For many Pagans, particularly of a Wiccan or Druid flavour, calendars are fairly straightforward. There are plenty of us, though, who do calendars differently – from Norse to Kemetic. Continue reading
I don’t talk much about the saints I work with. It’s totally outside my Gaelic tradition – and, indeed, outside my druidry path. I don’t have a detailed theology of what saints are, either. They’re my spiritual ancestors – an ongoing link to Christianity, which remains important to me as part of the history of my spiritual journey and the history of my culture – even if I can no longer support its theology (or host most of its practices) in my life. They are ancestors who are often very willing to help me with folk magic, and to receive prayers and attention in exchange for protection or provision.
In the Gaelic tradition, researching saints often becomes messy quite quickly. demonstrating the fluid boundaries between ancestors, gods and land spirits in Gaelic culture. Some of the saints-as-ancestors may also be gods. St Gobnait, in my UPG, definitely has something to do with Bhéarra – I’m just not sure what. (See my post on St Gobnait for more of my thoughts on that topic.) Studying the stories of the post-Christian saints has taught me as much about Gaelic culture as studying the myths. Both may well have pre-Christian roots – but regardless, I’m not sure the Christian/pagan dichotomy really works particularly well in terms of Gaelic reconstructionism. Gaelic culture has endured on through Christianity. The saints are a complex part of this, knotted into the threads of pagan and Christian Gaelic folk culture. Neopagans tend to have mixed, slightly confused responses to the Irish saints – St Patrick is vilified, but St Brigit is considered to carry survivals of the goddess Brighid in her stories. Keeping in mind how our views of the saints are socially constructed – in this case, by our social context of modern Paganism – could be useful here. My views are just as socially constructed as anyone else’s, but I try to approach the saints on their own terms, and ask what they can teach me.
Some of my saints are Gaelic. Some are not. Some may have pagan roots. Some do not. They are all my spiritual ancestors. They have all helped me, and many other people.
St Catherine, inspirer of scholars and strong women. St Gobnait, lady of the deer and the bees, from the Munster hills of my ancestors. St Francis, gentle brother to animals and to the land. St Cajetan, of social justice and concern for the poor and jobless. Mary, mother of a god, protector of the weak – in all her many aspects. Mary Magdalene, Gnostic avatar of Sophia, teacher of wisdom, whose story has been suppressed and lost, like the stories of so many women before her – and patroness of those whose brains and neurology don’t work too well. St Anthony, of the lost. And many others. They protect me, guide me and work with me. They are my ancestors, and I honour them. I don’t need much more theology than that, really. The rest is mere detail.
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
– From the Breastplate of St Patrick
Well, this seems as good a time as any to start gathering my thoughts on Piety. It’s another of those ADF virtues that we’re asked to consider during the Dedicant Path year. It’s also something that there’s been a lot of talk about on the internet recently, at least in Pagan and polytheist circles. To a very tedious degree. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that – however you want to worship the gods (or honour the earth or pursue spirituality) – we are currently boring the pants off the deities. I can just see the great Powers That Be now, sitting on Mount Olympus/in Asgard/under the Irish sidhe mounds/in the heavens, rolling their eyes at their devotees who are going ON AND ON about what Piety is or is not. And maybe the pantheons are having an argument about whose worshippers are the most boring. Or telling jokes to lighten the mood. Lugh, Thor and Athena walk into a bar…
So now that I’ve got that out of my system, I’m going to talk about Piety. Continue reading
True names. From Rumpelstiltskin, to the Jewish concept of not speaking the name of God, to the Doctor – we have a lot of mythic and cultural precedent for associating names with power.
I’ve never liked the name I was given at birth. It means ‘pleasant’. How dull is that? I grew up wanting a name that meant something exciting.
For a long time, on the internet, I’ve used the name ‘Sophia Catherine’. Catherine is one of my legal middle names, and St Catherine of Alexandria is my patron saint (her with the wheel) – so including that name was obvious. Using ‘Sophia’ was more of a complicated decision. Many people honour Sophia as a goddess: either as the feminine aspect of the Christian god, or a goddess in a sort of Christian pantheon. That’s not exactly how she was seen by the Gnostics, though she was very important to them. Sophia, the journey to wisdom, to enlightenment, was a principle and a process more than a person. It’s also a name that I’ve long wanted to give to a daughter if I had one (even though I more than likely won’t have children). I loved using Sophia as a name. It… fits. Yes, it’s a bit ‘up myself’ to use a name that some people use for a goddess and which means ‘wisdom’ – but it just fit.
So you can still call me Sophia anytime you want. But in an effort to try and repair the gap that is growing between my Pagan life and my so-called ‘real life’, I’m starting to use my legal name more widely around the internet. I want to write, and do other interesting things – especially once I’ve finished my PhD – and I don’t want there to be any confusion between my identities.
ADF members often take on religious names, and I’m thinking of using Leithin Cluan as that name in the future. Leithin of Cluan is another mythological wisdom-seeking figure, though she approaches wisdom and knowledge from a very different, more earthly perspective than Sophia. Ultimately, Sophia is a carry-over from my Gnostic days, when I believed that enlightenment was found through a rejection of the world. But that’s no longer my primary path to wisdom (though it will always be an important aspect of my spiritual journey). I now seek wisdom in and through the world, through the sacredness of life in all its incredible diversity. Leithin the eagle sought wisdom from the stag, the blackbird and the salmon, from the oldest animals. She sought knowledge with her five senses, as Manannan advised Cormac to do. And eventually, Leithin also discovered that the devoted, obsessive pursuit of wisdom is not everything. Sometimes, it’s better to be at home looking after your chicks.
And all that name stuff is before we’ve even got to surnames. I disliked the surname I was born with even more than my first name, and I was delighted when SJ and I changed both our last names to a previous name of my family’s, that my granddad gave up just after the war (because it was a Jewish name, and he was meeting with some serious prejudice). Now that did feel like a name that encompassed my actual identity. And I hope that returning to it was honouring to my ancestors. But my first name? Ugh…
Names are a funny thing. I may not like my legal first name, but it’s the truth of who I’ve been for 35 years, with all my baggage, joys, frustrations, and wonderful discoveries of what life is about. I’m Naomi Catherine Jacobs: sociologist-in-training, teacher, aspiring writer, tea-lover, devoted wife, crazy cat lady, occasional singer… and druid-in-training.
Pleased to meet you.
So. I’ve been working through ADF’s ‘Wheel of the Year’ book, which takes you through the Dedicant Path a week at a time – but I’ve been quite scrappy about some weeks. I think I need to go back over the weeks I didn’t do in enough depth. And also start the five months of meditation in earnest – as near to daily meditation as I can get.
(So here I am, talking once again about a Christian thing that, for me, merges with Pagan things. I should really give up and call this ‘Leithin’s Interfaith Blog’.)
I adore icons. Especially Byzantine and Russian ones.
Icon simply means ‘image’, but the term is generally used to mean sacred imagery, particularly of Eastern churches, where icons are painted in Byzantine or Russian styles. Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches are full of icons. If you’ve only ever been in bare, late modern churches, in their dull community-centre-like buildings with no pictures or representations of the Divine, you’re missing out.
There’s so much to say about iconography that entire books have been written about it. Here’s just one thing: images of Mary and the child Christ, probably based on earlier images of Isis and Horus .
Protestant churches don’t like icons, or images of God in general. Their rejection of them is based on the second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make to you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” In short: don’t make idols. There’s a long history of Protestant resistance to Catholic/Orthodox iconography that goes along with that. Anglo-Catholic churches (the ones I used to go to) have re-embraced iconography. And there’s always this tension there – this oft-repeated mantra of it’s not an idol, it’s an icon. But I looked at the statue of Mary in my church and didn’t see ‘something that points to Mary’. I saw Mary. To all intents and purposes, it was a beautiful, glorious idol to me.
And here’s a funny thing. In Christianity, I was a huge fan of icons, especially traditional ones, like those above. But when I started honouring my Gaelic gods, in a religion/spiritual path that’s all in favour of representing deities with idols or pictures, I suddenly didn’t want to. I was no longer forbidden from making a “graven image” of my gods – in fact, it was encouraged – but now, I couldn’t do it. I had pictures of the Morrigan and Arianrhod for a while, but they became… insufficient. It was like I was trying to capture a divine essence that cannot be caged in images.
I still have this picture on my wall above my deity altar:
It’s from the shrine of Sulis Minerva, in Bath, but it’s not the goddess – it’s probably either a representation of local land spirits, or worshippers. For me, it captures the essence of Sulis Minerva – not in an image of her, but in the faces of those who honoured her.
And, yes, part of it is the difference between this and this. There are hundreds of years of tradition and spirituality behind each Eastern Orthodox icon. The artwork is some of the most beautiful that you will ever see. Each one says, my god (or honoured ancestor) is worth some serious craftswork. Now, admittedly, neopagans don’t get commissions of a lot of money from a rich church allowing them to spend months, maybe more, on each image they create of their god(s). And I’m sure there are some serious craftspeople out there, making absolutely beautiful images of their deities. I just haven’t seen the ones that call to me (yet). And I think that’s mainly because – well, how can a statue of Lugh compare to this?
And how can a painting of Arianrhod compare to this?
And how could an image of Cailleach Bhearra ever compare to this?
I find the gods in the things that embody them – the trees, the sea, the wind, the mountains, and the simple little candles that stand for each deity on my altar. So when I learnt, from writers like Miranda Green, that the Celts probably didn’t have much in the way of physical representations of their gods, at least before the Romans arrived, it all made a lot more sense. Ronald Hutton says it’s not clear whether or not the Gaelic and Brythonic tribes honoured the land as a manifestation of deity or the divine. And certainly, not all the Gaelic gods are land deities. But Cailleach Bhearra is a mountain goddess and Manannan is a sea god – and while they may not quite be gods of those things, they are those things. Bhearra is as much the mountains as the stones that make them up. Manannan is as much the sea as the waves and the gulls and the shoreline.
I suppose I’m talking about a kind of polytheistic animism. I’m good with that. My icons are in the world around me.
But I’ll always love the reminder of forbidden, illicit worship of the divine embodied in *things* that Christian iconography first pointed me towards. The icon was my first way in to understanding that the divine is creation, and creation is divine.
 John R. Hinnells, A New Dictionary of Religions
 Victor Lasareff (1938), ‘Studies in the Iconography of the Virgin’. The Art Bulletin.
The Gaelic people really, really liked words. Spoken words – that’s what had power. Later, the written word arrives, with Ogham – which is about word-and-letter power, a lot like the runes. But it’s the spoken word that’s really powerful in Gaelic folklore.
We only have a few clues left about ancient druidic magic. Something that turns up in myth all the time is the rosc, which seems to get used for everything from healing to ensuring victory in battle. That’s what the Morrigan’s prophecy is, at the Second Battle of Moy Tuireadh – a rosc. Blind druid Mogh Ruith speaks one, too, in his satire on his enemies before battle (which is awesome – he wishes them an infestation of midges in their piddling little forests). And talking of curses, one cursing ritual from Ireland was known as glam dicenn, and it had a reputation for causing serious harm via the magic of the spoken word. Some modern druids (and Gaelic-influenced witches) talk about glam dicenn as the whole of curse-related folk magic, with spellwork done with someone’s personal effects as well as using the spoken word. Incantations do seem to be the key thing, though.
So. Have a few examples…
Incantations in folk magic with European roots
This is a charm for healing a sprain, from the Carmina Gadelica. It seems to refer to St Brigid the healer:
Bride went out
In the morning early
With a pair of horses
One broke his leg
With much ado
That was apart
She put bone to bone
She put flesh to flesh
She put sinew to sinew
She put vein to vein
As she healed that
May I heal this
And this is where it gets interesting. Some scholars think that this charm has Indo-European roots. Because there are versions of it found in other places and other cultures, too. There are several Christian versions – here’s one from the Shetland Isles:
The Lord rade, [rode]
And the foal slade; [slid]
And he righted.
Set joint to joint,
Bone to bone,
And sinew to sinew.
Heal in the Holy Ghost’s Name!
Here’s a Germanic version that names pre-Christian deities:
Phol and Wodan rode into the woods,
There Balder’s foal sprained its foot.
It was charmed by Sinthgunt, her sister Sunna;
It was charmed by Frija, her sister Volla;
It was charmed by Wodan, as he well knew how:
Bone-sprain, like blood-sprain,
Bone to bone; blood to blood;
Limb to limb — like they were glued.
And finally, here’s a very similar version from Braucherei, which is Christian folk magic from the Pennsylvania ‘Dutch’ (German) community in America:
Our Lord rode, his foal’s foot slade,
Down he lighted, his foal’s foot righted,
Bone to bone,
Sinew to sinew,
Flesh to flesh,
Heal, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
And to go back to the Irish setting, a version of the charm is also found in the stories of the gods, the Mythological Cycle. Miach heals Nuada’s arm with the words “joint to joint of it, and sinew to sinew”.
ADF is Indo-European Druidry. Charms like these, with possible roots in common, show the importance of the spoken, magical word in IE cultures. I’m not sure I use enough spoken word in my spiritual work, and I’d like to start to try. (I do like of the writing, yes I do.)
…And in American folk magic
Hoodoo, African American folk magic, uses scripture like the psalms for similar purposes (though the roots of the practice are culturally very different, and they would not recognise the term ‘incantation’ – but as a term for ‘magical spoken word’, it works for me). I recently spent a lot of time working on a hoodoo-style spell for justice. (I’m only discussing this because the spellwork is now done and dusted!) I know the psalms quite well, and I decided to have a go at using Psalms 129 and 130 as my spoken words for justice. It would work even better as a curse, as that’s what it’s intended as. Here’s a bit from Psalm 129:
Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me.
Let them all be confounded and turned back…
Let them be as the grass upon the rooftops, which withereth before it groweth up.
Yeah. The Bible’s not all forgiveness and love. And it gets a lot stronger than that, in places.
“Why the Bible? Aren’t you a Pagan?” I hear my readers asking. Well, I think magical systems should be respected for what they are, rather than adapted wholesale to our own cultural needs. And hoodoo is Protestant magic. (From my observation, most folk magic is Christian.) I have a Bible that I bought and consecrated specifically for biblical magic, and it sits on my working altar when it’s set up for my (inexperienced, amateurish attempts at) hoodoo. There’s something very powerful about using the King James version of biblical passages in magic.
Here are some social reasons why Biblical Words Have Power:
1. It’s probably got a lot to do with the social power that our society has conferred upon biblical language, especially in its 17th-century English form – I never liked modern versions of the Bible very much.
2. For some of us, with Christian backgrounds, the Bible can also be what NLP calls an ‘anchor’ – a strong association that we have developed with something. I grew up hearing the Bible read from a distant, raised pulpit in sacred, ritual settings. Its words are literally associated with sacred power.
3. There’s also the symbolic value of psalms (and other passages) whose themes are about the concept that you’re working on, e.g. justice. Say the verses enough times, and they become a kind of mantra – where overall concept, not individual words, is the main thing.
4. And of course, hoodoo practitioners would say that the biblical words themselves have a sacred power inherent in them. I wouldn’t dispute that, myself, Pagan or not.
For me, even as a Pagan, it’s a combination of all of that. And, y’know, Christian esoteric practices do seem to keep calling me back.
Also? It works.
Incantation. Because Words Have Power.
I shall end with my favourite rosc – the Song of Amergin, where he announces himself to the land. (I am totally going to try doing that when I get off the plane in America in June.)
I am the wind on the sea.
I am the ocean wave.
I am the sound of the billows.
I am the seven-horned stag.
I am the eagle on the rock.
I am the flash from the sun.
I am the fairest of flowers.
I am the raging boar.
I am the salmon in the pool.
I am the lake on the plain.
I am the word of knowledge.
I am the point of the spear.
I am the god that makes fire in the head.
Who levels the mountain?
Who speaks the age of the moon?
Who has been where the sun sleeps?
Who, if not I?
– Song of Amergin (mythical Irish invocation – from several translations)
Isn’t that just the most awesome, self-assured thing you have ever read? I’m off to announce myself to my garden…
 Woden’s Wandering Witch talks about the rosc in this excellent blog post on the subject.
 I never would have noticed this version if it hadn’t been for the wonderful folks at New World Witchery, who write and podcast about American folk magic traditions.