The Celts believed that words had the power to evoke the sacred and that even the simplest and most commonplace of human actions should be invested with ritual and prayer.
During the nineteenth century Alexander Carmichael collected many of these traditional oral Celtic prayers in his Carmina Gadelica. The compendium is full of invocations for such seemingly mundane activities as greeting the rising sun, covering the fire at night, and getting ready for sleep. This prayer, for example, called upon angels and saints to help with the tending of cattle:
Come, Brendan, from the ocean,
Come, Ternan, most potent of men,
Come, Michael valiant, down
And propitiate to me the cow of my joy.
Ho my heifer, ho heifer of my love,
Ho my heifer, ho heifer of my love.
My beloved heifer, choice cow of every shieling,
For the sake of the High King take to thy calf.
This emphasis on blessings and benedictions was part of the earlier, pre-Christian Celtic world as well. Ian Bradley writes in Colonies of Heaven that “The Celts had a very strong sense of the almost physical power of the spoken word both to heal and to harm. The Irish file (poet) was thought to have two compartments in his tongue, one for honey and the other for poison. This was one of the main reasons why the Celts were so reluctant to write things down and maintained an almost exclusively oral tradition … With the coming of Christianity, this belief in the force of the spoken word and its ability to work an almost tangible effect for good or ill was not extinguished but simply integrated into the new belief system.”
And so a blessing was not a mere pleasantry. Its words had the power to create good in the world and to serve as a conduit for divine grace. Many of these prayers also served as a way to cast a circle of protection against evil.
All of this gives me a different perspective on all those needle-pointed Irish blessings, the ones about the road rising up to meet you and the wind being at your back.
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Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.