Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Airmed and Heapstown Cairn

Airmed was the first Celtic deity I ever had an experience with. She's been with me for pretty much the entire time I've been Pagan, though it took a couple of years to find out who she was and then figure out why she was with me and what she was about. Even back when I was practicing a pretty generic Paganism based on eclectic Wicca, she was there. Her presence was earthy and expansive, but there was also something cosmic and overwhelming about her in some of my experiences.

Airmed was the one who told me she wanted to hear Gaelic spoken to her; I'm not very good at it, but I can manage a few phrases in prayers. I'm still working on it, but my foreign language skills aren't that great, so it takes time. She fostered my interest in healing work and herbs over the years, and I keep an altar dedicated to her in my home. The first piece of paid writing I ever did was an article on her for SageWoman magazine, in the Spring 1994 issue, called Goddess of the Growing Green.

This drawing by Joanna Powell Colbert, in black and white, accompanied the article in the magazine.

The image here is by the Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick. It is a concept drawing for a sculpture that, as far as I know, was never actually made, intended for a hospital site. This is one of the images I have hanging over my altar for her.

As a part of this summer's pilgrimage to Ireland, our group visited Heapstown Cairn, a site associated with Airmed, Dian Cécht, Miach, and Octriuil and said to be the site of the healing well of Sláine that features in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired. The cairn is just at the northeast tip of Lough Arrow, in County Sligo and can be seen from the road, inside a large ring of trees.

This is a place I'd wanted to visit ever since I found out about it last year while researching sites for the pilgrimage. I'd been asked by Vyviane if there were any Airmed sites in Ireland on behalf of a friend of hers and set out to see if there were. I hadn't been certain we'd be able to visit the place, given our schedule, but it turned out we were staying not far from there, just on the other side of the lake. I was determined at that point that we'd do an Airmed ritual there, and this was the place I wanted to dedicate the moss agate ogam feda that I'd made for her at the end of March this year.

Heapstown Cairn was our first stop of the day - later we would go to Knocknarea, to climb to Maeve's Cairn at the top of the hill. It was a grey day but not raining at that point. We crossed a verdant field to reach the cairn.

As one does in Ireland, we had to watch where we walked to avoid stepping into the leavings of cattle. Some of the ground was quite boggy, as you might expect near a lake when it's been raining a lot. Walking through the pastureland reminded me a lot of the fields I used to cross when I was growing up in New England, where my nearest neighbors were dairy farmers and most of the places I wanted to play were in or across a pasture.

During our initial approach to the cairn, the group split and wandered, looking for a suitable place to hold our ritual. There were a couple of promising spots, but they weren't quite large enough for everyone. Eventually we settled on a little semicircular clearing on the southeast side of the cairn. As I walked, seeking the proper place, I was quietly singing a chant we'd written that morning as a part of our preparation for the ritual, based on traditional Gaelic healing lore, intertwined with singing Airmed's name.

Bone to bone
Flesh to flesh
Blood to Blood
Heal us now
Teach the herbs to us

The cairn itself has not, like Newgrange or Knowth, been excavated. There are kerbstones, but they are much overgrown and not visible, for the most part. No one knows if there are petroglyphs on them. The cairn itself is much reduced over the centuries. Local fences and other stone structures were built with some of the stones, and the pillar that once stood atop the cairn fell and was broken sometime in the last hundred years or so. We were told we shouldn't climb the cairn to avoid destroying anything if stones were dislodged. I think it was also because people wanted to be sure nobody was going to be diminishing the cairn even further by taking stones away.

Most people interested in Irish mythology who know about Airmed will have heard the tale about Airmed and the healing herbs. In the first battle of Mag Tuired, the arm of Nuadha, the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, was severed, making him ineligible to remain king. It was then replaced by a silver limb created by Dian Cécht. Having decided that this wasn't good enough, his son Miach replaced Nuadha's flesh arm by singing a charm much like the one above, and the use of the ashes of a wisp of burned straw to heal and regenerate the limb.

Dian Cécht, none too pleased by these proceedings, killed Miach and he was buried under a cairn from which the 365 healing herbs grew. Miach's sister Airmed collected these herbs in her cloak, sorted by their properties and the parts of the body that they treated. Dian Cécht, not wanting the knowledge of this powerful healing to be available to everyone, scattered the herbs. Most people think of this as the end of the story.

It isn't.

During the second battle of Mag Tuired, Dian Cécht made a visit to the place called Lusmag, the Plain of Herbs, where he gathered up all the healing herbs in the land, and he brought them to the Well of Sláine, at Heapstown Cairn. The herbs were placed in the water and four healers chanted powerful spells over the well. Those four healers were Dian Cécht, Airmed, Octriuil her brother, and Miach. It makes sense to me that a god whose body became healing herbs would, like a plant, rise again and regenerate himself, reborn for healing work.

The Fomhoire, seeing that the warriors of the Tuatha Dé Danann would be wounded and rise up whole the next morning to battle once again, realized that the healing well was responsible for this. Indech's son, Octriallaig, disguised the warriors of the Fomhoire as the wounded of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and each warrior carried with him a stone, which he dropped into the well. So many were these warriors that a huge cairn rose over the well, sealing it off and making it inaccessible, removing some of the most powerful healing magic available at the battle.

Local lore says that the well is still under there and that it can be seen by crawling into a passage in the cairn. Our driver, Con, spoke to one of the local ladies while we were off doing ritual; she said that when she was young she'd heard about kids who had gone into the cairn and seen the well themselves. The passage was supposedly still accessible somewhere, but no one could find it.

For the ritual itself, I told the story of Airmed and the herbs, and of the well beneath the cairn. A cloth was laid out to represent her cloak, a cauldron for incense, and a bowl filled with water for the well itself, in the center. Each person had been given a little packet containing an herb, and a slip of paper with the name of the herb and its properties listed on it. When we got to the part where Airmed was sorting the herbs from her brother's grave and laying them on the cloak, we each laid out our packet of herbs and described what the herb was and what it did.

When we heard the part of the tale where Dian Cécht brought the herbs from Lusmag and placed them in the well and the four healers stood around it chanting healing charms, we each put a bit of our herbs into the "well" and offered a pinch into the charcoal for an offering. Other offerings were made as well - whiskey was poured out, bits of food were offered, herbs, and other personal things by those who had brought them. After we placed the herbs into the water, we sang the chant we'd created that morning, noted above, and took some time to do any personal workings we wanted to, whether communing with Airmed, meditating with the land, or asking for healing; this is where I did the dedication of my ogam feda.

After our workings, we heard the story of how the cairn itself was formed and the healing well buried. The ritual was closed, the water poured out, and the charcoal doused. The cloth representing the cloak still had bits of herbs clinging to it, and I shook it out into the wind, scattering the herbs as Dian Cécht had once done.

I know I'm not the only person in the group who felt that they had connected with Airmed in that place. I experienced a feeling of being very close to her, and of reaching into some essence of her spirit, her presence all around the edges of my perception. I felt her in the land and in the plants growing on and around the cairn, her blessings in the wind. I'm very thankful to have had the chance to visit this place and forge a deeper connection with my first Irish goddess.

The opportunity to do ritual in the landscape where these tales took place, where local lore has a connection to both history and the spiritual in the land, was profound for me. It cannot happen like that in the place where I live. The core myths of my spirituality take place in another country on the other side of the earth, and I bring what I can of it into my own place, but it feels very different here than it does in Ireland. The connection is easier and deeper but at the same time, I can feel that Ireland isn't my place; mine is on the shores of the Salish Sea here in the Pacific Northwest. Much of the landscape is similar, the weather is very like, and many of the same plants and animals are found here, but their energies manifest differently.

Visiting Ireland, for me, wasn't like coming home. I know folks who have had that homecoming experience in Europe. For me it was like visiting the roots of something deep and significant, but it wasn't a return home. The act of pilgrimage is one of leaving home and familiar environs to make a holy visit to a sacred place -- and then to return home once more, transformed. By its nature, the site visited is something set apart from one's daily life, whether it is visited once in a lifetime, once in a year, or even more often. Pilgrimage offers us a way to approach a place in an altered frame of mind, with a heightened openness to certain types of experience of the numinous and the liminal. The places we visit on pilgrimage are, for us, threshold places where the Otherworlds bleed into our own.


  1. It was so clam and relaxing to read this and know the well of healing is still there. I learned more about Airmed from you than from any other source. I love Airmed and can't find enough about. The chant you used spoke to me and Will Aid me in work. Thank You so much & Brightest Blessings

    1. There's really not a lot out there about her, so the information (what little there is of it) can be very hard to find. I'm happy that you are finding something useful in my work, thank you.

  2. In preparation of returning to Heapstown I was searching and found this article. Such a wonderful day, thanks for being there with me and getting on a plane to adventure with a crazy girl from Panthea Con. I received such powerful insites that day and I have worked with them since. Three years later I am presenting that Work to new pilgrims at Heapstown Cairn.