by Sharon Blackie: Every culture has its dominant mythology: a story which explains how the world is, and which provides guidance for living…
For a good number of centuries now, Western civilisation has been living according to a myth founded on a belief in humanity’s dominion over nature, along with the relentless pursuit of unending growth.
In a culture founded on such beliefs, it follows that the natural world is no more than a backdrop for human activities, to be exploited. And so wild places have become ‘resources’, and if they cannot be used for human benefit they are not valued. Nature is seen to have little agency of its own; it is empty of purpose or meaning. We have become separate from the world around us; we’ve abandoned our roots in nature and the land.
In Western societies we are seeing more calls for a return to native wisdom – and those of us who have roots in the Celtic nations of western Europe have our own guiding stories, and they are deeply rooted in the heart of our own native landscapes. Rising high up on the heather-covered moorlands of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany, seeping through our bogs, flowing down our streams and into our rivers and out onto the sandy strands of the rock-strewn Atlantic seaboard, are the old stories – stories steeped in sea brine, black and crusty with peat; stories that lie buried beneath our feet, which spring directly out of our own distinctive native landscapes, and which informed the lives of our own ancestors.
Once upon a time, the people of our Celtic nations knew what the indigenous people of other lands knew: that our fate is inseparable from the fate of the land we live on, and the fate of wider Earth. For women particularly, to have a Celtic identity is to inherit a history, literature and mythology in which we are portrayed as playing a unique and critical role in the wellbeing of the Earth and survival of its inhabitants. The Celtic woman who appears in these old tales is the guardian of the land and its animals, the bearer of wisdom, the root of spiritual and moral authority for the tribe.
Irish and Scottish creation stories tell us, for example, that the land was shaped by an old woman: the Cailleach, a fierce protector of animals and wild places. ‘Sovereignty’, a quality of the goddess of the land, was the spirit of the Earth itself, the anima mundi, a deeply ecological force. Her power was paramount, and if the power Sovereignty bestowed was abused, then disaster followed. During the reign of a king favoured by the goddess, the land was fertile and prosperous, and the tribe victorious in war. While there was mutual respect – between the goddess and the king, between the land and the people, nature and culture, feminine and masculine – then all was in harmony and life was filled with abundance. But when the contract was broken, the fertile land became the Wasteland.
Once, these stories show us, we were native to our places; once, we belonged. There are even words for it. In Irish, dúchas; in Scottish Gaelic, dùthchas; in Welsh, cynefin. These words express a sense of belonging to place, to a certain area of land; they express a sense of rootedness, by ancient lineage and ancestry, in the community which has responsibility for that place. This is the way our ancestors lived – but now, that sense of deep rooting in the Earth that those of us in these Western lands once had is all but dead.
I want to make it live again, and the stories can show us the way. The old stories, the ones in which the Earth is sacred. The day of the Heroic quest is over, with its all-conquering, dragon-slaying Hero saving the world one sword-stroke at a time. The Journey we need now is not a journey of active, world-beating individualism, it is a journey of collective re-enchantment. It doesn’t take place in our heads: it takes us out of our heads and weaves us back into the shimmering web of life. The Heroine’s Journey for these times is above all, an Eco-Heroine’s Journey: a journey back to the ground of our own belonging in the world, and the regrowth of the roots that nourish it. It’s a revolution of belonging: it’s time to become native to our places again.
Join award-winning writer, psychologist and mythologist Sharon Blackie in the course Place, Identity and Belonging, as she reminds us that the landscapes we live in shape who we are. When we map the places and surroundings we’ve lived in we can see our formative influences more clearly. As you enter into conversation with your place and its spirits, you can develop a sense of belonging to the land you live in. Learn more here.
To learn more about the intertwining of psyche and nature, listen to Robert Romanyshyn’s soulful lecture Inner Journeys in the Outer World or explore an alternative model of consciousness, one embracing a nature-based-symbolic attitude that reconnects us with our roots in nature, conjoining mind, soul, and cosmos, with Melanie Starr Costello in the course Bridges To Wholeness.