Much of modern western magic has its roots in the early 20th century, including Wicca and modern Druidry. However, when seeking to learn more about the magical traditions of the Celtic and British lands, it is possible to find a whole host of ancient lore and practices that have survived well into the modern period. Despite modern misconceptions that very little of our earlier pagan lore can be known, our folklore and oral literature actually contain a host of charms and spells, rituals and prayers, and our tales and mythology contain many spiritual lessons and practical demonstrations of how to interact with our native spirit world and those who inhabit it. Never fixed in a particular period of time or geographical area, these magical treasures have an ancient history with their roots in our pre-Christian traditions, with local and regional variations that have evolved over time and with cultural changes. This makes them uniquely suited to adapt and continue to be used in ways that suit us today. This is not to suggest that we can just make things up; we need to keep those roots strong, and the magical relationships our ancestors held with the unknown honoured and maintained, but we are able to make this our own, as previous generations have. This is a magic for the people, based on our organic relationship to the living spirits and resources of our landscape—it is a Wild Magic.
When we think of the Celtic lands over the last two thousand years there is often the presumption that these were Christian countries, but these days modern research shows that this was not really the whole story. Throughout most of the period from the Middle Ages to the modern era, Christianity was the religion of the aristocracy and literary classes, the landowners and the lawmakers, but in the lower classes and rural areas, church attendance has fluctuated wildly. In the past common folk were often chastised and harried into going to church even at the most important times of the liturgical year. A practical understanding of Christian values also varied widely in these largely illiterate communities and church attendance did not always equate to Christian belief as it would be understood today. Instead, when they were in need, the workers of the fields and the villages would often go to the local healers and magical practitioners. Known as Bean Feasa in Ireland, wisewomen, or more generally across Britain and Ireland, the Cunning Folk, these healers and practitioners served their local communities in a host of activities from tending the sick people as well as any ill livestock, birthing babies, tending to the dead, and protecting people from ill wishes and finding lost and stolen goods. They performed this work often with great success with the aid of verbal and practical charms and spells that were handed down orally, as well as a vast knowledge of herbal medicine drawn from their landscape, often impressive psychic skills, known as seership, and almost invariably with the assistance of various helping spirits. Famous examples include Biddy Early in Ireland, Isobel Gowdie and Bessie Dunlop in Scotland, and the Physicians of the Myddfai in Wales, who were so respected that they also attended Welsh royalty.
These Cunning Folk and the communities they served maintained the belief in the local spirits of wood and well, of fire and storm and sea, alongside their Christianity. This practice is called syncretism, and is found in many traditions around the world, where the imposition of the new faith could only go so deep. Instead, the connection to the land and its unique spirits remained. These spirits went by many names, and still do (some were clearly connected to specific trees and rivers and natural features—nature spirits as we may understand them today) but others were of the wider spirit nations of the land, who are commonly called the Faeries in the Celtic traditions. Sometimes in Scotland these were also called devils, although they were described in the same way. As the effects of Christianity were felt particularly strongly there, some of these practitioners were accused of using malevolent magic and tried as witches. However, in Ireland and Wales, there was very little condemnation, and the Cunning Folk were almost universally associated with benevolent magic and were often valued in their communities. Their fairy spirit allies vary widely in appearance and temperament and went by many names: the Good Neighbours, the Daoine Maithe, and the Sidhe, in Ireland; in Scotland they are the Seelie and Unseelie courts; and in Wales they are the Gwragedd Annwn and the Tylwyth Teg to name but a few. Each healer or Cunning Man or woman would have at least one faery friend, often many, from whom they would learn their magic and who would assist them in their work. Throughout the Christian period into the modern era, the Creideamh Sí, or the faery faith, has survived, and these beings continued to be the allies and spirit kin of our Celtic folk healers and magical workers as they always had.
The ways to connect with Celtic folk magic traditions are many and varied, and while it's important to respect the communities and roots they come from, it is possible to honour, retrace, and reclaim the magical steps our ancestors took, as well as acknowledge that this is a living tradition. We can reforge our spiritual connections anew and befriend our spirit kin for ourselves and future generations. This can take time but is exciting and rewarding work, needing care and integrity but offering us so much more in return. Like new musicians in a Cèilidh, it is possible to weave our magic in with their rhythms, honouring and adding our voice to the tune, without attempting to re-write the music.
Try These First Steps:
- Spirit: Make Fairy Friends and Spirit Allies.
Make offerings to the local powers of place, the over-arching spirits of the hills and valleys and wild places that make up the bones of your landscape. Clear and protect an area of rubbish and defend it against pollution, make this a part of your prayers and part of your quest to re-build connection. Seek to understand and feel your position as part of a whole larger than yourself. In time you will naturally attract spirit allies that appreciate your efforts. Alternatively, you may create a ritual making an offering and asking for an ally to come to you, or seek one out in vision using seership.
- Earth: Learn Your Land.
Wherever ever you live, learn about your environment: what plants and trees grow in your area and what is the folklore of your environment? Even in a city, nature can be found and traces will linger of what was there before. Honour the spirits of the land, seek out the hubs of energy and sacred sites that may have been honoured by those before you, of whatever culture. Respectfully weave your relationship with the spirits of the earth beneath your feet. Learn to forage and wild source materials for your spells and rituals, wherever this can be appropriate and ethical. Traditionally rowan trees are used for protection. In other locations in the world there will be equivalent trees with similar properties. There is an old saying about the rowan, and its protective qualities against ill magic (referred to as witches as they were known in the past rather than today!): "Rowan and red thread put witches to their speed."
Seek a rowan tree and ask if for a gift of its wood or berries, honouring it as an ally, and spirit kin. Place rowan twig crosses tied with red thread at your doors and windows, or wear rowan berries threaded into a bracelet when you feel in need of protection—thanking the tree you have gathered them from and seeing it infuse these charms with its spirit. Build a sacred space in the landscape, clear it of rubbish and tend to its plants and animals where possible. Having a garden or a patch of land is ideal, but equally caring for a section of park, or a single tree in the street is equally important. Every step you take to reconnect to your landscape will be recognised by the spirits. Have a place where you leave ecologically sound offerings, of baked goods or animal food. Equally, an offering of poetry and song are traditional offerings in the Celtic tradition; honour the land with your love and respect.
Learn what animals are in your area—not to hunt, but to align with to draw their magical properties to you. Scottish and Cornish Cunning Women in particular were particularly fond of working with hares and would transform into them on full moons, as recorded in the records concerning Scottish Cunning Woman Isobel Gowdie:
"I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sigh and mickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil's name
Ay till I come home again."
- Sea/Water: Honour the Waters in All Their Forms.
Seek to learn the water sources around you: the courses of rivers and the old wells that can be found where ever you live. Make pilgrimages to the sea and to large bodies of water as well as committing to minimize water pollution in your daily life.
A traditional method of folk healing is to attend a holy well or other sacred body of water, and to use a cloth to dip in the water and lave the sick person, asking the spirits of the waters to bless and cure them. The cloth is then hung on a nearby hawthorn tree (or another special tree) and left to biodegrade. As the cloth rots away, so the illness is taken away. This tradition is known as hanging "clooties" (and is often badly misunderstood today). Hanging clooties or cloths is not to honour the tree or make a memorial, but to get the tree and the water to take away illness or ill fortune. "Clooties" or cloths used in this way must always be of cotton or other biodegradable cloth and tied loosely so they don't constrict the trees growth. Nothing that is bad for the land is good for folk magic. Using plastic or other non-biodegradable materials will actually lock the illness or misfortune in and stop it from leaving and being earthed by the tree and the water, as well as being environmentally irresponsible.
If you live near or visit the sea, honour it with offerings and learn its ways, the turn of the tides and the power of the liminal spaces between sea and land. Learn its regional folklore. There are a great many sea spirits that are remembered in Celtic folk magic. Among the most famous and beautiful are the selkies, the seal folk:
"She went at early morning and sat on a rock at high-tide mark, and when it was high tide, she shed seven tears in the sea. People said they were the only tears she ever shed. But you know this is what one must do if she wants speech with the selkie-folk…"—. T. Dennison in the Scottish Antiquary, 1893
- Sky/Air: Hear the Messages on the Wind
Call to the winds and learn the cycles of sun moon and stars. Honour the seasonal wheel, but also learn to notice from which direction the winds came during certain times of the year. Each direction and wind has its spirits and unique energies, to bring wisdom and healing, to send messages to and from the dead, and to announce change and destiny.
Seek wisdom from watching the clouds and the flight of birds—take time to sit regularly and really notice the sky above you. Focus on a small patch of sky and ask a question; let your attention and thoughts drift of on the wind, while keeping your eyes on the area. A message may streak across your vision or appear symbolically in the clouds. There was a practice in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, that used the winds at New years eve or Hogmanay, to divine the year to come.
"South wind—heat and produce,
North wind—cold and tempest,
West wind—fish and milk,
East wind—fruit on trees."—J.G. Campbell,1902
- Fire: Hearth Fire and Household Spirits
Honour the hearth in your home with a simple altar, and make regular offerings to the household spirits, sometimes known as the brownies. Gifts of baked goods, left by the hearth, are a good start, and its also traditional to leave a bowl of water out on the table for their use at night. If you have a real fire, make prayers to the goddess of the hearth, Brighid, or Bride, when it is lit, and again when you bank it down for the night. She is also called upon to bless and protect the home. Try this traditional protection prayer to Bride when you light your fire.
"I WILL raise the hearth-fire
As Mary would.
The encirclement of Bride and of Mary
On the fire, and on the floor,
And on the household, all."—Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, 83, 1900.
- Clearing Your Space: Saining, Not Smudging.
Another house blessing and house clearing technique performed in Scotland and Ireland, is Saining: to bless the house by burning sacred herbs. Traditionally juniper (Juniperus communis) is the most popular, but mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is also a favourite. Originally when this was performed in small huts and cottages, all the doors were shut and whole branches of juniper were burned so that the smoke filled the whole house before the doors and windows were opened, but bundles of herbs were also used, and this is a safer and more practical approach in most circumstances. At certain times, such as during Michaelmas (September 29), a torch or burning branch was also processed around the outdoor boundaries of the home in a deisil or sunwise direction, to bless the area and ward off any unwelcome spirits and ill fortune.
These old folk practices are ancestral treasures, waiting to be unpacked by later generations, but they also have a place in the living Celtic cultures in Ireland Scotland and Wales today. By returning to these ways and honouring their roots, we can make them our own whilst maintaining their unique qualities. We can both deepen our magical and spiritual selves as well as honour our ancestors, and the wider Celtic cultures that were always rich in vision, and travelled wide in space and time, as they still do today. Within these prayers and practices we have examples of a way of being that is deeply woven into the land around us, with a respect for nature and the environment that is needed now like never before. By remembering the ways of our elders, we can look to the future stronger than ever.