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


  1. Interesting!

    I have a few questions/suggestions (not surprisingly!):

    1) On the deities and the "provinces"--as you said, these are the ones that work for you, so that's all right. I'd personally put Brigid in the East, since that's the area (i.e. Leinster) which she seems most connected to. I don't know that Medb is the best for the west--yes, that is her province, but I'm just not sure she's a goddess/deity in the way the other figures are. Certainly, there's crossover in Irish sources in particular between land spirits, gods, and ancestors, but she's more a representative of the sovereignty goddess rather than a goddess in her own right--and, that sort of role is pretty consistent even into pre-Christian sources we have on Continental Celtic sovereignty stories, where it is not a goddess who plays that role, but instead a priestess or some other human representative. Anyway...

    2) This is just interesting, considering how similar your own well of wisdom experiences have been to mine--the color purple comes up there in our mutual experiences, and it comes up in the color of the hazelnuts around the well of wisdom in the texts. So, can we say that the purple "crack" that we both experienced is a crack in, as it were, the well of wisdom in a nutshell? Ha, ha. ha. ;)

    3) In the various texts associated with this, it seems that the lúan laith and the blood bursting from Cú Chulainn's forehead are two separate and different things. Several other characters (e.g. Conall Cernach) experience the lúan laith, but only Cú Chulainn is said to gush blood from his forehead steaming and black as high as a ship's mast and raining down in a cloud of mist, etc.

    In any case, excellent work!

  2. Excellent observations!

    1) I definitely think that each person could, even should, develop their own set of relations in the five directions. It's not like the Golden Dawn and derivative (and otherwise related) traditions, where there are absolute connections in a mechanical way. But, I do think that Medhbh can be seen as a goddess (one that is partly euhemerized as we have received Her story) for a number of reasons, not all of which I can articulate. Eventually, I intend to write an article about Her, specifically.

    2) I suspect that the purple color has something to do with forming and limiting brí. I want to talk those ideas through before presenting them in full, though.

    3) That's true. In any case, the image derives from Cú's riastartha primarily, though even there it perhaps serves a different purpose in the meditative visualization.