Posts Tagged ‘Greek culture’

Although my divination method of choice remains “The Druid Animal Oracle,” I’ve been working to improve my understanding of ogham.  Each day, after I perform my morning or afternoon devotional, I ask for an omen for the day and draw an ogham symbol from a muslin bag.  I’m getting better at interpreting certain symbols and seeing how they could relate to my day, both as I head to known destinations and activities, and in reflection at the end of the day.  Other symbols, however, continue to elude me.  Part of this is due to the variety of interpretations in the books I have.  Others seem very ominous, only for my day to be relatively stress-free.  This left me confused and second-guessing the symbols.  I wasn’t about to give up, though, as I know that questioning and critiquing are part of the learning process.

Blackthorn has been one ogham symbol that has continued to bloggle me.  Skip Ellison’s book Ogham: The Secret Language of the Druids summarizes its meaning as “Trouble & negativity” (125).  Ian Corrigan also touched on Ogham in his work A Druid’s Companion: Lore & Rituals for the Work of Druidry.  He summarizes its meaning as “trouble and protection.”  Finally, Celtic Tree Mysteries: Secrets of the Ogham by Steve Blamires simplifies blackthorn as such: “Be prepared for a transition; prepare for something about to end; sudden change; death” (253).   It’s quite the variety, but the common denominator is always fairly negative.  Of course, most authors expand on the tree by looking at its folklore and biology.  Blackthorn, however, continued to confuse me in part because of the symbolism associated with other trees.  For example, some authors equate hawthorn with “unpleasant period(s)” (Blamires 253), or yew with death (Corrigan and Ellison).  According to Cúchulainn, heather could also relate to death through his comparing it to the “shroud of the lifeless one,” (Ellison 47).  Ultimately, one has to consider all the information as well as our own perceptions, but I was feeling overwhelmed.  Perhaps part of this is my own inexperience with actual, living blackthorns?

Then I started to think about blackthorn in terms of “strife.”  Many authors link its Gaelic name for the ogham, “straif” or “straiph,” with the English word “strife.”  I was repeatedly drawing blackthorn, and I was getting worried.  At the same time, I’ve been pouring over books to work on an ADF course – Indo European Mythology 1.  There’s a major comparative element to it, so I decided to pull out all my materials from my college mythology class.  Oh, the wealth of material I have on Greek mythology!  I was rereading Hesiod’s “Works and Days,” which outlines good morals as well as when and how Ancient Greeks should have performed certain tasks.  It’s quite a fascinating peek back in time, honestly, one that people who follow a Celtic hearth culture could only dream of finding.  Anyway, Hesiod discusses strife:

And I will speak to Perses the naked truth:
There was never one kind of Strife.  Indeed on this earth
two kinds exist.  The one is praised by her friends,
the other found blameworthy.  These two are not of one mind.
The one – so harsh – fosters evil war and the fray of battle.
No man loves this oppressive Strife, but compulsion
and divine will grant her a share of honor.
The other one is black Night’s elder daughter;
and the son of Kronos, who dwells on ethereal heights,
planted her in the roots of the earth and among men.
She is much better, and she stirs even the shiftless on to work.
A man will long for work when he sees a man of wealth
who rushes with zeal to plow and plant
and husband his homestead.  One neighbor envies another
who hastens to his riches.  This Strife is good for mortals.
Then potters eye one another’s success and craftsmen, too;
the beggar’s envy is a beggar, the singer’s a singer.
Perses, treasure this thought deep down in your heart,
do not let malicious Strife curb your zeal for work
so you can see and hear the brawls of the market place. (lines 10 – 29, translated by Apostolos N. Athanassakis)

This passage was a reminder not to lose sight of the less ominous interpretations of straif.  They are also part of the blackthorn.  Just as Hesiod says there are two kinds of strife, a positive and negative, blackthorn has its sides.  It depends on the perception and context.  The thorny bush could indeed be protective in certain circumstances.  I don’t see death in it, though.  I feel that yew, with its association with graveyards, has a better connection to death than blackthorn, but the latter surely relates to trouble and difficulties in reaching our goals due to all those thorns.

Later that day, I further meditated on blackthorn while at yoga class.  Before we started, our teacher set an intention for us.  She asked us to think about transitions.  As we went through our stretches, breathing, and movement, she would remind us to stop and think about the processes we go through to transition between one pose and another.  Sometimes, those transitions were quite challenging.  They sometimes made me feel a little clumsy or sore, yet they were part of an ongoing process.

It dawned on me that the blackthorn I was drawing could relate to a transition I’ve been going through in my career.   It’s certainly been stressful, but not dreadful.  All the blackthorn could be related to the strife of hard work as I transitioned, and the difficulties of that process.

This whole experience, while probably kind of roundabout, has felt like a breakthrough in my understanding of some of the ogham symbols.  Let the journey continue!


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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.


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A grovie commissioned me to make a small Persephone doll.  I wanted to share some of my process.  Every doll I make starts with an idea.  They are usually inspired by mythology, nature, or a combination.  I sometimes translate them into concept drawings but not always.

Next comes fabric selection.  As I’m still working with my client on clothing, I worry about the actual doll body first.  She’ll be wearing a peplos and I wanted the rest of her body to look natural as opposed to using different colored fabric for legs (stockings).  I used some tea and coffee grounds to dye white knit fabric to a more fleshy color.  The result was a pale cream.  Perhaps not quite Mediterranean, but she is an Underworld deity.  😉

Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2012.

Next comes the pattern. I’ve been working hard to develop my own doll patterns. Using other peoples’ is generally frowned upon. Many are protected and, therefore, illegal to use when making work to sell. I seem to always be tweaking my designs. The proportions, the shape of the chin, the fingers, the feet, the breast size… I’m always tweaking.

Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2012

Sometimes, even after cutting out the fabric pieces, even after stitching everything together, I’m not happy.  I have a few doll heads floating around because I didn’t like the size compared to the rest of the body.  Sometimes the shape is just wrong.  After stitching this doll together, I decided the torso was too long and adjusted it.
After stitching and adjusting, I’ve got a simple doll form ready for facial features, hair, and clothing!  That’s my favorite part.  My bigger dolls are much more complicated with breasts, more fabric sculpting, eyelids, articulated fingers, etc.  These smaller forms are fun, though, in that they aren’t as frustrating!

As I craft my dolls, I light incense and say prayers to Brighid, patroness of the arts.  While making a deity idol such as this, I meditate and chant during some of the work.  It’s up to the eventual owner to do further work with the deity to truly make it their home, but I start the process with love and care.

I intend to update as Persephone comes into being.  Stay tuned!

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