Posted by: Brian | December 20, 2017

Dàir na Coille: New Souls Coming In The Darkness

Dàir na Coille: New Souls Coming In The Darkness
By Brian Walsh (orriginally published in “The Hearth” emagazine, 2005)

We are deep in the season of darkness now.  Samhain, the festival of death, is long behind us, and Imbolc, the festival of birth still feels a long way off.  The life of most trees dwells hidden among their roots, but the holly flaunts its red berries amidst a mantle of thorny green, showing us both the harshness of the season and the power of life enduring.  The wren, little king of the birds, sings defiantly from bare branches.  And mistletoe, with its lightning-white berries, still grows green high above the frozen ground.

The days of mid-winter are the shortest of the whole year, which is why in parts of Ireland this time was once called Dubluachair, ‘Black Brightness’, a word still found in the idiom i ndúluachair an gheimhridh, which can be paraphrased as ‘in the dead of winter’.

In some traditions, this season is heralded as the rebirth of the Sun god, but in Celtic traditions the winter usually belongs to goddesses like the Cailleach, the ‘Crone’, and Griannán, the ‘Winter Sun’, and their reigns are far from over in December.  Though the birth of a child of promise, often as Lugh (lightning/inspiration/success), born of Ethniu (kernel/north star), may be celebrated, rather than the birth of new light; as seen in some Mediterranean religions at this time, it could just as well be seen as a birth in darkness, a distinction made evident in mythology by the hidden nature of Lugh’s birth.

Winter is a time of darkness, of incubation which prepares for the emergence and arrival of new life in the spring and through the rest of the year.  In parts of Gaelic Scotland this incubation is celebrated as Dair na Coille, (pronounced dayr na col-ya) the ‘imbuement of the woods’ or the ‘impregnation of the woods’, and according to folk custom, is believed to take place on the last night of December in preparation for the New Year.

Dair na Coille celebrates the arrival of blessings, life-forces, and spirits, brought on the West Wind and nestled in the trees until each new blessing and new life, and new spirit emerges in due course in the months ahead.  On New Year’s Day, the head of the household would go out and get a small twig from a fruit-bearing tree and bring it into the house saying “Fas is gnaths is toradh”, meaning ‘Growth, tradition, and abundance’, so that his family could share in the blessing of the new emerging life.  As far as I know, this is all that remains of this custom. We are not told where the blessings and spirits come from exactly, or who sends them, however, we can interpret the symbolism that is still present in this simple custom.

The new spirits are brought in on the West Wind, which, apart from being wonderfully animistic, says something important.  The wind is a vehicle for vitality; we affirm this fact with every breath we take, but the West, the direction of sunset, death, and the ancestors, is a direction of endings.  So these newly arriving spirits come from the place unto which departing spirits go.  The spirits are not just coming, the spirits are returning!  Renewed!

Michael Newton suggests in his handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World that the individual trees imbued in Dair na Coille are a source of life, much as the Tree of Life is the ultimate source of life.  While he does not elaborate, it is as though each tree is an allomorph of the World tree, and the spirits are like the bird/souls of many shamanic cultures nestled in the world tree waiting to be born.  While the custom does not mention birds explicitly, bird/souls are mentioned repeatedly in Celtic mythology, both pagan and Christian.

Many deities travel in the form of birds, or have birds associated with them, omens and auguries are taken from the flight of birds, and the soul’s ecstatic flight is compared to the flight of birds (as implied by the feathered headdress of Mug Roth and the tugen or feathered cloak said to have been worn by the druids).  In addition to the many mortal and supernatural beings who take on bird forms in the mythic literature, we have, in the Altus Prosator, the Vision of Adomnán, and the writings of Augustinus Hibernicus, early Christian examples of human souls, before or after their lives here among us, depicted as birds in the Tree of Life.

Returning to the custom itself, there is a great deal of significance in the householder’s ritual gathering of a small twig, which is brought in with the saying “Fas is gnaths is toradh”, ‘Growth, tradition, and abundance’.  This speaks clearly of continuance and a good life.  Interestingly, toradh means not only abundance; it is also the vital essence of persons, animals, plants, food and drink.

That the spirits return on December 31st and the household brings their blessings into the house on New Years day is also important.  While January 1st was not significant until well into the Christian period, it does bear a variety of customs, such as Hogmanay, associated with auspicious new beginnings for the year ahead.  That the Dair na Coille blessings of growth, tradition, and abundance come out of the west with the returning spirits connects them with the ancestors – it acknowledges that these coming blessings are intimately tied with what has gone before.

Beyond the implicit cyclical, and possibly reincarnational, motif, Dair na Coille heralds the blessing of one’s ancestors upon the living family.  These blessings, coming from the west, link this midwinter custom to ancestor veneration; something we know to have played a significant role in Celtic religion and Pan-Indo-European religions (both with and without reincarnation beliefs).  This might be why there are no deities or other spirits named in association with Dair na Coille.  While there are many gods and powers associated with the many aspects of our world, one’s ancestors are perhaps the only powers whose vested interests never run counter to the wellbeing of one’s household.

Samhain is the feast of the ancestors, but the role of ancestor veneration in Celtic religion is not restricted to a single feast, especially with regard to matters concerning the wellbeing of the household and the family.  The symbolism of Dair na Coille is rich and beautiful, yet quiet and understated.  This simple and barely ritualized belief has a great depth of meaning and points to a momentous event in the cycle of the seasons.

As January 1st is not meaningful in my tradition of Celtic paganism, I celebrate Dair na Coille either at the cross-quarter holiday of Midwinter (Yule) or on the first visible crescent after Midwinter – the first time in the Celtic year when the sun and moon are both increasing – and moving it a few days to  New Year, in either direction, does not impact its symbolism as an imbuement in the middle of the darkest season.

Regardless of which day one celebrates Dair na Coille, New Year’s Day, Winter Solstice, the first visible crescent after Midwinter, or some other relevant and significant day, the simple acknowledgment of the souls returning and preparing for spring and the new life it will bring, should happen in darkness, in counter point to the boisterous defiance of winter, which is celebrated by decorating with mistletoe, holly and other evergreens, or listening for the brave wren, who unlike other birds that sing for a mate in spring, sings with joyous strength against the dark, all winter long.

Though there are solar themes associated with mid-winter, the three themes discussed in this article – Dair na Coille as an imbuement in darkness; defiance of winter as shown by the holly and the wren; and the birth of the hidden child of promise – are not solar themes.  They happen when the sun is at her weakest, and they happen independently of any of the goddesses who personify the sun in Celtic mythologies.  There is a lot going on in the dead of winter, and I invite you to celebrate both the overt and the subtle parts of the season, and incubate that knowledge so that you may warm and be warmed by it until all re-emerges with the light born of springtime.

Selected Bibliography

Carey, J. King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings, Four Courts, Dublin, 2000

Danaher, K. The Year in Ireland, Mercier, Minneapolis, 1972

Meek, D. The Campbell Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings, Gaelic Society of Inverness, Inverness, 1978

Newton, M. The Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, Four Courts, Dublin, 2000

Rees, A&B, Celtic Heritage, Thames and Hudson, London, 1961

Ross, A. Pagan Celtic Britain, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, 1996 (reprint of 1967)

Walsh, B The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex, Xlibris, 2002

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