He watched them as they made their way up the trail through the foothills of the Flatirons. Like most who hike the trails they were unaware of his silent presence. Yet he watches them all. Some with dogs, some with children. Walking and talking. Playing spelling games, sharing life dramas. There but not really there. Not really present, just passing through. Not hearing the bird songs or noticing the herd of white tail deer grazing on a nearby hill. Yet to every one of them he whispers on the wind to be still. To feel the Earth beneath their feet. To breathe deeply and be present in this place, in this moment. For he is the Guardian Spirit of the mountains.
Very few hear the whispers. But this day it would be different. Different for two young hikers who stopped to collect the last remnants of snow, gather sticks and pine cone needles, and huddle under the shade of a nearby tree to sculpt their creation. They heard the wind whispers. And, although they may not have realized what they were doing, they gave shape to the Guardian Spirit.
This story is from a recent visit with my sister, nephew and nieces in Boulder, Colorado where one sunny day we hiked the Flatirons near their home. Although this story isn’t set in Ireland it echoes the wisdom of the Irish spiritual ancestors. The call to be in right relationship with the Earth. A relationship that does not come from passing through the landscape but attending closely the beauty and spirit of the land.
The nature of our relationships shapes our stories about those relationships – our stories in turn shape the nature of our relationships. When the power balance in a relationship changes the stories change and we see this played out in the shifting relationship of the Irish with faery and Otherworld realms.
Where once there was relationship with Earth and Otherworld energies and entities, the church launched a shift of dominion/power over the Earth and a shift of Otherworld powers over people. Changing the power balance changed everything, especially the stories of faery and Otherworld encounters. That people came to fear these relationships and encounters is reflected in faery stories like this one from W.B. Yeats, written in 1902. Continue reading
A deep relationship with all things as sacred survives for the Irish in many forms. There is the realm of knowing passed down through generations, as in the stories from Inishmurray islanders. There is the realm of farey folklore, present throughout Ireland and especially potent in the Benbulben landscape. Before we wander through more stories I want to consider why any of this is important. Of what relevance for us today?
These, and other, realms are legacies of ancient wisdom. The wisdom of being in right relationship with the Earth. And we are not. Squandering and cannibalizing the Earth’s treasures we now face devastating impacts including climate change and species extinction. For the Irish global warming is not hypothetical, it’s happening to their island now and is of huge concern as the shifts in weather patterns take their toll on farming.
In her book Walking the Maze Loren Cruden wrote, what is powerful and good is still present in the land and our potentials of relationship with it, and in the capacity of consciousness to retrieve or to know what needs to be known. This, then, is the relevance. To retrieve what needs to be known through our legacy and heritage of ancestral wisdom – understanding, embracing and manifesting the power of right relationship with the Earth.
The everyday life of the Celts included the supernatural equally with the natural, the divine with the mundane; for them the Otherworld was as real as the tangible physical world and as everpresent.
In this quote from her book, Walking The Maze: The Enduring Presence of the Celtic Spirit, Loren Cruden beautifully articulates the lens through which our Irish ancestors viewed their world. Every day and all day they were connected to the energies of the Earth, ancestors and Otherworld spirits. As John O’Donohue wrote, The Celts had an intuitive spirituality informed by mindful and reverent attention to landscape. It was an outdoor spirituality impassioned by the erotic charge of the earth.
Although the Catholic Church made what could be argued as equally impassioned attempts to dislodge this sacred connection, they were only partially successful in their efforts to demonize and trivialize these energies and spirits through the evolution of faery folklore. The charge of the Earth is just too strong.
In O’Donohue’s words, The Celtic mind did not separate what belongs together. The dualism that separates the visible from the invisible, time from eternity, the human from the divine, was totally alien to them. The charge continued, indeed continues, to live in the Irish people through many shamanic and healer traditions.
A short post today. But I want to share one more story from Joe McGowan’s book, Island Voices. This one from Dan Brady about his experiences with the holy well water. Enjoy!
We had two boats, one was the St. Mary, we did a lot of herring fishing in her, and the other was the St. Anne. My father always had a bottle of holy water in the bow, the water came from Tobar na Corach. Every one on the island believed in the well. Everyone! It calmed the sea. Although the water mightn’t calm the seas right away they would be calm later, or the next day. There’s one thing the islanders would never do is make fun of anything of a religious nature. Never, ever! They were very sincere when it came to those things.
Wells have always been sacred places to the Irish and Catholic attempts to change that didn’t work, as evidenced by the numerous wells still visited for health and healing. They just became holy wells, associated with St. Brigit rather than the Goddess Brigit. Here’s an Inishmurray Island story about the Well of Assistance, also from Joe McGowan’s book.
When the islanders were in distress, a doctor or priest urgently required or food supplies exhausted, the waters of the well (Tobar na Cabhrach, the Well of Assistance) calmed the sea. The procedure was to teem the well dry and throw three cupfuls of the water against the wind … Continue reading
Islanders knew how to read the landscape and work with the elements and Earth energies. Some of the best documentation for this comes from Joe McGowan’s book Inishmurray: Island Voices, based on interviews with those who had once lived on tiny Inishmurray island off the coast just north of Sligo. The old ways were alive on this and other islands in western Ireland until just over sixty years ago when it was the time of the great leaving. With populations dwindling, the young people called to war or attracted to a romanticized urban existence, it was no longer possible to sustain island life and whole communities left their heritage and homes in one communal exodus.
McGowan’s interviews and stories breathe life into those old ways as you will see in the next few posts. Let’s begin here… Continue reading
The whole landscape a
we had lost the skill to read
A part of our past disinherited…
I considered Earth Magic as the title for this post, but for our Irish ancestors it wasn’t about magic at all. Knowing and working with the Earth elements and energies was neither magical or extraordinary, it was the way of it. It was intrinsic. The Irish people knew how to read this mystical manuscript, indeed many still do.
I watched The Last Airbender again last night. Clunky dialogue and poorly developed characters have caused the movie to be panned by critics. But I think they miss the point. The story is brilliant. Air, Water, Earth, Fire. Each a nation of people with the power of elemental relationship. Four nations tied by destiny when the Fire Nation launches a brutal war against the others. This is the story of the return of the Avatar who alone holds the power to align the elements and the nations…and bring peace to the world.
Interesting that these elements are also fundamental to the cosmology of the African Dagara tribe which ascribes these energies to the nations in our world, the United States holding and expressing the aggressive fire energy. But I digress.
In the movie those with elemental relationship are called benders. While the Irish were more likely to use labels of Wise Woman, Shaman, or Druid, the power is the same. And the stories are amazing.
The demonization of Earth based spirituality was and is not specific to Ireland but rather a global phenomenon, the consequences powerfully articulated by shaman and author, Tom Cowan. “The dispiritedness of the Fisher King gradually swept across the medieval world as Christianity dissociated spirit from nature, thus causing the greatest soul loss in human history.”
Perhaps the greater tragedy is faith organizations evolving to believe more in their own power than the power they espouse.
While this influence in Ireland was tragic, it was not absolute. Beneath the Catholic veneer the old knowing still survives and indeed even thrives – in farmers who will not disturb the standing stones and stone circles in their fields, in construction crews that will not cut down a faery tree, in healers who send healing energy through the Earth to ailing cows hundreds of miles away. The ancient wisdom ways are not lost. They live in the people and especially the land. Touching this great mystery is why I travel to Ireland.
Nowhere is the mystery more potent and powerful than in the landscape of Benbulben. So let’s resume an exploration of that place…
Rummaging through our collection of children’s books I rediscovered a book of 100 poems for children written by Irish poets, published in Ireland almost ten years ago. A remarkable collection. The illustrations are delightful, the language as enchanting and playful as one might expect. Perhaps less expected, the poetry takes on some extraordinary, if not provocative, subject matter including the exploitation of child labor, head lice, moving an elder to a nursing home…and among the many more uplifting pieces this engaging reflection of Ireland’s shamanic heritage. Enjoy! Continue reading