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The Fulacht Fiadh and Tigh ‘n Alluis ("Celtic Sweat Lodge"?)


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The Fulacht Fiadh and Tigh ‘n Alluis
(still a work in progress)

©2004, 2009, 2013, 2015 Kathryn Price NicDhàna

Originally this page contained an archive of a post from 2004, as well as notes for an eventual updated article on this subject. Now it contains an edited-down version of that material, an expanded section on my research and thoughts since then, as well as some archived posts from other fora.

If you did not arrive here via my blog, you might want read what I've written on the "Celtic Sweatlodge" tag. You can page down to the "But Sweatlodge is Universal" part for specifics.

One of the main sources I used for my 2004 piece was J.F. Nagy's The Wisdom of the Outlaw. Though I still think Outlaw is a thought-provoking and valuable addition to the field of Celtic studies, I have since completely changed my ideas on this matter. As there were some ideas in the original post that I no longer support, I have now edited it down. Sorry, if that's what you came here looking for, but I'll explain.

In the time since the 2004 post I've reached the conclusion that, even if the tales of Fionn and the Fianna show a pattern based on the metaphor of "the raw and the cooked," I'm just not feeling connected to that particular idea for a ritual structure, and I see no evidence to connect that structure to what we know of the Gaelic sweating ceremonies. While the idea of the raw and the cooked does seem applicaple to other concepts, such as creation and wisdom, I think Nagy is taking the metaphor too far, and I am doubtful that his hypotheses can really be applied to any sort of functional, spiritually meaningful, fulacht fiadh, taigh an fhallais or teach an allais ritual.

What is more relevant and solid is the way the rituals survived in the Gaelic lore - even if all we have is fragments. In Description of the Western Isles, Martin Martin writes: "The ancient way the islanders used to procure sweat was thus: A part of an earthen floor was covered with fire, and when it was sufficiently heated the fire was taken away, and the ground covered with a heap of straw; upon this straw a quantity of water was poured, and the patient lying on the straw, the heat of it put his whole body into a sweat. To cause any particular part of the body to sweat, they dig a hole in an earthen floor, and fill it with hazel sticks and dry rushes; above these they put a hectic-stone, red hot, and pouring some water into the hole, the patient holds the part affected over it, and this procures a speedy sweat. Their common way of procuring sweat is by drinking a large draught of water gruel with some butter as they go to bed."

When we combine this account with the surviving oral histories, we can see a possible approach involving heating the sweathouse, laying on the rushes, and praying in Gaelic. We have many surviving prayers for purification and healing. We have songs and prayers to the spirits one talks to about these things, stories about these spirits, as well as traditional ways of honoring them and asking for their help. And while we may not know for certain which exact prayers were used in the taigh an fhallais and teach an allais structures - when prayer was incorporated at all - having a solid understanding of the prayers and songs, and the situations in which they were (and still are) used, is a firmer foundation to me than suppositions based on an academic "raw vs cooked" hypothesis.

Update 4/24/15: When I first wrote these notes, the conversations I was having were with people who reported that Martin Martin, or local lore, mentioned the part about praying till one reaches a state of peace. For me this became a central motif, and I wrote things like, "examining the Gaelic terminology in the bits of surviving lore - even if it's back-engineering what has only been recorded in English - also shows multiple layers of meaning that could refer to the ancestors and the Gaelic Otherworld. This is the sort of tradition that speaks to me." But I've recently discovered, via combined research with Scottish and Irish colleagues, that the part about praying and peace may have been invented by Peter Berresford Ellis. This wouldn't be the first time that Ellis mispresented his own ideas as ancient tradition, so if this is the case I am dreadfully sorry. We're still looking into this, and will update if we can.

What we have from Ireland and Scotland

(notes: Martin Martin, Carmina, Campbell, Black, McNeill, etc.)

The Fianna lore is relevant, especially when we look at the name fulacht fian, and think on the many reasons our ancestors took to the woods. However, the "fian" part of the name could just be a later folkloric addition, added by storytellers. It may not reflect that much on the sites' original usage, beyond the fact that they were probably used as an all-purpose, outdoor kitchen - for cooking, bathing, brewing and even the dying of cloth - by those camping in the wilderness. If we do explore this connection, there are a number of tales to examine in this light.

However, after praying and experimenting with this for a number of years now, I've come to the conclusion I'm not interested in a ceremony that's about Nagy's ideas of "becoming civilized". I don't even particularly relate to the idea of going into the woods to be "wild" and then returning to "civilization". I do think there is something to be said for acknowledging that some "wild" behaviours are not appropriate for "civilized" society, and marking transitions between these states, if they happen naturally. But I'm not interested in "wild" behaviours that are so beyond the pale as to be unacceptable among sane people, nor am I persuaded that we should be pursuing some sort of ceremony that pushes people into a "wild" state only to "civilize" them later. I just don't see a traditional basis for that. That sort of pursuit sounds too based on fantasy and amateur psychodrama, and could probably be harmful to those playing with such things. I'm not going to support untrained people trying to push others into that sort of experience. I would go so far as to say that making up some sort of ritual based on that idea and inflicting it on others could easily verge into abusive territory.

I'm also cringing at Nagy and Levi-Strauss's use of "savage". And their definition of what is and is not "culture". I don't think this is particularly in harmony with a Gaelic worldview.

I think many of the metaphors Nagy outlines could be seen as illustrations of natural rites of passage that just happen. Marking them in some way would be appropriate, but forcing the experience is not.

Many of these tales that polarize the "wild" and the "civilized" also categorize women, along with animals and forests and natural phenomena, as "wild". How much are those Christian-era tales from a solely male perspective, and about keeping women and nature "in their place" and "taming" them? And what relevance do they have to those of us who are women, and who already live in the forest?

I want to keep my connection with the forest, the animals, with nature. I don't need elaborate rituals of "raw vs cooked" to connect with the spirits, nor do I particularly want to become "civilized".

What we have from the Sauna cultures

(notes: Need to find out how much is OK to share online. Can probably at least mention times of year, basic purposes, and stuff that's in print if it checks out with oral tradition.)

Notes from Other Discussions

We've had some discussion about the Irish and Scottish sweathouses, and the bogus English "reconstruction" of a burnt mound site, on other forums:
* Original Post from 2004
* Initial comments on the Irish and Scottish taigh an fhallais, teach an allais and fulacht fiadh sites and what we do and don't know about how they were used.
* Additional comments expanding a bit on what we know of Irish and Scottish sweathouse usage into living memory.

Note: This is an archived post from the now-defunct Multicultural Polytheistic Hearth
As I have been doing more research into this, I have been rethinking the entire theory I posited here. My thoughts on this have diverged significantly. I am leaving this up for the record, but, any forthcoming work from me in this area will probably look very different.

Posted to MPH August 14th, 2004 06:19 PM

The Fulacht Fiadh and Tigh ‘n Alluis
(a work in progress)

copyright ©2004 Caitríona NicDhàna
(Kathryn Price NicDhàna)

Note: As Wisdom of the Outlaw is not an easy book for folks to find, I’m going to quote at more length here than I normally would from a more commonly available book. I’m also leaving a few bits of information out, as I’m considering working this up as an article or book chapter at a later date.

Possible ritual purposes of the Fulacht Fiadh

Nagy connects the fulachtaí fia to the “Raw vs Cooked” theme, which is a pattern he claims to have found in ritual and lore describing transformation and initiation. Here he is discussing a tale in which the fian Derg Corra jumps back and forth over a cooking fire:

As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has amply demonstrated, cooking and fire in myth and ritual often represent the process of socialization. Ideologically, just as food is turned from raw and indigestible to cooked and edible by being exposed to fire, so, concurrently, it is translated from the realm of nature into the realm of culture by the civilized and civilizing act of cooking. In the language of myth and ritual symbolism, that which exists outside society or is not entirely social is designated “raw,” while that which exists within society and has an identifiable social function is designated “cooked.” Metaphorically, therefore, the savage who lives beyond society and the youth who is not yet an adult and does not enjoy a complete social identity, are both “raw” and must be “cooked” – culturally transformed – before they can fully become members of society.

Here he also gives the Irish medieval story of Mis as an example. This involves civilizing/taming someone who has been a geillt. The process involves attracting her with music, feeding her cooked meat, and washing her in water in which the meat has been cooked. The theme of immersing an initiate in cooking water also appears in Gerald of Wales’ late twelfth-century description of an Irish Kingship ritual. “In both of these instances, the initiate who is fed and treated as food is invested, as a result of this treatment, with a new social identity.

Derg Corra’s leaping over the pit therefore symbolizes his going from raw to cooked, from nature to culture, from childhood to adulthood – transitions at the heart of the related states of gillacht and fénnidecht. The leaping gilla’s repeated exposure to fire, whereby he becomes almost roasted food himself, complements the image of his mentors – the fénnidi of the Fenian tradition – as expert cooks in the wilderness. According to Keating’s history, burned-out pits in unsettled areas were commonly called by the folk of his time the fulachta fian (“cooking pits of the fiana”), as if they had been dug and used by the hunter heroes of the Fenian tradition. In the Cúldub tale, the Derg Corra tale, and several other Fenian narratives, the act of cooking becomes the focal point of tension among fénnidi, or between them and supernatural beings. Indeed, the cooking place is often a setting for an encounter with the otherworldly in Irish narrative tradition. Fire and cooking are perennial motifs in the Fenian tradition because they are especially meaningful in such a “natural” context, where they connote transition and contrast between culture and nature, a distinction that is fundamental to this mythical fénnidecht. By his droll stunt of leaping over the cooking fire, Derg Corra, a humble fían member, touches the core of the Fenian complex of themes.

Physical structure

The fulachtaí fia are mentioned in a number of archaeology books, often as “burnt mounds,” “boiling mounds,” or “cooking sites.” They are always found near a water source, and are sometimes given the alternate name of fulacht fian. “While fulacht refers to the cooking place, fian or fiadh can mean variously ‘deer’ or ‘out of doors’ or ‘of the wild’.”

For studying the physical structure, O’Kelly seems to be the best source of those I have at hand. I gather he was involved in some of the reconstructions, at both Ballyvourney and Newgrange. He is often the source for fulacht fiadh material in other books, and he includes diagrams and photographs of the reconstruction done at Ballyvourney I, Co. Cork.

The Ballyvourney structure seems to have been made with nine or ten poles, beside the requisite trough of water and hearth. While it is conceivable that four or five tall saplings were bent over to make a dome, since some of the spacing is uneven, I tend to think it was the larger number. The Ballyvourney reconstruction was built in a tall, conical shape, with the poles lashed together in the center high in the air. While this shape is necessary if one has only deadwood or frozen wood to work with, it is not practical for sweating use. To keep the heat and steam down among the people, a low ceiling is needed, or a way to climb up to the roof, such as in the sauna with its tiered benches. I have been in structures where we had to use deadwood and a tall shape and, while it is possible to fill the structure with some steam, it takes a lot longer and results in a much cooler experience than in a domed structure. We basically had to kneel or stand to get sufficiently steamed. I see no reason in the archaeological evidence for the use of the tall shape. Indeed, if the poles were even used to build a structure, isn't it more likely they'd be like other contemporary structures, which built the walls perpendicular to the ground and created a low roof atop the walls?

Also, as the only hearth inside the structure is not central, as usually found in Irish dwellings, the whole idea that the poles were used to make a structure is suspect. The water trough is outside the ring of poles, and the inner hearth is too close to where a wall would be for it to have been used for heat if a wall were there. This puts the entire idea that the structure was used to hold steam and heat into serious question. My conclusion - if it was a structure, it wasn't a heated one.

Harbison proposes that some of the fulacht fiadh sites are from the early Bronze Age, while stone structures began in the late Bronze Age.

Nagy finds it significant that Derg Corra leaps back and forth over the fire repeatedly, much as the young Finn leaps repeatedly over the chasm that separates him from an Otherworldly woman in another tale, and feels this back-and-forth indicates “a volatility in the character’s identity and relations.”

O’Kelly and others believe the archaeological evidence is for approximately fifty “cookings” at the Ballyvourney site. And if, as it appears, the stone tigh ‘n alluis sites are the later versions of the fulachtaí fia, these were obviously intended for repeated use.

As for the tigh ‘n alluis stone structures, I agree with Anthony Weir that they were probably not originally constructed as “a treatment for arthritis.” There are more common (and effective) Gaelic arthritis treatments on record during that time period, and the labor and strain involved in doing a sweating ceremony in these cramped, stone structures would probably do more harm than good to an arthritic body. This is not to say that, like the use of the sauna, there were not also physical benefits to the “sweating cure.” It seems that a solely physical experience did become the later focus of use.

But I think the folklore indicates there may have been a spiritual use as well, even if it was mostly abandoned in more recent, Christianized, generations. Like the fulachtaí fia, the tigh ‘n alluis structures are situated relatively far away from any “civilized” dwellings, and seem to fit into the larger mythos of journeying into the wilderness to seek vision and healing. While the tigh ‘n alluis sites may not be quite as remotely situated as the fulachtaí fia, this may simply be because the tigh ‘n alluis needed to be on or near land owned (or rented) by the people building these permanent structures. The recent tigh ‘n alluis structures were certainly built in less “wild” times, with much less open land and wilderness to flee to. So it’s possible that the “wild” places simply were forced to move closer to the “civilized” realms.

Note: This is an archived post from an earlier discussion

Slightly edited for clarity.

February 13, 2008, 07:36:54 AM

Like the Ballyvourney, Ireland reconstruction (by O'Kelley and his team), there is no evidence that the Birmingham, England, burnt mound site was ever used as a "sweat lodge." Worse, it is completely inaccurate to call the Birmingham effort a "reconstruction" as it was nothing of the sort.

Some people from a junior archaeology club, and at another point a neo-shameonick group, built their idea of a Native American sweat lodgeIn Birmingham, England. Unlike Ballyvourney, this lot didn't seem to have even based their "lodge" on the actual design of the archaelogical site in question. Nor did they base their rituals on any patterns indigenous to their own European cultures.

The Birmingham youth club was very clear about the fact they were basing it on their outsider fantasies of what a Native American sweat lodge is like. They use words like "lodge" and say they "then dug a hole in the center of the lodge" (as in, there wasn't one there to start with). They threw lavender on the hot stones. They also report speculations as fact on the Birmingham page.

Yes, the truth behind the oft-cited "Birmingham reconstruction" is that it was just some kids playing NDN. So anyone who cites that as a source is, knowingly or unknowingly, taking their cue from pretendians. Again, it's the problem of people approaching a problem assuming it will fit a model from another culture, instead of doing deeper research into the culture in question and letting the facts and actual patterns arise from there. And... sorry, but England is not a Celtic Nation, either.

The burnt mounds are sites with broken rocks, anywhere from one to three firepits, a depression in the ground filled with water, and the remains of post holes around the site. The hole with water or stones is only sometimes inside the structure, and not usually in the middle. Speculations about their use run the gamut from cooking to brewing to bathing to dying cloth (and tests at reconstructed sites show they can be used for all of the above). We have a few things in the Gaelic lore collected by Martin Martin about the use of sweating for physical health. There are stone structures that were used as sweat houses or saunas, found in the Gaelic-speaking areas of Ireland and Scotland, and a stone bathouse in Portugal. The complete rituals for these structures do not survive, only fragments and suggestions here and there.

Sadly, it has become fashionable for people who want to rip off Inipi and other NDN ceremonies to call their fake Inipi "Celtic" or "universal". This does violence to both NDN and Celtic cultures. The people who lie like this, or who are ignorant enough to believe this, are also not part of Gaelic cultures. Though some are getting savvy enough to lie about that, too.

Everyone I know who is claiming to do a "Celtic Sweat" or "European Sweat" is basically doing Wiccan-type rituals in an Inipi-type structure, or a made-up variation on Inipi.

What little we know of what rituals and prayers may have been used with European sweating ceremonies are very different from both Wicca and Inipi. I have studied the material extensively, and everyone I've met who claims what they're doing is "universal" is ripping off Lakota or other NDN traditions.

Note: This is an archived post from an earlier discussion

Slightly edited for clarity.

Re: Bronze Age Sweat Lodge in Birmingham
Reply #5 on: February 15, 2008, 02:39:37 AM

As I said in the other thread, I've been very involved in researching this stuff, and you are correct: Though some tradition of sweating existed in Gaelic areas and in Portugal, what we know of those traditions is nothing like Inipi.

The information we have on the Gaelic sweathouses is that they were made of stone (many still stand, as seen on Anthony's page). A fire was built inside them, heating the entire structure. Once the stones of the building were sufficiently hot, the remains of the fire on the floor inside were swept out, and we have accounts of a person lying down inside on a bed of rushes, and praying or contemplating till they "reach a state of peace." As chinks are part of the structure, both due to the realities of building with stone, and due to the need for smoke to get out and air in, the experience would not be in total darkness unless it took place at night. The structure recently restored in Portugal is very interesting, and consists of a stone structure much like the Gaelic one, but later (probably after Roman contact) augmented with additional spaces more resembling a Roman bathouse, yet still with Celtic-type iconography.

Anthony thinks psilocybin may have been involved, but I don't personally think there is convincing evidence for that. There would be room for a few people to sit in one together, but I'm unaware of any accounts of that. It is possible that the structures were built after contact with Scandinavian peoples, so if any rituals or ceremonies connected with them resembled another culture, it would most likely be Scandinavian cultures. However, sauna ceremonies that I know of are almost always communal, so that's another significant difference.

There are similar stone structures built here in New England, but no surviving knowledge of who built them. As the local Indigenous folks say they have nothing to do with them, the current archaelogical theory is that they were built by Irish or Scottish people who came in the usual waves of invasions/immigrations. I've been in one of these, and would concur with this, as they resemble similar corbelled structures found in Ireland. Some of the local ones are called "The Monks' Caves." Whether this indicates a contemplative usage, or a fanciful interpretation of structures that were only used as storage sheds or root cellars, we really can't say for sure.

As for a healing use, there's one account from Martin Martin of a hole being dug in the dirt floor of a normal house and a hot "quartz rock" (not crystals, just normal rocks) being used to create steam, with the affected part of the body held over the steam, but here we find even less about a ceremonial/spiritual use.

The first reconstruction at a Burnt Mound structure, that I know of, was by archaelogist Michael J. O'Kelley. (account and pictures in O’Kelley, Michael J., 1989. Early Ireland – An Introduction to Irish Prehistory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp. 223-227). They did not approach the site with preconceptions, except perhaps that it was used for cooking. This is reasonable as some of the surviving local names - fulacht fian "cooking place of the warrior band" and Fulacht na Mór Ríoghna - "the cooking pit of the Mórrígan" would indicate as much.

For the Ballyvourney reconstruction they put long poles in the remaining holes, resulting in a tall, conical shape like a tipi. I think it more likely that, like more permanent houses of the period, the poles should have been placed straight up and a roof constructed separately, such as seen in roundhouses or other thatched structures. Again, no evidence of an Inipi shape at Ballyvourney. The cooking went quite well, though :-)

From the evidence I think it's likely they were used as an outdoor kitchen and/or bathing area - I think the water pits were likely multipurpose, quite possibly used for bathing at one point, and dying or brewing or cooking at another. The pole holes do not surround the water pit in the digs I've seen. The Ballyvourney structure has an additional, small hearth inside the ring of pole holes, but it is off to one side. There is no central pit. The fact that there is no central hearth, as is found in Irish dwellings of the period, would argue against the poles being used to make a dwelling of any sort. Also the alignment of what would most likely be the door does not line up with Irish dwellings. Some have proposed that the poles were used for hanging newly-washed or dyed cloth up to dry.

The Fulacht Fiadh article on Wikipedia is not too bad. During my late teens and early twenties, I attended some ceremonies in the Neopagan community that were basically Wiccan rituals held in an Inipi structure. That's what the people doing "Celtic" or "European" sweats seem to all be doing. I have to blushingly admit, back then (early eighties) I even co-designed an alternative to these things, along with some other women, where did a collective prayer circle, based even less on Inipi. Still, I was young and ignorant, and once I learned more about the traditions and views of Native peoples, I stopped participating in any kind of ritual or ceremony held by non-Natives in that type of structure.

In more recent years, I got pulled into an effort to see if we could reconstruct a more authentic, Gaelic sweat ceremony, based on the actual fragments we have, additional archaelogical reconstructions, and comparisons to surviving Latvian sauna ceremonies. At first I was game. But, to my great dismay, I discovered the main person I was collaborating with just wanted to find "Celtic" ways of doing Inipi. She didn't care that the surviving fulachtai fia sites, and stone sweathouses, do not have holes in the center for rocks, as well as other details you posted above that differentiate them from Inipis. Like the Birmingham crew, she came at it with the expectation we'd find "Celtic Inipi", and so ignored whatever contradicted this, and exploited what few similarities there are, including wanting to alter things to better fit her preconceptions.

Due to her arrogant insistence on misappropriating Lakota ceremonies, I won't be collaborating with her in the future, and am dismayed I ever trusted her (we even co-authored a book together). Much to my horror, she is now using some of my research, and even things I stupidly told her, as a point of comparison, about Inipi and Sauna. It was, and is, a heartbreaking situation: More awful details about racist misappropriation in the Pagan community, even among some who are falsely claiming to be Celtic Reconstructionists.

What I have seen over and over with this stuff is that people who want to rip off Inipi think it's somehow ok if they can call it by a term used by another "white" culture. But ripping off and misrepresenting Gaelic and other Celtic cultures isn't cool, either. More of our stuff is public, and in order to rebuild things we've had to share more publicly than I'd like, but that doesn't mean people can make stuff up and call it Gaelic or Celtic. And it's certainly not ok for them to do that and think that tossing a tartan blanket over a sweatlodge makes it ok to rip off First Nations ceremonies. When they do that, all they show is their blatant ignorance of the cultures of the First Nations, as well as those of the Celtic Nations.

Nagy, Joseph Falaky, 1985. The Wisdom of the Outlaw – The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in the Gaelic Narrative Tradition. University of California Press, Berkeley. pp. 132-133.

O’Kelley, Michael J., 1989. Early Ireland – An Introduction to Irish Prehistory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp. 223-227.

Harbison, Peter, 1988. Pre-Christian Ireland – From the First Settlers to the Early Celts. Thames and Hudson, New York. pp. 8, 110-112, and plate 65.

Language Notes
For the “burnt mounds,” I’ve used the most common name and spelling: fulacht fiadh (singular) and fulachtaí fia (plural). For “Gaelic stone sweathouse” tigh ‘n alluis is the spelling given by Martin Martin. In modern Gaelic it is taigh an fhallais, and in Modern Irish, teach an allais .


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