Table of Contents
The Seer's Path
The Nature Spirits - Part 2 of 4
By C. Leigh McGinley & Mauro Bruno
[Ed. Note: The Henge of Keltria Correspondence Course is intended to assist members of the Henge to improve their understanding and practice of Keltrian Druidism. This is the second of four parts of Lesson VI of the Henge of Keltria Correspondence Course.]
Spirits of Water
Water has been revered since the earliest times. It is the primary symbol of life and vitality. In Celtic belief, natural water such as occurs in springs, ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers contain indwelling spirits that must be acknowledged and honored.
Celtic rivers have their own indwelling deities, which express their character. In all the former Celtic areas, the rivers are named for a goddess. For example, in Ireland, the river Boyne is named after the goddess Boann and the river Shannon is named after Sinann. Both came into being when the goddesses profaned the holy well— Boann, the Well of Segais, and Sinann, the Well of Coelrind. Both wells overflowed, forming mighty rivers. Surviving legends that tell the origin of Irish rivers suggest that every Celtic river originally had its personal mythos and presiding deity. The Danube is thought to be named after the goddess Danu.
Although entire rivers were deemed sacred, notable features had special virtues. Waterfalls, for example, might possess healing properties, and the people would allow the water falling over these to run over afflicted parts of their bodies. The waterfall itself may contain a separate indwelling spirit.
The Celts believed that lakes, too, were inhabited by water spirits, which gave the lake special healing powers, often to cure skin diseases or wasting illnesses. They show a similarity to holy wells in this manner.
Making offerings to the gods and spirits of rivers and lakes is a time-honored Celtic tradition. Weapons, armor, and numerous Celtic artifacts from the Iron Age have been found as votives in the Thames at Battersea, in Lake Geneva, and in Switzerland at Lake Neuchâtel. Even the literature collaborates: Strabo tells of the treasures thrown by the Gauls into the sacred lake near Toulouse. Sacrifices to the lake were considered necessary for the prosperity of the surrounding land and the Tribe. To neglect the sacrifices would be to court disaster.
Waters are generally considered feminine and are the preserve of goddesses, but occasionally wells and springs are found where a male solar deity and the spirit of the water are venerated together. Honoring the sun reflected on the water was tied to the Celtic belief that the sun sank beneath the waters at night and emerged from them again at sunrise. During the night, the illuminating and healing power of the sun was absorbed by the waters. As a place of the sun at night, the well symbolizes the inner light of life as contrasted with the outer light of the visible world. The waters issue from the Otherworld, and represent the hidden source of wisdom.
Holy wells remain in all Celtic lands, and the local people continue to acknowledge the water sprites within. They are not wells in the sense of a deep stone-lined shaft, but are natural springs that emerge from the ground, and are often enhanced with protective structures or buildings. Many times they have been re-named after a saint, but their purpose essentially remains the same.
Well waters are reported to cure the eyesight, epilepsy, toothache, and any number of other bodily ills. Other wells were once known for their magical powers, but are seldom used for such today. Some could even affect the weather.
“Fairy” is another name that has been given to the spirits of the Land that generally appear in a roughly human form, although sometimes certain types can take the shape of animals. In Ireland they are called “The Little People” or “The Wee Folk,” or sometimes “The Good People” out of respect. In keeping with famed Irish hospitality, it is said that if we are “neighborly” with them that they will be neighborly and friendly with us. One way to remain on the good side of the fairies is to leave food and water out for them — at night, of course, for that is when they are out and about, according to the folklore.
Some fairies are well disposed toward humans, while others are shy and reclusive, and some are even a bit hostile. Irish fairies fall into so many categories that it would be impossible to deal with them all in this limited space. They are basically divided into two classes: the sociable and the solitary. The sociable fairies go about in troops and are sometimes known as “trooping fairies.” They quarrel, and make love, much as men and women do. There are the land fairies or Sheoques (Ir. Sidheog, “a little fairy”), and water fairies or Merrows (Ir. Moruadh, “a sea maid”). The Sheoques are the spirits that haunt the sacred thorn bushes and the green raths or fairy forts. The Merrows are the Irish version of the mermaid. It is said that fishermen don’t like to see them, for they always bring bad weather. Sometimes the Merrows come out of the sea in the shape of little hornless cows. When in human shape they have fishes’ tails and wear a red cap called in Irish cohuleen driuth. Their women are beautiful, and sometimes prefer handsome fishermen to the green-haired men of their kind.
Among the solitary fairies is the famous Lepracaun (Ir. Leith bhrogan, i.e. the shoe-maker). This creature is seen sitting under a hedge mending a shoe, and one who catches him can make him deliver up his crocks of gold, for he is a miser of great wealth, but if you take your eyes off him the creature vanishes like smoke. There is also the Cluricaun (Ir. Clobhair-cean), who is similar to the Leprechaun, and some consider this to be another name for the Leprechaun, given to him when he has laid aside his shoemaking at night and goes on a spree. The Cluricauns’ occupations are robbing wine-cellars and riding sheep and shepherds’ dogs for the entire night, until the morning finds them panting and mud-covered.
The Far Darrig (Ir. Fear Dearg, i.e. red man) is described by Yeats as “the practical joker of the Otherworld.” We are told that Fionn mac Cumhail once outwitted an Otherwordly man named Dearg who was trying to claim the kingship of Ireland. No one could defeat him. Fionn was sent for and he kept the Dearg awake for three days telling him stories, tiring him out so that his strength was gone, and then Goll mac Morna was able to defeat him. Three “red men” also appear in the Irish tale known as The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, in which King Conaire is tricked by Otherworldly beings into violating his geas, or taboos, because his grandfather had destroyed a fairy mound. One of several of his geas, which were given to him by a bird-man of the sea, went as follows: “Three Reds shall not go before thee to Red’s house.” Da Derga means “Two Reds,” and it was to Da Derga’s house in Leinster that Conaire was headed when he saw before him three horsemen. “Three red frocks had they, and three red mantles; three red bucklers they bore, and three red spears were in their hands; three red steeds they bestrode, and three red heads of hair were on them. Red were they all, both body and hair and raiment, both steeds and men.” Through some cryptic conversation with Conaire’s son it is discovered that these Red Men were of the fairy folk. Conaire’s fate was sealed, and he died in the House of Da Derga.
The Pooka (Ir. Puca) has most likely never appeared in human form, and the one or two recorded instances are probably mistakes mixing him up with the Fear Dearg, according to Yeats. His shape is usually that of a horse, a bull, a goat, eagle, or ass. His delight is to get a rider (he usually picks on a drunken one), whom he rushes with through ditches and rivers and over mountains, and then shakes him off at dawn.
The Dullahan is a rather scary sort of solitary fairy. He has no head, or carries it under his arm. Often he is seen driving a black coach called coach-a-bower (Ir. Coite-bodhar), drawn by headless horses. It rumbles to your door, and if you open it a basin of blood is thrown in your face. It is an omen of death to the houses where it pauses.
The Leanhaun Shee (Ir. Leanhaun sidhe) is the fairy mistress. This spirit seeks the love of men. If they refuse she is their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding one to take their place. Her lovers waste away, for she lives on their life. Most of the Gaelic poets, down to quite recent times, have had a Leanhaun Shee, for she gives inspiration to her slaves and is indeed the Gaelic muse. Her lovers, the Gaelic poets, died young. She grew restless, and carried them away to other worlds, for death does not destroy her power.
The Far Gorta is the man of hunger. This is an emaciated fairy that goes through the land in famine time, begging and bringing good luck to the giver.
The Banshee (Ir. Bean-sidhe), like the Far Gorta, differs from the general run of solitary fairies by its generally good disposition. She is perhaps not really one of them at all, but a sociable fairy grown solitary through much sorrow. She wails, as most people know, over the death of a member of some old Irish family. Sometimes she is an enemy of the house and screams with triumph, but more often a friend. On the other hand, the Banshee who cries with triumph is often believed to be no fairy but a ghost of one wronged by an ancestor of the dying. Some say wrongly that she never goes beyond the seas, but dwells always in her own country. However, there are reported instances where the Banshee of certain families has been heard in America. The Banshee is called badh or bowa in East Munster.
There are other solitary fairies. For example, there are House Spirits and the Water Sherie, which is a kind of will-o’-the-wisp. The Sowlth is a formless, luminous creature. Finally, there is the lake dragon, which guards a hidden treasure.
A word must be said here about the popular idea that the Tuatha de Danann became the fairies, shrinking in stature as the Irish became Christians and no longer believed in them as gods. It is true that the stories tell us that after their “defeat” to the Milesians, the Tuatha de Danann were given the half of Ireland below the ground, where they rule the sidhes (fairy raths). A deep sentimentality was probably involved here, as the converting Irish no longer believed in them as gods, but they also did not want to relegate them to demonhood. Elsewhere, the movement underground would have confirmed a diabolical nature, but for the Irish, who revered the Land itself, the underground was a safe place to store what had changed from divine worth to sentimental value, like an icon turning into a charm. Indeed, the Irish instinctively buried their valuable former-gods in the earth as they had buried other purposely broken valuables in sacrificial burial shafts. By doing so, like the swords and statues, these beings took on a new value, no longer to be “touched” by human hands, or wielded according to their original intent, but precious in a hidden way that took them out of the world while ensuring their preservation in the world. Certainly, it is a very Irish solution.
In the Keltrian tradition, we have returned the old gods and goddesses to their rightful place as Gods, and generally do not believe that the gods of our people are the same as those entities we now call “fairies,” though they have a close relationship. Instead, we believe that the fairies are Nature Spirits. They are among those land spirits that are ruled by and work with the Goddess Sovereignty. But, as is possibly the case with the Banshee, they are sometimes confused in folk tradition with the spirits of the Ancestors (ghosts) and have also been confused with the ancient Gods.
Animals in particular are able to easily bridge the gap between this world and the Otherworld. Like other Nature Spirits, they each carry a certain gift or power.
The Celtic tales overflow with mentions of animals and their special qualities. In fact, animals figured largely in the Celtic spiritual worldview and held a special place in the cosmos. The importance of animals to ancient Celtic life can be seen in the fact that the four Fire Festivals are related to the pastoral life of animal-raising and agriculture. Imbolc was the time of lambing and calving, Beltaine was the time when the herds were let out to summer pasture, Lughnasadh was the first harvest and was especially related to horse fairs and horse racing, and Samhain was the time when the herds were brought back in from summer pasture. Samhain was also the time for any slaughtering required in order to conserve on the food necessary to keep the animals over the winter months.
There are at least three different types of animal spirit that we must distinguish between before we can discuss the animal spirits further. The first is the animal in the physical world. This is the spirit or individual soul of a living animal that we may encounter out in nature or even keep in our homes. While they each have the specific qualities of every animal of its type, these individual animals also have distinct personalities that are as unique as the individual. The second is the power animal, which is an animal that exists in spirit form in the Otherworld, and sometimes visits us in this world to allow us to utilize its special power, which is the special attribute or attributes of all of its kind. Power animals can teach us, guide us, provide inspiration, or give us needed energy. The third is known as a totem animal. The totem animal is an animal spirit with which we may develop a special bond or relationship over a period of time working with that power animal.
Otherworldly animal spirits will sometimes manifest in this world. If such an animal appears, it can usually be known by its color. The determining colors of an Otherwordly animal are red, black, and white, or an unusual combination of any or all of these three colors. For instance, Otherworldly animals in the Celtic tales are often described as being white with red ears.
Many Celtic families were identified with animals and these may have been totem animals, as evidenced by their surnames or by other information gleaned from the old tales. Names like MacLennen and Mac Tyre both mean “son of the wolf,” and MacMillian means “son of the wolf servant.” King Cormac of Ireland was raised by wolves, and it was said of him that a pack of wolves accompanied him wherever he went even after he was made king. The name of Fionn mac Cumhail’s son, Oisin, means “little deer.” The inhabitants of Connaught are said to be descended from men with the heads of hounds. The Scottish clans of MacIntosh, Mac Neishe and MacNicol held the cat as their totem animal, and one Irish king was called Caibar cinn chait - “Carbar of the cat’s head.”
Sometimes certain animals were considered sacred to a particular god or goddess. The raven or crow is especially sacred to the Morrigan, for she was known to appear on battlefields in the guise of a hoodie crow, to which the raven is closely related. The name of the Welsh god Bran means “raven,” and ravens still guard the Tower of London, where Bran’s head is supposed to have been buried. We are told that the Irish god Lugh was warned of the approach of the Fomorians by ravens before the second battle of Moytura. The Irish goddess Boann’s name means “white cow,” and cattle were prized by the Celts as an indication of wealth and status.
Horses appear frequently in the tales and myths as animals of special qualities. The Irish deity Manannan mac Lir has a horse called “Splendid Mane,” which is swifter than the spring wind and can travel as easily over water as it does on land. The Dagda has a black horse named Ocean, and wears horsehide boots with the hair on the outside. The Irish hero Cuchulainn had two horses that pulled his war chariot, the Black of Sainglend and the Grey of Macha, which were both foaled at the same time Cuchulainn was born. Lugh was said to have invented horsemanship.
But the most important references to horses are those associated with the Goddess Sovereignty. The white mare especially was a representation of the Goddess of the Land. Several figures emerge as horse-goddesses; perhaps the best known of these is the Gaulish Goddess Epona, whose name is self-evident. She is the only Celtic goddess known to have been honored in Rome, and her name is sometimes styled as Regina. Rees & Rees mention that it has been argued that “her concern was as much with the journey of the soul after death as with the welfare of horses and mules and their attendants.” The Welsh Goddess Rhiannon is also associated with horses in a very definite way. Rhiannon was said to be riding a “pure white horse of large size” when Pwyll first spied her. Rhiannon later gave birth to a son, who was stolen away in the night in spite of the guard of six women. When these women awoke and the child was gone, they were fearful lest their lives be forfeit for their neglect, and so agreed to swear that Rhiannon ate her child. They killed a litter of puppies and smeared some of the blood on Rhiannon’s face and hands, and put some of the bones by her side. Then they awoke her and accused her, and though she swore she didn’t do it, she was condemned and assigned a penance. For seven years, she was to sit by a horse-block outside the gate, and offer to carry visitors into the palace upon her back, like a horse. Her stolen son (Pryderi) was eventually found again on May Eve (Beltaine), when a monster tried to steal the foal of Teirnon’s mare. As a great claw reached in for the foal, Teirnon hacked off the arm and so rescued the foal, but when he went outside he discovered a babe that had been left by the retreating monster. The child was returned to Rhiannon, and the foal born on that May Eve was given to Pryderi. In another tale from the Mabinogi, after Rhiannon disappears into Llwyd’s magic fortress, she is forced to have the collars of asses, after they had been carrying hay, about her neck.
Another Celtic Goddess associated with horses is the Irish Macha, who was forced to race against horses while pregnant. As she reach the end of the field, she gave birth to twins. As she gave birth she screamed, and with her dying breath proclaimed that all who heard the scream would suffer from the pangs of childbirth for five days and four nights in times of Ulster’s greatest difficulty. The curse would last for nine times nine generations. It is said that thereafter the place was named Emain Macha (the twins of Macha).
The boar or pig was of great spiritual significance to the Celts. The boar was associated with power, strength, and virility. It was a common food as well as a supernatural animal. In the mythology, it was Manannan’s regenerative pigs that gave the Gods their immortality. These pigs would magically reappear in their pen the morning after they had been eaten.
The salmon was considered the world’s oldest animal, and bestowed wisdom and enlightenment on any who partook of its flesh. He lived in the Well of Wisdom at the source of all things; in Irish tradition this is the Well of Segais, which is the source of the river Boyne. Fionn mac Cumhail received the salmon’s wisdom when he was cooking the fish for Finneces and accidentally burned his thumb, which he put immediately into his mouth, and from this, each time Fionn chewed on his thumb, he received enlightenment.
The stag is considered to be sacred to or a representation of the antlered god known as Cernunnos or Herne the Hunter.
These few examples are of course not the only animals that were sacred to the Celts, for in the Celtic worldview, all natural things were considered sacred, and other important animals are mentioned in the old tales. Students should make every effort to discover for themselves the sacred and significant qualities of other animals that share the earth with us.
Often the Druid will develop a special relationship with certain animal spirits that assist them in their work. If you have a special liking for a certain animal, it would benefit you greatly to find out as much as possible about the animal from a Celtic viewpoint, because the chances are great that this animal is your power animal or even your totem. Some Seers who work with animal spirits often work with several power animals, depending on the work they are to perform, but usually have a special totem with which they work regularly.
Sometimes Seers may find that the energy and attributes of the totem animal with which they work is creating an imbalance within themselves. For instance, a person who works with Owl as a totem may find that they are becoming too much like their totem animal (nocturnal, solitary, living too much in the Otherworld and dreams), and may need to work with a balancing force like the Hawk to offset the energy of the Owl. Usually, if this is the case, the balancing animal spirit will come to the Seer on its own, but one should always be aware that a balancing energy may be necessary so as to be open to the balancing animal spirit’s advances. It is not unusual for the Druid who works with power animals to have two totem animal spirits that “walk” with him/her, one on each side, each balancing the energy of the other in the Druid’s life.
The stag is considered sacred to Herne
The Boar was associated with power, strength and virility