A Celtic Death Rite: The Lost Art of Keening

Jane BurnsUncategorized

Perhaps no other story in Celtic mythology demonstrates more succinctly the unbearable weight of grief than that of the great hero, Cu Cuchlainn at the death of his son, Connla.  The young warrior’s death comes tragically and unwittingly at Cu Cuchlainn’s own hand, and as the true identity of his dying opponent becomes realized, so, too, does the treachery of the boy’s mother, Aoife, the spurned lover of Cu Cuchlainn, who has engineered the fight as an act of retaliation.

Cu Cuchlainn becomes mad with grief. Running into the sea, he wails and sings a tortured lament to the beautiful son, whom he only came to know as the youth’s life was flickering out.  Since the son’s killer is Cu Cuchlainn himself, he has no one to battle to avenge the death and quell his profound sorrow.

So, the Druid, Cathbad, casts a spell, turning the waves of the sea into a wild and stormy legion, with whom Cu Cuchlainn battles for three days until he finally falls onto the strand from exhaustion, his grief assuaged.

Cu Cuchlainn’s primal response to his son’s death might possibly seem extreme and unhinged to readers of the tale who have never experienced the madness of deep grief, but to those who have, his reaction seems justified, and perfectly commensurate with the blow he has just been dealt.  Giving voice to the madness that has beset him, the hero sings a lament to his lost child and wails with rage and heartbreak—an ancient death practice known as keening.

What seems raw instinct and impulse for Cu Cuchlainn in this terrible moment becomes a formal and intentional tradition for the pre-modern Celtic people, who were known to fervently embrace the wisdom and drama of their mythology.  There was no real line in the ancient Celtic psyche where the mythology left off and the rudiments of common everyday life began. 

Whenever death came to a member of the tribe or village, the one who upheld the grief practice Cu Cuchlainn demonstrates in the tale, was the ban chaointe (ban kweent-chah), or woman of lament, who was both psychopomp and alchemist, ushering the dead into the spirit world while metabolizing the grief of those left behind with her wailing songs of sorrow.

Keening music was said to come from the Otherworld and was only heard by those with the gift. The keening lament provided an energetic pathway for the deceased to follow—a portal into the spirit world. 

Traditionally, part of the keening was tuneful and often composed beforehand, specifically for the deceased, a kind of sung eulogy.  Their genealogy might be called so that the family and ancestors who had gone before could provide a spirit ladder for the departing soul to climb back home. The lament (caoineadh in Gaelic) might recount details of the deceased’s life or death; it might recall with praise their contributions and gifts, their charm and beauty.  It might name all those who loved them and how much they were loved, explains Margaret Bennett, Scottish folklorist and singer.  She recites this one—called “Lament for the Children”—in the BBC program, Gaelic Lament:

                                    Lad with the dark hair,

                                    I gave you my love.

                                    Lad with the dark hair,

                                    I gave you my fondest affection,

                                    Fond affection I gave to nobody else.

But, not all of keening was melodic lament.  Some of it was a cacophonous wailing or toning, shouting, crying and sobbing, often accompanied by the ban chaointe wrestling with the Death itself: beating her fists, tearing her garments, or throwing herself onto the earth or into the grave (much as Cu Cuchlainn battled his waves). The keening often protested the inability of the loved ones to join the deceased and was intended to extract the turbulent emotions of all those present. Tears of the mourners would often fall unbidden and sometimes without them even realizing it.

A History of Keening

Keening is not unique to the Celtic Isles, says Jim Wilts, a linguistic anthropologist, who was interviewed for the RTÉ radio program, entitled “The Sounds of Grief.”  He has studied the practice for many years and traces the origin back to Egypt, where keening first finds historical mention in the Pyramid Texts of 2600 B.C.  A story in these texts reveals that it was Isis who was the first keener.  After the death of Osiris, she turned herself into a falcon, flew over his dead body and let out a long and enduring cry that had never before been heard by mortals.

At one time, the practice was quite universal, and it is still practiced in the Middle East, parts of Africa, East and Southeast Asia. Keening was part of the death rites of both North and South American tribes and was used extensively throughout Europe, going as far back as the Greek and Roman Empires.

In Ireland, it was said that the goddess Bridgid first brought keening to the isles when at the death of her son, Ruadan, slain for his treachery during the Battle of Magh Tuireadh, she wailed so loudly, her cry was heard throughout the four corners of the land. 

There was a time, in both Ireland and Scotland, when it would have been unheard of to leave a dead member of the family unlamented in this robust and impassioned way.  But, keening had long been discouraged by the Christian Church, even as far back as the 6th century.  It was decreed that in order to ensure the resurrection of a Christian soul following death, the burial practices needed to be guided solely by priests and clerics of the Church. 

Urbanization and modernization also impacted the practice.  When children moved away from the villages and then returned home for a family funeral, they were embarrassed by the practice, which seemed to be out of step with modern times.

Angela Bourke, Irish writer and scholar, theorizes that the Great Famine or Hunger (1845-52) also played a considerable role in the loss of the practice, as most of the keeners came from the poorer classes, and it was the poor who were most decimated by the famine. The poor were usually the ones who clung more firmly to the old ways and who still spoke Gaelic, and it is from their ranks came the most noted and powerful ban chaointe, usually women descending from a long lineage of keeners and trained in the practice from childhood.

Keening in Ireland and Scotland became more and more scarce during the 1930’s and 40’s, largely due to growing pressure from Catholic priests and ministers, who felt their funereal roles were being overshadowed and interfered with by the ban chaointe.  For a time, families remained superstitious about abandoning the tradition (concerned that without a good keening, they weren’t giving their loved ones the proper send-off), but the Church held sway and the practice eventually disappeared as village priests began to refuse to even attend the gravesite if a keener was going to be present. 

The Lost Art of Keening

As a world community, what is it we lose through the disappearance of keening and other traditional burial practices?  For one thing, keening in its collective wailing, encourages us to see from the outset that our grief is shared.  We are one of many, and our seemingly personal sorrow is part of the vast pool of human grief that is boundless and universal.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye expresses this idea so beautifully in her poem “Kindness.” 

You must wake up with sorrow. 

You must speak it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

This revelation in the long, lonely passageway through grief is just one of the many gifts and graces we lose, as a world, through the suppression and disappearance of keening. Our ancestors recognized that when a loved one dies, the suffering is so great, we must project it out of ourselves in order to gain relief and transcendence.  It cannot stay in our bodies any more than the spirit of the deceased can remain in his or hers.

The ban chaointe accepts that suffering, tugs at the thread of it and unspools it into the open air for all to see and feel and hear.  And then, once her wailing becomes exhausted, acquiescent and finally silent, she demonstrates that there is a promised peace, once the journey through heartbreak has ended. In its full expression, a keening will actually follow the stages of grief commonly recognized through the work of Kubler-Ross: denial, pain, anger, sadness, and acceptance.

“Grief has a sound,” says author Martín Prechtel in his book The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise, “and it goes to the core….if suppressed in its fresh stages by rigid mores, then very often grief unsung and unmetabolized into beauty will resurface later as a difficult addiction, usually alcoholism.” (pg. 39, 50)

Unexpressed grief and its impact on the life of the “survivor” has been getting closer attention in psycho-therapeutic circles. What is now called “prolonged or complicated grief disorder” has been blamed for chronic depression, heart disease, cancer, PTSD, suppressed immune function, fatigue, uncontrollable rage, addiction, suicide, and mental illness.  As further loss occurs, the grief and its impact on the individual become magnified and compounded, making recovery even more difficult.

There is a persistent and pervasive ignorance and denial around the very real and important role of death in the span of a human life.  Unlike the ancients, and perhaps those who walk a shamanic or spiritual path today, most citizens of the world no longer know how to die, what to expect, where to go or how to get there.  The transition is not always automatic, and departing souls can get snagged between the worlds, due to fear, regret, guilt, shame and emotional attachment.

As a shamanic practitioner, who sometimes must perform the function of a psychopomp (one who commissions the souls of the dead into the spirit world), I have encountered this “lost soul” phenomenon fairly frequently in my work, and I know my experience is not unique.  This is another part of what we lose as a family and community when we do not allow our voice to be raised and heard in its expressions of grief.

Prechtel says it this way: “A dead person’s soul left unmourned in such a way cannot move on its own.  Because the dead have no other energy source than the living, (they) begin to move backward instead of forward, desperate to return to some familiar place in hopes of warmth and reception.  But this kind of spirit has no body of its own and becomes a ghost for the living.” (pg. 68-69)

Keening is a shamanic, indigenous ritual for both the deceased and the griever of the deceased, who move on parallel tracks, each of whom can get caught between the world that once was (and who they once were) and the world in which they must now live (and who they must be). 

How to Reclaim Our Past

What do we do, then, as mourners, as practitioners and teachers, as citizens of the world, to fill the woeful gap left by keening and other powerful death rituals?  Our unspent grief is living on, pervading our bodies and minds, the legacies passed to us and the ones we pass to our children.  Generations of ungrieved souls wander through the spirit world, laden with their unacknowledged gifts and their unabsolved misdeeds.

We have lost hold of the truth that the ancients knew: it is the grief itself that holds the cure. By avoiding or ignoring it, by denying the grief a voice, we fate ourselves and our loved ones to continued suffering and spiritual imbalance.  But, we are not too late.

Shamanic healing can provide all that we require: a long-awaited expression of our grief and the sacred space to hold it; permission to move outside the known world of social acceptability and rational thinking; an empowered place to willingly confront our grief, and a guided surrender through the “death” it asks of us.

Here are three rituals you can either do yourself or share with your loved ones:

  1. Have a ceremony. The helping spirits often recommend to grieving clients that they create a memorial service more in tune with how they wanted to say goodbye to their loved one—sometimes years after the death.  Modern social conventions can lend themselves to a funeral process so sterile and hackneyed, grief finds no place to put itself.  This ritual provides an opportunity to sing the favorite songs of the deceased; tell stories of important things they said or did, virtues they demonstrated, standards they set; to speak directly about the ways in which they are missed, the hole they have left, the love they are still given; to honor and call out the names of the known ancestors who preceded the loved one in death; and, to express praise for their life, joy and gratitude for all they shared, and sorrow for their loss.
  1. Midwife the new life that you, as a mourner, are called to embrace with a death and dismemberment journey.  This is an archetypal shamanic journey that provides a loving container for what must first “die” in order for transformation to occur.  In the sanctity of this container, you may for instance, witness yourself being carried by helping spirits and compassionate beings to a seaside.  The sea is a wonderful metaphor for the veil between the worlds.  The tradition of the burning pyre that is launched into and accepted by the sea might be invoked here.  A vigil held by the helping spirits may follow, until the sea lovingly returns your restored soul to shore. But, in any case, allow the journey to unfold in its own unique and empowered way.
  1. Keen for the one who has departed.  Write your own lament.  Prechtel describes in his book a beautiful ceremony that is performed—in Cu Cuchlainn fashion—at a beach.  He suggests you take a trusted companion to witness your process.  Draw a design on the sand and place a beautiful bead in the center.  Once the waves take the bead, the sea has consented to hear and receive your sorrow.  Sing and cry.  Wail and talk. But, do not be silent, he suggests. Give the ocean your tears and your grief. And then, thank her. (pg. 54-55)

There are efforts being made in Ireland, Scotland and Finland to resurrect keening, to bring back the old laments and teach them. To afford people the opportunity to gather and tone and sing and release their unspent grief within community. 

Individually, we must each make the journey with our own grief in our own poetic way. No circumstance of loss nor corresponding grief is the same, though the experience is universal and none of us is immune to it. The ancient wisdom suggests we acknowledge and allow the grief to move through us and flow into the open, to give it a sound, to honor it and to be in conversation with it, whether in a raised voice or a quiet whisper.