Awen, imbas and trance-horses

It’s incredible to witness a full trance-possession, with the “horse” — as the human component is generally called — gyrating and dancing wildly, his or her conscious self stabled elsewhere as the deity or spirit takes over. It’s incredible, but it’s frightening, too: the lack of control, the white-garbed horse crashing to the ground or caught like a rag-doll in the arms of the watcher, helpers plying him or her with water, rum or a dash of Florida water.

There are many commonalities in trance-possession faiths. Neo-Pagan and traditional Pagan (as in Vodoun, Santeria or native faiths) trance-manifestations bear many similarities to the gyrations done in Pentacostal and other evangelical churches, in which the congregants are inspired, ridden or otherwise possessed by the Holy Spirit. The deities and beliefs may be far different, but the core experience — ekstasis, standing outside one’s self — seems to be the same.

As a Druid priestess, I have been “overshadowed” by deities many times. By that term, I mean sensing their presence in vision — whether internal or external — and, especially, in feeling. You open yourself up to them, and let their grace and power fill you. But rather than true ekstasis, it’s a form of inspiration, a term that literally means “to breathe into or upon.” In Welsh, the term is awen, which also comes from a root word meaning “blow” and is connected to the word for breeze.

Druids often use awen as a meditative sound, akin to the Hindu Om. The sound of the word lends itself to that use, and it can be very effective. Awen is also the name of the three-lined symbol seen in the sigils of many modern Druidic orders, and was allegedly created by the infamous Bard, mystic and forger (yes, forger) Iolo Morganwg. I forgive the forgery; in the time period in which he dwelt (the mid-18th to early 19th centuries), one couldn’t just become the priest of a new religion based on pieced-together lore and re-imaginings of the old. Neo-Paganism wasn’t a possibility yet. While Iolo’s work never particularly appealed to me, I do believe that it was inspired — and I choose that word deliberately — in a manner common to practicing Pagans today.

Irish-based Druidic traditions often use the word “imbas” instead of awen, although the three-lined symbol is still referred to by the latter name. Imbas, however, is different in quality from awen and inspiration; it means, instead, “great knowledge.” While it was often used in literature in connection with knowledge gained through mystical means, the focus is not on the process itself, on the breathing-in, but on the information acquired. Such mystical overshadowing is not breathed-in from the grace of the Gods, but presumably learned through the long-term mastery of a process. In a way, it seems suitable for Druids, whose education spanned far more than a decade.

Of course, even in the lore, prophecy and the like were given through what seems to be an inspirational process, whether it’s Cathbad giving the fates of Deirdre and Cu Chulainn, or Fedelm telling Maeve that “I see crimson, I see red” when asked to give the outcome of the famous cattle raid. Great knowledge appears to arrive through the setting-aside of one’s self and one’s usual means of perception, whether that involves chewing on raw meat or your thumb, or walking to the threshold to gaze out.

With the possible exception of Cu Chulainn’s battle-fury, however, I don’t see as much god-inspired ekstasis in Celtic Paganism as in the Afro-Caribbean faiths. Our gods seem rather reluctant to use worshipers as full-on horses — defined as being totally taken over, and having little memory of the experience afterward. It just doesn’t seem to be the way they do things. They can overshadow, yes, and even speak-through, but they don’t tend to ride worshipers fully.

Interestingly, in Welsh myth, it’s the goddess Rhiannon who is ridden. The Irish horse and sovereignty goddess Macha takes on human form and races with horses herself, but she rides no one — although she does give the men nasty labor pains in times of crisis by way of a curse. The Gaulish Epona is the goddess of horses, and is depicted as riding one — although not human worshipers. Even the Morrigan, who takes various shapes and presumably inspires battle-fury, doesn’t seem to physically ride people, although she may corral them toward their inevitable fates.

While there are accounts of seers that are possessed by Gods in some European cultures — the Delphic oracle springs to mind — I don’t have any good indications whether this was the case for the Celts. “Great knowledge” doesn’t give a hint as to the ultimate source. In Norse traditions, modern volvas are resurrecting oracular and trance-possession practices, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in most Druidic traditions I’m aware of. It just doesn’t seem to fit the nature of our gods, and how they choose to manifest.

What are your thoughts?

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About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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