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.
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