You’ve heard a lot about the health benefits of meditation by now, right?
Every celebrity seems to be meditating these days. Hugh Jackman, Angelina Jolie, Clint Eastwood, Madonna, Jet li, Eva Mendes… the list goes on and on.
They all meditate daily, and quite a number of them attribute their success, health, energy and even their good looks to a regular practice that gives them all the benefits of meditation.
When you’re just starting out though, there’s a lot of information out there. It can all get a bit overwhelming.
Even later on for those of us who know what we’re looking at, there’s a lot to take in.
So let’s break down the top 3 health benefits of meditation. With sources, so you know we’re telling the absolute truth.
Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress.
We all get anxious at times – it’s that feeling of fear and apprehension about what’s to come; the worry, over-thinking things and getting stuck in mental loops.
But if your feelings of anxiety are extreme, for example if they last for longer than six months, or if they’re interfering with how you live your life… you may have an anxiety disorder.
A report in 2014 looked at 16 studies among 1,295 participants, examining the effects of the ‘transcendental meditation’ technique on people with anxiety.
First of all, the meditation technique absolutely did no harm. I mean, that’s important when you’re dealing with cases of chronic anxiety, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and prison inmates in extremely stressful conditions.
Did it do any good though?
“Conclusion: Transcendental Meditation practice is more effective than treatment as usual and most alternative treatments, with greatest effects observed in individuals with high anxiety”. (Orme-Johnson & Barnes, 2014)
Depression is a mental health condition which can affect your thinking, energy, feelings and behaviour.
It’s really common (about 1 in 10 people are suffering from it at any one time, though in many it comes and goes seemingly at random through our lives), and can vary from mild to severe.
Depression can have a profound impact, affecting every aspect of our lives, our relationships, our work and of course, will also have a knock-on effect on the rest of our health.
A report in 2015 looked at 18 studies among 1,173 patients having acute major depressive episodes, and those with residual subacute clinical symptoms despite initial treatment. So, those in the midst of full scale depression, and those with on-going regular symptoms.
The studies covered 7 distinct meditation techniques, with mindfulness based meditation making up the largest proportion of studies.
They found that there were “moderate to large reductions in depression symptoms within the group” and they concluded that there is “a substantial body of evidence [which] indicates that meditation therapies may have positive effects on patients with clinical depressive disorders, during the acute and subacute phases of treatment.” (Fain, Walsh, et al, 2015)
Ever suffer from insomnia?
About half of us will, at some point in our lives.
For some people, it’s an ongoing issue through our whole lives. Insomnia is the most common reported sleep disorder, and there are limited treatment options (which mostly involve medication).
Now, don’t think for a second that there’s anything wrong with taking medication. That’s unusual to hear from an ‘alternative therapy’ source right?
The way we see it though, there are a lot of mental health and situational conditions people go through in their lives that require standard medical intervention. We’d never interfere with that, no more than we’d advise anyone to stop taking heart medication if they had a heart condition, or chemotherapy if they needed that for cancer treatment.
Standard medical practice saves (and improves the quality of) lives every day. Where we see a problem is if that’s viewed as the one and ONLY way to treat or support a person, which sadly is often the case.
But it doesn’t have to be.
A 2014 study looked at the treatment of 54 adults with chronic insomnia, to evaluate the efficacy of mindfulness meditation for the treatment of their chronic insomnia.
Some meditated, and some didn’t, to provide a control or comparison group. The participants who meditated used either a mindfulness based stress reduction technique (like our 5 Minute Body Scan, only a bit longer), or a mindfulness based therapy specifically designed for insomnia.
“Conclusion: Mindfulness meditation appears to be a viable treatment option for adults with chronic insomnia, and could provide an alternative to traditional treatments for insomnia.” (Ong, Manber, et al, 2014)
There are many, many more benefits to a regular meditation practice, and many different techniques and systems you can try to access the benefits of meditation for yourself.
Why not give our free Guided Meditation mini course a go, and get some of the health benefits of meditation in your own life?
Jain, F. A., Walsh, R. N., Eisendrath, S. J., Christensen, S., & Cahn, B. R. (2015, 03). Critical Analysis of the Efficacy of Meditation Therapies for Acute and Subacute Phase Treatment of Depressive Disorders: A Systematic Review. Psychosomatics, 56(2), 140-152. doi:10.1016/j.psym.2014.10.007
Ong, J. C., Manber, R., Segal, Z., Xia, Y., Shapiro, S., & Wyatt, J. K. (2014, 09). A Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Insomnia. Sleep, 37(9), 1553-1563. doi:10.5665/sleep.4010
Orme-Johnson, D. W., & Barnes, V. A. (2014, 05). Effects of the Transcendental Meditation Technique on Trait Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(5), 330-341. doi:10.1089/acm.2013.0204
Guided Meditation is a particular meditation technique, which just means ‘meditation with the help of a guide’, so you don’t have to try and follow a path all alone.
We could all use a little help and guidance sometimes, right? Especially when you’re just beginning your meditation practice. It can be a bit overwhelming. There is a lot to try and take in, and a lot to learn.
When you begin your journey to a regular meditation practice, you can access guided meditation audio, video, and scripts in the Irish Pagan School, and on Patreon; as well as interesting articles and resources on guided meditation journeys here on the blog, to try and make it easy for you to get going, and enjoy the benefits of meditation in your own life.
Guided meditation is one of the easiest ways to enter a relaxed state, especially if you know and trust the voice that is leading you through your meditation journey.
There are as many types of guided meditation as there are teachers and guides who do it, as everyone does things a little differently. They all follow the same basic pattern though.
First, you close your eyes, find a comfortable position, and take a deep breath. Your guide may lead you to spend a little time counting your breaths and focusing there, or you may be guided towards a ‘body scan’ that checks through your body to find (and release) any stress or tension.
Note: this falls under the ‘Ground Level’ resources in our free Getting Started Course.
As things are so different across traditions and teachers, I’ll use the example of how I do things, for clarity. In the particular technique I practice, there is then a ‘journey’ that I take you on. In my system, you progress from opening with this easy and relaxed meditative state, to a soothing ‘floating within the darkness’ phase. This is all still at Ground Level; it’s guided meditation for complete beginners, or those who are restarting a regular practice.
Ground Level is excellent for deep relaxation – it’s a fundamentally useful ‘calm your mind’ meditation technique that ANYONE can achieve, with a little practice.
When we progress to Level One, through different specific guided meditation journeys, we visit a soothing beach environment. There are multiple options at this point, which all focus on self development and personal growth, but are also perfect if you’re seeking that deep relaxation meditation experience.
The most important part in these guided meditation journeys though, and the bit that far too many ‘trained practitioners’ or teachers seem to forget about, is bringing you BACK safely after leading you off on a journey.
Sounds important, right? It is.
What you experience during a guided meditation depends on a number of factors, such as:
All being well, the guided meditation process will lead you to engaging deeply in visualisation as you follow the guidance, and this leads to generating mental imagery that can simulate or re-create the sensory perception. Over time and with practice, you can experience sights, sounds, tastes, smells, movements, and images associated with touch, such as texture, temperature, and pressure, in a truly ‘real’ manner, which is the best way to fully engage with the deepest levels of mindfulness meditation.
On a guided meditation journey, perhaps a little later at Level One in this technique, you will be guided to engage with journey content that you may experience as defying conventional sensory categories. In other words, you can defy what’s ‘real’, and have self development and personal growth experiences akin to waking dreams, as you are using the same part of your brain that is responsible for your dream state.
This can lead to strong emotions or feelings… hence why we feel it’s very important to make sure everyone we lead on a guided meditation journey gets ‘back’ safely, and is settled and well afterwards!
There is a wealth of clinical practice, scholarly research, and scientific investigation that centres on the benefits of guided meditation.
In short, guided meditation has been proven to:
Now, who wouldn’t want any of that?!
Guided meditation – and later on as you progress, guided meditation journeys – with a skilled, trusted practitioner or teacher, is a well established and effective way to bring all the benefits of meditation into your life.
Materials include Ground Level and Level One techniques, suitable for complete beginners, or those of you who may have stepped off the path a little and would like to get back on track with a guide you can trust.
Anxiety reduction through meditation. (1985). PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e361312004-009
Epstein, G., Barrett, E. A., Halper, J. P., Seriff, N. S., Phillips, K., & Lowenstein, S. (1997, 02). Alleviating Asthma With Mental Imagery. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 3(1), 42-52. doi:10.1089/act.1997.3.42
Kosslyn, S. M., Ganis, G., & Thompson, W. L. (2001, 09). Neural foundations of imagery. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2(9), 635-642. doi:10.1038/35090055
Menzies, V., Taylor, A. G., & Bourguignon, C. (2006, 01). Effects of Guided Imagery on Outcomes of Pain, Functional Status, and Self-Efficacy in Persons Diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 12(1), 23-30. doi:10.1089/acm.2006.12.23
Ong, J. C., Manber, R., Segal, Z., Xia, Y., Shapiro, S., & Wyatt, J. K. (2014, 09). A Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Insomnia. Sleep, 37(9), 1553-1563. doi:10.5665/sleep.4010
When I started studying psychology in 2011, with the National University of Ireland in Maynooth, I was very surprised to see ‘mindfulness’ on our lesson plan for the first term.
You see, I knew mindfulness was a form of meditation, because I’d been practicing it in a spiritual context since 1994, when I’d picked up my first book on Paganism.
I knew that science (yes, naysayers, psychology is a science!) didn’t usually give much credence to Pagan practices… so I was both fascinated and delighted to find it right there in front of me in class.
As my studies continued (and to be honest, they’ve never really stopped, though I’m not in formal education anymore), I became more and more enthralled with the science of meditation, and the benefits of a regular meditation practice. I had a key question that I keep revisiting – what is meditation, and how do you do it?
And that’s never stopped either!
You’ll hear people talk a lot about different techniques of meditation (mindfulness is one of them, for example), and different types of meditation (meditation for sleep, meditation for relaxation, meditation for anxiety or stress relief, and so on)… but at its essence, what you are trying to do when you meditate is to reach a place of deep peace, with your mind being calm and silent, yet completely alert.
Meditation then, is the practice of methods that can be used to reach this place or achieve this state.
To get there, we can use any number of techniques. Honestly, the range of practices available can be entirely overwhelming. Meditation has been practiced for as long as we know, in a number of ancient religions and belief systems. Personally, I believe every ancient culture had its own form of ‘meditation’, though our ancestors wouldn’t have called it that.
The English word meditation is derived from the Latin meditatio, from a verb meditari, which means ‘to think, contemplate, devise, ponder’ (Bailey, 1776).
So, as far as meditation techniques and practices go, the WORD meditation is relatively new.
But the formal definition we have now, runs like this:
“Meditation: to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.” (Merriam-Webster, 2018)
Since the 1800s, people in industrialised cultures have been picking up the practice with the aim of reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and pain… and increasing peace, perception and wellbeing (Shaner, Kelly, et al, 2016).
(You can see where I’m coming from and what’s available in This Article Here.)
Mindfulness, as mentioned, is gaining a fantastic reputation over the last 20 years or more, for being a science-based meditation technique, with a focus on the health and wellness benefits of a regular meditation practice (although the spiritual aspects certainly follow through with this method too).
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme in 1979, has defined mindfulness as ‘moment to moment non-judgmental awareness’ (Kabat-Zinn, 2015).
We can sit or lie down, set some time aside and devote our attention to the mindfulness meditation by using body scan techniques, or observing as our thoughts arise and letting them go.
Or we can practice mindfulness day to day as we go about our lives, for example by focusing our attention on sensations of heat or cold in our bodies as we experience them, or by becoming fully aware of the taste, smell and texture of food as we eat it.
If you’d like to try some free ‘Ground Level’ meditation exercises, you can find them as part of our Getting Started Course – to get the benefits of mindfulness meditation for yourself…
Bailey, N. (1776). The new universal etymological English dictionary … To which is added, a dictionary of cant words. By N. Bailey. Printed for William Cavell.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2015, 10). Mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6(6), 1481-1483. doi:10.1007/s12671-015-0456-x
Meditate. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meditate
Shaner, L., Kelly, L., Rockwell, D., & Curtis, D. (2016, 07). Calm Abiding. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 57(1), 98-121. doi:10.1177/0022167815594556
Meditation and mindfulness are vital parts of any Pagan practice, and often they are either ignored by teachers, or it’s presumed that a student will simply… know how to do it.
Spoiler: most Western people don’t just *know* how to do meditation.
It’s a discipline which takes years to build: starting with simple breathing and visualisation exercises, and moving on to more involved practice such as guided meditation and Journeying in other worlds, for learning and healing purposes (primarily).
I’ve been actively meditating as part of my personal spiritual practice for over 22 years, and have been teaching my own Meditation and Guided Journeying technique – online and in person – to international audiences since 2013.
My basic technique was developed for beginners, over the course of a 20+ year personal journey, and in line with psychological best practice, to make relaxing meditation and Journeying in the Irish otherworld safe and accessible for everyone.
Guided Meditation is probably the most widely relatable and understood term for how I teach you to Journey in the Irish Otherworld, which comes easily and quickly after building a foundational daily meditation habit.
The Guided Meditation system you can learn with me is unique, and strongly rooted in my native Irish culture.
We start at Ground Level, and later levels fulfil a deep spiritual longing for ancestral connection and continuance, while the foundations you can build on will remain useful and suitable for anyone who just wants to learn a practical way to meditate – particularly if you’ve never been able to do that before!
We begin with simple, easy relaxation and mindfulness meditations, to build a habit and develop the necessary skillset to progress. This is ‘Ground Level’, if you like, for the complete beginner – or those who want to take a refresher with a new voice. As a bonus, it’s all done with my soothing Irish accent. 😉
As the Irish Pagan School curriculum progresses, more courses will be offered that will build a solid meditation and mindfulness practice for anyone willing to put in the work. The benefits of meditation are immense, and I will be expanding on them as we go through this series of articles.
Currently, the Ground Level exercises, as well as our Level One Introductory Class and Guided Meditation Journey to the Beach, are available completely free in the Irish Otherworld Journeys – Getting Started Mini Course on the Irish Pagan School.
When you have completed the classes and practiced the meditation techniques at Ground Level and Level One, there are other options for you to learn from, such as the Level Two: Irish Otherworld Journeys – Next Steps.
I am a Priest and a Draoí of the Old Religion of Ireland. As such, I have a duty of service and responsibility to my community, and to any who want to connect to Ireland in an authentic way.
Yes, I could charge for the free courses I offer through the Irish Pagan School. To be honest, I think folk might appreciate them more, and do more work with the materials, if they were paying for it. 🤷♀️ Such is the nature of humanity!
BUT, there’s plenty to pay for if you want to support the work I do. This one is a gift from a Draoí, for free.
Just like the question of how we do our Paganism – the other question of how it all began is a little… contentious. In some camps.
We know of course, that what we’re doing now in our various spiritual traditions is derived from, and continually inspired by (even in some cases closely related to), ancient sources.
There is an unfortunate history of ‘fakelore’ within the early movement however, that has caused considerable damage, and I’d hope we have, as communities, moved on from all that. I’m talking about those made up stories that involve initiation or training by a Grandmother, Grandfather, or other relative who is said to have instructed some of our community elders in the secret, millennia-old traditions of their ancestors.
Maybe there’s the odd one of these that’s true, but even at that, we’ve no way of knowing how far back these ‘secret traditions’ go. I mean, how do you really KNOW that your Granny wasn’t a scammer, if she told you a story like this?
My own Nana has told me stories about older relatives who were doing what I’d class as magic spells and seasonal observances, and my Granny on the other side told me that my tales of the Good Neighbours here in Ireland (the fairies, but we generally don’t like to call them that out loud) were exactly what her granny was doing on the daily, when she’d visit with them on their farm.
None of that means we have a family tradition of ancient witchcraft, or fairy doctoring, through either of my bloodlines.
It’s sad that folk feel so insecure in their own communities or beliefs that they invest so much energy in upholding such stories. Just get on with things as they are, will you?
We have a contemporary religious movement right now that can support or even revive traditional, indigenous, or native religions; if we make sure the work we do to decolonise our NeoPagan spiritual practice is in line with modern standards of it not being cool to just take things that don’t belong to you, and do what you fancy with them.
The early roots of NeoPaganism lie in the romanticist and national liberation movements that developed in Europe from the 1700s CE to the early 1900s.
The work of scholars and scoundrels such as Johann G Herder, George MacGregor-Reid, Douglas Hyde, WB Yeats, Alexander Carmichael, JG Frazer, Jacob Grimm, Aleister Crowley and Charles G Leland (listed here in no particular order of preference or endorsement!) led to an interest in folklore, folk customs, occultism, and mythology, and to a growth in cultural self-consciousness and pride.
How many of those dudes were a part of the native cultures from which they drew so heavily, and ultimately profited off (whether in money or credibility)?
Leland, mentioned above, was perhaps the earliest to write specifically on a modern witchcraft tradition, when in 1899 he published ‘Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches’, which is supposed to contain the traditional beliefs of Italian witchcraft as gifted to him by his ‘witch informant’, a woman named Maddalena. This one has definitely been disputed as ‘fakelore’, but some still believe it to be true… either way, it had a specific and measurable influence on the development of Traditional Wicca in Britain.
Anthropologist Margaret Murray – an early feminist – added fuel to the slow burning fires when in the 1920s when her books theorised that the witch trials of Early Modern Christendom were an attempt to extinguish a surviving pre-Christian, pagan religion devoted to a Horned God. Again, this is still much disputed, but again, we can see that her work had a huge influence over the development of Wicca.
And that is where we can definitively pinpoint the beginning of contemporary NeoPaganism – with a guy called Gerald Brousseau Gardner. He was a retired British civil servant, who lived from 1884 to 1964, and had spent much of his adult life in Malaysia (with a three year stint in Borneo), becoming fascinated with a variety of occult beliefs and magical practices.
He returned to England in 1936, at the age of 52, with his first book, ‘Keris and Other Malay Weapons’, published that year. He wrote his second book, the fiction work ‘A Goddess Arrives’, inspired by the long holidays to Cypress he had to take to endure the English winters, and it was published in 1939.
We really get to the start of all this though with his move to the New Forest region in 1938, and came into contact with the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship, and the Rosicrucian Theatre near Christchurch.
The story goes that he met a coven of ‘the Old Religion’ there, and was initiated into the tradition of “Wica”, which he claimed (in his book ‘The Meaning of Witchcraft’, published 1959) came from the Anglo Saxon words ‘wig’ (an idol), and ‘laer’ (learning); giving us ‘wiglaer’ – which was shortened into ‘Wicca’, or in Saxon ‘Wica’. Doreen Valiente later claimed it came from the Indo-European root ‘Weik’, which relates to things connected with magic and religion.
There’s a couple of theories now as to who might have initiated Gardner into this Old Religion.
Originally, it was told as Old Dorothy Clutturbuck, who Valiente later proved had actually existed at least, whether she was a witch or not remains unclear. Or it might have been a woman known as Dafo, whose real name was Edith Woodford-Grimes. The latest research though, by the excellent scholar Philip Heselton, makes a strong case for a woman called Rosamund Sabine, known as ‘Mother Sabine’.
You can see, perhaps, why there’s some suspicion regarding the veracity of Gardner’s claim? He went on to publish more books:
Other notable names around at the inception of Wicca were Eleanor Bone (1911-2001), and Sybil Leek (1923-1983), who each have their own origin stories and subsequent books published, which are worth a look at.
With a priestess, Doreen Valiente – and heavily influenced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (started in 1888), and in particular the work of the occultist and magician Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) – Gardner started his specific practice of witchcraft, which became (Gardnerian) traditional Wicca.
Besides Doreen Valiente, those involved in Gardnerian Wicca at the start there were Jack Bracelin, Pat and Arnold Crowther, Lois Bourne (Hemmings), Monique Wilson and Campbell “Scotty” Wilson.
Gardner was followed by Alex Sanders (1926-1988), who founded the Alexandrian tradition of Wicca in the 1960s. Alex claimed to have been initiated by his Grandmother as a child, and indeed he did have a family background in the esoteric, but we do know that he was probably initiated into Gardnerian Wicca in 1963 through the Crowthers’ line, but not by them personally, and he sort of ran with things in his own way from there.
From his line came the author Stewart Farrar (1916-200, initiated in 1970 at the age of 54), and his wife Janet (1950- ), who have perhaps had the most influence through all of this in the development and promotion of the practice of traditional Wicca to the wider world, through their many books as well as a stable media presence.
Indeed Janet and her husband Gavin Bone continue to write and teach on Pagan topics worldwide, at the point of writing, from their base in Kells, County Meath, Ireland.
English occultist Roy Bowers, known most commonly as Robert Cochrane (1931-1966), is another who claimed to have been born to a hereditary family of witches, with practices stretching back to at least the 1600s CE and a grandfather who was the last Grand Master of the Staffordshire witches… all of this has been dismissed by his own family, and his wife Jane.
He started a coven, the Clan of Tubal Cain, in the early 1960s with a newspaper advert. Him and the Gardnerian lads and lasses were not friends, and there was a lot of to and fro between them through the years, but sure we don’t need to go into all that here.
And that’s basically where it all began.
Of course there have been many others involved, for good or ill, and apologies to anyone who I’ve left out in this brief recap.
My own initiation, for what it’s worth, was in 1996 (aged 18) by Barbara Lee and her ex-husband Peter Doyle, both of whom trained and worked with Janet and Stewart Farrar directly, and I went on to gain my Third Degree before leaving that tradition, in my early 20s, and eventually finding my way to formalising my own native Irish NeoPaganism.
Pagan Holidays (Holy Days) worldwide are coming back to a more general use and understanding, with folk often asking questions about whether Christmas is a Pagan Holiday (it is, sort of), and observing the 8-fold Wheel of the Year.
The current Neo Pagan calendar (and its primarily Wiccan holidays) is ostensibly based off the ‘Celtic Wheel of the Year’, as the early creators and authors of our modern traditions were very fond of their romantic notions of Celtic culture, and very sure that it was ok to just… take what they wanted, and change or use it however they wanted.
*cough* Coilíní *cough*
The problem with this (one of the problems) is that we now have a sort of tangled, much mangled, view of the original pre-christian Irish Pagan festivals, that even many Irish Pagans adhere to.
In this post, I’d like to break this down a bit, and clarify some of the basics, so that we can (hopefully), start fresh. With a somewhat cleaner slate for Irish Pagan practice. Le do thoil.
To begin with, the ‘traditional’ eight Pagan Holidays, are actually 2 sets of four. So the wheel of the year is maybe 2 wheels, rotating side by side.
This can be a little confusing if you’re not used to considering things this way, but I do remember being quite frustrated back in my baby Pagan days by how the festivals seemed to just be copies of each other. Like, within the Wiccan traditions, there’s not a huge difference between how you’re celebrating the Summer Solstice (Litha) and Beltane, for example.
In my native practice, I break the focus, themes or concerns out as follows:
The Pagan Calendar names I use are in modern Irish, and the associated Gaeilge video is also my schoolgirl modern Irish pronunciation, to be clear.
Irish is a living language, and while I’m the first one to honour the Primitive Irish and Old Irish source material, they are different languages. We have modern Irish terminology for every single Pagan Holiday name, and a wealth of associated folklore and traditions within our living memory in Irish communities. So let’s use that.
Admittedly now, some of the folklore has gotten crossed over and shifted around with the Christian influences, eg. Summer Solstice bonfires now happen on St. John’s Eve, on the 23rd June, and the animal sacrifice tradition has moved from Samhain to St. Martin’s Day, on the 11th November. But that’s ok too.
At least the traditions still exist, and have grown and moved with the communities as we did.
Focus on Community, Hearth & Home, the Otherworld (an Saol Eile).
When people first walked this land, there were 2 seasons: summer and winter. They signified the change and move between camping grounds, as theirs was a Hunter/Gatherer lifestyle.
These times of moving and changing were dangerous and uncertain, and this still holds true in the primary Irish Pagan holidays of Bealtaine, and Samhain, which remain times of great change and uncertainty.
When the people settled, and began to farm the land, the seasons of Growth and Harvest were marked, with Imbolg and Lúnasa, and so began the 4 Fire Festivals.
[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]
Personally, I use the name Imbolg for this festival. That’s from the Irish i mBolg, meaning ‘in the belly’, for the pregnancy aspects (animals as well as humans, because if we get pregnant at Bealtaine we give birth around now). Imbolc is commonly used too though, and may have associations with washing or a ‘spring clean’ after winter, from Folc, meaning ‘bathe or wash’. I’m honestly not sure which language the term Oimelc comes from, though it’s been given to mean ‘ewe’s milk’. That would be Bainne na Caoirigh in modern Irish though, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
We have this clearly in old Irish as Belltaine (with various other spellings, the manuscripts weren’t always precise or standardised), meaning the month of May, or even ‘the month of the beacon-fire) according to the eDIL. It may have associations with an Old Celtic God Boleros, ‘the flashing one’ (Ó hÓgáin) or Balar/Balor in Ireland, he of the single, blazing destructive eye (often thought to be symbolic of the sun), and form the word Bealtaine from Balor’s Fire (tine).
There are multiple spellings out there, and I know some of them are based on the Gaelic language of Scotland, which I don’t speak. But as we still use the word Bealtaine in modern Irish for the month of May, and again – this is a living language, and it’d be great not to have to deal with bastardised or anglicised versions of it anymore please and thank you – let’s go with that eh?!
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bealtaine
You’ll often see this written as Lughnasadh, and indeed, I’ve done so myself. As above though, I prefer the modern Irish spelling, and in Gaeilge, Lúnasa is the word for the month of August. I mean, I wasn’t joking about these Pagan holidays still being a part of our culture.
You’ll see references too, to Lammas, which we don’t have in modern Irish. My basic exploration of Old Irish suggests it MIGHT be a version of a ‘fine, handsome or excellent hand’ (from n. Lám and adj. Mass?)… but be warned, that is a very rudimentary look at a compound word! I definitely don’t use it as a Pagan Holiday name anyway.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Lúnasa
It’s not pronounced Sam-Hane. Never. I don’t care what your esteemed Elders passed down to you not-so-very-long-ago (in the grand scheme of things).
This is a LIVING LANGUAGE. Respect it, and the people who still speak it every day. Stop that Sam-Hane shit immediately.
It probably comes from the Old Irish samfuin, meaning ‘death of Summer’: eDIL. Samhain in modern Irish is the word for the month of November.
So yes, we know how to pronounce it properly. (Are you getting a sense for how many times I’ve had U.S. Pagans correct my pronunciation? Like, I’m not sure how to even communicate how infuriating that is, especially when it happens consistently!)
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhain
Focus on Community, Land & Sovereignty, this World (an Saol Sin – or Seo).
We know these times were important to our ancestors due, at least, to the sacred sites they constructed and used to observe and celebrate them. Massive monuments all over the island still attest to the power and value that was placed upon aligning ourselves, our communities, and our leadership, with these turning times of the Pagan year.
Please note: the common names Ostara, Litha, Mabon, and Yule, are at best culturally appropriated and co-opted into Neo Paganism, and at worst, carry entirely fabricated pseudo histories. I’m looking at you, Mabon.
They have NO place in native Irish paganism.
The Irish names below are simply the names of our seasons, as Gaeilge, and have always suited my personal practice around the Irish Pagan Holidays best.
[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]
The balance of day and night.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Earrach
Mid Summer, the longest day.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhradh
The balance of night and day.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Fómhar
Mid Winter, the longest night.
Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Geimhreadh
If you’d like more detail on any of the Irish Pagan Holidays, comment below and let me know. There’s already extensive sections in my books (see Publications – coming soon), but I can try and get some more blog posts and YouTube videos together for them if there’s an interest, and maybe even a wee course through our Irish Pagan School.
Let me know which of the Pagan holidays you want to see more on?!
Some of the most common questions on Irish Pagan Beliefs I see, revolve around the Pagan Altar. What is it? How do you make one? What direction should a Pagan Altar face?!
I figure it might be useful to show you what I do, as a starting point. (Spoiler alert, there’s no pentagrams! The post image was a RUSE!) So, here’s mine, currently, and my answers to a few of those questions besides.
Back, left to right:
Front, left to right:
Not pictured, see the video for… Offerings glass, painted and gifted by my Witch Sister, Rhiannon, who died a long time ago and is still missed every day, and remembered every time I see it. 💔 Also, Blackthorn branches and Crow feathers collected during my Monthly Site Visits, which are in containers up above, on either side of my Pagan Altar.
As you can see, this isn’t too difficult.
I found the chest in a second hand shop for about 20 quid, and the drawers make handy storage for candles, lighters, and other assorted shite.
Fire is vital when practicising Irish Pagansim, in my opinion, as the hearth and home fires are SO much a part of our culture (and for many other reasons which are beyond the scope of this post… ask me in the comments if you’ve any questions!). So, be sure to have some sort of live flame on there whenever possible.
Connection to place is very important too, so have something that represents the place/s that are important in your practice.
Representation of deity is good – seriously though, don’t get caught up on finding the ‘perfect’ statue or painting. It probably doesn’t exist, to be honest. The gods are essentially formless, and anything after that is us trying to visualise them so that we can build relationship. Stick to the basics as you begin, and see what develops over time.
Ritual tools are optional, depending on your tradition and practice. I have 2 really large carved walking staffs, one bog oak and one yew, that obviously don’t fit on my Pagan altar. I have an athame with a carved Blackthorn handle, that was very special to me when I was an 18 year old in a Traditional Wiccan Coven, but doesn’t have a place in my current native Irish practice.
The most important thing for any Pagan altar is to find and use items that are special to you, that make sense to you.
I don’t even know what direction my altar is facing.
That compass is purely symbolic… I’m probably dyspraxic, and spend a lot of my magical life (and far too much of my mundane life) wandering in and out of the Otherworld. I very rarely know what direction I’m facing in this world!
Unless it’s a specific part of your tradition (in Alexandrian Trad Wicca as I was initially trained, for example, it goes in the North), it doesn’t matter what direction your Pagan Altar is facing.
Just put it wherever works for you, in your home, so you can see and connect with it every single day. I promise, that’s more important than getting it ‘right’ by anyone else’s standards or rules.
As I said, connect with it every day, in some way.
Some days, that will be giving it a bit of a dust or a tidy, and maybe lighting a tealight/votive candle.
Other days, you might be sitting in front of it for an hour or more, using divination or Journeying, perhaps for communicating with a God or Goddess.
And sometimes you may do rituals – like celebrating the seasonal cycles, rites of passage, or devotion to Deity – and decorate it with extra special or symbolic items for the duration.
These are all good uses of a Pagan Altar, and if you’re working alone, or just starting to figure out your Irish Pagan practice, experiement with what seems right for you.
Take notes, keep a record; watch for patterns over time and improve as you go.
Seriously though. Do something every day.
Irish Pagan Practice (or any Pagan practice, to be honest, but especially the Irish stuff) is about building relationship. To do this, you need to show up consistently, and do the Work.
It doesn’t always have to be big work, or important work, or hard work. But it’s all part of the Work.
The Catholic Church are full of the drama lately that the Irish have reverted to Pagan beliefs, with the drive towards recognition of equality, basic human medical rights, and other such truly shocking things… but the reality is, we never REALLY gave up on our Pagan beliefs.
To get a good look at Irish Pagan Beliefs, there are three things we’ll need to take into account:
Briefly though, coz any of those things are an essay in their own right. We’ll keep it simple enough here.
One of the sources that is often cited for this topic, are Caesar’s writings on Gallic Druidism to Ireland. Now, that’s not really an accurate take on what would have been happening on the ground, on a daily basis, to be honest.
Celtic religion on the continent is better documented, in many ways, but you’ve got to remember that Ireland is an island. And quite removed from the continental Celtic culture, though it started with the same roots. Taking those roots and planting them here has led to a tree growing in Irish soil that is quite different to the parental rootstock, is all I’m saying.
Irish traditions through the ages took in any invaders and blended them with what was here already, a grafting if you like, to truly flog the tree metaphor. Blending is what we do, and we sort of stick to our own ways in the meantime. A bit stubbornly like.
It’s one of the reasons why it doesn’t really work to map our pantheon onto the structure or functionality of other pantheons either. Even Celtic deities don’t quite match up.
In brief though, we can get an idea, some basic concepts at least of the Irish Pagan beliefs, by tracking what we know about the root Celtic Religious beliefs, and what we have in our own native source material; archaeology, mythology and folklore.
Our written sources don’t really begin until the coming of Christianity, which was anytime between the 300s and the 600s CE [Common Era] in Ireland.
Despite what St. Patrick’s hagiographers would have you believe, it wasn’t all about him. Oh no.
As per the above mentioned tendency to take in any invaders and blend them with what was here already, Irish Pagan beliefs began to meld and blend with the quiet incoming flow of Christianity.
As the society and culture shifted, Druids were replaced in function by priests, and it would seem that many of them may have moved with the times and become priests or monks themselves.
This led to rather a lot of pure Pagan beliefs being subsumed into a Celtic Christian church, that then held a lot of beliefs and practices that the Roman Catholic church regarded as wrong, or even sinful.
Spotting a trend here? The roots from elsewhere were finding a fertile, but very different environment on this island, in which to grow and flourish.
Rome squished down a lot of that golden age growth, and we ended up with something very forced, unnatural, and toxic in its place, that has not been at all good for our people as they’ve held power over us.
But the Irish Pagan beliefs still held true in many of the folk ways and practices.
For example, holy well observances that are so very close to tending and utilising a sacred magical spring in Pagan terms. And our relationships with the Good Neighbours, the Other Crowd, the Sidhe or the Fairies, as ye might call them.
Sure, don’t even get me started on that.
Paganism in Ireland has grown since the popularisation in the 1970s, in much the same way as it has elsewhere.
Well. Not quite the same maybe… there’s still that whole pattern of being given a thing and making it our own.
We’re a tribal lot still, you see, and fiercely independent in many ways. We’re also TINY, population wise, compared to Britain or the U.S. And with quite a rural, spread out population.
All of this makes it more difficult to organise – Pagan events, groups, and organisations. It’s all a bit hit and miss, says the one who co-organised our national Pagan Festival (Féile Draíochta) from 2003 til 2016 or so.
But at this point, we have a healthy enough network across the island.
I personally would love to see less focus on non native practices – seriously Nora, we don’t need another Pow-Wow drum or a Siberian Shaman at one of our most important sacred sites for our festivals – and more work being done by native practitioners to (re)create native systems and celebrations of our indigenous spirituality.
However, the folk in Ireland who are doing the work with regards to creating community around our Pagan beliefs are doing a bang up job, if I may say that as ONE of those folk.
Take Pagan Life Rites (Ireland), for example.
This is a non-profit organisation, operated by a nationwide network of Priests and Priestesses, offering a range of services to the greater Pagan community of Ireland.
One of the founding principles is respect and honour of the land and of nature:
“The island of Ireland is our home and Her sovereignty is treated with respect. It is held within Pagan belief generally, but not exclusively, that Deity resides within Nature and is immanent in all that is around us. Therefore, the land we live in and the Earth that we walk upon should also be revered and treated with respect.”
I’m down with that anyway.
No, like literally. I’m one of the founding members of Pagan Lifes Rites, so it’d be weird if I wasn’t, right?
One of the ways we are of service, is to organise a series of Pagan Moots (monthly social and networking meetings) across the island, to facilitate the meeting and connection of people who are interested in Pagan beliefs, and creating community in their local area.
Want to get in touch? – You can find a list of Pagan Moots in Ireland here.
Also of interest – Irish Celtic Pagan Symbols.
If you want to get some focused guidance on where (or how) to start exploring an authentic Irish spiritual practice, there are 2 Beginners’ Classes on the Irish Pagan School…
Hopefully, those options give you something solid to be getting going with. If there’s anything else I can do for you, let me know?
This is a question that comes up a lot – what are some Pagan Symbols used by the (Celtic) Irish?
It’s kind of a tough one to answer, as we don’t have an extant [surviving through the ages] Irish Pagan tradition, per se. We have a whole lot of Irish mythology, of course, and even more Irish folklore… but no complete system for what it all means, or how to use it.
In modern Irish Paganism, we use many of the same Pagan Symbols as do those in other communities, all over the world. Some of the general Pagan symbols you’ll see at any Irish Wiccan coven meeting or Druid convention include:
Any or all of these symbols can be (and are!) used by modern Irish Pagans.
When we look back a little further into our tradition and lore, we have 2 main sources for native Irish Pagan symbols – stone carvings and manuscripts.
Now, either of those may have been influenced by Christianity, and so not count as truly Pagan, perhaps. It depends on the context for them.
That being said though, everything in Ireland is a little bit Pagan, even still… so we can put that one aside, now that we’re aware of it, and look at the sources.
The best example of this, I’d say, is the Ogham alphabet – our Celtic writing system (and I use Celtic here, and through this post, because much of what we have in Ireland on this topic is common across other Celtic cultures).
Ogham appears both carved in stone, and in multiple manuscripts, so it’s ticking both boxes there. With regard to how old this Celtic alphabet might be: we know it existed as a monument script (there’s that early stone carving), in the 400s CE [Common Era].
It was designed for the Irish language, so we can place in at pre Christian times, probably, through that – if it was just made for the monks, they would more like have designed it through Latin.
It’s back to the stone carving folks, and this time, let’s look at our monuments. One of the more famous ones is Brú na Bóinne, with the 3 great passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.
Built by the Dagda, so they say (and you can read some fascinating stories on that guy right here), these monuments have stood in Ireland for over 5,000 years, and when they were being built, symbolic artwork was a big part of their construction.
Some of it is spectacular: wonderful combinations of spirals, lozenges, chevrons, triangles and arrangements of parallel lines and arcs. It occurs particularly on the structural stones of the tombs but also occurs on some artefacts that have been found within and around them.
Knowth alone has about 45% of all the art known from Irish tombs and nearly 30% of all the megalithic art in Europe.
[Images courtesy of World Heritage Ireland, © 2010 Dept. Environment, Heritage & Local Government.]
In short, we don’t know. Great answer, right?
We do have theories, of course.
Whatever their original purpose, we can utilise them now for any of these reasons as fits with our personal practice. The Irish Pagan symbols that remain to us are an incredibly valuable connection to our ancestors, and the wisdom of ancient Ireland.
I’d love to learn what Pagan symbols call to you, or which ones you make use of? Let me know in the comments below!
If you want to get some focused guidance on where (or how) to start exploring an authentic Irish spiritual practice, I’ve just released 2 Beginners’ Classes on the Irish Pagan School…
Hopefully, those options give you something solid to be getting going with. If there’s anything else I can do for you, let me know?