Rekindle Your Wild Joy and Deep Belonging to the Earth

Power of Raven (Good Wish) May 21, 2010

Alexander Carmichael 1900“Good Wish” is one of the many lovely blessings and magical invocations collected in the Scottish Highlands by Alexander Carmichael (pictured here in 1900) and compiled into his 6 volumes entitled Ortha nan Gaidheal or Carmina Gadelica.  (“Good Wish” appears on page 282 of the edited single mass market volume. No, I don’t currently own a full set: only the first two of six. My birthday is in December… 🙂 )

I like that “Good Wish” starts out by conferring “power of raven.” Ravens so often get a bad rap – in fact, all of the Corvidae do: ravens, crows, magpies, and jays. Those smart, big-mouthed birds are the avian equivalent of theater people, anarchists, feminists, culture jammers – a bit trickstery with their sense of humor, a bit wiser than you might expect, unafraid of death or gory weirdness, with one eye out for anything flamboyant and interesting; not subtle business-suited or cute-plumaged boop-boop Paris Hilton-type chirpers at all. Viva la Raven!

This invocation attempts to confer the great powers and riches (“goodness”) of nature on its recipient. Along with these, it also confers the blessings of two great human leaders, Christ and Fionn; and to top it off, it confers three valued internal qualities: honor, compassion, and love. There is evidence that in pre-Christian Irish society, maintaining one’s personal honor, including integrity of word and deed, was extremely important. Ah, for the good old days.

My favorite part of this Wish, though, is “death on pillow.” This is not something we ordinarily think of as a positive prayer since we’re so alienated from the realities of death in this culture, but by considering the many hideous alternatives, we can understand how it truly is.

By request, I like to sing an original variation of this poem to participants in my open singing group EnChantMent! while they collectively hold a single drone note, like a sung bagpipe; in this way to end our sessions with a blessing for them.

May it likewise bless all reading this now.

Drawing Down the Moon (painting by Tina Fields)

Drawing Down the Moon (painting by Tina Fields)


Power of raven be thine

Power of eagle be thine

Power of the Fiann.

Power of storm be thine

Power of moon be thine

Power of sun.

Power of sea be thine

Power of land be thine

Power of heaven.

Goodness of sea be thine

Goodness of earth be thine

Goodness of heaven.

Each day be joyous to thee

No day be grievous to thee

Honour and compassion.

Love of each face be thine

Death on pillow be thine

Thy Saviour’s presence.


I made the watercoloured drawing on the right a looong time ago!  It’s very fun to be letting these old pieces fly into the world now, here.


Boadicea’s Last Stand October 1, 2010

Filed under: — BrujaHa @ 8:52 pm

This is a slightly revised version of the very first paper I wrote for graduate school. I’d write it differently today, but I still rather like it. It was subsequently published by the Sierra Nevada Celtic Society in serialized form. My professor, the great William Irwin Thompson, called it “a cross between scholarly and Dave Barry.” If he meant that comment to serve as a pithy corrective, something went horribly awry: I attempt to make my papers live up to that standard to this day.



The shift from Celtic culture to a Romanized culture was not merely one of a series of territory takeovers, a new name on the deed or yet another clone in office; no, the ramifications of this were far more deep and insidious.  For I am speaking of differences that lie at the core of a people; their definitions of life: what is important and what is ridiculous and what is horrible; metaphors by which a race creates and manifests their world.  The coming of the Romans to Celtic Britain, and the resulting takeover, marked one phase-shift in the structure of human consciousness.


The Roman Takeover

The matter of the Iceni queen Boadicea’s leadership in the last successful tribal revolt in 60-61 CE against the Roman invasion could serve to cast a light on this matter.  Boadicea (also known as Boudicca, Boudica, Voadicea, Bonduica, Bunduca, or Boodicea, respectively – what can you expect of a people whose greatest known playwright couldn’t spell his own name the same way twice?), Queen of the Iceni in the time of Claudius and Nero, sole sovereign after the death of her husband Prasutagus, in regent for her two daughters until they come of age to rule in their own right.  Her tribe, the Iceni, whose territories lay roughly in what is known today as Norfolk and northern Suffolk, had willingly submitted, along with ten other great kingdoms, to the invading packs of Romans under Claudius in CE 43, thereby becoming a ‘client-kingdom’.

“We had not defeated this powerful tribe in battle,” chronicled the Roman historian Tacitus, “since they had voluntarily become our allies.”[1] This was beneficial for both sides, as Rome was in most ways a fair ruler to her distant holdings.  Not really wishing to carry on a lengthy campaign “outside the limits of the known world,” [2] the Romans made it seem more desirable for the native holders of their desired territories to work together with them rather than to wage a bloody battle for sole sovereignty. For example, they did not typically demand any religious conversion or insertion of Romans into their governance structures. The barbarian enemy, once surrendered, was allowed to carry on much as they had before, with little interference.

All went relatively well in the creeping conquering matter of Britain until the Romans began to violate their word, one of the worst possible acts to a culture like the various Celts, which places the highest value on honor.  A new Governor was assigned to Britain in 47, one Publius Ostorius Scapula (I am not making this up!), a weasely bonehead who was mostly concerned with covering his own rear end.


Tribal Celtic Cultures

To better understand the fullness of the collision of cultures that occurred here, a digression into social structures is in order. The deliberately obscure Irish Brehon Laws can give us clues as to at least an idealized example of early Celtic tribal social atmosphere.  Professor Maeve Binchy, a 19th-century scholar of the law tracts, comments that even though there must have been a great local variety in the interpretation of these laws,

“Irish law preserves in a semi-fossilized condition many primitive “Indo-European” institutions of which only faint traces survive in other legal systems derived from the same source.” [3]

These laws were given form by professional custodians of legalese and wisdom whose title, filidh, means ‘seer, prophet’; and like all pre-Christian Celtic knowledge, they were transmitted orally, probably in verse form to facilitate learning.

With its roots in Irish customs, even though both are intended to reinforce traditional socially acceptable codes of behavior, the Brehon Laws are understandably different from those of the Romans.  For example, there was no public enforcement of private obligations: no state to intervene, nor magistrates to punish.[4] Irish law was based on arbitration, compensation, and seizure.  The injured party must take responsibility himself to attempt to rectify his situation.  A defendant was expected to act honorably and submit to arbitration or pay the ‘log-n-enech’ (honor-price) when charges were brought.

One interesting way in which one could force a recalcitrant defendant into accepting arbitration was through fasting in front of her house.  These fasts lasted from sunset to sunrise, and so long as it went on, the accused person in the house must also fast.  When she wanted food, she must also offer it to the plaintiff on the doorstep.  Acknowledging the faster in this way meant that she must then pledge herself to accept arbitration or pay the amount demanded of her as recompense.  Calculation of these fines were quite inequitable, based as they were on such factors as the social rank of the person entitled to damages, as well as the nature and extent of the offense. Ignoring the faster completely would mean losing your honor.


The Importance of Honor

Losing honor was one of the worst things that could happen.  At the foundation of social and moral life among the Celts was the concept of personal honor.  St. Patrick was once reputed to have asked the bard Ossian, ‘And how did you manage to live before Jesus Christ came to show you how?’  And Ossian replied, ‘By the strength in our bodies and the honor in our hearts and the truth on our tongues.’[5]

The Celts held a strong belief in honor, in recognizing and following gessas (taboos), and in the ‘Act of Truth,’ believing truth-telling to be not only a socially good idea but a vital, magical force that can even have effects in the seemingly-unrelated material world. In the portion of the Dindshenchas known as firinne flatha or ‘Justice of a Ruler’, we find this belief illustrated: “Corn and milk in every stead, peace and fair weather for its sake, were granted to the heathen tribes of the Greeks, because they preserved truth.”[6] Acts like truth-telling and maintaining justice, matters of personal responsibility, mattered. Like that of the Romans, this was a culture with Indo-European warrior roots, but one that played out very differently.

A warrior who won without honor was scorned, but a person with integrity was publicly acknowledged in many ways. At a feast, for example, the various parts of the foods were ranked in order of superiority, and the greatest of these, the ‘hero’s bit’, went to the greatest among the company, the second-best piece to the second-greatest, and so on down the line.[7] An inferior portion offered to the wrong person might lead to dire consequences, as the always-armed, probably drunken, hot-headed heroes would fight to the death at the least hint of insult.  And as with the golden apple of chaos, sometimes there were more worthies than there were meats fit to give them.

To further maintain their status in public, when at the feast they sit in a circle in the round building, thus insuring that all those of equal rank are at an equal distance from the chief or host, who sits right in the middle.  Squires, servants and others, according to their office, sit or stand behind them.[8] It’s easy to imagine that this custom was the origin of the Arthurian Round Table.

Here is dealt with the touchy subject of acknowledgement of superiority without the enforced rank-and-file obedience to the uniform (regardless of the character of the person who happens to be wearing it) found in many hierarchical systems.


Laws and Language

Gaius tells us “the laws of the Roman people consist of legislation, enactments of the plebiscita [plebeians or common people], resolutions of the senate, constitutions of the emperors, the edicts of those who have the right to issue edicts, and the answers of the jurisprudents.”[9] In contrast, Ireland’s Brehon Laws, originally written down in the 7th century, had their origins in oral transmissions from long before that time, and were more a list of customs than legislative texts.

Oral transmission carried much more importance to these tribal people than written. Julius Caesar commented on his observation of the Gauls, people in France who were similar to their cousins across the channel in this characteristic:

The Gauls commit to memory immense amounts of poetry.  And so some of them continue their studies for twenty years.  They consider it improper to entrust their studies to writing, although they use the Greek alphabet for nearly everything else, in their public and private accounts.[10]

So these people were not illiterate; it’s just that written language was considered lowly, good only for keeping shop records. Knowledge, on the other hand, more secret and sacred, was to be held in and passed through the educated head.  (Perhaps this is one reason behind their head-cults.)  It is reputed that the Irish literati even had a secret language, known as berla na filed, into whose secrets the hero CuChulainn was initiated, as was his wife Emer.[11] Not to mention the extremely complex 7 systems, where a particular sound = a carved ‘letter’ = a tree = a month = a hand signal … and so on.  Celtic languages, like their knotwork, had a richness, a depth of intertwining magical meaning that is nearly unimaginable or incomprehensible to us in a world of newspapers, TiVo, and Microsoft.  I speculate that the Brehon Laws, along with the Mabinogion, the Leabhar Gabhala (Book of Invasions), the Voyage of Bran, the Tain bo Cuailgne, and other core works, were all put to paper only when the habitual use of paper began to threaten the continued existence of oral culture.

The ancient Celts were masters of spoken language, with a great love of subtlety and intellectual exercise.  In Ireland it is known that an ollamh, the highest grade of filidh (poet/seer), had to have committed to memory 350 stories, 250 long and 100 short.[12] To aid mnemonically, much of this was in rhyme.  The harp was often played with these verses, probably because the harp is inherently good, unlike the violin, which has a choice between good and evil.  A violin can drive away demons and mosquitoes if it wants to, especially if played by a novice.  The harp, on the other hand, if in tune, sounds beautiful even if you drop it.

The poetic profession also had its rankings,[13] and competition was just as fierce –if not fiercer – than among the fighters for the highest status… indeed, bards made scalding satires of a most scathing nature against one another:

Then Medb sent the Druids and satirists and harsh bards for Fer Diad, that they might make against him three satires to stay him and three lampoons, and that they might raise on his face three blisters, shame, blemish and disgrace, so that he might die before the end of nine days if he did not succumb at once. [14]

Celtic poetry, far from being lyrical beatnik free-flow verse, was the carefully tooled equivalent of today’s textbooks.  This was the way the people were educated in their culture’s history and lore; each piece, so rich and polished from the many tellings, could be peeled like an onion to discover deeper and deeper layers of meaning. Like Sufi stories or the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, the most profound of Secret Druidic teachings were spoken aloud but simultaneously hidden in tales that children could enjoy.

Beginning with the fusion with Roman culture and developed further by Christian monks, the commitment of such chronicles to hard, ephemeral paper meant the end of the keenly developed memory that comes with an oral tradition.  The predominant use of the discerning eye began to supersede that of the older, more poetic ear.

As a side dish, the Roman system of laws and their enforcement through civil police and barristers in a patriarchal, hierarchical State-run guilt society replaced the system of reputation and its keeping through boasting, foolhardy deeds, personal honor, and satire of a tribal shame society.  To use cultural historian William Irwin Thompson’s terms, the old mathematical model of the world was replaced by a newer geometrical mind-set.[15]

To contrast this Roman system with the Brehon Laws they were superseding, Maeve Binchy observes that in the latter,

“We also find … (a) passion for classification which meet us in the Hindu law books. In other words, the jurists … tended to produce a symmetrical pattern, and in the interests of symmetry they sometimes generalised rules and institutions which in real life had a much more restricted ambit.”[16]

It seems that along with their more tangible possessions, the Celts liked to embellish their laws with interlaced knotwork as well.


Meanwhile, Back at the War…

Now that we have established some cultural context, let’s go back to the conflict.

The people in the area known now as Wales would have nothing of Roman rule, however distant.  Guerrilla activity there escalated. The charismatic leader Caratacus began stirring up an epidemic of raiding from behind Roman lines. And to the North, the great sprawling federation of tribes, collectively known as the Brigantes, were still openly uncertain about their attitude toward the Roman occupation.

All of these factors served to make Ostorius Scapula nervous. Fearing even “a bitter treacherous peace which would give neither general nor army any rest,” [17] Scapula decided to go the ‘ounce of prevention’ route, reducing tribal territories and disarming all potential troublemakers before they got the idea to revolt. Thus, all voluntary allies of Rome were humiliatingly and summarily stripped of their weapons.

Such tyranny was, of course, completely unacceptable and created just what Scapula had hoped to avoid, a mass revolt of infuriated allies in 49-50.  When small revolts occurred, revenge was swift. The first revolt of the Iceni tribe was quickly put down, and according to Tacitus, their defeat “quieted others who were wavering between war and peace. The Roman army then struck against the nearby Degeangli tribe, ravaging their territory and collecting extensive booty.”[18]

In the wake of their first unsuccessful rebellion arose Prasutagus as the client-king of the Iceni, with his young wife of royal birth, Boadicea, ruling beside him.[19]


Enter Boadicea

Who was Boadicea? A woman with new knowledge of injustice and tyranny, holding memories of freer times before the coming of these armored Southerners and their buildings.  A fiery woman, a warrioress “very tall and terrifying in appearance; her voice was very harsh and a great mass of red hair fell over her shoulders.”[20] A queen of her times, versed in augury and magic, who could take on an aspect of the Goddess at will to inspire and awe her people.  And she was also a war commander-in-chief, who was to lead the subsequent rebellions.

On the eve of the first battle, Boadicea invoked the goddess of victory, Andraste, “as woman speaking to woman,”[21] and released a hare from the folds of her robe.

This hare had a twofold purpose to these practitioners of Celtic animal magic. The first was as a divination to check the omens, as the (perhaps set up) direction in which the hare ran off foretold to the assembled people whether or not the battle would go well.

The second purpose was to hopefully capitalize on Roman ignorance of such branches of learning. Although the Romans practiced augury by animals too,[22] this act of Boadicea’s was specialized and land-based:  the British had a taboo against hunting the hare, which was suspended only on one day of the year, May-eve.  It was said that to defy this taboo was to be struck with cowardice.  Boadicea probably hoped that the hungry Romans would strike at this hare and by doing so, lose their courage.[23]


A Woman’s Place

The Roman historian Tacitus reported back about this strange race, “neque enim sexum in imperiis discernunt” (they make no distinction of sex in their appointment of commanders.) [24] The known reigning queens of the time number only two, Cartimandua and Boudica.  However, as Roman historians were none too detailed in their chronicling of the matters of the ‘barbarian’ peoples, there are only six known sovereigns/chieftains’ names in total.  Thus the women make a good show, constituting fully one-third of the sovereigns mentioned by name.

Even though the Romans would have none of this female rule in Roman culture, they seem to have had no problem in dealing with sovereign women acting as client-queens for Rome in their own lands. Brigantia, a large British territory whose capital was probably present-day York,[25] was ruled over by the queen Cartimandua (“Sleek Pony”),[26] lineal inheritor of the crown from her father King Dumnocoveros and his father Volisios.  When she married the ruler of the north Yorkshire area, Venutius, he as a male did not automatically take over the power:  it was Cartimandua who remained the sovereign of the whole; her name that appeared on the coinage.[27] And it may well have been she who made Brigantia a Roman client-kingdom by submitting to Claudius in 43.  Later, when Venutius lead a revolt against her in an attempt to take the throne, it was through Rome’s support that she was able to retain it.

In the words of Antonia Fraser, ” it is evident that …the Romans had no objection to ‘humiliating feminine rule’ so long as it suited their particular brand of power politics.”[28] And, I might add, so long as it doesn’t get out of hand:  Dio Cassius, chronicling the Boudiccan rebellion, states,  “Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame.”[29]


Corruption in the Roman Outposts

Becoming increasingly corrupt in their dealings with the Britons, the Romans began taking over tribal lands to build eight retirement villas for their aging campaign veterans.  Local free peoples, such as the Trinovantes in Camoludunum, found themselves forced to stop their own pursuits in favor of slaving away as prisoners building entire colonias, complete with temples and other elaborate Roman-style constructions.  Ostentatious civic buildings, complete with busts of the emperor, were erected in hopes of stirring up feelings of comradeship and loyalty to the new masters.

The poor misguided Romans didn’t understand that to the Celtic mind, these edifices were nothing but an infuriating ‘blatant stronghold of alien rule.’[30] And to add insult to injury, the Celts were expected to pay for it!  It is not surprising, therefore, to find the ground ripe for the seed of Boudicca’s rage to be planted.

The final straw came upon the death of Prasutagus in CE 60, when the Roman financial administrator ignored his last will which generously made the emperor co-heir with his own two daughters, instead seizing from the hereditary nobles and chiefs the total of the King’s considerable estate and treasure. Even Tacitus seems to have disapproved:

“For no crime whatsoever, “kingdom and household alike were plundered like prizes of war.”[31]

The king’s relatives were treated like slaves. The freeborn, independent Queen was brutally beaten, scourged; and her two young daughters, the designated heiresses to the throne, were raped.

This was no random act; symbolic violence showing mastery over the queen and future queens implies mastery over the Iceni as a whole.  The Romans’ mistake lay in not realizing that the Queen can symbolize the people to themselves as well, for this arrogant insulting degradation catalyzed Boadicea to fan the smoldering anger of the tribes into a revolt which this time turned into a raging brushfire, too fierce to be put out by any agency other than its own finite lifespan; its own internal flaws.


Tribal Rebellion

Under Boadicea’s leadership, the army of angry British tribes swelled, according to Dio Cassius, to the number of 230,000 within six months’ time.  They crushed the IXth Roman Legion and engulfed three cities, plundering their wealth and massacring over 70,000 people (including those sacrificed to Andraste, the goddess of victory) in most creative ways. They burned Camelodunum (modern Colchester), Londinium (modern London), and Verulamium (modern St. Albans) to the ground in fires that are estimated to have raged over 1000 degrees Centigrade, so hot that they scorched the very earth red to a layer sixteen inches deep.[32]

The Britons must have felt they had the gods on their side when the Roman statue of Victory at Camoludunum spontaneously fell down with no clear causation, “with its back turned as if it were fleeing the enemy. Delirious women chanted of destruction at hand.”[33]

The departing Boudiccan armies left the even-then bustling cosmopolitan city of London a ghost town for twenty years.


Incident on the Isle of Mona

So where was the Governor of Britain while the Celts were sacking his towns?  Suetonius Paulinus was as far away as possible, attacking a Druidic sanctuary for dissidents on the Isle of Mona (Anglesey), with every intention of laying it waste.  This incident captures the essence of the shifting of cultures, the ambered moment when the discipline of the Roman army met with the Celtic forces of wyrd :

On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women in black attire round the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless and exposed to wounds… [34]

At this moment, the old magic held sway.  These Roman soldiers, as individuals, were caught by the protective en-chant-ments these adepts were weaving.

This weird spectacle awed the Roman soldiers into a sort of paralysis. They stood still – and presented themselves as a target.[35]

Perhaps the Roman troops were lured there, even, as part of a Druidic plan to divert their energy away from the Camelodunum area and the planned uprisings there.  But the Druids had made a tragic mistake in not realizing that these people were mutating into something other, a new strain of functional separatist hierarchy which could numb the poetic sense in favor of the rational, and so better resist the old ways of power:

But then they urged each other (and were urged by the general) not to fear a horde of fanatical women. Onward pressed their standards and they bore down their opponents, enveloping them in the flames of their own torches. Suetonius garrisoned the conquered island. The groves devoted to Mona’s barbarous superstitions he demolished. [36]

And so the Druidic stronghold, seat of economic and spiritual power and perhaps the main center for British Isles Druidic training, was laid to ruin; the lives of the best and brightest lost.  This was a massacre akin, in a way, to the battle of Wounded Knee in the U.S.

But while the satisfied Roman troops were celebrating their victory by hacking down to toothpicks and dust the ancient tree groves of Mona (equivalent to later cathedrals in terms of sacredness), word came to Suetonius that the South was in flames.


The Eve Before the Final Battle: General Suetonius & Queen Boudicea

Suetonius as a general exemplified the strengths of a Roman war leader   He was everything the loose-knit band of Celts were not:  a veteran commander with experience in many regions, he was accustomed to snappy hierarchical obedience; his legions of seasoned professional fighting men took orders like the well-oiled military machine they were.  Suetonius knew well how to plan strategies.  He studied his opponent coolly and carefully for weaknesses, and unsentimentally decided to sacrifice a city full of civilians in order to gain the advantage of choosing the place of battle.

On the eve of the final battle, Suetonius and Boadicea each rallied their troops on with fiery speeches.

“I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body and my outraged daughters … Consider how many of you are fighting — and why.  Then you will win this battle, or perish.  That is what I, a woman, plan to do!  Let the men live in slavery if they will,” exhorts Boadicea, playing on their prideful egos.

“In their ranks there are more women than fighting men,” Suetonius scorns. “Fear not, then, their numbers or their spirit of rebellion; for their boldness rests on nothing more than headlong rashness unaided by arms or training!”[37]

In this last observation, Suetonius was right.  Most of the Celtic force consisted of angry farmers and herders, pushed beyond their point of endurance.


War to the Romans vs. War to the Britons

These two armies, like Custer’s bunch and the Sioux, had little in common save a central nervous system; and even those worked on their owners in different ways.  The Romans were professional soldiers here for Rome, serving the centralized State by fighting for expansion of imperial territory.  Their system consisted of a one-way flow of orders flowing to those who must obey them: a commander-and-minions hierarchy.  By contrast, the Celtic tribal chiefs were bound to their people by a complex system of reciprocation, almost like the potlatch culture of the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians.[38] These loosely federated peoples were all there fighting the Romans by choice, seeking bloody retribution for injustices done them as individuals and as tribes, and to push the obnoxious invaders out of their hair once and for all.

If the Celts had won, the war would have been over.  As it went the other way, Roman colonization kept it going for another 400 years.

For the Romans, war was a serious business, to be conducted by males who specialized in only that.  Avoiding individual glory, their aim was to serve their legion and make sure that it was the best. They were heavily equipped, with body armor to the waist, helmets with neck protection, studded open boots and a vast array of weapons, using standards and the cornu (horn) as a means of signaling communications and orders across the battlefield.[39]

The Britons couldn’t have been more different, especially to Roman eyes. As Caesar saw them, the Gauls “are of lofty nature, fair and of ruddy complexion: terrible from the sternness of their eyes, very quarrelsome and of great pride and insolence.”[40] Passionate, brave to the point of foolhardiness, and fiery-tempered, they lacked tenacity and had practically no organizational ability.  Their best shot was the first one, and their horns were used only to inspire fear.  Often, battles were won by the sheer ferocity of the first wave or by the terror they inflicted on the poor enemy confronted with this screaming prehistoric punker in his lime-spiked bleached hair, blue tattoos, and very little else.  The Britons generally went to war as a joyous picnic; an occasion to show off, to plunder booty, and to gain legendary status through living new stories about their bravery.

Thanks to a worldview that envisioned the afterlife as glorious, they were proud to fear nothing, even death; and often went into battle stark naked save, perhaps, for their ceremonial torcs (neck-rings), belts, and other decorations.  Wielding as weapons their enormous longswords (useless at close range) or lanciae (spears), they had no other armor besides their decorated body-length shields, several of which could be locked together.  Even though at times so many spears became lodged in the shields that they grew too heavy to carry, still the Celts “scorned the Roman helmets, breastplates and greaves, saying that the Britons believed that their shields gave greater protection than did the whole suits of mail of the Romans.” [41]

The Celts took pains to maintain a high standard of personal appearance.  They had a strange smell to most people of their day because of their use of soap, and loved to adorn themselves and their things with intricate decoration. Pausanius observed,

“The Roman soldiers were well aware of the splendid ornaments worn by their opponents and before one battle they were told by their generals that soldiers should not be adorned with gold and silver but should rely on their weapons and their courage.”[42]

Outward beauty was seen as a manifestation of greatness; therefore their gods and fairies were of extraordinary, breathtaking magnificence.  An aging monarch would be necessarily deposed, for fear that with his or her increasing weakness would come a weakness upon the land and people as well.  Consequently, a ruler who was maimed or scarred in battle would also step down, and nobody with a deformity would ever be considered fit to rule.

This standard applied to mental faculties as well as physical; no mightily thewed Conan-type airheads need apply!  The true Celtic HeroIne must be a well-rounded person, gifted or at least moderately skilled in many areas of human endeavor.  CuChulainn, for example, could speak the secret Ogam language.   This way of thought would continue as the future standard for the chivalric knighthood, which was also to carry on the concept of fir fer (fair play)[43] in the honorable one-on-one duel.

Warriors of both sexes were well known. Aífe, a respected master in the arts of war and magic, and the chosen trainer of the legendary hero Cuchulain, was a woman. “We British are used to women commanders in war,” Boadicea reminds her ranks on the eve of the battle,[44] just in case some of Suetonius’ sexist ravings had begun to give them pause.


A Woman’s Place in Celtic Tribal Society: Marriage & Womens’ Rights

“Woman is a violent and uncontrolled animal, and it is no good giving her the reins and expecting her not to kick over the traces,” the Roman historian Livy quotes Cato the elder.[45] The very fact that sovereign queenship was not only unknown but also laughable to the soon-to-be conquerors of the western world is quite poignant.  Women in the British Isle Celtic societies of these times enjoyed a far better – or at least freer and more egalitarian ­– life than that of the Roman matron, for all of her lovely comforts.  Celtic women had rights in matters of ownership, inheritance, marriage, and religion, all of which went the way of the buffalo when the Romans got hold of the culture’s reins.

The matter of Celtic marriage laws is especially interesting in comparison with contemporary western norms, in that they were not created by later Christian standards. There is evidence of great emphasis on love and the family, but little on sexual fidelity.

The Brehon Laws list ten types of union, including temporary relationships and permanent marriage.  Divorces were easy to get, and concubinage was legally allowed.[46] There were great annual fairs at which concubines could be ‘rented’ for a one-year term. Through the enforcement of a time limit, the woman was saved from coming under the manus of the man; she remained free.[47]

Polygamy was also acceptable: a man could have a chief wife, slave women, and a second wife; the latter of whom was known asadaltrach (the adulteress).  In a bit of brilliant psychological jurisprudence, the Brehon Laws allow for the first wife to attack and injure the second wife without being liable for damages.  However, if anyone else were to harm her, the husband would be entitled to compensation.[48]

Polyandry was also quite common.  According to Caesar, one British woman could have a group of ten or twelve husbands, usually brothers or fathers and sons.  The children are considered part of the house of the first husband.[49]

Trial marriage is mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis as common among the Welsh; this type of relationship, turning permanent only with the birth of children, continued to be practiced among the families of the Scottish chiefs through the end of the Middle Ages.[50]

Women, married or not, had the right to own property.  If a Celtic woman married a foreign man with no family in the region, the marriage was said to be ‘of the man’ and any property ‘of the woman’. Caesar noted that a first wife in Gaul, the cet muinter (chief woman), would bring a dowry of property with her into the marriage.  The calculated worth of this property would then be matched by the husband, creating a common stock that was managed jointly.  Upon death, the survivor inherited both halves, plus any profits that had been made on it.

However, there also existed a general principle that a woman may not make a contract without her husband’s consent unless their holdings are exactly equal.[51] This is why in the great Irish epic Tain bo Cuailgne, the adventures begin with Queen Medb and her husband Ailill engaged in pillow talk about the extent of their respective property.  It was imperative for her to determine that their cattle were of equal number, quality and value; and very much worth it to Medb to go to war in order to achieve this balance.  If it had not worked out and their marriage had ended due to this feuding, not to worry: under the ancient law, a woman leaving her husband kept everything hers, even the products of her domestic labor.[52]

It is important to remember when encountering sources of information about the Celts that the until the latter part of the 1800s, the majority of antiquarians worked with the thought that the scraps of evidence extricated from Greek and Roman sources were the final authority. Anne Ross notes, “The idea never entered their heads that non-Greek and non-Roman evidence could be brought to tell its own story, or indeed that it had any value at all.”[53] So given that there is quite a body of evidence which supports the existence of female Druids, including numerous examples of magic-using or prophesying women in the insular texts of Celtic lore, plus direct references to several female druids even in the classical literature;[54] and there is no direct evidence against the existence of Druidesses, I must disagree with quite a few sources and propose that women had high positions in the spiritual realm as well. After all, most of these accounts are written from an etic perspective by male writers from an invading culture, and interpreted by modern EuroChristian-based writers, also male; both from an outside, patriarchal society who, looking at things through their own cultural veils, are not expected to look for evidence of sexual egalitarianism in any field of endeavor, let alone the sanctified priesthood.

Working remnants of the female-oriented past are not hard to find in Celtic society. Hubert observes, “We have instances of succession through the female line and even of matriarchy in the legendary ruling houses of Ireland and the historical ruling houses of Britain.”[55] The mother’s name is used to indicate the descent of the heroes Cuchulain and Conchobar.  The father has the right to life and death over his children, but Irish law assigns children born out of wedlock to the mother’s family.  Gallic women ran around in trousers (witness a statue in the British Museum), and fought alongside the men in wars.  Irish women were given military duties in proportion to their landed property.

Only with the coming of Christianity through the mediation of the Holy Roman Empire did these rights drop away like dying petals, one by one.  As the reckoning of descent through the female line faded, women were deprived of their other powers as well.  For example, an amendment came about that said one might gain exemption from service by giving up half one’s property to the family.[56] This supposed ‘right’ was the beginning of the end.


A Woman’s Place in the Roman Empire

By contrast, the famed laws by which Roman civilization flourished were no beacons for the female half of their race. A Roman woman had no rights, and was essentially owned by the men in her life much as a slave would be.  The dominant religion, Mithraism, was a bull-cult with no place for cows: women were excluded from participating, much less holding positions of power.

A Roman matron spent her entire life inter utramque facem (‘between the two torches’); that is, in the domus (house) from the day she was carried into it by torchlight as a young teenage bride until the day she went out of it on her funeral pyre.  She could not go out unescorted or without her husband’s knowledge.  At meals, while he reclined, she sat.  She took no wine, and was expected to be silent during intellectual or political discussions.

A virtuous wife, according to a Roman in 8 BCE, had the following qualities:

… a faithful wife to me, and an obedient one:  you were kind and gracious, sociable and friendly: you were assiduous at your spinning; you followed the religious rites of your family and your state, and admitted no foreign cults or degraded magic: you did not dress conspicuously, nor seek to make a display in your household arrangements.  Your duty to our whole household was exemplary: you tended my mother as carefully as if she had been your own… [57]

Augustus, realizing that a lax view of marriage could harm the State, created laws enforcing marital statutes. For the crime of divorce came punishments ranging from fees to banishment upon a far-off island.  Certain people were forbidden to marry, including whores, adulterers, and actresses (to Senators!)  But all other men between the ages of 25-60 and women between 20-50 were required by law to engage in marriage.[58]

To the biased eye of this freeborn woman from another culture (albeit one that has inherited a lot from these Romans), the beautiful brick-and-tile Roman houses with genuine lead water pipes were a stellar example of early women’s prisons.  If the pipes didn’t kill you, the oppression could.



The Roman people, unlike the Celts, excelled at being citizens.

The peoples of Italy invented the State; they had a clear notion of the respublica, of which the most progressive of the Celts certainly had no more than a rather vague idea. [59]

Civic life was unknown to the Britons. Numerous Roman generals, with their curious minds and lofty views of civilization, kept prodigious notes on the strange and interesting ways of the ‘barbarian’ peoples they encountered. Amongst the Celts, they reported, “nothing was known of architecture, not even of architecture in wood, even rites and ceremonies were never held within doors, but in the open air under a tree”.[60]

Contrast this with the Romans who, concerned with making their civilization outlast themselves, worked industriously like the third little pig, building great stone and brick houses of law, churches, court buildings, roads, amphitheaters, monuments, statues and the like.  And to go with these buildings, the people were modeling themselves into citizens, with a complex pantheon of coded behaviors with laws and magistrates to decode and enforce them. To pay the expenses of such erections, they levied copious taxes,[61] which of course added further to the number of disputes, thus providing yet more work for yet more lawyers.  And in order to convince folks to trade their days picking flowers in the sun for hauling bricks about, they came up with astoundingly complex ways for even free men to bond themselves in a work-contract to a master, including the insidious idea of operae (‘man-days’), thereby reducing our lives to commodity chunks, a ‘work unit with a money value,’[62] and wedding us indelibly to the clock.  Surely a new development in Progress! – although whose could be debated.

Both cultures knew slavery, but only the Romans chose a similar lot while free.  The concept of disciplined teamwork, absolutely unheard of to the Celt, was the mainstay of Roman culture, whether in the Senate, the road crew, or the military.  A ‘well-oiled machine’, the goal of military even today, where every person is a perfectly fitted cog in hirs[63] slot, was the pride and backbone of what the Romans built.  Their leaders demanded obedience, and through their positions, commanded respect.

The Celtic chieftains also enjoyed the respect of their people, but in this case it was because of personal ideals.  They were expected to uphold the highest standards of fairness, loyalty, judgment, wisdom and integrity in holding to the laws.  The 3rd-century Dalriadic king Cormac macAirt’s instructions to his son Cairbre, such as the “Traditional Prescription for a Chieftain,” illustrate these in an exemplary manner. [64]


The Final Battle

As much of this conflict illustrates an archetypal changeover from one sort of human cultural modus operandi to another, so does this final battle chart the tragic flaw that led to the Britons’ ultimate demise.  I’m calling this battle a ‘tragic’ one in the Shakespearean sense, because the root causes of Boadicea’s people being ultimately overthrown are rooted in their own cultural ways.

In their lust for plundering loot, the Britons forgot their original goal of routing the Romans and getting back to their own free lives.  Ever greedier, they went from town to town, wandering away the season that would ordinarily have been devoted to herding and farming (thus decimating potential stores of food that would soon be needed), and also giving Suetonius time to gain the upper hand.

By allowing the seasoned war leader Suetonius to amass backup troops, choose the time and place of the battle, and plan his attack, the Celts created strong strikes against themselves.

But the suicide blow was struck at the battle itself. The Britons, as was their wont, all came to war together, complete with wagons full of camp followers. Kids, dogs, and older people all circled into the rear of the site to cheer their warriors on.  But Suetonius had utilized his time-advantage to situate his troops in a site that was protected on three sides by bushes, leaving only the back open for entry.  When the first wild horn-blowing attack from the Britons was over, the professional Roman troops flanked them and began a systematic slaughtering.  And it was precisely because of the presence of their own wagons blocking the entrance to the area that the Celtic warriors all perished: they simply could not get away.  They were corralled by their own families, and ultimately, by their own tribal ways.

The Romans slaughtered everyone that day: warriors, old men, babies… even the pack animals.  Many historians assume that Boadicea, rather than be taken prisoner and displayed like a puppet in the Roman courts, or have her daughters suffer further tortures, lived out her words and took her own life.


After the Fall

After this fall, a long drawn-out persecution began. German troops were brought in as reinforcements, and Roman forts hastily erected for control of the population. With nothing planted that year, starvation ran rampant.  Farms were burned, sanctuaries desecrated, torcs denoting power and rulership hidden deep within the ground.

The Iceni were made slaves on their own wasted land, and they did not rebel again. “They create a desolation and call it peace,” observes Calgacus, an (unsuccessful) dissident of the next generation.[65]

In this battle were lost four hundred Romans, eighty thousand Britons, and a way of life.



British Isles Celts, while big on personal honor, abilities, and beauty, had little connection with what to us are standard concepts such as citizenship or taking pride in the manor.  For all of their emphasis on beautifully decorated useful possessions (cattle, mirrors, clothing, cups and the like), there wasn’t much interest in permanent building.  Looking quite a bit like a classic Peace Corps round mud hut, their dwellings boasted only meager furnishings:  low tables for holding food, bundles of reeds to sit on.[66] They built no elegant homes, courthouses, bathhouses; no paved roads. They wrote no books. They worshipped outdoors, in groves of certain trees, and so built no churches or rectories. All edifices that the Romans took inordinate pride in; all that we consider the pillars of modern civilization – the complex tools, public buildings, and even written language – of these things the Britons would have no part in.

They surely knew of such things from years of trading with the Greeks and other civic-oriented peoples, but chose to give their tribal energy to issues of ephemeral being (song, poetry, martial prowess, magical arts) as I imagine whales do, rather than to making and amassing things.

Their pride lay in themselves as individuals and as tribes, and in their deeds and ways; and so what possessions they had were made well and decorated intricately, to the extent that the bottom of heavy vessels were as inlaid with ornamentation as perfectly as the part that would ordinarily be seen.  Perfection of craftsmanship was honored, as was skill at weapons or with the harp, and the strength of the body, all seen as sought-after qualities embodied best by the gods. This is a way of life that continued only in the twilight backyards of a few on the fringes of mainstream western culture.

It is clear that many ways and institutions which we consider routine in our lives today are derived from Roman thought, such as indoor baths, hired labor, plumbing, magistrates, the enforcement of intricate laws, military structure, civic buildings, long roads.

And much of what we yearn for was lost in the Celtic Twilight: a culture-wide demand for honor and truth, wildness and laughter; freedom of the individual, equality of men and women, deep ties to the natural world, use of imagination as a way to understand the world, and recognition of ‘magic’ and the presence of the divine as part of everyday life.

Also lost to those times was much of what we fear:  public nakedness, human sacrifice, dependency upon seasonal and lunar cycles, collective living, the wholesale cultivation of terrifying personal and magical power, skull collecting and everyday contact with death.

The collective cultural consciousness of the British Isles and other parts of central Europe was suddenly, strongly, irrevocably altered around 100 CE.  Western humanity lost its first youth with the coming of the Romans.

If you want more about pre-Christian/pre-Roman Celtic cultures,

check out “‘Celtic Shamanism’: Pagan Celtic Spirituality”

and also posts like Power of Raven



Caesar, Julius. The Gallic War. London, 1966 (reprint).

Crook, J.A. Law and Life of Rome, 90 B.C. – A.D. 212. Cornell University Press, 1984.

Fraser, Antonia. The Warrior Queens. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Graves, Robert.  The White Goddess (amended ed.).  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.

Grose-Hodge, Humfrey.  Roman Panorama. New York: MacMillan, 1947.

Hubert, Henri.  The Greatness and Decline of the Celts. Arno, 1980 (reprint)

Peddie, John.  Invasion: The Roman Conquest of Britain. St. Martin’s, 1987.

Phillips, Guy Ragland.  Brigantia: A Mysteriography. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.

Ritchie, W.F. Celtic Warriors. U.K.: Shire Pubs, 1985.

Ross, Anne.  The Pagan Celts (expanded ed.).  New York: Barnes & Noble, 1986.

Schuller, Wolfgang.  Frauen in der Rømischen Geschichte. Muenchen, Germany: Piper, 1992 (reprint).

Speltz, Alexander.  Styles of Ornament. New York: Dover, 1959.

Tacitus.  The Annals of Imperial Rome. Michael Grant, transl. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1973 (reprint).

Thompson, William Irwin.  The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light. New York: St. Martin’s, 1981.

Williamson, Robin (Freely translated excerpt from the 12th-century Irish text Agallamh na Seanóirí). Heard in oral concert 3/17/93, Berkeley CA: The Freight and Salvage.



[1] Tacitus XII.29, p.265

[2] ibid, p. 51

[3] Ross 1986, pp. 87-88

[4] Hubert 1980, p.197

[5] Williamson 1993

[6] Ross 1986, p. 90

[7] Hubert 1980, p. 271

[8] ibid, p. 270

[9] Crook 1984, p. 19; explanation of term ‘plebiscita’ is mine (TF).

[10] Ross 1986, p. 97

[11] ibid

[12] Hubert 1980, p. 267

[13] ibid, p. 268

[14] Ross 1986, p.98 (quoting the Tain bo Cuailgne [Cattle-Raid of Cooley])

[15] See Thompson 1981 for a fascinating and readable unpacking of Jean Gebser’s theory about how various evolutionary stages of human consciousness can be seen through historical literature.

[16] ibid, p.87-8

[17] Tacitus XII.29 (p 265)

[18] ibid

[19] Fraser 1989, p. 46

[20] Ritchie 1985, p. 14

[21] Fraser 1989, p.71

[22] Grose-Hodge 1947, p.170-1

[23] Graves 1966, p.404

[24] Fraser 1989, p. 55

[25] Phillips 1976, p.41

[26] Fraser 1989, p.53

[27] Phillips 1976, p.41

[28] Fraser 1989, p.54

[29] ibid, p. 58

[30] ibid, p.65 (quoting Tacitus)

[31] ibid, p.61 (quoting Tacitus)

[32] Fraser 1989, p. 63

[33] Tacitus XIV.30, p. 328.

[34] Ross 1986, p.116 (quoting a different translation of Tacitus, Annals, XIV, 30)

[35] Tacitus XIV.30, p. 327.

[36] Tacitus XIV.30, p. 327.

[37] Fraser 1989, p.96

[38] Hubert 1980, p.193

[39] Peddie 1987, p.43

[40] ibid, p.44 (quoting Ammianus Marcellinus)

[41] Ritchie 1985, p.37 (quoting Pausanias)

[42] ibid, p.16

[43] Ross 1986, p.90

[44] Fraser 1989, p.96

[45] ibid, p. 63

[46] Ross 1986, 89

[47] Hubert 1980, 205-6

[48] Ross 1986, 89

[49] Caesar, V, 14 and Hubert 1980, 203

[50] Hubert 1980, 207

[51] ibid, 204-6

[52] ibid, 106-7

[53] Ross 1986, 18 (quoting Mahr)

[54] Ross 1986, 116

[55] Hubert 1980, p.204

[56] ibid, 204-5

[57] Grose-Hodge 1947, 148

[58] Schuller 1992, 71

[59] Hubert 1980, 189

[60] Speltz 1959, 16

[61] Crook 1984, 256

[62] ibid, 191

[63] Sic; a new (and likely pathetic) attempt at a gender-neutral pronoun.

[64] I apologize for not including actual excerpts here; I can’t find a copy of the source to draw from. But there’s a modernized, business-oriented translation of The Counsels of Cormac by Thomas Cleary (Random House, 2004) that may provide bits of the real deal.

[65] Fraser 1989, 103

[66] Hubert 1980, p.270

Thanks for reading this all the way down!


‘Celtic Shamanism’ August 3, 2010

Filed under: — BrujaHa @ 10:48 am


‘Celtic Shamanism’: Pagan Celtic Spirituality

by Tina Fields, Ph.D.

Originally published in Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture  (Vol. 1, 469-478).  Mariko Namba Walter and Eva Jane Neumann Fridman, Eds.  Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2005. Reprinted here with permission.


The Celts in general and the druids in particular were averse to committing their own important lore to writing, and their formal memorized oral transmission was broken long ago. We therefore know very little about the pagan religions of the ancient Celtic tribes. In any case, it could not be strictly accurate to speak of ‘Celtic Shamanism’, as the words ‘shaman’ and ‘shamanic’ properly refer only to the Tungus people of Siberia. However, magico-religious elements which can be recognized as ‘shamanistic’ or reminiscent of shamanism, and which are furthermore common to many cultures, can indeed be found in the pagan Celtic spiritual traditions. Celts occupied a great deal of Europe by the 4th century C.E., but only in the British Isles did any substantial body of literature survive. This entry will therefore mainly focus on that area.

We do know that the Celts had a complete system of magic, one which was highly respected by the ancient world. Diodorus and Clement of Alexandria said that the Celtic priests of Gaul trained with Pythagoras in mystical philosophy. In the 1st-century A.D., Dio Chrystosom equated the Celtic Druids with the Persian Magi, Indian Brahmins, and Egyptian priests.

What we currently know about Celtic spirituality and magical practice is based on Greek and Roman descriptions, a few works by the early Celts themselves (mainly from Wales, Ireland, and Scotland), folk songs and fairy tales, and a great deal of imaginative invention. These sources prove troublesome due to their limitations. The Greek and Roman texts are mainly observations by invading armies from political encounters with the tribes of southern Gaul. Folktales may become changed by each storyteller. Some details of ‘Celtic spirituality’ as represented in numerous contemporary popular books were originally recovered through analepsis (spontaneous ancestral memory) and bardic creativity by more modern writers such as Iolo Morgannwg and Robert Graves. Finally, the historical story cycles and poetry originating with the Celts were recorded years later by Christian monks, who may well have felt hostility towards – or at least discomfort with – the pagan worldview.

Despite these difficulties, however, shamanistic elements can be easily discerned in the sources we have. These elements include descriptions of practitioners and patterns of magical initiation; magical practices such as spiritual healing, harming, and warfare; uncanny abilities such as enchantment, soul flight, distance viewing, shapeshifting, animal transmogrification, and understanding the speech of birds and animals; the employment of wise judgment through insights gained by trance, divination, and prophesy; the use of magical tools; the experience of deep mystical inspiration and understanding; and a pervasive theme of deep relational connection to all beings and the processes which tie them together.

Celtic Magic and Spirituality

Pagan Celtic spirituality perceived that the supernatural otherworlds lie so close to this one that the borders often cross, and that the magical numinous was present in every aspect of their lives and surroundings. Nature was keenly observed by the pagan Celts to obtain understanding of her deepest secrets in both the physical and metaphysical sense, without the aspect of torture, violence, penetration or dismemberment in order to get to it that we find in later western inquiries.

The land itself was considered animate and conscious, quite aware of human activity but of course quite ‘other’ in its needs and nature. The ceremony for investing a new Ard Ri or Irish High King involved marriage of mystical dimensions with the land as goddess, thus binding the people to the place through kinship. Should this relationship be betrayed – for example, through disrespectful tribal behavior towards the land, trees, water, etc., or lack of personal honor in such qualities as generosity, bravery, or beauty – he could no longer serve as king.

Folk stories collected between the 18th and early 20th centuries abound in which nothing is merely as it seems to the physical eye. Woods, wells, rivers, and trees all were sacred places that might house gateways into the otherworld, both glorious and dangerous. On an ordinary walk home, a person might fall into a fairy mound and spend years there which feel like mere hours. Stones speak; a stranger or a bird might be God in disguise; music has the power to kill or maim. The greatest knowledge in the world is held by a fish. The fairies or ‘good folk,’ leprechauns, and brownies are neighbors; and the latter, if treated well, might do your housework.

There is an intense practicality to the Celtic mystical worldview. Things tend to go  better in faery encounters for those who are generous with their labor, time, and material goods, and for good musicians. Irish scholar Jeffrey Gantz (1981, 1) observes that all Celtic art is characterized by a “tension between reality and fantasy.” It is “romantic, idealistic, stylized and yet vividly, even appallingly, concrete.” Further, there are no distinctions made between the transcendent and the immanent in their potential for holding divine wonders. These tales clearly suggest a shamanistic worldview, with no separation between the physical and the metaphysical aspects of life.

We can turn to indigenous Celtic languages for clues to their speakers’ thoughts about their magical arts. The noun used to describe a spell or spoken word of magic in both Scots and Irish Gaelic is bricht, which is related to the Icelandic bragr, ‘poetry or magical rhyme’. The word eolas, ‘knowledge’, is used to describe magical ability. And a Gaelic term for any sort of sorcery or magical act is druidheachd. From these words, we can glean that Celtic magic was practiced by Druids, that ‘knowledge’ implied something much more than factual data, and that poetic inspiration/expression through the voice was commonly employed as a magical tool.

Pre-Celtic Works

It is easy for a casual observer to confuse Celtic with pre-Celtic artifacts. Although the druids may have used the great megaliths such as Stonehenge, Dol, and Carnac, and the tumuli at Newgrange and Gavr’inis, they did not build them. Standing stones were the work of peoples who inhabited these regions long before the first Iron Age Celts arrived around 500 B.C.E.

However, if we take the patterns of later immigrations as an example, some pre-Celtic spiritual knowledge may have been passed down to, or appropriated by, subsequently arriving peoples. The Irish Book of Invasions describes a much later wave of ‘indigenous druids’ struggling with a newer tribe’s chief druid over the right to kindle a fire that was ceremonially important to both.

Many prehistoric sites are found lined up in rows. Five or more sites in a row are known as a ‘ley,’ and are believed by some to mark a natural earth meridian or channel of energy, similar to the ch’i-filled ‘dragon currents’ the Chinese recognize in feng shui. Modern mappers of these pathways, or ‘ley hunters,’ believe that certain special places where two or more ley lines cross are full of power which can be drawn upon in magical practice. Some researchers speculate that one such line colloquially known as the ‘Old Straight Track’ was a road map to be used from the air during soul flight. Others believe that the leys reflect zodiacal patterns, because elements of passage-grave construction posit strong evidence that the spiritual practices of Bronze Age Ireland and Britain emphasized recurring astronomical phenomena. A third hypothesis is that the sites lie over hidden underground springs of water, and that the particular spiral flow of these aquastats may serve as a healing force. Spirals do appear with extreme frequency in early Celtic art.

Spiritual Practitioners

The Roman historian Strabo lists three classes of learned Gaulish spiritual practitioners. The druids are described as philosopher/theologians concerned with both the immortality of the soul and with natural phenomena. Bards were poets, storytellers, musicians and singers who chanted histories, eulogies and satires. And manteis or vates were naturalists and experts in divination through auguries and sacrifices.

Before the first millennium B.C.E., however, all of these abilities were attributed to druids, as the separation between these specialized functions was not so absolute. For example, in the Tain bo Cuailnge it is noted that the bards or ‘sweet-mouthed harpers’ of Cain Bile were also druids of great knowledge. And in the Welsh tale of Gwion Bach as told in the Mabinogion, the witch Cerridwen is described as being a master of all three of the great arts: magic (the province of the druidic class overall), enchantment (a later specialty of bards), and divination (assigned to the manteis). Her facility in all three sub-branches of learned spiritual practice points to the fluidity of those categories. Some speculate that the separation into specialized functions occurred for political reasons involving the overall strength of the druidic class.

Despite the common portrayal of a druid with a flowing white beard, references to both male and female adepts can be found. Women were accepted in pagan Celtic cultures as military leaders, as queens in their own right, and as magical practitioners. Tradition refers to ‘sunset isles of women’ where groups of female druids lived apart from their families for parts of a year. Examples include the Ile de Sein off the coast of Brittany where a sisterhood of nine miracle-working healers worked, and the Isle of Avalon, which gained fame in the Arthurian saga as a training ground for sorceresses and healers.

Most scholars today agree with Pliny the Elder, who regarded the Old Irish name druid as originating with the Greek word for oak-tree, drus, combined with the Indo-European root word wid-, to know (Piggott 1985, 103). Druids held their spiritual ceremonies in open groves of oak, preferring these natural cathedrals to any human-built structure. Place names involving the Gallo-Britonic word nemeton, which means both a clearing in a wood and shrine/sanctuary, were very likely once the sites of druidic practice and education.

At one time, a network of formal schools for generations of druids crossed the Celtic lands, the most important of which was located on the Isle of Mona (modern Anglesey). According to Julius Caesar, a druidic education – which could easily take twenty years – encompassed science, law, practical religion, philosophy, and history. Because writing was mistrusted for storage and transmission of important information, all of this had to be memorized. Details of such education have unfortunately been lost, and we do not know how, or if, magical initiation was formally conferred.

Instead, we repeatedly find very human tales of somebody making an innocent blunder which turns out to have tremendous magical repercussions. The ordinary and the numinous sides of the world are so close together that they can shift places in a moment, and one small deed can catalyze great change. In the biographical tales of both the Welsh chief bard/seer Taliesin and the Irish tribal leader/warrior chief Fionn MacCumhaill, shamanistic initiation was not sought but came upon the recipient through terrifying serendipitous accident. Very little in the Celtic magical world seems to take place as planned through human volition.

Druidic and Bardic Powers of Enchantment

Inspired poetry, regarded as a vital skill of the pagan Celtic seer, fits in with the shamanistic tenet that one must bring back any information gained from the Otherworlds to benefit the people. One challenge to this is that visions wildly pouring forth while in deep trance can easily be forgotten during the return to ordinary waking consciousness. They are much more likely to be retained and recalled for later use when placed in some sort of pattern which the cognitive mind can hold onto. Through the uses of rhyme, alliteration, meter, repetition and tune to this end, the crafts of music and poetry became intimately connected with magical practice and otherworldly power and knowledge in the Celtic world.

Besides voicing deep and otherwise hidden wisdom gained while in an altered state, bards used sound to harm, heal, and alter moods and probability. Poetry and music were not considered beaux-arts to the pagan Celts, but tools of raw magical power. Scorching satirical poetry known as the briarmon smetrach was intended to ‘puncture’ and to publicly destroy reputations. Well-aimed, the poetic form known as glam dicin was used to drive out rats and to disfigure or even kill an opponent. The Irish cattle-rustling epic Tain bo Cualgne describes the bardic warfare employed by Queen Medb against her enemy Fer Diad:

Then Medb sent the Druids and satirists and harsh bards for Fer Diad, that they might make against him three satires to stay him and three lampoons, and that they might raise on his face three blisters, shame, blemish and disgrace, so that he might die before the end of nine days if he did not succumb at once (Kinsella 1969).

Bardic incantations could also be used to end hostilities. Diodorus Siculus observed this magical use of sound in the late 1st-century B.C.E.:

Frequently when armies confront one another in line of battle with swords drawn and spears thrust forward, these men intervene and cause them to stop, just as though they were holding some wild animal spellbound with their chanting. (Diodorus Siculus 31, 2-5, as cited in Ireland, p. 181).

Tacitus describes the effect of this weaving of enchantment against Roman invaders on the Isle of Mona in 60 A.D.:

On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women in black attire round the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight so that, as if their limbs were paralyzed, they stood motionless and exposed to wounds. (Tacitus, Annals XIV, 30)

Finally, bardic powers could also be used to heal – as when a master harper restored speech to the dumb prince Maon through his music. The small harp was often employed by bards as a magical tool. Part of the Celtic harper’s toolkit was working knowledge of the Adbhan Trireach or ‘Three Noble Strains,’ attributed to the chants for childbirth sung by the god/spirit Dagda’s harp Uaithne. Each Strain was not only entertainment but a form of enchantment: ‘Sorrow-‘ or ‘Lament-Strain’, which could reduce listeners to tears; ‘Joy-Strain’, which could turn tears to laughter; and ‘Sleep-Strain’, which could soothe listeners’ hearts into deep sleep. Gaining songs of power from spirits is a common element occurring in many shamanistic cultures.

Shapeshifting, Glamour, and Invisibility

Trickery achieved through enchantment, or the shifting of seeming reality, is a theme commonly found in literature detailing observations about indigenous magical practitioners of the Americas. It is also replete throughout Irish texts and British/Gaulish Arthurian literature.

The magical manipulation of weather by druids appears prominently in Irish sagas, often employed as one weapon in the arsenal for ordinary tribal warfare. Strong winds and tempests were raised by the Tuatha de Danaan people to keep the first Milesian invaders from landing on shore, and the druid Mog Ruath sent storm-spells and magic fire against King Cormac and his druids in order to drive them out of the area. Weather could also be called up in order to conceal people or to get their enemies lost and confused. Heavy snowfalls, thick mists, dense fog, thundershowers, and sudden darkness were all employed.

Another commonly found druidic practice is the manipulation of events through magical impersonation. For example, the Irish warrior Cuchulainn was once deceived by a sorceress who took the form of a trusted lady in order to get near him and goad him onto the field of battle. Sexual themes are quite common. In the Arthurian cycle, the wizard Merlin enchanted Uther Pendragon so that he seemed to be the husband of Igraine so that she would gladly sleep with him. Merlin knew through augury that this mating would conceive the child who would later become King Arthur. One tool for accomplishing such shapeshifting was the spell known as fith-fath, used to transform one object into another and also to confer invisibility. Remnants of this are still with us in the shamanistic childrens’ story of Jack and the Beanstalk: “Fee-fi-fo-fum.”

A classic motif in Irish folktales is the nonhuman Fair Folk ‘casting glamour’ upon an unwitting passer-by, who thinks he is being invited into a grand home to enjoy a fabulous feast, a gift of gold, and a night of love with a beautiful woman. Instead, in the morning when he wakes, he finds himself lying an open field with the dew on his coat and a pocketful of yellow leaves, holding a rotting corpse in his arms. Such tales could be seen as illustrating spontaneous and shamanistic soul flight with otherworldly aspects of travel, uncanny beauties and terrors, encounters with strange beings, the element of later finding one’s body elsewhere, and great time discrepancies.

Animal Transmogrification

Ties with other animals are extremely strong in ancient Celtic tradition. The deepest wisdom in the world is held by the ancient ‘Salmon of Knowledge’. The appearance of crows forewarns the coming of the war goddesses Morrigan or Badbh. Gwyrhyr ‘Interpreter of Tongues’ exhibits the ability to communicate with wild animals.

We further find this shamanistic motif of mediating between human and other animal forms not only by observing them from the outside, but by transforming into them. The druid Uath was said to change himself into any form he wished. In a conversation with the ancient Hawk of Achill, Fintan describes his history of transformations into an eagle, a hawk, and a salmon. And instead of dying, Tuan MacCarell repeatedly finds himself alive and vibrant in a new young animal form. In the last days of his final human life, he relates the entire history of Ireland as witnessed through his many different eyes, most of them non-human, to the Milesian invaders.

These mystical biographies, and those of the bards Taliesin pen Beirdd, Oisin, and Amergin, comprise some of the most powerful examples of shamanistic elements in the Celtic world. Each changed into animals and other forms (waves, winds, a spear, a seed…), lived significant amounts of time in each form, then came back to the people with useful knowledge gleaned from their time spent in non-ordinary reality. Through dismemberment of the ordinary human form, the poet-seer gets to understand divine nature through many lenses, learns to wield natural forces, and becomes unafraid of death.

If we can take the oldest extant mythological cycles as evidence of worldview, practitioners were also considered to be able to change the shapes of others. The story of the Children of Lir describes their cruel transformation into swans by their jealous and magically adept stepmother. Beings in the Welsh Mabinogion such as the hunted boar Twrc Trwyth who was once a human king, and the lady Blodeuwedd who is actually an enchanted owl combined with flowers, were similarly changed without consent.

The Celts also live closely with beings who belong to both the human and other-than-human realms. Legends of seal-people or selchies abound in the outer islands such as the Hebrides. It is said that at certain times of the year such as the Solstices, these seals shed their skins and go dancing on the rocks as human beings. Some of them are captured or captivated by “real” humans and mate with them. There are families in these islands who deem themselves to be part seal-blood, from just such pairings. One benefit of this lineage is that these people seem to have better luck with the fishing and the waves: they have an intuitive “knowing” of where the fish will be, or when and how a storm will come. Their relatives below will also help them by herding fish towards their boats. Selchie legends comprise one of the most palpable variations of the shamanistic theme of transformation: both the human and seal people learn of another perspective, and mediate between the worlds of land and sea, by literally and metaphorically living in the other’s skin.

A personal connection through lineage could also determine behavior. Conary was forbidden to hunt birds since his father came to his mother Messbuachalla through the window as a great bird, who threw off his plumage to make love to her. Ossian was forbidden to eat venison, as his mother Saar gave birth to him while transformed into deer-shape. Cuchulainn, whose name literally means the ‘Hound of Culainn’, was under a geis or tabu against eating dog-flesh.

Such relational protection is a common thread in Irish tales, and may connect back to earlier tribal totems. There is clearly a tie with other animals that far exceeds romantic sentimentality or meat-thinking: this is an animistic view about one’s relatives. Early Celtic tribes were named after these connections: Epidii (Pictish “Horse People” in Kintyre and neighboring islands), Cornavii (“People of the Horn” in the British midlands), Brannovices (“Raven Clan” in transalpine Gaul), Taurisci (“Bull Folk” in transalpine Gaul). In early Celtic culture, the shamanistic elements do not generally center around individual human psychology as they tend to in modern neo-shamanism; instead, they illustrate the tribal relational stance with a magical, completely alive and sentient, world of nonhuman and spirit equals.

Mantic Powers of Divination & Soul Flight

Divination and prophesy were integral parts of the pagan Celtic druids’ or manteis’ repertoire. They divined to see deeply or travel into the ‘other nature’ of seemingly ordinary things. This could be done through ecstatic poetic trance, observation of natural forces for correspondences, or soul flight to other realms.

Giraldus Cambrensis describes the Welsh magical poetry specialists known as awenyddion (‘people inspired’) going into deep ecstatic inspirational trance with the body in frenzied paroxysms, chanting wildly. Cambrensis says that when the information came upon them, they roared mightily and that the listeners had to pick out the useful bits from the mass of unintelligible gibberish around it.  Both the Welsh awenyddion and the Irish poet/seers had to be violently shaken awake after their forays into this other state of consciousness. Cambrensis reports that the awenyddion felt as though they had sweet milk, honey, or writing poured onto their lips from the spirits.

The greatest-known magical practitioner from the Arthurian saga, the wizard Merlin, was so accustomed to soul journeys into non-ordinary realms where space and time are different that he was reputed to ‘live backwards in time’. It is said that he could prophesy easily because for him, this was not a matter of divination but of simply remembering the future.

Celtic prophesy was undertaken for practical purposes. In Irish sagas, we find the druids or manteis called upon to augur whether a particular day is auspicious for some important undertaking, such as births or battles. Mothers would sometimes artificially hold off delivery of their babies until a day the druids found would foster greatness in the child. The Irish druid Cathbad prophesied that whoever would take up arms on a particular day would have a short life with eternal fame. The young boy Cuchulainn seized the moment, and later went on to become hero of an entire cycle of Irish sagas.

The druids may have used a detailed divinatory calendar. Bronze calendar fragments found at Coligny in France form the oldest extensive document in a Celtic language, having been dated between the late first century B.C.E. to the early first century C.E.. Thought to be a product of the Gaulish druids, it uses Roman lettering but its content is distinctly different from the Roman calendar. Each month in it is marked by either the abbreviations MAT (good) or ANM (not good). Similar methods were used in Babylonian and Jewish calendrics, and can still be found today in Indonesia, where healer/seers and even everyday folk use them to plan events around particular days and even certain hours, due to their attributed characteristics.

Divination through Nature

Druids and manteis observed the patterns in nature for clues to the patterns surrounding human events. Fedelm in the Tain practiced crystal-gazing. Scottish Highland seers discovered meaning by throwing the scapula bones of sheep. The 1st-century historian Strabo reported that periodically, in earlier times, a particularly chosen human being was stabbed in the back with a dagger, to foretell the future from his convulsions. Smoke rising from a fire, the placement of the stars, the auspiciousness (or not) of particular days and hours, the placement and shapes of clouds – all could be looked to for advice. Asking non-human beings and the spirits of the beloved dead for help is, of course, a classic aspect of shamanic inspiration and practice.

Animal allies figured especially prominently in pagan Celtic divination. Parts of the bull could be eaten or worn to invoke divinatory aid.  In the 1st century C.E., the Iceni warrior queen Boadicea used a hare for foretelling and to help ensure her tribe’s victory against the invading Romans. The direction in which the hare ran off foretold to the assembled people whether or not the battle would go well. Many animals and birds were watched closely for clues, for it was deemed quite possible that some were actually humans or deities temporarily taking on that form.

Cave paintings by Bronze & Iron Age Celts which portray ravens speaking to humans were found in the Camonica Valley of northern Italy. Augury by ravens appears commonly in the British Isles. The system is remarkably like that found in contemporary Tibet. Ravens are watched for omens of luck, approaching visitors, and the like. Oral poetry collected in the 19th century Carmina Gadelica still includes tales in which approaching ravens are taken as an omen of impending death.  Observation of both the raven and wren involved their various cries, direction flying, and bodily position in the sky relative to the questioner. Diodorus Siculus observed that the early Christian saint Columba differed from his Druidic teachers in that he paid no heed to the voices of birds. The Welsh word for wren is drui-en, which means ‘druid bird,’ clearly alluding to its role as magical helper.

Journeys into the Otherworld

The definitive shamanistic act in many cultures is ‘soul flight.’ The shaman deliberately goes into trance, her soul temporarily leaving her body, in order to gain deeper knowledge, understanding, and power. The Celtic literature which has been translated to date describes other lands which are clearly not part of ordinary reality, seeing at a distance through both space and time, and details of methods used to leave the body.

The Vision of Rhonabwy describes seeking inspiration by going alone to a remote place and wrapping oneself up in a bull’s hide at night. The Gaelic name for such a bull-hide wrap was taghairm, which literally means ‘an echo,’ a response from a distance – in this case, perhaps from the otherworld. Lacking bull-hide cloaks, later generations similarly wrapped their plaids about their heads to cover their eyes in the dark, in order to see better.  The imbas-forosnai or ‘divination by holding the cheeks’ involved the seer eating the flesh of a white bull and then going to sleep holding onto his cheeks, with four druids continually chanting over him. In one imbas-forosnai, the dreamer had a vision of the man who was to be made king. He saw where the man was and what he was doing at that exact moment. This seems to be an example of distance viewing and prophesy, through the mechanism of soul-flight.

The historical/mythological cycles are richly embellished with episodes of shamanistic trance. A scene in the Red Branch cycle describes the druid MacRuith rising up with the fire into the air of the skies, dressed in his magical garb of a bullhide cloak and enchennach or bird-dress, and soaring above the heads of the opposing army to scout their position. A tugen or feathered cloak has also been mentioned as worn by certain Irish poet/seers. The wearing of feathers is common in many peoples’ shamanistic costumes intended to further soul flight, spiritual power, and magical insight or inspiration.

Tales involving travel into non-ordinary realms abound in the British Isles, such as Pwyll’s meeting with Arawn in the underworld; the surreal voyages of Brendan, Peredur, and Maelduin; Ossian’s return from Tir na n’Og after spending three centuries there; and Lancelot’s crossing of the Sword Bridge in search of the abducted Guinevere. Other classic shamanistic elements in the latter include Lancelot’s forgetting who he is and being confused as to whether he is alive or dead, his deliberate removal of his armor to cross the swords and his subsequently being cut up by them, and finally, the sudden disappearance of the fearsome leonine guardians he’d perceived guarding the far banks.

Shamanistic portals to other realms appear in Celtic tradition as they do in other cultures. Lancelot’s ‘sword bridge’ is a good example of an object which holds meaning in both ordinary and non-ordinary reality, and can serve as a literal bridge between the two. Descriptions of narrow bridges which initially defy the promised passage to a magical place also recur in Irish literature.

Trees, which appear worldwide in shamanistic practices as a means of reaching other spiritual realms, are of central importance to druidic magical practice. Pliny observed that the druids “perform no rites without the foliage of the oak,” and that they revere the mistletoe because “anything growing on oaks … is a sign that the tree has been chosen by the god himself.” (Pliny, Natural History XVI, 249-251, quoted in Ireland, p.183). Perhaps the presence of the mistletoe designated a particular tree as a gateway into the gods’ realms.

Certain hills in the British Isles are considered to be hollow inside, containing or leading to nonordinary realms called ‘Faerie.’ Such realms have their own rules of time and space, their own unique weather patterns and natural laws. The perception that both space and time work differently in non-ordinary reality is well documented cross-culturally. As in the case of Thomas the Rhymer, a traveler returning home from a journey of a day or two spent in the hollow hills of Faerie can find that in this reality, years have passed: their house has gone to rot, loved ones seen a few days ago as children have now long been dead, and nobody is left who knows him. In the Irish tale of Oisin who spent years in the ‘Land of Youth,’ the journeyer’s body has also been preserved in its original youthful state, but upon touching the mortal ground of this world, it suddenly ages to catch up with the years here, or even turns to dust.

Folk stories of adventures in Faerie give clues to avoiding dangers when journeying to the Otherworlds or accidentally coming upon spirits in this world. One should behave as befits a good guest: not stealing objects found in their homes; not intruding upon private dances or ceremonies; not playing bad music at their parties. It’s best to avoid accepting food or drink in the Otherworld, as this could mean becoming their prisoner. The Queen of Faerie has a reputation for stealing away mortals she finds beautiful, interesting, or useful. Brave attempts to retrieve beloved human souls from this thief involve trials by fire, shapeshifting terrors, riddles and other trickery, and the threat of dismemberment – all classic shamanistic elements.

Besides trees and hills, the Irish were also known to view certain waterways as entry portals to the Otherworlds. The Dinnshenchas describe many rivers being under the watchful care of particular female spirits or deities. Thermal springs in modern Buxton were once called Aquae Arnemetiae; the connection with the Brythonic word nemeton showing that these waters were once an important site of Druidic practice. Evans-Wentz recorded that the faerie realms could be reached by entering through a well:

It was by passing under the waters of a well that the S’dh, that is, the abode of the spirits called Sdhe, in the tumulus or natural hill, as the case might be, was reached (Evans-Wentz 1911, 431).

Wells were widely known to be sacred places, each inhabited by – or being itself – a spirit. Many Christian shrines found in Celtic lands today, including the great cathedral of Chartres, were built on the sites of druidic wells.

Influence on Celtic Christianity

Christianity entering the Celtic lands became heavily informed by the animistic spirituality and Druidic practices which preceded it.

Some argue that Christianity came in so easily because the tenets of Christ were the same as those already held by the Druids. Themes common to both Druidry and Christendom include the saints’ exhibition of healing abilities, the building of most churches over wells and facing east to greet the sun, the creation of monastic centers of learning, and the long teacher-student relationship in these monasteries. Monkish manuscripts like the exquisite illuminated gospels of Echternach and Durrow, which portray the four great Evangelists as animals (a bull, a lion, an eagle, and a man), reflect a deep syncretic correspondence between Ezekiel’s Biblical vision and Irish animism.

Druidism also left its unique mark on the incoming religion. Some of the earliest Irish Christian saints, such as the well-loved warrior/monk Columba, were trained by Druids in magical practice. Druidic themes incorporated into the Celtic Christian Church include the sense of filial intimacy between humans, other beings, nature, and the Divine; the emphasis on the Trinity, the uses of poetry and song, the zoomorphic and knotwork illustrations on their illuminated scrolls, the snakes found curling on the end of early croziers, and a sense of the sacred as immanent in all things. A lingering animistic sensibility can be seen in the distinctly non-Christian ornamentation found on many old Irish churches. These include images of the ‘Green Man’, whose beard and hair are made up of rich leafy foliage, and the ‘Sheela-na-Gig’, a grinning, naked, bald female figure gleefully holding open her huge vulva. Finally, the people have a pragmatic relationship with Jesus, God, Mary, the Holy Spirit, the angels, and the saints; and turn to them for practical aid with problems in their lives, just as they had done with previously known spirits.

As a result of this syncretism, Celtic Christianity differed significantly from the forms found in Rome and other places on the mainland. Ireland in particular remains unique, as it was the only part of the Celtic world which was never invaded by the Roman Empire.

Modern Movements

Many people across Europe and America still perform a vestige of pagan Celtic ritual every year through the celebration of Hallowe’en. The autumn fire-festival Samhain was considered a time when the veils between the worlds are thinner than usual, and spirits, including those of the dead, could move freely amongst the living.

The principles of modern Druidism were set down in the early 1700s, counting amongst its disciples one William Blake. It was then that groups of practitioners began the work of unearthing and reconstructing the tenets of Druidic practices and spirituality. These new groups, known as ‘groves,’ conferred a romanticist tinge to Druidry which can still be seen today.

Following in their footsteps, many contemporary Pagan, Wiccan and Celtic Reconstructionist groups are experimenting with a creative fusion of ancient and modern elements to create a spirituality that can work for people today. These vary widely in depth, intent, and authenticity; with creative output ranging from tarot decks with a Celtic slant to research into the possible uses of standing stones. Some serious ritual groups exhort learning Gaelic languages and planting trees as an integral part of their spiritual practice.

The Gaelic traits of ‘high imagination’ and of conscious relationship with the spirit and non-human worlds persist in these movements. Like the druids before them, many practitioners are now taking on the vital responsibility of serving as ecological mediators and spokespeople. As such, they are fulfilling a primary role of shamanic practitioners worldwide – to help their people, and the other-than-human world we all depend upon and are kin to, continue to live.


If you want more about pre-Christian/pre-Roman Celtic cultures,

check out Boadicea’s Last Stand:

How the Roman Conquering of the Iceni Marked a Phase Shift in Western Consciousness

and also posts like Power of Raven.

References and Further Reading

Ashe, Geoffrey, 1990.  Mythology of the British Isles. North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square.

Bayer, C.W., 1991. The Historical Method of the Celtic Harp. Carson City, NV: Purple Mountain Press.

Carmichael, Alexander (ed.), 1992 (reprint). Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations with Illustrative Notes on Words, Rites, and Customs, Dying and Obsolete: Orally Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Translated into English. Orig.: Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, vols. I-VI. Repr.: Lindisfarne Books.

de Troyes, Chrétien, 1987 (reprint; originally written in the 1200s).  Arthurian Romances. W.W. Comfort, transl. London: Dent.

Devereux, Paul, 1992. “Shamanism and the Mystery Lines.”  The Ley Hunter, 116, 11-19.

Evans, J. Gwenogvryn (ed.), 1910.  The Book of Taliesin. Wales, UK: Llanbedrog.

Evans-Wentz, W.Y., 1911. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. New York: H. Frowde.

Fields, Tina R. (1994).  “Boadicea’s Last Stand: How the Roman Conquering of the Iceni Marked a Phase Shift in Western Consciousness.”  Reno, NV: Celtic Connection: Journal of the Sierra Nevada Celtic Society, May – Nov (serialized).

The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Patrick K. Ford, transl/ed., 1977. Berkeley: University of California.

Gantz, Jeffrey (trans.), 1981. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Middlesex, UK: Penguin.

Graves, Alfred Perceval, (n.d.).  The Book of Irish Poetry. Belfast, IR: Gresham.

Hutton, Ronald, 1991. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Ireland, S., 1986.  Roman Britain: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge.

Jacobs, Joseph (collector), 1968.  Celtic Fairy Tales. (orig. pub. 1892). NY: Dover.

The Táin (The Cattle Raid of Cúailnge and other Ulaid stories). Thomas Kinsella, transl. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of the Invasions of Ireland). R.A.S. Macalister, ed./trans. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 5 volumes, 1938 -54.

MacCana, Proinsias, 1970.  Celtic Mythology. New York: Hamlyn.

Matthews, John, 1991.  Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland. London: The Aquarian Press/HarperCollins.

O’Rahilly, Thomas F., 1946.  Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Piggott, Stuart, 1985.  The Druids. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Rolleston, T.W., 1917 (repr.1990). Celtic Myths and Legends. NY: Dover.

Ross, Anne, 1967. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Tacitus.  The Annals of Imperial Rome. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Underwood, Guy (1972).  The Pattern of the Past. London: Sphere/Abacus.


Happy Imbolc! February 3, 2011

Beannacht Brighdhe – happy Brigid’s day!

May your ewes give plentiful milk; may your awakening plants be safe from frost and bloom abundantly once summer comes; may the pale sun grow to warm your spirit and quicken what is most precious to you.

The prehistoric Irish goddess/woman Brigid, aka Bríg (& later, the female saint Brigit) is the Irish patron of healing, poetry, learning, and smithcraft. The meaning of her name, according to Lady Augusta Gregory, is “Breo-saighit, a fiery arrow.” In a way, she’s sort of a western Saraswati. Besides her main skills listed above, she is credited in early Irish tales for the invention of the whistle (for calling each other during the night before the invention of cel phones) and of keening, a particularly moving wailing cry for mourning the death of a beloved. At this turning of the year back toward the warmth, we remember her by visiting wells or springs, and by lighting candles.

At Kildare, Ireland, one flame burned constantly in her honor for thousands of years, non-stop. It was tended by 19 priestesses in rotation, one each night in sequence. On the 20th day, the flame was tended by Brigid Herself. Men were expressly forbidden to cross the hedges to view the sacred flame. Giraldus Cambrensis reported that males who tried would go insane, die, or have their penises wither off. No messing around here! This was strictly women only.

In the middle ages, this ancient flame was extinguished by the Church in an attempt to snuff out such pagan worship – but the people, in good Celtic fashion, just switched names and began worshipping Saint Brigit instead of the goddess Brid. The holiday on Feb. 2 now became known as “Candlemas.” And Brigid’s flame was lit once more, this time by Catholic nuns, who continue to tend it to this day.

“Groundhog Day” is a remnant of Pagan spiritual practice for this time of year. I’ll admit to feeling mischievous delight every year when weather augury by rodent gets televised.


At this time around February 2, Imbolc, how might you honor the spirit of Brigid and invite her gifts into your life?

  • You might do so by letting your springs of inspiration flow. Compose a poem, a song, a dance, a recipe, a goofy rhyme, a blog post.
  • Light a candle, with intention of allowing your inner lights of hope, strength, love, perseverance, attention, kindness, etc. to return with the light of the sun. Staring into the flame of a candle for three minutes while stilling the mind to pay attention to only that can be a powerful meditation.
  • Pick some herbs and place them in a cauldron to brew tea for healing.In what way can your health be better attended to? Imbolc offers a second chance to go for those new years’ resolutions. After all, the quickening of spring feels much more like the real new year of life beginning, eh?
  • Perhaps you need to be inside the cauldron: take a long hot bath with candles and lavender and perhaps a really good book.
  • Clean and repair your home – the hearth is another aspect of Her sacred fire.
  • You could bring in white: decorate with white flowers or wear white garments. White is an important color for Brigid’s Day – the melting of the last snows; the rising of the first flowers, which in the cold British Isles are often white snowdrops; the white milk that gives this day its other name, Imbolc (from the Gaelic oi melc, ewes’ milk, beginning to flow around now due to the birth of the spring lambs).
  • Go to a water source with reverent intention to help. Clean the debris from a well or spring, so it can flow freely and cleanly once more. (As without, so within, as the sages say.) Then sit by it and watch the birds. Listen to the frogsong. Make little offerings – perhaps of ribbons or tokens; perhaps of poetic words – and ask her blessings.

I once saw such a well deep in the forests of Brittany, the tree overhanging it festooned with petitions and offerings. It was a moving sight, and a beautiful reminder to tend the spirit of our living world.

Whether you prefer to think of her as pagan deity, Catholic saint, or the manifested qualities her name invokes: inspired eloquence, skill at forging, and healing, may the blessings of Brigid fall softly upon you this Spring like petals from an abundantly flowering tree. And may they smell sweet.


Ecopsychology Presentations July 30, 2010

Filed under: — BrujaHa @ 10:35 pm

Tree Woman Shadow (photo by Tina Fields)

Public Lectures, Conference Presentations, & Participatory Events

on topics related to

Spiritual Ecopsychology

I serve as Professor in the M.A. program in Ecopsychology at Naropa University, a wonderful institution dedicated to contemplative education.

As of October 2019, I also serve as the USA’s co-representative to the International Ecopsychology Society, an intimate yet truly international consortium whose countries include Italy, Spain, Greece, Belgium, Switzerland, Hungary, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Australia, and South Africa.

I am also available for individual support/practices in spiritual ecopsychology and practical ways to “green” your life. Besides having taught aspects of environmental sustainability since 1999, I’m an ACISTE-certified Spiritual Guidance Counselor, CMT, minister and celebrant, wilderness rites-of-passage guide, ceremonial artist, lover/scholar of myth, story and song, and long-term practitioner of shamanism. I am very interested in helping you reclaim your sense of deep, reciprocal belonging, both ancestral and place-based. If you are interested in working with me, write a brief email to tfields8 [at] I also welcome new allies and venues for collaborative projects – especially local.


Upcoming Public Events:

  • Earth Guardians’ Online Decolonize Leadership Training. July 24-26, 2020.  Healing (Day 3): Grief Altars ritual and Council.
  • 3-Ecopsychology-Email
  • “From Ownership to Belonging: Ecopsychological Models of Relationship with the More-than-Human World of Nature.” Free webinar for Embodied Philosophy‘s new Contemplative Ecology series. Free. July 30, 2020, 7 pm EST.
  • Druidic seasonal rituals:  regular seasonal rituals with Dóiteán Agus Uisce, aka Flame and Well Grove of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD). Front Range of Colorado. See linked calendar for events, many of which are open to all.
  • Labyrinth! Our home in unincorporated Boulder County features a full-scale Chartres-style labyrinth in its back yard. Labyrinth walking is currently available by appointment, donation requested but not required. We are also plotting future events incorporating its power for the public, and are open to suggestions.


Selected Past Events:

  • Contemplative nature connection, Thursday, June 18, 2020, 9-9:30am MST.  Creating a Web of Connection in Challenging Times series hosted by Naropa University.  Join us for daily [Mon-Fri] online contemplative practices to support our personal and shared journey in these uncertain times. Meditation, compassion, loving kindness, embodiment, poetry, arts, council – each morning we’ll engage a practice that fosters presence, opens our hearts, and lifts our spirits to be able to meet the day with equanimity and resilience. Free.
  • IES COVID webinar flyer
  • “Covid-19 as a Collective Rite of Passage.” Free live public webinars, first in the series Ecopsychological Perspectives on Covid-19, hosted by the International Ecopsychology Society (IES).  
      • April 15, 2020, 10 am San Francisco / 19:00 Rome.  Live on Zoom, in English & Spanish.
      • Tuesday, May 19, 2020, 10 am San Francisco / 19:00 Rome.  Live on Zoom, in English only.

I gave this little webinar speech on some of our collective opportunities coming with Covid-19 along with the struggles. The second version was recorded. It is a real exercise in humility for me to share it here, as I feel it’s not very good. This is the first webinar I’ve ever done on Zoom and our first as an organization too so I was nervous, alone in my kitchen but not alone. Julianne was supposed to present first but couldn’t get in due to tech glitches, so I was surprised with suddenly having to go. I didn’t know that looking down at my notes would look so quirky, and I talked wayyy too fast – ack!! Plus my opening got cut off. 🙁 But all that said, I hope the content may be useful.

  • Shinrin-Yoku: Breathing the Forest Into Our Bodies.  (talk and workshop, co-presented with Julianne Skai Arbor).  International Ecopsychology Society 7th biennial conference, Sept. 25-29, 2019. La Lobera de Gredos, Arenas de San Pedro, Avila, Spain.  Theme: We Are Nature: Celebration of Life and Good Living.
  • MC for Naropa University’s 2019 Commencement ceremony. May 2019. The Ecopsychology MA Dept was well represented, as our Chair, Travis Cox, served as Faculty Speaker.
  • The Role of Cultural Worldviews in “Rights of Nature” Political Movements.  Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness 38th annual conference. March 28-30, 2019. McMenamins Edgefield, Portland, OR.
  • Echoes From the Forest: An Experiential Exploration of Consciousness in Nature.  48th Annual Jean Gebser Society Conference, “Gebser and Asia: Theory, Practice, Engagement.”  Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado. October 12–14, 2018
  • MC and Invocation for Naropa University’s 2018 Convocation. Wed, August 29, 2018.
  • 8-day Womens’ River Retreat down Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River of Utah. Co-guiding for The River’s Path with Lauren Bond Kovsky. May 5-14, 2018. For more information and signup:
  • An Animistic Ecotherapy Practice: Stones as Mentors (Invited speaker). International Ecopsychology Society annual conference. Villa Serrana, Lavalleja, Uruguay, Sept 29-Oct 3, 2017.  Theme: Biophilia & Ancestral Memory.  Conference languages: Spanish, English, and Portuguese.


  • oradores

conf flyer



  • Rise UP!  Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder, CO. Story, song & nature-connection for district-wide Junior High youth retreat. “The image we are using is a tree reaching for the skies.  We are focusing on the nourishment of personal spiritual practice (the roots) the strength of community (the trunk) and the gifts we have to give to make the world a better place (the leaves and fruit.)” March 4, 2017.
  • Book launch for Shadows & Light: Theory, Research, & Practice in Transpersonal Psychology, vols. 1 & 2. Francis J. Kaklauskas, Carla J. Clements, Dan Hocoy, and Louis Hoffman, Eds. Spoke about my chapter, “Taming the Tyranny of Time,” and sang “St. James Infirmary” with the band Home Groove and Mark Miller.
  • Psychology of Wilderness Experience Intensive course for Naropa University’s M.A. program in Transpersonal Ecopsychology. Includes a three-day fasting solo. (Not open to the public.)
    • 2019 – June 2-11, with co-guides Shea Armstrong and Sandy Shea.  Chimera Springs Ranch, Colorado.
    • 2017 – June 10-18, 2017, with co-guides Shea Armstrong and Sandy Shea.  Chimera Springs Ranch, Colorado.
    • 2016 – June 5-13, with co-guides Shea Armstrong and Sandy Shea.  Chimera Springs Ranch, Colorado
    • 2015 – June 13-20, 2015, with co-guide Scott Brown and apprentice guide Sandy Shea. Chimera Springs Ranch, Colorado.
    • 2014 – June 13-20, with co-guide Scott Brown and assistant Shea Armstrong. Chimera Springs Ranch, Colorado.
    • 2013 – June 13-20, with co-guide Scott Brown. Chimera Springs Ranch, Colorado.
    • 2012 – June 18-24, with guest co-guide Maria Owl Gutierrez and assistant Scott Brown.  Stillpoint retreat land, Colorado.
  • Fostering Nature Connections and Joy as a Resilience Strategy  talk/workshop.
  • Stones as Mentors: Spiritual Ecotherapy  pre-workshop.  For both: Invited presenter at Climate Crisis Solutions: Charting a New Course conference, sponsored by the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, October 21-23, 2016.    (Blog post with  descriptions of my workshops)
  • Listening to the Stones. Experiential workshop for  Wilderness Guides Council, Buckhorn Camp, CO. Sept 10-14, 2016. (I also led a barn dance / community singing eve, upon spontaneous request by the organizers!)
  • Menstruation Transitions ritual (intergenerational & unofficial). Beltania festival. La Foret Conference and Retreat Center, Colorado Springs. May 19-22, 2016.
  • Keynote speaker for the annual meeting of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness.  ‘I Am You as You Are He as You Are Me and We Are All Together’: Fostering Ecopsychological Relationship with Place. PDF with my keynote abstract: SAC conf announcement 2016 Conference theme: Wisdom Sits in Places: Place, Space, and Consciousness. University Place Hotel and Conference Center, Portland, Oregon, March 31-April 2, 2016. 
  • To All My Relations: Stories of Interspecies Communications and Kinship. Invited conversation with Luisah Teish as a bonus on her Coming Home Through Myth audio series. Teish: “Our intention is for you to open to the beauty and joys of life on Earth through folklore, myths, and actions that empower your relationship to Mother Nature creating in you a spiritual awakening.” The Shift Network, May 28-July 16, 2015.
  • Making Thought Whole Again. Invited dialogue with host Glenn Aparicio Parry, linguist Matthew Bronson, and philosopher Ashok Kumar Gangadean as part of Native Wisdom for Modern Times. Evolver Learning Lab. 5-week webinar begins July 25; our session is on July 16, 2015
  • Radical Compassion conference at Naropa University: Brief speech about developing compassionate relationship with the more-than-human world and ourselves through Transpersonal Ecopsychology.  Friday Oct. 17, 2014. (Opening act for Joanna Macy!)

SAC 2014

  • Sustainability Across the Curriculum – Naropa University faculty development workshop, co-taught with Candace Walworth and Andrew Schelling, March 2014.
  • “We Ain’t Got No Wildlife Here”: Transformative Effects of a Contemplative Assignment in Ecoliteracy.  Chosen by Naropa University as of three “Green Papers” on Contemplative Education and Ecological Sustainability for President Obama’s campus challenge. Green Papers presentation at Naropa’s Arapahoe Campus, Boulder, CO, September 2012.
  • Pagan Chanting Circle.  Join professors Tina Fields and Anne Parker in a pagan circle to offer gratitude for this moment in the wheel of the year. Together we will sing many beloved, inspired and beautiful chants from various pagan paths to connect with the earth, the seasons, our deepest selves and more.   Naropa Unversity’s Nalanda Campus, Boulder CO.  Community Practice Day: March 6, 2012,  1 – 2:30 pm.
  • Chieftain, Peasant, Shrub and Bramble: Indigenous Irish Relationship with Trees.  “In contrast to the contemporary industrial growth society’s view of plants as nonsentient beings to be used or killed at will for our own benefit, the complex indigenous legal system known in Ireland as the Brehon Law, used from prehistory up until the 17th century, delineated penalties for mistreating trees and shrubs that were not dissimilar from the penalties for mistreating other humans. This paper describes these and discusses some environmental ramifications of animistic vs. inanimistic cultural consciousness.” In panel, “Botanical Influences on Cultural Consciousness.” February 10, 2012. Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness annual conference.  Millenium Harvest House, Boulder, CO.
  •  At the same conference, I also moderated the panel on Teaching Consciousness: Strategies from the Field and Class, which featured a number of Naropa faculty speaking about transformative work with students in the wilderness.
  • SEED Institute’s Language of Spirit conference: A Dialogue Exploring the Nature of Reality from Indigenous and Western Science Perspectives. This brings Native elders, linguists, physicists, & other scholars and visionaries together to discuss a topic in depth. This year’s topic: Science, Technology & Creativity – how technology has impacted our essential humanness. Your worldview may never be the same again, and you’ll like it that way.  Aug 14-16, 2011,  Albuquerque NM.
  • Hardly “Common:” Crows and Ravens in Folklore & Spiritual Contexts.  Join me for an engaging presentation about the Corvidae, focusing mainly on crows and ravens. Here on this continent, crows have assimilated to human life wonderfully, whereas in Hawai’i, the native crow is nearly extinct. Why? After learning the basics about the birds and their lives, we’ll look at crows & ravens’ appearance in folklore and spiritual context cross-culturally. This will include Crow’s role as a family spirit helper in Hawaii, and Raven as Trickster among Pacific Northwest tribes, in relationship with an ancient Norse deity, and observed for divination omens in such diverse places as Britain and Tibet.  Please bring your own tales about any of the Corvidae to share.   Napa-Solano Audubon Society monthly meeting, open to the public.  April 12, 2011, 7-9 pm, Vallejo, CA.
  • Language of Spirit conference: A Dialogue Exploring the Nature of Reality from Indigenous and Western Science Perspectives. Invited “inner circle” participant.  Theme: Time Travel! Albuquerque, NM, Aug 14-17, 2010.  PDF brochure
  • Eco-Anxiety. Radio interviews for the News, with Will Sterrett.  KTRH 740 (Texas), July 29, 2008.
  • Biospheric Family Values: A Foray into Spiritual Ecopsychology. The Great Turning: Education, Leadership and Activism for a Life Sustaining Civilization conference.  Geneva Point Conference Center, Moultonboro, NH, October 2007.
  • Wearing the Other’s Skin: The Great Selchie (in Story, Song, and Lived Experience). Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC) Chautauqua.  Occidental CA, Sept. 8-9, 2006.
  • Ecopsychology. Radio interview for The Ecology Hour, with Samantha Abbott & Chris Skyhawk.  KZYX (Mendocino CA), August 15, 2006.
  • Kumu Pohaku (Stones as Teachers): Awakening to the Spiritual Dimension of Ecosystems. International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS). Theme: Complexity, Democracy,  & Sustainability.  Sonoma State University, CA, July 2006.
  • Wildlife Neighbors.  Storytelling & song about our local wildlife neighbors, for grades 2-5.  Sonoma County Library, May 2006.
  • Tears for Mother Earth’s Child: The Fragile Desert as Victim of the Iraq Invasion. Mother’s Day Rally for Peace, co-sponsored by CodePink. Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa CA, May 14, 2006.
  • Indigenous Wisdom and Alternative Healing. Earth Day College for high school students, sponsored by the Green MBA Program, New College of CA, North Bay Campus. May 2005.
  • Ecology and Consciousness. Panel presentation. EcoFest, Sebastopol CA, October 3, 2004.
  • Education for Sustainability. Thoreau Center for Sustainability. “Pizza and Politics” series. San Francisco CA, July 20, 2004.
  • Education for a Just, Sacred, and Sustainable World. “Reclaim the Commons – Deconstructing Empire” Teach-In and Conference. (Numerous locations in San Francisco, CA), June 2004.
  • “What About MY Environment?” –  Incorporating Environmental Justice Issues into Environmental Education. North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) conference.Two-day experiential workshop in Toward the Just City strand, team-taught with Brian Johnson.  Boston, MA, August 2002.
  • Volatile Spirits: Ecological Imbalance & Supernatural Assault in Contemporary America. In Challenging the Institutionalized Sacred panel (presented in absentia). American Anthropological Association, Washington D.C., November 2001.
  • With a Blindfold On: An Ecopsychological/Animistic Critique of Neo-Shamanic Practices. Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness.  Portland OR, March 1998.
  • The Role of Collective Story in Ecological Behavior Modification on the Island of Bali. Northern California Women’s Caucus: Religious Studies. Spring Meeting. Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley CA, May 1997.
  • Earth’s Blood. Blood Magick Art Ritual (In Celebration of Menstruation/Menopause). The Lab, San Francisco CA, June 1996.
  • Shifting Historical Perceptions of Other Animals, as Seen through Cross-Cultural Mythologies and Art. (Lecture and slide show.) Mythopoeic Society conference, Univ. of Colorado at Boulder, July 1996.
  • Weed Women (Wildcrafting and Preparation of Herbal Remedies). Gardnerville NV, 1987-89.