Magic and RitualIn Gleann an Phéine, the witch is not only a healer and protector but primarily the spiritual guide of the village. As such, she upholds the balance between all things --- between this world and the otherworld, between humans and other inhabitants of the valley and ultimately between life and death.
Her magic is rooted in her connection to the otherworld - a realm where willpower and intent is more important than matter and which forms the mirror-half of our world. In a sense, the otherworld is a place, because it is possible to visit it in a trance state (as Clíodhna does for instance on Storm Crag), in another sense it is not, because distance and directions mean little there. It is the otherworld to which the souls of the departed go, and also from which the souls of the newborn come. But there are other beings in the otherworld just as well - spirits and forces known as gods and godesses. These can be invoked in ritual, such that the witch can literally become the Goddess - the force of the Goddess then speaks and acts through her.
How we depict magic in the movie is heavily influenced by real-world Wicca and Celtic traditions (which we generally believe to be based on quite reasonable philosophies). In particular, 'A witches' bible' by Janet and Stewart Farrar has been an inspiration for many of the rituals shown in the movies.
The Circle of the YearThe Circle of the Year is a symbolic representation of balance between light and darkness and between fertility and death. The new year is born at midwinter, but this is not a time of plenty as usually there's little food left. Yet for half a year the light grows and the snow melts away. Spring is a time of new life and fertility and high summer is a glorious celebration of warmth and life. But as the year moves further into fall, first the harvest has to be gathered, but no new fruit grows, and the light starts to wane faster and faster, until at the beginning of winter, death reigns, the plants become lifeless and animals and men have to take shelter against the bitter cold --- till a new year and new life is born again.
This pattern of light changing into darkness, life changing into death, warmth into cold, plenty into shortage or growth into decay - which is then mirrored in the otherworld in which the light is strongest at midwinter when it is weakest in the human world - is at the core of the work of a witch. Neither birth nor death are good by themselves - it is their balance which needs to be upheld. Next to the solstices and the equinoxes which mark the change of light and are minor feasts in the ritual calendar of a witch, there are four main rituals which are celebrated.
ImbolcThe first ritual feast of the year, Imbolc, is a celebration of the return of the light. At midwinter, the sun barely reaches over the horizon and the valley floor is in perpetual gloom, but around Imbolc the sun can be seen again, and while everything is still covered in snow, the growing light is a promise of spring.
BeltaineWhen the snow has molten and everything starts to grow again, it is time to prepare the fields - and Beltaine is a ritual celebration of fertility. A bonfire is lit to symbolize the warmth, and people jump over it and spend the Beltainenight in paired together in the fields. On the next day, the ash of the Beltaine-fire is scattered across the land. Generally, it is a day of merry-making for the village whereas for the witch is is the time to celebrate the ritual marriage of God and Goddess.
LammasLammas fundamentally is a harvest festival, celebrated to thank God and Goddess for plentiful crops and lifestock. While harder days are to come soon, it is a last occasion to be carefree and merry, and like Beltaine it is rather popular with the villagers, although it lacks the sexual undercurrents of Beltaine.
SamhainCelebrated when the snow starts to fall, the light goes away and winter starts in earnest, Samhain is the occasion when the dead ancestors are honored. At this time, the borders of the underworld become thin, and it is easier to get in touch with the souls of the deceased. For the witch, it is a time of introspection, meditation and long journeys into the otherworld.
Other ritesBesides the rituals of the Circle of the Year, there are other rituals done by the witch whenever needed. These usually are rites of passage - they mark the transition of someone from one state to another. Examples for such moments of passage are birth, coming of age, marriage, becoming a parent or death.
HandfastingThe handfasting is a ceremony akin to marriage - two people are joined together in the eyes of God and Goddess by the witch, who ties their wrists together with a ribbon as they speak their promises. Usually a handfasting is also a joyous occasion for the whole village. Often, a handfasting ritual is done on the day of a festival - popular occasions are Beltaine or Lammas.
Rite for the deadWhen a person has passed away, the witch's task is to guide the soul safely to the cauldron of rebirth in the otherworld so that it can be reborn in the fullness of time. If this is not done, the soul may linger in this world and become a ghost, haunting the places the person had ties to. Usually the rite involves pouring a libation, burning juniper twigs to let the smoke rise into the sky and teaching the soul the words to speak to the guardians of the otherworld.
MagicThe boundary between what is ritual and what is magic is blurry in witchcraft - roughly the distinction goes along the lines of purpose: A ritual such as Beltaine is performed for its own sake, its only purpose is to serve the general philosophy of witchcraft and deepen the understanding and power of the balance of all things. Magic on the other hand usually has a more tangible purpose - it serves a specific goal, such as healing, warding off a spirit or similar. In the movie, we have usually used the system of Nordic Runes as symbols for magic. This is a bit at odds with the general Celtic theme of magic where Ogham would perhaps be more appropriate but we felt that Runes are visually more striking symbols (and in reality, Wicca has always been good at incorporating elements of other traditions).
Souls, spirits and fairiesJust as this world is inhabited by various beings, so is the otherworld - except they are normally invisible for human eyes, it needs the second sight to perceive them. Often children have this ability, but lose it as they grow up. Those who do not have part of what makes the calling of a witch.
Human souls pass between this world and the otherworld - when a person dies, his soul enters the otherworld. Usually it would try to find the cauldron of rebirth in the spiral castle to be reborn in another form and enter the circle of life again. Such a soul is quickly lost to even those with the second sight and can only be conjured into smoke for a brief time to be consulted - although most of the time a witch would not disturb the peace of the deceased. But if death was not peaceful, or the person died with the sense of a purpose not fulfilled, the soul may linger and haunt its old surroundings.
In contrast, a spirit is a being which never was incarnated in material form but exists purely in the otherworld. Spirits may embody an element (such as the Storm Riders) or they may simply be a constructive or destructive force. Some spirits try to enter this world - to do so they have to find a being to possess which provides a material body for them. This can be a human just as well as an animal. The victim of such possession may suffer badly.
The otherworld also borders other realms than this world - beings from these realms usually are very strange even by the standards of a witch, but at times the worlds may intersect. An example for such beings are the fairies. At certain times of the year, they have power over parts of the world, and they may use that power to lead travellers astray or even lure them into the fairy realm where time passes in a very different way. Since the fairies are not actually part of the otherworld, witchcraft has only rather limited influence on them.
Warding and banishing magicPart of the task of a witch is to make sure reasonable boundaries between this world and the otherworld are maintained, such that souls do not haunt the living, spirits do not seek bodies to possess and fairies do not lure people astray. Hence, quite often she needs to maintain wards around the village to protect it against spirits roaming the wild or needs to cast banishing spells on spirits which stray where they should not. Such magic is quite apparent to people who have the second sight, but it is still felt by those who do not.
A special form of warding magic is the circle that is cast around a ritual site whenever a greater magical work is planned.
ScryingA witch has several methods at her disposal to gain hidden knowledge or guidance from the powers of the otherworld. She might cast the runes, she might conjure a vision into a bowl of water, or in some complicated cases, she might even journey into the otherworld and seek information there. The common theme to all these techniques is that answers are rarely clear, often they come in symbolic form and need to be carefully interpreted.
Back to main index Back to Clíodhna