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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Celtic Ways of Seeing

So now that we've covered some different aspects of seidhr historically and how I am trying to reconstruct and practice them let's look at the Irish side of things. Now we know that there were some very specific methods used by the File during the transition period between paganism and Christianity because two of those methods were outlawed for calling on pagan gods - which for our purposes is a good thing because it means they were written about. There were three specific practices so written about and these were imbas forosna - "manifesting knowledge", tenm laida "illumination of song", and dichetal do chennaib "extemporaneous poetry" (Celtic Seers Sourcebook, 1999). Imbas forosnai involves preparing and eating meat (referenced as pig, cat, or dog specifically), making an offering to the Gods with specific chants and then lying down with the hands covering the eyes and sleeping or meditating for up to three days undisturbed to recieve knowledge or an answer. Another well known version of this may be the tarbh feis which involves the sacrfice of a bull, eating its flesh and then wrapping up in its hide for the same purpose. Tenm laida seems to be, based on its appearance in myths, a type of light trance that a person could enter to answer specific questions, sometimes associated with touching the object directly and others with putting the tips of your fingers or thumb in your mouth, such as in the stories of Finn mac Cool. In some stories it appears as a method to read the past or identify a body, although this also appears to be a type of Seership practiced by both Scathach and Fidelm in mythology when answering questions about the future (Celtic Seers Sourcebook, 1999). Both of these methods were outlawed by the Christian Church for calling on "idols"; the third method is dichetal do chenaib which seems to resemble tenm laida but involve a deeper trance and the spontaneous speaking of poetry to answer the question. Perhaps the Prophecy of the Morrigan could be veiwed as this type of method. Dichetal do chenaib was not outlawed as it didn't directly call on pagan deities or spirits and was seen as a part of the poet's art.
  Of these methods I see the most direct similarities to Norse practice in the imbas forosnai. The practice of retreating into a dark room, wrapped in a cloak to recieve inspiration - possibly a later version of imbas forosnai, I think - was seen in the Scottish Highlands until a few hundred years ago (Descritpion of the Western Isles of Scotland, 1695). Interestingly during the conversion period in Iceland, when it looked like civil war was immenant a leader used a similar method - laying down beneath his cloak - to find a compromise that would save the country. And in seidhr the Seer is veiled when on the high seat.
    Additionally we know that the ancient Celts, in general, used particular types of divination such as casting lots and a variety of omens including ornithomancy, or divination by observing the flight of birds. Ornithomancy was in fact so important that it continued in folk practice pretty much into the modern period with the Carmina Gadelica noting several omens that can be taken from the flight or call of certain birds. For example swans are considered very lucky, especially when seen flying, as it was believed that a swan was often an Otherworldly being in disguise, but to see or hear an owl, especially during the day was considered unlucky (Carmina Gadelica, 1900). There is an excellent book called Birds of Ireland Facts, Folklore, and History by Anderson that includes a lot of the older folklore about each type of bird that I have found invaluable for working up a system of bird omens to use. The Gadelica also discusses divination practices linked to the harvest, were the harvesting tools would be tossed in the air and how they landed would indicate something about the fate of the person who owned the tool. The direction of the wind was also an omen, particularly on certain holy days (Silver Bough, 1959).
   One method of augury that is mentioned in enough detail to be used within the Gadelica is as follows: "THE 'frith,'* augury, was a species of divination enabling the 'frithir,' augurer, to see into the unseen. This divination was made to ascertain the position and condition of the absent and the lost, and was applied to man and beast. The augury was made on the first Monday of the quarter and immediately before sunrise. The augurer, fasting, and with bare feet, bare head, and closed eyes, went to the doorstep and placed a hand on each jamb. Mentally beseeching the God of the unseen to show him his quest and to grant him his augury, the augurer opened his eyes and looked steadfastly straight in front of him. From the nature and position of the objects within his sight, he drew his conclusions" (Carmina Gadelica, 1900). The text is followed by a chant to be recited before opening the eyes; I have made my own version which is both more pagan and Irish deity specific. It is:
   "Gods over me, Gods under me
     Gods before me, Gods behind me
    I am on Your path, O  Gods of life
     and You are in my steps
   The augury Morrighan made at the battle's end
   The offering made of Brigid through Her palm
  Did the spirits witness it?
    The spirits did witness it.

   The augury made by Morrighan about Her people
  When the battle ended peace was made,
   Knowledge of truth, not knowledge of falsehood,
      That I shall see truly all my quest.

  Kindly spirits and Gods of life,
    May You give me eyes to see all I seek,
  With sight that shall never fail, before me,
      That shall never quench or dim." (By Land, Sea, and Sky, 2010)

  This is, of course, only a small fraction of the Celtic practices especailly where omens and augury are concerned, but these represent specific areas that I am personally working on reconstructing or learning. I have had the most direct practice with tenm laida, as I understand it, and with working on learning omens and augury. I have used versions of the more modern style imbas forosnai, but have not yet tried the dichetal do chenaib. I feel more comfortable, in general, with the Norse divination pratices but I am trying to get more active with trying to use what I know about the Celtic.

A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland circa 1695
By Land, Sea, and Sky, 2010
Celtic Seers Sourcebook, 1999
Carmina Gadelica, 1900
Silver Bough, volume 1, 1959

* from the Carmina Gadelica "The 'frith' of the Celt is akin to the 'frett' of the Norseman. Probably the surnames Freer, Frere, are modifications of 'frithir,' augurer."

1 comment:

  1. I have worked with augury similar to the type you list here as THE 'frith' augury, which I do very early in the mornings. Because I live in a very rural area of mountains and woodland there is usually some kind of wild life about on the land or in the air. I look to any signs in nature for symbols I can interpret when I am seeking answers to questions or messages from local spirits or Fair Folk.