‘He was a harp; all life that he had known and that was his consciousness was the strings; and the flood of music was a wind that poured against those strings and set them vibrating with memories and dreams. He did not merely feel. Sensation invested itself in form and colour and radiance, and what his imagination dared, it objectified in some sublimated and magic way. Past, present and future mingled; and he went on oscillating, across the broad, warm world…’ Jack London
Behind all this intense phenomena the harp was still providing the background music. The true name for this instrument is clairseach (Irish) or clarsach (Scottish). Unlike modern neo-Celtic harps whose strings are usually nylon, the clairseach has strings made of metal, usually brass but sometimes silver and even gold. This is the harp of legend, the instrument of the gods and heroes. Its music was given by the greatest of Irish Gods, the Dagda and through the three strains of music, Goltraighe, Sauntraighe and Geantrai, it had the power to make men laugh, cry and sleep. In the old poems and stories the harps often have special powers and personalities and are a bridge between this world and other realms, a bit like a shamanic drum in other cultures. The instrument also has a deep connection to nature and was sometimes referred to as the musical tree or Crann nan Tued, the Tree of Strings.
When I got my first clairseach, a very small simple instrument based on a carving from an Irish monastery I was simply blown away by the sound and was gripped with a fervour to learn that I hadn’t experienced since my teenage years. For most of my life I had been accustomed to being a musically advanced individual and enjoyed the various kudos that come with that but now I was a complete beginner again. What was in my head could not be translated to my fingers. I found myself with the ego of a great musician but with the fingers of a complete novice. This in fact was wonderful as it began to initiate the process of taking down my ego a peg or two. The approach of surrendering my musical identity to this new instrument coupled with meditative practice was very effective.
I was attracted to this harp because it spoke to something very ancient and deep within me. I felt there was a mystical music in my soul, which could not be expressed on the instruments I was playing. As I progressed I resolved to acquire a more serious instrument. There are a number of surviving harps but only three from the medieval period. Two of these are in Scotland and one in Ireland. The Irish one, known as the Trinity College Harp or the Brian Boru Harp is the oldest surviving instrument, c.14th century. It is the national emblem of Ireland and sits in a glass case in the Long Room of Trinity College Dublin where the Book of Kells is also housed. This harp resonated strongly with me and after a long process of research, my harp maker and I were allowed to examine this priceless artefact and produce an almost exact copy. Looking at the harp with my new found shamanic eyes it became clear to me that there was something astonishing encoded within the structure and decoration of this particular harp.
It is my personal view that the clairseach was originally a shamanic/spiritual instrument. The clairseach consists of four pieces of wood. A soundbox carved out of a solid block of willow and closed with a backplate, a curved forepillar and a harmonic curve. The great harper and researcher Ann Heymann has discovered that certain gender characteristics correspond to the various parts, the soundbox being feminine, the forepillar masculine and the harmonic curve, hermaphrodite. The hollowed out soundbox can be seen as the womb. The soundboard is flat, but when tensioned by the strings, the wood bellies up as if pregnant with sound. The forepillar has a phallic quality and actually penetrates the soundbox via a mortise and tenon joint. The harmonic curve which links these two together is both penetrated by the forepillar and penetrates the soundbox, hence hermaphrodite. However, when I looked at the harp a much deeper interpretation was revealed to me, that the Trinity College Harp essentially represents the process of spiritual enlightenment in the human being. For me the key to this is the forepillar. Carved on the forepillar is an animal; it could be a snake or a salmon. From a kundalini perspective either one works. There are no snakes in Ireland but there is the Salmon of Knowledge. The salmon returns to the source and therefore works well as an Irish kundalini symbol. Furthermore there are two heads, one going up and the other going down depicting the ascent of kundalini and its return back down into the individual. The motive of the ascending and descending serpent can also be found at Monasterboice on the tenth century Cross of Muiredach. Here, carved in high relief we have a panel known as Dextra Dei, the Right Hand of God.
‘… two interlacing serpents appear one heading downward the other upward, enframing three human heads in ascending series, with a human right hand above, reaching to the centre of a crowning halo-like ornamented disc. If this is not a specific reference to the top four states of an ascent of the sushumna, the sense of such an appearance on Christian monument commemorating the crucifixion remains to be explained.’ 30
I was sure that the forepillar represented the human spine. Just like on the Cross of Muiredach there are two serpent heads ascending and descending. On the cross the ascending head is going towards an ornamented disk symbolising enlightenment. On the harp the ascending head is moving towards a decorative mounting on the front of the harmonic curve. This contains mountings for two large crystal cabochons. The lower one is missing but the casing for it is eye shaped. The one above is a clear crystal. So here we have the kundalini serpent on the spine heading up to the third eye and union at the crown. The descending head representing the return of these united energies into the individual. It then made sense to me that the harmonic curve represented the unification of divine male and female energies. Contrary to mainstream European practice, the Gaelic harp was always played on the left shoulder with the feminine left hand playing the treble and the masculine right hand, the bass. This theme of male and female continues in the strings, as the trebles were considered feminine and the bass masculine. This is further reinforced by the presence of two strings called na comhluighe. These are two strings tuned to the same pitch, symbolically dividing the scale. In Gaelic, comhluighe means, ‘lying together’. Divine male and female strings lying together; separate yet resonating the same frequency. The original harp was painted and traces still remain, the colours are red and blue. In Buryat shamanism the centre of consciousness of the human being is seen as a star of red light in the chest and the direct connection to the divine as a blue star at the crown of the head. In my own meditations these have been the two colours that have come the most and they are of a depth and quality beyond anything that can be experienced in ordinary reality.
The entire harp is intricately decorated with wood-burning and carving. Of particular interest are the roundels containing various animals including wolf-dogs and wild boar. There is also a lion fighting a dragon, a metaphor not dis-similar, to a jaguar fighting an anaconda. These may represent spirit or power animals. Hints of this and a shamanic state of consciousness can be found in the ancient tales.
‘While they were at Cruachan, Ailill asked Fraoch if the harpers would play after dinner. This was the condition of these harps. There were harp-bags (crotbuilcc) of the skins of otters about them, ornamented with coral, (Partaing) with an ornamentation of gold and of silver over that, lined inside with snow-white roebuck skins; and these again overlaid with black-gray strips of skin; and linen cloths, as white as the swan’s coat, wrapped around the strings. Harps (Crota) of gold, and silver, and Findruine, with figures of serpents, and birds, and greyhounds upon them. These figures were made of gold and of silver. Accordingly as the strings vibrated these figures ran around the men. They [the harpers] played for them then, until twelve men of Ailill’s and Medb’s household died of crying and emotion.’31
The way these figures come ‘off’ the harps bears a striking similarity to what may happen in shamanic drumming in the Sami tradition.
‘One of the original and oldest names for the Sami shaman drum is govadas. It means an instrument that emanates images. The unique thing was thus the view that there were images coming out of them when they were used in the right way.’ 32
The harp is also covered in many mysterious shapes and symbols including concentric circles like those found in sites like Newgrange. The patterns on the left side of the harmonic curve feel particularly archaic and have yet to be satisfactorily interpreted. I speculate that they may have been used for purposes of divination and I envision the shaman harper in a state of trance moving his tuning key over the symbols in the same way that a Sami noaide moved a pointer over the symbols on his drum.
I speculated on the comhluighe and how perhaps they were used shamanically on the harp. Sound and rhythm are often used in shamanism to induce and maintain an altered state of consciousness. The most common instrument used for this is the drum. One hundred and eighty beats per minute will induce a theta brainwave state, conducive to entering a shamanic state of consciousness. It is not only the repetitive beat that contributes to this state but also the complex harmonics generated by the drum. Perhaps, the harp was played alongside a drum for this purpose. In Ireland there is a traditional frame-drum, the bodhrán. Today, it is used exclusively as a musical instrument with very complex playing techniques having evolved to provide rhythmic accompaniment to Irish traditional music. I sense strongly though, that it is a vestige of an Irish shamanic drum. The bodhrán has a round wooden frame, with an animal skin, usually goat, stretched over it, just like most shamanic drums. At the back, the wooden hoop is braced with two pieces of wood in a cross pattern. This is reminiscent not only of the ‘four directions’ but also of the interior of some Siberian sacred drums. In Siberia, the vertical part of this basic handle is sometimes developed into a spirit figure, and the horizontal part used to hang various magical objects. Furthermore, the earliest bodhráns were sometimes called tambourines as, just like Siberian drums, they had jingles attached to them, to create additional sounds. That the bodhrán may have a shamanic origin is also suggested by the fact that it was never much used in Irish traditional music until comparatively recently, it was really due to the work of the composer Sean O’Riada, in the 1950’s and 60’s, that it entered popular culture as a musical instrument. The original use of the bodhrán in fact was ritualistic with strong associations with the ritual of ‘Hunting the Wren’ on St Stephen’s Day. In Ireland, the tiny wren became the king of all birds after hitching a ride on the back of the eagle and from there flying higher even than the eagle itself.
I discovered that by playing the comhluighe rapidly and alternately it was possible to replicate the effect of the drum and its harmonics. Whilst pondering further how an Irish shaman harper might have used the instrument I remembered that there is still one great shamanic tradition that still uses a harp as its main instrument and that is Bitwi. Bitwi is a shamanic religion, which centres around one of the most powerful entheogens in the world, iboga. During the ceremony the effects of the iboga are enhanced by rapid and repetitive rhythmic motifs played on the harp accompanied by percussion. I suggest that the clairseach and the bodhrán may have also been used together in this manner.
I was delighted to find that in Gabon the harp is imbued with a deep spiritual symbolism uncannily similar to what I was seeing in my harp. What I found was that,
‘the soundbox of the harp, covered with antelope skin is seen as symbolic of the stomach of the female principle…there are two basic colours red female and white male painted on either side of the soundbox representing sexual union…the support arm represents male potency and also the backbone..the conjunction of support arm and soundbox, backbone and stomach all express sexual union.’ 33
Regarding the strings,
‘…the four chords of the highest pitch are feminine, the four lowest masculine…as the harp is played masculine and feminine tones intermingle in another expression of that union which is the source of all vitality.’ 34
This spiritual aspect of the harp expressed itself also in my dreams. A common theme was the harp as kundalini. Several times the serpent would slither off the forepillar of the harp, rear up and talk to me. On another occasion I saw an old man sitting by a fulacht fia, an ancient Irish cooking pit. The snake of the harp was on the ground slithering towards him. In one breathtakingly beautiful dream the harp revealed itself as a portal and connection to other worlds. In the dream I saw my mother. From her hands she spun a golden harp string. It extended out in front of her and passed through the frame of the harp. The harp frame was like a window and as my eyes followed the golden string through it I could see a beautiful landscape of rolling hills, trees and temples. Sitting just inside this other world was a statue, half woman, and half snake. She turned her face towards me.
Eventually, the third part of the Peruvian trinity came to me, I dreamed of a condor. In the dream I saw a little girl, she transformed into a condor, flew right up to my face, spread her wings and froze like this in mid-air. I woke with a start and knew immediately I had been gifted some music. I went to the harp and played straight away my first spirit song. It was fully formed, no compositional process, a gift. It was the first of several pieces of music given to me in altered states of consciousness to be expressed on the harp. I called it Irish Icaro. A friend of mine Barbara Karlik, uses her clairseach to journey and in a vision, saw her clairseach within a tree. To me the harp as the Tree of Strings can be seen as a musical expression of the Tree of Life, an extension of the kundalini awakened spine, a conduit for higher consciousness vibrating out into the Sacred Illusion.