Mabh Savage is the author of a new book called Celtic Witchcraft, which I reviewed on my blog yesterday. Here I talk to her about Celtic culture, witchcraft and paganism – as well as her thoughts about the recent British Museum exhibition on the Celts:
Q: Did you go to the recent Celts exhibition at the British Museum and, if so, what did you think of it?
Mabh: Sadly I did not get to go to the exhibition. Living in the north of England, sometimes it's a financial stretch getting down to the big smoke. I read a few articles about the exhibition's description of the Celtic peoples, and was a bit dismayed to hear that there was little focus on the commonality of language that defines them. I've always understood that the Celts (a term coined by the Ancient Greeks, not themselves) were defined by the two branches of languages they share; the Brittonic (P) languages and the Goidelic (Q) languages. When a Celticist says 'mind your Ps and Qs', they really mean it! But from what I've read this definition was broadly overlooked and instead the focus was on art and artifacts, which of course is wonderful and fascinating, but I'd hate to think we were dumbing down Celtic history to make it more palatable for the masses.
Statements such as 'the recent revelation that the Celts are not a single genetic group' for example (from the British Museum website); this is not a revelation at all, surely. We've understood for many years that the Celts were many different tribes or collectives of people, and although generally thought of as European may have originally come from the middle or far east.
Having said all this, I would love to go if it comes around again, especially to study the fantastic artifacts that were on show.
Q: How important do you feel language is for those following Celtic spiritual paths and practising Celtic witchcraft?
Mabh: Only in the sense that I think those interested in their Celtic heritage should be aware of these definitions; that when historians discuss Celtic people, they are more often than not referring to those peoples that share these languages. I don't, however, think that anyone wanting to follow a path of Celtic spirituality needs to run out and become fluent in Gaelic or Welsh. I'm certainly not! I know the odd word and that comes from researching tales translated from Irish, and from a desire at times to name a creature or an item in Irish, for either ritual or poetic purposes.
Q: Your book Celtic Witchcraft offers a very accessible way for people to engage with ancient Celtic magical practices and traditions. How do you see your book in relation to Celtic Reconstructionism and Modern Pagan Witchcraft?
Mabh: My work falls out Reconstructionism because while I honour my ancestors and am fascinated by them, I am not them and firmly believe we have to adapt magical practice to be relevant in a modern world. If I woke up tomorrow and the oil had run out, and there was no more electricity, and the economy had collapsed and there was no more money, then I imagine I would become a witch closer to what my ancestors would have understood as a witch: completely self sufficient and entirely dependent upon nature and its rhythms. In fact, that sounds pretty nice! But I can't pretend I don't live in a world with deadlines and traffic and online bullying; with stress and anxiety and work- related harassment; but also with wonderful things like space exploration and the ability travel anywhere in the world. I find Reconstructionism fascinating, and incredibly relevant for modern Pagans as it allows them to explore their ancestors at a very intimate level, however it's not how I work on a day to day basis.
Modern Pagan Witchcraft seems to have so many facets I'm sure Celtic Witchcraft must fit in there somewhere! Ask any witch for a definition of witchcraft and I'm sure you will end up with a boat load of different answers. I define witchcraft as the manipulation and transformation of things using magic and Celtic Witchcraft is doing this with the guidance or inspiration of Celtic ancestors or deities. My connection is to the Tuatha Dé Danann of Ireland, whom I have been fascinated with since childhood. They began to aid me in magical work in my twenties, and have become an integral part of my life. Another witch might find their inspiration in The Mabinogion, for example, or through what they know of their own personal ancestry. It doesn't have to revolve around deities at all.
I think much modern witchcraft stems from or is inspired by Wicca, even if it doesn't call itself that, but to me, Wicca is a religion, not a craft or a skill. You can be a Wiccan, and you may also be a witch, but you don't have to be both, or either! Witchcraft doesn't require religion, only skill and energy.
Q: Apart from reading your book, is there any advice you would offer someone wanting to start out on the path of exploring Celtic witchcraft?
Mabh: Read my other book! A Modern Celt, my first book, talks more about the influence of the Celts on modern society and culture, and speaks to people of many different paths about their own personal experiences. Interviewing the people for A Modern Celt was absolutely fascinating; all the different ways people experience spirit and magic in their day to day lives was awe-inspiring. In fact, that's my advice: talk to people. Listen and absorb as much information as you can about mythology, folklore, local practices and personal gnosis. You will learn so much about the people around you, and be able to relate to them better, but just as importantly, some of that information may resonate with you and transform your own view of the world.
When interviewing one lady for A Modern Celt, she spoke of premonitions and prophecy, and the physical sensations that accompanied them. She made me realise that I had been experiencing similar sensations, and it made me go back and explore my dream journals which led to the revelation that we had been sharing experiences, even over a great distance at times. It was a real goosebumps moment. The seemingly smallest of conversations can lead to the greatest epiphanies.
Pagan Portals - Celtic Witchcraft: Modern Witchcraft meets Celtic Ways
A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors