When we seek beyond patriarchal and Christian overlays upon the Celtic pagan past, we find unexpected treasures within the healing ways that have been handed down, remnants though they might be. The holism that I follow in my personal healing ways for self (and clients) is mirrored by these patterns in Celtic practices: healing is a spiritual path.
In spite of modern conventional medicines continued efforts to obliterate ancient, traditional, or indigenous healing systems, we regularly see a rise in the latter. Author Noragh Jones points out that, “throughout the history of medicine, ordinary people have gone on using herbal remedies and faith healing alongside or instead of professional medicine.” (P. 137) I believe that the faith healing aspect comprises far more than we currently can conceive, and goes beyond what has been recorded, and unfortunately derided, in history as runes or spells, prayers or magic by wise women and shamans.
Herbalism has an absolutely prominent place in healing. No doubt about it, whether in the past or the present. But there were usually unseen energies (of the plants’ elementals and/or of the spirit realm) that accompanied the herbs in their work and, I believe, were often of greater value to the overall healing itself, as referenced that there is “a sense that illness is some kind of imbalance in the individual, and so mind and body and spirit must be treated as a whole; and a conviction that healing is a spiritual resource as well as a physical process.” (P. 138) Some of the conventional medical establishment is starting to recognize these unseen powers of healing; from the encouragement of meditation and visualization, to healing touch and Reiki, to how nature influences the healing process (being able to see a park or trees outside a patient’s window). Within this realm of unseen healing energies lies Essences and Homeopathics, the bridge remedies that are my passion, and which carry healing on all levels of one’s being. Yet most people continue to leave out the spiritual component to healing.
The unseen energies were especially embraced when it came to protection and warding off evil, but also used within the healing itself. For instance, “the caim or encompassing was a way of encircling oneself or another with the spiritual protection of [one’s Deity] so as to keep at bay danger or distress, death and doom and the malice of ill-disposed persons.” (P. 142) Herbs and plants were used, but it usually wasn’t their physical substances that were being invoked. And, whether we call the encircling based upon psychology or spirituality, I believe they come from the same place: the soul.
As Jones points out: “It was impossible for a people who expressed their spirituality through the ordinary everyday activities, to draw a clear dividing line between their herbal medicine, their part-pagan runes and their faith healing. Healing was a spiritual as well as a practical activity which demanded of the healer not just plant knowledge but a quiet and serious intent, undivided attention, and faith in a power greater than themselves.” (P. 139) This old-world view of holistic healing is one I resonate with; a true healing occurs throughout one’s being, not simply in the body. In fact, if a dis-ease is addressed solely on a physical level, by either healer or recipient, then it will recur, either in the same form and place or, often, by moving elsewhere into an additional area of susceptibility.
Keeping this holism in mind, for those of us who do not collect our own herbs, essences, or homeopathics, we must rely upon our sources for their dedication to the healing path as a sacred one, or at the very least, an honorable calling (i.e., not just in it for the money). Jones reminds us that, “the quiet ingathering of healing energies began when the healer went out to other the healing plants.” (P. 139) This intention would encompass lunar and solar cycles and seasons, as well as the consciousness and spiritual awareness of the healer. Further, the wise woman knew that “as a healer you are only an instrument of higher grace and are nothing in your own right.” (P. 150) The healer would be conscious of the part they played in the healing process, and “had their own preparations to make as well as their charms to utter over the patient. They would bend down and place their two palms on the ground to get in touch, and at the end they would wash their hands in running water, to draw new energy from the earth and to wash away the burden of the disease that they had drawn out of the sufferer.” (P. 153)
Holistic healers were not ignorant of the unseen influences that surrounded them, whether they were of Celtic descent or from elsewhere in the world. Jones states in regard to this that, “Although their treatments were a blend of faith and magic runes and practical herbalism, the Gaels had the beginnings of a system to explain the ills they saw around them and experienced personally in their own lives.” (P. 150) These people believed that much dis-ease was caused by tiny, unseen life forms and energies; they didn’t know how these were inherited but saw that some lines — whether human or animal — were more afflicted than others. Thus, charms or runes were often needed from the healer that went beyond the mere physical: “In many healing runes the feeling is that the hurt or disease is something evil that has found its way into the body and can be shifted out of it if the right formula is found and applied in the right spirit.” (P. 151) From my own perspective, this “evil” arises from our own human frailty, ego and ignorance; from our fear or hate or shame. Since our evil within arises from our own lack of self-realization, then the energies of sacred nature can assist us in addressing that unawareness, and a conscious healer can support this journey. While in our modern society we tend to separate rather than integrate the various functions of wellness providers—we have psychologists and spiritual advisors, therapists, counselors, and medical practitioners—in the past there was more often simply the holistic wise woman of the village.
Beyond the unseen energetics of plants, we have those situated in place or land, from sacred hills or valleys, to sacred springs and wells. We find that, “the spirits of the wells were particular and local, but all were connected with the profound powers of below ground, the underworld of Mother Earth, source of fundamental energies.” (P. 159) There were often animal or tree guardians of these places, themselves imbued with healing powers and to whom offerings were made. But certainly healing springs and wells have been prominent in Celtic past through legends and myths.
Healing work, within and without, has been a part of my own spiritual path for nearly twenty years. Thanks be to Brigid.
For quotes, see Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent: Celtic Women’s Spirituality by Noragh Jones; Chapter 6, Woman of Healing.