I’m sitting on a train. It’s like a liminal space, I’m not moving but rushing forward at the same time. Travelling through the amazing Scottish landscape, it’s always a joy. Even though a brown, white and green dusk coloured blur beyond the window. The sound of the train, the rock of its carriage, always makes my mind drift. It gets me thinking. Back to old conversations and thoughts. I have pondered questions around animism and the dead a lot recently. In discussions, its been one of many topics raised over whisky, late into the evening. I thought the friendly debates and these unformed threads of ideas might be of interest to some. I hope, selfishly, getting them down might help me firm up my ideas more than they are. I haven’t referenced any of it as it’s just me, brain dumping ideas on a train. So excuse the bare bones of it. Since writing this article though i have covered this is huge depth. You can read part one of the four part series here.
The idea I’ve been toying with is the subject of deity. How did deity come about? How did we create god/s? What process created them? In the Christian lens offered, is the view incorrect? Are we thinking about these things in the wrong way? If so, what impact might a different understanding have on folk practices?
In exploring an answer to this, I think the idea of deity/god/s as created out of some mythic stuff, in the “astrals” is perhaps misplaced. In my mind, they are something more related to us, and not so “out there”. I think there is a process and the process goes like this. It starts from the land spirits, combines with dead ancestors. Then moves to a family spirit, a community spirit, a tribes tutelary protector. Then finally, we have a nations god, goddess or deity.
So land spirits. There are discussions about characters in folklore that come before the human race was ever conceived of. Those that folk have often recalled and suggested as giants. Such as the Cailleach, the Formorians, the djinn, the land inhabited by angles or demons as giants they say. These are the spirits of the wilds. The dangerous places. The spirits of mountains, rivers, forests, sky, storms and lochs. I won’t be going into too much detail here about pre-human spirits but let’s just say for argument’s sake they exist. How did these land spirits or land wights and our belief in this form of animism lead to deities and polytheism?
As you’ll know I have a definitive belief that ancestors and clan lineage is important to a lot of the pre and post-Celtic people. These clan lineages link us Scots, and many others, back to some of the big names in Celtic based polytheism. As in theory, these big mythic names are ancient original ancestors. So not really deities from out there, in the sense that we have come to understand them today, but the very very old dead. Some might use the phrase “mighty dead”, others might use the term deity god or goddess, deamon, spirit etc. It’s my thought ancestors were worshipped alongside the land spirits and this evolved as our culture did. … Ok so hear me out …
Originally, there were only families, each one represented as a single community. The heads of family were the most important folk. The spirits of the family ancestors who had passed were honoured. The land spirits, wights or genius loci were appropriated with offerings. (What I personally term along with the spirits of the dead and our ancestors, the sith/sidhe). These land spirits or giants, these animistic spirits were feared. They were offered appropriate offerings least they come and do us harm. As we became domesticated, settled and the community grew, families joined one another into a clan structure. Once they did this, things changed. We encouraged the land wights, the sith, to become protectors of place. We asked permission to use the land. We invited the spirits into our houses and farms to guard them. We also buried our own dead in the land and the two became very important and inter related from this point forward. The land spirit became the spirit of the house hold along with other ancestor worship taking place there also. This was now a domestic consideration. It’s why we offer them things. A bargain was struck. As simple as “If I keep this promise will you keep yours?” Folk were still worried by the land spirits, the sith, though, and this is why we developed protective practices. What if they called the deal off?
However, now we are a bigger community or small clan, offerings were made to the success of the larger community and the clan spirit. This might have been represented by a Bile tree or other natural formation within the centre of the community. Here we see the calling of the spirits for clan success, the dead and the land in a tribal ancestral deity. A tutelary protector. The ancestors who passed are the spirits of the community now. If you had a particular brave ancestor, a hero, they would be revered more so than others. It would be these successes our ancestors sought to emulate. This is demonstrated quite well in the structure of old Rann or charms. There is always a verse that calls on those who have done this before. These mighty dead then became the protector of the larger community. As their fame and worth grew it would be called upon by all in the surrounding clan lands. As communities grew bigger these spirits rose in popularity. Perhaps being viewed as the deities we see them as today.
Finally, we have the combining of these clans under larger communities within the rule of Lairds. Later, the Kings and Queens. It is then the rulers favoured ancestor or spirit who becomes the emblem of the “religion”. The clan badge or symbol of the forming nation. It is they who become the representation of that nation. Those who are part of that nation then pay respects to the national deity god/s or godess/s.
This does not mean that the different levels of spirits were not paid homage to, far from it. This was not hierarchical in my mind. One did not supersede the other. There are different levels of spirit devotion/appropriation/relationship in operation. The spirit of the house once a land spirit perhaps, the family ancestors, or maybe both, was still important. Known as the Lares, the Domovoi, the Kobold or the Brownie. The Celts would have paid homage to something like them. Those they refer as the Sith/Sidhe/Aos Si outside of their home. Offering them milk, bread and honey. This is pretty much what the other domestic spirits were offered. As suggested in the covenant laid out in the Irish and Gaelic myth cycle. Perhaps here is the first clue.
There was also the clan ancestors, paid homage to at burial mounds and other places. You might have called on different members of your family for protection. This was something that the family could have done as and when required, in such acts as fishing, weaving, curing folk etc. There would have been different ones for different tasks. You might also give them offerings to stop them rising back up to bother you or the rest of the family and community too. You would also pay dues to the ancestor of the clan or the Tuath. This was the idea of the milk, honey and bread tithe to the sith, and the Tuatha de Dannan. For instance in East Lothian, where I live, the Iron age Celtic Votadini tribe were said to have worshipped Lugh, the long armed. Or possibly as the Guotodin they might have worshiped the Dadga, the good god. There were those who ruled the clan who may have traced their lineage back to him. So they became the clans ancestor or protector spirit. Later termed deity by monotheistic or Christain influenced thinkers. All these different spirit activities would have gone on simultaneously. It’s perhaps why we have so many different Celtic deity names.
So this is one suggestion how animism, necromancy, and polytheism and folk magic might all link together. So no one is really doing anything wrong. We are just looking at it for our own frame of reference. Perhaps just focussing on one part of the process. So what influences might this have on folk magical practice or witchcraft?
Calling on your ancestors in Ranns and charms would be the most effective recourse to get things done. It also means that you may have a personal ancestral practice, a family practice and a mythic ancestor or deity of the place where you live. Which could be called upon at once or one at a time for different things.
When carrying out each of these practices, it would happen at the centre of things. For instance, our hearts and our hearths for our ancestors. The Bile tree for our community spirits. The centre of the country or clan territory for our national guardian. The centre then being of intrinsic value for the success of these activities. These associations could be used in a number of different ways by the folk practitioner to effect different results.
It also means if your European decent and call on Celtic deities, they might not be deities at all. They are, in effect, your ancient blood ancestors. Your are part of the fabric of community and place where you stand if you call them in Europe. Especially if you live in the place your family has been for a long time. This doesn’t mean you can’t call on them elsewhere. After all, it’s where your heart and hearth is. Where you centre is after all.
It also means in the wilds of the landscape is where you are most likely to meet wild “untamed” land wights and land spirits. Those giants of old. Not so much in the arable farms lands, cities and urban sprawl. This means to communicate with them you need to move or use an intermediary.
There’s a suggestion in all this too. We don’t want to get rid of spirits from places. No magic circles required. These spirits are welcome if they will work alongside us and do us no harm. If they seek to harm, there are ways to make them happy, not banished or excluded. The way a folk practitioner or cunning person would work this approach is with understanding. To build relationships with those they encounter. From both this world and the other. They would offer help and build relationships. Not command and dominate, unless there was no other way. Because, in the long run, this is your family your dealing with here.
Ok, casting the idea wider, are there spirits of professions? I’m sure there are ancestors that you could call upon to help you. Just as they are Saints for the lost and worried. This approach leaves open so many great questions. Something more to think about, do modern communities have spirits too? Cities, society at large, does each one have an egregore that we might tap into and communicate with? Are they even aware of us, or of themselves? What is it that moves and blows through the town and city streets, and alleyways at night?
I’ll think about this more as my train rocks its way through the darkness rushing past the window.