Ritual within Gaelic Polytheism
by Treasa Ní Chonchobhair and Annie Loughlin
Do not reproduce without explicit permission.
Ritual is the basis of expressing devotion within Gaelic Polytheism, yet (as with most of GP/GRP) we are forced with having to reassemble this basis ourselves through the research of the living Gaelic cultures and historical tracts—with those wanting more elaborate rituals digging even deeper into mythology. This may seem like a rather daunting task, but hopefully this article will be a helpful guide.
In this article we give a brief overview of what ritual is and what purpose it serves in our lives today, as well as covering the various types of rituals one will encounter and give suggestions for incorporating them within your practice.
What is Ritual?
The word ritual comes to us from the Latin ritualis and ritus (rite), and is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *ar-1. According to Merriam-Webster2, it has three principal meanings:
- of or relating to rites or a ritual : ceremonial <a ritual dance>
- according to religious law <ritual purity>
- done in accordance with social custom or normal protocol <ritual handshakes>3
So, we can see that it is both a noun and an adjective. However, this article mainly concerns itself with the first and third definitions.
The Purpose of Ritual
Now that we have an idea of what ritual is, let’s see what purposes ritual serves.
- it celebrates or commemorates special moments—life passages;
- it solidifies relationships amongst participants and the gods—reinforcing the contract between us;
- it acknowledges the presence of unseen forces—be they gods, ancestors or spirits;
- and it is a physical means of expressing our worldview—keeping it strong within our lives.
Liturgy is the actions and words used within ritual. The movements used are a lot more prevalent in Gaelic lore than words, but one can get an idea of surviving spoken liturgy from the Carmina Gadelica and other sources that help to inform modern ritual for today’s Gaelic Polytheists. While the Carmina Gadelica was collected during the times when the Scottish Gaels had already been Christians for a decent amount of time, it does contains survivals of the pre-Christian tradition and cosmology4.
Another example of ritual words can be seen in the Scottish recitation of “A Bhrighd, A Bhrighd, thig a steach: tha do leabaidh air a chàradh!” when making a bed for Bríde on Là Fhèill Brìghde5. There is also a massive amount of folk songs which can be used in ritual. For instance, singing ‘Thugamar féin an samhradh linn‘ (We Have Brought the Summer In) while parading the bábóg na Bealtaine around on Lá Bealtaine.
Some examples of actions used in ritual – both historically as well as in contemporary practice – include: deiseal (sunwise) movements, lighting ceremonial fires, processions, gathering in a high place or on the shore, pilgrimages to holy wells, prayer vigils at sacred sites, reenactments of myth, the making of offerings, and more social manifestations such as feasting, ritual boasting and song/poetry competitions.
Small Gestures: Customs as Rituals
Gaelic folklore is rife with smaller traditions and customs which also constitute ritual activities. Our use of the word small here is not meant to belittle these customs, they are just as powerful and meaningful as the larger rituals celebrated at festivals and major life events.
What makes these traditions different, however, is that they are habitual and are performed in daily life, and show how the line between the sacred and the mundane was very blurred in everyday life. They were (and still are) safeguards, praises, appreciations, appeasements and so on.
Normally these customs need little to no modernization by Gaelic Polytheists, but some daily chores, like churning butter, aren’t as prevalent in today’s world. Given that, it would be perfectly fine to sing work songs associated with that chore with another, such as vacuuming.
- Setting out milk for the gruagach (plural, gruagaigh) and other regular offerings (weekly and/or daily to personal deities/ancestors)
- Singing working/waulking songs (Scots Gaelic: Òrain Luaidh) while carrying out daily chores.
- Saying blessings/prayers during certain activities – on rising, cooking or baking, going to bed, etc.
- Performing daily rites and activities, in a sunwise manner, where possible.
Celebrating the Festivals
While there are some similarities between Irish, Scottish and Manx customs as far as the various festivals are concerned, there are some notable differences: for example, Scottish festivals emphasize the making of blessed bannocks and protective charms of rowan and red thread at each festival, whereas these are not emphasized in Ireland. Likewise, the Irish tradition making of the Brigid’s cross atLá Fhéile Bríde is not found in Scotland at all.
There are, however, many similarities—preparing the space (tidying and cleaning), feasting, blessings and protective rites, and the making of offerings are all appropriate to festival rituals in general, along with some practices that are shared at specific festivals.
Below we give some historical examples of festivities which can be incorporated into modern ritual with ease. Another practice among today’s Gaelic polytheists is to become familiar with the land on which you reside and base your timing of the seasonal festivals on changes in the weather and the growth cycles of local plants, such as observing Samhain at the time of first frost, and Lá Bealtaine when the hawthorn blooms in the spring6.
The lists are not meant to be exhaustive, so we urge you to do some research on your own as well. Ritual practices at festivals may include, but are not limited to (names are listed in Irish / Scots / Manx):
Lá Fhéile Bríde (Imbolc) / Là Fhèill Brìghde / Laa’l Breeshey — 1 February
In Ireland: Making a Brigid’s Cross (cros Bríde) and (perhaps) girdle of Bride (crios Bríde); making the brídeóg; leaving out items of clothing or cloth/ribbons (brat Bríde) for Brigid’s blessing overnight; preparing the house for the festivities, and a feast featuring lots of dairy produce (especially buttery mash).
In Scotland: Preparing the house for the festivities, and a feast featuring lots of dairy produce (especially buttery mash); singing songs of praise to her; making the bonnach Bride; making the bed of Bride (leaba Bride) for the icon of Bride (dealbh Bride), and the wand of Bride (slatag Bride) in the case of older women, or the brideag, by younger children; making protective charms of rowan and red thread; saining (performing a protective warding) the house and those in it; leaving offerings for Bride, and spreading ashes on the hearth to look for signs to make sure that Bride visited overnight.
In Isle of Man: Rushes were strewn on the floor to make a bed for Brigid, and a candle would be kept lit by food and drink left for her.
All: Ritually inviting Brigid into the home.
Lá Bealtaine (Cétshamain) / Bealltainn / Laa Boaldyn — 1 May
In Ireland: Running cattle between two bonfires; parading the bábóg na Bealtaine (a doll dressed in flowers, especially white clover, and ribbons) around; decorating the “May bush” with ribbons and eggshells; gathering lus buí Bealtaine (marsh-marigolds) to be strewn across the floor of the house for luck and prosperity; bathing in the rays of the dawning sun on a hilltop; extinguishing and ritually rekindling the hearth or bonfire; skimming the well before dawn for the toradh (essence); offerings to the gods, spirits and ancestors.
In Scotland: Making the bonnach Bealltainn (Bealltainn bannock) and caudle; making protective charms of rowan and red thread; saining (performing a protective warding) the house and those in it; making offerings to the predators; extinguishing and ritually rekindling the hearth from the flames of the needfire; lighting a bonfire at dawn with nine woods; dancing sunwise around the bonfire and jumping over the embers for luck; driving cattle and other types of livestock between two bonfires, or over the embers once the fire has died down; skimming the well before dawn for the toradh.
In Isle of Man: Making the crosh cuirn; burning gorse on high places so the prevailing winds could blow the smoke over the fields, cattle houses and dwellings for purification; making elderflower wine; running cattle between two bonfires; wearing mugwort on your coat or in your cap; water was kept in the crock (large water dish) at night for the fairies; blowing horn and striking dollans (skin drums) throughout the night to keep away bad spirits; primroses strewn on the threshold to ward off evil spirits.
All: Preparing the house and decorating it with seasonally appropriate greenery; collecting dew on Bealltainn morning.
Lá Lúnasa (Lúghnasadh) / Lùnastal / Laa Luanys — 1 August
In Ireland: Picking the first fruits – bilberries being traditional; horses purified by being driven through water; ritualized faction-fighting between males; boys giving girls garlands of flowers; decorating the hearth with flowers.
In Scotland: Cutting of the first sheaf at sunrise while turning sunwise and chanting the iolach buana (reaping paean); making protective charms of rowan and red thread; saining (performing a protective warding) the house and those in it; ritualized faction-fighting between males; garland making; decorating the home with seasonal flowers.
In Isle of Man: Visiting high hills or sacred wells; a young woman reaper would ceremonially cut the last corn and bind it with wild flowers and ribbon into a babban ny mhellea (harvest baby); rush-plaiting.
Oíche Shamhna (Samhain) / Samhainn / Sauin — 1 November
In Ireland: Making the parshell (Samhain cross) to fix above the door; divination rites; guising / mumming (buachaillí tuí [‘strawboys’], láir bhán [‘white mare’]); making báirín breac (‘barm brack’, a yeast bread with sultanas and raisins).
In Scotland: Guising; divination; making protective charms of rowan and red thread; saining (performing a protective warding) the house and those in it; lighting the Samhnag (the Samhainn bonfire); leaving out a meal for the ancestors; making the bonnach Samhuinn (Samhuinn bannock).
All: Carving turnips; merrymaking and feasting; divination of various kinds.
Festivals/important days specific to particular countries:
Latha na Caillich(e) (March 25th) – Scotland – We suggest that you read Annie’s wonderful article on it for more information.
Midsummer – This is celebrated in both Isle of Man and Ireland, though in different ways. Scotland also observes Midsummer celebrations, but the customs are mostly duplicates from Bealltainn.
In Man, this is the time when the people paid the rents to Manannán from the highest hilltop. In Barrule, bundles of grass were laid down for Mannan beg mac y Lear (who often appeared as a heron, and would be there seeking out women to court). Other Manx offerings include yellow flowers.
In Ireland (specifically Munster), this is a day dedicated to Áine, and men would gather on Cnoc Áine on St John’s Eve (June 23rd) where they light torches of hay and straw tie them to poles and process round the top of the hill, then run down it, through the fields to bless the crops and cattle for the following year.
Communal bonfires are lit in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, and cattle are driven over the embers as at Bealtaine. Herbs gathered for healing were considered to be particularly potent.
An Clabhsúr (Clousúr) – Ireland. This celebrates the harvest – of any crop, and so it might apply to corn, potatoes, or anything else that might be harvested – and is marked primarily by feasting, drinking, dancing and storytelling. In this sense, clabhsúr (closure) is a movable feast, depending on the weather and when the crops might be ready.
To mark the end of your own harvest, or the end of harvesting in your are, corn dollies, known as the Cailleach, Auld Wife, Granny, or Churn can be made with the last sheafs from the harvest and kept at the hearth for the next year.
Michaelmas (September 29th) – Michaelmas, close the the autumnal Equinox, celebrated the carrot harvest and was a time for boundaries to be ritually walked or ridden around and reinforced. This was often done on a horse stolen from a neighbor, the stealing of which was often turned into a great sport to outwit each other. The carrots were ritually harvested on the Sunday before the festival, and lamb was slaughtered for the feast in the evening. A special bannock, the struan Micheil, was made and blessed using freshly harvested and winnowed corn, and horse races, games and dances all formed part of the festivities.
Oíche Chinn Bhliana / Hogmanay / Oie Houney (New Year’s Eve) – Hogmanay is very much a Scottish festival, and even today it is very much a communal event, with bonfires, first-footing, toasting and general merry-making. New Year’s Eve has been celebrated to a lesser extent in Man and Ireland because of their different histories and attitudes towards the festive season, which in Scotland is largely a reaction against the banning of Christmas by the Kirk. Annie has an in-depth two-part article on Hogmanay and New Year traditions in Scotland and Ireland here, for those who want more in-depth information.
In the Isle of Man, Oie Houney is a grand time for divination. Girls who want to know their future husband would bake a Soddag Valloo (‘dumb cake’) which is baked and eaten in silence. It is thought that after eating the cake and walking backwards to bed, one would dream of their future love. Divination for the household’s lot for the coming year is determined upon waking by footprints left in the hearth ash. Like in Scotland and Ireland, the first-footer, or quaaltagh, is a an important omen for the coming year.
In Ireland, a pound cake is beaten against the side of the house in a stocking, with a charm for blessing in the coming year. Otherwise, Irish tradition kept observances low key (divination of the future being common, especially weather forecasting and the first-footer) and indoors, to guard against the faeries.
Ritualizing Life Passages
Most of the information in this section will consist of historical tidbits that are meant to inspire you in creating your own rituals, but we do include some brief ideas for using the information in practice nowadays.
Birth – During labor the woman would often wear an item of her husband’s clothing to ‘pass on’ some of her pain to him (couvade), or else the husband had to work continuously (a special task, such as drawing water from the well) until the baby was born. Protective rites were performed for both the mother and baby to make sure that no harm came to them, as they were both thought to be at risk from being kidnapped by the Good Folk until the baby had been baptized and the mother had been to church. Midwives performed lay baptisms for the babies with water (often taken from a holy well), or even milk (according to medieval Irish sources), and in Scotland a fire round was performed to sain them. The baby was welcomed with a merry meht – a feast and ritualized toasting in the child’s honor, to ensure success and prosperity in its life.
Reconstructing Birth Rituals – Examples: during labor, wear an item of clothing blessed by Brigit (left out at Imbolc, for her blessing); sain the child and mother; perform a baptism using well water or milk; use the Nine Waves blessing from the Carmina Gadelica; have a feast in the child’s honor in which he/she would be presented to the extended family and friends.
Coming of Age – There are not many Gaelic traditions connected to adolescence and coming of age, but we believe customs such as the ones listed below, which are gleaned from folklore and mythology, can serve as a basis for modern rituals.
Reconstructing ‘Coming of Age’ Rituals – Examples: For females: Choosing a pre-teen to carry the brídeóg during the Lá Fhéile Bríde procession, and choosing an older teen to lead the procession as An Bhrídeóg — crowned with rushes, wearing a veil and carrying a shield and crosóg. For males: dressing up as buachaillí tuí for Oíche Shamhna. For both: ritually presenting teens with weapons as a symbol of their maturity.
Marriage – In Ireland, after the wedding ceremony was finished the guests would race to the banais, the wedding feast, on horseback, with their wives riding pillion. The winner received a bottle of whiskey as the prize. Strawboys (uninvited guests, dressed in disguise) would often arrive at the wedding feast, and would try to keep their identity a secret for the evening if they were allowed in.
Up until the eighteenth century, handfasting was common in Scotland, which was arranged between two families on behalf of the couple. Couples would live together for a year before deciding whether or not to marry, and any children from the handfasting were the responsibility of the father if the couple decided to part ways. On the night before the marriage itself, the bride and bridegroom underwent the glanadh-nan-cas (‘feet-washing’); some of those attending attempted to wash the feet, while other tried to blacken them with soot, making it a sort of game. Dancing and feasting celebrated the wedding, and when the bride came home a special bannock – the bonnach bainnse (‘wedding bannock’) – was broken over her head to ensure a prosperous and happy marriage with many children.
Reconstructing Marriage Rituals – Examples: See Annie’s article on Marriage. Hold a banais; have someone perform the glanadh-nan-cas on the couple before the ceremony; bake a bonnach bainnse.
Death – In Ireland, the tradition of keening—a wailing lament/dirge for the dead—was well-known. The practice of keening, or caoine, is attributed to Bridgit. It is said that she was the first woman to keen for the great loss of her son, Ruadan mac Bres. Keening survived until the end of the nineteenth century, however, they have been preserved in various CDs and books. In the west of Ireland, it was said that a keen was not allowed to be sounded for three hours after a death or else it would hinder the deceased person’s soul. Irish wakes, where the family and loved ones gathered around the body to keep vigil, lasted two days in olden times, and were generally a merry time, rather than a sombre occasion, with food, drink, stories and riddles being shared freely; food was put out for the dead “for some time after their funeral”7. It is stated by William Gregory Wood-Martin8 that men would place pipes full of tobacco on graves, which could be a survival of burying grave goods.
Scottish traditions are similar to those found in Ireland. When someone died in the house, all milk was poured on the floor and a piece of iron was hammered into whatever foodstuffs were in the house “to prevent death from entering them.” The house was sained with water, especially the chairs. The body was washed and dressed (sometimes this task fell to the local midwife, but often men were dressed by men, women dressed by women – someone close to the deceased), a dish of salt laid on the chest (to ward evil spirits), and candles were kept burning constantly. The body was laid in the coffin by the women closest to the deceased (this was called the kistan); wakes were similarly festive occasions to those in Ireland, and it was customary for everyone present to touch the body – usually the forehead – to prevent haunting. Many of these traditions – particularly associated with wakes – survive today.
In some parts of Scotland, everyone who attended the funeral would take a turn to carry the coffin, as a way for everyone to shoulder the burden of mourning. The funeral feast was similar to the merry meht – bread, cheese and whisky were shared, and toasts made before the funeral took place (and then more after). Bean tuiream, ‘mourning women’ accompanied the procession (for those who could afford them), and small cairns were built at the roadside wherever the procession stopped for a rest.
Reconstructing Funerary Rituals – Examples: have a woman perform a keen; hold a traditional wake with food, drink and stories; place a pipe of tobacco on the grave (traditionally done by men); sain the house of the deceased with water; wash and dress the body and place a dish of salt of their chest.
- House offerings – offerings made when moving to a new home, to make sure the spirits of the place accept you, for a happy home.
- Frìth – a Scottish divinatory rite usually performed at festivals to show what the following quarter might hold, but also performed as a means of answering more specific questions, such as where a lost item might be, or finding out how successful a journey might be, etc. Annie has done some research regarding frìth, which can be read here.
- Imbas forosnai – an Irish ritual mentioned in Sanas Cormaic as involving a mantic sleep after chewing dog, red pig, or cat meat. For more in-depth information, we refer you to Nora Chadwick’s essay on the subject, which is linked at the end of this article.
- Tarbfeis – an Irish ritual where the diviner wraps himself in the skin of a sacrificed bull and chews on the flesh of the animal, and then proceeds to go into a trance.
- Taghairm – a Scottish ritual in which the diviner wrapped in ox skin laid at full length in the recess behind a waterfall or on the edge of the incoming tide. It was said he received the answer to his question from the spirit of the waterfall or shoreline through the sound of the water9.
- Ogam – the Irish alphabet created by Ogma. There is little evidence of Ogam (or Ogham) being used for divinatory purposes in ancient days, however, it is a practice widely adopted by many Gaelic Polytheists today and so is worth mentioning.
- Healing – charms said when picking herbs; charms said when doing healing rituals (i.e., Carmina Gadelica).
- Saining – protective rites (usually using water, the smoke of burning juniper or a burnt bannock, for example) that ward a person or place from negative influences; these were done at each festival, but might also be done at other occasions when it was deemed necessary (such as during bouts of unexplained sickness or before sending a warrior into battle).
- Good wishing – a formal rite of blessing someone by going round them three times in a sunwise direction, while saying a ‘Good Wish’.
- Blessing of seeds – seeds were blessed as they were sown to ensure a good crop.
The following books and articles will help you in bringing the traditions of the Gaels into your daily life and festivities.
- ‘Religious Ritual among the Celts’, from Land, Sea and Sky by Francine Nicholson
- Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael
- The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher (and pretty much all his other works)
- Irish Folk Ways by E. Estyn Evans
- The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint by Sean Ó Duinn
- Cattle Lords and Clansmen by Nerys Patterson
- The Silver Bough, Vols I-IV by F. Marian McNeill
- The Gaelic Otherworld, edited by Ronald Black
- The Festival of Lughnasa by Máire Mac Néill
- The Folklore of the Isle of Man by A.W. Moore
- Healing Threads by Mary Beith
- Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave by Margaret Bennett
- The Song Lore of Ireland by Redfern Mason
- ‘Imbas Forosnai‘ by Nora K. Chadwick
- ‘The November-May Year in Man‘ by A.W. Moore
- ‘The Irish Funeral Cry‘
- Irish Folk Belief and Custom by Seán Ó Súilleabháin
- ‘Some Marriage Customs and Their Regional Distribution’ by C Ó Danachair, Béaloideas, Iml. 42/44, (1974 – 1976), pp. 136-175
- http://www.myetymology.com/english/ritual.html, accessed 15 April 2010
- http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ritual, accessed 15 April 2010
- This is what is meant when you hear people discussing orthopraxy, or “right practice”, within Gaelic Polytheism. There will probably be a longer article on this subject available in the future.
- The concept of the three realms of land, sea and sky, for instance.
- “Brighd, Brighd, come in: your bed is ready!”
- We suggest reading ‘KILLANDEATYOU! Or, A Well-Intentioned Celt’s Guide to Non-Celtic Bioregions‘ by Raven nic Rhóisín and Kathryn Price NicDhàna for more information on this topic.
- Irish Folk Custom and Belief, Seán Ó Súilleabháin, pp. 57
- Traces of the Elder Faith of Ireland, pp. 301
- Ravens and Black Rain: The Story of Highland Second Sight, Elizabeth Sutherland, pp. 46