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The Shieldmaiden Blog

Aug - 19

Spirit alliances in Celtic sorcery

This post contains a couple of excerpts from the chapter on working with spirits and spirit alliances in my work in progress, the Celtic Sorcery book. I’m sharing an introductory excerpt, and a bit of the section on spirits in weapon sorcery. The full draft chapter was shared with patrons – I’ll be continuing to post excerpts from the work in progress here. It’s in rough unedited form, so reader beware.

Families and retinues of spirits

We often find spirits aligned into groups or families, and these collective relationships help direct how we work with these spirits. Some groupings of spirits are rooted in ordinary human relationships, such as the ancestors of a family line, clan, or tribe. Others may form around relationship to landscape and environment; such as groups of spirits relating to waters and rivers, sky and weather spirits, spirits in plants, stones, and other natural land features, and spirits of place. The tradition also strongly features collectives of Otherworldly spirits; such as fairies, sprites, Otherworldly creatures or monsters, and the “terrors” or battle spirits. Relationships with animal spirits are also prominent in the tradition and may be personal, familial, tribal, or shaped by a person’s role.  

Within the realm of spirits, the gods are also an organizing force. As with many polytheistic and animistic traditions, when we look at how spirits appear in the myths and folklore we find that Celtic deities tend to be associated with groups of assorted spirits who in some way share aspects of that deity’s nature and powers, or may represent a minor aspect of their presence or identity. There is indication that the human dead, in some circumstances, may become part of a deity’s retinue in the afterlife. In contemporary polytheist communities, these collectives of spirits are often referred to as the “retinue” of a deity – those spirits who are connected or aligned with them, tend to appear alongside them, and may help accomplish the work of that deity. When we enter into relationship with gods, these retinues of spirits often become available for us to work with as well. The Celtic spiritual traditions provide several fascinating and well-described examples of deities with retinues that we can study for knowledge of working with spirit collectives.

Animism and reciprocity

Spirit practices in the Celtic traditions arise out of an animistic worldview within which spirits are understood and recognized as living, sovereign beings. The model of spirit work here is distinct from the Western ceremonial tradition of conjuration, commanding, and binding spirits to do the magician’s bidding. Rather than dominating spirits, most examples of working with spirits we find in the Celtic cultures and literatures are built upon entering into reciprocal relationships. These relationships proceed from a relatively equal footing, and often arise out of long term bonds between practitioners and spirits. Offerings and sacrifices are a recurring theme whereby reciprocity is enacted, sometimes framed as payment or tribute that is owed to spirits. In other instances, we see dedicated service given to spirits, their associated deities, or the places they call home, providing the basis for relationship and the ability to call on those spirits. Relationships with spirits are not only reciprocal, but in many cases are contractual in nature, and these contracts with Otherworld powers form the backbone of many myths, folktales, and folk practices.

Weapon sorcery and enspirited objects

It should not surprise us to find within these animist cultures a strong interest in enspirited objects. The Irish literature has a great fondness in particular for warrior gear enspirited by spells or inhabited by “demons”. Even where weapons are not explicitly described as enspirited, they are often named, which is an indicator of being seen to contain a being with personhood. We also find some material evidence that aligns with the practices described in the literature.

Many passages in the literature describe spirits or demons residing in weapons and armor, such as this, from the Táin (First Recension): “Such was the closeness of their encounter that sprites and goblins and spirits of the glen and demons of the air screamed from the rims of their shields and from the hilts of their swords and from the butt-ends of their spears.” The beings seem to be not just present around the warriors in the story, but specifically inhabiting the weapons and armor. This reflects a belief that weapons, armor, and other gear could be inhabited by spirits and that those spirits involved themselves in the work of the weapon or the events taking place around those who carried them. In the above example, the particular type of spirits that are inhabiting these arms are spirits of the battlefield, showing a functional relationship guiding the type or family of spirits understood to belong to such armaments, or chosen to inhabit them.

Artifacts from across the Celtic cultures, particularly the exquisite metalwork for which the Celtic peoples are so famous, show that it was common to adorn valuable items with figures. Items of armor from early Celtic cultures, such as helmets and shields, are often found with animal forms sculpted on them – ravens, eagles, boars, etc. The great carnyces (war horns) were often fashioned with the heads of boars, serpents or wolves. And of course, the anthropomorphic sword is so common from the Iron Age that it is considered an archaeological type – swords whose hilts were sculpted to look like little persons, more or less stylized to show simple arms and legs and often also a face with human features. Other valuable items not specifically related to violence were also often adorned with animal or anthropomorphic features, such as faces on the handles and grips of cauldrons and drinking vessels.  Many archaeologists have interpreted these to indicate such an animistic belief in spirits inhabiting objects.

The Irish literature makes it clear that this is not a fanciful interpretation on the part of modern archaology, because the belief in spirits inhabiting objects is made explicit there. It also makes clear that this is not simply the base animism of believing that everything is alive – we are talking about a set of ritual practices by which objects were intentionally enspirited. Fragments of this ritual culture of object sorcery are preserved in various manuscripts and tales, and when we piece them together, a fairly clear picture of a system of spirit work emerges.

For access to the full draft chapter on spirits in Celtic sorcery (around 5,900 words), you can join as a supporter on Patreon.

What do you think about spiritwork in sorcery? Leave a comment or join the conversation in our Discord community.

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