Posts Tagged ‘Celtic culture’


Doyle doesn’t look anywhere as interested as I am!

Read Full Post »

I’m very excited to say that I passed Magic 1 which is a research heavy course part of the ADF Initiatory track.  Its purpose is to give students a greater understanding of the history of magic.  I read way more books than I actually used as references in my paper, but there’s still so much more to learn!  Same as with the Dedicant Program, I’ll be sharing my essays as they pass.  They will be archived in the Druidic Studies section.

Magic 1

By Grey Catsidhe

1)    Discuss the importance of the action of the magico-religious function as it is seen within the context of the general Indo-European culture (minimum 100 words).

The importance and action of the magico-religious function in Indo-European society depends on the culture and time period studied.  This is because magic’s role, and indeed its relationship to religion, was not static in history.

In ancient Greece and Rome, the actions and role of the sorcerer were different from those of the priest involved with the state religion.  While healing, love and weather charms were permissible, there were strict laws against the malignant magic practiced in secrecy, such as anything involving poison (Graf 46-47).    The sorcerer practiced at night and in relative privacy, whereas the established, approved religious practices were held in the day or at least for the public (77).  The sorcerer was usually someone on the fringe of society (22) and was seen as dangerously intimate with the divine world (83-84).  He was knowledgeable of the Otherworld and feared for it.

The separation between magic and religion in other Indo-European societies is not as clear.  Many of the socially unacceptable forms of magic in the Mediterranean world are found often in Celtic literature.  For example, the Druids, the religious leaders in Celtic communities, interacted with Gods and sidhe (Spense 89) – beings that some interpret to be the dead (80).  Funeral rites aside, only the sorcerers of Greece and Rome dared seek contact with the departed (Graf 197).  The Romans would sometimes refer to a Druid as a magus (Spense 36) – a pejorative word in much of Rome (Graf 21).  Yet the Druids also had a reputation of practicing magic that would have been more acceptable to Romans such as charms to control the weather (13).

While the perception of magic changes from culture to culture, it is clear that its function in the religious world involves boundaries.  Those who practice magic cross or determine the boundaries of what is socially acceptable, divine, powerful, and taboo.  Sorcerers often dare to test the boundaries of society in order to bring about change.  Whether that is positive or negative is culturally relative.


2) Discuss your understanding of the evolution of the magician from early to late periods within one Indo-European culture (minimum 300 words).

Since the dawn of civilization, individuals have taken on the role of the magician.  Research on cave paintings, such as those found in Lascaux, France, have lead many to believe that the art has a magico-religious purpose – possibly related to hunting and/or fertility magic (Janson 6).   Humans have basic needs and magic has always been one way to obtain them.  Some individuals, either through genuine talent, charisma, or a mixture of both, became specialists, and every Indo-European society had a special group of such people.

As human civilization grew and changed, certain magical practices became elevated.  For the ancient Celts, that practice was Druidism.  We know little of its practitioners because they committed very little to writing (Ellis 14).  Once more looking to such sites as the Lascaux caves, we can make the assumption that Druidism, like all Pagan religions, grew out of something far older and even less understood.  The Druids grew into a specialized, intelligent, and privileged class of people, much like the Brahmin of Hindu culture (29).  They were likely elevated because their cunning enabled the rest of their society to flourish (39).   Although our knowledge on this social class is limited, Druids did practice magic.  There is evidence of wand usage due to stories of a silver branch that could grant access to the Other World (Spence 28).  There is also evidence that the Druids practiced shape shifting (59), oversaw public sacrifices (70), used trance (96-98), and determined the will of the Gods through such practices as augury (102) and “omen sticks” (106).

As explained by Fritz Graf in Magic in the Ancient World, the Romans saw magicians as outsiders and referred to them in Latin as magus.  Although we must be careful when viewing the Celts through the lens of their conquerors, it is perhaps telling that the Romans used the word magi (the plural form of magus) when referring to Druids (Spense 36).  While it is true that the Romans desired to conquer the Celts, the Druids must have had some practices that seemed reprehensible to the Romans such as cursing and working with the dead.  Shortly after conquering the Gualish Celts, the Romans suppressed Druidism (Kondratiev 19) probably because some of its practices resembled magical traditions already outlawed in Roman society and thus undermined Roman control.  Although the Romans distinguished a division between acceptable and unacceptable magic, such distinctions are less obvious in the Celtic world.  The only evidence we have for magical societal divisions are accounts by Romans such as Diodorus Siculus who observed that Druids must be in attendance at a sacrifice, hinting that they were somehow necessary to commune with the Gods (Ellis 52).

The Druids flourished longer in Ireland but were soon absorbed into Irish Christianity.  Many of the old Gods were Christianized and the magic of the Druids was transferred to the new priestly class in the name of Christ (Ellis 250).  Interestingly, these same priests enabled us to learn more about their Pagan predecessors by finally putting the old tales into writing.  Although Christianized, we do find examples of how the Druids were seen retrospectively.  In “The Second Battle of Mag Tuired,” for instance, we learn that four wizards/poets/Druids (depending on the translation) taught the Gods of the Irish – the Tuatha De Dannan – magic.  Indeed, even the Gods had Druids!  Through this lore, we learn that the Christian Irish, at least, saw the Druids as specialists in magic.   While Christianity began to take its foothold in Ireland, true practitioners of the old beliefs were pushed further and further to the sidelines as the years marched by.  “Bardic schools,” which have existed on and off in Celtic lands since the coming of Christianity, have been argued to be influenced by Pagan ideas. Its teachers taught such practices as poetic incantations, divination, and leech craft (Ellis 159).  These were eventually suppressed and replaced with even more secretive “hedge schools” (160).  Just as in Rome, magicians became those practicing outside the religious status quo.

Celtic Christianity had some differences from its Roman counterpart, such as the celebration of Easter and the ideas of free will and conscience (Kondratiev  30-32).  These differences were undoubtedly colored by old local traditions and Druidic philosophy.  Eventually, pressure from Rome would do away with these beliefs.  Those who practiced a very Celtic form of Christianity became the outsiders and were eventually suppressed like their Pagan ancestors.

Although the Christian priests remain the dominant “magicians” in what is or once was Celtic territory, Druidic magicians have been slowly making a comeback in different forms (251-281).  The evolving tradition, while undoubtedly different from the original, can arguably be classified as a counterculture.  Thus the modern Druid remains an outsider – seen as many to be subversive and potentially dabbling in things that make the rest of society uncomfortable – and is thus what many in our Roman-influenced world would consider a magician.


3) Compare and Contrast the culturally institutionalized position of the magician within at least two Indo-European cultures (300 words minimum).


Although all Indo-European societies had magicians, they were treated differently depending on the culture in consideration.  In Rome, magicians were often outsiders who threatened the status quo set by the priests or, at the very least, performed the least desirable religious functions.  Among the Celts, magicians were among the most powerful people in their societies.

In the Roman world, magic could be used for “positive” means such as finding love and manipulating the weather (Graf 1).  Although herbalism was occasionally suspect, healing was also an acceptable form of magic (46).  Everything else, especially anything secretive that could cause harm to an individual’s body or property, was deemed illegal (42).  Books on magic and divination were often outlawed (4).  Anyone suspected of using poisons or curses was labeled a maleficus  – a practitioner of evil (55).

There was a distinction between the state sanctioned priests – who worked in public – and the unscrupulous, surreptitious magicians.  While the priests had the obvious function of working with the Gods on behalf of the laypeople, magicians sought what the Romans felt to be an abnormally intimate relationship with the deities.  As a result, magicians were thought to have a dangerous knowledge of and/or power over the Gods.  Such knowledge and skill were feared in Rome (Graf 83).

The magi (magicians) weren’t always forced to be so secretive.  There were times when they acted as soothsayers for the aristocrats of Roman society (Graf 196).  Even when less tolerated, many people sought magicians because of their skilled reputation in working with the dead (197), a taboo act.  Such transactions served a dual purpose in that they allowed the magician to further his or her intimacy with a spirit or deity while a customer did not have to get his or her hands dirty.

In the Celtic world, the Druids were magicians and priests – as well as poets, historians, judges, and doctors (Ellis 158).  Obviously they were the intellectuals of their world.  Claiming Druidic status meant spending at least twenty years studying (55).  Their knowledge gave them power which afforded them many privileges such as the right to own land (Spenser 151) and speak before kings (Ellis 75).

According to Jean Markale, a Druid was akin to a “medicine man” or “shaman” (31).  Druids performed divination, healing, and trance work on behalf of the community.  The lore also indicates that Druids were very much concerned with traveling to the Otherworld and working with the dead.  There are various myths which describe bringing warriors back from the dead, and there were spells associated with such practices (Spence, 31).  The Druids also practiced magic to bring death to an enemy (37) and thus protect the community.

Along with obtaining wisdom through study, protecting and serving the community seem chief among the Druid’s tasks.  It seems that he or she was to examine and uphold the balance of nature.  It was the Druid who bestowed heroes and kings with geas, or sacred prohibitions.  These were in place to keep the peace between the divine and human worlds (Spence, 59).  Druids also had the duty of determining the next king through trance.  By wrapping him or herself in the hide of a freshly slaughtered bull, the Druid would meditate on the next ruler (96).  Once more, the Druid’s magic influenced the whole tribe.  Not only was the Druid’s work accepted by the population, it seems that it was necessary to maintain societal norms.


4) Identify the terms used within one Indo-European language to identify ‘magic’ and ‘magician’ examining what these terms indicate about the position of the magician and the practice of his or her art (100 words minimum).

The ancient Celts called their class of priests and magicians “Druids.”  The meaning of this word has been a matter of debate.  The most widely held belief seems to be that the word comes from druidae.  According to Peter Berresford Ellis, Pliny the Elder “believed that it was cognate with the Greek drus, ‘an oak’” (37).  Some more contemporary Celtic scholars think it derives from roots dru, again signifying the oak, and wid which means “to know” or “to see,” possibly making Druid mean “oak knowledge” (37) harking back to the days when the Druids would have been responsible for helping their people locate acorns to harvest for food (39).    If so, the word implies an intimate relationship between the Druids and the natural word with regards to the survival of the tribe.

Medieval Irish terms for three classes of Druids shed further light on the matter.  Bard was the title given to poets and musicians.  Fáith, fáidh, or filí referred to the prophets (70), who were responsible for divination and sacrifice (51).  The druí were the magicians (70).  Despite this distinction, there is evidence for the bards also practicing magic, including curses (CR FAQ).  These classes may indicate that the Druids specialized in specific forms of magical work.

Irish lore also speaks of sorcerers, using the word corrguinech, who practice magic, or corrguine (Ellis 248).  Linguistically, there does not seem to be a major link to the Druids, implying that there existed others outside the order who practiced magic.  Indeed, magic specific to Druids seems to include an adjectival word, druidechta/draoichta, or “druidic”.  Thus the ceo druidechta was the Druidic fog and the slat an draoichta was the Druidic wand (248-249).

To the Romans, the Druids were referred to in Latin as magus which translates to magician (Spence 36).  According to Fritz Graf, the word originates from Persia.  There, the magi were the learned men and priests (20-21).  However, by the 5th century, the meaning of magi and magus changed into something more negative and secretive (21).  It became associated with barbarism (24) which tells us much about how the Romans saw Druids.

Works Cited

Davies, Penelope J., Denny, Walter B., Hofrichter, Frima F., Jacobs, Joseph, Roberts,

Ann M., Simon, David L.  Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition.  7th ed.

New Jersey: Pearson Education inc., 2007.  Print.

Ellis, Peter Berresford.  A Brief History of the Druids. 1994.  New York: Carroll & Graf

Publishers, 2002.  Print.

Graf, Fritz.  Magic in the Ancient World.  1994.  Trans. Franklin Philip.  Cambridge,

Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.  Print.

Kondratiev, Alexei.  Celtic Rituals: An Authentic Guide to Ancient Celtic Spirituality.

Collins Press, 1998.  Print.

Markale, Jean.  The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western

Culture.  1976.  Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1993.


NicDhàna, Laurie, Vermeers and ní Dhoireann.  The CR FAQ.  2006.  Web.  17 July


Spence, Lewis.  The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain.  1945.  Mineola, New York: Dover

Publications, 1999.  Print.


Read Full Post »

For those of you not on the ADF discussion lists, Skip shared a link to this great documentary called “Glenafooka.”  It’s all about the belief in magic and the Otherworld in Ireland. Definitely worth watching.  I learned some new information about curses, Brighid, and the bean si.

Read Full Post »

First off, let me just say that I tend to refer to what I practice as Druidism.  Some people will discuss differences between “Druidry” and “Druidism” – one as a philosophy and the other as a religion.  I ascribe to the latter, but the word choice doesn’t really matter.  I just wanted to clear that up from the start.

I was recently introduced to a blog called Feral Druidry.  The author,  Seillean Ioho, is unlike me in several ways.  He* is from the Midwest, and I from the North East.  He is more interested in revival Druidism whereas I lean more towards reconstructionism**.  He’s of OBOD and I’m in ADF.  He is less comfortable with Celtic cultures whereas I have embraced them – past and present.  He seems more interested in solitary practices whereas I work with a grove as well as on my own.  What do we share in common besides the name?  What unites us in some way?

Seillean and Alison Leigh Lilly both wrote about the archetype of the Druid in their respective blogs.  There is power in that image.  It is what called me to Druidism in the first place.

Eight or nine years ago, a friend and I dappled with Wicca.  Her interest would wane but my involvement in Paganism would grow and flourish.  Originally, it was nature who called me to Paganism.  I will always be on an Earth-Centered path.  From my childhood upwards, I’ve always been in love with the natural world.  I hugged and played in the trees.  I sympathized for the plants and animals and argued with a Catholic priest that they have souls.  My mother used to say I must have been a Native American in a previous life *** because of how I would pretend to be an animal and dance around the house.

Yet I was not called by my Cree ancestors.  As interested as I’ve always been, it was not for me.  I looked elsewhere.  The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians seemed too urban.   Witchcraft…  Now that held my attention, and still does…  A person of power… yet on the edges.  An outcast in much of history.  A woman scorned.  No, that was not for me either though there is perfect validity in that practice.  Much of it overlaps with what I do.


Enter the Druid, that mysterious, mythologized figure from our ancient past…  He or she is of the trees.  The Druid knows their language and worships in nature.  They channel the divine world.  The Druid, a priest shrouded in the mists of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, The Isle of Mann, Gaul…  Those priests and priestesses of the Ancient Celts who met Caesar and other ancient historians and warlords.  The Druids…  The fathers and mothers of Merlin.

Did I mention my childhood adoration of Arthurian legend?

Much of my original understanding of Druids was romanticized.  Turns out they weren’t just a bunch of tree-hugging dirt worshippers.  But then again…  that’s not all I do either, is it?  Sure it’s a huge part of what I do, but the more I read about Druids, the more I realized I had in common with them.  They were the learned people.  They studied for years and years to become the judges, historians, teachers, and, yes, priests of their people – a people with a dynamic culture of art, bard-craft, and warrior skill.  The Druids themselves could be multitalented.  And there I was, a young woman in college – learning to serve my people.  An artist, a writer, a priestess devoted to the Gods within my own home.

At first, the solitary, woodland mystique drew me to the Ancient Wise.  As I grow in skill and erudition, my understanding of their history improves.  I found a home for both my love of nature and culture.  I can be a champion of the forest and an artist, teacher, and tribeswoman.  Somehow, the two can intertwine in a balanced harmony – like a spiraling knot.

So here I am: an American mutt drawn to the romance of Celtic myth, legend, and culture – especially of Ireland – and the call of the Ancient Wise – the Druids.  In reality, they were not perfect.  They were not a bunch of pacifists as some would tell you.  They were arguably not environmentalists.   Yet they came from an animistic people who knew that there was a balance to be kept.  As many modern Celts embrace the need to defend and spiritualize the wilds, so do I.  So, in a roundabout way, that’s why I have embraced Druidism – a modern Druidism with room for the magic, the lone walks in the forests, the books, and the blogs.

* Seillean, if I have your gender wrong, I apologize profusely.  Let me know and I’ll correct it right away.

** I am not a strict Celtic Reconstructionist – hence my membership with ADF.  I prefer a balance, but when the cards are on the table, I will always lean heavily towards CR.

*** I have Cree ancestors, actually…

Read Full Post »

The sun is shining and, like Balor from the myths, threatens to kill anything that lingers in its rays too long.  Many in the US have been experiencing drought.  In Upstate NY, those of us who understand and value food worry about the relative lack of rain.  Thankfully there has been some this weekend, but we could always use more.  Here’s hoping Lugh throws his spear into the clouds and brings us some rain for the crops!

Speaking of Crops and Lughnasadh, I’ve been researching harvest customs.  I joined my friends at Muin Mound Grove yesterday to celebrate the holiday with our traditional games.  The mythological reason for this that Tailtiu, Lugh’s Fomorian-born foster mother, died clearing the forests in Co. Meath Ireland for farmland.  Lugh promised to dedicate funeral games to her each August (Freeman, 236) and, in exchange for this observance, there would be prosperity (237).  The games and the gathering of the tribes are what I usually think of when celebrating Lughnasadh.  We honor Lugh, the triumphant hero who defeated Balor and learned the secrets of the wild to ensure harvest.  We must also remember his foster mother, Tailtiu, an Earth Goddess who gave herself and her secrets for the benefit of others.


It is also a time to remember a lesser known deity, Crom Dubh.  There is little known of him, and he’s occasionally equated with the harsh and possibly demonized Crom Cruach, a God associated with human sacrifice.  Crom Dubh is said to mean “dark bent-one” (Freeman, 247).  He’s believed to have brought the first supply of wheat to Ireland in a sack on his back, and that he brought all knowledge associated with it (248).  Indeed, there is a lot of emphasis placed on wheat.  It’s used in food, brewing, thatching, and weaving (baskets, hats, etc).  Around Lughnasadh, men and women wove “harvest knots,” tokens of affection, for each other out of wheat (245).

Máire MacNeill first wrote about the customs of Lughnasadh and believed it to be a pan-Celtic holiday (Hutton, 327).  Professor Ronald Hutton, known for his careful examination of folk customs in Britain, questions MacNeill’s research and wonders just how widespread Lughnasadh was (328).  Despite his hesitation, it cannot be denied that the harvest played a significant role in early August celebrations.  The Old English word for this celebration is Lammas, and, funnily enough, many Wiccans have taken this name for their high day.  The original Lammas tradition involved bringing the first loaf made from the first ripe grain to church for blessings (Freeman, 233).  Similarly Christianized, the highland Scots used the first corn to make bannocks in early August to celebrate the assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven (Hutton, 329).  Indeed, there are many other rituals in Britain that involve the first grain harvested, some involving talismans and dolls (Hutton, 332-347).

Whether it is Lugh, Tailtiu, Crom Dubh, or some other harvest/fertility deity you honor, there is probably food and bread involved.  Knowing this, I decided to bring some of that energy into my own home.  This past Imbolc, I collected some seeds from the dried wheat we used to make Brighid crosses.  I planted these seeds in the spring and, to my excitement, they grew!  Now, I didn’t grow very much.  In fact, some of the wheat did not make it.  I allowed the wheat that did grow to dry (not difficult to do given the amount of sun and rain we’ve had…).
I brought this wheat in and removed the seeds from the chaff.

This is a lengthy process by hand.  I saved some of the seeds for the garden next year and put the rest into my mortar. DSC_0158 I crushed the seeds with my pestle and was delighted to watch them transform into white dust.  It took a long time to do this.  My arm ached from the process and, in the end, I only made about a tablespoon of flour.

It’s amazing to think of my ancient ancestors making enough flour to bake whole loaves of bread.  If I ever have enough land to grow a small field of cereal grains, I definitely want to invest in a mill.  In the meantime, I’m lucky enough to have a local mill and wheat farmer.

I added my small offering of home-made wheat to that from North Country Farms and went about making some bread for Lughnasadh.  Ah…  kitchen magic.  🙂



Freeman, Mara.  Kindling the Celtic Spirit.  Harper Collins, NY.  2001.
Hutton, Ronald.  The Stations of the Sun.  Oxford.  1996.

Read Full Post »

Plants are great teachers and having a garden as a classroom is an easy way to learn their lessons and connect with nature.  The only unfortunate thing about such an educational environment is that mistakes aren’t only unavoidable – they’re necessary.  The result is always death.  We’re lucky in that, unlike our ancestors, most of us can survive if our garden doesn’t do well.  Only a few generations ago, crop failure could mean illness, starvation, and even death.  This way of life is still reality for many people in other parts of the world.  Failure in a patio garden, while not so devastating, is certainly humbling when you think about what life would be like if you depended on it.

You also have to learn to accept death in your plants and deal with it in regards to garden pests.  Someone has to die – the plants or the pests.  How you handle that can vary, but it is unavoidable.  It’s very humbling to know that, despite your best efforts, entire crops can be devoured overnight.

Thankfully, I’m not dealing with a lot of crop failure or infestations this year.  I am, however, playing with some new plants – like turnips.  There is evidence that the Celts carved turnips around Samhain (Freeman, 312) and my husband and I have really taken that to heart in our own tradition.  I thought it would be great to grow my own.  I found a variety that supposedly does well in containers and got to work!  I now realize that I planted them too late.  As I watered my garden this morning, I noticed that a couple of my turnips had bolted.  After researching, I realized I planted them too early.  They don’t grow well in the high summer heat.  Dismayed but not without hope, I brought them inside (a perk of container gardening) to the art room where they’ll be shaded but receive enough sun.  I also thinned them out.  Their pot was quite crowded!

These turnips have a little more breathing space now…We’ll see how it goes, I guess!  I can always plant more in late August.

turnip greens
Now I have a bag full of young turnip greens! I put them in the freezer for later use – probably a stir fry.

The garden is a great laboratory – both culinary and magical.  I’m learning about new varieties, how to properly care for plants, and how to harvest them.  As I go about this, I talk and sing to the plants.  I ask permission and tell them why I’m doing things.  I thank them for their blessings and sustenance.  I know that, one day, plants will grow from me and I remind them this when I take their lives.  Although I used “laboratory” in my garden metaphor, I don’t view my plants as guinea pigs – rather, they are my partners in learning and existence.  I treat them with respect and take their lessons to heart.

My next garden goal (besides planting more basil) is to try starting another worm bin.  The last one I had ended badly and my hesitation to give it another go is based on guilt and worry.  I now realize that I should only put vegetable waste in there.  The bread was a bad idea…  I also need to work harder to maintain a good balance between dryness and moisture.  I want happy worms who survive and have babies!  The small pile of turnip scraps made me realize that I really should start one again…  and keep learning!

Freeman, Mara.  Kindling the Celtic Spirit: Ancient Traditions to Illumine Your Life Throughout the Seasons.  New York: HarperCollins, 2001.  Print.

Read Full Post »


I cannot wait to see this movie.  😀

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »