Part 1 of Irish Spiritual Practice series – A Guide for Beginners
Definitions of Magic and Spirituality
What are they though?
In the dictionary, Magic is defined as: “(n.) the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces, (adj.) having or apparently having supernatural powers.”
That’s cool, but I also love the definition of Old Uncle Aleister (Crowley), who said:
“Magic is the Science and Art of Causing Change in Conformity with Will.”
Spirituality then, has changed a little through time.
Back in the day, spirituality was spoken of in terms of specific religious practice in the major faiths.
Nowadays, spirituality can happen regardless of any religious belief, or even none – it’s about your experience of the sacred, and the values and meanings by which you live. It might include belief in the supernatural (which is just anything that falls outside the usual or ‘natural’ perceptions, and it often encompasses personal growth and development, a journey towards what ‘sacred’ means to you, experience with divine or universal powers, or an encounter with what’s referred to in psychological terms as your ‘inner dimension’ – which is the place where your Conscious mind interacts with your Unconscious, through the symbolic language of your Subconscious.
I have come to understand this ‘inner dimension’ as being represented by the Otherworld in our Irish tales and tradition, and we’ll explore that further a bit later on in this series.
I’m going to lay my cards on the table now though, and tell you that Magic and Spirituality, in Ireland as well as elsewhere, are not the same thing.
Oh, there are similarities. And they work side by side perfectly, if that is the way of the practitioner. But they are not the same.
Any person can make magic, or practice their spirituality, independently of the other. We do not have to make magic to work with the Old Gods of Ireland, and we do not have to work with any God or Gods to craft effective magic.
Though (as you can see) I am very firm in my belief and understanding that magic and religion are separate and distinct things, going back through time it is very difficult to separate the beginning of human religious practice, from the start of magical practice per se. There’s always academic argument and new discoveries, but a generally accepted time-line would run as follows.
There’s a site in Spain, the Sierra de Atapuerca, which contains globally unique evidence on, to quote UNESCO as they classify it as a world heritage site, “the origin and evolution both of the existing human civilization and of other cultures that have disappeared. The evolutionary line or lines from the African ancestors of modern humankind are documented… The earliest and most abundant evidence of humankind in Europe is found in the Sierra de Atapuerca.” They reckon there’s human interaction with that site from nearly a million years ago, and it looks like it contains the earliest intentional human burial ‘grave’, with over 32 human remains found in one of the pits. There are similar graves located throughout Eurasia — such as the Pontnewydd Cave in Wales, Qafzeh in Israel, and Krapina in Croatia where about 900 human remains were found in the sandy deposits — and I believe these sites represent the beginnings of ceremonial rites in humanity.
The ‘Ice Age Lion Man’ was made, more formally known as the Aurignacian Löwenmensch figurine… and you can see maybe why the punchier title is in general use. It was discovered in a German cave in 1939, and carbon dating of contextual materials gave us the approximate age of 40,000 years old. This is the oldest known zoomorphic (animal-shaped) sculpture in the world, and actually one of the oldest known sculptures altogether. It was carved with a flint stone knife, from woolly mammoth ivory, and though it’s been classified as a male (because, that’s the presumptive baseline bias), there is a strong theory that it’s actually a female representation. It’s usually classed as anthropomorphic — where we give human characteristics to an animal, just like Aunt Jemima is convinced her Siamese cat is a reincarnated Roman emperor who talks to her, you know? — but this piece of work might also have represented a deity. Those options are not mutually exclusive.
Quite a few clearly ritual burials that we know of were happening throughout Europe. We can see a prominent use of red ochre, with bones and bodies being stained and arranged ceremoniously. Ochre was one of the first pigments that humans knew, or used at least. It is simply coloured earth — the name comes from the Greek term meaning ‘pale yellowish’, as this range (yellow to pale brown) is the colour when it first comes out of the ground. But when we burn it, ochre dehydrates, and takes on a distinctive reddish hue. Of course this is reminiscent of blood, and there’s a connection between red colour and death throughout human history…. But also with the preservation of life force and energy, and travel between worlds and lives. It is thought that the presence of red ochre at these early burials is a magical and spiritual connection related to the beginnings of symbolic thinking. And from this period there’s regular, prolific grave good finds too; from sea shells and ivory artefacts, to animal teeth, claws, antlers and bone. Again, symbolic connectors, talismans, and ritual/ceremonial acts.
Roughly the start of the Neolithic, or ‘New Stone Age’ period, which brought farming and the “Neolithic Revolution” away from a ‘Hunter Gatherer’ lifestyle. The Neolithic is a progression of behavioral and cultural characteristics and changes, including the use of wild/domestic crops and domesticated animals.
Excavations at a site from the start of this period — the 12,000 year old Natufian cave site in Hilazon Tachtit, Israel — revealed a grave that provided a rare opportunity to investigate the ideological shifts that must have accompanied these socioeconomic changes, when it was discovered in 2008. Thought to be the earliest known burial of a Shaman, the grave was constructed and specifically arranged for a petite, elderly, and disabled woman, who was accompanied by exceptional grave offerings. There were 50 complete tortoise shells (the meat of which appears to have been consumed as part of the ceremony/feast), and select body-parts of a wild boar, an eagle, a cow, a leopard, and two martens, as well as a complete human foot. The report reads “interment rituals and the method used to construct and seal the grave suggest that this is the burial of a shaman, one of the earliest known from the archaeological record. Several attributes of this burial later become central in the spiritual arena of human cultures worldwide”.
Four to five pine posts are erected near the eventual site of Stonehenge on the island of Britain.
What look like communal shrines develop as a spiritual centre of Anatolia (which we often call Asia Minor), at the settlements of Catalhoyuk. They found loads of clay figures and representations of phallic, feminine, and hunting scenes.
Proto-Indo-Europeans started on the religious stuff – it looks like they developed a system of religion focused on sacrificial ideology — the offering of food, objects or the lives of animals to a higher purpose, in particular divine beings, as an act of propitiation or worship.
Proto-Semitic culture developed in the Arabian peninsula, then migrated into Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Their religion influenced their descendant cultures and faiths, including the Abrahamic religions.
This is where things begin to get a little more familiar for most folk.
At this point, the circular bank and ditch enclosure which is the initial form of Stonehenge is completed. It’s about 110 metres (360 ft) across, with a timber circle round it.
Newgrange, the 250,000 ton (226,796.2 tonne) passage tomb aligned to the winter solstice in Ireland, is built. Newgrange is not our biggest or even our ‘best’ national monument from this period, but it’s the one most folk will be familiar with, so it’s suitable for a timeline.
Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest formal religions, from the teachings of the Iranian Prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), he exalted their deity of wisdom, Ahura Mazda, as its Supreme Being. Though the roots may date back to the second millennium BCE, records of Zoroastrianism in recorded history only date back to the 5th-century BCE, in ‘The Histories’ (completed by Herodotus in around 440 BCE), so this is where we have to put it on the time-line. According to Herodotus, the Magi were “the sixth tribe of the Medians”; the priestly caste of the Mesopotamian-influenced branch of Zoroastrianism. And users of magic, by all accounts.
Christianity became the state church of the Roman Empire, when Emperor Theodosius the First made it the Empire’s sole authorized religion.
Christianity gains power in Ireland.
The Knights Templar (one of the wealthiest and most powerful of the Western Christian military orders) are officially endorsed by the catholic church. Many were arrested at dawn on Friday 13th October in 1307 (that’s the most likely reason for our Friday 13th superstitions, by the way), with the order officially disbanded in 1312. Though the accuracy is oft debated, the Templars are credited with influencing many modern secret societies and magical orders.
In this period we have an early version of the Key of Solomon, a Renaissance magic grimoire probably from Italy and probably not anything to do with the biblical King Solomon. From this century we have the oldest surviving tarot collections (a complete deck hasn’t survived, unfortunately. There’s the Colleoni-Baglioni cards, which were produced around 1451. The Visconti di Modrone set has been dated back to around 1466. And the Brera-Brambilla cards (held in the catalogue of the Brera Gallery in Milan), which were commissioned in 1463. This was also the time of the printing of the Gutenburg Bible, in 1455, and a general christian crack down on magic, with the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ appearing in 1487. This medieval book was/is known as `The Witches’ Hammer’, but it literally translates as `the hammer of female evil-doers’. It was a manual on `witchcraft’ which became a fundamental tool in the witch persecutions all through Europe.
Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa were published in 1531 in Paris, and in 1589 John Dee and Edward Kelley begin the Enochian workings – a ceremonial magic system based on the invocation/evocation and commanding of various spirits.
‘The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage’ was published.
Things started to get busy again here. In 1855, Transcendental Magic by Eliphas Levi laid a steady foundation for the use of things like the pentagram, and the tarot, in modern magic. The Theosophical Society founded in 1875, with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn following on in 1888, founded by Dr. William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, and Aleister Crowley joined the Golden Dawn when he was 23 years old, in 1898.
In 1904 Crowley dictated the ‘Book of the Law’, and the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck was published in 1910. Isreal Regardie published ‘The Golden Dawn’ in 1937, and Gerald Gardner started to make public his early writings on Wicca in 1949 with ‘High Magic’s Aid’, which was claimed to be fictional as Witchcraft was still illegal in Britain (the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951), then ‘Witchcraft Today’ in 1951. That was the start of the modern Pagan movement really, with magic and religion still intertwined and tangled through it for most folk.
Through all of the ages, Magic and Spirituality have often worked side by side, certainly. So, if you are comfortable with that and it suits your ethos, go for it, and no harm to you.
And if you aren’t, don’t.
If you’ve followed any of my writing or teaching before, you’ll know I’m ALL about recording your experiences as you learn and discover and grow.
Lately, this may have escalated a notch or two towards slightly obsessive personal habits with my introduction to the Bullet Journal system (www.BulletJournal.com and www.bohoberry.com), but that’s ok, it’s all good.
I’m loving the cross application now of studying magic and spirituality with a system that lets me record, index, understand and practically make use of my hitherto scrambled and ‘write it down on whatever’s nearest to you’ methods. My journal is always what’s nearest to me, and all of this stuff fits in and integrates seamlessly with all of the other stuff I have going on, which is an important thing for any magical or spiritual practice, I firmly believe.
The important thing for you to begin with, whether you use the bullet journal system or something else that suits you better, is to get used to recording your day to day – the thoughts, experiences, acts and experiments that relate to Irish Magic and/or Spirituality. I prefer the pen and paper method, and have always recommended that first and foremost, but if it has to be digital and that’s what works best for you, go for it.
But record EVERYTHING.