W. G. Wood-Martin (1847-1917) published Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland in 1902. He wanted to document what was known about the spirituality of pre-Christian
before all memories of that world were forgotten, and he was more than thorough (over 840 pages in two volumes). He was not a mystic, or a righteous inquisitor; he was a fair-minded scholar. Ireland
Irish culture had a lumpy mixture of influences. Hunter-gatherers arrived around 6000 BC. They thrived on deer, shellfish, and salmon until about 4500 BC, when invaders infected the forest paradise with domesticated sheep, goats, cattle, and cereals. The health of the ecosystem has been in decline ever since, and the forest and wolves are long gone. The land has become an ecological skeleton.
At the end of the eighth century, the island was a collection of chiefdoms that shared the Gaelic language and culture. Then there were invasions of missionaries, Vikings, Normans, and English, each of whom built settlements and put down roots. Like most societies that major in domesticated plants and animals,
became a land of warriors, and bloody conflicts, which left deep scars on the collective psyche. Ireland
I was fascinated by the book because it presents us with a white European society that had an intimate relationship with the land — a land that was spiritually alive in every aspect. Every stone, tree, bird, and stream was holy. Souls never died when the body did, they often found new homes in various plants and animals. Some became banshees, who screamed and howled with the blowing wind, issuing warnings or announcing deaths. Spirits of the ancestors were ever-present in the lives of everyone — and sometimes evil spirits, too. Any living thing might be an ancestor. You were never alone.
The rustic Irish spent their lives in a very small world. Their food, water, fuel, clothing, and building materials came from the land nearby. They owned little, and few of their belongings were imported from other places. The land and the people were one, to a degree that would stagger the imagination of modern consumers, whose lives depend on a highly complex global system for almost everything. But as we move beyond Peak Cheap Energy, we will inevitably be returning to a highly local, muscle-powered way of life of some sort.
Wood-Martin suspected that the fairies were “probably representatives of an aboriginal and conquered people” (the forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers?). Fairies frequently came out at night to sing and dance, and their music was so beautiful that people who happened to hear it became enchanted. Some of them chose to spend the rest of their lives with the good people, and others returned to the world of mortals, where they often went insane, or committed suicide, because they couldn’t get the sound of the magical music out of their heads.
Long ago, the fairies had been conquered by people with iron weapons, and so they detested iron and other metals. Peasants protected themselves from fairy mischief by hanging horseshoes above their doors, by carrying knives, and by sewing bits of iron into their children’s clothing.
There was no such thing as bad luck. Animal sickness, crop damage, lunacy, accidents, and disease were the result of curses or elf-shots (darts shot by fairies). The antidote was a counterattack using even greater magic. Sometimes a passionate blessing could break the curse. Sometimes a disease was transferred to a strip of cloth, taken out, and tied to a bush — “a good riddance.” When someone was wronged, they often sought justice by putting a curse on their enemy — “may he and all he owns melt like ice!” A king was once cursed with an insatiable hunger, and he ate so much that he caused a famine in the land. If the curse was deserved, the target would surely suffer. If not, the curse would be returned to the sender within seven years.
All animals could think, communicate, read our minds, and influence our behavior. Some were guardian spirits who protected us. Some were inhabited by ancestral souls. Some were people who had been changed into wolves for seven years by a powerful curse. There were women who could appear as hares, cats, or sows. The boundaries between humans and other animals were far less clear than they seem to be today.
The Irish countryside is rocky, and many of the stones were sacred. Stone circles were thought to be old giants, or people who had been turned into rocks. Some stones had holes big enough to crawl through, and these were used for healing. Stones with smaller holes were used as swearing stones, used for swearing oaths, like wedding vows.
We cannot live without water. The Irish drew their water from springs, streams, lakes, and wells. These too were seen as sacred, of course. Water from holy springs helped cows to produce more milk and butter. On the eve of May Day, people often bathed in sacred pools to be healed. They tied offerings on nearby bushes — pieces of cloth or locks of hair. They tossed coins in a well and made wishes. The spirits of wells were benevolent when remembered, but vindictive when neglected. Sacred waters were sometimes home to sacred trout, which no one harmed, except for mean enemies.
Paul Shepard once wrote: “Sacred groves did not exist when all trees were sacred.” The forests started falling in the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age sped up the pace. About one-eighth of the original forest survived until the sixteenth century, but these woodlands were gone by the eighteenth century. So, the book mostly talks about sacred trees, not groves — like the big old oak in the pasture, often used to inaugurate new chiefs. All trees had souls, and some grew up out of the graves of ancestors.
The cycle of the year was split into two halves, at May Day and Samhain or All Hallows Eve (31 October). New life was celebrated at May Day, with bonfires, dancing, and may poles. Halloween was a scary time, because the night was filled with the spirits of the wandering dead. Villagers wandered from house to house in processions, stopping to recite ancient verses at each home.
It’s difficult to imagine living in a reality that was so spiritually alive, with people who had powerful connections to the land, and immense reverence for it. Modern life can feel so empty and artificial. Wood-Martin left us with an important clue: “If you procure a box of fairy ointment, and rub it on the eyelids, you instantly see everything as it really is.” That would certainly be an unforgettable mind-blowing experience!
Of course, the old Irish were simple, illiterate folks, who spent their lives in a world of silly superstitions. We modern folks are free of that (we think). The pagans gained power by drinking at sacred wells, by crawling through sacred stones, by initiating blessings or curses. We gain power by overloading our lives with sacred stuff — hybrid cars, McMansions, big screen TVs. The greater the harm that we cause to the Earth, the more prestige we gain.
Wood-Martin, Walter Gregory, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, Kennikat Press, Port Washington, New York, 1970. Originally published in 1902.
The contents of volumes I and II are available via Google Books. The PDF downloads are scanned images of the original pages, and are not searchable. The EPUB version is searchable text, but the conversion process introduced defects.