Articles: Celtic Shamanism

by Nancy Sherwood

Shamanism is fundamentally a way of viewing reality and responding to that view. The shamanic practitioner works with protection of the soul, which is referred to extensively in Celtic literature as soul shrine. Celtic shamans accessed otherworld realms through journeying, dreams, and rituals that brought the practitioner to heightened awareness. Power came into this realm through the practitioner, for her own use or that of a community.

The Celts, who believed in an afterlife and the soul, occupied and dominated Europe from the sixth to seventh century BC. Apparently they come out of the Alps, and possibly before that emerged from India. In the fourth century they reached the greatest expansion of  territory and, arguably, culture by going south and east. They sacked Rome and Delphi, Greece. Much of what we know of them in writing is from the Romans, since they were a people of oral tradition.

Writers agree that they were boastful and enthusiastic warriors who wore unusually colored clothing when they were not going naked into battle! The latter certainly must have given them a psychological “edge”. That and an attitude that “this is a good day to die”. Perhaps also, if not to die, it’s a good time to feast or make love or make drama about it all. Their body ornamentation and jewelry added to their larger-than-life attitude. Possibly that is because they felt they kept company with the gods and goddesses.

Their craftsmanship was famous for its beauty. Even nowadays, few people can tell a story better than those from a Celtic Isle. All we need to do is spend time in a modern pub, singing, dancing and drinking, to get someone to dip into that lineage of the story, enacted for an audience ready to be entertained or comforted in sorrow.

Celts were loyal to tribe, family, and clan. Those of us in North America feel those ties that people from Britain itself often shake their heads at, because they are at home while our ancestors have been feeling disconnected from the land since the great migrations of war, famine and sheep enclosure.

Water is especially important in Celtic mythology, with the gateway to the Western Isles leading to other worlds and  images of boat and islands strong in Celtic shamanic journeying. Water was the road to the isles, the source of wealth in food, the access to trading, the symbol of passage to another life, and of healing for the soul. Water was life giving essential to the survival of an island peoples; one form of water, mist was also in the stories and sagas of the Ancestors associated with magic and invisibility. The cauldron and the Holy Grail are two other symbols of antiquity that have led people to seek their Source.

Contemporary Celtic shamanism can be based on “remembering” from divination, dreams and spirit journeying as well as retrieving lost memories from the energies of sacred sites and rituals performed at those places of power. The legacy is being carried forward by those willing to listen to the local spirits of place and the visions being shared by the ancestors to whomever is open, no matter where you live. We have many  shamanic scholars who have led the way to contemporary practice and we have the direct experiences of our spirit guides that confirm or expand on scholarly research.

There is no one culture that “owns” spirituality, just as there is no one path that will take you to the Source of creation. Whoever is drawn to explore a culture, tradition, or path will find what they need at the time and benefit from it. Some of the attraction is a memory in the streams of our minds that gets triggered by certain settings and experiences. Since we assume this is a benevolent universe we can assume that we can catalyze change in our lives by making a commitment to a practice and practicing it. If you are drawn to a Celtic belief system and shamanic practice, explore it with an open heart. All those on the Other side are everyone's ancestors, biological family or soul family.  Only by sharing medicines can we heal our feelings of separation from Oneness. If contemporary practice from a Celtic based culture calls to you, join with the green ray of the heart, of the arts, of inspiration and the wild.