The Salmon, the Hazel, the Bear

At the source of the Boyne River, where the goddess *Bou-vinda, later known as Boinn, dwelt, was a pool surrounded by nine hazel trees. The nuts of these trees contained imbas, the illuminating knowledge, and they would fall into the pool. They imbued the river water with wisdom, and it was said that those who drank of it in June would drink of imbas. Daithi O hOgain, in The Sacred Isle, suggests that this is in memory of a ritual held at that time when the water had also absorbed the heat of the summer sun (the fire in water motif). Bou-vinda, the White Cow, can be seen to be a variation on Danu as primal river goddess, and this can also be compared to Vedic traditions where the seers partook of the divine milk of a cow goddess, (as a form of liquid soma). So wisdom could be seen as emanating from whatever river a local culture saw as primary. It harks back to Indo-European sources, as among the Greeks Okeanos was conceived as a river and as generative of life (Onians). This can also be related to the tale of Cerridwen and Taliesin from Welsh lore where the boy Gwion Bach tends a cauldron brewing a liquid of inspiration (although nuts are not listed among the ingredients); licking the drops that bespatter him, he achieves the Welsh version of imbas—awen—and so illuminated becomes Taliesin, Radiant Brow.


Another embodiment of poetic wisdom is the salmon, although this is related to the nuts, as the salmon were said to feed upon the hazelnuts and so to absorb their wisdom into their flesh. Each nut eaten added a spot on the fish. Filid/draoi would wait for long periods of times, maybe a lifetime to catch the salmon of wisdom.


Imbas is found in liminal zones; the poet seeking imbas is poised between water and land, on the riverbank, where s/he waits for the salmon to swim from the otherworld. In a story of Finn (Nagy, 155) Finn apprentices with a master fili, Finn the Poet (surely his later self). As a gilla (an apprentice) his name is Demne. His master, after seven years of waiting for the salmon catches it but entrusts its cooking to the young apprentice. He tells him not to eat of it, but as Demne brings the cooked salmon to the master, he burns his thumb on it and puts his thumb in his mouth. The imbas flows into him and the master recognizes him and names the young man Finn. According to Nagy, being assigned the task of cooking the wisdom fish is possibly “the most important, symbolically charged function in the transmission of knowledge from beyond human society to the poet on the riverbank, who is to consume and utilize it on society’s behalf” (157). Raw, wild knowledge becomes cooked and accessible for other members of the community. Intriguingly, Finn becomes a bit cooked himself in the process (burning his thumb). Again the parallels with Gwion Bach in Welsh tradition are remarkable.


I find the salmon of wisdom to be an evocative symbol of ecological wisdom for our times, as this fish through its entire life cycle ties together (a religious act) forest, including those of inland mountain ranges, with the deep ocean and everything in between. As the mature salmon swim on their epic journey back to spawn in the headwaters where they were born, some die and feed a multitude of animals including the bear, and then in a further cycle through the ursine excrement, fertilize the trees, including the redwoods far from the water on the ridge tops. The ocean nutrients are deposited in the forest; this incredible interlinking reveals how this fish can represent wisdom to us in another mode today. Of course, many salmon varieties are extinct or endangered, a strong comment on industrial society’s lack of wisdom.



Coho salmon



Patience is required in seeking imbas, the great knowledge. Observe the salmon!




Nagy, Joseph Falaky. The Wisdom of the Outlaw: the Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition.

O hOgain, Daithi. The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland.

Onians, R. R. The Origins of European Thought About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate.

Pagan Samsara

Where does dedication to a sacred path fit in within a mainstream culture, which is obsessed with the new, the instantaneous, this month’s celebrity, this week’s fad? One of the problems of the mainstreaming of paganism is that pagan values are often incongruous with the values of a culture oriented always to profit, to consumption, to accumulating more commodities (and those with built-in obsolescence). Regarding this, I find it interesting to look at the concept of samsara from the dharmic religions.  Samsara is illusion, distractedness, literally aimless wandering. So does this concept have value for us?

Sogyal Rimpoche, a Buddhist teacher who was born and raised in Tibet and later moved to the West, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, made some prescient observations about contemporary Western society. Of samsara, he writes, “Modern society seems to me to be a celebration of all the things that lead away from the truth, make truth hard to live for and discourage people from even believing it exists…This modern samsara feeds off anxiety and depression that it fosters and trains us all in, and carefully nurtures with a consumer machine that needs to keep us greedy to keep going. Samsara is highly organized, versatile, and sophisticated; it assaults us from every angle with its propaganda, and creates an almost impregnable environment of addiction around us.”

For all of the positive things high technology has made possible (like writing blogs!) I feel this net of an almost infinite web of distraction and disconnection has gotten so much worse in the ensuing two decades since the Rimpoche wrote that, due to American’s technophilia. Outside people are walking around with their faces in their smart phones, if I get on the bus the same thing. Not even a pretense of community anymore. Kids know all about the twittered doings of the star of the moment, but almost nothing about their country, let alone the world. A new war? Sorry, got some texts coming in, gotta update Facebook.

Dver at Forest Door  (//, one of my favorite pagan blogs, has written a number of insightful posts about this shallowness and the contradictions of values surprisingly common among pagans who give: lip service to the Earth and nature, but have no consciousness of dietary choices, and drive long distances in SUVs, greedily consuming scarce fuels without a thought of consequences, and so on. There’s also the instant gratification that is so prevalent; the inability to stay on one path long, or at least the bailing when hard work appears. There’s always a trendy new flavor, a fashionable new color. But the truth is that doing serious spirit work requires diligence, tenacity and discipline; one must drink deep from the well.

Buddhism tends toward a more pessimistic view than do most pagan traditions, but I think there is much value in considering how this aimless wandering around with blinders on, this being lost in a society of nearly endless distractions, and addiction to instant gratifications is an enemy of any spiritual path. If we venture far down these paths, we can’t but help to find our values often at odds with the mainstream. The faces staring from the magazines at the supermarket checkout counter start to look foreign (apparently they are very important people and I am supposed to know about their marriages and cheatings, and so on), icons of a strange culture; but outside beyond the parking lot the moon lights up the fur of the skunk running along the shrubbery, and then my attention is riveted on a raccoon hanging out by the bus stop. And beyond, the sea glows, a silver highway to mystery.

The FoDLA Conclave

I’ve been on hiatus here for a while due to dealing with some major family health issues. Anyway, I’m back.  

On July 22 through 24 I attended the FoDLA Druids’ Conclave at a park  in Southern California called Sage Ranch. We arrived late at night; the view from the road leading up to the park looked eerie, especially when we passed the gate to the former Rocketdyne Aviation (originally a division of North American Aviation, the developer of many famous fighter planes)  testing facility, officially known as the Santa Susanna Field Laboratory and currently owned by Boeing and NASA,, with its concentration camp-like lights. This was the site of a 1959 US government cover-up of a nuclear core meltdown, one still amazingly little known. This facility tested liquid rocket fuels for the Space Program as well as doing nuclear development. The site is also associated with UFO sightings and contains a cave of Native petroglyphs. I have long noticed the military often (or in this case military contractors) will have installations near sacred sites. Certainly, something that leads to much speculation… The fact that my mother once worked for North American added another dimension of resonance to this weird (emphasis on the deeper levels of the word) place.

The Druidess, Alexandre Cabanel (1823-90)

Further up the mountain is a wonderful terrain of striking rock formations on chaparral-covered hillsides; the campsite itself is set within a beautiful grove of oak and elderberry. The conclave was held within the deep shade of the wide-canopied oak trees; it was an enriching experience to sit there and have focused discussions on gods and goddesses, ancestors, the numinous, and the spirits of nature facilitated by Chief Druid Todd Covert. The Saturday night ritual included strong storytelling by Druid Michael McGuinness.  FoDLA also carried out an initiation rite for installing its newest clergy, Druid Jim Wood of the Hudson Valley region of New York.