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Celtic Magic

This article was written by Tadhg MacCrossan on May 29, 2002
posted under Druidism

The Druids and filídh were known for their divination and mysticism. These took manyforms, such as the learning and verse forms for composing blessings and curses,and the memorization of old hymns, chants and incantations. The basic song wascalled a cantalon in Gaulish (cetal in Old and Middle Irish).Another verse form was called a lay (or laedha, in Old Irish).Words, singing and poetic speech were considered magical in Celtic culture, andcertain forms of poetry or verse were used for accomplishing effects. A Druidicspell would thus be accomplished by singing a certain kind of song. Referencesto these songs have been found in ancient Gaulish inscriptions, as well asIrish texts such as the Book of Ballymote, and formed part of thefifteen-year training in the Filídhecht or "Bardic" schools. Thus certain formsof poetry or verse were used for accomplishing certain effects. Words, singingand poetic speech were considered magical in Celtic culture, and certain formsof Irish filídh also had to learn ogams; numerals, ciphers and codesmade from notches carved along the straight edge of a twig. Ogams wereprimarily primitive numerals and mnemonic devices, but were later used formemorizing and spelling out the sounds of the early Irish language, and fordivination. There were originally twenty ogam characters, but in medieval timesthe Filídh invented an extra five, called aicme forfeda, ("group ofextra woods [letters]"), for consonant clusters or diphthongs. Among othernatural phenomena, lists of trees, animals, hills, and bodies of water were allpart of the ogamic system. Only later did names of trees become associated withthe ogam alphabet.)

No where inthe Old Irish texts does one find any evidence for the ogams representingmonths; nor did they represent lines from the Song of Amerigan or the CadGoddeu, "Battle of the Trees." Although there were ogams representingtrees, trees themselves represented many things, such as playing pieces inboard games such as Irish fidhchell, or "woodskill" (Welsh gwyddbwyll),and brandubh, ("blackraven"). Trees could also represent people, sincepeople descended from the world-tree Bilios (Bile in Irish).

Irish poet-magicians such as the filídh graduated from the Bardic schools, whosehighest degree was an ollamh (oll-uv), the medieval Irish equivalent ofa Ph.D. The ollamh ré filídhecht was granted many privileges that onlyhigh Druids held in pre-Christian times. They were expected to work as mastersof ceremony for all royal occasions and to be advisers to their kings. Therewere also specialists, such as the Brehons, whose expertise was in law,and seanchaídhe or shanachies who specialized in history, storiesand genealogy. Singers (bards), musicians, physicians and healers also wentthrough similar training.

Filídh ceremonies such as the tarbhfeis (tarrvaysh), or "bull-dream," involveda type of incubational divination; similarly, the imbas forosnaí(im-viss fo-ros-nee) was an incubation or lucid- dream state induced by anincantation and splashing of animal blood or water on the cheeks. Many of theseincubations involve sleeping or dreaming on the hide of a sacrificial bull orox. Many other magical techniques of the filídh are found in the Book Of Ballymote, the Book of the Dun Cow, Cor- mac’s Glossary andin the Fenian tales.

The adbertos(ahd-bayr-tawss) (in Welsh aberth, in Old Irish idhbairt) was the basic ceremony, the Celtic sacrifice to or communion with the gods, similar tothe Hindu yajna and Norse blót. One of the most famous was the Epomeduos,which was carried out in medieval Ireland according to Giraldus the Welshman.It involved the marriage of a chieftain or king to a mare. The mare was immolated, then eaten by all who attended the ceremony. It has survived in theform of hobby-horse dances in modern folk custom. The simplest form of anadbertos is to bless a portion of food and then offer it into a fire, or buryit in sacred ground. The traditional food used in modern-day Druid ceremoniesis oatcakes and mead or beer, but other foods may be used. Such blessings aredone at all festivals and gatherings, and they have many functions.

In modern Western magical thinking, an adbertos could be considered a form of magic, justas the rites associated with Cabalistic grimoires are collectively referred toas ceremonial magick. But in the Celtic system there is no need to involve theHermetic system of blending astrological hours, certain stones, colors, the Cabalistic sefirot, banishing rituals, circles, pentagrams or the like; theseare foreign practices and may be discordant when incorporated in the Druidic system.

Many groups try to blend the Celtic system with non-Celtic systems such as Cabala, Wicca, Native American, Voudoun, Teutonic and Greco-Roman, but such a blend probably does no justice to any of the systems. A particular religious system should bestudied deeply and practiced within its own cultural context. Many tribal and folk religions were never meant to be synchretized with others into universalistic religions.

Reviving anancient ethnic folk religion is like keeping an endangered species alive, orpreserving a minority language and/or culture. Mixing it up with otherreligious traditions may rob it of its full strength and dilute it tomediocrity. The key to true universal empathy is not universalization, but understanding each religious system in its own context and tolerating beliefs that differ from one’s own.

I've written a number of books for Llewellyn over the years—believe it or not, my upcoming release is number eight—but far and away the most popular one was my third, The Goddess Is in the Details. And I have to confess, it was my favorite too. (Shhh…don't tell the other books. They'll cry, and I'll have to give them each a... read this article
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