Celtic Spirituality: Thin Places
In order to understand thin places, there are a few things you must know about Celtic Spirituality. First, the Celts—pre-Christian as well as Christian—were a spiritual people. They believed in the existence of divinity, they believed people had souls which continued on after their mortal bodies died, and they believed in the existence of an Otherworld. The Celts believed that heaven wasn’t up there somewhere, but instead existed right beside the mortal world. The two worlds were separated by a veil. The veil thinned as the old year drew to a close and a new one started, namely at Samhain. But the thinning of the veil didn’t just happen once a year. There were spots in the veil which were thin all the time. These occurred in specific geographic locations. These locations are known as thin places.
Before I go further into discussing this, let me acknowledge that some of what I will say in this post will differ from what some other online sources say. Here are the reasons I am staying with a particular position on the definition and explanation of Celtic thin places. In Celtic spirituality, a thin place is an area where this world and the other meet. In these places, one can see and even crossover into the supernatural world. In these places, one can encounter the Divine and be changed by that encounter. Some sources paint thin places as spots of extraordinary, often wild, beauty. Some sources imply that anywhere one can get away from the busyness of life, can unplug and be reminded that something greater than themselves exists, has the potential for being a thin place. Others indicate that one location may be a thin place for you but not for me, that we have to find that spot which speaks to us as individuals. Some seem to promote the idea that anywhere you have a spiritual experience is a thin place. While I completely support encouraging spirituality and encountering the Divine, I disagree with the notion that a thin place is dependent upon an individual’s personal experience and that where one encounters the Divine varies from person to person. Spiritual experiences can occur in spots that are not thin places. In Celtic spirituality, though, thin places exist in specific geographic locations. It is the place, not the person or the spiritual experience itself, which makes a location a thin place.
This may seem like a chicken and the egg situation. It is not. There are people who are more perceptive and more open to the divine or the supernatural than most. In fact, I am one and have been all my life. My poor mother had to deal with my tendency to have intermittent supernatural experiences, such as seeing ghosts (so yes, I do believe in ghosts). Two spiritual directors labeled me as a “mystic.” When the first one did, I was taken aback and rejected the label. I did so because I considered mystics special, holy even, and I did not think of myself in that way. Then I realized that a) some mystics, Rasputin, for instance, are not holy, and b) mysticism is a gift from God which means that it’s something given to me, not something I’ve earned or deserved. My point is that I have been wired to be aware of the Divine—in leaves, in stars, in people, in situations, even in everyday conversations. So I can experience the Divine or the supernatural without necessarily being in a thin place. But there are places, according to Celtic belief, where anyone, regardless of their usual perception or openness (or lack thereof), can stumble into God or see the Otherworld. This happens not because of the person but because of the place itself. Anyone who goes to that place has a heightened chance of connecting with the Divine or the supernatural. This is because the veil between the worlds is thin in that spot, that specific location. That, based on what I’ve learned from workshops on Celtic spirituality and oral tradition passed down from my Irish great-grandmother and through my mother to me, is a thin place.
Thin places don’t have to be in Celtic lands, such as Scotland, Ireland, or Wales. One might exist in your backyard. The Celts believed that there was a higher than average chance of encountering the supernatural in ‘tween areas, that is the spot between two places. These could be at crossroads or the border between your land and your neighbor’s. This means that thresholds had the potential to be thin places. Samhain was the threshold between the old year and the new, so that’s why the veil became so thin at that time. Midnight is a threshold and so, for the Celts, was twilight. For the Celts, days ended and began at sunset, so it was a mystical time and a point at which you might find yourself in a thin place.
While thin places are not limited to Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, there are a number of locations reputed to be thin places. Here are a few which seem to have not only the reputation but the historical and / or geographic facts to indicate they are mystical areas.
Fairy Knowe is a hill in Aberfoyle, Scotland. It is associated, through folklore and tradition, with (wait for it!) fairies. It is said to have a strong Otherworld atmosphere.
Dunadd, also in Scotland, is the location of a hill fort where ancient Gaelic kings were inaugurated. On the hill, visitors can see a footprint sunken in stone. The new king, the story goes, would step into the footprint as a symbolic act of marrying the land (the earth goddess). Dunadd is over a thousand years old and is located in Kilmartin in Argyll. Kilmartin Glen is over 5,000 years old. It’s dotted with stone circles and ancient burial sites. There are cairns there, built as memorials or marking graves (often both), which predate the pyramids of Egypt.
Sithean Mòr, on the Isle of Iona, Scotland, is magnet for folklorists and has a strong association with the supernatural both in pagan and Christian traditions. The name means “Great Fairy Hill” and the pagan Celts, seeing dancing lights there at twilight, believed it to be an area inhabited by fairies. In the early Christian era, St. Columba founded a monastery on Iona and frequently prayed on Sithean Mòr. A story associated with the hill says a monk reported seeing St. Columba praying at sunset with lights ascending and descending on him. The monk interpreted these lights to be angels. Both pagan and Christian Celts considered the lights to be messengers from the Otherworld and believed Sithean Mòr to be a thin place.
The Caves at Keshcorran in Ireland have a great deal of folklore associated with them. They are said to be home to the supernatural and an entrance to the Otherworld.
Knocknarea is another coronation hill. Its name means “Hill of Kings” as the kings of ancient Ireland were crowned there (prior to Tara gaining that honor). As part of the ritual, they symbolically married the goddess Maeve. A legendary character as well as a mythical one, Queen Maeve of Connacht is a key figure in the Celtic epic Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid at Cooley). An impressive cairn at Knocknarea is said to be Maeve’s burial place (although two other areas in Ireland also claim to be her last resting place).
Uisneach Hill, in Westmeath, Ireland, has much history and legend associated with it, including stories about St. Patrick, St. Brigid, and the ancient Kings of Meath. Ceremonial fires were lit on this hill at Beltaine. More importantly, though, than the things that are said to have occurred there, is the hill’s location. It is called The Navel of Ireland because it is the geographic center of Ireland and the spot where the boundaries of Ireland’s traditional four provinces meet. It, therefore, is a crossroad, a significant ‘tween place, and as likely a candidate for a thin place as you will find. The spot where the provinces join is marked by Ail na Mireann, known in English as the Catstone (because it resembles the animal). According to legend, the goddess Éiru, for whom Ireland is named, is buried beneath the stone.
Rathcroghan, called The Sacred Capital of Connacht, is another convincing candidate to be a thin place. It has archaeological sites which span in age from the Neolithic Period to medieval times including twenty-eight burial mounds from the Bronze and Iron Ages. There are medieval ring forts as well as standing stones. It is said also to be the land of the Morrigan, Celtic mythology’s Triple Goddess. Rathcrogan is reputed to be where the Festival of Samhain originated. Located there is Oweynagat (the Cave of Cats), which is known also as Hell’s Gate. At Samhain each year, according to Celtic folklore, Hell’s Gate opens and out fly the Sluagh Sidhe, accompanied by bats and hell hounds, on a hunt to steal souls. According to folklore, Oweynagat is an entrance to the Otherworld. Which seems fitting since that’s exactly what a thin place is: a spot where the veil is so thin, it’s porous, allowing occupants of each world to crossover to the other.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of thin places. If you did, please like and share it. Also, subscribe to the blog so that you can have posts delivered directly to your inbox every Friday. All it takes to subscribe is your name and email address. Note: I do not sell or share personal information.
Let me know in the comments what you think. Do you believe in thin places? Have you experienced one (or more)? Do you disagree with my description / explanation of them? What have you read or been taught about thin places?
Next week’s post will be about Bards. Be sure to check it out. I’ll be having a contest and a free giveaway. Details next week! Until then, slan !