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Celtic Martial Arts
Tree Huggers - Crann Ogham
Or, A Well-Intentioned Celts Guide to Non-Celtic Bioregions
by Raven nic Rhóisín and Kathryn Price NicDhàna
One of the most important parts of adapting to a new area and determining how it fits in with your religious practice is to understand whats there already. Some regions are going to be more like historically Celtic lands than others, and the greater the differences, the greater the difficulty you may encounter in syncing your practice to your new locale. Gaining an understanding of the ecosystem, the human cultures, and the spiritual cultures already resident there will be immensely helpful. It will give you an idea of what to expect, and will also help you correctly interpret your experiences once there. If youre planning to spend some major time in the new location (moving there, extended visit, six-month contract, et cetera), its probably worth buying a field guide and learning about the local landscape, flora, and fauna. Look for parallels to known presences in Celtic lore - do any of the crann ogham trees or other sacred plants grow locally?1 Are any of the animals with great symbolic significance (crows, deer, wolves, etc.) local residents? Are there features of the land itself which have meaning to a Celt such as a lake, a shore, or a hill? Looking for places of possible resonance is a good first step, but keep in mind that the local landscape may have very different ideas about symbolism than you do.
Secondly, do some research and learn about the Indigenous peoples of the area. People in residence have a great effect on the spiritual expression of the land around them, and youre likely to encounter spirits which have been affected by their interaction with the local residents. Some of the local spirits may be the ancestors of people who once lived there or who live there now. Some spirits may not be indigenous -- many have come over with immigrants and set down new roots. This is particularly common in immigrant communities that have been in the area for many generations. Familiarity with the local symbol set may help clear up confusing interactions or may illuminate unexpected experiences. Even if the local cultures ideas are nothing like Celtic ways of thought (perhaps especially if theyre not), its well worth preparing yourself for etiquette and conversation in the new locale. Forewarned is forearmed, and a little study and friendly inquiry can save you embarrassing blunders and failures of hospitality later on. Its just as important for Celts to be good guests as to be good hosts, and due consideration for the different ways of others is part of this.
It is also important to realize that many different sorts of cultures and subcultures are capable of affecting the locale. People who live immersively close to nature (forest rangers, farmers, outdoorsfolks, etc.), as well as those who have lived on the land for many generations, are likely to be your best source of information about how to get along with the land; but residents who are not close to the land can still have a profound effect upon its feel. For example, the non-Native residents of Sedona, Arizona loudly claim to have thoroughly mapped the local energy flows, but Ravens experience there didnt sync with their maps at all -- she just failed to perceive anything like the energy vortices which the town is now famous for. Operating from a wildly different cultural context may have had something to do with this (one New Age resident asked Raven if her ogham necklace was a sacred Atlantis rune), but with so many thousands of people trying to tune in and "work with the power" in staggeringly different ways, the energy there was rather chaotic until you got away from the town and started hiking the red rocks in the back country. Because of this, most people we know who work closely with the land, including Indigenous folk from the area, avoid Sedona. The degree to which it has been interfered with and commercialised are obvious reasons for this, but another is the simple fact that most of the lore about it being more special than the surrounding land has been made up by people who moved there with dollar signs in their eyes.
Once youve arrived in the new locale, you have the chance to get direct spiritual feedback on the region and how welcome (or not) you are. While making an offering to the local spirits and introducing yourself is generally advisable, we usually recommend waiting to have a nights sleep in the locale before starting. On your first day after travel, youre generally tired, grumpy, ill at ease, and not really operating on all cylinders. Some of us find that severe fatigue shuts us down psychically, making it difficult or even impossible to perceive the spirits. Allowing yourself some time to settle in before attempting to get to know the place and its residents will allow you to get a better sense of the region, gives you a rest during which you can mull over your impressions and let them settle out, and makes you more likely to make a positive impression when you do introduce yourself.
Offering to the local spirits is a well-attested Celtic practice, and is generally considered good manners. However, its crucially important to make sure that what you offer is something that the locals would actually want to receive, rather than just something that you want to offer. For example, in some countries the idea of humans drinking milk is met with revulsion and disgust. Dairy products, though often beloved by Irish spirits, would not be a good offering in these places. In other areas, pouring alcohol on the Earth is seen as an offensive poison to the Earth as well as the local spirits. In these places, youll want to choose something else. In general, good offerings are biodegradable and dont introduce toxins, harm, or biologically active invasives into the new locale. In the Fairy Faith lore of the Celtic cultures, the most valued offerings seem to be things that involve some degree of work on the part of the humans, a creation where the raw ingredients have been transformed into something new. While milk was a common offering, and usually eagerly accepted, butter and cream seem to be more prized. While offerings of grain are often appreciated by the spirits, baked goods tend to go over better. The theme here seems to be that the folk have more esteem for something they cant make themselves, but which they appreciate humans doing for them.
Bearing this in mind, its also important to choose something that is yours to offer, rather than hurting the locale and then offering it back its own severed limb as if thats magnificent. Those alpine wild plants that took decades to grow? Uprooting or damaging them and then offering them right back is not such a good idea, and is likely to give offense and make a terrible impression. Bring something of your own, or offer your work to help clean and care for the land. Respect the land and treat it with sensitivity, and you stand a much better chance of making a good impression.
When youre bridging cultures, good offerings carry positive symbolism or touch on good associations both locally and within a Celtic framework. Raven offered bits of broken bread to the hoodie crows in Germany, and orange slices on a sunny Imbolc morning in China. (Chinese symbolism: bounty and good fortune, and they had solar symbolism for Raven for the returning Spring.) Although she was initially concerned that they might not be acceptable to Celtic spirits, fortunately, it went over just fine. Upon returning, she discovered that Kathryn had also offered oranges before as part of a dish made for the goddesses Brighid and Áine. In Kathryns case, the oranges were on hand when the goddesses requested something sweet, and a sunny fruit seemed appropriate and was received enthusiastically. Fellowship, sunshine, health and nourishment are good connotations for an offering to have; its an extension of friendship and of your goodwill towards the spirits.
Sometimes the land just doesnt like you. Sometimes its none too fond of Celts. Other times, its just so exceedingly different from Celtic cultures that its very challenging to find common ground, or even a common tongue to speak in. While we try our best to connect to the land and listen to it, we may not always like what we hear. Just as not every human has a moral obligation to want to be your friend, not every place or spirit will like you or want to connect with you. We have to be able to take no for an answer, and to respectfully withdraw if a mutually satisfying relationship cannot be forged.
Raven had a striking experience of this sort while traveling through the American Southwest with a desert-loving friend. As they descended from the Rockies (where Raven had felt a strong, close connection to the land) and into the high desert, she became increasingly uneasy, and her friend grew happier and more animated. Her friends altitude sickness headache cleared up; Raven developed a crashing headache. (She later described the hostile vibe of the area as KILLYOUANDEATYOU.3 While her phrasing was deliberately flippant and amusing in retrospect, it was no fun while there.) Her attempts to improve relations and make friends with the locale failed. Despite a crash course in the local ecology and an equally rushed study of the local cultures and their important sites, the feeling never really abated until she left. Her offerings were left untouched; attempts at connection to the land spirits were met with increased feelings of anger and hostility. The area, frankly, just didnt want anything to do with her. Sometimes this happens.
Kathryn had a similar experience when visiting relatives in Florida. Having spent time in the area as a child, she thought she knew the area, its feel, and its animals and plants fairly well. However, her only experiences with spiritual work in the region had either been indoors or in fairly tame areas, and the focus of the work had not been on connecting deeply with the land. When she and another member of her spiritual group trooped off into the depths of the sub-tropical rainforest to connect with the spirits, they sat down to open to the land... and were immediately overwhelmed with PREHISTORIC-SLITHERING- POISONOUS-SNAKE-ALLIGATOR-COMING- AT-YOU-NOW vibes. It was so distracting and disorienting they wound up having to abort the ceremony completely. They had to return to the tamer areas and regroup, and wound up taking a few days to better familiarize themselves with the spirits. Still, some of the things they had planned on doing in the ritual had to be completely scrapped. Other things had to be put off for a few years until they could attain a more thorough understanding of the area and what the spirits needed from them.
Clearly, there are some areas where those who are rooted in a Celtic framework are just not going to feel comfortable, at least, not instinctively so. While its possible that with enough time and with greater understanding of the regions in question we might have had more success, in clear or suspected cases of KILLYOUANDEATYOU we generally advise you to leave well enough alone, and not to pester the land spirits lest they decide to drop a cactus or an alligator on your head.
The core relationship between a transient Celt and the land theyre passing through is that of hospitality. It is important to respect the customs of ones host (where they do not offend ones own customs, break geasa, or something similarly dire), to make offerings of sustenance or labor, and to be grateful for the support and sustenance received in turn from the host. These hosts include not only the local peoples, but also the local land spirits. Keeping this principle in mind will do much to aid in cordial and friendly relations.
Although outright rejection may not happen, its also advisable to make sure that one doesnt take a glimmer of similarity as irrefutable evidence that Place A and Place B are actually exactly alike. This is a more subtle pitfall than missing all the signs that the land really wants you to go away, but is still surprisingly easy to do, especially for those of us who live in bioregions similar to those of the Celtic Nations. For example, Raven had a highly symbolic dream involving the local elk (so similar to Scotlands red deer that scientists thought they were the same species for years). Although she did interpret the dream in a Celtic context, and it was helpful to her spiritually, that doesnt mean that the Rockies are now OMG Just Like Scotland OMG OMG... it just means that, for Raven, the Rockies can be friendly and conducive to a Gaelic spiritual approach to connecting with the land, in that particular area and with that particular spirit. Other aspects (say, the vast prairie dog farms, or the prevailing weather patterns which influence folklore) are quite different and have no directly translated equivalent. Finding the connections and crossing-over points can be important and helpful, but ultimately each place must be taken on its own terms.
Some places feel more like the Celtic countries than others. Raven has had reliable success working in a Celtic paradigm in Seattle, Virginias Blue Ridge Mountains, Vancouver, Toronto, the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Maryland, and the Colorado Rockies. In Kathryns experience, the spirits of the Northeastern US and some areas of the Midwestern Plains and Northwest Coast have usually responded well to a Gaelic approach, though there have been some notable exceptions. Whether this is a matter of climate, geology, culture, land spirits, or some other factor is left as an exercise to the reader. Theres bound to be some flex due to personal bias and experience. (Both authors work well with forested mountains and river biomes, which makes sense with the above list. Others of Celtic heritage but with different connections might find their strongest alliances in different places.) But in general, it seems that the greater the ecological overlap with Celtic countries, and the longer Celtic peoples have inhabited the area, the more likely that a similar feel and symbol-set may be fruitful. However, even that doesnt guarantee a common tongue... ravens in Pacific Northwest Native lore have very different associations than ravens in Irish lore, and Raven wasnt able to reconcile those despite two years in Washington state. In cases like that, context, intuition, and divination will be essential for correct communication.
Sometimes what the spirits have to communicate is incredibly clear, and no backup is needed. For instance, in one KILLYOUANDEATYOU incident, Kathryn and two friends had a glowing-eyed spirit bear charge them, a psychotic ancestral spirit chase them out of the woods at knife-point, and they returned the next day to find that a tree had crashed down where they had planned on spending the night. (For more on this youthful debacle, see the death crones HEAL THE EARTH.) While everyone in this incident was rather psychically perceptive, its probable that even someone as psychic as a brick would have noticed they werent wanted there, whether by actually seeing things or just feeling scared and uncomfortable. In this case doing divination would have been superfluous. However, its very possible that divination before the event would have helped a great deal.
Ironically enough, in this instance the usual precautions we follow before major outdoor rituals had been observed - Kathryn and another of the priestesses had visited the site a month and a half beforehand to connect and make offerings, and the spirits had all been happy to work with them. But when they returned as a group of three, everything went wrong and all the omens were terrible. What they discovered was that the friendly spirits who had been active during the day, during a full moon in spring, were totally different from the hostile ones who showed up at night, during dark moon in the middle of a summer drought. This was a variable of the site they had not predicted, but what they learned from it is that a site and spirits need to be checked under the same conditions as the upcoming ritual.
In terms of using divination methods such as ogham, runes or cards, Kathryn has found over the years that divination needs to be targeted to be effective. As polytheists, many of us have found that different deities and spirits may well answer questions quite differently. For instance, in the face of a dangerous situation, Brighid may prefer that you hold back, protect yourself, and work to heal those damaged in the confrontation, while the Morrígan may answer that you need to charge ahead, since danger and risk are her forte and she expects the same of her people. Its important to know not only what youre asking, but of whom youre asking it.
Its also important to make sure that the divination method you use is capable of covering the type of questions you need answered. If your method has no fiodh, rune or card for KILLYOUANDEATYOU, you probably either need a different method, or to reframe and reconsider how you interpret the omens. (Before one hiking trip to the Rockies, Raven drew Aspen from her ogham set and was pleased, since she was going there specifically to see and connect with the giant aspen tree colonies at high elevations. Later, as she was barreling down the trail at a dead run, trying to get under the tree line before the fast-moving lightning storm hit, she had cause to reflect on Aspens connections with death, states of suspension and change, and turning-point risk. Doh.) A combination of divination and visiting a site beforehand should give you a pretty good starting-point, but nothing is perfectly foolproof.
If you are planning a major ritual that involves any sort of linking-together of your location and another (for example, as in a ritual for protecting sacred sites in Ireland) the opinion of the local spirits in both locations needs not only to be observed, but to be addressed in a more in-depth and comprehensive manner than for a simple celebration. It is possible that the land may be okay with your presence, but not okay with being spoken for or linked to another place. Even if youre well-intentioned, the spirits may perceive this as manipulative. Kathryn has found that while some connections with the land can be instantaneous, unquestionable, and suddenly life-altering, others can take years to develop properly. Time moves differently for the spirits, especially the spirits of long-lived trees and ancient terrain features like rocks, lakes and seas. Some people may never be asked to speak for the land, but it is possible that a particular area may, over time, desire that sort of connection with you.
If you are not certain that the spirits of the land where you are doing a ritual trust you to make those sorts of decisions on their behalf (and even if you do feel sure of that!), divination is in order for clarity and confirmation. If divination has not shown conclusively that the spirits are on board with your idea for the ritual, this has to be considered deeply. Possible adjustments include focusing on connecting yourself but not the land with the other location, or doing the ritual indoors and having it be solely about the distant location. This latter approach can be rather alien for those of us for whom connection with local spirits is a core part of our spirituality and ceremonial work, but it is preferable to angering the spirits. As an example, in Kathryns KILLYOUANDEATYOU experience in Florida, what she found was that she could do particular types of spiritual work indoors or in tame areas - meditations and rituals to ask particular questions of particular spirits, or very general sorts of prayers and blessings went quite well. It was the relationship with the unfiltered, primal energies of the wilder areas in the region that took years to work out.
There have also been instances where against all expectations, formerly troubled spirits have responded surprisingly well to a Celtic approach. Once upon a time Kathryn moved to a new house. After a day spent putting up a fence around the yard, and crawling around under the porch, she and her housemates unexpectedly discovered shells and special stones beneath the porch. That night, Kathryn had a horrible nightmare about being attacked by a large, shaggy, humanoid creature. In the dream, there were signs in Welsh, and it seemed the creature was furious at her for being foreign. Kathryn was unsure what to make of this, but since some of her ancestry is Welsh, she assumed the spirit didnt like her because of that. But there was also the possibility, as the dream may have been set in Wales, that the spirit was accusing her of being foreign to Wales. A variation on the dream happened three nights in a row, and in one, when the creature appeared, she distinctly heard a voice say Trow.
Suddenly a hypothesis emerged: trow is a Scots word for troll. The energy under the porch where the shells were found, and the terrain disrupted with the fence-building, was very much like that in a cave or under a bridge. In the lore trolls not only live in those sorts of environments, but they jealously guard their territory and treasure, are nocturnal and prone to violence. This fit in quite well with the alarming dreams. So, she and her household did a ritual where they made an altar for the trow, or whatever it was, and placed the shells and rocks they had found there. They also offered new shells and shiny treasures, and made peace offerings of food and drink. This went reasonably well, but the thing that turned everything around was when Kathryn addressed the trow in Gaelic. That got his attention. She first asked him if he was a trow, and he refused to answer. As he was covered in shaggy fur, and the corner of the foundation where they placed the altar under the porch was so reminiscent of the gruagach stones4 found in Gaelic communities, Kathryn asked, Are you a gruagach? The spirit was overjoyed. From that moment on his attitude totally changed, and he became an enthusiastic and friendly guardian for the household. With attention and regular offerings over the years his attitude changed from surly to quite mellow.
Ironically, other members of the household insist to this day that the spirit was not actually a gruagach. While it is possible that he was a depressed Gaelic spirit from northern Scotland who came to the Americas with Gaelic immigrants, and was confused and lonely after being ignored and then having his den messed with, it is also possible that something else was going on here. Perhaps he just liked whatever picture the word gruagach formed in the minds of the household, and the energy it evoked. Perhaps he was drawn to the sound of Gaelic for some mysterious reason. Kathryn reserves judgement on the matter of his ancestral origins, and thinks that the important thing is that they found something that worked, something that brought peace and helpful alliances to the people and spirits involved, and that furthered everyones experience with and appreciation for traditional Gaelic methods of interacting with the spirits.
As mentioned above, some of the local spirits you will encounter are ancestors. They may be ancestors of the people indigenous to the area, ancestors of more recent immigrants, or even your own ancestors, pleased that someone is finally listening. (Keep in mind that while some ancestors are surprisingly open-minded, recent monotheistic ancestors also may not be terribly delighted with polytheistic practices.) In working out how to resolve the differences between the approach of her Celtic ancestors and the spirits indigenous to the Americas, Kathryn asked a number of Native American friends and acquaintances for their perspectives on the matter. The consensus that emerged was that the ancestors come first. The First Nations folks she spoke with (mostly Abenaki and other northeastern nations) did not think it appropriate for immigrants (and the descendants of immigrants) to take on any of their ways, no matter how well-intentioned, and we concur. What they all advised was for people to continue the ways of their own ancestors, even if in a new land.
While we need to bear in mind the preferences of the local spirits, and act with honor and in respect for the laws of hospitality, our ancestors also travel with us. We look at the land through their eyes, as well as our own. As our Celtic ancestors traveled to new lands, they asked the name of the new land, made treaty with Her spirits, and over time their practices took on slightly different feels, depending on the lands where they settled. However, their beliefs, values, stories and approaches to religion and the natural world stayed the same.
The traveling continues, even for those of us who are relatively settled where we now live. Whether its Amergin calling to the Land of Ireland, or a Celtic Reconstructionist opening to the spirits of a new land in the diaspora, the journey continues. May we do so with respect for our ancestors and for the people and spirits of the lands where we now live. Slàinte Mhath.
1. Crann ogham or tree ogham - the list of trees sacred to the ancient Celts, which make up one of the better-known Ogham alphabets. This tree lore is often used as a framework for mystical work and divination. For more on the crann ogham trees, and tips on getting to know the trees in your area, see Tree Huggers: A Methodology for Crann Ogham Work (a.k.a. Raven and Kathryn Get Lost in the Woods) by Raven nic Rhóisín and Kathryn Price NicDhàna. ( back )
4. Gruagach Stones - in traditional, usually rural, Gaelic communities, a stone where milk or other libations are poured in offerings to this hairy, wild spirit. Sometimes it is a natural stone near the house or fields, sometimes with an ancient cup and ring pattern. In other cases it is a corner of the stone foundation which protrudes out beyond the walls of the building, generally at a corner of the house. A gruagach may be disruptive if angered, but if befriended, will herd and guard livestock, and even guard households or individuals they favor. ( back )
We originally had a link here for sending donations
to the Tara Solidarity Vigil Camp in Ireland. Our efforts to stop the motorway
in Ireland failed. The road is open, but many refuse to drive it because
terrible crashes are unusually frequent on the road. Though not all wil speak
of it publicly, it's well known in Ireland that if you put a roadway through
sacred sites, if you mess with the spirits of the area, you are cursed, and you
drive that road at your own peril.
If you have enjoyed this article, the authors would like to ask that you consider doing whatever you can to support preservation of your local sacred sites and protection of the sacred ways associated with that landbase. Slàinte Mhath.
If you wish to publicize this on the internet,
do not repost; rather, direct interested parties to
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Thanks to Paul Pigman for additional coding.