Celtic Magic


Celtic MagicBy J. A. MacCulloch

The Celts, like all other races, were devoted to magical practices, many of which could be used by any one, though, on the whole, they were in the hands of the Druids, who in many aspects were little higher than the shamans of barbaric tribes. But similar magical rites were also attributed to the gods, and it is probably for this reason that the Tuatha De Danann and many of the divinities who appear in the Mabinogion are described as magicians. Kings are also spoken of as wizards, perhaps a reminiscence of the powers of the priest king. But since many of the primitive cults had been in the hands of women, and as these cults implied a large use of magic, they may have been the earliest wielders of magic, though, with increasing civilisation, men took their place as magicians. Still side by side with the magic-wielding Druids, there were classes of women who also dealt in magic, as we have seen. Their powers were feared, even by S. Patrick, who classes the “spells of women” along with those of Druids, and, in a mythic tale, by the father of Connla, who, when the youth was fascinated by a goddess, feared that he would be taken by the “spells of women” (brichta ban).[1093] In other tales women perform all such magical actions as are elsewhere ascribed to Druids.[1094] And after the Druids had passed away precisely similar actions—power over the weather, the use of incantations and amulets, shape-shifting and invisibility, etc.—were, and still are in remote Celtic regions, ascribed to witches.  Much of the Druidic art, however, was also supposed to be possessed by saints and clerics, both in the past and in recent times. But women remained as magicians when the Druids had disappeared, partly because of female conservatism, partly because, even in pagan times, they had worked more or less secretly. At last the Church proscribed them and persecuted them.

Each clan, tribe, or kingdom had its Druids, who, in time of war, assisted their hosts by magic art. This is reflected back upon the groups of the mythological cycle, each of which has its Druids who play no small part in the battles fought. Though Pliny recognizes the priestly functions of the Druids, he associates them largely with magic, and applies the name magus to them.[1095] In Irish ecclesiastical literature, drui is used as the translation of magus, e.g. in the case of the Egyptian magicians, while magi is used in Latin lives of saints as the equivalent of the vernacular druides.[1096] In the sagas and in popular tales Druidecht, “Druidism,” stands for “magic,” and slat an draoichta, “rod of Druidism,” is a magic wand.[1097] The Tuatha De Danann were said to have learned “Druidism” from the four great master Druids of the region whence they had come to Ireland, and even now, in popular tales, they are often called “Druids” or “Danann Druids.”[1098] Thus in Ireland at least there is clear evidence of the great magical power claimed by Druids.

That power was exercised to a great extent over the elements, some of which Druids claimed to have created. Thus the Druid Cathbad covered the plain over which Deirdre was escaping with “a great-waved sea.”[1099] Druids also produced blinding snow-storms, or changed day into night—feats ascribed to them even in the Lives of Saints.[1100] Or they discharge “shower-clouds of fire” on the opposing hosts, as in the case of the Druid Mag Ruith, who made a magic fire, and flying upwards towards it, turned it upon the enemy, whose Druid in vain tried to divert it.[1101] When the Druids of Cormac dried up all the waters in the land, another Druid shot an arrow, and where it fell there issued a torrent of water.[1102] The Druid Mathgen boasted of being able to throw mountains on the enemy, and frequently Druids made trees or stones appear as armed men, dismaying the opposing host in this way. They could also fill the air with the clash of battle, or with the dread cries of eldritch things.[1103] Similar powers are ascribed to other persons. The daughters of Calatin raised themselves aloft on an enchanted wind, and discovered Cuchulainn when he was hidden away by Cathbad. Later they produced a magic mist to discomfit the hero.[1104] Such mists occur frequently in the sagas, and in one of them the Tuatha De Danann arrived in Ireland. The priestesses of Sena could rouse sea and wind by their enchantments, and, later, Celtic witches have claimed the same power.

In folk-survivals the practice of rain-making is connected with sacred springs, and even now in rural France processions to shrines, usually connected with a holy well, are common in time of drought. Thus people and priest go to the fountain of Baranton in procession, singing hymns, and there pray for rain. The priest then dips his foot in the water, or throws some of it on the rocks.[1105] In other cases the image of a saint is carried to a well and asperged, as divine images formerly were, or the waters are beaten or thrown into the air.[1106] Another custom was that a virgin should clean out a sacred well, and formerly she had to be nude.[1107] Nudity also forms part of an old ritual used in Gaul.  In time of drought the girls of the village followed the youngest virgin in a state of nudity to seek the herb belinuntia. This she uprooted, and was then led to a river and there asperged by the others. In this case the asperging imitated the falling rain, and was meant to produce it automatically. While some of these rites suggest the use of magic by the folk themselves, in others the presence of the Christian priest points to the fact that, formerly, a Druid was necessary as the rain producer. In some cases the priest has inherited through long ages the rain-making or tempest-quelling powers of the pagan priesthood, and is often besought to exercise them.[1108]

Causing invisibility by means of a spell called feth fiada, which made a person unseen or hid him in a magic mist, was also used by the Druids as well as by Christian saints. S. Patrick’s hymn, called Faed Fiada, was sung by him when his enemies lay in wait, and caused a glamour in them. The incantation itself, fith-fath, is still remembered in Highland glens.[1109] In the case of S. Patrick he and his followers appeared as deer, and this power of shape-shifting was wielded both by Druids and women. The Druid Fer Fidail carried off a maiden by taking the form of a woman, and another Druid deceived Cuchulainn by taking the form of the fair Niamh.[1110] Other Druids are said to have been able to take any shape that pleased them.[1111] These powers were reflected back upon the gods and mythical personages like Taliesin or Amairgen, who appear in many forms. The priestesses of Sena could assume the form of animals, and an Irish Circe in the Rennes Dindsenchas called Dalb the Rough changed three men and their wives into swine by her spells.[1112] This power of transforming others is often described in the sagas. The children of Lir were changed to swans by their cruel stepmother; Saar, the mother of Oisin, became a fawn through the power of the Druid Fear Doirche when she rejected his love; and similarly Tuirrenn, mother of Oisin’s hounds, was transformed into a stag-hound by the fairy mistress of her husband Iollann.[1113] In other instances in the sagas, women appear as birds.[1114] These transformation tales may be connected with totemism, for when this institution is decaying the current belief in shape-shifting is often made use of to explain descent from animals or the tabu against eating certain animals. In some of these Irish shape-shifting tales we find this tabu referred to. Thus, when the children of Lir were turned into swans, it was proclaimed that no one should kill a swan. The reason of an existing tabu seemed to be sufficiently explained when it was told that certain human beings had become swans. It is not impossible that the Druids made use of hypnotic suggestion to persuade others that they had assumed another form, as Red Indian shamans have been known to do, or even hallucinated others into the belief that their own form had been changed.

By a “drink of oblivion” Druids and other persons could make one forget even the most dearly beloved. Thus Cuchulainn was made to forget Fand, and his wife Emer to forget her jealousy.[1115] This is a reminiscence of potent drinks brewed from herbs which caused hallucinations, e.g.  that of the change of shape. In other cases they were of a narcotic nature and caused a deep sleep, an instance being the draught given by Grainne to Fionn and his men.[1116] Again, the “Druidic sleep” is suggestive of hypnotism, practised in distant ages and also by present-day savages. When Bodb suspected his daughter of lying he cast her into a “Druidic sleep,” in which she revealed her wickedness.[1117] In other cases spells are cast upon persons so that they are hallucinated, or are rendered motionless, or, “by the sleight of hand of soothsayers,” maidens lose their chastity without knowing it.[1118] These point to knowledge of hypnotic methods of suggestion. Or, again, a spectral army is opposed to an enemy’s force to whom it is an hallucinatory appearance—perhaps an exaggeration of natural hypnotic powers.[1119]

Druids also made a “hedge,” the airbe druad, round an army, perhaps circumambulating it and saying spells so that the attacking force might not break through. If any one could leap this “hedge,” the spell was broken, but he lost his life. This was done at the battle of Cul Dremne, at which S. Columba was present and aided the heroic leaper with his prayers.[1120]

A primitive piece of sympathetic magic used still by savages is recorded in the Rennes Dindsenchas. In this story one man says spells over his spear and hurls it into his opponent’s shadow, so that he falls dead.[1121] Equally primitive is the Druidic “sending” a wisp of straw over which the Druid sang spells and flung it into his victim’s face, so that he became mad. A similar method is used by the Eskimo angekok.  All madness was generally ascribed to such a “sending.”

Several of these instances have shown the use of spells, and the Druid was believed to possess powerful incantations to discomfit an enemy or to produce other magical results. A special posture was adopted—standing on one leg, with one arm outstretched and one eye closed, perhaps to concentrate the force of the spell,[1122] but the power lay mainly in the spoken words, as we have seen in discussing Celtic formulae of prayer. Such spells were also used by the Filid, or poets, since most primitive poetry has a magical aspect. Part of the training of the bard consisted in learning traditional incantations, which, used with due ritual, produced the magic result.[1123] Some of these incantations have already come before our notice, and probably some of the verses which Caesar says the Druids would not commit to writing were of the nature of spells.[1124] The virtue of the spell lay in the spoken formula, usually introducing the name of a god or spirit, later a saint, in order to procure his intervention, through the power inherent in the name. Other charms recount an effect already produced, and this, through mimetic magic, is supposed to cause its repetition.  The earliest written documents bearing upon the paganism of the insular Celts contain an appeal to “the science of Goibniu” to preserve butter, and another, for magical healing, runs, “I admire the healing which Diancecht left in his family, in order to bring health to those he succoured.” These are found in an eighth or ninth century MS., and, with their appeal to pagan gods, were evidently used in Christian times.[1125] Most Druidic magic was accompanied by a spell— transformation, invisibility, power over the elements, and the discovery of hidden persons or things. In other cases spells were used in medicine or for healing wounds. Thus the Tuatha De Danann told the Fomorians that they need not oppose them, because their Druids would restore the slain to life, and when Cuchulainn was wounded we hear less of medicines than of incantations used to stanch his blood.[1126] In other cases the Druid could remove barrenness by spells.

The survival of the belief in spells among modern Celtic peoples is a convincing proof of their use in pagan times, and throws light upon their nature. In Brittany they are handed down in certain families, and are carefully guarded from the knowledge of others. The names of saints instead of the old gods are found in them, but in some cases diseases are addressed as personal beings. In the Highlands similar charms are found, and are often handed down from male to female, and from female to male. They are also in common use in Ireland. Besides healing diseases, such charms are supposed to cause fertility or bring good luck, or even to transfer the property of others to the reciter, or, in the case of darker magic, to cause death or disease.[1127] In Ireland, sorcerers could “rime either a man or beast to death,” and this recalls the power of satire in the mouth of File or Druid. It raised blotches on the face of the victim, or even caused his death.[1128] Among primitive races powerful internal emotion affects the body in curious ways, and in this traditional power of the satire or “rime” we have probably an exaggerated reference to actual fact. In other cases the “curse of satire” affected nature, causing seas and rivers to sink back.[1129] The satires made by the bards of Gaul, referred to by Diodorus, may have been believed to possess similar powers.[1130] Contrariwise, the Filid, on uttering an unjust judgment, found their faces covered with blotches.[1131]

A magical sleep is often caused by music in the sagas, e.g. by the harp of Dagda, or by the branch carried by visitants from Elysium.[1132] Many “fairy” lullabies for producing sleep are even now extant in Ireland and the Highlands.[1133] As music forms a part of all primitive religion, its soothing powers would easily be magnified. In orgiastic rites it caused varying emotions until the singer and dancer fell into a deep slumber, and the tales of those who joined in a fairy dance and fell asleep, awaking to find that many years had passed, are mythic extensions of the power of music in such orgiastic cults. The music of the Filid had similar powers to that of Dagda’s harp, producing laughter, tears, and a delicious slumber,[1134] and Celtic folk-tales abound in similar instances of the magic charm of music.

We now turn to the use of amulets among the Celts. Some of these were symbolic and intended to bring the wearer under the protection of the god whom they symbolised. As has been seen, a Celtic god had as his symbol a wheel, probably representing the sun, and numerous small wheel discs made of different materials have been found in Gaul and Britain.[1135] These were evidently worn as amulets, while in other cases they were offered to river divinities, since many are met with in river beds or fords. Their use as protective amulets is shown by a stele representing a person wearing a necklace to which is attached one of these wheels. In Irish texts a Druid is called Mag Ruith, explained as magus rotarum, because he made his Druidical observations by wheels.[1136] This may point to the use of such amulets in Ireland. A curious amulet, connected with the Druids, became famous in Roman times and is described by Pliny. This was the “serpents’ egg,” formed from the foam produced by serpents twining themselves together. The serpents threw the “egg” into the air, and he who sought it had to catch it in his cloak before it fell, and flee to a running stream, beyond which the serpents, like the witches pursuing Tam o’ Shanter, could not follow him. This “egg” was believed to cause its owner to obtain access to kings or to gain lawsuits, and a Roman citizen was put to death in the reign of Claudius for bringing such an amulet into court. Pliny had seen this “egg.” It was about the size of an apple, with a cartilaginous skin covered with discs.[1137] Probably it was a fossil echinus, such as has been found in Gaulish tombs.[1138] Such “eggs” were doubtless connected with the cult of the serpent, or some old myth of an egg produced by serpents may have been made use of to account for their formation. This is the more likely, as rings or beads of glass found in tumuli in Wales, Cornwall, and the Highlands are called “serpents’ glass” (glain naidr), and are believed to be formed in the same way as the “egg.” These, as well as old spindle-whorls called “adder stones” in the Highlands, are held to have magical virtues, e.g. against the bite of a serpent, and are highly prized by their owners.[1139]

Pliny speaks also of the Celtic belief in the magical virtues of coral, either worn as an amulet or taken in powder as a medicine, while it has been proved that the Celts during a limited period of their history placed it on weapons and utensils, doubtless as an amulet.[1140] Other amulets—white marble balls, quartz pebbles, models of the tooth of the boar, or pieces of amber, have been found buried with the dead.[1141] Little figures of the boar, the horse, and the bull, with a ring for suspending them to a necklet, were worn as amulets or images of these divine animals, and phallic amulets were also worn, perhaps as a protection against the evil eye.[1142]

A cult of stones was probably connected with the belief in the magical power of certain stones, like the Lia Fail, which shrieked aloud when Conn knocked against it. His Druids explained that the number of the shrieks equalled the number of his descendants who should be kings of Erin.[1143] This is an aetiological myth accounting for the use of this fetich-stone at coronations. Other stones, probably the object of a cult or possessing magical virtues, were used at the installation of chiefs, who stood on them and vowed to follow in the steps of their predecessors, a pair of feet being carved on the stone to represent those of the first chief.[1144] Other stones had more musical virtues—the “conspicuous stone” of Elysium from which arose a hundred strains, and the melodious stone of Loch Laig. Such beliefs existed into Christian times. S. Columba’s stone altar floated on the waves, and on it a leper had crossed in the wake of the saint’s coracle to Erin. But the same stone was that on which, long before, the hero Fionn had slipped.[1145]

Connected with the cult of stones are magical observances at fixed rocks or boulders, regarded probably as the abode of a spirit. These observances are in origin pre-Celtic, but were practised by the Celts.  Girls slide down a stone to obtain a lover, pregnant women to obtain an easy delivery, or contact with such stones causes barren women to have children or gives vitality to the feeble. A small offering is usually left on the stone.[1146] Similar rites are practised at megalithic monuments, and here again the custom is obviously pre-Celtic in origin.  In this case the spirits of the dead must have been expected to assist the purposes of the rites, or even to incarnate themselves in the children born as a result of barren women resorting to these stones.[1147] Sometimes when the purpose of the stones has been forgotten and some other legendary origin attributed to them, the custom adapts itself to the legend. In Ireland many dolmens are known, not as places of sepulture, but as “Diarmaid and Grainne’s beds”—the places where these eloping lovers slept. Hence they have powers of fruitfulness and are visited by women who desire children. The rite is thus one of sympathetic magic.

Holed dolmens or naturally pierced blocks are used for the magical cure of sickness both in Brittany and Cornwall, the patient being passed through the hole.[1148] Similar rites are used with trees, a slit being often made in the trunk of a sapling, and a sickly child passed through it. The slit is then closed and bound, and if it joins together at the end of a certain time, this is a proof that the child will recover.[1149] In these rites the spirit in stone or tree was supposed to assist the process of healing, or the disease was transferred to them, or, again, there was the idea of a new birth with consequent renewed life, the act imitating the process of birth. These rites are not confined to Celtic regions, but belong to that universal use of magic in which the Celts freely participated.

Since Christian writers firmly believed in the magical powers of the Druids, aided however by the devil, they taught that Christian saints had miraculously overcome them with their own weapons. S. Patrick dispelled snow-storms and darkness raised by Druids, or destroyed Druids who had brought down fire from heaven. Similar deeds are attributed to S. Columba and others.[1150] The moral victory of the Cross was later regarded also as a magical victory. Hence also lives of Celtic saints are full of miracles which are simply a reproduction of Druidic magic—controlling the elements, healing, carrying live coals without hurt, causing confusion by their curses, producing invisibility or shape-shifting, making the ice-cold waters of a river hot by standing in them at their devotions, or walking unscathed through the fiercest storms.[1151] They were soon regarded as more expert magicians than the Druids themselves. They may have laid claim to magical powers, or perhaps they used a natural shrewdness in such a way as to suggest magic. But all their power they ascribed to Christ. “Christ is my Druid”—the true miracle-worker, said S. Columba. Yet they were imbued with the superstitions of their own age. Thus S. Columba sent a white stone to King Brude at Inverness for the cure of his Druid Broichan, who drank the water poured over it, and was healed.[1152] Soon similar virtues were ascribed to the relics of the saints themselves, and at a later time, when most Scotsmen ceased to believe in the saints, they thought that the ministers of the kirk had powers like those of pagan Druid and Catholic saint. Ministers were levitated, or shone with a celestial light, or had clairvoyant gifts, or, with dire results, cursed the ungodly or the benighted prelatist. They prophesied, used trance-utterance, and exercised gifts of healing. Angels ministered to them, as when Samuel Rutherford, having fallen into a well when a child, was pulled out by an angel.[1153] The substratum of primitive belief survives all changes of creed, and the folk impartially attributed magical powers to pagan Druid, Celtic saints, old crones and witches, and Presbyterian ministers.


[1093] IT i. 56; D’Arbois, v. 387.

[1094] See, e.g., “The Death of Muirchertach,” RC xxiii. 394.

[1095] HN xxx. 4, 13.

[1096] Zimmer, Gloss. Hibern. 183; Reeves, Adamnan, 260.

[1097] Kennedy, 175; cf. IT i. 220.

[1098] See RC xii. 52 f.; D’Arbois, v. 403-404; O’Curry, MS. Mat. 505; Kennedy, 75, 196, 258.

[1099] D’Arbois, v. 277.

[1100] Stokes, Three Middle Irish Homilies, 24; IT iii. 325.

[1101] RC xii. 83; Miss Hull, 215; D’Arbois, v. 424; O’Curry, MC ii. 215.

[1102] Keating, 341; O’Curry, MS. Mat. 271.

[1103] RC xii. 81.

[1104] Miss Hull, 240 f.

[1105] Maury, 14.

[1106] Sebillot, ii. 226 f., i. 101, ii. 225; Berenger-Feraud, Superstitions et Survivances, iii. 169 f.; Stat. Account, viii. 52.

[1107] Rev. des Trad. 1893, 613; Sebillot, ii. 224.

[1108] Berenger-Feraud, iii. 218 f.; Sebillot, i. 100, 109; RC ii. 484; Frazer, Golden Bough{2}, i. 67.

[1109] D’Arbois, v. 387; IT i. 52; Dixon, Gairloch, 165; Carmichael, Carm. Gad. ii. 25.

[1110] RC xvi. 152; Miss Hull, 243.

[1111] D’Arbois, v. 133; IT ii. 373.

[1112] Mela, iii. 6; RC xv. 471.

[1113] Joyce, OCR 1 f.; Kennedy, 235.

[1114] Bird-women pursued by Cuchulainn; D’Arbois, v. 178; for other instances see O’Curry, MS. Mat. 426; Miss Hull, 82.

[1115] D’Arbois, v. 215.

[1116] Joyce, OCR 279.

[1117] Ibid. 86.

[1118] RC xxiii. 394; Jocelyn, Vita S. Kent. c. 1.

[1119] RC xv. 446.

[1120] O’Conor, Rer. Hib. Scrip. ii. 142; Stokes, Lives of Saints, xxviii.

[1121] RC xv. 444.

[1122] See p. 251, supra.

[1123] O’Curry, MS. Mat. 240.

[1124] See pp. 248, 304, supra; Caesar, vi. 14.

[1125] Zimmer, Gloss. Hiber. 271. Other Irish incantations, appealing to the saints, are found in the Codex Regularum at Klosternenburg (RC ii. 112).

[1126] Leahy, i. 137; Kennedy, 301.

[1127] Sauve, RC vi. 67 f.; Carmichael, Carm. Gadel.passimCM xii. 38; Joyce, SH i. 629 f.; Camden, Britannia, iv. 488; Scot, Discovery of Witchcraft, iii. 15.

[1128] For examples see O’Curry, MS. Met. 248; D’Arbois, ii. 190; RC xii. 71, xxiv. 279; Stokes, TIG xxxvi. f.

[1129] Windisch, Tain, line 3467.

[1130] Diod. Sic. v. 31.

[1131] D’Arbois, i. 271.

[1132] RC xii. 109; Nutt-Meyer, i. 2; D’Arbois, v. 445.

[1133] Petrie, Ancient Music of Ireland, i. 73; The Gael, i. 235 (fairy lullaby of MacLeod of MacLeod).

[1134] O’Curry, MS. Mat. 255.

[1135] Archaeologia, xxxix. 509; Proc. Soc. Ant. iii. 92; Gaidoz, Le Dieu Gaul. du Soleil, 60 f.

[1136] IT iii. 409; but see Rhys, HL 215.

[1137] Pliny, HN xxix. 3. 54.

[1138] Rev. Arch. i. 227, xxxiii. 283.

[1139] Hoare, Modern Wiltshire, 56; Camden, Britannia, 815; Hazlitt, 194; Campbell, Witchcraft, 84. In the Highlands spindle-whorls are thought to have been perforated by the adder, which then passes through the hole to rid itself of its old skin.

[1140] Pliny, xxxii. 2. 24; Reinach, RC xx. 13 f.

[1141] Rev. Arch. i. 227; Greenwell, British Barrows, 165; Elton, 66; Renel, 95f., 194f.

[1142] Reinach, BF 286, 289, 362.

[1143] O’Curry, MS Mat. 387. See a paper by Hartland, “The Voice of the Stone of Destiny,” Folk-lore Journal, xiv. 1903.

[1144] Petrie, Trans. Royal Irish Acad. xviii. pt. 2.

[1145] O’Curry, MS. Mat. 393 f.

[1146] Sebillot, i. 334 f.

[1147] Trollope, Brittany, ii. 229; Berenger-Feraud, Superstitions et Survivances, i. 529 f.; Borlase, Dolmens of Ireland, iii. 580, 689, 841 f.

[1148] Rev. des Trad. 1894, 494; Berenger-Feraud, i. 529, ii. 367; Elworthy, Evil Eye, 70.

[1149] Berenger-Feraud, i. 523; Elworthy, 69, 106; Reinach, L’Anthropologie, iv. 33.

[1150] Kennedy, 324; Adamnan, Vita S. Col. ii. 35.

[1151] Life of S. Fechin of Fore, RC xii. 333; Life of S. Kieran, O’Grady, ii. 13; Amra Cholumbchille, RC xx. 41; Life of S. Moling, RC xxvii. 293; and other lives passim. See also Plummer, Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae.

[1152] Adamnan, ii. 34. This pebble was long preserved, but mysteriously disappeared when the person who sought it was doomed to die.

[1153] Wodrow, Analectapassim; Walker, Six Saints of the Covenant, ed. by Dr. Hay Fleming.