Shamanic Song among the Ancient Celts

Indigenous, shamanic ways of healing and prophecy are not foreign to the West. Rather, they are simply unrecognized. Native symbiosis in a living, sentient cosmos is found at the very origin of the European literary tradition.

To be published by Inner Traditions in December of 2012, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, by Robert Tindall and Susana Bustos Ph.D., is an exploration of the shamanic culture of ancient Western story and the possibility of awakening our native perception in our own time.

Weaving together the narrative traditions of the ancient Greeks and Celts, the mythopoeic work of J.R.R. Tolkien, anthropological studies, and the voices of practitioners of plant medicine paths North and South, The Shamanic Odyssey explores their common features of rapturous and healing song, resident plant divinities, shamanic permeability of consciousness, visionary trajectories, animal transformation, and sacred topography.

By reclaiming our native vision, we uncover traces in the Homer’s great epic poem, the Odyssey, of indigenous prophecy on the emerging two roads of Humanity: “those who know they belong to the Earth” and those who seek material, individual gain in a condition of spiritual disunity. In Odysseus’ violent encounter with the Cyclops, we find the prehistoric bardic tradition’s kinship with Hopi and other native visionary traditions.

Given the present pace of ecological and cultural extinction of species, cultures, and peoples around the globe, it is an opportune time to give heed to the indigenous voice calling out from the heart of the Odyssey.

Here is an excerpt from the The Shamanic Odyssey:

Indigenous, permeable consciousness and inspired song not only occur in ancient Greek texts, but are found at the very origin of the Celtic and English literary tradition. In the Irish mythological cycle, the poet Amergin wins the island of Ireland for his people by invoking the goddess Éire, the spirit of the land, and then singing his symbiosis with the cosmos:

I am the wind that breathes upon the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the murmur of the billows,
I am the ox of the seven combatants,
I am the vulture upon the rocks,
I am a beam of the sun,
I am the fairest of plants,
I am the wild boar in valor,
I am a salmon in the water,
I am a lake in the plain,
I am a word of science,
I am the point of the lance in battle,
I am the God who created in the head the fire.

Such indigenous perception continued strongly among the early saints of the Celtic Christian tradition. In fact, the first Anglo-Saxon poet celebrated by name, Caedmon, received the gift of song in a way strongly paralleling the Amazonian experience of “receiving an icaro.”

Icaros, the healing songs which are called “the quintessence of shamanic power,” are often received by shamans “directly from the madres (spirit mothers) of the plants, frequently through dreams, visions, or auditory stimuli experienced during intensive ‘diets’ with the plants.” Such songs, with their supernormal timbre and melodies that touch the mind with wonder, can affect the listener profoundly.

As a recent visitor with us to the jungle, an aficionado of jazz, who, turning to me after a ceremony listening to the icaros of Juan Flores, said, “Man, this is the kind of mastery you only rarely hear in jazz clubs, but it’s even more than that. It’s like he’s playing your soul.”

The ancient Greeks and Celts knew the power of music to alter consciousness quite well. In the most ancient records of the Celts, we learn of the god Lugh’s visit to the court of Nuada, where he took up the harp and began to play. “Plucking the strings gently and soothingly Nuada and his company fell into a peaceful sleep. When they woke, Lugh played for them slow airs that made them weep. Then the music got faster and happier and, drying their tears, the whole company began to smile and laugh. Their laughter got louder and louder until the rafters rang with the sound.”

Intriguingly, the stages of trance that Lugh escorts his listeners through are similar to the progression used by the Huichol Indians of Mexico, a culture among whom traditions as old as the ancient Celts have been preserved. As Bob Boyll, a roadman in the Native American Church related to me, during peyote ceremonies with the Huichol elder José Rios, listening to Rios’ songs Boyll found himself repeatedly progressing from deep isolation and sadness to ecstatic celebration within the space of a single evening. Rios eventually explained to him that the Huichol utilize two modes in their songs. The first sung is the “mode of the orphan,” which brings about forgetfulness, sleep, and the sorrow of an orphan. The second sung is the “mode of the flowers,” which carries the listeners to a consciousness of eternity, of joyous growth and expansion. This parallel suggests that Lugh’s music may have been not only cathartic, but deliberately designed to be so.

It was in such a highly musical culture that Caedmon, an Anglo-Saxon herdsman around the year 650, landed. According to the early church historian the Venerable Bede, the simple laborer often felt backward and inadequate around the Irish Christians, and Bede describes how, “Often at a drinking gathering, when there was an occasion of joy when all must in turn sing with a harp, when Caedmon saw the harp nearing him, he arose for shame from that feast and went home.”

One night, after quietly slipping out of another gathering, he went to tend the animals in the stables. There, “When he set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name: “Caedmon, sing me something.”

Caedmon responded, “I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither.”

To which the figure responded, “Nevertheless, you must sing.”

“What must I sing?” asked the bewildered Caedmon.

Said this mysterious figure: “Sing to me of the first Creation.”

Caedmon then launched out in a fine blaze of song, with an erudition and musical intelligence that he never known before. The day following, he described his dream to his foreman, who brought the event to the attention of the Abbess Hilda. Caedmon’s gift was tested and confirmed when he composed and sang for her and her counselors.

From this, and subsequent accounts, it is clear he received a true initiation, for while he was widely imitated, his “poetic language adorned with the greatest sweetness and inspiration” could not be equaled, and caused many men and women to abandon worldly lives and take up the religious path. As the Venerable Bede puts it, “not through man that he songcraft learned, but he was divinely aided and through God’s gift received the art of poetry.”

A thousand years earlier, the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras performed equally mysterious “soul adjustments” with his music. According to his biographer, Iamblichus, Pythagoras, like Caedmon, did it “not through instruments or physical voice organs; but by the employment of a certain indescribable divinity, through which he extended his powers of hearing, fixing his intellect on the sublime symphonies of the world, producing a melody fuller and more intense than anything effected by mortal sounds.”

If Caedmon’s song was anything like the inspired strains of the ancient Greeks, and those who still sing in the Amazon, it had the ineffable quality of presencing its subject: Caedmon didn’t sing about the creation of the world. He sang the creation of the world anew.* As we know from Homer’s descriptions of the bardic art, listeners to ancient singers didn’t hear about divinities or past events, they experienced or relived them through the vision-provoking powers of the bard’s voice.

Similarly, in the Amazon today, shamans are able to presence their subjects through their icaros. As Luis Eduardo Luna reports, “don Manual Córdoba Ríos is able, through imitation, to bring visions of birds and animals to people so they are able to study their behavior. Though the icaros, the shaman is able to ‘become one’ with the animal and see the world accordingly.”

This presencing power of shamanic song is not, therefore, merely vision provoking. It can reveal realities with their own tenaciously independent ontological status, which interpenetrate with our own. A fine illustration of the mysteriously empirical workings of shamanic song comes from a healer in Chazuta, Peru, who leads ceremonies with the plant medicine ayahuasca for both locals and visiting Westerners.

In one ceremony, a Scottish woman, at the height of the vision-inducing affect of the brew, found herself in the living presence of a dragon, a mythical beast from her own native land. Synchronous with her unfolding vision, sitting in the darkness across the room from her, an unsuspecting Don Orlando found himself beholding an animal such as he had never seen before: a gigantic, fire-breathing serpent with wings. Awestruck, he burst into song, even as Caedmon once did, receiving the fully formed icaro of the dragon that both mediated its power into the ceremony and accompanied the Scottish woman’s experience in perfect syntony.

Certain shamans even claim to “‘understand’ the language of certain animals,” according to Luis Eduardo Luna, in the old European sense in which Sigurd, having tasted the blood of the dragon, could understand the language of birds and animals.

Inspired singers seem to tap into something energetic woven into the fabric of creation. In an illustration of Caedmon on the cross at St. Mary’s at Whitby, an angel is reaching down to touch his harp and a descending dove has just alighted upon his head. These are now such familiar symbolic tropes for divine inspiration within the Christian tradition, we can miss the obvious: Caedmon is being played by creation, not the other way around.

This is a different kind of song, more akin to shamanic inspiration, about which curanderos often say, “‘It’s the genie of the plant who does the job, not me.’ Many of them add that a humble, loving, and praising attitude while singing is what the spirits require.”

Caedmon’s voice was clearly touched by an Otherworldly, angelic strain that leaves mere human musicians in the dust. An account of St. Brendan, from the 10th century, can give us an idea of the power of this song. It tells how the saint, whenever music was played in his monastery, would quietly insert wax plugs in his ears, which he continually wore on a string around his neck. One day a talented harper, determined to receive Brendan’s blessing for his music, barged his way into an audience from the saint and played for him. Brendan visibly endured a performance that probably would have left us wonderstruck. Perplexed, the student asked,

“Why do you not listen to the music? Is it because you think it bad?”

“Not for that,” said Brénainn, but like this. One day when I was in this church, after Mass I was left here alone, and a great longing for my Lord seized me. As I was there, trembling and terror came upon me; I saw a shining bird at the window, and it sat on the altar. I was unable to look at it because of the rays which surrounded it, like those of the sun. “A blessing upon you, and do you bless me, priest,” it said. “May God bless you,” said Brénainn, “and who are you?” “The angel Michael,” the bird said, “come to make music for you and your Lord.” “You are welcome to me,” said Brénainn. The bird set the beak on the side of its wing, and I was listening to it from that hour to the same hour the next day; and then it bade me farewell.”

Brénainn scraped his stylus across the neck of the harp. “Do you think this sweet, student? I give my word before God, that after that music, no music of the world seems any sweeter to me than does this stylus across the neck, and to hear it I take to be but little profit.”

St. Brendan not only heard heavenly music, he sailed, as did Odysseus, to islands inhabited by divinities. Here Brendan and his monks arrive at the island of Paradise, a feat that could be accomplished in the sacred topography of ancient and medieval Europeans.

Such transporting heavenly songs can still be heard in the shamanic traditions of the Amazon jungle. As Pablo Amaringo, the most recognized and talented of the Amazonian visionary painters explained to us, “When you listen to the song of a spiritual being, an icaro, what a marvel!” Saying this, he pointed to one of the princely figures that inhabited the spiritual landscape of the painting unrolled on the table before us. “With this song you could live for millions of years. No desire to eat. You don’t want anything, you’re so content. The first time I heard an icaro, I said to my master, ‘I would like to live with this for the rest of my life.’ Without it wouldn’t be living. The contentment, happiness, I don’t know how many other things, but how, how beautiful. Those are the icaros.”

*This phenomenon reflects the widespread indigenous apprehension, as shown by Mircea Eliade, that human relationships with the eternal “paradigmatic models revealed to men in mythic time” need to be periodically regenerated through their reenactment or reliving in sacred time. In this way, the vitality of the origins of a culture continues to flow from its timeless source.