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Celtic polytheism

30
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.

04
Apr - 19

Sigils: An animist approach

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


A sigil is a sign or symbol considered to have magical power. Typically, in contemporary traditions they are used in conjunction with ritual to invoke or evoke a spirit, power, or effect. The name is from Latin sigillum, “seal”, and comes into English language usage by way of Western ceremonialist occultism, rooted in medieval grimoire traditions which made heavy use of Latin texts. However, sigils in the sense of magic signs used in magical operations, have appeared in many cultures and for thousands of years.

Most contemporary occultist and even pagan approaches to the construction and use of sigils are heavily influenced by ceremonialist methods, reflecting the same medieval grimoire roots just mentioned. A method with wide currency in contemporary occultist and pagan circles is to write a name or magical phrase, reduce it by the elimination of duplicate letters and/or the use of numerology, and then combine the reduced group of letters into a sigil so that they are no longer readable as distinct letters. Many practitioners using this method might not know to credit Austin Osman Spare, the early 20th Century British occultist; but this method of reducing a name or incantation to “occult” it was devised by him. This approach to the making of sigils is based in a very modernist, psychological understanding of magic as driven by will and intention; the “occultation” or disguising of the inscription is understood to shift awareness of the intention from the conscious mind to the subconscious, where it more directly and primally engages the magician’s will.

As an animist, I understand sigils not just as symbols, but as condensed magical engines animated with a spirit of their own. Like any organism, they are comprised of interconnected parts working as one whole being. Also like an organism, they live and act on different scales or levels, from their interwoven internal components to the whole.

There are three (or at least three!) levels of action in sigils, each of which may represent a distinct spirit or set of spirits we are working with. Here I describe them in sequence from the micro or component level to the macro or the level of the sigil as a whole.

At the root level, there are the powers or presences of the individual component parts – the letters or signs we bring together to construct the sigil. It is not the habit of most Westerners to see distinct powers within the individual letters of the Roman alphabet, for example. However, in a great many other cultural contexts, the individual letters or signs in the alphabet or lexicon often do represent distinct spirits or powers in their own right. This is certainly the case for the Germanic/Norse runes, for the Irish ogham, and many others. Whether or not they were seen to have these powers in their original historical context, they certainly do now after generations of modern practitioners working with them in a spiritual capacity. When we come to constructing a sigil, we are weaving each of these component powers into the whole – like parts in an engine or organs in a body, their individual powers are focused into the working of the whole.

At the next level, a sigil may take its power from the word, name or phrase it is built to convey. This may not be the case for all sigils, of course. Some may be built by selecting individual letters or runes and weaving them directly into a shape without consideration for what they spell together. The conventional Western occultist mode of sigil creation begins at this level with the written intention. For a devotional sigil, it might be the name of the being it is meant to invoke. For an operational magic sigil, it might be a word of power or a magical phrase or incantation. 

The third level is the shape given to the sigil as a whole – the pattern into which its component parts are bound together. In my approach to sigil creation, this level is crucial. It’s here that the dynamics that power the sigil are generated based on the shape and form it is given. That is to say, it’s not just about sticking the component parts together any kind of way. To act as a symbol, it needs to have both visual and emotional impact on the person using it and any others who see it, and its visible shape needs to conjure its intended meaning and impact. To act as a magical engine, it needs to have its parts bound together into a structure that allows it to move and shape spiritual forces in a given way. What do we want it to be able to do, and what structure will help it do that? The way in which it is built and the shape that it takes will determine how it in turn shapes and moves spiritual forces.


For access to the full draft chapter on Sigils (around 3,475 words), you can join as a supporter on Patreon.

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

27
Feb - 19

Milk and healing

This is a snippet from the chapter on spiritual hygiene and purification in my work in progress, the Celtic Sorcery book. This was originally posted for patrons a month ago ahead of Imbolc so it seemed seasonally appropriate. It’s in rough unedited form, so you get what you get!


Milk and the products of milk as agents of healing and purification are a pervasive theme in the Irish literature and Celtic traditions in general. In part, this appears to stem from the fundamental connection between nourishment and healing. This larger theme is emphasized by, for example, the names of the healing deities Dían Cécht, Airmid, and Míach, each of which has a meaning related to agriculture and food. The insight seems to be that what nourishes the body heals the body. Additionally, milk in particular and its products are associated with the ability to soothe, to neutralize poison or contagion, and to make whole and purify. Milk appears in many places in Celtic traditions as a condensed representation of the fertility of the land – nourishing, edible, gentle enough to soothe, rich with life from the land. Where “the fertility of the land” occurs as a plot point in myth, it is usually represented by the phrase, “grain and milk”, or “corn, milk, and fruit”. Similarly, the phrase “cows without milk” is symbolic of total loss of fertility from the land.

The symbolism and spiritual qualities of milk connect them with similar beliefs about water, particularly flowing sacred waters, such as springs and rivers. This is in part reflected in the associations that tie both milk and flowing water to the beneficent powers of life and renewal, and we also see it in the deities that share associations with both. For example, the river goddess Bóann, namesake of the Boyne river, is also associated with a holy well and its inspiration, as well as with cattle and the milk of cows, and their associated fertility. The earliest reference to the Boyne river gives the name as Buvinda, from archaic Irish , cow + vinda, a term that can mean white, bright or having wisdom (and sharing its root with that of the poet-warrior Fionn). Her name and symbolism parallel several Continental and British goddesses associated with cattle and healing wells. In the myths and symbolism that attaches to Bóann and similar goddesses, we find the images of a well of wisdom whose waters pour forth with wisdom, nourishment and healing, like streams of milk pouring from the body of a cow, and which become the river that carries her name. 

Similarly, Brigid, a goddess deeply associated with waters and springs, healing and purification, combines many of these same symbols and modes of action. She is also a poet and the streams of water arising from the holy wells associated with her are imbued with inspiration, as well as healing, purifying, and renewing powers. At the same time she is profoundly connected to cattle, held as their protector, invoked in dairy rituals, and attached to blessings and nourishment provided by milk and dairy products. 


For access to the full draft chapter on Spiritual Hygiene (around 4300 words), you can join as a supporter on Patreon.

What do you think about milk and healing? Leave a comment or join the conversation in our Discord community.

01
Feb - 19

Writing again: Celtic Sorcery project

After a nice long hiatus, I’m getting back into a writing practice again. This blog has been dormant, in part because I just needed a break after finishing my book a few years ago, and in part because my available time and resources were focused more on visual art than writing.

I’m into a new writing project now, and as I’ll be posting some material from it here on this blog, I thought I’d update readers on what I’m up to.

These days, outside my tattoo practice which continues to be the cornerstone of my work, I’m focusing my work through Patreon. Over on Patreon, I have a couple different patron-funded projects, with the primary one being the writing of a book on Celtic Sorcery.

This book is based on material I’ve developed for teaching classes on magic and sorcery, spirit-work and polytheism, rooted in Celtic spiritual traditions and scholarship. I’ve been teaching this material as workshops for a few years now arising out of my own practice that blends elements from different Celtic cultural sources. I noticed that every time I teach one of the classes in the series, people always ask, “Okay, is there a book I can buy with this material in it?” So yes, there’s going to be a book.

Here’s a summary of my focus for this work: The Celtic cultures of Ireland, Britain, and Gaul provide us with rich and ancient wells of magical lore – blessing and purification rites; protective charms and spells; fate-binding and foredestination; curses and battle sorceries, Gods and spirits who are connected to these practices, and a whole lot more. I draw on folk tradition, archaeological study, early literature, and my own extensive personal experience, to explore these traditions of magic and sorcery in depth, while seeking insight through them into Celtic worldviews and cosmologies.

Because I’m a hungry self-employed artist, I need to do this as a patron-funded project. So as the book is in development, the draft chapters are being published as patron-only content over on Patreon. I also get into researching ways to extract ritual & magic from old traditions, experimenting with novel divination tools and spirit-work methods, and other explorations, and patrons will be able to participate along with me in those projects too.

Where this blog comes in is that as draft chapters are posted for patrons, I’ll share shorter excerpts here and hope to open conversations about this rich area of study and begin building a community of practitioners. Toward that end, I’ve also created a Discord community space where folks who are interested in this topic can join us for discussion: https://discord.gg/UC3wYqm.

Look for Celtic Sorcery writings to begin showing up here later this month. And a blessed Imbolc/Brigid’s Day to you all!

29
Aug - 13

Whose Ancestors?

EDITED, 9/11/2013: In the days since I originally published the post below on 8/29/2013, there have been a couple of developments I wish to acknowledge.

–This post was also published at my PaganSquare blog, The Spear That Cries Out, hosted by Witches & Pagans online. It was subsequently deleted by the site’s editor, Anne Newkirk Niven, specifically in order to censor its content, because she objected to my calling the AFA a racist organization.

–In discussions in the comments both here and at the PaganSquare site (before it was removed), several people have pointed out that I went too far in over-interpreting the implications of the DNA research referenced in the original post. They’re correct, and I appreciate the feedback. I think that the research still supports the overall point of my post, which is that at a surprisingly recent point in the past, all of us are related, and that there is no biological or anthropological basis for racial separatism in religion.

Here follows the original post, unedited:

——————————————————————————————————————————————

Issues of race and Eurocentrism in religion have been increasingly on my mind recently, and the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech seems a good day to write about them.

This came up for me when I found out that a favorite Nordic folk band, Wardruna, would be performing in the US for the first time this fall. I got all excited about this until friends pointed out that the event at which they will be performing, Stella Natura, is sponsored by the unabashedly racist Heathen organization AFA, and is also featuring several performers with strong links to white-supremacist, racist ideologies.

So I ditched my plans of attending. And I feel like talking about this publicly because I think part of the reason racism continues to haunt European polytheism is because we let it. Too many of us take a policy of uneasily gritting our teeth and putting up with our intellectual proximity to racists. It’d have been more convenient and more fun for me to buy the ticket, go to the event and try to ignore the racism so that I could get the chance to enjoy one of my favorite bands. But I’d be supporting the inclusion of these racist elements within the fold of European polytheism, and I can’t stomach it. Instead, I’m refusing to participate. Wardruna, we love you, but if you want me to buy a ticket to your show, don’t sign on with racists as your event sponsors.

It comes to me that practitioners of European polytheist traditions have a duty on us to take a clear stance against racism in our religious communities. Not to do so, I think, inevitably leads us into tacitly condoning racism, because of its ubiquity in the overculture and its history as an undercurrent within European polytheism.

So here’s my stance: Though the form of religious practice I choose to espouse is largely based on Celtic traditions, I reject any ideology that says those traditions belong specially to me because of race. I speak often of ancestors and ancestral tradition, but I affirm that the ancestral root of wisdom belongs to all humanity. I reject all arguments that imply race should be tied to religion in any way or that racial purity is a relevant concept or worthy goal. I challenge my fellow polytheists to also step up and take a stance against racism in our religious communities, as publicly as possible.

Now, here are some facts you can arm yourself with to help put down racist logic when it is presented to you.

Racism in European polytheism is often veiled under language that claims to celebrate cultural and religious diversity. You will need to be aware of this and learn to recognize it for what it is. The argument goes something like this: a) Cultural and religious diversity is good; b) religious traditions arise from and are dependent on the unique ethnic identity of a people; c) therefore to fully realize our spiritual potential we should practice the religious traditions of our ethnic ancestry; d) because of the link between culture and ethnicity, to preserve cultural and religious traditions we also need to preserve the distinct identities of peoples. If you read between the lines (e.g. read “people” as “race”) you can see that by this train of logic, the conclusion arrived at is that races should not intermingle because that will dilute the purity of the European race and its native religious traditions.

This is nothing more than the Separate-But-Equal doctrine of racial politics. “We aren’t denigrating other races and their associated religions, we just don’t want them getting mixed up with ours.” In the name of celebrating cultural diversity, of course. If you think this claim isn’t being made, go look at the AFA website – it’s right there in their statement of purpose:

All native religions spring from the unique collective soul of a particular people. Religions are not arbitrary or accidental; body, mind and spirit are all shaped by the evolutionary history of the group and are thus interrelated. Asatru is not just what we believe, it is what we are. Therefore, the survival and welfare of the Northern European peoples as a cultural and biological group is a religious imperative for the AFA.

The belief that spirituality and ancestral heritage are related has nothing to do with notions of superiority. Asatru is not an excuse to look down on, much less to hate, members of any other race. On the contrary, we recognize the uniqueness and the value of all the different pieces that make up the human mosaic.

Just so long as you keep your non-European uniqueness over there and don’t get any on us.

This isn’t just nasty racial politics, it’s also utter bullshit. Here’s why.

This entire argument is predicated on the idea that race and religion are tied, that traditions are native to and transmitted by ancestral links. The traditions of our ancestors and all that. OK, but whose ancestors?

Guess what: Your ancestors are everyone’s ancestors. We are all related. No really, that’s not a kumbaya hippie truism, it’s a documented mathematical and biological reality.

“The fact that everyone has two parents means that the number of ancestors for each individual doubles every generation… By using basic mathematics, we can calculate that ten generations ago each individual had a thousand ancestors, and 20 generations ago they had a million and so on.”

By the time you count back to 40 generations, the number of ancestors each person has far outstrips the number of people alive at that time. That means between 30 and 40 generations back, all human beings share ancestry. That’s somewhere shy of 800 years ago. This mathematical modeling has now been confirmed by DNA evidence. Here’s a handy graphic that’s been making its way around the web illustrating this new research:

ancestors

I haven’t verified the specific dates and figures in the graphic, but the principle is clear as an illustration of the research.

Think about what this means: The historical time frame within which the Nordic and Germanic cultural lore on which Asatru is built includes, roughly speaking, the Iron Age up through the Viking era – that is, a few centuries BCE up through about 800-1200 CE. A similar time frame is the basis for much of what now constitutes Celtic polytheism.

In other words, when the Hávamál was created, every single person alive at that time is an ancestor of yours. When the legends of Cú Chulainn and the heroes of the Red Branch were being developed, every single person alive at that time is an ancestor of yours. So was everyone alive in the ancient Somali states. The Etruscans, the Mycenaeans, the Thracians, the Kushites. The people of Catal Huyuk, the ancient steppe tribes of Eurasia, the forefathers and foremothers of the Khans, the people who settled the Polynesian islands, the tribes who crossed the land bridge to the New World. They are all of them, all of them, your personal blood ancestors.

So cultural traditions can’t be inherently dependent on race or ancestry, because race and the purity of ancestral lineage are fictions. You personally are the blood lineage inheritor of every human cultural tradition on the planet.

The truth is, cultural purity also a fiction. People have been traveling all over the globe trading with each other since time began. The ancients were in contact with each other across enormous distances via trade routes and migrations. The skull of a Moroccan Barbary ape was found in an Iron Age royal site at Navan Fort, Ireland. The famous Viking swords were made from steel sourced from Afghanistan. Iron age mummies with red hair and Hallstatt material culture have been found in the deserts of China. I could go on all day with examples like this. And in every case where there is evidence of contact between peoples, there was cultural exchange. Culture is a social disease – it is transmitted on contact. There has always been sharing, borrowing, and synergizing between cultures.

This is an important point, because it proves that distinct cultural traditions do not require racial or cultural separation to preserve them. If the mingling of peoples led to dissolution of all cultural boundaries, we’d long ago have been one big mishmash of culture. Because the mingling has been happening for millenia, as demonstrated above. What the racists claim to be protecting against would have happened long ago if racial purity had anything at all to do with the integrity of cultural traditions. Cultures arise from shared language and shared experience – DNA doesn’t come into it. The varieties of human experience will always tend toward a diversity of cultures regardless of ancestry or cross-cultural contact. Any argument for separatism in the name of cultural diversity is just a cover for racism.

So by all means, celebrate the ancestral traditions that move you and touch your soul. That is what I do. Let us just remember whose ancestors they are: the ancestors of humanity.

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