Saining: A Brief Overview of Folkloric Methods and Modern Use

I think somewhere I have a document filled with a list of topics because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to first write about for this blog. So instead, I’m going to start by talking about a main staple of my practice: saining. To ‘sain’, or to ‘make sain’, is the act of blessing, elevating, and weaving the sacred into everyday mundane things. Saining was used for a multitude of things in Scottish folklore; healing illnesses, warding the home, blessing livestock and water, cleansing and purifying, and last but not least, averting and dispelling the evil eye and any witchcraft done against a person.

To Sain is to make holy, to set it apart, to make it sacred. But why is it so important? It’s not just the act itself, but it is your decision to take silence in hand and impart that power to something else, and to take it within, holding that silence in some small part of yourself – carrying it with you throughout the day. To step away from the mundane, from voices and phones and a cacophony of sound and just be here in this space with fire and water, gods and ungods.

In addition to day to day uses, there are saining rites for births, deaths, marriages, and saining is something that can clearly be seen in the old rites and customs of holidays. There are a wealth of old folkloric books that have preserved these traditions, or at the very least given us clear ideas of how these rites were conducted.

At cross quarter days such as Bealtainne, saining is seen in rituals of running cattle between two large bonfires – the smoke that wreathed them bestowing protections against magical and mundane ills through the rest of the year. At Lunastal, or Lughnasa, we have tales of people leaving church to go plunge themselves into the nearest water, a purification and blessing.

There are three typical ways to conduct a saining: by water, by fire, or by smoke.

Saining the water then enables it to be used for protections against witchcraft, the evil eye, and the fair folk; of course this is true of the other methods but I find water to be a bit more accessible to work with. It can also be used for healing – externally and internally. Sained water as I personally use it is for removing unwanted or malignant influences, and calling upon the gods and ungods to purify and heal.

Water is a common everyday thing that many of us take for granted. It’s a blessing to have clean drinking water, to have hot water to bathe or shower in regularly. On land surrounded by saltwater, when fetching water was a matter of going out to a well and hoping that it hadn’t dried up or gone foul, fresh drinking water was imperative to health and survival. It wasn’t just a matter of drinking, but also of maintaining hygiene and health both physically and spiritually.

Through antiquity, water was indescribably important and powerful in it’s own nature. Water flows and shifts, it is turbulent and violent and yet also, healing and life-giving. Looking at it through this lens, it seems only natural that river (and other water) spirits and gods would be revered, offered to, and appeased. Survival may have depended upon it.

To sain by fire is to bring light into darkness, which was an important symbolic act especially in the dead of winter. Dispelling shadows and the terrors that lurked within, signalling the return of the light – the receding of winter, but also the coming of dawn and another night passed safely. We see this in folkloric traditions with the customs of smooring the fires at night and then stoking the fires in the morning to reignite the hearth.

Smoke, as I mentioned above was important in protective rites for livestock and people alike – being used to ward from poor health, the evil eye, witchcraft, and to dispel illnesses and cast out unwanted spirits or influences from the home. Juniper is a popular Scottish herb used for this type of cleansing, however for those of us outside of Scotland it is better to work with herbs that are closer to home. For this purpose, I prefer pine – it’s local, the resin smells beautiful, and it carries the protective and purifying natures that are needed for this work.

It’s important to remember here that for those who are building a practice inspired by folkloric customs, that saining can be as simple or as versatile as you wish. At it’s most basic, it is an act of purification. Prayers, hymns, and incantations can be used, but we must not forget that silence holds its own power. The act of collecting water in silence, moving flame about a room in silence, wrapping a body in smoke for healing – sometimes no words need be spoken.

It took me some time to figure this out for myself, as I went through different iterations of saining and finding out what worked best. This has become such an important piece of my practice – I find a way to incorporate saining into my day to day activities on a constant basis. My prayers and incantations are short and sweet; preferring instead to focus on slowing down, moving with thought and purpose. Everything else falls away during this time, and I’m left with sacred water and flame and the steadiness of my own breath.

On long dreary nights or nights passed in unfamiliar places, I darken the house and light a single flame to carry through the rooms, letting the light shine on the walls of each room before going to bed. It’s that sense of warmth and the familiarity of my deities and spirits wrapping themselves around me to protect me through the night.

“One of the most important aspects of the Yule season in eighteenth-century Shetland was ‘saining’, signifying rituals intended to safeguard people and property against the powers loose in that time of darkness and also during the coming year. Further south, in the Highlands, that bitter and astringent shrub, juniper, featured prominently in the saining customs. In the 1770s, Thomas Pennant recorded that people burned it in front of their cattle upon New Year’s Day. During the following century it was still observed as being set alight in houses and byres upon that date or on Yule morn, all openings being stuffed to hold in the acrid smoke, as a literal and spiritual fumigation. The element of fire for purification was also sometimes employed in itself, especially around the Moray region. Other New Year’s Eve fire customs in Scotland and neighbouring parts of England are themselves relatively recent innovations.” – Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun

In an animistic mindset, there are spirits and influences in everything around us, both within and without. Spirits affect our day to day lives, they can work through our bodies and minds and can be both beneficial and devastating upon our physical and spiritual health. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how the concept of saining becomes important. Spirits – good and bad – pervade this world, in everyone and everything, including ourselves.

Below, I have included the Saining prayer from The Carmina Gadelica:

“The sain put by Mary on her Son
Sain from death, sain from wound
Sain from breast to knee,
Sain from knee to foot,
Sain of the three sains,
Sain of the five sains,
Sain of the seven sains,
From the crown of thy head
To the soles of thy feet.
Sain of the seven paters, one,
Sain of the seven paters, two,
Sain of the seven paters, three,
Sain of the seven paters, four,
Sain of the seven paters, five,
Sain of the seven paters, six,
Sain of the seven paters, seven
Upon thee now.
From the edge of thy brow,
To thy coloured soles,
To preserve thee from behind,
To sustain thee in front.

Be the helmet of salvation about thine head,
Be the corslet of the covenant about thy throat,
Be the breastplate of the priest upon thy breast,
To shield thee in the battle and combat of thine enemies.

If pursued, oh youth, from behind thy back,
The power of the Virgin be close to succour thee,
East or west, west or east,
North or south, south or north.”

As you can see in the prayer above, the words carry a heavy Christian slant and can sometimes be difficult to work around. A simpler method of Saining comes from Gaelic Charms, Incantations, and Blessings of the Hebrides, “An Incantation was then muttered over the water, the reciter commencing by saying the word ‘Sain’ and at the same time making the sign of the cross on the surface of the water. The Incantation was as follows: –

In the name of Him that can cure or kill,
This water shall cure all earthly ill,
Shall cure the blood and flesh and bone,
For ilka ane there is a stone;
May she fleg all trouble, sickness, pain,
Cure without and cure within,
Cure the heart, and horn, and skin.”

This incantation used is for the specific purpose of making the water Forespoken. Often used in combination with Saining, but also a separate act, Forespoken water was used to be rid of the evil eye. Following the Saining and the Forespoken Incantation, the afflicted needed to drink a bit of the blessed water and then the remainder was to be sprinkled upon their person. Another way of casting off this evil eye would be to take the remaining water and dispose of it in a place where no one would go.

As you can see, the act of Saining is usually the start of a larger rite and can be as elaborate or as simple as you need it to be. For me personally, this act of consecrating and purifying is just one piece of the puzzle in a larger routine of preparing the vessel for the work to come.

Sources and Further Reading:

Gaelic Charms, Incantations and Blessings of the Hebrides – William Mackenzie
Carmina Gadelica – Collected by Alexander Carmichael
The Silver Bough – F. Marian McNeill
History of the Berwickshire Naturalist’s Club – Vol. XXIII: Old Rites, Ceremonies, and Customs of the Inhabitants of the Southern Counties of Scotland. Collected by Thomas Wilkie
Stations of the Sun – Prof. Ronald Hutton
The Gaelic Otherworld – Ronald Black
The Darker Superstitions of Scotland – John Graham Dalyell

Published September 12, 2021. Killian Wren. Copyright 2021.

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