Sovereignty and Liminality With Sharon Paice MacLeod

I sing of the Cauldron of Motion
A streaming of imbas
A rivermouth of learning

Joy at the guiding principles
of poetic skill
after a good study of it

Joy at the bringing forth of imbas
which the nine hazels protect
at Segais in the realms of the Síd.

– Excerpts from “The Cauldron of Poesy,” translated by Sharon P. MacLeod

Sharon Paice MacLeod is a Celticist, author and musician. She is an Old Irish translator at Stanford University and has published several renowned 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’. She also offers a wonderful two year course based around her books. To say that Sharon has been an incredible resource as well as a great friend in our little community over the years is an understatement. She’s an incredibly knowledgable, friendly, genuine and honest teacher who is dedicated to her many various crafts from teaching and writing to singing and Celtic language and music studies.

What is your background?

I was born in Canada to wonderful parents, who were born in Peru and Canada. My grandparents were from Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada via Britain (Poplar, the part of East London where ‘Call the Midwife’ took place). 

I was quite close to my Scottish great-grandfather from Dundee who lived to be almost 100, and inherited some artistic skills from him. I had a Welsh great-uncle by marriage (with a Cornish surname) and a Hungarian uncle – as well as recently discovered cousins from New Zealand and Peru, and an aunt who is half-Peruvian and half-Scottish (thanks, Ancestry DNA!)

My Australian grandmother, who spent some years living in Peru, used to sign our birthday cards ‘Besos, Abuela’… which at the time seemed perfectly normal. So it was quite an international upbringing, with a focus on family, education, laughter and music. 

MacLeod’s Dunvegan Castle, Isle of Skye

What were your favorite stories growing up that shaped your love for Celtic mythology and folklore?

I was intrigued but also a bit confused by some of the traditional collections of Germanic folktales. Some of that stuff is pretty dark. I felt more resonance with stories from my own family and heritage. 

My mom told me that when she was young, amongst her Scottish relatives Christmas was not that big of a holiday; New Year’s was the prime focus of the winter season with lots of food and gatherings. 

I loved hearing stories about our immediate family, including those from Scotland and other countries. My own relatives were quite colourful and bigger than life! That has been only intensified through genealogical and genetic research. 

I’ve traced my Goidelic roots to the late 1700’s in northern Scotland and northern Ireland, and earlier in the central Highlands and the Isle of Skye… and family stories and DNA also match up with Brythonic tales and traditions from Pictish regions in north-east Aberdeenshire and the west Midlands a few miles from the Welsh border. 

What is your favorite mythological tale or character and why?

I would have to say that I really enjoy the various texts and tales in which Amairgen (pronounced AH-verr-gen) appears. Always profound and dignified, learned and esoteric, he crops up in a remarkable number of places in the literature. 

He embodies the importance of learning and wisdom, has the ability to interact effectively with humans and other-than-humans, is knowledgeable in poetry as well as law and magic, and has more than a tinge of the supernatural without being showy. Quite a calm and grounded figure, who would undoubtedly have interesting things to discuss at an ale-feast. Or anywhere, for that matter!

Which concepts or lessons do you find most inspiring that are found in myths?

In the Celtic mythic literature, I’ve been particularly inspired by texts and poetry that illustrate the deep and (ideally) reciprocal relationship between this world and the Otherworld… as well as the importance of wisdom and skill, and the complex, nuanced native terminology used to describe and encode it. 

If there were critical steps for a more authentic Irish or Celtic pagan path, what would you suggest they be to a newcomer?

I think the biggest obstacle and stumbling block is lack of discernment in terms of the reliability of sources from which people are gleaning information. The internet is filled with absolute rubbish about all things Celtic, as are many popular (non-academic) books. So it’s really a minefield out there for learners, which is unfortunate – and also unfair to them.

There’s also a perception that a person who self-describes as a druid has access to an unbroken lineage back to the Iron Age or at least the Medieval era… which of course is patently untrue; the modern Druid orders date to the late 19th or early- to mid-20th century. 

They are in essence very modern occult pathways that often derive more from Wicca (also a creation of the late 19th – early 20th c.) than anything Celtic or ancient… and while their environmental focus on animism is very resonant in these times, that too derives from late 18th – early 20th c. antiquarian and Victorian misinterpretation of the historical druids as primarily being ‘priests of nature’ (and that they worshipped at stone circles and the like).

So learners at many levels have an additional challenge in needing to understand the history of the many different pathways they are seeing, as well as ascertaining which information about the Celts and their culture and religion is accurate and which is fabricated. It’s a challenging situation and one that I’m trying very hard to address in my writing and teaching.

Where have you found the most inspiration on the living landscape?

In the Highlands of Scotland. I am most at home spiritually amongst the hills, glens and lochs… especially where there are springs and waterfalls, heather, and outcroppings of white quartz. Singing or reciting prayers on the land. And Pictish symbol stones transport me. 

It’s great to walk the land knowing the Gaelic or hybrid Gàidhlig / Pictish place names and local history. And to have constant access to my favourite foods: hazelnut butter, heather honey, haggis and raspberries. Especially local and organic. 

What is your favorite ancient Neolithic site(s) and why? 

I am not as big a buff of Neolithic sites as many neopagans, to be honest. I don’t get a strong vibe at many stone circles or dolmens, etc, and these are typically unconnected with druids or Celtic religions. I feel much more resonance with Iron Age sites. 

But if pressed, I would say that Knowth is my favourite. The strange grassy mounds and the incredible proliferation of complex stone carvings are really spectacular. 

Is there a personal experience with the sidhe or Gods or Goddesses you’d like to share?

I’ve had a lot of really strong encounters with Celtic deities: in dreams during which I knew they had actually manifested, as well as in journeys, meditations and rituals.

One peak experience took place in the highlands of Scotland when I was invited to accompany a group of local people to help repair an ancient stone shrine. It took three hours to hike in with a guide, who had apparently shared my training and background with them.

Afterwards, these people – most of whom would probably not self-identify as a druid or pagan – but as people who wanted to preserve and respect the landscape in which they lived, nevertheless felt it was appropriate to perform some kind of ceremony to rededicate the shrine. 

One fellow intuitively made a libation of whiskey. Then a woman said to me, “Well, we don’t have any Gaelic, but you do. Do you know any prayers or songs?” I was floored, as this was the place in which they lived, and I was a guest.

I felt more nervous than usual but did recite a Gaelic prayer and sing a Gaelic song. While I was doing so, a diagonal shaft of energy came pouring in; it was so strong that I almost passed out. Afterward everyone was silent. 

It was clear to me that the gods and ancestral spirits were and are present, and that they respond strongly to the language and the historical traditions. It was incredibly powerful and affirming, but also very humbling.

How has musical playing and sessions impacted you?

I’ve been studying music since I was seven (my mum was my first music teacher) and am a professional vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. So music has played a huge role in my personal and spiritual life. 

Some years ago I received an international research grant to study aspects of historical Celtic-language based music and poetry associated with the living landscape, and that was really life-changing.

In both Scotland and Ireland I gained access to rare archives, field recordings, tradition bearers, and ancient instruments. I have a huge amount of information I hope to start writing up next year and also to record a CD. 

The focus has been refined as “instrumental music and vocal art-forms in Celtic-speaking regions from 800 BCE to 800 CE in socio-religious context.” It’s something I wake up everyday feeling very excited about!

What is your favorite song to play or sing?

Oh, too many to choose from! I’m very fond of the Scottish Gàidhlig songs “An Fhideag Airgead” and “Ailean Duinn,” the modern Irish song “Gabhaim Molta Bríde” as well as a number of Welsh, Cornish and Breton songs I’ve performed over the years. 

Was there a person, moment or experience that really exceptionally shaped you for the better? 

I think there have been a number of powerful experiences that have really molded who I am and who I have become. These include years of work with amazing teachers and mentors. 

My vocal coach of seven years really transformed my path. As did my life counselor and shamanic teacher who I’ve worked with for three decades. 

I learned and experienced a huge amount from my musical partner in The Moors, and that time period and the music we created was extremely life-changing and transformative. 

That was followed by my entrance into Celtic studies, where I learned an immense amount at Harvard and developed lifelong friendships. And through academic conferences and departments in Scotland and Ireland – and the grant and other research – over the last 25 years I have met many amazing people and developed deep friendships. 

Many of these things required intense dedication and sacrifice, but were also marked by incredible blessings coming through that can only be explained by deep spiritual direction and profound support.

What overall message do you hope to share the most through your writing?

The breadth and depth of the actual Celtic historical cultural and spiritual traditions. And how different much of that is from modern neo-paganism, from what people believe or are led to believe took place. 

In spite of those differences, I have found that people who are open to learning this have not been disappointed; the real traditions are as fascinating as the projections – just different. In some ways they can be more challenging, but ultimately the rewards are profound.

It’s important not to project our fantasies onto other people or cultures. While I am heartened to see that the phrase “cultural appropriation” has gained traction on social media, it is being used willy-nilly to publicly shame people and try and display power over them. 

And remarkably, at least in terms of Celtic cultures, those who are shaming others publicly are themselves almost inevitably engaging in cultural appropriation – or at least gross misrepresentation – of Celtic cultures on a daily basis.

Shaming and power plays aren’t the answer here. Those who have access to the actual information should find ways to respectfully guide and ultimately inspire learners. Those who treat learners disrespectfully, whether inside or outside of academia, have missed the point entirely. 

These are complex traditional cultures that – like other native cultures – need to be approached with respect, open-mindedness, and humility. It requires dedication, patience, hard work and a setting aside of ego to open to and access the wisdom and worldview. 

What is one thing you think people would find surprising about you? 

That although I am very serious in my work, I have an extremely pronounced and zany sense of humour. Got that from my dad. My mom is a Scorpio born on the eve of Samhain. From her – as well as the Scorpio in my own chart (moon and rising sign) – I get the intensity, and the pull towards digging around in the obscure lore of the past. 

Due to my sun sign, Leo (I was born on the eve of Lugnasad) that aspect enjoys sharing what I’ve found in the depths with others. It also helps with presenting and teaching, and – being ruled by the heart – brings alot of compassion to the work.

What makes you angry or sad that’s happening in the world?

Climate change, of course; violence and oppression; partisan politics; racism and intolerance. A general lack of awakening, or where people are awake, a lack of power needed to create and navigate a new course. 

What makes you happy and hopeful that’s happening in the world?

People who have utilized these challenges (or who, in spite of the above) still manage to come together to bring an increased focus on community, social justice, the environment, ideas from other cultures or walks of life, arts and education, and concern for all living beings and their inherent wisdom.

Dreaming the big dreams and being unwavering in focus, despite their lack of money (and the influence and greed of those who have it) and the ignorance and brazenness of political adversaries and some industries and corporations. 

We can’t afford to waste time or energy in fear, anger or despair. We have to strongly visualize the result, even if the path is not always clear. In a lot of traditional Celtic folk magic the language used describes the end result; the goal is stated as existing now, not in the future. 

It is steadfast vision and belief that fuels the action of change and transformation. And interestingly, that’s what the word “druid” means linguistically – “a strong or steadfast seer” (not oak-wisdom or tree-knowledge etc as is often claimed). Just one example of how reliable sources of information can shape and transform our understanding of these traditions! 

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