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.


  1. Erynn: As a person who doesn't have a clue how to speak the old languages, I'm asking if you could give us a pronunciation guide for the words you use in this blog. I mean, when you introduce a gaelic word in your writing just put the way to pronounce it in parenthesis. After that, it'll be up to us to hear it correctly when we see the word for the rest of the essay.

    Who knows, we languageless hoards may learn something ;-) (I loved when I learned the break down of the possible meaning of Samhain where I learned that "mh" has a "w" sound. Blew me away.)

    Thanks for considering :-)


  2. OK. I've finished reading your essay now. Got a question for you: do you think it is possible to be born geilt? Medically, it's turning out, a lot of mental illnesses are caused by biological glitches. Some people are born with those glitches, others get them through trauma. If you think that these people are born geilt, should it be the responsibility or duty of the geiltadecht to look for them, find as many as possible as young as possible and guide them to a place of balance?


  3. Yes on Sweeny, though that's an anglicization and not the actual pronunciation, which is more like "Swiv-nyuh". You're right, I should do the pronunciation guide thing. I hadn't thought of it before.

    I suppose it's entirely possible for some people to be born geilt, as it were, but identifying and supporting those people is difficult in this culture where everything is medicalized and drugs and institutionalization are society's treatments of choice. If you can't cure it with a pill, lock it away or throw it out on the streets to die. There are some differences between a medical crisis and a spiritual crisis, though they can certainly be intertwined and can aggravate one another.

    I think that support groups are part of an answer for that, but most of those either don't have a spiritual focus or if they do, it's often a Christian (or at least Christian-tinged New Age) focus. Likewise there are many psychologists who follow what turns out to be essentially Buddhist teaching about such things, and this doesn't really acknowledge the presence or influence of spirit and deity at all.

    A lot of people that I would consider geilta are really busy trying to take care of themselves. There are many degrees of progress through all of this, and one of those degrees is, unfortunately, utter disintegration. Someone in that state isn't going to be able to help someone else who's there or approaching it. Those of us who have got through the worst of it, yes, I think we have a certain amount of responsibility within our communities to help those who want it, but I don't believe we should force it on anyone any more than Christians should be able to force their ideas of treatment and healing on the unwilling.

    I try to do my part through my writing and through speaking and teaching. For those who are "disturbed" more than "geilt", it's entirely possible to interpret what I'm saying as "you have to be insane to be spiritual" -- and that's not at all where I'm going with this. I've seen it happen, though, and then be taken as a "spiritual" excuse to act out in really unacceptable ways. Discipline is important, as is conscious awareness of one's situation, at least as much as possible. Sacred madness isn't a convenient excuse to be an asshole, it's trying to embrace one's condition and work within one's limitations in an attempt to get at something real and true. This holds whether the "glitch" is biological or trauma-induced.

  4. Thanks for this great post. I'm struck by the mental health benefits of ancient spiritual beliefs and shamanism. It's a continual debate when to take spirit contacts and discussions with trees, for example, as literally meant versus when to see them as expressions of the mind. Regardless, the way to health is usually to work through them -- not just medicate them away or hide from them. Your poetry, and the examples of the people in the woods talking to animals, etc. all show how sitting with the experiences and working through them can transform the person back towards health. Thanks.

  5. Hi Michael -- thanks for your comment. I went over and read/commented on your blog. I think you've got some interesting and useful things to say and hope we can dialogue more about this in various ways in the future!

  6. This was a wonderful post. We should definitely talk, I have been using the Title/Name geilt for years now. Find me on Google. Search for "Geilt" ;) or visit

    I am very happy to see this writeup and it expresses the exact meanings by which I choose the name, I found the name in a book "The Lost Lessons of Merlin", which described Merlin himself as being a Geilt.

    Interestingly enough, in Dutch Geilt means enamored, horney or lustful. In Hebrew, it means Money. I didn't find out about those till much later haha!

    I have gone through my own spiritual and physical transformations, although these transformations are ongoing, never ceasing. I also feel the most comfortable and capable alone, but still connect to different social circles without embedding myself fully within them.

    My contact info is on my blog and profiles, give me a ring, e-mail or google chat anytime.

  7. Would you mind if I reposted this on my blog with credit to you as the original author?

  8. Hi Geilt

    Thank you for your comments and welcome. As to reposting, I would much prefer if you posted a short excerpt (a paragraph or two) and a link here. I'll drop by your blog and see what you've got up. I've never heard of "The Lost Lessons of Merlin" before. Who wrote it?

    In the meantime, I have a paper about the geilt and spiritual practice in a book that's supposed to come out this week or next, which you can find here:

    I tend to communicate best through email, sometimes in chat, or face to face. Phones are definitely not my thing. Feel free to email me if you want, and I see that you've found my LJ, so don't be afraid to say hi over there as well.

  9. Very interesting! But an expensive book! I see that it is a textbook. I used to be a professor of Religious Studies for a time.

    May pick it up when I can. I have no problem with Chat, I am the same with phone calls. Add me on Google talk seeing as I don't have any details of yours. My contact info is on my blog.

    I will grab an excerpt and post it on my blog with a link back. Appreciate the efforts in writing this it was very informative and exactly what I was looking for to give a good description as to why I choose to use the name.

    Would love to hear more about you and what you do!