Druid as Shaman in Celts Literature

by Andrea Romanazzi

As OBOD Druid and a Shaman, I am very interested in deepening the link between these two practices. In another article of mine published I dealt with the link between historical druidism and shamanism. The aim of this study is to investigate the presence of shamanic legacy in Celtic literary.

A clarification: with the term “Celts”, I do not refer to the Indo-European people (IV-III century BC), but to those peoples who lived and inhabit the territory of northern and western Europe and in which some survived cultural traits that can be traced back to Celtic cultures, as defined by John T. Koch in his Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia: that is Brittany, Cornwall Wales, Ireland, Isle of Man (Mannin) and Scotland.

The Fenian Cycle or Fiannaidheacht, also known as the Cycle of the Fionn, is a composition in prose and verse focused on the deeds of the mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors, called Fianna. The first event on which one must dwell is how He obtains eternal knowledge. Duringa travel to the Ireland, Fionn meets the Druid Finneigeas and asks him to teach the art of poetry and magic. One day the druid assigns to Fionn the task of cooking the “Salmon of Knowledge” that himself had fished after seven long years of research, recommending not to ruin it and not to taste it. During cooking, however, a bubble forms under the skin of the fish and Fionn, in an attempt to crush it, scalds the finger. To relieve the pain it brings it to the mouth, thus acquiring wisdom. The story remember a lot the myth of Taielsin on which I will not dwell because deepened thoroughly in the Gwersu of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and I suggest to whose members to refer for further information. Just as in shamanistic beliefs is the animal that “gives” wisdom, maybe the remembrance of the spirits that meet in the most diverse animist cultures. Animals have always been used to bring the knowledge through their direct teachings or the consumption of their meat as suggested by MacCulloch in his essay The Religion of the Ancient Celts.

Another example is the prophetic skills acquired by Conchobar, son or Cathbad, Ulster’s chief druid, only after having skinned a calf and a raven and drank the blood. These stories bring to mind the practice of altered states of consciousness practiced by druids through the consumption of meat, the Tarbfeis, described by Mircea Eliade. This ritual provided that the druid should feed exclusively on bull meat and drink his blood, thus favoring a sort of hypervitaminosis of vitamin A which in turn encouraged vomiting, diarrhea and therefore a sort of physical alteration that favored the vision. Although often in the myths the animal differs, in any case the ingestion of his flesh, made sacred by the rite, allows the hero-druid to acquire his powers. We can find it also today between the Siberian shamans, the Inuit, or in South America. The ingestion of one’s “guide” also becomes a mystical “bond” for the acquisition of its “power”. In some narratives the animal chosen is the dog. It is not a coincidence that the dog becomes a guiding spirit for the other worlds or guardian of the afterlife. Examples are the dog of Mac Da Tho, guardian of the Irish underworld, or the canids of Arawn, lord of the Welsh Annwn. Bones of dogs sacrificed in rituals are present in many Welsh and Breton archaeological testimonies, as, for example, in the late Iron Age Gournay-sur-Aronde sanctuary or in the Nettleton shrine of Wiltshire as described by Rubina Raja and Jörg Rüpke in the essay A Companion to the Archeology of Religion in the Ancient World. Other traces of shamanic memories can be found in the Welsh mythology or in the figure of Pwyll, lord of the Dyfed. In the first of the Four books of the Mabinogion, we gather, in fact, the Lord dell’Annwn, the mythological Welsh afterlife, which persuades Pwyll to exchange places for a year and a day as compensation for having left feed their dogs with meat a Annwn’s deer. In the literary cycle the practice of consuming the meat of the animal of power is refined through animal mediation. In fact, it is no longer the hero but in this case the dog that, replacing him, becomes a guide to the other worlds. In the third book of the Mabinogion are narrated the adventures of Manawydan and Pryderi, the latter the late son of Pwyll. Pryderi becomes king of the Dyfed after Pwyll’s. Together climbs a magical hill with other characters. This is the gateway to the Otherworld, and in fact when they descend, they find themselves in a new territory, or in an extra ordinary reality. It will always be in this place, after various vicissitudes, that will meet, during a hunt, a white boar, color that makes us understand its supernatural substance, which directs it towards a huge enchanted castle inside which there is a cup golden, a sort of Graal ante litteram. Already in these few lines transpire the typical characteristics of shamanism, that is the link with animals of power that become the means towards knowledge and the tool to travel between the worlds through their power. Last but not least, We conclude with some reflection about the zoomorphism and the animal metamorphoses of the shaman. From the pictograms of Lascaux to the cauldron of Gundestrup, ancient men depicted the shaman’s ability to “fly” through the spiritual metamorphosis in his power animal. In the Talielsin saga, Gwyrhyr is known to know the language of animals, as well as for its many transformations and experiences of transmutation. We also find animal mutations in the stories of Oisin and Amergin that not only turn into animals but spend a long time under these features bringing back into the real world, once the experience of transformation is over, all the knowledge acquired in this state of reality does not ordinary. In the aforementioned Mabinogion, Gwydion, presented as a magician, and Gilfaethwy are exiled and transformed by Math, lord of Gwynedd in three different animals for three years: a deers, a wolves and pigs. In conclusion, as we all know, we have no direct sources of what Druidism really was in antiquity. Certainly the druidic practice was affected by the religious knowledge of the Altaic peoples with which the Celts came into contact. Many of the beliefs, rituals that permeated druidism as an animistic-shamanic cult cult have survived in part over the centuries and turned into stories and literatur

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