Recently, I wrote about The Sacred Circle as an image for how God and creation relate to one another. Today I want to take that same simple image of the circle and talk about how it is traditionally used in the Celtic blessing known as a caim.
The caim prayer is a separation of spiritual things. Much in the same way which God creates by an act of separation, the one making the caim is separating what is inside the circle from what is outside of it. One might say something like “peace within, strife without” or “health be in, sickness be out”.
I would like to share with you some Scottish folk traditions about these circles of protection. I am getting my information from The Carmina Gadelica and Scottish Customs From the Cradle to the Grave. by Margaret Bennett. The Carmina Gadelica uses the word ‘caim’ while Scottish Customs uses the word ‘dessil’. They are slightly different from one another and I’ll discuss them both and give some examples.
Caim prayers in the Carmina Gadelica are also referred to as ‘encompassing’ and Carmichael notes they were popular amongst both Catholics and Protestants and amongst the well educated and simple folk alike. The caim is made by extending the forefinger of the right hand outwards and pivoting on the spot, moving sunwise (clockwise), effectively drawing a circle in the air around yourself. This circle will accompany you as you walk. This is most commonly used when one is in a frightening situation, for instance after hearing a disturbing noise while walking alone at night.
The Carmina Gadelica gives a few of the prayers that were in common use in the west of Scotland at the time. Here is one that would be used to protect oneself.
The holy Apostle’s guarding,
The gentle martyr’s guarding,
The nine angels guarding,
Be cherishing me, be aiding me.
The quiet Brigit’s guarding,
The gentle Mary’s guarding,
The warrior Michael’s guarding,
Be shielding me, be aiding me.
The God of the elements’ guarding,
The loving Christ’s guarding,
The Holy Spirit’s guarding,
Be cherishing me, be aiding me.
Another prayer given in the text is worded as to make it sound like it would be used in the blessing of another rather than oneself. Perhaps the practice would be more akin to the dessil, which I discuss below. It goes like this:
The compassing of God be on thee,
The compassing of the God of life.
The compassing of Christ be on thee,
The compassing of the Christ of love.
The compassing of Spirit be on thee,
The compassing of the Spirit of Grace.
The compassing of the Three be on thee,
The compassing of the Three preserve thee,
The compassing of the Three preserve thee.
There is an old Gaelic tradition which takes place on Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve). People go about from house to house visiting and partying. The old style homes had a circular fire pit in the center of the home and when visitors came to a house they would go around the fire sunwise (clockwise) saying this little blessing:
May God bless this dwelling,
Each stone, and beam, and stave,
All food, and drink, and clothing.
May health of men be always there.
In like manner, midwives would carry fire in their right hand and make a circle round the baby three times. This was done every morning and evening, with the rising and setting of the sun, until the baby was christened. This same pattern of circling something three times carrying a flame in the right hand could be used to bless many things. Each family would bless their own house, fields, and cattle in this manner and it was called the dessil.
There is a famous story of St Ninian, that famous missionary to the Picts in present day Scotland, which was written down by Aelred of Rievaulx in his work The Life of St. Ninian. Ninian, we are told, made a habit of granting the episcopal blessing not only to humans but also to livestock. The precise manner in which this blessing was bestowed, at least in one particular instance, is described by Ailred like this:
“Therefore, all the animals being gathered into one place, when the servant of the Lord had looked upon them, he lifted up his hand and commended all that he had to the Divine protection. Going, therefore, round them all, and drawing as it were a little circle with the staff on which he leant, he enclosed the cattle, commanding that all within that space should that night remain under the protection of God.”
That same night a band of thieves came to steal the cattle and one was killed by the bull while the rest were driven mad by a mysterious power. The promise of protection for all within the circle had not only protected the cattle from being stolen, but it also meant that Ninian was not willing to allow the thieves to be harmed. Praying over the mutilated body, Ninian implored God to restore life to the thief, and the man was returned not only to life but to perfect health. The others who had been driven mad also returned and begged Ninian for forgiveness which he granted them, after a good scolding, and their madness subsided.
Not only did the sacred circle protect the bulls and by extension the thieves, but it also allowed for another miracle to take place. The sort of miracle which does not heal nor protect, the sort of miracle which one would never think to ask for. In fact, this miracle almost feels like a side effect. Ailred goes on to say:
“For the bull of the herd rushed upon the men in fury, and striking at the leader of the thieves, threw him down, pierced his belly with his horns, sending forth his life and his entrails together. Then tearing up the earth with his hoofs, he smote with mighty strength a stone which happened to be under his foot, and in a wonderful way, in testimony of the miracle, the foot sunk into it as if into soft wax, leaving a footmark in the rock, and by the footmark giving a name to the place. For to this day the place in the English tongue is named Farres Last, that is, the Footprint of the Bull.”
This dessil which the saint performed created a thin place where the veil between heaven and earth, at least for a time, seemed to disappear. Within this sacred space people could be raised from the dead, and hard stone became soft as wax. I referred to this sacred space as a dessil rather than a caim because it was an encircling of another rather than of the self. Just as the midwives carried the sacred flame in a circle around the infant, so did Ninian make the circle around the cattle.
This thin space which connects heaven and earth happens in a circle because both are part of the same circle to begin with. Heaven being closer to God in the center and earth being the outer circumference. All of life is circular, the seasons, the cycles of life, the universe itself, all happen within the great circle. This is symbolised on the Celtic Cross by the circle which surrounds the intersection of the arms of the cross. The death and resurrection of Christ and the circle of incarnation are brought together in a symbolic union. Both, of course, represent a pattern without end. The cross is a symbol of death, which we know was not final and the circle has no end to it either.
So, when you use this kind of blessing, if you choose to do so, remember that it is the eternal and unending power of the incarnation which you invoke and treat it with the reverence and appreciation which it deserves.
Prayers of encircling and other blessings from the Carmina Gadelica can be found in my book Psalter of the Birds. It is a collection of many historical Celtic poems and other texts from the early middle ages to the nineteenth century. All of the poems have been arranged for both reading and chanting. You can purchase a copy from our books page by clicking HERE.
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