Paul Sivert on Celtic influence on shamanism…
May 1 was the great festival, Beltaine. This holiday marked the beginning of summer. Keep in mind the Celts were an agricultural people, so it was important for them to recognize the seasons in accordance with the natural growing seasons. Therefore, Beltaine was the beginning of the summer growing seasons when the sun was strongest, which the Celts called an ghrian mor, ‘the greater sun’. During this season, the animals were let out to graze on the spring grasses. Interestingly, the herds and flocks were initially driven between two fires to purify them from any diseases resulting from being inside for months.
May Day is still a popular festival in Britain and Ireland. Many villages still choose a May queen and dance around maypoles. The Celts believed the Otherworld Gates stood open at this time and it was a good time to seek gifts of the fairy folk, the sidhe. Beltaine is the season for coming into our strength and realizing our desires.
August 1 is Lugh’s wedding day, Lughnasadh. This holiday is the height of summer and marked the beginning of the year’s harvest. This date also meant a time of tribal get together, of horse fairs, arbitrations, trial marriages, and hard business deals. There were also ritual games combative bouts, horse racing, and the possibility of choosing the tribe’s leader, tanaiste. There are some general similarities with what is going on with us. The farmer’s markets are full of fresh fruits and vegetables and it is election time for many of our elected leaders.
In the Celtic tradition, there is a sense of sacrifice at this time as the crops are brought in. The state and quantity of the abundance of the harvest was an indication of the effectiveness of the current leader. If his reign had been poor, the land would reflect this lack of commitment and it would be time to select a more able ruler.
The festival provides each of us with the opportunity to assess our responsibilities and commitments. This is a valuable exercise for us to think about as this season progresses toward winter. The direction associated with Lughnasadh is the southwest; the plant is apples; the planet is the moon; and the sense is hearing. Listen carefully for what you hear under moonlight, for the emotion of this season is love.
Samhain (Sa’ wen) marked the beginning of the Celtic new year. Perhaps it seems strange to think about the new year as our natural beauty which has surrounded us for months appears to die. However, the passing of the tree’s leaves is the beginning of the cycle. The squirrels scamper here and there collecting the nuts for the winter that is coming. While the farmer is planting his seeds into the dormant field thereby starting new life which we see in the spring.
For the Celts it was a time of communing with the ancestors, an aspect which Celtic Christians incorporated into the feast day of All Souls. During the long winter nights, story telling was a regular feature with tales about the spirit world, especially ghost stories about the otherworld whose gates stood open allowing the dead to walk around. It was the tradition that only those in disguise would venture out at night to confuse the side, the feared folk, and the feared though revered ancestors. Of course this custom has been passed down and is now in the form of Halloween – trick or treat.
Samhain is a good time for recycling, transforming, or throwing away whatever is stale or outworn. Interestingly, this is a time many of us clean out our closets in preparation for winter. Since this is a transforming time of year, it is a good time to reflect on what we are becoming especially on the spiritual level.
Imbolc (Im’olk) marked the beginning of the end of winter and the coming of the new life and spring. It was the time of the birth of new animals such as lamb, cows, and horses. Many horse breeders still arrange ‘things’ so new fouls are born in January and February because their horses will be bigger, stronger, and faster than horses born during the remainder of the year.
People did not travel far due to the harsh weather, the rain, snow and ice. It is still truth to date that winter storms still come, often times disrupting our schedules and plans. The festival, which is held on January 31, is a family festival. The young men and women would make songs and vigils to goddess Brighid, who is the goddess of midwifery and fosterage. Many children may be born at this time as a result of the Beltaine the previous summer.
Several key words significant to this season are renewal, dawn, inspiration, and smell. We will be looking for the return of the summer birds and the direction associated with this time is the east. Imbolc is the time for contemplation and mediation on our destiny and the direction we choose to take in the coming year.