The purpose of these practices is to develop
the ability to perceive and communicate with
spirits of nature and the Divine.
Those familiar with Native American spirituality will find many similarities in the Celtic way, for it is grounded in honoring the Earth, Ancestors and the Spirits of the Land. For the Celts, life sprang from the Earth and was inseparable from her. Fertility of the land and abundance of game and harvest determined the prosperity of the people. In addition, spiritual connection to the land gave meaning and belonging to people. The spirits of one's home and landscape were honored in all ceremonies and called upon for blessing, protection and power. Their presence would guide the ceremony and increase the power and energy.
Honoring the Ancestors
Ancestors were revered in Celtic world as evidenced by the extensive genealogies kept by the bards. As with one's connection to the land, a connection to one's ancestors supported a sense of belonging. Knowing where your ancestors came from can give you a powerful anchor. One recent study revealed that ethnically-specific body rhythms and physical mannerisms were carried into the 5th generation after leaving the "old" country. Our heritage is literally in our bodies, bones and psyches.
The term ancestor includes a spiritual as well as blood lineage, for the spiritual teachers and guides of your spiritual lineage are also your ancestors. They reside in the spiritual Otherworld that exists beyond time and space. In the Celtic way, they live beyond or in the mists. One's relationship with teachers and guides of this realm must be nurtured and developed over time, just like any relationship.
The shamanic aspects of Celtic spirituality were highly developed, and animal totems and allies were often used. Common totems included the deer, bear, badger, raven, eagle, swan, otter, mouse, boar, cat, horse, wolf, hound, eel and salmon. In Celtic legend, for example, the deer often leads the hero through the mists or into the enchanted forest to an Otherworld encounter. In both Irish and English legend, many seek to catch the Salmon of Wisdom. The one who eats the first bite of salmon becomes endowed with the gifts of poetry, prophecy and shapeshifting.
No totem animal is considered to be greater or lesser than another is, for each has its own gifts, strengths, and lessons to teach. In addition to clan totems, each person also had a totem that was known for their protection, guidance and inspiration. In times of need, a totem animal could be called upon for strength, clarity or courage. With an understanding of the specific characteristics of the various animals, their appearance in physical form or encountered while in dream, vision or trance could be interpreted as a message from Spirit.
One form of protection used in the Celtic world is the lorica. In legend and practice, the Celts called upon the forces of nature in its many diverse forms to serve and enhance themselves. One of the most famous of these is St. Patrick's breastplate:
I rise today
Through the strength of heaven
The light of the sun
The radiance of the moon
Splendor of fire,
Swiftness of wind,
Speed of lightning
Depth of sea
Stability of Earth
Firmness of rock.
You may wish to try using a lorica yourself, for it is a powerful shamanic practice that gathers energy and protection from the forms of nature called forth. You may call upon power animals, angels, ancestors, trees, or guides.
First, sit quietly and center yourself. Focus your intention on invoking strength and protection. Then, set one form of nature in each of the seven direction (these include the four compass points, plus above, below and within yourself). For example, you might say, "Bear before me; moose behind me; wolf to the left of me; badger to the right of me; eagle above me; salmon below me; and the clear light of Spirit within me." Most people feel a greater solidity and groundedness with using the lorica.
Druidic Training & Shapeshifting
The druids were among the highly educated priest class of the Celts who were responsible for an extensive oral history. They also underwent a rigorous 20-year training that included most of the shamanic initiations common to the indigenous world: fasting, sleep deprivation, ritual burial, forms of vision quest and extended periods of time in nature, trance/meditative states and ceremony. The purpose of these practices is to develop the ability to perceive and communicate with spirits of nature and the Divine. Druidic training was based in poetry, healing, prophecy and shapeshifting.
Though a Christian, Saint Patrick clearly had Druidic training. He used his famous shamanic breastplate to create a cloak of invisibility around himself and his eight monks in order to escape capture by an angry king's guard. The guard did not find Patrick, and saw only nine deer slipping away into the forest. There are many similar accounts of shapeshifting in the stories of the Celtic heroes and saints.
The ability to merge with Nature by bringing one's energy into synchronicity with that of the forest or an animal is the essence of shapeshifting. There are many degrees of success. One can merge to the point of being able to feel what it is like to be inside a bear's body. Or, one can be attuned so as to know the instincts and knowledge of the eagle. More masterful still is the ability to align one's energy with another life form so well as to be perceived as that life form. Finally, one could become so adept as to actually take on the physical form of another animal.
The Celtic access to the spiritual realms was through the thin places. These are points of transition where matter melds from one form to another. Thin places include the beach, where land and sea meet; doorways between inside and outside; dawn and dusk; life initiations, such as marriages, onset of puberty, birth and death; and the sacred places of the land where spiritual presence is felt. It was and is believed that it is easier to access Spirit in these times and places.
You might try reaching across the mists to experience a simple form of shapeshifting yourself. Choose a thin place and time to connect with a plant or animal. Bring your awareness to the core of your being and feel your connection to the Earth. Slowly, let awareness expand from your core to include your surroundings.
Now, focus on the plant or animal you have come to know better. Share with it your appreciation for its beauty and presence in your world. With your mind's eye, draw a circle around the perimeter of the plant or animal. With your intention, let your awareness sink into that shape. What do you notice? What is the feeling of this creature? Are you experiencing an emotion or perhaps a flow of energy? What is the experience of this creature's being? Can you feel differences in body structures -- skin, muscle, bone; bark, leaves, wood? Can you communicate with your plant or animal through images, feelings or words? Communication can be very subtle, so be ready to receive what comes in any form.
With practice your experience can become deeper and richer. In time, you can learn to merge yourself with another life form and access its knowledge and wisdom.
Part III of this series will further explore the shamanic elements
of Celtic Spirituality and their incorporation into a creation-based
Christianity that fueled the spiritual light of Europe for 700 years.