Friday, January 4, 2008

"Are you a shaman?"

This is possibly the most frequent question I get asked when I try to explain filidecht to other people. Sometimes I'll just say "I'm a druid" because it's easy and people will at least have some idea that I'm into something Celtic, but that carries its own set of false assumptions and baggage. And these days saying you're a druid is likely to get you the same question.

My roommate got his Ph.D. in Celtic Civilization in Cork a year or so ago. Someone asked him if, when he was finished with his course of study, he would be a Celtic shaman. It's a frustrating thing to deal with. The assumptions can be very strange sometimes. But no -- neither of us is a Celtic shaman. He's a scholar. I'm a poet with mystic tendencies. 

I would say that I sometimes use techniques that could be classified as "shamanic" in my work. But then, so do some Buddhist monks, and your average person on the street doesn't consider them "shamans." For me, a big part of the issue is that Gaelic has any number of words for its pre-Christian spiritual practitioners. We really don't need to borrow words from outside. I've always felt that calling druids and filidh "shamans" made about as much sense as referring to Siberian shamans as "druids." They're not the same, no matter what John and Caitlin Matthews or D.J. Conway tell you.

I'm an animist. I'm a polytheist. I do trance work and Otherworld work and healing work and divination. To those ends, I call on spirits, ancestors and deities to help me with the work I need to do. The techniques I use vary depending on circumstances, and certainly some of the experiences I've had could be classified as "shamanic" but I can't see calling myself that with any sense of honesty. There's entirely too much baggage around the concept and it's so misunderstood that it brings up pictures in people's minds that have nothing to do with the way I do my work and how I follow my calling.

When I was at my book release a few weeks ago, a couple of people were in attendance who called themselves Celtic shamans. I don't know them, but one of them had a fake "Celtic" accent and didn't seem to realize that there were no ogam tracts in the Welsh language. He asked if I used ogam to cast my circles. I replied that I didn't use circles and didn't work that way. They were curious how I dealt with ritual, then.

"I work with spirits and the deities," I said. "I ask them for help."

"Oh, so you're a natural," the partner replied.

"No," I told her. "I worked long and hard to get where I am with this. I spent years studying and experimenting and talking with the spirits and the deities."

To my mind, shaman has become such a catch-all phrase for spiritual practitioners that it's become essentially meaningless in the Pagan community. I don't listen to drumming tapes to help me into trance. I don't have a "totem animal" or a "spirit guide." I've never done firewalking or had sensurround technicolor visionary experiences.

I go into the Otherworlds with caution, surrounded by spirits and with the permission of deity. I make offerings before and afterwards. I may sing my way there. I may go in dreams. I may use incubatory techniques based in sensory deprivation. 

I talk to spirits. Sometimes they talk back. I don't usually hear words, but more often just get a sense of presence and messages or images from them that aren't in anything resembling human speech. Sometimes one of my grandmothers shows up -- no, she wasn't a shaman either. She was a Polish Catholic, thanks. Admittedly, she wasn't a particularly churchy type, and she had a few folk customs up her sleeve, but she never taught them to me. She just shows up sometimes to see how I'm doing and help take care of me when I need it. When I was back east a couple of years ago I told my uncle that I'd seen and talked to her from time to time.

"Yeah," he said. "That runs in the family."

It had been a new one on me, but my dad's notoriously close-mouthed about just about everything and that goes double for family stuff. So maybe second sight runs in the family, but my uncle tends toward tall tales, so I'm not even sure of that, to be honest.

I write poetry. I talk to spirits. Sometimes the spirits talk back. 

That's what filidecht is about.


  1. Hello Erynn!
    Thank You for this post! It is very eloquent, dare I say, even poetic? I am a Naturopathic physician by trade, a healer with mystic tendencies by calling. I have been working on cultivating my relationship with my Ancestors, alliances with the Spirits that live in Nature and inhabit the medicines that I employ, and the High Ones for over a decade. I wish I knew now as much as I thought I new fifteen years ago. It is hard to conceive that someone could go to a few workshops on Shamanism and grok a similar understanding. Even so, I think that it is a wonderful thing that more and more people are interested in Shamanism and other Pagan approaches to health and well-being. I expect that as more and more people foray into those other realms with intention that some deeper understanding will creep through regarding the relatively superficial approach that is inherent in cultural appropriation. Shamanism as it is presented in the safe confines of our industrialized world is probably as harmless as it is effective...

    You wrote: "I go into the Otherworlds with caution, surrounded by spirits and with the permission of deity. I make offerings before and afterwards. I may sing my way there. I may go in dreams. I may use incubatory techniques based in sensory deprivation.
    I talk to spirits. Sometimes they talk back. I don't usually hear words, but more often just get a sense of presence and messages or images from them that aren't in anything resembling human speech"

    There is the truth--pure and simple and, in my opinion, that is what deep healing is all about, on both a personal level and a cultural one. Thank you again for saying it so well.

  2. Thanks for the explanation. I was curious as to whether this was what John Matthews was trying to be.I figured since you're quite familiar with both shamanism and filidecht that you'd be able to give a good explanation of what the differences are. (Keep in mind that I'm using a broader definition of the term shamanism as used by anthropologists and others, not strictly limited to the Evenk and other Siberian cultures.)

    I think the things that most made me curious were the trips to the Otherworld, and the altered state of consciousness involved. What I suppose I would ask, then, is what do you perceive shamanism as having that filidecht doesn't, that makes shamanism uniquely itself?

    Thanks :)

  3. Lupa -- well, what filidecht had that shamanism doesn't was years of formalized training. It was said to take up to 20 years of training for someone to be a fully-qualified fili. Druid covers much of the same territory.

    The druids and the filidh weren't just poets or magicians or Otherworld-travelers, they were also lawyers and historians and were often those who chose or installed the chief or king.

    The thing is, it isn't just Otherworld traveling and trance states that make someone a shaman. There's a cultural context that goes with it, and the Gaelic cultural context, from what we can determine, was rather different. Because of the state of historical research, we can't be certain what was happening before Christianity, but we can certainly know a few things, and one of those things appears to be that there were large schools for druids and filidh, which is something you just don't find with shamans that I've been able to tell.

  4. Kenneth -- I have a lot of issues with "core shamanism" because it's so devoid of anything that seems really meaningful, as well as being stripped of any cultural material that gives it context.

    There's almost nothing in core shamanism that talks about how the Otherworlds can be actively dangerous, and that, to me, separates it from genuine shamanisms. Every indigenous society that I'm aware of talks about the dangers of dealing with spirits and the Otherworlds. Core shamanism is all about cute fluffy stuff and how nothing can harm you there.

    Really, really not my experience.

  5. I guess that I have always seen core shamanism as just simply ineffective for healing because it contains no depth or specifics. I hadn't considered that it would actually be dangerous, but, now that you mention it...I see your point.

    I have another question, if you are so inclined, one of a more controversial nature. I have read the article that you co-wrote with Timothy White from Shaman's Drum in the late 90's, and there are a few references in your recent book to using certain agents as journeying aids. I fully understand if this is too public a forum to discuss this.

    I have had some very remarkable experiences using similar approaches with terminally ill patients--some of whom are still alive and no longer consider terminal, presumably due to understandings gleaned through the journeying experience.

    I have become intrigued with the term "Deoghbaire". I came across it originally in a Markale book, so I take it with a grain of salt. As near as I can tell the translation is drink-carrier. But, I have seen other authors translate this as "a cupbearer who knew the properties of intoxicating and hallucinogenic substances". I am curious if you have any idea if the term had a celtic antecedent either as a word or as a role within their society? In my mind, it may relate to the "real" modern practice of indigenous Shamanism and possibly a common theme in the archaic approach to healing...thank you, I am also searching for Imbas and I am grateful that you decided to create this blog.

  6. Kenneth -- "deogbaire" derives from "deog" or "deoch", meaning "drink, draught, potion." It means cupbearer, or one who serves alcohol.

    There are a couple of different ways to view this. One is through the whole sovereignty complex, where a(n Otherworldly?) woman serves mead to the assembled in order of precedence, thus giving social order and declaring who the ruler or sovereign is by this service. This is explored pretty thoroughly in Michael Enright's Lady With a Mead Cup, which you'll likely have to get through ILL because I think it's still out of print and ridiculously expensive used.

    The second thing we find regarding cupbearers is another Otherwordly situation where we find Nechtan having three cupbearers who serve him and guard the Well of Wisdom. They were called Flesc and Lesc and Luam. Flesc can be translated as "wand, rod, stick," (as a rod upon which one might inscribe ogam, or a "magic wand"). Lesc is "lazy, sluggish, reluctant, unwilling. Luam is "pilot, steersman." I have some theories about why the cupbearers are given these names, but that really rather deserves an entire essay of its own.

    I certainly believe that there's a good deal of literary evidence of the use of entheogens, or at least mind-altering substances in the Celtic corpus. I believe that they can, used judiciously, be a very useful adjunct to all kinds of work. Our society, however, comes with so few guides the the practical use of such substances that I think it would be difficult for a lot of people to get past the "getting high for a lark" aspect of it that so often presents itself.

    Having rituals surrounding such things would be immensely helpful, but unless people begin to breach that territory, the rituals will never develop. My personal opinion is that it would be good to develop such rituals and practices. I've got in mind to convert a closet into an incubatory chamber for use with such aids, and that will be something I'll discuss in more detail as the project goes along. I know there are risks associated with public discussions of these things, but it's not like I have a job or kids that anyone can take away from me. Being a professional madwoman has its advantages sometimes.

  7. Erynn--Cool, thank you for elaborating. I know shamanism takes quite a bit of training, but from what you say the length and structure are very different. I am looking forward to your filidecht book so I can see more of what's specific to that tradition-which-is-not-shamanism.

    So I guess my question now (Yes! I'm still throwing them at you!) is, was there a Celtic shamanic tradition (again, using shamanic in an anthropological sense that also includes things like seidh work, etc.)? I know it isn't the stuff that's presented as Celtic shamanism today, but is there any evidence of something that did exist in traditional Celtic cultures (some or all) that can be seen as the general "equal" of shamanism?

  8. Lupa -- If one considers seidhr a form of shamanism, then yes, possibly. I'm still really uncomfortable with the anthropological blanket term.

  9. Thank You so much!
    You have no idea the kind of impact your answer has on my end. I have studied this topic for many years and I am currently working through Enright's book for the second time :) I would love to compare notes with you as our mutual processes unfold. My incubation chamber is a pyramid shaped sweat lodge behind my house, it has proven invaluable as a way of creating isolation. I would love to discuss things with you further, if you are ever so inclined, my background was biochemistry and toxicology prior to medical school, and I am a professional herbalist; I am betting that we could have some pretty engaging conversations about entheogens! I am especially interested in what you have to say about the development of ritual in this context. I am envious of your role as a professional madwoman and I look forward to your posts where I can live vicariously through your writing! Thank you again!

  10. Kenneth -- I would love to talk with you at some point and in some depth. Most of my information regarding entheogens in ritual is theoretical, with only a tiny amount of practice to back things up, so your expertise would be most welcome as I work through a good deal of this.

    Chris and I have been talking about getting me down to Arizona at some point and if that happens, we'll no doubt have some lovely experimental work on our hands as well as lengthy discussions about theory and practice.

    I'm really torn about my inability to do sweat work -- I don't want to use the lodges of folks who are doing Native work, regardless of whether they're trained by Native people or ripping them off. The symbolism wouldn't be right for the sort of work I'm envisioning. Lakota cosmology, just as a for-instance, is very different than what I think would need to be represented in a sweat house for insular Celtic work.

    There's been some fascinating stuff published recently about a sweat house in Portugal, an Iberian Celtic stone structure with three chambers. There are also some interesting speculative works regarding the "cooking pits of the fianna" in Ireland that may have been dye baths/sweat houses/warrior encampments, depending on who you talk to. There are definitely Irish stone sweat structures in use until the late 19th or early 20th century, though ritual surrounding their use was lost. These are, I believe, similar to beehive huts though I'd have to look at my sources again.

    In all, it's a very complex situation with so much work left to be done. I've been very tempted in the past several months to sell the condo and buy some land so that I can do the work, but with the fibromyalgia, the physical labor part of it would be very challenging for me, and I can't count on a lot of assistance from the community even though a few folks would no doubt help out as they were able or available. But until property is acquired that would be suitable, with privacy and access to water, this is just a dream for later.

  11. I would love to engage in such conversations! I am at your service any time.

    I struggled with my sweat lodge design for quite a while before I came up with what I have now. I tried to be conscious of not co-opting someone else's religion, asked for a lot of direction and guidance. I was looking at the therapeutic potential as well as the spiritual one. It was a lot of physical labor, I hand dug it. The pyramid design was based on a sacred geometry idea that had been proposed as the ideal structure for soul travel. I don't know if that is true or not, but, it sure has nice resonance. My wife is an apprentice midwife and doula and has a budding relationship with Hathor, so the pyramid may be helpful in that regard...also remains to be seen. It is currently recessed four feet into the ground (metaphoric of the well of wisdom) so that it is more of a meditation chamber with a fireplace. In the center is a supportive post(metaphoric of Bile)around which I have written Ogam and numerous other symbols, as it seemed appropriate at the times. There is a very ancient mesquite tree to the east of the entrance that we refer to as Grandmother Mesquite. She provides quite an effect after an all night vigil and the rebirth into the rising Sun as its rays shine through Her branches is an image that I think I will take to my grave.

    I have seen some of the published material on the Portugese sweat house and I find it intriguing, I love the three chambered idea. It is just such a time intensive process that I will have to stay with this format until I am directed to recreate it.

    I would love to show it to you when you make it down our direction :)

  12. Kenneth -- between conversations with other CRs and some meditation on patterns that I keep finding, I've got some ideas about how to structure a covered-sapling style sweat house. It would have a good bit of cosmological resonance for me, given the work I've put into the whole thing.

    I wouldn't even attempt to build a stone structure -- Gods know I wouldn't want it to fall in on anyone, and the idea of having to be careful not to lean back against burning hot stone would be a distraction during intensive trancework in the space. It would be fascinating to see the Portuguese structure in more detail, though, I'll certainly admit.

    One of the ideas we've approached is the sweat house as "coracle" for the journey. I could see a five rings structure like that of the féige find and the round house at Emain Macha, for instance. That would consist of a combination of firepit, the ring of earth that stabilized the saplings, and rings of branches or saplings to which the structure was secured.

    I've also had thoughts on ritual, but again, most of this really deserves its own essay and a lot of experimentation. I need to give some structuring thought to the whole thing before I do that essay, though. I do think that the use of entheogens can enhance the work and open doors to the Otherworlds, but all due caution would need to be taken of course. At this point, I don't have much in the way of options but will be just doing some experimentation with incubation in a quiet, dark space until I can find a way to get some land for more in-depth experimentation.

    Your mesquite tree sounds wonderful, and the image itself must be striking. Perhaps someday I'll get to experience it myself!