Wednesday, March 30, 2011



One of the amazing aspects of the Celtic world is the idea of ‘shape shifting’. This becomes possible only the physical is animate and passionate. The essence or soul of a thing is not limited to its particular or present shape. Soul has a fluency and energy which is not to be caged within any fixed form. Consequently, in the Celtic tradition, there is a fascinating interflow between soul and matter and between time and eternity. This rhythm also includes and engages the human body. The human body is a mirror and expression of the world of soul. One of the most poignant places in the Celtic tradition illustrating this is the beautiful legend of the Children of Lir.

Central to the ancient Irish mind was the mythological world of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the tribe who lived under the surface of the earth in Ireland; this has imbued the whole landscape with a numinous depth and presence. Lir was a chieftain in the world of the Tuatha Dé Dannan and he had conflict with the king in that region. In order to resolve the conflict, a marriage agreement was made. The king had three daughters and he offered Lir one of them in marriage. They married and had two children. Shortly after they had two more children, but then unfortunately Lir’s wife died. Lir came again to the king and the king gave him his second daughter. She watched over him and the children, but she became jealous when she saw that he dedicated most of his attention to the children. She noticed that even her own father, the king had a very special affection for the children. Over the years, the jealousy grew in her heart until she finally took the children in her chariot and with a touch of her Druidic magic wand, turned them into four swans. They were condemned to spend nine hundred years in exile on the oceans around Ireland. Even though they were in swan form, they still retained their human minds and full human identity. When Christianity came to Ireland, they were returned to human form as old decrepit people. There is such poignance in the description of their journey in the wilderness as animal shapes imbued with human presence. This is a deeply Celtic story which shows how the world of nature finds a bridge to the animal world. The story also demonstrates that there is a profound confluence of intimacy between the human and the animal world. As swans, the song of the Children of Lir had the power to heal and console people. The pathos of the story is deepened by the vulnerable openness of the animal world to the human.

The animals are more ancient than us. They were here for millennia before humans surfaced on the earth. Animals are our ancient brothers and sisters. They enjoy a seamless presence – a lyrical unity with the earth. Animals live outside in the wind, in the waters, in the mountains and in the clay. The knowing of the earth is in them. The Zen-like silence and thereness of the landscape is mirrored in the silence and solitude of animals. Animals know nothing of Freud, Jesus, Buddha, Walls Street, the Pentagon or the Vatican. They live outside the politics of human intention. Somehow they already inhabit the eternal. The Celtic mind recognized the ancient belonging and knowing of the animal world. The dignity, beauty and wisdom of the animal world was not diminished by any false hierarchy or human arrogance. Somewhere in the Celtic mind was a grounding perception that humans are the inheritors of his deeper world. This finds playful expression in the ninth-century poem:


I and Pangur Bán my cat,

Tis a like task we are at:

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men

Tis to sit with books and pen;

Pangur bears me no ill will,

He too plies his simple skill.

This a merry thing to see

At our tasks how glad are we,

When at home we sit and find

Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray

In the hero Pangur’s way;

Oftentimes my keen thought set

Takes a meaning in its net.

Gainst the wall he sets his eye

Full and fierce and sharp and sly;

Gainst the wall of knowledge I

All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den

O how glad is Pangur then!

O what gladness do I prove

When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,

Pangur Bán, my cat and I;

In our arts we find our bliss,

I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light.

(trans. Robin Flower)

For the Celts, the world is always latently and actively spiritual. The depths of this interflow is also apparent in the power of language in the Celtic world. Language itself had power to cause events and to divine events yet to happen. Chants and spells could actually reverse a whole course of negative destiny and bring forth something new and good. In the Celtic world, and especially in the Celtic world of the senses, there was no barrier between soul and body. Each was natural to the other. The soul was the sister of the body, the body the sister of the soul. As yet there was no negative splitting of dualistic Christian morality that later did so much damage to these two lovely and enfolded presences. The world of Celtic consciousness enjoyed this unified and lyrical, sensuous spirituality.

Light is the mother of life. The sun brings light and colour. It causes grasses, crops, leaves and flowers to grow. The sun brings forth the erotic charge of the curved earth; it awakens her wild sensuousness. In this Gaelic poem the sun is worshipped as the eye and face of God. The rich vitalism of the Celtic sensibility finds lyrical expression here.

The eye of the Great God,

The eye of the God of Glory,

The eye of the King of Ghosts,

The eye of the King of the Living.

Pouring upon us

At each time and season,

Pouring upon us

Gently and generously.

Glory to thee

Then glorious sun.

Glory to thee, thou son

Face of the God of Life.

(trans. A. Carmichael)

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