Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Individual and Community

A short article this week.

In the story of Cath Maige Tuireadh, there are two (or three) incidents that, when compared, give some insight into the interrelation of community power and individual prowess. The first is the arrival of Lugh (and also his later preparations for battle), and the other is the assumption of the abilities of others by the Dagda.

In the latter case, the Dagda asks 1 the sorcerer Mathgen, the cupbearer (who is unnamed in that section, though nine are named in the arrival of Lugh), and the druid Figol mac Mámois what powers each wields. They tell him, and then he says, “The power which you boast, I will wield it all myself.” 2 At which point, he is acclaimed by everyone.

In contrast, when Lugh arrives at Tara 3 he is asked by the doorkeeper what art he possesses, since no one, by custom, is allowed to enter unless he has an art. Lugh responds that he is a builder, but the doorkeeper refuses him, saying that they already have one. Lugh goes through other arts he possesses: smith, champion, harper, warrior, poet/historian, sorcerer, physician, cupbearer, brazier. In each case, the doorkeeper refuses him on the grounds that each of those arts is already practiced by one or more people already inside. Finally, Lugh asks him if any one person there possesses all of the arts that he has named. The king tells the doorkeeper to let him in, though he has to prove himself in contests of wit, strength, and musicianship.

Later, Lugh asks a similar question to that the Dagda asked of each of his followers as they prepare for battle, but Lugh's action is different in response. Rather than deriving strength from them, he “stengthen[s] them and address[es] them in such a way that every man had the courage of a king or great lord” 4.

What we see, then, is the contrast of the leader who derives his strength from the people and the leader who buoys the people to their fullest potential. Of the two, it seems that the Gauls by the 1st century CE and the Irish in the medieval/early modern era (and apparently the Britons as well, but evidence there is less known to me) preferred the method of Lugh, but had a place for that of the Dagda. This is the difference between the charismatic leader and the leader who does the will of the people, between the leader who leads by example and the leader who administrates the desires of his constituency.

What does this mean for lycanthropes? Werewolves are closely associated with the type of deity that is expressed in Irish myth and legend by Lugh (and in the Germano-Scandinavian countries by Wotan/Woden/Óðinn), and they are associated with elite bands. Does this mean that we should therefore exhibit elitist attitudes? Perhaps, but remember that the elitism of Lugh exists for the purpose of raising others to their own potentials. This is also the purpose of the werewolf, to be the best possible person that they can be, and by being such to inspire others to their own best potentials. Part of this is to not act bigger than we are or to denigrate others who have not (yet!) been able to gain the benefits of our training or ability. We should instead use our skills to teach others, to help them with their goals, and to generally help them raise themselves up toward their destinies. I admit that I have not always been able to live up to this ideal myself, but it is something that I strive to achieve.

1 In §78-81.
2 “An cumang arbágaid-si, dogén-sou ule am áon[ur].”
3 In §53-70.
4 §120.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Werewolves, Fianna, and Fertility Cults

(This is another article I had written previously, for a Geocities website I once maintained. Though I have written an article for this blog that covers some, though not all, of the same ground, I am bringing it here so that it can be preserved, since it was cited in at least one Doctoral thesis. I understand that the site I once wrote will eventually be archived at the “Reocities” domain, but for now this is one of the only places this short article can be found.)

Since the Fianna were called "werewolves" by their contemporaries, it would seem to be a good idea to find out what that meant to the people of the time. Unfortunately, there are few good records from that era and place regarding the matter. We are left with some scattered references to the werewolf families in Ossory, St. Patrick’s curse, and such. However, we do find that, in many lands that were once Celtic, there are references to werewolves all the way up to the late 17 th century. We even have records of a few cases in which the werewolves themselves are interviewed, albeit with the intention of convicting them of crimes and heresy. We have no reason to believe that some of these testimonies are entirely untruthful, and some, especially the later ones, were given without being tortured.

In addition, it has been shown 1 that these werewolf cults are related to similar cults which are associated with fertility rituals, such as the benandanti, or "good walkers", the táltos, and so on. When other evidence is considered, I think that there is good reason to believe that the fianna, as well as similar groups such as the berserks of Scandinavia, are also a related cult.

The strongest testimony as to the practices of some werewolf cults comes from Livonia, on the Baltic Sea, in 1691 or 1692. Inquisitorial records show a trial of a man named Thiess at that time, who is accused of being a werewolf. His initial testimony is remarkable: he does not deny being a werewolf, but he says that werewolves are the dogs of God, and that they go into Hell, which lies across the sea, three times a year to recover grain, cattle, and so forth that are stolen and taken there by sorcerers. The foodstuffs are guarded by guards who brutally beat those they catch with broomsticks wrapped in horsehair. If they are unable to recover the grain, then there will be a poor harvest. He claims that werewolves go off into the woods, take off their clothing, and put on a wolf skin. By this means, they are transmuted into wolves, and they roam around in groups up to 30 strong, tearing to pieces any animal they come across, roasting it, and eating it. Occasionally, they also steal animals from farms for the same purpose. There is, in his testimony, reference to a powerful werewolf named Tyrummen, who goes after the largest animals. 2 Eventually, the Inquisitors let Thiess go with 10 lashes for refusing to repent, even though they are only able to get him to admit that Hell is underground, and not across the sea.

This testimony closely resembles that given by a number of people in Friulia, who called themselves benandanti. The benandanti said that they were people, born with a caul (amniotic membrane still intact), who were called at certain points of the year to do battle with the malandanti, or "evil walkers". In these battles, the benandanti would wield fennel stalks, while the malandanti would fight with sorghum stalks. If the benandanti did not drive off the malandanti, the crops would fail, the malandanti would enter the basements of people’s homes to spoil the wine, and so forth. 3 There are a number of other cases, as well, in which a group of initiates ventures out to fight an opposing group with agricultural benefits as the prize. 4

Given this ritual structure (and leaving out, for the moment, the question of the exact form and arena of this ritual), we should be able to locate mythic structures which mirror it. The most obvious source, from a Proto-Indo-European point of view, would seem to be the story of *Trito and the cattle raid. In this story, *Trito loses his cattle to a three-headed monster, usually a serpent. *Trito gains the assistance of the warrior-god (e.g. Núada or Lugh) and recovers his cattle. This story exists in two main reflections in Irish mythology, that of the Táin Bó Cuailnge and that of Cath Magh Tuired, though there are a number of minor reflections, as well. For our purposes here, we will concentrate on CMT. 5

In CMT, the gods are left without a king when Núada loses his arm in battle. It is replaced with a silver duplicate, but this is ruled not sufficient for him to retain the kingship. The next choice is the half-Fomhórach chieftain, Bres. Bres institutes a heavy taxation on the gods, taking their foodstuffs for the Fomhóraigh. Desperate to end the tyranny of the Fomhóraigh, the gods satirize him and send him back to his people. Lugh arrives, proves his worth, and takes over the kingship. With the blessing of the Morrígan, Lugh leads the people to battle with the Fomhóraigh, where he defeats Balor, the Fomhórach champion and his own grandfather. Achieving victory, the gods take magical agricultural benefits from the Fomhóraigh.

There is, of course, quite a bit more to the story, but this synopsis will do for this analysis, as it covers the essentials.

Here we see all of the important elements of Thiess’s story: the sorcerers stealing the grain, cattle, and so forth are equivalent to the Fomhórach taxation of the gods and to *Trito losing the cattle to the three-headed monster. The expedition of the werewolves into Hell (and in other related cults, they do so with a powerful, shadowy leader, who may also be represented in Thiess’s testimony by Tyrummen) is similar to Lugh leading the gods to battle with the blessing of the Morrígan and *Trito getting the aid of the warrior-god. The werewolves recovering the grain and other foodstuffs to prevent the bad harvest and so forth is the same as Lugh defeating the Fomhóraigh and getting magical agricultural benefits from them as well as *Trito recovering his stolen cattle. It would seem, from this analysis, that what the Livonian werewolves were doing was the ritual equivalent of the myth that was frozen in literary form in Ireland as CMT.

This does not yet, however, connect the activities of the fianna with this myth/ritual complex. Unfortunately for this article, that connection would require more space than is available here, and would have to discuss various cults as far afield as the maenads in Greece (who, like Thiess and his werewolf companions, would tear apart animals that they ran across in their ecstatic revels, and whose Dionysian madness has long been related to the frenzy of the berserks), the berserks themselves and the ulfheðnar of the Scandinavian countries, Misrule bands, and many other groups and institutions besides. Still, even with all of that analysis, it seems that the question would still be left open, as there is just too much necessary information that was not recorded at all, either for or against. Nonetheless, my iomas says that the connection is there.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this connection exists, and there is a relationship between the fianna-bandit-fáelad werewolves and the fertility-hunting werewolves of Livonia, what would this mean? At the very least, it would provide an explanation for why these groups came to be in the first place, and for why they were tolerated by the (militarily much stronger) local and tribal chieftains. The männerbunde have always seemed an anomaly in northern European and other Indo-European cultures, as they have no general analog in most other cultural matrices. Since they represent a socially- destabilizing force, they have long been difficult to assess in terms of their value to the society. If a ritual function could be identified in relation to them, they become comprehensible and subject to social and economic analysis.

1Ginzburg, Carlo,Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath
2 Lecouteux, Claude (tr. Clare Frock), Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages (original title: Fées, sorcières, et loups-garou au Moyen Age), Appendix 3: The Trial of the Werewolf
3 Ginzburg, Carlo (tr. John and Anne Tedeschi) The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
4 Ginzburg, Carlo Ecstasies, op. cit.
5 Gray, Elizabeth (tr.) Cath Maige Tuired

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Print and PDFs for Blogs

All you bloggers out there should take a look at this tool. Probably not for every blog, but a good portion of readers will have a use for this.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Comment Policy Change

Due to a couple of complaints about difficulty of commenting, I've opened the blog to anonymous comments. This doesn't make me extremely happy, as I will soon have to deal with spam commenters, but never let it be said that I don't look out for the people reading this.

Of course, you still have to select a profile in the comment form, but you now can select "anonymous" or select a name/URL at the time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Celtic Martial Arts

This is an article I originally wrote for The CR FAQ – An Introduction to Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism, but it was too long, so we edited it down and then published the full article separately. Since it was written, there have been some changes to the links, and I've made a few minor edits. Since the werewolf groups of Europe were associated with violence and fighting, it is of value to those pursuing a practice of lycanthropic spirituality. I intend to follow it up with a discussion of the importance of physicality to the practice.

General Introduction

As far as can be ascertained, there was never a single, unitary Celtic martial art form (not least because there was no single, unitary Celtic culture). There were, instead, a number of physical, mental and spiritual techniques used in training for martial activity. Some areas may have had, in ancient times, an organized system of teaching them, while others may have been more informal. No coherent school has survived from those ancient times; however, a great deal can be learned from the martial sports that are still practiced, as well as the written record of these techniques.

A number of martial sports still exist in the Celtic lands which are fairly certainly derived from combative techniques developed in early Celtic societies. These include some forms of “fixed-hold” wrestling, ranging from the Irish “Collar-and-Elbow” wrestling and Scottish Backhold to Breton Gouren to Cornish Wrestling. The “Catch as Catch Can” style of wrestling (which eventually branched into the pure entertainment of “Professional Wrestling”, as well as the combative submission fighting of Catch Wrestling) derives from northern Welsh and Lancashire wrestling. Even the minor sport of Shin Kicking (also known as “Purring”) seems to develop from fixed-hold wrestling of the sort called “Out-Play” (as opposed to “In-Play”). It should be noted that there are a number of fixed-hold wrestling styles from around the world, so the simple presence of a fixed-hold wrestling style does not indicate Celtic antecedents. The history must be examined carefully.

Boxing owes much (though not, by any means, all) of its history to fistfighting techniques in Celtic lands, notably Ireland. Many of the earliest professional boxers were from Ireland, both in Europe and later in America.

In Early Modern Europe, there seem to be three main styles of swordplay: the Mediterranean, the Germanic, and the British. By the time that fencing manuals were written down in Scotland (during the 18th Century), the British style seems to have come to dominate among the Highland Scots. However, there is also a series of sketches by an anonymous artist, called the “Penicuick Sketches”, which depict Highland Jacobite soldiers during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. If those sketches are accurate (and many details of equipment, clothing, and so forth have been shown to be accurate), then it would seem that the Germanic style also had an influence there. Many of the sketches depict “guards”, or methods of holding the sword and shield, which may be related to guards in Germanic fencing manuals all the way back to the first known one, Manuscript I.33 (also known as the Tower Fechtbuch), composed in approximately 1295 C.E.

In Ireland, one of the legal texts, called Bretha déin chécht (“The Judgements of Dian Cécht”), offers a fascinating glimpse into the knowledge a warrior would have learned. It includes a listing of twelve parts of the body to which an injury was considered especially grievous. In Scottish stories written down centuries later, those specific areas are still remembered as targets for the warriors of legend. In the Bretha Déin Chécht, those areas were called the “Twelve Doors of the Soul” (Da Dorus X Anma). A portion of that text which is of interest is included in this article.

Large swords, such as the Claidheamh Dà Làimh (sometimes mistakenly called a Claidheamh Mòr, which actually refers to the basket-hilted broadsword), or “two-handed sword”, seem by their design to be used very differently than the large Germanic two-handed swords. They are lighter, for instance, and have a number of other design features which indicate a different method of use than the German Zweihander (“two-hander”) or even the Long Sword (a smaller two-handed sword depicted in many of the 15th-17th century Germanic fencing manuals). However, the design of the Claidheamh Dà Làimh seems to fit the British style of polearm use very nicely.

Sources for Scottish Sword and the British Style

The oldest source for understanding the use of the polearm in the British style (and, in fact, for many other weapons in the British style) is the fencing manual written by George Silver consisting of two parts. The first, Paradoxes of Defence, was published in 1599, and mainly consists of Silver advocating the use of the broadsword over the newly fashionable rapier, though there is some discussion of the theory behind the system. The second part, which contains actual instructions for use of the weapons, was called Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence. It was, however, not published until 1898, after a copy of the manuscript was discovered in the British Museum. Silver developed many of his techniques during the wars in England of the late 16th century, and had fought against Irish, Scottish, and Welsh troops. There are reasons to believe that the use of various pole weapons described in Silver is the same for Irish, Scottish, or Welsh troops, as well as English ones.

After Silver, there are a number of fencing manuals written in the 18th century which expressly purport to describe the fighting styles of the Scottish Highlanders. Sir William Hope published several fencing manuals over his lifetime, starting with The Scots Fencing Master. Next came Donald McBane’s Expert Sword-Man’s Companion (excerpted here), in 1728, which consists largely of a memoir of the rather exciting and interesting life of the author, but also includes a discussion of weapon usage. Though McBane was born in the Highlands, he grew up in a town and learned his swordplay, it seems, from English and Continental sources, though there is a certain continuity apparent with the pedagogy of training among the Highlanders.

Mentioned above are the Scottish “Penicuick Sketches”, a series of drawings by an unknown artist in the Penicuick area during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, showing a number of armed figures, several apparently practicing swordplay. There is also a battle scene which shows some of the above-mentioned “guard” forms being used. In addition, there are a number of other paintings and drawings from various points in history which show battle scenes which seem to be based on actual observation rather than imagination, and which show the same sophisticated techniques as are described in the various fencing manuals.

In 1746, the year the Jacobite Rebellion was broken on the field of Culloden, Thomas Page published The Use of the Broad Sword, which purported to show “The True Method of Fighting with that Weapon as it is now in Use among the Highlanders....” Whereas the previous two authors had either ignored or only sketchily covered the use of the targe, or Highland target shield (and Silver preferred the buckler type of shield), Page describes the use of the targe in some detail. There are also some aspects of his manual which are unusual in European sword manuals of the time, such as the circular footwork and the concentration on equilibrio.

The end of the 18th, and beginning of the 19th, century saw the publication of detailed fencing manuals by Henry Angelo (pdf) and an anonymous “Highland Officer” (who we know to have been one Captain Sinclair) which continued the tradition of explaining the Highland style of fencing, which was a sub-style of the British style.

Of particular note is the remarkably coherent pedagogy (method of instruction) between all of these Highland manuals. Christopher Thompson, president of The Cateran Society, has written an excellent article on the subject, describing the system and condensing it. Unfortunately, he has chosen to remove it from access online, though many other useful resources are available through the Society. The Cateran Society is the leading organization in the world today researching, learning, and teaching swordplay from the Highland tradition, and is the source of most of the information about Highland swordplay in this article (though any mistakes are purely the responsibility of this author, and not the Society).

Of special note is the 1881 Book of the Club of True Highlanders, which purports to show techniques of using the two-handed sword. However, it has been shown that the diagrams there were taken directly from a Germanic fechtbuch (with added kilts), and were not from any directly-transmitted Scottish tradition, so it can’t be seen as a useful source for learning about a Highland or other Celtic tradition of swordplay. This is not to say that those techniques weren’t practiced in the Highlands of Scotland (after all, as we’ve noted, the Germanic sword style apparently had some influence there), only that this particular source is not useful in providing evidence either way.

Scots-Irish Instructional Institutions

In ancient Ireland, instruction in the martial arts seems to have occurred during the period of fosterage. This generally happened starting at the age of 7 or even younger, and would last a variable amount of time. High-ranking children, in fact, would be fostered to a number of fosterparents over the course of their childhood.
By the 18th century in Scotland, the formal system of fosterage had collapsed, though still informally practiced, so a different system arose to instruct youths in the use of weapons. A Taigh Sunntais was a school dedicated to this instruction. Young men (or, rarely, women) would learn how to fight, and would also be taught special exercises which were thought to improve the natural ability to fight. In Highland stories (and possibly in the Taigh Sunntais), these exercises were called Lùth Chleas, about which more below, but for now let it suffice to say that several have survived as the Highland Heavy Athletics familiar from Highland Games worldwide.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, after the native aristocracy was removed, the people had reorganized into a social system which approximated the older tuatha, while avoiding antagonizing the English overlords too much. This was the system of Factions which flowered most completely in the 19th century in Ireland and in America. Groups with names like “The Four-Year-Olds” or “The Dead Rabbits” would meet each other at fairs and engage in “battles”. While some deaths did occur, they were relatively rare, indicating (among other reasons) that the fighting was mainly recreational rather than murderous. There is quite a bit of indication that a young person could find instruction in the use of weapons in these groups, such as the existence of apparently organized methods of fighting with sticks (sometimes called “shillelaghs”). One of these styles of stickfighting survives today in the Doyle family, and Glen Doyle has been teaching students in the style in recent years.

The Factions disappeared with the rise of the Fenians and Irish Nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but some feel that the phenomenon of Football Hooliganism is a resurgence of the same impulse. However, hooligans don’t generally have separate, organized methods of instructing each other in methods of using weaponry or fists (they might go to a martial arts school or gym to learn karate or boxing), so they are not generally relevant to our discussion here. However, something of the mindset can perhaps be understood by comparison.

The Method of Instruction

The widely accepted method of teaching the martial arts in Europe up into the 19th century was to make use of “Set Play” or “Lessons”. These consisted of a defined series of movements for one or two participants. We have examples of such Lessons in most of the fencing manuals mentioned above, and in similar texts, such as Daniel Mendoza’s boxing manual from the 18th century. During the 19th century, the traditions of Set Play fell away, but it seems likely, given how widespread the practice seems to have been, that it was the way in which Celtic warriors had once learned the basics of fighting.

The term there, “the basics of fighting”, was chosen carefully, because Celtic warriors did not, apparently, stop at simply learning how to hit someone with a weapon. They also engaged in practices which today we might call “cross-training”, and in methods which were more clearly “magical” in nature. These techniques were known by the Irish and Scots as cleasa (“tricks” or “feats”). As noted above, more recent Scottish stories preserve the term Lùth Chleas, translated as “feats”, such as in this story on page 205. However, the most famous practitioner of cleasa was Cú Chulainn, who learned a number of them from the warrior woman and renowned teacher of martial arts, Scáthach, though he was also said to have learned a couple previous to his arrival at her school. Notably, he knew the “Salmon Leap” (Ích n-Erred) prior to arriving on Skye, where Scáthach was said to live. He makes use of it in his “application”, as it were, to her for instruction. Classical commentators, in discussing their battles against the Gauls, noted that the Celtic warriors would leap over the shields of their opponents. The “Salmon Leap”, it seems, may have simply been learning high jumping techniques and practicing them until the warrior could jump up in the air higher than most. A 19th century author, discussing Irish stickfighting techniques, noted that the Irish “are pretty active on their pins when fighting”, indicating a method of footwork that might have involved jumping.

The “Sword Feat” ( Faobhar Chleas) is described in some detail in the story Mesca Ulad (“The Intoxication of the Ulstermen”). It consisted of a dance engaged in prior to combat, involving juggling the sword and other impressive moves. Remarkably, a traditional step-dance from Scotland has survived, which involves a similar weapon. Called the “Dirk Dance” or Dannsadh Bhiodaig, it was given to Joan and Tom Flett, a couple who worked to preserve the Scottish step-dances, by Mary Isdale MacNab of Vancouver, who had been given the dance by D.C. Mather, a dancing teacher from Scotland who had emigrated to Canada in 1899. Mr. Flett passed the dance along to John Wesencraft, who taught it to Louie Pastore of the above-mentioned Cateran Society, among others. There are a number of reasons to believe that this dance is related to the Faobhar Chleas of the stories, including (not insignificantly) its resemblance to the description in Mesca Ulad. It’s likely that a number of other “feats” listed as known by Cú Chulainn were similar in nature (such as the “Body Feat”, which may have been a dance which demonstrated unarmed combat techniques). Another intriguing aspect of the Dirk Dance is a section where the dancer leaps up into the air, passing the dirk under his feet. This definitely begs comparison to the “Feat” of Cú Chulainn called the “Leap Over a Poisoned Stroke”.

There are a few other “feats” which have survived to the modern day, as well. Cú Chulainn knew the “Feat of the Pole-Throw” (Cor nDeled), which is almost certainly the same as the Highland Heavy Athletics sport of “Tossing the Caber”. The “Wheel Feat” ( Roth Chleas) is claimed (on page 7 of the linked document) to be the same as the Highland Heavy Athletics “Hammer Toss”. There are others, as well.

Some of the “feats” seem to be clearly described in the source material. One of the “feats” of Cú Chulainn that he learned prior to going to Scáthach was the “Feat of the Hole-Stone”, which was described as building a fire in the open hole at the middle of a large hole-stone, then having the student “perform” on it (that is, dance a weapon-dance or go through a series of movements like the Set Play discussed above) until the soles of his feet were blackened and discolored. If anyone thinks that might be a bit extreme, consider the “Iron Hand” training of some Asian martial artists, or the similar practice of some 18th and 19th century bareknuckle boxers of “pickling” their fists in brine. The “Apple Feat” was said to consist of juggling apples, and there are indications that juggling was also taught to German youths learning to fight with the sword. The “Breath Feat” was described as blowing apples up in the air. This may have been a form of breath training, teaching the student the sort of plosive breathing that can be very helpful in making a strike.

There are additional examples of more esoteric “feats”, such as the Gabhail Iolla chant of Conall Gulban, which may correspond to the Sian Churad (“Hero's Chant”) known to Cú Chulainn. The word sian refers to a hum of voices or a high-pitched whistling. Another word used for the chanting of warriors was dord, which seems to have originated in the idea of a wolf-howl, but came to be associated with a droning hum, just as sian.

Finally, there are the frankly fantastic “feats”, such as the “Thunder Feat” or the “Gae Bolga”, which seem to exist entirely for the purposes of story, but probably never existed in fact. The “Thunder Feat” was said to kill hundreds at a time, for example, something which doesn’t seem very likely to have a real antecedent. Another thing which separates these fantasy “feats” from the others is that they seem to represent actual, direct methods of attacking, while none of the real “feats” do. The real “feats” are means of improving conditioning or focus, or of intimidating the opponent. They are not methods of cutting someone with a sword or spear.

A few of the recorded “feats” are difficult to analyze for certain. Whether they represented real “feats” like the earlier examples above, or were poetic terms for fantastic flights of fancy is unclear. “Feats” such as “Stepping on a Lance and Straightening on Its Point” could be descriptions of methods of developing agility or could be over-the-top descriptions of magical flight (though it should be noted that instances of magical flight should be treated seriously, in the sense that many seem to be describing techniques of magical or spiritual, otherworld travel). For that matter, the “Hero's Salmon Leap” might even have been a method of magical flight in this vein, though I tend to the interpretation that it was physical jumping.

These two categories, gaiscí and cleasa (the first means “feats of arms”, the latter “tricks” - see the story of Conall Gulban, where Lùth Ghaisge and Lùth Chleas are used) seem to follow a common pattern in Celtic societies. We see this specific division, between fighting arts and “tricks”, in other Celtic lands. In Wales, for instance, Arthurian knights are sometimes said to have a “peculiarity”, which often resembles the “feats” in description, if not always in literary function. The underlying cosmological justification seems to adhere to the idea of “Summery” (samos) and “Wintery” (giamos) energies. This observation was first made by Christopher Thompson, head of the Cateran Society, now presented in a book of his published by Paladin Press, which also includes much else of interest to those pursuing Celtic martial systems. In this model, the gaiscí represent the “Summery” concept, being direct, open, active, and so forth. The cleasa, then, represent the “Wintery” concept, being indirect, secret, passive, assisting techniques.


This should give an overview of some of the sources to look to in learning about Celtic martial arts, both unarmed (such as boxing or wrestling) and armed. It also, hopefully, illuminates the general framework of ideas which the masters of martial arts among the Celts in general, and the Gaels specifically, made use in teaching the methods of defending oneself against violence. It can be seen that the ideological and cosmological assumptions found in Celtic mythology and religion in general also underlay the system of organizing training methods for martial activity.

(This article is a slight revision of my original version, which can be found online at Paganachd, as well as a number of other places around the 'net, though any but Paganachd, this post, and the cr_r community on Livejournal are probably infringing my copyright, being posted without permission, unless they are correctly attributed which was the condition of republication under the Creative Commons license of one earlier version. This version © 2011 C. Lee Vermeers, so please don't repost without prior authorization from me.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sources of the Cosmic Meditation Exercise

In developing the meditation exercise I presented last week, I used a number of sources, mostly Gaelic in origin. The first we'll look at is the physical construction of the centering portion. In that, we started with breathing. I noted that one pattern of breathing is more “advanced”, as it were, than the other. By this, I meant to point out that the long period after exhalation is something that is generally better done after some experience with breathing patterns. It does, however, lead to a more relaxed and receptive state, in which one can more fully experience the imagery. However, there is no requirement to breathe in any particular way. Whatever feels most comfortable is probably best, at least at first, but the measured breathing gives a way to focus thought and inner vision.

Next, we began to orient ourselves in space by facing toward the East. This is to do with the natural direction of Celtic, and Indo-European in general, ritual. Frequently, words for “North” are related to the word for “left”, and words for “South” to the word for “right”. When facing East, of course, North is to one's left and South to the right. This is to do with the rising Sun, coming into being from the world of possibility, metaphorically speaking. Next, we visualize a series of provinces spreading around us, starting with a central province and moving around four more provinces in the cardinal directions. This is largely drawn from a story called “The Settling of the Manor of Tara”, in which the provinces are associated with particular aspects of life. From those aspects, I considered the various deities associated with those provinces in Ireland, and with those specific aspects, then reduced them to essential descriptions that allow the individual to connect them with deities with whom that individual has a personal relationship. For me, the deities are specific, and are: Central Province – Ériu, the goddess of Ireland who gives Her name to the land, along with Her sisters, Banbha and Fódhla1; Eastern Province – Eochu Ollathair, the Dagda, the sky god whose divine hospitality knows no bounds; Northern Province – Nuadha Airgeadlámh, the warrior-king with the silver arm, whose sword carves distinctions between life and death, or between any opposites; Southern Province – Bríd Banfhíle, who is the divine Bríd manifesting the fire of poetry; Western Province – Medhbh, the goddess of inspiration and intoxication. Other people, as I have said, will have other associations, but these five are mine.

Next, we considered a series of five rings radiating from a central point. This is a system of organizing the world which is idealized and abstract, found in Irish sources.2 It ranges from the center, which is the hearth where food is cooked and from which warmth is gotten in the chilly climate, to the outside boundaries of the island, conceptualized as the ninth wave from the shore. In a sense, one can think of that outside boundary as similar to the modern conception of the twelve (nautical) mile limit dividing international waters from territorial ones. The equation of the agrarian conceptions to ones which are more applicable to most of us in industrial and post-industrial countries is my own work. I hope that the analogies are obvious. Another aspect of the five rings surrounding the center point is an image of protection, sometimes painted on the shields of legendary heroes. This image is likely connected with a diagram in the Book of Ballymote called Feige Find, or “Fionn's Window”, which consists of the ogham alphabet arranged in five concentric circles.

These two conceptions are of the Land, which leaves two more realms appropriate to a Gaelic, even generally Celtic or Northern European, perhaps even Indo-European, idiom. Those are the realms of Sea and Sky. In describing the ninth wave, we touch on the Sea, of course. More importantly are the Gaelic terms I used to describe these three realms. They derive from a medieval Irish poet named Blathmac, with some modernizing of the Irish by me. The description of this tripartite cosmos can be found in the article “Irish Perceptions of the Cosmos”.3 I'd also point out that there are some interesting descriptions of how the world is structured in the Rev. Robert Kirk's excellent book The Secret Commonwealth. I know of several editions of this work currently in print, but I only recommend two. The first is Brian Walsh's The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex, which includes the complete text of Kirk's book and analyzes the text in comparison to folklore motifs. The second is R.J. Stewart's Robert Kirk: Walker Between the Worlds. This one modernizes Kirk's text and includes commentary from the perspective of a modern magical practitioner. While the commentary sometimes goes further than the text can support (in fact, the visualization exercise I wrote came about in part due to a dissatisfaction with Stewart's “Rising Light Below” exercise, though other influences carried more weight, such as Erynn Rowan Laurie's, as “Airmid”, “Celtic Centering Ritual”, and an exercise in her self-published, as “Erynn Darkstar”, book titled The Cauldron of Poesy, a precursor to the article I'll link shortly), it is generally good enough and useful to the modern person who is interested in making practical use of the material collected by Kirk.

The concept of “liquid fire” which is so important to that visualization exercise is derived from Irish4 and Indo-European sources. I conceptualize it as the fundamental material of the cosmos, undifferentiated matter/energy/information, and call it either brí5 or iomas6 (or sometimes by other words for specific functions, such as conn, frequently in the plural7 codnu, for intelligence and reason, or fearg for battle-trance), depending on whether I am emphasizing its nature as physical matter/energy or as the holy fire of inspiration, intuition, wisdom, and poetic creation. Some people think of this as something that is inaccessible normally, found only in deep trances and mystical experiences, but I think of it as the basis of everything that exists.

The Well from which this fiery water is welling should be understood in terms of the Tobar Seaghais, the “Well of Delight”. This Well is described in the story “Echtra Chormaic i dTír Tairngirí” (“The Adventure of Cormac in the Land of the Sages” or “…Land of Promise”), sometimes titled “Cormac's Cup”. It is said to be:

[A] well of springing water… water so bright and clear that Cormac stood looking into it for a long space of time.

Around that well nine hazel trees grew; their leaves looked as if they never withered, and their branches bore purple nuts that fell into the water. As one fell, a silver salmon, one of the five that were in the well, rose and fed on it and then swam down one of the five streams that flowed out of the well. A salmon with a shining body having fed on a purple nut went swimming down each of the streams that in their flowing made a murmur that was as sweet as music.

Later, he is told, “The well you looked into is the Well of Wisdom and its five streams are the five senses that men have. All who would practice science or art must drink out of that well or out of the streams that flow from it.” As I understand and conceive it, this refers to the primal source of existence (the Well), from which brí flows, transformed through the agency of the salmon of knowledge, the hazels, and the hazelnuts (all of which draw their sustenance from the Well in the first place) into the sensory experiences which make up our existence. We can experience this through our senses, through the inspiration of poetry, or directly through mystic contemplation, and perhaps in other ways as well. Those who prefer Brythonic sources may notice that a similar well shows up in the Vita Merlini, though not described in such complete detail, “On the very summit of a certain mountain there was a fountain, surrounded on every side by hazel bushes and thick with shrubs. There Merlin had seated himself, and thence through all the woods he watched the wild animals running and playing.” (The fact that Merlin's fountain is located on the top of a mountain is a very interesting detail, but not one that I have considered with any profundity at this time.) Similar images can be found in the myths and legends of many other cultures.

The internal cauldrons to which I referred are found in a medieval text known in modern translations as “The Cauldron of Poesy”. This was originally brought to the attention of the pagan/polytheist community by “Seán Ó Tuathail” in 1985 from translations by P.L. Henry and Liam Breatnach, greatly expanded upon by Erynn Rowan Laurie in 19928 (who later made her own translation, which can be found in the article at the link), and then discussed by a few other authors such John and Caitlín Matthews. Ms. Matthews also made a translation of the poem, which can be found in The Encyclopædia of Celtic Wisdom (published in 1994, which was where the Matthewses first discussed the poem in print, to my knowledge). Comparing these cauldrons to the Galenic spirits is largely my own contribution, though not, I think, a particularly abstruse or obscure one (Caitlín Matthews, in her article “The Three Cauldrons of Inspiration”9, on pages 232-233 of the cited book, compares the cauldrons to the “Three Heaters” of Chinese medical lore, but this is not the same). It is possible that someone else has discussed the similarities between the cauldrons and the Galenic spirits, but I have not at this point seen any such reference outside my own work.

When the liquid fire erupts from the forehead, this image is derived from descriptions of the battle-frenzy of Cú Chulainn, in which a column of light, fire, or blood bursts from his forehead.10 This has various names, such as lúan laith “warrior's light” or “warrior's moon”.

Given all of these sources, one can certainly find elements that speak strongly and need to be added for one's own version of this. Perhaps mantra-like prayers inspired by the Carmina Gadelica, Ceisiwr Serith's A Book of Pagan Prayer and A Pagan Ritual Prayer Book, or another source will assist in concentration, or even songs (traditional, popular, or original, whatever aids in concentration) could help in that way. Someone else might look at one of the other ways of organizing the provinces, such as the five-province system in which the fifth province is a second Southern one instead of a Central one (several variations of the provinces are discussed in the Rees brothers' Celtic Heritage). Maybe there is some aspect of the world that is understood by the culture of choice which speaks strongly, such as the World Tree of the Germanic peoples or the “Seven Part Adam” known from Irish manuscripts (and which probably derives from a common Indo-European idea that the world was built from the parts of the body of a primal sacrificial victim).11 There is so much that not all of it can be included in a single visualization exercise like this one, but still there is room to add more for those who are interested.

1Each of these goddesses has a particular purpose and function in the wider cosmos. My own understanding of them derives in part from Mythic Ireland by Michael Dames, especially pp. 203-4.
2Sadly, I can't find a reference at the time of composing this article. I had thought that it was in Fox, Robin, The Tory Islanders, but a skim of that book did not turn up the information.
3 Celtica 23 (1999), pp. 174-187.
4We find many stories in which a well bursts and floods the surrounding area. This is associated especially with creative action. In addition, we find related stories of magical, golden objects submerged in wells or lakes, which I take to be related. Bríd is associated with both fire and with holy wells, and Her name is derived from the word brí.
5Meaning both “power, strength” and “significance, meaning”.
6With a nominal meaning of “intuition” in Modern Irish, but also referring to poetic fire, prophetic inspiration, and the like. In Old Irish, spelled imbas.
7Compare colloquial English “smarts”.
8 Darkstar, Erynn, The Cauldron of Poesy: Lectures on Irish Magick, Cosmology, and Poetry based on the Irish Text called The Cauldron of Poesy
9Matthews, Caitlín and John Matthews, Encyclopædia of Celtic Wisdom, pp.218-237
10And many thanks to P. Sufenas Virius Lupus for suggesting that image in particular!
11Bruce Lincoln, Death, War, and Sacrifice, p.182