The Three Cauldrons: Celtic Myth and Spiritual Wisdom

Academic and historically based study and exploration of authentic Celtic religion, mythology, druidism, folklore, literature, languages, wisdom texts, archaeology, ethnography, ritual, poetry and visionary practices, as well as the anthropologically supported identification of shamanic elements in Celtic contexts.

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Entering the Nemeton: Creating Authentic Celtic Ritual

The retrieval and revival of indigenous ceremonial traditions is a growing concern in this increasingly disconnected world, and one that has great promise for the restoration of methods of sustainable living, sound ecological practices and the preservation of ancient knowledge. Sound recordings of elders are being made around the world, as well as video recordings (where possible and appropriate) of aspects of traditional ritual. For some tribes, preservation and the training of the younger generation are key. For other native cultures, these efforts hinge around the retrieval of fragmentary and partially forgotten evidence. This is the situation with native Celtic ritual practices, some of which have died out, and others which survive in traditional Celtic-language speaking communities and which are not advertised or generally made public.

Every book, group and spiritual teacher who professes to practice 'ancient Celtic or Druidic ritual' has a completely different system on offer, which in and of itself is a red flag. The vast majority of these are based on modern occult and Neo-Pagan traditions, Neo-Shamanism of a non-Celtic provenance, and various New Age ideas, with a smattering of Celtic words or symbols. The reason for this is totally understandable: without living elders to pass along an intact tradition, or detailed written evidence that preserves such a system (provided by and approved by living descendants of native tradition bearers), there is enormous confusion and controversy over what Celtic ritual is or should be like.

Add to that the fact that the evidence we do have is incredibly fragmented, is found in numerous ancient and medieval Celtic languages (usually not English), and requires professional training - if not a college degree - to find, understand, and interpret, then the situation seems dire indeed! But it need not be so. It requires a few tools in one's tool belt, though. These include: patience, hard work, lack of personal projection or fantasy, discernment, open mindedness, lack of ego, respect, and honesty. Just because we want something to be a certain way, or we strongly feel it was so, doesn't make it true. It's important to have truth in labeling - to be clear and honest with ourselves and with others about where the elements of modern personal or group ritual come from. If it comes from Wicca, or modern Goddess Worship, or Native American or Buddhist contexts, or is the creative brain-child of a certain person or organization, then say so. If you created it yourself, own it! Where it comes from a known Celtic source, state that too. Most if not all of the 'Celtic' ritual that is out there does not come from a Celtic source, so we need to start there.

Not too many people are ready to entirely scrap their current ritual framework and belief system, to 'empty the cauldron' so to speak, and begin to recreate Celtic ritual piece by piece, and step by step. But some are, and many would be willing to adjust and learn, in order to best understand and honour the Ancestors and to interact with the Deities in a way that they are accustomed to. This is the only way to retrieve and preserve authentic Celtic knowledge and ritual. By changing it, we lose it. (The same goes for other traditional cultures). For those who do truly seek to walk in the footsteps of the Celtic-speaking ancestors, there are ways forward, and that is what the Eolas ar Senchas Research Project is all about. Eolas has many meanings, used here to denote 'Wisdom' or 'Guidance,' ar means 'our' and Senchas is Traditional Knowledge or Lore.

This is an on-going research project which utilizes Celtic Studies as a vehicle for learning about and ultimately recreating and reviving aspects of Celtic ritual practice, including ceremony, song and chant, as well as esoteric practices. Some of its work has received grant funding, with more hopefully in the works. As there are writings published and CD's pressed, notices will be sent out here and on social media. For now, though, let's start at the beginning and explore seven key aspects that we know were part of Celtic ritual practice.

Sun-Wise Worship: The Celts were part of the greater Indo-European family of cultures and languages, who all performed ceremony in a clock-wise or sun-wise direction. This is explicitly stated by a Classical author who, while commenting on a Gaulish feast, noted that the people sat in a circle and passed around a common cup, each person sipping a little from it, and passing it along. He noted that the cup was passed in a sun-wise direction, "the same direction in which they worship their Gods."

Four Directions: There are some scattered references to the honouring of the four cardinal directions. We know that this often formed part of Indo-European ceremony, and that the sun-wise circle began in the East. There is an interesting passage in the  medieval Irish text, 'The Settling of the Manor of Tara,' in which a supernatural being outlines for the people of Ireland the attributes of the four quarters of the land. The primary attributes are: East - Prosperity; South - Music; West - Learning, North - Battle, and Center - Sovereignty. Note that the use of the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) does not form part of Celtic tradition. There are esoteric texts which speak about 'fire in water' as a form of inspiration but that is a more advanced concept and not necessarily part of tribal ceremony.

Sacred Center: Ritual movement processed in a sun-wise direction around the center, which was considered the most sacred point. It was likely perceived of as the abode of the World Tree; a similar concept in early Ireland was the Bile (pronounced BILL-uh): a mast, pillar or sacred and venerated tree. There were sometimes offering pits located in or near the center of a Celtic temple or sanctuary, and altars of wood or stone may have been placed there as well.

Three Worlds: There is also evidence for the early Celtic perception of three sacred realms, Upper, Middle and Lower, such as forms part of indigenous belief in many cultures that practice shamanism. In some cases, these seem to be referred to as 'Skies, Earth and Sea' (I'm avoiding the word 'heavens' because of monothesitic associations with that word). In other cases, Sky, Middle world of Earth, and lower world associated with Síd mounds are mentioned (denoting a lower world located under the earth).

Reciprocity between the Worlds: In many myths and texts we see the great importance placed on maintaining a balanced, respectful and reciprocal relationship between the worlds. Honouring the wisdom and power of the Gods is one way to do this. Remembering and honouring the Ancestors is another. Living by traditional codes of behavior, and preserving ancient wisdom were extremely important. People made offerings and also made pledges or oaths - to do or not do something - in order to foster these relationships.

Ritual Actions: We have some detailed information about ritual actions (including objects utilized) from ancient Celtic contexts, such as the gathering of mistletoe and other sacred herbs. There is also excellent information concerning offering ceremonies and objects from archaeological contexts. (See previous blogs for recommendations on books about Celtic art and archaeology). Many centuries later, we have detailed information about folk customs from the four Celtic holidays: Imbolc, Beltaine, Lugnasad and Samhain. Some of these may look quite different from ancient Celtic practices, though some aspects may be survivals.

(Note that the Celts did not celebrate the Equinoxes or Solstices, no matter what you read. They would have known when these occurred, of course, and likely served as astronomical markers for computing the date of the four Celtic feast days, which would all have taken place on the New Moon. There is a good discussion of this in 'Queen of the Night' - Red Wheel / Weiser and in Vol. 18 of Cosmos Journal, Univ of Edinburgh).

Liturgy: All cultures have traditional prayers, stories, songs, and chants that are sung and recited during ritual. Celtic cultures would have been no different. Indeed, given the enormous focus on music and poetry, and the recitation and preservation of traditional knowledge that exists throughout the tradition, we can assume that these would have formed a huge part of Celtic ceremony. This is one of the primary goals of the Eolas ar Senchas project, to retrieve, historically recreate, record and transmit authentic Celtic prayers (both ancient and early modern), sung songs and instrumental music, as well as chants and invocations.

We will keep you posted when the texts and CD's are ready! For now, there is an example of a Gaelic blessing used at Imbolc in Scotland on The Moors CD, with simple harp accompaniment - it follows the recitation of recordings of Gaelic speaking tradition bearers of similar folk prayers. There is also a piece which provides a blending of two Gaelic prayers honouring the moon - with similar vocal intonation.

For those with a keen appetite for study and exploration, there are many relevant chapters in 'Celtic Myth and Religion' (McFarland) as well as copious footnotes and a hefty and reliable bibliography ready to be explored!



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Born on the eve of Lugnasad, your guide and ban-fili/ban-druí is a published author, teacher, and Celtic singer and musician. She trained in Celtic Studies through Harvard University, and has taught Celtic mythology and folklore at the university level. Her research in Celtic myth and religion has been presented at the University of Edinburgh, University College Cork, the International Celtic Congress, the Harvard Graduate Study Group for Ancient Magic and Religion, and the Ford Foundation Lecture Series.

She has served as Faculty at the Celtic Institute of North America and the Omega Institute, and her books include: ‘Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief' (McFarland), ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’ (McFarland), 'The Divine Feminine in Ancient Europe' (McFarland), ‘'Queen of the Night' (Weiser), ‘Early Celtic Poetry and Wisdom Texts: The Three Cauldrons, The Songs of Amairgen, and other Cultural Studies’ (forthcoming) and a chapter in the academic collection ‘Celtic Mythology in the 21st Century’ (University of Wales Press).

Currently she is Director of the Eolas ar Senchais research project, which received international grant funding to research and restore authentic ancient Celtic instrumental music and vocal art forms, and historically attested Celtic ritual in socio-religious context.

She sings in many of the modern and medieval Celtic languages and is a multi-instrumentalist. Her previous musical group, The Moors, has cult status in the pagan world. She leads workshops and distance training programs, with new books, CD's and research on the way.


  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Monday, 23 March 2015

    Thank you for this article and knowledge.

  • Síthearan NicLeòid
    Síthearan NicLeòid Monday, 23 March 2015

    You are very welcome, Greybeard! May it serve and inspire!

  • Alison Leigh Lilly
    Alison Leigh Lilly Monday, 23 March 2015

    Thanks for this article -- a good, informative run-down of some basic commonalities in ritual from different ancient Celtic cultures.

    I do want to challenge one of your statements, though, and point out a potential conflict. You encourage people to acknowledge when they are drawing on sources other than ancient Celtic cultures:

    "If it comes from Wicca, or modern Goddess Worship, or Native American or Buddhist contexts, or is the creative brain-child of a certain person or organization, then say so. If you created it yourself, own it!"

    I totally agree with this! Personally, I always do my best to be up front about what in my own practice is and is not traceable back to ancient Celtic cultures. However, you go on to say:

    "[M]any would be willing to adjust and learn, in order to best understand and honour the Ancestors and to interact with the Deities in a way that they are accustomed to. This is the only way to retrieve and preserve authentic Celtic knowledge and ritual."

    Surely, you can see how this statement undermines your previous one: by asserting that this particular approach is the "best" way to authentically connect with the gods and ancestors (even suggesting it's the "only way"), you are tacitly discouraging people from being honest about when their own spiritual work has led them to creatively adapt or re-interpret these practices for the modern world. Your affirmation of "own it!" seems a little disingenuous in light of your later statement, taking on more of the tone of accusation, as if what you're actually saying is "admit it! confess!"

    I can completely understand why someone, confronted with an attitude that their way may not be authentically meaningful merely because it is not "ancient," would feel pressured to bolster their position by claiming that it is in fact part of an ancient tradition. I wonder if this is a hold-over from the influence of Christianity on our modern Paganism, with so many of us raised in a religion "of the book" where spiritual authority is directly related to how old something can be proved to be. I'm not convinced that a society that passed on its wisdom through oral tradition would be nearly as obsessed with the ability to cite and cross-reference every detail of current tradition. One of the benefits of an oral tradition is its ability to adapt and evolve to suit the times, the places and the audiences to which it is addressed.

    So my opinion is that the modern re-interpretations, adaptations and creative inventions of Pagans inspired by the myths, metaphors and symbolism of the ancient Celts in order to connect with the ancestors and gods today is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of those traditions.

  • Síthearan NicLeòid
    Síthearan NicLeòid Monday, 23 March 2015

    Hi Alison - Thank you for your very insightful and thoughtful message! Yes, I can clarify....

    Since what I am personally trying to do - and what some others are also trying to do - is to retrieve and recreate historical Celtic ritual and esoteric practices, I'm trying to differentiate between that kind of personal path and goal, and other modern paths, many of which are very eclectic (although people don't always realize how much).

    I think it boils down to the 'truth in labeling' theme - which as you know is often pretty absent. People can get excited about things they read or explore, and 'want' it to also be Celtic, and as a result a whole bunch of things get mixed together, and are called Celtic. Sometimes people know they're doing it, sometimes they don't. There can be elements of fantasy and projection, or even a bit of laziness - not bothering to find out, not going to the source and just believing everything that comes one's way.

    I'm glad to hear that you are able to distinguish, and do so regularly! That's great!
    I think if more people were honest with themselves and others, it would help the situation a lot. For example, if they said, Hey, we call ourselves Celtic thus-n-such, or Neo-Druids, or whatever, and some of what we do comes from Celtic sources, while other practices we have drawn from Wicca, or Neo-Paganism, or Buddhism, etc. that would be very clear for people. And, if they've created things anew, that's where the 'own it' suggestion comes in. Not only 'be honest' but 'don't hide behind false ancient claims' - and if you've created something new, why not say so? No shame in that!

    I think this shows the best respect to learners - who deserve to know clearly and accurately - where the information comes from. And also shows best respect to the Celtic ancestors. In my view, we don't have the right to make claims for other people or other cultures - native cultures take their traditions and identity very seriously.

    In terms of culture change and changes in practice, yes, that does happen, but it often does so in a more slow, organic process and always within the cultural matrix of the original culture. Even with oral tradition, things can be assiduously preserved. For example, with the Brahman chanting of Hindu tradition - the same texts are still chanted exactly the same as thousands of years ago, and there is great pride in remembering and reciting the texts exactly as transmitted. This is also highly evident in Old Irish traditions.

    There are several reasons for this: One is that in many cases the words are believed to come directly from the Gods or Ancestors or Spirit; they have power and are sacred in the form as given. It is an act of honour to preserve them in that original form. This, for example, is the case with modern Lakota inipi (sweat lodge) ceremonies). Some of the songs are old, some are newer - but they are always perceived as coming directly from Spirit, and within a Lakota cultural matrix and sensibility. And, while there have been some small changes to the ceremony (using cotton cloth and string for prayer ties, rather than leather and sinew; using lighters as well as matches), any changes are always discussed with elders, intensely prayed and meditated over, and integrated when the elders are in agreement (and of course, the Spirits!) So it's not 'anything goes' any time. Some of these changes do reflect historical events and such - like the more recent allowing of women to participate in these particular ceremonies. (Of course, there are women's ceremonies in which men do not participate).

    The second concern is that by changing a tradition as much as currently happens, the original tradition becomes even more obscured and more lost! There is less and less connection with ancient wisdom, with the words of the Gods, and with the Ancestors. Too much is colored by outside influences (and of oppressing or colonializing powers) and this further disrespects the culture and its traditional wisdom.

    This is totally happening with Celtic, and it's very sad. (and with Native American, and more recently, Andean shamanism, amongst others). Books and webpages are being cranked out with no awareness, no time taken to find out what is truthful and respectful, until the actual traditions are little more than a whisper in the ethernet.

    There is actually an enormous amount of useful, relevant and inspiring authentic information, but it's not yet all collated and translated and interpreted and published in an accessible form. But it is there, and some can be found in books or articles on-line or from the library, if people put in the time.

    My Lakota teacher is adamant - and this comes to him from his elders - "Do not change the ritual. It was given to us by White Buffalo Calf Woman, and the Creator." They understand that it is a gift. And that it has been given in a form that works, and that is safe. Change it on your whim, and it can become dangerous. Or at least inert.

    Now, since we don't have a fully intact Celtic ritual system, we will have to use some of our own judgement. And do alot of praying and meditating, to check with Gods and Ancestors. Working within a Celtic cultural context and with respect, in order to recreate and enliven the rituals. Hope that is helpful! :)

  • Alan O ' Domhnaill
    Alan O ' Domhnaill Friday, 27 March 2015

    Language is in a continual state of evolvement. Possibly our way of expressing and understanding too. Should ritual not also be evolving ? Should I not be able to scour my jeans, become wide eyed and gain a greater understanding of it all. Will not my naked spiral dance covered in mud under a full moon not be enough to save my soul ! For I am wind on wave and also the hare of the dog.

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