Splendid Poison: The Power of Words
Celtic Triad: Three occasions for one to speak falsehood without excuse: to save the life of one who is innocent, to keep the peace among neighbours, and to preserve the Wise and their crafts.
(A stone near Killala, County Mayo, with Ogham writing upon it. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Celtic tales only come to us courtesy of the scholar of the middle ages, who were proud of their manuscripts and the ability to write and illuminate these beautiful, treasured documents. Writing, in the middle ages, was a coveted skill; not something to be taken for granted, as many of us do today.
In contrast, the Celts barely wrote anything down. There are a few scratchings of Ogham here and there, but for the most part, the written word was alien to them. This may seem to go against the supposition, nay the fact, that words were seen as enormously powerful by the Celts. Satirist, poets and bards were revered and respected, even held in awe. A well-known satirist would be accepted into any king’s court at a minute’s notice, because the ruler feared the acid bite of the wordsmith’s tongue, and the damage it could to his reputation and that of his household. It was thought that a well-spoken satire would cause blemishes to appear on the victim’s skin, as an outward representation of the alleged corruption within.
If anything, the lack of Celtic writing supports their respect for words. Words spoken can never be taken back, but the written word may be destroyed; it may be altered, or hidden, or denied. The spoken word is the ultimate weapon as long as there are ears to hear it. A poet may move a room to tears, and this is magic of the moment. Reading that poem at home later is unlikely to have quite the same effect. A sly word in the ear of a gossip may spread a malicious rumour all around town, and who is to say where it originated? Words are powerful, and while you are able to (and encouraged to!) write your own words down, it is important you learn to respect the awesome effect words can have on other people, the universe and of course, yourself.
The poetry is a love of mine; more than a hobby, more than a diversion and more than simply stringing words together. Every year I participate in NaPoWriMo, which is the challenge to write a poem a day for a month. Each poem must be entirely new. Making this kind of commitment to yourself is very focusing, and writing poetry in this way prompts you to be aware of everything around you. Searching for inspiration is mindfulness itself; exploring how things are, right now, and recording them with the written word in a form that will entertain others.
poetry is not just about clever form and rhyming schemes. poetry is about telling stories; using the rhythm of words to play your point into the reader or listener’s mind. poetry is about the musicality of language. poetry is about emotion; love and loathing; pain and regret; joy and anticipation. poetry is a vehicle for feelings, hopes and dreams. The Gaelic word that was used for Celtic poets was File (or Fili), which literally means ‘one who sees’. A good poet sees all, and uses what they see to enchant and amuse others.
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.
This extract from Pangur Bán, a poem by an anonymous Irish monk from the 9th Century (CE), likens his cat’s hunt for mice to the writer’s own hunt for words. The mice are elusive but the delight in capturing them is beyond measure. poetry is like this. The struggle to find the words that will evoke the exact emotion you are feeling is hard, strenuous, maddening; but the completed poem is so pleasurable, every moment of the struggle is a joy.
poetry is also very cathartic. Pent up emotions can be bad for us, can even lead to physical problems such as ulcers, headaches and high blood pressure, and of course a multitude of mental health problems. poetry gives us a very real outlet for the words we might not be able to say out loud to someone else. It can take us on a journey of recovery or self-discovery. It can be our punching bag, our pillow to cry into and our best friend when we are all alone. Letting someone else read your poetry is a great intimacy, so it can even be helpful in personal relationships or bring you closer to a family member.
But what if you’ve never written before? Well, the best answer to that is to think about what you want to write about, and to read some poetry on that subject. Google ‘poems about…’ and read as many as you can get your hands on. Record the names of poets that inspire you. Examine how the poet strings words together. Do they use rhyme? Is it just a stream of consciousness? Make notes, mental or physical, and try and emulate the style of a writer that resonates with you. Remember, no one is marking you on this. Your poetry is a magic for you and you alone.
Try writing down a list of words that pop up while you are dwelling on your chosen subject. For ‘Bees’ you might have ‘Honey, flowers, pollen, work, joy, summer.’ Form a sentence around each of those words. Now put those sentences into an order that pleases you. Try reading it out aloud; maybe even record it and play it back to yourself. How does it sound? Change it until you are happy with it. Don’t be afraid to edit ruthlessly, but also don’t be afraid to think ‘This is good enough.’ and leave it as it is.
When you have finished your poem, keep it somewhere safe. If you are able and confident enough, keep it on show somewhere so you can be proud of your work. You have just externalised some of your feelings, and used them to create something new in this world. Feel the confidence that washes through you; feel that any negative emotions are diminished by this process, and that positive ones are lifted and highlighted by the power of your words. poetry is a magic that will never end; as long as we have words, we will weave them and give them to each other.
After reading about the power of poetry, it should come as no surprise that many magical rituals are written in a poetic style. Think of most spells you have seen written down, from any path. Nearly all of them will be in a form of verse. This is because the rhythm of the words helps to focus your mind on the task at hand. This frees up the rest of your mind to channel the magic, or energy required for your spell.
Now Lugh rests his shining head
Now the call to those called “Dead”
The cavalcade of fairy folk
Cernunnos in his winter cloak
Who calls to beasts; the stag, the hound
Who calls the great hunt, starts the sound
Of hooves a-drumming on the ground
Hide so you won’t be found!
The green that rests within the oak
The holly still in winter’s choke
Frantic, bursting to be free
Herne rides the land and sea.
Great lord, great god, great grasping hand
That holds the seasons, holds the land
And holds the reins: the hunt so wild
And every adult, every child
Will know he is abroad this night
As wild wind whip the world in fright
And the Sun stands still.
This is an excerpt from a Winter Solstice ritual I penned a few years ago. The purpose of this section was to focus the male energy in the room and evoke the presence of the male god; the Holly King, Cernunnos or the Green Man: the energy of the forest that goes by many names. The rhythm of the words kept all of us focused on the theme and the intent of the work, and as the pace of the reading increased, so did the energy in the room increase.
Spell craft is all about transformation, as what we are doing when we cast a spell is hoping to change something within our universe. Words are incredibly evocative, and with the skill of a poet, you can use your words to mesmerise and enchant, focus and drive, predict and prophet, calm and soothe, confuse and befuddle, impassion and allure.
You can also use the shapes of words as well as their rhythm to create magic. Each letter of a word can become the first letter of the line of a spell. Written down, this can intensify your intent and focus your energy more specifically.
Heal my friend and make her well
Ease her pain with my kind spell
Aid her now to health and light
Let her feel the sun so bright.
This is a very simple little rhyme where the capital letters on the left hand side read HEAL. Chanted over and over, the word HEAL becomes the subconscious and conscious focus of the practitioner, making it the undisputed focus of this spell.
In Irish literature, spells and magic are used for transformations, shape changing, cursing, sleep, healing and prophecy. Mogh Roith, the blind druid of Munster, used his words to control the weather and put fear into the hearts of his enemies.
I cast a spell,
on the power of cloud,
may there be a rain
of blood on grass,
let it be throughout the land,
a burning of the crowd,
may there be a trembling
on the warriors of Conn.
(Excerpt from The Siege of Knocklong, circa 15th century CE, translation copyright Seán Ó Duinn, 1992, image of illuminated Irish text freely available at http://www.isos.dias.ie/)
There is a sort of calm viciousness to these words, a sense that the fury of the druid is being focused fully into these words. The words themselves are well thought out, sparse and undecorated. They speak the druid’s intent and nothing more. There is no room for misinterpretation.
In your own magic, you should always make sure your intent is clear. Your words are a fantastic tool to do this. Wiccans (and others) use the phrase ‘an it harm none’ meaning ‘as long as nobody gets hurt’. This phrase is often used as a disclaimer in spell or ritual, to ensure that no ‘monkey’s paw’ situation arises; the magic will occur without detriment to anyone. The only danger with such a readily repeatable phrase as this is it can become stated by habit rather than with intent, thus losing its protective power. This is why your own words are so powerful, because they come from a place deep within you, and carry your magic out into the world.
Brigid, who is also known as Persephone
Rises like an epiphany
From the womb of Winter’s death.
These are the opening lines to a song I wrote whilst walking home just before Imbolc about ten years ago. I was in a very suburban setting, houses and pavements and telegraph poles, but the sun was milky white in a hazy blue sky, and the January chill was offset by a warming sense of the approaching spring. There were blackbirds, Lon Dubh, calling and shouting, and even a wren chattering angrily as I invaded its territory. I remember feeling overcome with joy and gratitude that I could be a part of this burst of life, and I started humming. The tune was quickly recorded onto my phone, and later it became a full song that spoke of the world awakening after winter, both outside and within yourself. You can hear the song here:
This burst of inspiration is often called Awen by the druids, and trust me, it is an elusive but wonderful feeling. Even songs I am particularly proud of have not stemmed from true Awen but from everyday occurrences, emotional epiphany or often, simple hard graft. Awen does not come when called, indeed, if anything, it calls to you. Thankfully, there is plenty of inspiration in everyday life for even the most jaded of songwriters!
In the last chapter we examined the use of music as a magical tool, in particular drumming and chanting. I appreciate that not everyone who reads this will be able to compose and write a song, but if you can appreciate the form within poetry, and the magic within the words of a spell, then you can understand and revel in the sorcery of song.
I’ve often been at a group ritual where the leader bursts into song, often something quite simple such as Earth my Body so that others can join in if they wish. The sudden transformation either from spoken word or simple silence to entrancing music is a beautiful shock to the system. It lifts our souls and literally, physically moves our minds onto a different plane. Brain waves can be affected in various ways by audio stimulus, particularly music. Relaxing music increases the frequency of alpha waves, which is the same increase seen when moving into a meditative state. Increasing the alpha wave frequency normally lowers the frequency and amplitude of the ever present beta waves, which reduces stress, anxiety and tension.
So the magic of song is not just a thing of legend, but a widely documented scientific fact. Maybe the Dagda’s harp did put folks to sleep, by over-stimulating their brains and inducing a theta wave state just like that of a dream.
Think of a song that means something to you. Why is it important? Is it the tune or the words? Where were you when you first heard this song? What was happening? How did you feel? How does hearing it make you feel now? Do you associate this song with anyone person in particular? Do you share this song with others or listen to it alone? Does it evoke a particular smell or vision? Write these thoughts down and I think you will be surprised at just how much one song can affect you.
I remember listening to the album Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin when I was very young, just a child. I used to take my walkman to bed with me and fall asleep listening to ‘In the Light’. Even now, that song still makes me think of late, summer evenings, drifting off with the first touches of my dream world flickering around my eyelids. The haunting opening notes combined with the soaring vocal never fail to lift my spirits, and because I have enjoyed that song all through growing up, it feels timeless to me, like it can transport me back to any moment in my past that I care to explore.
Now that I write songs and perform them for others, I do try to make them as magical as possible, both in lyric and melody, but it is incredibly difficult to pour yourself whole heartedly into every single piece. Some songs are already alive and just waiting for you to pluck them from the ether. These ones flow and tease then blossom under the gentlest of care. Others lurk in the darkness, refusing to be finished and hiding their hooks and riffs in great, frustrating shadows. Being a bard in the musical sense is both a great joy and an endless struggle, and as such is rewarding and exhausting in equal measure.
A bard in druidic terms is also a keeper of history; a teller of tales. The British Druidic Order tells us that ‘The central principle of the bardic path is communication, chiefly through word and sound’.
Osborn Bergin, in his 1970 piece Irish Bardic poetry, quotes a lecture from 1912:
For we must remember that the Irish file or bard was not necessarily an inspired poet. That he could not help. He was, in fact, a professor of literature and a man of letters, highly trained in the use of a polished literary medium, belonging to a hereditary caste in an aristocratic society, holding an official position therein by virtue of his training, his learning, his knowledge of the history and traditions of his country and his clan. He discharged, as O’Donovan pointed out many years ago, the functions of the modern journalist. He was not a song writer. He was often a public official, a chronicler, a political essayist, a keen and satirical observer of his fellow-countrymen
So as a songwriter, is it our responsibility to observe and tell the tales of the world around us? I would say that’s certainly true for folk musicians, but most modern pop music strays far from this path. Of course, that makes the magical music stand out all the more sharply, so perhaps this is no bad thing. My only concern is that as a society we have lost reverence for the true art of song, as it is so readily available in a canned, commercial variety that has lost so much of its original mystery and wonder.
Hopefully after reading about poetry, spells and songs you have a more respectful attitude towards your own words. Perhaps as you write your journals, you will think about the words you jot down, and perhaps try to order some of your magical experiences into verse that will remind you of the day later? Or perhaps you will simply be more careful and wise in your choice of words to others, understanding that words, once spoken, can never be taken back.
As we move towards the end of this volume, it should be clear that every chapter emphasises the need for personal responsibility. Your words are your power made manifest; do not abuse that power, and do not let others do the same to you.
If you enjoyed this chapter, the whole book is available here.