Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Druid’s Sacred Tools

Ancient Druidic historical site
An ancient Druidic historical site

Magick (Druidic) :: The Three Commonmost Tools

by Race MoChridhe

One of the topics which invariably receives the most interest from students of magickal arts is that of tools. Many inquiries received by a teacher in this vein are entirely sincere, and reflect their pupils’ earnest desires to align themselves with the tradition and to “get things right.” Many, however, suggest a measure of what cyclists call “shiny helmet syndrome”—attraction to an activity simply out of a desire for fancy kit. At the risk of contributing to this phenomenon, it may be well to speak somewhat of the matter nonetheless.

No one post can do justice to the topic’s breadth, since there are as many sets of magickal tools as there are traditions of magickal practice (indeed, somewhat more), but to begin a series I might start with the tools of the Druid, partly because I am one, but more because the tools are very simple, and make very clear the origins of their power. The first thing to be noted in that regard is that, strictly speaking, no tools of any kind are required to practice Druidic magick. Much could be done by a single Druid in sensory deprivation; everything could be done by a Druid standing naked and unarmed in a field. A small number of tools are commonly used, however, for a few compelling reasons:
  1. Focus, focus, focus. Magickal ritual has been aptly described by any number of authors as “moving meditation.” Just as, in purely mental meditation, one is greatly assisted by the use of an image or a mantra to anchor attention and keep the mind from wandering, so, too, a moving meditation draws strength of focus from physical objects that can fix attention in the same way.
  2. Sacred space and sacred time. While the above aim can be achieved by a focus on, say, specific points on the ground, or specific parts of the body in motion (as when one casts a circle using only one’s fingertips), ritual tools, like ritual clothing, send a powerful signal to the mind that one has stepped outside the flow of everyday activities and undertaken something special and specialized. This is the greater part of what is meant when magicians speak of tools becoming “charged” or “imbued” with energy over the course of years working with them—the more hours one spends with a tool while consciously focused on spiritual work, the more powerful a trigger that tool becomes for putting the mind back into that same state with which it has become unconsciously associated.
  3. Symbol, story, and narrative. The tools in your garage vary by what they move or adjust. The tools on your altar vary by what part of a story they tell. That story differs depending on the magickal tradition; a Druid’s tools tell a slightly different story about how the cosmos is structured, whence a magician draws his or her power, and how the acolyte becomes an adept, than do the tools of a Wiccan, a Cochranian, or a Thelemite, but they all tell stories. In this respect, they might be compared to the stained glass in a church; one can certainly offer prayer and worship without any, but many find the experience enhanced by having the sacred stories of the tradition immediately before them, and being surrounded by them in a physical sense.

Though Druids of different traditions have slightly different customs, and though various kinds of specialized work may occasion the use of more unusual devices, the three most common items in a Druid’s grove are a wand, a cauldron, and a crane bag.

The wand and the cauldron are nearly ubiquitous magickal tools, and almost every tradition employs either them or some close approximation thereof. At their most fundamental level, they represent the masculine and feminine principles within both the macrocosmic universe and the microcosmic self. In the Celtic traditions from which Druidry draws, the spear (as a close symbolic relative of the wand) is a tool intimately associated with figures representing divine masculinity, ranging from the god Lugh to the hero Cuchulainn. The cauldron, on the other hand, is linked throughout a range of stories to goddess figures, from Danu to Cerridwen. The wand/spear asserts will and brings death, while the cauldron receives all and gives rebirth. Witches, ceremonial magicians, and many others will have no difficulty in recognizing these basic archetypes.

The crane bag, on the other hand, is more peculiar, and therefore more mysterious. It is a sewn or woven pouch, similar to a Native American medicine bag, which various practitioners use to hold herbs and oils, runic sets for casting, or a variety of other tools. Why it should be considered a magickal item in and of itself, let alone be part of a triplicity with such powerful artifacts as the wand and the cauldron, is not readily apparent. But this is where point number three from our list comes into play. Much of modern Druidic lore comes from Welsh legends, and particularly the story of Taliesin. Taliesin was the most famous and powerful of the Welsh bards, but his story began as the tale of a humble youth named Gwion Bach. Gwion was tasked by the goddess Cerridwen to mind a cauldron for a year and a day, in which she was preparing a magickal elixir from which the first three drops would grant Awen—divine, poetic inspiration—to her own son, Afagddu.

When the brew was ready, however, three drops leapt out and singed Gwion’s thumb. Without thinking, he stuck it in his mouth, and thus drank the three drops intended for Afagddu, gaining the power of Awen in the process. Enraged, Cerridwen chased him, and both ran through a series of shape-shiftings before Cerridwen, in the form of a hen, caught Gwion, in the form of a grain of wheat, and swallowed him. Cerridwen soon discovered that she was pregnant, and nine months later she gave birth to Gwion again, who was now too beautiful for her to have the heart to destroy. She sewed him up, instead, in a leather sack and cast him on the water, where he was discovered by a fisherman who raised him as his own son, and named him Taliesin, meaning “radiant brow.”

It is only in the context of the aforementioned story that the crane bag can take on a magickal dimension. In its light, we perceive that there are two incubations in Druidic tradition where many other traditions have only one. Cerridwen’s cauldron, like the Witch’s cauldron and many other cauldrons like them, is a symbol of the womb and of rebirth, but the Welsh story makes the rebirth from Cerridwen’s womb only the first part of a greater process. By that means, Gwion escapes death to come into the world again, but his true life does not begin until he is sewn into a bag—another symbol of the womb—and reborn from it under a new name, to make manifest in the world the powers of wisdom and inspiration which he had received.

Just as the Hindu brahmins called themselves the “twice-born”, and Jesus spoke of being born again (John 3:6–7), so, likewise, modern Druids make a distinction between the macrocosmic sense in which the world is constituted of cycles of life, death, and rebirth witnessed by the seasons, and the microcosmic sense in which one seeking enlightenment is reborn into an illuminated life of the spirit. Out of the story of Taliesin is drawn a distinct doctrine, and out of that doctrine comes a symbolism reflected in a choice of tools that, in any other context, might be perceived as a redundancy, or even an overstressing, of the feminine divine, when, in actuality, it is a representation of the divine child of the wand and the cauldron—the Druid herself.

In my next installment (on the athame), we will use this understanding of the link between traditional story and ritual kit to enter more deeply into the symbolic world of the Witch’s altar.

Other articles in this series include:
Bells as Ritual Tools
The Chalice's Gender Status

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