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:
"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."
"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
"South wind—heat and produce,
North wind—cold and tempest,
West wind—fish and milk,
East wind—fruit on trees."—J.G. Campbell,1902
"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.
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.