by John Hurley
One of the problems
facing many modern "neo-pagans", is their inability to successfully decribe their own personal spiritual paths to people outside
their path. Finding terms that are readily understood by others not of the same path is often difficult, so many pagans settle
for recently coined, or popularly understood terms, such as "witch", "wiccan", "druid", "shaman", etc. Many pagans know that
these broad terms do not fully express their own path, and many add ethnic or cultural adjectives, to add to the meaning of
the word chosen. They are "Celtic Witches", "Native American Shamans", "Family Trad. Druids", etc.
These terms certainly
help the outsider get a feel for where the particlar practitioner in question is coming from, however, more and more pagans
are searching for better terms from within their own traditons. Many pagans feel, that using archaic terms or terms from a
non-English language to describe their paths, is too exlusionary, and simply alienates others from their paths. Charlatans
can, all too often, find easy refuge behind impressive sounding, archaic terminology. But there comes a time when watering
down ones path - even if only in name and even if only to make it more palatable to others - weakens that path, making it
somewhat bland and conformist.
In this article
I will discuss some terms that can be used in one of the more frequently used paths, popularly known as "Irish Witchcraft",
or "Celtic Witchcraft".
Now before we
get to the word "witch", let's discuss the terms "Celtic" and "Irish".
The term Celtic
is used to describe the civilization, peoples and language family, of certain peoples who dominated Western europe north of the Alps,
for about 1000 years before the rise of the Roman Empire. Celtic civilization continued on through
the rise of Rome, and today, there are six Celtic Nations, each with their own
qnique but related, language and culture.
Celtic in its own langauge family, distinct from other european langauges, but stemming from the same theorized "Proto-Indo-European
Mother Tongue". The Celtic langauges are divided into two branches, generally called "q-celtic" and "p-celtic" or Goedelic
and Brythonic respectively. Goedelic, q-celtic, is comprised of the Gaelic languages of Irish, Scottish-Gaelic, and Manx.
Brythonic, p-celtic, is comprised of Welsh, Breton and Cornish. (Both Manx and Cornish are now considered dead languages).
Goedelic, q-celtic is considered the older of the two branches, and is characterized by a harder consonant sounds with regard
to the letters c/k/ch/q. In q-celtic, the word for "son of", "mac" is pronounced with a hard "q" sound, "maq". In p-celtic,
the same word is spelt and pronounced "map".
The term "Irish"
is of Norse origin, as is the word "Ireland", the Native Irish
words being "Erinnach" and "Erin" respectively.
The ancient Irish,
were composed of what they considered to be many different races, some Celtic, some not. But just as today's Americans have
various ethnic backgrounds, and are all, at the end of the day, Americans, so the Irish eventually came to see themselves
and their tribes as a unique Irish Nation in the modern sense of the word. The modern Irish people are a racial mixture of
Celtic Gaels, Norse & Danes, Welsho-Normans, and Saxons. However, the tradition in Ireland
has always been that the dominant and original Gaelic culture - the touchstone of Irish Civilization - absorbed all newcomers
to the Island. The Norse, Danes and Welsho-Normans who came to Ireland,
all adopted Gaelic Irish language and culture as their own. Hence, the Celtic culture of the Gaels is not based on ones racial
origins, and never has been; it is based on ones involvement in, and promotion of, the traditional culture of the island.
(This question of absorbtion into the traditional culture is at the very heart of the modern war in Northeast Ireland).
It is important to remember all this when we start using "Irish" as an adjective to describe something, especially our own
spiritual path, because it is such a battered term, implying different things to different people.
"Witch" is a
non-Celtic, Anglo-Saxon word meaning "to bend" or "to know". In the popular mind, the term has many other connotations as
well, most of them negative. Since it is not an Irish word - and indeed since it is a word associated with the very peoples
who have wreaked so much havoc on the traditional Irish pagan paths - many modern Irish pagans would prefer to use an Irish
word to describe their path, and dispense with English words altogether.
One of the problems
with coming up for a good word in Irish for "witch", is that there are quite a few words to choose from, each with very subtle
differences in meaning, depending upon the original context inwhich the words are said. The Irish is an extremely flexible
and creative language, and taking isolated words out of their context in conversation, can be a very misleading and self-deluding
enterprise. On the other hand, the ancient Irish were never very strict in their use of words, preferring to let the oral
usage of a word dominate over and formal, "standardized" definition of it.
is that there is simply alot of disagreement over the very nature of pre-christian Irish and Celtic religions. Some people
would describe all Irish spirituality as coming from the Druidic Order, and hence would describe any pagan Irish beliefs as
being "druidic". Others would say that there were probably a few different pre-christian religions within Irish society at
any given time, so the druid tag simply wouldn't and couldn't apply to all paths. To complicate matters, there were different
types of religious communities (priests/priestesses, monks/nuns), within these various religions, AND some of these religions
may also have been pre-Celtic in origin!!!
I'd like to briefly
discuss what we *do* know about these various Irish religious paths, so that the words we use in Irish to decribe some of
them, are better understood.
First, the Druids.
Much has been written about them, most of it nonsense. Most neo-pagans accept the Victorian notion of Druids as bearded old
men, dressed in white, who constituted a patriarchal, Aryan-Celtic Priesthood. One of the oddest descriptions about them is
that they were all pacifists and even vegetarians.....odd when one considers some of the Gods and Goddesses who were supposed
to patronize the Order!! They were, in reality, the "Aes Dana" or "Men of Art", or learning. They were the Celtic "Intelligensia",
and hence would have simply been the people with an education within Celtic society. The religious connotations regarding
them stem from the fact that in Irish culture, all learning was done through the art of poetry, and poetry was the measuring
stick used to judge ones educational level and intelligence. Anyone with an education was schooled in poetry, but the most
educated had literally memorized the most poems about a particular subject. Poetry was always considered to be a magical art,
and thus those with the most poems had the "most magic", and would be considered to be someone who was close to the gods or
more is known about the *Irish* branch of Druidic Order (as opposed to the Gallic and British Orders), because the Irish Order
survived as an institution, until the 17th century, right up to the destruction of the Gaelic Nobility which supported it,
and even beyond that. After the coming of christianity to Ireland,
certain factions of the Druidic Order struck a bargain with the druids who had adopted the christian teaching, and gave up
some of their religious ritual functions. (This bargain could have been struck consciously at an historical point, or evolved
slowly over a long period of time, but it might be attributed to the christian saint and druid, St. Columba, who later Irish
Bards revered as having saved their Order after an attempt to banish it). Other Irish druids never did give up their power
or officially convert. At some point the druid-christians took over the officiating at religious rituals, but for a very long
time, Bishops and Druids officiated together. Even after the christian Bishops dominated ritual events, the druids continued
their educational and magical traditions as bards. The Irish definition of what is "magical" or what constitutes a ritual
is simply broader in its view than christianity. Hence in many ways, it was business as usual for the druids of Ireland.
The Druidic Order
as it is popularly understood today, was supposed to be divided into three sections of Bards, Vates and Druids. Now this would
mean that *all* members of the Order were considered Druids, with the Order having "Bardic-Druids", "Vatic-Druids", and "Druid-Druids",
all performing somewhat different functions, but all being equal as Druids, and all having overlapping duties. (Again, the
Irish were never very strict about their institutions). Over time, the Order in Ireland
became identified almost exclusively with the Bardic section of the Order, and that has had an immense influence on what is
considered "magical" in Irish culture, and hence in the Irish language, even today.
The Bardic division
of the Druidic Order, became more powerful, and people who wanted to become druids and NOT christian priests, now simply became
bardic-druids. In this way, they continued their magical practices, yet made room in Irish society for christianity, and it
is that ability (or inability) to compromise and make room for newcomers to Ireland
which is a central part of the Irish experience. In medieval times, a King's "Chief Poet", had a higher ranking than the King's
(Christian) Bishop. One of the last great Irish "Official Poets", as they were called, was Eochaidh O hEoghusa, who served
three successive Maguires, The Lords of Fermanagh, from 1586 to 1602. O hEoghusa retained the traditional rank of the "Ollav",
or Kings' Poet, and in most ways, he differed little from his ancient Druid predecessors.
There were also
definitely Female Druids as well, and it would seem that, as in most cultures, there were priests, priestesses, monks, nuns
and hermits all within the Irish pagan spiritual milieu.
So, would Irish
Druidesses be considered "witches" as we understand the english term "witch" today? Probably, but again, there are many different
functions for many different types of clerical vocations, and one word used for one period of Irish history, may not mean
the same exact thing as applied in a different period of Irish history. An Irish "Wise Woman" and healer/herbologist from
the 19th century, like the famous Biddy Early of Clare, may not have been a card carrying member of the Druid Order and hence
a "Ban-Draoi" (Druidess), but she certainly was a witch and, in a way, a "priestess" of The Sidh. Was she a healer, a "Fairy
Doctor"? Certainly. Was she a Seer? Definitely. Was she a Prophetess? At times. She was mostly known for her healing abilities
however, and what becomes clear when looking at the various words used to describe various Irish pagans, is that no matter
what their varying abilities or educations, they eventually were best called by whatever term best described their most popular
ability. Therefore, for someone like Biddy Early, better terms than "Bandraoi" would be: "Fáidhbhean" or "Fáidhmhná"; "Cailleach",
Cailleach Feasa", "Cailleach Phiseogach" or "Cailleach na gCear". All of these terms can mean "wise woman" or "witch".
in choosing terms, is that many modern neo-pagan Celtic Witches, don't equate Irish "Druidism" with Irish, female oriented
"witchcraft". But the problem here is that in the Irish language, they often do!! It's that simple. Because the term in Irish
which means Druidism, "Draíodóireacht", has a much broader definition than its modern English counterpart. The Irish worldview
of magic, art, poetry and in particular, women, is much more complicated than the view held by the rest of Europe,
and this would include their view of witches. There were no witch trials in Ireland,
for example, until the Normans came. This doesn't mean there were no Irish witches,
prior to that, it just means there was no persecution of witches in Irish society, until the foreign, Euro-Normans invaded.
Irish society was not as rigidly "categorized" as we today - thinking of it in abstract, historical terms - would like it
to be. Since Irish society was so flexible, it's views of many things overlap each other in ways which simply don't occur
in the modern/neo-pagan/Anglo-centric world, inwhich we all have to live.
In Irish, there
was and is no specific gender based split between male and female magic or magicians, period. "Draíodóir" for example, is
an asexual word, *but* more often than not, words in Irish which are associated with creativity, poetry, craft, the supernatural,
spirits or magic, have an inherently feminine connotation in them. This is because it was thought that these things all had
their source with the Goddess Aíne, also called Anu, Ana and hence "Dana". Aíne is the "Mother of all the gods" and hence
the Queen of Magic. The "Tuatha Dé Danann" are literally all Aíne's children. (Tuatha Dé Danann = The Children/Tribe/Family
In ancient Celtic
cultures, anyone one who had a special skill or "craft" was considered capable of/an inherent practitioner of, magical powers.
Scáthach, the trainer of CúChullian, was a "martial-witch", I suppose, or atleast was clearly a woman practicing magic, mostly
through the craft/trade of martial arts. When deciding who is a witch and who isn't in Irish Literature, a dead giveaway is
any one characters use of incantational poetry, such as the sort Scáthach composes upon CúChullian's graduation from her Academy.
me to my next and final point. I mentioned earlier about the Bardic Order. In the older Irish sagas, the terms for poet (fíle,
bard, licerd, aes dana, etc), druid (drui), and seer (fáith) are freely mixed and constantly exchange functions. The Irish
"world field" concerning poets, seers, druids and magicians (of both genders), are, Irish scholars are coming to realize,
Now, the actual
The most common
Irish-English/English-Irish dictionary available in the United States,
the "Foclóir Poca" (by An Gum, the state sponsored Irish language publishing house), lists "witch" as: "cailleach, draíodóir
mna". "Mna" is a feminine prefix/suffix in Irish like "ban" or "bean" is. The same dictionary defines "witchcraft" as: "draiocht,
an ealain dhubh". "ealain" is: "art; science, skill; workmanship, craft". It can also have an underlying feeling of "trickery".
So "an ealain dhubh" equals "the black arts", or "the black craft".
terms relating to Irish witchcraft and paganism, were culled from the Irish-English dictionary, Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, by
Niall ó Dónaill, An Gúm, 1992.
(gs. & pl. ~a). 1. Druidic art, druidism. Lit: draíochta druadh, druidic arts. 2. Witchcraft, magic, charm, enchantment.
Briocht, cochall, clat, ceo ~a, magic spell, cloak, wand, mist. Ceol draíochta, magical, entrancing music. Luacht draíochta,
magicians, enchanters. Le draíocht, by magic. draíocht a bheith agat, to have magical powers. draíocht a bheith ort le rud,
to be entranced with something. Tá draíocht ar an áit, the place is bewitched. Duine, rud, a chur faoi dhraíocht, to cast
a magic spell someone or something. draíocht a chur ar dhuine, to enchant someone. Bheith faoi dhraíocht, to be under a spell.
draíocht a chur do dhuine, to cast a charm for someone.
draíodóir = Magician
= witch, enchantress
sly, person; rogue, hypocrite, trickster; Secretive person)
= Practice of magic; Sly cunning, hypocrisy, trickery; Secretiveness.
draoi = Druid;
Wizard, magician; Augur, diviner; Trickster
bandia = Goddess
bandraoi = Druidess
banfháidh = Prophetess
banfhile = Poetess
bansagart = Priestess
other "ban" words
for your perousal:
banlaoch = Female
banoide = Tutoress,
banríon = Queen
bansióg = Female
banchuire = Band,
group, of women
bandáil = Company,
assembly, of women
banaltra = Nurse
= Seductive woman, siren
anam = Soul
anamchara = Spiritual
anamachas = Animism
Transmigration of the soul
briocht = Charm,
briocht sí, briocht
draoi, briocht suain, - fairy, druidic, sleep, charm
briocht a chanadh
= to chant a spell
cailleach = Old
= wise woman, fortuneteller
= sorceress, charm-worker
gcearc = hag, witch
cailli = old woman's remedy
fáidh = 1.) Seer,
prophet. 2.) Wise man, sage. 3.) The Fates.
Prophetess; wise woman......Another variation is "fáidhmhná"
= Prophesy, prediction.
ealaín = Art,
science, skill; craft
An ealaín dhubh
= black art
Tá (an) ealaín
dhubh aici = she has black magic
Chuir sí an ealaín
dhubh air = she bewitched him
piseog = Charm,
spell; Superstitious practices, superstition
An déanamh piseog
= compounding charms, casting spells
piseogaí = Charm-setter,
amaid = 1.) Lit:
Witch, hag. 2.) Foolish woman. 3.) Simpleton, idiot.
with poetry and magic:
aos = People,
aos dána = Poets
aos ceoil = Musicians
aos treafa =
aos eagna = Intelligentsia
bard = Poet (of
certain rank), bard
crosán = Mimic,
jester; satirist, scurrilous person
dámh = 1.) Lit:
Bardic company; party, retinue. 2.) (With article) The literary caste, followers of the arts. 3.) Faculty.
dámhscoil = Bardic
Band of poets, of artists
dán = 1.) Gift,
offering. 2.) Craft, calling; allotted task. 3.) Art, faculty; art of poetry. 4.) Poem. 5.) Lot, fate.
= druidic art
dán ceoil = art
Fear dána = minstrel,
dán diaga = sacred
dán direach =
Irish syllabic poetry
dán a chumadh
= to compose a poem
fíle = 1.) Poet.
~ ceoil, amhrán, songmaker, lyricist. 2.) Satirist, scold. ~ mna, scolding woman.
ollamh = 1.)
Lit: (a) Master-poet, ollave. (b) Master, expert, learned man. ~ seanchais, le seanchas, chief historian. ~ cearda, master
craftsman. 2.) Professor. ~ ollscoile. university professor. ~ Gaelige, professor of Irish.
Biddy Early was a native Irish speaker who spoke english, however, the vast majority of her patients were, like her, Irish
speakers. They referred to her as a "Wise Woman", a common euphemism for a "White Witch". Biddy constantly admitted that she
trafficked with the faeries, and as such, the faeries acted as her "familiars" when she was healing people. As you'll see
below, the terms "fáidhbhean", "fáidhmhná" and "cailleach feasa" are all interpreted as "Wise Woman".
For general Pagan
beliefs of the Irish:
In Celtic Countries, W.Y. Evans Wentz;
The Middle Kingdom:
The Faerie World Of Ireland, Dermot Mac Manus;
The Holy Wells
Of Ireland, Patrick Logan;
(Also by Logan,
Irish Country Cures)
Of An Irish Psychic, Sheila Lindsay;
For other accounts
of Irish Witches:
The Wise Woman of Clare, Meda Ryan
Ireland, Patrick F. Byrne
The Táin, translated
by Thomas Kinsella (with only incidental accounts of Irish witches though)
on some of the magical folk beliefs (especially witchcraft practiced by women) and practices of the Irish, written by people
of the period and not Neo-pagan Americans:
The Farm By Lough
Gur, Mary Carbery;
Traits And Stories
of The Irish Peasantry, Vol 1 & 2, by Willam Carleton;
on the continuation of the magical practices of the Druidic Order through the Bards:
Enchanters In Early Irish Literature, Fred Norris Robinson;
The Hidden Ireland,
Lyrics with The Irish Bardic Poet, James Carney;
For an account
of warmongering Druids, medieval tax evaders and an Irish version of an ATF raid, (all of which completely contradicts the
mindlessly accepted concept that the Druids were pacifists who never, ever participated in warfare), read:
Dámhgháire: The Seige Of Knocklong, Seán ó Duinn; (This same story was also butchered and lied about in the Matthews "Encyclopaedia
of Celtic Wisdom", a worthless book if ever there was one.)
For books on
the continued paganism inherent in the Irish expression of Roman Catholicism, read:
The Year In Ireland:
Irish Calendar Customs, Kevin Danaher;
Faith: An Anthropology of Irish Catholics, Lawerence J. Taylor;
Irish Church, Joe McVeigh;
A Wounded Church,
On Lough Derg,
Purcell & Blake;
Purgatory, J-M. Picard & Y.de Pontfarcy;
Traits and Stories
of the Irish Peasantry, by Carleton (again);
Wisdom Of The
Celtic Saints, Edward C. Sellner; (Ed is an acquaintance of mine and is a college professor in Minnesota);
Ecology And Holiness, Ed. Christopher Blamford and William Marsh;
The Celtic Alternative:
A Reminder of the Christianity we lost, Shirley Toulson;
Peter Berresford Ellis;
For the celtic
roots of the medieval, Continental European witch cults:
The Witches Sabbath, Carlo Ginzburg;
The Night Battles:
Witchcraft and Agrarain Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Carlo Ginzburg;
Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France, Peter Sahlins;
the Middle Ages, Jeffrey Burton Russell (this is about European witchcraft in general, (not celts) and the religious/political
semantics at work in the period.)
For Irish shamanistic
All Silver And
No Brass: An Irish Christmas Mumming, Henrie Glassie;
The earlier books
I mentioned about Lough Dearg and the Sidh/Faeries;
A Celtic Quest:
Sexuality and Soul in Individuation, John Layard.
Other good books
on shamanism are:
Techniques Of Ecstasy, Mircea Eliade (the ultimate Shamanism reference book);
and Medicine Men, Holger Kalweit;
Inner Space: The World Of The Shaman, Holger Kalweit
The Way Of The
Shaman, Michael Harner;
The Death And
Resurrection Show: From Shaman To Superstar, Rogan Taylor;
Other books of
A Guide to Irish
Mythology, Daragh Smyth;
& Romance: An Encyclopaedia Of The Irish Folk Tradition, Dr. Dáithí O hOgáin;
The Enduring Tradition, Michael Richter;
The Irish Mind:
Exploring Intellectual Traditions, Ed. Richard Kearney;
The Irish Countryman,
For concise information
on the history of what the British government has actually been doing in Ireland
for all these years read:
In Ireland, Jack O'Brien;
Of Ireland, Jack O'Brien;
Conquest Of Ireland, Kevin Collins.