The journey of the Gaelic soul might be considered as an ‘immrama,’ or a journey through distinct phases; by insights, rites of passage and enlightenment. Some authors see the traditional pattern of Gaelic life as passing through five distinct phases, five being the number of fingers on the hand, the senses, the sets of tree’s in the Ogham alphabet, and the five provinces of ancient Ireland. The phases are birth, coming of the age, passion, old-age and passing.
Birth is seen as a miracle, a wonder-birth or ‘coimperta’ in the Irish tradition. The process of childbirth was considered fraught with spiritual dangers, that the soul of the child may be tainted or affected by bad spirits, and for this reason the woman would wear a girdle called a ‘crios’ as a protective charm. Further measures included the hanging of rowan crosses tied with red thread over the cradle, and not allowing the child’s feet to touch the floor until it was baptized. Immediately after the birth the midwife or ‘banghluin’ would administer a blessing in the form of three drops of water on the child’s head, which invoked the triune powers so evident in Gaelic culture:
“The little drop of the sky
On thy little forehead, beloved one.
The little drop of the land
On thy little forehead, beloved one.
The little drop of the sea
On thy little forehead, beloved one…
…To keep thee for the three,
To shield thee, to surround thee;
To save thee for the Three,
To fill thee with the graces.”
The nurse would then give the traditional form of baptism, called the ‘baisteadh breith’ in Gaelic. This would be in a bath into which had been placed a silver or gold coin (perhaps relating to the powers of the sun or moon, and also maybe reflecting the child’s gender.) The nurse filled her hands nine times with fresh spring water and filled the tub whilst singing an incantation:
“The little wavelet for thy form,
The little wavelet for thy voice,
The little wavelet for thy sweet speech.
The little wavelet for thy means,
The little wavelet for thy generosity,
The little wavelet for thy appetite.
The little wavelet for thy wealth,
The little wavelet for thy life,
The little wavelet for the health.
Nine little palm-fulls for thy grace,
(Name) the Three of Power.”
The child was then passed over a flame three times from the nurse to the father, then the father carried the child three times around the flame (deosil). In the ‘Cath Maige Mucraime, the Druid Olc Aiche puts five protective circles around the new-born Cormac; against wounding, drowning, fire, enchantment, and wolves. The child was finally grounded into the plane of earth by the last blessing of the mother herself, which involved touching the childs forehead on the earth three times whilst reciting an incantation, which might include the names of ancestors, the immediate clan or tuath, the Old-Ones, and the first parents. The god-parents would be nominated at this ceremony and the child then truly accepted into this world.
Coming of the age.
Coming of the age is the rite of passage to adulthood, where the season of the power to seed and bear fruit emerges. The soul, like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, develops from playful innocence toward a seasoned maturity. It is likely that in a traditional Gaelic community a child would have prepared for this time through natural play and attachment to their respective parents and relatives, echoing their work activities through their senses and recreation in games, in much the same way that we see the offspring of wild animals do.
In rural parts a girls step into womanhood was marked by the ‘moisach’ or first menstruation. This crossing of a new threshold was marked by a ritual known as ‘kertching’ and ‘crossing the knowes’ which involves the education of the girl in womanly ways by the collective female members of the clan. Kerching refers to the award of a new white headscarf to the woman after an initiation, which replaced her girl’s headband. Such an award was seen as a token of respect, distinction and honor for her new status. There can be elements of playful humiliation in some of the rites of initiation; in the Orkney’s a ceremony called ‘bundling’ was practiced, and in which the girl was tied into a single impenetrable garment by her mother and then placed in a box bed within the family home. A ‘Lothaire’ or handsome seducer then climbed in with her. After this ceremony she may make a charge, such as:
“I vow as an honorable woman of my clan:
To respect my body with the care of a mother and the protection of a father,
To honor my mind with the challenge of strong thought and firm judgment,
To empower my spirit with the passion and cultivation of love,
All these things I swear by, in the names of the Gods of my clan,
And if I am untrue to them;
May the earth swallow me up,
May the waters drown me,
May the sky fall upon my head.
A boy’s advent into masculinity may take another form. At the point of noticeable physical changes his father, uncle or other prominent male might take him on a hunting or fishing trip, leave him overnight in solitary contemplation to assess his skills of nature, or even send him to be educated by an ‘elder-wise one.’ It may be envisaged that whatever the process, it would be one in which the lad must prove his worth, like the hero ‘Fionn mac Cumhail and the Druid Fintain, who after taking and cooking the salmon is mysteriously blessed with infinite wisdom. This schematic form of initiation into adulthood is common amongst various native cultures, and perhaps very much like a ‘vision-quest’ in which an individual is placed within an environment to receive inspiration regarding their primal existence of being. In his advice to Feradach, a son of Craumthann, Morann mac Moen (a Brehon Druid) says:
Since he is young… Let him observe the driver of an old chariot. For the driver of an old wheel rim does not sleep He looks ahead, he looks behind, in front and to the right and to the left. He looks, he defends, he protects, so that he may not break with neglect or violence the wheel-rims which run under him. And… let him be merciful, just, impartial, conscientious, firm, generous, hospitable, honorable, stable, beneficent, capable, honest, well-spoken, steady, and true-judging.
When asked about his traits as a lad, the venerable and renowned King Cormac replied;
I was a listener in woods, I was a gazer at stars, I was blind where secrets were concerned, I was silent in a wilderness, I was talkative among many, I was mild in the mead-hall, I was stern in battle, I was gentle towards allies, I was a physician of the sick, I was weak towards the feeble, I was strong towards the powerful, I was not close lest I should be burdensome, I was not arrogant though I was wise, I was not given to promising though I was strong, I was not venturesome though I was swift, I did not deride the old though I was young, I was not boastful though I was a good fighter, I would not speak about any one in his absence, I would not reproach, but I would praise, I would not ask, but I would give, For it is through these habits that the young become old and kingly warriors."
Whether boy or girl, the body and soul were nourished accordingly, a respect for natural laws, personal responsibility and correct behavior was instilled within the young mind. But also a deep sense of spirituality and destiny, of a faith which they carried with them into adulthood and their role in the community.
The Gaelic world was a caste based society, having five main groupings of people; the flaith or aire the nobility, the bo-aire who were non-noble freemen with property, the ceiles or free tenants who were also called aithech included, trades and crafts-persons and anybody without property, the feine or farmers and agricultural workers (who may or may not have owned property), and the last group were slaves. Within the context of the Senchus Mor and Brehon law individuals were considered either aurrad or having acceptable legal standing within the tribal boundaries, or deorad which indicated a status as an outsider with no legal recourse whatsoever. An individual born into any one of these classes might expect to follow in the training, education and work of their family, the children of a farmer would learn the skills of herding, milking, ploughing and harvesting, a child of the nobility would be tutored in swordsmanship, horse-riding, and aristocratic pursuits. There were no restrictions placed on the potential of any young person, indeed it could be said that even the shepherd could one day become a king, neither was there a precise distinction between masculine and feminine vocations; Celtic society honored all and history informs us that many noble women assumed the mantle of leadership, became famed warriors and kindled the hearth of the home. Many men respected for the beauty and elegance of their poetry and arts, as weavers and herbalists. What was more important in the Celtic mind was the realization of a deeper and more profound sense of the sacred in their work, the attention to details, and a successful completion to any commission.
The spiral of life continues with the accomplishment of a craft, and steps forward to a blending of the opposites. At about the age of twenty-five a young couple would join together, perhaps finding their anam-chara or ‘soul-mate’ in the dances of fertility at the annual festival of Beltaine. A marriage commitment is seen not as a simple contract between a man and a woman, but a union of souls within the cosmos, both of whom become the pillar of nobility at the center, with this modern adaptation of a traditional Gaelic ceremony:
We are here today to witness the blending and weaving together of _____________ and _____________. We come together in this circle of companionship, in this wheel of the seasons of life to share this experience and we will welcome the four sacred spirits of the earth to witness this marriage of souls.
Open your palms and face the east. Welcome the spirit of the East as it brings us the dawn of new beginnings each day of our lives. The sunrise today is for _____________ as they take this journey through life together. For them it is new beginning of a journey that may bring them prosperity, abundance and happiness. May they share their hospitality with good will and generosity each day as they will grow in love and understanding.
We welcome to spirit of the South as it brings us the fair flowing and harmonic waters of Life. In the summer the fields are full for the music of the sun is high in the sky. We give blessing for our own abundance and wish to bestow abundance upon ____________ in this place. May they have an abundance of knowledge, melody and happiness from this day forward.
We welcome the spirit of the West for this brings a time of day for learning. Each new day brings a time for reflection on the days passing. The setting sun bestows a time for contemplation, rest and the desire of dreaming. There are lessons and tales for each of us on this journey. For ________________ May these fertile stories of the setting sun bring them closer together on their precious journey and they will reflect on the laughter of the day.
We welcome the spirit of the North. As in the wheel it shows us a silent and quieter place and more silent place. It is a place within our selves that serves for contemplation and self renewal. A place that our and most inner selves and plays an important part of your journey together, For each of you bring will your own true nature to this union today.
This day you stand in the center of the four quarters, gilded in the noble, generous and bright sanctity of this world, blessed in the warm gaze of your families, ancestors, spirits and Gods, that you might continue the word, truth and heritage of your life…
May the blessing of Divine light be on you both - light surrounding you and light within your coupling. May the blessed brilliance shine on you like the tender glow of the hearth fire, so that stranger and friend may come and warm him-self at it. And may light shine out of the two eyes of you, like a candle set in the window of a house, bidding the wanderer come in out of the storm. And may the blessing of the mighty waters of the ocean be on you, may it beat upon your Spirit and wash it fair and clean, and leave there a shining pool where the blue of Heaven shines, and sometimes a star. And may the blessing of the earth be on you, soft under your feet as you pass along the roads, soft under you as you lie out on it, tired at the end of day; and may it rest easy over you when, at last, you lie out under it. May it rest so lightly over you that your soul may be out from under it quickly; up and off and on its way to the heavens.
In this ceremony the bride usually stands on the left, the groom on the right, since according to tradition this would allow the man easy access to his sword for protection of his woman. Their hands are then bound together with a ‘kerchief’ perhaps made of fine lace. The final aspect of the ceremony involves the groom carrying his bride across a thresh-hold, usually the doorway to their new home, this is symbolic of protecting her from the attentions of malevolent spirits. The entire ritual was closed with the Mi na Meala or ‘The Month of Honey’ a settling in period where the couple enjoyed each other without limit or hindrance. The bride would be given a am breid, or square of linen to be used as a head-covering and a significant sign of wife-hood. This kertch was arranged into a triangular fashion symbolic of the trinity and called a currachd tri-chearnach.
This ceremony is a greater bonding, where each respective participant gives themselves not to each other, but to a greater and more powerful divinity, to nature and earth, spirits, ancestors and future generations and the preservation of their names, customs, traditions and language.
The process of aging in the Celtic tradition is not a period of sallow wrinkled skin, graying hair or a slow decline into lonely retirement. Rather it is a blossoming, a golden maturity blessed with autumnal shades of bronze, red, the delicate flutter of russet leaves fluttering in a silver speckled wind. It is what I would call the ‘Fleadh na Ablach’ or the feast of Apples, whose harvest comes at the end of the year, but whose potent symbolism is a sweet reminder of immortality and the land of youth, the otherworld to which we make our journey in the spirit life. During this time we occupy ourselves with remembrance, recollection and reflection, examining and weighing the worth of our soul in preparation for the next stage of the journey of life. Fiona MaCleod in ‘The Winged Destiny’ describes an encounter with a wise old Gaelic woman in Port na Churaich (Haven of the Coracle) on the Island of Iona, Mary Macarthur, who had fallen asleep on a granite rock and upon awakening recounted a spectacular vision that she had experienced:
I had the good sleep, and a thousand things of goodness more, for I had a dream of dreams. Do I remember it? Yes, for sure, I have it as, clear as a cradle. I was lying here, just as I will be now, with this faggot here too, when a woman of beauty came up the path and took the faggot and flung all the sticks an' ends into the sea. What will you be doing, lady?" I said, but not in anger, only in the great wonder. ''Tis your sorrows I'm throwing away,' she said with a voice as sweet as to send the birds to the branches--churiead e na h'eòin, an crannaibh. 'It is glad of that I am,' I said, 'for it is many of them I have.' Then she said: 'You'll have peace, Mary, and great joy, and your songs and your beauty will never die.' So the tears were at me at that, an' I cried: 'It is only an aisling you are. . . a dream and a vision!' 'No,' she said, "an' by the same token, Mary, I'll tell you the song that you were singing below your breath down there on the shore:
"A Dhe na mara
Cuir todhar's an tarruinn
Chon tachair an talaimh
Chon bailcidh dhuinn biaidh,"
And sure, an' in truth, these were the very words I was singing to myself down there on the shore . . . 'O God of the Sea, fill the sea-wave with store of the good weed, to feed the soil that will give us food.' And at that my heart sank with fear and rose with gladness, for who could this be but . . . an' sure before I could put word to it, she said I am Brighid. I went on the knees, and cried gach la' agus oidche thor, duinn do sheimh--'each day and night give us thy peace.'
Mary’s beautiful and evocative vision is a poetic reminder that our ageing is a beautiful walk on the path of our immortal spirit, our heart is a clay cauldron filled with magical reminisces and powerful potential. John O’ Donahue gives an excellent blessing for old age, which sums up the Celtic view of seniority:
May the light of your soul mind you,
May all of your worry and anxiousness about becoming old be transfigured,
May you be given a wisdom with the eye of your soul, to see this beautiful time of harvesting.
May you have the commitment to harvest your life, to heal what has hurt you, to allow it to come closer to you and become one with you.
May you have great dignity, may you have a sense of how free you are,
And above all may you be given the wonderful gift of meeting the eternal light and beauty that is within you.
May you be blessed, and may you find a wonderful love in yourself for yourself.
As we become parents, then grandparents we evolve into the wisdom-keepers of our families, chieftan’s, queens and respected elders. Within a constantly evolving ‘family tree’ we have progressed from the roots as children, to the solid core of the trunk toward the uppermost branches which whistle in the sky and yearn for a blessed infinity of joy.
The Age of Passing Over.
When the spirit decides to leave its clay abode and walk into the clouds of unknowing, with the anticipation of a great journey across the ocean of heaven, in a gilded vessel of ‘Manannan’ the Navigator to the isles of Tir na n’Og, the Land of Youth, otherwise called Tir nan Sinnisir Mbeo or Land of Living Ancestors. In this aspect of our soul’s journey we re-enter the melody of the universe, from which we came, known in Celtic myth as the ‘Oran Mor’ or Great Song, and our spirit dances within the sound of the waters, breath, wind, and ever revolving wheel of creation and life. The physical manifestation of this was the death-song, or in Gaelic the ‘caoin’ (pron. Keen), whose dirge reflected the sounds of wind and water and in essence provided a final blessing for the departing spirit.
Here is an example of a typical ‘caoin’ or death-lament from Marjory Kennedy-Fraser's Songs of the Hebrides (a group of isolated islands off the north-west coast of Scotland), collected in the late 1890s and the early 1900s, translated by the poet Kenneth Macleod. Traditionally the cantor or singer is either a close friend (anam-chara) or relative of the deceased:
The Death Croon (An Cronan Bais)
An t-Anam chara (The Soul-friend) sings;
Thul dhach-aidh an nochd d’on t-sior thigh
Geamh – raidh, d’on t-sior thigh Fogh-air is Earraich is Samh-raidh thu dol
Dhach-aidh an nochd an seirm nan cann-tair ‘S geal ain glean ‘gad fheitheamh air
Bruiach na h-aibh-ne Dia an t-ath – air na do shuain.
(You are going home to the night of winter, Ever-house, The Autumn, Summer, and Springtide, Ever house Home you going tonight on music of cantors, White angels await you on the shores of the Avon. God the Father with you in sleep).
It can be seen that the Celtic view of the journey of the soul followed a ‘double spiral’ which begins in the center, moving up and around with key points in the physical world that relate to our condition (dawn, midday, sunset, and midnight,). Eventually the soul begins to move down back toward the center where it passes through the doorway of death to journey within the spiritual realms, only then to return by rebirth to life in this world again. Within Celtic culture this spiral is sometimes envisaged as a snake, which stripped of its Judeo-Christian symbolism is actually a creature of vitality, healing power and regeneration. And so it is with the Gaelic soul, a powerful and indestructible energy, of light and beauty forever surfing on the waves of the cosmos…..