Ancient Celtic & Irish Magic, Spells and Rituals

The Celts, like all other races, were devoted to magical practices, many of which could be used by any one, though, on the whole, magic was mostly practiced by Druids, who in many aspects were little higher than the shamans of other ancient nomadic tribes.

Ancient Celtic & Irish Magic, Spells and Rituals
Ancient Celtic Druid casting a water spell

Each clan, tribe, or kingdom had its own Druids, who, in time of war, assisted their armies by magic art.

The ancient Roman historian Pliny writes about the priestly functions of the Druids, but associates them largely with magic, and so applies the name “magus” to them.

Even in the Celtic sagas, “Druidism” is often a synonym for magic.

The magical power of druids was exercised to a great extent over the elements, some of which the Druids claimed to have created in the first place, and sometimes the Celtic Druids were said to have even created the world.

Thus, it was said that druids could produce blinding snow storms, change day into night, rain showers of fires upon enemy armies, make trees look like armed men, fly by riding on the wind.

Rain making

Producing rain was an important function of Druids, and they would often produce rain by going to sacred fountains, rivers, lakes or other bodies of water and perform ceremonies there.

The exact type of ceremony was different from tribe to tribe, but it often involved the Druid dipping his foot in the water, throwing water at rocks beating the water and then throwing it into the air etc.

Invisibility and metamorphosis

Druids and laymen in could cause invisibility by means of a spell called feth fiada, which made a person unseen or hidden in a magic mist. This spell was commonly used by the Druids, and later on even adopted by Christian saints arriving to Ireland. The incantation itself, fith-fath, is still remembered in some Highland tales.

Besides invisibility, other Druids were said to have been able to take any shape that pleased them.

As for what really hapened in these stories of transformations, it’s possible the Druids made use of hypnotic suggestion to persuade others that they had assumed a certain form.

Forgetting spells

By using a “drink of oblivion” Druids and other persons could make one forget even the most dearly beloved.

This is a reminiscence of potent drinks brewed from herbs which caused hallucinations, such as that of shape changing.

In other cases they were of a narcotic nature and caused a deep sleep.

This “Druidic sleep” is suggestive of hypnotism, practised in distant ages and even today in some remote tribes.

In other cases spells are cast upon people to cause halucinations or render motionless.

These point to knowledge of hypnotic methods of suggestion.

Invisible walls or hedges

Druids could also make an invisible magic “hedge,” the airbe druad, that encircled an army.

This was done perhaps by going all the way around the troops and saying spells so that the attacking force might not break through.

If any enemy soldier could leap this “hedge,” the spell was broken, but the soldier lost his life.

Throwing “madness” at a victim

An interesting spell was that of the Druid “sending” a wisp of straw enchanted with spells and flung it into his victim’s face, so that the victim became mad.

A similar method is used by the Eskimo angekok. Among the Celts, all madness was generally ascribed to such a cursed “sending”.

Spell making and incantations

The Druid was believed to possess powerful incantations to defeat an enemy or to produce other magical results.

There was even a special posture for spell making: 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.

Such spells were also used by the Filid, or poets, since most primitive poetry has a magical aspect.

Part of the training of Irish Celtic bards consisted in learning traditional incantations, which, used with the proper ritual, produced the magic result.

The strength of a spell lay in the spoken formula, usually introducing the name of a god or spirit 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.

Another, for magical healing, runs: “I admire the healing which Diancecht left in his family, in order to bring health to those he favored.”

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.

Besides healing diseases, such charms and spells 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.

Among Irish Celts, sorcerers could even use rhymes to put a man or beast to death.

Amulets and jewelry

Celts extensively used amulets and jewelries as symbols of magic power.

Some of these were symbolic and intended to bring the wearer under the protection of the god whom they symbolised.

The symbol of a Celtic god is that of a wheel, probably representing the sun.

As a testimony to this, numerous small wheel discs made of different materials have been found among celtic tribes from Gaul and Britain.

These were evidently worn as amulets, while in other cases they were offered to river divinities, since many were collected from river beds or fords.

Their use as protective amulets is shown by steles or murals representing a person wearing a necklace to which is attached one of these wheels.

In Irish texts a Druid is called Mag Ruith, explained as magus rotarum, because he made his Druidical observations by wheels.

This may point to the use of such amulets in Ireland. A curious amulet, connected with the Druids, became famous in Roman times and is described by the historian Pliny.

This was the “serpents’ egg” formed from the foam produced by serpents twining themselves together.

Pliny speaks also of the Celtic belief in the magical virtues of coral, either worn as an amulet or taken in powder as a medicine.

Hsitorical research has even proved that the Celts, for a short period of their history, placed it on weapons and utensils, doubtless as an amulet.

Other amulets such as white marble balls, quartz pebbles, models of the tooth of the boar, or pieces of amber, have been found buried with the dead.

Little figures of the boar, the horse, and the bull, with a ring for suspending them to a necklet, were worn as amulets or images of these divine animals, and phallic amulets were also worn, perhaps as a protection against the evil eye.

A cult of stones was probably connected with the belief in the magical powers of certain types of stones.

For instance, some stones were used at the installation of tribal chiefs, who stood on them and vowed to follow in the steps of their predecessors.

Connected with the cult of stones are magical observances at fixed rocks or boulders, regarded probably as the abode of a spirit.

These observances are in origin pre-Celtic, but were practised by the Celts.

The Celts would leave small sacrifices or simply touch the stone and pray, all while asking for blessings.

Among Celtic tribes in Brittany and Cornwall, holed dolmens or naturally pierced blocks of stone are used as a magical cure of sickness both, with the patient being passed through the hole.

Similar rites are used with trees, a slit being often made in the trunk of a sapling, and a sickly child passed through it.

The slit is then closed and bound, and if it joins together at the end of a certain time, will serve a proof that the child will recover.

In these rites the spirit in stone or tree was supposed to assist the process of healing, or the disease was transferred to them, or, again, there was the idea of a new birth with consequent renewed life, the act imitating the process of birth.

Celtic sacrifices, prayers and rituals

Celts were known to make human sacrifices.

Caesar, during his conquest of Celtic Gaul, says that those aflicted with disease or engaged in battle or danger offer human victims or vow to do so, because unless man’s life be given for man’s life, the divinity of the gods cannot be appeased.

Celtic beliefs said that the gods sent disease or ills when they desired a human life, but that any life would do; hence one in danger might escape by offering another in his stead.

Coming danger could also be averted on the same principle, and though the victims were usually slaves, in times of great peril wives and children were sacrificed.

After a defeat, which showed that the gods were still implacable, the wounded and feeble were slain, or a great leader would offer himself.

Human victims were also oflered by way of thanksgiving after victory, and vows were often made before a battle, promising these as well as part of the spoil.

For this reason the Celts would never ransom their captives, but offered them in sacrifice, captured animals being immolated along with the prisoners.

The method of sacrifice was slaughter by sword or spear, hanging impaling, dismembering, and drowning.

Some gods were satisfied by one particular mode ot sacrifice: Taranis by burning, Teutates by suffocation, Esus (perhaps a tree-god) by hanging on a tree. Drowning meant devoting the victim to water-divinities.

The historian Varro also speaks of human sacrifice to a god equated with Saturn, offered because of all sacrifices, the human race is the best, meaning human victims are most productive of fertility.

Divination with the bodies of human victims is attested by Tacitus, who says that “the Druids consult the gods by interpreting the entrails of men,” and by Strabo, who describes the striking down of the victim by the sword and predicting the future by the victim’s his convulsive movements.

The blood of dead relatives was also drunk in order to obtain their virtues, or to be brought into closer rapport with them.

This is analogous to the custom of blood brotherhood, which also coexisted among the Celts and survived until the British Isle until a late date.

Animal sacrifices

Animal victims were also frequently offered, most commonly to animals captured in war or white oxen sacrified during a mistletoe ritual.

The blood of these sacrified animals was sprinkled on altars, images and trees, or sometimes placed in a skull adorned with gold.

Prayer among the Celts

Prayer accompanied most Celtic rites, and probably consisted of traditional formulae, on the exact recital of which depended their purpose.

For example, Druids invoked a god during the mistletoe ritual, while at a Galatian sacrifice, an offering was made to bring birds to destroy grasshoppers, so prayer was made to the birds themselves.

Prayers may also have taken the nature of spells ensuring the help of the gods.

These prayer spells consisted of the name of a god, of a tribe or clan, or of some well-known phrase.

As the recital of a divine name is often supposed to force the god to help, these prayer spells had thus a magical aspect.

Dancing was also a method of expressing religious emotion, and when used to imitate certain actions, it is intended by magical influence to make the actions succesful once actually carried out.

Dancing was thus a kind of acted prayer with magical results.

Divination

Druids were the primary diviners among the Celts, but divination could also be carried out by ordinary people.

Classical writers speak of the Celts as the most devoted to, and the most experienced in, the science of divination.

Divination with a human victim were common.

Offerings were poured over the victim, who was then slain, and predictions were made based on the way the victim fell, the movements of limbs, and flowing of blood.

Beasts and birds also provided omens.

The path taken by a released rabbit was an omen of success to the Britons, and in Ireland divination was used with a sacrificial animal.

Among birds the crow was preeminent, and two crows are represented speaking into the ears of a man on a bas-relief at remains of a Celtic tribe at Compiegne.

The Celts believed that the crow had shown where towns should be founded, or had provided a remedy against poison, and it was also an arbiter of disputes.

Druids would even divine the future by interpreting the songs of birds.

Omens were drawn from the direction of smoke and flames of sacred fires and even from the shape of clouds.

Wands of yew were carried by Druids “the wand of Druidism” of many folk-tales, and were used perhaps as divining-rods.

Ogams (Old Irish alphabet letters) were also engraved on rods of yews, and from these Druids divined hidden things.

Celtic divination spells

The Imbas Forosnai spell, meaning “illumination between the hands,” was used by the Diviner to discover hidden things.

He chewed a piece of raw fesh and placed it as an offering to the images of the gods whose help he sought.

If enlightenment did not come by the next day, the diviner pronounced incantations on his palms, which he then placed on his cheeks before falling asleep.

The revelation followed in a dream, or sometimes after waking.

Perhaps the animal whose flesh was eaten was a sacred one.

Another divination method was that of the Teinm Laegha.

The Diviner made a verse and repeated it over some person or thing from which he sought information, or placed a staff on the person’s body and so obtained what he sought.

Another incantation, the Cétnad, was sung through the fist to discover the track of stolen cattle or of the thief.

If this did not bring enlightenment, the Diviner went to sleep and obtained the knowledge through a dream.

Another Cétnad for obtaining information regarding length of life was addressed to the seven daughters of the sea.

Perhaps the incantation was repeated mechanically until the seer fell into a kind of trance.

Divination by dreams was also used by the continental Celts.

Other divination methods resemble “trance utterances”.

Through psychotic substances, a bard was induced in a heavy sleep, and was asked by others to pronounce the future through this magical sleep.

This was called “illumination by rhymes.”

When consulted, the seer roared violently until he exhausted himself, and out of his ravings the desired information was gathered.

When awoken from this ecstatic condition, he had no remembrance of what he had uttered.

Among other Celtic tribes, the diviner was often bound in the hide of a sacrified cow, and then left in a desolate place to communicate with the spirits who invaded the diviner’s dreams.

Both among the continental and Irish Celts, those who sought hidden knowledge slept on graves, hoping to be inspired by the spirits of the dead.

In other sources, Druids would chew acorns or nuts from sacred trees and then proceed to prophesize of the future.

Mythical characters or divinities in ancient Irish texts stood on one leg, with one arm extended, and one eye closed, when uttering prophecies or incantations, and this pose might have been adopted by diviners as well.


References:

  • Celtic Myths and Legends by Charles Squire
  • A Treasury of Irish myth, legend, and folklore by William Butler Yeats and Claire Booss
  • The Age of Fable by Thomas Bulfinch
  • Tales of the Celtic Otherworld by John Matthews
  • Celtic myth & legend : an A-Z of people and places by Mike Dixon-Kennedy
  • A brief guide to Celtic myths & legends by Martyn J. Whittock
  • Myths & legends of the Celtic race by Thomas Williams Rolleston
  • The Celtic twilight. Men and women by William Butler Yeats
  • The handbook of Celtic astrology by Helena Paterson
  • Celtic myth and legend : poetry & romance by Charles Squire
  • Mythology of All Races – Celtic & Slavic by Louis Herbert Gray and John Arnott MacCulloch
  • The religion of the ancient Celts by John Arnott MacCulloch
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