Book Review: The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain

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A Scottish journalist, poet, author, folklorist and occult scholar, Lewis Spence dedicated decades of his life to Celtic culture and its occult belief and practices. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain is fruit of such passion where Spence proves the predisposition of the Celtic peoples to the arcane, otherwordly and mysterious throughout the centuries, from ancient times to the modern era.

Proud to be part of the Celtic race and with a profound love and devotion to every subject he explores, Spence proceeds to analyze painstakingly account after account, episode after episode and anecdote after anecdote with respect and a clear head. Having divided his opus in fourteen sections, he begins by introducing the notion of magic and defining its meaning as the Celts perceived it and lived it in their lifetime. Of particular interest are the ways the entire magical system manifested in the case of the Druids and the prowess and skills they possessed when employing it.

We’re told the Druids were rumored to raise fogs, call forth fire and blood from the heavens, cause storms and be baleful polymorphs themselves. Just like we’re made aware of the draught of forgetfulness and the use of the magic wand, the silver branch and the stone of Lia Fail, the story of the dragons of British myth and the tales of Vortigern and Ambrosius Merlin. Of magical weapons and the ability to raise people from amongst the dead, of the fire-walking skill and the magical cups.

Spence is concerned with the problem of Druidry and presents the debate going on around said topic. The origins of the Druids as well as mentions of them in the classical sources are discussed at length with the Scottish author examining their existence in Britain, Wales, Ireland and other parts of the world besides Gaul. Though he’s of the opinion that the cradle of it was in Gaul and proposes the Iberian theory regarding their origins. The tenets and characteristics of Druidry are brought forth along with the mention of female figures amongst the caste, with emphasis on the tales of the Druidesses of the Loire and the isle of Sena.

A bevy of spells and charms are illustrated, among them the Irish geas, the spell of fith-fath along with spells of invisibility and those associated with fire. The narrative of the salmon of knowledge is recounted as well as the significance of the feast of Samhain, the chapter ending with the mention of various herbs and magical stones as protective charms.

Spence focuses on the following chapter on the magical books of the Celts, containing prose and poetry of mystical significance, like the Stones of Gwyddon, The Battle of the Trees, Avellenau, the Carmina Gadelica, the Black Book of Caermarthen and others. An intriguing story concerns The Red Book of Appin, whose genesis and history are steeped in strange circumstances.

The Celts, we’re shown, throughout their culture have forged a special fellowship with and affinity for the supernatural world, more than any other race. The spirit world of the Celtic imagination is vast and houses in its bosom a bevy of eerie and unearthly beings such as ghosts, banshees, kelpies, leprecauns, brownies and waterhorses. Of the most celebrated of these creatures in literature and legend are Gwyn ap Nudd and his hounds who presage the Wild Hunt and the Tylwyth Teg, one of the many names the fairies respond to.

Spence talks extensively of the cult of the fairies and their importance in the Celtic imagined reality. He proposes the theory of the fairies being either elementary spirits or ancestral ghosts haunting mounds, though the possibility of them being the spirits of the dead awaiting reincarnation or even those of the Druids isn’t excluded from contemplation.

Necromancy, prophecy and divination have been famous practices throughout the Celtic peoples. However, true instances of necromancy provide a different manner of conception and practice in comparison to other cultures like the ancient Greek. For the Celts didn’t resort to attempts of raising the dead with the purpose of asking them questions about the future. Rather they communicated with the spirit world to divine it. Augury and divination was achieved through various means such as the flight of birds, especially the raven and wren, the movement of the flames of fire and through other animals like the hare. Just like it could be achieved through crystal-gazing and the druidical elucidator.

The belief in reincarnation is a complex and riveting subject among the Celts, one strongly associated with the teachings of the Druids. Spence draws a comparison with the doctrine of reincarnation as analyzed by the ancient Greek figure of Pythagoras, in the end rejecting that either culture influenced the other in that respect. Spence argues the concept of Pythagorean reincarnation enjoyed only a brief lifespan and was limited only to the ancient Greek world, a fact that makes it impossible for the Druids to have come in contact with it or for the Druids themselves to have influenced the ancient Greek philosopher in that regard.

The most significant difference between the two lies in the fact that Pythagoras viewed reincarnation as a means of punishment and expiation for the sins a person committed, where they were forced after death to enter various circles of existence as animals until they cleansed themselves of their offenses and reached a state of purity. The Druids, however, put forth no such creed, believing that after the physical death, a person was reborn as his/her offspring (initially that referred only to royalty and bore an immediate association with the cult of the sun worship but later it spread to common people as well) or inhabited rocks, trees and other natural objects.

Another captivating concept in which Spence insists is that of the divine kingship and the ritual sacrifice of the divine king, which he declares was adopted by the Celts from the cult of the divine king the way it was celebrated in Egypt, one associated with a fertitility and sun cultus.

Various facets of Celtic mysticism are highlighted, some of them sprung from the druidic caste, such as its inherent philosophy, its spirituality and the unity of the Godhead implicit in its doctrine. The oak featured as a sacred tree for the Druids, and the cult of it was one of the most famous amongst the Celts, bearing stunning similarities both with the fertility cult and that of the divine kingship.

The mistletoe, along with the oak, was revered, its arcane significance rendering it a symbol of fertility and creating a connection with the silver branch of Celtic legend. Spence further talks about the Druids, citing the classical sources regarding human sacrifices, methods of sacrifice, victims immolated in wicker cages and divination from the sacrificial victims.

Although most of the written accounts of Iolo Morganwg are nothing but pure forgery, Spence focuses on the circles of life as Morganwg discussed them in his work. Regarding reincarnation, four states of being exist that reveal influence from the Pythagorean philosophy: Annwn (lowest state, Hades or Fairyland)  Abred (probation state), Gwynfyd (perfect liberty) and Ceugant (infinity).

The mysticism of the Celts is further explored through their penchant for astrology, the hunting of the wren and the various bird-forms many figures assume in British mythology. Spence, disappointed by the many poor translations of ancient and medieval Celtic literary works, attempts to trace the origins of some of the characters appearing in Celtic myth and legend such as Arianhod, Dylan, Hu, Taliesin Ceridwen and Beli.

He returns once again to Morganwg’s states of being and explores the Otherworld of the British myth and legend as it is presented in the poem attributed to Taliesin, The Spoils of Annwn. Annwn’s mystical nature is brought forth along with the importance of  its many otherwordly fortresses.

Spence makes a commendable attempt to unearth the origin of the Arthurian myth. Putting forth a compelling theory, Spence declares the figure of Arthur belongs more to mythology than to history. He identifies him with the god Bran and proposes that Arthur was the object of a cult. We’re told that the figure of Ambrosius Aurelianus was probably a historical person, a Romano-British noble, a general who fought against the Saxons.

Perhaps it was him who founded the cult of Arthur. Both a solar deity and one of war who aided the Celts in the dark years of foreign invasion, infusing them with patriotic enthusiasm and the strength required to fight against the foreign conquerors. What’s even more enticing is the connection Spence points out between Arthur and Osiris and the wounded Fisher King.

Spence sheds light on the figure of Osiris, presenting him as a deity existing in a state between life and death, asleep until called to awaken. Just like Arthur who, residing in the isle of Avallon, awaits to wake to life and aid Britain in its hour of need. Additionally, Spence states that Arthur and the Fisher king are one and the same, for Arthur lies wounded, his injury between the thighs symbolizing his sins and the loss of fertility of the land caused by them. A punishment for his trangressions and his fall from the status of the divine king.

Of course, when the Arthurian myth takes the spotlight, its companion, the Holy Grail, always demands equal attention. Spence proceeds to explain its etymology and origins and presents the Christian narrative of the Last Supper and the role of Joseph of Arimathea. He argues with conviction that the Holy Grail is nothing more but the pearl-rimmed cauldron Arthur braved the depths of Annwn to possess as the tale is narrated in the poem, The Spoils of Annwn, and when the Christian faith started spreading over the British isles, its representatives found an already fertile ground sown with a multitude of Celtic sources which they tinged with their own perspective.

Spence focuses on its presence in the early romances and its association with Glastonbury. He explores the quest the knights undertake to find the Holy Grail (many of whom take on the the transformed names of British gods) as well as the secret words associated with it, drawing parallels with the story of king Amangons and his offence against the well-maidens whose cups he stole, cups which take on the symbolic role of the Holy Grail.

Spence concludes with his last chapter dedicated to the phenomenon of the second sight. He provides us with numerous episodes of people possessing such a gift, claiming such cases take place in Scotland, though not exclusively. He offers the opinion of others about whether the second sight is a condition of hereditary magic or not as well as evidence from Scottish sources that prove that it was originally employed as a means of coming in contact with the fairies.

If the second sight was an ability that could be taught, Spence views it as a cultus instituted by an ancient caste, probably of druidic origin. A method used by the Druids with the purpose of opening up a portal of communication with the Celtic gods.

Undoutedly, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain is a grand and stunning opus, the result of an author whose soul flamed with the romance and poetry of the Celtic race. Throughout its pages, we’re exposed to a compelling, fascinating and thoroughly researched study on a plethora of topics that revolve around the colourful and dreamy magico-religious system of the Celts.

Spence presents an abundance of material to back up his claims and prove his theories, rendering the book a tapestry of erudition whose manifold threads are meant to bring to light the very blood that pumps into the Celtic heart and satisfy even the most cantakerous readers.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain

  1. This book sounds absolutely sprawling! The various topics limned in your review do sound fascinating, I’ve never even heard of many of the things you describe.
    I have heard similar theories about the Holy Grail, and will admit that I have never been quite convinced. What do you think?

    Thanks for the excellent review, I have to keep up with this blog for more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for visiting my blog. Much appreciated. I’d love to read your comments on my other posts as well.

      If you found the review fascinating, I suggest you read the book when you have time to spare. If you’re into Celtic culture and like exploring the topic of magic, I assure you you’ll absolutely love it.

      It’s true many theories have been put forth regarding the Holy Grail, most scholars attempting to ground the myth in reality and historical facts. That’s why I was surprised and intrigued by Spence’s proposition that links the Holy Grail with the cauldron Arthur raided from the otherwordly realm of Annwn. The way Spence explains it makes sense to me., grounding it more in folklore and mythology. But still it’s just one man’s opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

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