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The Spiral of Memory and Belonging
A Celtic Path of Soul and Kinship
By Frank MacEowen
New World LibraryCopyright © 2004 Frank MacEowen
All rights reserved.
IN a GREEN and Glowing Land
ENTERING THE SPIRITSCAPE OF IRELAND
The place of magic, transformation and rebirth, together with the underworld and its inhabitants, are presided over by the mother. — C. G. Jung
For far too long my relationship to Ireland was limited to a few family stories, personal studies of the folklore of the island, and a small piece of Irish turf that sits on my altar. Though a number of my family lines go back to Ireland, and various ancestors migrated from Ireland to America during and after the Famine, as a descendant I had focused all my travels to the Celtic lands on pilgrimages to the Scottish Highlands and islands. All that changed in the autumn of 2002.
Earlier that year, in the fading light of winter's last grasp, I began receiving a series of dreams about Ireland. Initially these dreams appeared as fragments, but the deep flow of these images began to stream forth in a clear progression. Each dream hinged on another. I should not have been surprised that outward events would begin to mirror these inner stirrings; on the heels of one of my more potent night visions I received a phone call from Ireland. It was from Mary Edwards, a practicing healer, seer, and descendant of the ancient O'Sullivans. She was calling to invite me to come to Ireland later that year, in the fall. Specifically she was calling to ask if I would facilitate shamanic ritual and present what I call "ancestor work" at Ireland's first international gathering of shamans and healers. Shamans from various traditions and different parts of the world, including Ecuador and Honduras, would descend on rural Ireland for a week of ceremony, healings, and teaching, while more than a hundred Irish — rural and urban dwellers alike — would attend the gathering to delve deeply into the work.
The moment I accepted the invitation I knew my life would change, though I did not know exactly how. Starting with Mary's serendipitous phone call, I could feel the tingle of synchronicity. Synchronicity can wake us up to the luminous strands of soul in the world. It is one way of receiving guidance, foreknowledge, or what Jungian Ira Progoff calls an "intimation of things to come." I knew the trip would be significant. Not only would I have the opportunity to present my work to my Irish cousins — a deep honor — but I would also be the first person on either side of my family to return to our ancestral land. Within a few days I would learn of yet another level of synchronicity. When I received the details about the event I learned that the gathering would be taking place along the forested shores of Lough Oughter in County Cavan, near the village of Killeshandra, where one of my female ancestors had emigrated from to the United States. After Mary's call my consciousness was flush with intimations of things to come. Something deep, visceral, and abiding was now stirring within me. In some strange and inexplicable way I felt as if I was preparing to go home, a home to which I had never been. I knew the journey would be a spiritual pilgrimage to an ancestral landscape. I could not have known that part of my soul was already in Ireland, patiently waiting for me, or that I would enter into a profound form of shamanic communication with the ancient spiritscape of the island.
Two days before departing I received another dream. Though it was simple, it contained a significant emotional charge:
* * *
I am standing within a dark corridor. A dim light shines in front of me. The light begins to grow brighter. It is moving down the corridor toward me, and I can see that the light is emanating from around the bend of some type of hallway that turns out in front of me. I feel a surge of fear and excitement. I then see a man with light emanating from his body. He is glowing and vibrating with energy. The light from his body illuminates the corridor around me. I see that the walls are made of stone and that various kinds of markings are carved in the wall, such as concentric rings and overlapping spirals.
I turn and look again at the luminous man standing before me. "A shining man!" I think to myself. "The Shining Ones. He is a Shining One," I conclude, not speaking this thought out loud. He nods slowly. The glowing man speaks to me through a transmission of thoughts within the dream, saying simply, "In Ireland ... you will be given a new body."
* * *
The Shining Ones
The Shining Ones of Irish and Scottish tradition are the Faery People, not to be confused with sprites, devas, or those nature spirits who are also often called "fairy." There is much lore, many different beliefs, many diverse opinions, and some heated debate regarding the Faery People. Oddly enough, however, most of this debate seems to involve individuals who have not experienced transpersonal, shamanic, or mystical realities for themselves. They debate and intellectualize these things as if they were points of philosophy rather than direct experience. Others who have had such experiences — who will sometimes tell you they have "sensed" the Faery People but have never seen them — are more inclined to understand that such realities can be experienced in a variety of ways, depending on the filters through which a person experiences them. The different filters of perception that we have are governed by a whole host of variables, from cultural conditioning to religion.
In some cases the lore about the Faery People is seen through the lens of particular entrenched religious views that clash with how a primal tradition perceives itself. We have clearly seen this kind of skewed perception with Eurocentrist anthropology and its encounter with indigenous societies; it is no less true regarding the transpersonal realities of the Faery world. We hear, for example, some interpretations of the Faery People as "fallen angels," beings not good enough to get into heaven but not quite bad enough to be sent to hell. This notion reflects Christian tampering with the primal traditions and cosmologies, motivated by a desire to frighten people away from these realities or to win converts. This approach has apparently worked to a large degree, since some Irish and Scots are among the most vehement voices against the primal traditions. I remember hearing one devout Irish Catholic woman say, "We love Saint Patrick because he saved us from ourselves. We Irish were all caught up in a nonsensical superstitious past."
Such sentiments reflect the propaganda that certain churches have circulated about the original spirituality of Ireland. Yet Christianity was not always at odds with these earth-honoring indigenous beliefs and customs. As Scottish seer, musician, and teacher R. J. Stewart reflects, "Primal Christianity was not in conflict with the spiritual impetus of paganism," including a belief in the Faery People. Some well-known Christians, such as the Reverend Robert Kirk (1644–1697), an Anglican minister in Scotland who wrote the classic book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Faeries were (and still are) oriented to the Faery People. Like some Irish and Scots of today (and Celts of other backgrounds) Kirk felt no conflict of interest in being a devout Christian and in being on good terms with the Faery People. This comfort with both worlds was echoed by a nun I talked to in Ireland who said, "But of course I think they are real. The Faery People are very real. And they have much to teach us."
Another interpretation of the Faery People, one that is more widely accepted than modern Christianized versions, can be found both in the classic writings and in oral traditions of Ireland and Scotland. These sources are a remnant stream of information coming down to us from the time of the druids (the organized intelligentsia and shamanic lore keepers of the Celts) and preserved, ironically, by Christian scribes, who were often converted druids themselves. According to this perspective, the Faery People had long inhabited Ireland before the coming of the Milesians (the Gaelic ancestors of the modern Irish and west Highland Scots) and hail originally from a race known as the Tuatha Dé Danann (too'a'ha-day-don-on), whose name is often translated as "people of the goddess Dana" or "the tribe of Danu." Bearing such appellations as "the people of peace," "the good people," "the quiet folk," and "the Shining Ones," the Faery People are often rendered as the pantheon of primal "gods" and "goddesses" of the Gael, depicted in modern writing — incorrectly, I believe — in the same way that Greek or Roman gods are.
Oral and written traditions suggest that, upon their arrival, the Milesians, or the Gael (sometimes referred to as the Miledh, or the Sons of Mil), faced off with the Tuatha Dé Danann. These stories tell of intense battles. According to some versions of Irish history the Gael defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, fair and square. Other more sanitized versions of these events depict a polite "ritual battle" and some kind of "peace treaty" giving the Tuatha Dé Danann everything below the land, while the Gael became keepers of everything above the land. The custom of offering milk and butter to the "good folk" — a tradition that continues to this day in rural Ireland and Scotland — is believed by some to hail from some ancient agreement of reciprocity established at that time.
In time the realm below the land became synonymous in the minds of the Gael with the realm of the ancestors. As clearly demonstrated in such classic sources as The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, many Irish, Scots, Welsh, and Bretons have held (and continue to hold) that certain ancestors merge with the Faery People at the time of death or that they enter their world. These descriptions speak of the departed transitioning from the human realm (physical or ordinary reality) into the spiritual realms of the Sidhe (pronounced "shee"), an Irish word used synonymously to refer to the Faery People, the parallel world in which they live, and certain kinds of hills or mounds that are said to be entry points to their domain. This leads us to yet another name for these ancient ones, the People of the Mounds.
Regardless of the sources one uses to look for clarification of the Faery realm and its inhabitants, a common hermeneutic exists regarding these beliefs and perceptions. The Faery realm consists of a complex collection of beings, races, and even creatures, rooted to particular places and governed by natural laws. Despite the eclipse of Faery belief in the wider world, for many Celtic descendants these realms are still very much a reality in terms of perceiving subtle presences, cultivating sensitive awareness, and awakening human perception — all qualities that have to do with comprehending the subtle energies of spirit beyond ordinary reality.
Stewart, in his writings on the subject, offers us his reflections about the Faery People: "If you thought that faeries were little people, please think again. They were, and are, usually said to be of human size or taller.... Nothing like modern fairy tales or Victorian sentiment, nothing like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan. Such fantasies are not and never have been part of the living faery tradition."
But what exactly is this tradition, and what constitutes the Faery realm itself? Probably one of the more straightforward and concise statements regarding the Faery faith comes to us from the late Irish American Terrence McKenna, a scholar of the history and nature of consciousness, shamanism, and hallucinogens. He states:
It is a belief in an invisible co-present dimension in which dwell the transformed souls of the ancient dead, able to interact with humans who wander into the lonely enchanted landscapes that seem partial doorways between the fairy world and our own ... a cosmos where the diminutive souls of the dead and vanished races coexist invisibly with our own, a world of haunting elfin music that is outside of time, for one day spent in the land of the Sidhe is sufficient for the great wheel of many centuries to turn in the ordinary world.
I must admit that something in all this has always struck me as a bit odd — not the belief in the Faery People or the Faery realm itself, but the multifarious and seemingly contradictory ways that these beliefs are usually depicted.
The suggestion made in Celtic myth that the Tuatha Dé Danann were "gods of the Gael," and the subsequent association made between this ancient race and the Faery People, had always confused me. The link made between this ancient tribe and the beings referred to as Faery caused me to wonder if some ancient history or some deeper layer of the spiritual realities might not have been eclipsed. If the Tuatha Dé Danann were the "gods and goddesses of the Gael," as they are so often depicted, why then would their name suggest that they were a human tribe who had their own goddess, Dana? If the Tuatha Dé Danann were the "gods of the Gael," why would the Gael have entered into bloody battles with them? Who tries to destroy their own gods?
Archaeology texts and Irish oral traditions alike suggest that the Milesians, the Gael, migrated to Ireland from Galicia (northwestern Spain, called Celt-Iberia by the Romans) — the Celtic tower of Breogan on the northern coast of Galicia being but one tiny footprint of the Gael before they migrated to Ireland. What sense does it make that the "gods of the Gael" would live on an earthly island to the north (Ireland), while the Gael (living in northern Spain to the south) would have little to no knowledge of their own "gods" until they migrated to Ireland?
This particular strand of the Celtic tradition has always seemed like a detective story to me. Who were these Tuatha Dé Danann, and why are they depicted as gods in the ancient Irish accounts if they were a human tribe oriented to a particular goddess, as their name suggests? Why are they linked with the Faery world? Why have certain Irish and Scots Gaelic words come to be associated with them, such as Sidhe (faery mound or hill) and Síth (also pronounced "shee," meaning peace)? How did this human tribe become the Faery People, and what is its relevance to us today? Why is this issue so perplexing?
From where I stand now I believe the confusion has its source in the fact that the whole truth has not been told, even to those of us who have made an exhaustive study of the folklore of Ireland or who may have grown up listening to the old stories. The essence of these things has been forced down, just like the Tuatha Dé Danann themselves, into the "realm below," into the unconscious, beneath layers upon layers of revisionist history and conflicting interpretations. We do, of course, know a certain amount about the Tuatha Dé Danann from ancient Irish historical texts, such as The Battle of Mag Tuired (Battle of Moytura), but many of these versions bear the undeniable mark of Christian cosmologies that clash with the primal view. Yet those monks and scribes who delivered us these tales are not the only ones making a mythic passage through the half-lit corridors of the past.
Despite the links made between the Dananns and the Faery People in primal Irish tradition, we find seemingly contradictory ideas even among respected Celtic scholars today, such as Jean Markale and Caitlín Matthews. Markale insists that the Tuatha Dé Danann were the original creators of Druidism and sees them as an older, more spiritually advanced Celtic people than the Gael. Yet he goes on to state, "There is no doubt about the Nordic heritage, even if only symbolic, of the Tuatha Dé Danann." On the other hand, Matthews, a prolific writer on Celtic matters, suggests, "The faery have ever been a race apart. They are not, nor have they ever been human."
Whether in Irish stories or among Celtic scholars, the link between the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Faery People, and primal Irish history seems to remain persistently slippery. At least, in ordinary reality it is. I believe there are a number of reasons that the truth of these matters has been concealed and depicted in contradictory ways. On the one hand, as mentioned above, we find Christian reinterpretations of the primal Irish cosmologies that have provoked fear in those who might turn toward these realities. On the other, it is not too difficult to discern in the ancient Irish stories of the "Coming of the Gael to Ireland" the universal tendency for history to be depicted in a fairer light by the conqueror. The Romans did it to the Gauls. The Americans did it to the Native Americans. Why wouldn't certain versions of Irish history do a similar thing to the earlier inhabitants of Ireland?
Excerpted from The Spiral of Memory and Belonging by Frank MacEowen. Copyright © 2004 Frank MacEowen. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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