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As part of my work on the “Learn the Lore” course in the Irish Pagan School, I’m tasked with reflecting on my knowledge of the file tradition in Ireland as well as my current feelings on poetry. Next, I’m to share my thoughts and feelings on the story studied in days 1 and 2, “Echtra Condla” (The Adventures of Connla the Fair”).

At this point in my spiritual journey, I’m somewhat familiar with what the file tradition is. I have seen the Irish word fili before while reading through mythology and history books about Ireland. (A quick search helped me to linguistically understand that file is the modern Irish word, and fili is plural.) My understanding is that the fili are the bards. In this tradition, words have power. Music also has power, as we know through stories about An Dagda’s harp. To me, poetry is the marriage of language and music, so poetry is incredibly potent. To be a file is to tap into, and channel, that power.

Poetry is also difficult to create. At least in my experience. I try to write it, and often struggle. Prose comes easier to me, and yet I continue to do my best with poetry, especially when I write prayers and chants for my Druidry. I’m excited to learn more about the file tradition in this course. Perhaps this will inspire me?

I found the story of “”Echtra Condla” interesting. I vaguely remember reading it before. I recalled the fairy woman giving Connla and apple, followed by his wasting away, and going with her to the Otherworld. I forgot, or possibly decided to disregard, the woman’s prophesy about the coming of Christianity. In light of yesterday’s reflection, it’s interesting to think about the story as a young man’s conversion experience, and the Otherworld as heaven. As Lora pointed out in the video, while the coming of Christianity to Ireland did bring some problems, it was largely peaceful and positive compared to many other places. And thanks to the monasteries, we have stories like Connla’s. Personally, in my humble, novice opinion, I can see how easy it would be for Christian monks to alter the story for their purposes.

So what is my takeaway as a polytheist? The apple is a symbol of the Otherworld. It shows up in other stories, and I’m sure it will appear again in this course. Tales of Fairies luring away young men and women are also common. It’s interesting that she promises to take Connla to an island populated only by women. It is supposed to be a peaceful place. Take that as you will, I guess! Also of interest to me is the limitation of the Druids. This could very well be Christian propaganda, but it’s also a good reminder that the spirits often have more power than us humans. It’s a lesson in humility.

 

 

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Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2016


This year, I’ve started to notice how many Nature Spirits interact with my garden. I’ve always observed frogs, toads, birds, sometimes snakes, and a variety of invertebrates in and around my garden pots, but this year there’s greater significance to their presence.  Upstate NY is experiencing a drought watch, and our family garden, watered once or twice a day depending on the heat, has become a refuge for several, such as the frog pictured above.  This guy has been in our garden for a couple weeks, hiding in the shade, and enjoying the moisture.  I suppose he would rather hang out in a very sheltered environment with plenty of food and water rather than risk crossing the very dry, very scratchy, very open yard that separates my garden and the marsh.  Honestly, that’s looking awfully dry this year as well…
Someone at work gave my husband a bird feeder as a gift a couple years ago.  Last year, I didn’t notice any birds using it.  I continued to add water and clean it as best as I could.  I’ve kept that up this year, and I have noticed so many birds taking advantage of the water.  There’s a robin family who lives in a cherry tree near our garage.  The mother and father frequently visit.  We also have a hummingbird feeder, a gift my husband gave me, and there’s a pair of ruby-throated hummingbirds who often stop for a drink.  There’s even a sap-sucker woodpecker who likes to have a sip every so often!   It makes me happy to see animals benefiting from our garden, especially when there’s been so little rain.

My garden is also a shrine to the local spirits.  Our fairy garden grows as a representation of this.  My sister introduced me to Fairy Garden Chest, and we decided to try it out for something fun.  My daughter was so excited to get the box.  I usually don’t go in for mass-produced things for my fairy garden, but my sister was really excited about it.  I like to make houses and buy handmade, most of the time.  Those factory-made-things we have are often given to us, although I have a soft spot for gnomes and sometimes can’t help myself…   Creating this little pot was a project for me and Bee.  We transplanted some chicks and hens, and added some blue aquarium rocks.  A neighbor got rid of a fish tank months ago, and he spilled some of the stones in the driveway.  They sat there forever, so we decided to repurpose them.  Bee added some pretty stones she liked, and then the fairy moved in with her gazebo and watering can.  While making it, Bee was very concerned about making the garden fairies happy.  This brings about a lot of age-appropriate discussion on The Good Folk, respect, and safety.  I don’t actually see the tiny winged statues as accurate representations of them, but I like the whimsy it adds to my garden.  I suppose, if anything, I see them as more representative of the plant spirits.  It provides a nice focal point, something that I see as valuable for toddlers who may struggle with abstract concepts.  And, again, pretty.  We make offerings in the fairy garden.  We only put things out that are safe for Nature Spirits – a bit of something we baked, some milk, bird seed, herbs…  Each time, Bee either gives a hug to the trees, or waves to the statues.  It’s adorable.  I can’t help but think of how I interacted with statues of Mary and St. Francis at my old Catholic church…

As I witness more corporeal Nature Spirits in and around the garden, and as the plants are productive and happy seeming, I get the feeling that the Good Folk and other local spirits are happy with us, or at least we haven’t offended them much.  There have been a couple times where I saw what looked like a person standing in the garden. Each time, they vanished when I fully turned to see.  There weren’t any neighborhood children around, no sound of their coming or going, and Bee was either inside or with me.  Both times it happened, I was very shocked and felt my body buzz.  Neither time did I feel threatened. Since this doesn’t happen often, and I am able to complete everyday tasks, I don’t think I’m losing my mind. There have been occasions in the wood where similar happened, and I instantly felt that I needed to leave.  This has been very different… more positive.  I hope I can continue to please or, at least, not upset the local spirits.

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My husband recently encouraged me to join Reddit so that I could take advantage of the vast gardening community there. While exploring, I found a subreddit dedicted to Druidism which was where I discovered this gem – “Fable: The Lost Art of the Spoken Word.” It features many bards from the Druidic community, namely Philip Carr-Gomm. It really set a fire in my head! I hope it inspires you too.

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Before I get into pregnancy and childbirth lore from old Ireland and Scotland, please note that I don’t necessarily embrace or endorse these beliefs.  As a modern Druid, I seek to know how my ancestors – Pagan and Christian – lived before things became very industrialized and modern.  While some folk practices are seemingly out-of-touch or misinformed, they are, at the very least, helpful in understanding our ancestors’ way of thinking which can help us to understand other practices.  At the same time, some folk practices remain very valid – if not medically, then at least spiritually.  Just as many other Neo-Druids and Celtic Reconstructionists, I only revive what I feel makes the most sense to my modern brain, or to inform possible experimentation with new practices and interventions like  the medicine of today.  Family or friends who are not practicing animists and/or polytheists may find the information in this post alarming, but rest assured that, while I live a magical life, I do so as a modern woman who thinks and acts as she feels best, and who doesn’t simply adopt a practice just because it’s old and esoteric.

Awhile ago, I shared a link  to Woden’s Wandering Witch  in which the author examines some Irish lore relating to pregnancy.  It is definitely a good read, but it left me wanting more. Surely there must be more!  Oh, but it’s difficult to dig up anything on this subject!  Part of the difficulty is that much of what we do know relates to fosterage, the common practice in Ireland where children are placed in the care of others to form familiar and/or political bonds, and good birth mothers were able to arrange this whereas bad mothers were not  (Bitel, 88).  Because the law texts were more interested in this, as well as defining the various types of marriage, we have little information about the birthmother and the childbirth process.  Therefore, we must make inferences based on the lore and rely on modern ethnographic research that took place when Christianity was in place.  Most historical books I own on the ancient Celts deal with other themes.  Some have a chapter about women, but spend most of it examining those famous examples we know from history and mythology – Queen Medb, Boudica, Brighid the Goddess, St. Brigit, Macha…  It’s difficult to find a lot of information on the every day woman or what her life was like.  The aforementioned exceptional examples of womanhood are all very well and good.  As a woman who aspires to be knowledgeable, courageous, and spiritual, of course I admire them!  Of the bunch, researching Brighid or her saintly counterpart is the most helpful in understanding the ancient Irish and Scottish concepts of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood given that she has been prayed to by women seeking help in labor (Freeman, 50) or infertility (Ó Duinn, 157).  She is often considered a mother, or foster mother, to Ireland (Bitel, 100). There are also stories about the saint acting as a midwife or wet nurse to Jesus Christ (Hutton, 135).  And let’s not forget her association with milk – although this remains a contentious subject among Celtic linguists, her festival’s name, “Imbolc” may to refer to the lactation of sheep and thus new mothers in the animal world (Hutton, 134).  There is evidence that Brighid, Goddess or Saint (a matter of perspective, often blurred seeming) was prayed to by laboring mothers, and midwives often invited Brighid to enter a home once a woman went into labor (Freeman, 55).  Prayers in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica capture some examples from Scotland, such as “Bride the aid-woman:”

There came to me assistance,

Mary fair and Bride;

As Anna bore Mary,

As Mary bore Christ,

As Eile bore John the Baptist

Without flaw in him,

Aid thou me in mine unbearing,

Aid me, O Bride!

As Christ was conceived of Mary

Full perfect on every hand,

Assist thou me, foster-mother,

The conception to bring from the bone;

And as thou didst aid the Virgin of joy,

Without gold, without corn, without kine,

Aid thou me, great is my sickness, 

Aid me, O Bride! (71)

Carmina Gadelica actually contains a whole section on “Birth and Baptism.”  It is full of rituals, many Christainized, but the original meaning is still there.  Most are to protect the new baby from aggressive fairies.  The author observes, “When a child was born it was handed to and fro across the fire three times, some words being addressed in an almost inaudible murmur to the fire-god.  It was then carried three times sunwise around the fire, some words being murmured to the sun-god” (189).  He continues to discuss the use of water in this first rite of passage; “The first water in which the child is washed after it is born into the world, the bathing-woman puts a gold piece or a coin of silver into the vessel of water in which the child is being washed” which is supposedly done to bring the child “love of peace…love of means…love of wealth…love of joyousness by day and night…grace of goodness…grace of fortune…[and] grace of victory on every field” (189).  This old custom was followed by a baisteadh ban-ghlùin or “knee-woman’s baptism” which occurred shortly after birth, in the name of the Christian God, to protect the child’s soul (189), for it was believed that unbaptized children were not allowed into heaven.   Carmichael explains they were believed to have a spirit but not a soul –  a distinction that warranted separate burial grounds in the more remote and rocky lands beyond a church’s borders.  These graves were unmarked and called torran which meant “little mound” (190).  Morbidly interesting is the fact that people who committed suicides or murders were also placed in these burial lands (190).  Returning to the little baptism prayers, a favorite of mine is “A small drop of water,” which I think could be easily Paganized for a Druidic ceremony utilizing the Three Kindreds, the Three Realms, and the Three Hallows:

A small drop of water

To thy forehead, beloved,

Meet for Father, Son, and Spirit,

The Triune of Power.

A small drop of water

To encompass my beloved,

Meet for Father, Son, and Spirit,

The Triune of power.

A small drop of water

to fill thee with each grace,

Meet for Father, Son and Spirit

The Triune of power (221).

These prayers suggest a deep fear of Otherworldly influence when it comes to infants.  It is the same conclusion Woden’s Wandering Witch reached : many birth and pregnancy customs in Celtic lands are to protect the child.  According to Walter Gregor, author of The Folklore of the North-East of Scotland, the fairy folk had a craving for mothers’ milk and also stole human babies to pay off debts to Hell (4).  Now of course this is very Christianized, but as with many other later customs among Celtic nations, they have an essence of earlier times.  Different rituals kept the fairies away, including blessing the mother and child with bread, milk, a fir-scented candle, and a Bible.  These were placed under the mother’s pillow, or at a distance.  Gregor explains that, “A pair of trowsers hung at the foot of the bed had the same effect” (4) for some reason.  Once a woman had given birth, she was not permitted to do any work other than the most “simple” and “necessary,” and she wasn’t allowed to travel or visit with other households home to pregnant women (6).  

Similar traditions of restrictions and protection against fairies existed in Ireland.  Pregnant women were warned against attending funerals, sitting up with a corpse, or visiting graveyards due to the sensitive spiritual state of her growing baby (Franklin, 60-61).  William Butler Yeats explains the danger of fairies in his work, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.  He describes the dreaded changelings, sick fairy children, “or a log of wood so bewitched that it seems to be a mortal pining away, and dying” (47). One way to get rid of a changeling, or to test if it was one, was to burn it on the hearth fire (47)!  This is a wretched practice when you consider the modern medical opinion that changelings were really children with disabilities!  Thankfully, Yeats explains that some changelings were exchanged peacefully once a mother realized what was going on (47).  One way of protecting infants, that is particularly interesting to this tree-hugging Druid, involves tree branches.  Apparently “a bundle of oak, ash, and thorn” should be placed in the nursery to protect babies from dangerous spirits (Franklin, 151).  Alternatively, a branch of mountain ash (rowan) tied over the cradle will protect a female infant, while alder protects males (151).  I’m imagining a very earthy mobile with a rowan or alder base…

The way mothers interacted with their babies and others was also significant.  People who complimented babies out loud were said to put them in danger, so it was suggested that mothers say “God bless” or “safe be it,” after such praise (Franklin, 149).  In her book, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Lady Augusta Gregory explains that pregnant women should not visit another household with a woman in labor for the labor pains may jump to her prematurely.  This suggests that our ancestors understood the danger of early labor, at least.

Speaking of labor, it was believed that ashes or coal should not be removed from household fires once the pregnant woman who lives there begins her contractions (Franklin, 84).  Locks were unlocked (Gregor, 4), which was surely sympathetic magic to help encourage the woman’s cervix to open.  Today, an expectant mother in a birth center or a hospital, rather than her home, may utilize similar symbolism by having open flowers by her bed.  If you give birth at home, many suggest redoing anything unlocked or untied once the baby is born or else negative forces may find places to hide before stealing the baby (Franklin, 85).

Modern Druids and Celtic revivalists may want to incorporate some of the above traditions into their own childbirth experience.  As noted, many of the prayers to Mary or St. Brigit can be easily Paganized.  For some examples, see the chapter “Naming and Saining the Baby” in Skip Ellison’s book The Wheel of the Year at Muin Mound Grove, ADF: A Cycle of Druid Rituals.  Protective charms, inspired by folklore or modern inspiration, may be placed around the laboring mother or the newborn.  Just remember not to forget the pragmatic concerns of having a newborn!  If you make a mobile with sacred wood or charms, be sure to hang it securely out of reach from baby!  Most modern folk don’t fear changelings or fairies spiriting babies away; rather our new demons are suffocation, SIDS, and other horrible afflictions.  Malevolent forces at work, medical complications, or a combination – whatever you believe, parents must be vigilant and mindful about what is in and around the crib.  Beliefs that women out of labor should limit their work and travel ring true today – we ladies still need to recover!  With regards to a special “baptism” or blessing for baby, mother and father may want to prepare a little prayer to say over the child when they have some privacy after birth.  A vial of sacred water may be packed away in the mother’s suitcase for just such a ritual.  However, don’t let this eclipse an even more important ritual – mother bonding and, if possible, breastfeeding the little one.   Later, when the new family feels ready, the baby can be officially welcomed into the larger family, grove, and community in a special naming ritual.

Bitel, Lisa M.  Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.  1996.
Carmichael, Alexander.  Carmina Gadelica.  Edited by C J Moore.  Lindisfarne Press,  Hudson, NY.  1997.
Franklin, Rosalind.  Baby Lore – Superstitions and Old Wives Tales From the World Over Related to Pregnancy, Birth and Motherhood.  Diggory Press, 2006.
Freeman, Mara.  Kindling the Celtic Spirit.  Harper Collins Publishers, Inc,  New York, NY.  2001.
Gregory, Lady Augusta.  Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland.  1920.  Web < http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/vbwi/index.htm >
Gregor, Walter.  The Folklore of the North-East of Scotland.  1881.  Web < http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/nes/index.htm >
Hutton, Ronald.  The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain.  Oxford University Press, Inc,  New York, NY.  2001.
Ó Duinn, Seán.  The Rites of Brigid Goddess and Saint.  The Columba Press, Blackrock, Co Dublin.  2005.
Yeats, William Butler.  Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.  1888.  Web < http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/fip/index.htm >

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