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celtic sorcery

Sep - 19

The poetics of sorcery

This post contains an excerpt from the chapter on poetic and verbal enchantment in my work in progress, the Celtic Sorcery book. 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.

The Irish poetics that is so richly represented in the medieval literature arises from a deep ritual tradition that is threaded throughout the Celtic cultures, as well as the rest of the Indo-European family. These poetics are equally central when it comes to magic and sorcery in the Celtic context. We find a profound relationship between Irish rosc poetry, as well as other metrical forms, and the Celtic curse texts of Gaul and Britain, as expressions of a distinctly Celtic poetic magic.

Those curse texts of Gaul and Britain represent an interesting fusion of Celtic with Mediterranean practices. As a literate form of magic built upon inscribing magical formula on metal tablets, the magical technology was adopted into Celtic cultural practices through contact with Greek and Roman customs. However, in the language of the texts, an indigenous Celtic poetics emerges that is recognizable to us from the study of Irish poetry. In the words of Bernard Mees, “the reason why the Celtic curses which are metrical seem more removed from the [classical Latin curse tradition] is because there was an indigenous Celtic tradition that curses, as spells, were things that were usually sung.”

This relationship between poetry and magic is also encapsulated in the term bricht and its cognates in different Celtic languages. In Irish, the word bricht means “charm, spell”, but also refers to a specific type of poetic meter, or the poem or spoken charm itself. Bernard Mees sees in this double meaning “evidence for a key Celtic relationship between magic and metrical form.” The importance of this dual concept of poetry as spell is also represented in the phrase brichtu ban, “spells of women”, preserved in multiple medieval Irish texts – most famously in the context of the protection charm called the Lorica of St. Patrick, invoking protection against “the spells of women and smiths and druids.” Its importance is also signaled by its preservation across time and distinct cultures, as a precisely cognate phrase bnanom brictom is invoked in a Gaulish magical tablet from the 1st c CE, deposited several hundred years earlier in a tomb in France. This phrase seems to have persisted as a way to describe a class of poetic sorcery especially associated with women.

The poet and seer Fedelm is introduced to us in the Táin Bó Cúailnge; she identifies herself as banfili, “poetess”, and appears in wealthy clothing, armed, and standing in a chariot from which position she chants poetry. She is clearly identified as a person with Otherworldly status or powers, having “three pupils in each of her eyes.” Her name is traces from the proto-Celtic root *uid– “to know”, with a connotation of knowledge gained by visionary sight. Her name is cognate to the Gaulish Uidlua, attested as a title for a female enchanter in a Gaulish curse-text. Fedelm is also identified, by Medb, as a banfaíth, the term for a female practitioner of the art of prophecy, and cognate to the Gaulish vates, diviners and sacrificers. Fedelm seems to represent an Irish reflex of a very ancient role or archetype, the high-status female seer and enchantress whose poetry reveals Otherworldly knowledge and power.

For access to the full draft chapter on poetics in Celtic sorcery (around 3,000 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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

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