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Druidry: The Practice of Magic - Part One

Posted from the book “The Religion of the Ancient Celts" - By J. A. MacCulloch - [1911] - (Obtain this full work and many more backups by clicking here!)

This book, is one of the best scholarly treatments of the ancient Celtic religion. Written early in the 20th Century, "Religion of the Ancient Celts" includes extensive treatment of that perennially fascinating subject, the Druids.

The Celts, like all other races, were devoted to magical practices, many of which could be used by any one, though, on the whole, they were in the hands of the Druids, who in many aspects were little higher than the shamans of barbaric tribes.

But similar magical rites were also attributed to the gods, and it is probably for this reason that the Tuatha Dé Danann and many of the divinities who appear in the Mabinogion are described as magicians.

Kings are also spoken of as wizards, perhaps a reminiscence of the powers of the priest king. But since many of the primitive cults had been in the hands of women, and as these cults implied a large use of magic, they may have been the earliest wielders of magic, though, with increasing civilisation, men took their place as magicians.

Still side by side with the magic-wielding Druids, there were classes of women who also dealt in magic, as we have seen. Their powers were feared, even by S. Patrick, who classes the "spells of women" along with those of Druids, and, in a mythic tale, by the father of Connla, who, when the youth was fascinated by a goddess, feared that he would be taken by the "spells of women" (brichta ban).

In other tales women perform all such magical actions as are elsewhere ascribed to Druids. And after the Druids had passed away precisely similar actions--power over the weather, the use of incantations and amulets, shape-shifting and invisibility, etc.--were, and still are in remote Celtic regions, ascribed to witches.
Much of the Druidic art, however, was also supposed to be possessed by saints and clerics, both in the past and in recent times. But women remained as magicians when the Druids had disappeared, partly because of female conservatism, partly because, even in pagan times, they had worked more or less secretly. At last the Church proscribed them and persecuted them.

Each clan, tribe, or kingdom had its Druids, who, in time of war, assisted their hosts by magic art. This is reflected back upon the groups of the mythological cycle, each of which has its Druids who play no small part in the battles fought. Though Pliny recognises the Priestly functions of the Druids, he associates them largely with magic, and applies the name magus to them.

In Irish ecclesiastical literature, drui is used as the translation of magus, e.g. in the case of the Egyptian magicians, while magi is used in Latin lives of saints as the equivalent of the vernacular druides.
In the sagas and in popular tales Druidecht, "Druidism," stands for "magic," and slat an draoichta, "rod of Druidism," is a magic wand. The Tuatha Dé Danann were said to have learned "Druidism" from the four great master Druids of the region whence they had come to Ireland, and even now, in popular tales, they are often called "Druids" or "Danann Druids." Thus in Ireland at least there is clear evidence of the great magical power claimed by Druids.

That power was exercised to a great extent over the elements, some of which Druids claimed to have created. Thus the Druid Cathbad covered the plain over which Deirdre was escaping with "a great-waved sea." Druids also produced blinding snow-storms, or changed day into night-feats ascribed to them even in the Lives of Saints. Or they discharge "shower-clouds of fire" on the opposing hosts, as in the case of the Druid Mag Ruith, who made a magic fire, and flying upwards towards it, turned it upon the enemy, whose Druid in vain tried to divert it. 

When the Druids of Cormac dried up all the waters in the land, another Druid shot an arrow, and where it fell there issued a torrent of water. The Druid Mathgen boasted of being able to throw mountains on the enemy, and frequently Druids made trees or stones appear as armed men, dismaying the opposing host in this way. They could also fill the air with the clash of battle, or with the dread cries of eldritch things. Similar powers are ascribed to other persons. The daughters of Calatin raised themselves aloft on an enchanted wind, and discovered Cúchulainn when he was hidden away by Cathbad. Later they produced a magic mist to discomfit the hero. Such mists occur frequently in the sagas, and in one of them the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived in Ireland. The priestesses of Sena could rouse sea and wind by their enchantments, and, later, Celtic witches have claimed the same power.

In folk-survivals the practice of rain-making is connected with sacred springs, and even now in rural France processions to shrines, usually connected with a holy well, are common in time of drought.
Another custom was that a virgin should clean out a sacred well, and formerly she had to be nude. Nudity also forms part of an old ritual used in Gaul. In time of drought the girls of the village followed the youngest virgin in a state of nudity to seek the herb belinuntia. This she uprooted, and was then led to a river and there asperged by the others. In this case the asperging imitated the falling rain, and was meant to produce it automatically. While some of these rites suggest the use of magic by the folk themselves, in others the presence of the Christian priest points to the fact that, formerly, a Druid was necessary as the rain producer. In some cases the priest has inherited through long ages the rain-making or tempest-quelling powers of the pagan priesthood, and is often besought to exercise them. 

Causing invisibility by means of a spell called feth fiada, which made a person unseen or hid him in a magic mist, was also used by the Druids as well as by Christian saints. S. Patrick's hymn, called Fâed Fiada, was sung by him when his enemies lay in wait, and caused a glamour in them. The incantation itself, fith-fath, is still remembered in Highland glens. In the case of S. Patrick he and his followers appeared as deer, and this power of shape-shifting was wielded both by Druids and women. The Druid Fer Fidail carried off a maiden by taking the form of a woman, and another Druid deceived Cúchulainn by taking the form of the fair Niamh.
Other Druids are said to have been able to take any shape that pleased them.These powers were reflected back upon the gods and mythical personages like Taliesin or Amairgen, who appear in many forms.

The priestesses of Sena could assume the form of animals, and an Irish Circe in the Rennes Dindsenchas called Dalb the Rough changed three men and their wives into swine by her spells. This power of transforming others is often described in the sagas. The children of Lir were changed to swans by their cruel stepmother; Saar, the mother of Oisin, became a fawn through the power of the Druid Fear Doirche when she rejected his love; and similarly Tuirrenn, mother of Oisin's hounds, was transformed into a stag-hound by the fairy mistress of her husband Iollann. 

In other instances in the sagas, women appear as birds. These transformation tales may be connected with totemism, for when this institution is decaying the current belief in shape-shifting is often made use of to explain descent from animals or the tabu against eating certain animals. In some of these Irish shape-shifting tales we find this tabu referred to. Thus, when the children of Lir were turned into swans, it was proclaimed that no one should kill a swan. The reason of an existing tabu seemed to be sufficiently explained when it was told that certain human beings had become swans. It is not impossible that the Druids made use of hypnotic suggestion to persuade others that they had assumed another form, as Red Indian shamans have been known to do, or even hallucinated others into the belief that their own form had been changed.

By a "drink of oblivion" Druids and other persons could make one forget even the most dearly beloved. Thus Cúchulainn was made to forget Fand, and his wife Emer to forget her jealousy. This is a reminiscence of potent drinks brewed from herbs which caused hallucinations, e.g. that of the change of shape. In other cases they were of a narcotic nature and caused a deep sleep, an instance being the draught given by Grainne to Fionn and his men. Again, the "Druidic sleep" is suggestive of hypnotism, practised in distant ages and also by present-day savages. When Bodb suspected his daughter of lying he cast her into a "Druidic sleep," in which she revealed her wickedness. In other cases spells are cast upon persons so that they are hallucinated, or are rendered motionless, or, "by the sleight of hand of soothsayers," maidens lose their chastity without knowing it. 

These point to knowledge of hypnotic methods of suggestion. Or, again, a spectral army is opposed to an enemy's force to whom it is an hallucinatory appearance--perhaps an exaggeration of natural hypnotic powers.
Druids also made a "hedge," the airbe druad, round an army, perhaps circumambulating it and saying spells so that the attacking force might not break through. If any one could leap this "hedge," the spell was broken, but he lost his life. This was done at the battle of Cul Dremne, at which S. Columba was present and aided the heroic leaper with his prayers. 

A primitive piece of sympathetic magic used still by savages is recorded in the Rennes Dindsenchas. In this story one man says spells over his spear and hurls it into his opponent's shadow, so that he falls dead.
Equally primitive is the Druidic "sending" a wisp of straw over which the Druid sang spells and flung it into his victim's face, so that he became mad. A similar method is used by the Eskimo angekok. All madness was generally ascribed to such a "sending."

Several of these instances have shown the use of spells, and the Druid was believed to possess powerful incantations to discomfit an enemy or to produce other magical results.

A special posture was adopted--standing on one leg, with one arm outstretched and one eye closed, perhaps to concentrate the force of the spell, but the power lay mainly in the spoken words, as we have seen in discussing Celtic formulæ of prayer. Such spells were also used by the Filid, or poets, since most primitive poetry has a magical aspect. Part of the training of the bard consisted in learning traditional incantations, which, used with due ritual, produced the magic result. 

Some of these incantations have already come before our notice, and probably some of the verses which Cæsar says the Druids would not commit to writing were of the nature of spells. The virtue of the spell lay in the spoken formula, usually introducing the name of a god or spirit, later a saint, in order to procure his intervention, through the power inherent in the name.
Other charms recount an effect already produced, and this, through mimetic magic, is supposed to cause its repetition. The earliest written documents bearing upon the paganism of the insular Celts contain an appeal to "the science of Goibniu" to preserve butter, and another, for magical healing, runs, "I admire the healing which Diancecht left in his family, in order to bring health to those he succoured." These are found in an eighth or ninth century MS., and, with their appeal to pagan gods, were evidently used in Christian times.

Most Druidic magic was accompanied by a spell--transformation, invisibility, power over the elements, and the discovery of hidden persons or things. In other cases spells were used in medicine or for healing wounds. Thus the Tuatha Dé Danann told the Fomorians that they need not oppose them, because their Druids would restore the slain to life, and when Cúchulainn was wounded we hear less of medicines than of incantations used to stanch his blood. In other cases the Druid could remove barrenness by spells.

The survival of the belief in spells among modern Celtic peoples is a convincing proof of their use in pagan times, and throws light upon their nature. In Brittany they are handed down in certain families, and are carefully guarded from the knowledge of others. The names of saints instead of the old gods are found in them, but in some cases diseases are addressed as personal beings. In the Highlands similar charms are found, and are often handed down from male to female, and from female to male. They are also in common use in Ireland. Besides healing diseases, such charms are supposed to cause fertility or bring good luck, or even to transfer the property of others to the reciter, or, in the case of darker magic, to cause death or disease. 

In Ireland, sorcerers could "rime either a man or beast to death," and this recalls the power of satire in the mouth of File or Druid. It raised blotches on the face of the victim, or even caused his death. Among primitive races powerful internal emotion affects the body in curious ways, and in this traditional power of the satire or "rime" we have probably an exaggerated reference to actual fact. In other cases the "curse of satire" affected nature, causing seas and rivers to sink back.

The satires made by the bards of Gaul, referred to by Diodorus, may have been believed to possess similar powers. Contrariwise, the Filid, on uttering an unjust judgment, found their faces covered with blotches.
A magical sleep is often caused by music in the sagas, e.g., by the harp of Dagda, or by the branch carried by visitants from Elysium. Many "fairy" lullabies for producing sleep are even now extant in Ireland and the Highlands. As music forms a part of all primitive religion, its soothing powers would easily be magnified. In orgiastic rites it caused varying emotions until the singer and dancer fell into a deep slumber, and the tales of those who joined in a fairy dance and fell asleep, awaking to find that many years had passed, are mythic extensions of the power of music in such orgiastic cults.

The music of the Filid had similar powers to that of Dagda's harp, producing laughter, tears, and a delicious slumber, and Celtic folk-tales abound in similar instances of the magic charm of music.
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