Cuchullain, Amergin, the Horned One and the Celtic shamans of the Blessed Isles

There must have been shamans leading the tribes of Britain before the Roman invasion in the first century CE because they were all over the world, although not necessarily called shamans, which is a Siberian word.

According to their oldest stories, the Celts had their Dreamers, or awenyddions, and you can enjoy readng about them in book The Grail Mysteries.

But for those with eyes to see it, the stories contained in these myths are clearly built around much older templates that have common themes with ancient cosmological myths, some dating as far back 3,000 BCE. This doesn’t seem such a bizarre claim now that we know that our myths that were orally passed on by our ancestors who were Scythians, a nomadic tribe that swept down from the Caucusus Mountains after the last Ice Age, spreading to all parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Increasingly, historians are becoming convinced that those Scythians that went southwards towards the Mediterranean became the Celts, and those that went north became the Saxons and the Vikings.

So were there shamans among the Scythians too? It would certainly seem so from what we read in those myths.

But here’s what I think is the killer – the Gundestrop Cauldron, which dates to around 200 BCE, shows a scene on one of its panels which is remarkably similar to one from The Children of Llyr, a Celtic myth that features the Cauldron of Regeneration into which were put the Irish warriors, head first, to be reborn as a sort of zombie army.  This Cauldron of Regeneration is a shamanic cipher, and I retell this story – putting it into the mouth of the bard Taliesin –  in my book The Grail Mysteries.)

Gundestrop 1

Another panel of the Gundestrop Cauldron shows the Horned One,  or Lord of the Animals, seated cross legged with a boar on one side and a stag on the other – the boar and the stag are classic Celtic totem animals, exclusive to that culture.


Whether or not these stories are pre-Christian, they are certainly non- Christian because they are resoundingly shamanic at a time when the Romans had done their level best to make sure that all traces of what they called paganism had been wiped out. Of course, shamanism is a Siberian word, and I just use it as shorthand in this context. As John Matthews writes in the Introduction to his book Taliesin, The Last Celtic Shaman

“The use of the word ‘shaman’ and ‘shamanism’ requires some explanation in the context of this book, and it is important to establish at this point what is meant by it. The word is such a fashionable one, and used so easily by so many different groups, that it has become open to misuse and misinterpretation.

“On the one hand, there are those who believe that shamanism (which is a word of eastern origin) is a foreign system ‘imported’ into this country in the last few years to describe something which never happened here. This is manifestly nonsense. Shamanism is simply a word for something which took place all over the ancient world.

“Shamans were the interpreters of the gods, the doctors and inner guides of their people; they kept the records (orally) of every family in their tribe – important when intermarriage could so easily occur in small communities – and they were the recorders of the life of the tribe itself, both inner and outer. They were in fact performing the same function as the Bards, Druids and Ovates of Britain and Ireland.”

These ancient Irish and Welsh stories, songs and poems are full of shapeshifting heroes with the archetypal ‘fire in the head’ and many of the stories read like initiations. There’s a ‘great tree’, (or World Tree), people who vanish for years into the Otherworlds, an Underworld, talking animals, the inner sight, and a poem called The Seige of Drom Damhgaire even gives us a magical battle between two shamans.

This is the Song of Amergin, which the seer Amergin purportedly sang as he stepped on these shores from Spain with the conquering Milesians after the last Ice Age.

I am the wind that blows across the sea;
I am a wave of the deep;
I am the roar of the ocean;
I am the stag of seven battles;
I am a hawk on the cliff;
I am a ray of sunlight;
I am the greenest of plants;
I am the wild boar;
I am a salmon in the river;
I am a lake on the plain;
I am the word of knowledge;
I am the point of a spear;
I am the lure beyond the ends of the Earth;
I am the god who fashions fire in the head.

That last line, about the fire in the head, refers to what has been called the shaman’s calling card. My experience is that the heat starts to build when I’m drumming. Then, during the journey, I feel the fire just to the right of my crown. It feels like a flame burning and the deeper and more intense the journey, the hotter is burns.

The great Celtic warrior Cuchulainn was said to show the “hero’s light” or flaming aura around his head when he was excited and frenzied for battle. According to the stories, when the light appeared, he could perform his most famous “salmon’s leap” and cover great distances or heights. This aura of the shaman warrior hero was eventually co-opted by Roman Christianity to  become the halo.

It is said that some Tibetan monks trained in yogic traditions can raise their body temperatures to melt snow. The !King in Africa call this natural body heat “boiling energy”.

The explorer Knud Rasmussen met with Eskimo shamans who told him: “Every real shaman has to feel an illumination in his body, in the inside of his head or in his brain, something that gleams like fire, that gives him the power to see with closed eyes into the darkness, into the hidden things or into the future or into the secrets of another man.”

The Jivaro of the Amazon describe the shaman as one who gives off light, “particularly in a ‘crown’, an aura from the head” when the shaman is in an altered state of consciousness.

So it’s difficult imagine all these stories about great shamans being shared very easily around the hearths of post-Roman Britain, or at least such a vast and humongously rich whole body of work being developed from scratch at that time, right under the noses of the Christian priests and monks. For at least several thousands of years before Christianity, every culture worldwide had their own orally passed on stories which contained cosmological lore. So why wouldn’t the people with the rich grave goods of the Hallstatt culture (c. 800 BCE–450 BCE) who became the Celts have their stories too?

However, it is an an ongoing debate and it’s one that may not even be settled in our lifetimes. We can only dig up as much as we can, and then hand the baton on to the next generations. But for me, it is an important quest, because at the heart of it is our search for the wisdom of our ancestors, who knew about the Sovereignty of the land and much more. This is why I’m using these stories, reflected from the stars above, to act out ceremonies and dramas on the land, which our local spirits appear to appreciate.

My work is firmly planted in this world as much as it derives from guidance and inspiration from the other worlds. A shaman is just a workman who serves the needs of the tribe or the community.  Samadhi can wait… for this lifetime, anyway.

final final peacock

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