To contemplate the flowing curves and spirals of Celtic art, the pouring-out of forms in vigorous, organic swirls, is to get a glimpse into the way the early Celts perceived the webof life. The astonishing interweaving patterns, whether on vellum page or stone cross, reflect a world filled with the endless delight of movement, a perfect, precarious balance between the orderly and the unbounded. Interlacing designs speak to us of dense thickets in the deep forests that once covered the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland. Here and there an animal or bird appears out of the tangle of knotwork, as if from the shadows of trees. Human forms intertwine with animal, both joined by twisting and turning filaments that connect the whole tapestry. Sometimes a form that starts out as human may end up as beast or bird.
This rhythmical interpenetration of forms reflects the early Celts’ experience of the world as animate, ensouled. Their world was peopled by a pantheon of gods and goddesses who inhabited or personified different localities. Ireland itself was seen as a great goddess, one of whose names, Eriu, gives us the country we know as Eire. Her body was the land itself: in County Kerry, two hills like great breasts are named the Paps of Anu, another of her names. To be an Irish king meant a ritual marriage with the land in the form of a goddess known as Sovereignty. Cavernous earthchambers like New Grange in the Boyne River valley built by earlier races were regarded as entrances to her womb, where the spirits of the ancestors dwelt. Lakes, wells and springs were sacred to goddesses, their waters bestowing healing and nourishment. The sea was the province of Manannan mac Lir, King of the Land-Under-Wave.
Trees too were perceived as having distinct qualities and attributes: the bright berries of the rowan afforded protection from evil, the nuts of the hazel bestowed wisdom. The sacred tree stood at the center of each tribe's village, while the druids worshipped in temples of oak groves.
Animals were regarded as powerful spiritual beings that could connect human beings with the unseen realms, or Celtic Otherworld. The white hart beckoned to the hunter whose prey was not flesh, the boar drew him on into the darkness. Seers would know the future from watching the movements of birds and translating their cries. The Tuatha De Danaan, the supernatural race that lived in the hollow hills, often appeared to mortals in bird or animal form.
Under the influence of Christianity the sacred places still remained, only the names were changed. The living, speaking universe was still glorified as the creation of God. Mary or St. Brigid now guarded the holy wells and even Jesus himself was spread against the heavens:
Son of the Dawn
Son of the clouds
Son of the stars
Son of the elements...."
Gaelic prayers and hymns collected in Scotland as late as the 19th century invoke the power of
the animals, as in this blessing:
Wisdom of serpent be thine,
Wisdom of raven be thine
Wisdom of valiant eagle....
So to pagan and Celtic Christian alike, the natural world was viewed as a bridge that spanned and connected the worlds of Earth and Spirit.
A closer look at this connection reveals three different ways of knowing the universe, each increasing in intimacy until the boundaries between subject and object no longer exist. First, the familiar position where a human being relates to Nature as perceiver to perceived, both separate, discrete entities. Because within this relationship Nature is seen as of intrinsic and equal value with the human, I am calling this the I-Thou position. The second, less common, apprehension of the world, I call here the relationship of communion, where the perceiver begins to assume the identity of the perceived and boundaries blur. Thirdly, a kind of symbiosis takes place in which human and other sentient forms are interchangeable. This occurs through a process of metamorphosis, and I call it the transformative relationship.
The I-Thou position is to us the most familiar way of knowing, where Nature is beheld as the subject of human experience, and is the subject of a number of poems written by people who lived a simple ascetic existence in the wilderness. Some of these were pagan visionaries and seers; others early Christian hermits and anchorites.
These forest-dwellers lived in huts made of wattles, or even caves or trees; the walls that circumscribe our modern lives, cutting us off from intimate knowledge of Nature, were fragile or non-existent. To live like this is to see oneself in perspective, small in a huge and teeming world. In one poem, a 7th century hermit describes his dwelling:
I have a shieling in the wood,
None knows it save my God:
An ash-tree on the hither side, a hazel-bush beyond,
A huge oak-tree encompasses it.
Two heath-clad doorposts for support,
And a lintel of honeysuckle:
The forest around its narrowness sheds
Its mast upon fat swine.
The clarity and detail of his descriptions are typical of Celtic Nature poetry, springing as it does from lived experience. Unlike the later medieval poetry of European courts, where Nature is a pale allegory of abstract qualities, these verses carry the fresh quality of everyday life. The sheer variety of natural phenomena in each poem provides for us, living as we do at a time when we have decimated so many species, a window onto a world that teems with the diversity of life.
Glen of the sleek brown round-faced otters that are pleasant and active in fishing; many are the white-winged stately swans, and salmon breeding along the rocky brink..
Celtic Nature poets evoke a participation with life where all the senses are involved. We who have banished ourselves from the rich banquet of the natural world, preferring the empty calories of "virtual" realities and consumer items, can sense how it must have felt to our ancestors to be satisfied by the natural abundance of things:
Ale with herbs, a dish of strwberries
Of good taste and colour,
Haws berries of the juniper,
When brilliant summer-time spreads its coloured mantle,
Pignuts, wild marjoram, green leeks,
Swarms of bees and chafers, the little musicians of the world,
A gentle chorus:
Wild geese and ducks, shortly before summer's end,
The music of the dark torrent.
The vividness of the imagery recalls Blake's famous phrase: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is - infinite." And indeed, in the pagan Celtic wisdom tradition, poetry was regarded as a central skill of the seer and mystic . According to the old tales, the poet-seer received divine illumination by eating a sacred substance from Earth's body: most often the Salmon of Wisdom that come from the well at the heart of the Otherworld. When Finn mac Cumaill, the famous warrior-seer, eats of the Salmon by the banks of the River Boyne and becomes enlightened, the first words he utters are a paeon of praise to the month of May, as if the taking-in of the magical fish has opened his eyes to the wonder of the world:
May-time, fair season, perfect is its aspect then; blackbirds sing a full song...
In every poem, the poet's relationship with the natural world is specific and intimate. In the 20th century we tend to talk about trees, not to them, or we may expand our consciousness so far as to "hug a tree." But in the following poem, the poet addresses individual animals, plants and trees revealing an authentic I-Thou relationship with each:
Little antlered one, little belling one, melodious little bleater, sweet I think the lowing that you make in the glen...
Blackthorn, little thorny one, black little sloe-bush; watercress, little green-topped one, on the brink of the blackbird's well....
Apple-tree, little apple-tree, violently everyone shakes you; rowan, little berried one, lovely is your bloom....
The personal life of the poet is hardly mentioned in these poems. Only occasionally do we get a touching glimpse of a few domestic details, and then only in the poems about winter when the poet is confined inside:
"Cosy is our pot on its hook," begins one verse of a poem known as Winter Cold, but this line is only put in to contrast with the plight of wild animals:
The wolves of Cuan Wood get
Neither rest nor sleep in their lair,
The little wren cannot find
Shelter in her nest on the slope of Lon.
The scarcity of details of the individual life highlight its relative insignificance compared to the huge drama being enacted outside. The poet makes himself transparent so that he can relate to Nature from a deeper level. The German poet Novalis called this place "the seat of the soul" which he located as
"where the inner world and the outer world meet, and where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap."
To dwell in the forest was to live between the worlds and to learn how to traverse the unmarked paths and perilous ways of the Otherworld. It was to start to merge with the wild Nature itself. Suibhne and other geilt were said to have grown feathers like birds upon their bodies. With the typical ambiguity of Celtic literature, some texts tell us they could fly like birds; others that the feathers grew only to protect them from the fierce frost and cold, but that they "run along the trees almost as swiftly as monkeys or squirrels." Did they really grow feathers or were they garbed in feather cloaks that made them look like strange huge birds glimpsed between the branches on a dim evening? If a cloak, was it really for protection against the elements, or was it for the flight of the soul into the Otherworld?
Suibhne Geilt was said to have run with the herds of wild deer, riding upon a fawn, living like the deer themselves on wild plants and water. Merlin is also described as living as one of a herd of stags "like a wild animal." We are reminded of the extraordinary image on the silver panels of the famous cauldron found in a peat-bog in Gundestrup, Denmark, where a male figure wearing antlers sits in ecstatic trance surrounded by a forest of animals. This relationship of communion with wild animals drew these men into the borders of the Otherworld: both Suibhne and Merlin developed the supernatural powers of prophecy and shape-shifting.
In the relationship of communion, the boundary between human and wild animal is blurred; in the transformative, it dissolves altogether. This is the province of the great bards and seers who were masters at walking between the worlds. By daring consciously to undergo egoic death, they were able to expand individual consciousness to identify with the experience of other-than-human forms, and in that other reality spend many lifetimes as elements or creatures of the wild. Through living in the skins of other-than-human beings, they attained the wisdom of a self that identified itself with consciousness, not form; a fluid consciousness that could become universal by flowing into the myriad aspects of life in the natural world. This was the highest form of initiation in the Celtic Mysteries undergone by the most daring of poet-seers and heroes.
Wales' greatest bard and seer, Taliesin, was initated into the mysteries of the goddess Ceridwen through a shape-shifting sequence, in which he turned, respectively into a hare, a fish, a bird, and finally a grain of wheat, each of these forms representing one of the four elements that constitute life: the hare as earth, the fish as water, the bird as air, and the sun-ripened grain of wheat as the spark of fire.
The poet-seer would often "state his credentials" in incantations that ring with numinous authenticity:
I have been a blue salmon,
I have been a dog, a stag,
a roebuck on the mountain.... declaims Taliesin .
I, said the seer Amergin,( in what I like to think was a soft voice that sent ripples of fear through his listeners)
am the wind which blows over the sea;
I am the wave of the deep;
I am the bull of seven battles;
I am the eagle on the rock;
I am a tear of the sun;
Another shape-shifter and time-traveller was Tuan O'Cairell, another old seer discovered by the monk Finnian of Moville to whom he recounts his history of transformations. He describes the wretchedness of old age as an exhausted old man and the joy of renewal as he is transformed into an stag, the first of many metamorphoses:
"At last old age came upon me, and I was on cliffs and in wastes, and was unable to move about, ..... hairy, clawed, withered, grey naked, wretched, miserable. Then as I was asleep one night, I saw myself passing into the shape of a stag. In that shape I was, and I young and glad of heart...
Then there grew upon my head
Two antlers with three score points,
So that I am rough and grey in shape
After my age has changed from feebleness.
Tuan, like Suibhne and Merlin, becomes the leader of the stag herds of Ireland, before taking the shape, in turn, of a boar, a hawk and a salmon, and finally a man again. Every time he wearies with age, he returns to a certain cave where he fasts for three days, the period favored by Celtic seers for mantic journeys. Like Fintan, he undergoes intense hardships that ring with all the authenticity of lived experience:
I passed into the shape of a river salmon....was vigorous and well-fed and my swimming was good, and I used to escape from every danger and from every snare - to wit, from the hands of fishermen, and from the claws of hawks, and from fishing spears - so that the scars which each one of them left are still upon me.
Tuan's life as a salmon is brought to an end when fishermen of the chieftain Cairell catch him and serve him to his wife who eats the whole fish herself. She becomes pregnant with Tuan who remains conscious while in her womb, fully aware of who he is and of everything that is happening in Ireland.
So in a mysterious reversal which serves to highlight the magical interplay of human and non-human forms in the Celtic tradition, the man that eats the salmon to become a seer turns into the salmon who is eaten so that a man can be born.