The marrow may still be wet in the bones of my ancestors, though they are stacked like dry straw bundles beneath a group headstone outside a church in Ireland. Likely built on a sacred Pagan site – you might think its’ warped floor is cracked from the hands of Druids pushing up against the Christian imposition century after century. In truth more Celts were buried there long ago, the pattern of their decay over centuries bends the floor like currents shaping sand in a receding king tide.
It was not so long ago that someone who looked a lot like me, close to the site of that church, was touching a tree with the gentle gratitude you might feel holding the hand of a beloved elder. Another someone who looked like me waited in the dark night on a hill near that church, a hill with a sacred name he’d heard since birth. There the spirits sometimes paused to help a suffering soul with a burdensome problem.
Scientists assure me that I’m related to everyone, descended like you from the same small band of ancient nomads. I’m an American to boot – happily a citizen of a nation of mutts with a pedigree ever drifting towards increasing mutty-ness. Shamanism teaches us all that every creature is a relation. Why focus on the Irish bits? Its easy to romanticize something lost in the mists of time – conveniently leap frogging over centuries of modernism. Why do I pause at this ancient site to claim kinship with long dead people?
Something pulls me. Maybe its not biology, maybe its just the voices of the Oak trees that surround my home here in California, maybe its their distant kin I’m called to. Ever since I met my first pre-Christian Celtic ancestor on a journey I’ve had a craving for the company of long dead Pagans that haunts me in the twilight or when the forest is especially enchanting. The wooded trail that leads to them has been easier to find year after year.
The introduction to Tom Cowan’s seminal book “Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit” is appropriately titled “The Problem of Celtic Shamanism.” Reconstructionists who scour Celtic pre-Christian history for details of a Pagan past are not always presented with figures neatly fitting anthropological definitions of Shamanism. Stories are a blur of Gods, Goddesses, Faeries, animals and mortals tumbling together in an orgy of spirit that is fecund, violent, sweet and sexual.
The “problem” of finding the shaman may lay in something unique about the Celts, something that I think is still true for many Irish descendants today: the entire culture is collectively, inescapably on a continuous shamanic journey. The veil between ordinary and non-ordinary reality is the most difficult thing to find in the Celtic world. Indeed the space between the worlds -“Betwixt and Between” is thought to be a place of great transformative power. The Celts are masters at dissolving any boundary between the material and spiritual in all things. This makes every person, child and even animal a potentially great Shaman, ready to slip into a new world in every moment.
I will not try to teach you more about the Celts – Tom and others have already immersed themselves in the literature and sacred sites, returning time and time again with jewels to offer. I recently finished his Two year program in Celtic Shamanism. It was powerful and resonant – instructional and affirming of the presence of my ancestors that calls to me. He invited all – descended from Celts and otherwise – into the juicy quixotic world of Celtic spirituality – and let each of us find our own currents to swim in. We were beheaded to restore sovereignty to our communities, we joined the forces of light in battling the Femorians on the Wild Hunt. I became a gateway on Samhain for the dead to journey through.
All I can really share with you is my hunger for the marrow of the bones of my ancestors. I have a need to stand with them and feel the most powerful parts of their lives, the moments that defined who they were. What did the world mean to them? When they saw the ocean was it a totally different experience from the ocean I know?
My Uncle visited Ireland before his death and found two surviving great Aunts. They lived together in a thatched cottage in Southern Ireland, not changed much in hundreds of years. While he sat with them and shared his knowledge of family history, lunch approached. One of them stood up and made her way slowly to a stream outside where she caught two fish to cook and eat. I grew up fishing with my father. I have my own streams. Perhaps Ireland is not so far from me.
Much has changed since the Pagan days, and still the same streams flow. The spirituality of the Celts has been shifted by Christianity, twisted by strife and the monolithic forces of modern society. The papers today are filled with stories of torture wrought by the church on its own children. Yet still the bones sing out true – calling to all who have a heart to hear.
After coming all this way in pursuit of shamanism – kindling a flame that was not dependent on any specific culture other than my own, its odd to find myself turning to my own Irish ancestors for inspiration. Maybe its more than inspiration, its a sense of a wellspring of energy cultivated for thousands of years by a people who never knew if their next step would land them on the pathway to home and hearth or into a world populated by the untameable spirits of nature. I have access to that world in some way. We all do. I believe the price of admission to be quite small, an intimate matter of the heart.
I like to imagine what my wildest Pagan ancestors would say to me if they were sitting beside me now. Likely they wouldn’t caution me to be especially concerned with respect or propriety when exploring my spirituality. They’d want me to be wanton and reckless – risking everything to be touched by the forces that surround us every day. They would want me to follow my desires, my lust for spirit, into the catacombs that spill over with the bones of the ancient and wise dead.
I suspect the pathway into those catacombs is always right beside me, in the simplest things of life: when I fish and cook what I catch, when I acknowledge the spirit of the fish, and study the way it came to me. Mostly, of course, when I spend time with the trees outside my door, letting them help me stumble from this world into the other and the adventures that await me there.