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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Book review - Witta

You would think that when a horribly inaccurate book goes out of print that eventually it would just fade into obscurity...yet in the last week I have heard several different groups as well as people talking about Edain McCoy and her book Witta, which may be the single worst book on Irish paganism ever written. Ever. So I have decided to write a blog book review of it - although I will only be able to touch on the highlights of the errors in the book, as to address every single issue would take almost another book's worth of writing to do.
 The cover of the book itself should be the first clue that something is wrong, since dancing the Maypole is not an Irish tradition but rather an English one. Also the name itself, Witta, is not an Irish word and furthermore could not possibly be an Irish word because it defies Irish grammar rules on several fronts. And unlike McCoy's claims in the book this made up word has no connection to the Irish words for witch (cailleach or draiodoir mna) or wise (crionna). So just looking at the cover we see big red flags...
   Now moving on to the actual text, we encounter the first problem on the second page of the introduction where the author comments on the difficulty of reconstructing a faith that as she says "was forced underground and kept alive by small, secretive pockets of believers". This plays into the idea that paganism became the hidden faith that survived to modern times and is just waiting to be found by dedicated seekers - Margaret Murray would have loved this, but the reality is that this idea has been pretty well disproven. Traces of pagan belief and practice have survived as folk belief, and revivals began several hundred years ago with the upsurge in interest in the occult and paganism but there is no unbroken pagan line from the pre-Christian past until now.
  Next, also in the introduction, the author explains her passionate dislike of the Patriarchy - readers of the book may want to make a note of this, because you'll be seeing the word a lot as well as the author's opinion about how it ruined everything. Because apparently Irish Celts had a perfectly wonderful, peaceful, Great Mother Goddess worshipping matriarchy until the Druids and then the Roman Christians came along...but wait! you're saying, How could the Irish Celts have had a religion prior to the Druids, since we know that the Druids were the priestly class of the Celts and would have come to Ireland with Celtic culture? Good question. As McCoy explains it the Celts were the main ethnic group in Ireland up until the 2nd century BCE practicing Witta. Then in the 2nd century BCE the Druids came to power and ruled until the 4th century CE, except she then says that the Christians took over in the 2nd century CE.  Good luck working out how any of that makes sense. The reality is that the neolithic people of Ireland certainly did have a religion, but we have no real record of what it was or how it was practied, only the barest hints that can be gleaned from studying the dolmens and other stone structures left behind. When Celtic culture migrated to Ireland, likely starting in the 5th century BCE, it mingled with and influenced the existing culture; eventually the Celtic culture came to be dominant, but it is impossible to say what the neolithic culture was like or what role the Druids played in the blending of the cultures. Ireland remained effectively pagan until about the 5th century when dominance shifted to the Christian church, so instead of the 400 years of Druids that McCoy claims it was more likely close to a millenia, and possibly longer since we don't know with certainty when the Druids finally ceased existing totally.
  McCoy really doesn't like the Druids and the book discusses at several points how the Druids ruined the Matriarchy and paved the way for Christianity. She also blames the Druids for first starting to drive Witta underground as the Druids sought power by cutting the people off from the gods (more on the gods later) and trying to control all knowledge. Of course she also claims the Druids were a secret society and I still haven't worked out how she thinks they could have been a secret society and a powerful priestly class at the same time - it's kind of like saying Roman Catholic priests are a secret society, or Jewish Rabbis, or for that matter like saying that modern doctors or lawyers are part of a secret society. The reality is that the Druids were a powerful class in Celtic society and they did act as priests, doctors, lawyers, and teachers but anyone could seek training as a Druid (according to Caesar) so it was hardly a secret society. She also mistakenly refers to female Druids as "Dryads" and claims they were named so after the Irish tree spirits. In reality the Old Irish for a male druid is drui and a female is bandrui (modern draoi and bandraoi) while Dryad is strictly a Greek word for a type of tree spirit.  To further her evils-of-patriarchy theory she asserts that male Druids were supported and trained full time but the poor female Druids were forced to support themselves while training and take whatever instruction they could manage to fit in. She also claims that the Druids conjured the spirits of the dead in magical circles, used a form of divination based on their 13 month tree calendar, taught that to kill a snake was bad luck, and used the 4 classical elements, which is all non-sense. There is no evidence of the Druids using modern ceremonial magic style workings to talk to the dead and it's been pretty thoroughly proven that Robert Graves created the 13 month tree calendar and assigned each tree to it. There haven't been snakes in Ireland since before the last ice age, so it's impossible for Irish Druids to have kept them as totem animals or to prohibited killing them in Ireland. And while the Irish likely did have a system of elements it didn't involve the number 4.
   The vast majority of the religion contained in the book is basic Wicca: a black handled ritual knife, a wand - although she suggests replacing it with a staff which she calls a shillelagh - a pentagram. All the 8 Wiccan sabbats, the 4 elements, circle casting, etc., sometimes with a twist to make it a little different, sometimes pretty basically Wiccan, but none of it reflecting any kind of genuine Celtic or Irish beliefs.
   Now when it comes to gods McCoy gets very odd throughout the book. She does, of course, claim that Wittans believed in the maiden-mother-crone goddess (another Graves invention from 1948) but she assigns the maiden spot, apparently, to Danu, mother to Brigid (although she also says Danu and Brigid are names of the same goddess) and crone to Badb, who she later calls both Macha and the Cailleach. The god of Witta is the horned god called Cernunnos, which McCoy claims is a Greek name, although in reality it is Romano-Gaulish. She also mentions Lugh as the archetypal Wiccan son-lover-consort god to her Wittan goddess. Now at least so far she has referenced actual deities, even if she gets creative with who they are to fit them into her system. Where it gets really fun is when she starts making up gods. For example she talks about the ancient Irish goddess Kele-De, a goddess worshipped by women in opposition to the Church. And she also talks about the god Beltene, a god of death who was worshipped at Beltane. I'm sure everyone reading this knows that neither of those deities exists outside of the pages of this book. It's possible that her goddess Kele-De may be a bizarre twist on the Celtic Ceili-De or Culdee tradition, but how she got from one to the other totally baffles me.The name Ceili De means spouse or companion of God and was a Celtic monastic order of  Christians, as I understand it, which doesn't translate well to an alleged pagan goddess. I did find an obscure reference by a Victorian anthropologist to the god Beltene, written in the late 18th century, which is obviously purely speculative and based on the antiquated idea that if Samhain was ruled by the -also fictitious - death god Samhain then the corresponding holiday of Beltane must also be ruled by a similarly named death god. I can't find the original but it is referenced here in the text under Beltane - the original was much more entertaining.
  As if this wasn't enough to make the books quality clear McCoy also suggests under her tools for Witta that a shillelagh be used in place of a wand (as I mentioned earlier) leaving me to assume she has never seen a shillelagh before. She also says that most Irish Wittans were too poor to own chalices or cauldrons but loved candle magic, telling me she has no idea how precious and expensive disposable wax candles were compared to re-usable metal cups and bowls. She claims that the Irish word sidhe comes from the Indian word siddhi which she says mean "spirit that controls the elements", mistranslating sidhe to mean fairy when it actually means fairy hill. She talks about the danger to ancient Wittans of owning a Ouija board in medieval Ireland (Ouija boards were invented in the middle of the 19th century). She says that the holiday of Lughnasa may be associated with the Roman goddess Luna...I could go on, but the point here is that it is hard to turn a single page of this book without tripping over something that is so inaccurate and so frighteningly wrong that it is hard to fight the urge to fling the book across the room. I may have actually flung the book several times, and it isn't even very aerodynamic...
  Seriously. This book could not be worse if someone were intentionally trying to parody Wicca with an Irish twist. If you are drawn to a modern style of Irish paganism or to Irish flavored Wicca read Jane Raeburn's book Celtic Wicca or Lora O'Brien's Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch because both are better researched and written than this and could be used in modern practice. If you see Witta available for sale, buy it to keep it away from anyone who may read it and believe any of it and need deprogramming later. The Great Wittan Irish Potato Goddess will thank you for it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


 This is an essay I wrote that first appeared on witchvox last year at

Imbolc: Traditional Celebrations for a Modern Time
   This holiday is called many names including Imbolc, Oímealg, Lá Fhéile Bríde, Laa'l Breeshey, and Gwyl Mair Dechrau'r Gwanwyn and was originally celebrated when the ewes first began to lactate. Some older sources mention Imbolc being celebrated on February 13th, although now the date is fixed on February 2nd. This holiday is a celebration of the loosening of winters hold on the land and the first signs of spring's immanent arrival. Three main types of ceremonies could be undertaken - purification with water, blessing with fire, and consecration of talismans or charms. In addition the main ritual theme centered on inviting the goddess Brighid into the home, either in effigy or in the form of a person acting the part.
     The fire represents the growing light of the sun. Candles would be lit to celebrate the increased daylight, and often candles were blessed for use in the year to come; this connection to candles offers another alternate name for the holiday, Candlemas. In my personal practice I light special "sun" candles, and bless my candle holders for the year to come.
     Ritual washing was done to cleanse and prepare the people for the agricultural work of the coming seasons. Water was blessed and then used to ceremonially wash the head, hands, and feet. Each year when I do this I dip my fingers in the blessed water and run them over the body parts in question, asking that I be cleansed of winter's cold and filled with summer's warmth to work towards a new season. Then I pour the remaining water out onto the earth thanking Brighid for her blessing.
     The main charms and talismans of Imbolc are related to Brighid. First there is the Brighid's cross, a woven sun wheel shape which represented the cycle of the year and the four main holy days, according to the book Apple Branch. On Imbolc you can weave new Brighid's crosses, or bless ones you already have, although it may be better to burn the old and weave new each  year when possible. A Brighid's cross is protective and healing to have in the home.
    A second talisman is the brídeóg, or "little Brighid" a small cloth or straw doll wearing white clothes which is an effigy of the goddess. In some cases the brídeóg would be made from straw saved from the previous Lughnasadh. This doll played a role in ritual after being brought outside, usually carried by the eldest daughter, then invited to enter the home where it was led with all ceremony to a specially prepared little bed. The doll was left in the bed over night and its presence was believed to bless all those in the household.
    Another talisman connected to Imbolc in Ireland is Brigid's mantle, or an brat Bríd, a length of cloth left out on the window sill over the course of the holy day and night. It is believed that this cloth absorbs the energy of the goddess during the ritual, and can be used for healing and protection throughout the year. This talisman would be kept and recharged every year, attaining full power after seven years.
      The ritual for Brighid on Imbolc centers on inviting the goddess in and offering her hospitality. In some cases a woman was chosen to play the part of the goddess, in other cases the brídeóg was used. The door would be opened to her and she would loudly be invited in, shown to her "bed" and offered specially baked bread. Candles would be lit at the windows and next to her "bed", songs would be sung and prayers said calling on Brighid to bless all present in the coming seasons, and grant health and protection to the household. In Scotland a small broom or white wand would be placed next to the “bed”, and the ashes from the fire would be smoothed down in the hopes that the morning would reveal the marks of the wand, or better yet, the footprints of the goddess herself, either of which would be a sign of blessing. Placing the doll in her bed at night would be followed by a large family meal. In Scotland a hundred years ago when entire communities still celebrated Imbolc in the old way a sheaf of corn would be dressed as Brighid and taken from house to house by the young girls. The girls would carry the doll from home to home where the “goddess” would be greeted and offered food and gifts. After visiting each home the girls would return to the house they started from where a party would be held with music, dancing, and feasting until dawn; all the leftover food would be handed out to the poor the next day.
      Other rituals involve blessing the forge fires for blacksmiths and Otherworld divinations. In some Scottish mythologies it is believed that Brighid is held by the Cailleach Bhur during the winter months but escapes, or is rescued by her brother Aonghus mac óg, on Imbolc. In others it is said the Cailleach drinks from a hidden spring and transforms into Brighid on this day.
     For modern people seeking to celebrate Imbolc in a traditional way there are many options. Rituals can be adapted to feature the brídeóg. If you celebrate in a group you could have one person wait outside with the doll while the other members prepare her bed, and then the group leader could go to the doorway and invite the goddess in. This could even be modified for use in an urban setting with the brídeóg “waiting” out in a hallway or separate room to be invited in. Once invited in the goddess can be offered food and gifts as was done in Scotland and stories about Brighid from mythology could be told. Water can be used for purification, blessing with fire or of candles can be done, as well as making and consecrating the charms associated with Brighid. After ritual the doll could be left in the bed while the group celebrates with a party; to keep the spirit of the way this was done for a modern time all members should bring food to donate to a local food pantry. A solitary celebration could still include inviting the goddess in, placing the brídeóg in her bed, making offerings to her, and a private celebration and food donations.
     Imbolc is a powerful holy day with many beautiful traditions. By understanding how this day was celebrated in the past we can find ways to incorporate those methods into modern practice and preserve the traditions that have surrounded Brighid’s day for so many generations.
Sources and further reading:
Carmichael, A. (1900). Carmina Gadelica. Floris books. ISBN-10 0-86315-520-0
Evert Hopman, E.(1995). A Druid’s Herbal of the Sacred Earth Year. Destiny Books ISBN 0-89281-501-9
Kondrariev. K. (1998). The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. Citadel Press ISBN 0-8065-2502-9
McNeill, F. (1959). The Silver Bough, volume 2. McLellan & Co.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Raven Radio

 I have been invited on Raven Radio tomorrow as a guest for part of a discussion about the similarities between Celtic and Norse recon. and practice. I'm very excited, as this is a topic that is - obviously - of great interest to me anyways. Last week the show looked at the academic and historic view on the two cultures, how they are similar and how they differ and tomorrow's show will discuss the modern beliefs and practices and how they compare.
  Anyone who is curious can listen to last week's show through the Raven Radio website and hear their take on the historic side of things. There are also some really interesting books out there, including Wells' Beyond Celts Germans and Scythians which looks at the archeological evidence of the different cultures and discusses the often arbitrary assignment of a cultural label to such finds and Gundarsson's Elves Wights and Trolls which includes some great material comparing the way that the Celts and Norse viewed land spirits and faeries.
   As for my part tomorrow, I'll be talking about general CR beliefs and practices and how they compare to the Norse ones, touching on topics like offerings, the afterlife, and holidays. I'm really looking forward to it - I think it will be both fun and enlightening.
  Anyone interested in listening to tomorrow's show check out Raven Radio's site for the time it will be on in your area, and if you miss it but would still like to listen it will be available in their archive afterwards.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bucket List

  So I find that I very much have mortality on my mind, and more to the point the idea of making good use of my time. It is so easy to just let the days slip by, one after another, telling myself "I'll do it later..".  but if there is one thing that is certain about life it's that life is uncertain. So I have been re-evaluating many things, trying to get my space in order, simplify my life, and in the same vein decided to make a bucket list. I'm not generally a big fan of bucket lists - actually I've always thought they were sort of silly - but upon reflection I decided that having a set list of things I'd like to do in my life would be useful and help me stay on track.
   The biggest challenge I faced right at the off was that I am a fairly direct person when it comes to goals; if I want to achieve something or do something and I set my mind to it I generally get it done. It's not that I don't have any more goals or plans, it's just that when I think about the big things I wanted to do with my life I'm already pretty satisfied. What I mostly end up being left with is places I want to travel to and those items on my list will certainly present significant challenges. So....

  Morgan's Bucket List
 Travel to Ireland (the Republic) and go to Cork, Dublin, Galway
 Visit Newgrange, hill of Tara, Oweynagat, Kildara
 Travel to Ireland (north) go to Ulster and see Emain Macha
 See Pacific ocean
 Publish book of poetry
 Learn to speak Welsh
 Get back to fluency with German
 Become Fluent in Irish
 Visit Germany
 Travel to England and see Stonehenge, Avebury, Stanton Drew, etc.,
  Travel to Iceland
 Hike on Mount Katadin, ME
 Go to Pantheacon
 Learn a martial art *or* start fencing again

 That's all I've got so far. Some of them - like publishing the book of poetry, which is 90% written already - shouldn't be too hard, but others like the travelling plans will be very difficult indeed. I suppose it will be interesting to see how much of this I manage to do and what gets added to or removed from the list over time...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

the Tarot and Odin

This blog post is based on a note I wrote on Facebook, inspired by a dream a friend really ; )  It's mostly just for fun because everyone could use a little fun once in awhile.

If Odin and the major arcana of the tarot were co-ordinated, based on Odin's many bynames.

 The Fool - Vegtam, 'wanderer'
 The Magician - Runatyr, 'god of runes'
 The high Priestess - Oski, 'wish-giver'
 The Empress - Forgynn, 'earth'
 The Emporer - Havi, 'high one'
 The Heirophant - Hlosvid, 'very wise'
 The Lovers - Udr, 'beloved'
 The Chariot - Harbard, 'greybeard'
 Justice - Fengr, 'catcher'
 The Hermit - Sangetall, 'finder of truth'
 The Wheel - Grimnir, 'hooded one'
 Strength - Throttr, 'strength'
 The Hanged Man - Hangatyr, 'god of the hanged'
 Death - Valfodr, 'father of the slain'
 Temperance - Hagvirkr, 'skillful worker'
 The Devil - Bulverk, 'evil doer'
 The Tower - Hnikud, 'overthrower'
 The Star - Jormunr, 'Cosmic one'
 The Moon - Svipall, 'changing or shape-shifter'
 The Sun - Sigthror, 'successful in victory'
Judgment - Gangrad, 'adviser'
 The World - Alfathr, 'all father'

Thursday, January 5, 2012

the Ethics of Information

  Sometimes the universe can be funny in how one subject will suddenly seem to come up everywhere. Within the past week several incidents have occurred that have had me reflecting on the nature of owning information; what should belong to everyone, for free, to be shared freely, and what should cost? How important are clear sources in a world of muddy uncertainty?
   Twice in the past week I have seen people post online direct quotes they did not write. One was a prayer and the other an excerpt from a book, but in both cases no source was given, nor was it even mentioned in the original post that the person posting the information wasn't the author of it. In the first case when asked if it was okay to share the prayer the person said they had not written it and could not remember the source so, in a move that totally baffled me, the second person replied that they would simply credit the original poster as the source, even though that person admitted they had not written it. A quick Google search turned up the name of the author but even when that was known people continued to credit the poster, I assume because they ignored the discussion under the post. In the second case the person posted a paragraph long excerpt from a book under similar circumstances, but in that case I actually was familiar enough with the book that I immediately recognized it and mentioned the source. The response by the poster was that they liked the subject and just wanted to share. Along those same lines a friend had her entire blog re-posted without attribution by someone who seemed equally baffled as to why that mattered. Sometimes the person may genuinely not realize that it does, and sometimes the person may want other people to think that they did write those words, so they can enjoy the praise and compliments generated from it. And this morning I woke to read a link to a blog talking about yet another site making the rounds that offers free pdfs of many popular pagan books, something that should clearly be against the majority of neopagan morals yet rarely fails to appeal. (yes I admit it mystifies me that the same person who argues to the death that any magic for personal gain is wrong will turn around and cheerfully download over 100 still-in-print pagan books without seeing any issue with it).
   Maybe this is a sensitive issue for me because I have experienced it in the past, opening an email to see my own words - my reading list, my spell - under someone else's name and fought back only to get the same reply - who cares? As if I was the one who was wrong, because they say, information should be free for everyone. I have been told that anything spiritual should be free, should be shared, that sources don't matter, or in one case that knowing the true source was the responsibility of the reader not the poster, like some sort of test. Well I will never agree that it doesn't matter or that we shouldn't care. Plagiarism is a big issue in paganism, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose, but it will never get any better as long as we as a community put up with it. Now I don't mean things like chants and songs which can be more difficult to track back and spread like ink in water, although it's still worth trying to find sources on those as well, but most other material can be found, and in our online age can be found fairly easily. I would like to hope that it was obvious that any book under copyright - anything under copyright at all actually - should be respected.
   On the other hand there are some things that I do agree belong to everyone. Ritual structure, general meditations, things that truly cannot be traced back to any one person. Mythology. The old beliefs themselves. No one person can claim these things and they do belong to all of us.
   I think it presents an interesting challenge to the community at large to decide how we are going to deal with the ethics of information. There seems to be a pretty wide spread belief that sources, and citing sources, doesn't matter, and that can only change if we as a community change it. The idea that everything should be free - including books - will only change when the people thinking that way stop and realize how much work and effort goes into that book, or article, or what-have-you and decide that supporting the author (or in the case of deceased authors the family) is better than the quick fix of a free file. What value do we place on something that is free, compared to something that we had to work and save to get? What value do we place on our community itself and it's integrity if nothing matters but instant gratification?

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Moon Prayer 2

The new moon was actually last week, but this seems like a good way to start the new (secular) year out. This is my own personal practice whenever I see the new moon for the first time each month, something I have doen for a long time, although the prayer changes; sometimes it is spontaneous poetry, or even silence, while others I might recite some traditional prayer as in this example.
 At my first glimpse of the new moon in the sky the other night I kissed my fist, saluted the moon with it, and recited this prayer:
 "If you have found us
   Well tonight, O Moon,
   May your light leave us
   Seven times still more blessed
   O Moon so fair,
   May it be so,
   As seasons come, 
  And seasons go."*

* based on  a prayer from page 123 of volume 1 of the Carmina Gadelica. The original is:
 "If to-night, O moon, thou hast found us
      In peaceful, happy rest
     May thy laving lustre leave us
      Seven times still more blest.

         O moon so fair,
         May it be so,
         As seasons come,
         And seasons go."
and can be found at