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The Seer's Path
The Nature Spirits — Part 4 of 4
by By C. Leigh McGinley & Mauro Bruno
Ancient Druids and the Nature Spirits
The classical Greek writer Strabo (c. 63BC to AD21) tells us that the Ovates (or Seers) were concerned with “natural philosophy,” while the Druids were concerned with both natural and moral philosophy. This indicates a knowledge of the natural world that certainly goes beyond the superficial, and we can see from the Celtic sources that the ancient Druids and Fili (poets) called upon the assistance of the Nature Spirits in many of their magical endeavors. One such working we have already seen in The Song of Amairgin.
We shall return to Amairgin to see another example of his skill in communicating with the natural world and the spirits inherent in it. The Sons of Mil had gone out beyond the ninth wave to await their battle with the Tuatha de Danann. The Druids of the Tuatha de Danann are said to have raised a great wind with their enchantments and so drove the Sons of Mil in their ships far from the shore. Amairgin countered the damaging Druid wind with an invocation to the Land of Ireland:
Immediately after this invocation, a tranquil calm came to them on the sea. Amairgin had invoked the Goddess of Ireland and her spirits to help them against the enchanted winds. Amairgin also eventually sang to increase the fish in the creeks.
Techniques that the ancient Druids used for divination and prophecy while working with the Nature Spirits are evident from the Celtic literature. The tarbh feis, or bull feast, is one such working. In this working, the Druid ate the flesh and drank the broth of a freshly killed bull, wrapped himself in its hide and lay down within it to obtain a problem-solving vision. It is described in The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel as being used to determine the future king. It is said that whomever the sleeper saw in his sleep during this incubatory ritual would be king, and the sleeper would perish if he uttered a falsehood. This ancient Druidic ritual had its Scottish equivalent in the tarhairm, where the diviner wrapped himself in a newly slaughtered ox-hide and lay behind a waterfall to seek the answer in both the roar of the water and the spirit of the slain animal.
The ritual incubation of imbas forosna (literally, “inspiration of tradition”) called for the cooperation of animal spirits as well. It has been suggested that the tarbh feis itself may be a form of imbas forosna. The meat of an animal was also employed in this technique, as described in Cormac’s Glossary. The poet begins by chewing a piece of flesh from a red pig, dog, or cat. Then, putting it on the flagstone behind the door, he pronounces an invocation over it and offers it to his spirits. He then “calls his spirits to him and if they do not reveal the matter immediately he sings incantations over his two palms and calls the spirits again to keep his sleep undisturbed.” He “lays his palms over his cheeks and so falls asleep in this posture.” In ancient practice, it was impossible to eat or use parts of an animal without also communing with its spirit.
The seventeenth-century historian, Keating, writes about the divinatory habits of Druids from the oral tradition. He mentions Druids “looking at their own images in water, or gazing on the clouds of heaven, or keep listening to the noise of the wind or the chattering of birds.” Diodorus also writes of the Celtic practice of ornithomancy, the observation of the flight of birds. Weather-watching was also a common form of divination. Neldoracht or cloud watching is described in The Seige of Druim Damgaire, where Druids from both sides watch the sky and the weather closely for information which will determine the day’s actions.
The Gaelic method of augury or frith was still performed by gifted people until relatively recently. Fasting, on the first Monday of the quarter, at sunrise, with bare head and feet, special prayers to welcome Mary and Brighid and to welcome the frith were said by the seer while walking deosil around the household fire three times. With closed or blindfolded eyes, the frithir then went to the threshold of the house with prayers to grant the request which occasioned the frith. Then, with open eyes, he or she looked ahead to the outdoors and noted everything that he or she saw. The signs are called rathadach (lucky) or rosadach (unlucky). This is an excellent example of employing the natural world and its spirits to divine the future. A preserved rhyme about seeing horses while performing the frith goes as follows:
Of course, other animals would have other meanings; for instance, approaching birds would indicate news, or a duck would indicate safety for sailors.
Among the Celts, a great number of omens were taken from birds (though other animals could give omen as well). There are two scraps of early Irish folklore in a well-known codex concerning the use of the raven and the wren for omens, and some believe that the ancient Druids may have domesticated these birds just for this purpose.
Sacred herbs and their spirits were used for healing and magic. We are told that Miach healed Nuada’s arm (actually causing the flesh to re-grow) through the use of what seems to be an herbal plaster and an accompanying incantation. Lug mac Ethlenn sang Cúchulainn to sleep for three days and three nights so that his wounds might heal, and then dropped healing herbs and grasses into the sores while Cúchulainn slept. Healers are also described as dropping plants and herbs into the wounds of Ferdia.
Many more examples of the Celtic rapport with spirits of the natural world as well as the methods used to request the assistance of those spirits are available in the recommended reading below.
Modern Druids and Nature Spirits
The modern Druid also works closely with Nature Spirits. However, some methods that the ancient Druids used to enlist the aid of spirits would offend our modern sensibilities and conflict with our morality. After all, the world has changed, and so we also must evolve and adapt our practices to suit these modern times. Certainly we would not sacrifice two white bulls in order to harvest mistletoe, or wrap ourselves in a bloody bull’s hide in order to prophesy! Keltrian Druids believe that all life is sacred and should not be taken without deliberation or regard. Druids no longer believe that blood sacrifice is necessary to petition the Gods or to gain the assistance of a Nature Spirit.
Still, one might use the methods utilized by the ancient Druids, if not the specific tools. Certainly we can call upon the Nature Spirits to assist us in our lives, just as Amairgin did in ancient times, and continue to develop good rapport with the land where we live.
One way that Keltrian Druids develop and continue good rapport with the Nature Spirits is to invite them to our rituals, along with the Ancestors and the Gods. The invocation can be as simple or as poetic as the Druid or Grove wishes it to be. It can include spirits specific to your area by name, and/or spirits of nature in general. Many times an invocation to the Nature Spirits, besides taking care to include various general spirits, will include specific spirits appropriate to the working at hand or the season celebrated. For instance, at Samhain, one might be especially careful to invoke the Spirit of the Raven by name, because it is an animal that is sacred to the Morrigan, whom we honor with the Dagda at this time.
In addition to invocation, offerings to the spirits of the land and the Goddess Sovereignty, at a specific place designated for such, help to keep an individual Druid or an entire working Grove in favor with their particular area. A stream or pond, or even the base of a special tree, can be a wonderful place to designate for offerings to the Land. Some traditional Irish offerings to the Land Spirits that you might consider are pouring a few drops of whiskey on the ground, or milk, or perhaps leaving a bit bread.
Observation of the flight of birds, cloud watching, and weather or wind divination are all traditional Druidic methods that may still be used by the modern Seer. Many modern Druids have devised their own “system” to read such omens, based on knowledge of the normal patterns of their own area of the world and deviations from normal, as well as Celtic knowledge of the particular pattern, wind, or bird behavior. There are fragments and hints in some of the old literature (and remaining Celtic folklore) that could be incorporated into one’s system of modern Druidic divination. Ogham was one classification system used by the ancient Druids, a way to keep enormous amounts of knowledge straight in the Druid’s memory for such auguries and divinations. Ogham can still be used in this manner, and this is one of many reasons that some modern Druids consider the study of ogham imperative.
But what of techniques like the tarbh feis and imbas forosna? These methods use what moderns might consider some rather distasteful means. We must either forget them, or change them. Abandoning such techniques would be a shame and perhaps a great loss. Changing them isn’t that difficult once the Druid understands the intent behind the action. For instance, Golden Horse Grove has performed a variation of the tarhairm with great success, using a red Vellux ® blanket in place of the ox hide. It is likely that part of the effect was to recreate the individual’s time in the womb in a multi-sensory way. The child in the womb is the Ultimate Seer, since, having seen nothing he needs to see all. That pure desire enables him to see what others, in the distractions of their post-birthed days, cannot. This is an example of the method remaining true to the intent of the original Druids, but simply altering the tool slightly in order to abide by our modern sensibilities.
The Keltrian Druid studies and uses herbs and other plants for healing and magic, taking care to leave any plants used for gathering intact to continue the species from year to year. A good rule of thumb is to only take one-third of the plant for your use, leaving the remaining two-thirds of the plant to grow and propagate. Always thank the plant for its sacrifice and leave an offering in return. If you cannot gather, grow, and/or prepare your own plants (and some people can’t, for various reasons), then it is acceptable to purchase necessary oils and essences from a reputable herbalist.
Keltrian Druids may still have a totem animal or special Nature Spirit to work with, and Druids who are especially attuned to Nature Spirits sometimes choose their Druid name after such totems, plant or animal. Oftentimes the name will be in the Gaelic, in keeping with tradition.
Celtic tradition offers us a wealth of information concerning Nature Spirits and the Druidic rapport with these spirits that share the worlds with us, both seen and unseen. In this lesson, we have briefly examined the traditional Celtic beliefs about the Land and Nature Spirits, and perhaps have come to some realization of how important the ancients viewed their relationship with the land around them. Now that we have gained some understanding of that aspect of Druidic practice, we can apply our understanding of the ancient methods to our own modern practice, continuing the tradition in a manner by which our ancestors would approve.
Celtic Sacred Landscapes by Nigel Pennick
The Druid Animal Oracle by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm
The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom by John and Caitlin Matthews
Celtic Tree Mysteries: Secrets of the Ogham by Steve Blamires
A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year by Ellen Evert Hopman
The Celtic Seers’ Sourcebook edited by John Matthews
Animal Speak by Ted Andrews *
* - This book is included here for animal lore that is general and not specifically Celtic, as such lore can sometimes be especially useful to the Druid living in America.