Water is life. Water is sacred. The travesties that are happening around ours and others countries right now are many. We have fracking underway in England. We have the Dakota Access Pipeline company attempting to cut its way across the major, central rivers and aquifers of North America, including unceded Native American territory, sacred sites and burial grounds.. We have displaced people from a war torn country homeless and in danger in Calais. All because of one thing. Oil. Democracy and human rights are being overturned in the wake of this monster. It has me thinking. What do our tales, as Gaels and Celtic descendants, tell us of the actions that are happening right now? What would our ancestors say? What would they do?
I think we can all feel intuitively this is not the right order of things. Why? Why all this for a resource which is finite? At the very least it seems counter intuitive to common sense. Why all this for a resource we could replace with different technologies? Why? indeed. I want to avoid speculation but the reasons for our leaders failure to act are many and varied and not entirely based in ethical and moral reasoning. Let’s look to our Gaelic and Celtic ancestors. What does our collective history have to tell us and how might this guide our actions?
I am a wind on the sea
I am a wave of the ocean
I am the roar of the sea,
I am a powerful ox,
I am a hawk on a cliff,
I am a dewdrop in the sunshine,
I am a boar for valor,
I am a salmon in pools,
I am a lake in a plain,
I am the strength of art,
I am a spear with spoils that wages battle,
I am a man that shapes fire for a head.
Who clears the stone-place of the mountain?
What the place in which the setting of the sun lies?
Who has sought peace without fear seven times?
Who names the waterfalls?
Who brings his cattle from the house of Tethra?
What person, what god
Forms weapons in a fort?
In a fort that nourishes satirists,
Chants a petition, divides the Ogam letters,
Separates a fleet, has sung praises?
A wise satirist.”[i]
Water is life in Gaelic and Celtic Cosmology
The Three Realms. That is sky, land and the sea. This view of the cosmos is central to our ancestors’ worldview. It all starts and ends with The Sacred Three, An Trì Naomh. This organisation is alluded to throughout the Irish and Scottish Mythic tales. Some suggest this triad is represented by the triskele[ii] and the order kept intact by the pillar or bile tree.
Muir. The sea. This is our focus. Water is life. Water is sacred. Water is chaos. Water is death. An ending and in this end, a beginning. Just as it can nourish, it can poison. The sea and rivers feature in the rich tapestry of tales from Ireland where the Aes Sidhe play a central role. In some tales, the realm of Manannán Mac Lir is separate from the Aes Sidhe of the Tuatha De Dananan (TDD). Manannán lives across the sea in the land of promise or the Eamhain Abhlach (Eamhain of the apple trees). We see this echoed with Donn, his house of the dead west of Ireland in the sea at Tech Duinn. The TDD move to live within the earth in mounds once they were defeated by the Sons of Mil. A treaty was struck between them managed by Manannán son of the sea.
The sea is somewhat separate. The source of all seas and rivers are said to come from the otherworld. From a single well and spread across the earth via a series of rivers, to once more return to its otherworldy source. The sacred wells so often seen in visions and mentioned in the tales have many connotations and links to the otherworld. They are not only the source of all our water but also the source of wisdom and poetry. Manifesting our five senses and revitalise us in many ways. Water doesn’t only represent life but also leads us back to the otherworld and links us to our ancestors.
How do we know water is sacred?
There are over 3000 holy wells in Ireland and even more so in Scotland. The early church was particularly concerned with these places and went about Christianising them. Examples are many such as, the Senchas ne Relec (The History of the burial places) says that Cormac mac Airt said at his conversion that he would “not adore stones and trees and wells but the one who made them“. (Best and Bergin, 1929[iii]). Mathúna (2008)[iv] Alexander Carmicheal, F Miriam Mcneill and many others mention the number of proprietary rites carried out at wells and other sites. Activities included praying at the well, drinking the water, dropping pins or other objects into them, bathing parts of the body, using healing stones, walking around them or adjacent structures, offering shreds of clothes, leaving representations of sick parts of the body, washing our faces in the dew of morning and tossing coins into the wishing wells still present in today’s culture. We also have the famous Sláine (health) well of the TDD operated by Dian Cecht and Airmed and others in their family in the Caith Maige Tuired tales.
Keeping a lid on things
Rivers like the Boyne river, the Shannon and the Severn are also representations of female supernatural characters. The flowing of these rivers have been associated with sacral kingship and right order. The creation of these water ways however comes about through acts of neglect or defiance.
For example, the (almost) apocalyptic well cap found in the tale “The Cailleach Bhuer and the Loch Bà” is one such tale. Wearied one day the Cailleach was watering her cattle from the well. Due to her fatigue she fell asleep and forgot to cover it. When she woke, she saw her error and she managed to cap it, narrowly averting the world being covered in water. This one act of negligence is said to explain how Loch Awe was created. A similar story is found with Boand and Nechtan’s well in Topur Nechtain. This time the well water burst forth and disfigured Boand before turning her into the river Boyne. This was the cost for her pride at trying to find out the secrets of Nechtan’s well.
Flowing rivers in this way are linked to the idea of creation from chaos. They can also be associated with sovereignty and its end. Right order must be followed or water from these sacred wells, and in turn the otherworld powers of chaos, would overflow and result in tragedy. This action would over throw the kingship of those who fail in their duties to protect the source of life. The water effectively washing them away as in the tale of “Aided Echach Meic Maireda” (The Death of Echaid mac Maireda).
A tale for our times
Another tale which features water with startling modern parallels is the tale of Echtrae Fergusa maic Leiti (The Adventures of Fergus mac Leite). In short Fergus is given a charm that allows him to breathe underwater and survive by otherwold folks. However, he is banned from entering Loch Rudraige by these folk through a Geis, a taboo. Fergus in his pride breaks this Geis and swims in Loch Rudraige. This act not only ends his contract with his otherworld benefactors it also brings his kingship into question. As a result of breaking this contract a monster (Muirdris) rises from the Loch. Fergus realises his actions and runs away in terror. Fergus has again failed as a king a second time and his face becomes distorted. A blemish caused by his terror in his fleeing. This means he’s no longer fit to rule and the country suffers. He eventually recognises his failure and faces the monster. He slays the beast emerging with its head from the loch in his hands but dies of his wounds on the shore. This act of reparation by a repentant king restores balance and peace to the land.
This is a cautionary tale if there was ever one needed for our time. Fergus is A Prime Minister. A president. A leader, meant to be charged with protecting the land and its people through a sacred bond. Our leaders have turned against this ancient Geis due to greed and pride. They are allowing our land and people to suffer, terrorised by a new Muirdris. The Muirdris or monster of oil and war. They hide from its actions through denial in their ivory towers and walls built from profit from it. We can only hope, that like Fergus, next will come the realisation caused by the shame of our rulers. With this shame, hopefully the return of their humanity and hopefully with this, their reparation. It’s worth noting that something that once sustains us can hide its own terror. The corruption of the water will in turn create its own monster. A cautionary tale indeed.
What can we do?
Know that if you have Gaelic or Celtic blood this desecration of the sacred land is something that speaks directly to your ancestors. The actions that are occurring are in direct opposition to all that our ancestors held sacred. These are the biggest threats we have faced for a long time. We need to support people in Calais, in fracking sites and North Dakota and other areas that face similar issues the best we can. Taking the lead from those already there.
If you can be at demonstrations, be there. Be an ally. You can give to authentic charitable funds (please check it’s not exploitative). You can seek out, listen to, and share the words of those who are directly affected. You can make sure their right to tell their own stories is respected. You can give to herbalists without borders to help in Calais or to the Indigenous herbalists and traditional healers working in North Dakota (contacts provided below). Write to Your MP or MSP or government representative. Fracking camps also need provisions and bodies on the ground. Be present. Deliver care packages. At this time none of us should be complacent. Question those you may vote for about these issues.
What are their answers?
Is your political candidate a kind of person who will create a monster?
or slay one?
[i] The seduction of Ireland by Amergin (http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/lebor5.html)
[iii] Best and Bergin (1929) Lebor na hUidre.
[iv] Mathúna, S. (2008) the relationship of the chthonic world in early Ireland to chaos and cosmos.