Most people familiar with my books will be aware that I usually try to introduce at least one pre-historic cultural Irish/Celtic concept into a story (and more if it fits with the narrative). For a while now, I’ve been intending to slip in a ritual known as imbas forosnai, something referred to briefly in Book Two of the Fionn series (Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne). I had hoped to describe this in more detail in Book Three but this isn’t going to happen until Book Four now.
I should probably explain that imbas forosnai was one of a number of ancient rituals used for prophetic purposes or to seek advice from the Otherworld. In some respects, it would have been similar to ritualistic processes used by other ancient cultures (in terms of the objective, at least) such as the Greek oracle at Delphi, the Nechung oracle in Tibet and so on.
In the Fenian Cycle, Fionn mac Cumhaill has a very strong association with this ritual (in the earliest stories he’s actually portrayed more as a seer than a warrior or leader of men). It’s also more than likely that imbas forsnai formed the basis of his prophetic ability, as expressed through the sucking or biting of his ‘magic’ thumb. I covered this in some depth in Beara Dark Legends (At least I think I did – it’s been a while since I’ve looked at it).
There’s certainly enough evidence to indicate imbas forosnai was a relatively well-known rite in pre-historic Ireland. Over the course of many centuries however, that ritual was completely eroded from memory due to colonisation and competing cultural belief systems. Several references remain in the ancient Irish literature and of course Sanas Cormaic (a ninth century Irish glossary/dictionary that attempts to explain many ancient words or expressions) describes the ritual in some detail. When you read it however, it’s pretty obvious the author isn’t actually familiar with the subject he’s writing about. Even by the 9th century, the ritual he’s describing has already faded into antiquity.
“It discovers whatever thing the poet wishes and which he desires to enlighten. This is how it is done. The poet chews a morsel of the red meat of a pig, or a dog, or a cat and puts it then on a flagstone behind the door. He chants an incantation over it and offers it to the idol gods and calls them to him and does not abandon them on the morrow.
He chants over his two palms and calls again idol gods to him lest his sleep be disturbed. He puts his two hands on his two cheeks and sleeps. And he is watched lest he turn over or lest he be disturbed by anybody. Then is revealed to him that for which he was seeking.”
If you go online, you’ll find numerous references to imbas forosnai but you’d be better off ignoring anything unless there’s a major body of contemporary academic study to support it. Like the author of Sanas Cormaic, some people attribute all kinds of mystical interpretations to something they don’t fully understand. They tend to forget how difficult it is for a contemporary person to fully comprehend those ancient references. Not only do we lack the historical context to understand them but often the cultural context as well. Different cultures and different societies do not think in the same manner and even when you translate a language you can often miss much of the true meaning. Applying our own modern cultural and values systems to a different culture, invariably leads to misinterpretation.