Sisterhood of the Antlers

Walking the path of the Ancestral Mothers of Scotland with stories, art, and ritual

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Keening in a Time of Crisis

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

b2ap3_thumbnail_Keening-Women.jpgWe’re in an in between place right now, Imbolc has passed but it’s not quite Spring Equinox yet. One day it seems like full blown spring and then the next we’re plunged back into winter. Maybe you still haven’t thrown off some of the Imbolc layers which can see us feeling fragile and full of unease. Maybe part of that unease comes from a past down worry of our ancestors which is knitted into our bones, worries about food supplies running out and hungry mouths to feed. Maybe part of that unease is that many who are ill can’t say yes to another year of living and choose instead to make their journey to the next world.


In the days when keening was a practiced ritual it would go hand in hand with laments where people gathered to mourn loved ones. While many people take their spiritual vows at this time of year and say yes to Brighid and yes to another year of living, there are those whose time is it to say no and begin their journey onto the next world.


My grandmother was one of those who died at this in between time  there was a wake in the three days after her death where she lay in her coffin in her bedroom and neighbours came to visit. Keening was long gone by this time and the song for those days was the clinking of teacups on saucers and the rattling of rosary beads. I was a little taken aback when neighbours came over and lovingly touched her face and stroked her hair, for I had never seen a dead body before and my Grandmother looked very different due to the makeup the Mortuary had applied. The role of the wake is for friends and family to say their goodbyes often recalling stories about the person. The span of time in the three days is to let the person adjust to being dead and realize at the end of this period that it’s time for them to leave this realm of the living and move on to what awaits them in the next world.


What is Keening

 Anne Schilling in her study of keening defines the verb, ‘to keen’, as the act of wailing and lamenting and yet it can also be described as a noun ‘the keen’, meaning the text or the song used when lamenting. Traditional keening is a ritualistic practice of vocally mourning the dead. While there are schools of thought exploring both theories, (Schilling, 2013) suggests that both are correct due to the evolution and the variations of keening over the years.


I’d love to play you some keening tracks to illustrate what keening is but none exist, plus keening is traditionally done in the presence of a dead body. By the time we had tools to record, Keening was already seen as a backwards Pagan tradition and, women couldn’t be persuaded to give an example of a keening song, as to do it outside of it’s proper ritual before a body laid out was a great superstition (McCoy 2009).

 The keen itself drew upon traditional motifs, themes and vocalisations with a characteristic falling inflection of the voice with a three part structure comprised of a salutation, verse and then the cry. Some of those inflections you would recognize from modern singers such as Sinéad O’Connor or Dolores O’Riordan. Yet the keening couldn’t break out too early or the ‘devil’s dogs’ were alerted and the soul could lose it’s way (McCoy 2009).

Keening was always a woman’s tradition and the role of keening, like today’s funeral, was to take our grief through ritual and a rite of passage of sorts allowing us to go on with our lives even though we still held our personal grief.


The roots of keening lie within the Pagan tradition and the purpose of the keen is as (Collins 2014) explains to traversing the parallel worlds of this world and the next and as the keener used her voice guided the dead person’s soul from this world to that of the spirits and so the sound of the keen connects this world and the next. It is the very essence of a female shamanic tradition which Collins explains: “It is possible to suggest that keening women entered  state of liminality through use of what ordinarily would be publicly unacceptable words, sounds – such as howling, screeching and wailing – appearance and dramatic actions, occupying a peripheral position, a state of betwixt and between, inhabiting both this world and the next. This was very different to women’s regular behaviour presented in public which did not allow women the opportunity to behave, dress, act out or publically criticize their world. Bean chaointe* gave the impression of being out of this world, and through inclusion of the congregation during the third part of the keen, constructed a space in which change would happen. Between worlds, outside of custom, convention or the law, and neither of this world nor the next, the bean chaointe, bringing the community from actions of their keen were the means through which transformation occured, bringing the community from a state of intense grief and disharmony to a post-liminal state, a place of acceptance and stability.” (Collins 2014, pg. 3)

*Bean chaointe – keening woman


 It is the Goddess Brighid who brought keening to the world. In the Battle of Moytura, Brighid appears as the wife of Bres of the Formarians, the mythical Irish invaders and enemies of the people of the Goddess Danu. The position Brighid plays as married to a Formarian see’s her acting as an intermediary between the two opposing sides who are fighting for control over Ireland. Her son, Ruadan, was given help by the people of the Goddess Danu, his maternal kin, who taught him how to make weapons. Yet he acts on behalf of his paternal side, the Formarians and wounds the sacred Smith (blacksmith) of the People of the Goddess Danu. He only wounds the smith who has enough strength left to retaliate and kills Ruadan. Brighid then begins to mourn her son and it is said that through her grief was the first time crying or wailing were ever heard in Ireland (Condren 1989, pg. 61).


The Erasure of Keening

 In the mid-nineteenth century, in post-famine Ireland and with the emergence of a new middle class, keening became an embarrassment in a society that was modeling itself on Victorian values and beliefs. The Catholic Church viewed keening as barbaric and uncivilized and went out of their way to banish the practice. They viewed the keening woman as taking on the role of the priest and viewed it as a Pagan practice as it contained no reference to Christ and the Christian afterlife (Collins 2014).

 As a woman, an artist and priestess, my mind paints a picture of the woman keener as stepping into the role of the death priestess, a tradition of Brighid as the midwife of birth and death, accompanying the soul onto the otherworld. For me, this is a tradition which taps into the lineage of my foremothers, a shamanic tradition of women’s mysteries which can be traced going back to the Paleolithic.


Yet keening has taken on new forms and moved outside of the funeral rite. It has been used when people by their thousands, some forced, some by choice left Ireland and boarded ships for America.An Irish storyteller describes that when people left for America they were grieved for, a term called “cumha” which he describes as a grieving for the living (Porter, 2013). For those taking that journey out of desperation, choice or by force of law, it’s not hard to imagine the grief for those leaving didn’t even know that they would survive the journey, they didn’t know if they would ever be able to return and if they did return it is highly likely that many friends and their parents would be dead.

Keening Ceremonies Today


While my first experience of facilitating a keening was at a wake for a dear friend living in modern times sees us carrying many griefs for what is happening in the world - the injustices happening to not just people but to animals and this planet we call home.

Michelle Collins notes that keening ceremonies have become infrequent events where groups come together and keen. At such ceremonies, participants are no longer keening any one individual’s death but keening their own personal grief.

b2ap3_thumbnail_scarf-edited.jpgKeening in a Time of Crisis

 We live in an age which desperately needs to engage with its grief and yet we live in a culture which distracts itself with every shape, size and shiny offering it can in order not to feel grief or suffering. Yet that pent up grief for all that’s happening in the world can immobile us and lead to a place of being overwhelmed.

 We are on a threshold between what is and the new world which we are creating. That new world is being built by millions of grassroots programs which are already flourishing. Keening is still a healthy ritual to mourn our dead and, mourn all our personal griefs and it can invite us to move through our grief and allow us to put our full focus on the work we do now and bring us out of a shocked feeling of being overwhelmed.

 It was the Wise Woman throughout countless generations who was called in a time of crisis. Today we find ourselves in the middle of a crisis which can affect every living system on the planet. Both the Wise Woman and keening come out of an ancient female tradition that is much needed in today’s world.

Right now on this planet women all over the world are holding a collective grief for what is happening. As a woman I can only reflect on my own personal experience through the unique ways women relate to the world. Brighid gave us keening and I use keening as a way for groups of women to unleash, to vocalise and to embody their grief with purpose. The purpose is not to stay with the grief, but to move beyond it into asking for wisdom in what needs to be done and stating what each individual commits to doing. Joanna Macy (Macy and Brown 2014) offers a powerful example within her program of “The Work that Reconnects”. All of this work invites us to dig down to the roots and be nourished by an ancient spirituality, one which has fed countless generations of women and holds the torch for remembering we once lived in balance and partnership with each other and honored life in all its glorious expressions and knew we were just as much an expression of nature.




Collins, Michelle. 2014. ‘Divine Madness’ and Collective Grief: Ritualized Sounds and the Potential for Transformation.

(Accessed online:

Condren, M. 1989. The Serpent and the Goddess. Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland. Harper and Row, USA.

McCoy, Narelle, Phyllis. 2009. Madwoman, Banshee, Shaman: Gender, changing performance contexts and the Irish wake ritual. Contained in: Mackinlay, E. and Bartleet, B. and Barney, K, (Eds), Musical Islands, Place and Research. Cambridge Scholars Press, UK. Pgs. 207-220.

Macy, J. and Brown, M. 2014. Coming Back to Life. New Society Publishers, Canada.

Porter, G. 2013. Grief for the Living: Appropriating the Irish lament for songs of emigration and exile. Humanities Research. Vol XIV. No. 2. Pgs. 15-25.

Schilling, Anne. The Search for Irish Keening in the 21st Century. Voice and Speech Review. Pgs 148-154. (Published online 2013 – accessed 02/01/2017:


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Jude Lally is a forager of stories. You’ll find her out wandering the hills around Loch Lomond, reading the signs that guide her to stories in the land.

As a Cultural Activist, she draws upon the inspiration from old traditions to meet current needs.
She uses keening as a grief ritual, a cathartic ritual to express anger, fear, and despair for all that is unfolding within the great unraveling.
As a doll maker, she views this practice as one that stretches back to the first dolls which may have been fashioned from bones and stones and ancient stone figurines such as the Woman of Willendorf. She uses dolls as a way of holding and exploring our own story, and relationship to the land as well as ancestral figures.

She gained her MSc Masters Degree in Human Ecology at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, Scotland) and lives on the West Coast of Scotland on the banks of the River Clyde, near Loch Lomond. She is currently writing her first book, Path of the Ancestral Mothers.



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