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January 26, 2018

The Three Realms in Irish Tradition

[from the archives, shared for personal history context…]

Perhaps, since you already work in this realm, you could look at the three realms (land, sea and sky) from the Tain and the three worlds of the shaman? Either from scholarship or practice. Formal is by no means necessary, though some reference to sources is appreciated.  In fact, with so much commentary and research I would be quite open to more subjective work…

Communication from Frater Docet Umbra, 2012


This article first appeared in the Journal of the Irish Order of Thelema, ‘Fortified Island’, Issue #1, in March 2013.

It’s a long time since I thought of my work in a Thelemic context.  Unsurprisingly, to me at least, not a lot changes when that shift does take place.  It didn’t take much to change my perspective to the concepts and practices of Thelema – different words, different names, different rituals, but the essence is the same as I had always believed and experienced.

I started through the Man of Earth initiation cycle as a personal journey, a challenge to myself that is one in a long series of such challenges.  A lifetime’s worth, or more, one might say.  I came from a firm family grounding in Irish heritage and nature exploration, exceedingly boring to the child I was, but ever appreciated since.  From personal Gnosis in my teens, I found training and connection in a Traditional Wiccan coven, working through their triple degree system and learning a whole lot.  Moving from there I found myself in Roscommon.  Not quite knowing how or why that had happened, I set to explore, and found I had landed in Cruachan.  Ancient Royal Capital, perhaps one of the first sites in Ireland of consistent ritual and ceremonial use.

Connection to the land became about more than just local entities and legends, as I had previously experienced.  A small group, just four of us, remained of our previous working group, and we were three intensely dedicated sisters and one male; who was learning a lot, but in some ways along for the ride.  And we began working through the worlds.

Neart mara dhuit,
Neart talamh dhuit,
Neart nèimhe.

Mathas mara dhuit,
Mathas talamh dhuit,
Mathas nèimhe.

Power of sea be with you,
Power of land be with you,
Power of sky.

Goodness of sea be with you,
Goodness of land be with you,
Goodness of sky.

Collected by Alexander Carmichael
I remain wary of Carmichael’s work, I must admit, but no more so than I am wary of many of the other folklorists of his time.  I find it difficult to reconcile how a person from another culture entirely – particularly when the language from which they are hoping to collect has so much in the way of tenuous and liminal associations and inflection (as is the case in Scots Gaelic and Irish) – can accurately capture or convey the ‘true’ meanings of the original.  However, the same can be said for nearly every single piece of literary material we have to work from, starting with the Christian Monks who faithfully transcribed the Irish myths, legends and even historical accounts (albeit changing the timelines on occasion to fit in the Christian worldview), and on up to certain more recent ‘Celtic’ explorers.  We must do what we can with what we have.

There is value to be had, even if at times it might only be useful in an inspirational sense, from the literature that is available.  As modern seekers, we can study the source material available, understand what we can from that, review and share experiences and theories with other seekers, and work consistently on developing our own connection from this point; the only place we have from which to work.

And so, that is what we did.  Looking at the Táin, an integral tale to this complex of sites, as well as it’s broader value in Irish Literature, we developed the idea of the Earth, Sea, and Sky model, the three worlds.  How would we learn this, experience this, with no one to teach it?  How could it be taught?  What would the journey of an initiation cycle look like when based around this core concept?  How could we make that work?

There were many late night conversations, many heated debates, and even a few all round arguments.  A loose plan was formed to work through each world on an annual basis, with a programme of rituals and exercises for each, culminating in an intense practical initiatory experience of the particular elements of that world.  We put ourselves through the wringer – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  We survived Earth, we survived Sea, we survived Sky.

Then everything blew apart, in quite a spectacular fashion.  The small sparks suddenly exploded out of all proportion.  Family relationships, careers, friendships, even a marriage, all burned up in the unplanned extra, the middle of the triple spiral that touches all three worlds, the sacred centre of every circle.  The world of Fire.

We survived Fire, but we did it as individuals.  Our work exploded and imploded, and, speaking for myself at least, evened out (eventually) into a steady, burning core of power and connection that touches all the worlds.  And it is that connection that has been my most important lesson.  Nothing stands alone.  There are stories within stories, sites within sites, people within people.  Inter-linking circles, spirals, which join place to place, people to people, and one time to another.  None of our sacred sites is just one thing, at one time.  None of our deities or archetypal characters stand alone, none are confined to one location, one function, one relationship.  None of the Daoine Eile are restricted to one role, one aspect, one place.  Recognising and studying the layers, the overlap, the bridging points, is essential.  Working between worlds can be a key to understanding Irish traditions.

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About the Author

Irish Author, Educator, and Guide to Ireland. Co-Founder of the Irish Pagan School, Eel & Otter Press, and Pagan Life Rites (Ireland).

Lora O'Brien

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