What we term “Celtic Shamanism” is the study and honoring of the spiritual practices of the ancient peoples of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and parts of England. The word “celtic” is believed to come from the word “keltoi,” which described an amalgamous tribe that settled into the regions around Germany circa 1500 BC. The Gauls of France were also considered to be part of this larger culture.
The indigenous Celtic tribes were believed to have emanated from Asia Minor and spread themselves across eastern Europe, western Europe, the Iberian peninsula and the Celtic Isles. They came into prominence as miners and traders, becoming affluent and powerful from salt mines in Germany and later, gold mines in France. As they spread themselves across Europe, they were introduced to many other early civilizations. They were a fierce and warlike people, appropriating land as they went, but they were also a curious people and allowed themselves to be influenced by the artistic and spiritual expressions and practices of other cultures.
If we think about some of the signature characteristics of core shamanism, we would need to include: the understanding that everything has a spirit, a belief in the interconnectedness of all things, that the world of spirit or the unseen world permeates and enlivens our temporal world, and that the unseen world of spirit is available to us for wisdom, healing and protection. These beliefs are all a vibrant part of the Celtic consciousness. Even as early Christians, they firmly espoused a belief in the divinity within nature, a belief in the immanence of God in all things. There is a tenacious holding on to their earlier practices and beliefs, even in this post-Christian era.
The term shaman—being one who enters the spirit world as an emissary to secure healing and wisdom for the community—is obviously not a Gaelic word. In this culture, there isn’t one word to describe and capture the wide spectrum of work that would fall under the shaman archetype. In this tradition, there is a whole cast of characters, whose skills and expertise could be called upon to serve the community at different times and in different ways.
The ban feasa (woman of knowledge) or ban leighis (woman of healing) could provide remedies and healing rituals, as well as cast out demons and break spells. There were those who followed the creideamh si, (faery faith) and were also known as wise wives or faery doctors, whose healing work was inspired by and devoted to the Fae. Oracle work is strong in this tradition and seers or omen hunters provided insight into the future and examined the wisdom of certain actions proposed by the community. The bards, poets, and storytellers were key players in this culture and far from being viewed as mere entertainers, were considered healers in their own right. We know, as the ancient Celts knew, that stories can change and heal us. Druids played the role of both priest and lawmaker—they were also great magicians and conjurers. And the ban chaointe or keening woman was the one entrusted with the proper commissioning of souls to the spirit world, what we term in core shamanism, as the psychopomp.
To one extent or another, each of these individuals worked with the spirits of the Otherworld, or the unseen world, and served as a go-between or emissary between humans and spirits.
The Celtic way of seeing and being in the world opens us up to a different way of living. These people were deep listeners and observers of the natural world. It required a state of living fully in the now, this present moment. There is an expression that comes from an old Celtic myth. It says: the greatest music of all is the music of what is happening, and that sums up beautifully how the people of this tradition walked through the world, acknowledging and praising and emulating the grace and beauty of nature—the great song, or the Oran Mor, as it was known. Daily ritual required that tasks and responsibilities were undertaken with reverence and gratitude, greeting the sun as it rose in the morning, praising the fire for cooking the morning meal, thanking the cow for the giving of her milk, and on throughout the day, until it was time to bend your knee to the rising moon and smoor the ashes in the hearth with prayerfulness and thanks.
The Celts knew that these attitudes and gestures of reverence strengthened them, raised them up in the eyes of nature, in the eyes of the divine. For the Celtic people, the presence of divinity and spirit was everywhere, and this immanence required their respect and their attention and deep regard. It demanded their emulation of that spirit.
To the Celtic mind, the essence and beauty of the divine is everywhere and the Otherworld is right at hand. This tradition enlivens and informs both my teaching and my client work. It also inspires my writing, shapes and flavors my own spiritual practice, and fortifies the ever-challenging experience of living in the world.
Strength of heaven be yours
Light of the sun,
Radiance of the moon.
Splendor of fire be yours
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind.
Depth of sea be yours
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of rock.
Protection of the Nine Elements be yours.
— Irish Blessing