Hello everyone,

Research is a constant, ongoing process while writing historical fiction. Sometimes a fascinating tidbit surfaces that might be of particular interest beyond its use in a novel. As I continue to work in the historical fiction field, I will post those occasional points of interest here. Occasionally I muse on the writing process as well along with news to keep readers informed of what's going on with my books and other writings.

Please feel free to post comments--I'd love to hear from you.

The photo above is of Snowdonia in North Wales, which plays a large part in the setting of the Macsen's Treasure Series.


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Saturday, April 18, 2009

What is "fire in the head" ??

During the course of researching the Macsen’s Treasure series, I needed to acquire a sense of the spirituality early Celtic people might have practiced before the advent of Christianity. My stories are set in Britain in the second half of the fifth century CE (aka AD for us older folks). In the more remote areas, Christianity took much longer to attain a foothold and my characters would have practiced some sort of Celtic-based paganism.

One intriguing aspect of the old belief system is the notion of shape-shifting, which I have come to interpret as some form of a shamanic altered state of mind, like a trance or hypnosis. The shamans in question would have been druids, among them bards, and one of the many functions of bards was the performance of a ‘boasting’ poem. These poems were meant to commemorate victories as well as proclaim the bard’s shamanic prowess.

“The Song of Amergin,” chief bard of the Irish, goes as follows:

I am the wind that blows across the sea
I am a wave of the deep
I am the roar of the ocean
I am the stag of seven battles
I am a hawk on the cliff
I am a ray of sunlight
I am the greenest of plants
I am the wild boar
I am a salmon in the river
I am a lake on the plain
I am the word of knowledge
I am the point of a spear
I am the lure beyond the ends of the earth
I can shift my shape like a god[1]

The last line sums up the rest of the poem—that the bard has been all of these things because he is able to shift his shape like a god, to place himself in the state of mind of those incarnations. Translations of the poem vary widely; however, one version of the last line in particular caught my attention. It runs: “I am the god who fashions fire in the head.”

So what, in all the world, is “fire in the head”? As early Celts believed the soul is housed in the head and the eyes are windows into the soul, author Tom Cowan interprets the line to mean, “I am the fire of imagination” or “I burn with visions of another world.” I feel “fire in the head” should be taken as more than mere imagination. It could also encompass visions of the future, past life memories, intuition, Akashic records, and many other forms of psychic phenomena.

Hmm. Shape-shifing. Imagination. Altered states of mind. Visions. This got me to thinking. In the series, when I began to develop the main female character of Claerwen, I knew she would be gifted with visions of the future, what we nowadays sometimes call “second sight.” Other authors have used the same device, not only in Arthurian stories, but books set in other times as well. Mary Stewart, in The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, from her trilogy about Merlin, called it simply “the sight.” Both Merlin and his mother had the gift. Elizabeth Chadwick, in Daughters of the Grail, also calls it “the sight.”

As I sketched out Claerwen’s character, I pondered using the same name for her gift. It’s a familiar term that readers easily understand. But I felt it was almost too familiar and therefore trite. What about “fire in the head?” Claerwen is not a bard or druid, but she has a deep abiding sense for the spiritual. As she learns about her gift, she comes to understand, with the guidance of Myrddin (Merlin) that she must “place herself into the path of the gods,” a kind of “stepping into her destiny,” so to speak. Her gift becomes much more than just seeing the future. So, in this regard, when I discovered the term “fire in the head,” and learned of its broad possibilities, I felt its appropriateness for Claerwen’s visions was perfect. The name stuck.

[1] Tom Cowan, Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit, 1993, HarperCollins, pp. 28-29