Last New Moon, we explored the spirit-filled world of the polytheistic Celtic-speaking tribes. Of course, this is the same spirit-filled world we inhabit today, whether we currently live in one of the modern Celtic nations or are the far-flung biological or spiritual descendants of the ancient Celts, living in many other countries around the world. The call of these ancient traditions runs deep, as attested by the more than 22,000 people who viewed The Three Cauldrons blog last month!
Think about it… all of those people, on some level, are your tribe. In the wake of the industrial revolution and the information age, we enjoy many conveniences, but also suffer tremendously from a lack of connection. We hunger for community, tribe, elders, and connection with nature and spirit. This hunger for connection boils down to one word: Relationship. Why else are we on the internet looking for like-minded souls? Seeking peers, friends and colleagues, looking for common ground, support and inspiration, we reach out into the etheric web, and are sometimes rewarded with connection.
In earlier times, the ancestors also reached out into the web for connection – the living web of nature, the numinous web of spirit, and in a Celtic tribe, the well-thought out and heartily maintained ties of kinship. At the great tribal gatherings, one had a chance to branch out beyond the local area to meet others – perhaps even those outside of one’s tribe, if the gathering was pan-tribal.
What is Relationship? Someone who we can reach out to, and who will reach out to us. Someone who knows who we are, and in whose presence we can continue to develop and become the most authentic and empowered Self possible. In relationship we experience acknowledgment, inclusion, support, understanding and respect. This is no one-way forest path, but a sacred circle. What we receive, we must also offer – and generally, we do so gladly if the relationship is a good one.
In many traditional cultures, there is no separate word for ‘nature’ (although there is often a highly detailed and culturally specific lexicon for aspects of what we call ‘the natural world’). Likewise, there is often no distinct separation between sacred and mundane – at least not in the way we currently think about those concepts. Certain things are certainly recognized as especially sacred, or conversely ‘taboo’ or to be avoided. But a sense that the sacred permeates all places and things – to varying degrees – is a part of the traditional cultural / religious world view.
Last time, we explored the polytheistic and probably animistic world of the ancient Celts. How did they form relationship with the Divine? It’s one thing to realize you live in the world of the sacred, here on Earth (something that all traditional cultures recognize). It is more of a stretch for moderns to reset their mind frame and actions to encompass that reality, when much of our upbringing – and most of the cultural zeitgeist around us – supports the opposite perception.
The archaeological record shows that the Celts recognized certain places in the landscape as particularly sacred (or at least, particularly suitable for religious activity and offerings). Bodies of water, mountains and hilltops, sacred groves, all formed sanctified precincts in which religious activities were undertaken. Contrary to popular misconception, the Celts also had indoor worship, using temples made of wood or stone with thatched or sod roofs (round in Ireland and Britain and square or rectangular in parts of the Continent – possibly influenced by Greco-Roman architecture).
We know what sorts of things were offered to the gods – beautiful metalwork, including jewelry, cauldrons, swords, spears, shields and craft tools. In some cases, these items were created so large or so small that they could not have been used by humans. This indicated their exclusive use for the denizens of the Otherworld. Some were also bent or broken, for the same reason. Hazelnuts, sacred animals, and other items (including an entire inverted tree!) have also been found. Wood carvings of people or parts of the body in need of healing were also offered up.
What we don’t know is what the Celts were thinking, saying or doing, while making these gifts to the Otherworld. However, if we look to the native writings (our third source of knowledge), we see over and over again the importance of maintaining a right relationship with others – with people, and with the Gods and Goddesses. Early Irish law tracts are full of information about one’s rights and responsibilities within the tribe or tuath, as well as within smaller kinship groups. These laws and traditions ensured right relationship as well as right reciprocity.
The native tales also give examples of people’s relationships with the gods – known in Ireland originally as the Síabhra, and later as the Áes Side, and finally as the Tuatha Dé Danann. Two of the most illuminating tales are Cormac’s Adventures in the Land of Promise, and, from a Welsh provenance, The First Branch of the Mabinogi (where they were called the Plant Annwn; Middle Welsh plant being a cognate with Irish cland / clann).
In Cormac’s tale, he is lured into an Otherworld encounter by the god Mannanán mac Lir. During their dialogue, Cormac asks Manannán if they might form an alliance. The deity agrees, saying he is well pleased by the prospect. After proving his worthiness, Cormac is given gifts by the deity, which guide and serve him well after he returns to the earthly realms.
In the First Branch of the Mabinogi, Pwyll enters into an agreement with an inhabitant of the Welsh Otherworld. He also proves himself worthy and is given privileges and respect in both the physical world and the Otherworld. Once this takes place, the two became close in a relationship, and were always giving each other gifts.
This sacred relationship is, I believe, the most important concept in Celtic religion, and is embodied in the phrase Sacred Reciprocity. It is encoded in the very language used to describe the Celtic Otherworld. As mentioned above, the gods were referred to as the Áes Síde, ‘The People of the Síd Mounds.’ The Old Irish word síd [pronounced ‘sheethe,’ rhymes with breathe] is often translated into English as ‘fairy’ when talking about ‘the fairies’ or ‘fairy places.’ This is a foreign word and concept, though, and the original word is much more informative and reflective of the actual beliefs. [Even in the folklore, in Celtic language settings the denizens of the Otherworld – who still inhabit the landscape – are referred to as the Síogai in Ireland and Sítheachain in Scotland.]
The root of Old Irish sid, as well as Middle Welsh sedd, means ‘seat, as in the ‘seat or abode of the Gods.’ So the word first referred to the places in the landscape where the Gods were known to dwell or be especially present. Therefore, the gods and goddesses were logically referred to as the Áes Síde, ‘The People of the Síd’ (i.e. Otherworld). In the texts, when people recognized they were in the presence of a deity, the narrator says (of the god) ‘they were of the Síd.’ So the primary meaning has to do with sacred, spirit-filled or numinous places – which were numerous and omni-present – and secondarily referring to those who live in the Otherworld and who inhabit those places, or use them as portals for interaction.
But the word has a third meaning, that of ‘peace.’ As anyone who has read a good translation of the original Irish or Welsh mythic literature knows, the gods are not always peaceful (nor are the human beings with whom they interact). It is believed that this secondary meaning reflects not a continual peace – where peaceful, nature-loving, enlightened Celts wandered in their hooded capes through a peaceful landscape (although they did have wool cloaks and there was certainly mist at times), but refers to peace that was a goal, something to aspire to.
By entering into a reciprocal relationship with the Gods, by acting in ways that honoured them (and ourselves) – showing respect, making offerings (gifts, pledges, actions), living in a good way according to the ethics and traditional wisdom of one’s tribe – we will experience peace, and by extension, happiness. This is the third meaning of Síd / Sedd, one which I invite you to contemplate in your own life and practice over the next lunar cycle.
Sharon Paice MacLeod is a Celticist, author and musician. She is an Old Irish translator at Stanford University and has published several well known books on Celtic religion including ‘Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief’ as well as ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’.