Sunday, October 3, 2010

"Irish Witches" by John Hurley (Unabridged)

This is one of my favourite articles on the topic. It's now very hard to find on the 'net, and so it is with the greatest respect to the author that I host it here so that it will not be lost to the public. It is essential reading for all those practioners of the Celtic inclination as an overview of Irish culture and Druidic practices including how it relates to witchcraft, magic and paganism.  I have included the complete bibliography and Gaelic words. If the copyright holders object, please let me know!

Looking up witch-and-seeress names in Irish, found this page in Kuno Meyer's old Contributions to Irish Lexicography. He shows three different phrases for a band of women: ban-graig; ban-lorg, and ban-trocht or -tracht. From Suppressed History Archives

Irish Witches

"One of the problems facing many modern "neo-pagans" is their inability to successfully describe their own personal spiritual paths to people outside their path. Finding terms that are readily understood by others not of the same path is often difficult, so many pagans settle for recently coined or popularly understood terms, such as "witch", "wiccan", "druid", "shaman", etc. Many pagans know that these broad terms do not fully express their own path, and many add ethnic or cultural adjectives to add to the meaning of the word chosen. They are "Celtic Witches", "Native American Shamans", "Family Trad. Druids", etc.

These terms certainly help the outsider get a feel for where the particular practitioner in question is coming from, however, more and more pagans are searching for better terms from within their own traditions. Many pagans feel that using archaic terms or terms from a non-English language to describe their paths is too exclusionary and simply alienates others from their paths. Charlatans can, all too often, find easy refuge behind impressive sounding, archaic terminology. But there comes a time when watering down one's path - even if only in name and even if only to make it more palatable to others - weakens that path, making it somewhat bland and conformist.

In this article I will discuss some terms that can be used in one of the more frequently used paths, popularly known as "Irish Witchcraft", or "Celtic Witchcraft".

Now before we get to the word "witch", let's discuss the terms "Celtic" and "Irish".

The term Celtic is used to describe the civilization, peoples and language family, of certain peoples who dominated Western Europe north of the Alps for about 1000 years before the rise of the Roman Empire. Celtic civilization continued on through the rise of Rome, and today there are six Celtic Nations, each with their own unique but related, language and culture.

Linguists place Celtic in its own language family, distinct from other European languages, but stemming from the same theorized "Proto-Indo-European Mother Tongue". The Celtic languages are divided into two branches, generally called "q-celtic" and "p-celtic" or Goedelic and Brythonic respectively. Goedelic, q-celtic, is comprised of the Gaelic languages of Irish, Scottish-Gaelic, and Manx. Brythonic, p-celtic, is comprised of Welsh, Breton and Cornish. (Both Manx and Cornish are now considered dead languages). Goedelic, q-celtic is considered the older of the two branches, and is characterized by a harder consonant sounds with regard to the letters c/k/ch/q. In q-celtic, the word for "son of", "mac" is pronounced with a hard "q" sound, "maq". In p-celtic, the same word is spelt and pronounced "map".

The term "Irish" is of Norse origin, as is the word "Ireland", the Native Irish words being "Erinnach" and "Erin" respectively.

The ancient Irish, were composed of what they considered to be many different races; some Celtic, some not. But just as today's Americans have various ethnic backgrounds and are all, at the end of the day, Americans, so the Irish eventually came to see themselves and their tribes as a unique Irish Nation in the modern sense of the word. The modern Irish people are a racial mixture of Celtic Gaels, Norse; Danes, Welsho-Normans, and Saxons. However, the tradition in Ireland has always been that the dominant and original Gaelic culture - the touchstone of Irish Civilization - absorbed all newcomers to the Island. The Norse, Danes and Welsho-Normans who came to Ireland all adopted Gaelic Irish language and culture as their own. Hence, the Celtic culture of the Gaels is not based on one's racial origins and never has been; it is based on ones involvement in, and promotion of, the traditional culture of the island. (This question of absorption into the traditional culture is at the very heart of the modern war in Northeast Ireland). It is important to remember all this when we start using "Irish" as an adjective to describe something, especially our own spiritual path, because it is such a battered term, implying different things to different people.

"Witch" is a non-Celtic, Anglo-Saxon word meaning "to bend" or "to know". In the popular mind, the term has many other connotations as well, most of them negative. Since it is not an Irish word - and indeed since it is a word associated with the very peoples who have wreaked so much havoc on the traditional Irish pagan paths - many modern Irish pagans would prefer to use an Irish word to describe their path, and dispense with English words altogether.

One of the problems with coming up for a good word in Irish for "witch", is that there are quite a few words to choose from, each with very subtle differences in meaning, depending upon the original context in which the words are said. The Irish is an extremely flexible and creative language and taking isolated words out of their context in conversation can be a very misleading and self-deluding enterprise. On the other hand, the ancient Irish were never very strict in their use of words, preferring to let the oral usage of a word dominate over a formal, "standardized" definition of it.

Another problem is that there is simply alot of disagreement over the very nature of pre-Christian Irish and Celtic religions. Some people would describe all Irish spirituality as coming from the Druidic Order, and hence would describe any pagan Irish beliefs as being "druidic". Others would say that there were probably a few different pre-Christian religions within Irish society at any given time, so the druid tag simply wouldn't and couldn't apply to all paths. To complicate matters, there were different types of religious communities (priests/priestesses, monks/nuns), within these various religions, AND some of these religions may also have been pre-Celtic in origin!!!

I'd like to briefly discuss what we *do* know about these various Irish religious paths, so that the words we use in Irish to describe some of them are better understood.

First, the Druids. Much has been written about them; most of it nonsense. Most neo-pagans accept the Victorian notion of Druids as bearded old men, dressed in white, who constituted a patriarchal, Aryan-Celtic Priesthood. One of the oddest descriptions about them is that they were all pacifists and even vegetarians.....odd when one considers some of the Gods and Goddesses who were supposed to patronize the Order!! They were, in reality, the "Aes Dana" or "Men of Art", or learning. They were the Celtic "Intelligentsia", and hence would have simply been the people with an education within Celtic society. The religious connotations regarding them stem from the fact that in Irish culture, all learning was done through the art of poetry, and poetry was the measuring stick used to judge ones educational level and intelligence. Anyone with an education was schooled in poetry, but the most educated had literally memorized the most poems about a particular subject. Poetry was always considered to be a magical art, and thus those with the most poems had the "most magic", and would be considered to be someone who was close to the gods or Sidh.

Luckily, much more is known about the *Irish* branch of Druidic Order (as opposed to the Gallic and British Orders), because the Irish Order survived as an institution until the 17th century, right up to the destruction of the Gaelic Nobility which supported it, and even beyond that. After the coming of Christianity to Ireland, certain factions of the Druidic Order struck a bargain with the druids who had adopted the Christian teaching and gave up some of their religious ritual functions. (This bargain could have been struck consciously at an historical point, or evolved slowly over a long period of time, but it might be attributed to the Christian saint and druid, St. Columba, who later Irish Bards revered as having saved their Order after an attempt to banish it). Other Irish druids never did give up their power or officially convert. At some point the druid-Christians took over the officiating at religious rituals, but for a very long time, Bishops and Druids officiated together. Even after the Christian Bishops dominated ritual events, the druids continued their educational and magical traditions as bards. The Irish definition of what is "magical" or what constitutes a ritual is simply broader in its view than Christianity. Hence in many ways, it was business as usual for the druids of Ireland.

The Druidic Order as it is popularly understood today was supposed to be divided into three sections of Bards, Vates and Druids. Now this would mean that *all* members of the Order were considered Druids, with the Order having "Bardic-Druids", "Vatic-Druids", and "Druid-Druids", all performing somewhat different functions, but all being equal as Druids, and all having overlapping duties. (Again, the Irish were never very strict about their institutions). Over time, the Order in Ireland became identified almost exclusively with the Bardic section of the Order, and that has had an immense influence on what is considered "magical" in Irish culture, and hence in the Irish language, even today.

The Bardic division of the Druidic Order became more powerful and people who wanted to become druids and NOT Christian priests now simply became bardic-druids. In this way, they continued their magical practices, yet made room in Irish society for Christianity, and it is that ability (or inability) to compromise and make room for newcomers to Ireland which is a central part of the Irish experience. In medieval times, a King's "Chief Poet", had a higher ranking than the King's (Christian) Bishop. One of the last great Irish "Official Poets", as they were called, was Eochaidh O hEoghusa, who served three successive Maguires, The Lords of Fermanagh, from 1586 to 1602. O hEoghusa retained the traditional rank of the "Ollav", or Kings' Poet, and in most ways, he differed little from his ancient Druid predecessors.

There were also definitely Female Druids as well, and it would seem that, as in most cultures, there were priests, priestesses, monks, nuns and hermits all within the Irish pagan spiritual milieu.

So, would Irish Druidesses be considered "witches" as we understand the English term "witch" today? Probably, but again, there are many different functions for many different types of clerical vocations, and one word used for one period of Irish history, may not mean the same exact thing as applied in a different period of Irish history. An Irish "Wise Woman" and healer/herbologist from the 19th century, like the famous Biddy Early of Clare, may not have been a card carrying member of the Druid Order and hence a "Ban-Draoi" (Druidess), but she certainly was a witch and, in a way, a "priestess" of The Sidh. Was she a healer, a "Fairy Doctor"? Certainly. Was she a Seer? Definitely. Was she a Prophetess? At times. She was mostly known for her healing abilities however, and what becomes clear when looking at the various words used to describe various Irish pagans is that no matter what their varying abilities or educations, they eventually were best called by whatever term best described their most popular ability. Therefore, for someone like Biddy Early, better terms than "Bandraoi" would be: "Fáidhbhean" or "Fáidhmhná"; "Cailleach", Cailleach Feasa", "Cailleach Phiseogach" or "Cailleach na gCear". All of these terms can mean "wise woman" or "witch".

Another problem in choosing terms is that many modern neo-pagan Celtic Witches don't equate Irish "Druidism" with Irish, female oriented "witchcraft". But the problem here is that in the Irish language, they often do!! It's that simple. Because the term in Irish which means Druidism, "Draíodóireacht", has a much broader definition than its modern English counterpart. The Irish worldview of magic, art, poetry and in particular, women, is much more complicated than the view held by the rest of Europe, and this would include their view of witches. There were no witch trials in Ireland, for example, until the Normans came. This doesn't mean there were no Irish witches prior to that, it just means there was no persecution of witches in Irish society, until the foreign, Euro-Normans invaded. Irish society was not as rigidly "categorized" as we today - thinking of it in abstract, historical terms - would like it to be. Since Irish society was so flexible, its views of many things overlap each other in ways which simply don't occur in the modern/neo-pagan/Anglo-centric world, in which we all have to live.

In Irish, there was and is no specific gender based split between male and female magic or magicians, period. "Draíodóir" for example, is an asexual word, *but* more often than not, words in Irish which are associated with creativity, poetry, craft, the supernatural, spirits or magic, have an inherently feminine connotation in them. This is because it was thought that these things all had their source with the Goddess Aíne, also called Anu, Ana and hence "Dana". Aíne is the "Mother of all the gods" and hence the Queen of Magic. The "Tuatha Dé Danann" are literally all Aíne's children. (Tuatha Dé Danann = The Children/Tribe/Family of Dana).

In ancient Celtic cultures, anyone one who had a special skill or "craft" was considered capable of/an inherent practitioner of magical powers. Scáthach, the trainer of CúChullian, was a "martial-witch", I suppose, or at least was clearly a woman practicing magic, mostly through the craft/trade of martial arts. When deciding who is a witch and who isn't in Irish Literature, a dead giveaway is any one characters use of incantational poetry, such as the sort Scáthach composes upon CúChullian's graduation from her Academy.

Which brings me to my next and final point. I mentioned earlier about the Bardic Order. In the older Irish sagas, the terms for poet (fíle, bard, licerd, aes dana, etc), druid (drui), and seer (fáith) are freely mixed and constantly exchange functions. The Irish "world field" concerning poets, seers, druids and magicians (of both genders), are, Irish scholars are coming to realize, virtually interchangeable.

Now, the actual terms themselves....

The most common Irish-English/English-Irish dictionary available in the United States, the "Foclóir Poca" (by An Gum, the state sponsored Irish language publishing house), lists "witch" as: "cailleach, draíodóir mna". "Mna" is a feminine prefix/suffix in Irish like "ban" or "bean" is. The same dictionary defines "witchcraft" as: "draiocht, an ealain dhubh". "ealain" is: "art; science, skill; workmanship, craft". It can also have an underlying feeling of "trickery". So "an ealain dhubh" equals "the black arts", or "the black craft".

The following terms relating to Irish witchcraft and paganism were culled from the Irish-English dictionary "Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla", by Niall ó Dónaill, An Gúm, 1992.


draíocht, f. (gs. & pl. ~a). 1. Druidic art, druidism. Lit: draíochta druadh, druidic arts. 2. Witchcraft, magic, charm, enchantment. Briocht, cochall, clat, ceo ~a, magic spell, cloak, wand, mist. Ceol draíochta, magical, entrancing music. Luacht draíochta, magicians, enchanters. Le draíocht, by magic. draíocht a bheith agat, to have magical powers. draíocht a bheith ort le rud, to be entranced with something. Tá draíocht ar an áit, the place is bewitched. Duine, rud, a chur faoi dhraíocht, to cast a magic spell someone or something. draíocht a chur ar dhuine, to enchant someone. Bheith faoi dhraíocht, to be under a spell. draíocht a chur do dhuine, to cast a charm for someone.

draíodóir = Magician

draíodóir fir = wizard

draíodóir mná = witch, enchantress (also, crafty, sly, person; rogue, hypocrite, trickster; Secretive person)

draíodóireacht = Practice of magic; Sly cunning, hypocrisy, trickery; Secretiveness.

draoighonta = Bewitched, enchanted

draoi = Druid; Wizard, magician; Augur, diviner; Trickster

bandia = Goddess

bandraoi = Druidess

bandraíodóir = Enchantress

banfháidh = Prophetess

banfhile = Poetess

bansagart = Priestess

other "ban" words for your perusal:

banlaoch = Female warrior; heroine

banoide = Tutoress, lady teacher

banfhlaith/banphrionsa = Princess

banríon = Queen

bansióg = Female fairy

banchuire = Band, group, of women

banchosantóir = Protectress

bandáil = Company, assembly, of women

banaltra = Nurse

banchealgaire = Seductive woman, siren


anam = Soul

anamchara = Spiritual advisor

anamachas = Animism

anamimirce = Transmigration of the soul

briocht = Charm, spell; Amulet.

briocht sí, briocht draoi, briocht suain, - fairy, druidic, sleep, charm

briocht a chanadh = to chant a spell

cailleach = Old woman, hag

cailleach feasa = wise woman, fortuneteller

cailleach phiseogach = sorceress, charm-worker

cailleach na gcearc = hag, witch

Leigheas (na) cailli = old woman's remedy

fáidh = 1.) Seer, prophet. 2.) Wise man, sage. 3.) The Fates.

fáidhbhean = Prophetess; wise woman......Another variation is "fáidhmhná"

fáidheadoireacht = Prophesy, prediction.

ealaín = Art, science, skill; craft

An ealaín dhubh = black art

Tá (an) ealaín dhubh aici = she has black magic

Chuir sí an ealaín dhubh air = she bewitched him

piseog = Charm, spell; Superstitious practices, superstition

An déanamh piseog = compounding charms, casting spells

piseogacht = Superstitious practices

piseogaí = Charm-setter, superstitious person

amaid = 1.) Lit: Witch, hag. 2.) Foolish woman. 3.) Simpleton, idiot.


Words associated with poetry and magic:

aos = People, folk

aos dána = Poets

aos ceoil = Musicians

aos treafa = Husbandmen

aos eagna = Intelligentsia

bard = Poet (of certain rank), bard

crosán = Mimic, jester; satirist, scurrilous person

dámh = 1.) Lit: Bardic company; party, retinue. 2.) (With article) The literary caste, followers of the arts. 3.) Faculty.

dámhscoil = Bardic school

dámhchuire = Band of poets, of artists

dán = 1.) Gift, offering. 2.) Craft, calling; allotted task. 3.) Art, faculty; art of poetry. 4.) Poem. 5.) Lot, fate.

dán draíochta = druidic art

dán ceoil = art of music

Fear dána = minstrel, poet

dán diaga = sacred poetry

dán direach = Irish syllabic poetry

dán a chumadh = to compose a poem

fíle = 1.) Poet. ~ ceoil, amhrán, songmaker, lyricist. 2.) Satirist, scold. ~ mna, scolding woman.

ollamh = 1.) Lit: (a) Master-poet, ollave. (b) Master, expert, learned man. ~ seanchais, le seanchas, chief historian. ~ cearda, master craftsman. 2.) Professor. ~ ollscoile. university professor. ~ Gaelige, professor of Irish.



Incidentally, Biddy Early was a native Irish speaker who spoke English; however, the vast majority of her patients were, like her, Irish speakers. They referred to her as a "Wise Woman", a common euphemism for a "White Witch". Biddy constantly admitted that she trafficked with the faeries, and as such, the faeries acted as her "familiars" when she was healing people. As you'll see below, the terms "fáidhbhean", "fáidhmhná" and "cailleach feasa" are all interpreted as "Wise Woman".



For general Pagan beliefs of the Irish:

The Fairy-Faith In Celtic Countries, W.Y. Evans Wentz;

The Middle Kingdom: The Faerie World Of Ireland, Dermot Mac Manus;

The Holy Wells Of Ireland, Patrick Logan; (Also by Logan, Irish Country Cures)

Time Travels Of An Irish Psychic, Sheila Lindsay;

For other accounts of Irish Witches:

Biddy Early: The Wise Woman of Clare, Meda Ryan

Witchcraft In Ireland, Patrick F. Byrne

The Táin, translated by Thomas Kinsella (with only incidental accounts of Irish witches though)

For information on some of the magical folk beliefs (especially witchcraft practiced by women) and practices of the Irish, written by people of the period and not Neo-pagan Americans:

The Farm By Lough Gur, Mary Carbery;

Traits And Stories of The Irish Peasantry, Vol 1 & 2, by Willam Carleton;

For information on the continuation of the magical practices of the Druidic Order through the Bards:

Satirists And Enchanters In Early Irish Literature, Fred Norris Robinson;

The Hidden Ireland, Daniel Corkery;

Medieval Irish Lyrics with The Irish Bardic Poet, James Carney;

For an account of warmongering Druids, medieval tax evaders and an Irish version of an ATF raid, (all of which completely contradicts the mindlessly accepted concept that the Druids were pacifists who never, ever participated in warfare), read:

Forbhais Droma Dámhgháire: The Seige Of Knocklong, Seán ó Duinn; (This same story was also butchered and lied about in the Matthews "Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom", a worthless book if ever there was one.)

For books on the continued paganism inherent in the Irish expression of Roman Catholicism, read:

The Year In Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs, Kevin Danaher;

Occasions of Faith: An Anthropology of Irish Catholics, Lawerence J. Taylor;

Mythic Ireland, Michael Dames;

Renewing The Irish Church, Joe McVeigh;

A Wounded Church, Joe McVeigh;

On Lough Derg, Purcell & Blake;

Saint Patrick's Purgatory, J-M. Picard & Pontfarcy;

Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, by Carleton (again);

Wisdom Of The Celtic Saints, Edward C. Sellner; (Ed is an acquaintance of mine and is a college professor in Minnesota);

Celtic Christianity Ecology And Holiness, Ed. Christopher Blamford and William Marsh;

The Celtic Alternative: A Reminder of the Christianity we lost, Shirley Toulson;

Celtic Inheritance, Peter Berresford Ellis;

For the Celtic roots of the medieval, Continental European witch cults:

Ecstasies: Deciphering The Witches Sabbath, Carlo Ginzburg;

The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarain Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Carlo Ginzburg;

Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France, Peter Sahlins;

Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, Jeffrey Burton Russell (this is about European witchcraft in general, (not Celts) and the religious/political semantics at work in the period.)

For Irish shamanistic traditions:

Sweeney Astray, Seamus Heaney;

All Silver And No Brass: An Irish Christmas Mumming, Henrie Glassie;

The earlier books I mentioned about Lough Dearg and the Sidh/Faeries;

A Celtic Quest: Sexuality and Soul in Individuation, John Layard.

Other good books on shamanism are:

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques Of Ecstasy, Mircea Eliade (the ultimate Shamanism reference book);

Shamans, Healers and Medicine Men, Holger Kalweit;

Dreamtime & Inner Space: The World Of The Shaman, Holger Kalweit

The Way Of The Shaman, Michael Harner;

The Death And Resurrection Show: From Shaman To Superstar, Rogan Taylor;


Other books of interest:

A Guide to Irish Mythology, Daragh Smyth;

Myth, Legend & Romance: An Encyclopaedia Of The Irish Folk Tradition, Dr. Dáithí O hOgáin;

Medieval Ireland The Enduring Tradition, Michael Richter;

The Irish Mind: Exploring Intellectual Traditions, Ed. Richard Kearney;

The Irish Countryman, Conrad Arsenberg;

For concise information on the history of what the British government has actually been doing in Ireland for all these years read:

British Brutality In Ireland, Jack O'Brien;

The Unionjacking Of Ireland, Jack O'Brien;

The Cultural Conquest Of Ireland, Kevin Collins. "