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
It’s been suggested a couple of times that I should get on ‘the other side of the interview’, and talk about my own Irish Spirituality, and Pagan or magical practices. So recently I queried my Community for their questions on Irish Paganism and Spirituality (or my history/practice in particular). Then I went on FB Live and recorded the Video, which you’ll see below.
Morgan Daimler what is your favorite subject to teach or write about and why?
Morgan Daimler What do you think is the best way for someone to get started with Irish Spirituality, and how can a person (anywhere) avoid the usual pitfalls of bad information while building an understanding of the spirituality and the Gods and spirits?
Mac Tíre Would you have any advice specifically with regards to connecting to deity (even more specifically An Morrigan) E.g. like what you were saying in your interview with Oein DeBhairduin about contracts. Also appropriate offerings and what NOT to do.
Cat O’Sullivan Sometimes no matter how hard you try to avoid it you end up having to deal with the other crowd (the Good Neighbours, The Sidhe, the Irish Fairies). What would you recommend. Bargain, banter or banish?
Teididh McElwaine Question: Could you recommend how to wisely pursue like-minded, serious people in our respective communities? Thanks! (eg. Pagan community building)
Victoria Danger Yay! What parts of your devotion/practice/spirituality are centered on joy? Tell us about the parts that are fun or feel good 😊
Gemma McGowan Apart from teaching, writing and political activism (which I know is already a lot!!!) what other areas do your Gods ask you to actively work in e.g. Devotional practice, ritual, healing, specific types of magical work?
Cheryl Baker What does daily/weekly/monthly practice look like for you?
Marocatha Bodua Brigiani I’d love to hear you talk about magic vs religion in Irish spirituality – are those pieces separate for you, are they not separate, how do they integrate or not in your practice.
Branwen Stephanie Rogers Aside from the lore and researching, what do you consider foundational to your practice and spiritual well being?
J-me Fae What is a practice that you, personally, would like to see folks outside of Ireland integrating into their work on Irish Spirituality? What do people do that most honors the gods and land you love?
SallyRose Rivers Robinson What altar items do you see as making up an Irish Spiritual altar? Is there specific things that should be there? Specific things that shouldn’t? Is it strictly personal choices?
Pamela Holcombe Question: I hear you say you found yourself Wondering around the Otherworld many times throughout your life before you understood the way of traveling there so curious what your most profound experience was there or scary interesting experience was? Also I find that I sometimes end up on my island in my dreams and travel around in the other world in my dreams do you do that also and do you think it’s pretty much like a journey we do awake?
Izzy Swanson What Carl Jung book would you read first? I printed a list of his collected works. My head may explode. I am most interested in his definition of the psychopomp.
Darla Majick What do you think about The Morrigan whiskey? I have it on our Morrigan Altar and love the bottle. Its not the best whiskey out there but it’s definitely not the worst. Ive blessed and cleansed ours before just putting in on Her altar. WE did ask her if she liked it and we did not get a negative response from her
Alanna Butler GallagherHave you ever tried to draw what you saw (in the Otherworld, ref. Pamela’s Q above)? That experience illustrated sounds like it would be a learning point for other people to not do that type of thing for the craic 🤔
J-me Fae Do you have any specific recommendations for parents looking to support their kids in building authentic connection with Ireland? I read the stories to them, share *some* of what I am doing with them (but I’m wary there), and we are all learning Irish together, but at least one of them is hungry for more
A clash of metal rang out over the training grounds, followed by a muffled grunt of exertion, and the wooden thud of shield engaging shield.
“Put yer backs into it little wormies! Domhnall, keep that shield up, yer shoulder is wide open. Aoife, thrust and slice, stop that bloody hacking!”
Her attention caught by the familiar morning sights and sounds of Corbhall putting the young warriors through their paces, she couldn’t help but smile as he met her eye with a wolfish grin. The benevolent smile faded somewhat as she observed him raise his leg and let rip a loud fart in her general direction. She sighed a little, observing him grab up a large wooden waster and stride off towards the hapless Domhnall, who was about to get a very practical lesson in what happens when a person leaves their shoulder exposed in a battle situation. Well, at least he was using a wooden training sword this time, and not his own fierce blade. Phuic’s latest ‘little chat’ with him must have done some good.
As she turned to go inside, movement through the hawthorn boundary stirred her curiosity, and she stepped towards it for a clearer view. As her home was situated with the School to the east and the Procession Ways to the west, she gained a clear view of the latter direction by moving through a small gap in the boundary with her back to the morning sun.
A tall, graceful figure was moving softly over the grass, and Leila recognised her immediately. Alone, as usual, the girl Saille made her careful way to a point exactly between the two raised banks, placing herself at the start of the ritual procession route. Pale arms seemed to glow in the bright morning light as she raised them in salute, the loose sleeves of her robe falling back lightly, and fluttering as she turned to face the newly risen sun. Eyes closed, she did not notice that she had an audience. Opening her mouth, her voice poured forth – the strong beginning note sounding pure in the morning air. Respectfully, Leila turned back, not wanting to disturb the solitary girl’s rituals, or embarrass her with observation. Besides, it was time to make her way to the School, classes would begin shortly.
Gathering her things from inside, she shut the door on her way out and walked a brisk pace around the training grounds, out to the horse fields. If she didn’t collect little Anande every day that child would never set foot in the classroom. Leila doubted she would ever do anything that didn’t involve those horses, unless someone cajoled, begged or forced her to do it. It had been the very same since she had arrived for fostering at the age of 2 – she was already grooming and working with horses by then. 8 years on, the obsession had only grown deeper. Her own breeding pair were her pride and joy, a fine white stallion she had called Tír na nÓg, and a proud dark mare who went by the (somewhat risky, Leila had often felt) name of Mórrioghan.
Indeed, her hard work and dedication had already paid off, with their offspring highly sought after – holding top position in many races each year, all over the land. Anande’s talents had come to the notice of the Queen herself, and it was known that she would have the option of a place in the royal household when she came of age. Although knowing that girl, she would probably never venture much beyond the stables and the horse fields, once she didn’t have to.
With the Óenach just around the corner, Leila braced herself for the frustrated tirade she knew was imminent. Sure enough, as soon as she came into view, Anande was upon her, demanding to know the news – would she be allowed to compete her own horses this year? Every other year she had been judged too young, even though her skill was equal to any grown man or woman. Privately, Leila supposed that the judges were listening too much to the whispers of their friends – friends whose whispers were fuelled mainly by fear of being beaten by a 10 year old girl. At these large community fairs, pride was everything; Anande represented too much of a threat to the long established egos.
“I am sorry mo leanbh, I have not heard a decision yet. But it would not do to get your hopes too high. You are young yet, and there is plenty of time to compete. This year again, the children of your horses will run, and be shown, and all will see and know your gifts with these creatures. Your time will come.”
Leila waited patiently while the girl cleared up and said goodbye to her friends, preparing herself for another day away from them. Hearing a grumpy ‘harrumph’ from the mare, she turned to find a large hairy hound loping across the open ground towards them, tongue lolling with exertion from the run. Greeting him with a smile, she spent the remaining wait for the child stroking Phuic’s sleek black head, and scratching his soft furry back. When Anande was ready to leave, they set out together, Phuic still in his hound form leading the way to the School.
When Leila had first arrived at Caiseal Manannan, it had taken her a while to get used to the Shifters.
Nervous at first, she had avoided their company, keeping largely to herself, as much as possible. But she had soon realised it was impossible not to like Phuic, with his easy going nature and boundless energy. The rest had taken her longer to get to know, with Corbhall being the last and latest. That one still made her slightly uneasy at times – the singular nature of the warrior wolf a contrast to Phuic’s flexible changing. The man did a great job training the young warriors though, she had to give him that. It made up for some of the noisy body functions and harshly practical and abrupt personality, at least.
Approaching the School, the trio made their way up by the stone wall of the first enclosure, over the ditch and in through the largest, central enclosure. Beyond the next ditch was the third enclosure, where her classroom was situated. Opening the door wide to catch the early breeze, she decided that today was a day for outdoor learning; perhaps a walk to identify some new plant species, and a lesson in the afternoon regarding the medicinal and magical properties of their new found flora. Phuic was already settling into his shift mode – which she still, despite her best efforts, found difficult to watch – for he would need human hands again to complete his daily tasks. It was not easy to maintain the armoury or practise sword forms with the hooves of a goat or the talons of a raven. Anande picked the broom from the yard, making her way to the classroom door to begin the morning sweep. Leila was close on her heels, and they both stopped short when they encountered the man seated inside. Uncurling from the chair, he rose and followed them as they backed out into the open. Phuic looked up in surprise at the unexpected visitor, but when he identified who had joined them, he quickly took his leave. Anande too, found somewhere else she urgently needed to be. Left with a polite smile glued to her face, Leila barely suppressed the flutter of panic in her breast. The man watched Phuic enter the main enclosure and disappear into the armoury, waiting for the last longing look that inevitably reached Leila as he left, and nodding with seeming satisfaction as it arrived right on cue. Leila failed to notice either man’s actions, her eyes on the ground.
“Sit with me.”
The command was not harsh, but it brooked no argument, so Leila sat at his feet. As she looked up into eyes that gave their colour to the seas, she felt nervous tension drain from her shoulders, and took a deep breath. This refreshed her. However apprehensive his unexpected presence had made her, they shared a trust carefully built with years of respectful interaction. She closed her eyes, and allowed his voice to transport her…
“You are floating. Dark seas all around you, and you sit in a currach, calm amid the storms. The motion is gentle, soothing, a contrast to the turbulence that surrounds you. As the boat moves, the serenity moves with you. You focus on that still centre, and look outward as you journey.
An island. People, music, fire. A confusing jumble of strange activity, odd clothing, incomprehensible speech. You move on, away, seeking forward on your journey.
Another island. Large structures, fast moving objects. You move on. Another, a large procession, giant green hats and banners, standards and crests unrecognisable. You move on. Faster and faster you move by the islands, none are right for you to see. Metal monsters that roar and speed faster than you can follow. Houses and keeps taller than any tree, taller even than the mountains. Music and sounds so loud they hurt the ear. Plants and animals so alien to your eyes. Colours and lights brighter than the stars, than flames, brighter than the summer sun. People of so many tribes, in garments and materials the like of which you have never dreamed. Doing things you can make no sense of. Your boat skims onwards, forwards on your journey.
And stops. This island seems empty, the shoreline clean and unbroken by habitat. Your currach washes up, bow softly kissing the sand. You disembark, sandy shingle quickly giving way to smoothened rocks as you make your way up the beach, then to wiry scrub, and finally to grassy land. There are trees you know, some small plants that are recognisable. Familiar forest noises, soothing after the strangeness. Then human sounds, voices in the distance. No discernible language, but shouts and laughter that seem to indicate contented playfulness. Continuing in that direction, you keep to the cover of the trees as you come to an open space, a clearing, in which a family are at rest. Not wanting to disturb them, you simply see.
A young boy, about 6 or 7 years old – shouting and whooping as he runs through the long grass. He is broad shouldered for one so young, sturdy and healthy looking. His sisters chase him, laughing carefree girls of early puberty, maybe 11 or 12; there’s not much between them in age. The younger girl is fit and strong, whooping with sheer pleasure, filled with energy and raw power. The older is graceful and willowy, more reserved than her siblings, joining in as she wants to but deliberately curbing her enthusiasm, and often distracted by some small detail, mesmerised in her own world until a shout or a poke brings her back into the game.
The grownups sit and watch, at ease with each other and comfortably familiar. He is a young old man, whose countenance seems to shed a light all his own; a bright, happy soul who cannot help but show his adoration for the family, and a deep self-satisfaction with the situation in which he finds himself. Fit, with a warrior’s movements and the innocence of youth. And she, she is dark of hair and light of skin, taller than a woman should be, but striking. There is a… presence about her, something that is hard to describe, a power that lies smooth under the surface. As you observe her, puzzling, she turns and looks directly at you. With no surprise, she smiles, and nods hello, and you return the courtesy. With that recognition, you know it is time to leave this happy family, to return through the trees, to the beach, and climb in to seat yourself in the currach.
The sea swells gently to carry you back, away from the island and back out across the waves. As you return, you think of this family, the knowing smile of that mother, safe in her home surrounded by her loved ones, and you can’t help but smile again.
You are floating again. Dark seas all around you, and you sit in the currach, calm amid the storms. The motion is gentle, soothing, a contrast to the turbulence that surrounds you. As the boat moves, the serenity moves with you. You focus on that still centre, and hear my voice. You remember those people. Their spirits are familiar, you have met and known them already, and will remember and love them again. Keep that calm centre within you as you travel your outward journey, and when you are ready, just open your eyes…”
And she did.
This piece grew from a character banter/brainstorm with the kids in the car on the way to school one morning. I write the following when I returned home, and the rest came later.
Saille: Priestess in training. Mystery figure who refuses to engage with anyone. Age undetermined.
Anande: 10 year old horse breeder/trainer. Not allowed to compete her horses in the óenach, too young! But there’s men of 50 who aren’t ¼ as good as she is. She keeps a mare and a stallion who’s offspring regularly win the races, breeds horses for the king and the queen themselves.
Corbhall: 19 year old warrior who farts a lot! Trains all the child warriors at the school, and can shape shift into a wolf.
Leila: Teacher in Caiseal Manannan.
Phuic: Shape shifts – black dog, black stallion, black bird. Young warrior knight.
All that aside, Manannan is a fascinating figure in Irish Gaelic tales. In his essay, Dr. Charles McQuarrie describes:
“Manannan mac Lir, the sometime god of the Irish Sea and lord of the Otherworld, who appears most often as a beneficent Otherworld-god-in-disguise. In some tales, especially the earlier ones, Manannan appears disguised as a noble mortal king, but in later tales, as in a number of 15th century sources, he appears in bizarre, horrible, and even comical disguise.”
The late, great, Prof. Dáithí O hÓgáin described him as “Otherworld lord and mythical mariner”, who rode over the waves on a horse named Enbharr (‘water-foam’), and the professor tells of the waves being called ‘the locks of Manannan’s wife’.
This son of the sea is associated with stone remains lying South West of Rathcroghan mound. Caiseal Manannan was a multivallate stone fort, made up of three concentric stone walls, with ditches between each – a site which may originally have incorporated a roofed structure. The inner enclosure is 40 metres in diameter, and the walls are approx. 1.5 metres thick. There is reference to a ‘Druidic school’ in the area, and Caiseal Manannan (the stone fort of Manannan) is a likely site for that.
Learning journeys to the Otherworld, teaching the secrets of safe travel, the mysteries of warrior training and initiation, and the priestly arts… it all had to happen somewhere, right?
Early Irish law was based on decisions made by the Gaelic Brehons, learned men and women of old Irish society who took on the responsibilities of the Judge.
It was an oral tradition, but the rulings were recorded by later Christian monks and priests, and so we have surviving Brehon Law manuscripts from the 700s.
The system remained in use despite many changes through Irish history, with native laws only specifically banned by the English in 1600.
The Brehons called their laws Fenechas – the law of the freemen of Gaelic Ireland, and it was a civil (not criminal) code which focused on payment of compensation for harm done, rather than punishment. Irish trees were revered and protected as an essential part of each community, and recognised as both sacred and valuable.
A text called Bretha Comaithchesa, which means ‘judgements of neighbourhood’, specifically regulated how Irish society dealt with harm done to trees. Damage to an especially valuable tree such as an oak or yew was a more serious offence than to a less prized tree, so 28 principal trees and shrubs are divided into four classes, with different rules applied to each group.
The most valuable and noble are the airig fedo – ‘lords of the wood’.
Then the aithig fhedo – ‘commoners of the wood’.
The fodla fedo are the ‘lower divisions of the wood’.
And least valuable are the losa fedo – ‘bushes of the wood’.
Let’s take for an example the mighty Oak. A mature Irish Oak (Quercus Robur) can live for more than 500 years, and grow 130ft tall. One of these trees supports over 250 species of insect, and over 300 different types of lichen, which form the food chain for a multitude of birds. Oaks grow acorns, a feast for many wild creatures, who can also make a home in the tree – whether they’re nesting in branches or curling up at the roots. Humans also benefit greatly from each and every tree, so it’s no wonder the oak is known as the ‘king of the woods’. In Irish it’s called dair, and shares a root with the word for magic and druid – draoí. The practical value of the oak in Brehon Law is said to be “its acorns and its use for woodwork”; the acorn crop was particularly useful for fattening pigs, while oak-timber is the finest for fences and buildings.
Tree energy is unique and incredibly healing. Trees can help humans to:
First, find one that’s physically convenient to you – in your garden or where you work maybe? You’ll want to build a relationship, so the occasional flying visit will not do. Go and look at it, really look at it. Stand back and take in its overall form and growth habit. See how the leaves are shaped, the patterns they form on stem or branch – notice every part of it.
Feel the sphere of energy, or aura, around the tree. It is formed in circles, and can be quite large; the outer ring will match roughly with the overall spread of branch and root. Step up to, then inside the energy circle. If you move slowly and close your eyes you’ll feel a slight push, a feint resistance as you step through, and again through each interior ring as you make your way to the trunk.
Find a comfortable spot and stand or sit with your back leaning against the tree. Sense how you are safe inside its energy circle. Take off your shoes and touch the earth beneath your feet. Put your hands to the bark of the tree, or flat on the soil beneath it, and let energy flow from the crown of your head, down your spine, and out of your body, down into the earth.
Allow your body to refill with fresh energy as you breathe air into your lungs, and pull the tree’s healing power through the top of your head and down into the centre of yourself. Let it circle and flow through you. Spend some time; see what thoughts come to mind.
When you feel refreshed, step away and thank the tree for the connection that day.
Visit the tree again soon!
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There is an altar in Paris, which bears the inscription “Tarvos Trigaranus”, which means ‘Bull with three cranes’ (as in, birds). Carved in relief is a tree with spreading branches, in front of which stands a bull, with two of the birds perched on it’s back, and the third on it’s head.
In the Gundestrup cauldron (found in Denmark, and probably dating from the first century BCE), which is decorated in detail both outside and inside in high relief, we see what appears to be a depiction of the hunting/imminent killing of a huge bull on the interior base plate.
A warrior or a deity is shown seemingly about to spear the neck of a prostrate bull which far out-scales him. There are also dogs present, which may lend weight to the possibility of it being a hunting scene.
Pronsias MacCana (‘Celtic Mythology’: Littlehampton Book Services, 1969) links the Donn Cuailgne, Brown Bull of Cooley, to Tarvos Trigaranus, which he calls the ‘three horned Bull’ – indeed he states the two can “scarcely be dissassociated”. He goes on to speak of “a number of widely attested names which seem to imply familiarity with the notion of a bull-deity”, such as the Gaulish name Donnotaurus, which means ‘Brown, or Kingly, Bull’.
In this case, the Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailgne takes on quite a deeper meaning than the simple theme of overly hormonal bulls having a bit of a territorial spat. The two great beasts were never of this world, having reached those forms by changing originally from swineherds of two lords of the Otherworld, through a series of forms including ravens, stags, warrior champions, water beasts, demons and water worms.
From ritual deposits and sacrifices in the late Bronze Age, to carving and other artistic representation of bull figures, to place-names and tribal names representing the animal, and also taking into account the traditions of cattle raiding and ranching which were/are so prominent in Ireland particularly – we see the bull itself, or possibly deity connected with bulls, as a hugely significant figure. World-wide, bulls represent powers of strength, fierceness, and virility, and we have no reason to doubt that the Irish viewed their bulls any other way.
Bull statuary and iconography survives mainly in Gaulish, and some British finds. Being an unnatural form, the triple horned bull mentioned above seems to have been particularly a sacred image. This carries through when we see it being found in shrines, temples, and even the grave of a child (Colchester, England).
Perhaps the triplication of the horns is a way of increasing the potency of the animal’s fertility and virility power; three horns are better than two! Three is also a power number in itself in Irish and Celtic cultures, showing up many times over in relation to many different things.
Whether the imagery we see, or the larger than life creatures we hear tell of, represented a particular deity or simply the attributes of the animal itself is unclear.
Miranda Green (‘The Gods of the Celts’: The History Press, 2011) gives an example of a “silver washed three horned bull”, which was found at a shrine in Dorset, England, and dates from the middle of the fourth century CE. She gives the figures we can see on it’s back as deities, and makes links with the above mentioned bull carrying three cranes – saying they may be examples of the shape shifting we hear about in the tales. It is possible.
What evidence we have, in Ireland and abroad, certainly shows a respect for the attributes of the tarbh (pron. Tar-ev).
As a Taurean myself, I am totally down with the idea of a kick ass Lord of the Bulls, or one who can shift at will to bull form, with all the wonderful qualities that would bring to a situation. Can you spot the bull bias here?!
However, having yet to be introduced to such an entity, or personally encounter one on my travels, I will content myself with exploring, for now, the idea of working with the bull as a ‘power animal’.
It doesn’t have to be a bull either. I am as sick as the next person of coming across those people who assert in all earnestness that their “power animal” or “spirit animal” (neither of which are terms that are culturally appropriate for me or you to use, btw, unless you have a true heritage with certain native tribes) is something ultra cool, like a super sleek panther, or a super strong stallion, when they remind you more of an ageing shetland pony, a bit knackered and up for nothing more than a quiet corner of paddock and a hay hammock which runneth over.
Hey, who knows, maybe that stallion is in there somewhere, stabled for now but ready to break free at the slightest hint of filly. Stranger things have happened.
Rest assured though, your animal ally, if you have one, doesn’t have to be a soaring eagle or a bristling bear. Or even a bull. Your average mouse has a lot it could teach the modern Pagan.
I have a friend, Ailish, who now embraces the fact that the goat is a factor in her life that will probably never go away, and I realised long ago that the humble donkey exerts a bigger influence over me than my sense of street cred is comfortable with. So, there you go.
William Lilly’s “Christian Astrology”, which first appeared in 1647 and was reprinted in 1985 (by Regulus Publishing Co., London), places Ireland – along with Switzerland and Cypress, among others – as a Kingdom which is specifically associated with the sun sign of Taurus, the bull.
The Easter Rising, which marked the establishment of the free Irish Republic and the attainment of political independence in Ireland, was an armed uprising of Irish nationalists against British Rule. It happened on Easter Monday, April 24th, 1916, and centred mainly in Dublin, placing it firmly in the realm of the Bull.
Since an tarbh is of such importance in the Irish (and broader ‘Celtic’) legends and history, it’s as good a place to start as any.
Working with this established Irish animal ally can lead you to the experience and insight of finding your own personal animal guide/s. The following can be adapted or utilised to suit your own needs.
It would be good to have a working partner or group facilitator who could lead you in this sort of journey, even better if they can play a drum in time to their own words. I know, I used to read things like that back in my baby Pagan days and get a sinking feeling, as I always worked alone then. And I didn’t have a handy tape recorder either, to record myself leading myself on a journey.
Alone is fine. Working alone is even better in some ways, because you create your own rhythm and set your own pace. If you have a drum, beat it as you go. If you don’t have one, or you feel it would distract you, try and get some music to play: something with a heavy drum beat and no words or wailing women.
Settle yourself comfortably. Somewhere outdoors would be good, an open plain or field of rolling grassland would be excellent. Cattlesheds might be going a touch too far, it takes ages to get the cow poo out from between your toes. If you want to focus on a particular Irish Bull, the Donn Cuailgne was to be found in the North East of Ireland, and the Finnbennach in the North West. If you wish to align yourself in either of these directions, that’d be good.
Having said that though, bits of Finnbennach ended up all over the country, giving places like Athlone their names in Gaeilge (the Irish language, please don’t call it Gaelic!), so I doubt if it matters much which way you point your face. Working without crossed limbs and keeping your spine straight spine is good, but don’t go contorting yourself unnaturally. There’s not too many westerners who can hold the lotus position and still keep their mind on the job in hand. Don’t hurt yourself.
Try a straight backed armchair, leaning against a tree or wall, or just lie flat on the ground.
Breathe deeply for you. Focus on each breath as it comes in, filling you with energy, and as it goes out, flowing away all the stresses and strains of your day/week/year/life. Breathe through your nose exclusively. You don’t need to take massive deep diaphragm ones either, just relax into a steady nasal breathing pattern. I believe this to be healthier and easier to maintain than mouth breathing, as you shift away from conscious thought.
Now, just drift your way to thoughts of Bull. Every time your thoughts drift away, just notice it, let go of the distraction, and guide yourself back to the Bull.
What do you know? What do you see, or smell, or hear, or taste, or feel? What do you call it, how do you experience it? Simply keep your focus on Bull, and see what happens.
When you’ve had enough, re-focus on your breathing, and on your physical self – where your body touches the earth, what it feels like, what you can sense around you here and now. And when you’re ready, open your eyes and move around a bit. Maybe eat something.
Now, write it down. Do it again later, and write that down too! Rinse and repeat, and look for patterns, messages, guidance or clarity in the experiences you are having. Let me know how you get on!