Celtic Superstitions

Jewish and Celtic:
Meeting at the Crossroads


The First Annual
Scorched Oatcake Awards!

     My apologies to all of my colleagues and friends in the Summerlands for the delay in publishing this issue of The Summer Sun. We have all experienced a lot of waiting this season, both personally and nationally. Hopefully, one of the lessons we will learn from all the waiting is that one of the most important, and most frustrating, characteristics of the spiritual life is the waiting that seems to be in the very nature of the spirit and all things spiritual.
     Samhain marked the end of the Celtic year. The Winter Solstice marks the opening of the light. The calendrical turn that is almost upon us will mark the end of one millennium and the beginning of another. We are priveleged to be at this crossroads, at a nexus of waiting and expectation that cannot help but have its effect on our hearts, spirits, and world.
     May all of our waiting end in worthy blessings!

Celtic Superstitions by Searles O'Dubhain When we talk about superstitions, exactly what do we mean? The dictionary definition of the word superstition is: "Any belief which is inconsistent with known facts, or rational thought, especially such a belief in omens, the supernatural, and other unseen powers." "It can also mean any action or practice based on such a belief."

What this definition tells us when applied to the Celts is that they were not an entirely rational people. The Celts did not base their actions, beliefs, or lifestyle completely upon those things that can be deduced from observation and experience. They also interacted with their environment and reacted to the way in which it caused them to feel. The Celts also possessed a strong sense of wonder. Beyond this, they felt a part of the land and it was through this connection to the land and reality of it, that they were able to perceive a greater reality of spirit and the unseen. Many of the actions that a Celt would take that perhaps would seem illogical to a rational mind were based upon the idea of geis. Another word for this is a "taboo" or a prohibition.

Just how did these geasa originate and how were they determined? It's my belief that the answer to this question lies within the need for balance within all of reality. To me, geis and karma are interrelated concepts. Geis is the closest thing that a Celt would come to that is similar to a karmic payback. They are also like road signs on the road to one's destiny or dán. Geis were usually determined by a seer at the time of birth. These geasa were actions that one should avoid in life in return for good luck and fortune. In this, they are very like the oft-quoted tale where a person might get three wishes if they didn't reveal certain secrets or take a certain action.

Geasa are taboos and injunctions. The alternate sides of such actions are blessings and good fortune. These are called buada, which are determined by using dessel (right-hand-wise, sunwise) actions. In "The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn," we find the younger approaching a pillar stone on the open land in front of the dún of Nechta Scéne. It has an iron ring around its top containing the Ogham inscription on its peg (menoc), "If any man comes to this green and he is a warrior bearing arms, it is taboo for him to leave without a challenging to single combat." It is said that Cú Chulainn uprooted the stone and the ring and threw them into a pool of water. After this is went to sleep beside his chariot awaiting any combatants. His charioteer Iubar (Yew) alerted him to the approach and challenge of each of the three sons of Nechtan in turn. Cú Chulainn slew them all and took their heads.

Geasa were not "put on" people so much as they were similar to things that a person was fated to do or not do in this life. We've seen that they could also be challenges. This could be something inherent to that person's nature or heritage (such as not killing a deer because that person's lineage had a special relationship with deer). It could also have been determined by astrological signs, cloud signs, signs of nature or physical characteristic at the time of birth. Other geasa were assigned based on being provided with a special power or gift, which would vanish if the geasa were violated. Geasa were not curses in the strict sense of the word though some of them could have resulted from such things. They are more like horoscopes. One breaks a geis or violates a geis by taking the action that was prohibited in the geasa or by not doing what the geasa required. In general, the Druidic assignment of geasa was supposed to be based on a Druid's ability to see the truth between lives and the worlds and not on any special power of Druids to assign geasa in the first place. Geasa are more tied into one's dán (destiny) and not so much associated with other external magical actions. They might be the closest things there are to "karma" within Celtic tradition, but that is quite another long story! The idea here is that one gives up something in life in order to receive favorable treatment in another part of life.

Geis could also be tied to the geis of the tribe or the family. If the clan totem were a wolf, then one would be prohibited from killing wolves. In a similar manner, one of Cú Chulainn's geis was to avoid eating the flesh of a dog. We can see that the idea of geasa is linked to the concept of right actions and avoidance of taboo. To better illustrate this idea of geasa, I'm going to tell the tale of Conaire.

Tara was without a king. The Tarbh Feis (bull dreaming) was performed while the dreamer lay dreaming of the future king and while four Druids chanted the "Spell of Truth" over him. While this was going on, Conaire left his brothers and went to Dublin. On the way there he came upon a flock of great white speckled birds. He pursued these birds until his horses became tired, and yet the birds were always at least a spear cast ahead of him. What this means is that the birds were leading him. This is a common event for travel into the Otherworld while in the midst of the chase. Indeed, this has even happened to me. But that's another story for another time and place. Conaire pursued the birds on foot until he reached the sea. The birds then took to the water and he jumped in after them. While in the water, he overcame them and they took off their bird skins and turned upon him with spears and swords. In the midst of this battle, one of the birdmen protected Conaire and revealed himself to be Nemglan, King of the Birds.

The name Nemglan means "The Clear Heavens" The birds are representative of the people of the Otherworld from which Conaire's father originates. Because he finds his destiny in the pursuit of birds, he is forbidden to hunt or cast at them as a Geis. This is a clear case of restriction in freedom of movement providing one with hidden knowledge and power as a trade. In many acts of Celtic magic, such trades occur. Indeed, they are the basis of votive and sacrificial practice. One action is a payment for the receipt of another. And this is the balance of geasa.

The determination of such geasa at birth shapes the pathway of one's Dán. Conaire's other geasa are that he shall not go right-hand-wise around Tara and left-hand-wise around Mag Breg. He must not hunt the beast of Cerna (this sounds like the beasts of Cernunnos to me). Every ninth night he was prohibited from leaving Tara. He was not allowed to sleep in a house in which firelight can be seen after sunset. Three red men shall not go before him into the House of the Red Men. That he should not do any pillaging during his reign. His last two geasa are that a company of one man or one woman should not be admitted to a house in which he was located after sunset. And the last one is that he shall not settle the quarrel between his two servants. So long as he avoided his taboos, his reign was prosperous and filled with bounty. The outcome of this ideal reign was that Conaire would be placed in the situation where he would have to make the choice between honor and doing the right thing, or violating each of his geis in a single night.

This night is the basis of the story known as "The Destruction of Da Dearga's Hostel". This is one of the more famous tales in Irish tradition. To round out the original story, the bull dreamer at Tara predicted that the new king would approach stark naked with a stone in his sling in the morning on one of the four main roads to Tara. The three kings were placed on each of the four roads to await the coming of the new High King. When they beheld Conaire approaching naked with a stone in his sling with his encounter with the Birdmen, he was proclaimed King. So a geasa is an action that if not taken promotes good fortune in another part of life. It does not come without its price.

Other stories from ancient Ireland give us a feel for how time, superstition and geasa are interrelated. They also show us the benefits and the hazards associated with meaning or violating such taboos. The exploits of Nera and the further stories about Conaire come to mind.

The actions we take at Samhain are often associated with geasa and superstition. Who has not shivered about being in a graveyard at this time of the year? Who among us has not been startled by the sound of a sudden knocking upon the door? What of our chance encounters with the unusually costumed at Samhain? How should we greet these beings and what are the consequences?

Conaire went on to violate almost all of his geasa on the evening of the feast of Da Dearga's Hostel. He admitted the Cailleach (a solitary woman if ever there was one) into his company after nightfall. He violated another geis when his fire was seen from without the hall where he was staying. The result of all these violations of taboos was to result in his death. Perhaps the remembering of such tales is at the roots of superstitions involved with associated actions? One can see the roots of superstition within the concept of Geis. It's not surprising that actions and prohibitions would have been associated with all parts of Celtic life. The memory of the great tales, such as the Tain or Da Dearga's Hostel would have echoed down through the ages into the daily life of the people.

Some of the other superstitions that derived from the concept of geis are: After being cured from a sickness, take an oath to do some action... such as combing your hair on a Friday. This is done so that you can remember to acknowledge the gift of the cure. Other oaths associated with illness would be to sing to the new moon or the sunrise on everyday. It's common in Ireland to have people fall on their knees and address the new moon, "Oh Moon, leave us well as thou hast found us!"

Many superstitions are so removed from their source that it's hard to determine where they come from, but most seem to follow the associative law of magic. This law basically says that similar items produce similar results, especially when they are tied to other actions. the use of poppets or dolls is such a case of associative magic. One could treat the doll or perform workings with it, in order to effect workings in the world itself.

In a similar manner, the time of the year affected the fate of a marriage. Getting married during harvest would mean that you would have no rest from worries and troubles. Similarly, getting married at Bealtaine would mean that your marriage would be short and passionate. This is probably why many marriages are performed in June.

Taboos or similarly prohibited actions such as not whistling while in a boat or saying the word pig in a boat. The use of certain types of wood in boats were considered to have the power to effect luck as determined from their associations with deities or their similarity to the elements of wind and sea. The pig itself was associated with Manannán mac Lir, so saying that word would possibly summon Manannán and his waves.

Whistling would "whistle up the wind" and the graining of the wood used on a boat would determine its fate. If the grain was wavy it portended rough seas and disaster. If it smooth, then there would be fair sailing. and good fishing. Here is a list of Irish superstitions: A sick person's bed had to be placed north and south and not "crossways" . A piece of linen taken from a corpse would cure the swelling of a limb if it's tied around the afflicted part.

There is a certain hour in everyday when whatever you wish will be granted. In a similar manner, there is a certain place called the Sod of Death, that if one steps upon it, one will die. These are both tied to one's destiny but one never knows when or where those might be.

When moving into a new house, everyone who comes should bring a small present and nothing should be taken away. Warding should be done at each corner of your bedroom and a piece of your clothing should be left there at the same time. A horseshoe nailed to the door post will bring good luck, but it must be found and not given.

The first days of the year and of the week are the luckiest while certain days are unlucky in certain families. Among the Tudors this was Tuesday. Everybody died on a Tuesday. Among Deborah's family, we don't like to travel on the first of the month because most of her kin die on the first of the month Friday is a really bad day to start things. It's a bad day to begin a journey, move into a house, or start a business. And one should never bring a cat from one house to another on a Friday. Friday is a powerful day among the Sídhe and the beings of the otherworld. So if you're going to do anything on a Friday, you should make an offering to the "gentry".

It is my opinion that the Ogham were used by the Druids to determine geasa at the time of birth and on other occasions. This was most likely done in connection with the other birth signs that were associated with the clouds, the winds, the movements of animals, the seasons, the stars and the planets as well as the days of the Sun and the age of the Moon. In the case of auspicious days, I think that they may also have used a calendar table such as the Coligney calendar with its "good" and "not-good" days-months-years.

Another superstition is to not put out a light while people are at supper, or someone will die before the year is out. It is unlucky to accept a lock of hair or a four footed beast from a lover. It is unlucky to offer your left hand in greeting. because the left hand is for cursing those we hate, but the right hand is for honoring those we love.

Some other equally bad omens are to meet any of the following first thing in the morning when going out: A cat A dog or a woman or a man... especially if they have red hair. To have a rabbit run across your path before sunrise To meet a funeral and not go back three steps with it. To take fire out of a house when anyone is sick.

Often birds guide me. Much of the way in which the Celts and we interpret signs from Nature is tied to our understanding of the connections between the worlds. Spirit is within everything that surrounds us and is even within us. The subtle patterns and relationships of the normal processes is a clear sign that the Otherworld is acting to cause changes within this one. This is due to the ways in which the worlds connect at every point. Every sign has a meaning, and every action has a cause. To read the signs as a Celt, we should listen with our hearts and see through eyes of spirit. That is to say, we should open up our senses beyond the mundane level and see the connections of every event with the many worlds and the actions of our Dan.

Reading the signs is like looking at an impressionistic painting. Sometimes, the image is clearer when no single part is isolated. When the picture is seen as a whole and we experience it as a unity of impressions, then we receive the clearest message. Such an awareness of the inner connections in Nature, Life and the Worlds, is a gift of being more fully alive.

This sense of connection is nowhere more evident than in the interlinking, flowing, swirling colors of Celtic art. It is the true reflection of Celtic spirit and its awareness of life around it. Just as geis stressed the importance of not doing one thing or another in return for a gift or a certain type of life, not seeing the world through ordinary eyes allows one to see what is "not there". These things that are "not there" are the rest of experience. They are "other" experiences. They are what we don't expect, they are the Otherworld's effects.

The essence of what I have been saying about superstition, geis and their observation and practice among the Celts is to say that they saw the world both logically and illogically, real and imaginary, rational and irrational, and limited and unlimited. This idea of limits is what allows one to go to an "in-between-place" where one is neither one place nor the other. It is in such an unstable place that anything can happen. That is when a charm or a talisman can tip the balance and protect one from the ordinary and extraordinary possibilities. This is where the idea of establishing a connection between oneself and one's center comes into play. Such objects are like a medicine bag. They provide a link and a lifeline between the self and the sacred center of the family. I would recommend that every Celt have such a "crane bag" for use in centering and guidance when journeying or traveling through times and places where spirit and superstition reinforce one another.

At this time of the year, especially at Samhain, the entire universe is considered to be such a crane bag for Celts. The veil between the worlds is thinnest and almost anything can happen. We are in a very in-between time and space. "In the old literature, the eerie nature of Oíche Shamhna (Hallowe'en) was conveyed by accounts of cairns and other-world dwellings being open at that time, and of the adventures of ordinary folks who entered them." Spirit walks the Earth, flies through the air and swims within the seas. Geasa become critical and obligations are of tripled importance. The link between past, present and future is at its strongest. The world of tomorrow is shaped by the world of the past. What we do during this out of place and time celebration has an influence beyond its mundane meanings. That is why an understanding of tradition, superstition and geasa is so important right now. Now is the no-time and the no-place in the wheel of the year's turnings. We can look ahead while looking behind. We can look within while peering out into the unknown. We can know what is hidden, yet we cannot hide our own secrets. Samhain is a time of truth and foretelling. It is a period of spirit and shaping. We would do well to make offerings, to seek divination and to be gracious toward the known and the unknown in our lives. Above all, we should understand what our own geasa are and why it is that we honor them. If we walk the fine line between superstition, geis and obligation , we honor ourselves and our ancestors.

The First Annual
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In recognition of
Members of the
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Pagan or Non-Pagan,
who show
in word and deed
that they would
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of a bog.

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Jewish & Celtic: Meeting at the Crossroads by Daibhaid O'Broder
When we look at the twain we seem to see initially one major difference in that Judaism is dedicated to the one god concept. This concept is built around a scripture in the Torah in the book of Deuteronomy. In the Hebrew it is rendered, "S'hma Yisroel, Adonoi Eloheyno, Adonoi Echod." Transliterated it means, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. The term Echod is specific in this case and by its definition renders the english term One as significant enough to capitalize.

Within the Draoicht religion, there are several gods depending on the branch of Draoicht one happens to follow. However, historically there are few actual gods mentioned in the writings which we do have available to view. One of these gods mentioned is Taranus the Thunder God. From some of our Celtic ancestors in France we have the temples dedicated to the god Vosges and Gers both hunter-type Gods. A boar god as well, Euffigneix, appears in a stone carving in France that well dates to the second to the first century B.C. Therefore, we see that we are a bit different in this light, however we alike in many other ways such as in the holy days.

This year, on the 29th of September began the High Holy day of Rosh Hoshanna during which for eight days the Orthodox and some of the Conservative as well, went about their neighborhoods asking forgiveness for crimes or sins they have unintentionally or intentionally committed against their neighbors and friends. Then on the 8th of October, from sunrise to sunset, was the fast and celebration of Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. It is during this time that the Jewish folk meet in Temple to pray and ask God for forgiveness. Five days later came the feast of the Sukkoth when families parade in the temple with palm leaves and fresh citron celebrating the plentiness of the season.

At the end of the month of October most Celtic Pagans celebrate Samhain, the Feast of the Dead. This is the end of the year and beginning of a new Celtic year. It is during this feasting and celebration that we pray to the Gods for swift passage for our kin who've passed in the year that has passed. Then we get together and talk, laugh, and cry, as we remember those gone before. And it is then we celebrate the ending of the harvest time, the beginning of the time of Darkness on the Earth when she sleeps and rejuvenated herself for the coming of the Sun Lord, the Summer King on Lughnasadh. Many folk have differing ways to celebrate, some have picnics in cemeteries, some have grand parties in their homes. Most have costume parties, as it is thought that on the night of Samhain the dead walk the earth as the veil between the spirit world and the living world is the thinnest. Therefore they cloak themselves in costume so as not to be taken into the spirit world when the veil closes.

During the celebration of Yom Kippur when the men go to morning prayers, they leave on their prayer shawls or tallits, wearing them all day long in the temple, thereby fullfilling the proscription of observing the holy day as a sabbath day, if you will. By the same token, many pagans will costume themselves on Samhain from morning through evening to avoid the eye of the god of Death as he roams the world.

Deborah O'Dubhain

M. Bruno (Beirdd)
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