Frìth, deuchainn or diachainn1 is a form of augury recorded in Scotland. The general aim in performing the frìth is 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 can be 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 to determine the state of health or well-being of someone who might be too far away to be contacted easily (this being more useful in the days before telephones and Skype…).
Technically speaking, the first Monday of the Quarter is thought to be the most auspicious time for it to be done, but in a pinch the frìth may be done at any time as necessity dictates; it can be performed for oneself, or for other people – air a shon ‘s air a shealbhaich (‘for him and his luck’), as the saying goes.2
According to Gaelic tradition, the practice of frìth is said to have had its origins with the Virgin Mary, giving it a thoroughly Christian pedigree. As the story goes:
“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
But this apocryphal story aside, its historical origins are not so cut and dried. More than likely, the story of Mary and Brìde is something that came to be attached to the augury at some point in an attempt to give it an acceptably Christian veneer. When that happened we don’t know, but what we can say is that there are plenty of elements that make up the practice which don’t seem to be Christian at all. Even if the augury itself doesn’t have a pre-Christian origin, there’s plenty about it that’s consistent with what we know of pre-Christian practice.
Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought about where the practice of frìth comes from. One of these claims primarily Norse origins, while the other claims primarily Gaelic origins.
The Norse argument is primarily linguistic, with the suggestion being that the word “frìth” is etymologically related to the Norse word frétt and the Scots word frete.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).
Backing up this linguistic avenue of thought is the fact that the Norse word frétt can be found in the phrase gekk til frèttar, which means ‘to make an enquiry of a god.’6 The practice 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 sailors, who were looking to be led to their new home across the sea. Wherever the pillars landed, so their home would be made.7
This bears little resemblance to the Scottish practice of frìth, which contains strong elements of Gaelic traditions and customs. The opposing argument 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.8 Answers. 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) is always male, but the fact that both Mary and Brìde are associated with its origins seems to contradict this.9 It does seem, however, that the gift of frìtheireachd may be inherited among members of certain families, with Carmichael noting that those with the surname Freer claim to have a long heritage as being the astrologers of kings.10
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 have evolved. Two key factors are that the frìth is meant to be performed before sunrise on the first Monday of the quarter, and that the omens are taken while the frìtheir stands at the threshold of the house – so both time and place are essentially liminal: neither in the house, nor out; neither one day really finished or another yet begun. The frìtheir is 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 they should approach the doorway with closed eyes.11
McNeill gives a detailed description of how it is typically 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.”12
In South Uist, McNeill notes, it is 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.”13
Presumably the practice of making a sort of telescope with the hands helps to focus the view of the augurer and removes any potential distractions from anything that isn’t directly in their line of sight (and perhaps is 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.14 Here, a special stance is 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.15 This appearance bears a striking resemblance to some of the descriptions of the Cailleach found in Scotland.
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 Brìde 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,16 as well as in the songs given in volume five.17
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.’ ”18
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 is revealed through the proper actions.
The charms are usually said to be sung, intoned or recited by the frìtheir,19 but some sources state that they were said mentally, rather than out loud.20 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’s not just the actions, timing and words that are important in performing frìth, but also the location of where the frìtheir is looking to. A view across land is considered to be considerably easier to glean omens from than it is if the frìtheir is looking across water – streams, lakes or sea, for example, with a wide, deep sea being the most difficult. This is 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 thesiol 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…”21
Assuming the frìtheir is successful in finding omens after carefully taking position, the signs are interpreted according to the kind of animal or person that are seen, the direction they are 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 are considered to be either lucky or unlucky, rathadach or rosadach. These signs (primarily taken from Carmichael, unless otherwise stated) include:
- 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)22
- 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)23
- 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),24 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 death25
- An animal lying down indicates death
- A woman standing is unlucky – death or an untoward event
- A woman passing is not so bad26
- 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 is27
- 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 neutral28
- 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 postponed29
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 practices 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 Gaelic Polytheist context. The outline I’ve given below uses the most obvious elements from what has been recorded, according to my own personal intuition. 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 Brìde 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.30 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.
1. Preparation and Opening
Go to your hearth.31 When you’re ready, make an offering to Brìde, saying something like:
|Fàilte dhuibh, A Bhrìghde,
Slàinte mhath, A Bhrìghde,
Beannachd leibh, A Bhrighde.
|Welcome to you, O Brìde,
Health to you, O Brìde,
Blessings on you, O Brìde.
|Beannachd nèimhe, neul-beannachd,
Beannachd tìre, toradh-beannachd,
Beannachd mara, iasg-beannachd.
|Blessing of sky, cloud-blessing,
Blessing of land, fruit-blessing,
Blessing of sea, fish-blessing.32
Stay for a while, in contemplation so that you might feel her presence. Think about the task at hand. If you wish, ask for her assistance and blessing in the ritual you’re about to perform.
When you’re ready, 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.
2. Procession to the Threshold
Keeping in a sunwise direction, with eyes still closed (or blindfolded), head towards the front door (or window)33 and open it. As you make your way, say:
|Mise dol a mach shlighe-sa Bhrìde,
Brìde romham, Brìde dheogham,
Brìde faram, Brìde fodham,
Thusa, Bhrìde, air mo luirg.
|I am going out on your path, Brìde,
Brìde before me, Brìde behind me,
Brìde over me, Brìde under me,
You, O Brìde, on my path.
|An t-eòlas rinn Brìde,
Shéid an Rioghainn ‘romh glac,
Fios firinne gun fhios bréige;
Mar a fhuair ise gum faic mise
Samhladh air an rud a tha mi fhéin ag iarraidh.
|The charm Brìde made,
The Queen blew through her palms,
Knowledge of truth and no lie,
As she found may I see
The likeness of what I am seeking.34
You should aim to take your position as you get to the second verse, first forming a “seeing tube” with the finger and thumb of your left hand formed into a circle and breathing through it as you say the charm under your breath, and then lifting it up to your right eye as you finish speaking. Once your hand is in place, open your eye and look straight ahead, taking note of anything that you see — don’t let your eyes wander, just take note of anything that passes your line of sight or catches your peripheral vision.
3. Closing Offerings
When you’re ready, come back inside (turning sunwise away from the door) and come back to your hearth. If you feel like you need to write down what you saw and make some notes then now is a good time to do that, or else you might want to meditate on the meaning of the omens you were given. Once you’ve processed everything, you should finish off the rite with further offerings of thanks to Brìde.
Make sure you do some breathing and stretches to bring yourself back into the present. At this point you can break your fast; having something to eat will help you return to yourself.
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).
4 MacBain’s Dictionary, 1896. Carmichael appears to follow MacBain’s suit: Carmina Gadelica Volume II.
5 Dictionary of the Scots Language.
6 Ellis-Davidson, Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe, 1988, p135.
7 Ellis-Davidson, Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe, 1988, p135.
8 MacInnes, ‘Traditional Belief in Gaelic Society,’ in Fantastical Imagination, Lizanne Henderson (Ed.), 2009, p190.
9 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 Carmina Gadelica Volume II. See also Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p529. Freer is most likely to be a Norman surname though…
11 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p532; p616.
12 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p56.
13 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p56.
14 Borsje and Kelly, ‘The Evil Eye in Early Irish Literature’, Celtica Vol 24, p25.
15 See Borsje and Kelly, ‘The Evil Eye in Early Irish Literature’, Celtica Vol 24, p22.
16 Carmina Gadelica Volume II.
17 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.
18 Henderson, Survivals in belief among the Celts, 1911, p223-224.
19 As in the examples given above, but see also Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p534.
20 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p616.
21 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p529.
22 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.
23 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p56.
24 A white horse (indicates) land,
A grey horse ocean,
A bay horse burial-place,
A brown horse sorrow.
Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p530.
25 “…he is marking your grave, and you may as well prepare.” Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p143.
26 McNeill contradicts this, saying it is a ‘fairly lucky’ sign. McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p56.
27 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p143.
28 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.
29 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p529-530. See also MacKenzie, Gaelic Incantations, Charms and Blessings of the Hebrides, 1895, p8.
30 The 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.
31 Or altar, or shrine, depending on what you have available.
32 A Gaelic adaptation of the Irish original, see Dillon, ‘The Story of the Finding of Cashel,’ in Ériu 16, 1952, p69; compare with Dillon, Lebor na Cert, 1962, p120-121.
The modern spelling nèimh could be alternately used in the first line; here we have used the slightly older spelling of nèimhe, as this gives a better flow to the piece over all, making it two syllables as tìre and mara in the following lines. While most translations interpret nèimh/nèimhe and the Gaeilge equivalent as “heaven,” the word still retains secondary meanings of “firmament, sky, the skies,” although they are now rarely used. However, as a more neutral meaning and still valid interpretation, we have chosen to go with “sky” rather heaven, especially since it is more fitting with neul-beannachd, “cloud-blessing;” in addition to this, while most translations give the second line as “earth blessing,” tír/tíre/tìre is more accurately defined as “land.” Overall, explicitly referencing land, sea, and sky in the translation seems simpler and more transparent for children to get to grips with when dealing with the concept of the three realms.
33 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.
34 This is largely based on the version given by Henderson, with reference to the different variations given by Carmichael in Volume V.
The second and third lines of the first verse have been expanded slightly to make four lines in total. Henderson gives Dia ’m luirg which has been given as Thusa, Brìde, air mo luirg.
In the second verse, shéid Brighd ’romh băs (glaic) has been changed to Shéid an Rioghainn ‘romh glac; “an Rioghainn” is used to address Brìde in several of the examples given by Carmichael in Volume V, and he usually gives “maid” or “maiden” as the translation. “Queen” fits better here, but it’s also worth noting that the word can mean “serpent” as well, tying in with the serpent that comes from its den at Là Fhèill Brìghde.
Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, 1911, p223; Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume V, 1954, pp286-297.