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This weekend I attended an excellent multi-disciplinary symposium on Charms and Magic in Medieval and Modern Ireland, organized by the Department of Early Irish at the National University of Ireland Maynooth.  Scholars from so diverse backgrounds as religious studies and archeology, linguistics and philology, and from applied disciplines likes herbal healing and veterinary medicine presented enlightening glimpses into their own work, as it related to the topic.  I hope to share what I took away from these talks.

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Worm and Snake Charms

The first speaker of the morning was Jacqueline Borsje (University of Amsterdam and University of Ulster), who delved into Irish snake and worm charms as export products.  She outlined the importance of charms as words of power, and how important context is when seeking to understand them.  Cultural, textual, and situational context is everything; in other words, don’t necessarily take them at face value.

Professor Borsje has written extensively about the evil eye in Ireland, and she brought this connection with “supernatural theft” into her discussion of snake and ‘wyrm’ charms.    Her reference to Professor Kelly’s work on medieval Irish Law tracts dealing with the stealing away ‘through envy,” with such concerns of butter and milk, was the thrust of her argument here.  A Babylonian incantation from the 2nd millennium BCE, in which women, babies, storage rooms, the god of the house, were all mentioned in their need for protection against this ‘supernatural theft.’

An interesting point connected ‘evil eye cultures’ — those cultures expressing a concept such as the evil eye or supernatural theft — with unstable ecological environments dependent on crop or cattle economies, with a concern over scarcity of resource.

Another non-Irish source mentioning supernatural theft are the 12 Roman Tables.  These tables talk of bewitched crops, evil spells, and the removal of crops by incantation.  In medieval Ireland, a particular concern was ‘stealing through the evil eye on the corriguinech (on May Day) — which seemed connected to milk theft.

Anglo-Saxon MS have references to Irish snake and wyrm charms that focus on remedies for swallowing a ‘wyrm’ and for ‘penetrating wyrm.’  These charms normally entailed singing the charm in various ways, and using saliva.  For example:

Wyrm Charm (MS  remedies)

Sing the charm 9 times, in either the right or left ear

Penetrating Wyrm

Sing the charm directly on the wound, then anoint with saliva. 

The charms are ‘aggressive’ in imagery, using the language of battle.  During this time, worms were seen as the cause of ailments as diverse as toothache and migraine, to pregnancy and actual disease.  An example of some of this language can be found in Lady Wylde’s writing, which, though not scholarly, does offer a glimpse into modern usage:

 for the Great Worm

 I kill a hound….

I kill a worm…..

for Pains:

evil worm

venomous charm….

rub with butter, etc.

The tendency of these charms is to treat like with like, similar to homeopathy.  The idea of a ‘snake charm’ was to use something venomous (the word of power) to treat a venomous disease (caused by a worm).  Another very interesting thing was the use of singing.  These charms, by and large, were sung, and often over the wound or over the water / liquid which held the charm and was then drunk.  If the patient could not drink, then the incantation of the charm was sung into the patients mouth.

Snake charms were used against illnesses associated with poison.  The absence of snakes on the island of Ireland was seen as a special property of this island.  This is why most of the snake charms found in continental Europe contain a portion written in Old Irish.  The really interesting thing to note here, is that the Irish found written in these charms was so garbled, it’s almost unintelligible.  Why?  Because it had been told to an original scribe by an Irish speaker, but had been handed down to non-speakers who were simply trying to copy, from memory, a phonetic representation.  They didn’t understand the Irish they were saying, but it was a Word of Power that held the protection of the ‘land without snakes.’  A potent charm against poison diseases!

A fun side note mentioned the old Irish hex of placing 13 eggs in someone’s haystack on Bealtaine.

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[youtube http://youtu.be/sniM8XIqWIg]

Cummer, go ye before, cummer go ye
If ye willna go before, cummer, let me
Ring-a-ring-a-widdershins
Linkin lithely widdershins
Cummer, carlin, crone and queen
Roun go we

Cummer, go ye before, cummer, go ye
If ye willna go before, cummer, let me
Ring-a-ring-a-widdershins
Loupin lightly widdershins
Kilted coats and fleein hair
Three times three

Cummer go ye before, cummer, go ye
If ye willna go before, cummer, let me
Ring-a-ring-a-widdershins
Whirlin skirlin widdershins
De’il tak the hindmost
Wha e’er she be

WITCHDANCE_SM

Translation using the Dictionary of the Scottish Language:

Witch go you fast, witch go you
If you will not go fast, witch let me
Circling a circle widdershins (counter-clockwise)
Linking hands quickly and merrily widdershins,
Wives, crones, mothers and young lasses

Round go we!

Witch go you fast, witch go you
If you will not go fast, witch let me
Circling a circle widdershins
Looping (or weaving) easily and swiftly
Tucked up skirts and flying hair
Three times three!

Witch go you fast, witch go you
If you will not go fast, witch let me
Circling a circle widdershins
Whirling (rotating) screaming louder, widdershins
Devil take the last one (furthest behind)
Whoever she be!

[Background: excerpt from  Sangstories – Stories of Scottish Songs]

Words:
Carlin: old woman, witch
Cummer: woman friend, witch
Deil: devil
Fleein: flying
Hindmost: last, furthest behind
Kilted: tucked up
Loupin: jumping, leaping
Queen: quean or quine, girl, woman
Skirlin: screeching
Widdershins: anti-clockwise; opposite to the sun’s movement; against nature,  so used by witches

Christine Kydd brought this song to Sangschule. She recorded it along with Corrina Hewat and Elspeth Cowie as Chantan on their CD Primary Colours. Their notes say: “A song from 1591 and the witch trials of King James 6th of Scotland. A time when any woman could be accused of being a witch on a whim. The words come from the transcripts of one of the trials in connection with a plot, by Francis Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, and others to kill the king. It is the first written record of a reel in Scotland.”

Witches were supposed to meet and dance in a circle going “widdershins”, against the sun, as part of reversing what was natural or holy.  They were naked or immodestly dressed  – Burns’ “cutty sark” is like the “kilted coats” – revealing a lot of leg. “Three times three” was a magic number. And the devil would sometimes join the dance, though here the old saying “Deil tak the hindmost” suggests fear of this event rather than a welcome for the master.

A ‘thread’ of entries on www.mudcat.org attempts to pin down more of the sources and Jack Campin’s entries say that the first two lines do appear in the transcript of the witch trials, but “ the rest was obviously made up in the 20th century”.

James 6th himself was present at the North Berwick witch trials where the accusations against his cousin, Bothwell and the “other witches” were dealt with, and he took part in interrogations. Two of the accused women were Geillis Duncan and Agnes Sampson. They did not survive, but Bothwell escaped.  Excerpts from trial papers are available on…

http://homepages.tesco.net/~eandcthomps/Chronology1.htm

…a website belonging to Dr E H Thompson of the University of Dundee e.g.:

Agnes Sampson “admitted healing the sick by natural remedies and prayer, helping people who had been bewitched and having dealings with the devil in the form of a dog.”

She confessed to the King that she had been moved to serve the devil by poverty after the death of her husband and had received the devil’s mark. (This mark hidden on the body was said to be impervious to pain, and led to ‘witches’ being pierced all over with a pin by accusers trying to find it.)

Reading between the lines from our present-day standpoint, it is easy to see how superstitious fears led to ordeal and death for many poor and helpless women, but James 6th pursued the prosecution of witches with determination and wrote his own book on the subject, Demonologie, published in 1597.

 [The Music]
 X: 1
T: The Witches
R: reel

M: 4/4
L: 1/8
K: Edor
EBBG FDDF|EBBF GABc|d2 AG FEDF|EBAF GE E2:|
gfeg Bgeg|fdad bdaf|gfeg Bgeg|fdaf fee2|
gfeg Bgeg|fdad bdaf|gaeg deBd|ABFA BEE2||
The Witches (reel) on The Session

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Giorria skull peers out from the talamh 

under the Hedge;

the only part left by the sionnach.

An equinox gift of the gloamingImage

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help, protect, and defend thy Brothers and Sisters of the Art

There is an ancient story that in days long ago Wytches met in secret.  That to come among them, you swore a fearsome Oath.  Your measure was taken, with cord Hallow and Mighty, upon your promise to “keep Secret” and “Protect” the Art and those who practiced it.

A dread Oath to swear.  For, if the oath be broken by a Witch, his or her cord was buried with curses, so that as it rotted the traitor would too.

How many of you have mused on that time, and imagined yourself called to betray the names of your coven or your neighbors?  Would you…under torture, speak their names?

Bessie Dunloptumblr_m5gzspxhAN1qatqtto1_400

Elizabeth Knap

Marigje Arriens

Johann Albrecht Adelgrief

Goodwife Bassett

Giovanna Bonanno

George Burroughs

Lasses Birgitta

Michée Chauderon

Nyzette Cheveron

Elizabeth Clarke

Helena Curtens

Jean Delvaux

Catherine Deshayes

Thomas Doughty

Anna Eriksdotter

Ann Glover

…..

Perhaps we understand, all too well, what heinous physical cruelty these healers, midwives, cunning folk, and mystics endured.

                       Perhaps we hold mercy for those who screamed the names of others.

But in our day and age?

What is our modern equivalent?

A subpoena?

Would you “out” your brothers and sisters if a court demanded it?

What of MONEY?

Would you make known the secrets of the Art for payment?

What of prestige?

“I am High Muckety Muck Raven Claw” …. “I was told by the Goddess Spank Me that THIS is the only correct way”

I am a Witch heart-broken, enraged, and determined.  Someone has revealed.  Someone has made known.  Someone has not protected her brothers and sisters of the Art.

What would you do?

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Where we differ from the New Age is that magic and witchcraft must be grounded in our relationship with the land, with community, with nature. Stating this has been ‘unfashionable’ for those who wish to exist in a bubble where the spirits that they talk with are not embedded in the physical world but are fragments of their psyches. This is not a position that our ancestors would recognise, we are part of a continuum, a continuum which is being raped and destroyed. This must be our focus.

Excerpt from Scarlet Imprint’s; The Death of The New Age

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Sometimes I imagine what I would say if one of my children explicitly asked me for training, or intentionally sought it for themselves. They were all exposed to The Craft, as well as general pagan perspectives (and I will continue using the general term ‘pagan’ on this blog because I feel it provides a touchstone we can come together on politically and academically). They also engage in witchy activities and hold very pagan beliefs, though they may be in various stages of consciousness on that front.

I think about the heartfelt advice given by one of my early initiators, Juniper. We shared a similar Christian upbringing, and we both had children. Through tears she bravely confessed that if she could go back, knowing what changes and pain lay ahead, she wasn’t sure she would choose this crooked path again. You see, once you put your foot to the path, there is no way but forward – whether to madness or transformation.

Most of my friends who are witches say they always knew they were. That there was never a moment of decision, only one of recognition. It may be that they were outsiders, or just felt themselves different, somehow. This is a critical point to ponder.

If you feel ostracized; if you feel outside the group: take notice whether these feelings make you uncomfortable. If there is a part of your mind seeking validation or the experience of fitting-in – you may want to reconsider this path. Certainly there will be a feeling of kinship, and a relief in having found your own kind, but consider: The Witch lives on the outside of society. Hir path is alone, in a forest darkly. There is no band of brothers who march off to fame and glory together, nor is there cultural acceptance or wide-spread recognition. There may be camaraderie, and you may finally understand your inherent difference, but think long and hard before committing yourself to further differentiation. To be Marked…is for life.

But, if one of my children did ask….even after I ignored them, or tried to put them off (you see, it is a dark path…and I can’t say I would wish it on anyone), the first task I would give them would be to GO OUTSIDE.

Not to glory in airy fairies, or rainbow ponies. I would require they spend a year learning the land: what her seasons are; what her geological history is; what other-than-human persons share the land with them; what the history of her communities are; what weather patterns are dominant; where is the sun in the sky on the longest day; what celestial observations when the season changes; what ARE those seasons there, on that land; what orientation is associated with significant phenomena, whether seasonal, atmospheric, or historical.

I would NOT ask them to leave their locale. This work does not require leaving the city and finding some idyllic country location. The Witch knows the environment he resides in, not one of hir imagining. The Great Powers are everywhere, and everywhere, are different. Know them.

At least I think these would be my first remarks….if a child of mine saw this path in the forest and reached for the gate.

20120912-152329.jpg

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When you’re learning a language there’s a breakthrough point at which you begin to be able to think in the new language instead of just translating everything piecemeal from your mother tongue. That’s what I mean by speaking (and thinking) in Pagan. Much of what passes for Pagan these days is actually a bad translation into Pagan of some variety of Natal Monotheism or, worse, Pop Culture. The words may be Pagan, but the ideas aren’t.

That’s where philosophy comes in: what does it mean to think in Pagan? To speak from a worldview that’s pagan from the ground up, not pagan-by-contrast-with-something-else? A worldview whose very premises are pagan? After doing this stuff for 40-odd years now, I feel that I’m finally beginning to have some grasp of First Principles, the theoretical physics of pagan practice. The paganisms have always been grounded in experience, and that’s the way it should be. But if we stop at experience instead of proceeding to analysis as well, what right do we have to call ourselves “wise”? As usual, Sokrates had the right of it with his quip about the unexamined life.

….
Christopher: Do you consider that most of witches’ chosen gods are bit too civilized and far too human-like? What do you mean by the Elder Gods?

Steven: “Civilized,” hmm. Let me say “safe.” Let me say “sanitized.” We’ve gotten so accustomed to our comfortable man-sized, man-shaped gods and goddesses, all neatly paired off in nice suburban heterosexual couples, that we bid hither and thither like domestic staff whenever it suits us. We think of them as parts of ourselves. “I work with such-and-so,” we say, thus reducing our gods to the status of co-workers. We’ve forgotten what Rosemary Sutcliff calls “the Splendor and the Terror.” (Or maybe—the black shame and sorrow of it—we’ve never even known it.) Look at the old pantheons, look at nature. It’s all so much deeper, so much darker, so much more interesting.

Enter the Old Gods, the Elder Gods, the permanent gods of the witches. Of humanity, really. These are the nature powers: wild, untamed and untamable. The far-side-of-the hedge ones.

Unlike what I would call the Younger Gods, they’re not anthropomorphic, they’re not archetypes, they don’t take birth from our minds.

As Bruner Soderberg has observed, they were here before we were, they gave rise to us, and they’ll be here long after we’re gone. Every single one of us knows them and lives in real relationship with them, whether we pay attention to it or not. We cannot not know them.

By their nature the Younger Gods vary from pantheon to pantheon, but the Old Gods turn up pretty much everywhere, and they’re everywhere busily engaged in their own very real relationships with one another, and with us.

We can describe these beings and their relationships scientifically, but we can also articulate them in story, and that’s mythology. Their presence gives a depth coherence and an internal consistency to the otherwise pastiche nature of much modern paganism, and they are the rightful inheritance of all of us, regardless of who we are, where we live, or where our people come from.

The Old Ones may well have been elbowed into the background by Younger, made-in-our-own-image Gods, but there they are: real existing beings, full of power, wisdom, and presence. Who are they?

Twelve

Each of us knows them intimately
already, being the ground of every birth:
Earth, mighty mother of us all;
Sun, splendid in royal self-immolation;
Moon, queen of witches,
threefold mistress of fate;
Storm, called Thunder by the ancestors;
Sea, the fish-tailed lady of the deep;
the winged Winds, wide-faring;
Fire, youngest elder, fallen from heaven;
the Horned One, master of animals
—ourselves among them
—and the Green his firstborn brother,
lord of leaf and tendril.
These themselves are they,
themselves themselves.

© Steven Posch

These, of course, are the Greater Powers among them. Look around you and you’ll see plenty of others: river and mountain, waterfall, spring, and lake. This boulder, that tree. They neither need nor want our belief, but they’re real as real, and we cannot live without them. We are all already in relationship with them; the witch’s duty is to make it a mindful relationship. It’s truly, as John Michael Greer has said, “a world full of gods.”

…..

Steven: If there had indeed been pagans of our ilk in Europe during the Hidden Years, and if those old paganisms had managed to survive in backwaters here and there, and if they had undergone the usual kinds of culture loss and internal innovation, and if the old ways had been influenced as one would expect by the new religion, and if those ways had managed to survive into modern times, and if our ancestors had brought those ways with them to the New World in their heads, hearts, and steamer trunks, and if those ways had become naturalized to the local weather patterns, vegetation and wildlife, and if those ways had been influenced by the lore of the indigenous peoples, and of other incomers, and if those ways had survived industrialization and the Wars, and if they had managed to come down intact to us today in the second decade of the so-called twenty-first century: then what would our paganism look like?

That, ideally, is what we’re aiming for. It’s a colossal work of collective imagination and heroic research, but that’s what we need to be doing, folks, and we all need to be doing it. As the proverb goes, a witch’s work is never done.

…In the various on-line pagan lists I’ve been part of over the years, I’ve noticed that one can rarely tell from people’s posts where they live; it doesn’t seem to have any influence whatsoever on their paganism. That’s not right. All real paganism is by definition local, and it’s our job to make it more so.

None of the old traditions have come down to us in their entirety. None. That means that in order to flesh out what we’ve inherited, we need to look at other people’s ways and have the wisdom to learn from them.

What this does not mean is stealing other people’s stuff and plunking it down lock, stock, and bicycle into what we’re doing. This is what Paganistani anthropologist Murphy Pizza refers to as the “Ooo, Shiny!” approach: the Way of the Magpie, one might say. It is precisely this that gives so much neo-paganism—I use the term advisedly—its superficial, adolescent, “unfinished” feel. When we learn something from another culture, we need to ask instead: how does this translate into Pagan? How do I say that in Witch?

from, How do you say that in Witch? an interview with Culture Builder of Paganistan Steven Posch

Hop over and read the entire article, it is well worth it. He is articulating exactly what I have been attempting in my recent ‘Points to Ponder’ posts.

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When I try to tease apart my own cultural bias, my very Western bias, about many topics, religion not the least of these, I find myself on an unmarked path in a dense forest. My understanding of what deity is, even knowing the word “deity”, is part of the clearly defined Western path through this forest of knowing. I try to imagine a different world view, my own had I been born before the rise of Rome and the enlightenment. I look around and attempt to experience my world with older eyes. David Abram writes eloquently and thoroughly on the experience of our sensual world in his phenomenal work, Spell of the Sensuous. In this book, as opposed to his second work, he presents for the hungry reader an intelligent discussion of how literacy impacts the human animal, how indigenous populations that remain pre-or-illiterate engage with their living environments, and how oral culture shapes and shifts our perceptions of non-human persons.

When I open myself to this way of Being, what I experience is immediacy and consciousness. Suddenly every object around me is a power, a pair of eyes observing me. It ceases to be ‘only’ other mammals; or birds; or amphibians. Instead, I am now greeted by the sensation of observance from the mighty trees, the unyielding brambles, the luminous Moon, the flowing Milky Way, and the Great Winds. The Waters that fall from the sky, wondrously alive, interact with my being. The planet, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe….suddenly have consciousness.

In the light of all this intelligence, all this consciousness…. what is a *god*? The concept loses shape and meaning. All of the seen and unseen is imbued to my perceptual field with a breath previously unknown by me. |f my understanding of deity is of a being more powerful or knowledgeable than myself, well…. my white blood cells are clearly god, as is the moss that covers the rock in my garden. These powers have strength and knowing so different from my own, so vast in their understanding and ability, that I rarely come close in my struggle for meaning. Do I, a human person, alone define ‘power’? Do I alone define knowledge? I find myself back in the forest, tempted to walk on the clear path of Western bias in a human centric knowing.

But I resist, as I hope most pagans do who desire to return to a different way of knowing and being in the living world. Our western constructs are failing us as a species. Part of knowing myself, in all my parts, is understanding how my neural pathways are shaped by culture; how the marvelous universe of my brain organizes and categorizes information sent to it from my limited sensory organs. To deconstruct, and rebuild with intention, is a mighty work. It is a worthy work, and necessary to walking a truly pagan path through the forest, as opposed to the same Western path decorated with pagan paraphernalia. I do not wish to be seen as a Witch because I wear Stevie Nicks skirts (which I don’t), or strand upon strand of silver jewelry (which I don’t), or because I have pentagrams tattooed on my skin (which I don’t). Likewise, I do not want to be a pagan who interacts with the world around me using the same lenses my culture and wider society gave me, with nothing more than a pagan film overlaid: western religion wearing pagan clothing. I have to ask myself…. am I interacting with and viewing the Morrigan the same way I was taught to interact with and view Jesus?

Of course, that line of thought is only religious and doesn’t begin to delve into the subtle human centric discourse of the wider Western culture, let alone secular concepts that are restricted to western societies, such as human rights, individualism, freedom of expression, etc. For myself, this rabbit hole has led to a fairly straight forward non-theistic animism, and to re-examine cultural mythologies and folklore (namely Irish mythology) in this light.

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In my last post I started talking about worldview, but actually slipped into focusing on just one: a christian worldview. We can hold many worldviews, and move between them based on situation. In fact, ‘worldview’ has often been compared to a lens which alters the way we view life and how we perceive the world we live in. There are a variety of worldviews, as there are a variety of lenses for my camera, some of them are: Christian worldview, postmodern worldview, secular humanist worldview, new age worldview, etc. A broader concept is bias, and particularly when thinking about religion – a western bias; our very understanding of the word religion shows this. The word religion has a very close association with the development of Western culture. Benson Saler, an anthropologist, is quoted as saying, “the practitioners of a mostly Western profession (anthropology) employ a Western category (religion), conceptualized as a component of a larger Western category (culture), to achieve their professional goal of coming to understand what is meaningful and important for non-Western peoples.”

I think this bias, in part, arises from the unclear etymology of the word religion. From the Latin religio , some scholars believe it stems from leig, “to bind”, while others think the root meant “to reread” or to “be careful”. (1) It was certainly a cultic term associated with the careful performance of ritual obligations. The word eventually came to refer to sincere worship and to distinguish between monastic and laity life. Of course today, in the modern era, with our increased exposure to practices and beliefs different from christianity, we use the world to refer to various traditions of the world.

I hope you can see how our western centric worldview colors and shapes the way we view even secular ideas (as I mention in my first post on this topic), but particularly religious or spiritual ones. Even if we have managed to scrub clean our cultural exposure to a Christian worldview (which I doubt), we are still using a western biased term to discuss many pre-western cultural practices and experiences. There are many scholars out there writing on the topic and value of a pagan theology and religious study (my dear friend Christine Hoff Kraemer being one of them) and I recommend seeking them out.

Having outlined my thinking on a western centric worldview, I turn toward indigenous ‘pagan’ practice and what it means for modern pagans looking backward through the lens of the west (and hope to god I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew).

….more to come.

1. Kessler, Gary E., Studying Religion; An Introduction Through Cases, 2008

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