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What we Know About the Mysterious Female Shamans of Ancient Ireland

Steve Palace
Druid priestess

Much of the research and content for this piece was done by David Halpin for Ancient Origins.

Was Ancient Ireland under the influence of female Shamans? The answer to that question is complex and pretty fascinating. Not much is known about the presence of Shamans in Ireland, though the mythology of the Emerald Isle reveals various and deep connections to things beyond the mortal realm. How female Shamans came to be obscure – at least in relation to assorted male figures – says more about the human world than any higher plane of existence.

The word ‘Shaman’ itself is believed to come from the Siberian Tungusic language. Shamanic traditions go back thousands of years, with no-one knowing for sure how far they stretch. Shaman is the word “used to identify the medicine man or woman who was a blend of healer/ priest(ess)/caretaker of the earth/wisdomkeeper/counsellor”, according to Slí An Chroí – “Pathway of the Heart” in Irish Gaelic. This group preserves and practices Celtic Shamanism.

female shaman

Female Buryat Shaman. Photo Courtesy © Alexander Khimushin / The World In Faces

Put in layman’s terms, a Shaman will essentially travel without moving, altering their state of consciousness to gain knowledge from the spirit world. Slí An Chroí’s website states today’s Shaman is “regarded as a person of power, one who ‘journeys’ back and forth successfully through territories of consciousness” in order to “bring harmony to the living energy systems of the individual human, their community, animals, plants and the greater world.”

female shaman

Hupa female shaman, c.1923, Edward Curtis

Evidence of Shamans and their practices have been found across the world – not least in the form of ancient megaliths of stone, such as the portal tomb Poulnabrone dolmen. And in some cases there’s a clear emphasis on women as being perfect for the role. “Evidence from archaeology in the Czech Republic indicated that the earliest Upper Palaeolithic shamans were in fact women,” writes author Eric W. Edwards, referencing the research of Prof. Barbara Tedlock in 2005.

shaman

A Kwakiutl shaman performs a religious ritual. 1914

David Halpin for Ancient Origins notes that megalithic sites in general have long-established connections to ideas of sisterhood. The Nabta Playa in the Nubian Desert for example played host to the priestesses of Hathor, an Ancient Egyptian goddess who represented fertility and love, as well as the sky. Men were certainly allowed to practice, but numerous duties were specifically assigned to women.

It isn’t a great leap to imagine that beliefs, rituals and Shamanic abilities followed a similar path in Ireland. There isn’t any concrete – or, to be more precise, stone – guarantee as to how things worked, but some educated guesses can be made based on what we do have. The presence of megalithic sites alone is one indicator of such activity.

Dromberg

Drombeg is one of the most visited megalithic sites in Ireland.

Most famous Irish megalithic sites are dated to at least 3500 BC, says Halpin at Ancient Origins. As with many other similar structures, Irish monuments serve also as an astronomical tool and are aligned to the sun, moon, and stars. There have also been found alignments to Sirius, Venus, and the Pleiades, which are some of the first stars humans ever recorded. All of these have associations with spirit beings named in folklore and mythology as gods, goddesses, and teachers of humans.

Newgrange Ireland

Newgrange, Ireland. An ancient ceremonial site and astronomical instrument older than the Pyramids of Egypt. Photo by Shira CC BY-SA 3.0

A look at Irish mythology reveals famous ‘characters’ who have obvious Shamanic ties. Amongst these is Badb, or “crow”, a Goddess of war. The website Deity of the Week describes her as “the mother aspect of the triple goddess” who “symbolizes life (the ever-producing cauldron of life), wisdom, inspiration, blessings and enlightenment.” Known for transforming herself into a crow, or raven, Badb could be seen at times “in the form of a miniature woman with tiny, webbed feet, screeching of doom.” Her talent for seeing the future is attributed to Shamanism.

Megaliths

Megaliths at Newgrange, Ireland.

According to Halpin at Ancient Origins, ancient Irish texts mention the mysterious Druí, fáithi, fili, and fénnidi, all of whom were said to be able to have access to and communicate with spirits and, through some kind of trance, enter the “Otherworld”. Also mentioned is a specific type of “journeying trance” called Imbas forosnai, which is described as a method of prophecy and shamanic ability practiced by certain ancient Irish “poets”.

Stonehenge

Rare and beautifully executed Engraved illustration of Druids Worshiping at Stonehenge, England in Ancient Times Engraving from The Popular Pictorial Bible,

According to Irish tradition this may refer to two things: ‘normal’ poetry, which can be memorized and recited, or the mystical ‘received’ poetry, which was believed to be a power or gift from the Gods and Goddesses dwelling in the Otherworld.

But to what extent did these wise female shamans of old Ireland hold the balance of power? Is there sufficient evidence to show that an Irish matriarchal culture ruled the roost? And if that’s the case, why is it so difficult to get to the truth…?

When Christians arrived on the Isle by the early 5th century, they had the devout intention of shaping Ireland’s history in their image, meaning anything pagan was liable to go out the historical window. Monks are believed to have clamped down on a female-focused narrative. Sculptures known as ‘Sheela na gigs’, carvings showing women without clothes, are noticeable at some church locations in Ireland. These could demonstrate not only the presence of strong women, but also the monks’ desire to make an example of them by ‘containing’ them at Christian sites.

Related Article: Ancient Celtic Woman in Fancy Clothes Buried in a Hollow Tree Trunk

Though the image of female Shamans in ancient Ireland has partly disappeared into the mists of centuries, their traditions live on today. It may be an epic challenge to discover exactly what Ancient Ireland was like, but the harnessing of spiritual energy and accessing other planes of reality is a powerful legacy for these women to leave.