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The Feathered Cloak and the Antlered God
Druids, Shamans, Sacred Trees and Shape-shifting in the Ancient Celtic Bardic Traditions
Part 2 of 2
THE DIVINE MADNESS OF THE ANTLERED GOD
A large body of Irish nature poetry and verse exists from the 12th c. CE, attributed to Suibhne Geilt, a figure traditionally placed in the 7th century. He went mad during the battle of Mag Rath, and afterward, lived out his life as a wild man. Some forms of madness act as a form of shamanic initiation, often occurring as time spent "mad" alone in nature. Musing upon the connection of Suibhne and the Antlered God, deer imagery is found throughout his poetry, not only in the clear references, but in the connection between deer and their antlers that resemble the branches of trees.
This imagery is so poignant in Suibhne's death, prophesied in one of his own poems, when he was killed by a deer antler placed so as to go through him as he bent to drink. Yet a symbolic and spiritual death and rebirth are part of the shamanic pattern, and found in almost all religions.
He is pierced by the antlers as he bends to drink from a water source, which in Celtic tradition may be an entrance to the Otherworld and a "vessel" of Divine Wisdom itself.
While some sources translate his name as "Mad Sweeney", another possibility would make sense in the light of the traditions at hand. Suibhne may be seen to be connected to Scottish Gaelic terms such as suibhneas meaning "cheer or gladness"; suaimhneach, one meaning of which is "greatest tranquillity of quiet" and subhachas in Modern Irish, "mirth or joy". Geilt in Irish means "terror, dread or awe," deriving from the Early Irish that meant "mad". In Modern Irish, gealt translates as "a crazy person or lunatic." A reasonable translation of his name might refer to the "joyful madness" or "ecstasy" that is a part of the shamanic experience.
Significant are the numerous references in his verse to his madness or illness, trance or altered states of consciousness occurring during time spent isolated in nature and events that take place at night or in the dark (another feature of shamanic trance work). He tells us of his ability to fly, racing with animals and leaping over mountains (a sign of his shamanic abilities), and mentions his connection with plant spirits and sacred trees, giving special adulation to the birch. He says feathers have grown on his body, a clear reference to the shamanic ability of flight and the symbolic feathered cloak, connected to both Shamanic, and Bardic and Druidic traditions.
"I am in great misery tonight: the wind has pierced my body my feet are transfixed, my cheek grey -- I have good reason, great God[s]!...
Many merciless blows have I endured since feathers grew on my body...
I have lost my sense and my wits, I shift restless in all places...
I have done it: shunning people, companion to wolves, racing the red stag over the moor...
I fly to the hills in madness with a speed few have surpassed...
Many a night I have spent running hard across [the] hills...
I fly before the larks running hard and lively
I leap across the reeds up onto the mountain tops.
The proud wood-pigeon when it rises up before me
I overtake it suddenly now that my feathers have grown...
I do not like the horn call that I hear, a sound all tense.
I prefer to hear the bellowings of a stag with forty tines!
Bellower with antlers and a roar so dear, sweet is the rumbling you make in the glen."
In the next passage, Suibhne mentions a number of trees, which remarkably mirror those of the Ogham alphabet. This may indicate his knowledge of sacred trees as well as Ogham and its meanings, and show a further connection between Druidism and Shamanism. He refers to the birch as "blessed", perhaps an indicator of its Shamanic status. Near the end of the verse, he makes a beautiful reference to the balance and cycles of nature, the "ebb and flow" of life, which can be both inductive of a trance state, and highly revealed by the same. He seems to point to the universal life force and its continuity, which may well have been part of ancient Druidic wisdom, as it has been over the ages with wise men and women of many cultures.
"The tufted, leafy oak, loftiest of all trees and the small branchy hazel, hoard of hazel nuts!
Alder - no enemy! - lovely is your gleam...
Blackthorn, all spiked, and dark with berries...
The apple - all those apples which we shake so hard
Bearer of rowan-berry, lovely is your bloom...
Blessed, blossomed birch, full swelling and sweet...
That I fear in the woods, I will tell you no lie is the leafy oak sapling, all moving and restless!...
How fast the time passes: I watch the flood fill, great Garb's mighty current forced back by the brine.
Pleasantly they struggle, the flood, the cold ebb, one upon the other, down and up, for ever...
I am Suibhne the wanderer, I run swift across the valley.
It is no proper name. "Horn Head" would be better."
This startling declaration refers to Suibhne's shamanic animal spirit guide and (or) his own experiences and incarnation, with, or as, the Antlered God. Forests, groves and single trees were sacred to Celts. In later mythology, figures interpreted as the Antlered God are often encountered in the forest sitting on top of a mound. Trees not only symbolize the interconnection between the worlds but are also associated with concepts of vegetation and hunting, the latter linked to the Sacred Stag in Celtic mythology. Archaeologists have unearthed Headdresses with holes where presumably antlers could be fitted in as well as carvings and statues of horned or antlered gods with similar apartures.
Suibhne Geilt, this Wild Man of the Forest, this Shamanic journeyer who knows the "joyful madness" or "ecstasy" of the shaman, who has grown feathers and can fly, is a beautiful representation of Bardic and Druidic knowledge, the Antlered God, and the Shamanic journey.
MASTER OF THE ELEMENTS
Another figure in Celtic mythology whose powers reveal Druidic and Shamanic status is Amairgen, Druid and Poet of the first Celtic tribes to arrive in Ireland, according to the mythico-historical tales called "Leabhar Gabhála", known as The Book of Invasions. When the Gaels arrive in Ireland, they encounter the ancient Gods and Goddesses, the "Tuatha de Danaan". The Gods themselves had druids, who used their magickal powers to cause the land to "disappear" so that the invaders could not land. The Gaels circle Ireland three times (a common Celtic ritual device), and finally are permitted to land on the eve of the First of May, or Beltaine, according to ancient Celtic reckoning (time measured by nights, not days).
After three days, they met Banba, and then Fodla, two of the three Goddesses of the Sovereignty and Land of Ireland. They both request to have the land named after them. Finally they encounter the third goddess, E´ire, at Usna of Mide. Meeting with her at this sacred cosmic center of the land, they are welcomed and told that their coming has long been prophesied, and that their people will inhabit the island forever. Amairgen promises her that her name shall remain on the island, and indeed, it is from the name of this goddess that "Ireland" is derived.
In order to determine who should rule the land, the Gaels and the Tuatha de Danaan engage in a Druidic contest or battle. The druids of the Tuatha create a magical wind to prevent the Gaels from landing. Amairgen speaks a great invocation, after which a calm came immediately over the sea. Then, setting his right foot on the shore, Amairgen spoke this rhapsody:
"I am a wind upon the sea
"Who save I knows the secrets of the stone door?
Who save I knows the time of the setting of the sun?
Who has seven times sought the Place of Peace without fear?
Who names the waterfalls?
Who, but the poet, chants a petition, divides the Ogham letters, approaches the Sidhe mound?
Who but a poet, one of wisdom."
This sacred verse is replete with Celtic religious, magickal and mythological elements, as well as Shamanic (and we now see, Druidic) shape-shifting and transformation. Someone who can shape-shift, someone who knows the mysteries of nature, and has experienced so many aspects of the Sacred in both Worlds, is indeed both Shaman and Druid.
THE FLAME OF THE BARD
A third mystical Druid (Shaman) figure exists in the person of the Welsh bard Taliesin, whose name means "radiant brow". Celtic scholars have translated and annotated a body of praise poetry from the 9th century CE. A second body of poetry, more mystical in nature, has been attributed to Taliesin, but his authorship cannot be proven. Whomever the author, these poems, which deal with the sacred and the supernatural, seem to reflect part of the older oral tradition, using archaic terms that presuppose the audience's understanding of them. (2)
The following excerpts are somewhat reminiscent of the verses attributed to Amairgen, as both were poets, and persons of divine knowledge who experienced transformations and incarnations. Taliesin has the gift of word, of prophecy, transformation and song. He speaks of his creation, and his re-birth, and alludes to his mastery over fire and the elements.
"Along with seven beings I was placed in a fire of purification...
I was myself gleaming fire, when I was first given life....
I was a great wind... I was a mist on a mountain...
I was made from the nine-fold elements:
...from the blossoms of trees and bushes;
From the roots of the earth I was made;
From the bloom of the nettle,
From water of the ninth wave...
I was made by [magicians and deities]...
I was made by [a] master in his highest ecstasy;
By the wisest of Druids I was made before the world began.
I have become a Bard of prophecy...
I have been with those of skill
I have been a sow. I have been a buck.
I have been a sage.
I have been a shout in battle...
I have been a well-filled cranebag, a sight to behold
I am one of harmony, a clear singer:
I am steel. I am a Druid
I am a trickster. I am a man of knowledge
I am a serpent. I am a treasury of song...
Three times my incarnation. I know by meditation:
Foolish those who do not come to acquire
All the sciences of the world from by breast
For I know what has been, and what in future will occur
I am a wonder whose origin is beyond knowing.
I have obtained "awen", "divine inspiration."
We honor the memory and wisdom of those who have gone before us, from whom we may learn, through their words and their knowledge, and with whom we strive to connect through meditation and journeying, and through the ecstacy of sacred song, dance, word and ritual.
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[Footnote: (2) At this time, no entirely satisfactory translation of these mythical poems attributed to Taliesin exist, although I have heard from a mentor at Harvard, that a more acccurate translation may be published this year. In the meantime, we will have to rely on the translations available for our discussion.]
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