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Celtic Seer - Book Review

 

Review of The Seer in Celtic and Other Traditions edited by Hilda Ellis Davidson (Edinburgh, John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1989), x + 146 pp.; £20.

 

Reviewed by Alastair McIntosh, Development Director at the Centre for Human Ecology, Edinburgh University, and Business Adviser to the lona Community.

 

Published in The Christian Parapsychologist 8:8, Dec 1990, pp. 298-300.

 

Comprising the proceedings of a 1987 symposium at Oxford of the Folklore Society, this valuable collection of papers focuses firstly on the Celtic traditions of Scotland and Wales with contributions from such authorities as John MacInnes of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies and Hilda Ellis Davidson (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe). Part Two moves into a wider context with papers including Carmen Blacker examining the seer’s role in treating abortion neurosis and pathology in Japan, J.R. Porter on the seers of biblical times, and a fascinating insight into the Punjabi com­munity in Britain from Venetia Newall.

 

Whereas the shaman has been described as “the technician of the sacred” and has a spiritual focus which may subsume that of the seer, it emerges strikingly from these papers that the seer’s role is by and large an adjunct to the spiritual or religious. The seer makes prognostications on matters generally mundane rather than ethereal and may also manipulate psycho­dynamic processes, usually as understood in terms of a parallel spirit world.

 

This, I would interpolate, places the seer in the position of filling the niche between shaman and priest. The shaman, “. . . that wild old wicked man who travels where God wills” (Yeats), relates to and interprets reality naked spirituality at the pre-politicised experiential level, whereas the priest occupies a post hoc political role in which the mystical and psychic have been re-ligioised (Latin: “bound back; tied down”). Psychic prowess, which is often a part of the shamanistic approach, rarely has an accepted role in religion, the works of Christ et al.  notwithstanding. John MacQueen (School of Scottish Studies) illustrates this in his paper contrasting the Venerable Bede’s sanitised “creation” of the image of St Columba “as primarily a missionary saint”, with that of Columba’s hagiographer and eighth successor on lona, Adamnan, who treats Columba “primarily as a seer, whose abilities reached across time and space, and were capable of perceiving spiritual as well as physical entities”. Combine these two perspectives and one arrives at a classic composite of the shaman.

 

The psychic, of course, is not controllable and can genuinely be a dis­traction from the spiritual path (which is even less controllable, once it transcends religious bounds). Accordingly, in highly re-ligiolsed societies the seer’s gifts, falling outwith the domain of clerical control, are in demand from the people and only tolerated by the religious authorities provided they do not threaten their teachings. Where the seer’s role becomes struc­tured and loses the spontaneity of those meta-sensory gifts (more often thrust upon a person than acquired), the process becomes corrupted. As Michael Loewe says of the way in which Chinese prophecy became increas­ingly taxonomified into rigid systems of divination, “These men were appointed to serve their emperor by ensuring that careful attention was paid to detail and to the requisite procedures.. . . These developments are a far cry from the response of the gifted seer who knew instinctively the meaning that lay behind the cracks on the turtle’s shell, or the cast of the yarrow stalks.”

 

But what of the “gifted seer”? Is there veridical paranormal content in their prognostications or is it all charlatanism? The sincerity and authentic feel to the contribution from Eilidh Watt (who works for the Isle of Skye CAB) provides yet another stunning example of alleged veridical anecdotes which for many of us, I believe, provides the motivating foundation of our interest in systematic parapsychological investigation.

 

Yet prudence forces us to accept that out of five billion people in the world there will inevitably be some who are expert at the sincerely-clad con, so the bottom line on which paranormal belief systems rest, often shake down to a close or a personal experience. For me, this comes above all from having a mother (of English/Welsh origin) who has from time to time demonstrated the seer’s insights. Let me illustrate with an example one typical of Eilidh Watt’s accounts; typical too of stories I picked up in Papua New Guinea and of shamans and seers worldwide.

 

When I was about nineteen my father was ill in Raigmore Hospital at Inverness and my mother set off in her car to Stomoway airport (Isle of Lewis) to go and visit him. About ten minutes after she had left, my father’s beloved whippet, Sheba, whom he had rescued from ill treatment and who related closely only to him, crossed the road and was killed outright by a car. As I lifted Sheba’s body and carried her out to the moor for immediate burial, I agitatedly wished the accident had happened just a little earlier so that my mother could have broken the news personally in a manner more gentle than would be the case by me having to telephone. Then, to my astonishment, as I dug the peat grave, I saw her car coming back down the hill to our house. She got out, her face pulled into a haunted distraught expression. As I ran over, and before I could say anything, she demanded to know what was the matter; what had compelled her to turn back just on the outskirts of Stornoway. She was actually relieved that it was nothing worse than a dog’s death. [She thought it might have been a child]. Never before, notwithstanding almost daily trips to Stornoway since I was four years old, had she come back like this without reason.

 

That after­noon she went to my father’s bedside and said, “I’ve got some bad news for you, Ian”. He replied acceptingly that he knew what it was. The previous night he’d been awoken by an incredibly vivid “dream” in which Sheba had jumped up on his bed and incessantly pawed him.

 

I write this, even some fifteen years on, with tears in my eyes. You, reader, must consider that the likes of Eilidh Watt and I might be conning you, just as many of us were conned at least for the first couple of books into taking Castenada factually. But if I am, I run the risk of exposure through the story being checked within my family, thus damaging my Quaker reputation of presumed integrity and also perhaps tarnishing the respected organisations I am listed above as holding responsibility within. Personally, after years of academic parapsychological research and study, it is the anecdotes more than the laboratory studies which convince me that paranormal occurrences do take place: that the seer’s gifts can be real. Nonetheless, I would leave open face-value causal interpretation of such matters as out-of-the-body experiences, spirit possession, and culturally specific, pre-psychodynamic explanations such as that of the ghosts of aborted foetuses making their Japanese mothers sick.

 

The Seer is a helpful book. Its price for a Scottish Arts Council subsidised text seems outrageous. I phoned up Donald Morrison, the publisher’s MD, and asked how he justified thirteen pence a page. He said they see it as an academic book and have published only about 800 copies. They do not envisage paperback. Knowing the enormous demand for uncritical approaches to Celtic psychic and spiritual material which we have to keep somewhat at arms length at the Iona Abbey shop, it is regrettable that this quality of material will not be accessible to a wider market.

 

 

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