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folk magick

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.

28
Dec - 12

Helvetios

My friends have asked me to write about my epic moment with Eluveitie, so here we go.

Eluveitie, for those who aren’t familiar, is a Celtic folk metal band out of Switzerland. But here’s the thing about them: they aren’t just a metal band, they are a Celtophilic cultural phenomenon. The music fuses traditional Celtic folk instruments (uillean pipes, fiddles, flutes, hurdy-gurdy, bodhran) with powerful metal grooves. Songs are written in a mix of ancient Gaulish and English – some of them including actual ancient Gaulish magickal, religious, and poetic texts set to their own music.

Naturally, as you can probably guess, I’m a mad fangirl. Epic folk metal music in the ancient Celtic mother tongue? Seriously, it doesn’t get more bad-ass than that.

During their recent North American tour, they ran a contest to give one winner at each city the chance to meet the band and get a music lesson from a bandmember on the instrument of their choice. Amazingly, even though I don’t play an instrument, I was selected for the Oakland show. In my contest entry, I wrote, “Would love to talk to songwriters about the Gaulish poetry used in your songs, as well as the history behind the Helvetios album.”

So on November 30th, I walked backstage before the show with Chrigel Glanzmann, the lead singer and lyric-writer, along with my stepdaughter and Brennos, a fellow Coru priest. Chrigel was courteous and kindly with my million questions about his songwriting, resources for Gaulish language and history, ancient Celtic magickal and religious practice, the Gallic wars, and cultural survival.

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Meeting with Chrigel before the show

We spoke of the destruction of Gaul following Roman subjugation. The massive bloodshed – which I’ve written of here before: the Celtic homeland was depopulated to a third of its original population size by Caesar’s sword. We spoke of the cultural loss that followed. Many of my questions related to ancient Celtic cult practice, the nature of Gaulish religion and magickal practice. He looked at me bemused when I told him I was attempting to revive aspects of Gaulish religious practice. “But it’s not possible… the religion was not documented before it was destroyed,” he said (in paraphrase – the interview was a month ago). “There is very little that we know.” I warranted that I did in fact have little to go on, but was doing my best. I sensed that it was a bit of a pleasant surprise to him to meet with a fan as devoted to Gaulish culture and language as myself. At the end of the interview, he said, “I’m glad people are trying to bring back the language and the culture.”

For Chrigel and the band, this is not just a metal music project, but a celebration of their own ancestral heritage. He and several bandmembers hail from Switzerland, from the Alpine plateau and foothill territory that was once the tribal lands of the Helvetii, a powerful Celtic tribe. He spoke eloquently in his accented English about the Helvetii and other Celtic tribes as the ancestors of the Swiss people, for whom the country in its native tongue is named: Confœderatio Helvetica. That although the Gaulish language died 1500 years ago, he feels a dedication to keeping it alive in music, as a poetic language and a vehicle for the memory of a people. He spoke of cultural survival — that although the Celtic roots of Swiss culture have been obscured by more recent Germanic influences from the early modern period, the Celtic bones remain within the culture.

He cited some fascinating examples of this from Swiss folk culture – much of what was recorded in the medieval and Enlightenment period as local charms and superstitions were in fact the remnant of ancient Celtic religio-magickal practice, translated through the centuries in the underlayers of folk culture beneath Roman and Christian overculture. The most fascinating example he gave was alpsäge, ‘alp-blessing’. This was a practice of the Gaulish tribal religion whereby magickal incantations were sung from high places in the mountainous Alpine landscape, for blessing and protection of cattle and other important tribal resources. The incantations were sung from heights in order to carry across distances and to generate echoes from the mountains, which were understood as the voice of the land spirits responding in support of the incantation. Beautiful, no? This practice has translated into modern times as…. you guessed it, yodeling. Chrigel speculated that before yodeling lost its soul, when it was practiced as a form of magickal incantation, it must have sounded quite different and more melodic.

After the interview, I felt a mixture of sadness and joy. The conversation reminded me of how much was lost following the ethnocide in Gaul. How little remains to us of the mother culture and mother tongue of the Celtic peoples. And yet…

Come the night, when the crowd roared and Eluveitie took the stage. When the mad, fierce, raging joy poured out of the musicians and swept through the crowd, churning the sea of people into a frenzy of violent celebration in the mosh pit. When the impassioned, screaming songs were sung out in the ancient language. Songs full of raw, deep emotion, telling the story of the Gallic wars and the nation that was, with joy, with pride, with rage, with anguish, with heart, the sounds of Celtic instruments swelling on a thunderous tide of metal. Songs of all that was lost, yet I could not help feeling how alive we were, how full of pride, how the flame of the Celtic spirit blazed in us in answer to the power in that music. Come the night, I felt the lost nation of Gaul singing through her descendants on the stage, echoing back from the ecstatic crowd. Everything lost is found again.

I don’t have video from our show, but here’s Eluveitie playing “Helvetios” and “Luxtos” live in Switzerland, March 2012.

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