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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

shapeshifting witches

One of the things that witches in Ireland and Scotland were known for was shapeshifting, particularly into the form of hares, although some other shapes were noted in folklore as well including weasels. From a modern perspective there is a tendency to interpret these stories literally, and indeed some of them clearly indicate a literal transformation, such as we see in the 'Witch and Hare'. However many are more vague and could be interpreted as a practice of mental projection into an animal, rather than the human witch physically transforming into the shape of one*. It may also be that these stories represent a projection of the witch's spirit which would appear as an animal, rather than a literal animal. For modern witches who study traditional practices or who are interested in some of the skills attributed to historic witches this shapeshifting is certainly worth consideration. 

Looking at folklore sources and witchcraft trials we might surmise this was a type of mental or trance practice, where the person learned how to project their spirit out into either an existing form or into the image of an animal (literal or figurative). Claude Lecouteux in his book 'Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages' discusses at length such a practice, wherein the witch appeared to be sleeping but the witch's spirit was wandering abroad, sometimes in human form sometimes not. During these nocturnal expeditions the witch might gather information, meet with other witches or spirits, work magic, or simply wander freely. 

From a modern perspective there is no reason to think witches can't still engage in this type of trance practice, although it may be easier and easier on a person's ethics to learn how to project one's spirit out in animal form rather than learn how to take over another being's physical form. This would not be a basic or beginner skill but something to look at doing once you are fairly comfortable with the basics of sending your spirit out from your body safely (and returning safely), spiritual journeying in general, and how to handle any emergencies that might come up while in a human form. This is important because trying any of that in a new shape is going to be harder and inherently have more risk to it, and you need to be confident that if anything goes wrong you know what to do to fix it. 

Looking at one of the only existing chants we have today from a historic witch, Isobel Gowdie, who claimed to deal with both the Devil and the Queen of Elfame, we see the ambiguous nature of the practice. This template also gives us a good idea of what we might want to base a structure for such a chant on as well. Some people may not see the value in this sort of thing but for a practice like this having a set ritual approach to it can add a layer of safety by providing the mind a key, if you will, to going into and out of the shape.

Isobel claimed during her trial that to go into the form of a hare she would chant:
"I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych [such] and meickle [much] care;
And I shall go in the Devil's name,
Ay while I come home again
And to return again to her own form she would say:
"Hare, hare, God send thee care.
I am in a hare's likeness now,
But I shall be in a woman's likeness even now

This was still a dangerous practice that risked injury to the person, and the many folktales of witches who were harmed in animal form and then had the same injuries in their human forms show this. While we can, of course, interpret this as another indication of literal transformation we could also view this as a way in which the mind influences the body; the mind or spirit being injured in one form convinces the physical body it was also injured. From a metaphysical perspective this holds with the principle that what happens to us Elsewhere affects us here, while from a psychological perspective it reflects the power of the mind to influence the physical body. Many of us may be familiar with the more positive aspects of this which we see in things like placebos healing people because the people believe they will, but as with everything there is another side of that as well; what we believe hurts us can indeed hurt us. 

Shapeshifting is a skill that witches have claimed and has been claimed of them for a long time. It is also something that modern witches can through different means still practice today. This blog has only looked at one potential method for witches to shapeshift, as a suggestion for those who are looking for either more advanced topics to study or new skill sets to branch into. As with so many things done by the traditional witches of the past though, this was not a safe thing and it came with no guarantees. Keep that in mind if you do decide to study this further.  

*for those of you who read Terry Pratchett you'll be familiar with this concept as he writes about his witches doing it. It's what Granny Weatherwax does that they call 'borrowing'. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Athirne ocus Amairgen mac Ecet Salach

This story is listed in the Ulster cycle, although it does not directly tie into any of the other stories there. I wanted to translate it here because I find it an intriguing piece and really enjoy the amount of description it includes. I have kept to more literal translations here to give the reader a feel for what older Irish language idioms are like and more generally what the flow of the older texts reads like. 

Athirne ocus Amairgen mac Ecet Salach

Baí goba amra i nUltaib .i. Eccet Salach goba a ainm. Ainm n-aill do Echen. suí cech admait. conna rabi riam liarum goba bad ferr. Rucad iarum mac dó. Amairgen a ainm. Ro buí iarum in macsin i mmacrai cethéora mbliadna déc. cen labrad. Ro ás a. brú iarum combo méit adbul teig móir. & ba feithech glasremor in brúsin. & a smucli asa sróin inna beolu. Ba dub a chroccend. Batir gela a fiacla. Ba glasbán a aged. Amal da urbuinne builg goband a lurgne & a sliastai. Batir laebladracha a thraigid. Batir adbolmóra a adbronna. Batir ardda imchiana a da ngruad. Batir domna dubderga a dí súil. Ba lebormailgech anúas. Ba garb drestaide a folt. ba mellach cnámach carrgarb a druim. Nibó cáemduine samlaid. Dia follaigthe cu ciana inna suidiu cen foglanad doacmaised a múrtraide dó cotice a di leiss. Batír é a sercla gruth bruithe. mór luatha. mera derga. caera glassa. diasa loscthi. gais chrema. cnoi caecha a mbith for clár oca oca airfitiud. 
Dofoíd iarum Athirne a gilla .i. Greth a ainm co Ecet Salach do chor béla i tenid. Co n-acca Greth in n-arracht ndóer ndochraid ísin ara chind for lar in tige. Danéci co anmín. atrágestar Greth. Buí ingen Ecit i cathair cumtachtai & tlacht derscaigthe impe issin tig. & sí a hoínur oc comét in tige. & in mac na fail. Co cualatae ní in mac fri gilla nAthirni. In n-ith Greth gruth ol se fo thrí. Niro recart Greth. & atrágestar co mmór. Asbert im frisseom arisi. Grínmuine gránmuine gais chrema. cuae uinn. ubla greti. gruth. in n-ith Greth gruth.
 Atnaig Greth dó assin tig. conid corastar dar droichtiu ind liss. isin cechair. Luidi iar sin co rranic Athirne. Atchonnarcais ócu ol Athirne olc féth fil fort. Deithbir dam ol Greth . Mac cetheora mbliadan naro labrastar riam dom acallaim indiu. & fotfuicfeso in macsin cen grád mani dibdaither. Cid asrubairt frit ol Athirne. Ni handsa ol Greth. In n-ith Greth. &c. Imchomairc
 Athirne cindas both isind liss. Adfét dó in gilla uile amal luide Greth assind liss.
 Tanic Ecet fo chetoir. Asbert a ingen fris. Ro labrastar Amargen indiu ol si fri gilla nAthirni dodechaid sund do denam bela lais. Cid asbert friss. In n-ith Greth gruth. &c. Bid ed bias de ol Ecet. Ticfa Athirne do marbad in meic arna ragba fair. ar biaid mór sóis ocun mac ro rádi in sein.
Dotet ind ingen iarum cosin mac lé assind liss dond airgi buí oc Sliab Mis tess. Dogní Ecet deilb in meicc di chriaid & suidigis fo láim chlí dó etir & a builg. & dobert dagthimthach imbi. & suidigis inna liugu amal bid ina chotlud no beth.
Tic Athirne iar sin & a gilla Greth. Co n-accatar in mac inna thálgud. Dognith a mbieil leo. & batar ro maith & adacht for samthaig. Dambert Athirne imma chend na delba ucut amal bed in mac beth and. & atnaig do for teiched & eigther impu.
Lotar in tsluaig ina ndiaid. Tecmalla Aithirne a folad & a inmass issin less. & gabtha fair a les. Tecait Ulaid gleithir eturru. Doberar .uii. cumala & log a einig dó & dognither cora eturru. & gaibid Athirne in mac for altram .i. Amorgen & legais suithe filidechta laiss. Conid iarum ro laig senordacht for Athirne & ro gab Amorgen ardollomnacht Ulad.

Athirne and Amairgen son of Ecet Salach

There was a famous smith in Ulster that is Ecet Salach [Ecet the filthy] was the smith's name. His other name was Echen. Every skill was his so that before or after there was no better smith. He had a son, Amairgen was his name. The boy went fourteen years of his childhood without speaking.
His belly grew almost as vast  as a huge house and it was sinewy, thick-grey and flaking. The mucus from his nose went to his mouth. His pelt was black. His teeth were white. His face was pallid. Like the two bellow-bags of a smith were his shins and his thighs. His feet had crooked toes. His ankles were huge. Both high and very long were his two cheeks. Deep, dark red were his two eyes and drooping down. Coarse and thorny was his hair. Humped, bony and scabby was his back. Thus he wasn't an attractive person. Because of long neglect while he was sitting without clearing away his excrement [it] would reach to his thighs.
 His delicacies were cooked curds, salt, red berries, green berries, burned ears of corn, sprigs of wild garlic, empty nuts for his meal which he entertained himself with at his table . 
Then Athirne sent his servant, that is Greth was his name, to Ecet Salach to forge a battle-axe in the fire. Then Greth saw the ignoble ugly specter there before him on the floor of the house. He looked with harsh dread at Greth. Ecet's daughter was in the well-made building  and a distinguished garment about her in the house. And she alone was guarding the house and the boy in his place. The boy was heard saying something to Athirne's servant.
"Does Greth eat curds" he said three times. Greth didn't answer and greatly feared. He spoke to him again. "Blackberries, sloes, sprigs of wild garlic, pine nuts, apples, curds. Does Greth eat curds."
 Greth ran from the house, with a cry across the bridge of the fort into the mud. Then he returned back to Athirne.
"He sees warriors," said Athirne "an evil appearance is on you."
"It's expected for me," said Greth. "A boy who hasn't spoken before for fourteen years spoke to me today. And unless he's removed the lad will extinguish your many grades." 
"What did he say to you" said Athirne.
"Not hard." said Greth. [does Greth eat curds etc.,]
 Athirne asked how many were in the hut with him. Greth told that the other servant went out with him.
 Ecet went back to the building. His daughter spoke to him. "Amairgen spoke today," she said. "to the servant of Athirne sent here to ask you to make an axe."
 "What did he say to him."
 [Does Greth eat curds, etc.,]
"I know what will come of this." said Ecet. "Athirne will come to kill the boy so he will not prevail over him. Because there is great wisdom with the boy who reflects on that."
The girl went and took the boy with her out of the fort with their herd of cows to Sliab Mis in the south. Ecet made the form of the boy from clay and set it by his left arm between him and his bellows. He placed good clothing about it. And set it sleeping as if it were a living thing asleep.
Athirne went there then with his servant Greth. They saw the boy looking soothed.  Their axe was ready for them and it was good and they took the axe. Athirne brought it down on the head of the figure there, as if doing violence to the boy's life there. And they fled the house with a cry about them.
The host went after them. Aithirne assembled his wealth and his treasure there with him and secured his fort. The Ulstermen went [and] settled around him. [Ecet] was given seven cumals* and acquired his honor price and an agreement was made between them. And Athirne took the boy in fosterage, that is Amairgen, and he studied poetry with him. Thereafter Athirne's precious seniority was lost and  Amairgen was the highest poet of Ulster.

* a cumal was a measure of value usually equated to one female slave but also meaning three milk cows

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Looking forward at 2017

"Ata la i ndegaid aloile" [A day follows another]
- Etain, Tochmarc Etaine
2016 was in many ways a pivotal year for me, and I think at least some of that was reflected in the content of my blog. I can honestly say that nothing went exactly as I expected it to, and some things happened that I very much didn't expect, but overall I am glad for the place I am in now both with my writing and my spirituality.

 I put my blog on hiatus for the last month in order to finish a manuscript I was working on for a new book. The last blog I posted in 2016 was an excerpt from it and I decided as we moved into 2017 that I needed to focus all my attention on finishing it. I had three books contracted with my publisher, two new Pagan Portals which are by nature shorter texts (25K words each) and the full length Fairies book which I was anticipating would run between 80K and 90K. At the end of last year I was halfway done with the longer book and one of the shorter ones, and I was confident that I could get the longer one finished in a month if I focused exclusively on it.

I'm pleased to say that the Fairies book is done and currently going through copy editing with my publisher. I put everything I knew into it and I learned a lot researching it as well; I think it may be the best thing I've ever written. I still have the two Pagan Portals to write however so I'm not quite ready to hang up my keyboard just yet. I'm hoping that one of those, which I was already about halfway done with, will be completed this month. Additionally I have plans for a sixth novel in my series, although I'm not sure exactly when I'll get to that project.

Now that the longer book is done I should be returning to my regular blogging. I've been working on several translation pieces that should be ready soon so expect to see those coming up this month. I'd like to get back to doing a couple translations or more a month, ideally, and am planning to work through all the Echtrai. I've also had a lot going on in my own spiritual life that I want to share and I'd like to write about topics of interest to people who read this blog. The Fairies book took a lot out of me, more than I expected and more than any other book has before, so right now I'm just looking at what to do to re-set and begin again.

I'm also in the process of making some crucial decisions about exactly where to focus my energy and what venues to use to get my writing out to people. I have this blog of course, and have had it now since July of 2011, but I may look at restructuring or adjusting what I offer here somewhat. I have the books I write, both fiction and non-fiction. I write for Air n-Aithesc twice a year as well as occasionally having articles in other publications - for example I have something in an upcoming issue of Watkins Mind Body Spirit. I'll be speaking at Pantheacon in a few weeks and I'll be back at the Morrigan's Call Retreat again this year in June. Next year I have two sacred sites tours, one in Ireland and one in Iceland. So that's quite a lot going on really. I want to make sure I'm giving my full effort to everything I do.