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Posts Tagged ‘Scottish Culture’

Since the last couple weeks have been bitter cold or too snowy to safely walk in the forest, I stayed close to home and gave some thought to the tree nearest me.

I recently started an exploration of the ash tree in my front yard.  Of course, I will continue to visit the forest regularly, but it seems silly to do so at the expense of the Nature Spirits around my own home!  There must be an equal, if not greater, attention placed on the nature in my immediate vicinity.  It is part of my home.  The tree provides shade to myself and some of my garden.  It is a home to birds we enjoy watching from our windows.  I must come to a better understanding of the ash tree!

Ash trees predominantly grow in the temperate regions of the Eastern US (Brockman 254).  They grow well in “disturbed” land, and archaeologists have noted their presence near Celtic settlements (Nova).   For modern folk, it’s often considered an ornamental but it apparently has expansive roots that are very competitive with other trees (Blamires 97).  Ash was one of the nine woods used to start the sacred Bealtaine fires (Freeman 84).

In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is an ash tree, thus it is of extreme cultural and cosmological importance.  The tree was even used to create the first man in that mythology ( Ellison 22). In Celtic lore, the ash could refer to weaving, particularly the weaver’s beam, but also warrior spears (Ellison 21).  There is acheological evidence showing that ancient Celts used ash for their spears more than other woods (Blamires 98).  To me, this suggests that the ogham symbol could be used for offensive type magic.  Blamires makes a connection between the ash spears and Lugh’s famous spear from Gorias that he used to defeat Balor (99), but also goes on to connect it to magical wands and, as a result, the magician’s will.  Personally, I find that there are other trees better related to sorcery and magical will, in particular the oak with its rich spiritual connotations, etymological connection to the Druids, and strength.  (As a novice to these matters, I will maintain an opened mind and welcome any thoughts on the matter!)  However, I do find his thoughts on looking to ash when you need to take action intriguing .  He states that we all experience moments of spiritual inertia, and the ashen spear can act as a motivation for us – “checking the peace,” as he says (100).  In contemplating this idea, I’m reminded of Norse mythology again, and Odin hanging from Yggdrasil – an act of sacrifice to obtain runic knowledge.  There is the suggestion of pushing oneself to reach new levels.  With regards to the weaver’s beam, Cuchulain uses it as “a poetic allusion to a spear” (101).  Brighid’s son Ruadan is also killed by a spear in the Second Battle of Mag Tured.  The text once more connects spears with weavers’ beams (101).  I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, except that it can be used to make very practice items – so perhaps it could be considered a wood of the craftsman too?

Ash has some magical properties.  In Scotland, people swear oaths on the wood of ash, oak, and thorns (Freeman 84).    Pins were also placed in the trees and used to remove warts with the charm “ashen tree, ashen tree, pray buy these warts off of me” (Ellison 22).  The sap has been used for bladder stones, and the leaves and bark have laxative properties (Blamires 98).  It was common for people to visit sacred ash trees and pray for healing for their children.  In Ireland, young ash trees were split to create a threshold of sorts.  Children were passed through this to promote healing.  Mara Freeman explains this was used to heal infant hernia, while attaching some baby hair to the ash was said to prevent whooping cough (84).

It is difficult to be 100% about the species of ash where I live.  Green, black, and white are similar, but I am leaning towards the later.  I observed the leaves and seed pods in the summer and fall, but I will have to pay special attention to them this year.  In the meantime, I try to look and say hello when I’m out.  It warmed up a little, so I took Bee with me.  We mad offerings to the local spirits, including the ash tree, and enjoyed its company.

Bee relaxing in the snow next to the ash tree. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2014.

Works Cited

Blamires, Steve.  Celtic Tree Mysteries: Secrets of the Ogham.  St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1997.

Brockman, C. Frank.  Trees of North America: A guide to Field Identification. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

Ellison, Roert Lee “Skip.”  Ogham: The Secret Language of the Druids.  Tucson: Ár nDraíocht Féin Publishing, 2007.

Freeman, Mara.  Kindling the Celtic Spirit.  San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001.

Ghosts of Murdered Kings.  Edward Hart Dir.  NOVA, 2013.

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Scottish folklore and superstitions – When the Song Dies – Aeon Film.

Do take a moment to watch this short documentary by Jamie Chambers about the folk traditions of Scotland.  In particular, it focuses on how old songs and places connect us to our ancestors.  There are some interesting accounts of experiences with the spirit world and the Sight.

It is wonderful to see that these beliefs still exist in the lands that so inspire us, but it is sad, too, that they are dying out.  We need to do our part to respect the cultures we learn from and preserve their traditions and language.  It is a monumental task, and not one any one person can achieve.  It must be a collective effort between all of us who practice the traditional ways – the artisans, bards, and liturgists.

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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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Slowly, slowly – I’m reading through Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael.  It’s an absolutely fascinating read, and a must for anyone following a Celtic-inspired path.  Although it’s focus is on the Scottish Highlands and surrounding islands, those who have an Irish hearth culture would benefit greatly from its contents.

Anyway, the other day I reached a “Prayer for Protection.”  It is Christian, of course:

Christ be between me and the fairies,

My frown upon each tribe of them!

This day is Friday on the sea and on land –

My trust, O King, that they shall not hear me.

A healthy respect, and even fear, of fairy-folk has existed in Celtic nations for generations.  Today, many Pagans insist that fairies are all light and goodness, possessing an altruism towards humanity.  That can be true for some, especially Tuatha Dé Danann like Brighid, but most (based on lore, my few experiences, and the work of others) are ambivalent, mischievous, and occasionally malicious.  They are part of nature which encompasses the creative as well as the destructive.  Their varied natures should surprise no one.  Thus the above prayer makes a lot of sense, especially considering that many of the people interviewed by Carmichael lived in rural areas and struggled with the hardships of Nature regularly.

In ADF, we work with our allies – some of whom may be considered fairies.  Spirits who do not fit that category are Outsiders (or Outdwellers).  They are spirits who have stood against our Gods, destructive beings, illness, ancestors who don’t care for us… hell even mosquitos can be considered Outsiders in a ritual!  They are not necessarily evil – their goals just don’t align with our own.  Outsiders are a natural part of the cosmos.  When we hold our rites, we ask for our allies to be with us and the Outsiders to leave us in peace.  Every grove goes about this differently.  Some give offerings during ritual, some at the end and only if the rite has gone without disturbance.  Some groups turn their back on the Outsiders while a warrior confronts them.  Others still consider internal stresses and anger to be Outsiders.  They envision them going into a box which is moved out of the ritual space.

The above prayer from Carmina Gadelica could easily be rewritten and used in an ADF rite to ask for protection from the Outsiders.

Kindreds be between me and the Outsiders,

My frown upon each tribe of them!

This day is (Imbolc, Saturday, etc) on the sea and on land-

My trust, Kindreds, that they shall not hear me.

 

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The Cailleach’s attendant animals are herds of deer and shaggy goats. Mr. McKay thinks that this militates against the idea that she was a goddess of winter, and he would place her as a deer-divinity, who belonged to a people in the hunting stage of existence, the cult of the deer having been superseded by the cult of gigantic deer-goddesses, who were originally their priestesses. This theory hardly seems to me to account for the various legends about her, but it may be, quite conceivably, one of her many aspects ; for it would seem that, of the many ” Auld Wives ” or ” Hags ” created by the Gaelic imagination, the Cailleach Bheara or Bheur has collected the attributes of several into her story.

Eleanor Hull on “Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare” in Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 3(Sept. 30, 1927).

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