Frìth, deuchainn or diachainn1 was a form of augury that was commonly used in Scotland to find something that had been lost – an item, person or animal that wasn't able to be found by other means. In a more general sense, it was performed on the first Monday after the Quarter Day to divine the likely outcome of a particular venture (and so, more generally, to divine what the next quarter might hold), or even the state of health or well-being of someone who was too far away to be contacted easily. Technically, the first Monday of the Quarter was thought to be the most auspicious time for it to be done, but in a pinch it could be done at any time; it could be performed for oneself, or for other people – air a shon 's air a shealbhaich ('for him and his luck').2
Frìth was widely believed to have had its origins with the Virgin Mary. According to Gaelic tradition, Bride was the midwife of Mary, and not surprisingly she is also said to have had a hand in it too:
“When Christ was not to be found Mary made an augury to discover Him. Mary made a tube of her palms and looked through this and saw Christ in the temple disputing with the doctors. Then Mary and Joseph went to the temple and there found Christ as Mary had foreseen.
“Mary and Brigit were loving friends. It was the husband of Brigit who brought Jesus the water to wash the feet of His disciples. When Christ again was not to be found Mary asked Brigit to make an augury for His discovery, and Brigit made the augury as Mary asked. She made a tube of her hands as Mary had done and looking through saw Christ sitting at a well.”3
This apocryphal story aside, its historical origins are hinted at being due to the Norse influence on Scottish culture, with the most common suggestion being that the word etymologically related to the Norse word frétt and the Scots word frete by Alexander MacBain.4 In Scots, frete (fret, freyte, freit, frett) refers to “A superstitious belief, fancy, or observance, esp. a belief in omens; anything regarded as an omen or foreboding”,5 and it is notable that Campbell translates frìth as 'omen' as well (see note 1).
The Norse word frétt can be found in the phrase gekk til frèttar to mean 'to make an enquiry of a god'.6 The practise of frètt as described in the sagas appears to involve the throwing of wooden pillars overboard; these pillars often came from the ancestral home of the men, who were looking to be led to their new home across the sea, and so wherever the pillars landed, so their home would be made.7 This bears little resemblance to Scottish practise, which contains strong elements of Gaelic traditions and customs, and the alternative explanation is that frìth is very much a Gaelic word, simply meaning 'finding.' In this context it refers to the fact that the practice of frìth as divination was mainly employed to find something - lost objects, people, or animals.7a The suggestion of Norse origins and etymology doesn't fit as neatly with what frìth aims to actually achieve, and we might tentatively err towards accepting the suggestion that the practice is entirely Gaelic. Certainly the ritual and tradition associated with the performance of frìth appears to be thoroughly Gaelic.
Most sources stress that the frìtheir (augurer) was always male, but the fact that both Mary and Bride are associated with its origins seems to contradict this.8 It does seem, however, that the gift of frìtheireachd was inherited among members of certain families, with Carmichael noting that those with the surname Freer claimed to have a long heritage as being the astrologers of kings.9
There are several different descriptions of how the frìtheir performed the augury, and while there are overall differences to be found, there are also seems to be a core upon which more localised practices evolved. Two key factors were that the frìth was meant to be performed before sunrise on the first Monday of the quarter, and that the omens were taken while the frìtheir stood at the threshold of the house – so both time and place were essentially liminal: neither in the house, nor out; neither one day really finished or another yet begun. The frìtheir was invariably fasting, barefoot and with the head unadorned (like wearing a hat, or having the hair tied back in some way), and after some time spent in prayer and meditation would approach the doorway with closed eyes.10
McNeill gives a detailed description of how it was done:
“Immediately before sunrise, the augurer, fasting, his head and feet bared and his eyes closed, went to the door of the house and stood on the threshold with a hand on each jamb. He began with an incantation or 'a prayer to the God of the Unseen to show him his quest and grant him his augury', and then, opening his eyes, looking steadfastly in front of him...From the nature and position of the objects within sight, he divined the facts of which knowledge was sought.”11
In South Uist, McNeill notes, it was done slightly differently:
“The frithir, or seer, says a 'Hail Mary'...and then walks deiseil or sunwards round the house, his eyes being closed till he reaches the door-sill, when he opens them, and looking through a circle made of his finger and thumb, judges of the general character of the omen by which the first object on which his eye has rested.”12
Presumably the practice of making a sort of telescope with the hands helped to focus the view of the augurer and removed any potential distractions from anything that wasn't directly in their line of sight (and perhaps was meant to mimic the idea of telescope – seeing something far away, that which would otherwise not be seen; a direct way of revealing the otherwise unseeable, unknowable). Practically speaking, the best way to see through the 'tube' made by the hand would be to close one eye, and this suggests a link with the practice of corrguinecht – a supernatural practice associated with magic, prophecy, divination, and the creation of illusions.13 Here, a special stance would be taken by whoever was performing the corrguinecht, by standing on one leg, with only one eye open. Often, only one hand is used as well.14 This appearance bears a striking resemblance to some of the descriptions of the Cailleach found in Scotland, and so seems to be relevant to Scotland as well as Ireland.
Examples of the 'incantations' mentioned by McNeill can easily be found in Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica and George Henderson's Survivals in belief among the Celts, and generally they seem to follow a formula whereby the frìtheir states in some way that they are surrounded by God (echoing the form of the lorica, as The Breastplate of St Patrick does), and acting as Mary or Bride did when they performed the augury themselves. This is often followed by praise of the saint(s) and Mary's son, before beseeching that the operation should be successful. All of these elements can be seen in the Frìth Mhoire, recorded by Carmichael in volume two of Carmina Gadelica,15 as well as in the songs given in volume five.16
To a lesser extent these elements can also be seen in an example given by Henderson, taken from Benbecula:
“Mise dol a mach orra (= air do) shlighe-sa, Dhé! Dia romham, Dia ’m dheaghaidh ’s Dia ’m luirg! An t-eolas rinn Moire dha ’mac, shéid Brighd ’romh băs (glaic). Fios fìrinne gun fhios bréige; mar a fhuair ise gum faic mise samlaladh air an rud a tha mi fhéin ag ìarraidh, i.e. 'I am going out on thy path, O God! God be before me, God be behind me, God be in my footsteps. The charm which Mary (the Virgin) made for her Son, Brigit blew through her palms,—knowledge of truth and no lie. As she found, may I see the likeness of what I myself am seeking.' ”17
We can suppose then, that the opening lines are invoking God's protection and/or aligning the augurer with his will, to show that the rites are sanctioned and therefore governed by him with his approval – as doubtless some would have accused the frìtheir of performing something that was inappropriate or even blasphemous. In stating that the actions of the frìtheir are echoing those of Mary (or Brigit), it shows that they are acting properly according to custom and tradition as well. Truth was revealed through the proper actions.
The charms are usually said to be sung, intoned or recited by the frìtheir,18 but some sources state that they were said mentally, rather than out loud.19 This seems to accord with other types of divination that were often performed in complete silence, such as the divination with the dreaming bannock or many of the Samhainn divinations.
It wasn't just the actions, timing and words that were important in performing frìth, but also the location of where the frìtheir was looking to. A view across land was considered to be considerably easier to glean omens from than it was if the frìtheir was looking across water – streams, lakes or sea, for example, with a wide, deep sea being the most difficult. This was because:
“The siol sidh (race of fays) has more power under water than above water, under the foundations of the sea than under the foundations of the land; and the siol sidh interferes with the current of man's thoughts and thwarts man's mind and wishes. The sea is more sacred and mysterious than the land, and contains inhibiting spirits not known ashore; therefore, an informant said, the frìth cannot so well be made across the sea...”20
Assuming the frìtheir was successful in finding omens after carefully taking position, the signs were interpreted according to the kind of animal or person that was seen, the direction they were going in, and the sort of things they were doing – standing up, lying down, walking or flying towards or away from the augurer. These signs were considered to be either lucky or unlucky, rathadach or rosadach. These signs (primarily taken from Carmichael, unless otherwise stated) included:
A man, especially with brown hair, is considered to be a good sign
A man coming towards or looking in the direction of the seer is considered to be an excellent sign
A man standing, or an animal rising, indicates that the person the frìth is being performed for will soon recover from the sickness they've been suffering from
A woman with brown or dark hair is a good sign (brown is considered to be the best)21
A woman standing is an excellent sign
A woman passing by or coming towards the seer is a neutral sign
A cock coming towards, or looking in the direction of the seer is an excellent sign
A bird coming towards the seer indicates news - especially a letter on its way
A bird, including one mid-flight, is generally a good sign (with some exceptions), but especially the dove or pigeon (McNeill notes only the dove and lark)22
A duck is an especially good sign for sailors, signifying they will be kept safe from drowning
A dog, horse (with the exception of a chestnut or red horse),23 foal, calf, lamb are all good signs if they are facing towards the seer
A sheep, lamb or calf is especially good if the person enquiring is about to go on a journey, so long as they are facing you
A man going away is an unlucky sign
A man lying down indicates illness, or the continued suffering from an illness
A man digging over the earth signifies death24
An animal lying down indicates death
A woman standing is unlucky - death or an untoward event
A woman passing is not so bad25
A woman with light-red or fair hair is unlucky
A woman with deep-red hair is a very unlucky sign
A sparrow indicates the death of a child (“Three or four of these always come before the death of a child, and return each day until the death, not reappearing after it.”)
Chickens without a cockrel, crows and rooks are all unlucky signs, especially if they are approaching the seer
A crow or raven signifies a death
Ducks or hens with their heads held low signifies death, and the more that can be seen holding themselves in such a manner, the speedier and more certain the death is26
A pig with its back to the seer is an unlucky sign, for everyone but Campbells, but if the pig is facing the seer it is neutral27
The cat is an unlucky sign, suggesting witchcraft, for all but those of the Clann Chatain (which includes Mackintoshes and Macphersons)
A chestnut or red horse signifies death
A goat is a bad sign, especially if the enquirer is about to go on a journey – the journey should be postponed28
Reconstructing the frìth
We don't know how old the practise of frìth is, but there are many elements to it that are consistent with certain practises that go back as far as historical records can show us; the use of the deiseal, and the special stance adopted (which hints at the practise of corrguinecht, as discussed above), for example, both seem to have pre-Christian roots. And while some of the signs listed can be seen to be (perhaps) influenced by Christian belief, others bear a remarkable consistency with the lore that can be gleaned from the myths, legends and customs of Gaelic tradition. At the very least, then, while its origins may not be directly pre-Christian, we can see that it is rooted very firmly within the cultural continuum.
With this in mind, we can try to come up with a ritual appropriate to a Scottish Reconstructionist context. The outline I've given below uses the most obvious elements from what has been recorded, according to my own personal gnosis. It's your choice whether you prefer to perform the ritual in silence (I do as it happens, it helps me focus), and therefore 'say' the charms silently, or whether you want to sing, intone or simply say the charms at the appropriate times.
There's also the choice of which stance you prefer to adopt – with hands holding either side of the door jamb, with your left hand forming the 'seeing' tube, and/or with one eye open and standing on foot in the style of the corrguinech.
The outline below is how I perform the ritual, so I'll give the directions as I do them – with it performed in silence, with the stance adopted and so on. I choose to address Bride as I have a working relationship with her and it seems appropriate to do so given her already existing associations with the practise. It's only intended to be an outline, though, so you may find that something slightly different will work for you. Experimentation might be needed to get it just right – it was certainly that way for me.
It's a good idea to have a go at a dry run before performing the ritual – the fact that a good portion of it will be done with your eyes closed will mean that it's best to have some confidence in your steps, otherwise it can be distracting. You will also need a few things prepared – like offerings, a libation, making sure your front door is easily opened and your path is clear, and so on.
The ritual should ideally, but not necessarily, be performed before sunrise on the first Monday of the Quarter, or on the morning of the New Year.29 The frìtheir should have been fasting (I presume this to mean that the seer would not have had breakfast yet, at least) and be barefoot with their hair loose and free of coverings.
Go to your hearth.30 Take some time to meditate and contemplate on the matter at hand, depending on what (or who) you are going to be divining for. Then when you're ready take a sunwise turn around (or before) your hearth, saying:
“Bride of the Gaels,
Here I give you the deiseal,
Good Wishes be upon you:
Voice of truth,
Voice of honour,
Voice of eloquence be thine.
Wisdom of sun,
Wisdom of moon,
Wisdom of stars be thine.
Bounty of sea,
Bounty of land,
Bounty of sky be thine.31
A blessing of blessings
Upon thy kine.”
Make an offering and a libation to Bride and close your eyes. Stand for a while, focusing again on what it is you will be divining for. Then, when you're ready, go on to the next part of the ritual.
Keeping in a sunwise direction, with eyes still closed (or blindfolded), head towards the front door32 and open it. As you make your way, say:
“Bride around me,
Bride in my eye,
As Bride did before me,
So do I.
I walk in her steps,
On a path without lies,
I stand at the threshold,
Where wisdom and truth resides.
I perform the augury,
As Bride did before me,
May the signs be revealed,
And the truth be sealed."
You should aim to take your position as you get to the appropriate verse (“As Bride did before me...”), with the finger and thumb of your left hand formed into a circle and placed around your left eye.
Open your eyes with hands still in place on the jamb of the door, or else with your left hand held before your eyes. Look straight ahead and take note of everything that you see – don't let your eyes wander.
When you are ready, come back inside and finish with further offerings of thanks to Bride, and break your fast. If you prefer, take the opportunity to write down all that you saw, and use the list above to interpret everything.
1 John Gregorson Campbell gives all three names for the same thing, defining frìth as 'omen' and deuchainn/diachainn as 'trial' (Cf. MacBain's Dictionary and Dwelly's Dictionary) – see Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p142.
2 See Black, The Gaelic Otherwold, 2005, p142-143; Henderson, Survivals in belief among the Celts, 1911, p223-224; Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p529; p616; MacKenzie, Gaelic Incantations, Charms and Blessings of the Hebrides, 1895, p8.
3 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p670. (References to this work generally favours the English-only compilation of the first five volumes on this site, to make the following up of references easier – I presume that this will be the version that is easier to get hold of for most people. The exceptions to the rule are when references are made to the first two volumes, which can be found online, or else in the case of referring to something that isn't found in the English-only compilation for later volumes – either in terms of content or format).
8 Such as Carmina Gadelica Volume II but even he contradicts himself later - “The man or woman performing the augury or divination forms the fingers of the left hand into a tube. He or she blows through this tube in the name of the Three Persons of the Trinity and then says the rune.” Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p534.
10 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p532; p616.
11 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p56.
16 The description given here also emphasises the walking in a sunwise direction as part of the rites, along with the other key elements described above. Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p532-534.
17 Henderson, Survivals in belief among the Celts, 1911, p223-224.
18 As in the examples given above, but see also Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p534.
19 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p616.
20 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p529.
21 Campbell contradicts this completely and says a woman is never a good sign, but especially old women who are “bent with age and hobbling past.” Perhaps this has something to do with the belief in original sin, but age is mentioned again in as a factor in relation to men – “a young man riding gaily on a mettlesome horse” is a particularly good sign. Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p142.
22 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p56.
23 A white horse (indicates) land,
A grey horse ocean,
A bay horse burial-place,
A brown horse sorrow.
Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p530.
24 “...he is marking your grave, and you may as well prepare.” Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p143.
25 McNeill contradicts this, saying it is a 'fairly lucky' sign. McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p56.
26 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p143.
27 McNeill contradicts this one as well, saying the pig or boar was a good omen for everybody, but especially the Campbells. McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p56.
28 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p529-530. See also MacKenzie, Gaelic Incantations, Charms and Blessings of the Hebrides, 1895, p8.
29The sources seem to indicate that the ritual was performed when necessary by those who were skilled at it, although it was most often performed at festival periods.
30 Or altar, or shrine, depending on what you have available.
31 Liberally adapted from song 288, Good Wish, in volume 3 of Carmina Gadelica.
32 If you live in a flat/apartment then it's probably going to be difficult to get to the front door of your apartment building, especially with your eyes closed all along the way. McNeill notes that at New Years the frìth was performed at the window, so this should be an acceptable alternative.