireland is shown in the Hiberno-English word for foxglove, lusmore [Ir. Lus mór, great herb]…"


  • Prevention

    Since sickness was often thought to have its origin in the Otherworld and prevention being better than a cure, plants and trees were also widely used for protective magic and had an important role to play in the maintenance of health. In the folk tradition of Ireland it was said that vervain and the mountain ash (rowan) were the best protection against disease and the evil eye. In Wales the rowan and the elder were often planted by the cattle-shed to protect the cattle and horses from harm. Rowanberries were brought into the house to bring prosperity and success and worn about the body to keep women from being bewitched; twigs of elder were worn by children to protect them from pain. xlivSt John’s Wort was thought capable of scaring the devil and was much honoured in Wales where it blossomed on St John’s Day and was associated with midsummer. The leek, the national emblem of Wales, was widely believed to promote victory and the avoidance of wounding in battle if rubbed on the body, famous fighters would use it in this way before going into a fight. In Scotland the yarrow may have been used for the purpose of giving victory in battle. The St John’s Wort was also widely venerated in Scotland where it was known in Scottish Gaelic as achlasan Chaluim Chille, or the armpit package of Columba. It was used to ward off the evil eye and all malign influences as well as to bring prosperity. Medicinally it was much used as a woundwort.


    Rituals connected with the picking of herbs


    Not surprisingly, herbs had to be gathered in the right way, that is with the appropriate actions, charms and invocations. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder relates that the samolus, a charm against the diseases of cattle, had to be gathered with the left hand when fasting, the gatherer not looking behind him and only putting the plant down in the cattle’s drinking-troughs. He also tells us the druids taught that vervain had to be gathered:

    about the rising of the Dog-star -- but so as not to be shone upon by sun or moon--and that honey-combs and honey must be first presented to the earth by way of expiation. They tell us also that a circle must first be traced around it with iron; after which it must be taken up with the left hand, and raised aloft, care being taken to dry the leaves, stem, and root, separately in the shade... xlv


    Although Pliny ridicules the magicians of the Gauls saying they "give utterance to ridiculous follies" on this matter, we may note that there is practical and sensible advice about the drying of the parts of this plant, interwoven with the rituals. The time of gathering according to the heavens, the propitiation of the earth or earth spirits, the use of the circle drawn with iron, were as much part of their science, their systematic and formulated knowledge, as the method of drying the plant.

    The Carmina Gadelica describes similar observances in the Scottish Highlands and Islands almost two thousand years after Pliny. For instance, the St John's Wort, St Columbia's plant, had to be found by accident, it should never be sought, and like other several other plants, it was to be plucked with the right hand only and kept in the left:


    Saint John's wort, Saint John's wort
    My envy whosoever has thee,
    I will pluck thee with my right hand
    I will preserve thee with my left hand,
    Whoso find thee in the cattle fold
    Shall never be without kine.

    The herbs were often addressed directly and spoken of with praise - so St John's wort is spoken of in terms normally used for noble lords and chieftains as allail, of great renown, or loinneil, splendid, elegant. The plant was thus honoured and while picking it the person would also recite the purpose it was required for and the intent in taking it:

     I will pluck the yarrow fair,
    That more brave shall be my hand,
    That more warm shall be my lips,
    That more swift shall be my foot...

    This statement of intent would have been an important part of the ritual gathering of the plant since the spoken or breathed word was thought to be magically potent.

     10 Dogs and Snakes associated with Healing

    In the Celtic world dogs were connected with hunting, death, healing and protection. Healing goddesses on the Continent, such as Sirona and Aveta, were associated with dogs and in Britain, Nodens’ shrine at Lydney is associated with hunting, healing and dogs. Many goddesses are depicted as having lapdogs and there is also a connection between lapdogs and women in early Irish literature which has led some people to speculate that the warmth given by the dogs was a source of comfort and healing, perhaps particularly in period pains. In our own time it has been found that dogs have a beneficial effect on the sick and seem to have an uncanny ability to detect cancer early. Agnes Sampson, a Scottish witch who was executed in 1590, could foresee whether a sick person would get well or die by watching the behaviour of a large black dog.

    Dogs had the ability to act as guides and protectors in death. In Breton folklore Ki Du (black dog) is a companion in the Otherworld and during a person’s rebirth into the form of another human being or animal. Dogs were seen to have special qualities which enabled them to pass unscathed into the world of the dead and back again (like the sun). Thus they were seen as liminal beings who could bring healing back from the Otherworld.

    In the early 20th century in Ireland, dogs were also connected with death. People believed that dogs had the ability to detect sickness and foretell who would die, "the howling of a dog where a sick person is lying is regarded in Ireland in all grades of society with pale dismay as a certain sign of approaching death". xlvi


    We are reminded of the dual nature of the dog in the Bretha Crólige of medieval Ireland where it is stated that dogs must not be put to fight near sick people in hospital. An Irish healing charm against wounds and poisons invokes "the blood of one dog, the blood of many dogs, the blood of the hound of Fliethas" for healing, but one of the poisons is that from the bite of a rabid dog. The concept that what can kill can also cure is operating here, reminiscent of the dual nature of the dog who can exist in both the world of the dead and the world of the living.

    Healing goddesses are also commonly associated with snakes. Snakes can be poisonous and deadly and the Irish charm already mentioned invokes the daughters of Fliethas against the serpent. But they too have a dual nature and are often seen as symbols of fertility since they give birth to many young at once, and their form is often linked to the phallus. They are symbols of regeneration and rebirth because they shed their skin and emerge renewed, and as they often live or hide in holes in the ground they have underworld or chthonic associations. Thus they too have Otherworldly connections; they are liminal beings who can bring healing, fertility and renewal.

    Some Gaulish healing goddesses such as Sirona and Damona were depicted with snakes twining around their arms, and the British snake goddess Verbeia, who is thought to be the personification of the River Wharfe, holds two snakes in the shape of zigzags. They may have been meant to symbolise both snakes and water. Snakes move with rippling and flowing movements like water and meandering rivers are often referred to as snake-like. xlvii


    11 The Blessing of the Circle


    We have seen that moving in a circle like the sun was an important concept in ancient times. There are numerous examples of this in the old tales and Athenaeus quotes Poseidonius as saying that the Celts worshipped their gods by turning sunwise. It was also a way of showing respect to people. Moving in the same direction as the sun was a way of putting oneself in alignment with the movement of the heavens and was therefore auspicious. One of the Old Irish words for right, dess, also carried a meaning of ‘in order’ and deiseal, the word

    describing a sunwise motion, is made up of dess and sel, or ‘turn’. In Tenga Bithnua (via John Carey, and with his translation) states:

    Every creature has been established in roundness. For the heavens were established in a round circle, and the seven surrounding seas were made in a circle, and it is in a round circle that the stars go around the round wheel of the world, and it is in roundness of form that souls are seen after parting from [their] bodies, and the circuit of lofty heaven is seen to be round, and the circuits of sun and moon are seen to be round. All of that is fitting; for the Lord who has always been and who will always be, and who made all those things, is a circle without beginning, without end. xlviii

    In this text, of course, we have a Christian context and reasoning but there may have been some reflection of an earlier belief contained in it.

    The action of walking in a sunwise motion around a person or sacred site showed respect but this circling could also be used for protection. The satire, The Vision of MacConglinne, already referred to, describes a copy of the Gospel being passed round people for this purpose and the Carmina Gadelica describes the ritual of the caim whereby a person would stand on the spot with one finger outstretched and turn in a circle. This circle would then remain as the person moved around, giving them protection.


    By putting oneself in harmony with the order of things one was thought to receive a health benefit. The healing rituals involving circles that are described in the folklore are different in concept but still honour the sacredness of the circle. We’ll take a look at some of these since they describe the beliefs and actions of folk in the Celtic lands of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. But bear in mind that their practice and the thinking underlying them is common to many cultures and it is hard to find any evidence for their use by the ancient Celts.

    One way of bringing about a cure was by passing the afflicted person or animal through a circle, believed by folklorists to symbolise regeneration, a new birth. The circle could be made of a variety of materials, from woodbine, to yarn, to a cleft in a tree or a hole in a stone.

    David Rorie recounts a healing ceremony in Scotland called Beannachd na Cuairte, the Blessing of the Round or the Circle. xlix An iron circle, wrapped with straw on which oil had been dripped, was held by two women either side of it and set alight. Two other women standing opposite passed a small child back and forth through it, eighteen times (the number of months the child had been alive) after which the child was given back to his mother and the burning hoop was thrown into a pool. There are several important elements in this ritual - not only was the child passed through the circle as an enactment of rebirth, but iron was held to have special protective properties; fire, as we have seen, was sacred and thought to bring blessing as well, perhaps, as strengthening the child with its vitality. And though the arrangement of the four people with the child in the middle must have been the most practical way of holding the burning hoop, it still corresponded to the ritual arrangement we have encountered before of four people standing around the sick person in the middle, and may have had a healing function. The practice of discarding the flaming hoop after the ceremony is related to the banishing of the disease; it was quite common for the circle, of whatever substance, yarn or wood etc, to be cut into pieces (often nine) and burnt or buried after the passing through.

    Girdles of different descriptions were sometimes put round women having a difficult labour in Scotland: they could be a lace, a leather belt, a piece of yarn or thread. They were believed to ‘sain’ the child and the mother from harm and bring blessing. In Ireland the crios Bríde or girdle of Bride was made of straw rope and on the eve of Imbolc, Bride’s festival, people would pass through it three times, kissing it and coming out of it with their right foot first. It was hoped that this would improve their health that day and make them seven times better in a year’s time.

    Passing a child, adult or animal through a cleft or hole made in a tree was believed to have healing properties, particularly for rickets and prolapses. In one ceremony in Wales a hole was made in an ash tree and a child with a proplapse was passed through it. The hole in the tree was then bound together and as it healed, so did the child. In Cornwall there were many stones with holes through them that were used for healing. The Tolven Stone near Helford was thought to ensure fertility if a woman squeezed through it naked and the Men-an-Tol in Madron parish was used to cure children of scrofula and rickets. Of note is the fact that they were passed through it three times and then rubbed on the grass against the sun. l As we know, the usual practice was to go with the sun and moving widdershins or cor tuathal, against the sun, was reserved for cursing and rituals of harmful intent. However, it could also be used as an unwinding or a banishing of something and in this case must have been used as a way of getting rid of the disease.


    Surgery and Bone Setting


    Surgery was practised from the earliest times - there is evidence, for instance, of trepanation (the making of holes in the skull) being carried out in the Bronze Age in Scotland, from a skull found on the Isle of Bute. There were British surgeons in existence in the 50s CE since the grave of a man in Southern England has been found with medical instruments. The man is thought to be British rather than Roman since the set of surgeon’s tools found with him were made of iron rather than the bronze or bronze and iron used for Roman medical instruments and differ subtly from them. The 13 instruments found would have enabled him to carry out a range of procedures, such as cutting, excising, retracting, extracting and dissecting. li The trepanned skull of a thirteen-year-old child thought to be from the early Christian period was found in Co. Meath in Ireland and there are other Irish examples from the medieval period. In the late 17th c a man called Neil Beaton, said to be illiterate but no doubt learned in the medieval oral tradition, lived on Skye and was a successful doctor, curing, amongst other things, running sores, headaches and complications after childbirth. He was also said to have "cut a piece out of Woman’s skull broader than half a Crown, and by this restor’d her to perfect Health." lii

    The Irish law tracts, while silent on the techniques and range of the surgeons’ activities, confirm that surgical procedures were carried out in Ireland. The Bretha Crólige shows that the physician was allowed to cause bleeding during his treatment but he had to pay a fine and meet the cost of the patient’s sick-maintenance if he cut a joint or sinew.


    Bone setters have certainly existed in Wales, Scotland and Ireland since the medieval period and probably longer. Like the charmers and other folk healers, bone setting was something that ran in the blood and bone setters were gifted with ‘the touch’. They practised their skill alongside their normal occupations. In Fifeshire of the 20th c, a schoolmaster, blacksmith (blacksmiths commonly numbered bone setting among their skills); quarryman, platelayer, midwife and joiner were all bone setters and they were visited by rich and poor folk alike.liii Their particular skill was in healing sprains and dislocations, and, although there were certainly some who missed tubercular joints and failed to detect fractures, there were many who were very competent in what they did and enjoyed a good reputation. Massage, binding of the affected part of the limb and the faith the patients had in the bonesetter were all part of the practice. There were also several versions of a charm which was widely used for sprains and dislocations:

    Calum Cille rose early,
    He found his horse’s bones
    Leg crosswise;
    He set bone to bone,
    Flesh to flesh
    Sinews to sinews,
    Hide to hide,
    Marrow to marrow;
    O Christ, as you healed that
    May you heal this.liv


    Other versions of this substitute the names of different saints and there is even a German charm from a 10th c manuscript which uses the names of Phol, Woden and Balder (Teutonic deities), which shows how widespread the formula was. It was known in Ireland at a comparable or earlier date since Míach uses a short version of it for the healing of Nuada’s hand in The Second Battle of Maige Tuired.



     Having reviewed the concepts and methods of Celtic therapeutics, ancient and more recent, let’s now take a look at some of the practitioners of healing from early to modern times.


    i) Healers in Classical accounts.


    As the practices of the ancient Celts begin to come into focus through the tantalisingly few snippets of information from the Greek and Roman commentators, the druids become the obvious candidates for the role of physicians and healers. However the only writer to actually call them healers is Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD). The other Classical writers, including Julius Caesar, describe them rather as religious specialists, advisors, seers, philosophers and legal experts. The closest we get to an image of them as healers outside of Pliny is Strabo’s description of the Vates and Druids as ‘natural philosophers’ and Julius Caesar’s observation that they were skilled in the workings of nature - both of these may have presumed some knowledge of medicine and healing.

    Pliny the Elder is not always reliable in his Natural History since some of the examples he gives are obviously fantastical. However he did serve as a military tribune in Gallia Belgica in 45AD and in later life he was procurator in Gallia Narbonensis in 70AD and Gallia Belgica in 75AD. Therefore he had some first hand experience of the Gaulish people he wrote about and, as the title of his book suggests, natural history, which included herbs and other substances used for healing, was one of his main interests.

    His vivid and romantic depiction of white-robed priests cutting mistletoe with a gold sickle on the sixth day of the moon has survived into popular culture as probably the most enduring image of the druids. Although we may note the dubious nature of gold as a cutting implement, his observation that mistletoe grows ‘but rarely on the oak’ is certainly true and it could well have been a momentous occasion when it was found on what was undoubtedly a sacred tree to the Gauls. The druids appear in this account as religious specialists of some status and power; since cattle were of great value to the tribes the sacrifice of two white bulls, which followed the harvesting of the mistletoe, was substantial. Although Pliny refers to the druids here as priests, earlier he calls them magicians, saying that this is what the term ‘druid’ denotes among the Gauls.

    According to Pliny the druids called the mistletoe ‘all-healing’ and it was used to make barren animals fertile and as an antidote to poisons. Vervain is an important herb mentioned as being used by the druids, with specific instructions being given for its harvesting as we have seen earlier. Pliny also mentions two (unidentified) herbs connected with the druids: the selago which they said should be carried as a charm against every kind of evil and the smoke of it used to cure diseases of the eye, and a marsh-plant called samolus, useful for diseases in cattle.

    Since the druids had intimate knowledge of the workings of nature they probably did have a knowledge of healing and of herbs, which they taught, and they also performed the high rituals connected with the movement of energy between the two worlds. However it is possible that the actual practioners came from the class of Vates or Seers mentioned by Strabo. Pliny himself refers at one point to a decree issued by the Emperor Tiberius against ‘their [the Gauls’] Druids and the whole tribe of diviners and physicians’, suggesting that physicians were distinct from the druids or magicians. lv


    ii) Healers in the medieval tales of Ireland and Wales and in Scottish Folklore

    In the medieval tales and sagas, healers are described variously as ‘physicians’ or ‘men of medicine and healing’, and ‘seer-physicians’. Druids are described as healers rarely, if at all. Of course it must be repeated here that the depictions we find in the tales and myths of the insular Celts are not reliable as authentic versions of pre-Christian lore since a) the scribes were not always familiar with the practices they were describing and b) the stories and motifs they told of were not written down until the 7th century AD at the earliest and were contaminated by Classical material, Christian scripture and lore and medieval folk tradition. Nevertheless, we can, arguably, discern pre-Christian, Celtic strata in the tales that have come down to us.


     iii) Seer physicians

    The Táin Bó Cuailnge, the oldest Irish source, tells us of Fingin, the fáithliaig or ‘seer physician’ to king Conchobor. Fingin is able to tell by looking at the warrior Cethern’s wounds who has caused them and what damage they have done internally. (Conchobar’s druid, Cathbad, is not a healer but an advisor, teacher and prophet.) Cethern’s injuries were rather severe, to put it mildly, and obviously required supernatural skill to fix. Even Fingin acknowledged it might be beyond his powers:


    ‘This wound’, the healer said, was the work of two warriors.’... ‘I know them’, Cúchulainn said, ‘Those were Bun and Mecon, Trunk and Root, from the king’s most trusted people’. ‘The blood is black here’, the healer said [to Cethrn]. ‘They speared through your heart at an angle and made a cross inside you. I can’t promise to cure this’, he said, ‘but there are a couple of ways I might keep it from carrying you off’. lvi

    Although the army physicians had been unable to offer Cethern any help, Fingin gave him a choice of treatments: either one which would take a year but allow him to live out his normal span, or one which would give him just enough strength in 3 days and 3 nights to fight his present enemies. Cethern chose the second option in true warrior mode and Fingin healed him by placing him in a bath of bone marrow.

    Francis Shaw comments that, according to one medieval account of medicine in Ireland, it was expected of the greatest physicians that they should be able to diagnose each illness of the various members of the family from the smoke rising from the hearth, giving another demonstration of the connection between divination and healing.lvii

    As we have seen earlier, the poets and seers Finn and Taliesin, in Irish and Welsh tradition respectively, also had the gift of healing and in Scottish folk tales Michael Scott’s magical powers included not only the ability to cure the sick but also the gift of foretelling the future, reading other people’s minds and enlisting the help of the fairies.

    (iv) Professional physicians

    The Táin refers to ‘men of medicine and healing’ who as we have seen, did not have the supernatural skills to treat Cethern successfully. They were army physicians belonging to the troop of the men of Ulster and they treated the injured by putting plants and herbs into their wounds.

    In the Cath Maige Tuired (11th or 12th century but drawing on 9th century material), the account of the epic battle between the Fomoire and the Túatha Dé Danaan, the druids’ role is to bring showers of fire upon the faces of the Fomoire while it falls to Dían Cécht, the physician and his two sons and daughter, to treat the injured:

    ‘Any man who will be wounded there, unless his head is cut off, or the membrane of his brain or his spinal cord is severed, I will make him perfectly whole in the battle on the next day’. lviii

    In the Mabinogion story of Math, Son of Mathonwy (mid 12th century but drawing on an extensive earlier oral tradition), when Lleu is transformed into an eagle by Goronwy’s poisoned spear, Gwydion the magician struck him with his magic wand and transformed him back into human form. But after that, ‘all the good doctors in Gwynedd were brought, and well before the end of the year he was cured.’

    So in Welsh medieval tradition too there was a distinction between druids or magicians and professional physicians.

     v) Physicians in the medieval records of Ireland and Wales

    Not a lot is known about the Irish physician, (Old Irish lieig), prior to post-Norman times, but that there was a class of professional doctors is known through the testimony of Brehon Law (7th to 8th century). The Uraicecht Becc assigns them an honour-price of seven séts, regardless of rank, and the Bretha Nemed toísech tells us that there were three things that conferred a privileged status on a physician: a complete cure, leaving no blemish and a painless examination. As well as acting as a dietician, the physician knew something of herbal treatments since, as it is stated in the Bretha Crólige, the purpose of herb gardens was the care of the sick. For a wound on the face a king was entitled to have three foreign herbs brought for him - presumably these were thought to be especially potent, if they could not be found he was entitled to three ounces of silver instead. The physicians also had knowledge of surgery since the same legal tract warns that if a physician cut a joint or sinew he was obliged to pay a fine, and from skulls found in Co. Meath it is evident that they knew how to use trepanation without killing their patients. The physician was paid a substantial amount of the fine due to a victim - half the sum in serious cases and up to a quarter in less serious ones - so he was obviously highly valued and wealthy.

     From the Táin we learn that the Red Branch knights had a hospital or house known as the House of Sorrows where the sick and injured were treated. Brehon Law also describes hospitals for the use of the people of the tuath. It is stipulated that these hospitals should be free of dirt, have four open doors and a stream of water running through the middle of the floor. It is clear then that cleanliness, ventilation and water for cleansing as well as drinking were seen as essential.

    We know nothing of the methods of training for early Irish doctors but they must have existed since a distinction is made between qualified and unqualified physicians. The law texts make it clear that the qualified doctors had a considerable amount of medical knowledge, especially in regard to injuries and wounds (since the legal tracts are dealing mainly with compensation and remuneration).

    It appears that by the 14th century these professional doctors abandoned some of their native medicine and took up the new learning that had come to Europe in the 12th century. As early as 1330 an Irishman was studying at a school of medicine in Montpellier. The new medical knowledge was a mixture of Arabic, Greek and Roman with a large amount of folk-remedies thrown in.

    In the 16th century a visitor to Ireland gave a rather contemptuous description of the native schools of law and medicine where the pupils learned by rote ‘groveling’ on straw couches and chanting out their lessons from books in Latin, ‘without precepts’. lix This picture is reminiscent of the poets lying on beds in the dark to compose.

    However, the renowned physician Van Helmont, writing in the early 17th century gave another view of the Irish physician. He related how each Irish noble family had its own physician, appointed not because of the knowledge he had brought with him from college but because he could actually cure disorders. Van Helmont maintained that these doctors gained their knowledge from books left them by their ancestors and that these books detailed the symptoms of diseases and the native remedies that could cure them. In spite of this, the medical books that have come down to us show not native remedies but those of Europe referred to above, although they are written in Irish, not Latin. Shaw suggests that the doctors made a show of the Continental learning but actually continued to use their own native medicine passed down orally from their ancestors.

    It is likely that the profession of doctor, like that of the poets, was hereditary. This is certainly true in the later medieval period in Ireland when there were certain medical families working under the patronage of local rulers and wealthy families as Van Helmont described. The O’Cassidys were physicians to the Maguires of Fermanagh, the O’Lees to the O’Flahertys of Connaught and the O’Hickeys to the O’Briens of Thomond, the O’Kennedys of Ormond to the Macnamaras of Clare.

    Returning to the early medieval period in Ireland, we may note that the doctors who appear in the Laws were part of the establishment, legal officials as well as physicians. Their opinion and expertise were needed to settle the level of compensation as well as the question of whether the sick man would die. But it is likely from the mention of the ‘unqualified’ physicians that there was another class of doctors, whose knowledge of their craft was passed down from other people in their communities rather than gained from schools. lx

    Turning to Wales, it seems that some of the Welsh medical manuscripts show more native influences than those of Ireland. There are not many charms, but many of the recipes are fairly simple, unlike the more complicated remedies of the learned European tradition. They are of two types, lists of remedies for specific diseases and recipes. The prose is of a more native kind similar to that found in the works relating to bards and lawyers. It is characterised by numerical groupings, including triads, which made them easier to learn. lxi

     In the Welsh laws of Hywel Dda, counterparts of the Irish Brehon Law, the physician is one of the twelve officers of the court and obviously enjoyed a high status. He was entitled to land, a horse, woollen clothing from the King and linen clothing from the Queen. In exchange, under the King’s protection, he was expected to give medical attention to all the people of the Court free, although he was entitled to their bloody clothes, and for the three really serious wounds - a blow to the head reaching the brain, a blow to the body reaching the bowels and a fracture of an arm or leg - he also received nine score pence and his food or a pound without his food. The Welsh physician also had a knowledge of herbs since it is recorded that he received four pence for medication with herbs for a swelling. The physician’s worth was six cows and six score cows with augmentation.

    It is likely, given the Celtic tradition of passing on knowledge down the generations, that, as in Ireland, the role of physician ran in families. We know that Rhiwallon and his three sons were court physicians to the prince of Dinefwr, Rhys Gryg (12th c) and that this family went on practising medicine in Wales into modern times. lxii

     vi) Women healers

    An engraved stone from the first century CE at Metz shows a female doctor, giving evidence of women healers in antiquity.

    Although the physicians in the Irish laws and legends are commonly referred to as ‘he’, there is evidence that women were also physicians and healers. We have already met Airmed, the daughter of DíanCécht, who used the herbs that grew from Miach’s grave and there are other examples of female physicians in the tales and sagas. The female leech Bebinn drew the venom from an unhealed wound in Cailte’s leg by means of two fedans or tubes, which she acquired, from another woman healer called Binn, the daughter of Modarn. She also treated him for a general indisposition by giving him five emetics at certain intervals, having first steeped the herbs in water. Each dose was different and had a different action. lxiii P.W. Joyce, writing in 1903 about medicine in ancient Ireland comments "It is worthy of remark that in our legendary history female physicians are often mentioned: and so we see that in ancient Ireland the idea was abroad which is so extensively coming into practice in our own day." lxiv

    There is a reference in Brehon Law to the woman-physician of a territory, the banliaig túaithe, being one of the twelve types of women who was not entitled to be taken to hospital for nursing but was nursed at home, a fee being paid to their kin instead. This was probably because it was difficult to replace them, as their presence was needed in their communities.

    The woman-leech Bebinn may have been such a banliaig túaithe

    What training these women had and how they fitted into the system of medical care in ancient Ireland is unknown. It seems likely that their knowledge was passed down orally and that they treated the common people of the territory for everyday ailments and wounds rather than battle-field injuries or those that were the subject of compensation claims.

    As we shall see, the fairy doctors and folk healers of more recent times, like Biddy Early, could be women as well as men.


    vii) Saints as healers

    Among the miracles the Celtic saints performed were those of healing. As a 9th century life of St Patrick puts it, God gave his saints the power of ‘curing the ill, raising the dead, transforming lepers, expelling demons, causing the blind to see, healing the mute and deaf and so forth’. These miracles are obviously based on New Testament tradition and the saints heal through the power of the Christian God rather than through wisdom they have received from the pagan Otherworld. However it is of interest that Adomnán’s life of Columba (7th century but based on an earlier text) relates how Columba sees a ‘pestilential cloud’ and prophecies that it will bring rain that evening that will make men and cattle sick. He gives Silnan a piece of bread which has been blessed with the invocation of the name of God and bids Silnan dip this in water and then sprinkle it on the afflicted to cure them. We are reminded of the fáithliaig in Adomnán’s comment ‘these two things, I think, are clearly associated - namely, the gift of prophecy regarding the cloud and the miraculous power in healing the sick.’

    Curiously though, it appears that the earliest Irish saints’ Lives contain significantly fewer healing miracles than those on the continent, from which the genre must have been derived. There are a few more instances in the Lives of women saints than the men but even in the Life of Ita, a saint known for her cure of disease, these are comparatively few. However, rather than seeing this as evidence of a lack of a native healing tradition, there may be another explanation. The saints were seen as counterparts of the druids with whom they often do battle, pitting their magical skills against each other. If the druids in early Ireland and Wales were primarily seen as magicians, priests and advisers rather than healers perhaps the hagiographers saw the saints in the same way.


    viii) Folk healers

    As we have seen, in medieval Ireland there were healers who ministered to the needs of the people of the túath and were distinct from the official, qualified doctors who helped to administer the sick rule of law and tend to the victims of violence and injury. As in most societies, these men and women and their counterparts in Wales and the Highland and Islands of Scotland, continued to heal the sick, wounded and mentally ill in their communities up to the present time. Many of these native physicians healed in a way that reflects that of the seer-physician of the Táin and earlier Celtic tradition. They were ‘knowledgeable’ men and women who had healing abilities and who, in an almost shamanic way, were able to converse with supernatural powers in order to cure illnesses, find lost things, remove spells and predict the future. Some of these healers gained their knowledge from learning and books, some purely from the fairies or other supernatural beings, some from a combination of both. In Irish folk tradition the various ups and downs of life that people had no control over were generally put down to the activities of Otherworld beings. The fairy doctors were able to restore the balance with the fairy world and so bring about healing. In Ireland, one of the best examples we have is a woman from Co. Clare called Biddy Early who died in 1873. lxvii

    It was said by some that Biddy Early had been away with the fairies for seven years and that they had taught her their healing powers, by others that she was given her gift by her son who had got it from the fairies. She had a small green, or some say blue, bottle that she shook and looked into to find out what was wrong with someone and how to cure them. Illness was often thought to be a result of the fairies having taken someone ‘away’ and left a changeling in their place. Biddy Early was able to prescribe the cure and then negotiate with ‘her people’, the fairies, about them. She turned away many that she said were none of her business because their illness was not from the fairies.

    Her cures consisted of herbs, healing water (taken, for instance, from the dew on the grass around three boundary walls, or from a boundary stream, boundaries being liminal and therefore potent areas) and practices such as telling someone to spit on a person or animal that had been ‘overlooked’ (by the fairies). As the fairies were fastidious the spit served as a deterrent. Also, ‘There’s something strange about spits and if you spit on a child or beast it’s as good as if you’d said, "God bless it" ’ as one of Lady Gregory’s informants said. 3

    3 Spittle was widely used as a healing and protective agent. It was often thought to be even more effective for healing if it was mixed with the soil or dust from a sacred well or site. Lady Wilde records that fasting spittle, especially if mixed with clay from a healing well, was especially efficacious.

    In Wales, the dyn hysbys or ‘cunning’ man was a similar character - although by definition he was always male, there were also ‘cunning’ women, the gwraig hysbys. The dyn hysbys like his Irish counterpart also had the sight and could find lost things, lift evil spells and cure. He was able to call the spirits, the ‘tylwyth teg’, the fair people, (fairies), to enlist their help. One such man was Dr Harries of Cwrtycadno near Lampeter (d.1839), and his son Henry, both of whom had the distinction of appearing in the Bywgraffiadur, a Welsh Who’s Who, as famous magicians. Thousands of people flocked to see him in his house at the top of a hill, reached by walking two miles through thick oak forest. There were many stories handed down about him, stories of how he healed madmen, found lost things, punished thieves and called up the spirits.

    Unlike similar healers in Ireland however, the Welsh dyn hysbys often used charms, spells and magical rites derived from a magical tradition that was based on esoteric material from countries like Persia and Egypt that had flooded into Europe after the first crusade. lxviii

    There was also a type of folk healer in Ireland, Scotland and Wales known as a charmer. In Wales the swynwr was seen as distinct from the consurwr (conjurer) or dyn hysbys; he did not claim supernatural powers but only to have secret knowledge which enabled him to heal. This knowledge was passed down the generations and its efficacy depended on it being kept secret. The charmers were somewhat more acceptable to the Christian folk than the dyn hysbys who got their powers from spirits. In my own area of Wales, Ceredigion, there was a swynwr called Jonathan Richards who lived in Blaen Brwyno. Known as Jonathan Bach to distinguish him from his father who was also a swynwr, he was able to stop haemorrhaging by reciting a charm, to heal burns and to ‘break’ the illness known as clefyd y galon, ‘the disease of the woollen threads’, which appears to have been a deep melancholy affecting the heart. lxixThere are still people alive today whom he healed as children and the charm for checking blood was passed down to a woman of the area and then to her niece who still has it. As in parts of Ireland and Scotland the tradition is alive and still very much resorted to by local people, although there is evidence that it is changing to incorporate some of the different healing methods brought to Wales by incomers.

    The charmer was able to heal by virtue of a charm passed down to him, the fairy doctors by their contact with the Otherworld but there were also people who were able to heal because they were the seventh son of a seventh son or because of contact with various creatures. We have already seen that in Wales shingles could be cured by someone who had eaten eagle flesh, or whose ancestor had. In Ireland, putting a worm into the hand of a child before he was baptised, and leaving it there until the worm died, gave that child the power to heal all childish diseases in later life. In the South and West of Ireland, a person who had licked or had physical contact with a lizard was given immunity from burns himself and able to heal them in others. As recently as the late 1980s in Ireland a man who had the power to heal burns because he had licked a lizard as a child had patients referred to him by two local doctors. lxx

    To summarise then, we have some evidence from Classical writers that the druids and physicians of Gaul had knowledge of herbal medicine. There is also evidence from the medieval tales and poetry of Ireland and Wales that there were not only professional physicians, some of whom were attached to armies, but also a tradition of seer-physicians who had supernatural knowledge and gifts. The Laws of medieval Ireland and Wales attest to a professional class of doctors as well as giving some shadowy indications of women who lived in the túath and gave medical treatment. In more recent times there were folk-healers who cured people in their communities using a combination of methods, some of them similar to those of the ancient seer-physicians. Folk-healers still exist and serve their communities in parts of the Celtic-speaking world today.



    The origins of disease and its cure are, to a large extent, mysterious even today, and there are several different theories. The biological and pathological models embraced by the orthodox medical profession is very successful in certain areas, but there is room for a complementary approach which is based, like the Celtic healing arts, on a cultural model. If we believe, like Virchow that "disease begins with the insufficiency of the regulatory apparatuses" and like Hahnemann, the founder of homoeopathic medicine, that illness is caused by a weakness or derangement of the vital force, then we can see how by addressing this regulatory apparatus or vital force, which is undeniably bound up with the emotions and the spirit, healing may occur. The charms and rituals of the ancient, medieval and more modern Celts, together with their herbal remedies and surgical and bone setting skills, addressed the body, mind and spirit, reaching as they did, into the heart of their faith and beliefs. This being the case, they are worthy of further study and regard by anyone working within the framework of the Celtic tradition.








    i Quoted in Ó' hÓgáin, D: The Hero in Irish Folk History, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1985, p. 63

    ii Glassie, H : Passing the Time in Ballymenone. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1995 p.460

    iii Lady Gregory:Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992

    iv Jones, Ida B., Hafod 16 (A Mediaeval Welsh Medical Treatise) in Etudes Celtiques, vol 8 (1958-9), pp. 346-93

    v Eliade, Mirceau : Traite d'Histoire des Religions, pp. 293 and Eliade, Mirceau: 'La Terre-Mere et les Hierogamies cosmiques' in Eranos-Jahrbuch, XXII, 1954, pp.87

    vi Glassie, H : Passing the Time in Ballymenone. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1995 p. 307

    vi Cross, T.P. and Slover, C.H : Ancient Irish Tales. George G. Harrap & Company LTD, London, Bombay, Sydney, 1935. pp 412-415

    vii Nash, D. W, Taliesin, John Russell Smith, London 1958

    viii Mackenzie, Donald A., Scottish Wonder Tales from Myth and Legend, Dover Publications Inc., 1997

    ix See Nagy, Joseph: The Wisdom of the Outlaw, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1985, p 160.

    x Watkins, Calvert, Indo-European Metrics and Archaic Irish Verse, Celtica, 6 (1963); Hamp, Eric,

    xi The Semantics of Poetry in Early Celtic, Papers from the Thirteenth Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society, ed. Breach, Woodford A., Fox, Samuel E., Shulamith Philosph (University of Chicago, 1977).

    xii Haycock, Marged: The Significance of the 'Cad Goddau' Tree-List in the Book of Taliesin in Current Issues In Linguistic Theory 68, Celtic Linguistics, p.300

    xiii Gray, E: Cath Maige Tuired, Irish Texts Society Vol LII, 1982, p55

    xiv Kinsella, Thomas, tr: The Tain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1969, p 190

    xv Cross, T.P. and Slover, C.H : Ancient Irish Tales. George G. Harrap & Company LTD, London, Bombay, Sydney, 1935. p 189.

    xvi Carmichael, Alexander: Carmina Gadelica, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992, pp 416-7, 653-5

    xvii John, Brian: Fireside Tales from Pembrokeshire, Greencroft Books, Newport, 1993, p132

    xviii Ó' hÓgáin, D: The Hero in Irish Folk History, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1985, p236-237.

    xix Leighes coise Chein in O'Grady, S.H, ed: Silva Gadelica, 2 vols, London and Edinburgh, 1892, ii

    xx The Vision of Mac Conglinne in Cross, T.P. and Slover, C.H: Ancient Irish Tales. George G. Harrap & Company LTD, London, Bombay, Sydney, 1935. pp551-587

    xxi Quoted in Toulson, Shirley: The Celtic Alternative, Century Paperbacks, London, 1987 p.52

    xxii Griffiths, Kate Bosse, Byd Y Dyn Hysbys, Y Lolfa Press, Talybont,

    xxiii Wilde, Lady: Irish Cures, Mystic Charms and Superstitions, Sterling Publishing Co., New York, 1991, p 50

    xxiv Green, Miranda: The Sun-Gods of Ancient Europe, B.T.Batsford Ltd, London, 1991, Chapter 6, p 107-121

    xxv Carmichael, Alexander: Carmina Gadelica, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992, p 613

    xxvi Wilde, Lady: Irish Cures, Mystic Charms and Superstitions, Sterling Publishing Co., New York, 1991, p 51

    xxvii Ibid, p 49

    xx viii Ibid, p 62

    xxix Carmichael, Alexander: Carmina Gadelica, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992, p 613

    xxx Bord, Janet and Colin: Sacred Waters, Paladin, London, 1986, p 57.

    xxxi Jones, Francis: The Holy Wells of Wales, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1954, p 102-3

    xxxii Green, Miranda: Celtic Goddesses, British Museum Press, London, 1995, p 90 (See the whole chapter, pp 89-116.)

    xxxiii Ibid, p 92

    xxxiv Carmichael, Alexander: Carmina Gadelica, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992, pp 411-414

    xxxv Owen, Elias: Welsh Folk-Lore, Woodall, Minshall and Co., Oswestry and Wrexham, 1896, p 264.

    xxxvi Kondratiev, Alexei: The Apple Branch, The Collins Press, Cork, 1998, p 171

    xxxvii Carmichael, Alexander: Carmina Gadelica, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992, p 377

    xxxvii Beith, Mary: Healing Threads, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1997, pp 121-3

    xxxix Binchy, D. A: Bretha Crólige, Ériu 12, (1938) pp. 1-77, para 27.

    xl Gaelic charms which mention DíanCécht, the healing god of the Túatha Dé Danaan and Goibnu, the smith god, were written in the margins of Latin manuscripts by the Celtic monks at the same monastery.

    xli Beith, Mary: Healing Threads, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1997, p 42

    xliiJones, Anne E: Folk Medicine in Living Memory in Wales in Folk Life, Vol 7, 1969, p 61.

    xliii MacKillop, James, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp 114, 175, 214, 380.

    xlivTrevelyan, Marie: Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, EP Publishing Ltd, Wakefield, 1973, pp 101-105

    xlv Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Eds. Riley, H.T., Bostock, John, book 25, chapter 59

    xlvi Wilde, Lady: Irish Cures, Mystic Charms and Superstitions, Sterling Publishing Co., New York, 1991, p 90

    xlvii Green, Miranda: Celtic Goddesses, British Museum Press, London, 1995, pp 169-71

    xlviii From Tenga Bithnua quoted and translated in Carey, John, A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland, Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, 1999, p. 88.

    xlix Rorie, David: Folk Tradition and Folk Medicine in Scotland, Canongate Academic, Edinburgh, 1994, pp 127-8.

    l Deane, T and Shaw, T: The Folklore of Cornwall, B.T.Batsford Ltd, London, 1975, p 141. See also Folklore 54, 1943, pp 298-299.

    li See website of the Colchester Archaeological Trust

    lii Beith, Mary: Healing Threads, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1997, p 89

    liii Rorie, David: Folk Tradition and Folk Medicine in Scotland, Canongate Academic, Edinburgh, 1994, p. 29

    liv Beith, Mary: Healing Threads, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1997, p 196

    lv Kendrick, T.D., The Druids, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1927

    lvi Kinsella, Thomas, tr. The Tain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1969, p.210

    lvii Shaw, Francis, 'Irish Medical Men and Philosophers' in Seven Centuries of Irish Learning, ed. Ó Cuiv, Dublin, 1961, pp. 75-86

    lviii Gray, Elizabeth A., Cath Maige Tuired, Irish Texts Society, 1982, p 51

    lix Shaw, Francis, 'Irish Medical Men and Philosophers' in Seven Centuries of Irish Learning, ed. Ó Cuiv,

    Dublin, 1961

    lx See Kelly, Fergus, A Guide to Early Irish Law, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1988

    lxi Morfydd E. Owen, 'The medical books of medieval Wales and the physicians of Myddfai', The Carmarthenshire Antiquary 31 (1995)

    lxii See Jenkins, Dafydd Law of Hywel Dda: Law Texts of Medieval Wales, Gomer Press, Llandysul, 1986 See also Morfydd E. Owen, 'The medical books of medieval Wales and the physicians of Myddfai', The Carmarthenshire Antiquary 31 (1995), also Morfydd E. Owen, 'Meddygon Myddfai, a preliminary survey of some medical writings in Welsh'. Studia Celtica ix/x (1995), 210-33.

    lxiii Joyce, P.W., A Social History of Ireland, M.H.Gill, Dublin, 1920. The story is in the Acallam naSénorach, The Colloquy of the Sages.

    lxiv Joyce, Patrick Weston: A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland, Longmans, Green and Co, London 1906

    lxv Quoted in Bitel, Lisa, Spirituales Medici in Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland, Cornell University Press, 1993, pp. 173-193

    lxvi Davies, Wendy: The Place of Healing in Early Irish Society in Sages, Saints and Storytellers. Celtic Studies in Honour of Professore James Carney, Maynooth Monographs 2, Maynooth:An Sagart, 198 pp 43-45

    lxvii Gregory, Lady: Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992 pp.32-50

    lxvii Griffiths, Kate Bosse, Byd Y Dyn Hysbys, Y Lolfa Press, Talybont,

    lxix See Evan Isaac, Coelion Cymru, Y Clwb Llyfrau Cymreig, 1938, chapter x, pp145-169

    lxx Nolan, Peter: Folk Medicine in Rural Ireland, in Folk Life, Vol 27, 1988-89, pp 51