We live in a world of increasing disorder, proliferating injury to humankind, accelerating loss of earth’s life forms, and spreading destruction of Mother Earth herself. And yet, I find hope and comfort in ancient wisdom and practices. Shamanic people the world over have developed ways to restore and maintain the balance of life. In the Celtic traditions, this often took the form of honoring the Bone Mother through ritual, understanding and working with the forces of Chaos, and participating in the Wild Hunt. Working with these three concepts can provide a framework for modern shamanic practitioners to approach healing for themselves, for others, and for Earth.

The Old Bone Mother

In the beginning was the Great Goddess: begetter of life, deliverer of death, and source of rebirth. As her people scattered across the earth, creating regional cosmologies, they developed mythologies and spiritual practices that split her functions in half: the Great Mother or primal life-giver, and the Goddess of the Underworld or purveyor of death and rebirth. The people’s perception of natural cycles—those of the female body, the moon, and the seasons—gave rise to the belief there was no simple death. Rather, death and regeneration were conceived as a complex unity under the charge of the Goddess of the Underworld. She was the primordial force beneath the earth, responsible for the abundance of both game and crops. In his book, North Star Road: Shamanism, Witchcraft and the Otherworld Journey (1996), Kenneth Jonson observed that, “One way or another, it is to her realm that we must travel to be stirred and regenerated in the Cauldron of Rebirth.”1 The Old Bone Mother is one aspect of the Goddess of Death and Rebirth.

The Lithuanian archeologist Marija Gimbutas catalogued dozens of Late Stone Age representations of the Great Mother Goddess from archeological sites and museums all over central Europe. These stylized, sometimes pregnant, female figures carved from bone, ivory, alabaster and amber were found in burial caves together with human and animal bones. Gimbutas argued that these figurines represented the Great Mother Goddess who gave life, received the dead, and delivered souls for rebirth.2

To our ancestors, bones represented the physical and spiritual essence of life, its primal matter and residence of the soul. By treating bones with respect, reflecting what the goddess was doing with those same bones in the Otherworld, our ancestors hoped for rebirth. Rather than breaking the bones of game animals, ancient hunting cultures carefully stripped off the meat and marrow of game animals and then disposed of the bones according to custom which could include burial, cremation, throwing them into the sea, and placing them on platforms or in trees to return them to the elements. Similar spiritual and funerary rituals applied to humans. These practices and beliefs appear in myths and legends from around the world.3

The Old Bone Mother often appears as a scavenger bird. Scandinavian myths say the Valkyrie, led by Freya, are raven-feathered creatures with great claws who gather the dead from battlefields. In Ireland and Great Britain, the Morrigan (an ancient goddess of war and death) appears as crow or raven to foretell death and gather the battle-dead.4 Prevalent in European folktales until the early-eighteenth century, the Old Bone Mother is still found among Native North Americans. The North Pacific Coast Indians hold an annual First Salmon Ceremony to bless and thank the fish. After a great feast they return the salmons’ bones to their home in the sea for renewal for the following year.5 Contemporary folklore of Mexico includes stories of La Loba, the Wolf Woman. Sometimes at night, the local folk catch glimpses of her traveling in her black limousine to the Oaxacan desert. In a cave in the hills, she gathers the bones of dead wolves, clothes them in new flesh and sings them into life. Off they trot to the desert to become beautiful young women.6

Cairns and the Old Bone Mother

The British Isles and Brittany are dotted with cairns and dolmens, repositories of the remains of the dead. Cairns, in particular, functioned as sites for funerary and seasonal rituals. Some also served as markers of solar passage. The great megalithic passage tomb at Newgrange in Ireland is aligned to the rising winter solstice sun, that turn of the solar wheel when days become longer, wintry death is on the way out, and spring rebirth begins. In addition to being a solar marker, Newgrange also served as an architectural and sacred site of communication with spiritual ancestors and the dead. It provided an intersection between the cosmic forces of order, the annual cycle of the sun, and the spirits who rule the Celtic world.7

Cairns were, and still are, portals to the Land of Faery within the hills and beneath the earth. In my shamanic practice I honor the Old Bone Mother by building and dedicating a cairn to her. Stones are the bones of the earth, a chthonic source of life, and a connection to the ancestors. They represent Earth, sovereignty, wisdom, virtue, and destiny. Homemade cairns can vary in size, depending on one’s strength to move stones and space available for construction. My home cairn sits in a 4×6 inch basket on my desk.

To build a cairn, it is good to walk the land asking stones that are willing to join in the process to signify assent in some way. Perhaps you have piles of stones in drawers, on desks and tables, and in the garden that were collected over time, beautiful and unique. As you collect the stones, thank them and purify them, perhaps with sage or cedar smudge, and clean water. Make a circle of larger stones and fill it in with smaller ones, leaving spaces between. Continue with a second layer, slightly smaller than the first, then a third layer, and so on until a single stone rests on top. The number of layers is irrelevant, but the cairn must be stable. In a shamanic ceremony of your own devising, dedicate the cairn to the Old Bone Mother.

The cairn is an entry into the spirit world where I do shamanic work. I journey into the cairn to release the “bones” of sadness, grief, and despair, whether of a personal nature or relating to the discord and disorder in the world. I ask the Bone Mother to resurrect the bones, not to the dark emotions they carried but rather to vibrant new life of joy and harmony. I ask for guidance in dealing with tribulations and for wisdom in diminishing the discord of our world. At journey’s end, I thank her.

Chaos

The Great Goddess emerged from chaos and brought order into the world from the infinite void. She creates life. As Goddess of the Underworld she oversees the continuity of life through regeneration and rebirth. Chaos, however, always remains, bringing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, floods, storms, and uncertain supplies of crops and game. Our ancestors recognized the fertile, generative role of chaos. They understood that things cannot remain in stillness and order forever, that destructive chaos prepares the way for new living things to emerge and begin their own cycle. Floods and volcanic ash deposit fresh earth on croplands; fire renews grasslands. Great storms fell forest trees, creating space for new growth. Winter snow feeds summer’s lakes and streams. Harsh seasons cull the weak from all species. Through Chaos, the underworld goddesses play their roles as Bone Mothers, gathering the dead and restoring them to the never-ending cycle of transformation.

From Neolithic to medieval times, Europeans participated in these seasonal events by honoring the Goddess of the Underworld and her male consort. In many places these deities were known as the Faery Queen and King whose realms could be entered through cairns, barrows, and sacred mountains. As winter approached, people harvested crops, brought stock into pens and barns, and killed and preserved that which they could not winter over. They prepared themselves for the physical chaos of winter.

At Samhain or Halloween, the day between the old and new year in Celtic traditions, people cleaned their houses, feasted heartily and put out food and drink for the faery host. They took precautions to withstand the spiritual chaos occasioned by the Wild Hunt that swept across the land on that night when elves, faeries, and dead cavalcaded though our world looking for food, music, and celebrations. The veils between the worlds were particularly thin and the doors wide open then, as well as during the Ember Days between Christmas and Epiphany. These calends of winter, whether in continental Europe or the British Isles, were the turning points of time which belong neither to the past nor the present, to this world nor to the Otherworld.

Chaos holds great power, both fertile and destructive. It gives instruction on limits to shamanic healing, It provides a place to stand and harvest wisdom. In my shamanic practice, presented with a chaotic situation, not only do I work to heal the disorders, I also ask, “What is the gift?” For example, a life in disarray presents opportunities for new beginnings and the discovery of one’s own strengths. I journey to the spirit of Chaos and ask for answers and comprehension. I honor its gifts.

Legends of the Wild Hunt

In medieval Europe peasants frequently soul traveled during rituals known as the “Wild Hunt” to a land that was part of the unconscious spiritual geography of their own people.8 During this ritual the Old Bone Goddess in her regional guises as Habondia, Madonna Oriente, Hulda, Diana, and the Faery Queen roamed the land with her consort Herlechin, Herne, Odin, King Arthur, and the Faery King. They led nighttime cavalcades of faeries and the dead, looking for food and drink. They fought alongside the people of a community against malevolent beings to ensure the welfare of the living, and gathered the souls of the unquiet dead and took them to the Otherworld. All these shamanic activities, collectively referred to as the Wild Hunt, are a ritual dance between order and chaos to restore harmony.

Much of what we know about these old pagan ways of worshipping, honoring, and consorting in trance with the old goddesses and gods comes from transcripts of the witch trials held in Europe from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. From the analyses of those records scholars have constructed a compelling case that the witch trials were a multi-century effort by the established Church to stamp out shamanic, spiritual practices which it considered threatening and heretical. These practices included the core elements of shamanism: voluntary entrance into a visionary or shamanic state of consciousness; journeys to the Upperworld and the Lowerworld; assistance from animal spirits; retrieval of power and knowledge for their own use or that of their community; and communication with the spirits of the dead.9

The heart of the Celtic Wild Hunt derives from myths about the peopling of Ireland. They tell of ancient battles and cooperation between the Fomorians and the Dananns, primordial beings who created the metaphysical and moral landscape in which we still live. The Fomorians have always inhabited Ireland, dwelling sometimes on the land, but mostly in their fortresses off the northwest sea. Frighteningly misshapen, monstrous and huge, folklore often portrays them as cosmic evil. Yet, as chaos incarnate, they are the wild spirits of the land, nonhuman deities who bring the destructive forces of nature and the fertility that arises from change. They cannot be totally destroyed, nor are they totally evil. Balance must be struck, for if the Fomorians are not defeated, the land will have no sustenance for the tribe; but if they are destroyed, so is the principle of fertility, and the results are the same. The Dananns, who arrived later in Ireland, are well-formed, tall and beautiful beings who embody order and goodness. As the champions of order and light, they are at odds with the Fomorians, who champion chaos and the dark. Yet these two tribes of spirits have a symbiotic relationship. Mythologically, there are important intermarriages expressing the cosmic balance that is needed. While the Fomorians dwell in places beneath the sea or remote offshore islands, the Dananns reside in the Hollow Hills represented by cairns, dolmens, and sacred knolls.10 Just as these structures are called sidhe in Gaelic, in time the term came to mean the faery folk, the Sidhe.

The Wild Hunt traditionally occurred at Samhain, but the Sidhe were abroad for most of autumn as they migrated from their summer dwellings to winter quarters and looked for food and drink from the people and the land. During these weeks the people put up the harvest and brought the beasts in from pasture. Legend tells us that the souls of those who died that year could not cross over until Samhain, hence the great gathering of the unquiet dead to be taken to the Otherworld. Tom Cowan teaches that the old Celtic deities apparently need to interact with humans, and actively want to share their mystical secrets and power. Moreover, we need them for their wisdom, spiritual vitality, and fertility. Of these near universal necessities, he writes, “Shamans and Celtic visionaries recognize the interdependence between spirits and mortals as a major component of the architecture of the universe.”11

The Celtic Wild Hunt, then, is a re-enactment of the ancient battles between the Fomorians and the Tuatha de Danaan. Because time has no meaning in the Otherworld, or in shamanic journeys, we re-enact the Wild Hunt in the here and now, and participate in ongoing battles between the forces of Chaos and the forces of Order. As a form of community shamanism, that is, ritual work in the Otherworld for the good of the community, the Wild Hunt is sacred work that not only engages us in the ancestral battles against the forces of disruption and chaos of the past but also provides a place for the continuing ritual battle against those forces in the present.

A powerful and complex ritual, the Wild Hunt is best learned from an elder. Preparation for the Wild Hunt involves asking the spirits about what needs to be done and requesting they take us places that need rebalancing between chaos and order. The power of the ritual is most effective when done with a group of experienced practitioners. If a group is unavailable however, it can be done on one’s own during Samhain (our Halloween) and other occasions when chaos, disorder, and suffering are manifest. Since Fomorian energies are always present, one can engage in ritual battle year round.

After natural disasters when the land, animals, elements, and people suffer, I journey to help restore balance to those places and situations that my council of spirits advises me to work for. Likewise, when an individual who feels hopelessly entangled in the vicissitudes of life and overwhelmed by chaos asks for my help, I consult with my spirit council to see if the Wild Hunt is appropriate. Sometimes the spirits take me to battle the Fomorians in the Middle World wherever chaotic energies are manifest and sometimes they take me to do healing work for individuals caught in personal chaos. In either case I undertake preparation before beginning this work.

Preparation includes setting out food and drink for the faery, enclosing the ritual space in protection, and journeying into the cairn to ask both the Old Bone Mother and power animals for guidance. My practice of the Wild Hunt begins and ends with drumming. I honor the land, ask the helping spirits, especially the Sidhe, to assist me, and go forth to combat chaos.

When I return from the Wild Hunt, my heart is satisfied but also filled with grief for my actions and for those I’ve smitten in battle. Journeying into the cairn once more, I pay homage to their courage and essence, and keen for their losses, for not to feel grief is to be without compassion. I thank the Old Bone Mother and ask her to transform the sorrow. I thank my power animals and other helping spirits and release the protective circle. I return humbly to ordinary reality knowing I have helped diminish disorder and restore harmony.

Reflections

My practice of the Wild Hunt is both Celtic and personal, one of myriad ways to participate in this form of community shamanism. I learned it from an elder; some I know learned it from their ancestors. The Celtic Wild Hunt resonates with the Tibetan ideal of Sacred Warriorship as illuminated by Chogyam Trungpa. He believes that humans hold much basic wisdom that can help the worlds’ problems. He writes: “We must try to think how we can help this world. If we don’t help, nobody will. It is our turn to help the world.”12

Our world is in turmoil and needs the qualities of the noble warrior. I believe that the discordant and destructive elements of chaos can be engaged in battle ritually, and by doing such work, not only do we help to heal the world, but we also receive “the healer’s portion,” the re-establishment of harmony within ourselves. By working within the sacred space created by the spiritual and physical geography of my ancestors, I continually create the myth of my own life. I call on the Old Bone Mother to renew and strengthen the pact of mutual assistance between spirit and mortal. I honor chaos to bring fertile creativity out of disorder. And I participate and help create a world in which spirits and humans together preserve the health and wellbeing of all.

 Originally published in A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism, July 2008

REFERENCES

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