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The Shieldmaiden Blog

Jun - 19

Poetic Armor

This is a snippet from the chapter on apotropaic (protective) magic in my work in progress, the Celtic Sorcery book. The full draft chapter was shared with patrons in May – I’ll be continuing to post excerpts from the work in progress here. It’s in rough unedited form, so reader beware.

Loricas & poetic shields

It should not surprise us to find verbal protection charms occupying a prominent place in Celtic magics, given what we know about the importance of poetry across all aspects of the tradition. In this section, we’ll look at lorica prayers and other forms of poetic spiritual armors.

Loricas are part of a class of protection prayers that invoke “armor” to shield the person; the word lorica is from Latin, often translated as “breastplate”, and more generally referring to armors of various kinds worn by Roman soldiers. Lorica prayers, and similar poetic armors, typically use verbal incantation to invoke divine protection, drawing these protections specifically to each of the parts of the body to build spiritual “armor”of protection over the person.  

From the Lorica of St. Fursa:

“The arms of God be around my shoulders
The touch of the Holy Spirit upon my head,
The sign of Christ’s cross upon my forehead,
The sound of the Holy Spirit in my ears,
The fragrance of the Holy Spirit in my nostrils,
The vision of heaven’s company in my eyes,
The conversation of heaven’s company on my lips,
The work of God’s church in my hands,
The service of God and the neighbour in my feet,
A home for God in my heart,
And to God, the Father of all, my entire being.”

As this example shows, most extant examples of lorica prayers are generally Christian in framing and in the type of divine protection being invoked. It is not known if lorica prayers of this sort were known in a pre-Christian context. Some scholars posit lorica prayers as a hybridization of Celtic and Christian cultural elements, and that their use originated in Roman Britain, possibly as protection against pagan sorceries.  It has been observed that the overall structure of lorica prayers follows a similar pattern to that of the typical Celtic and Mediterranean curse tablet texts: invocation of divine aid, followed by the detailing of the body parts to be affected, and ending with a closure that may take the form of a pact with the divine entity invoked for aid. In view of these patterns, scholars have suggested that the lorica prayer developed as a Christianized protection magic, following a familiar and culturally ingrained magical formula while weaving in the religious iconography of the new faith.

Another way in which lorica prayers appear to inherit aspects of pre-Christian cosmologies lies in the iteration of the parts of the body. Many Celtic cosmological myths, as part of their inheritance in the Indo-European culture family, contain similar litanies of body parts in the context of the creation of the physical world from the body of a primordial sacrificed being. These litanies convey a cosmological construct in which the world itself is life created from life, matter from matter, following the sacrifice of a first divine being. They often follow a pattern of sympathetic linking of similar things: earth made from the being’s flesh, mountains from its bones, plants from its hair, and the like. In a similar vein, lorica prayers often sympathetically link divine qualities to the parts of the body being protected. In a sense, this type of prayer invokes a microcosmic mirroring of the divine act of cosmological creation into the building of spiritual armor.  

Other types of poetic shields exist which invoke more general spiritual shielding and protection, rather than focusing on building armor to a litany of specific body parts. A famous example of this type of protection prayer is the Spell of Long Life, also called the Deer’s Cry:

May Fer-Fio’s cry protect me upon the road, as I make my circuit of the Plain of Life.
I call on the seven daughters of the sea,
who shape the threads of long-lived children.
Three deaths be taken from me,
three ages be given to me,
seven waves [of plenty] poured for me.
May I not be molested on my journey
in my radiant breastplate / Breastplate of Lasrén without stain.
May my name not be pledged in vain;
May I have long life;
may death not come to me until I am old.
I call on my Silver Champion,
who has not died and will not die;
may time be granted to me
of the quality of bronze.
May my double be slain
may my law be ennobled,
may my strength be increased,
may my tomb not be readied,
may I not die on my journey,
may my return be ensured to me.
May the two-headed serpent not attack me,
nor the hard pale worm,
nor the senseless beetle.
May no thief attack me,
nor a company of women,
nor a company of warriors.
May I have increase of time
from the king of all.
I call on Senach of the seven ages,
whom fairy women reared
on the breasts of good fortune.
May my seven candles not be quenched.
I am an invincible fortress,
I am an immovable rock,
I am a precious stone,
I am the symbol of seven treasures.
May I be [the man of] hundreds [of possessions],
hundreds of years,  
each hundred in its [proper] time.
I summon my good fortune to me;  
may the grace of the Holy Spirit be on me.
Salvation is of the Lord
Salvation is of Christ
Your Blessings, Lord, upon your people.

Here this prayer shifts the formula to include an invocation of divine protection, and an enumeration of the forms of protection being called for, including a lorica (breastplate) of protection, but outside of the typical litany of body parts we see in most lorica prayers. It closes with a recitation of faith and invocation of divine blessing.  

Another form of shield prayer is the caim, known primarily from the Scottish Gaelic tradition. It is also called a “circle prayer”, as it invokes a spiritual shield encircling the body. Caim can mean a “loop” or “circle”, and is also sometimes translated “sanctuary” or “encompassing” (in the sense of “encirclement”). Caim prayers invoke a ring of protection which centers on the body and moves with the person as they go about. Folkloric collections such as the Carmina Gadelica indicate that the incantation was performed along with a physical ritual. The verbal incantation invokes holy powers to enchant an encircling shield of divine protection, while the invoker “stretches out the right hand with the forefinger extended, and turns round sunwise as if on a pivot, describing a circle with the tip of the forefinger while invoking the desired protection.” This ritual of encirclement certainly suggests a pre-Christian origin to the practice – the turning in a sunwise direction to invoke blessing is a practice found across many Celtic cultural sources, including the earliest Irish mythological texts.

Several examples of the incantation are preserved, including this one from the Carmina Gadelica:

The compassing of God and His right hand
Be upon my form and upon my frame ;
The compassing of the High King and the grace of the Trinity
Be upon me abiding ever eternally,
Be upon me abiding ever eternally.
May the compassing of the Three shield me in my means,
The compassing of the Three shield me this day,
The compassing of the Three shield me this night
From hate, from harm, from act, from ill.
From hate, from harm, from act, from ill.  

Again, these incantations as we have them exist in a highly Christianized form. Given how much pre-Christian cosmology is contained in many of these prayers, it is blessedly easy to “back-engineer” them for use in a pagan context. This can be as simple as replace the names of Christian powers with other deities and adjusting a few images, or simply write new ones on a similar structural formula.

For access to the full draft chapter on apotropaic magic (around 5,000 words), you can join as a supporter on Patreon.

What do you think about poetic armor magic? Leave a comment or join the conversation in our Discord community.

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