30 years ago I wrote the first edition of The Celtic Book of the Dead with Eddison Books, now in January 2023, a new edition is released: apart from the translation of the Voyage of Maelduin text, it has been completely rewritten. The beautiful art work by Danuta Mayer is the same. This is a look at the new edition for those who were not old enough to buy a copy the first time round!
The Celtic Book of the Dead is based upon the 8th century Irish text of the Voyage of Maelduin: this young man has been brought up as a foster-son of a king. One day, while playing a ball game, one of the players taunts him for his lack of parentage. It is then that he learns that he is really the son of the warrior Ailill and a nun, so he sets out to discover his father. From the nun, his mother, he learns that his father is dead, killed by island raiders. So Maelduin determines to set out to take revenge of them. A wise druid aids him, bidding him make a curragh – a skin-keeled ship – and to take into it only seventeen companions and no more. But Mealduin’s three foster-brothers swim out and take ship with them, thus changing the magical conditions onboard. As he approaches the island where his father’s killers live, his curragh is blown off course, sending him on a voyage to many islands where they encounter wonders and terrors.
There are many such voyage or immrama stories in Irish tradition and we know that this genre of story was often told at moments of transition, such as at the death of an individual or, latterly, when economic migration overseas became a necessity for members of the family, when a ‘live wake’ was held, since many migrants would no longer be seen by their families ever again. The connection between this life and the voyage of the soul was firmly established. This is why the text serves as a ‘Celtic book of the dead,’ where each island visited by Maelduin represents an experience upon the way.
For human beings, death embodies all our fears: it is the threshold over which we step reluctantly into the unknown. For every living being, death is a certainty, and its inevitability is a challenge we shy away from considering. Yet the ‘dead’ within the context of the Celtic Book of the Dead are really ourselves, not the living ancestors nor the shining ones who inhabit the otherworld: it is we who are often the unconsciously dead, who can’t honour life because of choices we have made; we who are held in fear by circumstances or isolation where stagnation has become the compromise, rather than living.
Each island reveals ways and gifts that can be resources for the human condition, wherein solutions and strategies for unknotting life’s tangles may also be found. The cards have three uses: to divine the path ahead as a guide to the soul's direction; as a way of meditation for personal and environmental healing; and as a Book of the Dead for the dying. This oracle offers a grown-up method of divination and meditation, based upon an ancient North West European traditioIsland of the Ancestors
The joy of the long life of these cards is that I have been able to explore them in many different ways since they were first published. For example, in the late 1990s, I was invited to help facilitate a weekend of reflection and renewal in the Netherlands for an educational institute. My task was to draw together the underlying agenda of the students, who were organized into small groups to discussed this renewal together. Discussions were held in English and in Dutch - a language I do not speak. Nevertheless, visiting each group in turn, I assessed the mood and nature of each of discussion. Later that evening, I led the assembled students on a group immram, having selected which islands were most appropriate for the agenda that had arisen. Holding in my hands just the few cards of those islands, I sang the students spontaneously on a soul-voyage to each island in turn. The full power of the immram to open up our understanding of our world was revealed to us all that evening. This is why I have included a new section, Healing from the Edge, where the reader is encouraged to use the cards to explore environmental and world issues through a planetary immram.
Island of Singing Birds
Here is an entry to one of the cards, with an example of a small divination below it.
Island of Invisible Riders
Keywords: Willful ignorance. The writing on the wall. Trying too hard. Empty or troubling words. Unfulfilled dreams. Self-delusion.
Background: The crew see the debris of great feasting, and hoof-prints the size of a sail, but the invisible host have a horse-race, boasting that their horse is the best. The riders can only be heard, not seen, by the crew. This card often alerts one to the signs that are everywhere but have been edited out.
Challenge: What is going on around you that you are not noticing? What needs to come into better perspective?
In Context: ‘What are my chances in the job interview?’
29. Isle of the Eagle, 26. Isle of the Shuttered Door, 4 Isle of Invisible Riders:
No matter what kind of good impression you put on, this post is for the limited few only, and you are just whistling in the wind.
As you can see, The Celtic Book of the Dead is a real oracle, not a prettified, tidied-up, oracle that just tells you what you wanted to know. The cards show you what you didn’t want to look at, as well as revealing ways through conundrums and difficulties that have caused you to remain stuck for years. The subsequent freeing-up that is experienced, restores you to your own life, honestly supporting you, pointing the way to where your inmost heart has been calling you. When the soul is no longer freighted with heavy, unresolved issues, your whole life is restored to you.
Pillar of the Silver Net
We can be converted from dead things into living people again, by the action of the pilgrimage of voyage. Every condition of life that we thought puts us beyond redemption or healing occurs within the voyage that Maelduin takes. By entering into the immram, we pilgrimage in soul, making a tuirgín of our lives – a circuit of many births. For every day we die, we come alive again, returning over and over, as Maelduin returned, to the beloved shores of our home, the earth, enriched by wisdom of experience, strengthened by the struggle we have made, supported by the emissaries of truth, nature and knowledge whom we have encountered.
The Celtic Book of the Dead is published in UK on 28 January 2023. And will be available from http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/celtic-wisdom