I mentioned the wonderful little party I attended last week at the home of Owen O Suilleabhain. I was there just long enough to meet everyone and hear the young bardic poet Dónall Ó Héalaí give us a preview presentation before his foray west and his upcoming Tedtalk. Let’s all wish him deserved success!
Donall’s preface which we were so fortunate to hear live commenced with the tale of a Gaelic warrior he called Conan – Ko-NON, he said it – surely a reuse of the name for one of the warrior-band of the Irish King Fionn mac Cumhaill, often said, “Finn MacCool.” The story-cycle about these Fenian heroes is older than that around King Arthur and indeed may be one of the Arthurian roots. The name Conan itself may be familiar to us. (Robert E. Howard borrowed it for the use of his own memorable barbarian.)
This hero had been given a large empty chest by his king and told to wander until he filled it with treasure. This the champion did. He toured the kingdoms of the British Isles and had many adventures. He dispersed gangs of thieves and returned their spoils, taking a just payment in return. He delivered kingdoms from giants and was gifted with many gems. He saved villages from brigands and was honored with gold. He saved princesses from ogres and was offered more than gold.
At last his chest was so full that even a hero like him could barely raise it. The last village he had served had been overwhelmed with joy that a kingly champion would help them, and they offered to help him in his task of hauling it back to Tara and the throne of the Ard Ri, the Red Branch King of Kings. A team of them loaded his heavy chest onto the cart and helped guide it on its journey. For several days their progress was stout. They prayed and they laughed. They cheered themselves with songs and stories. They had never, though, been so far from their homes.
One morning Conan awoke to find his porters sitting where they had slept. Some trembled now and then, but none spoke. Those whose eyes were opened were glazed. At first the hero simply called to them as if to wake them from their dreams. Thinking it might be a joke, he cajoled them and even drew his sword. They couldn’t be roused. It was as if he didn’t exist.
At last, thinking it must be an evil spell that had been placed upon them, Conan approached their druid, the man he knew best among them, where he sat in a like state. This man the hero nudged and spoke to as a friend. At last he even shook him. It was a long time before the elder came back to his senses and even longer before he could gather himself and speak.
“What’s come over these people?” said the king’s hero. “They were so happy. We were making such progress.”
“None of us have ever been this far from our homes,” said the wise man as if he had trouble keeping awake. “We need to let our spirits catch up to us.” Then he lapsed back into his own trance.
To let their spirits catch up to them! What an idea! What a way of phrasing it! What a metaphor for Western humanity, particularly in the United States. I think many of us have lost what centered us, and that the signs of this stress are everywhere.
For most of humanity’s existence we lived in small community groups. We lived for generations near our ancestral centers, near the earthly source of all our composure and connectivity. Village elders passed on our cultural identity and spirituality through word of mouth. We were tied to landscape features and a local environment that could have gotten into our ancestral memory. That may be humanity’s natural state. The state of 21st century life could have gotten so many stages ahead of it that most of us have not fully adapted, and we may be looking in the wrong places for healing.
There isn’t a pill, a political movement, or a pop trend to heal that spiritual cutoff, that isolation from the elders, though many of us take to them. The first step in the cure is to sense the complaint. For the healing, we may need young elders like Donall. And the journey could be heavily intuitive; it’s a journey within, and no one can take it for you.