As the Lia Fail is My Witness

In reading the Wisdom of Yoga by Stephen Cope (shared with me by a wonderful woman I know) on my path to de-stressing, I came across a concept that I could really understand and work with. It is the concept of the witness within each of us. Briefly, the idea is that there is a inner witness which is able to stand still and observe one’s thoughts, worries, fears, opinions, “should do’s,” etc., without interacting with them. The witness simply watches them slip by, does not try to engage them or react to them. It is inner peace, something we tend to loose sight of.

The witness within is much like a person sitting on a park bench (I have found), watching bikes and cars and runners go by on their way to work. You don’t engage them, you don’t try to stop them, ask where they are headed, try to divert their path. You simply witness them. They do not change you and you do not change them.

This is something, finally, I have been able to really understand and practice on my path to de-stressing. It is easier with cars and bikes than it is with your own thoughts, but the analogy has helped. I close my eyes and imagine the peace and calm within me, an essence of some inner part of me, just standing there, as thoughts and opinions and lists and pressures happen around me.

Interestingly (well, to me anyway), I always picture my inner witness as the Lia Fail. Always.

The Lia Fail is a standing stone on a very important ancient royal site in Ireland, the Hill of Tara. Tara is a ring fort near Dublin and was the seat of the High Kings of Ireland; 142 kings are said to have reigned there in prehistoric and historic times, up until the 11th century.

Arial view of the Hill of Tara, courtesy of mythicalireland.com

The history of Tara is documented in an 11th century manuscript, known as The Book of Invasions. Ireland, interestingly, doesn’t have a creation story as such, rather it has stories of a series of invasions.

In ancient Irish religion and mythology, it was believed to be the sacred place of dwelling for the Tuatha de Danann, the gods and goddesses who were forced underground with the coming of the Celts and became the folkloric fairies and sprites. For this reason, the Celts came to believe that Tara was the entrance to the Otherworld.

It is said that on a clear day, one can see each of the provinces of Ireland from its hilltop, significant if you are claiming to be the King of the whole country.

There are over 30 uncovered monuments and ancient structures visible at Tara, and many more still underground. One of the most important of these is the Royal Seat and on top of this stands the Lia Fail. Made of granite, the Lia Fail was the coronation stone for the Kings of Ireland and was known as the Stone of Destiny. According to legend, it was said to sing when touched by the rightful King of Ireland.

The Lia Fail, courtesy of Wikipedia.

I studied Celtic Studies, focusing on Ireland, nearly 20 years ago for my B.A. It’s amazing how much of my knowledge has been forgotten, but also how much of it comes back with a little prodding.

In 1997, the year before I finished my B.A., I went to Ireland for the first time. I started in Dublin and within the first few days, I made my way to Tara, alone, at dawn, before the tourists arrived.

Rather than trying to remember my thoughts and feelings sitting there at the culmination of years of study, mythological exploration and dreaming, I went back and read my journal from that day. Here is some of what I wrote:

Here I am, sitting beside the Lia Fail on top of Tara in the sunshine. There are sheep everywhere. And ravens. I can feel the Tuatha de Danann watching, hear them in the rustling grass. The power here is tremendous. The wind never stops blowing and the clouds move ceaselessly across the blue sky. I lay down in the grass for a bit beside the Royal Seat, daydreaming.

I remember trying back then to believe in the ancient religion. I had always felt an affinity for both Ireland and nature, and as a nature-based religion, it seemed it should be easy. I had at a much younger age determined that I could not be a Christian, as I simply didn’t belive in the mystical aspects of Jesus, or in the blood shed in his name. But I could not claim to be of any other religion either. My father is atheist, my mother, well, agnostic maybe? But her family, who had a strong influence on my life, was definitely Christian.

Nevertheless, I explored Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, the history of early Christianity, and many of the ancient pagan religions (Celtic, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, South American and North American Aboriginal). I discovered an obsessive passion for reading about and understanding religions and beliefs, especially the ancient origins of religion. I can read for months about the small intricacies of how and why people believe, and believed, what they do/did. But what I realize now is that I didn’t really believe in the mysteries myself, despite how much affinity I felt, and continue to feel, for the nature-based pagan mythologies. I’m not scientific in any respect, but I have a pretty scientific view of life and death, and post-death.

I see now that history and heritage and a connection to my past, the Earth’s past, and to nature, are my religion. In the end, I can’t get my head around the fact that, for example, a tree is a tree, and a stone is a stone – they are not, as far as I can conceive, inhabited by tree or stone spirits. But I know all about the tree and stone spirits, and though I know they aren’t there, I feel an affinity for the tree and stone that I can’t explain. An affinity that goes beyond appreciation of their beauty and their place in nature. I think it is  a deep connection to and appreciation for their history, their agelessness, their existence through earlier times, among earlier peoples.

The conflicting nature of my belief-but-not-belief views are best summed up in the following quotation from this essay:

The representation of nature in Irish mythology can best be described as mystical, broadening it to something more than natural, yet not quite supernatural. Nature is a place in-between, often seen as a doorway between this world and the otherworld. All of Irish mythology is informed by a known and familiar world, but one simultaneously unknown, where anything is possible.

The Lia Fail may be, on one level, only a hunk of granite, but it is a witness of time and of history and it is part of nature, too. Tara, and its stone, have been constant throughout the millennia. They have seen prehistoric times. They have witnessed kings and invasions and battles, including modern battles for Tara’s preservation (see brief but useful explanation here). And they are now enjoying a resurgence of interest through solstice festivals, a High Kings Festival (see link below) and other celebrations.

Tara and the Lia Fail remain hugely symbolic.

And in this light, it makes sense that the Lia Fail should symbolize for me the silent witness within, the ability to observe without being caught up in the surrounding maelstrom.

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