Irish-American Witchcraft: Wild Witchcraft

Irish-American Witchcraft: Wild Witchcraft October 4, 2016

There’s a blog I follow called Seo Helrune which often posts things I find thought provoking and insightful. Recently two of the blogs posted there in particular caught my attention “Witch-Making” and “Local Spirits and Witchcraft” – I highly recommend both.  They discuss many things but perhaps the most interesting to my mind were the ideas of certain witches working with dangerous spirits, connecting to the Unseen where you are, and the overarching theme between the two of some kinds of witchcraft as a wild and untamed practice.

I’ll emphasize at the start some kinds of witchcraft. Let’s be blunt here: there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different kinds at this point and they are diverse.  Not all witches practice in the same way, or believe the same things, or even agree on the most basic details, so there really is no one-size-fits-all this-is-witchcraft commentary that can be made. While the idea of working with spirits of any type might be entirely inappropriate for some witches, for whatever reason, it is the backbone of practice for others, and likewise while some may be very much about community and conformity others thrive on the opposite of that. No single approach is the right way for everyone, or is the ‘real’ witchcraft or anything like that. So understand that what I’m talking about here is just one particular way of doing things (because I’m not going to keep specifying that) but its not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s perfectly fine.

a woman with a wand stands next to a steaming cauldron
The Magic Circle / John William Waterhouse, 1886

Witches and Dangerous Spirits

This is one of those things that I totally agree with the author of Seo Helrune about. When we look at what we know of historic witchcraft in certain European cultures, particularly Irish which is obviously my main focus here, its clear that witches were known to truck with spirits, and those spirits were not considered safe by conventional standards. In Ireland – and often Scotland as well – it wasn’t demons that witches dealt with though but fairies, although to the Christian mind at the time there was at best a fine semantic line between the two. In fact fairies and witches in Ireland have a long and rather convoluted connection to each other, with both the more positive bean feasa [wise woman] and negative cailleach [witch] being known to get their knowledge from Otherworldly beings, although what separated them was what they did with that knowledge. In Scottish witch trails we find confessions from some witches who claimed to have met not with the Devil but with the Queen of Elfhame and to have acquired things like elfshot1 at her bidding from the Fey folk.  In the same way the historically famous witch’s familiar in some cases2 was not a demonic spirit but a person of the Good Neighbors.

The Other Crowd were never seen as safe which is exactly why we don’t, as much as possible, call them ‘fairies’ but rather we use euphemisms like Good Neighbors, Mother’s Blessing, Gentry, Fair Folk, and so on. The idea being that speaking of them can draw their attention and if we do its better to not offend them at the off but try to remind them of their own potential good nature. There can be and are rewards for dealing well with them, but there’s always a risk to it and there are countless stories of people who angered the Good People and suffered for it. Although modern views may like to paint them as twee and harmless – and of course there are some who are, because they are as diverse as people are – many of Themselves are quite capable of harming us if motivated to do so.

Some witches today who are drawn to a certain path find an appeal in this older approach, in the idea of seeking out these ‘dangerous spirits’ against all common wisdom and learning from them. Making allies among them and studying the old folk ways to learn how to safely deal with them, both the friendly and unfriendly ones. There is no safety net in doing this, no guarantees, no certainty. It is dangerous and you learn as much from making mistakes and having to deal with the consequences as you do from handling things correctly. But this way of doing things is the way it used to be done and I think there is a lot of value in it, for those willing to take the risk.

a small frog or toad on a rock at night
Connecting to nature at Devil’s Hopyard, image M Daimler 2006

Connecting to Local Unseen

The Otherworld is all around us all the time, often barely separated from our own, and sometimes not separated at all. There are ghosts and echoes of past times and things layered over our present. There are also points of entry between our world and others, both the Irish one which I frequently reference and many more besides. But beyond all of this there are spirits here and now, invested in things and places and objects. This animism forms a huge part of my own belief, because it means understanding that everything around me has a spirit, not just the Otherworldly things like elves, and aos sidhe, and the like which I talk about sometimes but streams and stones and my car.

I live in a place that has been occupied by Europeans for about 400 years; before that of course it belonged to several tribes which now have reservations here. The Otherworldly spirits are varied and diverse, they are native to this land and they are things that have moved in over the last four centuries. But the spirits of the land, they are constant. The spirit of the river is the spirit of the river. The spirit of the swamp behind my house is the spirit of that swamp. The spirits of the trees are what they are, living and growing and dying like any other. How I relate to them is based on my own personal filter, and that is true for us all, but the spirits themselves are there as they have always been.

I have long advocated for witches, and pagans and polytheists generally, to make a real effort to connect to the spirits around them, where they are here and now. People are so quick to talk of traveling to sacred places or of needing to go somewhere old and wild to connect to spirits, but why? If you believe in them then you need to start where you are, where your feet are planted. Connect to the spirits in your own home – they’re there. Connect to the spirits in your yard, your neighborhood, your town. Get out and make an effort to get to know the world around you, and if you can’t do that for any reason then work on getting to know the spirits where you are in your home. Whether you live in the country or suburbs or the city doesn’t matter. Connect to what’s around you, because its those connections that matter most in your actual daily life and workings. Especially if you practice magic, and really especially if you are a witch in my opinion.

A full -- or nearly full -- moon pictured behind both tree limbs and clouds
Wild beneath the moon, image M Daimler 2015

Witches, Wild and Untamed

A final point that I wanted to touch on that was brought up in the Seo Helrune posts was the idea of breaking free from past religions or traditions that may still have power over us. In the blog the author used the example from Paul Huson’s book Mastering Witchcraft (excellent book by the way) of reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards in front of a mirror. As someone who wasn’t raised Christian I don’t personally see the shock or power of this, but I’d suggest if the idea outrages or upsets you, as a pagan witch3, then you probably should do it. Why? Because if you feel shocked or outraged by the mere idea of reciting something like that backwards then the religion it comes from, in my opinion, probably does still have power over you. When we become aware of things from the past, things we thought we had let go of or outgrown, that are still holding onto us we need to find a way to free ourselves from those things. Sometimes that means doing something extreme that our old self would never do, like recite a prayer backwards. And as witches we should be free from those ties; we should not as much as possible allow anything unnecessary to hold us back. If you want to practice this type of witchcraft do some real soul searching and look at anything from the religion or ways you were raised with that still have power over you – things that make you feel guilty or uneasy, or that you won’t do or don’t like to do because you were previously told they were wrong – and give some thought to whether your new pagan religion and your witchcraft practices embrace the things you were told not to do4. If so, then go out of your way to do them, or otherwise find ways to break their power over you.

This witchcraft is not meant to be something tame and bound in the ideas of wider acceptance. Trucking with spirits isn’t a game done so you can brag to other people about it – in fact talking about what you do is often not a good idea – its something that has tangible real world consequences that can be life altering and if you think I’m just taking the piss or being melodramatic then trust me this isn’t the sort of witchcraft you want to get into. Which is fine there’s plenty of others to choose from. This witchcraft is about risk and being okay with the idea of magical practices that aren’t safe, or that more to the point require a lot of care to practice. Traditional witchcraft as we see it in history and folklore was messy, and dangerous, and wild in the literal sense of going beyond conventional bounds, uncivilized, unrestrained. There are some modern approaches to witchcraft that are the same.

If one were to say that most approaches to modern witchcraft can be likened to walking on a well worn trail in the woods, and a few are like making your own trail, then I might say that this Witchcraft is like pushing through the thickest part of the forest at night – its as much instinct and feeling your way as it is knowledge and experience. And like the above analogy how people like to adventure in the woods is a deeply personal sort of thing, as it should be, and the method that one person finds profound and spiritual another may well find meaningless. If there’s one things I’ve learned so far its that we can’t force our feet into other people’s footsteps just for the sake of trying to follow the way we think we should be going, or we’ll be unhappier for it.

So what do these three things have in common, dealing with dangerous spirits, connecting to local spirits, and follow a more wild path? I think they are all aspects of one approach, all interwoven and linked together. We deal with dangerous spirits of the Otherworld, but the other side of that coin is connecting to local spirits where we are here and now. And sometimes those two things are the exact same. We push boundaries and do the messy dangerous things, walking deep into the wild woods where there is no path. And usually there’s a purpose to that and that purpose may well have to do with spirits one way or another. I don’t think one can really be separated from the others, and each builds on the others to form a Witchcraft that is unique from many others today. And that’s a good thing, I think, because as our community grows I think we need the diversity and we need the people who look back at the older ways of doing things as much or more than looking forward.

Endnotes:

  1. Elfshot, also know as fairyshot or elf arrows, are small stone arrows which are though to be used by the Good People as well as witches to cause illness, madness, and death to those struck by it. (back)
  2. Emma Wilby discusses this in her book “Cunningfolk and Familiar Spirits(back)
  3. Unless you’re a Christian witch, or similar, but understand I’m discussing pagan witches here specifically. (back)
  4. Common sense here of course, I’m talking about things similar to saying a prayer backwards, or maybe eating a specific kind of food, getting a tattoo, cutting your hair, those sorts of things. Obviously, don’t break the law please. (back)

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