Shape-shifting, transformation, reincarnation, head-cults, ancient ritual magic, you’re seen it all on this blog so far. It’s pretty far-fetched stuff, even for a fantasy writer who OD’s on caffeine and prosecco late into the night just to bring you these stories, right?
Death by cheese, anyone? Brain-ball, a new line in deadly weaponry, perhaps? I’m telling you, you can’t make this stuff up. It’s already there in black and white, if you care to look, preserved in the ancient texts which tell our Irish mythology.
Spending so much time engrossed in these stories, I’m bound to come to a few conclusions of my own. Here’s one which no one’s going to like, because it defies everything we’ve been told about our ancient ancestors.
I don’t believe they worshipped a multitude of Gods and Goddesses. No, I think they simply honoured their ancestors. That’s a completely different thing.
Think of it this way; when you visit the grave of a departed loved one, you’re there to pay your respects, to remember and honour them. You’re not there to worship them, or the stone you placed on their grave to mark their resting place.
Similarly, when our ancestors went down to the River Boyne, I believe they went, not to worship some river Goddess, but to remember and honour their beloved ancestor, the woman Boann, a much respected Queen, who drowned there.
Boann was one of the Tuatha de Danann, a race of supernatural God-like people who conquered Ireland over four thousand years ago. To those who came along many years later, the Romans and the Christians, for example, the powers and technologies of such people could only come from the divine; they could only be explained as Gods. Or demons, depending on your view. But let’s not go there right now.
Honouring the ancestors generally involves the belief that the dead continue to exist beyond the mortal world, and that they may be able to influence and interact with the living in some way.
This fits with what we know of ancient Irish society through the mythology we have inherited. It also fits with those cultures practising shamanism, which requires achieving an altered state of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with the Otherworld. And the more mythology I read, the more convinced I am that the Druids were actually shaman.
We think of the shaman as being primitive, some kind of witch doctor, mumbo-jumbo, more showman than shaman, really. The shaman practised amongst other rituals, singing, chanting, dancing, drumming, fasting, and dreaming as ways of entering transcendence.
They had various tools to aid their journeys into the Otherworld, such as a drum, generally an animal skin stretched over a simple wooden hoop with a handle across the diameter. Sounds like an Irish bodhrán, to me. Some used feathers in rituals and ceremonies, just as the ancient Irish bards wore a cloak made of swanskin and feathers called a tuigen.
But what did they actually do? They performed many functions within their communities. They were healers; passed messages between the Otherworld and the physical world; conducted religious and spiritual guidance; foretold the future; preserved a community’s history via storytelling.
Irish mythology is awash with tales of druids practising magic, presiding over battles, invoking storms and strange unnatural weather, performing healing, predicting the future, and being consulted often by Kings. We also know that the filidh were not only inspired poets but seers, healers, and workers of magic, as well.
The shaman would also sometimes use psychoactive substances to enter their trance. That’s where this pretty little thing comes in…
The Irish called it Agairg Cuileoige, but it’s more popularly known as Amanita Muscaria, or Fly Agaric. I always thought that was because eating it gave you wings, but apparently it was used as a poison for flies by grinding and mixing with milk. Which is disappointingly mundane.
Amanita has been used throughout the ages and around the world for its hallucinogenic properties, usually as an entheogen (meaning ‘generating the divine within’) for religious, shamanic and spiritual purposes.
In fact, R.G.Wasson, an American author and ethnomycologist (someone who studies fungi) went so far as to suggest that Amanita is the mysterious and elusive substance known as Soma, so revered in the Rig Veda, an ancient sacred text of Vedic Sanskrit hymns.
Amanita appears between August and November, and is generally found beneath birch and spruce trees, with which it forms a symbiotic relationship (organisms that live together, but where the relationship is not necessarily beneficial to both).
It can be no coincidence that the first letter in the Ogham alphabet is beith, represented by the birch tree, host to the amanita. It is said that Ogham was created by Ogma of the Danann, when he sent a message to Lugh by carving seven beith symbols on a birch branch.
The Amanita’s cap is bright crimson, grows to about 12cms in diameter, then fades to orange and pale yellow as it ages. It is scattered with white flecks, which are actually remnants of a protective shroud that covers the mushroom when it emerges. These can be washed off in heavy rain.
Bearing in mind its psychoactive properties, it seems hard to imagine it wasn’t used by the ancient Irish in some of their rituals. What first springs to my mind, is the ritual of Imbas Forosnai, imbas meaning ‘inspiration’, in particular the sacred poetic inspiration of the ancient Filidh, and forosnai meaning ‘illuminating’ or ‘that which illuminates’. Imbas Forosnai as a ritual seems to me to exhibit many of the characteristics of shamanic activity.
According to Cormac’s Glossary (Cormac was a King of Munster and a Bishop, who died in 908AD), this ceremony involved the poet seeking knowledge to chew the ‘red’ flesh of a pig/dog/cat. He must call on his gods (or ancestors), chant incantations, place his hands over his face and eyes, and sleep (enter a trance). This may last 3, or 3×3 days and nights until he has achieved the knowledge he seeks in the Otherworld, all the while being watched over to ensure he doesn’t move and is not disturbed.
Surprisingly, much of this makes sense. No, really, it does! For example, placing hands over eyes is reminiscent of one of the hand positions used in Reiki to enable the Third Eye chakra to see into one’s higher consciousness, spirituality, and the Otherworld. The darkness also acts as a kind of sensory deprivation.
Being watched over indicates the presence of more experienced druids, who are able to deal with any negative symptoms which might occur, such as vomiting ( a common side-effect) during trance.
Chanting is also another way to aid the onset of trance. In Ireland, the technique is called Tenm Láida, which means the ‘illumination of song’, and involves the repetitive singing or chanting of poetry until a trance-like state is induced.
In the Macgnimartha Find (the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn), Fionn mac Cumhall is said to have learned Imbas Forosnai, Tenm Laida and Dichetal do Chennaib (inpromptu, spontaneous performance/ speech without prior preparation), as part of his training, probably during his time with the druid, Finegas. Also, in a later story, when he finds the beheaded body of a man in his home, he is able to identify it as his fool, Lomna, by chanting Tenm Láida.
For me, the chewing of the meat during Imbas Forosnai stands out like a sore thumb (Fionn’s prophetic burnt thumb, maybe?). By red, I assumed raw, but what would this achieve? It seems far more likely to me that the red flesh referred to was actually the red cap of amanita muscaria.
Ireland was covered in forest. Birch is a native tree of Ireland. It is also the host of the amanita. I have seen them growing in my local forest beside Lough Ramor. So it is highly likely that the druids would have been aware of them, and even made use of them.
But what of ‘the fire in the head’? Well, one of the symptoms of amanita ingestion is a marked heating of the head, apparently caused by blood rushing in. The poetic inspiration so sought after by the filidh is also described as ‘fire in the head’, and there are many examples of this in Irish mythology.
Firstly, let’s look at Brigid, pagan patron of smithcraft, healing and poetry. The name Brigid means ‘bright/ exalted one’, from the Sanskrit brahti, and is thought to refer to her association with fire and the sun. When she was born (at sunrise), a tower of flame was said to have extended from the top of her head to the heavens… the fire in the head.
This is how Cormac’s Glossary describes her:
“Brighid, a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. She is the female sage, woman of wisdom, Brighid the Goddess whom poets venerated as very great and famous for her protecting care. She was therefore called ‘Goddess of the Poets’. Her sisters were Brighid the female physician, and Brighid the female smith; among all Irishmen, a goddess was called ‘Brighid’. Brighid is from breo-aigit or ‘fiery arrow’.”
As the patron of poetry, she must have been skilled in the art of Imbas Forosnai, and all it entailed. There are other references to her link with amanita use, too.
According to tradition, in her incarnation as a Christian saint, she was born at sunrise on the threshold of a house, which is a liminal place so beloved of the pagans, ie it was neither within nor without the house. She was raised by a druid who fed her only the milk from a white, red-eared cow. A metaphor for a brew concocted from the red and white amonita, perhaps? She often turned water into milk, which tasted like ale, and used it to heal the sick. Interesting.
Cuchulainn was someone else who experienced a fire in the head, although his was less than poetic. According to Thomas J Riedlinger, author and mental health therapist, the warrior’s terrible battle-frenzy, or riastradh, and subsequent wasting sickness from which he could not be roused, are evidence of amanita consumption. His fire in the head was described thus…
Among the clouds over his head were visible the virulent pouring showers and sparks of ruddy fire which the seething of his savage wrath caused to mount up above him.
Quote from Shee-Eire
The riastradh included great physical distortions, feats of huge strength, an unstoppable frenzy to kill everyone in sight, and an aura-like glow around his head, known as his ‘hero’s ligh’. He experiences great heat, which causes vats of water to boil; his heart beats wildly; he suffers facial and visual distortions, and becomes agitated, athletic and very strong, able to perform such impossible feats as the salmon leap, for example.
In the story of the ‘Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn’ (Serglighe Con Culainn), the warrior becomes depressed after missing his target of striking two birds from the air with a stone, and he falls into a malaise in which he sleeps for a year, dreaming prophetic visions, from which he cannot be roused.
Although exaggerated, these symptoms are all common experiences of consuming amanita, save for the blood lust and the length of the dream period. Where use of amonita has been observed in cultures indulging in shamanic ceremonies, the dream period lasted several days, but could be prolonged by ingesting more mushrooms, or drinking the urine of an affected individual, which remains psycho-active. Yuk!
Although the amanita is not mentioned directly in any ancient text, there are many shady references to it. Many magical foods are mentioned in Irish mythology; the rowan berry, apples, the hazelnut of knowledge, the salmon of knowledge. Whilst nutritious, and therefore vital to our ancestor’s survival, none of these foods have been found to possess any psychoactive properties. It has been suggested therefore, that these could all be secret metaphors for the use of amanita.
Why secret? Well, it wasn’t food for the common folk, but reserved for the sacred few in search of enlightenment. Remember how both Sionann and Boann were drowned in their search for knowledge?
The druids may also have wished to keep their source of enlightenment secret from the Christians; St Patrick was not a friend to them, and indeed by outlawing the practices of Imbas Forosnai and Dichetal do Chennaib, he may well have been attempting to prevent the use of amanita, being a bridge into the Otherworld and accessing the beings who resided there.
Not only that, but there is much speculation over his banishing of the snakes. As Ireland has no indigenous snakes, it has been proposed that this meant he banished the druids, but there is also a suggestion that the snake referred to amanita; Alexei Kondratiev discovered folk references in Ireland and Scotland, describing the mushroom as an náthair bhreac, ‘the speckled snake’.
It’s all a furtive fungal fog of speculation. None of it can be proved, but it’s an interesting line of argument. Personally, I have no experience of eating magic mushrooms, but I feel certain our ancestors did.
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