Let me tell you some stories.
In Ireland, that would be the voice of the Shaman Bard. We don’t know if it is the shaman speaking as a poet storyteller or the poet is speaking as a shaman (healer, visionary diviner, historian, myth-teller, peacemaker); they are entirely intertwined and it has been so for thousands of years and was so when I was there this month.
On the last day in Ireland, we visited the stone circle, the largest in Western Europe, at Lough Gur that dates back at least 5000 years. A few miles away, ancient stones, also moss and lichen covered, comprise the Wedge tomb, where an old woman had lived for many years. On a grass covered hill among hawthorn and oak trees, the stones serve as a threshold between the lake, Lough Gur, and the Grange Stone Circle, The Lios.
When the old woman died in the early 18th century, the roof stones were thrown off. The money diggers who searched the tomb found only burned bones in an old jug.
It is said that there is a buried treasure, especially in the nearby extensive Knockadoon circle, which is guarded by a fire breathing mythic bull that no one has been able to subdue, so great is the fear that arises when the bull arises from the earth.
Earlier in the week, we went to a dolman, a small mound tomb in a farmer’s field on the Beara peninsula. As such a tomb is ancient, and the cap stone or other times may have collapsed, you can sometimes still see that such a structure invited one to cross from this world to the other world as one moved through it and beyond. In this instance we needed to climb over a ladder, descend along a small stream of rainwater, pass through the narrow entrance between two boulders and cross the field to a sacred tree and the small tomb. KJ went first, striding across the wet grasses, before noticing the four bulls that were following her, before noting that she was wearing a red flannel jacket. When she turned around, she saw she had time only to scamper to the entrance between the stones, remove and hide her red shirt, then clamber to the roof in order to establish height. The bulls, particularly, the black bull, were not daunted and remained guarding the tomb.
And so it was left to me and L to return to the road thirty feet above the grassland to see if we could locate the farmer to help us. L. went ahead of me and I walked to a spot across from the dolman, leaned over the stone wall and called to the bulls, “Come here, my beauties, my beloveds, my lovelies.”
In the long history of Ireland, cattle are known to be sacred. The river Boyne is the Goddess Boann, is the sacred cow, and is also the river of stars, the Milky Way of life and death whose center will meet all of us directly on December 21, 2012.
The shaman bards know the ways to work with or around the fire breathing bulls and to meet the holy ones with praise. For centuries, they have been carrying the practice of crossing between the worlds, speaking across species, communicating with the holy ones: “Come here, my beauties, my beloveds, my lovelies.”
My intuition proved correct. The bulls, even the black one, turned and slowly grazed their way toward the cliff where I stood as KJ made her stealthy way back to the alleged safety of this world. We met, woman and bulls, for a moment eye to eye, though separated by the hill wall, and then I also returned to the car.
Approaching any event, I am always alert for what is at the threshold. In this instance, at the Wedge tomb, just hours before leaving Ireland, as we walked quietly toward the past and what wisdom we might glean for the future, we were assaulted by the reverberations of shotguns from a hidden glen across the road. Reverence on our side of the road and gun shots on the other intermingled in a constant rhythm for as long as we were there.
Then we went to the Grange Circle itself. This circle is one of many stone circles and mounds, Newgrange, Loch Crew, Knowth and Dowth, that seem to have been erected as giant calendars to mark the coming of sunlight and or moon light on the quarter days, solstices and equinoxes of the year. The farmer who owns the land upon which the circle sits was not there this Sunday. Still, we put coins in the rusted money box, its donation slot barely visible, as we went through the gate onto the site where the sun enters the passageway on Midsummer’s Eve.
It seems to me that I learn more standing in silence and wonder, while holding the question of what vision has driven people all over the world to exert what seem like more than human efforts to erect stone monuments honoring the light, than I understand when I engage with the various theories and our desire to know.
In the classic tale, the sojourner goes out into the unknown to bring back the useful insight for the beleaguered and suffering individuals and /or community. More so, one hopes, at such a time. Might the old ways, even the one as simple as making the journey, help as tradition asserts, they have in the past? What are the true and potent medicines for a world whose life is at great risk?
It is only at this moment, as I try to convey something of what might matter for all of us, that I see the familiar stations of this journey, but most strikingly, the entry into the unknown and the ways the light, sunlight or moonlight, only briefly illuminates the darkness, one hour, perhaps, once a year, perhaps, if the clouds disperse. If the clouds disperse…. But, that one moment is sufficient for one’s soul.
Because I was suddenly charged with leading a writing retreat, scheduled to visit ancient sites in the Boyne valley and the Beara peninsula, places I had never been, I had to offer myself entirely to whatever might occur. Just days before I understood what was calling me, I had decided not to read or prepare for this trip. But then, grievous circumstances required that I step forward on behalf of someone who had originally imagined and arranged the trip. We could not cancel the trip, she had said, adamantly, and I trusted that she understood this in ways I could not then. The learning curve was steep, and ultimately, I was relying on John Matthews’ book Taliesen, the Last Celtic Shaman. Taliesen and Amairgin the Bold, both shaman bards, became ever present guides. They teach the ways to negotiate the passage between this world and the other world, between, past and future, human and other, dark and light, life and death. We needed these teachings because, as with the gunshots at the threshold of Lough Crew, death surrounded us from the beginning to the end – the ordinary deaths of two old men, the unbearable tragedies of two violent suicides, the great loss that come from drowning.
We had come to honor and attend the great mounds, all seemingly both tombs and corridors of light. And death surrounded us on the journey. Death surrounded us at Lough Gur. And death and violence surround all of us, in extraordinary measure, in what passes as the ordinary world.
Sometimes for us, the deaths were highly personal, sometimes they were simply in the air we were breathing. For example, the workshop that was to follow our retreat at Anam Cara, was cancelled when the leader, Irish poet, John O’Leary, drowned.
XXVII. (from Sea, 2003 by John O’Leary)
To Do List:
1. find dragon and slay
2. exorcise cat
3. prove conclusively the identity
of Beauty and Truth.
4. watch, fast and pray
5. sail Atlantic single-handed
6. write name in water
7. return Teach Yourself Waltzing Tape
8. weep for Adonais and feel bad
9. write her a letter telling her
you love her
10. go out into the midnight
and check for new stars.
When you walk a labyrinth of wild grasses to its center, as you can at Anam Cara, you are at the center of the middle world between the past and the future. Turn 360 degrees to see the mountains and sea, the cattle and sheep, the cemetery on the hill and the cascades at the bottom of the meadow. It is from this place that you can ask the question that your soul is carrying or the question that the world’s soul requires us to address. Turn again and retrace your footsteps listening deeply to the words that pass through your heart but which originate elsewhere, somewhere beyond yourself.
When people die, we gather in circles to tell stories. Perhaps because the Irish seem to have such a profound relationship to the spirits of the dead, it is a country of storytellers, musicians and bards.
We approached the top of the legendary Hill of Tara. Gerard Clarke, former director of the Hill of Tara, stopped us so that we would proceed with awareness and concentration. When you cross this trench, he said, you are entering into the other world. We paused. Language we had heard again and again was about to become real. We were, indeed, about to step across. This is not a frivolous or fantasy activity. There are many who strive to separate the worlds rather than allowing them to intermingle. We learned that the stone barriers that had existed here were not to keep the enemy out; they were to keep the spirits in. If one dares to cross over with respect, one may receive great gifts.
On September 21, we left our lodgings at 5 am even though the sky was covered and it was raining. It had rained every day since my arrival on the 17th and would continue to rain each day, except for one brilliant sunlit day Saturday October 5th. You never know, Gerard Clarke said, what the weather will be at Lough Crew, (forty-five minutes away) even though he had last seen the light enter the mound fifteen years ago. As we approached, the center of the sky cleared but a broad band of clouds remained in the position of 6 to 9 o’clock and 3 to 6 o’clock at the eastern horizon. We climbed the hill in the mist, a fierce wind blowing, the temperature dropping. We were among the first of a small shivering band (and a few dogs) that had come with hopes of seeing the sunlight of the Equinox make its way, illuminating the carved stone walls of the mound. We would not have been surprised if it began to snow.
There is only a small sacred interval through which the light enters. 7:15am to 8:30 am. Then the possibility is over for a year. We made our offerings and waited. The wide band of dark clouds remained as wisps of mist began to waft over the other megaliths just below us. The sun climbed steadily and for a brief moment paused at an eye in the clouds but not close enough to reach the great stones. And then at 7:30 when we had almost lost hope, a thin ray of light began to make its way toward the entrance revealing the spiral carvings at the stone entrance. Six by six we were admitted into the tunnel to see the shining spiral at the back wall that had been viewed at equinox after equinox for thousands of years. A miracle and a sign of grace and the awesome presence of the Divine as it must have been for those who built this tomb against all odds, bringing the massive stones uphill, without the wheel, from miles and miles away,
At Tara our guide alerted us to the entryways between the roots of the great trees where the fairies, defeated and exiled from this world by Christianity, by the fearful and violent disbelievers in and enemies of wonder who began to colonize Ireland in the 400s C.E. The shaman bards tell us that like the light, the wee people emerge for only one day on Samhain / Halloween. This day, the beginning of the Celtic new year, is also the day to take stock, settle debts and decide upon future activities. A general armistice during this period allowed for meetings at the Hill of Tara between sworn enemies, made possible diplomacy and social activities beyond tribal and political boundaries.
We have been warring for so long. We have been exiling the light for so long. Yet, thankfully, it persists. The sun and moon rise. The clouds part.
The roles of the Shaman bards are complex and profound. The poets and story tellers are also singers, musicians, healers, prophets and diviners. They know the elements. They write and read the Ogham, the sacred alphabet of the trees. They speak with the birds, animals, plants and stars. They dream. They read the signs. They know the history and genealogy of person and place. They keep the rulers honest. They know the land. And even thought they are often warriors, they are also called upon to mediate between warring parties. They are born and reborn and reborn again and again. They remember.
The old tradition of story telling is still intact in Ireland. We didn’t fully expect to meet story tellers, to meet shaman bards, but we did. We didn’t fully expect to find magic, vision, healing, stories, music alive in the old ways but we did. Ireland, like other countries suffers conflict, the tension between Dublin and the loyalists and the on-going legacy of British colonization. It suffers poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, and other modern ills like deforestation and environmental decline. Ireland’s young people are living a diaspora again, leaving the country as they have in the past in order to make a living. A mother I met said, her grandfathers had gone to work in the mines in Butte, Montana and now her sons are leaving to work in the mines in Australia. There is concern that the influx of laborers from other countries, particularly from Russian and central Europe during the ‘Tiger’ years of economic boom, may be a problem now that the economy is declining. All the problems of contemporary Europe are here, but the antidote is that the spirits are present and recognized and that the storytellers, musicians and poets thrive; the vitality of these ancient traditions make all the differences.
A story is told of the great Irish hero and wisdom carrier, Fionn Mac Cumhail, who was involved in great conflict and so was told, “he durst not remain in Ireland else he took to poetry.” Poetry as strength and power that can protect and redeem a warrior.
Poetry the gift of the gods was sacred to the great goddess, Ceredwin of the cauldron, whose other faces are the Goddess Bride or Brigid and Cailleach Beara or the Hag of Beara, who is also associated with stones and bones and who governs dreams and inner realities. On one of her journeys, she dropped the stones she had gathered from her apron and they became the mountains. Poetry, healing, peacemaking and smithery were sacred to Brigid as earth goddess and keeper of the eternal fire. Saint Brigid, the disguised pagan goddess, kept these attributes and also took on the care of the poor. Two sisters of the Brigidine order introduced us to the ways of their order, Solas Bhride, a Christian Center devoted which focuses on Saint Brigid and Celtic Spirituality. We were taught how to make crosses, including the Mexican eye of god, out of rushes gathered by the streams. Then we were taken to the holy wells where the sisters sang songs as we walked from stone to stone representing Brigid’s offices.
Brigid’s sacred fire/flame that had burned from pre-Christian times until the 16th century was re-kindled in 1993, in the Market Square, Kildare, at the opening of a justice and peace conference. The conference was entitled “Brigid: Prophetess, Earthwoman, Peacemaker.”
“How does the Church respond to your work?” We asked the sisters. “The Church is not enthused,” one answered, “but the Dalai Lama visited us.”
Mary Maddison, a thin, delicate woman, 72 years old, has storytelling at her house one Saturday night each month and music one Thursday night. We sit in a circle on old couches, over stuffed or straight back chairs, on pillows and stools in the small room called The Rambling House, that also houses her collection of sea shells, some gathered into the shapes of animals and other beings. Here the young people and the older ones are invited to speak or play music when the stone talking piece passed from one to another reaches them. In another room are her landscape paintings and another room is full of stones and gems. In this room, Mary Maddison, shaman bard, healer and story teller, puts our feet into bowls of agate then tells the stories of our lives and futures by reading the stones that remain attached to us when we lift our feet. She has been doing this since she was a child when she first saw stones on the feet of those who walked the pebbled beach. “I had thought everyone read the stories,” she said,
She showed me the small house which will hold the crèche at Christmas time, the outside of which might have been decorated by Simon Rodia who created Watts Towers. Then we entered the mediation room with a pyramid glass ceiling and chanted and prayed together. We told each other stories for hours. Stories of the everyday miracles and magic that occur when one honors the spirits that create and sustain the world. The rooster crowed, the peacocks called, the crows flew overhead cawing. A magnificent sunset turned the ever present clouds red, purple, orange, amber. As twilight darkened, Mary spoke of the lights of the fairies that come forth in her garden at night. Iwas in the presence of a true shaman bard and she is one of many, of the tribe of shaman bards in Ireland.
Writers in the US are not asked to assume the complex and committed roles of the shaman bard. To the contrary, we often feel divided and quartered by what appear to be the conflicting demands that the shaman bard reconciles. The call to solitude, for example, challenged by the call to community. Writers are often criticized for being political and it is rarely assumed that the poet is called to keep the rulers honest while also speaking with the animals and the trees. Revealing truth, bearing witness, devoting oneself to matters of conscience are not always compatible with the commercial interests that dominate publishing. But these are the essential concerns for the shaman bard and how lucky we would be if we could reinstate and be faithful to the tradition.
The old old ways still survive in sacred places and among indigenous people and cultures all over the world. They survive despite the relentless wars against them, against the land and the natural world, by religion, science, the military and the nation state. The fate of the earth, the life of the world hangs in the balance. This journey to Ireland convinces me that it is time, again, to call forth and inhabit the shaman bards in all of us. No matter the risk, it is time to tell the true and lyric stories of restoration of the old old ways, to tell our own experiences of our true spiritual lives and our stories of experiences within the natural world. It is the time to fully honor the rare, slender rays of light that come forth from the clouds to illuminate the old carvings, the old wisdom contained in the stones patiently standing in circle, these thousand of years.