What is Celtic Shamanism?
Shamanism is found across the whole world, and its practice spans many thousand years. Pre-dating all organised religions, it nonetheless has common threads of practice which unite shamans of all nationalities and all times, from the most distant past to the present day. There is some evidence to suggest that humans were practicing forms of shamanism as far back as the Palaeolithic, and certainly evidence for Mesolithic and Neolithic shamanism is widespread and in many indigenous cultures today it not only survives but is experiencing a resurgence. It is a primary and primal form of communicating with spirits and the spirit world, of understanding and interacting with the universe. By becoming a ‘walker between the worlds’ the shaman, acting as messengers and intermediaries between the mortal world and the realm of spirits can bring wholeness, protection, healing and knowledge direct from the spirit realm for use by all their community or tribe.
There are many traces of shamanism being practiced in ancient Britain, such as the cave paintings in Cresswell Crags which date from 13,000 years ago in the upper Palaeolithic era. Shamanic relations with the spirit world can also be seen in the construction of the many Neolithic barrow mounds, stone circles, standing stones and processional ways that are scattered like gems across Britain and Ireland, and in the additional archaeological evidence that is often discovered at such sites, in the positions of burials and the deposits of ritual offerings, for example. These Shamans were the ancestors of the later Celtic shamans, who wove aspects of the Celtic culture from Europe into their practices and way of life, in turn evolving into the druids, known and feared by the Romans until their suppression in the 1st Century CE. European druidry was said to have is roots and power base in Britain, where the most powerful druids practiced, and after the Romans many British and Irish druids converted, at least in name only, to Christianity and became monks for survival and the recorded preservation of their lore, which was once preserved only orally. Today Celtic shamanism draws from the wisdom, practices and beliefs of our Celtic ancestors, which was recorded by these Christianised druid monks, and by the druid schools themselves which survived in numerous forms until the mid 18th century. In addition to this, archaeology continually provides more and more evidence of Celtic and earlier British and Irish shamanism, as does folk-memory. A great deal of lore, traditional cures, tales and practices have been handed down orally and have survived to modern times where they are now being recorded and form an ever increasing body of knowledge which has its roots in our ancient pagan past.
Celtic pagan culture and shamanic lore has been both unfortunate and very lucky. Whilst Christianity and the Roman conquest decimated much of Britain and Ireland’s indigenous culture and spirituality, much of what was preserved survived with only obvious and easily removable overlays of Christian sentiment and Roman propaganda. Thus we are left with a lore of two halves, one being the voices of the conquering culture and religion, and the other containing the clear traces of our indigenous ways. These two halves separate easily in most cases, leaving those who try to unearth the ancient knowledge of our ancestors a relatively easy task. Much knowledge and wisdom can be gained by working actively with our native mythology for example, such as the tales of Taliesin, Cu-chullain, Bran, and Cullwch and Olwen, all of which are known to have their roots far back in pre-history. Our ancient indigenous shamanism can in this light be seen as the logical mother of Druidry and the later magical practices of Ireland and the British Isles, through Saxon wizardry, to cunning men and wise women and traditional Witchcraft to influencing many forms of Wicca today. All through these run the practice of communing with spirits, and traversing the Otherworld, of working with spirit allies and elementals, contacting and understanding the powers of the land, and applying these gifts in the mortal world, in a way which is distinctly British and Irish. Whilst no spiritual practice remains unchanged over centuries or millennia, with diligence and clear thinking, as well research and the promptings of spirit, our own Celtic form of shamanism takes shape once again in a useable form that is both ancient and consistent with our heritage, as well as being relevant for our lives today.
At the heart of all modern magic, is the shaman, and the Celtic shaman, like the ancient British and Irish shamans before them, understood the central importance of good relations with the spirits which surround us. They recognised, like shamans all across the world today, that the mortal soul is a spirit in its own right, in need of sustenance and support form the spirit realm, and sometimes in need of protection and retrieval from it, in times of sickness, trouble or disempowerment. At such times, a walker between the worlds is essential as an ambassador and warrior, as well as a healer, standing for the human need amidst the spirit realm, facing the numinous as a pioneer and guardian of the human soul. Unlike New Age shamanism, or Neo-shamanism as it is sometimes called, Celtic shamanism recognises the dark and perilous side of the spirit world, as well as within human and all mortal nature. Central to the shamans work therefore is the attainment of allies, of guides and guardians from the spirit realm to help the shaman in their work. These are relationships based on trust and mutual assistance, at least in the Celtic tradition, where many allies are called ‘cousins’ or ‘co-walkers’, benefiting from the exchange of experiences. Thus when a shaman works with an ally that is a salmon for example, they experience life as a salmon and learn their ways, and the spirit salmon in turn experiences some of the life of the shaman. This is known as shape shifting. Allies, like any spirits, can be of any form, from animal, ancestor, to weather front, plant or tree, or indeed spirits that have no foundation in the physical world at all.
Many allies in the Celtic tradition are Faerie allies, and the influence of the Faery tradition and ancient Faerie beliefs in the British Isles shouldn’t be underestimated. Indeed there are clues going back thousands of years that the Faerie races have played a massive part in shaping the tone and flavour of British and Irish spiritual practice, and the Faerie Faith as it is sometimes known, underpins much of our indigenous spiritual lore. Today Celtic shamanism also revives many of these ancient and largely forgotten or hidden practices, like a yew tree re-growing and finding renewal from its roots. As our modern culture is changing, more and more genuine seekers are discovering the bones of our indigenous spirituality and are re-membering and reclaiming the remaining knowledge of our old ways so that having survived the lean times Celtic shamanism is once again finding renewal and being practiced by larger numbers than it has for centuries.
The mythical Milesian shaman-druid Amergin, used shape shifting and an invocation of his allies as the spirit of Ireland in the famous ‘Song of Amergin’ in which he defeated the old gods, the Tuatha de Danann in order for the Milesians to invade and begin the mortal human period of Irelands history, mythologically recorded as 1268 BCE.. The Dananns in turn retreated to the Otherworld, to become the Faery race, known in Ireland as the Sidhe. The ‘Song’ was written down in the 9th century as part of the Lebor Gaballa Erenn, the Irish ‘Book of Invasions’ although it is likely to be far older. It is thought to have been recorded from the oral tradition where it was known in proto-goidelic as a fragmented form of an even older magical spell which went back an additional thousand years, and maybe even further.
The Song of Amergin
I am a stag of seven tines
I am a flood across a plain
I am wind on a deep lake
I am a tear the sun lets fall
I am a hawk above the cliff
I am a thorn beneath the nail
I am a wonder amidst flowers
I am a wizard
Who but I sets the cool head aflame with smoke?
I am a spear that roars for blood
I am a salmon in a pool
I am a lure from paradise
I am a hill where poets walk
I am a boar ruthless and red
I am a breaker threatening doom
I am a tide that drags to death
I am an infant
Who but I peeps from the unhewn dolmen arch?
I am the womb of every holt
I am the blaze on every hill
I am the queen of every hive
I am the shield of every head
I am the tomb of every hope.
Translated by Robert Graves.
Copyright Danu Forest 2010