One of the shamanic, or vision-seeking, practices of ancient Druids was the tairbfeis (or tairb-feis), known as the “bull sleep” or “bull dreaming.” In this rite the Druid would sacrifice a white bull, then eat its meat and drink its blood and a broth made of its flesh. After this meal, the seeker would wrap himself in the bull’s hide and go to sleep. The dream he had while wrapped in the hide was said to indicate who the next king would be.

Scholars differ on whether or not the broth consumed by the Druid contained any psychotropic substances. We’ll probably never know. The rite does however contain a couple of other elements common to shamanic rituals throughout the world. The first is the animal sacrifice. The next is the sensory deprivation provided by the bull’s hide, and finally the element of sleeping to seek a vision.

It may be possible to add another element of shamanic vision-seeking as well. In the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the Druid MacRoth advises King Ailill and Queen Medb while wearing a bull’s hide robe and a headdress made of feathers. The story then says that MacRoth rose up with the fire into the skies. This is the archetypal out-of-body experience common to shamans from all over the world. In those days the roundhouses were heated by a fire in the center with a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape through. It’s easy to picture the Druid’s spirit rising up with the smoke through the hole in the roof to sail off to other realms.

If we consider the way MacRoth is dressed in this story, then the bull hide used in the tairbfeis could serve the additional function of being the vision seeker’s robe. Such robes were sometimes used in shape-shifting rites as well, and the bull is and was a sacred symbol of the Goddess. The significant of this connection needs a little more explaining.

In ancient Irish kingdoms, the king was seen as wed to the land. If the king suffered, then the land suffered, and vice-versa. The land was represented by the Goddess, so when a Druid engaged in the tairbfeis, it is possible that he was consulting with the Goddess about who her future mate would be. The idea here was the “sovereignty of the land.” This meant that the primary duty of the king was to be a steward of the land, and as the land’s spouse, the future king must be able to assure the health and prosperity of the land. So a Druid engaging in tairbfeis was consulting with the Goddess as the land embodied to see which candidate might best be able to accomplish this goal.

One of the best examples of the tairbfeis occurs in the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel). This tale tells the story of the birth, life, and death of Conaire Mór son of Eterscél Mór, a High King of Ireland. He is killed by three mysterious men dressed in red and riding red horses (Dá Derga means “Red God” and so this tale probably indicates that Conaire Mór had fallen out of favor for breaking his geasa (taboos) and was to be replaced as High King). In the Irish pantheon, the Donn was a god of death, and was known as the “red god.”

Ultimately Conaire Mór is killed because he was forced by circumstances to break all of his geasa. In the story a Druid then engages in the tairbfeis to determine who the next king will be.

The tairbfeis is not exclusive to Celtic culture either. There are elements of the ritual in Norse lore as well. A “blot” in Norse Pagan practices implies an animal sacrifice, as the word “blot” literally means “blood.” In modern times it has come to mean any sacrifice, and by extension, worship of the Gods. In the time of our Ancestors, animal sacrifice was was by far the most common type of blot. Such blots were usually accompanied by a sacrificial feast. Snorri Sturluson gives a detailed account of such a feast in his Heimskringla. In this story Snorri tells of a blot held by Jarl Sigufd of Hlaoir to celebrate his installation as Jarl. The details of wrapping up in the hide of the sacrificed animal are omitted, but the element of sacrificing animals and then having a ritual feast, in which the attendees consume the flesh and drink the blood of the sacrificed animal, are present in Snorri’s account.

There is a theory that Celtic culture, and possibly Norse as well, ultimately had its genesis in the Indus Valley. If this is true, then the tairbfeis could just be an extension and modification of a Vedic rite. The Ashvamedha was a horse sacrifice ritual followed by the Vedic religion. Ancient Vedic kings used the rite to demonstrate their sovereignty over the land and that they had been chosen by the gods to rule. In this rite a horse was released to wander for a year. This horse was followed by the king’s warriors. any land it trod upon was deemed to have been granted to the king. Anyone who wished to challenge this would have to fight the warriors accompanying the horse. If no challenger managed to kill or capture the horse, then the king’s right to rule the land was undisputed. At the end of the year, the horse was sacrificed and the king and his court feasted upon its flesh. A good recounting of this rite occurs in the “book of Horse Sacrifice” in the Mahabharata. In this tale, Krishna himself advises the king to perform the sacrifice, and then goes into great detail about how to accomplish it.

The tairbfeis was thus a critical component of selecting a new king in ancient Ireland, and the origins of the rite may go back even further than Celtic culture. What does this mean for modern Druids? Obviously no modern Druid will be called upon to select the future king, but there are elements of the rite that can still be used by Druids today who are seeking visions.

The first of these elements is the idea of eating or having a full stomach before vision-seeking. Proper vision-seeking is an energy-intensive endeavor, so having a full stomach before beginning makes success more likely.

The second is sensory deprivation. Ancient Druids wrapped themselves in a bulls’ hide for this purpose, but you can use whatever you have handy. It could be a blanket, or a sweat lodge, or just a room with the curtains drawn and the lights out. Sensory deprivation turns your focus inward with no distractions and is a prerequisite for successful vision-seeking. It also helps if the method you’re using to achieve sensory deprivation has some association with the Goddess, as the bull’s hide did in ancient times.

Finally there’s the dreaming aspect. I personally believe that it is not necessary to fall asleep to have a vision, as I’ve had quite a few visions while being in the trance state induced by a full belly and sensory deprivation. So it may be that actual sleep and dreaming is not necessary to secure a vision. My suggestion would be to do whatever works best for you. When you find a formula that helps you to seek your own visions, you’ll be honoring a tradition that may be thousands of years old.

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