The Rite of the Keening Woman with Mary McLaughlin

Grief is a mystical path of feminine magic. Join me and Irish Elder Mary McLaughlin as we talk about the magic rites of the Irish Keening Women.

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* Bean Chaointe (Keeners)

* Gaelic Song Magic

* The Irish Merry Wake

* Banshee - Fairy Woman

Welcome to Enchantress School

Hello, I’m Seren Bertand, welcome to my Enchantress School Podcast where I explore the path of feminine magic, and how we can embody it in our everyday modern life. It’s an informal chat where I share some of the ideas I’ve been musing on, and offer them to you over a cup of tea.

On this second episode I welcome a friend and mentor, the Irish Elder & Scholar of the Keening Traditions, Mary McLaughlin. Mary hails from Northern Ireland and is a maven of the Ulster Gaelic song tradition, who sings, performs and teaches Irish Gaelic song - from the Keen to the Otherworld Songs of Faerie. She weaves the intuitive and shamanic traditions of Irish magic with the rigors of academic research and wisdom. She wrote her PhD on Otherworld Song in Irish Tradition, and is currently writing a book on the Irish Keening traditions, that is also part memoir.

In this conversation we explore the Rite of the Keening Women, from both a traditional viewpoint and a mystical perspective. The Keening Women, known as the Bean Chaointe in Gaelic, were women who practiced the grief rites at the Irish Merry Wake - Irish funerals that held a specific ritual form.

The Keening Women were highly trained to hold the sacred container of grief for the community, and their rituals had a spiritual function to transfer the soul of the deceased into the realms of Otherworld - presided over by the mysterious Banshee (Bean Sidhe, The Fairy Woman beyond the veil).

Like the feminine magicians of old, the Keeners were Incantrix, and their power drew from the enchantress arts of poetry, incantation, sound alchemy and the mystical arts of song magic. Their Keening was both instinctual and an artistic form, and created a 'sound capsule' that was able to 'sing the dead' across the veils and release grief from the community.

The Keening tradition has taking many twists and turns, following the history of life in Ireland. At different points in time, the Keening Women worked alongside the Bards (inheritors of the Druidic magic) in a sacred union of magical death rites, and later uneasily collaborated with the Catholic Priests for a while, until their arts were banned as pagan rites (performed by women and thus a form of witchcraft). But for poor folks, these traditions carried on underground right into the 20th century.

The land of Ireland, and her diaspora flung around the world (and believed to be accompanied by the Banshee as an 'Ancestral Guardian' of sorts), still bear the burden of the Unsung Keen. During the death and suffering of the Great Famine, when half of the population either starved or emigrated, The Keening Rites began to die out, as there was too much loss to articulate.

The passageways between the worlds became blocked with a thick ancestral grief, as the Keen was buried and the magical women forced underground. In these modern times, there is a renewed interest in these mystical grief and death rites, and a knowing we must now "Keen" again.

Grief as a mystical path, often presided over by women (such as the Keening Women of Ireland and the Priestesses of Isis in Egypt), is entering into a new renaissance as we begin to remember our lost rites of passage.

Looking to the past, and our ancestral traditions, we can learn from and honor those incredible forms that have since died out, and call upon this great ancestral, cultural and spiritual inheritance. In the Irish Keen tradition, the specific form of the Keen takes place within an Irish Wake, and is performed over a dead body, and can include wailing and lamenting.

Wailing is the guttural, 'womb cry' of grief that the body lets out - its is a somatic expression beyond the mind, and is deeply healing for the soul. Lamentations are death songs or songs that commemorate the dead.

In the modern world, as this Grief Mystery of death and renewal returns into consciousness so we can heal our hearts again, the word "Keen" has metamorphosized and taken on a greater meaning as the release of an ancient, ancestral Grief - it is the Keen of the Womb, and our inner Banshee.

This kind of grief is especially connected to the woes that loom large in the world, with the loss of lands and cultures and ancestral heritages, colonization, the desecration of earth, and the silent sorrows of women, for their children, family, lost babies, invisible hurts, and disappearing worlds.

At the center of the Keening traditions is a great promise of community, spiritual transference, ancestral guardianship, and the truth of renewal.

To connect with Mary visit her website here: www.marymclaughlin.com.

The opening song on the Podcast is Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire - The Keening of the Three Marys by Mary. See her website for more details of her music.

This Enchantress School podcast is drawn from a longer 2-hour video conversation that is shared in its entirety in my Feminine Magic School 2024 and in Mary's online Keening workshops. Register for a deeper dive.

During the podcast Mary mentions 2 images that are included below.


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The Rite of the Keening Woman Time Stamps

(2:38) Grief as Medicine and an Ancestral Lineage

(6:50) How Mary McLaughlin came into the Keening Tradition

(14:50) The Myth and Magic of the Chanting of the Rosary

(19:44) Seren’s First Experience of the Keen

(23:23) Who are the Keening Women, Spiritually & Academically

(28:00) Professional Mourners - Being Paid to Keen

(29:33) Different Types of Keens & Signature Keens of Ireland

(33:00) Keening in Gaelic and How it Contributes to the Keen

(34:34) Roles of the Keeners as Magical Women

(40:50) The Three Parts and Functions of the Keen

(49:32) What Happened to the Keeners when Roman Christianity Came

(57:58) Symbology of Fire in Death Rituals

(59:22) Devastating Impact of The Great Famine



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What is an Enchantress? The dictionary defines her either as a woman who uses magic or sorcery and casts spells, or as a beautiful, fascinating and beguiling woman. But what is she really? She is a woman who practices feminine magic, an empowered woman whose energy weaves spells of beauty and manifestation. She is a woman of the moon, a lady who walks with the wolves, a creatrix and weaver of words, who knows who to birth and shape worlds, both her own and other people’s. Enchantress comes from the root word of chant or cant/incant.The path of the incantrice is a time-honored and forbidden magical art of notorious women. The Latin incantation means “singing into,” shaping energy with words, chants or songs, from canto, “song, chant.” In old times, witches were often known by the Latin title of incantatrix, which gave rise to French enchanteresse and, in turn, to English enchantress. These magical women presided over conception, birth, death, grief, love, sex, home, fertility and abundance.

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For most of human history, 'literature,' both fiction and poetry, has been narrated, not written — heard, not read. So fairy tales, folk tales, stories from the oral tradition, are all of them the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labor created our world.

Angela Carter

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