Kenny Klein: Tales Of The Rambling Wren.
Follow Kenny from the levees of New Orleans to the whirling chaos that is the Pagan festival circuit and beyond. Musings, rants, and just plain Pagan talk.
The Magick Of Words
In other posts, I have written about how and why our spoken language and the act of speaking magically are of the utmost importance to us as Pagans. In essence, why words are magical.
As a magical practitioner, I am quite sensitive to the sound, context and meanings of magical words, and to the ways words are used in our Pagan lexicon. As a musician, author and poet, I am even more sensitive to the flow of words as tools of communication, poetry and Magic. I am well aware that according to Magical Theory, words must be used correctly and pronounced correctly, or the magic won't work as it is intended to (note the subtlety there).
Magic, according to such brilliant theorists as Crowley and Levi, works when the mind is connected to deity or Universal energy, and when that mind directs its will into the world (Crowley defined Magick as "the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.”); For most practitioners, the primary means of directing will is through the spoken word. This is echoed in the Qaballistic belief that God formed the Universe by speaking the words of the Torah: as each word was spoken, the action unfolded. Qaballists study the Hebrew language as a magical tool through which they believe they can tap into the creative energy of the Hebrew God. Similarly, the major arcana of the Tarot represent the Hebrew alphabet; many occultists believe it is through the energies of the Hebrew letters that the tarot is able to divine the future. Coming as it does from Qaballah, Ceremonial Magic (which is where Gardner learned his stuff) is quite insistent upon words being used and spoken correctly. Members of orders like the OTO and the Golden Dawn research incantations thoroughly before delivering them; especially since practitioners of these systems are often working with non-native languages such as Latin, Hebrew, Theban and Enochian.
We humans are unique among mammals in that we have a vast vocabulary; our brains have a lobe that allows us to assign meaning to sounds, and we are able to distinguish the most subtle differences in sound and meaning (for instance, we can distinguish the difference in meaning between sound-alike words like read and red, or pen and pin). The meanings we give to sounds, the ability to speak and to catalog words, allows us to communicate in very subtle ways: even pronouncing a word with different tones or facial expressions gives the word different meanings. Likewise placing the same sound in a different context does the same (I read that book; the book's cover was red). While the octopus conveys subtle messages by tiny changes in skin color, and the cat by shifting its posture, we communicate our most subtle messages with words.
Because words are so important to our belief in magic, I find it odd and often clumsy that as a Pagan community we often mispronounce, misuse and misunderstand words. As I travel from one end of the Pagan community to the other during my tours as a musician and writer, I often find people using our Pagan lexicon in zany ways, assigning meanings to words that mean something entirely different, or pronouncing words terribly wrong. Now none of this would matter much if words were not such an important part of our magical arsenal, and if words were not the glue that binds our rather tenuous Pagan community together in communication and similitude.
Many times words are mispronounced because they are only seen in print, rather than heard (and at that, rather than heard in the language of origin; many of our magical words come to us from languages other than modern English). Other times, words change meanings because an author misappropriates or simply redefines a word. I often argue with brilliant Pagan scholar and blogger Jason Mankey about meanings of words basic to our Pagan vernacular; Jason states (and with much validity) that despite a word being misused, if that word is misused in the same way in a number of books in print, the word takes on the new meaning to those who learn Paganism by reading. A good example is the word Wicca; Wicca came to us through the writing of Gerald Gardner, who either appropriated or coined the term to define the religious tradition of Witchcraft he had learned from the New Forest Coven in England. In Gardner's writing, Wicca refers to a European Paganism that may only be practiced in a coven environment, and may only be passed through the experience of initiation at the hands of an initiate. And that's what the word Wicca meant for three decades. But by the '90s, as Jason Mankey would argue, enough books were published that defined Wicca as inclusive of non-European Pagan deity, and stating that one might self-initiate or practice as a solitary, that most people in the Pagan community now see these as absolute definitions of the term.
Why is this an issue? Because words are the only means we have to communicate and identify our practice (especially when we communicate so often and so predominantly on the Internet). As a teacher of various Pagan and magical paths (Wicca, Qaballah, Tarot, etc) I find that seekers come to me more often than not with vastly different definitions for words which I commonly use in teaching and lecturing.
So, I thought I'd make a small list of words that I hear mispronounced or misused often in the Pagan community. I do this as an observation only: I do not mean to present myself as the ultimate authority. And of course there are many who would contest my scholarship, my definitions and my proprietary use of a certain word in the way I use it. Still, I have been practicing the Craft for three decades: you pick up a few things. So ignore my list as you will, research it if you like, or use it in your communication with the community and with your Gods.
Athame: I hear this tool's name pronounced many ways, predominantly either AH-tha-may or a-THA-mee. The first is considered correct. The athame, according to Wiccan definition, is a double edged black-hilted blade. Of course shops sell all manner of things in all manner of materials labeled as athames.
Besom: A name for the broom used to sweep Wiccan circles, traditionally made from broom corn, ash (handle) and willow (binding). I have heard this pronounced bah-SOM and BEE-zum. It is correctly pronounced BEH-sum (rhymes with lesson). The Nimbus 2000 was only recently added to the lexicon of broom lore.
Celtic: Celtic refers to a vast ethnic heritage that at one time spanned from near Asia to western Europe. Like American Indians, the Celts had many tribes, each with distinct languages and cultures (to get a sense, compare an Iroquois to an Apache). The Celts we know best are the five nations who were never assimilated into European culture at large: Manx, Welsh, Breton, Irish and Scottish. Again, these five Celtic nations are distinguished by language and culture, though they share commonalities. A few common mistakes made by modern Pagans: the Celts have no soft 'C'. So the way the basketball team is pronounced, SELL-tik, is incorrect when referencing this culture (it is correctly said as KELL-tik). This is also true of Celtic deity names: Cerridwen (KER-id-when), or Cernunnos (KEER-new-nose). (As a general rule, whenever one practices a system whose terms are not in English, it is a really really good idea to learn something about the language the terms are in). Which leads me to...
Cernunnos: Despite the writings of a certain Wiccan author whom I deeply respect, Cernunnos and Herne are vastly different Gods who happen to look alike (like me and Bruce Willis). Cernunnos, in fact, is a title, which means “Horned One.” It was common for Celts during the Roman era to avoid saying the names of their Gods for fear the Romans would assimilate their deities into the Roman pantheon (as happened with Epona and Branwen). So Celts would use a title rather than a name. We have no idea what this God's name really was or is. As for Herne, he is a Saxon British God of a very small area in Oxfordshire, an area never within historical memory inhabited by Celts. Herne is much more likely to be equated with Odin (it has been suggested that a common English name for Odin was Horin, hence Herne: see my book Through The Faerie Glass: also see The Lost Gods Of England by Brian Branston). If you need a Celtic connection, Herne's mythology is very similar in some ways to the Welsh God Arawn, and over centuries, legends of the two Gods might have been intertwined in common mythic telling.
Druid: Druids were a very mysterious cult, and most of what we know about them comes to us through the writing of Ceasar and other Roman scholars; as the Romans were set on defeating and later converting Celtic cultures, this is like learning about the Jews through the writings of Hitler. While they were mysterious, we do know certain things about the Druids that do not seem to be in keeping with use of the term by modern Pagans. The word Druid is related to Dryad, and refers to the powers of the Oak tree. The Druids were an elite clergy, who sat at the courts of kings, not a clergy of the common people (though the word Drui in Gaelic does refer to Witchcraft, and a Beandrui refers to a female practitioner). Probably most important, Druids never worshiped at Stonehenge. Stonehenge was built by a Brithonic culture that had its own clergy and practice. By the way, both the OBOD tradition and ADF have done an excellent job in researching who and what the Druids actually were, and practice in ways that are very much in keeping with the Druid legacy.
Elder: While an elder of the community at large is defined by age, in the Craft an Elder is defined by Craft experience. In Traditional Wicca, for instance, an Elder is one who has taught the Craft for 21 years. So a sixty-year-old who came into Paganism three years ago may be an elder citizen, but not a Craft elder; a forty-one-year-old who was initiated at the age of twenty, and who has practiced a particular tradition since initiation, is a Craft Elder. In traditional Craft, Elders will often step back from actively running a coven and allow younger Priestesses and Priests to handle the day-to-day work of management, preferring to take on select students or tasks. This is why Gardner said “And the greatest virtue of a High Priestess is that she recognizes that youth is necessary to the representative of the Goddess, so that she will retire gracefully in favour of a younger woman, Should the Coven so decide in Council...” This was not meant to devalue the Elder, but to point to a natural progression of the Elder's role in the running of the coven (Gardner often said good things badly).
Imbolc: Gardner's WOTY term for February 2nd, also known as Bridsmas or Candlemas. I have heard this pronounced im-BOL-ik. It is a word from Irish Gaelic; the 'b' is very soft, almost silent, and the term is pronounced IM-molk (sort of rhyming with HIM oak, but with a softly stated 'L' in the word oak). It roughly means “from the belly,” which refers to milk coming from ewes that are about to give birth at this time of year. It is very important to remember that these sabbats are derived from hunting and agrarian societies, so things like lambs being born are serious matters (see my book The Flowering Rod for more on this, as well as the Farrars' Eight Sabbats For Witches).
Lughnasad: The feast of the Irish God/hero Lugh (LOO), celebrated August 1st. From Irish Gaelic, this is pronounced LOO-nah-sah, (not lug-NAS-id).
Mabon: The Autumn Equinox on Gardner's Wheel Of The Year, which has become the blueprint for most ensuing Wheel diagrams. Mabon is a Welsh God name (literally The Young One), the God of the grain who will die in the harvest. I hear this word pronounced MAY-bun and my-BONE. The proper Welsh pronunciation is MAH-bun (rhymes with cabin).
Muggle: While this fantasy novel term is a perfectly good one for a non-Pagan, and universally understood, the word used since the codification of Wicca in the 1950s has always been Cowan. Gardner stole the term Cowan from the Masons, for whom a Cowan is one who builds with field stone rather than learning, as Masons do, to shape stone into blocks. I have also heard a term stolen from the sci-fi fan community, a Mundane, used this way.
Samhain: Please don't get me started.*
Shaman: I've talked about this here before... the word Shaman come from the Tungusic language of northern Asia, and refers to a practitioner of Northern Asian magic; the Shamanic experience revolves around altering one's consciousness by learning to receive visions from Underworld creatures, primarily the Bear, whose hibernation allows it to bring Underworld wisdom into our physical world (see my book Fairy Tale Rituals). So technically you cannot be a Celtic Shaman, as the Celts are A) not Asian, B) do not focus on the Bear in their worship and C) have their own terms for this type of practitioner. C) is also true of American Indian, African and Amazon cultures. In my humble opinion, if you are invested in being a practitioner of American Indian, Celtic or African traditions, it would indicate a certain amount of respect to learn the word for a practitioner of those systems. Also, as I may have mentioned, Jesus was not a Shaman.
Solitaire: A card game, using a single deck of cards and played by one player. One who practices a magical path without a coven, network or group is a Solitary. Technically speaking, you cannot belong to a “circle of solitaries,” though I have heard this term used. Also, technically speaking, and while it is done all the time, you cannot practice a coven or group-based path as a Solitary. So for instance, technically, you cannot be a Solitary Wiccan or a Solitary Voodoo practitioner: as I have said though, people do it all the time. Star Foster recently published an excellent article on the Solitary mindset in relation to group-based practices.
Tradition: One on-line dictionary's definitions include:
“The handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice: something that is handed down: the traditions of the Eskimos: a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting: The rebellious students wanted to break with tradition.”
What these definitions agree upon is that Tradition means something handed down over time. In Wicca and other Magical systems, a System does not become a Tradition until it has been practiced by several generations of hived covens or practicing groups (3 Craft generations would be the Wiccan blueprint). Therefore, one cannot say “I have created my own Tradition,” or “I practice a Solitary Tradition.” You certainly may say “I have created my own System,” or “I practice a Solitary System (or Path).”
Witta: While the word Wicca was certainly made up by Gardner or one of his peers, Witta was made up by more recent authors: historically there has never been a codified Celtic system similar to English Wicca, and unlike Wicca, the word does not seem to have fallen into enough popular use to be an effective definition.
This is by no means an exhaustive list: feel free to add your own terms about which you have a bug-a-boo in the comments section.
From back home in the wilds of New Orleans, this is Kenny Klein, the Rambling Wren, explaining it all.
*For those really new to this stuff, and thereby excused: SOW-en, from Irish Gaelic. The term is still in use in Ireland meaning winter. All sabbats (except poor little Imbolc) occur on the 1st or the 21st of a month (once in a while a solstice or equinox will fall late enough at night to be considered the 22nd). This means that Samhain does not fall on October 31, but on November 1st. However, the Celts see day as starting at sundown (as do the Jews), so Samhain begins on sundown of October 31st, which technically (to the Celts) is November 1st.
Please login first in order for you to submit comments