Sunday, December 30, 2007

The spaces between

One of the themes that arises again and again in the Gaelic corpus is that of liminality -- the places and spaces between. It may be between times or worlds or genders. It may be between sleep and waking, between day and night, between the inside and the outside.

Strange things take place there. The taibhsear (tahv-shyer) stands in the doorway, hands upon the jambs, and looks out for an omen in the first thing she sees in the morning. A fili sits on a mound and fasts, waiting until the mist rises so the spirits can appear. Lugh stands on one leg with one eye closed and one hand behind his back, half in this world and half in the other, to work his crane-magic. 

Liminal spaces and liminal people are a deep part of the CR tradition. Those of us called to filidecht often find ourselves "in-between" in some way. It may be the razor's edge between sanity and oblivion. Perhaps it is a sense of being between genders, partaking of the nature of all. It might be that we are called to walk the mists between worlds, bringing back insights and vision in hopes of integration for self or community. We might look into the spaces between life and death and perceive the spirits there. In some cases, we might be poised between cultures, the child of many different deities and traditions.

In the words of Hedwig in "Tear Me Down", 

There ain't much of a difference 
Between a bridge and a wall

Those of us who stand in the borders, who walk the mists, might act sometimes as either or as both. As we learn, we become both the guardians and the revealers of mysteries. We become guides and challengers. Ideally, we work to integrate ourselves within both the mundane world and the Otherworlds, and help others to find their own balance in those precarious places without losing our own footing.

A fili is, in so many ways, a shape-shifter. It takes fluidity and changeability to walk between worlds. Like Suibhne, we might be called upon to grow feathers and fly. Like the fénnid (fay-nid), we might be pressed to fight in wolf-shape, battling the forces that would rage against the safety of hearth and home. Like Amairgen, we may be called upon to take up a myriad shapes, calling out a litany of what we have learned:

I am a wind on the sea
I am a wave of the ocean
I am the roar of the sea
I am a powerful stag
I am a hawk on a cliff
I am a dewdrop in the sunshine

What do we learn in our shapes? What do we learn through our transformations? What functions and services do we perform?

Am I a bridge, or a wall?

Sunday, December 23, 2007


It's a normal human desire, belonging. We all want it in one way or another. We want to belong to or with other people, to belong in a place that calls out to us, belong to a group whose goals and intentions resonate with our own. We seek out belonging in shared culture, spirituality, friendship, and family. Even outsiders and radicals want to belong and seek out sympathetic others of their kind. This is part of what drives the creation of religious and spiritual movements -- the desire to belong to something greater than ourselves. 

Reconstructionist religions speak to those who feel a sense of belonging to a different time and possibly to a different place. I've never talked to anyone in CR who wanted to live in iron age Ireland -- we're all pretty fond of things like central heating and indoor plumbing. Yet so many of us feel spiritually connected to that other time and place. It's not a desire to escape, either. So many of us are deeply engaged in social and political struggles, in learning about the world and humanity's place in it, in working for change in the destructive patterns in modern Western civilization. Yet we wonder if we could achieve a sense of belonging and kinship with people in the places where our deities arose, where the languages that are important to us ritually once were and sometimes still are spoken. We read and study and dream and make pilgrimages, seeking that sense of belonging and acceptance.

Alastair McIntosh addresses the idea in a brief poem from his collection Love and Revolution, entitled Scotland.

A person belongs
inasmuch as they are willing
to cherish and be cherished
by a place 
and its peoples.


Buinidh neach an seo
Fhad 's a tha iad deònach
tasgadh is a bhith air an tasgadh
leis an àite
agus a mhuinntir

(translation to Gaelic by Maoilios Caimbeul)

Alastair McIntosh is originally from the Isle of Lewis, currently residing in Glasgow. He is an environmental, political and spiritual activist whose activities touch on many communities. His work and writing offers connection with the original animist, immanentist traditions of the early Celtic peoples, and an acceptance of those who would join in that reverence. Outsiders, our respect for and cherishing of the traditions and the peoples whose pre-Christian spiritual practices we wish to reconstruct and emulate is what gives us a connection to the traditions and grants us a sense of belonging.

We belong to the Earth. We belong to the deities and the spirits. We belong to ourselves and to what we cherish. When we embrace the land in a particular place, we allow ourselves to be embraced in turn -- to belong to the land and its spirits. Even when we come from far away, if we approach with respect and with love then we can be accepted there, becoming a part of that place, of those people. With love and respect, we create belonging and connections. We find our way home. 

Thursday, December 20, 2007


One word you'll find me using frequently here and in other places is geilt. It is translated as "one who goes mad from terror, a panic-stricken fugitive from battle, a crazy person living in the woods and supposed to be endowed with the power of levitation, a lunatic." It may also be the name of some kind of bird or it might mean "grazing." The title I'm using here, geiltadecht, is a neologism to describe the practice of the geilta.

In the Buile Suibhne, the eponymous Suibhne goes mad in battle as the result of a saint's curse. The symptoms he displays are very akin to what we could today interpret as post-traumatic stress disorder. He flees from the place of battle and ends up hiding out in the forest, running from phantoms and spirits, unable to tolerate the company of others, eating only plants. Eventually he was said to have grown feathers and flown from treetop to treetop like a bird. He is not the only geilt described in the literary tradition, and there is even a valley where the geilta, the madmen, were believed to gather until their sanity was restored.

But along with this madness came poetry. The body of nature poems attributed to Suibhne Geilt is impressive and the images are striking and powerful. His visions and terrors evolved into poignant laments and strange dialogues with trees and beasts. Whether the Irish writers believed that Suibhne was actually in communication with such spirits is an open question, but the story can certainly be read in Pagan and animist ways. Suibhne himself was described as a Pagan who attempted to kill the "saint" who cursed him, presumably attempting to preserve the old order in his kingdom rather than give his power over to the church. 

Other "madmen" in the Celtic literary tradition, including Myrddin and Lailoken, were regarded as prophets -- seers and possessors of a certain "crazy wisdom." Sacred madness is a current in many spiritual traditions around the world. It's found in many Native American tribes, within Hindu and Buddhist practice, as well as in Islam and Christianity. Such traditions have their gifts and their difficulties. As someone who lives on disability with a diagnosis (one among many) of post-traumatic stress, I've looked at these roles and potentials and seen them as models for my own life in much the same way that many individuals in Siberian cultures deal with healing spirit-sicknesses by falling into the spiritual world and coming out again transformed. 

By pursuing poetry as a spiritual practice I've managed to find my way to a certain amount of healing and sanity. It has exorcised many of the figurative demons that made my life a misery. In seeing Suibhne's madness as a metaphor for my own experience, I've embraced the idea of the professional madwoman and claimed the title of geilt as a badge of honor for what I've gone through. I think that poetry can take suffering and illness and turn them into art and a potential for healing and growth. It's not that poetry by itself will do this -- I've done a lot of years of therapy and medication as well -- but the work of poetry can give a spiritual focus and purpose to what feels like continual chaos and destruction. In this sense, the task of the geilt is to refuse to succumb to the pain and to work through the mists to transcend that condition and bring something useful out of the fear and the misery.

Working with the arts of the fili or sacred poet, the experiences of the geilt can be mediated and expressed. Expression often helps to clarify and understand what is happening, aiding the person to get to the root of the problems and issues, whether they are physical, spiritual, emotional, or socio-political. Techniques that help to communicate with spirits and deities as well as journeying work can help with clarity and understanding as well, as can acts of divination through seeking oracles or finding omens. Rituals to embrace the madness as a part of working through it can be effective as well, reinforcing positive patterns and activities and drawing the mind out of the obsessive circles it may fall prey to without such focus.

That said, the nature of the geilt means that control is often an illusion. Interpretation and acceptance is a more fruitful path for one with these proclivities. This is not in any way suggesting "giving up" but merely a statement that the world and the Otherworlds are vaster than we can understand and we, mere humans, have very little power over some things that happen. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, though our culture values control (or the illusion of it) very highly. It can be a relief for guilt and anxiety to let go of inappropriate responsibility. 

Sometimes I joke with friends that I'm only responsible for the decay rate of the hydrogen atom, hence I don't have to deal with anything else in the universe. Obviously, that's not the case, but it does serve as a reminder to me to only claim what I'm genuinely responsible for -- and as a geilt, my own sanity and spiritual work is high up on that list. There are other priorities as well, but a geilt is an outsider, someone who lurks on the boundaries of groups and societies. That inclination to solitude is part of what marks someone as geilt but can also be a part of what helps to heal the terror and the insanity of those who have been through violent experiences, through abuse, through battle or rape or overwhelming environmental events that have destroyed their ordinary daily lives. 

Within the experience of geiltadecht, madness and destruction is the foundation for transformation.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

In silent darkness

Some of my visitors may be wondering what imbas is, and why I'm looking for it.

Ni ansa, "not hard," the early Irish would have replied. That usually tends to precede a complex and lengthy explanation for something very difficult to understand. In a way, imbas isn't hard. Looked at from other angles, it's potentially impossible to explain and it can certainly be difficult to come by. 

In different sources, the word is translated as "poetic frenzy," "poetic ecstasy," "poetic wisdom," "inspiration," a "fire in the head," light that arises from incubation in darkness and silence. To me, it's the lightning feeling of words and ideas moving nearly too fast to speak; it's a sense of sudden understanding after seeking answers in study and meditation.

Imbas is traditionally the result of being born into a lineage of poets, but it is equally traditionally a thing that can be taught and learned, a thing that can be pursued, a thing that can come upon someone accidentally, as wisdom came upon Fionn mac Cumhaill when he burnt his thumb on the salmon of wisdom and put it in his mouth to still the pain. It is the flash of lightning that illuminates, leaving images in stark relief against the night landscape. It is the heat within that pushes a poet to create. It is the driving force that wakens the writer in the deeps of night with bright, transparent words that must be put down before they're gone.
It is also the result of the discipline of sitting down in front of the computer or the notebook every day, faithfully, just working through the topic on your mind. It is the resonance of carefully-crafted words that sing when spoken. It is the power of language to move and incite, to stir and to calm. Imbas is the magic in poetry and the binding power of words spoken with intent. Not the words themselves, mind you -- imbas is too subtle and slippery to be mere verbiage. Instead it's the silver flash of power that is found in the way words meet when brought together with skill and intent. It's the spark behind the words that rises like fire from the spring, filling them with meaning beyond their surface. Imbas is the power within the words, like the soul within a body, subtle but strong.
When it hits, it's like breathless dizziness. Patterns fall into place. The body heats up and can't be still. Words must come out, spoken or sung. Ideas leap and spark like stars or gems or the drops that fly from waterfalls, gleaming in the light. Things take on a significance beyond their outward appearance. Spirits speak and if we're careful and quick -- and lucky -- we can catch those words and weave them into something profound.
The search for imbas is the preparation that lays the tinder so the spark can blaze.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Brighid Dreams the Poet

This is a poem I wrote in 1997, the result of meditation and a poetic exercise. It's been published a couple of times, but it does express a bit about how I see the Goddess of poets.

Brighid Dreams the Poet

I want a poet
with words of honey
and bitter dregs
of red Hungarian wine
dressed in the bones of birds
with wild
ecstatic eyes
and feet that dance the bonfire's rim

I want a poet
with many souls
souls of mice
and tigers
souls of ravenous
hungry ghosts
and the singing souls of rivers
of wallowing, bellowing buffalo
souls of moths, and geckos

I want a poet
with eyes of crystal shards
that see through flesh
and spy the hearts of trees
and mountains' bones
with thin, strong fingers
to pluck the hawthorn's bloom
in Beltain's dawning dews

I want a poet
with ballads for breath
and chants
to scatter fear from the deeps of night
or call the wren
from her nest
with spells to lay children to sleep
and bind the rising moon

I want a poet
with fur and claws
and hot, panting tongue
and seeking the spring

May you dream of the spring.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Getting started

Over on my LiveJournal, I've been writing for years about my life, my personal practice, and the books and articles I've been working on. Searching for imbas is meant to be a place where I explore the depths and particulars of the path of filidecht, the path of poetic mysticism based in the Gaelic traditions of Scotland and Ireland.

Expect occasional book reviews, essays on ritual and personal practice, divination and ogam, poems that arise out of my practice, healing work, and thoughts on what it is to be a fili in the modern world. It's a complicated subject and language and context are of critical importance for understanding.

If there's something you'd like to see addressed here as an essay topic, please feel free to comment and I'll take it under consideration. 

Thanks for coming, and I hope you'll find our talks together interesting and informative. I know I'll be learning things along the way!