Celtic Witchcraft, Chapter Five

Dec 18th, 2014 | By | Category: Articles, Celtic Witchcraft

by Mabh Savage

An Elemental Thing…

Magic, and therefore witchcraft, is intrinsically intertwined with the elements. In most western traditions, we look to the four ‘classical’ elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. These are often associated with the respective cardinal points of the compass: north, east, south and west. In Wicca and associated paths, there is also the central point, the culminating element, spirit, that represents the centre of existence and the energy within the universe.

This is not constant throughout all cultures, though. In Japanese Buddhism, for example, the element of ‘spirit’ is known as ‘void’ and can also represent the sky or heaven. In the Chinese philosophy Wu Xing, the five critical agents that cause all things to interact are wood, fire, earth, metal and water. These agents, or phases, are often associated with the four seasons and the cycle of all things. Within alchemy, the three basic materials are salt, sulphur and mercury; perhaps not what most of us would automatically think of as the foundation of all existence!

The common denominator with all these short lists of key ingredients is that they are all familiar to the philosophers in question. We breathe air, we use fire, we drink water and we live in and on the earth. Or, from a different perspective, we live under the sky, we are afraid of fire, we bathe in water, and we are made of earth.

So what are the Celtic elements? The Celts lived in the same world we did; living from the earth, relishing the sun and either railing against or celebrating the weather, depending on the season. The Celts moved across continents, absorbing aspects of the cultures they encountered and sharing aspects of themselves in the same way. It is therefore difficult to say with certainty which elements or aspects of the universe would have influenced the Celts most, because each Celtic tribe was different and held its own beliefs and customs. There is no primary Celtic religion or philosophy that overrides all others.

However, we can extrapolate some information from the stories and legends retold by scholars of the Celts. As always, when reading these stories for yourself, look to the source; a Christian monk writing in the middle ages will skew the story to a pro-Christian view point, for example. Take everything with a pinch of salt and form your own opinions.

c. Jim Mapplebeck

c. Jim Mapplebeck

Pools of Wisdom

Celtic myth and legend is certainly not short of a few stories about rivers, fords, wells, springs and lakes. Water is one element that we can state, with reasonable confidence, was important to the Celts not only for staying alive but as part of their spirituality. Water is intrinsically linked to wisdom, occult knowledge and hidden mysteries. Tales range from the legend of Boann, who challenges the power of the Well of Segais and is killed in the creation of a new river, to the archetypal image of the ‘washer at the ford’ and the association with prophecy and the afterlife. It is impossible to examine Celtic religion without including the significance of water.

Today, in the western world, we take the availability of clean water for granted but many of us, particularly city dwellers, may only ever interact with water from a tap or a bottle. It’s well worth your time to visit your nearest water source and get a feel for the environment there. Listen to the buzz of insects. Watch the water birds serenely gliding, or not so serenely squabbling! Watch out for the shadows of fish gliding beneath the surface tension, causing mysterious ripples around tall, whippy reeds and great, flat lilies. Catch the tail whip of a water vole, or the unearthly blue arrow flash of a kingfisher. Breathe through your nose and take note of the smell. A stagnant pool may smell dank and unpleasant, whereas a free flowing river will smell fresh and almost earthy. You may even smell the scents of some of the flowers growing on the banks.

What amazes me is the absolute abundance of life around these places. Water is a life giver, both as a source of hydration and as a breeding ground for bacteria. Even the search for extra-terrestrial life is generally the search for possible water bearing planets, because of the fundamental understanding that life (as we know it) cannot exist without water.

But water is also a destroyer. You can drown in water- and not even that much of it. According to Keating, the druids of the Tuatha de Danann raised a mighty storm in order to drown the sons of the invading Míl Espáine. Drowning is also mentioned as capital punishment in The Death-Tales of the Ulster Heroes (tr. Kuno Meyer, 1906) although in this particular tale the criminal is a poet who chooses to be drowned when caught ‘co-habiting’ with Conchobar mac Nessa’s wife.

Water also destroys simply by existing. A river erodes its banks; a waterfall carves into a cliff face; even persistent rain over centuries wears at rock and earth and changes it irrevocably. You only have to visit a place like Brimham Rocks in North Yorkshire to see the devastating yet beautiful impact water has had over aeons, forming incredible structures out of the local geology.

From the last paragraph we can surmise that water is also patient, industrious, persistent; even stubborn. These are all characteristics you can associate with water in your own working.

Take a bath. Make it perfect; just the right temperature and fill level to induce complete relaxation. While you lay, partially submerged, think about the water that surrounds you. Where did it come from? Once it was in the sky. Before that it was under the ground, and it will return to the ground again, and one day will be part of the sky again. Reflect upon the cyclical nature of things. Think about your own journey through life; how you constantly change, yet are the same person. Like the water, you move from situation to situation, but you are the same soul; the same heart. Think about the fluid nature of the water you float in. It adapts to its environment; it is shaped by its container yet can change at a moment’s notice. Are you as adaptable? How does this make you feel? A slight breath on the water makes it ripple, just like you are stirred by external events. The surface of the bath water is like your emotions; it can be still or chaotic depending on the stimuli.

Water is a fascinating substance; it exists as a solid, a liquid and a gas and we regularly use all three forms. Water heals, water kills, water dreams and water thrills. The Celts simply accepted the magical nature of water, and science has since proven how utterly remarkable it is. Find your own special connection to water, and see where the flow of the river takes you.

crow necklaceWinds of Wyrd

Yeats insisted in 1933 that the sídhe, or Celtic spirits, had ‘much to do with the wind’ because the word sídhe means wind. Sorry William, it doesn’t, however sídhe gaoithe is the Gaelic term for a whirlwind, or dust devil, sometimes associated with the ‘fair folk’ as it was believed they could travel on the swirling air.

I have seen a small dust devil pick up and distribute pink cherry blossom into the most glorious and impossible looking display, so can completely understand how one could believe this phenomena is controlled by a supernatural force. Or perhaps the sídhe don’t control the wind at all, but simply jump on and enjoy, wherever the ride may take them.

It is this carefree and child-like attitude that I tend to associate most strongly with air. The ability to take risks and to enjoy life. To revel in mischief, but with compassion and genuine care for those around you. To dare to sing and dance as the mood takes you. To peek and peer and explore the world around you with an entirely open mind.

Exploration often leads to understanding, and this is the other aspect of air I identify strongly with; clarity and intellectual stimulation. A stiff breeze can blow the cobwebs away, and if you imagine the musty corridors of your mind being dusted down by a refreshing summer breeze, you get a sense of how this element can help you order your thoughts and focus your intent.

Intent is so important in witchcraft. Going through the motions is not enough; you must believe firmly in what you are doing and the reason you are doing it. Anyone can recite a spell, or light incense, or tie knots. But a true witch examines what they want, how they are going to get it and most of all, why they are using witchcraft to get it. Air is the element of reason, which allows you to follow this process logically. It prevents you from hiding things from yourself, forcing you to examine your own self-doubt and either dismiss it, or trust it, depending on the situation.

Air can be the strongest wind or the smallest breath. Air constantly surrounds us and obviously we cannot live without it, but like the other elements it has its destructive nature too. As well as a breeze blowing away cobwebs air can be a mighty hurricane or a tornado. Air can be youthful and jovial but also commands respect. Find this capacity in yourself; to be both the howling storm and the calm breeze; the zephyr in the grass. Accept that you will be buffeted from time to time and don’t be afraid to buffet back!

autumn leavesGreen and Wild

Paganism in general leans towards a reverence for nature, which I tend to find stems from a genuine appreciation of the world around us rather than any particular religious pull. It’s an obvious conclusion that if we look after Planet Earth, then as a species we have a better chance of surviving longer and enjoying a better quality of life. This means respecting not only the other creatures in this world, but the plants, the waterways, the air and every eco system.

Animists believe that everything has a spirit; every rock, every tree and even the weather. Juliette Wood, in her introduction to the 2000 edition of Mythology of the British Islands (Charles Squire, 1905) suggests that the Celts also held these beliefs. Whether this is true or not, the legends and stories surrounding place names, particularly in Ireland, lend credence to the theory that the Celts held the land in general and specifically their own locality in reverence.

Being familiar with your environment is absolutely essential for a witch. Understanding the energy of the soil beneath your feet, or perhaps beneath the concrete, will give you a foundation to build storey upon storey of magical success. Become familiar with how the seasons affect where you live. I’m fairly suburban, so I’m lucky enough to have a fair amount of green around me: my own garden (tiny though it is), brambles, fields and trees are only a few steps away. For me then, the turn of the seasons is a change of palette as green turns to gold turns to brown and back again.

Speak to your neighbours; learn anecdotes about the area you call home. You might find someone who knows when your house/flat/apartment was built. They might be able to tell you what was there before. You may even find old photos online of what the area looked like before being built upon.  Imagine yourself on the same spot but at different points throughout the ages. The people and technologies change, but the earth remains more or less the same. The earth is consistency, dependability, stubbornness; steadfastness.

I attended a ‘coming of age’ ceremony where the young man was given a gift of earth. This was literally a small, beautiful glass bottle, filled with earth from the family’s garden. The mother told him he would always know where home was and always be able to find his way back. I love this idea, of taking a little piece of home with you, and also the metaphor that you already carry your home with you- in your heart and in the things you love.

Take a pot of local soil if possible, potting compost if not! Place a seed (any seed really, you’re going to grow this indoors so it doesn’t really matter about the type) about a centimetre deep (or follow packet instructions) and tamp the soil down. Imagine your intent is the seed. Just like the seed only exists within the earth, your intent only exists within you. Yet just like the seed will expand beyond the earth, the right additions will allow your intent to become reality. Water the seed lightly, and imagine what will nourish your desire. Keep those thoughts of how to bring your intent to fruition firmly in mind. Pop a food bag (or any small plastic bag) over the pot and place on a bright window sill. Check daily. Moisture will collect on the inside of the bag and run back down in the pot so there should be little need for further watering, but if the soil starts to look dry, dampen it again.

The first time you see a little spike of green popping out of the soil, you will feel such elation, especially if you have never grown anything before. You made this happen! You and water and earth and heat and clean air. Now the plant will reach for the sun, and as it grows, make sure you work hard towards your own intent. In doing so, you honour the earth and her gifts, and you in turn are inspired by the magic of the land.

smokeCleansing Flames

Some rather gory accounts from Geoffrey Keating’s History of Ireland (c. 1634) describe how the Druids in Munster lit the Fires of Tlachtgha (a powerful druidess, possibly even an ancient goddess, and daughter of Mog Roith), to burn human sacrifices in honour of the gods. This occurred on Samhain eve (October 31st at sunset) and all fires this night must be lit from this flame, and those who disobeyed were fined. Fires are still lit annually at this time in Ireland, although as far as I know, no one is sacrificed upon them.

In the same chapter Keating also describes how at Beltane (or Bealltaine, as he writes it), cattle were driven through a fire to            ‘shield them from all diseases’. The more likely reason is that the heat would cause ticks to fall off, generally improving the health of the cattle.

So straight away we have a direct contradiction; fire used both to destroy and to heal. I think this is really important to take note of. All things are at least dual in nature, and indeed most things have many aspects. To say, for example, fire represents destruction is a massive over-simplification. When examining any aspect of magic or witchcraft, you have to understand that there are many different possibilities for every action. Certainly, every colour, herb, animal and even element has many correspondences, and the more you understand this, the deeper your understanding of witchcraft will become.

Fire can heal. Think of cauterising a wound, or of burning a field to leave it fertile for the next season. Fire can kill: that’s an obvious one! But we do well to remember the power inherent here. Fire can be metaphorical; think about the fires of passion, the fires of creativity, the fire of anger. Fire destroys and fire creates. Metaphorically burning away that which is clogging up your life creates space for new and positive things to come to light.

An exercise a few of us sometimes do at Beltane is to write down, on a piece of paper, things which we want to let go of. This can be emotion; perhaps an anger towards a friend who has let us down, or a sadness over a break up. It can also be something physical, like the reluctance to move house, or feeling stuck in your current job. We write the words and really think about why this situation or object is bothering us so much. Then we build a bonfire, as part of our Beltane celebrations, and once the flames are leaping high we throw the pieces of paper in and celebrate as they turn to ash. This is our sacrifice to the gods in a way. By doing this we make a commitment to our own soul that we will let this pain or difficulty go. We will move on, and become a richer and wiser person for doing so.

Another simple exercise demonstrates the calming and peaceful nature of fire. What! I hear you cry… Honestly, find a quiet, dim spot with no draughts and light a candle. Make yourself comfy and watch the flame. Watch how still it is, only moving slightly when the air from your own lungs disturbs it. Look at the amazing array of colours it holds. See how complex it is, but so simple too. Let your mind focus on the flame, and while your mind is busy doing all this you are letting go of worries, troubles and the bustle of the day. Your mind will relax, and in turn, so will your body.

Disclaimer: Don’t build fires unless you know what you are doing! And don’t burn your house down with candles. Please. OK?

Finally, remember that in Celtic Witchcraft, as in all things, everything is connected. Did you know that when a flame burns, it gives off gas and water? And smoke, of course, is tiny particles of burnt fuel, returning eventually to the earth. The world is complex and because of that, magic can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be. Don’t limit yourself, keep your mind open to all possibilities, and feel the elements not only all around you, but within you as well.

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