Celtic Medicine in Early, Medieval Ireland, Part II
The “Evil Eye” and Incantations
As in many pre-Christian cultures, the Celts believed in “the evil eye”, that a person of power could send a curse your way by a mere look. Such a look could kill your livestock, ruin your crops, cause illness, and even cause death.
What’s the best protection against the evil eye? According to the druids, it was vervain, a semi-woody flowering plant. Also the mountain ash, sometimes called rowan. Rowan was said to have other magical properties as well.
A druid could also heal by casting an incantation or spell. In addition to their healing herbs or plants, a druid might repeat a series of magical words to aid the cure. Here is one such chant, bereft of the musical, alliterative charm of the original Gaelic:
Against the fairy elfin arrows,
Against the elfin arrows charmed,
Against piercing arrows of fairy host,
Against harassing arrows on the journey.
But beware! The druids could also use their spells to curse you as well as heal you.
Once Christianity entered the picture, the healers often mixed ancient chants with imprecations to Christ and Mary into their healing rituals.
The druids held that bodies of water—lakes, streams, and rivers—held healing properties. Bathing in or drinking from them might heal your ailment. Walking three times around certain wells might also do the trick. As such, druids offered gifts to the gods that inhabited these waterways in hopes of obtaining a cure and appeasing their anger—for the displeasure of the gods was a prime reason for illness. They might also carve wooden models of themselves or an injured body part before a healing ritual and throw them into the water.
The druids’ healing using carved statuettes didn’t confine itself just to water, however. Images of injured limbs, including a pair of sculptured breasts, have been found before the shrines of Celtic gods.
Waterfalls were seen as gateways to the Otherworld, where the spirits dwelt, and were to be avoided. A scene from my upcoming novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, dramatizes this taboo.
Dogs—Guides to the Otherworld
As a dog owner, I love this one. Dogs were associated not only with hunting, but also with healing and death. They were thought to be guides to the Otherworld, with the ability to go there and return. Lapdogs were popular with women. Dogs were thought to act as Otherworld guides who could detect illness, knew who was about to die, and even bring back healing power from the spirit world. (All my dog brings back is her master’s socks, chewed and slightly soggy.)
Walking in Circles
Walking in a circle facing the sun was another common aspect not only of healing, but of showing respect for sacred sites. A healing ceremony called the Beannachd n Cuairte, the Blessing of the Circle, was reported by David Rorie, a 20th Century Scottish folklorist. It harkens back to ancient, Celtic healing traditions. Two women hold an iron circle doused with oil and set afire. Two more women pass a small child back and forth through the fiery hoop eighteen times, the number of months the child had been alive. Then they return the child to the mother and throw the burning hoop into a pool. This, they believed, would cure what ailed the infant.
(Sources for this post: The Celts by Peter Beresford Ellis; and Land, Sea and Sky, Chapter 17, by Hilaire Wood, edited by Shae Clancy and Francine Nicholson)
Next time we’ll complete our look at Celtic medicine with Part III, looking at Celtic brain surgery, the fairy folk, and the Celts’ world of spiritual darkness.