Celtic magic (I): lexicon, magic and operators


When it comes to dealing with Celtic magic, we find various problems that are worth exposing, so that they are taken into account throughout the reading of this article. The main one is that the Celts encompass a very wide territory that goes from Ireland and Brittany to Hungary. The division, already before the isolation, between the insular and continental Celts, at a cultural level, is clear, and yet, Celts continue to be a concept that in the popular mentality is reduced to specific areas of northwestern Europe. However, for historical reasons, the survival of the Celtic world has also merged with Christian traditions, or they have been reconstructed on the basis of other pagan cults, which today do not offer us an honest vision of what they could have been.

To enter the world of the Celts, we have got archaeological remains, but few written references, since all their religious and magical traditions were transmitted orally. The closest sources that we do have are from Latin authors, who, although they offer us visions of Celtic culture, they do so from the perspective of a conquering or civilized people, or directly under their own definitions of magic and religion. Magic is a term that we can all imagine but that in its own field, the Celtic language, remains undefined. There are hardly any names to define magic or its practitioners, and they vary by region. The linguistic reconstructions help us to better understand their perception of this phenomenon, and to find out if it had a positive or negative value for them, if it was part of the religious group or if, on the contrary, they considered it a technical science.

A bit of magical lexicon:

If, following Guyonvarc'h (1997), we divide the Celts into three groups based on their language, the Irish, the Breton and the Gaul, we will find that magic, "by definition", if anything like it can be found in their texts, is that of a marvelous science knowing the nature of things.

But there are also aspects that should be highlighted, such as the fact that in Irish Celtic, the denominations of the druid, draoí, and the druidess, ban draoí, are different from those who dedicate themselves to astrology, asarlaócht, whose practitioner is an astrologer, asarlaí. Although this can define two different practices, in foreign texts all the terms are brought together under the generalist voice of sorcerer. In Gaulish Celtic, we find something similar, the concepts being swynwr and hudoles, sorcerer and sorceress respectively, while dewin and dewines define male and a female diviner. The Irish witch has two curious variants, the positive one as a woman of science or sorceress, cailleach feasa, and the negative one, seanchailleach.

On the other hand, the act of bewitching appears sometimes associated with druidism, as in the Celtic imrin draíocht ar, cuirim faoi draíocht, "to practice druidism", but other times, at least in lexical matters, it does not appear linked to this figure, as in Breton boemerezh. In Gaulish Celtic, witchcraft, however, appears, at least etymologically and very probably with its practices, identified with divination, dewiniaeth.

As for the magical acts themselves, we find references to enchantments and spells in a general way, such as hud in Gaulish Celtic, or hudoriez in Breton, and others that in turn share their name with amulets intended for the same purpose. This is the case of the Irish Celtic uptha, suitable both for a love amulet and for the spell itself for that purpose: Bríocht, in Celtic Breton breoù, of unspecified purpose. Interestingly, these last two have compound or related spells to promote sleep, suanbríocht and hunvre. The Breton kammambre meant delirium, although it is not clear if it was intended for the practitioner, for a third person, or if it was a critic, while the Gaulish cyfaredd has the standard translation of remedy or medicine.

Achantouriez as an enchantment suggests the sung practice of certain magical formulas, if we are guided by its similarity with the Latin lexicon, which also leaves doubts about the authenticity or, at least, the real time of use of this term. Fith-fath is the enchantment itself, the spell or hex, in the Scottish Highlands. Séan and seanaireacht are sign and making signs, in gestural or even written magic, although through symbols.
In some others, the method is unknown, but not its purpose. Irish feilmheas seems, by its definition, to be meant for weather change, and Breton strobinellerezh earlier seemed to refer to whirlwinds. As it will be seen, the manipulation of nature is an element of considerable importance in Celtic magic, reflected in many legends, both by Druids and important individuals of folklore or nobility.

And while for some people magic is knowledge and worthy and respectable knowledge, as in the Gaul gwiddon, we can also note how its external and very probably internal appreciation was in decline, and it ended up being taken for superstition and deception, in Breton rambre.

Magic and religion:

Very briefly, in its general definition, religion is characterized by the request for goods and results from superior entities through offerings and prayers, while magic is the manipulation and mastery of them to obtain what is desired. In the case of Celtic religion and magic, these borders are not well defined, at least in view of modern studies. An example could be the wheels or according to other scholars, Celtic deities-wheels, widely represented and used: they fulfill a function that borders on the magical, since it is a solar symbol that retains or revives the fire of the sun and therefore brings life to the land and the abundance of crops. Its burning during dates of seasonal importance make it a repetitive ritual of a religious nature, but to what extent is it religion when it is intended to manipulate a natural force falls again into the unanswered question of what the Celts themselves considered it to be, although in all cultures have been cases of inseparable practices, from the modern point of view.

The druid has been seen by many modern anthropologists and scholars as a shaman, although his priestly order breaks the stereotype of the medicine-man exclusive to the social group. Pliny describes them to us as magus, that is, within a Latin category with which Persian sorcerers were called first, and then anyone who carried out magical practices. This would be a Roman vision and we could doubt, but in the Celtic sagas themselves we find too that the druids are presented as masters of the magical arts, even slat an draoichta, that is, carrying a wand or magic wand of a druid.

Druidic knowledge was not available to everyone. Those who chose this path were usually first evaluated and chosen by co-option by the druidic community, and then received painstaking training that could take up to thirty years to reach mastery. There are several theories about where or how this preparation was carried out. Some consider that the Druids lived together in some kind of monastic court sanctuaries, in isolated areas and surrounded by all the natural elements they needed. Others consider that in each community there was a small number of druids who took charge of those who would replace them when the time came. The absence of written manuals only amplifies the mystery of this education.

It is noteworthy that certain women could also access magical knowledge or even be known as Druidesses, in which case it is suggested that the training and preparation time would be somewhat different. However, his treatment was far from being close and appreciated, always viewed with some suspicion, even more so with the arrival of Christianity. The survival of pagan traditions is largely due to them, since, having remained more on the social margin than their druidic companions, whose disappearance was progressive but quite rapid, their magical actions were considered less important, relegating them to the Christian concept of witchcraft or superstition.

Both druids and kings, together with the people at times of vital religious importance, had to comply with certain ritual taboos, such as not traveling on specific days or avoiding specific foods. Part of these taboos were previous and preparatory for a proper ritual, religious or magical, or festivities.

As in many other cultures, magic has divine origins, or at least, the gods perform magical rituals very similar to those of mortals. Many of these gods are also medical, which confirms that many of the tasks of the druids also consisted of medicinal treatments.
Some of the gods within this magical-medical guild were Dagda, primordial god of abundance, nature and life, possessor of a magic club, a harp of beneficial melodies and a bottomless cauldron; Ogmios, a god with functions similar to the Greek Hermes, cunning and intelligent, who in his Irish Ogma develops magical writing (as will be seen later); Diancecht, medical god par excellence; Angus or Mac Oc, the god of youth, love and poetry; Lug, a multifunctional deity, priestly, warrior, magical and helpful; and the so-called Apollo-Celtic, along with Mercury-Celtic. Many other beings in Celtic mythology, such as the banshee that transmutes and deceives King Muichertach, or the pucca, also possessed magical powers, such as deafening screams and transmutation, and were closely linked to the natural world. It is another reason why the link between religious issues and magic remains so little elucidated.
magical writing

Magic writing is reserved for the magic guild, whose tradition is oral, so there are hardly any remains. However, in Christian times the mythical texts that are put in writing may bear resemblances to authentic rites, just as Celtic writing comes to be found strictly in epitaphs and in the later rediscovered Tabellae defixionis, that is, curse tablets. These seem to occur exclusively among the continental Celts, so there are not a few who maintain that it is a Roman influence and not their own rite. However, these lead tablets offer us another very interesting information, since in them the Celtic divinities are invoked to carry out the spell. Thus, we find mentions of Ogmios, as a god of the Other Side, or Adsagsona, an infernal goddess; and apparently Latinized divinities like Apecius and Aquannus, Nana, Mercurius, or Moltinus "ram". But binding spells were not exclusive to this system, instead sympathetic magic was often used, in which like affects like.

Among the Irish Celts we find the Ogham, texts with vertical or oblique, horizontal and vertical strokes; one hypothesis about irregular strokes is that these could be due to the fact that his first attempts were made in wood, and later in stone. Each of the letters or phonemes is identified with a tree, and for authors such as Graves (1948), this writing was purely technical and magical, and was linked to nature, the calendar and cosmology, which has led to its expansion. in the neo-pagan world. The word Ogam or Ogham comes from Ogma/Ogme, the Celtic god who possessed a talking magic sword and traveled from the world of the living to the world of the dead guiding souls. This writing was also very concise, mostly monumental and funerary, centered on recognizable concepts and proper names, such as the funerary inscription of Fiachra, King of Connacht (S.V.). On the other hand, the cosmological questions of Graves do not seem very successful for many modern practices, although it is true that the Celtic tradition is, in itself, one of the most adulterated.

Spells and enchantments

Incantatory magic or by enchantment, that is, by means of song or words, is configured as the first priestly function, both at the human level and at the universal level. The word has power in itself (how could it be otherwise?) since it evokes and invokes what is mentioned. When it is the druid, possessor of knowledge of the divine world, who speaks, this power takes on a new dimension and what is said becomes a reality. It seems that there were specific postures for the development of a spell or prayer, as well as that the spells required continuous repetitions for their effectiveness. But, since the tradition was oral, it is difficult for us to distinguish if this is the opinion of the person who recorded it or studied it before us, or if it is true.

However, we can think that these formulas had an invocation to the divinity whose favor was sought, followed by gestures considered mimetic, that is, they imitate both the situation and the solution to it. There was no shortage of amulets or repetitive chants, sometimes choral. In this way these spells could have many purposes, such as finding lost objects or people, healing an illness or even, guiding us by Christian texts from the 8th century, to preserve butter and other valuable foods, an act of more profane but equally useful. All the elements of the prayer have been deduced from the models of invocation carried out by the characters of the epic sagas, whose repetitive pattern is considered a carbon copy of the true ones. On the other hand, the bards themselves kept knowledge of a magical type, in hypnotic matters, of magical beings, invocations to willing divinities, along with all the content of their arguments, which includes magical chants and spells, so that their descriptions can be considered as quite reliable bases.

Many other types of magic were reserved for the druid, but also, like the aforementioned curses, there were magical practices that were open, or at least known, to the people in general. We are not referring only to sacrifices, libations and oblations, but, for example, to the creation of votive offerings to deposit them in a sanctuary and offer them to the divinities in charge of curing an illness, or thanking a victory. Likewise, popular tradition is loaded with protective formulas against curses or evils such as styes or specific pains, as well as the art of cursing with words. Many protections consisted of the denial of the obvious: "this is not a disease." Many others had characteristics already mixed with Christianity and Latin, mentioning, for example, Christ or the saints.

The Roman physician Marcelo de Bordeaux (S.IV), also known as Marcelo Empírico, left in writing some of the Gallic Celtic formulas that he considered magical, in a language that is at least suspicious, even more so if we have the idea of ​​a "studious" perspective. However, it is worth exposing some of them, like the one against the evil eye, excicum acrisos; against styes, rica rica soro, and also kyria kyria kassaria sourobi (clearly Greek language). Against dental pain, argidam margidam sturdigam, and pain in the palate or bell, crisi crasi cancrasi.

Likewise, amulets or characteristics such as transmutation or invisibility were attributed to people with a magical predisposition, and if their effects were negative, it would be the witches who developed them. Serc was the Irish name given to ills of love, as "irrational and imposed" obsessions by some kind of spell.

But above all, Celtic magic was closely linked to the natural world. Not only were many of the divinities natural elements or were linked to them, but the raw materials for the creation of amulets, potions and ointments were also extracted from nature. This deserves a more extensive treatment in the second part of this article.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada - pietrocarracedo@gmail.com

-Guyonvarc'h, C.J. Magie, medecine et divination chez les celtes. Payot & Rivage. 1997
-Guyonvarc'h, C.J. Le Roux, F. LeS Druides et le druidisme, Ouest-France, Rennes, 1995
-MacCulloch, J.A. Celtic and Scandinavian religions. Cosimo, New York, 2005
-Olsen, T. Christianity and the Celts. Lion Publishing, Oxford, 2003

Licencia de Creative Commons
Este obra está bajo una licencia de Creative Commons Reconocimiento-NoComercial-CompartirIgual 4.0 Internacional.