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THE NEMETON: CELTIC SACRED SPACE

by Montague Whitsel, Copyright © 2002

We all need sacred space; a place where we can go to recollect our energies, discern our next step and catch glimpses of the more mysterious dimensions of reality. In this article I explore the nemeton - sacred places in Nature - the qualities of the nemeton and its mythological dimensions. I suggest that the nemeton is a naturally occurring ‘vortex’ of earth energy (called shunnache); it is a place where the energy patterns (called manred) manifest in particularly propitious ways. I explore how to discern a nemeton in the woods and define it with rituals and dedication to a god or goddess. Finally I present specific suggestions as to what one might do at a nemeton at different times and seasons.

Anyone who lives close to the Earth will know of sites in the natural landscape that - for one reason or another - stand out from their environs. These places are often explained - by mystics and psychics in various traditions - as being ‘nodes’ or ‘vortexes’ in the Earth where natural powers come to presence in unusually strong ways. A common mythological explanation sees such localities as places where spirits and deities dwell or have dwelt in times past, or where saints and heroes have either lived or died or performed feats and miracles. Whatever the explanation, a sacred place provides an opportunity for encounters with the more mysterious dimensions of reality.

For the Celts, natural places that stood out as not quite ‘ordinary,’ that struck one as strange, or that were characterized by an extra-ordinary sense of presence were called nemetons. Celtic people have always thought of Nature and the whole Cosmos as haunted; as alive with ‘presence’ and as ‘open’ in such a way that what you ‘get’ is not always what you apprehend with your bodily senses. Nature was seen as a potential veil through which very mysterious things could sometimes be revealed to those who had prepared themselves - spiritually and aesthetically - for an experience of the numinous kind; i.e., Mystery. Nemetons were classic sites for such experiences; the Mystery ‘beyond’ the veil could be experienced at a nemeton much more readily than elsewhere in the local natural landscape.

The origin of the word "nemeton" has been much debated. Some scholars think it comes from the Old Irish word nemed, while others see it as connected to the Latin word nemus or perhaps the Greek word temenos. Whatever its derivation, several languages seem to have had similar root words indicating "a sacred place in the woods."

How do places get to be sacred? For the Celts, this question is tied up with cosmology and mysticism. They believed that there was a basic energy in and behind everything in the world called shunnache and that this energy was organized - by natural laws - into patterns. Its patterns were referred to collectively as manred. Because the various elements of physical reality - Earth, Air, Fire and Water - were arranged in different combinations throughout the cosmos, sometimes the ‘energy’ inherent in a particular place was more detectable than the ‘energy’ at other sites. Certain places were considered to be more ‘charged’ with shunnache than others. Once recognized, such sites were identified as nemetons.

Have you ever come into a clearing in the woods - a place where a tree or two has fallen, leaving an opening in the canopy overhead - and had the experience of a sudden ‘presence’? This is the basis for what in Latin was called a nemus; a sacred clearing. Have you ever come upon a pine grove in the midst of a hardwood forest and felt a change in the atmosphere as you entered the grove? Or perhaps it was a rough circle of tall Oaks in a forest that had created a kind of green lawn - strewn with mast (the remains of acorns) - around them, or a grove of Willows gathered by the bank of a lake, stream or spring pool? If so, you have experienced what ancient Britons called a vernemeton (a sacred grove). Have you ever happened upon a spring at the source of a small stream or creek and sensed the coolness and sound of the water affecting the mood of the place? Have you ever sat near a small woodland waterfall and felt suddenly haunted? Were you drawn into meditation or toward ecstatic epiphanies by the sound of the water? Have you ever visited a well, spoken words over it and heard your voice echoed from its depths?

To have these kinds of experiences is to have an insight into what the Celts meant by saying that shunnache was more manifest in the manred (i.e., patterns) of certain places than others. The very configuration of trees and other plants, stones and the stratification and lithic make-up of the ground underlying a place can all come together to create a sense that we are in ‘sacred’ space. The aesthetics of a place (generated out of an experience of the physical order of organic and inorganic elements existing there) is what gives rise to a sense of sacredness for most people. The nemeton is a place where all of our own key symbols and feelings of the ‘holy’ or of the mysterious come together, more or less, in a single landscape or scene.

The nemeton is a diorama of the sacred; a little model of "paradise" in the midst of the natural world. It is an icon of our experience of the mysterious ‘background’ of existence. As such, nemetons cannot be created at random in the woods the way you pick a suitable place for a picnic! A nemeton must be discerned; experienced - before it can be of any value to us. A nemeton cannot be constructed; it occurs naturally. When we go out into nature with the intent to create a sacred place, what results is not a nemeton but a shrine, a dolmen, a cromlech or perhaps a stone circle. On the other hand the nemeton ‘emerges’ full-blown in our experience. It has boundaries; it says something to us; it is already ‘there.’

One of my favorite nemetons in the woods was on the side of a hill covered with Birch, Maple and Tulip trees. There, when I was about 19 years old, I discovered three circles of ground pine, each beside the other in descending order of size. The largest one - which had a Birch tree growing from its center - was about 13 feet across; just the right size for circle dancing in the light of the Full Moon or at the eight seasonal festivals (i.e., "sabbats" or "Shaktareen"). The middle ring was about 9 feet across; just right for working draíocht (magic), taghairm (divination) and engaging in corrguine (‘herbalism’) with one or two other practitioners on New Moon Days. The smallest circle was only about four feet across and was just large enough for one person to sit within it and meditate, chant or pray.

After I found this nemeton, I did a little trimming, pulling up some of the ground pine around the edges of the circles. You can ‘manicure’ a nemeton if you want, but only in order to enhance the already existing patterns that you originally found there. If you alter the site too much, you will end up with what the ancient Irish called a fidnemed (woodland shrine) rather than a natural nemeton. I used these circles for the purposes suggested by their natural ‘structure’ for about 12 years. After that, young trees growing up around the moss circles and ferns growing up in the midst of the circles began to obscure the original patterns in the shunnache of the place, so altering the aesthetics that the nemeton faded from view.

My second favorite nemeton seemed to draw two friends and I to it one day in 1987 when we were walking in a local wood. We’d long noted two tall Oaks just to the south of a main trail and been attracted to them as to a "door;" they were growing just about two feet apart, creating just wide enough a space for a person to slip through comfortably. One day we were ‘led’ - by the inspiration of aesthetic participation in our natural surroundings - to go ‘through’ the Oaken door and see where we might be led on the ‘otherside’ of it. We walked off-trail for about five minutes, following a path that was no path, until we came to a thick tangle of grape vines that had pulled down a couple of middle-aged Tulip trees. As we walked around the tangled mass of limbs and vines, we were surprised to find the two trunks collapsed in such a way that they formed a ‘V.’ They were at just the right height for us to sit on. We then saw that the fallen vines created a ‘canopy’ over the trunks. We went to this nemeton for meditation and prayer over the next three years or so, until the natural ‘oratory’ collapsed. We were often visited - especially by foxes, deer and even a bear (not to mention a copperhead) - during our sojourns there.

To discern a nemeton we must be ‘awake’ - spiritually & aesthetically - to the particulars of our local natural environment. Some of the most characteristic places for a Celtic nemeton include springs, wells or rock outcrops, the mouth or an interior chamber of a cave, an ancient Oak, Willow or Apple Tree, a boulder or other natural formation, a clearing in the woods and even narrow vales or clefts between two cliffs or hillsides. Yet nemetons may occur wherever the poetics of place speak to us.

Beginners in Celtic mysticism should prepare themselves for hikes in the woods by chanting the names of their deities and by a disciplined study of indigenous plants and the animals that frequent the place where they live, as well as its geology. We must be intimate with Nature in the part of the world we explore if we hope to achieve any real spiritual depth. Discernment of nemetons sometimes happens spontaneously but usually, like a water-witcher, the beginner must go out with the intent or at least the desire to come across a sacred spot. You might chant the name of one of the Celtic goddesses of nemetons: Nemetona or Arnemetria. You might chant various Celtic names of the Antlered One - Herne-Cernunnos-Oisín-Dumas - as nemetons are in his charge and as such he can lead you to one or not, as he pleases. Celtic saints often found obscure oratories in the wildwood by following Christ their Stag along deer-paths until they were led to the best place for prayer and communion with their God. We might learn a lot by their example, as Celtic saints were often deeply earthen in their spirituality. Only once we are more or less in tune with the land, having brought our lives into harmony with Nature’s cycles and seasons, will we be able to discover nemetons without such disciplined preparation.

A nemeton is a lonesome place. In the absence of visitants and pilgrims, it builds up energy and ‘powers’ of its own, naturally. There is no need to raise a circle of power there, as it is always already ‘charged’ when we arrive. By sojourning at a nemeton, we partake of this natural surplus of energy. We become re-infused with shunnache; the manred of our own bodily energies becoming aligned with Nature as we sit peacefully at a nemeton for a quarter-hour or so; an experience that often results in an enrichment of personal well-being. A nemeton can thus be seen as an ‘organic’ and mystical link between human beings and the Natural World. It is there that we feel most ‘at home’ in the Earth.

A nemeton is an omphalos; a "world navel," a vortex of being & becoming. It is also an intersection; a place where the human world is trisected by the divine milieu and also by the Otherworld; thus it is tripartite. As threes were sacred to the Celts, nemetons, being threed, were deeply revered. When at the omphalos, the world is a circle, the circumference of which can be envisioned from where you sit. Thus, wherever you find a nemeton, seek to discern its ‘center’ and mark it in some way, perhaps with a small stone or a twig. At our Moss Circle Nemeton there was no one center; it was triadic, each circle of moss having its own center. At our Grape Arbor Nemeton we marked the center of the site - which we found to be at the opening of the ‘V’ of the fallen trees - with three sticks, each of which were about two feet long. We drove them halfway into the ground in a triangular pattern corresponding to the shape of the ‘V’ created by the fallen tree trunks.

Once you find the center of a nemeton, sit there and engage in anal-duccaid (i.e., "breath-prayer;" meditation). As you sit at the center, you are equidistant from all points along the circumference of the nemeton’s horizons, and also symbolically equidistant from the horizons of the larger world. From this vantagepoint you can ‘reach out’ in your imagination to touch far-off mountains, visit sacred places in other parts of the world, and explore the mystical landscapes of the Otherworld. To journey or to dwell; these are your choices when at a nemeton. As your meditation brings you into deep concert with the various earthen energies at that particular place, a nemeton is always a good place for the practice of the three ancient arts & craefts; draíocht (magick), taghairm (Divination) and corrguine (‘Herbalism’). In particular, the casting of Ogham sticks has long been associated with nemetons in Celtic traditions.

All of these arts are usually performed in a circle; for the purpose of concentrating energy as well as protection from prying (psychic) eyes and other external threats to the advancement of personal wisdom. Thus it’s good, when at a nemeton, to imagine the circle of its presence in the tapestry of the natural patterns in which you sojourn. You do not need to ‘raise’ a circle at a nemeton, as a natural circle is already there; there is a certain ‘circumference’ around the site within which the aesthetics of natural phenomena - trees, plants, rocks and water - says, "this is a holy place."

To discern this natural circle, walk out in a northerly direction from the vortex where you have been meditating until you sense a shift in the aura of place. Once you intuit where the circumference is, turn to the right and walk deosil (clockwise) around the nemeton, following your own poetic or psychic intuition as to the nemeton’s natural boundary. This ‘border’ may not describe an exact circle, but that doesn’t really matter. What is important is that you ‘see’ the edge of the nemeton and remember basically where it is. As you walk around the site, returning to the most northerly point, note rocks, trees or other natural features that will help you to remember where the edge of the nemeton is located.

Once you have walked around the nemeton, identify each of the four cardinal directions: North-East-South-West (Celts always begin in the North; as they believe that everything comes out of darkness and returns to it). Place a stone or perhaps stick a twig in the ground along the circumference of the site marking each cardinal direction. Try not to make these markers too conspicuous, as the nemeton should remain obscured to those who are not alert enough, spiritually speaking, to be able to detect it. It would be better not to mark anything at a nemeton, not even the center; but only the most mature mystics can work without physical props to represent the psychic realities in which they are involved.

Once you have circumscribed the nemeton, meditate on the presence of the four elements (Earth-Air-Fire-Water) at the site. How does each one manifest itself? Earth and Air will always be present at a nemeton. Fire will usually be present in the form of sunlight. How does sunlight elucidate your nemeton? To what degree? Is the site out in the open, in a clearing or field, or is it enclosed, perhaps in a cave or dense grove? If the nemeton is situated by a spring, stream, lake or river, water will be present overtly, otherwise it may be implicit in the ground beneath you or in the plants that grow there.

The nemeton is a place where one can sometimes experience the coming and going of spirits, souls, deities, ancient heroes and saints. As such, it is not just "a neat place in the woods." Most nemetons are intersected by the reality of the Otherworld in strange and often elusive ways. If you want to communicate with the spirits of the nemeton and its environs, stand like a Crane (i.e., close your right eye, hold your right hand behind your back and stand on your left leg) at twilight or just before dawn. Look to each of the four cardinal directions in turn, hopping around as you seek to achieve Crane consciousness.

As you take up this position, invite any spirits present with you to make themselves known to you. Welcome any positive or helping spirits and bind any harmful or deceitful ones with the following ciam (charm):

Spirits of this place,
I bless those who come to bless and bind those who come to hurt.
May the power in this place render blessing for blessing and bondage for the intent to do harm.
So mote it be.

Stand in the Crane position for as long as you can manage to balance yourself without losing your mental focus on the openness necessary to receive spirits and souls as your guests. Once you have stood in this position, even for a minute, the site is primed for visitation so it doesn’t really matter how long you are able to meditate in this position; most people find it kind of fun, though. It’s odd to act like a bird, and this is often just what our ordinary consciousness needs to coax it to open to other worlds and other realities. Drama is the best magic; acting is the best spell-casting.

Sit down and listen to your environs; do you hear any strange movement or noises? If so, use these as a stimulus to psychic communications and ask, "Is anyone here?" If you feel threatened, repeat the ciam and wait. Often it happens that encounters with spirits and souls do not occur in any overt or explicitly empirical way. You may have the ‘sense’ of being visited, or you may get a twinge of uneasiness, as if something has just ‘passed by,’ but no more. What I usually experience initially is a sense of being unalone, and then of being watched, as though my ‘guests’ were checking me out before presencing. Then, when I go home, I engage in some form of taghairm (divination) to discern what may have happened at the nemeton. It is usually at this point that I get an indication - from a rune or from a divinatory card, for instance - that I was not really alone in the woods. Face cards, for instance, indicate personal presences. The blank rune indicates a divine presence. It is only usually obliquely that we come to an awareness of having been visited by souls and spirits. Though I would like to experience things the way they happen in movies, entities do not usually conform to these pop-culture icons of being ‘haunted.’

Once you establish a nemeton, consider dedicating it to a deity. If deer come to your nemeton when you are there, or if you see evidence of their having been there in your absence, consider dedicating the site to Cernunnos. He is often said to visit sacred places in the wood, as wild Nature is under his care. To dedicate your nemeton to him, simply say his name nine times at each of the cardinal points of the natural circumference of the site. Otherwise, you might dedicate the site to either Nemetona (a goddess of ancient Gaul) or Arnemetria (a goddess of ancient British nemetons). Again, to dedicate your nemeton to either of these goddesses, simply walk the circumference in a deosil direction and chant her name nine times. After this, imagine that this deity comes to your nemeton when you are not there, keeping a watch over it, drawing animals to it and treating anyone who comes across the site as a guest.

After you have dedicated the nemeton, imagine when you might best visit it. The Celts would have frequented nemetons at times of need but also when they just wanted to get away for a spell. Nemetons might be treated as either ‘way-stations’ where they could stop on longer journeys or as destinations for a local pilgrimage. Today we might go to a nemeton at the tides of the Moon and also before each of the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year. As the New Moons are spent in solitude, nemetons are a good place to get away to during the day. You might want to go to a nemeton before dusk on the night of a Full Moon in order to chant, meditate and prepare yourself for the night’s various activities, power rituals and draíocht. Similarly, if you are celebrating one of the annual festivals outdoors somewhere and there is a nemeton located near paths or roads you have to take to get to it, stop and prepare yourself before going on. Connecting with the shunnache of the nemeton will re-charge your psychic batteries for the night’s festivities, dancing and feasting.

If you have dedicated your nemeton to Cernunnos, you might want to observe the Feast of Saint Cornely; a thinly disguised version of the Horned God of Gaul - on the 13th of September each year. Saint Cornely is associated with Carnac (in Brittany), where, it is often said, he walks among the standing stones. His name is connected with the word for "horn" and thus he is a ‘saint’ of wisdom, male sexuality and creative potency. He should be imaged as a man-god with a stag’s antlers on his head (either growing out of his forehead or else affixed to a helmet that he wears) and a serpent in one hand. On the Feast of Saint Cornely, chant the following ciam at your nemeton:

Cornely, Cornely, Saint of Carnac,
Lord of Standing Stones and Protector of Wild Animals;
Come to this nemeton;
Our church not made with hands and be blessed by our patronage. Andumnos, Spirit of the Wild Homeland, protect those that tarry and visit here.
We invoke your patronage this day/night.

If you observe the feast of this ‘saint,’ you might also re-dedicate your nemeton each year on this date, saying the name of the deity with whom the nemeton is connected nine times as you walk deosil around the circumference of the sacred space.

The advantages of sojourning at a nemeton are numerous. Over time you will experience many wondrous things at these sacred woodland places. After meditating at a nemeton for several seasons, many people find that they are much more prone to ‘mystical’ experience - the experience of the mysterious behind and within ordinary reality - than they were before. This is because, as you link up with the lay of the land and its various energy patterns, your poetic consciousness gets linked up with the earth and is enlivened with images, sensations and impressions. This deep connection then becomes a vehicle for various degrees of self-transcendence, which always arise out of a particular setting, happening to a particular person with a specific set of experiences. The richer your experience, the more likely you are to be able to go beyond it. This connection with a sacred place will also nurture your awareness of presences; from elemental spirits to discarnate souls to divine beings and emissaries.

If you cannot get out to the woods, you can do everything I have suggested here by establishing an Internal Nemeton. If you live in a city or if you are confined to a bed or a wheelchair, go into the Inner World and explore your own Imagination’s Geography. Go on a journey in your imagination, looking for a nemeton. Imagine what this place would look like and, once you find it, establish its center and its circumference, just as I have suggested in this article. Then dedicate it to a deity, saint or hero. As developing an Internal Nemeton is an integral element of Celtic spirituality (see my article called "The Cromlech of Meath" on this web-site), this is no substitute provided merely for people who cannot go out to the woods.

By starting out with a very simply imaged place and then diligently practicing ‘seeing’ and ‘experiencing’ it regularly, in more and more detail, you can develop a richly poetic sense of this imagined sacred site. Internal Nemetons are places in and through which surprising intuitions (about the world and our lives in it) often arise. A playful diligence in imagining this sacred place in your own internal ‘geography’ will help you hone psychic abilities and foster a more profound communion with the reality behind-and-beyond the ‘deities’ that we invoke, follow and worship. Mystical encounters may transpire there, just as at an external nemeton in the woods.

If you are able to get out to the woods, and if you do happen to locate a nemeton in external space, this site can also become the model for an Internal Nemeton. The places that we find to be the most nurturing and empowering in Nature often come to mind when we need peace and quiet or when we need to re-charge our psychic ‘batteries.’ When we cannot get out to a nemeton, the experiences of it that we have had in the external world can lead to an internal re-creation of it. Wherever you find yourself, sit and meditate and bring your nemeton in the woods to mind. Imagine seeing it, smelling the scents of the place, feeling stones or trees associated with the site, and hearing the birds and the sounds of other animals that frequent your nemeton. Imagine the nemeton in detail, using all five senses. Such imaging can function as a source of spiritual resourcement, whenever we need to ‘touch base,’ in whatever situation, dilemma or crisis we find ourselves.

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