Accessing the Divine – Celtic Inspiration

Brigid is perhaps the most well-known Celtic goddess whose gift is the fire of inspiration

Last week’s guest post on inspiration got me thinking more about the source of all our artistic endeavors and how that relates to Arthur, Guinevere, and the rest of the Celts.

Did you know the word inspiration comes from the Latin inspiratus, meaning “to be breathed upon?” It’s little wonder then, that we as humans have always looked outside ourselves for inspiration. And no matter the time or place, inspiration almost always leads back to a higher power. The Greeks had their nine Muses. The Hebrews considered poetry and prophecy of divine origin, as did the Norse.  And and from the first Pentecost, Christians have been inspired by the Holy Spirit.

But what about the Celts? The most commonly invoked goddess of inspiration was Brigid. Worshiped on the Celtic holy festival of Imbolc, Brigid is the patroness of poetry, inspiration, fire, metalworkers and childbirth. She’s most commonly associated with Ireland in modern thought (thanks in large part to St. Brigid, her Christian counterpart) but she was worshiped throughout most of the Celtic world, including the areas we know as England, France and Spain. Other Celtic goddesses associated with inspiration include Druantia, a Gaulic goddess who is sometimes called “Queen of Druids” and is associated with fir and oak trees; Cerridwen, the Celtic goddess of death and the Underworld who tends the cauldron of knowledge; Canola, the Irish goddess of music and dance; and Cebhfhionn, who guards the well of knowledge and intelligence.

Celtic mythology gives us the Salmon of Wisdom/Knowledge, who according to legend, started life as an ordinary salmon. Then he ate nine hazelnuts that fell into the Fountain of Wisdom from the nine hazelnut trees that surrounded it. After eating the hazelnuts, the salmon gained all the knowledge in the world. In turn, the first person to eat his flesh would in turn gain all of his knowledge. The legendary warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill was said to have gotten his wisdom this way, as was the poet Taliesin, who is sometimes associated with Merlin in Arthurian legend. (I personally always feel smarter after eating salmon, but that might be the Omega-3s.)

The Druids were said to gain their inspiration through dreams and various forms of divination. Several sources tell of the Druid practice of secluding themselves in a cave or other very dark place to facilitate inspiration. I’ll be honest and admit I’ve tried this one myself, but to a lesser degree. It’s very hard to get a modern room dark, with all of our gadgets and streetlights, but if you use enough black duct tape, you can get close. I’ve found that the darkness and lack of distraction does make it easier to collect my thoughts, but for overall useful plot ideas, I have better luck with meditation.

In Greek thought, inspiration was an otherworldly, ecstatic state (furor poeticus, the divine frenzy or poetic madness), in which a poet or artist would be transported beyond his own mind and given the gods’ or goddesses own thoughts to embody. The Celts had the similar concept of Awen, although that word comes from eighth century Wales, which is well beyond the timeframe of the Celts in my books. Call it what you will, I believe every artist has experienced it at one time or another, that feeling of not being in control of what they’re creating. For me, its like the words flow out of my fingertips as though I’m taking dictation. Or sometimes scenes just come to me, especially if I’m doing something with my body I don’t really have to think about, like cleaning my house or driving a familiar route.

I don’t think we’ll ever understand the true nature of inspiration, where it comes from or why it is. But that’s really the point. Inspiration is all about awe and wonder, and the drive to create something out of nothing. If we lose that, life loses its mystery and the creative act, its purpose. For we understand the world through that which we and others create.

Whatever your source, I pray your muse will bide with you and breathe upon you so that you may experience many moments of furor poeticus.

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