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Celtic Roots

Connecting Thread

Nature and the Celtic Tradition

  This article links with the last article by David Abram. Mara Freeman shows how the pre-Christian Celts in Ireland were at one with nature. They lived outdoors, held their rituals outdoors and only had very flimsy shelter. She shows how the Christian monks developed a different relationship with nature as they moved indoors.
Maura Freeman  
  When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water and the fire.

To contemplate the flowing curves and spirals of Celtic art, the pouring-out of forms in vigorous, organic swirls, is to get a glimpse into the way the early Celts perceived the web of life. The astonishing interweaving patterns whether on vellum page or stone cross reflect a world filled with the endless delight of movement, a perfect, precarious balance between the orderly and the unbounded.

Interlacing designs speak to us of dense thickets in the deep forests that covered the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland before later ages turned them into ships, or charcoal for smelting steel. Here and there an animal or bird appears out of the tangle of knotwork, as if from the shadows of trees. Human forms intertwine with animal, both joined by twisting and turning filaments that connect the whole tapestry. Sometimes a form that starts out as human may end up as beast or bird.

This rhythmical interpenetration of forms can be seen as a reflection of the interconnectedness between human beings and the natural world found in the Celtic wisdom tradition, which is the subject of this exploration. But before examining this relationship more deeply, it is important to note here that we have no actual body of lore that might be said to constitute a systematized wisdom tradition within Celtic culture. The Celts preserved their teachings orally, and what words we have were recorded by Christian scribes, writing long after the demise of the native druidic orders. To use the forest as metaphor, it might be said that as we stumble through the dense undergrowth of the past we too can only catch the glint of what appears to be an ancient earth-based spiritual path as we emerge into occasional sunlit clearings. Our guides are poetry, legend and folk-lore.
What is clear from early literature is that the Celts believed themselves to live in an animate, ensouled universe. The pre-Christian Celtic world was peopled by a pantheon of gods and goddesses who inhabited or personified different localities. Ireland itself was seen as a great goddess, one of whose names, Eriu, gives us the country we know as Eire. Her body was the land itself: in County Kerry, two hills like great breasts are named the Paps of Anu, another of her names. To be an Irish king meant a ritual marriage with the land in the form of a goddess known as Sovereignty. Cavernous earth-chambers like Newgrange in the Boyne River valley built by earlier races were regarded as entrances to her womb, where the spirits of the ancestors dwelt. Lakes, wells and springs were sacred to goddesses, their waters bestowing healing and nourishment; in Wales a creamy curd-like substance that issued from certain springs was seen as milk from her breast. The sea was the province of Manannan mac Lir, King of the Land-Under-Wave.

Trees too were ensouled, each having distinct qualities and attributes: the bright berries of the rowan afforded protection from evil, the nuts of the hazel bestowed wisdom. The sacred tree stood at the center of each tribeís village, while the druids worshipped in temples of oak groves.

Animals were regarded as powerful spiritual beings that could connect human beings with the unseen realms, or Celtic Otherworld. The white hart beckoned to the hunter whose prey was not flesh, the boar drew him on into the darkness. Seers would know the future from watching the movements of birds and translatingtheir cries. The Tuatha De Danaan, the supernatural race that lived in the hollow hills, often appeared to mortals in bird or animal form. (Time stops. White wings and a womanís smile. Cúchulainn must follow.)

Under the influence of Christianity the sacred places still remained, only the names were changed. The living, speaking universe was still glorified as the creation of God. Mary or St. Brigid now guarded the holy wells and even Jesus himself was spread against the heavens:

Son of the Dawn
Son of the clouds
Son of the stars
Son of the elements....î1

Gaelic prayers and hymns collected in Scotland as late as the 19th century invoke the power of the animals, as in this blessing:

Wisdom of serpent be thine,
Wisdom of raven be thine
Wisdom of valiant eagle....

So to pagan and Celtic Christian alike, the natural world was viewed as a bridge that spanned and connected the worlds of Earth and Spirit. The tree at the center of the tribe was the earthly manifestation of the Otherworld tree that stood at the center of the universe. The source of the local sacred well was the Otherworldly Well of Wisdom. The Celtic monk believed that the bird which sang continuously to him as he built his church was an angel sent from God. To relate to the natural world then was to be connected spiritually to the deepest and most numinous powers of the universe.

When we take a closer look at this connection, three different kinds of relationships emerge between those in human form and the non-human ñ or as David Abram calls it, more-than-human ñ world. These might be described as first, the familiar position where a human being relates to Nature as perceiver to perceived, both separate, discrete entities, the identity of each set firmly within its own boundaries. Because within this relationship Nature is seen as of intrinsic and equal value with the human, I am calling this the -Thou position. The second, less common relationship, I call here the relationship of communion, where the perceiver begins to assume the identity of the perceived and boundaries begin to blur. In the third relationship, a kind of symbiosis takes place in which human and other-than-human forms are interchangeable. This occurs through a process of metamorphosis, and I call it the transformative relationship.

The I-Thou position is to us the most familiar kind of relationship, where Nature is beheld as the subject of human experience. This relationship is the subject of a number of poems written by people who lived a simple ascetic existence in the wilderness. Some of these were pagan, visionaries and shamans known as geilt, the Wild Ones; others were early Christian hermits and anchorites, possibly members of the mysterious order of the Early Celtic Church known as the Culdees, Companions of God, who may have been druids embracing the new religion while preserving the older teachings within it.

These forest-dwellers lived in huts made of wattles, or even caves or trees; the walls that circumscribe our modern lives, cutting us off from intimacy with Nature, were fragile or non-existent. To live like this is to see oneself in perspective, small in a huge and teeming world. In one poem, a 7th century hermit describes his dwelling:

I have a shieling in the wood,
None knows it save my God:
An ash-tree on the hither side, a hazel-bush beyond,
A huge oak-tree encompasses it.

Two heath-clad doorposts for support,
And a lintel of honeysuckle:
The forest around its narrowness sheds
Its mast upon fat swine.2

The clarity and detail of his descriptions are typical of Celtic Nature poetry, springing as it does from lived experience. Unlike the later medieval poetry of European courts, where Nature is a pale allegory of abstract qualities, these verses carry the fresh quality of everyday life. The sheer variety of natural phenomena in each poem provides for us, living as we do at a time when we have decimated so many species, a window onto a world that teems with the biodiversity of life.
Glen of the sleek brown round-faced otters that are pleasant and active in fishing; many are the white-winged stately swans, and salmon breeding along the rocky brink..3

Celtic Nature poets evoke an existence where all the senses are involved. We who have banished ourselves from the rich banquet of the natural world, preferring the empty calories of ìvirtualî realities and consumer items, can sense how it must have felt to our ancestors to be satisfied by the natural abundance of things:

Ale with herbs, a dish of strawberries
Of good taste and color,
Haws berries of the juniper,
Sloes, nuts.

When brilliant summer-time spreads its colored mantle,
Sweet-tasting fragrance!
Pignuts, wild marjoram, green leeks,
Verdant pureness.

Swarms of bees and chafers, the little musicians of the world,
A gentle chorus:
Wild geese and ducks, shortly before summerís end,
The music of the dark torrent . 4

The vividness of the imagery recalls Blakeís famous phrase: ìIf the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is ñ infinite.î And indeed, in the pagan Celtic wisdom tradition, poetry was regarded as a central skill of the seer and mystic. According to the old tales, the poet-seer received divine illumination by eating a sacred substance from Earthís body: most often the Salmon of Wisdom that comes from the well at the heart of the Otherworld. When Finn mac Cumhaill, a hero who shares many characteristics of the geilt, eats of the Salmon by the banks of the River Boyne and becomes enlightened, the first words he utters are a paeon of praise to the month of May, as if the taking-in of the magical fish has opened his eyes to the wonder of the world:
  May-time, fair season, perfect is its aspect then; blackbirds sing a full song... 5

In every poem, the poetís relationship with the natural world is specific and intimate. In the 20th century we tend to talk about trees, not to them, or we may expand our consciousness so far as to ìhug a tree.î But in the following poem, the poet addresses individual animals, plants and trees revealing an authentic I-Thou relationship with each:
Little antlered one, little belling one, melodious little bleater, sweet I think the lowing that you make in the glen...

Blackthorn, little thorny one, black little sloe-bush; watercress, little green-topped one, on the brink of the blackbirdís well....

Apple-tree, little apple-tree, violently everyone shakes you; rowan, little berried one, lovely is your bloom....6

The personal life of the poet is hardly mentioned in these poems. Only occasionally do we get a touching glimpse of a few domestic details, and then only in the poems about winter when the poet is confined inside: ìCosy is our pot on its hook,î begins one verse of a poem known as Winter Cold, but this line is only put in to contrast with the plight of wild animals:

The wolves of Cuan Wood get
Neither rest nor sleep in their lair,
The little wren cannot find
Shelter in her nest on the slope of Lon.7

The scarcity of details of the individual life highlight its relative insignificance compared to the huge drama being enacted outside. The poet makes himself transparent so that he can relate to Nature from a deeper level. The German poet Novalis called this place ìthe seat of the soulî which he located as: ìwhere the inner world and the outer world meet, and where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap.î And in becoming transparent, these long-dead poets have enabled us to participate in that relationship just a little, to taste air fresh from the morning of the world. Turning from the poems to a look at some of the lives of the dwellers in the wild, we become aware particularly of their relationship with the living creatures of the forest. More than one Celtic scholar has pointed out the etymological correspondence of geilt with a word meaning ìto grazeî, referring to their vegetarian diet. Although hunting was an obvious option in this plenteous land, many geilt lived on a diet of roots, cresses, fruit and nuts. Could this have been motivated by the desire to live in closer communion with the wild animals? There are indeed many descriptions, both of pagan heroes and Christian anchorites that illustrate such fellowship.
In In the story known as ìFinn and the Man in the Treeî, Finn mac Cumhaill comes upon one of his band that he has been seeking. He finds him sitting in a tree surrounded by creatures:
... a blackbird on his right shoulder and in his left hand a white vessel of bronze, filled with water in which was a skittish trout and a stag at the foot of a tree. And this was the practice of the man, cracking nuts; and he would give half the kernel of a nut to the blackbird that was on his right shoulder while he would himself eat the other half; and he would take an apple out of the bronze vessel that was in his left hand, divide it in two, throw one half to the stag that was at the foot of the tree and then eat the other half himself. And on it he would drink a sip of the bronze vessel that was in his hand so that he and the trout and the stag and the blackbird drank together.8

Equal concern for the well-being of a wild creature was shown by the Irish anchorite, Kevin of Glendalough, who lived in solitude by a lake, existing only on nettles and sorrel. One Lent as he lay fasting on the grey flagstone that was his bed, a blackbird hopped upon his outstretched palm and built her nest there. The saint kept his hand in that position while she built her nest in it, laid her eggs, and then hatched her brood. However, in many stories of the Christian hermits, a subtle difference enters the kind of relationship they have with the animals.

Where the above examples illustrate human beings serving animals, legends of the Celtic saints more often portray animals as subordinates. In the story of St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, a fox carried the psalter while the lesson was read, and the monk would use the horns of a visiting stag as a book-rest! Where pagan mythology portrays animals as numinous messengers from the spirit world, the monks relate to them more as pets or servants. This parallels the gradual ìmove indoorsî, where under the new religion, the druid groves were replaced by walled churches, the sacred spring by the font.

As we would expect then, practitioners of the deeper kind of relationship with Nature that I call here the relationship of communion were the geilt rather than the Christian anchorites, and we will look more closely here at who they were. Like their Christian counterparts, these dwellers in the wild left civilization following a spiritual call. Often this came as a reaction to the horrors of war. In Ireland, the most famous of these was Suibhne Geilt, a warrior king who in the midst of battle was struck with revulsion and terror at the carnage, and fled for refuge into the wilderness. There he sought peace and solitude and became a prolific Nature poet. In Britain, the same tale is told of Merlin who fled the nightmare of battle for the solitude of the Caledonian Forest. Not all forest-dwellers were refugees of war; but for all, the call of the wilderness was a call from spirit. To dwell in the forest was to live between the worlds and to learn how to traverse the unmarked paths and perilous ways of the Otherworld. It was to start to merge with the wild Nature itself. Suibhne and other geilt were said to have grown feathers like birds upon their bodies. With the typical ambiguity of Celtic literature, some texts tell us they could fly like birds; others that the feathers grew only to protect them from the fierce frost and cold, but that they ìrun along the trees almost as swiftly as monkeys or squirrels.î9

Did they really grow feathers or were they garbed in feather cloaks that made them look like strange huge birds glimpsed between the branches on a dim evening? If a cloak, was it really for protection againstthe elements, or was it for the flight of the soul into the Otherworld? The feathered cloak used in shamanic practices worldwide was certainly known in Celtic tradition: we hear tell of the great druid Mog Ruith whose ìskin of the hornless, dun-coloured bull was brought to him then and his speckled bird-dress with its winged flying, and his druidic gear besides. And he rose up, in company with the fire, into the air and the heavens...î10

Where pagan mythology portrays animals as numinous messengers from the spirit world, the monks relate to them more as pets or servants. This parallels the gradual ìmove indoorsî, where under the new religion, the druid groves were replaced by walled churches, the sacred spring by the font.

The legendary Finn mac Cumhaill and his warrior band of Fianna share characteristics with animals. Conan mac Morna, one of his men, had the fleece of a black sheep on his back instead of skin. The mother of Finnís son, Oisín (ìFawn,î) bore him while in the shape of a doe.

Suibhne Geilt was said to have run with the herds of wild deer, riding upon a fawn, living like the deer themselves on wild plants and water. Merlin is also described as living as one of a herd of stags ìlike a wild animalî We are reminded of the extraordinary image on the silver panels of the famous cauldron found in a peat-bog in Gundestrup, Denmark, where a male figure wearing antlers sits in ecstatic trance surrounded by a forest of animals. This relationship of communion with wild animals drew these men into the borders of the Otherworld: both Suibhne and Merlin developed the supernatural powers of prophecy and shape-shifting.

And what are we to make of that other ambiguous figure, half-man, half wild creature, known in medieval Britain as the Wodwo or Wild Man? While few words were written about them, they have been extensively depicted in tapestries and church carvings. These beings were in human form, but covered

completely with hair. They wore no clothes but were frequently garlanded with flowers and leaves. They are shown riding upon various animals, some of them fabulous: stag, bear, unicorn and gryphon. They have never been conclusively identified as mythical figures akin to the satyr, or as a remnant of a forest-dwelling people. While their presence as motifs on the fine furnishings of the rich bespeak a fascination with the archetype of wildness in an over-civilized milieu, they were certainly considered real enough by many, including Charles VI of France who spent a lifetime searching obsessively for them, and was rewarded when one joined in a charivari at a wedding-feast.

In the relationship of communion, the boundary between human and wild animal is blurred; in the transformative, it dissolves altogether. This is the province of the great bards and seers who were masters at walking between the worlds. By daring consciously to undergo egoic death, they were able to expand individual consciousness to identify with the experience of other-than-human forms, and in that other reality spend many lifetimes as elements or creatures of the wild. Through living in the skins of other-than-human beings, they attained the wisdom of a self that identified itself with consciousness, not form; a fluid consciousness that could become universal by flowing into the myriad aspects of life in the natural world. This was the highest form of initiation in the Celtic Mysteries undergone by the most daring of poet-seers and heroes. Before Finnís birth, it was prophesied:

He will be in the shape of every beast,
Both on the azure sea and on land,
He will be a dragon before hosts at the onset,
He will be a wolf of every great forest.

He will be a stag with horns of silver
In the land where chariots are driven,
He will be a speckled salmon in a full pool,
He will be a seal, he will be a fair-white swan.11

Walesí greatest bard and seer,Taliesin, was initiated into the mysteries of the goddess Ceridwen through a shape-shifting sequence, in which he turned, respectively into a hare, a fish, a bird, and finally a grain of wheat, each of these forms representing one of the four elements that constitute life: the hare as earth, the fish as water, the bird as air, and the sun-ripened grain of wheat as the spark of fire.

The poet-seer would often ìstate his credentialsî in incantations that ring with numinous authenticity:

I have been a blue salmon,
I have been a dog, a stag, a
roebuck on the mountain....
declaims Taliesin.

said the seer Amergin,( in what I like to think was a soft voice that sent ripples of fear through his listeners)
am the wind which blows over the sea;
I am the wave of the deep;
I am the bull of seven battles;
I am the eagle on the rock;
I am a tear of the sun; 12

Where it could be said that these experiences might be no more than inner visions, other stories of metamorphosis with the wild things of earth have a definitely ìlivedî quality, and recount all the terrors and marvels of the journey of transformation. In the narrative poem known as The Hawk of Achill, an ancient seer named Fintan converses with an aged hawk on the lonely island of Achill, off the west coast of County Mayo in Ireland. They find out they are exactly the same age ó 6515 years ó and both have lived through the early history of old Ireland, witnessed its many invasions, lived under numerous kings, and suffered many losses and deaths. For five hundred years Fintan was a salmon, for fifty an eagle, and finally a falcon for one hundred years before returning to his original human shape. He recounts the bitter cold of winter from the salmonís perspective:

I passed a night in the Northern wave,
And I sat Asseroe of the seals,
Never felt I a night like that,
From the beginning of the world to its end.

I could not stay under the waterfall,
I took a leap, but it did not help me,
The ice came like clear blue glass
Between me and the falls of Mac Moduirn

Another shape-shifter and time-traveller was Tuan OíCairell, another old seer discovered by the monk Finnian of Moville to whom he recounts his history of transformations. He describes the wretchedness of old age as an exhausted old man and the joy of renewal as he is transformed into an stag, the first of many metamorphoses:
ìAt last old age came upon me, and I was on cliffs and in wastes, and was unable to move about, ..... hairy, clawed, withered, grey, naked, wretched, miserable. Then as I was asleep one night, I saw myself passing into the shape of a stag. In that shape I was, and I young and glad of heart...
Then there grew upon my head
Two antlers with three score points,
So that I am rough and grey in shape
After my age has changed from feebleness

Tuan, like Suibhne and Merlin, becomes the leader of the stag herds of Ireland, before taking the shape, in turn, of a boar, a hawk and a salmon, and finally a man again. Every time he wearies with age, he returns to a certain cave where he fasts for three days, the period favored by Celtic seers for mantic journeys. Like Fintan, he undergoes intense hardships that ring with all the authenticity of lived experience:
I passed into the shape of a river salmon....was vigorous and well-fed and my swimming was good, and I used to escape from every danger and from every snare - to wit, from the hands of fishermen, and from the claws of hawks, and from fishing spears - so that the scars which each one of them left are still upon me.14

Tuanís life as a salmon is brought to an end when fishermen of the chieftain Cairell catch him and serve him to his wife who eats the whole fish herself. She becomes pregnant with Tuan who remains conscious while in her womb, fully aware of who he is and of everything that is happening in Ireland.

So in a mysterious reversal which serves to highlight the magical interplay of human and non-human forms in the Celtic tradition, the man that eats the salmon to become a seer turns into the salmon who is eaten so that a man can be born.

The spiritual intent behind these extraordinary initiations is best summed up by the 17th century Welsh writer, Iolo Morganwg in his Barddas, a work he claims to be ancient druidic teachings:
And as there is a special form of knowledge that cannot be had in another, it is necessary that we should go through every form of existence before we can acquire every form and species of understanding, and consequently renounce all evil...15

Although these ancient ways have vanished along with the great forests of Northern Europe, even today in modern England traces of the old communion with the wild things survive in folk-custom and festival. Every September in Abbotís Bromley, Staffordshire, the Horn Dance takes place, with dancers wearing reindeer antlers; on May Day, in the small fishing town of Padstow, Cornwall, the townspeople take turns to don the costume of the ìhobby horseî and cavort wildly through the town, personifying the wild and untamed power of a new spring.

Meanwhile as modern ecological consciousness grows, fostering a thirst for an abiding relationship with the natural world, this ancient and all but dried-up river is being fed with fresh springs from Deep Ecology and other related movements. We will have to relearn just how to be in relationship with the numerous forms of life which hover about us in unguarded moments, pressing against the windows of our dreams, waiting patiently for that simple act of recognition that can come like lightning or as quiet as leaf-fall. Their voices can teach us how, if we will listen. D
  Mara Freeman is an Archdruidess in the Druid Clan of Dana. She teaches at the University of Creation Spirituality and is the founder of the Chalice Center. Her book Kindling The Celtic Spirit, has just been published (see Book Shelf p 78).
  This article has been published with the permission of the author.

1. Bamford, Christopher and Marsh, William Parker. Celtic Christianity. Massachusetts: Lindisfarne Press, 1987. p.40
2. Meyer, Kuno. Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry. London:Constable,1959.p.47
3. Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone. A Celtic Miscellany. Middlesex: Penguin Books,1973. p.72
4. Meyer, Ibid.p.49
5. Jackson, Ibid, p.63
6. Jackson, Ibid, p.73
7. Meyer, Ibid,p.57
8. Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,1967.p.337
9. Chadwick, Nora. Geilt. Scottish Gaelic Studies, Vol.V., Part II. Oxford: Blackwell, 1942, p.129
10. Ross, Ibid.p.263
11. Meyer, Kuno, trans. The Voyage of Bran. Felinfach: Llanerch,1994. p.24
12. Ford, Patrick. The Mabinogi. California: University of California Press,1977. p.60
13. Hull, Eleanor. The Hawk of Achill or The Legend of the Oldest Animals, London: Folk-Lore, Vol 43, 1932, p.394
14. Matthews, John. Taliesin. London: The Aquarian Press,1991.p.161
15. Matthews, John. A Celtic Reader. London: The Aquarian Press,1991. p.242