Celtic magic (II): natural magic and divination.


Magic and nature:

The magic of the druids, like all their religion, is of a natural nature. If we go by the sagas and popular stories, they control the elements, creating storms in the sea or drying up the land, throwing balls of fire at their enemies... The creation of fog, feth fiada, is common to confuse the enemy, to flee or as a sign of a divine presence. They can also fly and hide thanks to the air, and turn stones and trees into powerful auxiliary soldiers. Outside of legends, we do find, for example, processions and rituals to demand rain, or the aforementioned fire ritual to energize the sun. Many of these continue to be carried out in rural and not so rural areas of Europe and the world, although this responds to an anthropological question and not exclusively Celtic.

There was generic knowledge about the power of nature also extended to the people in general. Perhaps one of the most obvious was that of the stones, which many have dared to call a cult. The erection or concrete placement of stones, their carvings and writings have made scholars think that it was a general idea and not a reserved practice - although the ignorance of the Neolithic invoice of megalithic constructions has caused a lot of commotion and confusion in relation to this idea of ​​"Celtic monument" - It is known of fertility rituals, of love, of the belief of living spirits or magical entities associated with rocks. Many of these rituals are similar to others carried out with trees, such as going through a hollow tree to heal oneself by being "reborn", another act repeated infinite times in most cultures.

This religious knowledge of nature can also be identified in the waters, in the rivers as purifying ways, as well as the use of hot springs. Cures and purifications using water from specific places or poured over certain places, such as sacred rocks, before drinking, or belonging to areas considered magical or bordering on the world of spirits, where even cannibalistic creatures can lurk, hence the taboo or the special power. And obviously, to the practice of a more traditional herbology, focused on infusions or poultices, but also on the creation of love filters or spiritual healing.

However, the druidic presence was always necessary. For example, amulets were generally made of natural elements and they had a protective nature. Many of them have been found in burials, which reinforces that idea. Carved bones have been found, generally of animals, or their teeth. There were stone amulets such as quartz or marble, even amber. In stone and wood, animals considered images of the divinities or evocative of their qualities for the wearer were carved. Amulets were in common use, but often required a Druidic workmanship or consecration. This is the case of the wheels, which recall the solar wheels, or the Serpent Egg mentioned by the author Pliny, of which it is known that they had to be consecrated through specific rituals, although it can be assumed that, due to its expansion, this would not be very complex for the "extended-use" amulets.

Plant sorcery or plant magic well deserves a separate chapter to be able to be treated with more complexity. On the one hand, it should be noted that, at least according to the majority of texts and remains that we have, plant magic in Ireland was evil, but continental magic was considered beneficial. This consequently modifies the narratives on which we can base ourselves, as we remember that the Celtic literary sagas are an essential source due to the absence of written testimonies from the magical-religious world due to oral tradition.

On the other hand, it is necessary to differentiate between its two forms of application. One of them consists, as such, in its medicinal part, normally the work of the druids, considered Fathliaig, divine medicine. In it, the plants, collected under certain astrological and ritual conditions, were used to apply them as ointments, poultices, infusions... Also for less physical and more magical or spiritual issues, such as lustrations and ablutions, or for the creation of poisons and antivenoms , or filters of love or oblivion, like Cuchulainn's elixir. It is the most physical magical part, practically herbological. Apparently it was also common to make an elixir to sleep, but the function was not so much medical as hypnotic. As has already been said, this herbal knowledge was also possessed by ordinary people, but they would never reach those of a "scholar" in this subject.

Thanks to some authors, we have lists of commonly used herbs, which on the other hand provide valuable information on the flora of the territory at the time. For example, among the continental Celts, henbane, belenountia, common in epic sagas, is considered a divination plant, whose name refers to the god Beleno. The beliokandos was a Gallic sacred tree, yet to be determined. So was birch, betilolen or betiloden. The blutthagio, unidentified, was an effective remedy against earache. Camedium or Teucrium, burdock, water lily, artemisia, lemon balm, chamomile, clover..., among other plants for medicinal use, have been recorded by ancient authors such as Pliny in his Natural History. The Irish or Island Celts shared many of these, but they also had some particular ones, such as the wild hawthorn, the money grass, and they knew the uses of arsenic, and tree gum and resin.

All the plants also shared a certain astrological closeness, so that depending also on the position of the stars and the festivities, or the person they were addressed to, they could have one function or another totally opposite. The same happened with the trees and the ritual of harvesting, but finally all this has given rise over the centuries to some interpretations, passed through a medieval and later occultist filter, that has led to the arboreal zodiacs and other attempts at Celtic astrological restructuring.

The other side consists of mastering the plant world, in its direct manipulation, at a presumably more legendary level. In the story of Cath Maighe Tuireadh or Battle of Mag Turied, the god Lug speaks to his sorcerers in a "vegetable" battle, telling them <<We will enchant the trees, stones and mountains of the earth, that they will become a battalion in arms; they will fight against them (the enemies), and they will put them to flight with horror and torments>>. We also find similar cases in Táin Bó Cúalnge, with King Aillil and Fergus. Or in the story of the druid Mag Ruith, who had a knack for mastering the element of fire, so that the druid on the enemy side couldn't "consume" it.

There was also a ritual, airbe druad, consisting of the surrounding of the army by the druid, with a protective and strengthening function, although not unique to this culture, since the Romans themselves also developed similar rituals.

Kings were often attributed weapons or magical qualities, perhaps recalling in the druids the ancient figures of king-priests. In any case, the application of magic in war is another point to take into account, since it required the mandatory presence of a druid. And this is because this priest-magician, in addition, had medical knowledge at the surgical level, a more profane aptitude, which not in vain requires specific means and methods. Obviously, it was the most used in times of contention, and therefore not exclusive to druids, but also to soldiers, at least at a basic level.

As seen in the first part of the article, the power of the druid's word exceeds these borders and the manipulation of an environment or the very result of an action was something subject to his power. Therefore, these last examples invoking nature would fall within the so-called incantatory magic, within its natural aspect, such as sprinklers to "recreate" and attract rain, and others that also lead to medical practices accompanied by recitations and formulas, that ensure the success of cures or any other magical practice, such as purifying sprinkling, ablutions, libations or the collection of herbaceous supplies.

The use of animals through manipulation through speech is not strange either, at least in the world of fables. They could enchant insects that, when biting a person, would transmit physical or mental ills, or talk to birds, divine messengers, and send messages with them. They say that druids and sorcerers could adopt their appearance to go unnoticed. On the other hand, the animals could be guides and messengers of the gods or bring messages from the Other Side, or even they could be the divinities themselves, incarnated. In legends, animals can speak and have deep knowledge about the virtues of nature.

The power of transmutation could be performed on others, a magical practice associated with the evil use of magic. In this way, in many stories the heroes are metamorphosed into an animal by their enemy and must find a way to recover their human figure. Although it can be considered that this animal section is fanciful, it is not so much the fact that it is considered that among the Celts there was an evident totemism that identified certain animals with certain individuals, such as birds with women, and many animals were respected according to which clans and their meat was consumed or not depending on whether it was a mythical ancestor or had an important part in any of the community legends. Its invocation not only served to attract the qualities of the animal to the person, such as strength or speed, but also for protection due to this ancestral bonding.


As already mentioned in the first part, divination was found within the druidian world but also somewhat differentiated, if we are guided by its lexicon. Although druidecht evokes druidism, including divinatory practices, astrologer and diviner had different names (asarloí and dewin). In Irish, for example, éicse refers to divination, but also to poetry and science, and shares meaning with filidecht: poet's science, but it is not explicitly explained; for this reason, faitsine is the preferred term to properly refer to the divinatory act, since it is usually translated by prediction or prophecy. Once again we discover that we do not have a vast, organized, or deep knowledge of their language and its practices.

The translation with which we could come closest would be "druid", differentiated from the vate, a fortune teller, and the bard, who narrates mythical episodes but also keeps magical knowledge, such as spells and invocations. The three individuals share knowledge, but not necessarily functions.

Divination shared methods with many other cultures of the time. Divination by astronomy, and derivative in certain astrology, is clearly guided by the knowledge of the celestial world. Some authors from later centuries pointed out the possible existence of magical books, either as grimoires or as annals in which to write down predictions and important moments, such as births of great characters or conflictive or prosperous situations, but this is not free from skepticism, when considered as a recognizable element of the medieval world that goes beyond what was said above - aside, it would be clearly influenced by the appearance of grimoires in continental Europe. What did exist were calendars, duly based on celestial movements, which included predictions of important events and festivities.

Scholars have been correct in classifying the druids according to their different functions, considering that, despite the fact that they all fulfill general social and ritual functions, they could have some type of specialization due to their category. Thus, there would be the priest-druid, more focused on the relationship with the gods, the incantatory druids, destined to achieve objectives through this divine and magical relationship, and the diviner-druids.

Considered a ritual archaism, it is known of oracles developed from rest and observation in meadows, according to some without prior ritual preparation - which seems neither logical nor probable, but rather guided by that perception of communication with nature in which they like to insist so much on the Celts - or the divination-finger spell or dichetal do chennaib, carried out by the bard who played inspired, expressing the prophecy instantly.

There were also other types of observation such as the flight of birds, which also occurred among the Etruscans and other neighboring towns. The observation of birds, taking into account that they were considered celestial messengers, was focused on the flight, not having much influence on the type of bird that it was. Even so, certain birds such as swans enjoyed special value. The presence of many other animals in certain circumstances could also be considered as a positive or negative omen or foretoken, as in the case of the cat and the dog respectively. The pig, for its part, was a priestly animal, perhaps because of sacrificial issues.

The Teim laegda apparently consisted of putting the thumb in the mouth and touching the object or something else related to what is being asked about. That it is accompanied by chants and sacrifices indicates that it was a druidic practice, although it should not be forgotten that the magical-healing power of saliva is very common in the ancient world.

The Incubatio, the ritual of sleeping in a sacred place to receive a vision from the gods or even a healing, was already found throughout the Mediterranean world. The importance of this point lies in the possibility that, indeed, there were physical sanctuaries of human origin where one could rest safely, beyond simple caves or consecrated forests.

There were also rituals such as the tarbfes (bull festival), in which divination was carried out through the ingestion of the sacrificial victim. Most likely -although we again entered slippery ground due to the fusion of visions and knowledge of the ancient world- the entrails of the victims of this type of sacrifice were also read, but we do not know the keys yo interpretation.

Divination by throwing stones, wood or other objects is common in many cultures, always based on polarity and the figure formed when falling. This also led to the expansion in the popular mind of a similar use of "Celtic runes" - in confusion with the writing of the Anglo-Saxon world. These divinatory methods were called prinni loudin, and they do not seem exclusive to the druids. It is probable that there were many other popular divinatory methods, but as in many other cases, it is difficult to deduce them from the remains and communications that have come down to us, although it is deducible that they would be more practical, discreet and less sophisticated.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada - pietrocarracedo@gmail.com

-Guyonvarc'h, C.J. Magie, médecine et divination chez les celtes. Payot & Rivages. 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

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> Celtic magic (I): lexicon, magic and operators