Discovering the Bean Feasa

This similar to an article  which originally ran in Plant Healer Magazine, but I’ve updated it a bit based on new things I’ve read and questions students have asked.”  <3 Stephany

Recreation of an Iron Age Irish roundhouse.  The early days of domestic medicine.

During my studies with Sean, he shared with me an article written by Kenneth Proefrock in which Kenneth states “the conclusions our ancestors were able to draw regarding the subtleties of health and healing must still be within us.”[1]    I loved it so much, I contacted Kenneth who kindly provided me with enough information that I could cite him in my thesis.

For some reason that single statement spoke to me deeply.  I know I’ve mentioned that before but my explanation didn’t make sense to some people. I guess I felt like it gave I me some direction at a time when I needed it. I had made it through  most of my biomedical training  for the most part unscathed and was studying Ayurveda.  I don’t even know why–probably because all the cool kids like to talk about Ayurveda or TCM and having learned my plants from an old Gaelic dude in the SCA, I didn’t know a lot about those modalities.

Ayurveda is a very rigid, prescriptive practice and  it just wasn’t speaking to me. It’s probably my genetic structure which causes me to rebel against the construct of professionalism. I have Irish, Scottish, Cornish, Dutch Jew, and Quaker heritage.  I am at the very core of myself, a village peasant.  The plants weren’t speaking to me, either.

More importantly my education had made me more aware of the moral gray area that we enter when appropriate the knowledge of other cultures. I decided that I just wanted to avoid the hassle.  Kenneth’s statements encouraged me to maintain the focus of  my anthropological studies on the healers and folkways of own heritage.

And I am on that.  I know my history. I know which translators are pretty solid and who was writing creative nonfiction. That’s part of being a responsible researcher.  I have facsimiles of Irish history books written in the 1600’s and every herbal published in the UK before 1600.  I am such a nerd that when I find a partially legible note scribbled in the front of a copy of Kuno Meyer’s Triads of Ireland about “Professor Binc….”  I know that whoever wrote the note was a student of Daniel Binchy’ s because Binchy used Meyer’s translations as texts.

For the purposes of brevity, this article will focus primarily on the Irish culture, but I contend anyone who has studied the folk healers of their own ancestry will recognize synchronicities as I did when I explored other branches of my heritage.

Scholars who study Irish history face several disadvantages.  The first problem is that the acidity of the soil in Ireland has yielded little in the way of organic remains.  The second is that being a people who were very fond of oral narrative, the Irish didn’t bother with writing much down.   When they finally took to writing, they did so with fervor. Irish scribes preserved the knowledge of ancient societies through the Dark Ages. Manuscripts such as the Rosa Anglica would have been lost to time were it not for these monks.[2]

Unfortunately, the failed attempt at ethnic cleansing of the Irish by the English included the destruction of the monasteries and churches where many of the early Gaelic manuscripts had been hidden.

Written documentation is sparse and generally pertains to professional healers.  There are two surviving Brehon Law tracts which pertained to medical practice: the Bretha Crólige (Judgments of Blood-lying)[3] and the Bretha Déin Cécht (Judgments of Dían Cécht)[4] which were written between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 9th, by Irish monastic communities.  The tracts confirm the existence of both male and female physicians known as liaig and ban-liaig, respectively.   They also established norms regarding the responsibility of caring for the injured and ill called folog nothrusa (maintenance of sickness).  Brehon law texts also refer to bags carried by physicians known as línchor.[5]

Commentaries known as glosses, were added to these documents during the 11th- to 12th century which implied that women physicians functioned mostly as midwives. They were undoubtedly added due to the increasingly patriarchal conservatism of the church as there is ample documentation of female healers practicing in the early modern era.  This is how the phrase “gloss things over” got its start.

One recension of the Irish mythological cycle, Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of the Taking of Ireland)[6] was included as part of the Lebor Laignech (Book of Leinster) written in 1150 CE by another monastic community.  It includes a narrative called the Tain bo Cuailgne which mentions of a group of liaig said to accompany certain armies, wearing bags known as lés which carried the ointments that they would apply to injured soldiers at the end of the battle.

When researcher Audrey Meaney catalogued early burial sites in the UK, it was mostly women whose graves contained artifacts, the placement of which left the impression that they had originally been contained in some sort of bag.[7] This seems to back up folk narratives which assert that females were once responsible for healing in their communities. More to the point though it was many women who had these bags at various sites.

This was one of the first times that I saw (truthfully… it was an advisor who pointed it out to me) that what I thought was only a problem amongst creative nonfiction writers, was a very real problem in anthropological research.   In their quest for compelling discoveries, they read much into what in what was probably just an everyday practice.  It seems likely that moms just carried a first aid kit than a village had 27 shamans.

Setting that question aside until some remarkable new archaeological find sheds light on the issue, folklore specialists, such as Richard Jenkins, do agree that indigenous healing beliefs informed various “ritual specialists…from the early modern period to the twentieth century.”[8]  The study of these healers is mostly informed by written folklore and ethnographic compilation of oral narratives. Discovering more about these healers provides a glimpse of what their healing culture might look like.

Childbirth: Woodcut from Der Swangern Frawen und he bammen roszgarten, by Eucharius Rösslin, 1513.

Women gave birth with the help of midwives called cnáimhseach or bean ghlúine[9] (kneeling woman) who was responsible for knowing many methods of protecting the health of the newborn child. It was the bean ghlúine who would lay the iron bar across a cradle or bathe a newborn in saltwater to prevent abduction by the aes sídhe.

These women were also known for having tricks to be able to help relieve the pain of childbirth.  Some claimed to be able to do this by means of transferring the pain of childbirth to a man. A Munster midwife told Lady Gregory, “Did I know the pain could be put on a man?  Sure, I seen my own mother that was a midwife do it.”

Gregory goes on to tell a story of a man, whose wife was in labor, falling amongst his friends gathered outside the home, as if experiencing the pain of childbirth.  What stands out to me about this story is that the men had gathered together outside to support their friend as he waited for his child to be born.  That experience seemed to be the norm, leading one to believe that the birth of a child was a community affair.

The bean feasa (woman of knowing) was an intriguing character, and likely the ritual specialist in Irish society.  While most accounts mention females in this role, there is a male term, fear feasa, which may speak to the fact that the role was likely less gendered than feminist folklorists maintain. There was the “lucht pisreóg” and while many people translate that to enchanter, the literal translation is simply “community charmer”.   In Scotland, she was called the hen-wife or the cailleach-chearc.[10]

The idea that the bean feasa inhabited liminal spaces was probably first put forth in academic circles by folklorist Nancy Schmitz, who published a paper that ended with a brief comparison of the bean feasa and Native American shamans.[11] Folklorist Gearoid Ó Crualaoich depicts the bean feasa as “an oracular authority for her community regarding the meaning and significance of experiences they fail to understand.”[12]

Working within the framework of beliefs held by many ancient society that illness was caused by malevolent spirits and the like, it was she who was responsible for mediating between the human world and the Otherworld.  Sometimes she did this by use of charms and spells, sometimes by means of divination or prophecy.  While on occasion she would work with herbs or strange potions, she often was called upon when the cause of an illness or misfortune was mysterious in nature.

It is important to note that these healers were not considered witches in the sense of a human who had some sort of pact with the devil, though some of them had power struggles with local priests.   In fact, there is no Gaelic word for that sort of witch.  As Nancy Schmitz explains Irish people all had “access to supernatural power in the form of spells and charms and entrance to the fairy world (for good or evil), was available to anyone who wished to make use of it. No contract with a particular figure of evil was necessary.”[13] This seems to be supported by the fact that Irish Christian literature was still denigrating  fios sigheog (knowledge of fairies)” well into the late seventeenth century. [14]

Biddy Early is possibly the most widely lauded bean feasa in Ireland.  Immortalized by Irish folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory in her book, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Biddy Early is notorious for consulting her infamous “black bottle” for her otherworldly knowledge.  It may say something about “scholars” that I have never once read it suggested that the bottle might contain an entheogen. 

In the years after the Gaelic language faded from common use, these healers were called fairy doctors –described here by Irish folklorist Lady Francesca Wilde:

“The fairy doctors are generally females. Old women, especially, are considered to have peculiar mystic and supernatural power. They cure chiefly by charms and incantations, transmitted by tradition through many generations.”[15]

There also seem to have been healers who dealt with the everyday illnesses and injuries in a village by means of herbs, charms and other remedies.  In Ireland, she was called the bean leighis (probably some sort of corruption of ban-liaig).  The more I study this the more I think that this term was used to describe older women who helped in the community after their children had grown and gone.

The bean leighis were responsible for passing along the use of cures to the younger members of the community, but it did not seem that their knowledge was exclusive and it could also be that the term was used to describe an action rather than a role.  As James Mangen told Lady Gregory, “my mother learned cures from an Ulster woman, for the Ulster women are the best for cures.”  It seems that many of the women of the peasantry had some passing knowledge of these practices leading Lady Gregory to state “An old woman without learning, it is she who will be doing charms.” [16]

The plants  were commonly used is supported by the folk narrative.  Lady Gregory mentions conversations with healers such as Bridget Ruane who assured her that “Dub-cosac (lichen) was “food for the heart, very good for a sore heart” and that “slanlus (plantain) and garblus (dandelion) were both used for curing wounds and bringing people back from the dead.[17]

Most women seemed to have a grasp on enough basic knowledge to care for their families and only turned to outside help when they were in over their head. Irish medical historian James Mooney concurs saying that “every housekeeper is well acquainted with all the virtues of the common herbs” and that she only turns for help when “she has exhausted her resources or is convinced that the illness is of supernatural origin.”[18]

In Irish society, the torramh (wake) was a community event which often lasted days and included plays, sharing of pipes, dancing, singing, and the ancient practice known as caoineadh, or keening. It is during the torramh that we meet another wise woman the bean chaointe (keening woman) who:

“Inhabited a liminal state between the living and the world of the dead for the duration of the mourning period, entering a kind of “divine madness” which allowed the keener to express the collective outpouring of grief through her voice and body, leading the community in a public expression of sorrow and lament.”[19]

These funeral rituals support the idea that the Gaels understood the importance of social affiliation in helping people rebound from trauma.[20]  This is a particularly powerful message for me as it is my firm belief that we do a dismal job of mourning these days, which leaves those who have suffered a loss in a state of lingering trauma.

This very brief description of the Gaelic healing culture speaks to their understanding that the wellness of the whole community is crucial to survival.  At every turn, you read community members stepping up to take part in the process.
That may be the one bit of commonality that I have found in all resilient communities- a strong sense of social cohesion which their healers were partially responsible for nurturing.  There is so much to be learned from those who have gone before us in the ways of self-care and community wellness.

[1] Proefrock, Kenneth. 2010. "Otzi and the Judgments of Dian Cecht." Aontacht. December. http://www.druidicdawn.com/aontacht/volume3.html.

[2] Wulff, Winifred. Rosa Anglica Sev Rosa Medicinæ Johannis Anglici: An Early Modern Irish Translation of a Section of the Mediaeval Medical Text-Book of John of Gaddesden. London, England: Simpkin Marshall LTD., 1923.

[3] Binchy, Daniel A. “Bretha Crólige.” Ériu 12 (1938): 1–77

[4] Binchy, D. A. “Bretha Déin Chécht.” Ériu 20 (1966): 1–66.

[5] Kelly, F. (2001). “Medicine and Early Irish Law.” Irish Journal of Medical Science, 73-77.

[6] Macalister, D., ed. Lebor Gabála Érenn : The Book of the Taking of Ireland. Translated by Stewart, R.A. 5 vols. Dublin, Ireland: Dublin: Published for the Irish texts Society by the Educational Company of Ireland, 1938.

[7] Pollington, Leechcraft, p 48.

[8] Jenkins, R. (2007). “The Transformations of Biddy Early: From Local Reports of Magical Healing to Globalised New Age Fantasies.” Folklore, 162-182.

[9] Shaw, William. A Galic and English Dictionary: Containing All the Words in the Scotch and Irish Dialects of the Celtic, ... Vol. 1–2. W. and A. Strahan, 1780.  Regional distribution.

[10] Beith, M. (2004). Healing Threads: Traditional Healing of the Highlands and the Islands. Edinburgh: Berlinn Limited.

[11] Schmitz, N. (1977). “An Irish Wise Woman.” Journal of the Folklore Institute, 169-179.

[12] Ó Crualaoich, G. (2003). The Book of the Cailleach. Dublin: Cork University Press.

[13] Nancy Schmitz, “Irish Wise Woman,” 173.

[14] Timothy C. Correll, "Believers, Sceptics and Charlatans: Evidential Rhetoric, the Fairies and Fairy

Healers in Irish Oral Narrative and Belief," Folklore 116, 2. 

[15] Wilde, L. F. (1887). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland Volume II. Boston: Tinker and Co. Retrieved from Sacred Texts: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ali/ali152.htm

[16]  Gregory, L. (1920). Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. London: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

[17] Gregory, L. Visions and Beliefs

[18] Mooney, James. The Medical Mythology of Ireland. Philadelphia, PA: MacCalla & Company, 1887. p. 138.

[19] McCoy, N. P. (2009). “Madwoman, Banshee, Shaman: Gender, Changing Performance Contexts and the Irish Wake Ritual.” In B. B. E. Mackinlay, Musical Islands: Exploring Connections Between Music, Place and Research (pp. 207-220). Newcastle UK: Cambridge Scholars Press.

[20] Donnelly, S. (1999). “Folklore associated with dying in the west of Ireland.” Palliative Medicine, 57-62.